Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Monday, December 29, 2008

Debunking Neandermyths and medieval myths, too

Since this is the end of the year, and things are a bit slow right now, I thought I’d possibly round out the year with a few musings about our ideas about Neandertals and also about the Middle Ages.  There are lots of these myths in both areas, but just a few will suffice here, to give the Gentle Reader an idea  of what is going on here.



They were dumb brutes who walked bent-legged

In reality, Neandertals were awfully smart to have survived for some 200,000 years, under harsh climates and often erratic conditions.  They were pretty resourceful, too.  For instance, it is now known that they made a kind of glue out of, among other things, birch pitch(in Europe, anyway).  In the Middle East, they did the same thing with bitumen.  The techniques of gluing, and then hafting a stone point to a shaft of some kind, required some pretty sharp thinking. Furthermore, it takes some knowledge and practice, and control of heat, to make glue out of things like birch pitch.  As for walking bent-legged, well, the trouble with that idea is, it was based on a mistaken idea that a man with arthritis, who walked bent kneed because of it, was representative of the entire Neandertal population.  This was the infamous La Chapelle aux Saintes fossil.



In medieval times, nobody ever bathed or washed.

In reality, medieval people, of all classes, bathed, or at least washed their hands with some frequency. In the 12th century, one Alexander Necker mentioned the frequency of bath houses in London. Some of these “bath houses” had other functions as well, but people did try to keep themselves clean.  And some chronicler expressed surprise that King John of England(yes, the notorious one), liked to bathe twice a month!  I suspect other people did, too.  The problem, in medieval times was that collecting and heating bathwater was something of an “enterprise”, and unless you were high enough up on the food chain, this didn’t happen as often as it does today, when we have central heating and hot and cold water.  The fact is, that later centuries were actually “dirtier”; especially after the second plague pandemic – the one known popularly as the Black Death, a lot of things had changed, including the climate, and it may have been more dangerous to bathe in relatively cold water(compromised immune systems, for example,might have made many people more vulnerable.  17th century France was apparently the “dirtiest” at the time; even the nobility then, rarely bathed, preferring to cover up their smells with perfume.



Neandertals were cold-adapted, and this led to their extinction when it warmed up, because they couldn’t stand the heat.

This one is sort of true, in that Neandertals exhibited a body type that is somewhat similar to that of some people who live in arctic regions today.  Like modern Inuit, and some other northern people, they had short arms and legs relative to rather broad trunks(chests, waist, etc).  This kind of adaptation conforms to what scientists refer to as the Bergmann and Allen rules; generally, organisms that live in warmer climates will be long and thin, and have long, thin arms and legs.  President-elect Barack Obama conforms to this in his body shape, since his father was a Kenyan, and Kenya is a hot, sunny place.  Many Kenyans are also like this.  African elephants have big ears, presumably for this reason.  Asian elephants, which apparently evolved in cooler climates, have smaller ears.  And woolly mammoths had the smallest elephantine ears of all.  Other organisms follow the same rules, north to south.  Polar bears have very small ears, “grizzly” bears(Ursus arctos) have larger ears, and the most “southerly” bears in the northern hemisphere, “black” bears(U.americanus) have the biggest ears of all.  It is no surprise, therefore, that Neandertals also followed this body shape rule, since they lived in a relatively cold climate.  However, some “modern” humans take this particular “cold adapted” body shape, to mean that Neandertals preferred it cold.  You can see evidence of this kind of thinking in Robert Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax series, where he has Neandertals keeping indoor temperatures about 5 degrees or so, cooler than “modern” humans would have them, indoors.  Trouble is, (a) some “modern” humans like it on the cool side, too, and (b) Neandertals lived through warm periods similar to our globally warming climate, and became extinct in a cold period.  Besides which, they lived in places like Israel, which isn’t exactly known to be “arctic”. 



