Medieval Technology: the crane

One of the niftiest things I saw in Germany while I was doing research for Elisha Mancer were the Kranen of Trier–the medieval cranes used to unload boats on the nearby Mosel River.   I was fascinated by these curious round towers on the riverside.  The wear pattern around the mooring rings indicated many years of use–boats tying up to make use of the cranes.

medieval crane, Trier, Germany

a crane at Trier dating to 1413

Like a windmill, the top of the crane can rotate to aim the lift arm more effectively and guide the crates from the boat to the shore.  Inside the crane is a huge wooden wheel apparatus that operates the pulleys and rotates the arm.  The crane is human-powered:  like a giant hamster wheel.  The technical term for these cranes is the Treadwheel Crane.  Wikipedia has some cool images from art and illuminations, as well as reconstructions of treadwheel cranes from the Roman era.

Small windows in the base allow for communication and visual confirmation with the operators.  Yes, these cranes have two wheels to allow for faster unloading with two people working at once.


One of my frustrations with pseudo-medieval fantasy is that they often feature technologically stagnant societies, as if human ingenuity would simply cease with access to magic.  Now, there are some books in which magic can, apparently, do anything without limits or costs (a trope which irritates me no end), but in most cases, the magic is limited to certain individuals or certain kinds of tasks, and clearly has a higher cost than simply having ordinary mortals doing their jobs.  And, as mortals, do, seeking ways to make their jobs easier.



Posted in Elisha Mancer, Germany, history, medieval, medieval technology, research, technology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Medieval Scenes and Settings: Heidelberg, Germany

When the Christmas season rolls around, Germany comes to mind. I think this is due to the visual influence of medieval architecture on so many of the villages and ideas we associate with Christmas, with the German carol ‘Stille Nacht’ (one of the few carols you often hear in a different language), and, of course, the strong associations of snow and pine trees.  Germany is also the birthplace of the Christmas tree.

17th century version of the map of Heidelberg

17th century version of the map of Heidelberg

One of my favorite German cities is Heidelberg, a university town on the Neckar river in south-eastern Germany.  People have been living there for hundreds of thousands of years, as evidenced by the jawbone of “Heidelberg Man” found nearby in 1907. It was established as a town by the Romans, who were subsequently chased off by the Germanic hill tribes in the third century AD.

View of Heidelberg Castle from across the river

View of Heidelberg Castle from across the river

I first went there as a child on a trip with my parents, and fell in love with the castle that dominates the city.  An intimidating red stone structure at the top of the hill, it must be one of the most beautiful ruins in Europe–but parts of it have been restored, and now house, among other things, an apothecary museum and an extremely large wine cask or “tun.”

the giant tun, with a capacity around 57,000 gallons

the giant tun, with a capacity around 57,000 gallons

So much historical character remains in the streets and buildings, that it is like stepping back in time.  You will not be surprised to find that Heidelberg is one of the key settings in the next Dark Apostle book, Elisha Mancer.

reconstructed early modern apothecary shop in the museum

reconstructed early modern apothecary shop in the museum







In addition to the outstanding castle, Heidelberg contains striking bridges, and the austerely magnificent Church of the Holy Ghost, which was under construction during Elisha’s time, the 1340’s.  Heidelberg was also, at that time, home to a thriving Jewish community, and later served as a refuge during the persecutions that accompanied the Black Death.

Church of the Holy Spirit

Church of the Holy Spirit

Posted in Elisha Mancer, Germany, history, medieval, Settings, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

E. C. Ambrose Takes the Fun out of Movies: “Fantastic Beasts” and the Ethics of Magic

This weekend, I went to see the new Potterverse film, “Fantastic Creatures and Where to Find Them.”  Let me preface these remarks by saying that I love a good fantasy creature, but I have some issues with Rowling’s work overall (from the writerly perspective)  so while I have read the Potter books, I would not describe myself as a fan.  So, as I wrote this blog, I realized it has a certain kinship with my entry on Bilbo Baggins’ Bathrobe in its examination of aspects of worldbuilding that the author and filmmakers probably did not intend to present–and a new blog series was born!  If you don’t want me to take the fun out of this movie by making you think about it in a different light, perhaps it’s best not to read any further.

