Celebrating Lithuanian Independence Day, with an Introduction to Lithuania during the Middle Ages

On February 16, Lithuania, a small Baltic sea republic, celebrated its independence day.  While I do have Lithuanian heritage on my mother’s side, I was primarily reminded of the holiday by a link I received to a video by a Lithuanian tv personality teasing our new president and suggesting that if he’s putting America first, then perhaps Lithuania could be third.  The video is fun, particularly if you have Lithuanian descent, and also has some gorgeous footage of the country, especially its castles.  But I don’t intend for this to be a political post.  Rather, if you chose to watch, I would call your attention to the brief history lesson part way through the video.

Trakai Island Castle, Lithuania, finished in 1409

Trakai Island Castle, Lithuania, finished in 1409

During my period of study, the high and later Middle Ages, Lithuania was a power in Europe, and Lithuanians still regard the era from the 13th to 16th centuries as their Golden Age.  While researching for an epic fantasy set during the Mongol invasions of China, I took the opportunity to do some more reading on Lithuania as well–one of my principal characters is a Lithuanian bellmaker kidnapped by a Mongol scout during an expedition to the fringes of Europe, and pressed into service.  I’ve enjoyed incorporating a variety of cultures and clashes into that book, but I digress.

The term “Lithuania” first appears in a monk’s chronicle in 1009.  Medieval Lithuania was notoriously pagan when most of Europe had become Christian.  While one of the earlier Grand Dukes professed Christianity and received his crown from the Pope, it wasn’t until 1387 that the Grand Duchy officially became Catholic.  The ruling family also held the crown of Poland, expanding the borders by a large margin.

In spite of the nation’s conversion, the neighboring Teutonic Knights continue to press territorial claims until they were finally defeated in 1410.  After that, Grand Duke Vytautas (who is lauded in the video), completed the drive south, allowing Lithuania to become the largest state in Europe at the time stretching from the Baltic to the Black Seas.  This site has a nice map showing Lithuania’s expansion during the 14th and 15th centuries.

Lithuania in the 15th century was justly famous for its warlike outlook, and I was a bit tempted to draw it into my Dark Apostle series. What would the pagan ruler of this spreading nation think about the necromancers and magic in general?  Unfortunately, there is scant scholarship available in English into the early religion of Lithuania (aside from many Medieval sources referring to the Grand Duchy as notoriously pagan).

I did find another site devoted entirely to Medieval Lithuania, which refers to a sort of warrior cult followed by the leadership and knights, and spreading to the common people as well, which could explain the heroic ethos referenced in resources about Lithuanian mythology.  Clearly, I’ll need to make a trip to the old country to learn more!  If you’re curious, check out the top 10 sights of Medieval Lithuania.

 

 

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Elisha Mancer Launch Day! With footnotes. . .

Elisha Mancer, Book 4 of The Dark Apostle, is now available in bookstores everywhere!  And you can find sample chapters for this, and all of the books in the series, at TheDarkApostle.com  When you love it, you can click through and buy the book.

cover of Elisha Mancer, by the amazing Cliff Nielsen

cover of Elisha Mancer, by the amazing Cliff Nielsen

As you may know, this blog exists in part to serve as the footnotes and research comments for my historical fantasy novels. Herewith, are the “notes” for this volume.  I don’t think any of them contain direct spoilers, but they do serve as some indicators of the historical goodies that influence the plot.  If you are concerned about spoilers, you may wish to go read the book, then return here for more juicy details.

I hope you enjoy this introduction to the settings, characters and events from history that find their way into Elisha Mancer.

This book takes place all over Europe, including Heidelberg and Trier, Germany.  With references to some cool medieval technology like the Kranen, and a visit to one of Bavaria’s salt mines.  There’s also a stop in Koln, to visit the Bones of the Magi because, let’s face it, I couldn’t pass that up.  But there was at least one great city, Aachen, I planned to use and never did.

My visit to Aachen did help me to learn more about the Holy Roman Empire, and its two emperors during my period, Charles IV and Louis the Bavarian (whom I have called Ludwig to distinguish him from the numerous other Louis in the area. . .) Succession was often a problem, and not always, as many believe, based on primogeniture.

