Still Dreaming of the Middle Ages

I spent much of last week in the Middle Ages, as you know. I emerged about lunch time yesterday. The thing about an academic conference is that it doesn’t present a picture of the whole subject. It’s a bit here and a bit there from what the scholars are currently researching. The subject specialisation is wonderful (such interesting research!), but fitting it all together can be problematic.

This week I’m back into my own contemporary research. The first thought I had when I picked up a book about contemporary Irish folklore was that I have contexts for it. In fact, I went to Ireland before the world went awry and I worked very hard to develop those contexts. Do I have contexts for the Middle Ages?

The answer is, of course I do. I spent many years of my life developing them. I started when I was eighteen and learned Old French in second year university and have never quite stopped. I learned new things then found out that I didn’t understand where those new things came from nor what their companions were, culturally and historically speaking. One of my big dreams has always been to understand. This includes understanding what I know and how I know it, and continuing to learn and to frame my knowledge so that I can learn more about subjects that I think I might be beginning to understand. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do this full-on for the Middle Ages. By ‘a while’ I mean since The Middle Ages Unlocked was released. Since then, I keep it all together by going to conferences and reading books and teaching and talking and by using it in my fiction. To maintain the complex reality of a subject this rich is wonderful place to be, intellectually. I’ll never know everything or understand everything, but it’s so fulfilling to continue learning.

In my library I have a selection of books that I recommend to people as doorways into the Middle Ages I know. The period is so much more interesting than the popular Middle Ages, so it would be very churlish of me to keep it to myself. Also, there are a lot of trashy books out there. I like to introduce people to good books.

I walked past my shelf. The question I asked as I let my brain wander was what subject didn’t I encounter last week that I want to introduce people to? Medicine. Medicine is so important. The way the wider public talks about medicine in the Middle Ages mostly bears little relationship to actual medicine in the Middle Ages. This popular view creeps into some of the best fantasy novels.

I thought about medicine last week. Monica Green was in the audience at a panel I was also in the audience for. I didn’t talk to her. I was shy. Her work is utterly amazing. It’s also seldom a 101 guide for the topic.

There are two books I send people to, first, and, when they say “I need more” I nod sagely and tell them to look for the work of Monica Green. Here’s the book by Green that I need to add to my library sometime, just so that you have a Green title to look for . There are also two lovely volumes by Tony Hunt on Anglo-Norman medicine check here and here , but they’re for after you’ve read a lot of Green and feel up to looking at an edition of medical texts (it also really helps to read Old French). And that’s just the beginning. Medieval European medicine is a big subject, and the European Middle Ages is just a small part of what was happening in the wider world at that time. That’s why I try to find one or two books to suggest to get people started. If you begin with the whole world, then the subject is too big. Since I am, by training and knowledge a European Medievalist, the countries I know best (France and England) tend to dominate my recommendations.

The two books that I suggest starting with (especially to historical fiction and fantasy writers) are Nancy Siraisi’s Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine  and Carole Rawcliffe’s Medicine and Society in Later Medieval England.  Because I haven’t looked at new introductions to medieval medicine for a few years, there might be something else that has emerged that I know not yet of. Medieval Studies is a vast field and there is often something new and exciting and intellectually vibrant to look for.

Now my mind has wandered to Montpellier. A year or two after I had sorted out the underlying patterns and structures and just how things happened in the various worlds of Medieval medicine, I was in Montpeller. Montpellier was my research base for my novel Langue[dot]doc 1305. I had to go to hospital, just for two hours, my first day there. It amused me no end that the hospital I went to was one I knew about from my forays into the Middle Ages. It was a university hospital and the only one that didn’t limit its teaching of medicine to Christians in the very Christian part of the Middle Ages. One day I’d like to go to Salerno, and visit the campus there, the one that was famous for teaching women how to be doctors in the Middle Ages.

And now it’s so close to my Tuesday morning that I think I might sleep. If any of you are interested in me turning this into a series “Books you can read about the Middle Ages” (to appear on this blog on Mondays, when I feel like it) then please let me know, because it would be fun to write.

