Getting in touch with the Thirteenth Century

I have been taking a sabbatical from social media as I was finding it extremely difficult to promote my books and continue with the research and writing of the next one. In the end I took time out to try to create a more sensible regime for book promotion. This has freed up a bit of time for research and allowed my mind to wander around the thirteenth century (the era of my next book).

One question I was trying to answer was how would some of my characters react, feel and think about some of the natural phenomena that occur on this beautiful planet? Phenomena that we now understand and can explain. How would things such as meteors and comets, whirlpools, fossils, disappearing springs and ‘petrifying’ cascades be reasoned and explained? There are few eyewitness accounts but a wealth of folklore to pick through that give us some insight into the average medieval man’s mind.

Taking examples from my own environment here in France – how would my characters react to the disappearing spring at Fontestorbes? Regularly, throughout the day the water appears gushing out of a cave in the mountain-side and then it vanishes leaving the cave dry-ish – all done in the space of half an hour. Did they really believe in fairies? Did they think that it was some sort of magical launderette and the local fées took all the water to do their washing and woe betide any human that got in the way?

Now you see it – the stream making its appearance

Now you don’t!

Then again what would people have made of Les Cascades de la Turasse tumbling down thirty metres of steep wooded hillside at Roquefort les Cascades? We know that minerals in the water created the petrified objects lying in the stream and the basins of tufa. Would they wonder who created this tufière and how? Did my thirteenth century peasants fear that they would be turned into stone and so whispered a little prayer as they passed by? Or is that some later folklorique aimed at the passing tourist trade?

The Cascade – all the green is moss in various stages of ‘petrification’

Part of an old tree getting petrified

However, above all, we have the pronouncements of churchmen and monks who interpreted these phenomena for their less-educated flocks – albeit within limited parameters: God or Devil; Good or Evil.

For example there are springs of Belesta and Celles. In both instances events took place that were quickly attributed to the Virgin Mary and the church took control.

At Belesta a poor shepherd tormented by ulcers on his legs came to drink at the spring known as the Amourel. There he was allegedly visited by the Virgin Mary who instructed him to wash his legs in the spring and he would be healed. Overcoming a natural (for the time) reluctance to bathing he did as she bid him and the next day…not an ulcer to be seen. The news got around and local folk made a simple shrine by the spring. Then the churchmen took over and built a chapel on top of the spring itself. Pilgrims from far and wide travelling there to be healed, now had to descend into the crypt to drink the water leaving their offerings of gold and silver .

Just my luck – on the day I visited the spring had run dry.

The spring at Celles was the scene of another Virginal visit. Appearing as a white dove before taking up a corporeal form she had a wee bit of a chat with local boy Jean Courdil. She warned Jean that the inhabitants of Celles had to change their ways and asked him to spread the news. (There was at the time much discord and dissension about religious matters throughout France and allegedly four of the local women had beaten up the curé). There was, the Virgin said, a greater likelihood of all the villagers going to The Other Place rather than Heaven unless they all repented. A procession of repentance was duly held and calm and order returned to the village. It was then that the spring where Jean met the Virgin was transformed into a source of healing and relief of suffering. As at Belesta, the pilgrims flocked there to a little chapel that was erected alongside the stream.

Chapel at Celles

Turning away from watery subjects to stony ones. When I lived on the Holderness coast in East Yorkshire I regularly came across fossils on the beach. My medieval characters held a host of superstitions and beliefs about fossils; what they were; where they came from. In particular they endowed many of them with magical or curative properties.

The Ammonites were known as Snakestones (it is not by chance that this is the title of my next book) and were thought to be headless serpents that had turned to stone. William Camden in his work Britannia describes them as:

“Stony serpents wreathed up in circles but eternally without heads.”

Ammonites aka Snakestones

Attributed with several useful properties Ammonites were believed to provide an antidote to snake bites, cure blindness, barrenness and impotence to say nothing of warding off lightning and evil spirits.

Echinoids (sea urchins) some of the most common fossils, were considered to be fairy loaves because of their bun-like shape. In Medieval homes one was often placed by the hearth to ensure there was always bread in the house. If there was a week when the house was bread-less, it was thought that witches had been at work and blocked the fairy loaf’s protective powers,

Echinoid (Fossilised Sea Urchin)

Gryphaea (bi-valves) were believed to be toenail clippings from Old Nick himself and acquired the title of the Devil’s Toenail because of the curved shape and growth bands. For some strange reason they were often worn as a cure for rheumatism and arthritis.

Gryphaea

Sadly, although I have several of these in my little fossil collection they ain’t done nuffink for me!