Monday, 7 July 2014

Medieval Monday: Equipment

It's another Medieval Monday, and today, I'm looking at the most important activity for any heroic figure in a medieval setting- shopping. It's a weird thing, but in medieval stories, epic poems and so on, often we hear more about the hero's equipment than about their personal characteristics. Indeed, in many cases, we get the impression that the biggest difference between them and anyone else is the stuff they're carrying about. In many ways, the RPG thing of spending hours poring over equipment lists and digging out that plus one sword of general light entertainment is a more accurate representation than people think.


Swords are an obvious one. Arthur had Excalibur, but his wasn't the only sword of note in stories from the middle ages. El Cid had Tizona. Roland had Durendal. Even the swords that didn't have names of their own were typically described in terms of their quality and makers. Raoul de Cambrai's sword is described as being the next best sword in existence to Durendal, pointing to a kind of shared awareness of this process of talking about the quality of the weapons. There was also a tendency to talk about the swords being forged by particularly famous or even mythical smiths, from the "Galant" who forged de Cambrai's blade to Wayland Smith, who gets cited in all sorts of places.


It wasn't just swords though. That focus is a modern one. The stanza after we hear about Raoul's special sword, we hear about a golden shield. The stanza before, we hear about a helmet proof against every blow. Armour was a big deal for writers in the middle ages, and indeed, the way fight scenes are written in the literature, it is often the big thing. Modern movie fight scenes are about grace and skill and movement. Written medieval ones are mostly about personal strength set against the strength of the opponent's armour. Often, we find detailed descriptions of armour giving out beneath the strength of particular blows. I'm not saying that's an accurate description of how fighting happened, but it is how it was portrayed in fiction.


Perhaps a part of that is because there was an element of reality to it. The simple fact was that the people who could afford thick armour and good weapons had an advantage over those who couldn't. It wasn't an unfair advantage in their eyes so much as a symbol of their greater nobility and higher birth, which of course made it right that they should be able to beat up all those poorly armoured peasants. Indeed, a big part of the whole issue of becoming a knight was not nobility per se (barons, earls etc would have been insulted if you'd called them a knight in the early part of the period) but simply the ability to afford the armour.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

IWSG July




I'm worrying this month about the notion of not writing well enough. Two things have sparked this. One is reading through the 2014 Best SFF as part of some reviewing I'm doing. Another is working through some re-writes on a piece. The one is about the idea of all this incredible writing right in front of me, while the other is about being told outright that something needs work. Which is an occasional occupational hazard.


But there's the other half of that, which is about other people's standards. At what point does wanting to write to the standard of something else spill over into not wanting to write like yourself? Not wanting to be yourself. I know I have a particular voice, so at what point does that become a problem? How much is it worth changing things, and at what point should you push back and say that doing so isn't going to work.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Belief in the Middle Ages

Another Medieval Monday, and this time its disbelief, or complexity of belief, or some combination of the two. Because it's often hard to tell. The Middle Ages are often portrayed as the great Christian era in Europe, more religious than any time before or since. The Early Middle Ages included the spread of Christianity through much of Europe, the Central phase a defined Christendom able and willing to start to conduct Crusades while locally new monastic orders sprang up. And then there was a lot of business with putting down Heresy, the rise of the Inquisition in the Later Middle Ages and so on.


So it sounds like it wasn't the best of times to believe anything that wasn't orthodox, wasn't Christian, or just wasn't... well, believing. And yet, like anything when you're talking about more than a thousand years of history across a whole continent, it's a bit more complex than that.


For a start, the expansion of Christianity took time. Time, and its slow acceptance by more and more kings, who made it a criminal offence not to be. But that wasn't the same thing as making sure everyone believed. Bede notes plenty of "pagans" in his histories, although it's hard to pinpoint exactly what any of them believed. Later Chansons de Geste also seem to include them pretty regularly, suggesting that they were something people might have been familiar with. Certainly, there was the survival of non-Christian beliefs around the edges of places like Scandinavia and the north of Scotland. Then there was what we could think of as the Irish option, which was actually the everywhere option: the incorporation of pagan elements into local level Christianity. St Brigid (who used to be a Celtic goddess of that name) is an obvious one.


Then there's the point that Christianity was not some big, fixed thing through the period. It was a time, not of religious orthodoxy, but of experimentation and argument. The very fact that there were so many "heresies" suggests that. But so does the amount of tinkering that went on within the main church. It was only within the Middle Ages that the notion of purgatory really got settled in the Catholic Church, and the notion of the Pope as being in charge. A glance into the religious history of the times reveals a kind of constant argument, over everything from the right date for Easter (St Wilfred of Ripon got quite angry about that one) to Simony, Nicholaitism, the interaction of church and state...


And it wasn't like the results of these arguments filtered down to a local level quickly. This was not an era of mass communications. Many remoter areas had never seen a bible, and their priests certainly weren't up to complex questions on the finer details of faith, with the result that even nominally Christian areas could deviate considerably from the supposed norms.


So the Middle Ages weren't this big, fixed, ultra-religious monolith. They were something more complex, sometimes more dangerous, but where there were people who believed all kinds of things, or none.


