Friday, March 28, 2014

What Ho There? Sex in Medieval Times

Hello ladies.  Would you like to see
my "broadsword"?

With “The Tudors” and “The Borgias” I would have thought the question of premarital sex during the Medieval era would have been answered.  Heck, basic human behavior, which certainly hasn’t changed much in 500 years, let alone 2,000, should have answered the question from a common-sense perspective.  Alas, fantasy writers, usually wonderful people with very open minds and inquisitive natures, seem to have locked this one down and thrown away the key without ever looking inside the chest.

Let’s be clear: people had sex.

Certainly, there is a myth of domination from the Roman Catholic Church over everyone’s life starting with the Holy Roman Emperor on down to the lowliest dirt-scratching peasant.  Medieval Europe, and especially Medieval England, are seen to be bastions of Catholics, piously going about their business of being all feudal and wearing smocks (France, a veritable bastion of Catholicism and sex always seems to get left out in the cold).  The political power of the RCC was certainly vast and impressive.  At points, the RCC had as much, or more, power than any rival nation, such that to stand against the Church was to stand against a varied collection of allies who might crush you beneath their booted heel.

Remember, this is the institution that called for, and received, the Crusades.

"May the Peace of God be upon you!"
But also remember, that the RCC at one point had established the Peace and Truce of God, which in part forbade fighting on certain days between Christians.  The attempt to marry both the Crusades, a decidedly military venture, and the Peace and Truth of God resulted in the chivalric movement—knights could brutally kill each other, but they had to follow the rules for their brutality.

Alas, the split-personality of the RCC resulted in major gaps of their supposed control.  control that never really existed in the first place on such a basic human desire as sex.  Most Christians throughout Christiandom were Cafeteria Christians.  They took what they wanted from the buffet, made certain not to fog up the sneeze guard too much, and otherwise left the rest alone.  Frances and Joseph Gies in Life in a Medieval Village provide for us a clear understanding of just how much control the RCC had over the general parishioner:

"Wanna go somewhere and pay a fine?"
“Court records contain numerous instances of women leaving their villages in company of men without any mention of marriage. They contain even more frequent instances of "leirwite" or "legerwite" (lecher-wite), a fine for premarital sex, literally for lying down. On some manners a separate fine called "childwite" was levied for bearing a child out of wedlock, but in Elton premarital sexand pregnancy were lumped together. Twenty-two cases of leirwite are listed in surviving Elton records between 1279 and 1342, with fines of either sixpence or twelve pence in a single three pence. In all but one, only the woman is named, and she paid the fine: in the single exception, in 1286, Maggie Carter and Richard Miller were fined sixpence each.”

Wait until you see my Basilica.
Indeed, this doesn’t just include the laity, but the clergy.  Monks, priests, nuns, bishops, cardinals and popes themselves seemed to regard their vows of poverty, chastity and humility (if they took them) more as guidelines than actual restrictions.  There are well known and well documented priests and popes who not only had sex, but were legally married.  Adrian II, Clement IV, John XVII were all married.  As pope, Adrian lived with his wife, Stephania and their daughter in the main papal residence, the Lateran Palace.  There’s a lovely list of popes who had less-than-legitimate relationships, but certainly quite legitimate sexual relations resulting in a myriad of illegitimate children.

You might recall that one of Martin Luther’s “bold” points of reformation for the RCC was the abolishment of the vow of chastity for the clergy.  Luther felt, as he stated in his letter To Several Nuns, that service to God required sex, and that sex was not only natural but God-given:

“Though womenfolk are ashamed to admit to this, nevertheless Scripture and experience show that among many thousands there is not a one to whom God has given to remain in pure chastity. A woman has no control over herself.  God has made her body to be with man, to bear children . . . Suffice it to say that no one needs to be ashamed over how God has made and created him, not having been given the high, rare mercy to do otherwise.”

"Must go faster!  Must go faster!"
Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church trudged onward, and maintained its attempts to curb God-given sexual desires, inadvertently causing all manner of emotional strife and no few scandals.  Or, as Dr. Ian Malcolm illuminated, “If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh, well, there it is.”

So what do we know?  Sex happens.  Premarital sex happens too.  It happened before there was a Roman Catholic Church.  It happened while there was a Roman Catholic Church.  It certainly happened during Medieval times, even while the Roman Catholic Church tried to stop it.

And uh.  Well.  There it is.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A New Sherlock Holmes, With Upgrades!

A clockwork game is afoot!

Ray Booth’s and Nicholas Johnson’s Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Man-Made Vacuum at once captures the engaging qualities of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective while adding a layer of steampunk and classic literary characters.  Readers might be concerned that they must have a knowledge of the Sherlock Holmes canon in order to read this novella, but the work easily stands on its own.

This Sherlock Holmes opens unlike others, with a backstory featuring Samuel Brown, the historical father of the internal combustion engine.  However, in this alternative timeline, Brown is dissuaded from completing his invention after the visit from a mysterious, and dangerous, stranger.  When Sherlock and Dr. Watson appear to investigate the death of Brown’s grandson, the events are set after those of Reichenbach Falls.  The detective has suffered a far more debilitating (and believable) fall than Doyle had original established.  With the aid of none other than Dr. Henry Jekyll, Holmes now boasts a clockwork apparatus that has made his body, if not his soul, whole again.

Booth and Johnson paint a vivid picture of the same Victorian England where Holmes and Watson once solved all manner of mysterious and called evil-doers of all stripes into account.  They use a fine brush to paint in literary characters that readers will enjoy, even if they don’t recognize them immediately.  This “Sherlock Holmes” story also allows us into the mind of the detective himself, musing over his current status, and questioning his own humanity.  While I would have preferred a more traditional approach to a new Sherlock Holmes, in keeping with Doyle’s traditions, there have been so many different takes on the great detective that this one easily slides into the larger universe.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Man-Made Vacuum pairs the classic Victorian detective with some choice steampunk utilities, and matches him against one of the all-time great villains.  Booth and Johnson have created a wonderful new adventure, in keeping with the classic Doyle, but adding an expressive “modern” layer that readers will enjoy.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Stranded and Bored with 47 Ronin

I'm sorry, but the awesome you're
looking for is in another castle.

