Website alert: For historical fiction writers, a new website called After the Plague provides a wealth of information on life, health, and death in Cambridge, England, in the period ca. A.D. 1000–1500. It takes findings derived from scientific investigations of a thousand skeletons of people who lived in and around Cambridge and uses them, not only to generalize, but to reconstruct individual lives. Sixteen essay-length profiles are included.
Picturing a World
It's the glasses. Dark glasses, no less! The medieval iconography of Moses with horns is goofy enough, but these spectacles are irresistible. The question is, What to do with the picture besides use it to expound an oddity in art history? Maybe let it provide a model for some imaginary wizard? I like the idea of substituting a goat's face for the man's.
Incidentally, the Hagenau Bible, from which the picture comes, also illustrates a moment in publishing history, the move into mass-produced books through a rationalized system within scriptoria. Might the head scribe of a magical scriptorium be a demon?
Blog post alert: This image of a woman in a transparent veil in Alfonso X's Book of Games sent me searching for information about sheer fabrics in the Middle Ages. Imagine my delight at finding this very woman and my two earlier two chess-playing queens in a post on Two Spanish 13th century outfits. Eva, the blogger, even recreated the embroidery on the sleeves. Check out her very informative website, Eva's historical costuming blog.
Female education bonus: Not only mothers and schoolmistresses teaching girls to read, but from medieval Spain, two queens teaching chess to girls! The illustration is from The Book of Games (chess, dice, and backgammon) commissioned by King Alfonso X of Toledo. It's a wonderful source for images of 13th C Iberian ethnicities, clothes, architectural detail, and more. And the digitization at the RBME Digital website is excellent.
Blog post alert: The British Library is digitizing manuscripts pertinent to the lives of women in the Middle Ages. Hildegard-go! reports on ten manuscripts and contains this illustration of girls learning to read in a classroom. A link to the full manuscript, a Dutch prayer book, lets you view it and the page opposite (f. 28r), which includes an alphabet.
For a fantasy story I am writing, I've been reading up on the gemstone Lapis lazuli and came across a story in ChemistryWorld— Blue teeth reveal medieval nun's artistic talent. Yippee! The archeological discovery of a particle of ultramarine pigment in the nun's dental tartar offered material proof that nuns worked as illuminators by at least the late Middle Ages. The finding is also covered in Harvard Magazine's Manuscripts Illuminated…by Women. It's of no use to me for my story, but, oh, what about in future?!?
A friend of mine is something of an expert on Alexander the Great in history and legend, so references to him always catch my eye. Then there are dragons, one of my special interests—along with illustration, of course. Medieval comic strip, anyone? In the story depicted here, Olympias, the wife of Philip of Macedon, is seduced by a sorcerer named Nectanebo, who comes to her in the shape of a dragon. Result? According to this illuminator anyway, a little hatchling Alexander! For the story in full, click here.
Accounts of medieval windows generally focus on stained glass, and no wonder—they're very beautiful. But, of course, not all windows were tinted. Recently, I came across a complicated allegorical frontispiece on fol.1r of a French Mirror of History. Half the picture depicts a church being built with various kings, saints, and biblical figures as craftsmen—including these two monks. They grabbed my attention because I had never seen a depiction of glaziers installing windows.
The Billingford Hutch is an oaken chest in the Parker Library at Corpus Christ College, Cambridge, which was used to store collateral for student loans in the 14th C. It has three locks, each decorated with a motif that was inexplicable to the curators until a chance visitor identified it as moonwort—an herb which according to folklore can unlock locks and unshoe horses and which also figures in alchemy. Isn't all of a rich potential for inspiring stories?
"In bringing out his Molossi and whaffling Whelps, and crying, Stoo Dogs, stoo."
Pure Hunting of the Snark! Well, actually, a line from a polemic of 1698 called Christ Exalted and Dr. Crisp Vindicated. I ran across it in the OED and chortled with delight without the slightest idea what it meant.