Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Medieval Gems for Writers: Manners in the Middle Ages

One of the more common myths about the middle ages was that people had no manners.  To illustrate, several years ago my wife and I attended a medieval style banquet at The Excalibur, in Las Vegas.  We ate whole chickens with our hands.  For drink I had a large tankard of root-beer.  We were told to throw our garbage on the floor or leave it on the tables.  It was fun, but it left me wondering how much of it was true.

Did people in the middle ages really eat like pigs?

Well it turns out that they didn’t, and there’s ample proof, too.  The diligent scholar can find lists of manners and customs from many different ages.  Apparently books on courtesy were popular during the later middle ages (I can just imagine being invited to the prince’s ball, or somesuch, and having to read up on how to behave myself).

The first two quotes in this blog post come from a book I ran across several years ago, online.  Thanks to the magic of Google, I’ve managed to find it again.  The book’s title is fairly long.  It starts out: Early English Meals and Mananers: John Russell’s Boke of Nurture, etc, etc, etc.  It’s a compilation of several works from a much earlier date.

If you’re feeling bold, you can find the book here.

The first section that I’ll quote is titled, The Boke of Curtasye.  It was printed circa 1460, at the height of the high Middle Ages (this is the time-period that most fantasy writers are interested in).  Both Christopher Columbus and Leonardo da Vinci would have been alive.  

The whole thing was written in Middle English, in the form of a poem, and was typeset in black-letter making it very difficult to read for anyone but the serious scholar. The text that I’ve quoted below is from a modern English translation, which can be found in the margins. Here are the first few lines, roughly translated:
Who so will of courtesy learn
In this book he may it here!
If thou be gentleman, yeoman, or knave,
Thou needs nurture for to have.
Not sure what any of that means. Apparently people have struggled more than 500 years to come up with good rhymes. Here is the margin translation:
On reaching a Lord's gate, give the Porter your weapon, and ask leave to go in.
If the master is of low degree, he will come to you; if of high, the Porter will take you to him.
At the Hall-door, take off your hood and gloves.
If the first meal is beginning, greet the Steward, bow to the Gentlemen on each side of the hall, both right and left; notice the yeomen, than stand before the screen till the Marshal or Usher leads you to the table.
Be sedate and courteous if you are set with the gentleman.
Cut your loaf in two, the top from the bottom; cut the top crust in 4, and the bottom in 3.
Put your trencher before you, and don't eat or drink till your Mess is brought from the kitchen, lest you be thought starved or a glutton.
Have your nails clean.
Don't bite your bread, but break it.
Don't quarrel at table, or make grimaces.
Don't cram your cheeks out with food like an ape, for if any one should speak to you, you can't answer, but must wait.
Don't eat on both sides of your mouth.
Don't laugh with your mouth full, or sup up your potage noisily.
Don't leave your spoon in the dish or on its side, but clean your spoon.
Let no dirt off your fingers soil the cloth.
Don't put into the dish bread that you have once bitten.
Dry your mouth before you drink.
Don't call for a dish once removed, or spit on the table: that's rude.
Don't scratch your dog.
If you blow your nose, clean your hand; wipe it with your skirt or put it through your tippet.
Don't pick your teeth at meals, or drink with food in your mouth, as you may get choked, or killed, by its stopping your wind.
Tell no tale to harm or shame your companions.
Don't stroke the cat or dog.
Don't dirty the table cloth with your knife.
Don't blow on your food, or put your knife in your mouth, or wipe your teeth or eyes with the table cloth.
If you sit by a good man, don't put your knee under his thigh.
Don't hand your cup to any one with your back towards him.
Don't lean on your elbow, or dip your thumb into your drink, or your food into the salt cellar: Thant is a vice.
Don't spit in the basin you wash in or loosely(?) before a man of God.
This list is amazing. Don’t cram your mouth like an ape. Don’t double-dip. Don’t pick your teeth. Don’t get the table cloth dirty. You can’t even put your elbows on the table (makes sense if you’ve ever been crammed in next to someone who does). My favorite is, don’t put your knee under someone else’s thigh—that would make anyone uncomfortable.

