Recently a colleague of mine cataloged a “girdle book” for our library. I’d never seen one before. It is a small book, typically a prayer/liturgy book, that is bound with long tail of soft leather and clasp so that it can be attached to one’s belt (“girdle”) for easy access. Our specimen is a 17th century German prayer-book, I think Lutheran, and had been rebound in the 1980s. It is a small, but thick, manuscript, and it looks to me like the original clasps were saved in the rebinding but the tail was placed on the top edge rather than the bottom edge, so that it hangs upright. I think it would be more handy to have such a book hand upside down, so that when you pull it up the tail is on the bottom.
So yeah, wearable information technology is like a thousand years old. 🙂
Girdle books seem like pretty natural fits for adventurers. IIRC the first edition Unearthed Arcana described “traveling” spellbooks, which would be compact spellbooks that a magic-user took on an expedition. These would be lighter than a standard spellbook and have fewer spells, but the benefit is that you would not be as burdened and losing it to dragon fire or whatever hazard you faced would be less of a crippling blow.
If you Google Image Search the term, you’ll see a lot more examples. Some have a pair of rings attached to the cover and loop a chain through them; I kind like the image of a mage with a tiny spellbook on a chain, like the dudes you sometimes see today with their wallets on a chain.
I happened to come across a copy of the 5e DMG today at work. While I did not get a chance to look too closely at it, a I was pleasantly surprised by all the random tables of dungeon dressing and even random traps and tricks. The other thing I was drawn to was the ‘further reading’ — in this case “Appendix D.”
It’s a fairly interesting list, mixing both some old chestnuts (Gygax’s Role playing mastery makes an appearance, as do several old TSR sourcebooks and even Grimtooth’s traps) as well as some kind of odd choices (as large number of histories of D&D, from Peterson’s epic Playing at the world to the rather underwhelming Of dice & men), a few reference books (including the Writer’s Digest fantasy writer’s reference book, which I happened to pick up at a used book sale recently and thought was a good introduction to the tropes of pseudo-medieval worlds, as well as suggesting some ways to break free of them).
The only thing I found odd was the large number of books on writing, and not just the world-building part but writing drama. That bugs me a little, since I never really liked the “DM as author” idea. The players should be creating the drama too; it may in fact be more their job than the DM’s job. The DM just gives the players levers to pull and things to interact with; the player’s horrible choices and heroic deeds can create all the drama you need. But I probably shouldn’t read too much into that.
But I am pretty happy to see that the PHB and the DMG both have reading lists. I still haven’t had a chance to look at a Monster Manual so I don’t know if that has a reading list too. I hope it does.
As part of project I’m working on, I recently read Sidney Heath’s Pilgrim life in the middle ages (1911 ; link is to archive.org copy). One chapter that I really got some inspiration from was “Flagellants and dancers.” I haven’t had the time to really delve further into these topics, but I thought Heath’s discussion was pretty interesting. Flagellants are probably familiar to anyone who’s seen Monty Python & the Holy Grail (a more serious depiction of them features briefly in both The Seventh Seal and Black Death) or played Warhammer Fantasy Battles. The “Dancers” mentioned here don’t quite match the modern interpretation of the phenomenon (St. Vitus’ Dance/St. Anthony’s Fire, i.e. ergot poisoning) I’ve always read about. So I wonder if there might not have been two distinct things going (religiously ecstatic dancers as described below and ergot-poisoned people running amok) which were conflated and swept together in one explanation. I guess you’d have to look at the source material. Anyway, since this is a very short and very vivid chapter from the book, I’m posting it in its entirety below.
Chapter IV: FLAGELLANTS AND DANCERS
One of the most extraordinary features of the Middle Ages, and the direct outcome of pilgrimages, were the wandering bands of penitents. These companies were numbered by hundreds, and each of them possessed some individual characteristic. Some were composed of the poor only, others were limited to men, while one or two were made up entirely of children. Occasionally a brotherhood would arise with membership extended mainly to those who held peculiar opinions. The great majority, however, were free to all Christians without distinction of age, sex, rank, or opinion, though each of them had some particular form of discipline for their adherents.
