Monthly Archives: December 2009


The Nature of Knowledge

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To humans, learning is like breathing–it comes naturally.  What a human learns, however, is not natural and depends on the needs of the individual, the time she lives in, and what is available for her to learn.

A thousand years ago, ‘book’ knowledge was the province of the Church and of the elite (usually male).   Over the next two hundred years, formal education became more widespread.  Cambridge University, for example, was founded in 1209 by a group of men dissatisfied with Oxford. When a man went to the university, his education began with the seven liberal arts:  Latin grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.   After he received his Master of Arts, he could choose to study law, medicine, philosophy, or theology, upon which he would receive his doctorate.

Knowledge, however, is not necessarily just ‘book learning’.  While this afternoon my son spent twenty minutes explaining to me the difference between a star, a white dwarf, and a black hole (which had him very excited), this kind of knowledge has limited use in daily life.  In the Middle Ages, the ‘average’ person, might not have been able to read a book, but he still might have an encyclopedic knowledge of arts and sciences about which a modern person knows nothing:  herbal remedies, swordmaking, blacksmithing, wine making, crafting of soap, animal husbandry, how to sheer a sheep, card wool, spin thread, weave, sew by hand, make cheese, ride a horse . . . the list is endless.   Most twenty-first century people would be as completely helpless when instructed to cook a meal in the Middle Ages (beginning with how to start a fire without matches) as a medieval person would be when faced with a computer.

It is likely that individuals of each era would find citizens of the other woefully ignorant.

There is an additional issue, however, of the tools a person has to think with.  A person who has never been exposed to philosophy–whether scientific, theological, post-modern etc.–is not able to analyse an argument, to follow a progression of logic, or tell the difference between coincidence and causality.  And for this reason, the ability to read and write, if nothing else, gives an individual access to knowledge and different ways of thinking which illiteracy does not provide.  It is not that modern people are ‘smarter’ or ‘less ignorant’.  What we have is access.  We live in a society in which knowledge–whether individual or societal–can be passed from one generation to the next–to accumulate and expand–because so much is written down.  And not only is it written down, but easily accessible to a virtually the entire population.  This, more than anything else, is the advantage that modern people have over their medieval ancestors.


Toxic Beauty

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The Associated Press reported this story two days ago:

A mistress of the French King Henry II died from her beauty regime which involved drinking liquid gold, designed to prolong her youthful allure.  The story reads:

  “The French court believed gold harnessed the power of the Sun, which would be transferred to the drinker. Alchemists often acted as apothecaries and prescribed solutions made up of gold chloride and diethyl ether.”

This, of course, is hardly the first instance of toxic beauty regimens.  The modern Botox injection or silicon breast implant are only two examples, but both women and men have harmed themselves–not always unknowingly–throughout history.   Galena, for example, or lead sulfide, a toxic substance, has been used in kohl since ancient Egypt.

This site talks about the use of lead in Ancient Rome:

“Lead was a key component in face powders, rouges, and mascaras; the pigment in many paints (“crazy as a painter” was an ancient catch phrase rooted in the demented behavior of lead-poisoned painters); a nifty spermicide for informal birth control; the ideal “cold” metal for use in the manufacture of chastity belts; a sweet and sour condiment popular for seasoning and adulterating food; a wine preservative perfect for stopping fermentation or disguising inferior vintages; the malleable and inexpensive ingredient in pewter cups, plates, pitchers, pots and pans, and other household artifacts; the basic component of lead coins; and a partial ingredient in debased bronze or brass coins as well as counterfeit silver and gold coins.”

And this page, is a succinct, yet fairly complete list of toxic makeup:

This passage is particularly lovely:

“In the late 18th to mid–19th century, the ultra–pale look persisted. A “lady” didn’t need to work in the sun, and therefore should be pale…translucent, even. Some historians even speculate that consumption was so common, it became fashionable to look as though you were suffering from TB. Indeed, the white skin, flushed cheek, and luminous eye of the illness was frequently imitated with white lead and rouge To make they eyes bright, some women ate small amounts of arsenic or washed their eyes with orange and lemon juice—or, worse yet, rinsed them with belladonna, the juice of the poisonous nightshade.”

And I haven’t even touched upon foot-binding, neck stretching, tattoos, piercings, and other transformations of the human body, all in the name of beauty.


Time Travel part II


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In terms of modern inventions that could be implemented in the Middle Ages, with the available technology, there are two which seemed most likely to make a difference to medieval people.  The first was simple sterilization:  washing hands, submersing implements and wounds in alcohol, and boiling.  Just taking these precautions could decrease rates of infections as well as keeping mothers who would have otherwise died of childbed fever alive.

