Do you know about Balthazar?

Writing about Three Kings Day a couple of weeks ago (and thinking about the Wise Men in general) made me remember the line from the comedy detective show Psych when Dule Hill’s character Gus comments about an all-white Nativity scene, and his sister says, “I thought everyone knew about Balthazar.”

Their knowledge provides a (minor – not a big spoiler) clue in the show, and they’re not wrong: Balthazar is one of the Wise Men, along with Melchior and Gaspar, and he is traditionally African (or Macedonian). (Melchior is elderly and European, and Gaspar is Southeast Asian/Indian – though sometimes depicted as European or African.) I’ve wondered if this was a relatively new innovation to be more inclusive, but it turns out the traditional names and homelands of the Three Wise Men go back at least to the early Middle Ages, being discussed by no less than the Venerable Bede, early English monk and chronicler, circa 700 AD.

Most Medieval European paintings and other art depicting the Wise Men show them all as European, but by the dawn of the Renaissance, we start to see Balthazar as a very dark-skinned African. There were a limited number of Africans in Europe during the Middle Ages, so European artists may not have considered that people from other parts of the world looked much different from themselves, but the Renaissance concern with realism appears to have influenced paintings of the Magi, and today, many Nativity scenes in homes and public places include our friend Balthazar. Now you’ll know to always look for him, whether or not it helps you uncover a murder.

A painting depicting Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, and the Three Wise Men, one of them Black.
A 15th-century manuscript illumination showing Balthazar as African.

Twelfth Night (Day)

You may have heard of the Twelve Days of Christmas or even celebrated it in some form as the twelve days leading up to Christmas. But did you know that’s backwards? Traditionally, the twelve days of Christmas start on Christmas and continue for twelve days after, ending January 6th with Epiphany, or Three Kings Day. The whole time in between used to be one long celebration called Christmastide, kind of like what we experience now as the dead week between Christmas and New Years, but with more parties. Twelfth Night was the end of the festivities, celebrated either on January 6th or on the 5th as “Epiphany Eve” depending on how people counted the nights.

Today, Three Kings Day or Epiphany is still celebrated in some Catholic cultures with at least as much gusto as Christmas, with a gift exchange to commemorate the gifts brought by the Wise Men and a King Cake containing a small toy baby or a bean so that whoever finds it gets good luck for the year, and sometimes the honor of being “king” and bringing next year’s cake.

I like the idea of stretching out the Christmas celebrations as long as possible since in the northern hemisphere, this is a pretty bleak time of year. But for people like me who procrastinate taking down Christmas, there’s some bad news: it’s bad luck to keep your decorations up after Three Kings Day. Christmas is over and it’s time to move on. In fact, if you keep them up as long as Candlemas (February 2nd), people used to believe it would bring death into the home – especially if you hang on to the evergreens and holly berries. So, I suppose I’d better start taking down the tree. Happy Three Kings Day!

A Renaissance painting of the three wise men bringng gifts to Mary and baby Jesus.
Adoration of the Magi by Bartolome Esteban Murillo circa 1660

Hawthorn tree lore

Hawthorn trees are among the most magical in European folklore – and also the most conflicting. Good luck or bad luck? Friend or foe? It depends on who you ask and when. But they’re gorgeous trees either way, with their pink or white blossoms and their trunks that get furrowed and gnarled with age. The most famous hawthorn is probably the Glastonbury Thorn at Glastonbury Abbey. It is said to have sprung from Joseph of Arimethea’s staff when he arrived there bearing the Holy Grail. Interestingly, the Glastonbury Thorn (or its current descendants) blooms twice a year – once in spring, like most hawthorns, and once at Christmas.

A lovely hawthorn tree in the Logan Cemetery – really, my picture doesn’t do justice to its cascade of late-May blooms.

Hawthorn trees were supposed to be particular favorites of the Fair Folk, often guarding the entryways into Elfland as well as ancient holy wells. For this reason, it’s bad luck to cut them down. There are roads in the British Isles that were redirected to go around old hawthorn trees, and some buildings there are said to be cursed because a hawthorn was removed to make way for the building. The Fay are very jealous of their trees.

