Bards, Monasteries, and Education

The concept of the Ti’acha – the elite schools of Linrathe – is introduced in Empire’s Hostage, when Lena, standing as hostage to a truce between Linrathe and her country, is sent to one. What is a Ti’ach, and where did the idea come from?

Ti’acha are boarding schools. Both boys and girls attend: depending on which Ti’ach, the focus may be history and politics, or mathematics and science, or the healing arts, but music and languages are always part of the learning. Children of landholders mix with children of the peasantry: while the wealthy pay for their children to attend, demonstrated intelligence or skill will always guarantee a place.  The schools are based—loosely—on the monastic and cathedral schools of Ireland, Scotland, and England.

Image by MAGIC BOIRO, SL BOIRO from Pixabay 

In the mid-500s, the Irish monastic movement began, possibly at the monastery of Clonard, and spread out across Ireland and into what is now Scotland. Most monasteries had a school attached, both for young men who had a religious vocation and for those who would take their place in government or the military: boys of the land-holding class, for the most part. Latin and Greek were part of their education, as was a study of classical authors such as Virgil and Socrates, as well as mathematics, astronomy, and music. These subjects are what are taught in my world too.  I changed the names of the Greek and Roman writers, but their thoughts remain the same.

At the Ti’ach Lena is sent to, the Comiádh, or head of school, is a man named Perras. In A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland (1906, and a rather romanticized view) Patrick Joyce writes of the Fer-leginn, the ‘man of learning’ who was responsible for the educational direction of the school, in concert with the abbot, who was responsible for the religious aspects of the monastery. Organized religion doesn’t exist in my invented world, so there is no one to direct the religious side. There is a ‘Lady’ of the Ti’ach, Dagney, who is also the scáeli (bard) attached to the house. Her authority is equal to that of Perras, but he teaches history and politics; she music and literature.

For Dagney’s expertise, I borrowed from the tradition of bardic schools, which may have existed in pre-Christian Ireland, taught (perhaps) by Druids and likely by bards. Their role was to pass on oral history and literature, continuing in some form into the 19th century.

I simply combined the bardic schools and the monastic ones. Is it accurate? No. Does it feel familiar? Yes, and that’s what I wanted.

Other types of formal education do occur. Younger children of landholders, or those not suited to the rigors of advanced study, may be taught by a travelling teacher. These men and women, themselves taught at the Ti’acha, may stay for a season or many years. Again, this is based on a long tradition throughout Europe of itinerant teachers, attached both to noble households and wealthier towns.

But women in the Ti’acha? In the real early-medieval world, women weren’t all as badly educated as popular culture would have us believe, but neither were they included in mixed schools. Daughters of the nobility were tutored in mathematics and sciences, languages and history; nuns in certain houses were taught Latin and Greek. I deviated quite a bit from real history, but I had my reasons: the exploration and challenging of gender roles is one of the themes of the series.

Diplomacy was one of the roles played by the English scholar Alcuin at the court of Charlemagne, in the mid-700s. Columba of Iona, two hundred years earlier, undertook diplomatic negotiations between the Kingdom of Dalriada and the Kingdom of Ireland. Diplomacy needs educated, agile minds: those who acted as envoys and negotiators must have been taught well, either at the monastic schools or by teachers who themselves had learned there.

The role of the Ti’acha in politics and diplomacy continues to be important in the books following Empire’s Hostage, including the book releasing in September, Empire’s Heir.

This article has been modified from one first published at https://rwranniewhitehead.blogspot.com/2020/06/guest-post-marian-l-thorpe.html

Featured Image: By Fulda – Manuscript: Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod.652, fol. 2v (Fulda, 2nd quarter of the 9th century), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=380431

Hostage

We exchange our heirs, in surety for each side’s good behaviour.

In the modern mind, the term ‘hostage’ conjures up someone taken by force – the Iranian Embassy hostages; the person grabbed by a gunman in a robbery. But in Empire’s Hostage, Book II of the Empire’s Legacy series, ‘hostage’ is used in an older way.

“What does it mean, to be a hostage?” I asked. I saw something flicker in Turlo’s eyes. He grinned again.

“Exchanging the children of high rank as hostages is an old and honoured tradition,” he answered, “although not one we have respected, in some generations, and in truth needed to be reminded of. We’ll treat Donnalch’s son, and the other boy they are sending—his brother’s son—with every courtesy. They will lodge in the White Fort for now, and then be sent south to the Eastern Fort when the weather improves, to learn with our senior cadets. Darel, you will basically live the life that Donnalch’s son would have, whatever the education, in arms and tactics and books, they deem appropriate. That is the gist of it: we exchange our heirs, in surety for each side’s good behaviour. You will not be mistreated, but, understand, neither will you be truly free.”