This book also introduces one of the Great Characters of the Middle Ages, Cola Di Rienzo, the madman who ruled Rome.

He could rule Rome because the pope wasn’t there–but kept planning to return.  The church retained a lot of power, internationally, and at its heart in Rome itself, due, in large measure, to the holy relics found there.

and this volume brings 1347 to a close, with a world-tour you may already be expecting.  But there is still one more volume to go. . .

 

 

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Health Insurance, Medieval Style

Many people in the US right now are concerned about their health insurance (among other things).  Will it change all over again? Probably–won’t it be fun to find out.  We tend to think of insurance as a recent innovation, a social good offered to citizens for commercial purposes, generally through an employer, and designed to offer peace of mind in the event of a health emergency.  However, this and many other benefits were available to medieval tradesmen and merchants through their local guild.

This tower in the London wall once served as the operating theater for the Company of Barber-surgeons

This tower in the London wall once served as the operating theater for the Company of Barber-surgeons

The guild system managed a wide variety of aspects of business during the middle ages. They developed during the 12th century in Europe, from the tendency of people in a given trade to have similar concerns, and band together to address them.

Depending on the trade served by the guild, they might offer the equivalent of today’s professional societies–the networking, mutual support and lead generation, not to mention the camaraderie of joining together with like minds.  They helped apprentices find masters and journeymen find work, not to mention conferring the honors for those at the top of the profession–maintaining professional standards.  They also offered funeral and survivorship benefits for widows and children, like many trade unions do today. Although I am not sure any union puts up dowries for the daughters of their poorer members.

In addition to services for members, guilds often performed charitable work and public service, like the famous Goldsmiths’ Guild celebration of the 15th century, which included mechanized angels blowing on trumpets to announce the procession.

Health insurance could mean payments to barbers, surgeons or physicians as needed on behalf of the ill or injured guild member, or direct payments to the member during a time when they were unable to work.   The protagonist of my series, Elisha Barber, would have been a member of the Worshipful Company of Barbers, founded in 1308 in London, and his brother, Nathaniel, a member of the Tinsmith’s guild.  Each guild had a charter spelling out the duties and benefits for members, and might specify payments for particular injuries, often relating to the profession at hand.  The dues paid by the members went to support the services they received.

While modern-day people often decry any significant change as a return to the middle ages, in some ways, they really weren’t so bad. . .

The Merchant-Adventurers' Guild Hall, York, England

The Merchant-Adventurers’ Guild Hall, York, England

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What Comes Next? Power Transitions in the Middle Ages

Today is a big day in America, yet it’s an event that occurs every four or eight years: the inauguration of a new president.  Since I’ve also been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the words of King George’s songs keep running through my head.

“What comes next/ you’ve been freed/ Do you know how hard it is to lead?”

and later on, “Are they gonna keep replacing whoever’s in charge?”

Charles IV, King of Bohemia, and Holy Roman Emperor, 1346-1378

Charles IV, King of Bohemia, and Holy Roman Emperor, 1346-1378

I thought I would mark the occasion with some observations about the transfer of power in the Middle Ages.  People often assume, and fantasy authors usually present, a medieval world in which leadership roles transferred somewhat automatically from father to son.  In the event that there was no son, some amount of chaos ensued while the potential heirs presented their competing claims–often at the end of a sword.

Edward III of England, for example, claimed the throne of France through his mother, and fought for it numerous times.  Such a claim was often made not to actually seize the throne of another country, but rather to serve as a club with which to gain other concessions, like ancestral lands or privileges once belonging to the family.  By that point, in the 1340’s, the ancestry of both England and France were so tangled through centuries of intermarriage that each monarch laid claim to the throne or fealty of the other.

In some places, the sons of a leader were deliberately overlooked, because you couldn’t be certain they were actually related to him.  In that case, the children of the lord’s sister would be his heirs.  (Ghana, for example)

At other times on this blog, I’ve noted different forms of transitioning power, some of which are less familiar to the reader of medieval fantasy, or to others more casually aware of the Middle Ages.  Mongolia’s democratic leanings, for instance, are a common feature of nomadic cultures.  Leadership claims tended to be more based on vital real-world skills like an ability to read the weather or land, to lead toward good hunting or good pastureland, to negotiate for passage or retaliate quickly for the incursions of others.  The idea of owning land and building permanent structures which might need a more permanent managerial system, anthropologically speaking, seems to arise more with the advent of agriculture rather than husbandry.