I was delighted to find that the Logan Cemetery hawthorn has its own gnome guardian among its branches. He looks like he’s seen a few battles, maybe protecting the entrance to the Otherworld?

On the other hand, it was traditional to cut branches of blooming hawthorn for May Day celebrations. So, perhaps this is the one time it’s permissible to disturb the tree? Maybe it allows the Fay to join the celebrations. One should never bring the hawthorn branches or flowers inside, though. That might invite the Fair Folk’s attention (Branches from the Glastonbury Thorn supposedly decorate the queen’s table at Christmas, but maybe she gets a special dispensation).

The Logan Cemetery hawthorn has two trees growing from the debris collected over the years between its trunk and branches: this little spruce and the sapling by the gnome, which might be some kind of plum. When rowan trees grew in the joints of other trees, they were called “flying rowans” and were thought to be especially potent magic. Maybe this “flying spruce” growing from the hawthorn also has some special power.

Some people felt it was good luck to have a hawthorn growing near (but not too near) their house, while others didn’t want the Fair Folk that close. If you decide to plant a hawthorn, it’s a hardy tree with spring flowers, an informal growth habit, and tiny red fruit in the fall-winter (edible in most species but not tasty). Paul’s Scarlet, the one in these pictures, was discovered in the mid-1800s and has double pink flowers (wild European hawthorns, including the Glastonbury Thorn, are usually white), but it often loses its leaves early in the summer. Crimson Cloud is a pink-flowered European hawthorn that keeps its leaves until fall, and American hawthorns or maythorns also make nice yard trees. I haven’t found any stories associating American hawthorns with the Fair Folk, and I guess you can decide if that’s a pro or a con.

Guardians and Wards: A Medieval Practice that Lingers Today

Guardianship has been in the news lately as singer Britney Spears successfully fought to be freed from hers. The term “ward” wasn’t used to describe her, but that’s essentially what she was. I think before Britney Spears, the most famous ward was probably Maid Marian, sometimes said to be the ward of King Richard and/or Prince John in the Robin Hood stories. So, if the term “ward” makes you think of a singing animated fox in a pseudo-medieval gown (like it did for me), that’s not surprising, but it disguises a long and ugly history of wardships that continues today.

Olivia de Havilland as King Richard’s ward, Maid Marian

The medieval and Renaissance ward in England was a young nobleman or woman whose father had died before they reached their majority (21 for men, 14 for girls). Because the young person’s holdings reverted to the crown on their father’s death, the crown claimed guardianship of the ward and their holdings until they were old enough to take charge of it themselves (for men) or be married off (for girls). Generally, the crown didn’t really want to take care of all those children, so they would auction the kids off to the highest bidder – a guardian who benefitted from the lands of the ward and usually arranged the ward’s marriage to the advantage of the guardian (such as marrying them to a family member). Note that the mother or other family members might still be alive but would have to fight to be the guardian of the child and seldom succeeded. This was a financial arrangement for the crown and the best interest of the child rarely came into it. I found this both interesting and horrifying, and I wrote about it in Wishwood. This form of wardship was so frustrating to English noble families that it was one of the practices decried by insurgents in the British Civil Wars of the 1640s, and when the monarchy was restored after the war, medieval wardships were not.

Wishwood cover
In Wishwood, Kate’s guardian forced her into an arranged marriage, a situation many real-life wards would have faced.

Wardship in the English-speaking world didn’t end with the Restoration in 1660. There were and are situations where a person needs a guardian because their age or health makes them unable to care for themselves, either temporarily or permanently. Children might be wards of the court or wards of the state if their family is not able to care for them. Adults can also enter a guardianship or conservatorship if they are deemed unable to manage their own affairs (as Britney Spears was at the start). We would hope that, in our modern system, guardians are selected who care about their ward and that we’ve left the abuses of the past in the history books, though.

