Fantasy, mystery, thrillers, horror, historical. . .I write it all, and review it too!

Dec 26, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Were the Vikings Potheads?

A new discovery reveals that the Vikings in Norway grew hemp.

Examination of material excavated from a Viking farm in southern Norway uncovered hemp pollen dating from 650 to 800 AD. Hemp is Cannabis sativa, a subspecies of which, Cannabis sativa indica, is marijuana. Industrial hemp such as what the Vikings grew can't get you high because it contains almost no THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Instead, hemp can be used for clothing and rope, as well as numerous other products. While the archaeologists stressed that they found no evidence that the Vikings grew marijuana, I have a hard time beliving they didn't have a little patch set aside for those long winter nights. The sagas would have sounded pretty cool while high on a mixture of pot and mead.

They couldn't have smoked too much, though, otherwise they wouldn't have made all those voyages of conquest and discovery. They'd have just stayed home eating Doritos and watching TV instead.

Photo of industrial hemp (not the Grateful Dead kind) courtesy Evelyn Simak.

Dec 24, 2012

Merry Christmas, Byzantine Style!

This is a Byzantine ivory from the 10th century. Mary rests beside the manger with the swaddled Christ Child. Three angels emerge from behind the mountain, one of whom announces the birth of Christ to the standing shepherd on the left. In the foreground, the infant receives his first bath while the seated Joseph watches. The motif of Christ receiving his first bath is characteristic of Byzantine images of the Nativity and rarely appears in western European art.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Dec 17, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Ottonian Ivory

One of my favorite artistic movements of the Middle Ages was the creation of ivory miniatures during the Ottonian Renaissance (c. 951 – 1024). Launched by the German Ottonian dynasty, this was a flowering of art and culture heavily influenced by the earlier Carolingian Renaissance and contemporary Byzantine artistic styles. The Ottonian kings ruled over much of Germany and Italy and called themselves the "Holy Roman Emperors", a title used by many rulers before and since.

The renaissance encompassed all forms of art but I've always been most impressed by the ivory miniatures ever since I first saw them in the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert in London. The photo above is of a diptych made in Trier at the end of 10th century. It shows two scenes: Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and The Doubting Thomas.

This is a situla, a bucket for holding holy water. It's carved with twelve scenes from the Passion of Christ arranged in two rows and was probably made around 980 for the visit of Emperor Otto II to Milan.
This also comes from Milan around 962-973 and was donated to Magdeburg Cathedral by Otto I. It depicts the Flagellation of Christ.

All images courtesy Wikipedia.

Dec 3, 2012

Leather armor in the Middle Ages

In the first chapter of my fantasy novel Roots Run Deep, a team of goblinkin are preparing for a raid on a human city.
Like anyone who lived on the Reservation, Kip went armed at all times. Not that she had much. Her tattered leather jerkin gave scant protection, and for weapons she carried a flint knife and a tfaa, a traditional goblin fighting stick. A balanced, two foot-long rod carved from ironwood, the tfaa didn’t look like much, but in skilled hands it could disarm and cripple a swordsman. Prenta had gotten rid of her showy clothes and dressed in a more practical leather jerkin similar to Kip’s.

These impoverished goblinkin are wearing leather armor because they can't afford anything better and their human rulers forbid them from bearing metal weapons and armor. (This ban doesn't last, but that comes later in the story. . .) Leather armor is a staple of fantasy fiction and roleplaying games, yet many people don't realize just how common it was in medieval warfare. Even knights wore it.

Leather armor goes back to ancient times and continued in use through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. This picture shows the shoulder and upper arm portions of an elegant suit of leather dating to the Italian Renaissance, courtesy of the Schola Forum. As you can see, it looks much like regular metal armor, and many historians believe that it was worn as much as or even more than metal armor. A suit of plate was hot and heavy, so on the march or during a friendly tournament the knight may choose to weather cooler leather. The rank and file would also be fitted with leather and perhaps some portions of metal armor for vulnerable places such as the head and chest.

While leather was much cheaper, it provided pretty good protection. Regular soft leather wasn't much help, but combined with quilted padding provided some protection, especially against blunt weapons such as maces.

More effective was cuir bouilli--boiled leather. If you soak leather in water and then place it in boiling water, it becomes elastic and pliable. It soon begins to shrink, thicken, and harden. As it's hardening, the leather is hammered onto shaped blocks to create breastplates, greaves, vambraces, and anything else. A full suit of armor could be made in this way.

