A Few Words in Honor of Rust

A few weeks ago I got some porn in my email. No no no not THAT kind of porn, but PERSONAL porn, the kind that whets my appetite and gets the juices of inspiration flowing. I got advertising from Natural Pigments. Yeah, I know…

You might not know but beginning with Martin of Gfenn I fell in love with pigments. I’ve always loved paints, colors, all that. I even had a dream once in which a bag of ultramarine blue hanging from an awning outside a shop in Venice Beach, CA, was “drugs.” Yes, a dream, but it happened in real life, years and years later. I was driving through Venice Beach with Denis Joseph Francis Callahan and saw — you guessed it — a plastic bag with ultramarine blue pigment hanging from an awning. In the dream I was riding with my dad; in real life I was riding with a guy who looked, talked and acted like my dad.

You figure it out.

ANY-hoooo here was an advertisement for natural pigments like those Martin of Gfenn would have painted with. I was very excited, went to their website, saw that my entire DREAM of painting as they did in medieval times was about to come true if ONLY I had the money… To buy the equipment, raw pigments and tools? I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even begin to do it. You see, besides finances, I don’t have a real studio. I have a big room which is ordinarily great but not for a fresco shop…

I kept going back and back and of course, they tracked me and finally I saw a set I could (almost) afford. “Oh shit,” I thought. “I could do that. I could paint with that, those colors.” You see, I’ve seen some of these colors in real life clinging to karst cliffs on the hills north of Verona. I’ve touched them. I have had REAL Verona green on my actual hand.

So after sleeping on it for a few nights I went to their website and put the set of medieval/early Renaissance colors in my “basket.” Then I logged out. I had to sleep on it some more. It was a $60 investment. They sent me an email offering me 15% off if I ordered what was in my basket.

They arrived today. In case you ever wonder what most of the colors early artists (and contemporary landscape artists) paint with are made of I can tell you. They are made of Iron Oxide. They are essentially made of rust. Isn’t that beautiful? Iron is the fourth most abundant metal on earth and is so ubiquitous because of its ability to mix with other elements using air, water, fire — it’s just the nature of iron to color things. Potassium is also one of the elements in these colors — iron and potassium oxide.

Anyway, I have already got a painting in mind for these beautiful things. I can’t wait to open the tubes and see the colors in real life. I’m sure I’ve painted with them already in other paints, but these are made with nothing but the mineral and linseed oil, the old way. I also have a tube of real ultramarine blue paint made from lapis lazuli that I will add to these five tubes.

The Best Library of My Life — St. Gallen Stiftsbibliothek

On a winter’s day in a deep and dark December in 1997 I opened a door way that led into a gaudy rococo structure that housing thousands of books I could never read.

It was the Library at the Abbey of St. Gall in St. Gallen, Switzerland. I had just dipped a toe into my personal medieval period. I’d recently read How the Irish Saved Civilization (which I’d bought because I thought it would be funny…) by Thomas Cahill, and I was excited to learn that a couple of Irish monks — Columbanus and Gall — had crossed the channel in little round boats and carried the Bible (and other books) up the Rhine. Gall got pneumonia at what is now St. Gallen and left Columbanus on his own to journey to Italy. Apparently Columbanus was a irritated with Gall for being such a sissy, but pneumonia is no joke…

Columbanus and Gall on Lake Constanz (dem Bodensee)

Gall set up a hermitage and a small library with a few books and he gathered followers and saved souls. He is the patron Saint of Switzerland. His animal friend is a bear. The story is:

… that once he was travelling in the woods of what is now Switzerland. One evening he was sitting down warming his hands at a fire. A bear emerged from the woods and charged. The holy man rebuked the bear, so awed by his presence it stopped its attack and slunk off to the trees. There it gathered firewood before returning to share the heat of the fire with St Gall. The legend says that for the rest of his days St Gall was followed around by his companion the bear.

At first, the library itself disappointed me. I guess I wanted to open the door and enter the 8th century or something. The current library was built in the 18th century. I find it very difficult to see anything in a baroque room, and the Abbey Library is one step beyond baroque — it’s rococo. It’s so full of embellishments and ornaments that my mind becomes confused.

Main hall of the Library of the Abbey of St. Gall

But once I got used to it — and librarian came to talk to us (we were the only people there) — I stopped trying to see through the gold and stucco and began to see and understand where I was. He showed me a medieval map of the world.