The second list that I’ll quote comes from the same compilation. This section is titled, On Rising, Diet, and Going to Bed (from Sir John Darington’s ‘Schoole of Salerne,’ The Perserbation of Health, or a Dyet for the Healthfull Man). It is dated 1624, which places it in that grey area between the high middle ages and the renaissance.
On rising, empty your bladder and belly, nose and lungs.
Cleanse your whole body.
Say your Prayers.
Walk gently, go to stool.
Work in the forenoon.
Always wear a precious stone in a ring; hold a crystal in your mouth; for the virtue of precious stones is great.
Eat only twice a day.
Don't drink between dinner and supper.
Don't have one fixed hour for your meals.
In Winter eat in hot, well-aired places.
Fast for a day now and then.
Eat more at supper than dinner.
After meals, wash your face, and clean your teeth, chat and walk soberly.
Don't sit up late.
Before bed, rub your body gently.
Undress by a fire in Winter, and warm your garments well.
Put off your cares with your clothes, and take them up again in the morning.
Finally, I have to mention The Babees’ Book or A Little Report of How Young People Should Behave. This work dates to about 1475. It is several pages long, and written in a patronizing style as if the reader were a young child (a “babee”, as it were). I’ll include a portion of it here, so you get the idea:
Now must I tell you shortly what you shall do at noon when your lord goes to his meat. Be ready to fetch him clear water, and some of you hold the towel for him until he has done, and leave not until he be set down, and ye have heard grace said. Stand before him until he bids you sit, and be always ready to serve him with clean hands.
When ye be set, keep your own knife clean and sharp, that so ye may carve honestly your own meat.
Let courtesy and silence dwell with you, and tell no foul tales to another.
Cut your bread with your knife and break it not. Lay a clean trencher before you, and when your pottage is brought, take your spoon and eat quietly; and do not leave your spoon in the dish, I pray you.
Look ye be not caught leaning on the table, and keep clear of soiling the cloth.
Do not hang your head over your dish, or in any wise drink with full mouth.
Keep from picking your nose, your teeth, your nails at meal-time so we are taught.
Advise you against taking so much meat into your mouth but that ye may right well answer when men speak to you.
When ye shall drink, wipe your mouth clean with a cloth, and your hands also, so that you shall not in any way soil the cup, for then shall none of your companions be loath to drink with you.
Likewise, do not touch the salt in the salt-cellar with any meat; but lay salt honestly on your trencher, for that is courtesy.
Do not carry your knife to your mouth with food, or hold the meat with your hands in any wise; and also if divers good meats are brought to you, look that with all courtesy ye assay of each; and if your dish be taken away with its meat and another brought, courtesy demands that ye shall let it go and not ask for it back again.
And if strangers be set at table with you, and savoury meat be brought or sent to you, make them good cheer with part of it, for certainly it is not polite when others be present at meat with you, to keep all that is brought you, and like churls vouchsafe nothing to others.
Do not cut your meat like field-men who have such an appetite that they reck [sic] not in what wise, where or when or how ungoodly they hack at their meat; but, sweet children, have always your delight in courtesy and in gentleness, and eschew boisterousness with all your might.
When cheese is brought, have a clean trencher, on which with a clean knife ye may cut it; and in your feeding look ye appear goodly, and keep your tongue from jangling, for so indeed shall ye deserve a name for gentleness and good governance, and always advance yourself in virtue.
When the end of the meal is come, clean your knives, and look you put them up where they ought to be, and keep your seat until you have washed, for so wills honesty.
When ye have done, look then that ye rise up without laughter or joking or boisterous word, and go to your lord s table, and there stand, and pass not from him until grace be said and brought to an end.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

My Reading List For 2014

This year I tried to read A LOT, and I did.  Here’s what I read, in no particular order

Bud, Not Buddy
Christopher Paul Curtis
This book is an excellent example of narrative voice, and the main character has a lot of charisma.  It’s about a young black orphan named Bud Caldwell living in the early 1900s, who is trying to find his father.  It’s a children’s book, and a winner of the Newberry award and the Coretta Scott King award.  Five stars.

Zero Day
David Baldacci
When I heard that every book that Baldacci has ever written has hit #1 or #2 on the NYT bestseller list I figured I couldn’t lose.  Zero Day is cheeseburger writing at its best.  Everyone loves a cheeseburger, right?  It’s not gourmet food, but it goes down easy and you get a satisfying meal.  Reading Zero Day you can pick out all the tools and tropes of modern schlock, all tastefully served up.  There’s the super-short chapters that increment the plot (sometimes tediously so), the constant use of hooks to keep you going (and make you feel like you’re reading one long sales-pitch), the stakes that steadily mount until you’re certain the world is about to blow up, and the super-big pay-off at the end.  It was an enjoyable read, all in all.  If you like military spy thrillers, you’ll like this.  Four stars.

Howl’s Moving Castle
Diana Wynne Jones
This was one of the most creative books I’ve read in a long time.  I can’t say too much about it without giving a whole bunch of the plot away.  I had two gripes, although they were not fatal.  First, I thought the main character was too complacent with the fact that she got turned into an old lady.  Most girls (as in, just about every girl) I know would totally freak out.  That pulled me out of the story for a while, but it wasn’t enough to put the book down.  The other problem I had was that the writing in places felt kind of rough.  All that said, my overall impression is still rather fond.  Jones did a good job on this story.  Four stars.

