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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
I may be one of only three people on the planet who cares about this, but as a rose-a-holic, I can’t help noticing roses in stories, and a lot of historical fiction writers get their details wrong. It’s probably impossible to get everything right in a work of fiction (or even nonfiction), but details make your setting and keep readers immersed in the story, so it’s worth it to get as many details correct as possible.
Medieval roses are especially fascinating to me. Many of them have been lost over time, but there are half a dozen or so roses still grown today that also found homes in the gardens of medieval monks and Renaissance queens. Because roses don’t come true from seed, the only way we can keep a rose variety alive is by growing a cutting of the rose. This means if you’re growing a medieval rose in your garden, it’s not just a descendant of one of these ancient roses, it’s actually a part of it: a cutting of a cutting of a cutting, perhaps, of a rose once loved and tended by royalty or by silent monks in some secluded corner of the world.
The rose has been an incredibly popular plant going back far into human history. It provides fragrance, pleasant form, and edible hips and petals. But, the rose known to medieval Europeans was different in many ways from the roses commonly found in nurseries today. If you’re reading or writing about medieval roses, there are a few facts it’s helpful to keep in mind:
Almost all medieval roses bloomed only once per year. Usually, this was in late spring, though the white musk rose blooms in the fall. The Autumn Damask is a pink rose of uncertain history (it may have been in Italy and Spain through much of the Middle Ages, at least), which blooms more than once a year, but it still blooms the most in the spring, with a few scattered blooms later.
Medieval roses had a more limited color palate. Most were shades of pink, though some could be bold burgundy-purple, deep pink that was considered red, or creamy white. Some were striped pink and white. Yellow roses were rare, unheard of in many places, and came from wild plants in the east.
The smell of these medieval roses is stronger and not as “fruity” as most modern roses. What they lack in rebloom and color variety, they make up for in scent. And, given that the Middle Ages were a pretty stinky time, things that smelled nice were especially prized, especially when the dried rose petals kept their scent and could be used to hide nasty odors. Sweetbriar roses, frequently mentioned by Victorian authors, are huge bushes whose leaves smell like green apples.
They don’t look like your typical florist’s rose. The buds are fatter, the petals more packed into the flower.
The fruits of the rose, called hips, were valued much more than today. They were a source of vitamin C, especially in the winter, and were used, along with other parts of the rose, in many aspects of medieval medicine.
As with today, medieval roses were seen as symbols of love. Sometimes the white roses were considered symbols of divine love, while the deep pink or red roses were seen as symbols of earthly love, though in Christian symbolism, the red could also be used as a reminder of Christ’s blood. The red and white striped roses especially carried this association with divine love and divine blood. Rosaries, used by medieval Christians to count their prayers, were made of balled, dried rose petals. Because of their association with love, divinity, and good health, some cultures believed that roses could keep away evil.
It wasn’t until the introduction of reblooming tea and china roses from Asia in the late 1700s that the world of European roses changed, adding the color variety, continuous bloom, and picky growth habits that many people associate with the modern rose.
If you want to know more, I highly recommend The Graham Stuart Thomas Rose Book by (guess who?) Graham Stuart Thomas and In Search of Lost Roses by Thomas Christopher.
As a side note, roses don’t carry the gene for true blue, so if an undyed blue rose ever exists, it will be due to genetic manipulation (or magic, fantasy writers 🙂 ).
*All photos taken by me. Feel free to use them, but please give me credit as the source.