Exit, Pursued by a Bear: Violence in “The Revenant”

I went to see “The Revenant” this past weekend after being encouraged to do so by an acquaintance who knew the film had some relevance to my current writing project. Although I  write about grim and gritty subjects, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the volume of blood and gore on the screen for this one.  There will be spoilers.

I came away feeling that the director wished to express the theme that men are simply brutal to other men whenever they have the chance (and to women, too).  The natives, the Americans, the French all got into the bloody thick of things.  It had a very high body count for a film so focused on a single character.  At times I thought of “Gladiator”, and of “Braveheart” both with notably violent heroes in violent times (both also with spectral love interests–both of which were, IMO, much better done).  But I don’t recall getting splashed with the gore in either of those films, not even during the drawing-and-quartering scene in the latter.

Sometimes a film or author is accused of making bloody violence into a form of pornography.  I wouldn’t say that’s the case here–the violence was not glorified, but rather so relentless that it became depressing.  Because almost all of the characters in the film, regardless of race or standing, seemed willing, and at times, determined, to participate in the gore-fest, it delivered a very negative view of humanity (or perhaps simply of mankind, since most of the violence is perpetrated by and on other men, with the notable exception of a rape-victim’s revenge.)

A violent artistic work, whether it be film or novel, can be uplifting, challenging, disturbing in the end. It can leave you feeling both raw, and fulfilled, if the violence supports that kind of theme.  “The Hurt Locker” has its share of gore, but it is there to both illuminate the experiences of the soldiers, and to reveal the psychological impact of violence on them (and on the viewer by extension).  I have written earlier about a Chinese film, “Shaolin,” that took a very deliberate approach to violence.

In “The Revenant,” the violence seems to have no impact on the participants.  They are no more hesitant (or willing) or perpetrate violence again.  The deaths and maimings are never direct or what might be termed in the chivalric tradition as honorable:  people are often killed while running away, they are beaten when they’re down, unarmed people are slaughtered by the dozen.   The only person killed with a single blow is the protagonist’s son–everyone else requires multiple wounds.

The one clearly honorable character in the film, Captain Henry, the leader of the fur-trapping expedition, seems to exist outside of this cycle of violence, yet he, too, seems barely affected by it until he nearly succumbs toward the end of the film.  One of the native characters, a Pawnee man, says that revenge is in God’s hands, and the repetition of this concept at the end might be seen as some kind of turning point for the protagonist–but the effect is the same (and there has already been an unbelievable river-side gore-fest by that point).

So am I just taking this film a little too hard?  If we trimmed the actual gore seen on screen, would we end up with a different theme?  Unfortunately, I don’t think that would be sufficient.

If the filmmaker had taken a more nuanced approach to the depiction of violence, as well as to when and how it is applied, the work as a whole might have had a very different effect, and these potential twin moments of transformation (the captain’s movement toward violence, the protagonist, Hugh Glass’s movement away from it) might have shone and suggested a more thought-provoking theme than simply that men will relentlessly attack each other.

I knew that vengeance was a major element in the film, but I thought, before going, that the primary thrust of the central narrative would be the protagonist’s fight for survival against the elements of nature (AKA, “man versus nature” in the parlance of your high school English class). It turns out to be almost entirely “man versus man” with a large number of the killings or attempted killings taking place between people who seem to have little reason to assault each other  (the egregious and utterly predictable death of Glass’s Pawnee friend, for instance.) After his initial mauling by the bear, Glass is left in bad shape–but his natural encounters leave him none the worse for wear:  not falling or grinding dirt into his wounds, nor floating for a long way down a frigid river. He has no gloves or mitts, yet he never loses a finger to frostbite–nor even seems very worried about it–he is often depicted quite far away from whatever heat source is available.

The first few scenes of him regaining motion after the mauling show him dragging a leg at a very wrong angle, but this proves to be nothing more than a sprain, I guess, because it is never splinted, and results in only a minor limp by the end.  His injuries seem to heal, rather than to degrade over the course of his adventures.  I’ve taken Wilderness First Aid, and done a fair amount of research on early surgery and wound care.  This film *could* have been about a heroic survival against those kind of odds–if only the actual stakes of his injuries and his travel conditions had been believably presented. He comes through with the only sign of his very, very long exposure to the elements with only chapped lips (next time, go for the bear grease, Leo.)

So there is no balancing of other dangers against that of Man, no sense that the direct challenge to his survival is all around him.