This particular myth about the Middle Ages is not all that different from the myth about the stupidity of Neandertals.  The “medieval” version goes something like this:  People in medieval times believed the world was flat and you could fall off the earth if you sailed far enough.  A correlate of this is, that they were superstitious and “oppressed”, and went around burning witches all the time.  As above, the reality is somewhat different.  People in the Middle Ages did not have access to sophisticated equipment like, say, telescopes and microscopes; they had no way of knowing, exactly, what caused disease, nor what a gene was(this, by the way, is important in my Invaders trilogy, since the Neandertal heroine and her two male associates(not her love interest, however), does know what a gene is, though they don’t call it that.  Be that as it may, medieval people had at least a crude understanding of things like inheritance, otherwise, monks(who were traditionally responsible for this), wouldn’t have been able to create warhorses for knights.  In the earlier Middle Ages, these horses tended to be rather small by modern standards, but they were bred to be both tough and agile.  And the best warhorses were often crossbreeds between Arabian or Barbary horses, Spanish horses and some “native” horses!  They had no idea what a germ was or did, but in England, at least, there are some very early(Anglo-Saxon era) “leechbooks” which were compilations of the medical knowledge of the time.  Again, these seem crude by modern standards, and some of the material in them is, well, hilarious by modern standards, but there were other things in them which were probably good advice(e.g. one leechbook suggested that women moderate their intake of ale and wine!).  Even in the “earliest” Middle Ages, after the “fall” of Rome, there was at least some trade, and later, when things started to pick up again, there was a lot more of it.  Not everyone could travel, of course, actually relatively few people did.  But enough people traveled, by land and sea, to know the world wasn’t flat.  This would actually be a relatively easy thing to figure out, especially if you were a sailor.  As for “witches”, well, again, there wasn’t much in the way of “witch persecution” in the Middle Ages, anywhere.  You would have to work very hard to get yourself executed as a “witch”(such people were usually called “cunning men” or “cunning women”, because they had some knowledge of herbs and the women, at local levels, were often midwives).  You basically would have had to be known to be advocating what was thought to be heresy.  This almost never happened, in part because the “higher ups” weren’t terribly concerned about individuals at the local level, and partly because the “cunning women” and “cunning men” probably had other things ont heir minds besides preaching or practicing “heresy”, even if the Church didn’t exactly approve of them. 


These are just two examples of Neandermyths and “medieval myths”.  There are a lot more I could mention, but that would make an endless blog.  You, gentle reader, can surely think of more, if you’re interested. The point is, the mythmaking here is about groups most people know very little about, and, in the case of medieval people, have been filtered through such venues as Hollywood movies, to give us “moderns” some terribly strange notions.  Since my Great Science Fiction Masterpiece has main characters who are Neandertals, and is set in medieval England, I feel it is my duty to try to correct these impressions.

Anne G

Saturday, December 27, 2008

On organization and disorganization, writer’s style

Sometime back in May or June of this fast-ending year, I joined an online critique group for writers of (broadly) historical fiction. I did this to get feedback on my Invaders trilogy, but what I decided to do was revise the very first book – which, originally, was going to be the only book! So far, so good, and I've gotten lots of feedback, mostly pretty encouraging, but also areas where I could make the story or the characters more interesting, and certain suggestions from various quarters, on how I could do it. Again, so far so good. At the same time, I have been working on the third book of my trilogy, which wraps everything up into a more or less happy ending for most of the characters.

The problem with this is, that I sometimes have a hard time keeping track of what I'm doing, or what chapters I've been working on. So I sometimes have to go back and look to make sure each book that I'm working on is in its proper three-ring binder. Usually I don't have any trouble locating what I'm looking for, and I can tell at a glance whether it's the original draft – and everything is fine.