The 14th century French chronicler Jean Froissart claimed that it was "leather that no iron can pierce" and while that may be overstating the case, leather armor certainly gave good protection. Games such as D&D probably undervalue its effectiveness. Modern experiments show that the average sword blow wouldn't get through, although a good English longbow would make short work of a leather breastplate! This basic article (PDF) explains the technique. Also check out this thread from Schola Forum for some more insights and pictures.

The picture below from The Historians' History of the World shows some improvements on leather armor, with overlapping metal scales, discs, and rings. These were all cheaper yet pretty effective alternatives to full plate and variants of these were used from ancient times into the Renaissance.

Nov 26, 2012

Medieval Mondays: The Iron Arm of Götz von Berlich

"I will crush you."
The German knight Götz von Berlich (c.1480-1562) had a nasty reputation. The veteran of numerous battles, he estimated that he had fought 15 feuds in his own name and many others for friends. In 1525 joined the German Peasant's revolt and led the peasants against the Holy Roman Empire.
"The peasants are revolting, and I'm revolting too!"
Perhaps he got his bad attitude when he lost his right hand and forearm during the siege of Landshuf in 1504. A cannonball hit his sword, making it swipe down to cut off his own limb! That's enough to put anyone in a permanently bad mood.
Luckily, craftsmen in this period were skilled at making prosthetics for just such occasions. They made him an iron limb that could open and close it fingers, so it could still be used in battle. He became known at Götz of the Iron Hand. His hand was so well made it could even hold a pen. Perhaps he used it when he wrote his memoirs.
Just goes to show that the late Medieval/early Renaissance period was more sophisticated than we generally believe.

Images courtesy Wikipedia.

Nov 19, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Visiting Ukhaidher Castle, Iraq

Today, our sometimes guest blogger Sean McLachlan returns with an amazing story. He just got back from 17 days in Iraq. That's right, he actually visited Iraq as a tourist. Follow the link to read his fascinating series. Today he's talking to us about exploring an early medieval castle in the desert.

About 50 km (30 miles) southwest of Karbala, there's a mystery standing in the middle of the desert. It's called Ukhaidher ("small green place") Castle and is said to have been built in the 8th century, right at the beginning of the Abbasid dynasty. An oasis stands nearby, hence the name.

Beyond that, little is known about Ukhaidher Castle. Some believe it actually dates from before the Islamic era, to the time of a Christian Arab named Ukhaidher who was expelled from Arabia in 635 AD. Others say it was a Muslim hunting lodge, or a retirement palace for an aged prince.

Whether it has its origins in the pre-Islamic era or not, it was certainly used by the Abbasids and it certainly is impressive. Its walls stand 21 meters (69 ft.) high.
A very early mosque on the site created controversy when it was excavated. The miqrab, or niche that is supposed to face Mecca, appears to face Jerusalem instead. This isn't the only such mosque from the early days of Islam not to face Mecca. The Iraqi archaeologist who discovered this had his funding cancelled and never got to publish his findings. Unfortunately when I visited I didn't have a compass with me, so I can't say for sure where it points. I did get to climb the partially ruined minaret and take some shots from a good vantage point.
Like many archaeological sites, it was heavily restored during Saddam Hussein's rule, more with an eye for grandeur than historical accuracy. The castle was in good enough condition, however, that this particular reconstruction is better than most.
Readers into all things medieval might want to check out my post on exploring medieval Baghdad.

Thanks for having me, A.J.! Besides blogging for Gadling, I run Civil War Horror, dedicated to dark fiction, the American Civil War, and the Wild West. Guest bloggers are always welcome. I'm the author of numerous books including A Fine Likeness, a historical novel set in Civil War Missouri, and The Night the Nazis Came to Dinner, a collection of dark speculative fiction. The electronic editions are both on sale at the moment. You can also check me out on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and my Amazon author's page.
 All photos copyright Sean McLachlan.

Nov 12, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Armor wasn't as cumbersome as commonly thought

One of the common misconceptions about medieval armor was that it was incredibly cumbersome. An oft-repeated tale was that knights had to use a crane to get themselves onto their horses. This seems to come from Henry VIII, who at his fattest could barely move himself, let alone a load of armor.

