11.13.2019

Hygiene in the Middle Ages



We do a lot of research here at Swords and Space for homeschooling and also seeking inspiration for stories. Although Dad is personally happy to have left his school days far behind, he does still find it fascinating and enjoyable to revisit the Middle Ages and other historical periods. We thought it worthwhile to share some of that research occasionally.

One myth that seems to persist about the Middle Ages is the claim that mediæval people did not bathe. On the contrary, they not only washed, but they placed a high value on hygiene, and bathing was quite common. The "once a year bath whether you need it or not" canard was foreign to mediæval sensibilities. If such an attitude ever existed, it did in a period I am not familiar with.

Pulling out my old notes, I must make reference to one of my favourite books from universty: The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England by Barbara A. Hanawalt. The author is a liberal university professor, but an honest one at least, who did painstaking research to try to recreate certain aspects of mediæval peasant life. She researched her book by examining coroners' inquests in 14th and 15th century England. In total, she surveyed 3, 118 sudden death inquests.[i]

Of that sample, 35 (just over 1%) cases involved people whose baths ended in drowning. These ranged from bathing in a stream where the current was stronger than the bather believed, to where the unfortunate person slipped and hit their head.[ii] There was also clear evidence that bathing was common even in winter, including a case where an infant died when it was scalded after the tripod broke on a cauldron of bath water that was heating over the fire.[iii]

On top of all this, she found 12 cases where people died while washing laundry. Given that bathing and doing the laundry are hardly dangerous activities, one has no choice but to conclude that people bathed and washed their clothes frequently if this many people died due to fluke accidents while washing.

Beyond Dr. Hanawalt's specific work, there is abundant evidence that soap was very common in the Middle Ages. There are also numerous references in the literature of the time to bathing, wherein it is treated as something commonplace.[iv]

According to 13th century etiquette manuals, mediæval people were expected to always wash their hands before and after meals. Monastic rules included regulations ordaining regular bathing.[v] In the courts of the nobility, there were formal ceremonies that were scrupulously observed in this regard. Many people today don't wash their hands before and after meals. Perfume was also popular, and for the same reasons as today, not to mask bad hygiene as common "wisdom" would have us believe. [vi]

Finally, there is the related myth about Mediæval peoples' dental hygiene: that it was very bad and they had only blackened stumps for teeth. However, when one studies documents written during those horrible "Dark Ages", one finds that there were liquids to whiten teeth, compounds for filling cavities, dentures made of human teeth or cow bone, and even surgical techniques for oral cancer and the repair of fractured jaws.[vii] Scientists who have studied the exhumed remains of mediæval peasants found that they in fact had better teeth than modern people, probably because of better diet. In fact, at one site, not one body buried in the graveyard had tooth decay.[viii]

The true mediæval attitude towards bathing and cleanliness can perhaps be summed up by a common saying from France at the time: "Venari, ludere, lavari, bibere; Hoc est vivere!" (To hunt, to play, to wash, to drink, - This is to live!)[ix]





[i] Hanawalt, Barbara, The Ties that Bound : Peasant Families in Medieval England, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 13
[ii] Ibid., p. 61
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Horvat, Marian, "Refuting the Anti-Catholic Lies of the e-pamphlet 'Life in the 1500's'", Tradition in Actionhttp://www.traditioninaction.org/History/A_005_Myths1500s.shtml
[v] Ibid.
[vi] "Cosmetics and Beauty Aids" Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, Ed. Norman F. Cantor, London: Viking, 1999.
[vii] Elliott, Jane, "Medieval Teeth 'Better than Baldrick's", BBC News Online, 8 October, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3722598.stm
[viii] "Medieval Peasants Had 'Better Teeth'", Ananova,
http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_1502422.html
[ix] Horvat, Supra at note 4

11.11.2019

ARTWORK: RED BULL STRATOS

By Godfrey Blackwell

Back in 2012 we were all very excited about the Red Bull Stratos jump. It was the first, "Space First" for any of our children, and the first one of moment for the parents too! At the time I drew this in honour of the project, with St. Joseph of Cupertino (patron saint of astronauts) and an angel watching over Felix Baumgartner.



11.06.2019

Movie Review: Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)


Title: Snow White and the Huntsman
Director: Rupert Sanders
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron
Godfrey's Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Rating: PG -- I would personally rate it more PG-13 or 14A myself, owing to some of the storyline surrounding the queen and adult themes there, but otherwise there's very little profanity, and the violence is not gruesome. There's a few parts I skipped to allow the whole Swords and Space crew to view.
Summary in a Sentence: A surprisingly good new take on the well-known "Snow White" fairy tale that features a good and pure Snow White, aided by the Hunstman, at war with the evil Queen Ravenna.


Yet further confirmation that if the critics dislike it, I will like it. I went into it this film when it was in the cinema with very low expectations after seeing the trailer. As one friend at the time pointed out, the trailer makes it appear to be yet another "grimdark" adult fantasy film with a large dose of Xena Warrior Princess. In my view, however, the trailer is in fact very misleading in how it portrays the film and it was nothing of the sort. First, a quick synopsis:

In a twist to the fairy tale, the Huntsman ordered to take Snow White into the woods to be killed winds up becoming her protector in a quest to vanquish the Evil Queen.