The title of Holy Roman Emperor was also by election, with the electors representing different regions of the empire (what is now Germany and Eastern Europe) as well as high-ranking church officials.  In the event that an emperor was found to be unsuitable, the electors then put forward a new candidate–whose first task, of course, was to convince the sitting emperor to give up his crown.

Even within the settled structures of medieval culture, the city-states of Italy often used communal governance, with a group of high-ranking officials taking charge and making decisions for their city and region.  Again, the economy of these city-states plays a large role in determining their governance:  their trade-based wealth required leadership drawn from those who understood the balances of import and export, investment and tariff.  And of course, those who wield significant wealth and influence often refuse to submit to mere political authority, preferring to hold the reins themselves.

Rome always held a unique position among the cities of Italy.  The theoretical seat of the church, it derived much of its prominence from the presence of the Pope and cardinals–but they fled to France when the countryside got rough, leaving the barons to squabble over the city itself.  Cola di Rienzo led a popular revolt to claim control of the city, only to (as Hamilton‘s King George would have predicted) fall into anarchy when he couldn’t figure out how to lead a state instead of an army.

And even within the traditional feudal system of transference of power to family, we have cases where women inherited, like Joanna of Naples, or governed on behalf of absent husbands or minor children, often remaining in power for a long time–as happened more than once in China.

So, will America’s transition of power lead to a new age of glory, or to a devolution into chaos, or, as seems more likely, be simply another term of checks and balances until we peacefully (if with protest) transition again?  Hopefully no one will need to get killed at the gate for us to find out.

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Celebrating Friday the 13th with the Knights Templar!

So, today is Friday the Thirteenth, a day which apparently over 21 million Americans still fear.  There are numerous explanations for this concern about the date (I actually wrote a paper about this back in junior high, when I was obsessed with superstitions).  The number thirteen is widely considered unlucky in Europe–hence the term trisksadekaphobic (for someone afraid of that number), and in France, the position of the quatorzieme, or professional fourteenth guest, who would round out your party numbers if the guest list proved unlucky.

But it is the persecution of the Knights Templar that usually gets the credit for the link of that unlucky number with Friday.  When I started out writing the Dark Apostle books, I quickly grew frustrated with trying to find references at the local bookstores.  The Templars were a hot topic (ha, ha, I know) and the Medieval History shelves were entirely dominated by books about Templars.  I swore I would not write about them.

tomb effigies in the former Knights Templar Chapel in London

tomb effigies in the former Knights Templar Chapel in London

Then the idea for The Grail Maiden came along.  I wanted to write about the historical hinge point from which my timeline of the British monarchy departed, the death of Edward I (Edward Longshanks) in July of 1307.  He was ill, and near the Scottish border involved in his attempts to subdue the Scots.  In my timeline, I have his son, Edward II, die shortly afterward, leaving the throne vacant, and available for a side-long claimant–which is another story.

So when I followed my usual process and started searching for other things that happened in 1307 and might have an impact on the story I had in mind–involving Duke Randall and his wife Allyson, I discovered that the arrests of the Templars in France began on October 13, 1307, a fact too interesting to avoid.

Founded in 1119 by a French nobleman during the First Crusade, the Templars were originally charged with defending pilgrims on their way to the holy sites in Jerusalem, then as now a highly contentious region.  Knights took an oath of poverty, which meant many of them donated their moneys and estates to the Order, and the Templars as a whole began to accumulate an unseemly amount of wealth.  Because of their noble character, wide-spread centers and martial discipline, the Templars quickly assumed other roles:  most notably, serving as bankers for nobles on the move, or those who needed funds for various wars and projects.