As this video briefly and clearly shows, armor had a lot more movement than generally thought.

In The Face of Battle, John Keegan points out that the load for the average infantryman stayed the same for much of history. The Tommies going "over the top" in World War One carried just as much weight as an armed and armored medieval knight. Both of these warriors could climb, get up from a prone position, and manage a lumbering run.

The real problem for knights was heat exhaustion. With the faceplate down and most of the body covered, medieval knights often passed out from their exertions. This was an especially serious issue when fighting the Crusades in the Middle East.

For more detailed coverage, check out this lecture by Dirk H. Breiding, Assistant Curator, Department of Arms and Armor, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Nov 6, 2012

New evidence for Vikings in North America

Recent excavations have found new evidence for Norsemen in Canada.

National Geographic reports that an archaeologist has reexamined the artifacts found at four sites in northern Canada and thinks they're Norse. Back in the 1960s, some strange cloth was found from sites belonging to the Dorset culture, the predecessors of the modern Inuit. The cloth didn't look Dorset and when it was looked at again this year, the researcher discovered it looked just like cloth woven in Viking Greenland in the 14th century.

Other evidence was found too. Whetstones that had lain in a museum for decades were analyzed with modern methods and found to have been used to sharpen bronze. The Dorset culture had virtually no metal tools. Only when they were lucky enough to come across meteoric iron would they have metal to work with.

Early researchers also found a sizable building that was much bigger than Dorset structures but the right size for a Viking hall. This was before the 1960s discovery of L'anse aux Meadows, the Viking settlement on Newfoundland. Since back then the idea that Norsemen came to the New World was only supposition, the evidence wasn't looked at as closely as it should have been.

As yet there's no smoking gun, but it does raise some interesting possibilities. The four sites from which the new evidence comes range over a thousand miles from northern Baffin to northern Labrador. The Norsemen, or their trade goods, seem to have gotten around.

Besides L'anse au Meadows and the Baffin Island finds, there is some fuzzy evidence for more widespread Norse explorations of North America. This 13th or 14th century carved figurine, called the "Bishop of Baffin", shows a person in clothing quite unlike that worn by the Dorset or Inuit cultures, yet strangely reminiscent of a European cloak. Also check out my post on the Maine Penny.

Oct 29, 2012

Archaeologist discovers witchcraft site on her front lawn

As an archaeologist, I'm always wondering what's under the land I'm walking on. I've had the privilege to live next to a Roman road, on a Mesolithic camp site, and near a Bronze age burial mound. That's not too exceptional if you live in England.

Archaeologist Jacqui Wood in Cornwall, however, has me beat. When she decided to do some construction on her land she found evidence of witchcraft rituals dating back centuries. She's uncovered a series of pits dug into the earth that were filled with swan skins covered in feathers. The skins had been turned inside out so that the feathers lined the pit.

One of the pits included not only the swan skin, but the claws of several different species of bird and pebbles found only on the coastline at least 15 miles away. Another pit had 55 eggs sitting on top of the swan-feather lining, including seven feathers that were ready to hatch. Magpie remains had been placed on either side of the eggs. Some of the pits had been emptied but still had a few feathers and stones remaining to show what had been there.

Radiocarbon dating found that the earliest swan skins dated to the 1640s during the English Civil War. Eerily, others dated as recently as the 1950s. One even had plastic in it!

Wood also discovered a spring-fed pool lined with white quartz so that it would glow in the moonlight. As offerings, the locals had thrown in strips of cloth, nail cuttings, heather branches, pins, and bits of shoe.

I'm not well versed in paganism, so I'll put it out to my readers. Anyone know what these rituals could have been for?

Maybe next she'll find a witch bottle!

Oct 15, 2012

The Maine Penny: an archaeological mystery

While every history reader knows the Vikings came to North America around 1000 AD, that wasn't always the case. A half century ago, there was heated debate over whether the Vikings had reached so far west. The Vinland Saga seemed to indicate they had, but there was no real evidence. It wasn't until the excavation of L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland in 1978 that there was definitive proof that the Vikings colonized North America.

There was some evidence before this. In 1957, archaeologist Guy Mellgren was excavating a midden (trash heap) at a Native American site in Maine discovered this silver coin five inches below the surface. Coin experts determined it was minted in Norway between 1065 and 1080 AD. This set off a huge controversy. Some archaeologists even accused Mellgren of "seeding" the site in order to win fame.

