The Vivid Colors of the Dome of the Rock

We often picture history in muted terms, at least in the West. We think of the white marble statues of Greece and Rome, the gray stone of medieval castles, the dull brown cloth of historical costumes. It can be hard to remember how much color has been lost to age, weathering, even deliberate destruction. (A few useful examples here and here.) For an alternative view, it helps to look at examples that go far back in history but have been maintained and restored. One good example is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Originally completed in 692 CE, the shrine has continued to be an important Islamic site ever since. Its original design was colorful, and in the following centuries it was elaborated with tiles, mosaics, and metalwork. Several major restoration projects in the past several centuries have kept the colors vibrant. While individual details of the decor may not go back to the original construction, the overall effect gives us a sense of how richly colorful the built environment of the past could have been.

Tiled exterior wall of the Dome of the Rock, photograph by Godot13 via Wikimedia (Jerusalem; construction 692, tiles restored 1552; glazed tile; tiles by the workshop of Abdullah Tabrizi)

 

Interior mosaic, photograph by the Yorck Project via Wikimedia (Jerusalem; originally 692, later restored; glass, mother of pearl, and stone mosaic)

 

Dome interior, photograph by Virtutepetens via Wikimedia (Jerusalem; originally 692, later restored; metal and enamel)

 

The Dome of the Rock was a monument that was meant to make a statement. Other buildings of the time were not necessarily so dizzyingly colorful, but the shrine preserves a variety of visual culture we have very few other examples of. Even if nothing else exactly like it was ever built, many buildings once existed with just as bright an array of colors that are now long gone. When imagining what places in the past might have looked like, or when imagining new worlds inspired by them, remember that gray stone and white plaster are not the only options.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Sappho: Making a Life in Archaic Greece

The poet Sappho (c. 630 – c. 570 BCE) is among the earliest writers whose work comes down to us from ancient Greece. She is best known for her lyric poetry, much of it on themes of love and longing. (Read some of my translations of her work here and here, or hear a recreated musical performance of one of her poems here.) Her literary works were widely popular in Greece and Rome, and later authors wrote many things about her life, few of them reliable. Much of what we think we know about Sappho’s life is conjecture based on her poetry. Still, even amid this uncertainty, Sappho stands for us as a representative of one of the most important transformative forces in ancient Greek history: the rise of trade.

During the Early Iron Age, a period of Greek history extending from around 1200 to 750 BCE, the Greek world was largely isolated. People lived in small villages of at most a few thousand people. Most people got by at a subsistence level, producing enough for their own needs and engaging in trade outside their own households in only a limited way. Political power, such as it was, rested with an entrenched class of warrior-aristocrats who monopolized control of scarce farmland. This elite class occasionally traded their agricultural surplus overseas for modest amounts of foreign luxuries, but that trade had little impact on the Greek world, and to the extent that it did, it only reinforced the social status of an existing elite. The poetry of this elite is represented by the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which celebrate martial values and the exploits of the warrior heroes that the aristocrats claimed as their ancestors.

Between 750 and 700, this stability was rapidly undermined by the development of new patterns of trade. Greeks began to venture out into the larger Mediterranean more often and more purposefully. The earliest accounts we have from the outside world describe the Greeks as pirates and raiders. Such dangerous ventures were not for the comfortably well off. The first Greeks to try their luck abroad were those who could not survive at home under the dominance of the entrenched aristocracy. Their risky raiding voyages had limited success, but the experience they gained in places like Egypt and the Levant prepared them for more profitable ventures as mercenaries and merchants. By the mid-600s, there was a growing class of successful merchants, artisans, and other professionals in Greece whose prosperity came from their connection to the outside world rather than control of land and who were increasingly agitating against the old aristocracy for a share of political power.

Sappho spoke for this new class of Greeks whose wealth came from abroad. Her brother Charaxus, whom she addresses in a few of her poems, was engaged in trading wine from their home on the island of Lesbos to Egypt. Sappho’s poetry invokes the importance of foreign contacts by using Lydia, a kingdom in Anatolia, as an image of beauty and luxury. Unlike the Homeric epics, Sappho’s lyrics speak of immediate, personal, emotional experiences. Individuals with their own desires and passions emerge as more important than family lines or warlike values.

