Monday, 26 May 2014


Another Medieval Monday, and something about national borders, since those seem to be quite relevant in Europe and the UK at the moment. The Middle Ages were the time when several of the nations that we know today coalesced in Europe. England came into being as a kingdom in 1055 (when they finally added York to the rest of it. The kingdom of Northumbria, meaning everything north of the Humber in the east, was one of the last bits to be added), even if it and Wales had already been under Roman occupation. France became something approaching a coherent state under Philip Augustus in the 13th/14th centuries. Germany and Italy...

That's where this breaks down a bit. Germany was still playing at being the Holy Roman Empire (although Charlemagne's legacy had at least as much to do with France). Italy was a series of city states, nominally within the HRE, but really not unless people like Frederick Barbarossa nipped down with an army  to tell them that they were. Most of the countries in the East of Europe had to put up with the Golden Horde Mongols putting any ambitions they had for statehood on hold.

Even for places that sort of were in existence, their borders weren't what we're used to. England and Wales only came together in the late 13th century, and wouldn't be joined to Scotland for another four hundred years. Scandinavia seems to have been somewhat closer to its future boundaries, but places like Spain were still a mess of separate kingdoms with their own languages. They weren't the modern nation states, because the idea was only just starting to come together. At the start of the period, there were kings "of the Franks" rather than "of France", because the idea of the place didn't exist. Borders could shift as lords gave their allegiances to different people, but also as their power shifted. In France again, Normandy was all but a separate country, with stronger connections to England's rulers thanks to William I, until Philip Augustus stole it while King Richard was out on crusade. Aquitaine could easily have been a part of that larger Angevin Empire had Eleanor of there not divorced the English king only to end up marrying the French one.

I suppose this is a message to two lots of people. The first is to any politician who tries to lean on history for the "natural" shape or size of a country. They've been practically every shape and size you can imagine through history, I can promise you. The second is to writers who make up countries (fantasy writers like me do this a lot). There's a tendency in novels to see those as essentially static, or just to reference some kind of great empire in the past that ruled everything, and since then, it's broken up into... well, modern nation states in all but name. In fact, the picture was probably far more complex, and always shifting.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Euro Elections

A very brief political post (which is therefore of no interest to anyone outside of the UK, and probably very little to those in it). No, I'm not about to talk you into voting for my favourite party, but I did want to make two points about the European elections on Thursday:

First- vote in them. If you don't make the effort to exercise your controls over the European Parliament, then you really don't get to whinge about it later. I'm talking to you, the huge numbers of people who didn't bother voting last time. And no, it is not voting for an anti-democratic institution. The clue's in the voting. If Europe is un-democratic, then frankly, so is the UK. All the key complaints, about having appointed figures and indirectly elected ministers intervening in law making, apply to us too.

Secondly, I'm a little annoyed by the tone most of the parties have taken in their campaigning. Not because it's negative or jingoistic (although hats off to "An Independence From Europe" for their badly animated monster eating Westminster. I couldn't stop laughing) but because most of it has nothing to do with the European Parliament. Pamphlets I've received have talked about the various UK parties' records on domestic issues, or about independence from Europe.

The trouble is, neither of these is really a European issue. No, the second one isn't, despite the name. Because whether we decide to hold a referendum on independence, decide to pull out, or decide to stay in without any further discussion, is a matter for the UK parliament, not the European one. Westminster makes that decision for the UK. So talking about it in European elections is just another way of saying that you don't want to talk about what you'll actually do for the UK's interests in the European parliament if elected. That's the part that matters. Now, to try to find a party that is actually talking about that.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Knightly Qualities

Another medieval Monday, and today I wanted to talk about two books that convinced me that knights weren't very nice, regardless of what the average Ren Faire might believe. One was the Morte de Arthur, by Thomas Mallory. The other, rather earlier story of Raoul de Cambrai, by... well, a couple of different people at least, none of whom we're entirely sure about. I'm sure you know the basic story of the Morte de Arthur. Knights running around having adventures, forgetting where they've placed the grail, fighting evil and generally doing good, right?