Look at this movie poster trio.  JUST LOOK AT IT!

Gah!  It makes it seem like these are all major players in what is going to be a samurai movie of epic proportions taking on the legend of the 47 Ronin and spinning it with Hollywood magic.  How can I put this so that it has the proper emphasis . . .


Seriously, except for the inclusion of Keanu Reeves (which is always a mistake), this movie should’ve had everything: samurai, cool CGI, samurai, demons, samurai, magic, samurai.

There are samurai in this film.  Kimono wearing, honor-toting, duty-bound, katana-swinging samurai!  That alone should have rendered the thing awesome without even trying.

But no.  No, that’s not the case.  Even with all those elements, this movie is not awesome.  It’s not even mediocre or cult-worthy.

Wow. I really can’t emphasize that enough.  Keanu Reeves and this movie did what I thought was impossible—made a samurai movie boring.  This include that iffy Tom Cruise The Last Samurai.  Sure, that movie was rife with historical and cultural inaccuracy, and no end of anachronisms, but it had at least two things that 47 Ronin lacked—plot and dialogue.

Raise your hand if you don't care about
Even Braveheart figured out the formula for amping up the level of awesome in a story for the sake of audience and box office appeal.

Which is what is so frustrating about 47 Ronin.  Here is a story that has had at least six different theatrical incarnations.  Each tells the basic story from the legend of the Loyal 47 Ronin, but delves into character, plot and dialogue such that you're never bored with the outcome.  Or at least mildly entertained.   

This is the first time that Hollywood has taken a stab at the classic tale, but it’s certainly not the first time they’ve adapted something from the Japanese cinema, and done an excellent job.  Just two quick examples: The Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven; Yojimbo became, among others, A Fistful of Dollars, Last Man Standing, and more recently Lucky Number Slevin.  So what went wrong here?  Everything, apparently.  Throwing money at the problems didn't make the problem go away.  Throwing CGI at it didn't do it either.

Avoid this.  Go watch James Clavell’s Shogun mini-series to restore the balance of awesome in your life.

Friday, March 21, 2014

It's Not a Talk Show, It's a Win Show

"If you don't believe in God,
then you must believe in Satan."

I don't often dip my toe into the rancid pool of politics, but when I do . . .
A friend of mine, defined by conservatives as a “liberal” but really just a left-leaning moderate, did a talk show with Jesse Lee Peterson, a pretty far-right conservative host.  I don’t have a lot of experience with these shows.  I’ve listened to a few Rush Limbaugh episodes, and of course the attendant sound bites that receive media attention.  A few others have passed across my radar without making much of an impact.  They aren’t speaking to me, just about me.  Because I voted for Obama, or support Social Security and unemployment protection, I’m labeled.  It’s interesting to be told how I’m a liar, how I hate America and how I’m tearing down the country, but only for so long.  It gets stale after the first ten or fifteen minutes, and it’s a rote script pretty much across the board.

The caveat here is that I don't listen to liberal talk shows either, unless NPR can be considered that.  The wire to my TV was cut years ago, so neither liberal or conservative news programs make it into the house either.  I have no idea if the same is true on the other side of the extreme. But far-right conservative talk show hosts seem to operate by a rote script dictated from the hive mind.  It seems like they have a checklist of things they know their audience will equate with and latch onto, and spend their allotted airtime filling in as many boxes as possible.
A modern-day warrior, mean, mean stride
Today's Tom Sawyer, mean, mean pride.

It's almost like they have a hand of cards, and they only need to play them in the right order, like a stacked deck for solitaire, to win. The win is guaranteed.  It’s never in question.  Depending on the topic, they can lay down the "atheists are evil" card or the "liberals lie" card or "[insert group] hates America" or "socialism/feminism is destroying our nation" to counter any opinion, legitimate or otherwise.  All the interviewee has to do is casually mention an opinion, like say “Feminists have a point in regards to the inequality of pay”, and the host sinks in the meat hooks and proceeds to try to tear them apart using the Tried-and-True™ statements their listeners have already heard and, since they’re still listening, believe.

It’s not just an interesting study in conformation bias and false dichotomy.  It's a self-perpetuating cycle.

I can haz false dichotomy?
These hosts don’t appear to be interested in any kind of dialogue or discussion at all.  They don’t invite interviewees, of any stripe, with the idea that through questions and answers, a mutual understanding can occur.  They don’t subscribe to the notion that an opposing opinion can have any merit or be worth any degree of investigation.  Instead, the tactic seems to be one found in high school debate.   They’ve taken a position they may or may not really hold to be true, say all values come from the Christian God.  Then, they’ve built themselves up through research and argumentation to the point where they just runs through the list of "gotchas".

They aren’t interested in dialogue or understanding. They are interested in the win.

The win earns them listeners.  The win gives them the ratings.  The win keeps them employed and fattens their bonus when they attain a certain market share.  They play to the win because that’s what we want.  We all want to be on the winning side, and if pedantic rhetoric and sophistry provides a sense of that, false or otherwise, who cares?  Where is the harm in setting up a false dichotomy of us-versus-them, if it allows the listeners to nod and smile, smug and safe in their beliefs?  The hosts are judged by their results, stacking the deck increases the number of Ws they have in the column.

The trouble with cheating at solitaire isn’t just the false sense of accomplishment.  At the end of the hand, you’re just playing with yourself.