Sappho’s poetry describes her intense romantic feelings for young women. Although we cannot know for sure to what extent these poems reflect Sappho’s personal experiences and how much is just literary invention, the idea that love mattered was, in its way, a radical thought. Among the landowning class, marriage was mostly a matter of family politics and economic negotiation. Ideally, of course, husbands and wives felt affectionately toward one another, but powerful, passionate love was not something to be sought out or valued. Homer’s heroes have little time for the emotional power of love: Helen is a prize to be fought over like any other piece of treasure, and the suitors who clamor for Penelope’s hand talk of their estates, not their feelings. In Sappho’s day, the Greeks who were making their living in trade could still be perfectly mercenary in their personal relationships, but the idea that love had power and that the feeling of longing for another person was worthy of attention was new and exciting. In much the same way that the shift from an agrarian economy to an industrial one in the nineteenth century CE brought with it a new interest in romantic love, Greeks in the seventh century BCE whose fortunes no longer depended on controlling land were beginning to think of individual feelings of love as something to value in a relationship.

Like the merchants and mercenaries who sought their fortunes amid the dangers of the unknown world outside Greece, the voices of Sappho’s poems dream that they might have what they long for, that their individual lives and struggles might matter.

Image: “Sappho embracing her lyre” via Wikimedia (Musee des Beaux-Arts de Brest; 19th c.; painting; by Jules-Elie de Launay)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Myths and Marketing

A lot of people have made comparisons between the pop-culture heroes of today like Marvel’s superheroes or the characters of Star Wars and the heroes of ancient Greek myth. (I’ve done it myself, here and here.) There’s a lot to be said for these comparisons in terms of narrative, but there are also interesting similarities in the way these characters are portrayed visually and sold to an admiring public.

Ancient Greek art went through an extraordinary transformation over a few centuries from the early archaic age (mid-700s BCE) to the high classical age (mid-400s BCE). One of the most telling signs of this transformation was the change in how mythic characters were represented.

Geometric krater, photograph by Metropolitan Museum of Art (found Attica, currently Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 750-730 BCE; pottery; attributed to the Hirschfeld workshop)

Here is a scene from a Greek vase painted around 750. The human figures are highly abstracted with no individual identifying characteristics. We can make out some of what is happening in the scenes. In the upper register, a single figure lies horizontally on a table or bed surrounded by standing figures with their hands on their heads. This scene is generally interpreted as a funeral, with wailing mourners surrounding the deceased. On the lower register, warriors with shields ride in chariots. Still, for as much as we can make guesses about what is going on in these images, the details elude us. Are these generic images or are they meant to tell a story? Are the two registers even related to one another? One possibility is that this image represents the funeral for Patroclus, from the Iliad, with the funeral pyre on the upper register and the games in honor of the dead on the lower, but we have no way of knowing for sure whether that was what the artist intended or not.

Polyphemus amphora, photograph by Sarah C. Murray via Wikimedia (currently Archaeological Museum of Eleusis; c. 650 BCE; pottery; Polyphemus painter)

This image comes from a vase painted a hundred years later, around 650 BCE. Now we have a definite story. A group of men come from the left carrying a long spear to stab the eye of a larger, seated figure on the right holding a drinking cup. Putting all these elements together, it is clear that this scene represents the blinding of Polyphemus, the giant cyclops whom Odysseus and his men got drunk before stabbing his one eye out. The scene is clear enough if you know the story, but reading the image depends on knowing the whole story and seeing the whole picture. The figures within it are not distinctive. If you took any one of the figures out and looked at it on its own, you would have no way of identifying it or guessing what story it came from.

