Medieval “T” Doors

A beautiful example of medieval creativity was the design of the shop door known today as a “T” door. When the door is closed, you can see the definite shape of the T.

Medieval T Door2But when the large upper doors are folded back, medieval shopkeepers had a wide ledge on which to display their goods. Imagine this shop without the glass.

Medieval T Door4The ingenious little bottom of the T was a separate door which kept dogs and pigs out of the shop and kept your toddler inside.

Medieval T Door3At night, when all was locked and barred, you could still see what might be going on in the street.


The images above are some I made in Arezzo in Tuscany. Searching the internet, I’ve found a few more pictures of “T” doors, though very few. Most have been lost in centuries of remodeling.


Here are some images from the blog Urbanistica in Italia. Though no longer T doors, they clearly were at one time.

medievalshopdoor2Medieval shop door1








And finally, an interesting variation on the style from Kotor in Montenegro from the blog gallivance.

Kotor doorsKotor Door2Kotor Door3






“T” doors, a perfect example of medieval practicality still in use during the Renaissance and beyond.

Medieval T Door5

Do You Sleep like Shakespeare?

It’s 1:07 a.m. I woke up about fifteen minutes ago. Actually, I seemed to sort of snap awake in the middle of a thought. By the bed, I keep a legal pad and a little book light to make notes because this happens nearly every night.

I used to call this insomnia. I used to assume it was the result of my paternal family’s genetic nervousness, since some of us are wrapped tighter than mummies, with migraines, bouts of sleepwalking, and restless leg syndrome. Or, as my mother chooses to puts it, “one step ahead of a fit.” I preferred to think of it as a sign of creative genius.

Chateau du Clos Luce, Gregg's Blog,

Renaissance Bed


Well no. It’s merely how people slept for centuries. It may, in fact, be the more natural rhythm for human sleep. In the sixteenth century, it was called “first sleep” and “second sleep.” Today, it’s called segmented sleep or a bi-modal sleep pattern.

The best historical study of this is a book called At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past by Virginia Tech history professor Roger Erich. Erich found more than 500 references to segmented sleep in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to Canterbury Tales. Apparently, this was the normal, accepted pattern of sleep for centuries.

The pattern seems to be that people slept for three to four hours, were awake for two to three hours, and then slept three to four more hours.

During their interval of wakefulness, they read or wrote, prayed or meditated, had sex, played cards, and after tobacco arrived in Europe, smoked. There are many prayer manuals from the late 15th Century that include special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.

Closet bed Museum Kastenbett

All this changed with artificial lighting. We began staying up later to keep up with Khloe and Kourtney, buying sleep aids to help us cram all our sleep into one chunk, and fretting because we “just can’t sleep.”

From a scientific standpoint, studies have shown that a bi-modal routine creates a healthy pattern of prolactin, GnRH, and all those hormones and chemicals that are constantly sloshing around, causing us to be cranky and gain weight.

Creativity studies have shown the midnight hours of wakefulness are closer to our subconscious and a period of special creativity. (Notice how creative I am right now.)

laidback2Because I find actually getting out of bed to work in the night a little daunting, I have one of these lazy person’s laptop stands. I’m using it right now and it’s great.

According to Professor Russell Foster, Chair of Circadian Neuroscience at Oxford, “Many people wake up at night and panic. I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern.”

So, if you wake up in the night, don’t fret. You’re just a Renaissance person.



Image #1: Renaissance bed, Chateau du Clos Luce, Gregg’s Blog,         Image #2: Closet bed, Museum Kastenbett

Was Erasmus Sexy?


Erasmus by Durer 1526

There are challenges in using historical figures as characters in novels. Michael Sattler, Katharina Zell, Henry VIII, and Thomas More were all “real” people who have become characters in my novels. Personally, I believe it’s important to be true to the history of the person as it has come down to us. I would never taint a good man’s reputation or make him do something that seems out of character with what we know about him.

On the other hand, there are great gaps in our knowledge of these people, and what we think about them is often little more than an image carefully crafted by the person himself or subsequent historians. And in those wide spaces between the known facts, imagination can bring the character to vivid life.


Erasmus by Holbein

One thing I like to do is to introduce the character in a surprising way that contradicts our stereotype of him. Our first glimpse of Thomas More in Line of Ascent is when he charges around the corner of the house, dirty and with his sleeves rolled up, and tackles Erasmus in exuberant horseplay. This is completely out of keeping with the saint, the scholar, or the persecutor of heretics that we know More to have been. This makes More fresh to the reader’s eyes and interesting.


