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 a 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

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

Lena and Maya: Can This Relationship Be Saved?

Even if the request to fight had never come, could this relationship survive?

Lena and Maya, characters in Empire’s Daughter, are partners in life and work; like many young village couples, they’ve known each other all their lives, moving from playmates to a closer bond. They apprenticed together, and now as adults – which they’ve been for a year, in their world – they work together on a co-owned fishing boat. Maya is six months older than Lena, practical, organized, disliking of change. “Maya needed order and predictability,” Lena thinks. “In our business partnership, her need for stability balanced my impulsiveness. In our personal relationship, it had always cast a small shadow.”

Image by prettysleepy1 from Pixabay 

Lena describes herself as a dreamer, given to mood swings and doubts.  But Maya sees something else: “You think this is an adventure, Lena?” she accuses. “Something new? Something different? You always want to sail a little further, find another cove, even though the ones we know provide us with all the fish we need.”

Now the Emperor has made an audacious request: will the women of his land learn to fight, to help protect their country from invasion?  They’re needed, in his judgment: the men alone cannot win, not without leaving the northern frontier underguarded and vulnerable. It’s a departure from hundreds of years of tradition, an abandonment of the Partition agreement that structured the lives of men and women into distinct roles. Men fight; women fish and farm.

Lena doesn’t admit to Maya that, yes, she sees an adventure in the choice that has been presented. Fishing needs all her wits: the seas can turn nasty in a moment. It should be enough to deal with that day to day. But there’s a drive in her – inherited from her father, although she doesn’t know that – for new horizons, new challenges.

Maya just wants things not to change. Tradition is important to her. She wants her village to refuse the request: it’s the men’s job to protect the land, not women’s. And she thinks if they agree to this, and survive it, what else will change?  The idea frightens her, and she’s become rigid in her thinking.  “Don’t make up my mind so soon?” she snaps. “I know how I feel, Lena. What Casyn is asking, what the Empire is asking, is wrong. I know that, and so do you.  Women don’t fight. We don’t kill or harm others.”

This relationship had some issues before this divisive request. So, readers, here’s your question:  even if the request to fight had never come, could this relationship survive?

Empire’s Daughter is available from Amazon.

Featured image by Gerd Altmann 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.

Divided Lives

How did Lysistrata, Sparta, The Lord of the Rings, and Icelandic women influence Empire’s Daughter?

Tali grinned, her teeth white against her tanned face. “Oh, there’s a problem,” she said. “Our prospective new metalworker is neither from Delle, nor newly-qualified. As a guess, I’d say our new smith brings thirty years of experience—military experience. And his name is Casyn.”

I stared at my aunt, my hands tightening on the crab trap. Maya gasped. All men left the villages at seven to enter the Empire’s military schools, spending their adult years serving in the army. In retirement, they raised horses or grew grapes or taught in the schools, finishing out their days with whatever part of their regiment had survived. Twice a year, war and distance allowing, they came to the villages for Festival, to be provisioned, to gather food and cloth and wine, to make love and father children, to give and carry messages. Festival lasted a week, and then they left. This pattern had shaped our lives for generations.

I shook my head. “But he can’t.”

Can you imagine a society where men and women’s lives are so divided? But this is the society into which my protagonist Lena has been born, and it’s all she knows. Readers ask where this idea came from.  There isn’t a simple answer, but I’ll do my best.

History is one source. The idea of male children being taken at seven into military training is from the social structure of the ancient city-state of Sparta, where exactly that happened.  Spartan boys were basically cadets until age 20, when they took on greater responsibility in the military; they could marry at 30, but did not live with their wives, but stayed with their military comrades in barracks….and that was the germ of the idea of the men and women living almost completely separate lives, except for a couple of weeks each year.

Icelandic and Viking women, where women frequently were completely responsible for farming and fishing and all the other work while the men were at sea, either fishing (Iceland) or raiding (Vikings) was another source.  The apprenticeship of girls at twelve to a trade is simply based on long practice throughout much of the world.

Woman blacksmith – England ca. 1915 – 1920

I must tip my hat, too, to a book with a similar societal structure, Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Woman’s Country. In her book, set 300 years in the future after nuclear war, a society has developed where women and children live in towns with a few male servants; most men live in warrior camps beyond the town walls. I read The Gate to Woman’s Country about five years before starting Empire’s Daughter, and it was definitely a direct influence.

In Empire’s Daughter, we learn that this division of men and women’s lives came about due to a disagreement between men and women about the expansion of the Empire. Villages were governed by a council of three women, the men being away too often for war. When the Emperor asked yet again for men to fight, the women had had enough, forcing a country-wide assembly resulting in the partition of their lives, known from then on as the Partition Agreement. Here I was tweaking two ideas: Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, where women withhold sex until the men stop fighting, ending the Peloponnesian Wars, and, the Ent/Entwives conflict in The Lord of the Rings, where a similar wish for exploration vs a settled life leads to the sundering of the lives of male and female Ents.

This way of life is not without its costs, and some of those are made evident in Empire’s Daughter, and over the rest of the books in the series, as war and peace bring new challenges and new ideas.

More on this divided life, on the idea of twice-yearly Festivals, and on partnerships between men and women, in future posts.  

By the way! Subscribers to my newsletter are getting a monthly instalment of a story about how the Partition Agreement came about, a prequel to Empire’s Daughter set several hundred years earlier.

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