Enter King Phillip of France, AKA, Phillip the Fair.  Phillip was already unhappy because the Templars stated a desire to found their own nation (ala the state of Prussia, founded by the Teutonic Knights), and they planned to stake their claim in the Languedoc region of France.  Also, like many of the nobles, Phillip was already in debt to the Templars, and it might be awfully convenient not to have to pay back that debt.

Phillip accused the Templars of heresy:  spitting on the cross; kissing the lips, navel and posterior of the initiate; and idol-worship, among others.  The 138 arrested knights were tortured to elicit confessions of these charges (most of them confessed to at least one of the carges), and some of them were put to death, most notably by burning at the stake.

If you are interested in my fictional take on some of this history, The Grail Maiden is currently on sale as part of this multi-author 99-cent sale, which runs through January 14th.  How’s that for a TGIF?

rev-2-choose-a-new-adventure

 

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“Rogue One” and the Challenge of Prequels

Okay, if you have not yet seen “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” now would be a good time. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.  Unless you don’t mind about spoilers, in which case come on in!

one of the promotional images Lucasfilm created for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

one of the promotional images Lucasfilm created for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

“Rogue One” is an interesting solution to the problems of prequels.  I’ve written a couple of prequel stories myself, most notably “The Burning,” which takes place when Elisha is a boy, just after the witch’s burning that changes the course of his life; and The Grail Maiden, a novella about the early relationships of Duke Randall, his wife Allyson, and their good friend, Lord Robert.

In order to develop a prequel, the author must first find a hook for a new story.  The hooks tend to be most successful when they explore an area that fans will be curious about.  That could be the origin of a key character or plot point in the original work, or something related to the original, but not necessarily germane to its essence.  So, “Rogue One” takes up the question of how the rebels got the Death Star plans (germane), while The Grail Maiden looks into the history of some secondary characters (not germane). Hopefully, this material will enhance readers’ interest in the series, but it won’t necessarily inform their understanding of the plot.

Two, the prequel has to be in keeping with the audience’s knowledge of the world from their exposure to the principal work.  The ideal sequel will give them new things to think about, a new insight into characters or background.

A key aspect of this fidelity to the source material is how the prequel ends.  In my story, readers familiar with Elisha Barber would know how the protagonists of the prequel fit in.  Their enjoyment of the story comes from discovering things they didn’t know about those protagonists, and the tension arises from the secrets revealed there. How did these people, with this set of relationships, become the characters we’ve already met?

“Rogue One” had a different challenge, because none of the protagonists for this film appears in any other place.  Thus the audience is set up to expect a tragedy.  Either all of these characters dies, or some other huge event causes them to be thrust outside the rebellion they are risking their lives for.  That can make it hard to maintain suspense because the ending is pretty clear from what we already know of the original work.  In this case, they had fun with introducing a number of minor characters from the original, expanding the roles for some of them, or simply offering cameos to some fringe personalities.  They also had the challenge of pulling off the necessary Hollywood upbeat ending, given the fate of the protagonists, after doing the work of making us root for them.

It occurs to me that the film “Memento” is a series of prequel scenes, each one shedding light on the scene you’ve just viewed, creating a story that is told backwards.  It builds tension in a similar way to other prequels–by setting up a dis-junction between the present of the narrative world, and its past.  The audience wants to see that tension resolved, and, as “Memento” shows, that tension can be very powerful indeed.

In the more usual meaning, a prequel is a complete stand-alone work created after the primary work, but place before it in the narrative timeline.  A prequel is more or less a gift for the fans.  Sometimes, people ask if they should read the books in order of publication, or in the chronological order of the series events.  The prequels are generally much more rewarding for people who already know the milieu and will have an investment in the sort of details that a prequel illuminates in a world they already love.  They can be used as an introduction to a series, but will lack some of the resonance endowed by the things the dedicated reader already knows.

In honor of prequelitis, The Grail Maiden is currently on sale for only 99 cents at Amazon and through Smashwords.

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Guest Author: Kathryn Hills Talks about Haunting Highland House

Since I am visiting with my agent and editors this week, I asked my friend Kathryn Hills to stop in and talk about the history and fantasy behind her novel, Haunting Highland House, a spicy fantasy romance released by The Wild Rose Press in October.  Besides, it’s winter–time to turn up the heat!