Newt Scamander and his muggle sidekick, Jacob

Newt Scamander and his muggle sidekick, Jacob

This film was thoroughly entertaining for the first two-thirds or so, with Newt’s interactions with and devotion to the Fantastic Beasts of the title.  As it reached the climax, it got me to thinking about the nature of Rowling’s Wizarding World as portrayed in the books, and now in this film.  There are enough witches and wizards to have entirely separate governments, bureaucracies, banks, and shopping districts–apparently around the world.  And, aside from needing proper training to use the hereditary gift of magic (there are occasional wizards born to muggle families–apparently a mutation of some sort?), there is basically no cost or limitation on what they can do.

In the books, of course, you get a more nuanced perspective on this, but not greatly so.  The books tend to introduce magic because it’s fun and solves a problem, but without  extrapolating either the consequences of the problem, or of the magic used to solve it.  So when Harry breaks his arm during a quidditch match, and his bones are accidentally dissolved, they are re-grown again at the cost of some pain and a fairly brief recovery time, to be completely normal. I always wondered, what happened to the muscles and tendons which were attached to the bone in the meantime?  Apparently, they were all just fine.  But I digress.

In the film, we are presented with the large and well-organized Macusa, the magical congress of the United States (apparently rhymes with “Yakuza”:  coincidence?).  They are capable of repairing huge swaths of damage in a very short time using waves of their wands, so that the structures are as good as new. They can then obliviate any non-magical persons who might have witnessed the magic, leaving them all perfectly normal.  Again, all of this at no apparent cost, with no apparent difficulty.  They have strict laws to keep themselves apart from the muggles (no-majs in the new parlance).  Naturally, the protagonists have a token muggle friend, but they do eventually comply with the laws.

I would like to contrast two meal scenes in the film, to illustrate my concern with this structure of magical society.  In one, a muggle woman, leader of an anti-witch movement called Second Salem, feeds dozens of children in exchange for their distribution of her leaflets.  In order to make the meal, this woman and her family presumably had to work for the money or to seek out charitable contributions. They then had to work to produce the meal in order to feed so many people.  Their kitchen, indeed their home, is dark, gloomy and poorly furnished, but they manage to feed all of these children, at least once a day.

In another scene, American witch Tina takes home the protagonist Newt Scamander and his muggle acquaintance, Jacob.  There, her washing dries on magical racks. Her table sets itself with beautiful details like soaring napkins, in a cozy and rather luxurious apartment.  Her sister whips up a meal in moments, apparently from nothing, all the way down to a freshly cooked and delicious apple strudel.  The place is bright, airy, comfortable, the food is excellent, provided with no labor at all.  The sisters do have jobs at the Congress, though I don’t have a clear idea of how their work puts food on the table in a literal sense.  Work seems to be unnecessary at least as far as daily needs and wants are concerned. (Tina’s earlier demotion seems to have had no effect on her standard of living, only on her sense of self.)

Here we have a large group of people with extraordinary resources that cost them, so far as we can tell, absolutely nothing.  What if Superman never used his powers to try to save anyone (except from trouble he created)?  What if he just lived as Clark Kent, and went home everyday to fly around his apartment and use his x-ray vision for, well, other purposes?  Would he still be considered a hero?  How about a whole society of supermen who use their power only for their own benefit, who have such an excess of power that they can use it for every trivial purpose?

Is the philosophy of the Wizarding World that muggles need to pull themselves up, to make their own way in the world?  If so, it is a surprisingly pervasive philosophy–are renegade witches ever arrested for running magical soup kitchens for muggles because they feel they’d like to use their powers for the good of others?  Do witches infiltrate and guide search-and-rescue teams to injured muggles, or work as nurses where they secretly prompt better healing than the muggles might otherwise have?  What about in cases where the injury is magically caused or a result of wizardly dueling?

I am not sure you can cause that much destruction to Times Square without anyone getting injured, and simply making them forget exactly how they got hurt, then abandoning them in a perfectly repaired city seems like a recipe for a psychological breakdown.  But the Wizarding World is not concerned with any of this, and even the man whose son is killed seemingly walks away without explanation.  I wondered why, given all of their power, the wizards aren’t just running the country, whether overtly or covertly.