And the motivations of the Arikawa tribe who follow the group of trappers from the bloodbath that opens the movie to the one that finishes it are not borne out in what they do. I found it interesting that some native voices online are praising the film, (one example) not only for its depiction of the presented tribes, but for its honest presentation of the theft of America from the native population, and the many levels of betrayal that took place to accomplish it.  The author of the piece above states that it is this theme that justifies the opening battle–however, that is not how the tribe’s actions are presented in the film–this idea of a justified vengeance on behalf of dispossessed and abused natives only comes up later, and not in reference to this battle.

Instead, the Arikara are seeking the chief’s kidnapped daughter, and apparently the way they look for her is to slaughter everyone available to die, then search the bodies to see if she is there.  Even if their anger against the trappers is justified, or if they are driven also by commerce motivations, the expressed motivation for the act doesn’t fit.  I would assume the chief wanted her back alive, but he seems content to kill first and ask questions later.  Then, when they do get her back, why don’t they simply go home?  Instead, they have apparently pursued Glass or the other trappers back to the fort (and beyond), although the people who kidnapped her were, in fact, already slain by Glass himself.  Vengeance has been served, but they appear at the end to give us one more thrill of danger (will Glass end up as another victim of unjustified murder?) and deliver the final blows (never just one).

The portrayal of a theme is always a bit tricky in a narrative work.  Ideally, all of the elements work together–plots, subplots, character arcs, embedded stories or expressed morality–to convey the creator’s intended message.  I’d have to say that the director has achieved this, it’s just a message I fundamentally don’t believe in.  How about you?

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Free Fantasy Story: Mari’s Garden

In lieu of a real blog entry, I offer you the following complete short story, a historical fantasy from the Dark Apostle universe.  This story features the early lives of two characters featured in Elisha Magus and Elisha Rex.

a chilled English rose

a chilled English rose

Trigger Warning:  this story implies non-consensual sexual relations.

