Winter AS XXXVI (2002)
Volume VII, Issue 2 (#25)


From the Nachalnik

A hearty Winter's greeting to all of you with best wishes for the New Year!

It may not be Spring, but the recent housecleaning of the membership list has whittled down our numbers dramatically (from about 420 members to only 150). However, the information in the membership list is now up to date and accurate. Over the years, a large number of people dropped out or moved on and left no word and the list was growing fairly heavy with inactive members. It now more accurately reflects the active membership. My thanks to everyone who replied to their membership cards. It is great to have had such a good hearty response.

Along the way, I received a number of donations (this was especially appreciated as the cost of mailing out 430 postcards was quite significant) and I would like to thank the donors: Sebastian Góral, Birgit av Birka, and Khelsa.

We are a little light this issue on articles (and given the demands of my current job, I haven't had time to add much myself). This quarter, we have a piece on Russian military strategy and on the uses of nettle and hemp. But we begin with a Winter holiday tale - a lovely piece of fiction placed in the 13th century...




Hardwood, Pitch, and Fire

By Kinjal of Moravia

The villagers attempted to muffle laughter and the crash of broken branches, but mischief does not always lend itself to stealth, especially at Saturnalia. The Yule log had lain two years in drying and preparation and was lighter now for all that, but it still took six men to transport in a sling. Only two men had known of its hidden spot (and every child in the village, of course!). Such was the magic of the season! The struggling band little noticed the chill blown down from the snow-fringed peaks, while each panted breath rose prayer-like in frosty image of smoke from an extinguished votive candle. Neither did they notice my shadowy form amidst the variegated hues of autumn's blush on vine and sycamore. I was not particularly well hid, but as I willed not to be seen, it suited their focused will that I not be there. Such is the magic of the forest! I have come to observe the celebration of the Yule log and its effect on the Christian spirit. What is the kinship of fire, flame, and passion for the eternal flame birthed in the distant Holy Land where even now Teutonic Knights follow an uncertain quest? Will Yeshua ben Nazareth be present here at this pagan fire or locked up in the Kitzingen Monastery on the hill? Where will I find You? At least my hands would be warmer here in the village.

I am called Kiyan. In other lands I have other names. I am a traveler and searcher and acclaimed a Gusari of ancient tradition. As I tell stories and sing songs drawn from histories different from the monk's I am often called pagan. Because I believe in the one, true universal God and wear a tryzub symbol with center cross, I am not welcome at many secret gatherings in misty wooded glade. My staff connects me sure with Mother Earth and something sang deep in my blood when I stood before the Drudensteine monolith. But I have walked alone with Elizabeth, Landgravine of Thurengia and shared her simple wisdom and faith. She placed my hand in that of a sickly child and said, "Your songs at dinner stir my heart and give pause to my calling to silence and intense listening of the spirit. This wrestling is good and I am better for it, though the suffering of soul is like the lashes of willow on my back." Such is the magic of the saint!

I have heard the songs of Hildegard and have been transported. How can one not be a Christian, driven by canted prayer in rhythm with the crash of creation and the fluttered wing of dove's salvation? But what does it mean? What calls now as the sun flies low in the heavens and the night seems an endless passage? Why is it important to remember the birth of our Lord on the next day but four when everyday should be called for celebration? Does my song that day carry more weight? Why is it called evil to place figures of birds in the evergreen trees but grace to burn incense before a barren tree in a chapel? Are not the cross and evergreen both symbols that life will return after winter's end, one of the land, the other of the spirit? Those on the hill proclaim great faith and call us all to gather under their guidance for Christmas. The chosen "all" that is. If faith be strong then why does intolerance and condemnation smell like fear? Nay, my prayers are better heard here by the pebbled brook where silence improves my senses, and my Lord speaks to me in leafy whispers and sudden shooting stars. Low embers in the fire pulse and ebb like a breathing force. Are those eyes there watching me divine - or something else? The drifting smoke declares my presence to any that should care. A symbol or a prayer? Pulse, pulse. "Like incense let my prayer rise before you, O God, the lifting of my hands like an evening Oblation." Silence.

I choose. I will enjoin with men in celebration of Your birth, not for me, but to lend support to those simple prayers of those who do not yet know You. This is the magic of the heart!