It is implied that the villain of the new film series, Gellert Grindelwald, intends to spark war with the muggles.  This seems rather pointless.  If he wants to rule the world, or just America, all he has to do is run for president.  When you can coerce or bribe people with unlimited wealth (or unlimited threats), and even make them forget they’ve been influenced–there’s really no end to the potential abuses of power.  Second, why would a muggle war be remotely threatening to the Wizarding World?  I have trouble conceiving of any way that the muggles could fight back:  they might have superior numbers, but they’d still be building weapons and directing troops while the wizards would be appirating and firebombing with a flick of their wands.  The wizards, as enemy combatants, would be akin to Isis sleeper cells, but with completely invisible modes of travel, communication and weaponry–only there seem to be many, many more wizards and they are much more organized.

((as an aside, it is implied that Newt and/or his brother, fought in World War I, but I don’t know why the wizards would have been involved, or how. If they either aid or infiltrate muggle society as soldiers, why not as policemen, doctors or psychiatrists?  and wouldn’t they have more effective ways of preventing conflict–hello, time-turner?))

Spiderman lives with the ethos he learned from his family:  with great power, comes great responsibility.  And Spiderman is a limited resource–he’s the only one who can do what he does, he can’t be in many places at once.  In the Wizarding World, the only responsibility seems to be “clean up your mess, and obliviate the witnesses.”

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A Queen for our time? Joanna of Naples, Great Characters of the Middle Ages

This is the latest installment in my Great Characters of the Middle Ages series.  Some of these folks are people who are appearing my my work. Joanna, alas, I must set aside–though I am tempted to post some of the scenes in which she originally appeared, that work was set aside when we developed the new series outline, and alas, Joanna no longer appears.

When I started researching the people of the 14th century who might relate to my Dark Apostle series, a few immediately leapt from the history books and demanded to be included.  Cola di Rienzo, the madman who ruled Rome was one of them, and Joanna was the other.  She was married four times and sold Avignon to the pope, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

220px-jeanne_de_naplesBorn in 1328, Joanna acceded to the throne of Naples on the death of her father, King Robert, in 1343–yes, she was only fifteen years old.  Like many teens of the era, she was already married, to Andrew of Hungary, who was not mentioned in the king’s will, even as her consort.  Almost immediately, the succession was challenged on all sides by the king’s brothers. Andrew was crowned at her side in 1344, but shut out of any role in the government, and almost immediately began to fight for his part–and to fear for his life.

His fear would prove to be justified. One night during a hunting expedition in 1345, Andrew was lured from his room and a servant barred the door after him.  He was then attacked, strangled and tossed out a window with a rope around his genitals.  Suspicion immediately fell upon Joanna who was in her own room at the time, and controversy raged.  One of her most ardent defenders was the poet Boccaccio, who included her in his Lives of Famous Women.  To this day, her complicity in the murder has not been established.  She gave birth to a son, who died at the age of two in care of his Hungarian relatives.

Andrew’s brother, the king of Hungary, was convinced after she declined to marry the dead man’s younger brother, and marched on Italy.  Joanna’s second husband, her cousin Louis of Tarranto, successfully repelled one of his rivals, and they secured a treaty with Sicily to stand against Hungary’s invasion.  But she hadn’t sought the appropriate papal dispensation to marry her cousin, and the marriage was widely unpopular.  When the Hungarian army reached Naples in early 1348, Joanna fled to her holdings in France.  At Avignon, she reconciled with the Pope and transferred the city to him.

Together, Joanna and Louis returned to Naples where they expanded their territory.  The couple had two children, both of whom died young.  Louis caught cold and died in 1362. It’s hard to say if Joanna missed Louis–certainly his martial disposition brought them a number of victories, but the evidence suggests she had a highly independent spirit and likely chafed under his demands.  So his death gave her the opportunity to rule in her own stead, but she still required a husband, ideally to both conceive an heir, and also to cement her position.

Her new husband, younger by ten years, was James IV of Majorca–who had been driven mad by being imprisoned in an iron cage for fourteen years at the hands of his uncle King Peter of Aragon.  So, yeah, not a very promising beginning.  He did make some attempts to behave in a kingly fashion–to the perturbation of his wife, who really didn’t want someone else to take power in Naples.  This strife sent him back to Spain in 1366 where he remained, save one brief return, until his death (perhaps from poison) in 1375.

Still without an heir and desperate to have a bulwark against her predatory relatives, in 1376, at the age of 48, Joanna married Otto, Duke of Brunswick-Grubenhagen, who did his best–but the marriage only irritated Charles of Durazzo, who had been scheming to take power for many years. He allied with her old enemy the king of Hungary, and even her long-standing ties with the papal court frayed to naught during the Great Schism, when she supported the wrong pope.  The pope at Rome, Urban IV, supported her enemies and she was declared a heretic and her lands forfeit.