Now that we know the Vikings did come to the New World, Mellgren has been vindicated. He hadn't found a Viking settlement, though. The site was purely Native American and now researchers believe the coin made its way south as a trade item. It's now in the the Maine State Museum.

Oct 8, 2012

Religious intolerance during the Reformation

As I mentioned in my post about Muslim depictions of Muhammad, the use of images in the rivalry between religions is nothing new. This image is from the Reformation, when Europe was being torn apart between traditional Catholics and those who wanted to reform the Church. This led to the foundation of several Protestant sects, and several wars and revolutions that killed hundreds of thousands.

This Protestant engraving shows devils shitting out monks and priests. Yes, it's pretty offensive. It just goes to show that the wars over faith have been going on a long time.

Oct 1, 2012

Aleppo souk, one end of the Silk Road, destroyed in Syrian revolution

I was very sad to read today in the Irish Times that the medieval souk in Aleppo, Syria, was destroyed in the fighting between the dictatorship and antigovernment forces.

Called Al-Madina (the City), it was a cluster of covered markets connected to one another and built around the 13th century. Located close to the Mediterranean, Aleppo acted as the western end of the Silk Road. Think of all the cultures that must have mingled in these arched hallways and little shops! Hopefully the stonework has survived and they'll be able to rebuild this historic gathering place and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The top photo comes from some guy calling himself farflungistan. The other one was taken by Zaid El-Hoiydi, who has a really cool website of photos about Syria.

Sep 24, 2012

Muslim depictions of Muhammad

By now everyone has heard of the controversy over the film Innocence of Muslims, which has caused outrage in the Muslim world for its negative portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad. There has also been a backlash over cartoons of Muhammad in various satirical magazines.

One thing that's forgotten in this debate is that some parts of the Muslim world have a long-standing tradition of depicting Muhammad. The belief that it is wrong to portray living things, especially Muhammad, is not universal in the Muslim world and never has been.

Above is a modern religious card from Iran, where the Shia majority has a centuries-old tradition of human portraiture. The next image shows a similar card from Turkey, produced by the Alevi sect. Both are in the University of Bergen collection, which has an interesting article on Muslim depictions of Muhammad.

While those who have created images of humans and especially Muhammad have always been in the minority in the Muslim world, they have been around since the early days of the religion. This is something to remember in the ongoing debate.

This image shows a young Muhammad meeting the monk Bahira. It's from the Jami' al-Tavarikh ("The Universal History" or "Compendium of Chronicles") written by Rashid Al-Din and illustrated in Tabriz, Iran, c.1315.
This image shows Muhammad at the Ka'ba in Mecca, and was made in Constantinople in the Ottoman Empire in 1595. Note that Muhammad's face is veiled in this one. In some images, he's not shown as a human figure at all, but rather with various symbols such as a pillar of fire. This is in the collection of Bilkent University in Turkey, which has a whole page of such images.
I am not showing these images to offend Muslims, merely to point out that Islam is not a monolithic, unchanging faith, and that the protestors are ignoring their own history. Of course, they're also offended by the negative portrayal of Muhammad. I've watched Innocence of Muslims and it's a mindless baiting of an entire religion. Muslims have every right to be offended by it and peacefully protest. Part of living in a free society is that you get offended sometimes.

Sep 18, 2012

Irish castle for sale: a bit of a fixer-upper but a bargain at €75,000

If you're like me, you've always dreamed of living in your own castle. Well, if you happen to have €75,000 ($97,850) you can! It's called Ballyfinboy Castle and it's an easy commute from Limerick, Ireland.

The castle was built around 1480. The first record of the castle was when it was captured in 1599. The owner, Phillip Kennedy, and men were all put to the sword and the castle was broken up enough that it could never be used again.

That's where YOU come in. Sure, it needs some work, but wouldn't it make a nice home? You even get two-and-a-half acres of land and a nice Sheela-na-gig, locally known as "the Dancer", positioned high up one of the walls. Hit the link to find out more about these interesting carvings. The castle is for sale from Premier Properties Ireland. You can see more photos on their website and also here.

Sep 14, 2012

Final days of my fantasy ebook sale!