The Yule log has been made special through clandestine efforts of the simple folk. Long shafts of hardwood have been driven deep in holes drilled to the heart. Plugs of pitch hide the handy work and insure a ready blaze, while the hardwood will smolder slow and gain an extra day. For at Yule's end in ashes cold will come the set of winter. It will be difficult for those of weakened faith to toil into the spring. The pitch and hardwood ploy gives hope to the weary and is felt a good joke on the Baron and noble friends. Not known is that the spikes come from the Baron's own land across the marsh, and that it is he who laughs that extra day. Such is the magic of hope!

I will spend this last day alone, for I am never less lonely than here in payer and contemplation. Tomorrow I will join the village at their fire and will trade my songs and stories for mead, food and children's games. The fire log will crackle and spit its defiance, hiding its secret inner strength. Each man will find warmth and courage here, some in Christian faith proclaimed, some in confusion or other calling. Of this I know, each will think upon the season and the day, the mystery of the wood pressed deep into their joyful souls. If any ask me of Christmas I will say, "Celebrate today the birth of Christ in all of us. This starts the path to a distant tree. Our fellowship here will guide the way. In whatever way you can, pray with me. We are one." Such is the magic of the Lord!




13th and 14th Century Military
Part One: History and Force Structure

By Sofya la Rus

In the 13th and 14th centuries, the land of Rus was a loose federation of principalities united by language, religion, and rule by descendants of the legendary Riurik, but divided by competition for the grand princely throne, economic focus, and outside threats.

Kiev, the ancient heart of Rus and the nominal capital, was becoming more and more peripheral to the power struggles in Rus. In 1200 in fact, it was the princes of Vladimir-Suzdal in northern Rus who generally held the Grand Princely throne in preference to the other princes of Rus. The southwestern principalities of Galicia and Volhynia became increasingly focused on their relationship with the expanding territories of Poland and Lithuania, while it was the northeastern principalities of Novgorod, Ryazin and Vladimir-Suzdal that were beginning to lay the foundation of the future Russian state. Through 13th century, the princes of northeastern Rus competed with each other to control the grand princely throne, manipulate their Mongol overlords, and consolidate their local power bases.

Accordingly, while the military events of the 13th century were seemingly dominated by the appearance of the Mongols, the Rus principalities spent at least as much time fighting each other, and there were also battles with the Lithuanians, Poles, Swedes and Teutonic knights. In fact, it was against these Western European opponents that Alexander Nevski made his fame at the Battle of the River Neva in 1240 and the Battle of Lake Peipus (aka the Battle of the Ice) in 1242. It was his descendants who came to rule Moscow.

By the beginning of the 14th century, the principality of Moscow was starting to place its princes onto the Grand Princely throne to the virtual exclusion of the former front-runners from Vladimir, even though 100 years earlier, Moscow had been a fairly unimportant satellite of the grand principality of Vladimir-Suzdal. The princes of Tver had become Moscow's leading rivals to rule Rus, but were not nearly as successful at convincing the Mongols to give them the grand princely throne and suffered militarily for their efforts. Meanwhile, the principality of Moscow was steadily absorbing formerly independent principalities.

In 1378 and 1380, Dmitri Donskoi of Moscow gave the Mongols their first defeat at the hands of Rus, although hopes for Rus independence were dashed in 1382 when Tokhtamish successfully retook Moscow. At the same time, the southern principalities of Galich and Volhynia were absorbed into Lithuania, and then became part of Poland.


In the 13th century, the armies of central and northern Rus, Vladimir-Suzdal and Novgorod, had much in common with the army of Kiev that they were starting to eclipse. They were built around a core of professional cavalry, the druzhina, supplemented by urban militias and mercenaries, and, if needed, a peasant levy.

Most Rus armies were small, but forces as large as 3,000-10,000 could be gathered for major campaigns. Princes would send representatives to the areas under their control to summon help. Alliances would be cemented by public oath-taking. The Grand Prince would request help from the lesser Rus princes who were his brothers, nephews and cousins. The junior princes generally obeyed the military commands of the senior princes without complaint, but the princes did not personally lead the troops they sent, but placed them under army commanders or voevody.

