Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas and Robert Grossteste all loved their Brass Robots

Albertus Magnus Monument in front of the main ...
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As part of my research into magic in the Middle Ages I have been reading Lives of the Necromancers by William Godwin (published in 1834). It is not the most thoroughly researched of academic texts on the subjects, but it is fine for getting an overview of legends related about a number of medieval thinkers who were also thought of as being magicians. The most curious trend that I noticed was for thinkers of the Thirteenth century to be consistently linked with the creation of either brass heads, people or horses. It seems that there was a fascination with all things mechanical and that to give life to something mechanical was reckoned to be akin to magic. No doubt in some theoretical way these men were interested in mechanics, but I very much doubt they actually tried to get a machine to foretell the future. Here are some relevant excerpts from the book.

Albertus Magnus

It is related of Albertus, that he made an entire man of brass, putting together its limbs under various constellations, and occupying no less than thirty years in its formation. This man would answer all sorts of questions, and was even employed by its maker as a domestic. But what is more extraordinary, this machine is said to have become at length so garrulous, that Thomas Aquinas, being a pupil of Albertus. and finding himself perpetually disturbed in his abstrusest speculations by its uncontrollable loquacity, in a rage caught up a hammer, and beat it to pieces. According to other accounts the man of’ Albertus Magnus was composed, not of metal, but of flesh and bones like other men but this being afterwards judged to be impossible, and the virtue of images, rings, and planetary sigils being in great vogue, it was conceived that this figure was formed of brass, and indebted for its virtue to certain conjunctions and aspects of the planets.

Roger Bacon

He put statues in motion, and drew articulate sounds from a brazen head, not however by magic, but by an artificial application of the principles of natural philosophy.

Thomas Aquinas

It was to be expected that a man, who thus immersed himself in the depths of thought, should be an inexorable enemy to noise and interruption. We have seen that he dashed to pieces the artificial man of brass, that Albertus Magnus, who was his tutor, had spent thirty years in bringing to perfection, being impelled to this violence by its perpetual and unceasing garrulity. It is further said, that his study being placed in a great thoroughfare, where the grooms were all day long exercising their horses, he found it necessary to apply a remedy to this nuisance. He made by the laws of magic a small horse of brass, which he buried two or three feet under ground in the midst of this highway; and, having done so, no horse would any longer pass along the road. It was in vain that the grooms with whip and spur sought to conquer their repugnance. They were finally compelled to give up the attempt, and to choose another place for their daily exercise.

Robert Grossteste

Among the other accomplishments of bishop Grossetete he is said to have been profoundly skilled in the art of magic and the old poet Gower relates of him that he made a head of brass, expressly constructed in such a manner as to be able to answer such questions as were propounded to it, and to foretell future events.

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Adapted Snowflake Method: How I’m writing my novel at the moment

I’m currently in the early stages of actually writing my novel Hell has its Demons at the moment. Because of the complexity of writing within a historical background I have been taking a carefully planned approach to writing and employing the techniques of the snowflake method, where you build up the plot structure of the novel gradually, while alternating between planning aspects such as character background. The last two stages of the snowflake process are to go through the whole plot of the book and write a synopsis of each chapter. I have started doing this and also used this as an opportunity to work out at each stage how much actual background material I need. For instance which part of a castle or Abbey do I actually need to describe and plan, which minor characters will be featured, what’s their role and what do I need to know about them. This method has worked fairly well so far.

But I also thought that while I was doing that I would start on the first couple of chapters of the book as well, just to get myself in the mood for working with my characters. And this is when I had a revelation about how I wrote. I found that I started to find out new things about the characters and the situations I was putting them in as actually put the words, sentences and paragraphs on screen that described their thoughts and actions. Mapping a list of what occurred in a chapter or even detailing the character arc in a chapter just wasn’t the same. Only when I came to writing what the characters did and how they talked and felt did I really start to know them.

So where does that leave the process of writing Hell has its Demons?

I think the principles are still the same. I find it useful to work out beforehand what will happen in each chapter and also do some work on researching and creating the settings and minor characters that my characters will interact with, before I actually write the narrative. But I think what I will do from now on is to plan each chapter just before I write it or perhaps be planning  few chapters ahead, so that I don’t lose touch with the development of my characters.

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A Clash of Kings: Whose Story is it?