Mari’s Garden

When Jerome first noticed Mari, out planting flowers by the inn her father’d bought, he hated her. It just seemed the natural thing to do, seeing as girls would grow up to be women—temptresses like Eve. At nine, Jerome was strong enough to carry butts of flour across the bridge to her father’s inn. The Lamb had been a wretched place for years, and this new keeper had notions of the bishop’s people staying there sometimes (madness, so his father said). Maybe it was that drove the keeper to what he did, a few years later, when frigid spring gave way to deadly summer, and even Mari’s little flowerbed started to lose color. Was about then that Jerome knew his father was right about Mari, too. She was growing to be a woman—like Eve.
Jerome settled the full butt of flour and banged on the door. Mari popped out, her dark eyes flickering down. “Thanks. My da’s coming.” She hustled into the yard, taking a horse from Sir Roger, who had business with the bishop pretty regular. Her skirts revealed strong calves, bits of dirt still marking where she’d been at her gardening.
The innkeeper stuck his head out. “Can’t pay now. Back tomorrow, eh?”
“Can’t do it, keeper.” Jerome squared his shoulders. “We need it now, and what you owe, or I’m to roll it back again.”
The keeper gave a sick little grin, his eyes roving back toward the stable.
“Here’s a fine bit you’ve been keeping from me—that why they call you keeper, eh?” The knight boomed, slapping the girl’s rump.
She gave a squeak, her cheeks flaming, but he put out his arm and caught hers, pulling her close, lifting her until her toes danced upon the ground. “Nobody’s plucked you yet, eh, my little flowerbud?”
“Not yet,” her father agreed, his glance darting toward Jerome. He folded his arms, and one elbow tore through his tunic.
“What’s she—your fourth?”
“Please, sir, my lord,” Mari stammered, and he set her down, but did not let go.
“Fifth,” spat the innkeeper, then he tilted his head. “What’s your interest?”
“I like a soft bed after a long ride. And I’ll pay.”
Jerome’s head shot up, Mari’s eyes squeezed shut as the knight pinched her chin in his fingers, looming over her. Jerome’s hands fisted, and the innkeeper pushed him back, holding him to the wall. “Right, then, your dad’ll get his money, won’t he?”
“He don’t want it that way,” Jerome said.
“Room and board’s five shillings, plus one for stabling.” The innkeeper gave a nod toward the horse. “But she’ll be a pound extra.”
“Please, sir,” Mari whispered, but her father cut her off.
“Hush up, you. Don’t want your old man t’starve now, do you?”
“This ain’t right, keeper,” said Jerome. “You can’t—”
The keeper’s palm slammed into his face, bowling him to the ground, blood spurting from his nose. “Go on and tell your father I’ll have his money. Sorry you had to see that, sir.”
“No need, keeper, someone’s got to have a firm hand. My usual chamber?” Sir Roger tramped into the door, towing Mari. Jerome reached out to her, and their fingers nearly touched, her eyes filled with tears. For a moment, his hand warmed with power, then the door slammed between them, and it drained away. Jerome trembled as he rose, stumbling back over the bridge, his arm pressed to his face. His father muttered, “Temptress,” then told him to go back in the morning and get that money, and Jerome curled into himself on his pallet, crying, his nose throbbing.
She knelt in the flowers in the morning, yanking off the dead leaves.
“Mari,” he whispered, and she flicked him a glance, bruises showing where the knight had grabbed her chin. Jerome reached out, but she flinched from his touch, scrambling to her feet and limping away, her arms held tight across her belly.
After that, Jerome’s face burned every time he crossed that bridge. Every time he pounded on the keeper’s door. He could not even bring himself to ask for money. He just stood there, his hands limp and useless, the tiny, witchy power he thought he felt heating up his hands, but doing nothing. She would not be touched by him. She who now suffered the hardened hands of half the laborers in town.
Next year, the rains returned, but her father did not stop. The year after, Jerome helped her run, but the keeper brought her back, and broke Jerome’s arm in the bargain, and his own da got up a thundering rage about how he couldn’t even roll out the butts now.
So he stood a few months later, when the rains had gone, only to see another brute too eager even to go inside, pass his coins to the keeper, pushing Mari down into her own flowerbed. Jerome howled then and ran again across the bridge, his hands sizzling. He wished the sky would open to smite the bastard with heavenly fire, but he slipped and fell, his barely-healed arm instead shooting bolts of agony. He lay on the bridge in the mud, hearing her cries, and he cried himself as he scrambled to his feet.
Jerome pushed himself harder and stumbled on, shoving through the gate.
She lay bleeding in the flower bed, the customer still hunched over her. From the stable, another voice called out, “Hey, up, don’t wear her out!” And two more men arrived, both taller than Jerome, both with arms more brawny than his father’s. One of them brushed him aside. “Hey, lad, wait your turn.”
“Let her go,” Jerome grated, and the two men laughed as their leader rose.
“This mudpuppy thinks that one’s his.”
Jerome leapt on the leader, shouting, “Run, Mari, run!”
But the two already had her in their hands, and the leader’s fist rapped Jerome’s head against the garden wall. He misbelieved his eyes a moment, but no—Mari’s skin turned a shade darker, matching the soil she knelt in. Then she sank between them into the earth, and vanished, her dress pooling on the ground.
“Jesus! Witch!” One grabbed for a knife, lunging toward her throat.
It slashed Jerome’s arm as he dove between. By the time he rolled, Mari was gone, her clothes in a pile left behind. Jerome’s aching head beat a rhythm as the three men cursed, but she had gone beyond their hands. Her beloved earth had taken her, beyond his power to reach. Did she feel the heat of power, did she feel. . .as he felt?
The evening smelled like a storm, Jerome’s power rumbled like kin riding home. He stretched out his hands and the clouds became his own. At last, he kissed the earth with raindrops, at last, he stroked away her pain.

Posted in Elisha Magus, Elisha Rex, fantasy, fiction, magic, medieval, The Dark Apostle | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Editorial Greatness: In Memory of David G. Hartwell

This week, the science fiction and fantasy community was devastated by the loss of David G. Hartwell, long-time Tor editor, co-founder of the World Fantasy Convention, and an extraordinary man in every way. (especially his fashion-sense–seriously! His ties have their own website)

Unlike this year’s prior losses of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, this one, I take personally.  I have known *of* David since I first aspired to sell a fantasy novel, more than twenty years ago.  And when a friend more plugged in to the SF community told me that David read everything that crossed his desk personally, I found it hard to believe–surely, David Hartwell had more important things to do.  And yet, I am not sure, from his perspective, if there were any more important job to an editor than discovering a new great writer, grooming their work for success, and helping it reach its audience.  He considered discovering Gene Wolfe to be one of his greatest achievements.