Now, first to the "darkness" -- I didn't find the film to be all that dark. I didn't find it really any darker than the Lord of the Rings films. Certainly, there are a lot of dark, occult, and black magic elements surrounding the evil queen Ravenna, but this is proper. A dark fantasy, like the ever popular "Game of Thrones",  lacks the good that opposes such evil. Snow White does have that good, not just in the person of Snow White, but we even see the realm of the opponents of the Queen which is not blackened and blighted as her realm is. There are faeries, and the Seven Dwarves (who I thought were great). There was a clear battle of good versus evil.

The film was refreshingly non-feminist, and even to the contrary had a good grasp on traditional "roles" and displayed them well. Contrary to what the trailer suggests, Snow White is not a warrior-woman, and only appears in armour at the end of the film for her own protection. She does not lead the men into battle, but is protected by them, serving as more of a Joan of Arc inspirational sort of role.


In a way, this film was like the "anti-Hunger Games":

  • Both films feature young ladies as the main protagonists. Katniss Everdine it is the adoption of male virtues and cynical, self-preserving gender-bending pugilism that wins the day. Whereas Snow White is victorious via her feminine virtues of kindness, gentleness, and empathy coupled with a strong spirit of self-sacrifice.
  • The Hunger Games features not only a post-Christian but a completely non-religious society where no character has a shred of Christian virtue. This is not the case at all in Snow White, where there is overt religion (Snow White's praying of the Our Father in one of the opening scenes, the presence of Gothic cathedrals and Caltholic-looking clergy) but more importantly a sense of a certain morality and honour beyond mere self-preservation. Although there were a lot of missed opportunities in this regard and there was no follow-through, the world presented was a much more realistic one.
  • Although Snow White is a young adult, in appearance and behaviour of a similar age to Katniss, there is no "adults = evil, youth = good" at play in this film; there is a good mix of adults on both sides.
  • Hope: although much of Snow White has an appropriate amount of tension and foreboding, in the end it has a happy ending and throughout the film there is that sense of hope that good can be restored. In the Hunger Games, there is no hope, just liberal despair. 

In terms of technical aspects, the film was certainly adequate to the task, although it was no masterpiece of filmmaking. The sets were good, the costumes credible. The acting was on the whole pretty decent. All was solidly "good" if not anything spectacular. The soundtrack was appropriate and did a good job of setting the tone.

So, on the whole, not a masterpiece or a classic, but a good, solid fantasy film that I rather enjoyed. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I like it

11.04.2019

10.30.2019

Star Wars Good for Young Girls?


GODFREY: I want to stress that I am not holding myself out as some sort of authority -- I'm just a Catholic father sharing my thoughts at the request of a reader. So here we go; first with some general comments that apply to all six of the films. They all feature what in my view is mild fantasy violence -- blood is minimal, and what constitutes violence is usually bits of coloured light flying around knocking people down, burning holes in walls, or blowing up spaceships. I may be more permissive than other parents when it comes to violence, but I have no concerns with my children seeing this sort of thing even at preschool age. As a point of comparison, the violence is much more mild than that found in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films.

The language in the films is clean, and the fact that it takes place in a fantasy world means there is no blasphemy of any kind. I can think of one instance where the word "hell" is used, and that's about as coarse as the language gets. There are no sex scenes; there is a bit of relatively tame kissing and in general (with exceptions noted below) the immodesty is no worse than one would observe in her day-to-day travels and is generally better.

The only real concerns may be over "New Age" themes with the Force. Again, perhaps I'm more permissible than others, but I am not overly concerned with this since it tends to be fairly mild, and in the prequel trilogy is made less mystical and more junk science. Also, in a fantasy world, I think children will be able to understand that it is fantastic and not real,  just as they can understand they can't be Gandalf when they grow up. So, in general, I think that Star Wars is safe for children but I would not recommend all the films.

My correspondent asked specifically about the appropriateness of Star Wars for a daughter, so as I look at the specific episodes I'll focus on how femininity is portrayed. It seems to me that, given how much female nature has been obscured and even perverted in modern society, we must be a little extra vigilant as regards our daughters in what may seem "small things".

Episode IV - A New Hope

On the whole, I consider A New Hope to be good, clean fun. Princess Leia is a feisty but still feminine character who relies on the heroes for protection and inspires them to good feats. Her costumes are also at their best in this film. The tale is a basic "good versus evil" plot with very little moral ambiguity. Recommended.

Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back

Okay, Princess Leia wears pants for much of the film which I'm not crazy about, BUT she is still her regular self, a strong-willed princess. Also, when living in a warzone on a planet that's all ice, I think this is what anyone would wear, and when she has the opportunity (on Cloud City) she gets into something more becoming. She doesn't fight on the front lines and proper roles are maintained. Again, more basic good versus evil. I think this film is to be recommended as well.

