Friday, 30 April 2010

Making a Living in the Middle Ages

Making a Living in the Middle Ages: the People of Britain 850-1520, by Christopher Dyer (2002; first UK paperback edition, 2009). Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10191-1.

This is a very readable survey of economic conditions and changes over its seven-century period, published as part of Yale’s series The New Economic History of Britain. Though it is well-furnished with scholarly references, Dyer writes in a clear and lively style, and makes few assumptions about the reader’s starting knowledge. It's therefore a fine introduction to what we know of everyday life in this period, and to how such immemorial British institutions as villages, farms, trades and towns grew up. As a reader, I enjoyed it and learned from it; as a fantasy writer, it has earned its precious shelf-space in my permanent reference collection; and as a tightwad, its current RRP of £12.99 will do just nicely, thank you!

The book is especially strong in its open-minded and sceptical approach to its matter, and eschews simplistic, schoolbook-friendly accounts of such developments as the evolution of the manorial system, the crisis at the end of the High Middle Ages, and the rise of sheep-farming and enclosure. Long-term developments and trends are followed through, and their continuity emphasized, even where the acorn is gone beyond tracing and all that can be done is to descry the course of the older roots.

Likewise, there is much examination of individuals' changing circumstances and incentives, and the author's eye is squarely on their agency and inventiveness. As the title suggests, here is a book not of conquerors and reformers, but of peasants and artisans, clerks and merchants and lords, each making their living every way they knew how. Details of peasant enterprise, innovation, and organization under the feudal yoke provided me with some particular eye-openers.

Dyer’s chief fault - and it is not very grave, because it happens seldom - is that occasionally he seems so concerned to avoid dogmatism in his conclusions, as to produce prose that merely mixes arguments rather than develops or judges them:

"The abandonment and shrinkage of rural settlements shows that the peasants were not the victims of their lords, but decision-makers and initiators. Many peasants did not better themselves or make great changes in their economic roles during this period..."

for instance, begins a long paragraph the rest of which is equally irrelevant to its random opening sentence. More typically, though, his arguments are honestly open rather than annoyingly invisible.

This book will be a valuable read for fellow perpetrators of mediaevaloid fantasy - particularly for those who, like me, find peasants and burgesses at least as interesting as knights and kings, and are bored with the usual suspects out of central casting. Libertarians (and, I suppose, their foes) will find highlighted in it many ways in which valued institutions, customs, and livelihoods developed specifically in the interstices of state and feudal authority. And what conclusion could better appeal to such an individualist and wary-eyed goat as I, than this final paragraph?

"These influences are presented here in an impersonal manner, but we should not forget that the mediaeval world developed in the way that it did because Haehstan managed his limited estate in an enterprising way; Wulfhelm developed his goldsmith's craft in a new urban environment; Stephen de Fretwell mismanaged his affairs and went bankrupt; Robert Broun cleared new land; Nicholas Symond the spurrier demanded higher wages; and Thomas Vicars managed his farm in the most profitable fashion. [Internal chapter references removed.] These individuals had little impact on their own, but they were part of tendencies involving many others, and their accumulated actions created the 'new world' with which the middle ages came to an end."

Yes, he has told us the surviving tales of all these people, and a great many more to boot.

John Langdon of the University of Alberta provides a professional historian’s review here, and seems no less impressed therein.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

The Conflation Debate

There's a frisky argument in libertarian circles about how good an approximation the 'capitalist' side of modern corporate capitalism is to a free market.

To simplify vastly, the right considers actual Big Money as an image of the sort of entity that would flourish in a better and freer society, but twisted and degraded in the crazyhouse mirror of actual State intervention. The left, on the other hand, sees Big Money more as Big Government's own ugly image in the mirror of its self-servingly warped and rigged market.

Roderick Long, one of the left's most eloquent and thoughtful advocates, terms this argument the conflation debate - the question as to how far support for free markets can sensibly be conflated with support for actually existing 'capitalism'.

Long makes his point in detail here.

Defenders of the free market are often accused of being apologists for big business and shills for the corporate elite. Is this a fair charge?

No and yes. Emphatically no - because corporate power and the free market are actually antithetical; genuine competition is big business’s worst nightmare. But also, in all too many cases, yes - because although liberty and plutocracy cannot coexist, simultaneous advocacy of both is all too possible.

A robustly capitalist response from Peter G Klein suggests that whilst this point is valid as far as it goes, it won't carry us very far:

As Roderick rightly points out, in the mixed economy large corporations are among the prime beneficiaries of government largess, such that a wholesale defense of "big business" is silly and counterproductive for libertarians. However, Roderick spoils (for me, anyway) an otherwise excellent summary by jumping to the unwarranted conclusion that today’s corporations are, on average, larger, more hierarchical, and more diffusely owned than the firms that would emerge under laissez faire.