Thus every now and then these bands of people would journey from shrine to shrine, praying and mortifying as they went, and gathering recruits along the way. After exciting interest for a short time the larger number of these associations would dissolve as suddenly as they had appeared ; a few survived for years, while one or two underwent periodical revivals down to comparatively recent times.
The most persistent of these bands of fanatics were the dancers, the palmers, and the flagellants.
The dancers made their first appearance at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1373, when they were composed of a 96 Flagellants and Dancers ragged set of wanderers who made begging and vagrancy a profession. They had a secret system of initiation, at which it was said, as with most of these secret initiations, they practised all kinds of abominations. Wandering about in bands of thirty, or forty, their apparent poverty, their earnestness, and their frantic fanaticism gave them an extraordinary hold on the multitude.
Wherever they went their singular reputation caused large crowds to assemble to watch their performances, and thousands who went as sightseers became infected with the mania, which came to be regarded in the nature of a contagious disease that was even more dreaded than the plague.
Everywhere the dancers became the centre of a writhing mass of humanity making violent motions of worship, offering prayers in the form of convulsive shrieks, and acting as though they would take heaven itself by storm. Their hysterical ravings were regarded as prophetic. It was quite in vain that the axe beheaded hundreds of these maniacs, or that the gibbets broke down with the weight of their bodies.
The flagellants were unquestionably the strangest of all these itinerants of faith as they were the most tenacious of existence. Wherever the shrieks and groans of the gloomy flagellants alarmed the ears, those in the vicinity fled and hid themselves, for the penitential torrent of blood and tears absorbed all with whom it came in contact. There was no escape for any, rich and poor alike ; resistance was vain, remonstrance unheeded. Under the penalty of having the flesh flogged from their bones those who happened to cross their path were forced to become flagellants until they were released at the first celebrated shrine.
It was in 1260, about the time when the enthusiasm for the Crusades was flagging, that public associations began to spring up in Italy for the purpose of discipline. Multitudes of people, of all ranks and ages, practised this mortification of the flesh along the open streets in the hope of obtaining Divine mercy for their sins.
Perugia is said to have been the first scene of this madness, and a hermit named Rainier the instigator. The custom, after practically dying out, was revived in all its fury during the fourteenth century, and for ten years the flagellants perambulated and agitated Europe. This revival is said to have had its origin during a plague in Germany in 1349, when from the first the Teutonic knights met it with fierce opposition. In 135 1 these warriors assembled and set upon a body of flagellants, massacred thousands of them on the spot, and compelled the remainder to be re-baptized.
The flagellants propagated the extravagant doctrine that flagellation was of equal virtue with the Sacraments ; that by its administration all sins were forgiven, that the old law of Christ was soon to be abolished, and that a new law enjoining the baptism of blood administered by flogging was to be substituted in its place. They were not supported by the heads of the Church, and Pope Clement VII issued a bull against them, with the result that many of their leaders were taken and burned at the stake. The custom, however, continued to crop up at intervals. At the beginning of the fifteenth century flagellants are again mentioned in Lower Saxony. They rejected every branch of external worship, and entertained some wild notions respecting the evil spirit.
The infection, as in the former outbreaks, spread with great rapidity, and was only suppressed by the Kings of Poland and Bohemia expelling all flagellants from their territories.
As enthusiasm for these various sects began to decline active measures for their total abolition were adopted by the Council of Constance (1414-18), but a remnant of them continued in existence until the close of the century. Lastly came the palmers, a class of foreign pilgrims whose real history and condition are but little known. Their designation is thought to have been derived from the palms, branches of which they brought home from Palestine as evidence of their pilgrimage. The distinction between them and ordinary pilgrims was that the pilgrim had some home or dwelling-place, but the palmer had none. The pilgrim travelled to some specific shrine or holy place, but the palmer to all. The pilgrim journeyed at his own charges, but the palmer professed poverty and went upon alms. The pilgrim might give over his profession and return home, but the palmer must persist till he obtained his palm by death. The profession of the palmer was originally voluntary, and arose from that rivalry of fanaticism so prevalent during the earlier years of the Middle Ages. During the tenth and eleventh centuries men| were sometimes ordered to become palmers — to give up wife, family, home, and country — as a penance for their sins.