Black figure olpe, photograph by Jastrow via Wikimedia (currently Louvre; c. 540 BCE; pottery; Amasis)

Another century later, the ways of depicting mythic figures had developed into something new. In this vase painting, from about 540, we see figures with distinctive characteristics. On the left a robed and bearded man holds a trident: unmistakably Poseidon, god of the sea. Hermes, the messenger god, approaches him, recognizable from his broad-brimmed hat, his snake-twined herald’s staff, and the wings on his sandals. Athena comes next, indicated by her helmet and spear and the shield she carries bearing her symbol, the owl. Behind her comes Heracles, not so visible in this image but still recognizable from the bow he carries and the lion skin he wears. Even though nothing much is happening in the image—it’s just a line of people—with this combination of characters, we can tell that it is representing the story of Heracles’ ascension to join the gods on Mount Olympus. Each character, though, is distinct. You could take any one of them out of the scene, and you would still know who you were looking at.

Ancient Greek art developed a rich but understandable visual language for identifying important figures from mythology. To understand why this development mattered, we have to think about the Greeks’ place in the larger Mediterranean.

Despite the importance the modern West has accorded to ancient Greek culture, ancient Greece itself was not a powerhouse of the Mediterranean. Greece was a poor, fractious backwater compared with the great centers of wealth and culture like Egypt, Persia, and Carthage. Trade was crucial to the Greeks’ survival, which meant they had to have something to offer that other people wanted. Wine and olive oil were the major commodities the Greek traded overseas, but over time they increasingly began to export their cultural products as well. Greek artisans, poets, musicians, and actors found work throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. The changes in how Greeks depicted myths in their art went along with their expansion into the Mediterranean’s trade networks.

Exporting culture only works if your culture can offer something the market wants. The most valuable cultural property the Greeks had was their mythology. Greek mythology was not a complete and canonical body of work to be exported whole (as I discuss here), but a flexible, malleable set of stories and characters ready to be reimagined and recombined in new and unique ways. This flexibility allowed individual Greek artists and merchants to offer their patrons and trading partners versions of myths that suited the tastes of the local market. Heracles, for instance, went over well in Etruria, and before long Etruscans were creating their own stories about the character (calling him “Herkle”) that no Greek would have imagined. The Amazons similarly found their way into Egyptian literature. Underlying it all was a set of characters (gods, heroes, monsters) with basic identifying characteristics, personalities, and stories. A Persian or Carthaginian picking up a new Greek vase in the market might not know all the myths depicted on it, but it was easy to recognize Athena’s owl or Heracles’ lion skin and begin to put together the story from there.

In a similar way, symbolic attributes have become an important part of how we identify our modern heroes. From Captain America’s shield to Luke Skywalker’s light saber, from the Doctor’s TARDIS to the house crests of Westeros, having a set of easily recognizable symbols helps us identify our favorite characters and stories at a glance. They are also great fodder for marketing merchandise—which is exactly what our ancient Greek counterparts were doing with their mythology, too. Besides being the common cultural property of a far-flung people, Greek myths and their visual representations were a brilliant marketing device that got lots of Etruscans, Romans, Egyptians, Scythians, and others to buy Greek goods.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

A Note to Future Historians

I’ve just been going through my expenses for the past month, comparing receipts and my notes with my bank statements and that sort of thing. Among my other expenses are a number of cases where I have lumped together a few separate expenses in my notes, or I’ve added tips left in cash to the figures I record having paid with a card, or subtracted rebates, or other inconsistencies like that. The experience has made me think of all the furious academic debates that have been sparked because of small inconsistencies in our written sources, and I feel bad for any future historian who comes across my financial records and tries to make sense of them.

Future historians, if you’re reading this: I’m sorry. I know my spreadsheets are incomprehensible, but I wrote them for myself, not for you, and they make sense to me. Anyway, I’m sure you have more important and interesting sources to read for 2020, like Twitter and British tabloids.

Good luck!

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Sigiriya

In the hills of central northern Sri Lanka are the remains of a palace built over a thousand years ago on top of an extraordinary natural rock formation. The place is known as Sigiriya. At the base of the rock, intricately organized gardens incorporating sophisticated irrigation and water retention structures stretch out along the hillsides. On top of the rock was originally a fortress, later converted into a Buddhist monastery.