Episode VI - Return of the Jedi

Return of the Jedi is probably the most problematic film of the whole series if for nothing else, the notorious Princess Leia "slave" costume. More problematic for boys, perhaps, but still not a good thing. Among the many issues I have with Return of the Jedi, I think that it the portrayal of Princess Leia is in some ways not true to her character in earlier films and more of a "warrior woman" which as everyone knows I'm not a fan of. I certainly don't think it's a good role model for young girls. I'd skip this episode or regard it with a lot of caution.


Episode I - The Phantom Menace

As mentioned previously, I don't hate Episode I the way most do. I think especially for children it's a fairly decent film. Queen Amidala's portrayal as a gentle, ladylike figure who is concerned for her people and takes a leadership role (as befits a queen) to free them from the invasion of the Trade Federation makes for a good feminine role model. Her wardrobe a little over-the-top but generally pretty good. She gets involved a bit in the fighting but doesn't give that "Xena Warrior Princess" vibe at all. I think this film is pretty safe for young girls.


Episode II - Attack of the Clones

I only saw this film once and honestly can't remember much about it, other than that Queen Amidala's wardrobe is atrocious (especially when it gets conveniently ripped Captain Kirk-style to expose her midriff). Aside from that, it is just not a great film. I remember that watching it felt a bit like watching someone else play a video game. Not particularly engrossing or worth watching. You can watch Episode I and skip to Episode III without being lost plot-wise at all.

 Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

Revenge of the Sith is probably the darkest of the Star Wars films, and this is mostly where I'd stress caution, plus also one scene where viewers are treated to sights of Hayden Christensen naked from the waist-up. I think the portrayal of female characters is okay, although we are starting to get into the Xena-style warrior Jedi-esses, which I believe was in Episode II as well.

Episode IX - The Force Awakens

There's a lot I could say about the first of the Disney Films, but focusing on its portrayal of femininity I have big problems with the film. Rey is a way over-the-top character who's better than everyone at everything, and picks up difficult skills like light sabre fighting instantly (the first time she touches one she decisively defeats Kylo Ren who supposedly single-handedly wiped-out all of Luke Skywalker's Jedi pupils). Just not good story-telling and it's Xena Warrior-Princess style feminism on steroids in my opinion.

Rogue One

Aside from the fact that this film is, in my opion, pretty much trash aside from the big battle near the end, once again we are treated to a female lead character who is good at everything. Jyn Erso isn't as bad of a "Mary Sue" as Rey as she actually has some character flaws and a few things she can't do. The main problem I have with this film is that all of the protagonists are "anti heroes" which is absolutely not what any child male or female should be looking up to.

Those are some very brief thoughts on this series of films which is one of my favourites.

10.16.2019

Book Review: Writing Horses

A Review by Godfrey Blackwell


Title: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right
Authors: Judith Tarr
Publisher: Book View Café
Godfrey's Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Summary in a Sentence: A solid introductory reference work for the fantasy/historical fiction writer to help them "get it right", written in an accessible  by a "horse person"

As the title says, this ebook is written by a "horse person" to help us non-"horse people" to get the horses right in their fantasy or historical fiction (or maybe even space fantasy). I downloaded this affordably-priced ($4.99) ebook on the advice of my mother who is a "horse person" to help me with getting my horses right. I found it very helpful in that regard and give it 4 stars.

The book is actually a collection of blog entries, revised for the book. Chapters include "Form and Function", "Care, Feeding, and the Inevitable Need for a Horse Doctor", "The Fine Art of Horse Stowage", "Baaby Horses", "Horse Training", and "Mind and Magic" (on the psychology of the "furry aliens" that are horses). It answers such important questions as how far can a horse travel in a day? What does a horse eat? When is a brown horse really a sorrel (or a bay, or a dun)? What do tack and withers and canter mean?

Some chapters were more useful to me than others -- the first two are certainly the most important since they give the nuts-and-bolts that a writer of stories where horses are present (versus some actually writing about horses) needs with recommendations for further reading. This book is by no means meant to be an exhaustive study but more of a primer. This makes it a quick and easy read that gives a clear notion of what further study is required for the reader's particular work.

Writing Horses is written in a humourous, down-to-earth style. I found it enjoyable to read and being a "non-horse person" gave me an appreciation not just for the complex psychology of horses but of their modern devotees as well. I do think is that some of the things complained of as major faux pas on the part of writers are so esoteric that only horse people would be offended. For example, when writers have someone knee a horse's flank -- technically totally wrong, but in terms of general parlance I think most people consider the flank as, generically, the side. Yet "horse people" are not an insignificant group and they are vocal, so it seems worthwhile to listen to them. Simply from the aspect of professional pride I do think that writers should try to learn about everything the write of so that they sounds somewhat knowledgeable to those "in the know" and to that end I recommend this book.

On the whole, then, "Writing Horses" is well worth the $4.99 pricetag and is a valuable resource for any fantasy/historical fiction writer. I give it 4/5 stars accordingly.
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