This is just a shout out for a great blog I’ve been following for a while called “300 stories.” The author, Dieter Rogiers, is writing a story a day or thereabouts, with the idea being he’ll write 300 stories, each of 300 words or less (what the cool kids are calling “flash fiction”). They have mostly been pretty damn good, and have covered a lot of different genres, usually with dry humor. Anyway my point is that it is well worth your time to check it out. Unfortunately I only started following a month or two ago and he’s pretty close to the 300 mark now, so if you follow by email you’ve got a month and half or so to look forward to. I think there is almost certainly a book to come out of this though, and of course the stories are archived on the blog.
You see I am into a lot of nerdy/geeky things but I find I have startlingly little in common, personality-wise, with most people of similar interests. The thing is, I am not really a “fan” of stuff. I mean, I enjoy Adventure Time and Walking Dead and other touchstones of nerd culture. But I don’t obsess about them; I don’t think making references to them somehow constitutes wit; I will not be crushed when they go off the air. (In fact we recently canceled our fancy cable and I don’t miss them.) I like a lot of this stuff but I’m not a fan of it, and I don’t really understand fans, and they get on my nerves.
Here are some disparate things that are leading me to this conclusion:
Case one, the Monty Python fans: One of the first times I vividly remember being seriously annoyed by my fellow geeks was back in college. I was introducing a new roommate to some people I knew. He was from Czechoslovakia (well, it had just become the Czech Republic) and his English wasn’t great and all my friends could do was make (lame) Monty Python references over and over throughout our conversation. At the time I thought I was just embarrassed by the cluelessness of my friends (who would rather share some pop culture in-jokes than interact meaningfully with this guy who who could barely follow their conversation without their badly mimicked caricature accents of Monty Python skits). But in hindsight I was less embarrassed by their “rudeness” than by the fact as I watched them mimic stuff they saw on TV I realized that they really were relying on old foreign comedy sketches to supply them with something worth talking about. Don’t get me wrong, the occasional reference or quote has its place. But these half dozen college students couldn’t get through a frigging conversation without breaking into repeated and extended recitations of sketches. I will watch Monty Python almost any time it is on, but I guess I’m just not a fan. I don’t think shouting “Ni!Ni!” is always inherently funny, and I don’t want a Monty Python screen saver or merchandise. So I guess I don’t automatically feel a bond with people on the basis of a shared appreciation of a show, movie or book.
Case two, a Facebook group: I ‘joined’ a Facebook group for fans of science fiction in my area. I get one or two emails notifying me of activity there every week. Usually it is someone gushing about a new science fiction film or TV show, or an old one now on DVD or Netflix, or a link to some piece of merchandise that slyly references Star Trek, Star Wars, Trek Wars, or Star Star. I get the sense that the other folks in this group are excited just because the new film is science fiction, regardless of how stupid or derivative the trailer looks. I have read a fair amount of science fiction, but I don’t read just anything and I have never, ever read single novel about Star Wars or Star Trek; I don’t know much of anything about Orson Scott Card (except that he makes himself sound like a real douchebag in interviews) or George R.R. Martin (except that he keeps writing some kind of soap opera fantasy saga and is unlikely to live long enough to finish it); I don’t assume Japanese animated films are going to be anything special. (OK, I watched Akira and Vampire Hunter D and few other films 20+ years ago; they were pretty cool). Sure I love reading fantasy and science fiction, and I probably set a lower bar for genre fiction and films than I do for non-genre stuff, but I can see I’m not a “real” fan because I don’t just get automatically excited to hear a new this or that is coming out. So I guess I am not a loyalist to a particular genre.
Case three, Joss Wedon (or is it Josh Wedon? Is “Joss” a real name?): I have heard from many people I know that this Wedon character was behind some great TV shows or something and so I should look forward to anything else he touches. In fact I can think of think of a couple of otherwise intelligent people who think anything he touches automagically turns to gold and shits rainbows. I don’t get it. It seems like they just outsourced their entire palate for what is clever, cool, or worthwhile to this one person’s imagination. Because I’m not all that interested in binge-watching the entire Buffy or Firefly catalog, they have practically nothing to talk to me about. It’s really weird. I mean, I do have a few directors and writers I really like, but I can admit that, say, some of Ralph Bakshi’s movies are kind of lame (cough, Cool world) or that some of Poul Anderson’s books are pretty flat (cough, Beyond the beyond, Winter of the world…). So I guess I don’t properly idolize any genre artists.
