Happy feast day, Saint Nicholas, wherever you are (or, This is clearly not a repost to remind people buy The Poor Pilgrim’s Almanack, but now that you mention it, it makes a great gift!)

Readers of my book will know that St. Nicholas has a grave in Myrna, Turkey, a tomb in Kilkenny, Ireland, and shrines in Bari and Venice, Italy — each of the Italian shrines containing fully one half of his skeleton. He also has a sacred cave near Bethlehem and an island named after him which is known for its ever-sharp tools. I assume there are suitable festivities going on in all those places right now, December 6th, his feast day. Among his miracles are saving ships from storms and raising three boys who had been mummified* from the dead.

Image result for st nicholas

*or pickled, in some versions of the story.

#shamelesscommerce

 

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Published in: on December 6, 2017 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Wherein I blog about a play I haven’t seen

So my kid is in the drama program at her school and an assignment this week is to see a play or musical this weekend and write a report on it. It would have been awesome if the teacher had suggested some age appropriate plays that are running in the area. Doing our own research, I was a little shocked at how many local theaters are hosting graduation ceremonies rather than having shows, and wondered a little about the teacher’s thought processes, but in the end I found a couple of prospects meeting my requirements that they:

  • not be experimental theater with a lot of adult content
  • not be adaptations of Disney musicals
  • not be during other holiday events we were already committed to
  • be less than $25 a ticket

One is “Incorruptible“, a play about the hijinks at a medieval shrine where the monks make a killing selling fake relics, but run into some difficulty when they need to show a visiting bishop the supposedly incorrupt body of a long-dead saint. That’s kind of up my alley and down my street as it were, since I spent a lot of time researching relics and shrines and miracles for my book Burgs & Bailiffs Trinity. The problem is, “Incorruptible” is playing pretty far away, and maybe I’m pushing that because I would be interested in it moreso than my kid would be.  So we’ll be seeing a more local and slightly more expensive production of “Baskerville,” a comic adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes story. But maybe I’ll find a way to make “Incorruptible” next week. If so, I’ll post a review.

Published in: on May 26, 2017 at 11:29 am  Comments (3)  
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The Poor Pilgrim’s Almanack now on Drivethru RPG!

I don’t mind admitting I’m kind of psyched that my book is now available on DriveThru RPG. The Lost Pages store is the place to get the hard copy, shipped from Scotland (I also hear some copies may be showing up at the better conventions too). But obviously Drive Thru RPG is an important distributor, and I’m glad people might be able to stumble upon my book even if they’ve never heard of it.

What is the Poor Pilgrim’s Almanack? (And here I begin just quoting the blurb:)

An historical supplement on pilgrimages, relics and religion in the European Middle Ages.

The Poor Pilgrim’s Almanack is filled with painstakingly researched essays on religious life (and death) in the middle ages. It lets you use relics and pilgrimage as the basis of an alternative conception of clerical magic. Also included are details on travel, burial customs, catacombs, and the business of relic theft. A travelogue of shrines and other pilgrimage sites, detailed rules for relics and reliquaries, and a listing of historical miracles (corresponding to familiar clerical spells) make this 128 page sourcebook a treasure trove of inspiration. Dozens of adventure seeds and tables for generating encounters on the road, graves and grave goods, and randomized catacomb generation and stocking round out the contents. A new class, the Palmer, provides a novel take on religious adventurers. 
But wait! Don’t take my word for it. Here’s something someone said:

An excellent and necessary supplement if you’re wanting your campaign’s religious culture to feel more European Medieval and less the polytheistic/pantheon style used in mainstream D&D

– James Raggi, Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Published in: on February 26, 2017 at 8:41 pm  Comments (1)  
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Research mathoms III

I’ve been noting what’s NOT in Burgs & Bailiffs Trinity : The poor pilgrim’s almanack, or, The handbook of pilgrimage and relic theft. But what’s in there? Here’s a screencap of the table of contents. It doesn’t list sidebars, but it does drill down to the section headings within the four main essays: On the road (which covers travel generally); Death, Burial & Grave Goods; Furta Sacra (all about relics and their theft); Into the catacombs (all about catacombs); Whither pilgrim? (a gazetteer of shrines, holy wells, tombs, and other pilgrimage destinations); and Relics & Clerics (which offers a revised clerical spell casting system and a completely different kind of cleric that is dedicated to pilgrimage). Click to embiggen.

toc-screenshot

 

Here’s one more mathom.