Thursday, 26 June 2014

The ICC funding deal

I was going to write a nice little review of the second Test match between England and Sri-Lanka today, talking about whether Moeen Ali's hundred complicated the question of the spinner's job, the agony of a second to last ball defeat, and so on.


But actually, there's a much bigger issue in cricket today, one that has implications, not just for the sport as a whole, but also when it comes to the way we see sporting bodies in general. Today, the International Cricket Council has ratified an agreement it has been working towards, which changes the way funds generated from cricket are distributed. They also accepted a new head of the ICC in N. Srinivasan.


These sound like small things, don't they? Except for two points. First, the new agreement gives 62% of all funds generated to the national boards of England, Australia and India. The seven other test playing nations get 5% each. It is astonishing to think that they agreed to this, but essentially at this point, India has so much power that the threat of them refusing to tour a country with their many millions of supporters is enough. And if it isn't, as it wasn't for the West Indies, the ICC can always advance a loan to develop cricket there. $4 million in this case.


Secondly, N. Srinivasan is currently under investigation thanks to allegations of corruption. Now, I have no knowledge of the details of these allegations, and so I can't comment on them. But I do think that it sends out entirely the wrong message about the ICC and how it feels about such matters that they would appoint him anyway.


It's a combination that points to, at the very least, the ICC being a money-grubbing organisation more interested in its bottom line than in the well being of the game. Suggest to it tomorrow that you could have everyone in the world playing cricket, but the price of that is that they would all be doing it on a purely amateur basis with no TV revenue, and it seems fairly obvious what their response would be.


By saying yes to this frankly wrong deal, the ICC has institutionalised a culture of haves and have nots in a game I enjoy. It has made it essentially impossible for the sport to gain new nations at the highest levels, and thus destroyed all the efforts that have been made in the last few decades to spread the game. It has surrendered control of the game to a clique of chief executives who need the game to run as a big business, when that has nothing to do with the spirit that cricket is supposed to foster.


Which probably sounds like it isn't relevant to anyone else, but I actually want to make a broader point about the way large sporting organisations are run. These days, the larger ones are effectively multi-national corporations, out for their own profit. That is true of the supposedly non-profit FIFA, which has no profits but massive reserves. It seems to be true for motor racing and athletics. In all of these spheres, we have had allegations of corruption. At the very least, their processes and decisions seem to have nothing to do with the ordinary people in the sport.


There must be something that can be done about organisations with such reprehensible practices. At the very least, I would expect greater accountability to governments. The mantra that sport has nothing to do with politics has merely served to produce organisations behaving in ways that we would not allow if they were not involved in sport. England, in particular, should have learned better than to just go chasing after the money by now. Unfortunately though, the lesson in cricket of things like the Packer revolution and the IPL is that the people who throw the most money at the sport tend to come out on top in the end.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

First Test Review

So, I thought I'd do the obvious thing in the middle of the Football World Cup, and talk about the cricket. England have drawn with Sri-Lanka in the first test at Lords. It looked like the most likely outcome from about day three on, when Sri-Lanka batted well in response to England's massive first innings score. But this was anything other than a boring draw, as England almost, almost managed to press the victory. In fact, they thought they'd won with a ball to spare, Broad pinning the last batsman LBW only to find out on review that he'd hit it. Even the last ball of the match fell just short of slip.


So, it was an exciting match at times, but what have we learned, and where should England go from here? My opinion is that we've learned a bit about England on flat pitches, about their tactics, and about ways the balance of the side still isn't quite there.


England are good on flat pitches without any particular demons in them. There's no doubt about that. Some of the younger players like Joe Root and Gary Ballance have really shown that they have the application to bat for long periods. I'm not quite so sure about opener Sam Robson, who seemed to scratch around too long for too little reward. Do we really need yet another blocker in the top three?


Of the new seamers, Chris Jordan was a revelation for me, while Liam Plunkett probably wasn't quite as good. Jordan has the makings of a good all rounder, bowling in the mid-high eighties and hitting the ball hard. Plunkett does those things too, but I feel like it didn't go as well for him. I think the problem here is one of billing. Chris Jordan was billed as that kind of fast but not quite express all rounder. Plunkett, we were told, was the first or second quickest bowler in the country, but I didn't see a significant difference between his speeds and those of, for example, James Anderson (who was bowling towards the quicker end of his range, admittedly). I feel like Plunkett as a 90mph + fast bowler is more than worth it, but as a mid-high 80s bowler, we might as well pick Ben Stokes, since Stokes has already done well with the bat previously.


The question of the spinner is a tricky one. I think England picked Moeen Ali in the knowledge that Lords can be a little unhelpful to the spinner, in the expectation that the Sri Lankans would play spin well, and with the thought that no out and out spinner had done so well in the domestic season as to demand inclusion. Essentially, he was picked with the expectation that he wouldn't bowl much, and he didn't. He was another batting option. Oh, and he "has the doosra" as it's now obligatory to mention whenever talking about him. England can get very over excited about bowlers with mystery balls. Just look at that phase where they picked every wrist spinner they could find in the 90s, or when they picked Alex Loudon on the basis of a carom ball that didn't land well.


