Posts tagged ‘religion’

Monday Masterclass: The Medieval Village and Its People

Once again, this week, I’m going to take a quick look at an aspect of life in a medieval village – information that comes, appropriately enough, from Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies.

Occupations

As noted previously, the village in the 12th to 14th centuries was almost entirely geared towards food production, whether it be crops, livestock or dairy. Many villagers worked both on their own land and on their lord’s demesne. Cotters, who had little  or no land of their own, worked as labourers. Other villagers were free, land-rich men who hired others to work their furlongs. Most were somewhere in between.

Craftsmen were generally based in the towns, but there were plenty of itinerant traders and workers who provided services. Just about every villager was a farmer of land and livestock – but there were plenty of other occupations, too, either full-time or part-time.

Almost as important as producing food, was the production of ale. A lot of the barley grown in a village was used for producing the malt for ale – although other cereals were also used. Malt was dried in a communal kiln, but ale was brewed in large cauldrons in people’s homes – most often by women. Once a batch was brewed, the family would put a sign outside their house and establish a temporary tavern.

Ale-taster was an important rôle in the village; ale-tasters were elected on an annual basis – and were also often female. Ale had to come up to certain standards of strength and measure, otherwise the seller could be fined.

Bread – or, more specifically, the milling of flour and the baking of bread – was an important source of revenue for the lord. Mills and ovens were seigneurial monopolies. Villagers were fined for baking their own bread, while millers were regulated quite strictly and could also be fined for inappropriate behaviour, such as accepting payment in kind.

Religion and Village Life

Every village had a church, or, at least, was part of a parish centred around a church belonging to a bishop, a monastery or even a wealthy layman who commissioned a church for his family and tenants. The priest was employed by the church’s owner and, as a literate man, was useful to villagers for witnessing documents and suchlike. Funds raised by the church went to the owner.

Villages were also visited by travelling preachers, who could often be more entertaining than the local pastor. The parish vicar would give the mass in Latin, which, of course, the villagers did not speak. The mass would become something of a social event, with women being fashionably late, and lots of gossiping and flirting going on.

Mendicant friars, Franciscans and Dominicans, gave more engaging sermons. Life in a Medieval Village gives this amusing example:

[T]hese roving brothers preached in the parish church with the permission of the rector, or failing that, in the open air, where their sermons offered a lively alternative  to the routine of Sunday services. Illustrated with personal experiences, fables, and entertaining stories, the encouraged the participation of the congregation. A preacher might call out, “Stop that babbling,” to a woman, who did not hesitate to reply, “What about you? You’ve been babbling for the last half hour.” Such exchanges brought laughter, applause, and more friendly heckling.

In this period of the Middle Ages, the family had become the most important social unit, superseding previous clan and other loyalties. Families resembled the modern ideal of a nuclear family – mother, father and two or three children. Old people may have lived with their families or may have continued to live by themselves. Some even paid pensions to be looked after in their old age by monks at a monastery.

Marriage was achieved by the bride and groom making vows to each other and didn’t need witnesses, although, of course, the Church preferred such vows to be in public. A wedding would typically have the couple say their vows at the church door, followed by a mass inside the church and a ‘bride ale’ in a tavern or house.

Clandestine marriage also occurred, with the couple saying their vows in secret in the woods or elsewhere – which led to men sometimes taking advantage of a woman, speaking vows he didn’t mean in order to have sex with her. Pre-marital sex was illegal and subject to the typical sixpence fine, but wasn’t especially stigmatised. Women may have deliberately allowed themselves to become pregnant before marrying their partner in order to establish their fertility.

Another important area where religion affected everyday life was the regular cycle of feast days. On such days, the lord would lay on feast for some of his villeins, and the villagers would prepare special foods, play games and sports, sing and so on. Christmas was a two-week holiday, while Easter lasted a week. Other holidays included All Hallows (1st November), Martinmas (11th November), Rock or Plough Monday (first Monday after Epiphany), May Day, Whitsunday (Pentecost – seven weeks after Easter), St John’s Day (24th June), Lammas (1st August) and a Wake Day celebrating the local saint’s day.

Conclusion

While the medieval villager’s life was dominated by farming and related trades, there were also plenty of diversions from such hard work. Frances and Joseph Gies book, Life in a Medieval Village, was an interesting read that corrected a few erroneous ideas and put a lot of flesh on the stereotypical image one has of life at that time. I certainly recommend it, and I’d like to move on to some of their other books, such as Life in a Medieval Castle.

What thoughts do you have on the village and on the medieval era? Speak your brains in the comments section.

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Monday Masterclass: trees in fantasy

Although rarely at the forefront of fantasy novels, trees, forests and tree-like beings are a feature of many works of the fantastic. This week’s Monday Masterclass will look at trees in particular (as distinct from forests), with some mention of creatures that have tree-like characteristics.

Introduction

Trees have been a feature of mythology for thousands of years. They are powerful symbols and represent life, strength, nature, endurance, wisdom, rebirth, protection; they symbolise the axis mundi, the link between heaven and earth.