A view of Sigiriya from a nearby hilltop, photograph by Azharkhanam via Wikimedia

According to Sri Lankan literature, the site was built in the late 400s CE by the king Kashyapa. Sources describe colorful frescoes covering the sides of the rock and a great gate in the shape of a lion, both of which are now only to been seen in fragmentary form. After Kashyapa’s death, Sigiriya ceased to be a royal site and for the next thousand years was inhabited by monks and visited by pilgrims, many of whom left inscriptions on the frescoed faces of the rock. Today, it continues to attract many visitors, although writing on the walls is no longer allowed.

The remains of the lion gate at the base of the citadel, photograph by Cherubino via Wikimedia
Surviving fragments of fresco, photograph by Peter van der Sluijs via Wikimedia (Sigiriya; late 5th c. CE; fresco)

The next time you’re imagining where the royals of your world might live for a story, artwork, or game, think of Sigiriya and remember that a palace doesn’t have to look like Neuschwanstein or Versailles.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Myths Are Fanfiction

If you’re like me and a lot of my students, you grew up with Greek mythology. The monster-filled adventures of Odysseus, the (somewhat bowdlerized) philandering of Zeus, the just-so story of Echo and Narcissus, and others were part of my childhood reading. Myths seemed like any other sort of story, with well-defined characters and plots. But there’s something different about mythology. We can’t think of it the same way we think of other kinds of literature. Mythology, in fact, has more in common with fanfiction than with literature as we usually think of it. Greek mythology is one of the best documented and most widely known mythic traditions in the West, so it makes a useful example. When you dig into the primary sources of Greek mythology you find that it is stranger, more complicated, and less cohesive than it seemed when I was a child.

Defining exactly what makes a story a myth can be surprisingly difficult, but if we take as our starting point stories about fictional characters who are larger than life and more than human, we have a good chunk of Greek literature and art to work with. The literary versions of myths that have come down to us must themselves have been based on oral traditions passed down through generations, retold and reimagined in every new performance. There is no canon of Greek mythology. There is no original text that we (or the ancient Greeks themselves) can point to and say: “This story is the correct one; anything that conflicts with it is wrong.”

The nearest thing to a canonical text in ancient Greek culture was the two epics attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Neither of these epic poems was written down until the sixth century BCE, although some version of them circulated orally for hundreds of years prior. These poems were themselves just elaborated snippets of a much broader oral tradition which encompassed the whole story of the Trojan War and its heroes’ return to Greece. There was, however, some collective sense of how the epics ought to go. We know this because of the scandal caused by Peisistratus, the tyrant of Athens, who was accused of tampering with the Iliad by inserting a line to suggest that the nearby island of Salamis ought to belong to Athens. On one hand, the fact that such a minor tweak to the poem caused an uproar suggests a degree of reverence for the text. On the other hand, it is clear that the text could be tweaked. We have no idea how many changes the text of the epics may have gone through over the centuries that went by unremarked because they were less politically dicey.

If the Homeric epics were viewed with a certain reverence by the ancient Greeks, the same is not true of our other major sources of mythic stories. Our knowledge of Greek myth mostly comes from the literary productions of a few particular places and times. These works were regarded as literature, free to be debated, reinterpreted, or ignored. Apart from the oral traditions codified the Homeric poems, these include:

  • Athenian drama, mostly written in the fifth century BCE at a time when Athens was a major economic, military, and political power in Greece, the leader of an Aegean empire known as the Delian League, and wrapped up in ongoing conflicts with Sparta, Thebes, and the Persian Empire.
  • Poetry and prose composed in Hellenistic Alexandria, much of it by scholars working at the Library, which compiled and retold stories from earlier Greek traditions as part of the Ptolemaic kings’ propaganda program celebrating their links to classical Greek culture.
  • Roman poetry of the late republic and early empire, composed at a time when Roman society was in crisis and different factions within the elite were competing for power.

There are significant works of art and literature not from these times that add to our knowledge of Greek mythology, but much of what we know comes from one of these clusters. Each one represents a time of fraught cultural and political tensions, and these tensions are reflected in the literature of the period. Fifth-century Athenian drama often portrays Athens as a place of wisdom and sound democratic government while painting Athens’ major rival Thebes as a chaotic city of violence and tragic folly. Written at a different time and in a different context, Roman versions of mythic stories, such as Vergil’s Aeneid, position the Romans as worthy heirs to the glory of ancient Greece.