In Hostages in the Middle Ages[1], Adam Kosto points out that:

In medieval Europe, hostages were given, not taken. They were a means of guarantee used to secure transactions ranging from treaties to wartime commitments to financial transactions. In principle, the force of the guarantee lay in the threat to the life of the hostage if the agreement were broken. 

Who were these hostages?  In her review[2] of Kosto’s book, Shavana Haythornthwaite tells us the preference was for sons of the family, but ‘the question of exactly who a hostage was in the Middle Ages was in fact part and parcel of the question of what the structures of power were.’ And that’s who stands as hostage to the treaty in my book.

He grinned. Nothing, ever, seemed to keep Turlo’s spirits down. “But the treaty, my lad, and lassie,” he added, “requires hostages. Donnalch’s son and another to us, and two children of our leaders to them.”

But peace treaties weren’t the only reason for hostages, and the interpretation can be broad:

Hostages were taken and held as surety for various reasons: the holding of property, the promise of paying off debts, the securement of peace. Hostages could be taken for social reasons, if broadly read. The fostering of sons is a form of social contract involving the holding of a boy by another family to strengthen a network of alliances. Betrothals and marriages of daughters and sisters, especially in the cases of making treaties between warring factions, served much the same purpose as a hostage or a fostered son: a promise of peace held in the body of a person.[3]

In later books in the series, almost all these broad definitions of hostage are part of the story, just as they were part of life in the middle ages.


[1] Kosto, Adam J. Hostages in the Middle Ages, 2012, Oxford University Press: https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199651702.001.0001/acprof-9780199651702

[2] Haythornthwaite, Shavana.  Review of Hostages in the Middle Ages, (review no. 1579)
https://reviews.history.ac.uk/review/1579

[3] Medieval Hostageship c.700-c.1500: Hostage, Captive, Prisoner of War, Guarantee, Peacemaker. Matthew Bennett & Katherine Weikert, eds., Routledge, 2019

Wine, Anyone?

Below us, the forest gave way to fields, each planted with precise, parallel rows of trellised vines.

On the southern coast of my fictional land, in what is roughly the 7th century, the southern village of Karst grows grapes for wine. Given that this land is an analogue of Britain, how reasonable is this?

Grapes have been grown for millennia; six thousand years ago, grapes were grown in an area reaching from the far east of Europe to Asia Minor and through the Nile Delta. Grape cultivation spread westward with the Hittites, into Crete and Thrace as early as 3000 BCE. (The first written laws governing the wine trade are from Hammurabi, in 1700 BCE.) The Phoenicians took grapes ever further west, and Rome brought them to Britain shortly after its conquest in the first century CE.[1]

Even before the Roman conquest, wine was being imported to Britain.[2]  But Rome saw wine as a necessity, available (in differing qualities) to everyone. Wine was imported to its outposts, but vineyards were also established wherever possible, to save the cost of shipping. Increasing consumption of wine in Romanized Europe also meant less of it was available for import, so growing their own was a sensible solution.  

After Rome left Britain ‘to see to their own defences’, winemaking primarily fell to the monasteries. As Christianity – or any widely organized religion – doesn’t exist in my world – I didn’t incorporate it. But the idea that grapes grow in the south of my land is based on historical record. In the Domesday Book, that great record of population and agriculture and land ownership compiled in the late 11th Century, there were 42 vineyards in England, all below a line from Cambridgeshire to Gloucestershire.[3] 

Domesday Book vineyards are all south of this line.

So what Lena sees, looking south from an escarpment towards Karst could, possibly, have been seen in England too, at the equivalent time to the setting of Empire’s Daughter.

Below us, the forest gave way to fields, each planted with precise, parallel rows of trellised vines. Dirt tracks ran between the fields, houses, and outbuildings scattered among them. Smoke rose from the houses, and in the far distance, I spotted a larger building with a tower: the central meeting hall. Beyond that were more fields, and then a shimmer at the horizon: the sea.  