I had only a couple of opportunities to talk with David directly about my work, most notably when he invited me to join him for breakfast at a World Fantasy Convention while he was considering my first novel.  [David (via email) “Are you going to World Fantasy?  We could have breakfast.”  Me (thinking furiously about how to afford the trip):  Yes!]  During that meal, David told me things about my own book that I never thought anyone else would know or understand.  In my case, I’m sure it helped that his background was in Medieval Studies.  He ably demonstrated what makes a great editor.

Although I was not able to work with David on that project (and now mourn the lost dream that we would eventually work on books together), he showed by example many of the skills of the great editor. I have now had numerous editorial relationships both awful and wonderful.  I often hear new writers or indie authors questioning the need for publishers at all–and I make the case for editors every time.  Many indie authors know all about this, and hire their own editors.  For the traditionally published author, the publisher will assign an editor to work with the novel–often the editor who selected the work for publication, though not always.

A great editor recognizes what is unique and striking about your work.  They will identify the heart of the story and help you to craft the words to more carefully reveal that uniqueness.  This requires careful reading and a global way of thinking about the work–the editor needs to see the forest, not just the trees.

A great editor also sees what makes the work similar to other works in the field.  They can place this new novel in relation to those works for the benefit of the marketing and in-house designers, enabling them to generate book covers, cover copy and ancillary sales materials to reach the market segment most likely to fall in love with the book (as, hopefully, the editor did).

A great editor delivers feedback in a clear, organized, articulate and respectful way.  The editor understands that their response (positive as well as negative) is important, but that the author is one who will develop the solutions to any concerns. The editor may have ideas about solutions, or aid in brainstorming, but trusts the author to create the one that is most suitable for the work.  This may extend to aiding the author in developing a series concept or planning for additional projects.

A great editor helps the author to hone individual scenes, paragraphs and sentences to enhance their clarity and purpose.  The editor questions things that aren’t working and may suggest cuts, but the purpose of the cuts is always to strengthen the work.  The editor is open to negotiation about things the author thinks are critical about the story or style.  The editor doesn’t try to change the work simply to “leave their mark” on it, or introduce stylistic elements that aren’t in keeping with the author’s voice.

A great editor communicates directly when working with either the author, or the author’s agent, if any, giving the information they need and guiding the work and the author through the process from a rough pile of words to a finished book on a shelf, virtual or physical.

A great editor is the book’s first fan, celebrating it and advocating for it both within the publishing house and outside of it.

David could be all of this and more.  He was a voice for science fiction and fantasy, a thoughtful participant at conventions, a firm and illuminating moderator, a witty and enjoyable presence at parties and social affairs.  He will be missed.

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What I Hate About Writing Groups

Full disclosure here:  I currently belong to four writers’ groups, as well as SFWA, my national genre organization.  And I have recently dropped out of two others (and dropped out of another one last year, for similar reasons).

A good writers’ group offers the opportunity to meet with other writers, ideally those working toward a similar goal; to share information about writing whether that is submission opportunities, support, or promotion; and sometimes to get direct aid with a project of your own.  This last is usually offered in the form of critiquing.

I think the critiquing of manuscripts is important, and, at some stages of the writer’s development, even critical.  Working with a critique group not only gives you the chance to get feedback on your own work with an eye to improving it (or to improving your next work as you learn more), it also allows you to hone your eye as an analytical reader. I find I often learn more when I am examining someone else’s work and am forced to articulate my understanding of the work, finding information in the text to support my reactions.  This kind of insight can be taken back to my own work, and is highly informative when I am writing or speaking about the craft of writing.  It is often easier to see the flaws in someone else’s work than in your own, but you will likely find that flaw reduced in your next project because of that attention to learning.

Okay, E.C., but you drew me in here with a title about hating writing groups, now you’re going on about the benefits–what gives?

How the group approaches critiquing is vital to the success or frustration of a critiquing session.  Some groups are strictly on-line.  Works are exchanged via the internet, and returned with marginal notes as well as commentary on strengths and weaknesses.  This makes it easy to digest the work as the critiquer reads it through and makes notes, and it makes it easy for the author to receive the commentary with a bit of personal distance.  Nobody is saying to your face that they found your story confusing and your characters unsympathetic.

But when a group is managing in-person critiques, the approach is very different.  Sometimes, the works are distributed and read in advance, with notes made just as described above.  Then the participants offer a summary of their notes in the meeting, sometimes building on and responding to what the others say.