The works of these different periods also reflect different literary interests. Athenian comedy often took heroic figures from myth and put them into ridiculous situations for laughs. The Alexandrian authors liked to show off the breadth of their learning by tying together disparate characters and tales into grand narratives, or retelling familiar stories from the point of view of minor characters. The Roman poet Ovid played to the sexual culture of his day by composing a collection of imaginary love letters between famous mythic couples.

All of these variations on mythic tales depended on an audience who already knew the stories and characters that were being referenced. They could also end up representing wildly different interpretations of the same events or figures. Part of the fun for ancient readers and theatre-goers was recognizing familiar stories told in a new way. In this respect, mythology worked the same way fanfiction works today. Whether it’s a passionately rendered love scene between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, a quippy duel between Batman and Iron Man, or the adventures of Aragorn and Galadriel’s secret love child, the fun of fanfic comes in taking the stories we have in common and doing something new with them—sometimes something inspired by the social and political context around us, and sometimes just for the delight of bringing a favorite character back on the stage for an encore.

The fragmentary nature of the literary record from antiquity means that when we try to put together the narrative of a certain character or event from Greek mythology, we are often cobbling together bits and pieces of sources from many different genres, written centuries apart on different continents for widely varying audiences and purposes. The fact that we are able to make any sense out of these stories at all is a testament to how much the ancient Greeks and those who learned their stories loved their myths and enjoyed retelling them. But whenever we deal with mythology—Greek or otherwise—we have to remember that what we are dealing with is a wonderfully strange mishmash of stories, none of it canonical as we understand the term today, but all of it lovingly retold by generations of people who made the stories their own.

Image: Mosaic of Vergil with the muses of history and tragedy, photograph by Giorces via Wikimedia (currently Bardo Museum, Tunis; 3rd c. CE; mosaic)

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

History for Writers Compendium: 2019

History for Writers explores world history to offer ideas and observations of interest to those of us who are in the business of inventing new worlds, cultures, and histories of our own. Here’s where we’ve been in 2019:

Ethnicity and identity

Food

Warfare

Social structures

Spooky things

Fun with history

Join us in 2020 for more history from a SFF writer’s perspective.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Making a Mark

Some things never change. For instance, there will always be people who feel the need to leave their mark wherever they go. The graffiti in this image comes from the temple of Isis, originally located on the island of Philae in the Nile River in southern Egypt (since moved to the nearby island of Agilkia because of the damming of the Nile). The temple to Isis and other buildings were constructed at Philae by pharaohs in Egypt’s Late Period, between the eighth and fourth centuries BCE, and the Macedonian Ptolemaic kings who ruled Egypt between 323 and 30 BCE continued to build there. During this period, Philae marked the southern boundary of Egypt. Garrisons of soldiers were stationed there, and it was also a site of pilgrimage not just for Egyptians but for people from the larger Mediterranean world as well as from farther up the Nile in Africa. Under Roman rule, Philae continued to be an important religious site, and soldiers were stationed at a frontier post nearby.

Many people came to Philae for many reasons, and the temple is filled with inscriptions left by visitors. This one, for example, was carved in honor of the Nubian sun god Mandulis. A companion inscription dates the graffiti to 394 CE, which makes this the last known hieroglyphic inscription carved in ancient Egypt.

Inscription of Esmet-Akhom, photograph by A. Parrot via Wikimedia (Philae; 394 CE; inscription in stone; by Nesmeterakhem)

Later tourists got in on the action, too, like Bauerhorst and Brehm, two European visitors who left their marks in 1851.

Insciptions by Bauerhorst and Brehm, photograph by Michael Brehm2 via Wikimedia (Philae; 1851 CE; inscription in stone)

This one may look like it comes from the Roman period, but B. Mure is not a Roman name. It may have been left by Benoit Mure, a French homeopath who traveled in Egypt in the mid-1800s promoting homeopathy.