The ancient Greeks imagined trees were inhabited by wood nymphs or dryads (which latter actually signifies ‘oak’). Norse mythology has Yggdrasil (‘Odin’s horse’) or world tree, an ash tree that supports the nine worlds (and with which the modern Christmas tree is identified). Trees of life such as Yggdrasil are common in many traditions. The tree of knowledge of good and evil is another famous mythological tree, the eating of the fruit of which caused Adam and Eve to be cast out of the garden of Eden.

Sacred groves feature in many religions, such as the grove of olive trees outside the Academy in Athens. India has thousands of sacred groves associated with Hindu gods. Celtic druids tended groves, called nemeton, and they were the site of religious rites such as animal sacrifices; some oak trees were thought to be oracular and could be consulted by druids.

Trees and forests have also been associated with mythical beings such as the Green Man and the woodwose, or wild man of the woods.

Middle Earth

In the history of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the first sources of light were destroyed by Melkor, the evil Vala, another of the Valar, Yavanna, made the two trees of Valinor, silver Telperion and golden Laurelin. These trees shed light across the land until they too were destroyed by Melkor. A flower from Telperion and a fruit from Laurelin were saved and these became the moon and the sun. A reproduction of Telperion spawned the White Tree of Gondor.

One of the most well-liked characters in The Lord of the Rings is Treebeard, or Fangorn, who is an Ent. Ents are giant humanoid creatures that resemble trees (the word ‘ent’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘giant’). Along with the passing of the elves from the world of Middle Earth and the final journey of Frodo and Bilbo to the western lands, the situation of the Ents forms part of the major theme of The Lord of the Rings: the end of an era and the rise of Men.

In the trilogy, the Ents are a doomed race. They are guardians of the forests, but they are entirely male. Their womenfolk, the Entwives, lived a different life and were the progenitors of agriculture. They have been lost for many years since being attacked by Sauron. Thus, in Frodo’s time, there are no more Entings, young Ents.

Ents were created at the behest of Yavanna to protect the forests from Dwarves and other dangers. They are extremely long-lived, but not immortal. Ents are subject to diminishing into treeishness – if they cease moving for long periods they grow roots and essentially revert back to being trees.

Ents are a popular feature of roleplaying and other games, where, for copyright reasons, they are often known as Treants or Treefolk.

The Land

In the world of Stephen R Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, trees also play an important role. Woodhelven are tree villages – villages housed in or on the branches of an enormous tree and occupied by woodhelvenin, who are skilled in lillianrill lore – wood magic. Here is a description of Soaring Woodhelven from Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book in the series:

Their approach gave Covenant a good view of the tree village from some distance away across a wide glade. He judged the tree to be nearly four hundred feet high, and a good thirty broad at the base. There were no branches on the trunk until forty or fifty feet above the ground, then abruptly huge limbs spread out horizontally from the stem, forming in outline a half-oval with a flattened tip. The whole tree was so thickly branched and leaved that most of the village was hidden; but Covenant could see a few ladders between the branches and along the trunk; and in some tight knots on the limbs he thought he could make out the shapes of dwellings. If any people were moving through the foliage, they were -so well camouflaged that he could not discern them.

The Land, the setting for much of the Chronicles used to have vast forests, which have dwindled over time (much like the forests in Middle Earth). These forests are protected by forestals, immortals who appear human and are capable of powerful magic.

In the Second Chronicles, the characters – having lost the Staff of Law – decide they must travel to the One Tree, from which the wood that made the original Staff was taken, to make a new Staff of Law. The One Tree grows on an island that is protected by a guardian. Once the characters arrive there, their efforts to secure a limb from the tree temporarily rouse the Worm of the World’s End, causing the island to sink into the sea.

Others

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time features its own Tree of Life, also called Avendesora. Like the White Tree of Gondor, a sapling of the tree is cut down by a king, prompting a large war. In the first book, The Eye of the World, the heroes are helped by the Green Man, the last of the Nym, a giant humanoid made of vines, leaves and other tree elements. The Ogier live in Stedding, magical forests, and when they stay in cities prefer to live in Ogier groves.

Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood cycle is set in what appears to be a small area of woodland from the outside, but inside is a near infinite realm where mythical beings are real. In The Magician’s Nephew by C S Lewis, one of the main characters, Digory, must plant an apple in Narnia, which grows into a tree that protects Narnia from the White Witch. In Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles, Ygg is a talking tree that guards the border between Order and Chaos. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin has weirwoods, trees with blood red leaves and sap that were once worshipped all over Westeros in godswoods, groves sacred to the religion of the old gods.

Conclusion

Magic trees are emblems of the reverence in which people hold nature in general, and forests and trees in particular. Many of the fantasy trees mentioned above are set in a melancholy context of the advance of civilisation bringing an end to an old order dominated by the natural world. Fantasy writers can draw on this trope to evoke great sympathy with a dying way of life; it seems to me, though, that no one has done this as well as J R R Tolkien.

While Ents are a favourite denizen of Middle Earth, it’s a little surprising that subsequent writers haven’t incorporated similar beings into their works in the same way that Elves, Dwarves, Orcs and Goblins have been embraced and adapted.

What are your favourite trees in fantasy fiction? What other magical trees do you know of? What other authors have used them in their work? I’d love to hear your thoughts.