In the Milford Style critique, the participants give their feedback in round robin style, speaking one at a time.  The author then has a couple of minutes to ask a question or seek clarification about issues that arose.  Often, the author is encouraged to simply thank the readers for their time and trouble in preparing their comments.  The author can then take away all that has been said, assimilate the information, and act on it (or not) as they choose.  This is the way that most professional groups, and many long-standing workshops operate (Odyssey, Clarion, Milford itself).

But there is another way. . . the dark side, as it were.  This approach is more social.  Let’s call this the spontaneous style.  The works are read at the session (on paper, if possible–usually easy to do with poetry, less so with longer works) aloud, usually by the author.  Participants then respond to the work, sometimes from notes they have written down while listening, sometimes just off the top of their head.  A well-organized spontaneous uses a round-robin style, and has some guidelines about how to give good, useful comments (ie, that comments are about the work, not about the author; that a comment should be constructive not destructive; that it should be specific).  So the result can be similar to a Milford-style group, but modified for a number of participants which varies or in which not all the members could have been reached in advance to arrange a more formal system.

The problem comes when the critique session is not moderated in this way.  Sometimes, the author is the de-facto moderator, responding directly as points are made, asking questions, guiding a conversation about the work.  Often, the group is simply more of a free-for-all, where some people may begin by speaking about their reactions, then others start responding to that, rather than to the work.  The worst-case scenario is when the participants, including the author, break out with interruptions or arguments about the work. Or rather, about an interpretation of the work, telling a respondent why they are wrong about their experience of the work.

And this is what I hate.  When I am offering my feedback to an author, I do so in the spirit of helping the work to improve–to become more focused on the author’s intent and better at revealing its strengths.  My reaction to the work is usually backed up by details of the text, as well as by years of experience with giving and receiving critiques, with writing my own dozens of books, articles, short stories, poems; and with teaching or leading writing groups.  In short, not to brag or anything, but I’m not an idiot.

Yet nothing makes me feel more like an idiot than someone trying to convince me that my reaction to a literary work is wrong.  When I have spent time thinking about the work and articulating a response to that work, I think I deserve to at least have my perspective heard.  Whether the author chooses to act on it is up to them.  When they won’t even listen to feedback, that’s a problem.  If you have asked for honest feedback on a work, you must be prepared to receive it in the spirit in which it is offered: that the respondent genuinely hopes to help you improve the work. If you are not prepared for honest feedback, then ask not to receive comments, or simply wait to share your work until you are.

I think this happens in spontaneous groups because of the atmosphere they create.  Up until the critique session, they are likely to be marked by cheerful social interaction, which may or may not revolve around writing. Often, they take place in a public setting like a coffee shop, and may involve a shared meal.  All activities likely to build a sense of camaraderie.  So when the critique begins, it’s easy to perceive it as part of the on-going conversation–or worse, as your friend criticizing your beloved art to your face, rather than as one colleague to another, helping to improve that art.

Some people seem to be satisfied with this kind of interaction, where the honest response of the audience is likely curtailed or deflected into a more general group atmosphere.  But if, like me, you feel frustrated with the quality of feedback you receive in that situation, it may be time to leave.  You might also choose to introduce a more formal and professional atmosphere by having guidelines for feedback (and for authors receiving that feedback), by selecting a moderator, by promoting a stronger distinction between a more general conversation and the critique session.

In any case, I hope that the writers among you are seeking and finding an appropriate and useful critique approach.  And thank you for listening.




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Looking Ahead

2016 has arrived!  I hope you are all looking forward to it as much as I am.  Here are some of the happenings in the writing worlds of E. C. Ambrose. . .

The Dark Apostle. . .so far.

The Dark Apostle. . .so far.

January finds me attending the Arisia convention in Boston, MA, which is always a good time–complete with a masquerade, gaming events, parties and lots of great panels.

I’ll also be revising The Dark Apostle, book 4, Elisha Mancer, with the aid of my editors’ notes to polish it up and make it the best book I can.

February features Boskone, a more literary convention, hosted by the New England Science Fiction Association, also in Boston.  If you’re a writer of science fiction or fantasy (or would like to be) you’d get a lot out of this convention–it’s great for readers, too!

and I’ll be polishing the fifth and final Elisha volume to send over to my publisher for 2017 release–it’s hard to imagine the series wrapping up!  I came up with the series ending a few years ago, and was appalled at myself, but also delighted.  That feeling lead to one of my first blog entries five years ago.  A wonderful, awful idea. . .