But today I was looking for Chapter 22 of The Melding. I found Chapter 21 and Chapter 23, but not 22! Fortunately, I did do a draft and then a revision of 22, and I'm going to put it away next Wednesday after I have my writing partner look at it, with comments, again. There it will sit, until I finish the first book, plus critiques from all over. I also plan to save all this stuff on a portable hard drive, just in case. I have lots of space on that, and that is one of the reasons I bought this external hard drive. Moral(if there is one): I'm going to have to figure out how to keep better track of my work, especially when I'm doing two things at once. Otherwise, I will be totally confused.
Anne G

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Growing older, backwards

The film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button opens tomorrow, Christmas day. It is a strange time to open a film like this. It was originally a short story of the same name, which I first read years ago, and found it haunting, and slightly creepy, because it was about a man who was born 80 years old and "aged backwards". I don't remember where I first saw the story, except that it was in some fantasy/horror collection. Nor, despite the fact that I read it several times, could I recall the author, though I knew that he was someone well-known. It turned out to be F. Scott Fitzgerald. Once I discovered who the author was, I decided I actually wanted to see the film, though whether in a theater or on video, I don't know. The review in Salon seems to think it's an odd film, despite having Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in the lead roles. I've seen several other reviews which seem to suggest the same thing, so I have no idea whether it's a good adaptation or not.


Every time I read it, though, I kind of shudder. I think Fitzgerald intended it to be a short meditation on how transitory life is. Perhaps he had reason to, living as he did in the long shadow cast by World War I. A lot of people were confronted with the transitory nature of life, perhaps for the first time, in that war. And it made me shudder because it reversed the way we are supposed to think about the way life progresses. What's even worse, in this fantasy/meditation, is that growing younger, Benjamin Button loses and loses and loses, and is finally a helpless baby at the end of his life, just the way we are born. In any case, it confronts you and makes you think, however briefly, about these things.


You don't have to be a Great American Novelist to do this, though obviously, Fitzgerald did this extremely well. In my opinion, and decent writer can make you consider such things, at least momentarily. Few nowadays do, at least in "popular" literature, but that is another story. The point is, I considered life's transitory nature, however unconsciously and tentatively. I was young enough to draw back when I first read The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which, I think, is why I thought it creepy. My instinct is still to draw back, but having lived for a while, I'm more cautious about doing so.


Happy holidays, dear readers,

Anne G

Neandertals in 2008

According to Robert Sawyer, this last year was a good one for Neandertals. At least it was a good year if you follow his link to New Scientist, where a bunch of Neander-related articles are listed. All of them are interesting, and I've read them all, though I don't necessarily agree with everything in any of them. Still, they're good reads.

Anne G

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Snowed in

It's been snowing all day, off and on. And I've been snowed in! It's pretty, too. It looks like a Christmas card, and it isn't even Christmas! The snow is kind of crunchy on top and kind of soft below, which makes it fairly easy to walk in, safely. Now you may be wondering at this point, where I live. Not in Alaska. Or Minnesota, or some place that routinely gets a lot of snow in the winter. Nope. I live in Seattle, where it's supposed to rain all the time(but it doesn't, particularly in the summer). And people around here are snow wimps and heat wimps(I'm not a heat wimp any more, because I lived in Texas for two years). Nan Hawthorne has a discourse on the um, dark side of snow in Seattle, which is considerable, because everything shuts down if the white stuff comes. I think people around here have a love-hate relationship with snow. They love to play and ski in it(the former especially when it first falls, and everything is ethereal). But if it stays cold long enough, everything essentially shuts down, like today, which fortunately is Sunday. And things may stay that way, indefinitely. That is the "dark side".

Still, it's nice to be snowed in once in a while, and be able to post to my blog, without feeling totally squeezed for time like I often do. I have more time to write, too.
Anne G

Friday, December 19, 2008

Indoors and out, medieval style

The weather around here has lately been frightful, but there hasn't been any delightful fire yet, contrary to the song. So I've been snowed and iced in. Of course, I did have to go out today, and, bundled up properly, I didn't feel terribly cold, though the temperatures today never rose above freezing. I had to go out to buy an "appreciation" Christmas gift for a friend of mine. It wasn't far, and I didn't mind, since I also was able to stop in the neighborhood Tully's(a local rival to Starbuck's, with, in my opinion, better coffee and free wi-fi. And I was soon back to a nice, warm home.