Studies of the Hands of Erasmus of Rotterdam-Hans Holbein the Younger

Erasmus presented a challenge. Recent scholarship–and indeed Erasmus’ own careful “branding” of himself as explored in Lisa Jardine’s great book, Erasmus, Man of Letters: The Construction of Charisma in Print–presents Erasmus as the iconic bookish scholar, pale and sickly. He had been a monk and had an early, intense friendship with another man. All the portraits of him emphasize his delicate hands,  skin, and manners.

After a great deal of thought and several false starts, I decided to make Erasmus stronger, more courageous, and attractive. There is no doubt that he was charismatic, witty, and charming. Yet his health was fragile, with recurring fevers and excruciating bouts of kidney stones. I decided to make him strong against the pain, determined and stoic.

But was he sexy? I showed his picture to a friend who took one look and made an immediate suggestion. I saw it, too, and loved it!

Erasmus8 viggo2They are both northern Europeans, and I believe there’s a resemblance in the dimpled chins and chiseled cheekbones, though Erasmus’ nose is thin and sharp.

So, I wrote my novel with an Aragorn Erasmus, but with no scholarly support that I could find.

Then I found a volume of lectures on Erasmus by P.S. Allen. Allen was an Erasmian expert of the early 20th century. He is quoted constantly by later scholars and his system of numbering Erasmus’s voluminous correspondence is still in use. And there, in the first few pages, Allen makes this astonishing statement about Erasmus’s first years in England:

An English pupil bore him off to England in 1499; where, for all his hood and tonsure, he shone in the hunting-field and made conquests among the ladies.

Woo-hoo! Made conquests with the ladies? Now I’m happy to imagine that the ladies were taken with Erasmus but that he was in no way culpable. Just irresistibly charming.

Unfortunately, Allen did not give a reference to support his statement, and I hope to discuss this with current Erasmian scholars some day. But in the meantime, I think that, considering his intelligence, charm and wit it could plausibly be said that Erasmus was indeed sexy.



More 16th-Century Poodles with Jobs

huntingpoodleHuetPoodles were originally bred as water retrievers. My first poodle of blessed memory, whose name was Payroll, was always trying to lure me to the creek because her favorite thing was to make a big, splashy jump into the water to retrieve a Coke can. She could do it all day.

Payroll in Action

Payroll in Action

The silly haircut so iconic to a poodle was originally designed for hunting. The dense, water-repellant coat could get caught in the brush, so it was clipped short except over the chest organs and joints, such as knees, ankles, and hips. This was to give those important areas protection from the cold water.

The tail was docked and left with a distinctive pompom on the end to help the animal be more easily sighted in dense brush or water. I have read that when a tail is docked and clipped correctly, it will stand up from the water like a flag. I’d have to see that.


falconBut this was before the invention of guns, so how was the bird brought down that the retriever was retrieving? With a falcon, of course.

A medieval manuscript exists that gives you detailed instructions on how to train your falcon and your dog. One reason that noblemen (and women) carried their birds with them everywhere (including church) was to “imprint” them. The falcon is a wild bird and remains a wild bird. It was never a pet. But it could be programmed to see the human as the source of its food, forgetting that it could eat the prey it brought down. The falcon and the dog were paired together in a partnership that rewarded them both.

The falcon learned that the dog flushed the birds. The falcon was slipped and, if it were a peregrine, perhaps it performed its “stoop,” a downward dive of 200+ miles per hour, making it the fastest creature alive. Then, in an amazing act that defied more than one of its natural instincts, the falcon released the downed prey to the dog, who returned it to the man. After which, everyone had a nice snack together.

Deaux Rey of Deaux Rey Standard Poodles

Deaux Rey of Deaux Rey Standard Poodles

The love of birds still exists in poodles today. My little toy poodle, Traveler, hates water, but she adores birds. She once brought in a decomposed goldfinch and scattered feathers all over the sunroom. And that was the end of the dog door. In a pet store, she ignores the mice, kittens, and ferrets. She wants to stare for hours at the parakeets.

We know of the important role that poodles played in falconry from the medieval tapestries that depict them in action.


Here is a much later painting. While the other dogs are being dogs, the poodle is seriously thoughtful.

