30 November 2016

Odd Jobs - Tanning: A Medieval Dirty Job

By Kim Rendfeld

In The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, Hugh, the son of a tanner, eagerly volunteers when King Charles (today called Charlemagne) asks for one man from each free household to serve in the army invading Saxony. When the son of Hugh’s count asks him to join the castle guard, he is overjoyed. He sees a life that’s more privileged and an escape from the tannery. Tanning was a dirty job, even to medieval people accustomed to garbage and dung in the streets.

The tanner first obtained the skins of slaughtered cattle, and the blood, dirt, manure, hooves, and horns that went with them. After trimming the skins, the tanner rinsed the raw material in a local waterway or well. If the former, downstream neighbors might complain about the pollution.

Then, there was the matter of getting rid of the hair all the way down to the roots while maintaining the grain. Tanners would let the hair rot by sprinkling it with urine, folding the skins hair-side in, and piling them up in a warm place. Or they could soak them in an alkaline solution made of wood ash or lime.

When the hairs were loose enough, the tanner spread the hides over wooden beams and used special knives to scrape off the hair on one side and whatever flesh there was on the other. Next came another washing. The tanner could use a solution with pigeon droppings or dog poo, which would remove lime and make the product softer and more flexible. Or the craftsman might use fermented barley or rye, with stale beer or urine as an additive. This could take up to three months.

The hides were washed again in water. (Feel sorry for those downstream, yet?) Then the tanner needed to preserve his work with a solution made with the bark of an oak, spruce fir, or whatever else was available. That was done in two phases. The first pit used a weak solution, probably left over from the second phase (medieval people didn’t let things go to waste). The hides were taken in and out of the first pit until they attained the desired color. Then the tanner placed the hides in a deeper pit and layered them with the bark. Cold water or a weak tanning solution was poured over them. The hides sat, probably for a year. After that, the tanner would sell the hides to other craftsmen, who would provide the finished products.

Disgusting as the process is, tanners fulfilled an important function. They took a byproduct of the cattle slaughter and made it into a material medieval people depended on. Their shoes, saddles, helmets, armor, and many other leather goods were the result of a tanner’s handiwork. But no one wanted them as neighbors. And a young man might welcome a way out of the family business.


English Medieval Industries: Craftsmen, Techniques, Products, edited by John Blair, W. John Blair, Nigel Ramsay

Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia, edited by Thomas F. Glick, Steven Livesey, Faith Wallis

The Regional Diversification of Latin 200 BC - AD 600, by J.N. Adams

Kim Rendfeld is the author of The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar and its companion, The Cross and the Dragon, both set in the early years of Charlemagne’s reign. Connect with Kim on her website (kimrendfeld.com), her blog (kimrendfeld.wordpress.com), Facebook (facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld) and Twitter (@kimrendfeld).

28 November 2016

New & Noteworthy: November 2016

Hello readers! This month's news is a bit late due to vacations and holidays, but it's still quite exciting! Here's our news as we enter the winter holiday season:

Lindsay Townsend is part of a new medieval historical romance anthology called ONE WINTER KNIGHT with her story 'Sir Thomas and the Snow Troll'. For details and more stories by Lindsay, visit Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk - and check out reviews of Lindsay's stories on Bookstrand

INSURRECTIO, the fifth in Alison Morton's Roma Nova thriller series, has been awarded the prestigious BRAG Medallion! Alison says, "I am delighted, no, I’m jumping up and down with elation". BRAG stands for Book Reader Appreciation Group and ten readers have to read and approve each applicant book following a set of strict criteria. Only indie books are eligible. Ninety per cent of books don't make the grade... More information here

18 November 2016

Women Praetorians?

The Praetorian Relief, from a triumphal arch.
Creative Commons, Louvre-Lens Museum
Praetorians, the elite Roman soldiers – tough, arrogant, corrupt, overreaching, brutal, loyal, uncompromising, kingmakers, thugs, patriots, a bulwark, a protection squad, the ultimate fighting force.  They’ve been depicted as all of these in the media and literature. And as in any military hierarchy across the ages they are regarded as tough but snotty by all other military units. But soldiers in those regular units have usually aspired to join them...

The term ‘Praetorian’ derives from praetor meaning the residence of the commanding general of a Roman army in the field. In 133 BC, Scipio Aemilianus Africanus, the hero of the Third Punic War, was besieging Numantia in Spain and formed a personal bodyguard that became known as the cohors praetoria. Chosen from the ranks (Roman citizens and Latins only) to form a separate elite force, on an ad hoc basis, it guarded the praetor’s tent and/or person.  