Beheaded martyrs

If you read much about martyrs, you will quickly notice that a large number of martyrs went through multiple executions before being really, sincerely martyred. They might be broiled, beaten, shot with arrows, crushed, hung, trampled by animals, or have any number of brutal treatments and still survive until they are finally beheaded. While we might be tempted to imagine the persecutors shouting “There can be only one!” scholars speculate that the beheadings are often later additions to the stories, because by the Middle Ages, only beheading was considered an appropriate execution for high-status individuals. For the saints to be killed by lesser — even common — means was incongruous with their status as God’s elect, so the hagiographies were amended to end with a more aesthetically pleasing (to the generally noble or high-ranking patrons of the scribes) death.

More fancifully, the trope of saints being beheaded also spawned another category of saints: celaphores. These were saints who are depicted — visually in icons and statues, or narratively in their hagiographies — as carrying their own severed heads. Celaphores are often said to have carried their severed heads to their burial places, in some cases preaching as they walked; most famously, St. Denis of Paris did this, but folklorists have counted more than a hundred cases. Apart from making memorable miracles and dramatizing the saint’s power over death, this behavior helps legitimize the final resting place of a saint, and discourages further translation.

 

 

 

Published in: on December 13, 2016 at 8:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Research mathoms II

Here are few more sidebars, etc., that didn’t make it into The poor pilgrim’s almanack, or, The handbook of pilgrimage and relic theft. (#shamelesscommerce) The illustrations here and in the other Research Mathoms post were not necessarily meant to be in it though — we used only black & white or greyscale images that were in the public domain or under CC license.

The incorruptibles 

Many saints were found to be “incorruptible” when exhumed. In a few cases this meant that the corpse remained largely untouched by decay for a very long time — perhaps perpetually. The bodies are often displayed under glass. But most incorruptible bodies eventually decay. The designation that a saint’s body was “incorruptible” required only that the corpse look fresh when first exhumed. Decay may set in almost immediately. The relics would be encased in reliquaries, or possibly chased in gold, or covered with wax to represent the appearance of the body when it was exhumed.

St. Cuthbert being exhumed and found incorrupt (image from Wikipedia) — 

Note that “incorrupt” is a relative term. Here’s an incorrupt saint, St. Zita. Not too bad for a 750 year old corpse.

Image result for incorrupt

***

Fantastic relics

In addition to the relics of saints and Biblical figures, some collections at shrines included unusual items such as Griffin’s claws, phoenix feathers, unicorn horns, and other parts of monsters — collected by pilgrims in foreign lands, sent as rare and valuable tributes, or even as trophies from the ordeals of saints. One church boasted that it had the tip of Lucifer’s tail, lost in a fight with a Syrian hermit. Some such objects were reputed to have their own occult power to heal, but most were simply exhibited along with the fine clothes, jewelry, and other valuables offered in honor of the saint.

Alicorns — the supposed horns of unicorns, most often in the form of narwhal horns or vessels carved from rhinoceros horns — were a highly valued item both because of their intrinsic worth (princes would pay up to 20 times their weight in gold for them, and a large narwhal horn could weight over 12 pounds) and for their supposed magical properties. St. Denis cathedral near Paris had a 7 foot long, 13 pound alicorn among its treasures; St. Mark’s in Venice had two alicorns, each about a meter long and supposedly looted from Constantinople in 1204, plus another of a later date that was two meters long; other impressive specimens were in cathedrals and churches at Milan, Raskeld, St. Paul’s in London, and Westminster Abbey. Alicorns were thought to cure or prevent poisoning and pestilential disease. Unscrupulous guardians might sell filings from the horns for quick cash, and there are records of alicorns being gilded or chased in silver to prevent this. Griffin claws — the horns of ibex or buffalo — were thought to neutralize poison too.

There were also an array highly unusual items with supposed supernatural origins in various church collections. A ray from the star of Bethlehem, objects given to saints by angels ranging from clothing to clocks, body parts from angels, the foreskin of Jesus (as well as many other unlikely mementos of his infancy and childhood), feathers (!) from the Holy Spirit, and even fire from the Burning Bush were all inventoried in various collections.

 

Corpse Roads and Lych Gates

The local parish church held funeral rites and everyone who could afford the fees would prefer to be buried in the parish graveyard. However as small villages sprang up further and further away from the central parish church, it became necessary to establish roads leading from the villages to the church. These roads would be used solely for transporting the dead for burial, as the presence of a corpse was unlucky at best and potentially dangerous at worst. Moreover the ghosts of the dead were thought to wander the corpse road for as long as the soul was in purgatory — potentially many years. For these reasons the corpse road was always laid out in unwanted and otherwise untraveled land. The corpse road was also kept as straight as possible, even if it meant cutting through difficult terrain or crossing streams, because it was thought the ghosts traveled only in straight lines, and no-one wanted the ghosts to wander off the road. Corpse roads always led to a Lych Gate, the gate to the burial yard (“lych” meaning body or corpse).