All this has gotten me to thinking about what people in medieval times did during the cold months. For example, as I was returning home(after slipping on hidden ice and fortunately not injuring myself or my purchase to any extent, I met a lady who was trying to walk a small dog. The dog was cold, despite being bundled up, and it didn't like walking on the partially-icy sidewalk. She mentioned she hadn't gone to work that day, because my neighborhood is at the bottom of a steep hill, and the buses simply couldn't get up and down. , People in medieval times wouldn't have had this problem. They probably wouldn't have had such a small dog, either, or at least they probably wouldn't have been carrying it around in a stocking or purse(I can't quite remember what she was carrying the dog in. Nor would they have had problems getting to work, whatever work was for most of them(most of them were rural peasants). But they probably wouldn't have spent much time traveling in conditions like these, although both in towns and in villages, people probably went out and threw snowballs or skated(there are apparently descriptions of these activities). During a snowstorm or windstorm, they simply would not have gone out at all.


Even in relatively "clement" weather, travel was hard, and roads weren't all that good. It was sometimes dangerous to travel, too, even in the warmer seasons because there were always outlaws ready to steal and even kill you. In England, roads on both sides were supposed to be kept clear of bushes and other obstructions so travelers could see miscreants coming. Whether or not this was effective is another question entirely. So people tended to huddle in their houses, just like we do today, but for entirely different reasons.


It wasn't that travel was impossible, and people did travel when necessary in inclement weather. It is just that travel, at the best of times, was a difficult enterprise, and it took longer to get from Point A to Point B than it does today. So people tended not to go anywhere unless it was important to them to do this. In any case, it's an interesting thought that, despite the different eras and "mindset", (yes, medieval people did think somewhat differently about some things than we do now, though I think this "mindset" can be vastly exaggerated), that people then, and people now, probably reacted much the same to snowy weather, at least in those areas where there is a chance of snow.


Happy holidays everyone,

Anne G

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Gender Genie, again

It seems like Gender Genie has been making the rounds in various places. Greg Laden's blog did an experiment with it, and so has Nan Hawthorne. Nan Hawthorne, or rather those who commented, came to the conclusion that this Gender Genie was a rather silly device. Greg Laden didn't comment, but given the writing samples he put up, and the results, he really didn't need to. I commented, and came to the conclusion that this is not only silliness, but sexist silliness. But I'm not going that way; that's another story.
Anne G

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gender genies(geniuses?)


A recent discussion about what I might describe as "gender-based" reading and writing preferences, on a historical novel e-mail list, was quite lively. It seems that some people like to read only works narrated by female protagonists, or only female characters, but some writers like to write only from a "male perspective". For me, this is kind of a "nonstarter". Though I have what might be called "feminist hackles", I am absolutely appalled when I hear somebody claim they won't read anything written by a man(if they're a woman), or the opposite if they're a man. I also wonder about women writers who can "only" write a "male" POV or find this "easier". To be fair, I've read plenty of works by men whose female characters are flat and forgettable, but write pretty good stories, reasonably well-told. I will comment more fully on this kind of thing in another post.

For now, I just want to mention that on this same e-mail list, somebody brought up something called the Gender Genie . This Gender Genie is a website. On this website, you can submit your own or others' writing samples to a little program that claims to be able to tell whether the work you submit was written by a man or a woman. The program, developed by a "genie" at Bar Ilan University in Israel, assumes that male and female writers use words differently.

Now I think it's probably true that men and women write somewhat differently, even in this, more equalitarian day and age(at least in the western world. Men who write, often write a lot about adventure and battles and exploration, in a way that many women still don't. And as a general rule, women who write, tend to be more focused on emotions and relationships and, perhaps "character development". But I don't think Gender Genie is really concerned with differences in subject matter, or the differences in style that may go with them. They are more concerned with the kinds of words that are actually used in the written piece. Even more interesting, however, is that about half the time, the Gender Genie gets the writing samples wrong. Several writers on the historical novel e-mail list, submitted samples of their own writing. They were women. But the Gender Genie "thought" they were men. I submitted some of my own current writing, and the Gender Genie "sexed" me correctly. Which again was interesting, because one of the samples I selected had a lot of action in it.