Sheldon Richman of, with his post Is Capitalism Something Good?, hosts a spirited exchange in the comment section.

This debate centers on rival empirical predictions about the changing size distribution of firms, as society tends towards free-market anarchism. (Yes, I realize that is an exceptionally large 'as'.) My summary:

Conflationists expect lots of highly capitalized, keenly competitive firms of a familiar pattern benefiting from economies of scale, as also many smaller and nimbler outfits snapping at their heels or adapting to specialist niches. Large hierarchical corporations employing wage labour will continue to do most of the heavy lifting. The removal of both state regulation and corporate welfare should, however, lead alike to leaner and less fatuous management bureaucracies.

Anti-conflationists predict that in a genuinely free market, diseconomies of scale and of specialization will set in much earlier, with smaller and more labour-owned production dominating through flexible co-operative trading networks. Wage income from managed labour will lose much ground to income from personal production and trade. Kevin Carson offers a detailed and highly optimistic analysis of this alternate scenario here.

Unfortunately, there is only one sure way to find out which side is more nearly right. Like a good scientist, I have attempted the experiment. In tests, a randomized sample of 25 governments were requested to dissolve themselves so that the economic results could be observed. 20 said, "No!"; 3 said, "Bugger off!"; 1 said, "It is this sort of request which causes earthquakes!"; and 1 left a horse's arse in my mailbox. My tentative conclusion is that I am not going to get very much co-operation.

I may have to do some brain work, instead.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Get Around to Reading This...

I was going to say something intelligent about this excellent and amusing essay, but never got around to it!

(Hat tip: Roderick Long.)

Monday, 26 April 2010

My Saucy Weekend

I tried a new recipe over the weekend, and boy did I enjoy it! This recipe for that most dubiously-named of dishes, Spaghetti alla puttanesca, is distilled from Beverley LeBlanc's useful Student Cookbook. Anchovies. Olives. Mmmmmm.

Ingredients (Serves 2)

10 black olives
2 anchovy fillets
1 clove garlic
2 tbsp olive oil
Pinch chilli flakes
1/2 tbsp tomato puree
1 can (400g) chopped tomatoes
Pinch mixed herbs
200g spaghetti (I have had the best of pasta luck with De Cecco).


- Slice off olive flesh, chop anchovies, peel and chop garlic clove.

- Heat oil in saucepan over medium heat. Add chilli flakes and garlic and stir until garlic is golden brown. Add anchovies and mash with wooden spoon; stir in.

- Stir in tomato puree; then whole can of tomatoes and the olives; and add pinch of herbs. Bring to boil, stirring. Lower heat and simmer, covered, for 20 mins, stirring occasionally as needed.

- Bring large saucepan of salted water to boil. Stir in spaghetti, return to boil, and continue boiling for about 12 mins. Should be al dente at this point.

- Drain spaghetti thoroughly in colander, add to pan with sauce, and toss together. Add black pepper to taste.

Eat immediately, preferably with some really light and smackish lager like Red Stripe, which truly brings out its best aftertaste.

Uneaten sauce will keep in a jar for at least a day in the fridge - Ms LeBlanc says for two, but there was no chance here of its lasting that long! - and can simply be reheated. If anything, the sauce tasted better reheated than fresh.

The Student Cookbook, apparently misled by the exotic name, pretends that this is an excellent dish for seduction. All I will say about this is that the last time I ate spaghetti in front of another human being, the local Cthulhu cults didn't die down for the next two years. I shall endeavour to prevent any repetition of this nuisance.

Friday, 23 April 2010

I Bring a Dish to the Feast

It's St George's Day! Hooray!

It's Shakespeare's Birthday! Huzzah!

It's International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day! Wretch that I am, I hereby celebrate it by releasing a brand-new 23K novella into the world free gratis and for nothing! Breaking Night Mountain is an adult fairy-tale - no, not that sort of 'adult fantasy'! - which I wrote to keep my hand in during the research phase of Killer-Kate.

It was born out of this discussion of Heather Tomlinson's Toads and Diamonds on That inspired me, in a sheer spirit of what-the-hell, to the following challenge: to see how many rules of fairy-tale I could bend or break at once, and still end up with something that was really a fairy-tale rather than a mere parody of one. I should be very interested to hear how far I've succeeded!

This is the inaugural item in my new 'Showcase' feature, to be found on the right sidebar. Further free content may appear there from time to time, as the whim and the work seize me.

The main International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day page, where my fellow-wretches' contributions are mustered, can and should be found here.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Hallelujah, Bum Again!

Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland continues to progress, but not quickly. I'm feeling a little lost in my non-utopia (topia? zoëtope?) of Fairfields, and yet more convinced than ever that this place of needful infodump and wandering plot will be the emotional heart of the story once it's done right. Since this is a story that will need all the heart it can get when the plot charges cavalry-wise into the Rising, the bum is continuing to hit the seat in a spirit of hope.

It certainly still has its own dynamic. Somewhat to my immediate annoyance, the 'faffing about' chapter before the Wassail proper has split itself into two, each substantial - the present one, in which cosmopolitan Luke accepts this strange new place and finds that even here is not a home; and the second, in which arch-conservative Kate wrestles angrily with its innovations and follies, and finds that she desires it. The dramatic thread is beginning to make itself plain here, and the changes in my protagonists to emerge from my shadowy and distorted visions of them. Beginning only. I haven't caught them yet. But I'm past the stage at which any preparation except writing them will serve me.

Now, in times past, I've done in or at least put into long coma many a promising story by getting caught in the following fork. Not seeing my way ahead clearly, and knowing there's something missing, the fork's dangerous prongs are these:

1) Research background more; write character sketches and plot frames; rationalize, elaborate, do every damn thing but write the story, until the spirit of the tale is so bogged down in crud that it flies away in disgust.

2) Apply bum to seat and write the story, but wrongly because one doesn't see one's way; bog down in the resultant crud until the spirit of the tale &c.

Aided this time by the notion of deliberate practice - for which I am indebted to the energetic Justine Musk - this time, on detecting bogginess, I've adopted a new approach. Rather than repeat the trudge that left Kate and Luke stuck in the wandering woods for a year last time, I've loosened my death-grip on the old quill, and written this section with a different intention than usual. In this section I know, from the beginning, that what I'm mainly doing is exploring my new land, and the peculiar characters it produces, and my protagonists' real reactions to it. I have no doubt that the revisions here will ultimately be heavy - maybe revisions out of recognition. I don't normally like heavy revision at all.

So what?

Bulling on with prime text, intended to bind me for the rest of the story, is something I've done before. The reason it failed in my favourite abandoned work, Linden's Glory, was because what I slogged on with was plot, even though the plot had ceased to serve any purpose or make any sense beyond itself. It skidded on to wearisome places I had no wish to visit, and deprived my characters of life in the process: dull word-robots, going through their motions. I should have flung on the brakes long before, and gone back to look for my demon again. It would have stretched me, to the limit of my powers, and might have failed - but still, I should have done it.

This time, Fairfields is a new thing, and it stretches me mightily. I should therefore do it, win or lose. Since it is beyond me to get it right bulling on with pure plot, instead I'm trying to scout my way craftily, exploring chiefly through character with only an eye on the plot in the offing. If I have to start again from scratch, even that will be no great matter - because, this way, I'm learning true things about what all my characters care for and how they react. Next time, I should have much more of what I need to steer straighter.

It's a new and interesting way, for me, of dealing with a lack of 'inspiration' - telling more of what 'really happened', at the top of my present range, until the characters and situation are inspiring again, without worrying over-much about how much of the output will persist indefinitely. That's started to happen for me with Luke, already. Kate, a much more dramatic personality, may be difficult, but I haven't the least fear that her coming chapter will be less than exciting.

So with a light bum shall I pilot my much-enduring swivel chair, and lightly the plot shall guide its people, until they and I are enough, and the tale speaks clearly of truth to me again. It's hard, it's novel - and, after my many depressing experiences of block in the past, above all things it's fun.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Gallis Poll

Following recent startling revelations that the UK Prime Minister is a donkey and the leader of the Opposition a silly ass, the election polls are in great turmoil. There is even talk of the Liberal Democrats' coming first in the popular vote, and therefore a less distant third than usual in the allocation of seats! At any rate, a hung Parliament with no overall party majority looms ever larger on the May horizon.

A hanged Parliament would probably be in better keeping with the popular temper. Unfortunately, I look forward even less to the rule of any potential hangman, than I do to that of our actual felonry. Therefore my first inclination is to accept a merely hung legislature as one of our happy British compromises. My inevitable second thought is - How good an option would it be, really?


It will be much harder for one party to colonize the whole apparatus of public and private State with its creatures. Win!

It will be ineffectual and unable to pass badly needed legislation. As far as I’m concerned, the pols and lobbyists can carry right on needing it! There are needier folk than they in this fair land.

The resulting atmosphere of instability will make it hard for the government to borrow money it has not got. YES!!!

The resulting horse-trading will drag down the reputation of politics even further. - Yes, by dragging the usual methods out into the open where they’re harder to ignore. A decline in ignorance is not a decline in virtue.