Under Augustus in 27BC, this elite expeditionary force turned into a permanent imperial guard under the command of two Praetorian prefects. Augustus understood perfectly the need to have physical protection as well as a dedicated, loyal unit which could enforce his political wishes; his path to power had been physically and politically dangerous. Originally nine cohorts were formed, consisting each of 500 men, plus a small cavalry contingent. Only three units were on duty at any given time in the capital patrol in the palace and major buildings. The remaining cohorts were stationed in the towns surrounding Rome.

Under his successor, Tiberius, or rather his ambitious Praetorian prefect Sejanus, their numbers increased and they were centralised in Rome in a camp outside the then city wall, the Castra Praetoria.

Creative Commons, R. Ontario Museum
But they were more than a palace guard and political troops. On the death of Augustus in 14 AD, Tiberius, was faced with mutinies among both the Rhine and Pannonian legions. According to Tacitus, the Pannonian forces were dealt with by Tiberius' son Drusus, accompanied by two Praetorian cohorts, the Praetorian cavalry and some of the German bodyguard. The German mutiny was put down by Tiberius' nephew and adopted son Germanicus, his intended heir, who then led the legions and detachments of the Guard in an invasion of Germany over the next two years. The Guard saw much action in the Year of the Four Emperors in 69, fighting effectivelyl for Otho at the first battle of Bedriacum. Under Domitian and Trajan, the guard fought in wars from Dacia to Mesopotamia, and under Marcus Aurelius on the Danubian frontier during the Marcomannic Wars and continued front line service throughout the third century..

Proclaiming Claudius Emperor, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1867
The guard’s political power grew, even to the extent of intervening in the choice of emperor; the most famous example is Claudius. At the end of the second century, Septimus Severus disbanded the old Praetorian Guard and replaced it with ten military cohorts from his Danubian legions. From then on the Praetorians would be drawn from regular legions. Although the guard was finally dissolved by Emperor Constantine I in 312 AD he replaced it with scholae palatinae, crack cavalry units each 500 strong. At the end of the fourth century, there were around a dozen such units.

The idea of ‘Praetorian’ still conveys the idea of a tough, elite force whose role is to protect the ruler and ultimately the state. As Ancient Rome was a patriarchal society, they were of course, like all military, uniquely male. When I started writing thrillers with a heavy dose of espionage and special forces action in a Roman style society, calling them ‘Praetorian’ seemed a natural fit.

The original guard had been finally disbanded nearly a hundred years before the small group of senatorial families were to trek north and found Roma Nova in my books.  Perhaps they felt the negative connotations about Praetorians had faded or perhaps they were desperate to hang on to their deepest traditions ­– Romans were proud of their history and traditional cultural values – but when a bodyguard was formed for the first ruler, Apulius, they called it the cohors praetoria or Praetorian Guard.

Photo courtesy of Britannia
Women became members of the fighting units defending Roma Nova alongside their brothers and fathers. They had no choice; the new settlers were numerically so few that they didn’t have enough male fighters. As the units evolved into legions over the years, women were eligible to transfer from the regular forces into the Praetorian units along with their male colleagues. The requirements for every Praetorian down the ages were (and still are) strength, a very high level of physical fitness, intelligence and skills levels, irrespective of gender.

The Praetorian Guard in my Roma Nova books protect the imperatrix  (ruler) and also form an elite tactical military force as they did in ancient Rome. Today we call them special forces. The modern Roma Novan Praetorians also have an intelligence remit. And this is how Aurelia and Carina Mitela have ended up serving in the Praetorian Guard Special Forces – an ‘odd job’ for women in history, especially when until recently in the real world such a role would normally be associated exclusively with men.


Alison Morton is the author of the acclaimed Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and the latest, INSURRECTIO

Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site: http://alison-morton.com
Twitter https://twitter.com/alison_morton @alison-morton
Goodreads  https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5783095.Alison_Morton

Discover Alison’s latest book, INSURRECTIO

Early 1980s. Caius Tellus, the charismatic leader of a rising nationalist movement threatens to destroy Roma Nova, the last province of the Roman Empire to survive into the 20th century.

Aurelia Mitela, ex-Praetorian and imperial councillor, attempts to rally resistance to the growing fear and instability. But it may already be too late to save Roma Nova from meltdown and herself from entrapment and destruction by her lifelong enemy.…

Amazon  iBooks  Kobo  B&N Nook 

Watch the book trailer:  https://youtu.be/eXGslRLjv6g

15 November 2016

Odd Jobs: Clowns, Jesters, and Fools in Medieval and Tudor England

 Even in medieval times, people needed entertainment.  And court entertainers, fools, jesters, jugglers, minstrels, led a life much different from both their royal “employers” and the run of the mill populace.