Joanna named an heir from among her cousins who supported her rights, but by then it was rather too late. Charles of Durazzo invaded at the head of a Hungarian army, and Joanna’s few soldiers, under Otto’s command, could not repel them.  Charles seized Joanna, and had her killed in 1382, though he would claim the death was due to natural causes.

When people wonder how I can spend so much time researching history, I need only to tell them Joanna’s story–a little-known figure whose life, all by itself, would make a great novel.


Posted in Elisha Mancer, Great Characters of the Middle Ages, history, medieval, profiles, The Dark Apostle | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

God’s Clockmakers: factors in the early development of time-keeping technology

A few weeks ago, when I wrote about the medieval engineers of Islam, I promised a more general view of the role of religion in the development of clocks.  The association goes way back.  If you think about it, this makes sense.  For millennia, people didn’t really need to know anything specific about time. Dawn= time to get up, Dusk = time to go to bed (or time to hunt certain kinds of animals, and to be hunted by others).  Clues about the change of the seasons told you when to move hunting grounds and which direction to go, or when to plant crops and what to plant.

al-Jazari's castle clock at Bagdad

al-Jazari’s castle clock at Bagdad

It’s only when people begin to organize more conscious societies and these societies began to create rituals that a more precise division of time became necessary.  I started out with the intent of talking about religion, but really, the development of clocks was driven at least as much by bureaucracy, and by people who wanted to get the most for their time–whether that was lawyers or prostitutes.

Enter the Water Thief or Clepsydra.  Water clocks have been discovered in many different parts of the world, including Egypt, Babylon, China and India.  But I love the term “Clepsydra,” the Greek word for these simple devices.  Their development in Babylon relates to a judicious arrangement of water rights by local municipalities, and in Iran around 500 B.C. they were used to monitor holy days. Basically, the water clock keeps time by water flowing into or out of the device at a regular rate, as indicated by markings on the container.  It needs to be re-filled from time to time, but, unlike the sundial, it works regardless of the weather or its location. So if you were an early Christian monk, you could have a water clock in your chamber to mark the hours of prayer–and this remained the most accurate method of time-keeping until the 17th century.

The water clock became highly elaborate during the Greco-Roman period, with elaborate gearing and water-driven figures that appeared to come alive to mark the hours. The Tower of the Winds in Athens is the remnant of a large public clepsydra.  The Greeks used their clocks to time speakers in court cases, and the visits of patrons at brothels to ensure that everyone was treated fairly.

a model of Su Song's astronomical clock in the collection of London's Museum of Science

a model of Su Song’s astronomical clock in the collection of London’s Museum of Science

My favorite exploration of the water clock, however, emerged in China around 1080 AD, with Su Song’s astronomical clock.  This clock used water to turn all of its incredibly detailed machinery, but all to serve the purpose of tracking the birth of imperial children in order to produce the most accurate astrological charts to ensure good governance by these representatives of the divine upon earth.  At the top of the tower are the astronomical instruments, to the right in this image are the mechanisms that drive the clock, linked to the instruments above to synchronize their turning, and to the left, you can see the large barrel-shape of the display.

At medieval churches throughout Europe, sundials featured as a way to mark the hours and bells to summon people to pray.  The sundials gave way to mechanical clocks with their own ways to chime the hours, often with cycles of the moon or other astronomical phenomena.  But they still needed to solve the problem of the escapement: the mechanism that transfers the energy of the moving force (water or a spring) to the dial in a regular and controlled fashion.  Enter Richard of Wallingford, a thirteenth century abbot memorialized as God’s Clockmaker for his work in the development of the mechanical escapement, employed in the tower clock at St. Alban’s.  After this, many other varieties of escapement were tried, with the goal of making the clocks ever smaller and more accurate.

Sadly, as the clocks became more elaborate, that also meant specialized labor was needed to maintain them, and many of those magnificent early clocks, incluing Su Song’s and al-Jazari’s, were lost to war or dis-repair.  I delighted in finding medieval clocks still in place in many English churches, some of them still keeping the time.  Here are a few of them for your enjoyment.

A lovely astronomical clock in Exeter, UK

A lovely astronomical clock in Exeter, UK

the bell-striking "Jacks" at Wells Cathedral clock dating to the late 14th century

the bell-striking “Jacks” at Wells Cathedral clock dating to the late 14th century

a retired mechanism at St. Mary Ottery

a retired mechanism at St. Mary Ottery

astronomical clock at St. Mary Ottery

astronomical clock at St. Mary Ottery

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Elisha Mancer cover reveal!