Moeen Ali did exactly what he was meant to do. He got a few runs, he bowled a small number of overs, and he got one wicket. I have no problems with his performance. I just feel that if we want someone to do that, we already have Joe Root. Root's presence as a useful part timer and nailed on batsman should, in theory, free England up to pick a riskier prospect as the spinner. Maybe Borthwick, whose leg spinners look threatening but not particularly accurate.


Of course, there's the Cook factor to consider with that. Alistair Cook strikes me as still being quite defensive in his instincts. Yes, his field settings were more interesting, but the rest of it still suggests a primary ambition of trying not to lose rather than trying to win. England batted too long in both innings. There can be no argument with that when the Sri Lankans fell well short of our score, while we simply didn't have enough time to get them out. His new plans were interesting, but he seemed to stick to only one at a time, rather than allowing the bowlers to hit the batters with combinations of deliveries. And he has long under utilised his spinners, preferring to go back to Broad and Anderson again and again even when Monty Panesar and Graham Swann were available.


For the next test, I have little doubt that England will stick with much the same team. Yet I feel that going forward, they need a full time spinner, a slightly more attacking opener, and they probably need Stokes back in the side.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Medieval Travel

It's another Medieval Monday and today, in response to a question on countries, I wanted to look at travel, passports and other related things. We know that some medieval people travelled, either alone or as part of groups. Knights like William Marshall travelled around bits of Europe following the tournament scene. Senior Cistercian monks travelled around to one another's monasteries and to general chapter meetings to ensure that their monasteries kept up their standards. Kings, Archbishops and nobles never seemed to stay in one place for long, keeping up a constant procession around their holdings. Foreign travel was not the day to day occurrence it is today, but it did happen. So it's worth asking a few basic questions about how they did it.


How did they do it? This is fairly straightforward. They walked. They took horses. They took boats. There are quite good records for the Third Crusade paying for seaborne passage to the Holy Land with Genoese merchants, for example. It was something that took time, and could often be dangerous, as the disaster of losing Henry the Younger in the White Ship suggests, but there weren't many other options. It seems to have been generally a case of either finding a boat going in the right direction for individual passengers, or more commonly for groups, chartering one outright.


Did they need passports? This is complex. There weren't the careful border controls that we know in most places (and frankly, not so many clear borders), but we do know that letters of introduction and mandates to be a place to do a particular thing grew into things we can identify as sort of passports. We have surviving ones from about the early fifteenth century.


Did they camp outside towns? Yes. We have evidence for the practice in a number of places. Yet we also have evidence for people finding hospitality within towns, in noble residences, and in monasteries. Hospitality was a big deal, because there often wasn't the comprehensive system of hotels and coaching inns that fantasy assures us we find our quests in. The exact level of strictness about who they let in and when would probably come down to circumstances. It depended how important you were, and it depended how much of a threat there was to the safety of the town locally.


Were they welcome? This is the big one in a lot of ways. We kind of want to think of the middle ages as quite xenophobic and mistrustful of outsiders. There's some evidence of particular groups and places having their own laws, so in that sense where you were from was important. It's likely that when they weren't subject to the justice of the local magistrates, people working for the Cistercians just down the road would have seemed a bit more different than they were. If you were very poor as a traveller, there would have also have been the suspicion that you might have been a vagrant, an outlaw or an escaped serf running from the land they were tied to. There were moments of mass murder on the grounds of religious or ethnic difference that point to a clear fear of anything different in some quarters.


There were also very sharp linguistic and cultural differences across often quite small areas. France didn't speak one language through this period. Nor did what is now Germany. England only became one kingdom in 1054, and the United Kingdom was another six hundred and fifty years away.


Yet a lot of the time, there was also the sense of a lack of a lot of the formal controls to keep people out that exist today. There was the element of hospitality, a certain amount of share language (Latin), and plenty of evidence for travellers from other lands getting along fine, particularly if they were noble. That, I think, is probably one of the key points. Nobility transcended borders in a sense of shared identity (and given the amount of intermarriage probably shared family) that could sometimes push aside other risks.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

IWSG June







It's time for another Insecure Writers Support Group post, and this month, I wanted to talk about ideas. We all have them as writers, and sometimes I think we have too many of them, buzzing around and distracting. Sometimes I think we make too much of them too, going on about the perfect idea that's going to make a great book, when it's actually your writing that will do that.


The part I find tricky sometimes is the step after the original idea: pinning it down, finding the right angle from which to write it, working out the way it fits into story form the best. Quite often, I find that planning doesn't help with this, because I can come up with a plan for almost anything. Yet often, it takes the first draft, and some of a second, just to learn how to write that particular novel. To learn which bits work, and which bits don't. Just to learn what it's really about.


I've been working on something about the aftermath of the traditional sort of fantasy. It's taken a few tens of thousands of words to work out exactly where this is going. My worry is that in the time it takes to do all this, I could be actually finishing something.