In the late 13th and 14th cent. Russian armor and tactics generally evolved to deal with the advanced Mongol horse-archery and light cavalry threat, a very different driving force than that facing the armies of Western Europe. However, Novgorod was more closely connected to the influences of Western Europe than the rest of Rus, and faced attacks from Swedes and the Germanic Military Orders. These factors led to the development of stone fortifications, well-equipped infantry, widespread use of crossbows, heavy cavalry tactics and some use of plate armor. The first firearms in Rus seem also to have appeared in Novgorod in the late 14th cent. possibly indicating introduction from Europe rather than the East. Archery was more important than in Western Europe, but crossbows were still rare compared to regular hand bows in the 13th century

The cavalry consisted of heavily armed horsemen, kopeishchiki (or lancers), and light cavalry, horse-archers. The kopeishchiki were for close combat attacks and decisive strikes. The archers conducted testing raids, reconnaissance, lured the enemy with feints, and served as guards. They tended to be men too young to serve in other capacities.

The Kievan druzhina had adopted heavy cavalry techniques, possibly from Byzantium. Their horse-archers probably used static "shower shooting" tactics like other non-nomadic armies' such as Byzantium and Islamic states. Horse-archery was also provided by allied or subordinate tribes of steppe nomads. Their contribution was particularly important in the ongoing battles with other steppe peoples. They were called the "Black Hats" around 1200, and their distinctive face-mask helmets reflected the importance of archery.

Infantry was traditionally important in the army of Kiev, and even more so in northern Rus, dominated as it was by forest, river and marshland. Large infantry forces were made up of the peasant levy or voi. Infantrymen (peshtsi) were used for the defense of city walls and gates, to cover the rear of the cavalry, in construction of transportation and engineering projects, for reconnaissance, and retaliatory missions.

The infantry made extensive use of archery. Some think that this indicates Scandinavian influence, rather than Byzantine, although arrowheads demonstrate a wide variety of styles and influences. Some urban militias adopted the crossbow, especially around Novgorod. Whatever the influence, the Rus infantry skirmishers, armed with bows, were much feared by their foes.

The most common battle formation of the Kievan army placed infantry in the center with spearmen creating a shield wall to protect the infantry archers, and with cavalry forces on the flanks. The right flank of the formation traditionally was the most important and generally took the offensive role against the generally vulnerable left flank of infantry formations. Cavalry forces were placed on both flanks with infantry in the center forming a shield wall with kopejshchik spearmen protecting the luchnik or strelets archers. Rus armies used the landscape to help guard their back and flanks, particularly important for fighting nomad forces.

Carts and wagons were used to construct field fortifications, and numerous timber fortifications along the forest-steppe frontier provided bases of operations, often manned by allied nomad tribes, or free warrior-farmers similar to the later Cossacks.

The banner (styag) was very important in battlefield communication and movement. Before battle, the army formed up around the banner and it continued to function for orientation in the chaos of combat, indicating the progress of battle, and serving as a rally point. If the enemy "reached and hewed down the banner," defeat was imminent, and this event was usually followed by the retreat of the army - the battle's result determined by the fate of the banner. For this reason, taking the banner was a major battle objective and the most intense fighting took place around it. Originally, the banner was decorated with the prince's emblem, but by the end of the 14th century, the image of Christ was placed on the banner and about that time, the banner also began to be called the znamya. Banners were also granted to certain armies, to the voyevodas, and allied princes as marks of respect and honor.




Hemp and Nettle

By Jadwiga Zajaczkowa

[Editor's note: This article is inspired by a fairly lively thread that recently took place on the SIG-L discussion group]

Most of us are familiar with flax and its byproducts including linen and linseed oil. However, two related plants show up in East and Central Europe for similar purposes: hemp (Cannabis sativa) and nettle (Urtica dioica). Both hemp and nettle fibers were used to make cloth, as well as being used for food and medicine. Remember Shakespeare's 'Hempen Homespuns' and the story of Seven Swans whose sister had to spin and weave them all nettlecloth shirts without speaking, to turn them back into humans?

Generally, Herodotus's description of the Scythians (residents of what would become the Crimea) using hemp is considered the first mention of hemp in Russia. Apparently the Scythians used hemp in their steam/sauna baths: "These tents were made of thick felt, with all cracks carefully sealed up. Inside was placed a bowl full of red-hot stones, onto which cannabis seeds were thrown. According to Herodotus, the Scythians would howl with delight as they breathed in the fumes. Sitting in these tents was clearly one of their favorite pastimes. The reference to seeds of in Herodotus and other sources is puzzling, since as any cannnibis smoker knows, the seeds are by far the least intoxicating part of the plant. But as the flowering heads, the most potent element, also contain the seeds, such confusion is understandable..." (P. James and N. Thorpe, Ancient Inventions; NY: Ballantine, 1994, p. 342.) Interestingly, the authors of Ancient Inventions claim that this is confirmed by the finds of hempseeds and hempseed smoking kits in tombs on the borders of Russia and Mongolia -- presumably the assumption is that the flower heads rotted but the seeds remained.