Falconers Fleming of Barochan, Anderson and Harvey

Falconers Fleming of Barochan, Anderson and Harvey

The word poodle come from the German pudel, meaning puddle, because water was a big part of the life of a working poodle in the 16th century.


A 16th-Century Poodle with a Job



16th-century poodle with traditional clipping

In the heart of [a] tumultuous throng on the bridge leading to the castle stood poor blind Fridli led by his black dog. Scarce twenty summers had passed over his head. He was tall, of commanding stature and stalwart limbs, but fearfully disfigured by the deep scars and furrows which covered his whole face and the pits that marked even his sightless eyelids. A native of the Breisgau, he had entered the service of the Baron von Morsberg as cowherd there. A short time ago, he had lost his sight by small pox. Now his only way of gaining a pittance was wandering through the country with his black poodle, Forester by name, and a lyre the gift of the Lord of Morsberg. 

Alas on this gala day, instead of the rich gifts on which he had so fully reckoned, poor Fridli reaped but pain and sorrow [for] not a single penny had been cast into the cap which Forester held between his teeth sitting up on his hind paws and looking imploringly towards, as he vainly hoped, a generous public.

The story of blind Fridli and his black poodle Forester, who begged with his cap in his teeth, was translated from German into French in 1869. The original title simply says “as drawn from old chronicles.” Whether these were the Strasbourg city chronicles or church records I have not been able to determine yet, but the story specifically dates Fridli to “towards the close of the eighth decade of the fifteenth century” or the 1480s.

Poodles (pudelhund) were an old breed even at this time, having been bred as water retreivers for noble hunters. The miniaurized version was also developed early. The tiny dog served as a noblewoman’s cuddly muff in the unheated church or cathedral.

That the story of this loyal black poodle, including his name, has been preserved for 500 years is wonderful, and I put Forester and Fridli in my novel.

The Meteorite of Ensisheim–November 7

On November 7, 1492, a meteorite weighing nearly 300 pounds fell in a field near Ensisheim, near Basel, making a hole as deep as the height of a man. The robust citizens moved the rock to town, where it resided in the church for centuries, until the church collapsed. The meteorite’s landing was well documented in the media of the day.




Part of the meteorite is still preserved in Ensisheim, though pieces have been taken away for study or stolen. It is the earliest witnessed meteorite fall in the West from which pieces are still preserved.



This fascinating paper in the NASA database traces the “impact” of the meteorite on politics, society, and legend through the centuries.


The Book of Miracles–1552

I’ll be hoping to get a little cash for Christmas, as I have my heart set on another lush book from Taschen, a reproduction of The Book of Miracles (Wunderzeichenbuch), printed in Augsburg in 1552.

Taschen Miracles1

The book only came to public light in 2007, when it turned up at a German auction house. The artwork is extraordinary. Study these vibrant images and you’ll never have to create your own nightmares again.



These images and a discussion of the book can be found at BrainPickings.

An amazing Pinterest Board of 50 images and translation of the text can be found HERE.

TaschenMiracles 2

The Book of Miracles is a 16th-century equivalent of the National Enquirer, but the art will leave you breathless even if the miracles don’t.

Research in Fiction

The whole point of a historian is to reconstruct, as imaginatively as you can, with all the insights you can get on the basis of the available evidence, and see if you can give a picture that’s as true as is possible, given all those preconditions. And it’s a difficult job and it’s a constant challenge to all of us, all the time, whatever we’re writing about.   –John H. Elliott 

For a novelist, there is always the question, how accurate must I be, since this is fiction? Historical fiction spreads across a wide spectrum from ridiculously inaccurate to meticulously researched. I hope to fall as much as possible toward the latter, knowing I will miss things and make mistakes, even if I try my best. Nevertheless, the truth of history is so much richer than anything we can invent, and the reader, while he may fall for a ruse, will feel himself enriched by the truth when it is presented with skill by a good storyteller.

Cornelis Dusart

Renaissance Deodorant

On the Ornaments of Women

Written by Giovanni Marinello

published with privilege in Venetia (Venice)
by John Valgrifio, 1574

translated into English by

Courtney Hess-Dragovich

If you wash your armpits frequently in wine in which is boiled nutmeg, mace or, if you desire, grains of musk, you will stop the smellreleasing a gentle scent.                          

This blog is a treasure, but my favorite posts are the deodorant recipes