Of course, to have a position as a court fool was the height of luxury.  There were also freelance entertainers, including fools, who not only provided amusement, they also might do acrobatics and play instruments.  They might be hired by taverns or brothels, by cities for participation in public pageants, or they might be part of a touring company that would travel between noble households, “singing for their supper.”  Indeed, many more were itinerant entertainers than permanent residents.

Indeed, “fol” may not have been a full-time position, as Henry III’s payments to “John the Fol,” named him also a forester and huntsman, but the court fool was a particularly privileged position, for in making fun, he could say things that other people couldn’t.  One of history’s favorite tales is of the defeat of the French fleet by the English fleet at the Battle of Sluys in 1340.  No one could summon the courage to tell the French king, Phillippe VI, the news.  Finally, the court jester told him the English sailors were cowards, because they “don't even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French.”

This portrait of Henry VIII and his family shows "Jane the Fool" in the archway on the left and "Wil Somer" in the archway on the right, suggesting they were considered members of the family.
Of course, kings were not always so amused when a royal fool overstepped his bounds.  It was reported in a letter from the ambassador to England from the Holy Roman Empire, that Henry VIII had “nearly murdered his own fool, a simple and innocent man.”  The crime?  Speaking well of the king’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and her daughter Mary, while disparaging Anne Boleyn and her “bastard” daughter.

The Tudor and Elizabethan eras were considered a “Golden Age” of folly and most of the Tudor kings and queens record regular payments and expenses for court fools.  By this time, we begin to have more information about these people, partly because having one’s personal fool was no longer limited to royalty.  Several prominent men of the time, such as Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More also had their own fools.

It does seem as if there were two distinct types of court fools:  the “artificial” fool and the “natural” fool, but the records don’t always allow us to clearly distinguish one from the other.

Richard Tarlton
An artificial fool is what most of us think of when we think of a jester.  This is a person of sharp wit, able to say amusing things on demand.  A medieval standup comedian, if you will.  Like so many things about the world past, we don’t have detailed information so we don’t know much what was so amusing about them.  (No one kept detailed notes on the fool’s scripts.)

A “natural” fool is one that is intellectually or developmentally disabled or even mentally ill.  This person might be dressed up and laughed at, kept somewhat like a pet as a part of the family.  Certainly, this seems like unimaginable cruelty to us today.  But some of the financial records, which indicate payments to a fool’s “keeper,” suggest that they realized these men (or women) were not capable of caring for themselves.  And as members of a royal household, they were fed and clothed, not left to wander the streets alone.

Even distinguishing which fools were natural and which artificial is a challenge.  “Patch,” Cardinal Wolsey’s fool, was so honored that when Cardinal Wolsey fell from Henry VIII’s favor, he gifted the king with his fool, perhaps to be certain that the man was provided for.

The king’s records show that Patch had several “keepers,” and the fact that he could, literally, be given away suggests he might be a “natural” fool, kept like a pet for amusement, but also needing “keepers,” unable to take care of himself.

More famous, however, were the actors who took to the stage.  Richard Tarlton, said to be Queen Elizabeth’s favorite fool, was an actor, a dancer, a fencer, a musician, and a man famous for his witty banter.  He was said to have studied “natural” fools in order to enhance his stage performance.

William Kempe on right, doing a jig.
Many of our impressions of the medieval fool come from Shakespeare, who created memorable characters in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “King Lear,” and other plays.  Two prominent comic actors played many of these signature roles:  William Kempe and Robert Armin.

Kempe played such roles as Dogberry in “Much Ado About Nothing,” Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and he was famous for his “jigs,” a combination of dance and physical comedy, often performed by a troupe of dancers.

Armin succeeded Kempe as a member of the Chamberlain’s Men.  His style was less physical comedy and more comedic wit.  Hence, the roles of Feste in “Twelfth Night,” and Touchstone in “As You Like It” are considered his.  These are more acerbic, philosopher-fools, though as an actor he was not limited to these parts.

Truly by this time, there was money to be made by making people laugh.   

John Southworth’s FOOLS AND JESTERS AT THE ENGLISH COURT, Sutton Publishing, 1998, 2003, was the source of much of the information in this piece.