However, after that reference, the archaelogical and historical records pretty much fall silent about pot smoking. Instead, more mundane uses of hemp crop up. (I find it significant that though Arabic and Roman authorities (i.e., Galen) mention medicinal pot-smoking, it is seldom mentioned in Northern European medieval and renaissance sources. Perhaps their hemp was closer to modern industrial hemp than the Arabic kind - apparently the cultivars are significantly different). Hemp, as a fiber plant, appears to have spread from the Mediterranean Sea through the Roman area and also perhaps from the East. The Scythians died out before the fall of Rome, and connections between them and modern Slavs are considered tenuous by most historians.

R.J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, vol IV, EJ Brill, 1987, copyright 1956/1964), says, on page 60: "The plant [hemp] came to prehistoric Europe from Southern Russia, as is also evident from the etymology of the terms for hemp in Indo-Germanic Languages. At Wilmersdorf fruit and seeds of hemp were found but no fibres. It may have been smoked in the pipes found in the Celtic area of Western Switzerland. The Goths brought the plant from Western Russia in the second and third century AD and only then did the use of the fibres in central Europe start. The Slavonic migrations of the ninth century gave a new impetus to its cultivation which begins to displace flax in certain regions. It was also used by the Vikings but is still regarded with antipathy in medieval western Europe."

According to many textile sources, the archaeological record of hemp and nettle fabric is confused by the fact that archaeologists, not being able to tell hemp, nettle and flax cloth apart without chemical testing, use the term 'linen' to refer to any fabric of spun and woven vegetable fibers (Apparently, however, Czech archaeologists call all such fabrics 'hemp', according to Alastair Miller). Linen is not distinguishable from hemp or nettle cloth in paintings either.

Both hemp and nettle have been used to make fabric since prehistoric times, as alternatives to flax, and are processed similarly to flax. Hemp, with fibers up to 12 feet long, produces a stronger thread than flax; nettle produces a somewhat "finer and silkier" fabric than flax. (E.W. Barber, Women's Work: the first 20,000 Years: Women, cloth and society in early times. W.W. Norton, 1994). For near-period English instructions on growing, harvesting and processing hemp, see Gervase Markham's English Housewife, 1615. The Muscovy Company (1555-1649) exported hemp (probably for rope rather than cloth) from Russia during their period of operation (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Hemp seeds and a fragment of hemp cloth were found in the excavations of the 12th century levels of Gniezno, according to M. Polcyn, "Archaeobotanical Evidence for Food Plants in the Poland of the Piasts (10th-13th Centuries AD)", Biological Journal of Scotland, vol 46, no 4, p 533-537: "In archaeological sites hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) has been found as uncharred achenes. In the early Middle Ages hemp became an important technological plant used in the production of thick cloth. Fragments of such cloth have been discovered in Gniezno." (p. 535) Sophie Knab (Polish Herbs, Flowers & Folk Medicine, Hippocrene Books, 1995), says of hemp, that it was "widely cultivated in Poland for its oil and fibers. The fibers of hemp were retted, dried and broken on a flax brake-- similar to the process used for flax. The thick inner fibers were spun on the spinning wheel and then designated for making sacking or very strong thread. They were often plied together to make rope." Nettle cloth, says Knab, was used in Poland from the 12th century onward; "Nettle thread was used in Poland from ancient times up until the 17th century when it was replaced by silk." The same source notes that it also had superstitious uses: "Slavic people have attributed magical properties to [nettle] since ancient times," using it to defend against demons, disperse storms and protect against lightning.

At least in western Europe, hemp appears to have often been grown in small plots and cultivated with garden tools rather than field equipment ( Medieval farming and technology : the impact of agricultural change in northwest Europe, edited by G. Astill and J. Langdon, New York: Brill, 1997.). From various references, one suspects that nettle may have been primarily gathered from the wild rather than cultivated.

