Thursday, December 3, 2015

Loathly Ladies

A heroic man accepts an ugly woman despite her appearance, and then she transforms to become beautiful, for his actions broke a curse.

It's a common motif in medieval storytelling - and often, the choice of what the hero has to do sheds some light on the society's concept of gender.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Game of Ombre

Ombre (from the Spanish, meaning "man") was a game invented at the close of the 16th century which, by the late seventeenth, had spread across Europe and easily become the most popular card game.

What follows is a description of how the game was played in the seventeenth century, using English terminology (which is derived in some cases from the Spanish and in some from French adaptations thereof), along with notes on the ways the game may be simplified without serious impact on its mechanics. The name "Ombre," in seventeenth-century English, should be pronounced "umber."

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Cards and Card Games in Europe

Playing cards appear to have originated in China and migrated west via the Near East, but much of their noteworthy history is in Europe. (Cards in China have mostly developed into gaming tiles, the history of which will be the subject of another post sometime.) Beginning in the late 14th century, printed cards have been mass-produced cheaply and used in a large number of games, especially of the trick-taking type. (The form of a standard European deck of cards closely follows this particular function.)

Thursday, November 5, 2015

We come a cob-coaling for Bonfire time

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Bram Stoker and the invention of the vampire

Almost nobody in modern America believes in vampires anymore - but we almost all agree on what properties a vampire has. Mostly, we base these assumptions on modern portrayals of one character: Count Dracula.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Basic Renaissance Handball

I've been asked recently about good historical outdoor games for reenactors and I realized I hadn't put together a single, consolidated set of instructions for early modern handball as I currently teach it. So that's what this is.

This doesn't have any rules whose invention depends on the existence of purpose-built tennis courts, but it otherwise conforms to the rules given by Juan Luis Vives in 1540. The result is, I believe, a decent conjecture at how the game would have been played in southern Europe ca. 1500.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Vampires of New England

In 1890, Mercy Brown of Exeter, Rhode Island, came down with consumption (tuberculosis), the disease which had killed both her mother and her older sister. Her brother Edwin followed, falling ill less than a year after Mercy's death.

Certain members of the family and the town they live in decided that a paranormal cause was to blame for Edwin's death. It seemed a perfectly normal presumption to them, as the local superstition held that consumption was often caused by the intervention of dead relatives, mostly those who had themselves died of the same illness, sapping away the vitality of the living. To rural New Englanders of the late eighteenth to late nineteenth centuries, this seemed the most likely cause of such a string of cases.

George Brown, the father of the three children, didn't believe in such things, but eventually agreed to exhume the bodies of several deceased relatives. When Mercy's corpse was found relatively free of rot, it was concluded that she was responsible for Edwin's illness, and so to keep her from similarly afflicting another member of the family, her heart was cut out of her body and burned. The ashes were also mixed with water and given to Edwin as a folk remedy against his illness. The remedy failed: Edwin Mercy died of tuberculosis in 1892.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Unquiet Grave

A corpse isn't buried promptly after its funeral, and a pregnant cat jumps over its unattended coffin.

The corpse returns to life, still dressed in its formal funereal attire. Stiff from rigor mortis, its arms are permanently stretched in front of it, and it can only move by hopping - perhaps a slightly comical sight, but it stalks the night to drain the vital force of the living. The body has become a jiangshi.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Vampires of the Twelfth Century

It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb, which of its own accord spontaneously opened to receive them, did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony. It would be strange if such things should have happened formerly, since we can find no evidence of them in the works of ancient authors, whose vast labor it was to commit to writing every occurrence worthy of memory; for if they never neglected to register even events of moderate interest, how could they have suppressed a fact at once so amazing and horrible, supposing it to have happened in their day? Moreover, were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome; so I will fain add two more only (and these of recent occurrence) to those I have already narrated, and insert them in our history, as occasion offers, as a warning to posterity.

Friday, October 2, 2015

"It is 100 years since our children left."

A single sentence in a town record from Hamelin, Germany dated 1384 provides the only primary-source we have for an incident which remains utterly mysterious. History knows only that the town lost its children, and has no idea how.