I released my latest fantasy ebook, At the Gates, almost a month ago. It's Book Two in the Timeless Empire series and continues the story of a ragged band of commoners swept up in a war between magic and alchemy. While the regular price is $4.99, for a limited time I've been selling it for $2.99. I also put the first book in the series, Hard Winter, down to 99 cents from $4.99.

These prices will go back up on Monday, September 17, so grab them cheap while you can!!!

Here's a blub for Hard Winter:

His past has been erased, his future is uncertain, but he knows one thing—in the coming revolution he must choose which friend to support and which to betray.

The Dragonkin have ruled the human race for centuries, but now the eastern territories have broken away and a blight has left thousands of humans destitute. Assassinations and riots plague the cities.

While the empire’s future is in peril, one man struggles to reclaim his past. Recorro lost his wife to the Gatherers, shadowy beings that prowl the streets on moonless nights. Those who witness their passing are forever changed. Recorro can remember nothing about his wife beyond the fact that she existed.

Aimless and struggling with despair, Recorro joins the army gathering to crush the rebels. What he discovers there may answer all his questions, and topple the empire he swore to uphold.

And here's a blurb for At the Gates:

In the thirtieth year of my life, I find I am a soldier in two armies about to go to war with each other, and already at war with a third.
We march across an endless plain, we soldiers of the Baron, loyal human subjects of the Dragonkin and their Timeless Empire. Loyal, I say, but only in name. For within that great army intent on crushing the rebellious cities of Haadsted and Ryksierde marches another army, a secret army, the army to which I owe my true allegiance.

So why not pick up both today for only $3.98, giving you 125,000 words of original fantasy for the same price as one of those overly sugared Starbucks "coffees"? It's the healthy choice!

Sep 12, 2012

Medieval penny found at Richard III dig

Suspense author Jeremy Bates wanted to see the medieval silver penny that was found at the excavation in Leicester looking for the body of Richard III. Ask, and ye shall receive! This comes courtesy the University of Leicester. Not sure what the date is for this, I'm not much of a numismatist. This is the reverse side and looks like the pennies minted during the reign of Edward IV, who ruled during the troublesome War of the Roses, sitting on the throne twice from 1461-70 and again from 1471-83. The date certainly fits with Richard's burial in 1485. I could be wrong, though.

Sep 11, 2012

Archaeologists hunt for Richard III's tomb

Archaeologists in England are hunting for the lost tomb of King Richard III, in a parking lot in Leicester!

The king was killed at the nearby Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the turning point in the War of the Roses that eventually saw the Tudors take control.

Richard was buried in the Franciscan friary of Greyfriars. The friary was later demolished and built over and all traces of it lost. Now, using old maps, local archaeologists deduced the friary lay under the parking lot of a local council building. They got to work and found the friary's cloister after only one week. This is a covered courtyard where the friars could practice walking meditation in all types of weather. They've also found the edge of the church where Richard was buried.

The team has uncovered paving stones, window tracery, shards from the church's stained glass windows, and a medieval silver penny.

Work will continue into an unscheduled third week in the hopes of finding the burial place itself. A descendent of Richard is on hand to supply a DNA match.

Stayed tuned for more on this developing story! And sorry for posting my Medieval Mondays on a Tuesday, yet again. Mondays are bad for me, although I do like the alliteration.

Sep 4, 2012

"Honey, there's a medieval well in our living room!"

Here in England we're used to living on top of history, but one couple discovered they were living atop more history than they ever suspected.

Colin and Vanessa Steer of Plymouth never much thought about the slight indentation in their living room floor. Once while doing some work on the house Colin realized that it appeared to be a shaft leading down. He covered it up but after 24 years of living in the house Colin decided to get to the bottom of the mystery. It turned out the bottom of it was a medieval or Renaissance well that goes down 33 feet!

It dates back to at least the 16th century, perhaps earlier, and Colin found what appears to be the remains of a sword among the debris filling the well. He's installed lighting and a trap door and can now safely show it off to friends and family.

Their house was built in Victorian times, right atop an earlier site. This is common in England where many towns and villages are centuries old, but it's rare to find such a well-preserved feature right next to the TV.

The Daily Mail has published some interesting photos.

Aug 21, 2012

Dutch homeowners slapped with surprise medieval tax

This story gives the saying "going Dutch" a whole new meaning.