The Long Goodbye
Raymond Chandler
Chandler is one of the definitive detective noir authors from the early 1900s, and his writing is really good, but in the case of this story I don’t think it lives up to his past work.  It’s tedious, there are no stakes, and there is no reason for the main character to stay involved, yet he does.  I give it two, maybe three stars.

Trouble is My Business (anthology)
Raymond Chandler
Chandler is the author of 1,000 one-liners.  One of my favorites has to be from Farewell, My Lovely: “It was a blonde.  A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”  I read short stories because they give a lot of insights to the craft of writing, and they can be difficult to pull off.  I thought that the cleverest story from this book, was Goldfish.  The title doesn’t sound like much, but the plot was clever. I also liked Trouble is My Business.  I can’t remember anything about the other two, which says enough.  Three Stars.

Matthew J. Kirby
I really, really liked Icefall.  It’s advertised as a juvenile mystery, but I’d definitely classify it as early medieval fiction.  This is the kind of thing that I really love.  I’m really tired of epic fantasy, and the way it all feels the same.  Icefall was so different and refreshing.  The characters are Scandinavian, the children of a war-lord who’ve been sent away by their father to be hidden for their protection.  I love the way Kirby brings out the early medieval lifestyle and mindset, it’s nothing like the high fantasy schlock that you see so much of these days.  Five stars.

The Lost Kingdom
Matthew J. Kirby
After reading Icefall, I was jazzed for something else by this author, but I found it kind of hard to get into this story.  Maybe it was a little too young for me, or maybe it was the way I found all of Kirby’s science way too much of a stretch.  Meh.  Did not finish.

The Graveyard Book
Neil Gaiman
This was a really good find.  I love the opening hook: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”  I read that to my writer’s group, and they were all impressed.  Then I said, did you notice the blatant use of passive voice?  That got us into a nice little argument about why passive voice works in some cases but not others.  I still don’t think it’s nearly as evil or taboo as people say (I’ll get off my soap-box, now).  This story was a case-study in milieu.  An evil man has killed everyone in a family except for the toddler, who wandered out of the house and into an ancient graveyard a couple blocks down the street.  The ghosts in the graveyard take responsibility for the baby and raise him.  I could write a whole blog-post about how this book puts you into a place.  The graveyard is filled with different types of ghosts, and forbidden places.  Add this one to your list.  Five stars.

Different Seasons (anthology)
Stephen King
I don’t read Stephen King, so much as I study Stephen King.  Again, short stories are a really great way to see how authors put together plot, characters, concepts, setting, and narrative voice.  The best way to learn how to write like a great author is to read stuff that they write.  The best two stories in this book are Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, and The Body.  I could go on and on about these two (Shawshank Redemption was made into a movie).  I also liked Apt Pupil.  Stories about children becoming corrupted and turning evil are always disturbing.  Five stars.

The Fifth Element
Terry Pratchett
This is one of Pratchett’s better stories.  It started humorous, then it got kind of serious and sentimental and I-don’t-know-what in the middle, then it became humorous again at the end.  Even still, it was a good read.  Five stars.

Brandon Sanderson
My only gripe about this one is that it was so short.  It’s just 80 pages.  The concept is brilliant, but it’s kind of like an amusement park ride: a thrilling rush, and over way too soon.  Sanderson could spin a whole series on this one.  If you’re looking for a nice snack to take the edge of your reader’s hunger, give this one a try.  Four stars.

The Last Kingdom
Bernard Cornwell
This was a re-read.  Again, I study my favorite authors.  Cornwell really understands the warrior’s mindset…not that I’ve actually been in the military…but he does really put you into the action.  He writes absolutely the best battle scenes, and for the most part his stories are historically accurate.  So, you are entertained for 300 pages—and—you learn a bit of history, too!  Can’t lose there.  My copy of this book is so heavily underlined it looks like I’ve studied for a college course.  I gotta put in a quote here:

Tears were blurring my sight, and perhaps the battle madness came onto me because, despite my panic, I rode at the long-haired Dane and struck at him with my small sword, and his sword parried mine, and my feeble blade bent like a herring’s spine.  It just bent and he drew back his own sword for the killing stroke, saw my pathetic bent blade, and began to laugh.  I was pissing myself, he was laughing, and I beat at him again with the useless sword and still he laughed, and then he leaned over, plucked the weapon from my hand, and threw it away.  He picked me up then.  I was screaming and hitting at him, but he thought it all so very funny, and he draped me belly down on the saddle in front of him and then he spurred into the chaos to continue the killing. 
And that was how I met Ragnar, Ragnar the Fearless, my brother’s killer, and the man whose head was supposed to grace a pole on Bebbanburg’s ramparts, Earl Ragnar.

ooh-ho-ho! (insert nasal French laugh, here)  Il est si bon!!  It’s like a Swedish massage with words.  Five stars—no, this one gets a five-plus!