However, when I submitted a book review from this blog to the GeTnder Genie, I was a male! I thought that was very amusing. I thought that, since it was nonfiction rather than fiction, word usage might be different, and I was right.

Then I began to think about this issue. I know women who write(and talk, also), in a kind of "passive voice" style --- and sometimes this is deliberate. "Passive voice" as in constant use of "I had gone to the grocery and I had bought milk and other things, then I had gone to the bank to deposit my paycheck", etc., etc. You used to see a lot more of this kind of writing even ten of fifteen years ago, than you do now, along with a lot more "formal" usage(e.g.) "upon" rather than "on", for example. And people who wrote this way were almost always women. And generally women of a generation slightly older than mine.

I came of age, so to speak, in a period when feminism and women's equality began to be seriously considered . Feminism and its offshoots have produced a certain amount of silliness, e.g. women who won't read anything written by a man, no matter how sensible, or women who think the world should be run entirely by women. What it produced in me, though, was an appreciation that women and men both have interesting things to say and contribute to the ongoing discourse that's going on out there, in reading, writing, and speaking. And so, I've structured my stories that way. How important the sex of the main character is, depends on what I'm writing. I have a novel called Inside, Outside, narrated by a 15-year old Neandertal girl. It's science fiction, set in the near future, and thus not medieval. It's unfinished, because I couldn't figure out how to end it in a non-flabby way. Besides, my Invaders trilogy, which I'm now writing, tugged and tugged at me. And The Invaders, and it's sequels, have one female and two male lead characters, plus several "strong secondaries" of both sexes. The Gender Genie has always pegged my fictional material as "female", possibly because the way I use words, suggest emotional states, though I can write "action" when I need to.

But there are other, younger writers, who apparently write differently than I do. The current fashion is, especially for authors relatively new to the publishing world, to write tight, short fiction(it's less costly for the publishers), unless they are writing for young adults. I guess the Gender Genie "perceives" this as a "male" style(is this program channeling Ernest Hemingway?).

Combined with the willingness of some female writers to write from a "strictly" male POV, and I can see how the Gender Genie would not be able to match the sex of the writer with the style of writing. And about all this proves to me, at the end of the day, is that each writer is an individual, and each piece of writing is unique. That is something no computer program can calculate.
Anne G

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Research woes

Give me a roomful of quarrelsome paleoanthropologists arguing over which australopithecines were ancestral to "us", or a roomful of quarrelsome paleoanthropologists participating in the ongoing contentions about who and what Neandertals actually were! It's relatively easy(if you have access to the proper journals) to follow the courses of these paleoanthropological arguments. And access to the relevant papers is relatively easy if you are on some e-mail list where some kindly professor makes some of these available on pdf. I have a bunch of these stored on my hard drive.

Unfortunately, this is often not the case with medieval-themed material, especially the earlier part.

Mirella Patzer an author with two published books to her credit, has written on the difficulty of research into earlier medieval characters. Mirella Patzer writes historical novels, and she seems to be particularly interested in medieval Germany, a place from which a lot of mythic stories seem to have arisen, but which, to me, at least, is a very obscure place. But then, for earlier medieval Europe(approximately from about 500-1000 AD/CE, or a little later), there is very little written material. For this particular time period, the only extant continuous chronicles anywhere are :

Anglo Saxon Chronicle

The Irish Annals

The Russian Primary Chronicle

That's pretty much it. Sometimes there are things like the names of people witnessing charters, and from this you can verify that some half-legendary person actually existed. But it's hard to piece together a historical character from such scraps of information. This is especially true given that the people who recorded history then, were monks, and monks liked to tell "improving" stories, often putting speeches in the mouths of their historical personages. Needles to say, some of these "improving" speeches were never uttered by the people in question. But the conception of history as it existed in those 500 or so years, was quite a bit different from the way we understand historians should write history today.

Also needless to say, this makes it extremely difficult for a modern writer to try to reconstruct a historical personage, for the chronicles may conflict in their assessment(especially if a given monastery was engaged in some sort of conflict with the person they were writing about), or nothing much is known of the person except their name on some charter.