Homeowners living near the 13th century Renwoude castle east of Utrecht in The Netherlands have been given a surprise tax to renovate the castle. Thirty households in the village of Kamerik have been given a tax totaling one million euros ($1.25 million).

The tax, known as the "dertiende penning" or "13th penny" dates back many centuries to when the area around Utrecht was uncultivated. People who wanted to buy land had to pay their feudal overseer a percentage of the purchase price.This tax has been waived for many years, perhaps centuries, but now the noble family that owns Renwoude is enforcing it to pay for renovations.

The residents, needless to say, are fighting the tax.

Aug 17, 2012

Sale on some great historical dark fantasy

My friend and fellow archaeologist Sean McLachlan has cut the prices of his ebooks until the end of August. Yesterday he turned 43 years young and this is his way of celebrating, sort of like a Hobbit birthday where the guests get the presents.

Sean specializes in dark historical fantasy. His Civil War novel A Fine Likeness has been getting great reviews and is now $2.99 instead of $5.99. His short story collection The Night the Nazis Came to Dinner and other dark tales is reduced from $2.99 to $.99. Now's the time to pick up these books, and don't forget the sale that's on from yours truly!

A quick question to my fellow writers out there. I'm considering getting a Goodreads Author account. Is it worth it?

Aug 15, 2012

My new fantasy novel "At the Gates" is out now!

My latest fantasy novel, At the Gates, has just been released in electronic edition. It's Book Two in the Timeless Empire series and continues the story of a ragged band of commoners swept up in a war between magic and alchemy. While the regular price is $4.99, for a limited time I'm selling it for $2.99. A blurb is below:

In the thirtieth year of my life, I find I am a soldier in two armies about to go to war with each other, and already at war with a third.

We march across an endless plain, we soldiers of the Baron, loyal human subjects of the Dragonkin and their Timeless Empire. Loyal, I say, but only in name. For within that great army intent on crushing the rebellious cities of Haadsted and Ryksierde marches another army, a secret army, the army to which I owe my true allegiance.

In celebration of its release, I've temporarily dropped the price of Book One, Hard Winter, down to 99 cents from $4.99. In case you missed it, a blurb for that one is below:

His past has been erased, his future is uncertain, but he knows one thing—in the coming revolution he must choose which friend to support and which to betray.

The Dragonkin have ruled the human race for centuries, but now the eastern territories have broken away and a blight has left thousands of humans destitute. Assassinations and riots plague the cities.

While the empire’s future is in peril, one man struggles to reclaim his past. Recorro lost his wife to the Gatherers, shadowy beings that prowl the streets on moonless nights. Those who witness their passing are forever changed. Recorro can remember nothing about his wife beyond the fact that she existed.

Aimless and struggling with despair, Recorro joins the army gathering to crush the rebels. What he discovers there may answer all his questions, and topple the empire he swore to uphold.

So why not pick up both today for only $3.98, giving you 125,000 words of original fantasy for the same price as one of those overly sugared Starbucks "coffees"? It's the healthy choice!

Aug 13, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Qasr Kharana castle, Jordan

I was blanking on what to write about for this week's Medieval Mondays post until I saw this photo as the image of the day on Wikimedia Commons. It shows the desert castle of Qasr Kharana in Jordan.

This is one of the oldest Arab castles in the Middle East, having been built around 710, according to an inscription in one of the rooms. As any student of the Middle Ages knows, the Crusaders were impressed by Middle Eastern castles and were inspired to make thier own in Europe. There had been castles in Europe before the Crusades of course, but most were crude forts like the Motte and Bailey castles.

Qasr Kharana may be better called a fortified place rather than a castle. Some say it may have been a caravanserai or the stronghold of a local ruler. Nobody knows for sure.

The plan is simple: a square 115 feet to a side with a series of small round projecting towers. Some sixty rooms in two stories look onto an interior courtyard. This layout is similar to the typical caravanserai but Qasr Kharana isn't on any known early medieval trade route. On the other hand, many wealthy homes also had this layout.

Some researchers suggest that Qasr Kharana was only inhabited on a temporary basis. They point to the small cistern and the absence of a bath (de rigueur for wealhty medieval Arabs) as proof that it wasn't inhabited year-round. It may have been a governor's temporary abode while meeting with and collecting tribute from the Bedouin.

