The last time England withdrew in a big way from the continent of Europe – there was a Civil War!
What am I talking about? Well England’s defeat in the Hundred Year’s War lead pretty much directly to the Wars of Roses. With the UK now split almost evenly on the issue is there a danger of strong divisions appearing again in our society? There are strong emotions on both sides–anger at the result of the referendum and fear of uncertainty over what will happen next? These are dangerous times I feel – we’ve had for the first time popular leaders in the UK stirring up tensions. What’s next? It feels like we’ve taken a massive step back in terms of tolerance and a rational approach to politics and society.
Looking at a map of the referendum results – you can see how further resentment and division will bubble along in the future – the richest city in the UK, London, voted overwhelmingly to leave – but will now suffer because of the economic downturn. Whereas Scotland and even Northern Ireland may leave the union together over this. This is a new civil war – fought through the media, ballot box and via words, rather than with swords and arrows – but it feels like a war nevertheless.
To be honest I thought that the inscription of swords was just something that happened in fantasy books and role-playing games – but it seems not! Most inscriptions were invocations to God to help out the person bearing the sword.
But a certain sword that is currently part of a 1215 Magna Carta exhibit at the British Library has got all the experts stumped, as no-one knows what the following means:
I must say that I certainly don’t – the signs of the cross that top and tail the inscription are standard for medieval spells as well, so maybe its a magical inscription – and perhaps that’s why it is so hard to decipher?
Just when you might think that the funding crisis in the NHS was a thoroughly modern problem, it seems that hospitals in the Middle Ages struggled too! A dig at a medieval lepers hospital near Winchester shows that funding could run dry and mean the withdrawal of services too, just like services in the NHS are being cut back at the moment due to budgets not keeping step with demand.
In the case of the hospital of St Mary Magdalen near Winchester though it seems that the problem of leprosy was going away so the money dried up:
But by 1334 bailouts were being paid to keep the hospital going, perhaps because leprosy was declining as a problem. By the 16th century it was operating more as an almshouse and looks to have avoided closure in the Dissolution of the Monasteries ordered by Henry VIII that saw the end of establishments such as Hyde Abbey in Winchester and Netley Abbey near Southampton.
If you didn’t have leprosy then the options were limited – and of course most lepers hospitals were really intended to keep those afflicted away from the rest of the population rather than treat them.
Apparently the Perseid meteor shower which will come across the skies tonight has been happening every August since the Middle Ages.
In medieval Europe, this meteor display became known as the fiery “Tears of St. Lawrence”. The story of why is told at One-Minute Astronomer:
In 258 A.D., to distract the masses from constant war under his reign, the Roman emperor Valerian ordered the merciless execution of dozens of leaders of the Catholic church. Among those martyred was one of the seven deacons of Rome, Laurentius, just 33 years old. The Roman authorities, rarely subtle, tortured Laurentius by roasting him alive on an iron stove. Though doomed, Laurentius taunted his captors and cried out, “I am already roasted on one side and, if thou wouldst have me well cooked, it is time to turn me on the other.”
With that brave comment, Laurentius, now called St. Lawrence, became the patron saint of comedians. But the date he died, August 10, was also known throughout the world for an annual display of meteors or “shooting stars”.
The Perseid shower is the most spectacular because there are more than 108 meteors an hour. I wonder where they’re all going to end up? Perhaps Superman will be in one of them? Or Perseus?
The Middle Ages was a time when witches were burnt at the stake or drowned in ponds to prove whether they were really witches or not.
Again another myth about the Middle Ages.
The persecution of witchcraft really didn’t get going until what is called the Early Modern period – late 15th century to 17th century. In fact until the 15th century sorcery itself although acknowledged to be evil and to exist was not actively pursued or persecuted.
Sorcerers could be burnt for their crimes and occasionally were, but really the accusation of sorcery tended to be tacked onto accusations of heresy, or to be used as a means of defaming opponents – such as the Templars for example.
Things started to change somewhat in the early fourteenth century, a time of rising pressures in society in general. From about 1320 onwards the Inquisition in Europe started to take a more serious role in tackling accusations of sorcery. The cases of sorcery actually seem to have increased as the authorities pronounced against it – for instance Pope John XXII actually made accusations that certain sorcerers had attempted to kill him. High profile cases such as this only served to increase the interest in sorcery, and thus the persecution of it. This culminated in the mid-15th century with the infamous Gilles de Rais.
With the increase in publicity sorcery and witchcraft were becoming increasingly trendy, and by the Early Modern period both had captured the imagination as something to be feared or to experiment with.
It’s ironic that the era of the Renaissance was the time when the particularly brutal repression of witchcraft really began.
No this isn’t a contradiction in terms! Some interesting research has come out recently covering two aspects of early civilisation in North America.
Firstly it’s claimed that large mammals, woolly mammoth and others, became extinct in North America due to an exploding asteroid, rather than the usual explanation of over hunting. The extinction of large mammals is usually given as a reason by the likes of Jared Diamond and others as one of the reasons North America peoples didn’t develop a settled civilisation as quickly as Eurasia. If you read the research story this theory about an asteroid does sound plausible!
Secondly another piece of research claims that the first people to settle North America – known as the Clovis civilisation came from Europe over the Kankakee Sand Islands. Arrowheads found match exactly those found in Europe. The previous theory was that Americans came from Siberia over the Bering Strait land bridge – there are a number of genetic and cultural similarities that back up the Bering Strait theory.
It’s interesting that these two items come at the same time – the first one actually puts the second discovery into context. As well as wiping out mammoths the asteroid is also blamed for destroying the Clovis civilisation – so maybe the Clovis people did come from Europe a bit before Siberians came over the Bering Strait, but by the time they came the Clovis people weren’t around anyway. So the previous theory may still stand that North American indigenous peoples are descended from emigrants from Siberia.
If you’re crazy enough to want to create languages for your fantasy fiction world then this is an inportant question. Where do your languages come from. Could there be a common ancestor for all your languages. If so there will be similarities between them. Many people will have heard of the phrase Indo-European languages, which describes most of the languages of Europe and Asia as having common routes – all except Turkish, Basque and Finnish of course – where these came from who knows. Aliens?
This talk on TED suggests that all languages may have come from a common ancestor. I’m not sure if I can accept this. It suggests that man began to talk before he spread out of his homeland and settled other parts of Europe and Asia. Is this possible? It also suggests that different groups of men would have developed the same language at the same time. Again this sounds unlikely and frankly I’m a bit surprised at this conjecture – there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for it.
Going back to the implications for a fantasy world setting, it really depends on how you see the origin of the world. Being quite pedantic about this, these things actually matter to me. I don’t feel comfortable not knowing roughly why my characters inhabit a world that isn’t like the Earth we know. So therefore there needs to be an origin explanation for me. Alternate reality like Moorcock’s Eternal Champion maybe, an older version of Earth like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Howard’s Hyboria? It’s seems a shame that often modern fantasy writers often don’t consider these origins. For me this means that the reason for their writing hasn’t really been truly thought through. Rather the aim is to build on a tradition where a standard fantasy setting is acceptable because that’s what readers have come to accept. So in a way a pretty non-fantastic, non-speculative fictional genre has been established where we all know the rules already. This can be OK if the writing is good, but in the end its going to become tired.
Science-fiction can perhaps offer more.
What I’m hoping to do in my writing is to offer a development of this by giving a reason for my fantasy world existing, this means breaking out of some of the traditions of fantasy writing worlds though and starting with a clean slate of a world. But, I must admit its difficult not to rely on what we know of human history or previous fantasy writing. Something like Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia series is a benchmark for what I’m hoping to do.