8th or 9th century CE map of the world

You can see that it’s oriented (ha ha) to the East, the rising sun — Christ. All the three continents are surrounded by sea. The map is less for navigating physical space as it is for navigating spiritual space. This is a somewhat unusual medieval map of the world because it doesn’t SAY Jerusalem is the center, but it is. I saw a couple other maps on which cities were drawn, and Jerusalem was always depicted as the largest city and had tall, shining towers. Although I didn’t understand at that moment, having only at that point dipped one toe into the medieval world, that the physical and spiritual worlds overlaid each other and that the physical world was but a metaphor for spiritual space.

Of all the amazing things this man explained about the books in the glass cases, other books on the library’s locked shelves, and books too old and fragile to be touched at all was that there are some written in languages people don’t know any more. Apparently researchers are working on that, but I thought at the time that it is incredibly sad. Here are words written in very difficult circumstances, with oak-gall ink on parchment with quill pens, stories, ideas, beliefs, philosophies, knowledge and experiences that their writers were desperate to transmit to the future. And there the three of us stood — my friend, the librarian and I — discussing how no one could read them.

He took us into a hallway behind the main room — it was modern, gray and white — with doors along it. “All these rooms have people working on this problem.” Just then a young woman wearing white cotton gloves came out of one of the doors and greeted the librarian. I got a vision of busy young people in white gloves behind all those doors struggling to decode old words. I wondered what they would find.

Of all the wonders in the library, though, for me one of the most wonderful was the inscription written in Greek over the entrance which, thanks to Michael J. Preston, I could read on my own.

Medicine Chest for the Soul

I continued to pursue St. Gall in various places in Switzerland that winter, including a trip to Basel to see the Gallus Portal at the cathedral. I learned a lot — not the least of which that ignorance is a wonderful wonderful wonderful thing because once curiosity is awakened, and you chase knowledge, you will get more than you possibly could have imagined.

I didn’t know HALF of what I was looking at that winter, but on my second to last day, my friend’s mom told him to take me to visit a little medieval church near where they lived. The church is in the village of Gfenn, outside Dubendorf, both north of Zürich. And the rest? It’s historical fiction. ❤

Lazariter Kirche im Gfenn


One Man’s Curse is another Man’s Blessing

Last night I watched the Netflix movie about Robert the Bruce. It was great as far as medieval battle was concerned and the costumes! They were good, too. There wasn’t a lot of real acting because of all the fighting and, in some respects it took off from Braveheart. We didn’t see William Wallace’s blue face, just what appeared to be his arm and shoulder nailed to a post in a village square. My favorite scene in the film was when a peasant was taking a cart filled with apples down the road at the exact moment The Bruce’ army was about to be engaged by Edward I army.

“You’d best go home,” said The Bruce. Later we saw a body, a cart and an apple strewn road. I’m still most interested in the ordinary people trying to hold their shit together in the maelstrom.

History is all about the wars, the kings and the dates, the battles for territories. It makes sense as that’s most of what’s been written down and for centuries we’ve measured the development of culture by its writing.

Of course I had to do some research because the movie dragged on so long and I wanted to know what happened.

Doing research, I found the BIG debate is “Did Robert the Bruce have leprosy?” And, once again, as I read about The Bruce, I saw the old saws about the Medieval leper.

A famed Scottish warrior king has had his legacy restored, thanks to research at Western University.

Robert the Bruce, long believed to have suffered from leprosy, did not have the disease that in the 1300s carried a heavy stigma, the work concluded.

“In those days, if you wanted to come up with the worst thing you could say to someone, it was, ‘You leper,’” Western anthropology Prof. Andrew Nelson aid.

“With just that word, you could besmirch a person and his legacy.”

The suggestion their national hero may have had the disfiguring, contagious disease has long been a burr in Scotland’s thistle.

But in the first examination authorized by the Bruce family descendants, Nelson has determined King Robert I did not show the telltale suite of signs of the disease.


Damn that pisses me off. Politics? Climate change? Kids caged at the Mexican border? Crime? Ha. The REAL problem in this world is this consistent misconception over the reality of life as a leper in medieval times.

As for Robert the Bruce’s death, it’s false that he died from leprosy. At the time of his death in 1329, he had been gravely ill intermittently for many years. The nature of his ailment is not certain – possibilities include motor neuron disease, syphilis and muscular sclerosis. It is perfectly possible that he suffered from different conditions at different times, but we can rule out leprosy. However much of a hero he might have been, as a leper he would have been quarantined just as strictly as anyone else. It was a disease that was all-too-familiar to medieval society and quite impossible to disguise.