A Clash of Kings
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I have noticed while reading A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin, that there are lot of viewpoint characters in this book. This owes something to the complexity of the plot and the diaspora of the Stark family perhaps, but I think it’s also a conscious technique by Martin to keep the reader in touch with as much of the action as possible wherever it is happening. However, as a reader I do feel a bit dazed at times trying to keep up with all the different characters. In many books with multiple viewpoint characters, you might perhaps see the story form the perspective of 3 or maybe 4 characters. The books of Iain Banks or Leo Tolstoy are good examples of this. But I don’t think I have ever read a book with so many as Marting’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

I did some counting to work out whose story it was and here’s a graph showing the numbers of chapters told from the viewpoint of each character.

Clash of Kings POV Character Chapters
Number of Chapters per POV Character in A Clash of Kings

Tyrion Lannister, whose on the other side from the Starks, but not a villain as such gets the most, followed by Arya. The other members of the Stark family, including the bastard son of Eddard, Jon Snow, then get quite a few chapters each as well. It’s quite interesting to do this sort of analysis actually. In particular you can see how the pace of the book picks up with shorter chapter lengths and toing and froing between certain key characters. My plan is to take another look at the stats once I have finished to see how they reflect the whole story.

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Magic and Witchcraft Research Boost

If you are interested in the research of magic and witchcraft in the middle ages you may have come across the following seminal works:

Henry Charles Lea‘s A History of the Inquisition (3 volumes): although this title covers all of the activities of the inquisition and therefore mainly the crime of heresy, there is also some useful content on how the inquisition tackled magic and witchcraft (see volume 3 for this).

Lynn Thorndike‘s A History of Magic and Experimental Science: this title contains 8 volumes, the first two of which cover the first thirteen centuries A.D. The book lists all the major developments in magic and experimental science and also provides details of known ‘magicians’ during that time period. Scientists such as Roger Bacon were often thought to be magicians because of the unusual claims that they made and the experiments they carried out.

In the past it has been quite difficult to get hold of these important reference books unless you have access to a well-stocked academic or public library. I briefly had access to A History of the Inquisition via a trial subscription to Questia, but that has since lapsed. But now the good news is that both titles are available via You can find all three volumes of A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, as well as the same author’s A History of the Inquisition of Spain. For Thorndike you can find the first two volumes at present. Hopefully the other volumes will be added soon as well.

Simply visit and start your search. There are often multiple files available, so I won’t provide any links here. If you have never used before then please take a look, it’s a great resource.

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Review of Bisclavret (The Werewolf)

Steven Till, a fellow blogger and writer of historical fiction, has posted a very kind review of Bisclavret (The Werewolf) over at his blog.

Steven found the story “engaging and thrilling. As an eighteen page short story, it reads quickly: his pacing is good, the dialogue is tight, and the plot is absorbing. His style is clean and precise and executed extremely well.”

Although he “did feel that some of the characters could have used more fleshing out, Bertrand for one, and on some levels Edward.”

One of the pleasures of writing and getting published is to get a reaction from readers, and I am really pleased that I have been able to get this story out to a wider audience.

Steven has a wonderful website that is a must for anyone interested in history and historical fiction, particularly set in the Middle Ages. Steven also has some of his own stories posted on his site, all of which are well worth a read.

You can read a free preview of Bisclavret (The Werewolf) at Smashwords and then purchase a copy if you are interested in reading the whole thing for $0.99.

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The Human Factor now on page two of Science Fiction list at Feedbooks

As well as going over a 1,000 downloads this weekend, my short story The Human Factor, has also got onto the second page of results for Science Fiction in Feedbooks!

I guess getting higher up the most popular list for certain tags has probably increased the popularity. I’ve certainly seen downloads actually increase the longer this story has been on the site!

However, I’m not sure if I have much of a chance of progressing much further up the chart in the short term. The story above mine, Wires, has over 3,000 downloads, while the top story, After the Singularity, has over 11,000.

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Latest and Greatest Hits: Top Grossing Posts from Praeter Naturam

How amazingly self-indulgent of me, but I thought Sunday would be a good day for reflecting on some of the blog posts created over the last month that have also drawn the most hits over the last month, so here they are the top five!