Folklore, of course, provides an answer, and one with far more detail than the record bears out: this notation in the archives is the first written telling of the tale that would become the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Perpetual Quest for Perpetual Motion

Before the discovery of the laws of thermodynamics, there was no particular reason to doubt that a physical process could continue forever - no reason, that is, save the fact that it has never been observed.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Teaching Handball

Last week I had the opportunity to teach conjecturally-medieval handball to eight eager students and get them playing the game. Here are my current thoughts on how to get it going successfully.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The folkloric roots of science fiction

There are a lot of claimants to the title of inventor of science fiction - Hugo Gernsback, Mary Shelley, and more. But although it hasn't always been seen as a distinct, special sort of fiction, telling stories that incorporate an element of presently-impossible technological achievement and imagining speculative worlds has been part of human civilization forever. Many of the early stories, however, are folklore rather than speculation, and so we don't usually consider them when we discuss the emergence of the genre.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Bestiaries as Moral Philosophy

Today the term "Bestiary" conjures up the notion of a listing of monsters, perhaps as suggestions for devious Dungeon Masters. But in fact, the surviving historical bestiaries are a product of monastic scribes, and most of what they contain has some surprises. Many of the more exotic and legendary beasts are even stranger than you probably expected - but much of the content is descriptions of utterly mundane animals, from the goose to the bear. They are works of natural science from an era before science existed in a form we would recognize, written by clergymen and so infused with medieval Christian moral philosophy.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Landlord, Fill the Flowing Bowl

Landlord, fill the flowing bowl until it doth run over
Landlord, fill the flowing bowl until it doth run over
For tonight we'll merry be, for tonight we'll merry be,
For tonight we'll merry be -
Tomorrow we'll be sober

Friday, August 28, 2015

Five Moments in Baseball Culture

Going into the bottom half of the eighth inning of the seventh game of the 1946 World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals were tied at three runs with the visiting Boston Red Sox. The first batter for the Cardinals was Enos Slaughter, who hit a single. This was followed by a pair of outs, and it looked like the game would be decided in its final inning - but the clean-up hitter, Harry Walker, hit a single. Slaughter, who had led off from first base substantially, rounded second and continued on to third. Then, knowing the game was down to the wire and the entire World Series was on the line, he kept going, narrowly sliding safely into home plate just before Boston's catcher had a chance to tag him out. Slaughter's "Mad Dash," as it has come to be known, would prove to be the winning run. There's now a cast bronze sculpture of Slaughter sliding into home in the North Carolina Baseball Museum, and he's been inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

Folklorists often look at the origins and development of games, and the customs of precisely how they are played, but in a world where the most important sports are those where the participants are vastly outnumbered by the spectators, the most important folklore spreads outside the field of play. Anthropologists who study ritual have likened sports fandom to religion so many times the observation is regarded as a cliche, and it's certainly true that the attachment to a single team and the powerful emotional bond a fan feels with the rest of the crowd, the players on the field, and the team colors can border on the mystical. When a film opens with Susan Sarandon's voice saying that "I believe in the Church of Baseball," the non-fan can take it as a wry moment at the start of what's going to be a comedy, while the die-hard sports fan will nod knowingly, and follow along with the entire monologue. And like any religion, baseball has its stories, its customs, and its expectations.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Development of American Safe-Haven Games

It's commonly related how baseball derives from the English sport of Rounders, or from some specific early American game such as Old Cat, but the truth is rather more complex. America has a long tradition of safe-haven games, and baseball as we know it today is not simply a product of a single branch of the family. These games, collectively, were our national pastime before we had standardized the rules in a single form, and even before we could call ourselves a nation.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The National Pastime that Might Have Been

Baseball was not, despite certain legends, invented de novo by Abner Doubleday (who never advanced any claim to being involved in its creation). Its rules instead come from a game played in the state of New York in the middle of the 19th century, which in turn derives from the same underdocumented medieval precursor as cricket. (There are in fact high medieval manuscript marginalia showing people swinging what appear to be modern baseball bats at round white balls.)

But the New York game was just what caught on beyond the region of its origin, because of the clout of New York City during the formalization of America's national sport. Other local variants existed at the time, the most prominent being one played in and around Boston. The Massachusetts version of base ball at that time (now usually known as the "Massachusetts game" but commonly called "town ball", "round ball", or "base" by its players), formalized by the Massachusetts Association of Base Ball Players under the name "town ball" in 1858, was different in several ways.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Orfeo's Katabasis into Faerie

As Queen Heurodis slept in the shade of a tree she had a dream in which the King of Faerie appeared to her and announced his intent to steal her away to the Otherworld. The next day she slept beneath it again, this time with a well-armed guard around her, but the fairy king came and stole her away.