Inscription of B. Mure with addition, photograph by Ad Meskens via Wikimedia (Philae; c. 1850 CE; inscription in stone)

Another thing you can always count on is smartasses. After Mure left his mark at Philae, whenever that was, someone else came along and added a Latin inscription stultus est, “is an idiot” below his name.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

The Sanity of Crowds

The Roman satirist Juvenal complained that all the common people of Rome cared about was “bread and circuses,” and as long as they were fed and entertained they didn’t care about politics. Some modern scholars have taken Juvenal at his word (always a risky thing to do with a satirist) and seen the people of Rome as an easily placated rabble. There is another way of thinking about bread and circuses (which, in Rome, meant chariot races), though: they were not a sop to keep the people complacent but rather what the people expected and demanded of their government.

The Roman emperors originally rose to power by presenting themselves as champions of the poor and downtrodden of the city of Rome. In time, as imperial rule became institutionalized, emperors tended to focus more of their energy on the army, which became a vital political constituency, but ignoring the needs of the ordinary people of Rome was a risky move for any emperor. Ensuring that the Roman poor didn’t go hungry, whether by distributing free grain or guaranteeing a low price, was a priority for most emperors. Providing public entertainments, such as chariot races, gladiatorial shows, or theatrical performances, was also generally expected.

These entertainments were not just for the amusement of the people. They also furnished one of the rare opportunities for the people to interact with the emperor, who was generally expected not just to finance the shows but to attend them if he was in the city. Far from keeping the people of Rome quiet and happy, these spectacles could give the poor a chance to voice grievances and make demands of the emperor.

Aristocratic Roman authors tended to describe the people in the stands at such events as unruly, even unthinking. Bouts of heckling or booing could arise seemingly spontaneously. A shouted request could start in one part of the audience and quickly become a chant echoing through the whole stadium. The Roman elite saw these outbursts as a sign that the common people were fickle and emotional, easily swayed by simple chants and slogans. Some modern historians have taken on these same attitudes and described the crowds in the arena or racetrack as irrational dupes caught up in the frenzy of the moment.

The aristocratic view does not tell the whole story, though. However much the emperors portrayed themselves as champions of the ordinary people, poor Romans had very little opportunity to voice their feelings, wishes, or concerns. In the days of the republic, the annual election of magistrates had forced the political elite to go out, interact with the citizen body, and listen to voters’ concerns. The structure of the Roman political system was skewed heavily in favor of the rich, but the opinions of the poor could not be ignored. One anecdote says that a Roman candidate was once making the rounds shaking hands with potential supporters. When he met a poor laborer whose hands were rough from work, he quipped: “You’re not in the habit of walking on your hands, are you?” This joke smacked of elite condescension and played badly among the working folk of Rome. That candidate lost his race.

Unelected emperors had no such encounters with the people. They also had the military might to arbitrarily punish or abuse anyone they saw as causing trouble. The emperors did not go out on the street shaking hands with ordinary citizens, and even if they had, few among the poor and powerless would have been brave enough to make complaints or demands in person. In the arena, racetrack or theatre, though, the balance of power was changed. When a whole crowd booed an emperor or chanted out some grievance, it was hard for an emperor to ignore or for his guards to single out someone to punish. It is likely that the mass chanting of demands and slogans, which seemed spontaneous and irrational to the Roman elite, was actually to some extent planned and coordinated.

Given the risk of hostile crowds, why would an emperor continue to show up at such public events? Because the consequences of not showing up could be worse. The people of Rome were no strangers to mass mobilization, even violence. Once again, the fact that our written sources come almost exclusively from an elite point of view clouds the picture. Aristocratic authors describe the people of the city as prone to rioting and street violence; we are left to wonder how many of those “riots” were actually organized protests (or began as such before taking a turn for the worse). Wise emperors knew that it was better to listen to the people booing or chanting in the stands than to face them in the streets.

Thoughts for writers

When writing about the behavior of people in large groups, it can be hard to remember that they are still people. The notion of the “madness of crowds,” that people in large groups can lose their sense of reason and behave as one irrational mob, has often been used by the powerful few to dismiss and ignore the will of the powerless many. It’s as important to be careful with this idea in our imagined worlds as in the real one. Crowds may sometimes create a peer pressure effect and lead individuals to say or do thing they wouldn’t have otherwise, but the anonymity and mass of a crowd can also make it safe for individuals to say and do what they really mean. On staged occasions like sporting events, people can even use the crowd to their advantage to amplify the message they want to get across. The feelings expressed by crowds are not to be taken lightly or written as if they represent irrational whims of the moment.