  1. Review of Iain Banks iPhone App – way out in front this one, I think it did particularly well on the search engines and also got picked up by some Iain Banks forums.
  2. New Info on Surface Detail by Iain Banks from his iPhone App – a post so heavily related to this month’s number 1 they could almost be twins!
  3. Feedbook distribution seems to be bringing in the readers – and this post certainly brought in a bit of traffic too!
  4. Blurred Lines Between Vanity Publishing and Self Publishing – self-publishing is always a popular topic I guess.
  5. Hard-Luck Diggings: The Early Jack Vance – I’m pleased that this book has got some publicity from my blog, it sounds like a great title.

Which post did you enjoy most?

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Comparing Smashwords and Feedbooks

So far in my Smashwords and Feedbooks adventures I have published three stories on Feedbooks and two on Smaswords. I found it quite interesting to compare the two. Of the two stories on Smashwords, one I am charging for, Bisclavret (The Werewolf), and one, The Human Factor, I have made free. On Feedbooks I have three stories (all free as that is the nature of Feedbooks), which are: The Human Factor (again), The Honor of Rome and Tale of Tiel.

Here are the stats to date for Smashwords:

Bisclavret (The Werewolf): 21 downloads, 0 sales since 8th July

The Human Factor: 74 downloads since 16th July

And for Feedbooks:

The Human Factor: 961 since 28th June

The Honor of Rome: 353 since 28th June

Tale of Tiel: 250 since 28th June

You can’t compare these figures exactly, but what I think is clear is that Feedbooks gets a lot more downloads. I suspect that’s because people know it only has free material, whereas as you have to pay for a fair amount of the content on Smashwords. What’s great for me as far as Feedbooks is concerned is that the downloads for The Human Factor aren’t dying down – it seems to have some legs yet! And for Smashwords, I think it’s more of a platform for trying to sell novel length material rather than short stories.

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Remembering all the Characters from A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin

A Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin

A couple of days ago I started reading the second volume of  A Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin, A Clash of Kings. I read the first book, A Game of Thrones, a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it, but I hadn’t had time to pick up the second book until this week.

George RR Martin has created a great series and a very well constructed and vivid background world. And that’s what has actually given me a few problems in the last few days. I have had a real struggle to get into it again. Many of the first chapters of A Clash of Kings provide you with a bit of a summary of what happened previously, as well as telling you what’s happening now to the characters. What happens is the characters tend to talk to each other about what the current situation is and their plans. And this has been a steep remembering curve for me, with several glances to the lists (massive lists) at the back of the book, which are immensely helpful.

The world that George RR Martin creates is so detailed that I have had real problems trying to keep up, but slowly I’m getting there!

I respect George RR Martin for not just providing and idiot’s “Previously on A Song of Ice and Fire…” section at the start of A Clash of Kings, but in a way I’m such an idiot for not reading it sooner, that I probably needed it!

But after reading about 70 pages things are slowly coming back to me, and I’m hoping that the rest of the book will be an easier ride. Martin’s writing is amazing and I’m enjoying the bits without too many names a lot!

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Favourite Fantasy Fiction Characters: Logen Ninefingers (aka the Bloody Nine)

This is the start of a regular series of posts about favourite characters from fiction. First up one of the vividly realised characters at the centre of Joe Abercrombie‘s First Law Trilogy.

Logen Ninefingers (aka the Bloody Nine) is a mercenary and ex Northmen military leader. He’s a berserker with a brain, and as his name suggests is missing one of pinkies. Abercrombie seems to have a thing for physical impairment (see the next instalment in this series – answers on a postcard if you can guess who it might be!). Perhaps it’s a symbol of his characters being damaged goods psychologically as well as physically. Logen starts the trilogy as an outcast from the North and also from the mercenary band that he used to lead, but he ends up a hero and reunited with his old comrades that he used to lead. For me there are three classic Logen moments – one at the beginning of The Blade Itself, where he looks like he’s a gonner – disappearing down a muddy slope if memory serves me right, the second is a Helms Deep style affair where he and his old comrades and a small makeshift army defend a wall at the end of a mountain valley against superior numbers – very Gemmell this I think? Then lastly he fights the demonic champion of the new king of the north, and goes into a berserk killing frenzy as he does so.

I like him because he’s a classic hero – brave and strong and good at what he does. But he’s not cheesy and predictable – he is hated by his former comrades and he is very much an unwilling hero as well at the beginning of the trilogy.

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