Is that what fandom is? Idolizing pulp/genre artists? Uncritical loyalty to a genre? A sense of belonging based on this shared fanaticism? Well then I’m not a fan.
And yet — I do enjoy “genre” entertainment. I do have favorite authors and directors whose work I’ll seek out. So maybe I’m a fan of the genres, just not of fandom?
The oldest book I’ve ever cataloged is this:
Here it is, laying in a protective box. It had languished for some time in the “backlog” of items that never had electronic records created when my library moved from a card catalog to a computer catalog. This was a very fairly common issue (and still is, really) because libraries rely on cooperative bibliographic databases for the vast majority of their catalog records. But most libraries have a lot of rare, or even unique, items — like this one — that need original cataloging. (Of course every new publication needs an original record too; it’s just that once it’s made, libraries can all share it!)
Anyway this is a book that was made in the 15th century, to judge by the handwriting. It has 99 numbered leaves, plus a few leaves pasted into the front and back later with scribbled notes.
The whole thing was, of course, copied by hand by some scribe, and because he had some extra space, he copied more than one work into it. There is a short geographical introduction which identifies some of the places mentioned in the main work. This is the first page of it:
The text is mostly unadorned, apart from some red & blue initials
In addition to the “Brut” chronicle, there is a longish romantic poem called “The destruction of Jerusalem,” and also a popular poem (sometimes attributed to Walter Mapp) called “Cur mundus militat,” which tells of the vanity of the world. The first line is “Why is the world loved Þat is false and vayne…“
The red bar on this page is actually just the laser from the bar-code scanner at my desk. If you’re worried about the fact that I handled this book bare-handed, I should mention that I did wash my hands thoroughly, and gloves are not always worn when handling old materials because the clumsy handling of gloved fingers by librarians, scholars, etc. has been found to be more damaging to brittle pages than leaving traces of skin oils. (Notice too that a book like this was handled by many, many people for decades or even centuries, as it is written in English which means it was meant to be popularly enjoyed; probably read aloud by literate members of the household that owned it.)
Someone else at my library blogged about this book already. The Brut is interesting as it mixes legend with real history. King Arthur is among the kings listed. The first compilation was sometime in the early fifteenth century and stopped around 1415; later authors added “expansions” to keep it up-to-date. There is a book on the development of the work here. I don’t know which version we have; I suppose a more thorough investigation could identify it and narrow down the date. I had a devil of a time finding a modern text version of the chronicle, but did find this. This version is over 600 pages, and includes a lot of “extras” from various versions of the text as well as associated poems and romances. I’ll keep an eye out for a modern English version.
Several years ago, in my job as a librarian, I got to catalog a really unusual item: a patent of nobility. Patents of nobility were issued when a person was granted a title, and usually include a coat of arms to go with the title.
The patent I cataloged had been almost forgotten some time before I came to the library, and stored among other old items that had been set aside for careful treatment or further research. In this case the patent was a large “quarto” sized book (each page is a quarter of full sized sheet, in this case that makes the book 37 cm tall), bound in red velvet and with black and yellow ribbons tying it closed. A wooden disc was attached by a gold cord, and when I looked more closely at the disc I realized it had a lid and opened. Inside I found this:
It’s a little hard to make out but it is a coat of arms. In fact it is
the Great Seal of Austria, the great seal of Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, impressed on red wax. This sort of wax is very hard and somewhat brittle — sealing wax.
Here’s the book’s cover and the seal:
Here we see his full title: Franz Carl Maydan von Dannenthal. He was apparently an artillery commander of some kind. The text, I assume, explains his genealogy and what he did to earn his title, but the German was beyond me to scan and I could not take the time to try to decipher it all. He had a short entry in a reference book, which I consulted while creating an authority record for his name. Otherwise he is basically forgotten, except perhaps by his descendants.