Lych Gate at St. Mary’s, Wendover (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Published in: on December 9, 2016 at 8:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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Research mathoms I

Burgs & Bailiffs Trinity comes in at 128 pages. I wrote a fair amount more that did not make it in to the final version, because of space limitations (essays too long to be sidebars or boxed text and too short to be appendices), because they didn’t quite fit in the flow of the work or ramble a bit off topic, and in one case because a table was far too complex to fix in the page layout. Maybe some day an expanded edition will be possible (and I’d probably add some revised bits from Burgs & Bailiffs 1 and 2). But in the meantime I’ll post some research mathoms here on the blog: tidbits too good to leave on the cutting room floor. (The last one I thought made it in, so my apologies if anyone was thrown by the December 6 post. Having looked at the final draft I can confirm that it DOES detail fun stuff like the saint whose miracles include striking down his own family and making a pope crap out his intestines, the “code” used by funeral bells, and more. But here are some mathoms:

Jinn shrines

There are a number of sites in the Moslem world where the jinn are appealed to for intercessions. Illnesses, especially mental illnesses, are often attributed to evil jinn, and supplicants visit sacred places where the jinn congregate. In Baduan, India, for example, the shrines of several sufi mystics are visited for this purpose because the king of the jinn is said to hold court in a nearby banyan tree. Those suffering from mental illness are brought by their relatives, who make offerings to the jinn and hope to elicit their mercy. As unorthodox as this sounds, the jinn are thought to have mostly converted to Islam in Muhammad’s time, so there is nothing heretical about appeal to them.

(See Sadakat Kadri’s Heaven On Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World. Farrar, Strauss, & Giraux, 2013. The introduction describes the author’s visit to such a shrine in Baduan and the place of jinn in shari’a law. Mostly excerpted here)

Animal catacombs

The Egyptians rather famously mummified various animals and placed them in human tombs. However perhaps less well-known are the animal catacombs under certain temples. One temple at Saqqara has a so-called “Sacred Animal Necropolis” with separate catacombs for falcons, cows, ibis, dogs, and baboons. The baboon catacomb has three levels with hundreds of mummies of olive baboons and Barbary macaques. These primates were raised at, and kept in, the temple for their entire lives. Similarly the falcons and cows were kept at cult sites for ritual purposes. The cults eventually abandoned the site some time under Roman occupation. The “Dog catacombs” — sacred to Anubis — include burials of foxes, jackals, cats, and mongooses.

Who stole Santa Claus? 

In the Middle Ages, Saint Nicholas of Bari (now known more popularly in the English-speaking world as Santa Claus or Father Christmas) was revered by sailors in particular because he once calmed a storm at sea while on a voyage to the Holy Land. The 4th century holy man and bishop lived and was buried in Myra, Lycia (which later would become part of Turkey). His tomb became a popular pilgrimage site. In 1087, after the Turkish conquest of Anatolia, Italian sailors and merchants from Bari rescued one half of his skeleton (despite the resistance of Orthodox monks at his shrine), ostensibly because of fears that the Turks would interfere with pilgrims or desecrate the shrine. During the first crusade, a party of Venetians rescued the other half of his skeleton and set up another, competing shrine in Venice. But the relics at Bari continue to excrete myron as they did at Myra, while those in Venice do not. The faithful would attribute this to St. Nicholas’ desire to be in Bari, while skeptics and Venetians might point out that the myron is actually water, exuding from the marble of the tomb which is, in all fairness, below sea level.

Some of St. Nicholas’ bones in Antayla, Turkey (from Wikimedia Commons)

Published in: on December 7, 2016 at 3:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Happy feast day, Saint Nicholas, wherever you are

Readers of my book will know that St. Nicholas has a grave in Myrna, Turkey, a tomb in Kilkenny, Ireland, and shrines in Bari and Venice, Italy — each of the Italian shrines containing half of his skeleton. He also has a sacred cave near Bethlehem and an island named after him with ever-sharp tools. I assume there are suitable festivities going on in all those places right now, December 6th, his feast day. Among his miracles are saving ships from sotrms nad raising three boys who had been mummified or pickled (depending on the story) from the dead.

Image result for st nicholas

 

 

#shamelesscommerce

Published in: on December 6, 2016 at 10:46 am  Comments (2)  
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The poor pilgrim’s almanack

Inline images 1

To no fanfare, my first game book — Burgs & Bailiffs Trinity : The poor pilgrim’s almanack, or The handbook of pilgrimage and relic theft —  has become available via The Lost Pages! So you can get it now in PDF, or pre-order the printed version and get the PDF along with it.