Image: “Geta and Caracalla” via Wikimedia (1907; oil on canvas; by Lawrence Alma-Tadema)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Testing Witches with Water

There is an old story about how medieval people used to test whether or not someone was a witch, and it goes like this: Throw them in a pond. If they sink into the water and drown, that means they weren’t a witch. If they float, that means they are a witch, so you haul them out and burn them to death. Either way, just getting accused of witchcraft was a death sentence, but medieval people were too dumb to realize it.

This story is wrong. It was popularized by Victorian writers who spread many false stories depicting people of the European middle ages as ignorant, illogical, and stupid. At best, we might attribute this story to the intellectual laziness of Victorians who didn’t bother to distinguish between the use of ducking victims in water as punishment or torture and the use of immersion in water to test those accused of witchcraft or other crimes. At worst, we can see it as part of a concerted effort by Protestant English and American writers to paint contemporary Catholics as the benighted heirs to an age of barbarity and unreason. The truth about testing witches in water is more complicated, though in some ways even worse.

Here’s how the water test actually worked. In some places, a person accused of witchcraft, heresy, or a variety of other offenses was lowered into a small body of water like a pond or a still river, generally with a rope tied around their waist or something similar for lifting them out again. They were allowed to float for a moment and a jury selected from the surrounding community (or sometimes a priest) observed whether their body seemed to float on the surface or sink into the water. It was believed in some places and times that water would reject an unholy person, so their body would float high, while a blameless person would sink into the water. Once the jury had had a chance to observe the result, the accused was pulled out again and the jury gave its judgment.

No one was supposed to drown, neither the innocent nor the guilty. They were not left in the water for long, and whatever device was used to lower them in could quickly pull them up again. No doubt there were sometimes mishaps, as there can be whenever people are around the water, but being cleared of suspicion did not require drowning.

Trial by ordeal, which included not only the water test but other tests including carrying heavy stones or hot metal, reaching into a boiling cauldron, and similar challenges to physical endurance, was common in the legal traditions of some peoples in early medieval Europe. Such tests were an attempt to create objective tests for complicated questions about an accused person’s character, morals, and other hard-to-quantify qualities.

Trials by ordeal largely disappeared from European custom by the thirteenth century, but there was a revival during the witch-hunting hysteria of the early modern period when variations of the trial by water were used along with other methods of torture to extract false confessions from victims. In those cases the accusation alone was, for most people, a death sentence, since the point of the various “tests” was to compel a confession, not to arrive at a judgment.

The important element in a trial by ordeal is the community jury. Someone had to judge whether the accused was floating or not, which is not as obvious as it may sound. Human bodies are naturally buoyant, but not so much as to float on top of the water like a pool noodle. In the water, everyone kind of floats, and everyone kind of sinks. Distinguishing between how much floating is enough and how much is too much is no simple task. Those who were called for the jury were typically members of the accused’s village, extended family, or social network. They did not go into the test with an unbiased opinion but took with them all their knowledge, history, and feelings about the accused.

The floating ordeal gave the jury an objective external event to lodge those existing prejudices in. Those who went in with a poor opinion of the accused were likely to think that they floated too much, while those who went in well-disposed to the accused were likely to think they had adequately sunk into the water. Attaching those preexisting prejudices to an external event like the water test allowed the members of the jury to treat those prejudices as if they were objective facts and condemn or exonerate the accused with a clear conscience, as they own leanings dictated.

It is this fact about trials by ordeal that makes them, in some ways, even more horrible than the foolish heads-you-drown/tails-you-burn legend. If you were condemned by the water test it didn’t mean you just randomly floated too much. It meant that your own neighbors hated you so much they wanted to see you dead, they just didn’t feel comfortable saying so until the trial gave them permission to.

Image: Illustration of a trail by water via Wikimedia (late 12th c.; manuscript illustration)

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