The coolest part of the book is the coat of arms — rendered in full color, with gold foil decorations. This was painted directly on the page, and the colors were quite brilliant despite the age:
It is signed by Joseph II of Austria and a variety of others (I could not make out their names). It is dated 1781. You can take a look at it in the flesh if you come to Cleveland. (There are many, many more treasures in the Special Collections of Cleveland Public Library too.)
I mentioned votive ships in a post some time back and while I was weeding my collection of notes and xeroxed articles from my college days, I came across a couple of pages I’d copied from Miracles and pilgrims: popular beliefs in Medieval England by Ronald C. Finucane. I don’t remember a lot of detail from that book, certainly not enough for a review, but I do recall that it was filled with statistics and numbers.
Thomas Cantilupe — bishop of Hereford and later canonized as a saint in 1320 — had a shrine erected after his death. In 1307, a papal delegation inventoried the shrine to see what offerings had been left by those seeking cures or other favors, or offering thanks for prayers answered, and they counted the following list of items.
- 170 silver ships
- 41 wax ships
- 129 silver images of various limbs
- 436 wax images of people
- 1200 wax images of body parts and limbs
- 77 figures of horses, animals, and birds
- an uncountable number of (wax?) eyes, breasts, teeth, and ears
- 95 silk or linen children’s shifts
- 108 walking sticks for cripples (presumably left by the cured?)
- three carts
- one wax cart
- 10 large square candles
- 38 cloths of silk and gold
- many belts
- 450 gold rings
- 70 silver rings
- 65 gold brooches and pins
- 31 silver brooches and pins
- diverse precious stones and other uncounted pieces of ladies’ jewelry
- iron chains left by prisoners
- anchors of ships
- lances, spears, swords, and knives
- uncounted coins
Silver & wax items are typically “votive” offerings that illustrate the favor asked or granted. A ship would indicate protection for a journey or more literally for merchant’s ship/shipment; body parts were those afflicted or cured. Such shrines also kept record books where miraculous cures and so forth were recorded, and these might be read by the skeptical or those hesitant to leave a valuable offering.
The candles would be used in the course of church services at the shrine, and wax items might be remelted to make more candles, or even to make new offerings that could be sold to empty-handed pilgrims. Precious metals were usually melted down after a while to fund further construction, pay the caretakers, and of course to line the coffers of the Church, although some items would be kept in perpetuity as tokens of famous cures or to advertise the potency of the holy dead. One must imagine such shrines were occasionally targeted by ruthless or desperate thieves.
The above inventory would certainly be quite a haul. And the bishop was not even a recognized saint at the time! The shrines of canonized saints must have been fabulously wealthy.
Challenge: who can add up the value of the above hoard in Gold Pieces (ignore the uncounted items!)
Clifford D. Simak is best known for his science fiction, but he has written several fantasy and science fantasy novels, and in the past year or so I’ve read four of them. Going chronologically they are: The goblin reservation (1968), The enchanted pilgrimage (1975), The fellowship of the talisman (1978), and Where the evil dwells (1982).
The goblin reservation is a bit of an outlier as it is more of a science fiction story than a fantasy, and transcends genre by combining elements. It is a murder mystery, a love story, and time travel tale, and involves both extraterrestrials and fairy folk like goblins and leprechauns, as well as a ghost, and comes closest to being a comedy. There are echoes of this book though in his later fantasies, particularly in: the depiction of goblins as mischievous but basically benevolent; the use of a ghost as a character; the mixing of science fiction and fantasy; the inversion of established tropes in genre literature; and a preoccupation –either explicit or implicit– with morality.
The other three all read more like traditional “high fantasy” novels, with a party of adventurers of assorted races undertaking an epic quest into unknown and menacing lands. Some readers have dismissed them as being retreads of each other and a million similar LOTR ripoffs, but each has some interesting ideas and all can be read as meditations on morality and theology. Tightly connected to this is the theme of otherness as expressed in the different demihuman races and their perception by, and relationship to, the human characters. There’s probably a great term paper in that, if any students are reading this. I’m just writing a quick review though!