The cover of Haunting Highland House, by Kathryn Hills

The cover of Haunting Highland House, by Kathryn Hills

 

What was the inception of your most recent project? What were your first steps in building that idea into a viable story?

I’ve always been fascinated by ghost stories, but I never expected to write one. Yet seven years ago, I visited a restored Victorian mansion on Cape Cod and came up with the idea for Haunting Highland House. A bit like being struck by lightning, I was stunned by the story unfolding in my head during the long drive home. I was not a writer, you see, but I became filled with ideas for a book. My imagination swirled around the old mansion, the grand estate it had once been part of, and the turbulent past it suffered as it fell into ruin. These thoughts spurred me on… What would it be like to visit the estate when it was thriving, the late 1800’s? As a “modern person,” what would it be like to be thrust back in time to see the place and meet the people who lived then? And if I went there, could I get back?

How did all this “wondering” and “imagining” lead to connecting ghosts with time travel? In my fictional world, meeting a time traveler is a paranormal experience. Something beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding. No stretch there. But since my absolute favorite paranormal things in my life are ghosts and haunting experiences I melded the two. I’ve been a ghost hunter for years and love the idea of detached spirits or nonphysical entities being unhindered time travelers. After all, what is the past, present, and future to a ghost? Likely something completely different than it is for us. Time is probably different, too. Wouldn’t it be fun if we could travel to “when” we choose and come back, perhaps like a time-traveling ghost? Or someone living with a magical tool to help do it?

 

  1. & 3. What kind of research and/or world-building did you do before beginning? AND How does the real world affect your speculative fiction?

 

Researching ghosts and time travel is a bit like following Alice’s rabbit down a worm hole wearing a tin foil hat. You never quite know where you’ll end up, and there are many theories, none proven. As a result, I chose to invent my own time travel “rules.” (I’m not into spoilers, so you’ll have to read the book if you want to learn more) Once that sticky bit was addressed, I focused on the actual history surrounding the estate and the time period. Wealthy Bostonians, American Victorian society, evolving social customs, clothing, technology, and physical travel such as by coach, train, and passenger steamer. The last led me to research shipwrecks as one plays a large part in Haunting Highland House. I’ve amassed a library studying these things and more for the series.

As this story is paranormal/fantasy romance, I’ve also researched psychic mediums and the rise of spiritualism during the Victorian era, magic, and folklore. All of them are vital to The Time Traveler’s Journey series, and I freely admit I find such topics fascinating. Discussing them with paranormal investigators, psychics, a shaman, and even an illusionist are all delightful perks of being a writer.

  1. If I could choose a few descriptors that would go in a blurb on the cover…

 

One line from this first book… Time is but a destination.

 

  1. Where should readers go to find out more about my work?

 

www.kathrynhills.com

https://www.facebook.com/AuthorKathrynHills/

https://twitter.com/AuthorKathrynH

https://www.amazon.com/Kathryn-Hills/e/B01LBDCVVU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHKO-9pgdQE&feature=youtu.be

 

  1. Link to something amazing…

Following is the link to the place that inspired Haunting Highland House. Its real name is Highfield Hall, located in Falmouth, MA on Cape Cod. You can learn its history, including the amazing journey from ruin to restoration, and see the mansion as it thrives today. Perhaps even visit if you’re in the northeast.

http://highfieldhallandgardens.org/about-us/

khills_003

About Kathryn

The rich history and many mysteries of New England are the perfect backdrop for Kathryn’s books. Winding roads lined by old stone walls, forgotten cemeteries, grand homes with shadowy pasts…all sparks for her imagination. Whether it’s a quaint seaside town or the vibrant city of Boston, it’s easy for this “hauntingly romantic” author to envision the past mingling with the present.

Taking it further – to have characters experience the past and present, opposite to “when” they belong – is the fun part. No surprise, some of Kathryn’s favorite stories involve time travel. And ghosts! Sprinkle in some magic, and you’re off on a great adventure!

When not writing, she’s taking photographs of the beautiful landscape that surrounds her. Kathryn shares her colonial home with those she loves most…her wonderful husband and daughter, and four crazy dogs.

 

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