Monday, December 27, 2010

Yule Logs

It being the Christmas season, I thought I’d do a little research on Yule logs. In The Black Crown, the yule log is being dragged into Camelot’s main hall just after Arthur is forced to pass judgment on Guenevere:

Medraut shivered as he and Arthur strode towards the king’s work room. There was a draft in the Great Hall. They had opened the doors to bring in the Yule log.

“I want you to take charge of the execution,” Arthur said as they paused to let pass a group of giggling pages carrying garlands of holly. Absently he mussed the hair of the smallest lad, who looked up at the High King with adoration in his eyes.

Arthur had never mussed his hair like that. For a second, jealousy overshadowed the task to which Medraut had been set. Then he realized what his father had just commanded. “Sire?”

Arthur’s eyes swept the hall, taking in the Christmas preparations, his brow raised in surprise. Shrugging, he hurried on past the dais where maids spread fresh, white linens across the board. “It’s to be in two days. I want the wood good and green. Plenty of smoke. Less painful that way.”
That got me thinking about the Yule log tradition. My Camelot is still set in an alternative 12th century, although, yes, as you know, I am playing with changing it to the 6th. I wondered how the Yule log would play out in each of those scenarios.

Most web sites claim that the Yule log is a very old tradition, going back to the pre-Roman Germanic peoples of northern Europe, or to the Celts. Other sources say it may have been Egyptian in origin, or part of the incorporation of the Persian sun-god Mithras into the Roman saturnalia. (Mithrasism spread into Britain with the Roman invasion in 54BC.)

On the other hand, other web sites say that this is all speculation, that the Yule log did not appear in Britain until the 17th century, when first mention of it was recorded by a British clergyman.

Well, the first mention of the Yule log was not the 1620s or 30’s. As early as 336 AD Pope Julius I, when he declared that Christmas should replace Saturnalia as a festival, stated that the burning of the log would symbolize the light of Christ. As the a fire, light the first night of the Saturnalia, was a Roman custom, it would, of course, have made its way into Roman Britian.

In addition, it appears that the Normans, pre-conquest, burned a log at Christmas, a custom they continued from their ancestors, the “Northmen” who invaded what is today Normandy.

Not matter what its source, the yule log as a tradition, appears to have been established in Britian by the 12th century. An English poem dated 1182 refers to it. The same custom appears in other parts of Europe. In 1184, a German parish priest recorded bringing in a tree to kindle the Christmas festival fire. By 1340 Queen’s College, Oxford, included a yule log in its festivities. The celebration included a song and readings.

So how did the log work?

Over that there seems to be quite a bit of debate. Some people say it would have had to be big enough to burn over the full twelve days of Christmas. Interestingly, I could find no historical reference to the twelve days of Christmas being celebrated in the Middle Ages, though certainly by Shakespeare’s time it was an established fact. In fact, in the Middle Ages, the last day of the period, the Epiphany appears to be more associated with religious practices than misrule – and twelve days of celebration do not seem to be a recorded fact. Gift-giving, by the way, happened on the Epiphany, not Christmas, which makes sense as that was the day the wise men were supposed to have arrived with gifts for the Christ child.

A log big enough to burn over 12 days would have had to be huge, indeed. And the big question is, in practical terms, would it have burned down the hall? Some references I’ve seen say that the big end was poked into the fireplace and it was slowly “fed” to the fire in time. Well, if the wood was dry or pitchy, what’s to stop the fire from creeping along the bark, out into the hall? Fireplaces with chimneys themselves (as opposed to an open hearth in the centre of the floor) did not appear until the 12th century. Another reference says the log was cut into sections and fed into the fire a section a day. This makes more sense.

So what if you had the old kind of hearth, where the fire is made in the centre of the hall and the smoke drifts up through hole(s) in the roof? If a big log got burning, it would create an uncomfortably hot room. In fact, the heat from a big fire like that would possible drive people from the hall. But if you tried to slow the burn by possibly using a green log or throwing water on the log, you would create so much smoke, you’d drive everyone from the hall.

If you live in a 6th or 7th century Saxon-style hall, you’ve still got the danger from fire. These halls were built from wood, with an A-shaped roof. There were one or more raised, earthen banks along the centre line where the fires burned. But these structures also contained a dug-out cellar below the main floor (this is where Sioneh and Medraut are imprisoned in The Deadly Peace) – and the flooring above was wood. Unless managed carefully, a Yule log rolling off the hearth could burn down the whole hall.

I think we can safely guess that the log would have had to fit in the hearth (whether the chimney type or the open fire). And that it would have had to be chosen carefully so that it provided a good blaze without burning down the place or creating so much smoke everyone was miserable. It would probably have been a hardwood, cut earlier in the year and seasoned so it would burn without producing too much smoke.