Re-learning the Middle Ages

This post is short, because I’m busy learning…

One of the odd side effects of the strange times in which we live is the number of conferences that have been transferred online. I’m using some of them to update old knowledge and understand subjects better. I’ve done best in this respect in learning about the Middle Ages. I’m on all the right lists, you see, because of my curious career.

My ethnohistory began as Medieval. I research modern culture right now, but I began trying to understand human beings by looking at who we were hundreds of years ago. This and the conferences open many doors to knowledge, for there is an amazing meeting of archaeology and history right now, and it’s changing what we know about the past.

Last year I attended a conference in Dublin that turned what I knew about houses in the Early Middle Ages upside down and inside out. Thatched houses without chimneys are, it turns out, neither full of smoke nor riddled with infestations. They breathe, through the thatch, and the air is clear and comfortable. From the outside, the smoke comes through the thatch, like a mist rising.

Right now, I’m attending workshops on Medieval Jewish craftspeople. One can’t avoid hearing about the effects of pogroms and mass murders (in Cologne after the Black Death, for example), but the focus is on what people did with their lives. I’m learning about bakers and goldsmiths, silk workers and bookbinders.

I’m going to do as much learning as I can, while things are online, for normally I’m the other side of the world and can only dream of these events.

Virtual Life

Today’s post is brought to you live. I’m in Canberra at my computer and at a conference in the UK, both at once. This is not my first conference this week, and won’t be my last.

The first was Boskone. I felt very privileged to be able to meet old friends, make new ones, meet authors and readers and all kinds of fascinating people. The focus was on science fiction.

Today and tomorrow is all about Jewish history. I’m not on any panels, I’m not helping run any events, and it’s not even related to my current research. My first PhD was in Medieval History and I attend events whenever I can, to keep my knowledge up to date and to keep in touch. It’s so cool. Right now I’m catching up on Jewish Medieval England in what I’m listening to now is a discussion of whether or not Jews were actually permitted to own land. It’s complicated and one of those questions that can’t be answered easily. It sounds simple and is not. However… freehold agricultural land was unlikely to be able to be owned by Jews, but earlier… it may have been possible. One of the scholars pointed out that there may not have been a lot of interest in Jews owning land in the transactions on record. Canon law in the 1190s had a gloss concerning land belonging to a church being owned by Jews. This was documented because of possible problems in swearing fealty.

This is my Middle Ages. Not something simple. Complicated and tangled and absolutely wonderful. Not, however, something that is easy to write into fiction. Fiction has to give clear claims.

This leads me neatly to my third conference in a week. I’m in this for my current research, and I’m moderating a session and delivering a paper between 4.30 am and 6 am my time. Mind you, the UK conference finishes at 6 am my time and I don’t think I’ll manage to make the final session. Australia is not close to the UK or the US.

Why is the last conference of the week so important to my research and to my fiction writing self? It’s all about popular culture. Popular culture is totally critical for novelists. We use it to bring stories to life. My paper is on foodways in modern Australian fantasy novels.

My current conference has a tea break. I need to stretch. I also need to wash dishes. Last break I hung washing up to dry. Housework fits into gaps.

I may never get to do so much in a single week in my life again. This is a side-effect of all of us being closed into small environments due to COVID. In a few months time my night will be night and my day will be day and life will return to normal. This week, however, is a lot of fun and I am treasuring every moment.

Scraps of History

I’m supposed to be working on a novel, but a conference has intervened so I’ve been visiting Medievalists for two days. I can’t tell you everything I’ve learned in the last few days (for it’s a technical update for me in what’s happening in the world of manuscript studies, since my first PhD included matters of that kind) , but I can give you ten moments of interest.

1. Some illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages have curtains. A picture might have a special religious meaning, or it might be of someone losing their head, or it might be two people in bed. The scholar in question was introducing us to the little scraps of cloth and the fine silk thread and the holes in the parchment that make these curtains. I want to call them veils. One of the terms for finding them in a manuscript catalogue is ‘serpente’.

2. Ireland is creating a virtual reproduction of the National Archive that burned down in 1922, and it is a thing of beauty already. Plus, there’s some really neat programming behind it.

3. Holes in manuscripts can be turned into a part of the story. The hole in the parchment we were shown represented the Wound of Christ and dripped red paint. Continue reading “Scraps of History”