So begins the lai of Sir Orfeo, the king who ventured into Faerie to rescue his wife. Told in manuscripts from the 14th century, the story makes use of the British idea of a fairy realm as a substitute for the afterlife (a folkloric conceit likely derived from lightly Christianized retellings of ancient Celtic myths) and a courtly setting in medieval Britain - but, ultimately, the tale of Orfeo and Heurodis is an adaptation of Greek works.

Sunday, May 10, 2015


There's an image that was making the rounds through social media a while back after it appeared on an amusing clickbait list of startling things from medieval manuscripts. It is a depiction, found in an illuminated life of Alexander the Great, that appears to show a woman lying in bed with a dragon, while a crowned man stares at them through a hole in the door.

And that's precisely what it is. To the audience at the time, the story was so well-known they would have recognized, at a glance, that the man is King Philip of Macedon, watching the conception of his son Alexander.

Alexander the Great was one of the most popular figures from the medieval Matter of Rome - the retelling of classical stories, often in a then-contemporary setting. By the third century, a Greek manuscript falsely attributed to Alexander's court historian Calisthenes had appeared which spelled out a somewhat mythologized version of the king's life, and this became the basis for many later accounts. One such version, the Alexandreis (a Latin text from the 12th century) was even directly translated to Icelandic under the title Alexanders saga. The first known epic poem, on the model of the French chansons de geste, in German is the Alexanderlied, also 12th century. The Quranic figure Dul-Qarnayn is also thought to be a mythologized version of Alexander the Great.

As for that image with the dragon? The earlier texts call it a snake, but a legend that appears in many medieval Alexander texts is that King Philip looked on, through a window, while his wife was impregnated by a dragon or serpent.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Manawyddan and the Mouse

And thus passed the seasons of the year until the harvest came. And he went to look at one of his crofts, and behold it was ripe. "I will reap this to-morrow," said he. And that night he went back to Narberth, and on the morrow in the grey dawn he went to reap the croft, and when he came there he found nothing but the bare straw. Every one of the ears of the wheat was cut from off the stalk, and all the ears carried entirely away, and nothing but the straw left. And at this he marvelled greatly.

Then he went to look at another croft, and behold that also was ripe. "Verily," said he, "this will I reap to-morrow. And on the morrow he came with the intent to reap it, and when he came there he found nothing but the bare straw. "Oh, gracious Heaven," he exclaimed, "I know that whosoever has begun my ruin is completing it, and has also destroyed the country with me."
Then he went to look at the third croft, and when he came there, finer wheat had there never been seen, and this also was ripe. "Evil betide me," said he, "if I watch not here to-night. Whoever carried off the other corn will come in like manner to take this. And I will know who it is." So he took his arms, and began to watch the croft. And he told Kicva all that had befallen. "Verily," said she, "what thinkest thou to do?" "I will watch the croft to-night," said he.

And he went to watch the croft. And at midnight, lo, there arose the loudest tumult in the world. And he looked, and behold the mightiest host of mice in the world, which could neither be numbered nor measured. And he knew not what it was until the mice had made their way into the croft, and each of them climbing up the straw and bending it down with its weight, had cut off one of the ears of wheat, and had carried it away, leaving there the stalk, and he saw not a single stalk there that had not a mouse to it. And they all took their way, carrying the ears with them.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Lady Charlotte Guest and the remaking of Celtic mythography

The sources known to us today which give the earliest legends known from Wales are the opening four sections of the Mabinogion, the work now often regarded as the canonical compilation of old Welsh myths and legends. These four "branches" tell of heroes who were once worshiped as Gods, and in a straightforward voice reminiscent of the Icelandic Sagas they present the ambitions, triumphs, and betrayals of these characters. But the history of the Mabinogion - and even of the idea that there is such a book - reveals far more than just what tales were told in high medieval Wales.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Arthur's Unfaithful Servant

Every telling of the story of King Arthur makes mention of the Round Table and the assemblage of peerless knights who sat around it. Most famous among these, both to us today and to many who have told the tales in the past, is Sir Lancelot du Lac, whose affair with Queen Guinevere would ultimately be the downfall of the entire Round Table. Many readers will therefore be surprised to learn that, in his earliest incarnations, Lancelot was not associated with King Arthur at all.