You see, there are some bits of it that sort of fit that pattern. Where someone is described as evil, the knights of Camelot typically come around and kill them at some point. But they also kill a good number of one another in mindless contests of arms, and a good number of their spouses/lovers/intendeds in the wake of believing them to be sleeping with someone else. Arthur, it should be pointed out, condemns Guinevere to burn at the stake for the whole thing with Lancelot, who rescues her and conveys her to a nunnery in time for the Pope to sort everything out, in what probably seemed like a slightly more obvious plot move at the time. There are plenty of instances in the book of knights or kings sleeping with women by force or trickery, taking whatever they wanted from those around them, and generally behaving in ways we would condemn as evil if it weren't the knights of the round table doing it.

Which brings us to the monster that was Raoul de Cambrai. In a lot of ways, he's not the hero of his book. That's Bernier, his vassal/eventual killer. Yet he's described in heroic terms by the writers of the chanson de geste, as the greatest knight that ever drew breath. Assuming that they weren't being very sarcastic indeed (and it really doesn't look like it), that's a bit odd. Because Raoul de Cambrai is a monster. He slaughters towns, he burns down nunneries with his best mate's mother in them. He kills people at the drop of a hat.

And yet, when Bernier turns against him, it's not for the aforementioned murder of his mother and everyone around her. No, it's because Raoul hit him. Now, I'm going to be generous and suggest that the writers were pointing out the absurdity of this, where Raoul could do so many evil things, but it's only that direct harm to Bernier that allows him to be freed from the obligations of vassalage. Yet even with that, it still says a lot that Raoul continues to be referred to as a good knight.

The thing here is that being a good knight, even a knight good enough for the Round Table, had little to do with notions of chivalry superimposed on it. There were essentially just four qualities required of a real knight:

The ability to afford the armour

The ability to get on with large groups of well armed and often slightly drunk people without getting their head cut off

Loyalty to whoever was paying their wages


Frankly, the first three fade into insignificance next to the last one. Prowess with weaponry was everything. You could borrow armour (William Marshal did at the start of his tournament career). You could get away with being grumpy or rude around the castle, up to a point. Loyalty generally only lasted until you started to lose. But you had to be able to swing a sword. Do that well, and you were a great knight, seemingly regardless of anything else.

Monday, 12 May 2014


It's another medieval Monday, and I feel like discussing the Cistercians today. Cistercian monks were a part of the new wave of monasticism that swept Western Europe from the start of the 12th century. Their premise was essentially that existing forms of monasticism following the rule of St Benedict weren't really being austere or holy enough. They, and a lot of noble backers, felt that other monasteries had relaxed their standards somewhat when it came to things like the accumulation of wealth.

So, starting with Robert of Molseme and the Abbey of Citeaux, they set out to follow the rule of St Benedict a lot more closely. And it worked, in two separate ways. First, in the way they originally seem to have wanted. They adopted a simpler, more austere sort of life. They wore white, undyed robes to symbolise that. Their monasteries worked as a network, with each house checking the next to keep them in line.

It also worked in a way that they probably didn't anticipate, because they became suddenly, massively popular. Partly, that was because medieval nobles wanted newer, holier monastic orders in which to invest. The prevailing feeling was that doing so was better for the soul than giving money to moderately holy orders to which other nobles had already given plenty of money. Archbishop Thurstan of York in particular seemed to love them, allowing them to found Rievaux and Fountains, while Meaux was founded at around the same time, in 1137.

Partly, it was because Bernard of Clairvaux, their second leader, was unfathomably charismatic. Or incredibly annoying and inclined towards writing letters at people until they gave up and did what he wanted. I'm not entirely sure which, although it does explain a lot about the Second Crusade, which he talked quite a lot of France into.

Oh, and it may also have had something to do with extending papal authority, since the Cistercians quickly acquired exemptions from all sorts of controls, whether by royal authority or archiepiscopal.

