...in which I share some of my favorite medieval research resources and methods for the benefit of others interested in also writing about the Middle Ages

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Researching 12th Century Venice - the Rialto Bridge

Your 12th century character needs to visit the Rialto Market in Venice. How does he or she get there? If he is visiting Venice in 1170, like mine, the one way he does not get to the Rialto is via a bridge over the Grand Canal.

(Modern Rialto Bridge - photo by Chene Beck, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

I began the scene I am currently writing with my character preparing to cross a pontoon bridge from the *sestiere (district) of San Marco on the east side of the canal to the sestiere of San Paolo on the west side where the Rialto Market stood. After all, several of my research sources cited there being such a bridge in the 12th century, and my story took place in the 12th century, right? So surely I was safe including a pontoon bridge in my story.

Wrong! The first bridge (which happened to be a pontoon bridge) to cross the Grand Canal was built in 1181—11 years after my story takes place! Prior to that, there was no bridge connecting the east and west sides of the canal.

(Photo of the Grand Canal from space, courtesy of NASA photos--just remember, all those houses weren't there in the 12th century!)

In 1181 a pontoon bridge, also known as a floating bridge, was created by connecting several shallow boats together with wooden planks to allow people to cross the canal. This pontoon bridge was replaced with a wooden bridge in 1250. Wood, of course, is more stable than floating boats, but it is also flammable. This wooden bridge fell victim to fire in 1310, then collapsed in 1444 weighted down by too many people trying to rush across it all at once to get to a water parade. Finally the decision was made to rebuild the bridge in stone, resulting in the Rialto Bridge that we know today, built between 1588-1591.

So if you’re writing a story set in medieval Venice and want a character to cross a bridge to the Rialto, be sure to check not just your century, but your exact year to see what kind of bridge they would have been crossing. And if your story is set prior to 1181, whatever you do, don’t let your character walk across a bridge to get to the Rialto! Let him take a gondola. Or move his house to the San Paolo side. Or, like I decided to do, just fudge it and start the scene with him (or her) already at the Rialto. Unless it’s important to the story, does your reader really need to worry how your character got there?

You can read more about the history of the Rialto Bridge on Wikipedia, “Rialto Bridge” and An Engineer’s Aspect blog, “The Rialto Bridge Disaster of 1444”.

*Sistiere – Venetian name given to its six districts. You can read more about each of these districts at The Six Venice’s Sistieri and at Go Italy: About Travel, which includes a map of the six sistieri (plural of sistiere).

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Researching 12th Century Venice ~ San Marco’s bell tower

Okay, here’s a tidbit of information I found to share with you about the bell tower of the Church of San Marco (in Italian: campinile di San Marco) According to A Brief History of Venice, by Elizabeth Horodowich, by 1150 this bell tower was serving as a lighthouse of sorts to help guide ships into the harbor. I have not as yet read specifically how it was lit. Presumably by torches, but how many, where positioned, etc? If anyone knows, please share in a comment. (And include your source, as well.)

Church bells throughout Europe rang to help monks and nuns know the hours of prayer, and became a way for common people to also keep track of time. The bells in the tower of San Marco, however, were unique and served quite different purposes. There were five bells altogether, each with its own name.

The largest bell was called la marangona. This bell rang at the beginning and end of each workday, summoning laborers to work and telling them when it was time to go home.

(La marangona, largest of the 5 bells in San Marco's bell tower)

La nona (2nd largest bell) rang at the ninth hour. This would have been midday, or around 3 PM, on our present clocks. This remained the case on the European continent until the 14th century, with England being an exception. Later this hour shifted to around 12 PM and became the basis for our modern word, noon.

La trottiera (3rd largest) summoned the magistrates of Venice to “rush or ‘trot’ their horses” (see Horodowich) to the Doge’s palace. (We all know that Doge is the Venetian word for Duke, right?)

A bell called the pregadi (4th largest) announced meetings of the Venetian senate.

The smallest bell, and the most sinister one, was called la renghiera or la maleficio. This bell announced an execution was about to take place.

(San Marco's bell tower the way it looks today, 
NOT the way it looked in the 12th century)

When recreating San Marco’s bell tower in the 12th century, keep in mind that it did not look like the bell tower there today. The present look of the tower was designed by Bartolomeo Bon in 1514. I have not been able to discover what the earlier tower looks like, if anyone knows. (Again, if you have any additional information or sources, please share in a comment.)

Sources used:

A Brief History of Venice:, by Elizabeth Horodowich

For the bell sizes: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campanile_di_San_Marco (I used Google Translate to translate information on the bell sizes into English.)