Leviathan Wakes
James S. A. Corey
This was okay.  It was pretty good as far as hard sci-fi goes.  I thought Corey did a good job portraying the unforgiving reality of space.  Still, I’m not sure what I thought of it, overall.  It had some good stuff.  3 to 4 stars.

The Alchemist: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel
Michael Scott
Juvenile urban fantasy cheeseburger writing.  This had some interesting ideas, but I didn’t get all that into it.  Not sure why.  I wished there was a little more character development, for one.  3 stars.

The Hound / The Colour Out of Space
H. P. Lovecraft
My wife picked up a book of Lovecraft’s stories.  I’m not sure why, she’s really not into horror, but from time to time she’ll check out an anthology from the library and then pick out the stuff worth looking at, and give me a list.  I was interested in The Hound, because it was another black-dog story, like Hound of the Baskervilles.  I’m keenly interested in black-dog stories, because the sequel to Mage’s Craft (the novel I wrote) is going to be kind of about this.  Not sure what to rate these.  3.5 stars.

Something Wicked This Way Comes
Ray Bradbury
I had really mixed feelings on this one.  On the one hand, the story is brilliant.  This is worthy of a Stephen King award for horror / speculative fiction, or something.  It’s that good.  On the other hand I’m not sure about Bradbury’s writing, per se.  Bradbury is a master of metaphor, but sometimes he overdoes it to the point where you really can’t tell what’s going on.  There was quite a bit of that in this novel.  I had to re-read several scenes, and some of them I just had to shrug and move on.  And on top of that, the main character’s father (the librarian) talks with the same heavily metaphorical voice as the narrator, which makes me wonder who’s narrating, and who’s speaking in dialog.  Anyway, I’m probably a heretic for saying this because Bradbury is so well respected, but 3 stars.

Dan Wells
This was really well done. I’ll probably pick up the sequel.  Someday.  I’d be more excited about it if there weren’t so many post-apocalyptic novels out there.  Even still, four stars.  Go read it.

John Scalzi
I have mixed feelings about Scalzi.  On the one hand I don’t appreciate the way he uses his fame and his clout in the Sci-Fi community to push his heavily liberal agenda and shame other authors who don’t follow his beliefs…and on the other hand, his writing is just so gawl-dang good!  Scalzi isn’t Stephen King, and he’s not Bernard Cornwell.  He’s not that kind of good.  He’s more like…hilariously entertaining Terry Pratchett kind of good.  He fancies himself as a comical sci-fi writer, like Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), but I don’t agree with that so much, either.  I never took Adams seriously—and I was never meant to—but I do take Scalzi seriously.  He has a way of being able to spin a serious plot, weave in a social issue (sometimes a little in your face), and pull it off in a way that feels really entertaining.  I can zip through 30 pages like it’s nothing.  Something else about Scalzi’s writing, too, is that he never describes his characters, and he never describes scenery.  His stories are always page after page of witty, tight, charming, serious-yet-funny, repartee.  Yum!  Five stars.  Oh, wait…the book is about a bunch of crewmen on a space-ship—er…never mind, that will totally give it away.  Just read it!

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Ken Kesey
I read this because I’m looking for character sketches for the sequel to my novel, Mage’s Craft.  Nurse Ratched is at the top of everyone’s top-ten list of all-time villains.  When I heard that the movie was made from a book, I checked it out from the library.  The writing is super-good.  It’s Stephen King good.  You literary snobby types will love it, too.  Five big-ones.

The Host
Stephanie Meyer
I think I grew half a uterus reading this.  Tedious, tedious, tedious.  There’s a lot of emotional working-it-out kind of internal struggle, which as I guy made me want to slap the main character and tell her to pull her crap together.  That said, I DID finish it.  Am I made into a better person?  A more caring sort of man, in touch with his feminine side?  Not really sure.  That said, I think the book merits some serious praise.  You’ll like it.  Even if you’re a guy.  It’s worth it.  3.5 to 4 stars (depending on how many X-chromosomes you have).

Partial credit

Everything’s Eventual
Stephen King
This is another anthology.  It’s got a nice mix of stuff in it, and all of it short.  I read short story anthologies when I’m between books and looking for a snack.  Something light.  I’m still working my way through it, but currently I’m stuck in the middle of Fuzzy Nation (another Scalzi book), and after that I’ve got something else that I grabbed off the library shelf at random.

So…that’s nineteen books, and some spare change if you count the Lovecraft stories.  Wow, a record for me.  It’s been a very full year.

So what have you read this year?  I’m always looking for something new.  Leave a comment below.