Sadly, this is not the case. In the US, guardianship rules vary by state, and some states make it VERY easy to put someone in a guardianship. As in, a practical stranger can have you declared incompetent and take over all of your financial affairs, up to and including putting you in a group home and selling your house and possessions to pay themselves for the trouble. In some states, there is a lucrative industry revolving around this practice and involving lawyers, judges, and long-term care facilities. Your family will have no say in the matter. And neither will you, because the horrifying part of guardianships is that the ward, being declared incompetent, essentially loses their personhood. They can’t go to court without the approval of their guardian who, obviously, is not going to let that happen. For a tale more terrifying than any ghost or horror story, read about how this has played out in Nevada (a state I would NOT recommend retiring to until they fix this!), then find out what the laws are in your state and if there is a way to protect yourself from this medieval practice that needs serious updating.

The New Yorker: How the Elderly Lose Their Rights

AP News: Guardians of the Elderly, Part One

AP News: Guardians of the Elderly, Part Two

And some potential solutions, especially if enough of us pressure lawmakers on behalf of the elderly and those with disabilities:

NPR: Unlike Britney Spears, others remain stuck

Moon Hollow

I had so much fun with my Gothic novel, Wishwood, that I wrote a spin-off: Moon Hollow.

No one loves trouble, and Jael Hawkins is a troublesome girl. Everyone says so. When yet another relative tires of her, she is banished to Moon Hollow with the family’s other black sheep. There, her aunt and uncle make her feel welcome for the first time, and she meets the intriguing Sebastian Westwood, in whom she senses a kindred spirit. But something is not right at Moon Hollow. Wails echo in the corridors at night, and a ghostly figure roams the riverbank. Jael must unravel Moon Hollow’s secrets and put its past to rest if she’s ever to find a place where she belongs.

Now available on Amazon.

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Explore the world in your pajamas

As we’re all looking for ways to spend our social distancing time, I’m joining with many other authors to offer discounted ebooks to people looking to get away in their imaginations while we can’t go anywhere in person. And if anyone has found any online resources they love, please post them in the comments for others (the Google Arts & Culture virtual tours are great, for instance – I took my kids to the British Museum yesterday).

My newest book, Wishwood, is on sale this weekend.

Kate agrees to an arranged marriage with the mysterious Thomas Westwood to save her family’s estate, but not everyone welcomes her at Wishwood, her husband’s crumbling manor. The family members talk about a curse, lights move through the ruins at night, and Kate’s maid won’t spend the night in the house. Thomas is hiding something from Kate as well, but as she grows closer to him, a series of accidents makes her suspect that someone is willing to kill to keep Wishwood’s secrets buried in the past.

WISHWOOD_frontcover

In addition, my WWII novella, Letters from the Homefront, is 99 cents for the next five days.

War doesn’t end on the battlefield.

December 1944. Evie’s older brother, Albert, is missing in action in the Pacific Theater, and every day she sees the horrible effects of World War II while working at Bushnell Military Hospital in Utah. Being a medical secretary seems like a small effort in the face of the war, but she’s proud to be part of Bushnell’s experiment with an important new weapon in the fight: penicillin. Posters cover the walls, reminding the employees to watch out for spies, but when Evie realizes that some of her files are missing, her supervisors think she’s being careless. It’s up to Evie and amputee veteran Glenn to find out who at the hospital is hiding a dangerous secret before tragedy strikes the hospital.

Inspired by real events at Bushnell Hospital in Brigham City, Utah.

HomefrontFrontCover

Stay well and stay kind!

 

Release Day!

Happy May Day! Yours, Dorothy is now available in ebook and paperback through Amazon. For the first stop on its blog tour, Tressa at Wishful Endings reviewed it. She says:

“Highly recommended to historical fiction and romance readers who enjoy stories based on historical facts. If you enjoy stories based on historical events and people, with a steady pace, a strong historical setting, political upheaval, and a sweet romance, then this is definitely a story for you. Well written, with likable characters, and an interesting setting make for an enjoyable story!”

You can read her full review here and enter a giveaway for a chance to win the book, and you can find Yours, Dorothy on Amazon.

Dorothy 6x9

Yours, Dorothy

Coming May 2018!