Aug 8, 2012

My next fantasy novel coming soon!

Here's the cover for At the Gates, the next in the Timeless Empire series. It picks up where Hard Winter leaves off and continues Recorro's quest to learn his past while struggling with the dangers of the present. Below is a blurb. I'd love to get some feedback on this blurb before I upload it late this week or early next, so please tell me what you think in the comments section!

In the thirtieth year of my life, I found myself a soldier in two armies about to go to war with each other, and already at war with a third.

We marched across an endless plain, we soldiers of the Baron, loyal human subjects of the Dragonkin and their Timeless Empire. Loyal, I say, but only in name. For within that great army intent on crushing the rebellious cities of Haadsted and Ryksierde marched another army, a secret army, the army to which I owed my true loyalty.

Aug 6, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Fuddling cups and puzzle jugs

We haven't changed all that much. Many people like to drink, and those who do like to play drinking games. Our ancestors seemed to enjoy drinking games that got them to spill booze all over themselves.

This is a fuddling cup. These cups are all connected with tubes and holes designed in a clever way that there's only one angle you can pour it into your mouth without it spilling out another part and getting all over you.

Sounds fun, doesn't it? Especially in the days before washing machines. There was no hiding the fact that you were at the pub when you got home!

Fuddling cups were known in the eighteenth century and perhaps date before then. Another variant is the puzzle jug. It looks like a normal jug with several holes in the neck. Like with the fuddling cup you have to drink from it without spilling.

The trick is that the fluid goes through a ceramic tube leading from the bottom to the spout past several holes. You have to plug those holes with your fingers in order to get a clean drink.

Many puzzle jugs, like this white one from Liverpool, bears the poem, "Here Gentlemen come try your skill,
I'll hold a wager if you will,
That you don't drink this liquor all,
Without you spill and let some fall."

Puzzle jugs seem to be later than fuddling cups, dating to the 18th and 19th centuries. I haven't found any serious studies of these cool items from the past, though, so this may not be correct.

These contraptions would fit well into one of my fantasy tales somewhere. . .

Aug 1, 2012

Christianity reached Vikings earlier than previously thought

A new excavation is pushing back the date for the introduction of Christianity among the Vikings.

Archaeologists working at Ribe Cathedral in Denmark have found Christian burials from the mid ninth century in the graveyard. They all faced east and had no grave goods in keeping with Christian tradition. Viking burials almost always included grave goods and generally did not face east.

Traditional history says that the Vikings in the area were converted after King Harold Blutooth was baptized in 963. On his famous Jellinge Runestone, shown here, the king boasted that he "made the Danes Christians”. Some historians have contended that he was only making official a slow process of conversion that had started long before. These graves seem to confirm that, and bring up the question of whether there's the foundations of an older church underneath the cathedral at Ribe.

Sorry for my recent silence, but I've been busyworking on the latest book in the Timeless Empire series. I've even put a word counter on the sidebar to keep me motivated! Book One, Hard Winter, is already available, and Book Two, At the Gates, is being prepared for publication. It should be availabe in the next two weeks.

Photo courtesy Sven Rosborn.

Jul 23, 2012

Medieval Mondays: The Oldest Bras in the World

I try to give you lots of interesting information in my Medieval Mondays posts. Apparently everyone is most interested in the oldest condom in the world because that's by far my most popular post. So in the same vein, here's the oldest bra in the world. It was found in an Austrian castle a few years ago along with three others. They came to light during an excavation at Lengberg Castle in East Tyrol and were found amidst a pile of other clothing in a vault that was sealed off in the late 15th century. It was previously thought that bras didn't date before the 19th century, although there are vague references in medieval literature to “bags for the breasts” or “shirts with bags". I couldn't find any copyright-free images of these bras, so I'm embedding a new story from YouTube on them. Like most TV news stories, this one has a mistake. The second piece of clothing they show, which looks like a set of women's panties, isn't a bra and isn't even a women's garment. It's male underwear. According to an article on, only men wore underpants because it was a sign of "male dominance and power." Why? I'm not so sure. I guess it's more that women didn't wear underwear and that made them vulnerable to knights with no sense of chivalry.

Jul 9, 2012

Medieval Mondays: What we stand to lose in Timbuktu

If you follow the international news, you've probably heard there's a civil war in Mali. The northern half of the country has broken away and formed the nation of Azawad.