Whatever the reason, they found themselves with new monastery after new monastery. Whole sections of monastic houses defected. They acquired lay brothers to do a lot of the labour. Nobles gave them land, and money, and... well, you can see where this is going. They got rich. Particularly through the wool trade. They slowly became everything they'd been trying to avoid. They even started speculating on the wool market, accepting up front payments for next year's crop.

Which is how they came down a few notches. Parasites hit their sheep, with the result that they ended up owing quite a lot of money, and several of them had to get the medieval equivalent of the administrators in to run things for a bit. The order survived, but they were never quite the same again.

Which, of course, paved the way for all sorts of other orders to grow up...

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Kung fu and self defence

When I'm not writing or looking into history, I'm generally to be found doing something vaguely violent to other people. Over the years, I've practised a lot of different martial arts, including quite a lot that many people would consider a bit non-functional as actual fighting systems. It's something I have strong opinions on, mostly because I feel that if you're teaching a martial art in ways that don't work well, then you're potentially putting your students in danger. But I think the point here is more about the ways in which people choose to train, rather than the label they stick on it.

To illustrate this, I'd like to talk about kung fu and some modern day "combatives" or "Reality Based Self Defence" systems.

Kung fu is quite often derided in modern martial arts or self-defence circles. Start talking about straight blasts, or trapping, or doing "monkey presents peaches" in response to an attack, and you'll get some suspicious looks. There are reasons for it. In far too many classes, the students will spend far more time doing forms or two person set pieces than anything else. Or they'll talk a bunch of nonsense about chi and dim mak. Or they'll never do any fighting on the ground. Or my personal favourite, it being "too dangerous" to spar with. There's also traditionally a sense of harking back to mythical or legendary practitioners of the past, whether it's Yip Man, Chang Sang Feng, or just a general sense of Shaolin monks somewhere in the past. It's not true of every class, but it's certainly the prevailing image of the art.

I don't want to talk about my problems with this today (although I plan on coming back to it, because people still don't seem to be getting the message). What I would like to talk about is the extent to which some "self defence" classes have become everything they make fun of in Kung Fu. Some, not all. I want to make it clear that there are plenty of combatives and modern martial arts classes out there that do train hard. But...

But there are plenty of RBSD classes out there that talk about pressure points, or say that if you hit someone with their supremely vicious techniques, you will win any fight. And of course, the violence of those techniques means that it's too dangerous to spar with, so that you can only work on pads, or with a partner throwing set techniques and then freezing in place while you throw a dozen strikes back and feel good about how much you're progressing. These classes have gone from saying a perfectly sensible "get off the ground as quickly as you can" to "we're not going to train there because you don't want to be there. They don't hark back to Shaolin monks, but they are quick to talk about the special forces people who have used their techniques...

What I'm saying here is that it's not down to what you call your art when it comes to martial arts. It's not about what tradition you're from. It's how you train. Kung fu can be as effective as anything else if you train the right way. Self defence can become an absolute joke if it isn't. If you practice a martial art, ask yourself how you're training.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014


A few years ago, back before I actually did write a novel, my father told me that I probably should, but that I should "put jokes in because people don't want to read serious stuff". The thing is, I'm not entirely sure that's true anymore. My experience of trying to sell humorous fantasy to the world is that quite often, the world doesn't want to laugh quite as much as it thinks it does. I remember the publisher's weekly review of my novel Court of Dreams, which essentially said "Ok but too many jokes." I've toned things down just a touch for The Glass, but I still worry sometimes that people see that tag of "funny fantasy" and run the other way.

Apparently, I'm not alone in that thought. Sir Terry Pratchett rightly continues to sell well, but other great comic fantasy authors like Tom Holt can't get shelf space for more than their most recent book in my local bookshop. There was a Wodehouse revival a few years ago, but Toby Frost seems to have had to fight to find a home for his excellent Space Captain Smith books. Is this the lack of a distinct comic fantasy community, or is it just that no one is interested?