Based on a true love story from the British Civil Wars.

Dorothy Osborne’s family has sacrificed everything for King Charles of England, living in exile in France after the king’s defeat by Parliament. Dorothy knows it is her duty to marry well and help her family, which means finding a wealthy suitor: Royalist, or maybe French, but never a Parliamentarian, and not someone of her own choosing.

William Temple struggles to commit to his father’s Parliamentarian cause, making his family wonder if he’ll ever commit to anything. William wonders too, until he meets Dorothy Osborne. The connection between them is instant, but their families will go to any length to keep them apart. Can their love survive separation and the upheavals of the British Civil War?

Add it to your to-read list on Goodreads.

Dorothy 6x9

Contractions are historical, y’all

One of my pet peeves in historical novels is when authors try to make dialogue sound authentic by removing all the contractions. A natural-sounding phrase like, “I’m sure you’ll do well,” becomes the awkward and kind of comical, “I am sure you will do well.”

Please don’t do this to your readers or your manuscript. Some characters will speak more formally than others, but here’s the thing: English is a lazy language full of contractions and short cuts, and that hasn’t changed over the years. On the other hand, using contractions that are too modern in historical pieces ruins the flavor, like putting mint in your orange juice, so you have to pick the right historical contractions.

The types of contractions people use have evolved, but there are plenty of authentic historical contractions writers can use to make their dialogue sounds more natural and still understandable to the modern reader. Look at Shakespeare. His works mark the beginning of modern English, and he uses tons of contractions – and not just when he’s trying to make words fit the rhythm.

So, here’s a brief look at the history of modern English contractions.

First, the “it” contractions: ’tis, ’twas, ’twill, ‘twould. These are pretty common in Elizabethan (1500s) writings, and don’t sound incomprehensible to modern readers. ‘Tis replaces “it’s,” and ‘twould would replace “it’d” if anyone is inclined to use that modern contraction. Google n-gram viewer, which measures how often words appear in print, shows “’tis” peaking around 1700 then falling off sharply, so that by 1800 it’s not very common, and probably old-fashioned.

Shakespeare and other Elizabethan writings provide ample evidence for contractions with “is” and “will,” like: she’ll, we’ll, there’s, and he’s. Shakespeare also uses “I’m,” so all of those are perfectly historical.

“Have” and “had” are apparently more controversial. The OED says the contractions -‘ve and -‘d are post-Elizabethan, but other scholars, like E.A.J. Honigmann in The Texts of Othello and Shakespearean Revision, disagree. They find evidence of contractions like “they’ve” and “she’d” in period texts and suggest these contractions might be just coming into use in writing during this time (they could have been used orally for some time before). So, you’re probably safe with those too in most English historical fiction.

I’ve been reading letters written right around 1650 (and anyone writing in this time period is going to be middle or upper class and well-educated), and they use plenty of contractions: I’m, I’ll, we’ll, you’ll, ’tis, ’twas, ’twill, on’t (of it), t’other (the other), in’t (in it), and with’t (with it). Don’t also makes an appearance.

Most of the “not” contractions come into English a bit late. My old friend the Online Etymology Dictionary gives these dates for when some of them came into use (this would be when they’re found in print – they may have been used verbally for a few years before):

  • don’t – 1630
  • won’t – 1660
  • couldn’t – 1670
  • hadn’t – 1705
  • can’t – 1706
  • ain’t – 1706 (considered correct English until the early Victorian period [1800s] when it came to be seen as lower class – this was when contractions in general got a bad rap in formal writing)
  • aren’t – 1709 (sometimes spelled are’n’t)
  • didn’t – 1775

And then there’s y’all. It’s an early-1800s Americanism from the South and later the West. It was probably adopted into white speech from African-American speech. As a contraction for “you all,” “y’all” is generally meant to be plural. If you’re saying it to one person, it implies they’re part of a group. So, “Y’all stay off our property,” means “you and all your folks.” You-uns or yins was also used in the early 1800s in the American Old Northwest (i.e. Ohio and Pennsylvania).