This new nation is itself having a civil war, with part of the territory run by Tuareg tribesmen seeking a homeland, and part run by militant Islamists who want to create a hardline religious state. Many of them are mercenaries who fought for Gaddafi in the Libyan civil war and fled to Mali loaded with weapons and equipment.

Unfortunately, the Islamists' area of control includes Timbuktu, the fabled trading center near the River Niger and the edge of the Sahara. From the 12th century AD it was a center of learning with a large university, a flourishing book trade, and many resident scientists. It was the center of a tolerant brand of Sufi Islam that sought to learn from the world, not change it.

The fundamentalists, who called themselves Ansar Dine, have decided the many medieval shrines of Muslim saints are against Islam and are systematically destroying them. If that's not bad enough, the city is home to hundreds of thousands of medieval manuscripts, many of which have not been copied. If Ansar Dine decides these need to be burned, priceless documents of the past like this early astronomical treatise will disappear forever.

As usual with militant religious groups, Ansar Dine isn't exactly holy. UNICEF says they are forcing children to serve as soldiers and sex slaves. Why is it that religious control always ends up being about hurting kids? So far, world leaders have done nothing but wring their hands and say tsk tsk. Timbuktu doesn't have any oil, so like Syria, the people and their past will be decimated before anything is done.

BBC has a good slideshow of Timbuktu's endangered treasures here.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Jul 5, 2012

Nice review of Roots Run Deep

Croft Fantasy Book Reviews has done a nice review of my fantasy novel Roots Run Deep. Here's a snippet:

"What attracted me to this story was that it focused on a Goblin character, which was nice for a change. I really liked the descriptive passages of the Kip’s world.  Vibrant scenes that build a dark and realistic world. Kip is a good strong character. She takes the reader through the story and I found her an engaging believable character."

Woohoo! Several reviewers have commented how they liked Kip, a smart-mouthed goblin in a world run by humans. A big part of her appeal, I think, is that's shes an ordinary person who rises to do extraordinary things. She's a small-time thief, mediocre sorceress, and bad gambler who is cornered into a position of having to be the leader of her people.

The reviewer also had this to say: "I did feel the plot shot forward a bit fast at times, this left me feeling a little disorientated."

Hmmm. Yes, this isn't the first time I've heard this. Something to watch out for. A good writer learns from his reviews. 

Well, off to write the All the Gods are Human, Book Three of the Timeless Empire series!

Jul 2, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Vampire skeleton reburied with honors in Bulgaria

The discovery of a vampire skeleton in Bulgaria made big news last month, followed closely by the sale of a Victorian-era vampire hunting kit.

Now there's more vampire news out of Bulgaria. A 13th century skeleton found with his hands and feed tied and with pieces of ember in his grave, signs of a medieval ritual designed to prevent vampirism, has been reburied.

Keeping with tradition, the archaeologists who discovered it washed the bones with water and wine and reburied it. With this ritual it will finally rest in piece and not suck the blood out of any lovely Bulgarian ladies at night.

This illustration is from Varney the Vampire, a bestseller in 1847. Click on the link to get a Project Gutenberg copy for your ereader, but don't forget to order one of my fantasy novels first!

Jun 25, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Female rebels in the Middle Ages

Last week I talked about Hussite war wagons, which a couple of readers pointed out were essentially medieval tanks. Another curious aspect of the Hussite peasant army was that many of the fighters were women.

This is a cover shot of some Hussite figures distributed by Kingmaker Miniatures. It shows burly peasant women wielding flails. Normally used for threshing grain, they were just as effective at threshing skulls. Records show that women were involved in all aspects of the rebellion, although they were generally left out of pictorial depictions.

A recent BBC article also talks about the role of women in the 1381 Peasant's Revolt. It turns out some of the main leaders were women. This was not mentioned or downplayed by contemporary chroniclers and thus the fact was missed by later scholars. Now new studies of the trials of captured rebels show that a good number were women. Check out the link to learn more.

Women had a strong role in medieval peasant society and were treated by men as near equals in many areas. This was not the case between middle- and upper-class men and women.

Jun 21, 2012

Guest blogging about military fiction

Today I'm a guest blogger over at Jeff Hargett's Strands of Pattern writing about writing military fiction. Pop on over and check it out. Also check out the other posts for some great writing advice!