Paolo Greco, proprietor of the Lost Pages, did a bang-up job laying out the text, which was sort of complicated because the original manuscript had dozens of footnotes and sidebars, as well as some really big tables. Not everything could make it into the final product, so once I see the final product myself I’ll post some of that material here. I’m thinking of some of it as “research mathoms” — stuff I found or created that’s too good to throw away entirely but which didn’t fit in well enough to keep, either in terms of flow or formatting, like the giant table of carrying and pulling capacities for animals ranging from rats to elephants (if you need to know how much a goat can carry, how heavy different types of camels are, or how much traction a moose can pull with, it was in there!). So watch this space for research mathoms…

I eventually envisioned this as a sort of source book like the ones Steve Jackson has been producing for GURPS — chapters of informative text that is as well-researched as I could manage with gameable material (rules). I tried to keep it as system-neutral as possible, but really it’s meant for the, ahem, World’s Most Popular Fantasy Roleplaying Game, in the B/X or first Advanced edition. Thus the sidebars, dozens of brief “adventure seeds” like the GURPS sourcebooks, and so on. I’m not an historian by training but I do read a lot, and did my research at one of the largest public research libraries in the US, where I was also working.

I’m not sure what else to say about this, and as I’m on my lunch break now I don’t have time to get long-winded anyway, but for what it’s worth here’s an excerpt from my foreword, which really explains the project:

Although I’ve always been a big fan of Dungeons & Dragons, another game has long haunted me: Fantasy Wargaming, by Bruce Galloway (and others). That infamous rule book has haunted me because of its unfulfilled promise — the idea of an historical, logical setting for adventures like those in D&D. In part FW failed to fulfill its promise because it was a haphazardly presented system of rules, and frankly the rules seemed unnecessarily complicated. But the real failure was that the game focused strictly on recreating medieval legends and sagas, which while interesting, were too esoteric for someone used to simple generic fantasy to get a handle on. My forays into running FW were pretty disastrous — I subjected my players to retreads of Viking sagas and Beowulf, which were OK for what they were but did not deliver the exploration and adventure we expected from a fantasy game. What I didn’t know then was that all the elements of dungeoneering could be realized in an historical setting. There really were adventurers who entered subterranean mazes, seeking treasure and braving dangers (real and imagined). They could be rogues, warriors, holy men, or magicians, just like in D&D. They might be seeking gold and gems, but they might just as well be seeking items with supernatural powers: the relics of saints. To find these underground complexes — catacombs — the adventurers would undertake long, perilous journeys: pilgrimages.

While this supplement could be used simply to rationalize dungeoneering in historical or pseudo-historical campaigns, the medieval superstitions and practices detailed here should also inspire new and interesting adventures, over land, at sea, and in town and city. Pilgrimages to shrines and other holy sites, whether for secular or sacred purposes, invite all manner of encounters and obstacles that will create exciting adventures. Lastly, the veneration of shrines and relics suggests a new conception of divine magic and clerics: the pilgrim miracle-worker. Paolo and I are excited by the idea of clerical magic which is grounded in historical beliefs, completely different from the usual wizardry and spell-casting that games use for secular magic-users, and which provides a justification for adventuring holy men and women. We hope that you will find ideas you can adopt in your own games, whether you follow the historical precedents herein or reskin them for your fantasy world.

Published in: on November 30, 2016 at 12:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Coming soon…

Inline images 1

Published in: on November 17, 2016 at 7:38 pm  Comments (3)  
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A 7th century D&D party

A cleric, a thief, and a fighter (or possibly an assassin) set out to slay a dragon (or a “Gargouille,” depending on your source).

From Ebenezer C. Brewer’s A dictionary of miracles (1910):

“What renders the name of St. Romanus [aka St. Romain] especially memorable in all France, is his victory at Rouen over a horrible dragon, of a shape and size hitherto unknown. It was a man-eater, and also devoured much cattle, causing sad desolation. Romanus resolved to attack this monster in his lair; but as no one would assist him in such a dangerous enterprise, he took with him, as assistants, a murderer condemned to death, and a thief. The thief, being panic-struck, ran away ; but the murderer proved true steel. Romanus went to the dragon’s den, and, making the sign of the cross, walked in, and threw a net over the beast’s neck. The murderer, then taking the net in his two hands, dragged the monster through the town into the market-place, where was a huge bonfire. Into this bonfire he led the beast, there was it burnt to death, and then thrown into the Seine. All the people thanked the saint for delivering them from this pest, the murderer was set at liberty, and Romanus appointed a day of public thanksgivings. — Propre de Rouen.”

No word on the dragon’s hoard, but the murderer was pardoned for his part in slaying the dragon, and after Romanus’ death there was annual procession of his relics ending with the pardon of a convicted criminal.

A surprising number of saints took an active role in slaying or banishing dragons. A pretty good list is here.

Published in: on July 8, 2015 at 8:47 am  Comments (5)  
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