Hemp seed oil, obtained by crushing, also was used in Poland, Russia, and other Eastern European countries. Hemp seed and poppy seed oils were necessary for cooking when fast-day restrictions forbade the use of animal fats in cooking. In Russia, say Smith and Christian (Bread and Salt: A social and economic history of food and drink in Russia. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1984), "Hemp and flax . . . were used in dishes with peas, for instance, or gave oil which was either an element in various dishes or the medium in which they were cooked" (p. 5). The Domostroi advises that stores of hemp seed and hemp seed oil should be kept in the house; the post period menus therein include several varieties of hemp seed cakes, as well as mentions of hemp seed oil.

Hemp seed was also stewed into a sort of porridge, popular in Poland. According to Dembinska (Food and Drink in Medieval Poland, University of PA Press, 1999), hemp seed porridge/soup appears to have been served in monasteries, garrisons, and to the poor; it is unclear whether the hemp seed oil was extracted first. Though no Eastern European recipes for hemp seed porridge survive, there is a hemp seed porridge recipe in the Italian heath handbook by Platina, and the Underground Cooks Collective have published a redaction of the recipe on the SCA-Cooks list: http://www.ansteorra.org/pipermail/sca-cooks/2001-July/004369.html

The 16th century Polish herbalist Syrenniusz (via Knab) mentions nettle cooked with snails, and Lang (George Lang's Cuisine of Hungary) mentions the same dish in Hungary. Syrenniusz suggested it for gas and stomach cleansing. Smith & Christian also cite nettle, along with sorrel, goose-foot and ground-elder as plants that were probably harvested and consumed locally in Russia (p.10) .

Both Nettle and Hemp were recommended by physicians as treatments. Zevin ( A Russian Herbal: Traditional Remedies for Health and Healing, Healing Arts Press, 1997) notes ". . . during the seventeenth century physicians' primary interest in nettle centered around the treatment of wounds. One Russian herbal of that period, (known simply as The Herbal Book) describes the use of nettle: 'we chew raw nettle, mash it and apply it to fresh wounds, and so we clean and heal the wounds.' For old, infected wounds, the practitioner was advised to crush both the nettle leaves and seeds, and add salt: 'Apply to old infected wounds and they will get the dead tissue out and heal the wounds.'" (p. 106)

Hildegarde of Bingen in her treatise on Physic (translated by Patricia Throop, Healing Arts Press, 1998) discussed not only the humeric properties of hemp seed but the use of hemp cloth as a bandage: "Hemp is hot, and it grows where the air is neither very hot nor very cold, and its nature is similar. Its seed is salubrious, and good as food for healthy people. It is gentle and profitable to the stomach, taking away a bit of its mucus. It is easy to digest, diminishes bad humors, and fortifies good humors. Nevertheless, if one who is weak in the head, and has a vacant brain, eats hemp, it easily afflicts his head. It does not harm one who has a healthy head and full brain. If one is very ill, it even afflicts his stomach a bit. Eating it does not hurt one who is moderately ill. [Let one who was a cold stomach cook hemp in water and, when the water has been squeezed out, wrap it in a small cloth, and frequently place it, warm, on his stomach. This strengthens and renews that area. Also, a cloth made from hemp is good for binding ulcers and wounds, since the heat in it has been tempered.]"

Hildegarde also recommended eating the young shoots of nettle as a tonic (as American modern and colonial herbalists suggest), "Nettle is very hot in its own way. It is not at all good eaten raw, because of its harshness. But, when it newly sprouts from the ground, it is good when cooked, as food for a human. It purges his stomach and takes mucus away from it. Any kind of nettle does this." She also suggested preparations of nettle, to cure internal worms in humans, internal discomfort in horses, and even as a treatment for senility: "And, a person who is unwillingly forgetful should pound stinging nettle to a juice, and add a bit of olive oil. When he goes to bed, he should thoroughly anoint his chest and temples with it. If he does this often, forgetfulness will diminish."

Nowadays, it is increasingly possible to buy hemp cloth and hempseed oil, though hempseed oil for consumption may or may not be available in the U.S. Nettlecloth is not so easy to get, but ramie, a cloth made from the fibers of an Asian nettle (Boehmeria nivea), is a reasonable substitute. Books like Eugene Gibbons's Stalking the Healthful Herbs will help you find nettle in the wild, either for consumption or textiles.

-- Jadwiga Zajaczkowa






Charles Bridge in Prague by Peotr Alexeivich Novgorodski


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