The enchanted pilgrimage is the shortest and the least interested in questions of morality (which become much more central to the last two novels). What was most interesting to me when I read this was the role of demihumans and humanoids. For example the gnomes in this world are smiths and live underground, but they are also illiterate and have practically no sense of history. Flipping the trope, mankind is the ‘elder’ race as far as the demihumans are concerned, for they keep books and record history, while the demihumans live in the present. The enchanted pilgrimage has been criticized for lacking coherence and having an anti-climatic ending, which (spoiler alert) veers way off the fantasy track into science fiction with time travelers, UFOs, and aliens. However it is an interesting setting (at least in the first half of the book) and a clear precursor to the two others, which remain solidly fantasy-based. The quest begins with a scribe who stumbles upon something of great importance and he sets out, slowly acquiring a motley band companions, for the menacing and forbidden Wasteland, home of chaos and magic. What he finds there is not what he, or the reader, expected, but also fails to live up to the promise of the first half of the book.
The fellowship of the talisman is probably the most traditional of the novels. The story is again centered on a quest, again revolving around a manuscript, and again we have a slowly growing party, although this time the world is much like our own, only a recurring invasion by the “Harriers” — amorphous and demonic, and barely described in any detail — has prevented mankind from developing past medieval technology and culture. The crusades, the discovery of the new world, the renaissance, the reformation, and the enlightenment: all are stopped or interrupted irrevocably by the Harriers. But in a backwater manor in England, someone discovers a manuscript, written by a contemporary of Jesus, which may hold the key to saving mankind. The characters are not particularly believable and there are several heavy-handed and tedious conversations where they seem very aware that mankind’s progress has been aborted. How they could possibly recognize this, given their benighted state, strains credulity, but as exposition it is bearable. Apart from mankind and the Harriers, there is again a wide array of demihumans and supernatural creatures that are allied with neither man nor the Harriers, but which are mostly willing to aid the party, since they oppose the Harriers. Despite the frequent aid and succor they get from them, though, the two principal characters spend the first half of the book insulting and distrusting the demihumans and other creatures. I found the heroes very unsympathetic until it became more clear that they were slowly losing some of their prejudices. The journey itself has some interesting encounters and environments but for so long a book (over 300 pages) not a lot actually happens. The party here is the most diverse, with humans, a goblin, an assortment of animals, a ghost, a banshee, and a demon all working together in an unlikely fellowship. There is some suggestion of a sci-fi element in the origin of the Harriers, but at the same time other elements go further into the folkloric and mythic than any of Simak’s other fantasy novels. For example there is (minor spoiler) an “Isle of wailing for the world” where three Norn-like women literally wail for all the world’s sorrows. I am totally going to throw that into my campaign world somewhere. There are also some great minor characters, like a senile, dying wizard in a hidden, timeless castle, and a minor lord of a manor in the middle of the Forlorn Lands (the region decimated by Harrier attacks) whose band is hopelessly holding out against the Harriers.
Where the evil dwells, the last of the four fantasies, was actually the one I read first, many years ago when it first came out in paperback in the 1980s. As a boy I read it as straightforward adventure yarn, and it certainly works as one. I reread it recently and was surprised to find a good deal more depth than I remembered. It is set, like The fellowship, in our world, but on a different timeline, where the Roman Empire holds out a good deal longer than in ours, but the enemies that threaten it are not barbarians, they are “the Evil.” The Evil are basically all the nonhumans and demihumans of myth and legend. A few of the “Little People” are perhaps merely mischievous rather than Evil. However the occasional acts of Gygaxian brutality we see in The fellowship (where fallen enemies are never spared and can at best hope for a merciful skull-smashing) are amplified and almost glorified here. The protagonists see the bodies of crucified ogres, for example, and only one so much as feels a slight discomfort at the sight; when an outcast troll joins the party and proves himself loyal and reliable, they continue to abuse, threaten, and distrust him. Again, a trope of fantasy –here, the white knight do-gooder party– is subverted. Overall it is a much darker adventure than the usual fare. There is also a section that very strongly evokes H. P. Lovecraft (or at least the “mythos” developed by his admirers) and, uniquely, no real science fiction connection.
D&D fans should find plenty to enjoy here, and while none of Simak’s works made it into the DMG’s “Appendix N” (the last two were published after the DMG anyway), they certainly provide some inspiration.