And while I'm not a "strict" historical novelist – I don't exactly consider myself a "historical novelist" at all, I do appreciate the problems Ms. Patzer has in conductiong her own research. If anything, I think her area of research is even more obscure than mine. I'm not boasting here, but I have at least the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, plus one or two other "period" resources to work with; I'm working with early medieval England, not 10th century Germany(which , as I said, I know absolutely nothing about). Still, I sympathize with Ms. Patzer. I've been there, done that, and have more or less torn my hair in the process. This is one of the reasons it took me so long to settle into starting to write the Invaders trilogy. I just didn't have enough information about some of the characters. In a way, I still don't. But I haven't let that stop me. Basically, though it kind of runs against my grain in a way, I've had to invent – invent personalities and motivations.

Also, my main characters are completely fictional, so I more or less have a free hand with them. Some "strict" historical novelists say they prefer to work only with actual historical characters, saying they feel more comfortable with a structure imposed by whatever historical period they're working in. That, of course, is a choice only they can make. But I'm perfectly happy using a mixture of "invented" and real people, even if I have to "dig" quite a bit to find anything out about them. And while this "digging" has caused me to tear my hair during the writing process, it has, at the same time, been very exciting to do it. It has opened up a whole new vista of information for me, and it's ongoing(as is the paleoanthropological research I mentioned at the very beginning). Whenever I discover something new, I try to see ways I can integrate it into my book(s).

Anne G

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Getting (warmly) medieval

While scrolling through some very interesting material about various subjects, from other blogs, I came across a blog post from Nan Hawthorne, on medieval climate. It didn't say much that I didn't already know: namely that the earlier Middle Ages, from approximately 900-1300 AD/CE, saw a warming that was not unlike the "global warming" we see today. Of course, the human impact was far less; the population of various parts of the world grew, but not at the rate populations are growing today. They didn't have the technology to control for what are called "crowd diseases" during this time, nor did they have the technology to get children much past infancy. Some kids, even the children of the rich and well-born), just didn't live to grow up.

I am writing at an early medieval period, but later than the one Ms. Hawthorne is writing about, and unlike her, I'm not making up the events that frame the narrative, though a number of my characters are completely made up, though plausible for the time and place. The climate plays an important role as I describe what's going on at various times of the year, weatherwise. Because people are going to react to it in some way, even if it's only to complain about it.

Fortunately, I live in a place that has a similar climatic signature, so to speak. Both the England of the Early Middle Ages and the Pacific Northwest have "marine" climates. That means, among other things, that it doesn't get extremely hot, at least not for very long, in the summer, nor does it get very cold in the winter, though we do have cold spells for a few days sometimes. Wind and rain and floods are more important, in terms of "weather problems", and the floods are often caused by "warm rain" that falls at inconvenient times. In England, this is often in the summer, though here, it's often in the winter. Also, England doesn't possess any volcanoes, as far as I know, so they don't have to worry about some mountain exploding like Mount St. Helens. So it's not too hard for me to visualize conditions at any given time of year.

But I don't want to give anybody the impression I go on and on about the weather. I don't. I don't go on and on about the scenery, except in one or two places where the central female character, Illg, is unfamiliar with the plants and animals she sees. I don't like to bog stories down with description. I'm not writing newspaper serials, as Charles Dickens was, and I wouldn't even try.
Still, a little description of this type doesn't hurt – it adds color to the narrative, and gives the reader a sense of place.

One final note: this climatic bounty didn't last. Shortly after the beginning of the fourteenth century, the medieval climate started to get a lot cooler. This is one of the reasons the Greenland colony is thought to have finally failed: unlike the local Inuit people, the Norse Greenlanders couldn't or wouldn't adapt to the changing climate,, and they either died out or left the place(there are conflicting claims about this). Worsening climate may also have been partly responsible for the destruction caused by the second plague pandemic – because crops failed and people literally starved and their immune systems were weakened, making a lot of people more vulnerable than they night have been to deadly diseases. But that's probably a topic for another medieval-themed blog, if I find some interesting tidbit to set it off.
Anne G