Jane Austen gives us an idea of which contractions are in use in England in the early 1800s. She’s much more sparing with them than my earlier samples, but in Pride and Prejudice, we find: I’m, don’t, can’t, shan’t, won’t, you’ll, and ’tis. Lydia and Mrs Bennet use the most contractions, but the less silly characters use them occasionally too.

In 1837, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist gives us: don’t, you’ll, he’s, who’s, I’ll, warn’t (were not), can’t, hasn’t, it’s, wouldn’t, mustn’t, haven’t, shouldn’t, didn’t, mightn’t, needn’t, ain’t, mayn’t, it’ll, there’s, I’ve, you’ve, we’ve, that’s, where’s, there’ll, you’d, he’d, shan’t, daren’t (dare not), and a variety of other slang-y historical contractions, used liberally throughout the dialogue.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, published in 1855 and incorporating a wider variety of social classes, uses: don’t, shan’t, can’t, won’t, an’t (and it), mayn’t, didn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t, doesn’t, it’s, I’ll, that’s, we’ve, they’d, I’ve, you’ve, we’ve, they’ve, they’re, you’re, they’ll, she’d, she’s, aren’t, I’d, and some others – a pretty full complement. The laborers use many more contractions than the upper class characters, but even well-bred Margaret uses don’t, you’ll, I’ll, you’ve, I’m, and others fairly often. At this point, as in Dickens, “’tis” is gone, even from old fashioned or upper class language.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884, uses most of the contractions that Gaskell used (though not “shan’t” or “an’t”), plus ain’t.

So, it from the Victorian period onward, in England and America, writers have a pretty complete palette of contractions to choose from, and in any historical time period, people of all social classes used contractions.

And there it is: a quick look at historical contractions for fun and profit (but mostly for fun 😉 ).

Suffering from “the spleen”

My blogosphere silence lately has been due to the extreme busy-ness of conferences, Pitch Wars, and my own editing, but I found this interesting tidbit while researching Renaissance life and health, and I had to post about it. I’m reading the letters of a seventeenth century woman who complains of suffering from “the spleen.” Her symptoms sound like depression and/or general anxiety disorder, so I did a bit of research and, sure enough, “the spleen” was the sixteenth century catch-all term for those and related mental health problems.

This was interesting to me because of the similarities and differences between mental health then and now. The symptoms were recognizable: moodiness, withdrawal, long-lasting “blue” feelings, irritability, trouble sleeping and/or oversleeping, and general nervousness or worry. Mental illness is not a phenomenon belonging only to the modern world.

One thing that was refreshing was the general Renaissance medical consensus that mental illness had a physical component: it was called “the spleen” because Renaissance doctors believed the symptoms were caused by an imbalance of the “four humors” that made up the body (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) caused, in this instance, by trouble in the spleen. With some modern folks claiming that mental illness and other hard-to-quantify health problems are just in the sufferers’ imaginations, it’s good to remember that it was recognized centuries ago as a real, physical health issue resulting from chemical imbalances in the body (even if early physicians weren’t clear on what those chemicals were).

On the disappointing side, there was a stigma even then against “the spleen” as being a woman’s illness. Though my seventeenth-century letter writer recognized some of the symptoms in the man she was writing to, she hesitated to “accuse” him of suffering from a “feminine” disease. This attitude persists today, making men less likely to seek help for their mental health issues. I also suspect it’s why mental illness came to be taken less seriously as a medical issue–as later generations focused on women’s perceived weaknesses, they began more and more to see mental illness as just a sign that women can’t handle much of anything (studying serious topics, thinking about politics, eating meat…), leaving countless men and women to suffer in silence (or in horrendous institutions for hiding away the mentally ill) until the recent push for reconsidering our understanding of mental illness.

I think mental illness is a topic we should shed more light on and continue to de-stigmatize, and I’m looking forward to exploring it in my upcoming NaNoWriMo writing project.

portrait_of_a_patient_from_surrey_county_asylum_no-_13_8408235032
A Victorian woman institutionalized for mental illness. A better understanding of mental health might have freed her from her prison-like existence. From the UK National Media Museum.