Unpopular and difficult decisions won’t get made. So no diversionary expeditionary force to Iceland, then. I can live with even that.


There will be a strong temptation to divide up the apparatus of State into de facto party fiefdoms. This will make destroying even the most expendable Ministry of Administration unwholesomely difficult.

In a disorganized Parliament whose members are snuffling every which way on their own private truffle-trails, special interest lobbyists might get even more of their own way than they do at present.

Some might think the danger of our currency's having to be reprinted on perforated rolls bearing the legend NOW WASH YOUR HANDS is already as high as it needs to be.

One likely horse-trade is a rejigging of the constitution and electoral system, in particular towards proportional representation. If this yields one of those systems of managed democracy in which it is difficult or illegal to vote for any individual candidate at all, that won't be what I call progress.

Unpopular and difficult decisions won't get made. So there will be no spending cuts that might offend any concentrated interest, i.e. no spending cuts at all except friction-raising 'efficiency' drives that fall upon the poor, the voiceless, and those actually trying to do their jobs rather than game the funding. Meanwhile, the permanent bureaucracies will hum along, expanding their empires as usual.

I reckon that Hung Parliament wins out, in spite of all the serious objections. What we fans of civil society chiefly need at the moment is a breathing space from all the recent security-socialist and crony-capitalist power-grabs. In terms of what ends up flowing down through the terraces of Westminster, there are no lovely choices, but I'm thinking that a deadlocked and rickety government is our only man. If we can't turn that brief respite to some account, we'll have nobody to blame but ourselves

Or, at least, nobody who gives a toss about it.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Goodness Gracious!

The Three Graces, by Antonio Canova - image by Uk-Kamelot@Wikimedia Commons - released under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 licence.Last month I brought a handsome new King James Bible, something I've lacked for more than a decade. I'm not, in several important ways, a Christian, but this has long struck me as a somewhat illiterate gap for the shelves of an English writer. Also, in every phase of my religious life - from inconsistent, fear-born evangelical crankery as a child, through to full-blooded antitheism in my teens, and beyond - I have always been pretty weak on those parts of the New Testament between the Gospels and the bit where the seas turn to absinthe.

So I've been dipping into Peter and Paul over the weekend, and my thoughts turned as they so often do to matters of law and liberty. Pete the Rock is standing square on the first, and Paul the Navigator is wrestling with the shifting courses of the other - or so it seems to me, from the outside. They're clearly working the same country, but what a difference in purpose and perspective!

This morning I set to thinking. When we speak of laws - social or (especially) moral - it's easy to think of words for both good and bad ways of living by them. An uncivil abuser of laws, who lives by their letter and sees no right or wrong beyond that, is amongst many harder names a legalist. A regular law-abiding character will most likely be described as honest. But when somebody acts according to the spirit and promise of the law-codes we value, then we call them just, and condemn the law itself when it condemns them.

It is harder to speak of liberty in the same way, and be understood, because lawfulness is much more universally accepted as an unambiguous virtue than tricky, contingent freedom. Even amongst libertarians who are clear that political liberty is part of the moral law, the corresponding idea of moral freedom can be perfectly opaque - as anyone ever ear-bashed by a stern Objectivist sermon will readily understand. This is not because libertarian ideologues are dumb: they seldom are. It's because moral freedom is as hard to catch hold of as living quicksilver. I see its shiny skittering, but can't claim to grasp it either.

As witness my difficulty this morning, trying to find a term that is to freedom all that justice is to law.

It's easy to find a word for its abuse - the dreaded 'licence' is plainly the flipside of legalism. The safe and satisfactory mean corresponding to honesty was a harder nut to crack. 'Independence' is the best I can manage for the moment. But what shall we call that justice-like virtue that embodies the best living not of a general maxim, but of each free spirit, each occasion, each deed that is all its own tale and none of any other?

Maybe it's because I'm a secularist, and it is too easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It took me a remarkable long time to realize that the word I was missing here was 'grace'.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

The Boy Is Back in Town

Returned last night from ten days in the back of the boonies, where we had to knit our own Internet out of durum wheat noodles. It wasn't a very good one. Here is some Thin Lizzy to make up for this unscheduled interruption.

Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland has been in heavy research phase, so I've kept my hand in by writing a completely new novella - a fairy-tale called Breaking Night Mountain, weighing in at 23 kilowords. More about that when I've finished the redraft.

Kate is almost ready to go again too, so I now have one work in composition and one in revision. I'm hoping that will boost my productivity, since the jobs belong to different moods. We shall see.

The b┼Ánis have done well by me this Easter, but it's good to be back on the wire!