The perfect wood for this, by the way, is oak. Oak burns very slowly and without much smoke. In fact, a couple of oak doors saved my life many years ago when the oil furnace in the hundred-year-old house I was living in caught fire. There just happened to be a couple of old oak doors propped near the furnace and they contained the blaze. The oily smoke pouring from the cellar alarmed a passer-by, who got everyone out of the house.

Anyway, getting back to the Yule log, considering the careful planning it would have taken, its procurement was probably the job of one man – possibly the manor’s forester. He would have had the necessary skill and experience to judge the correct tree and when to cut it.

But I wonder how many halls burnt down at Christmas time?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Urien of Rheged vs Urien of Rhyged – A Peek into My Creative Process

For those of you who missed my last post on Urien, he’s one of the candidates for the “historical” King Arthur, primarily because there are so many parallels between his own history and that of the King Arthur legend. He won a series of battles, which were cataloged by the same Nennius who listed Arthur’s battles. He’s even credited with having defeated the Angles at Lindesfarne. In later versions of Urien’s history (by this time highly fictionalized), he’s a strong supporter of Arthur. So, in terms of the legend, he was definitely one of the “good guys”.

I found all this out after I’d selected Urien to be my villain. That caused a dilemma, at first, as in my trilogy, Urien plots with Morguase to overthrow Arthur. But then I realized it could actually make him into a more interesting character. What kind of man would turn against the king he once supported? And what would drive him to do that?

My original vision of Urien was that of burning ambition. He wanted my heroine’s throne for himself and his sons. But then one of those serendipitous things happened. I wrote the first scene in which we see Sioneh, my heroine, together with her father. And I decided to set it in Urien’s point of view, just to see what would happen, as I thought setting it in Sioneh’s point of view would create a pretty predictable scene.
Wow! What I discovered, as I let the scene unfold through Urien’s eyes, was a man in conflict. One who wanted the throne, but who also admired and was frustrated by his daughter, who was, in reality, a far better candidate for the ruler of Rhyged than any of his sons. Something Urien knew deep in his heart but wouldn’t admit even to himself.

He’s like a hawk watching his prey. Everything Urien does is tinted with hoping Sioneh won’t succeed, and hoping she will. Here’s a bit of that scene:
     Urien of Rhyged held the hoof of one of their new stallions between his knees as he pared off the excess wall. A trickle of sweat dripped onto the shavings gathering at his feet. In the heat of the glowing forge he was stripped to his braes despite the chill of the early spring air. Glancing up, he paused to wipe his brow and was not at all surprised to see his daughter, still in armor, back from her three-day patrol of Rhyged’s coast.

     “My luck, you’re in the hottest place in Carduel.” It was like Sioneh to complain over everything he did. She wiped her brow with her sleeve. Road dust smudged her cheek. “Why don’t you get a new farrier instead of insisting on shoeing the war horses yourself? Anyone could do as well.”

     As he lowered the hoof to the ground, a scowl pulled at the scar above his eye, reminding him of the battle where he got it. “I’ve had the balance of too many hooves ruined by idiots who think they can shoe a horse.”

     Pursing her lips, Sioneh dipped a ladle of water out of a nearby bucket. Her eyes sized up the stallion he was shoeing, their flare telling him she approved. She wasn’t going to be happy when she found out he’d given it to Domnall.

    Anticipating the fight to come, he wiped his hands on his leather apron, tonged a red-hot shoe out of the forge and began hammering it into shape.

     His youngest, still in the quilted gambeson Rhyged knights wore to protect their skin, lazily pulled on the bellows. Domnall turned to Sioneh. “How do you like my new horse?”

     “What?” Water spilt on his daughter’s hauberk.

     Trust Domnall to provoke her. The boy scratched at a flea bite. “Da says I’m to have him, now that I’m knighted.”

     Sioneh puffed up like an angry hawk. “I thought I was getting him.”

     Urien’s own voice was calm. “Domnall needs a war horse. Bonniblack’s a bit to handle. Narron suits you fine.”

     “I can handle any horse.” She flicked the rest of the water at Domnall, who dodged with a mocking bow. Urien wondered why she let him get away with that kind of insubordination. He’d have a strap to his son by now. But she was going to have to learn herself to command, if she intended to lead Rhyged. And there were times when he wondered if she ever would.

The same ambivalence accompanies Urien’s treason. He’s angry at Arthur for what he thinks is Arthur’s betraying him, but there’s a corner of his heart that regrets his anger and would gladly forsake his plots.
They say that fact is more interesting than fiction. After all the research I’ve done, I’m convinced that anything pre-eleventh century is probably as much fiction as fact. But fact can help discover new depths in fiction.