Lepers were not “quarantined” during this period of time. That treatment happened much, much later. In medieval times Leprosaria were established largely as a way for rich people to endow something for the good of their immortal soul. Sure, lepers lived there, but they were not forced to stay.

The Crusades in the Holy Land effectively ended in 1244 with the disastrous (to the Christians) Battle of La Forbie. By the end of the 14th century, leprosy had all but disappeared completely from northern Europe. How do we know this? Leper hospitals were converted to housing for the poor. The evidence exists — among other places — in the bones of people buried in the attached cemeteries. It’s also clear from records of the time. Stupid knowledge-resistant, prejudiced historians. Makes me furious. They should jump down from their astral plane and dig a little deeper.

Still, you’d think I’d have set the whole world straight on this point by now. People just aren’t paying attention, selfishly caught up in their own damned time. Good grief. People still think there were thousands of lepers wandering the European countryside, scaring the shit out of people, and cursing wells.

No. There was never a “leprosy epidemic.” Leprosy remained rare in Northern Europe with a slight “blip” brought by crusaders returning from the Holy Land where leprosy was endemic.

In 2016, historians examined a cast of The Bruce’ skull and found clear signs in his bone of leprosy, a particular and characteristic deformation in the nose cavity, for one thing. Some amateur in the ways of Medieval leprosy wrote, “It’s impossible! He wouldn’t have been able to drink from wells or do half the things he needed to do to lead the Scots!”

No. Leprosy in the REAL Middle Ages wasn’t always — or even usually — regarded as a divine curse. It was more often regarded as a divine blessing with the victim being able to pay his debt to Heaven before he even died! Helping a leper was a sure way to gather points ensuring entry to Heaven. Leprosy is not — and never was — very contagious. Jesus was really nice to lepers and medieval people were really all about “What would Jesus do?” It wasn’t until AFTER the waves of plague which hit Britain in the mid 14th century, that the leper became a pariah. And, by then, leprosy had all but vanished from Europe. How were terrified Europeans to KNOW (in the beginning) the difference between one ailment and the other? As for that, leprosy was very accurately diagnosed in the High Middle Ages. I have the sources from paleoarcheologial research to prove this, dammit.

But, by 2017, The Bruce no longer had had leprosy. Whew. Just syphilis. What a relief. But, in 2019 Bruce’ leprosy reappeared only to be “cured” by science, once again. Bruce died in 1329, nearly two decades before the plague ravaged Britain. The perspective people would have had during Bruce’ life is vastly different from the mythological stigma created by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe.

A short-cut to some of this research can be found on this excellent blog by a Mortuary Archeologist, Kate Meyers Emery Among other great things you will find there is this, “As discussed earlier, each of these forms of study has their limitations in determining the presence of what the medieval people perceived as leprosy. I propose that by accepting a multidisciplinary viewpoint, these limitations can not only be minimized, but that we can produce a more holistic understanding of the United Kingdom in the Middles Ages.”

Yes. People in the Middle Ages wrote about themselves. We can read FROM THEIR WORDS how they regarded the few lepers they encountered. Why not let them speak?

As I read all this stuff about The Bruce I wondered at people. We CAN’T possibly know even what our parents’ young reality was like. In reality, leprosy could have enhanced The Bruce’ ability to lead the Scots. The courage of the Leper Knights — The Knights of St. Lazarus — was legendary in medieval times. They often led the charge during the Crusades.

Featured image from https://www.ljmu.ac.uk/about-us/news/articles/2016/12/8/robert-the-bruce



I love paper the way Imelda Marcos loved shoes and in my “art room” there is a pretty good — if small — collection of beautiful handmade papers. Paper is a miraculous thing.

When I started writing Martin of Gfenn, a novel about an artist set in 13th century Zürich, Martin had paper. Then I learned that he could not have had paper because Northern Europe did not have paper and even the exotic, cosmopolitain trading center of Venice had only two or three sheets brought in from Asia. Yep. It was very difficult for me to imagine being an artist without paper, but Martin had to succeed at that and I had to write so no one reading it would feel the absence, would feel — as I felt — that Martin had a big challenge. No one’s challenged by the absence of something that has not yet existed, right? I couldn’t really do it until I acquired my own small piece of parchment. Wow. I have kept it safe for a decade and don’t think I’ll ever do anything worthy of its surface.