After many years in public relations, advertising and marketing, Blythe Gifford started writing seriously after a corporate layoff. Ten years and one layoff later, she became an overnight success when she sold her first book to the Harlequin Historical line.  Since then, she has published eleven romances set in England and on the Scottish Borders.  RUMORS AT COURT, a Royal Wedding story, will be released in May, 2017, from the Harlequin Historical line.  For more information, visit www.blythegifford.com


Author photo Jennifer Girard


03 November 2016

Excerpt Thursday: KAYLYN: THE SISTER-IN-DARKNESS by Barbara G. Tarn

This week, we’re pleased to welcome author BARBARA G. TARN with her latest historical fantasy release,  KAYLYN THE SISTER-IN-DARKNESS.

Join us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. One lucky visitor will get a digital copy of KAYLYN – this giveaway is open internationally. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. The winner will be contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb…

Ten years after the return of the crusader, his people know he's evil and try to get rid of him and his wife. Kaylyn escapes the fire of Baldwin's manor with Bran's help and leaves Lincolnshire for good.

A long journey through 12th century Europe allows her to meet other fledglings of her mysterious maker, Bran the Raven. Then it's Muslim Spain and up to Damascus, where everything started for Baldwin.

A travel journal through the centuries across Europe, North Africa, Asia on the Silk Road, to the court of Kublai Khan and then India for the making of her brother-in-darkness, Rajveer... And it's only half of Kaylyn's story.

History and fantasy mix in this standalone book of Vampires Through the Centuries that will appeal to both historical fiction readers and vampire lovers all over the world.

**An Excerpt from Kaylyn: the Sister-in-Darkness**


Kaylyn awoke with a gasp, and her throat was filled with heat and smoke. She'd been dreaming of falling into the pits of hell, and she opened her eyes to a raging fire devouring the wooden partition of her chamber.
She heard Baldwin's roar, but her husband wasn't by her side anymore. Panting, she frantically looked for a way out. Why was the manor on fire? Why wasn't anyone trying to extinguish it?
Screams and curses came from beyond the flames. The wood crackled and then suddenly gave in. Soon everything would come crumbling down and Kaylyn couldn't gather her wits.
It was daytime. She was supposed to be asleep, away from the sun's rays. What if she left the burning room from the window and was incinerated by the sun? The chamber was so filled with smoke that she couldn't see the weather outside.
Fire was attacking the wooden floor as well as the beamed ceiling. Only the external walls were made of stone. Eyes wide, Kaylyn didn't know what to do. But then, if Baldwin had left the bedroom, there was probably no danger in going out.
Maybe outside it was another cloudy English day. The heat was getting worse, and Kaylyn decided to move. She got off the double bed and made her way along the walls towards the stone staircase to the lower floor on the other side of the rectangular room.
She was about to reach the closest window, her back against the wall as if she were walking on a narrow ledge, when the floor under the bed gave way, and the canopy crashed downstairs into what had been the main hall of the castle.
Kaylyn froze, staring at the chasm that had opened a few paces from her feet. Soon the whole floor would collapse and she'd fall into the furnace of the lower floor. Her "life eternal" would come to a blunt end in a literal hellfire after only ten years.
She was beginning to think the fire wasn't an accident. Holding her breath, she started moving again towards the small windows. It wouldn't be easy to get out that way, but she was thin, and hopefully could get through.
Someone broke the central column of the closest window, widening the opening, and a blurry figure landed in the smoky room that still had half of its floor, since no furniture weighed on it.
"Baldwin?" Kaylyn called with a shaky voice. Only her husband would be capable of jumping so high to break the window. He had come to save her!
But from the smoke emerged the tall figure of Bran, the Celtic druid who had been both hers and Baldwin's maker. His long platinum-blond hair looked red by firelight.
"Let's go, Kaylyn." He threw a blanket over her face and upper body and threw her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
Kaylyn screamed, but didn't fight. She felt the jump, and then she was shaken by Bran's run. She wasn't afraid of the darkness anymore, but the smell of blood that reached her nostrils as soon as the smoke cleared made her lick her fangs.
Soon Bran put her down and took off the blanket. They were in a watermill, probably at the edge of the Fens, and the miller wasn't around.
"What happened?" Kaylyn asked, still breathless. "Where's Baldwin?"
"Dead, I'm afraid," Bran said, putting the blanket on the ground. "Do you want to go back to sleep?"
"No! I want to know what happened at the castle! And what are you doing here? I thought you were in Wales?"
"I was... yes." Bran smiled briefly. "Then I went to Edinburgh. I was on my way back south when I heard Baldwin's scream."
"He screamed?" she asked, puzzled. She hadn't heard him scream.
"His mind did, when he was killed."
"Killed?" Kaylyn stared incredulous at him.
Bran sat on the blanket and patted the ground next to him.