March is my own deadline for revising my first-ever international thriller novel, featuring a group of former Special Intelligence operatives, out to defend archaeological and cultural artifacts–they call themselves the Bone Guard. I had a blast writing this one, and I can’t wait to get it out to my readers.

April will find me teaching a workshop about book promotion at New Hampshire Writers’ Day, then in Utah, attending the Million Dollar Outlines workshop, with the amazing David Farland.  I have some ideas for my next fantasy project.  The workshop should serve as a retreat where I can focus on brainstorming and developing something truly epic.  I can hardly wait.

But I have another book to write in the meantime. . .

In May, I get to return to the International Congress on Medieval Studies, in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  This is the event where I get to pick the brains of thousands of experts on the fascinating details of the Middle Ages.

June. . . nope, got nothing.  Yet.  Maybe this is my month to finally summit Mount Washington? and revise that book I’ll be working on.

July 5th will see the launch of Elisha Mancer, and no doubt many other events besides.  Quickly followed by Readercon, one of my favorite annual events–this one is all about the books.  And a week of camping in the woods with teenagers to coach them on rock climbing.  What’s not to love?

In August, alas, I will miss the World Science Fiction Convention, this year held in Kansas City, MO. I hope you all have a great time without me.  There’s just so much a person can do in a year, after all.  I will also be turning in my first science fiction novel, a collaborative book that I’m very excited about.

Which means, in September, my schedule will be clear to write that fantasy novel I plotted in April.  Hopefully, I’ll be writing at 2000-3000 words a day, which seems to be a good pace for me.  But that still means a couple of solid months of drafting.

October will find me at the World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio, to see the unveiling of the new World Fantasy Award statuette.  What will it be?  I’m very curious.

November. Maybe I’ll take my birthday off. . . nah, probably not.  According to my two-year-plan spreadsheet, I’ll be brainstorming and pre-writing for a different kind of fantasy series.  And, if my readers and my agent are excited about the first Bone Guard book, then it’ll be time to draft another one–don’t worry, I already have a half-dozen cool ideas for further volumes.

I can’t believe it’s December already!  Must be time to revise the final volume. . .and then what?  Who knows!  But I will look forward to sharing it with you, dear friends and readers.

Have a happy New Year!


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Above the Salt: a Medieval History of a Vital Spice

During the Middle Ages, spices were often a marker of wealth.  Not everyone could afford them, and the idea of making a spice freely available on the table was purely extravagant–hence our term “above the salt,” meaning those people so privileged that they could sit close to the lord and help themselves from the saltcellar positioned for the use of the nobility.

A carving of the Last Supper in a salt mine chapel

A carving of the Last Supper in a salt mine chapel,  Judas is often identified by an overturned saltcellar on the table in front of him.

Nowadays, salt is so ubiquitous that people can suffer from too much of it.  We take it for granted, and are more likely to be trying to restrict its presence than to celebrate it.  Sea salt is all the rage, and specialty stores sell different varieties of salt, with different origins and mineral contents.  The pink Himalayan variety is especially prized (and makes cool lamps).  But during the Middle Ages, white salt, carefully purified, was the prize (just like white sugar and white bread–which suggests another blog entirely. . .)

Salt, then as now, was especially vital,  not as a spice, but as a preservative.  Salt pork, hams, bacon, great barrels of salted fish were a key source of food, especially for armies on the march.  Salted foods could last a long time, enabling sea voyages and long marches (or the withstanding of a siege, depending on which side had the goods).  In the dreary north, where they rarely got enough sunlight to refine salt from sea water by solar evaporation, cakes of salt were important trade items.

England was lucky.  While the British weather is notoriously the opposite of sunny, England has deposits of mineral salt, notably in Cheshire, where salt could be mined, usually by leaching it out with great quantities of water, resulting in brine which was then let into shallow pans to evaporate into salt.  Roman-era salt pans and kilns for drying the brine have been found in the area.   In the early modern period and later, they removed so much salt from the ground in this fashion that areas of land simply collapsed as the substrate dissolved out from under.

In the Tyrolean region of the Holy Roman Empire, salt was a highly valuable commodity, sold across Europe to preserve food for various armies.  This history is acknowledged in names like Salzburg (“salt mountain”).  Not only was rock salt mined extensively in the region, from at least the 1200’s, salt baths were also touted for health reasons, and people traveled to spas to bathe in the hopes of curing everything from skin ailments to joint aches (perhaps because the added buoyancy allows the patient to relieve the strain).  When you see the word “Bad” in the name of a Germanic town, it refers to the baths.  Several of the mines even incorporate churches for the benefit of the miners who labored there.