[1] https://ipm.missouri.edu/MEG/2013/8/Grapes-A-Brief-History

[2] New Light on the Wine Trade with Julio-Claudian Britain. PAUL R. SEALEY Britannia Vol. 40 (2009), pp. 1-40 (40 pages)

[3] https://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2006/07/medieval-warmth-and-english-wine/

Featured image Image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay

Worldbuilding: Agriculture in an Early-Medieval World

One of the reasons I think my world feels rich to readers is the presence of agriculture as part of the background of life.

The scenery, the customs and traditions, the way of life – all were portrayed so well that it felt like reading about a real time and place.” 

Helen Hollick, Discovering Diamonds review of Empire’s Daughter

This, in some version, is one of the most frequent comments – or compliments – about my books. How did you build such a real world? people ask.  There are a lot of facets to this, but the one I’ll look at today is the role of agriculture in creating an early-medieval setting.

I have an advantage over many writers: I grew up in a rural setting, did agricultural work from the time I was thirteen, come from a long line of agricultural workers, and have two degrees in the subject. And landscape history – which is inextricably tied into land use and agriculture – is a major hobby of mine. Nonetheless, it’s not what you know as much as how you use it, really.

Let’s look at animal agriculture first. Early medieval Europe, which my world parallels, had horses and cows, sheep and goats, and pigs*. Empire’s Daughter opens in a fishing village, but one that also farms. Geographically, it’s set somewhere equivalent to perhaps northern Wales – in my mind, it’s the landscape of Anglesey. Thin soils, rocky heathland in places; deeper soils in others. So it can support some grain crops, and some animal agriculture.

Lives revolve around animals: lambing, shearing, slaughter, as well as the cycle of planting and harvest. Fences are important, tough wattle fencing to keep animals out of gardens. Children are employed to scare birds, watch sheep, keep the goats away from crops.

One of the reasons I think my world feels rich is this is present as part of the background of life. For example, in a scene where a council of landholders have met for political reasons, other conversations still happen. The country’s been raided badly by a Viking-like people, and it’s just beginning to recover. Political decisions about leadership need to be made, but so do more mundane choices – and this young landholder, his father dead in the battles – turns to an older man for advice:

“Sorley,” he said when I sat down. “Should I put the meadows along the water to the plough, if I can find seed? They’ve been grazed, but we’ll not have sheep in numbers for a few years yet.”

“If those meadows are like the Ti’ach’s, they’re wet,” I said. “Better leave them to the sheep, and plough better drained land, if you can.” He’d be late getting the barley in, but it needed only three months to be ready to harvest.

Empire’s Reckoning

It’s two short paragraphs – but it brings the real, daily concerns of people to life.

Knowing how people and animals lived together also adds authenticity to a story. In many cases, it was in one building, either separated by a rough wall, or with the animals on ground level and people living above them. Cattle produce an enormous amount of heat, and this arrangement allowed for the animal’s heat to benefit people – and it also meant the people were right there in case of a predator attack. In this scene the character has begged shelter at a peasant cottage: 

She led me to the half of the bothy the animals occupied, the milk cow and the pigs, if they had them. Although this should be slaughter month, so the pigs might already be ham and bacon, hanging in flitches above the hearth. The byre was empty, as I had expected; what animals they had would be out foraging, but it was dry, and the reed bedding tolerably clean.

I settled into a corner, spreading my tattered blanket, which served as my cloak, out flat. I wished the cow had been indoors; her warmth would have been welcome.

Empire’s Reckoning

Here the rhythms of the agricultural year are shown to be important without bringing undue emphasis to them, and the living conditions of the people.

I could find other examples: how sheep are hefted to a hillside (hefting is a learned behaviour passed from ewe to lamb that limits where sheep will wander); how sheep and cattle were moved to market; the low value of the coarse wool of the upland sheep.  None of these get more than a mention here and there, or at most a couple of paragraphs, but they serve to create a solid agricultural basis to a world that depended on it. (Which, of course, we still all do, but most of us are so distanced from it, we forget.) In many ways, this is the equivalent of, in a contemporary urban novel, of stopping at Starbucks, or debating sushi or pizza for dinner: the details that reinforce the common rituals and experiences of our lives. In another post, I’ll look at the crops of medieval Europe and how they too influenced both daily life, and my books.

Featured image: Limbourg brothers/Public domain

* The sheep are coarse-wooled, darker than you might expect. The pigs aren’t likely pink, and they’re running loose, foraging; taller, razor-backed, bristly and dangerous. The cattle might be white, and fierce; castrated males are used as draught animals. You plough with oxen, not horses, in most cases. And the horses are ponies, shaggy and tough.