THEN I had to consider that every animal back then was skinned and many of the skins were made into something to write on. Squirrel skin was especially prized for parchment. However, squirrel pelts were also highly valued for the linings of rich peoples cloaks… I began to imagine incredibly high prices for dead squirrels, and that led me to imagine a completely different economy. In fact, the problem of paper more than any other thing, awakened me to the fact that the 13th Century was an alien world.

When paper paper took off, the squirrels must have been really, really, really happy about it.

Early paper was made from something plentiful in medieval times — linen rags. There are echoes of this in some papers used for stationary (Classic Laid) and for charcoal drawings in which you can see the “laid,” the way the fibers were pressed. Laid paper was all there was for the first 500 years of European paper making.

I’ve made paper — recycled paper made from, uh, paper, and fibers and leaves. My brother taught me and I made it on my stove, using macaroni and/or rice for binder. It was fun and I did a few paintings with it. I didn’t have a lot of the fancy tools or expertise many other people have. I had only an old silkscreen and pressed the pulp by hand. I am pretty sure everything I made that way has disintegrated by now — I don’t have any of it. I sold the two or three pieces.

There is an art supply store in Denver — Meiningers — that in these days has, of course, branched out to more than one store, that sells more kinds of paper than any place I know, except the vast world of the Internet. I recently bought a selection of papers — and I think the most beautiful papers come from India and Japan. Since I’m not an artist any more, I don’t know what I’ll do with it, but it’s there, safely rolled and cared for.


There is No Frigate Like a Book

Time travelDaily Prompt Pick Your Gadget Your local electronics store has just started selling time machines, anywhere doors, and invisibility helmets. You can only afford one. Which of these do you buy, and why?

“Oh man I wrote this not long ago. I’m sure of it. I think I wrote about going to 13th century Switzerland.”
“Get in your time machine and find out, Lamont.”
“I don’t have to get in a time machine. I AM a time machine.”
“How do you figure that?”
“I REMEMBER writing it. See?”
“That isn’t all. I read books, mostly history books.”
“Yeah? Well, they weren’t written by people who KNOW.”
“Some were. The Medieval Mind by Henry Osborn Taylor. That’s an amazing book. He looked at thousands of medieval texts and wrote an introduction to the thinking of medieval people. He may not have been — was certainly not — 100% accurate and he was certainly biased, but he set me on the right path and taught me how to love a way of thinking very different from any I have known. I got lost in his books and in his elaborate Edwardian prose. When I came out, I had definitely BEEN there, at the very least, on the desk of Henry Osborn Taylor. Any good writer with passion and knowledge can write a time machine. The writers who can’t are those who cannot see their own prejudices. They explore the past with the lens of the present. This has resulted in a lot of weird, revisionist history. I like paleohistory best since it looks for, uh, the bones of the matter.”
“Yeah, well, not all time is past and not all past is past enough for paleohistory.”
“True, but that’s why I really hate movies made ABOUT the 60s (for example) unless they were made by someone who was there. It makes a lot more sense to me to watch movies FROM the 60s without the flattened revisionist spin, the accusatory finger and all that. I call those films the Etsyfication of the past.”

Etsy Wetsy“Etsyfication?”
“Yeah. Ever look at the landing page for Etsy? It’s a lot of over exposed photos of stuff. Flat.”
“That’s true.”
“Just as the middle ages were not dark and colorless and sad, the sixties were not all KKK, MLK, Mad Men and hippies. AND people are not better now. Still, if there’s anything history teaches it’s that humans do progress. It’s not one step forward and two steps back; it’s a slow march forward, like the movement of a glacier. People have a lot more control over the future than they know, I mean when I was in high school there were no fish in Lake Michigan and LA was dark as night with smog many days. Now? There are fish and LA smog is a pretty rare event.”
“What about the time machine?”
“Books. That’s why I designed that book plate up there so long ago. 1974! A sad fact is that there are books into which people poured their hearts and souls that no one can read now. The books live in libraries such as the library at St. Gallen and scholars are working on ‘decoding’ them. The future will speak another language. I cannot know what that language will be, but the people will still be people.”
“You’ve avoided traveling to the future, Lamont. You don’t want to go there?”
“I WILL go there. I don’t need a time machine for that. My journey to the future will last all my life.”

P.S. I have 20 copies of this book plate ready to lick and paste into your favorite book. Want one?