When I was researching the history of salt, I found several references to the use of animal blood as an additive to a brine to separate impurities. It is my theory that this is actually the origin of the term “Kosher salt,” which would refer to salt that had been made without the use of blood.

The preservative aspect of salt had another interesting side effect:  salt mummies.  Miners who died in the mines, even in ancient times, could be very well preserved, along with their clothing and personal effects–until they were found by later miners or explorers.

a salt-preserved mummy found in Iran in 1993

a salt-preserved mummy found in Iran in 1993

This is, of course, what makes for the research rabbit hole. You just want to know a little bit more about medieval saltworks, and you end up stumbling over the bodies.  Let’s move back above the salt, shall we?


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Jubilee! The Theoretical Papal Homecoming of 1350

Pope Francis recently declared a Jubilee Year, which officially began on Tuesday, with the timely theme of Mercy.  In doing so, he follows a tradition nearly a millennium old of encouraging pilgrimage to Rome.  For the Catholic who is able to make the journey, and make the official circuit of worship there, a heavenly reward awaits:  remission of sins.  Nice!

The tradition goes back to the Judaic roots of Christianity, with the celebration when all of the twelve tribes could return to Israel.  Let’s just say that one hasn’t been celebrated in the modern era.  The first official Catholic Jubilee year was held by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300, with the intention that they should be held every hundred years.  In the era of my research, the poet Petrarch, eager to convince the papal court to return to Rome from Avignon (a situation which he termed the Babylonian Captivity), talked Clement VI into declaring 1350 to be a Jubilee year–in the hopes that the city would pull itself together, and the pope would come home to Italy to stay.

A map of the seven holy churches pilgrims must visit in Rome in order to earn an indulgence during a Jubilee year.

A map of the seven holy churches pilgrims must visit in Rome in order to earn an indulgence during a Jubilee year.

In the run-up to 1350, let’s just say, Rome was a bit of a mess.  It was the battleground of two warring families, the Colonna and the Orsini, together with their allies, and was briefly run by the fascinating madman, Cola di Rienzo.   Cola was a good friend of Petrarch’s, and they worked on the Jubilee plan together.   In 1350, in order to earn the indulgence (the remission of sin), the pilgrim had to visit the seven great churches of Rome, some of which lay outside the walls (San Lorenzo and San Paolo fuori le Mura, which means “outside the wall”), and were thus in more dangerous territory.  Others, like San Giovanni and Santa Maria Maggiore, were claimed by the Colonna, while Saint Peter’s belonged to the Orsini.

The plans of populists and poets do not always run smoothly.  Aside from overcoming the reluctance of the papal court to return to the chaos of Rome, the plan suffered another set-back in the winter of 1348, when an earthquake centered in Friuli (in the Alps) damaged several of the churches and shattered an already broken city.  By then, Cola had been expelled–with the backing of the pope, his one-time supporter.  And, oh, right, there was the plague.

The Great Pestilence, as it was then called, swept through Europe starting late in 1347 and continuing through the following year.  It ravaged the countryside and the cities, killing peasant and lord alike, as was then observed.  Some people received this as the sign of God’s displeasure, and suggested that atonement was even more necessary, like the Swedish mystic, Saint Bridgit, who traveled to Rome for the Holy Year, and urged others to do likewise, and remained there for the rest of her life, doing good works.  (as an aside to those who have read my books, was I tempted by this coincidence of name, absolutely.  But my Brigit has her own work to do, and it may not be “good”. . .)

Alas, Pope Clement VI did not return to Rome, in spite of the Jubilee.  His successor, Urban V did go there briefly, but did not stay.  The permanent return fell to Pope Gregory XI, who is claimed as the nephew of Clement VI, but was often rumored to be his son.  Gregory XI had a long history with Rome, where he was, during the time of the Great Pestilence, a priest named Pierre Roger, and the archpriest of San Giovanni.

This Jubilee year takes place without plague, at least, and Rome itself is a bastion of stability compared with so much of the world.  If Pope Francis and this ancient tradition can encourage some people to focus on mercy, that sounds like a great plan to me.  I can only wish that some other leaders would do the same.

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