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Researching 12th Century Venice - Introduction

There have been (and continue to be) many times during my research efforts on my current unnamed work-in-progress when I asked myself, “What possessed you to set a historical novel in medieval Venice?”

The answers seemed simple when I chose the time period:

(1) I wanted to write a sort of prequel to my medieval romance, Courting Cassandry. (“Sort of” because Gerolt, the hero of Courting Cassandry, is a secondary character in this WIP, not the central hero.)

(2) In Courting Cassandry, I mentioned that Gerolt had visited (among other places) Venice when he was nineteen years old and I thought Venice would be an easy city to research, because it’s so famous. (This was the biggest error in my thinking, but I didn’t know it at the time.)

(3) And I thought setting a book in Italy would be a fun way to honor my Italian ancestors, even though none of them came from Venice specifically, so far as I know.

However, to my consternation, I have found researching 12th Century Venice (the year 1170 specifically) to be maddeningly frustrating. There is a wealth of information on Venetian politics and Venetian trade, neither of which my story centers on other than in a tangential way. But trying to discover day-to-day-life type information has me all too many days banging my head against the wall. There are fascinating bits of information I could use if I could set my story just a few years later, but I’m locked into the year 1170 by the age of my character Gerolt in Courting Cassandry, which has been published for over 6 months and can’t be changed now.

(miniature of Venice, "The Travels of Marco Polo", c.1400 (Bodleian Library - 
too late for my time period of course)

Day-to-day-life information is widely available for the Renaissance, and somewhat more available a few years and decades after 1170, but for my particular year it is proving to be sparse. I have a sense that there may be records available which have simply not been translated into English, but since I can’t read Italian, they’re no help to me. Information on subjects such as food, dress, housing, what did the women do all day, how were children raised, etc., can be easily found for England, France, and even to some extent Germany, but not for Italy. To complicate matters, Italy was not a united country in the Middle Ages, it was made up of independent city-states, so that one cannot absolutely extrapolate that, say, the rules of inheritance in one city or the way women were limited or not limited in another was also the case in Venice.

I am, however, gradually finding bits and pieces to help me set my story with what I hope will be some degree of authenticity for my chosen year. I am going to share with you what I do succeed in finding as I research, in the hopes it might be useful to some other struggling writer who wants to set a story in 12th century Venice. As I do so, if any of you know of any additional resources beyond those that I share (available in English, please) or have any further information on any of the topics I cover, I would be ecstatically happy if you shared your knowledge in the comments!

Friday, April 29, 2016

The travelogue inside my head

Here are some of the places my research and imagination have visited recently:

The world of medieval Pater Noster cords. How do they differ from rosaries? Both are used to count prayers, but rosaries form a loop, while Pater Noster cords hang loose at each end. 

(detail from Adoration of the Magi, by Stefan Lochner)

Crystal reliquaries

(14th century reliquary from Florence, Italy)

And St Edburg (also known as St Edburga or St Eadburh)

(stained glass rendering of St Edburg)

Monday, March 21, 2016

The travelogue inside my head

I can't afford to travel to all the places I'd like to visit to research my books--besides, the price of a time travel machine is absolutely prohibitive!--but thanks to the internet, I can virtually visit the places I research. Here are a few places I visited today.

Medieval Sicily:

Did you know there was a huge earthquake there in 1169? It was over there on the east coast. It triggered a tsunami and at least 15,000 people died. Hugo Falcandus chronicled the event. You can read a bit of his account in this excerpt from A History of the Tyrants of Sicily By 'Hugo Falcandus' 1153-69 at this GoogleBooks link: http://bit.ly/21Bp3Gy. (Or you can order a copy of the book, but the going rate for the paperback version on Amazon is $159.95! http://amzn.to/1UsRHdK) The GoogleBooks excerpt cuts the account off before the end, but what's there is still fascinating reading.

I also visited....

Medieval Venice:

Medieval Florence:

Where will I go next?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Medieval Word of the Day

Manor: agricultural estate owned by a lord; sometimes attached to a castle, sometimes attached to a fortified manor house

(villeins working on a medieval manor)

Click here to view the layout of a medieval manor and take a tour of a medieval manor house

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Medieval word of the day

Tallage – one of the fees owed by villeins to their lords; basically a land tax, sometimes a fixed amount, sometimes determined “at will” by the lord of the manor

(a medieval villein paying taxes, or tallage, to his lord)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Medieval Word of the Day

Merchet: a fine or fee paid by a villein for permission for his daughter to marry, within or without the manor

(peasants marrying)

Monday, February 9, 2015

Medieval Word of the Day

Wood-penny: a penny required of villeins before they could gather dead wood from the forest

(an English medieval penny)