The second is gunpowder, or rather, ‘black powder’, which is its earlier incarnation.  It is made of charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate  or saltpeter (found, for example, in bat guano).  It had actually been invented by the mide 1200s, but wasn’t put to broad use in Europe until the mid-1300s, when it was being made on a broad scale for the English crown.  To return to 1282 Wales, then, and be able produce ‘black powder’ might have made some difference in the outcome of the war.


Twilight of Avalon Video

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Anna Elliott, who posted on this blog not long ago, has just released a video for her book Twilight of Avalon, the first in a trilogy. The next book, Dark Moon of Avalon will appear in May 2010. In the meantime, enjoy her video and buy her book!

Twilight of Avalon:  She is a healer, a storyteller, a warrior, and a queen without a throne. In the shadow of King Arthur’s Britain, one woman knows the truth that could save a kingdom from the hands of a tyrant…

Ancient grudges, old wounds, and the quest for power rule in the newly widowed Queen Isolde’s court. Hardly a generation after the downfall of Camelot, Isolde grieves for her slain husband, King Constantine, a man she secretly knows to have been murdered by the scheming Lord Marche — the man who has just assumed his title as High King. Though her skills as a healer are renowned throughout the kingdom, in the wake of Con’s death, accusations of witchcraft and sorcery threaten her freedom and her ability to bring Marche to justice. Burdened by their suspicion and her own grief, Isolde must conquer the court’s distrust and superstition to protect her throne and the future of Britain.

One of her few allies is Trystan, a prisoner with a lonely and troubled past. Neither Saxon nor Briton, he is unmoved by the political scheming, rumors, and accusations swirling around the fair queen. Together they escape, and as their companionship turns from friendship to love, they must find a way to prove what they know to be true — that Marche’s deceptions threaten not only their lives but the sovereignty of the British kingdom.

In Twilight of Avalon, Anna Elliott returns to the roots of the legend of Trystan and Isolde to shape a very different story — one based in the earliest written versions of the Arthurian tales — a captivating epic brimming with historic authenticity, sweeping romance, and the powerful magic of legend.


Wisdom Teeth

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Although within fiction and movies, there is a sense that hygiene was poor and few people lived into adulthood with all their teeth intact, people did care for their teeth in the Middle Ages.  Herbs and mouthwashes existed that allowed people to do so:

At the same time, it is certainly true that tooth extraction was extremely common, and probably one of the few means of dealing with a rotten tooth.

If people didn’t care for their teeth, they lost them, as the following image clearly indicates (copyright to the British Library Board).

I’ve been rereading Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series.   These books are a joy to read, if only because Peters is a master of her craft and it is enjoyable to note how beautifully she strings words together.  But she also writes about an area of the world in which I am interested, and Brother Cadfael is a medieval herbalist.

The combination of that and the fact that my son had his wisdom teeth out on Thursday prompts me to think about the care of teeth within medieval medicine.  Cadfael spent twenty years in the Holy Land, where he learned about herbs and medicines.  Fortunately, this was an era before bloodletting, and Cadfael is a true physician.  He focuses on easing pain and ailments and  counteracting symptoms with herbal remedies.  He sets bones and sutures wounds, too.  He is also not averse to washing his hands, and perhaps Peters’ intent was that he learned this in the Holy Land too.

Cadfael never took care of dental work, however, and it is hard to get a bead on what was really the situation with medieval people’s teeth.  Clearly, there was no flouride or flossing, but with less sugar consumption, perhaps there were fewer cavities.  Certainly, archaeologists have dug up medievial skeletons with most of their teeth still present.  From what I have read here and there (e.g.;,  it is a modern conceit to think that medieval people had bad teeth, and perhaps, as is the case now, the range of care was wide and to some extent depended on education and wealth.

Dentists say that wisdom teeth need to come out because they are prone to infections, even if they have come in properly, and if they haven’t, can cause even worse problems by coming in sideways, not coming in at all, etc.

From my reading, wisdom teeth would have been far less of a concern in earlier eras–obviously we’ve just started taking them out in the 20th century–because by the time wisdom teeth began to bother people once they were adults a) they’d already lost a few teeth so the wisdom teeth came in properly, or b) by the time wisdom teeth would be a concern (i.e. an individual in their thirties) most people were nearing the end of their lives.  (

I’m not sure I believe that any of this is giving us the whole truth.