It's usually at about this point that someone points out that they liked the funny bits in one of their favourite books. Which invariably turns out to be a straight ahead fantasy book with humorous bits. Jim Butcher's work is often mentioned, or Kim Harrison's, or I've even heard people reference Joe Abercrombie's books in this conversation. Yes, there's some gallows humour in the First Law trilogy, but no one in the world could describe it as comic fantasy.

So what does this say for the prospects of the urban fantasy series I've had in the back of my mind for years now, about a chap who just happens to supply all the bits for those fantasy dungeons that people keep building to attract barbarian tourists just the other side of reality? Possibly that I should leave it there.

Monday, 5 May 2014

The Middle Ages

It's Monday, I feel like writing about something to do with the Middle Ages, so let's dub these 'medieval Mondays'. I thought I'd start out with one simple question: when exactly were the Middle Ages?

Except that it's not particularly simple, because of two things. The first is that it varied a bit from place to place. If we suggest that the Middle Ages were between the fall of the Roman Empire and the start of the Renaissance... well, the Romans withdrew from different places at different times, while different countries had their own renaissances at different points too. And frankly, those are all European concepts anyway, that wouldn't be applicable to places like Japan (which officially ended feudalism in 1868) or the USA.

The second problem is that no one at the time thought "Oh, we're in the Middle Ages now". It's just a label we've put on afterwards. Or rather, that the people in the Renaissance put on afterwards to emphasise that they really had more to do with those elegant Romans than with their more immediate forebears.

Yet roughly, we can say that the Middle Ages probably lasted in some form from the late fourth century to about 1500 or so. Meaning for about a thousand years. People sometimes forget about how long it was. They talk about it as one homogenous thing for a whole millennium, when it can't have been, realistically. Are we saying that we're basically the same as Edward the Confessor? Because we're closer to him than the people at the end of the period were to people at the start. It's worth thinking about.

Sunday, 4 May 2014


The other night, Louis Chapman, who is one of the main pros at the MMA gym where I practise grappling, was entered in an eight man tournament with, wait for it, a £15000 prize. I and everyone else in Hull saw how much effort he put into training for it, and I can only guess that all the other fighters did the same. Louis is an exceptional fighter. Then last night... as well as he fought, Louis didn't win, losing to BJJ black belt Stephen Martin in his first match. Martin didn't win either, losing to the eventual winner Andre Winner in the semi-finals. Indeed, because of the format of the tournament, seven of the eight people involved received no pay day for their weeks (and months, and years) of effort. Presumably, the tournament organisers' pay wasn't conditional on anything other than selling tickets.

I'm bringing this up because I'm sure most of the writers out there can see the fundamental problem with this, but a lot of them would still be happy to enter a writing contest. One freelancing site I know of even seems to be using contests as a major component of its approach. Here's the thing though: if you're only paying your "prize" to the winner, that means that the majority of writers there end up doing unpaid work, no matter how good that work is.

The traditional counter to this is that they choose to and that no one is making them. Yet we can only choose from the options that are available. If we live in a world where it is considered normal to run contests to get content, then who is going to pay a writer fairly for his or her time? Eventually, we end up with a world where the only option available to choose is the life of an amateur writer who occasionally wins contests, and who doesn't have the time to devote to it full time. Even an unpaid anthology or token payment is more honest than this, because it doesn't pretend to be anything it's not. So the next time you have an anthology to fill, please, don't run a contest.

Friday, 2 May 2014

A-Z aftermath

So, that's the A-Z over. It was hard work, I'll admit, although at least I made things a bit easier for myself by pre-writing my posts. It was interesting to see how many people said the same things in the comments with this: that they'd always found medieval history interesting, but they could never write a historical novel.

That was the one thing I wasn't sure I was getting across through the month. I firmly believe that about half the time when you're writing fantasy, you are writing history. Half-remembered bits of history, perhaps, but history nonetheless. Basically, if you're writing about knights and nobles and castles you're 'doing' the middle ages in some reflected form. Hopefully, after this month, you've got a few more details to play with.

And I'll try to keep that going. I'm going to try to provide some semi-regular things on fantasy, history, and the relationship between the two.