Yes, it’s finally here–the day I can share the amazing new cover art, by Cliff Nielsen, for Elisha Mancer, book 4 in my Dark Apostle series.  This volume takes Elisha to the Continent to track down his enemies before they can undermine the Holy Roman Empire, and the Holy Church itself!

Elisha Mancer cover art, by Cliff Nielsen

Elisha Mancer cover art, by Cliff Nielsen

Autumn, 1347. . .terror stalks Europe as necromancers conspire to topple kings, corrupt an empire and undermine the Holy Church itself.

Armed with a healer’s skill and a witch’s art, Elisha hurries to the Continent to warn the Holy Roman Emperor and discover how to stop the mancers’ plans.  But his enemies lurk in markets and churches, abducting innocents to torture and kill, using these slayings to open a passage through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  If he fights for a single life, Elisha may well become the next victim.  With his affinity for both life and death, Elisha is by turns claimed for a savior, or for one of the very enemy he faces.

When he uncovers a scheme to lure thousands of pilgrims to Rome, Elisha’s hunt takes him from the opulent empire to the ruined Eternal City:  abandoned by the Pope, shattered by baronial squabbles, and now ruled by a madman.  At least, on the surface above. In the catacombs lurks an entirely different sort of leader, a master of death more powerful than Elisha himself.

A one-eyed priest, a seductive traitor, a stern rabbi, a merchant of bones—how can he tell friend from foe when he no longer recognizes himself? Every blow Elisha strikes draws him toward the wrong side of the battle.   When the enemy retaliates in blood, he fights to keep his humanity lest he be consumed by the spreading darkness and become. . .Elisha Mancer

Elisha Mancer launches on February 7, 2017, and will be available wherever books are sold.  You can pre-order now, on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or through your local independent book store!


Posted in books, Elisha Mancer, fantasy, fiction, magic, medieval, publishing, The Dark Apostle | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

What’s Your Sign? Ophiuchus!

It’s not the first time I’ve written about the conjunction between astronomy and astrology–for a long time, they were considered to be essentially the same thing. The only reason to study the stars was to understand how they governed those born beneath them.  But I wasn’t expecting the current kerfuffle about NASA’s new zodiac.

A lovely astronomical clock in Exeter, UK

A lovely astronomical clock in Exeter, UK

The plane of the zodiac, or the ecliptic, is the space through which the earth moves on its orbit, such that different signs are ascendant (that is, rising in the east when someone is born) at a certain predictable time of year, and those signs, since Babylonian days have been considered significant.  Greco-Roman culture adopted this concept by the 4th century BC, giving the astrological signs their familiar names, which you can find in some newspaper columns to this very day.

However, NASA now tells us, the axis of the earth has shifted.  Not only does it mean you were probably not born under the sign you’ve always believed, but there’s a whole new sign:  Ophiucus, the serpent-bearer. Okay, when I heard about that, I kinda wished I were born between Nov. 29 and Dec. 17 and could proudly claim my serpents.  Alas, not so.  I’m curious to see if astrologers are going to pick up the new sign and run with it, giving advice to the serpent-bearers among us (like:  grasp them right behind the head.  If you get bitten, don’t suck out the venom. . .)

According to NASA, however, the Babylonians knew about Ophiucus, and decided to expel him as a 13th sign because it was hard enough to divide the sky (and the humans beneath it) into 12 slices, never mind 13.  So it turns out that this “new” zodiac, is actually just an older one that had been discarded as messy.  As above, so below.  Life is messy, why shouldn’t the zodiac be?  After all, this is organic life imposing our vision on stars that have been around for billions of years, oblivious to our very existence.  Of course, we want to reach out to claim them and tame them, turning them into reflections of our own stories.

Now, Ophiucus is rising once again!  But one suspects the Babylonians were not the only ones already in on the secret.  What about the snake-handling cults of Appalachia, who take literally Mark, chapter 16, Verses 17-18, saying that the believers shall “take up serpents”?  It must also be the sign of the Slytherins, which suggests to me that dark days are coming.  Fortunately, wiki-how gives clear, concise instructions on how to handle the snakes.  Now if they could just give us some advice about handling politicians. . .


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