Poppy Powder

In The Wolf & the Witch, Maximilian gives Alys “poppy powder” which makes her sleep. This is the powder derived from poppies, specifically from opium poppies native to Asia Minor. The Latin name for the opium poppy is Papaver Somniferum, or sleeping poppy. The medicinal powers of the opium poppy have been known since at least 3000 BC.

The Sumerians called it the “joy” plant, and described how to harvest “poppy tears”, a method that is still used today. To harvest the opium, the seed pod is left to ripen after the plant blooms. After about 10 days, the pod is cut so that the milk oozes from it. That sap is left to dry, then the residue is collected and dried even more. The seed pod is distinctively round.

An opium poppy and seed pod

The ancient Greeks used poppy powder as a sedative, and also combined it with poison hemlock for suicide or euthanasia. It may have had ritual use in Egyptian society as a drug of healing power. The Greek gods Nix, Thanatos and Hypnos were depicted with poppies in Greek art. It was known to be a powerful and effective sedative and traded widely, as we can see by its inclusion in pharmacopiae and herbals from China to Europe. Around 2000 years ago, it was included in the Chinese pharmacopia, the Pen Tsao. It is included in the references to healing and medicine by Galen of Pergamon (a Greek physician who died c. 210 AD) and Pedanius Dioscorides (a Greek physician c. 40 – c. 90 AD.). This is an excerpt from Galen’s Alphabet, translated by Nicholas Everett, following a description of the harvesting process.


“The best opium has an extremely pungent fragrance, is slightly reddish in colour, very quickly dissolves and turns white when in contact with moisture, and when ignited emits a flame that burns for a little while and which when extinguished replenishes its fragrance to the same level of pungency as when fresh…Pure opium can be mixed into eye-salves for drying up teary eyes, or can be smeared on around areas that need cooling. It alleviates earaches, reduces all types of fatigue in the body, and for the same reason we find it also induces sleep.”

Pharmacy from Antiquity to the Middle Ages:The Alphabet of Galen, Nicholas Everett, University of Toronto Press, 2012, 2014, page 297

Even though the alkaloids are derived from the sap of the seed pod, there are no active alkaloids in the seeds once they develop.

The powers of the opium poppy were also referenced by the Persian physicians “Rhazes” (845-930 AD) and “Avicenna” (980 – 1037 AD), and the Andalusian surgeon “Abulcasis” (936–1013 AD). Galen shows that it was known in the Roman Empire, but the author of The Old English Herbarium, an Anglo-Saxon herbal from about 1000 AD, appears to be unfamiliar with the differences between the white poppy that grows in England and the opium poppy – although these two plants share some traits, there is virtually no opium in the English poppy, papaver album.

We can take a little tangent here and talk about the transmission of ancient texts like pharmacopiae and herbals. The Roman Empire was divided into the eastern and the western empire by Constantine (Roman emperor 306 – 337), who named the capital of the eastern empire after himself, Constantinople, later Istanbul, was a large and busy city and a trade hub for centuries. The eastern (or Byzantine) empire also held Ravenna, a city in northern Italy. In 390, Rome was sacks by Goths, and in subsequent centuries, the raids by Vandals, Visigoths, Vikings and others saw many literary sources destroyed in Europe and libraries burned. There were copies of all those books in Constantinople, where they were translated into Arabic by Muslim scholars and studied. When the Umayyad caliphate conquered much of what is now northern Africa and the south of Spain CA. 700 AD, those books made their way to Andalusia. Under the Umayyads, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians (known as dhimmis) were permitted to practice their religion but paid a higher tax. In this culture, those texts were translated from Islam to Latin, often by Jewish scholars, and made their way back into Europe from Spain to be rediscovered. In addition, eastern sources previously unknown in Europe were translated and transmitted. Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine was translated from Arabic into Latin in 1175, for example, and his work became known in Europe after that. This contributed to what medieval scholars call the Twelve Century Renaissance, a period of increased literacy and learning in Europe.

It also coincides with the crusades. Crusaders brought opium back to Europe from the 11th to 13th centuries and it became an imported (and important, because of its efficacy) ingredient for European herbalists who could afford to acquire it. The first stories of opium addiction date from the 14th century, although it was known to be an addictive substance before that.

The active ingredients in herbs and plants vary in their power, based on the plant’s growing conditions, the weather and the means of harvest and refinement. Dosage can be a bit of a guess, and relies heavily upon the herbalist’s experience and knowledge of the plant’s source. Morphine was the first plant alkaloid ever isolated, from opium in 1803, which meant that dosages could be measured with precision for the first time. Heroin, which is synthesized from morphine (and was called diamorphine), wasn’t developed until 1893. In 1895, it was marketed as a cough suppressant. Both of these developments meant that opium-derived alkaloids and synthesized versions of them became much more readily available and that addiction became more prevalent.

Pink poppy

Opium poppies can be grown as an ornamental garden plant. They’re perennials in many climate zones and have spectacular flowers. (Other varieties of poppies are self-seeding annuals and have very little alkaloid in them.) Here’s a lovely pink cultivar at right.

Even the varieties of papaver somniferum available at your local garden center may have been bred to be devoid of latex and alkaloids. These are sometimes called Breadseed Poppies, when the intention is that you harvest the seeds for your bagels. In some places, it is illegal to cultivate them so check before you plant.

As for Maximilian’s use of poppy powder, it makes sense to me that the leader of a free company of mercenaries – who regularly engaged in battle and were therefore injured – would be well aware of a sedative and painkiller, and familiar with its use. He also would have had the opportunity to acquire it on his travels – in major cities – and the funds to acquire it. Alys, having been taught by a healer, might well have been taught about it but never have seen any of it herself – until Maximilian’s arrival. It would have been far less refined and less potent, but they still refer to Eudaline’s expertise in its administration.

King Robert II of Scotland

The Wolf & the Witch, book one of the Blood Brothers trilogy of medieval Scottish romances by Claire Delacroix

Robert II, King of Scotland, has a cameo role in The Wolf & the Witch, so I thought we’d talk a bit about him today. He’s an interesting king because he was older when he gained the throne: his sons were adults, and maybe that’s why he was known for being such a delegator.

This is the Author’s Note that appears in The Wolf & the Witch.


This is a work of fiction, but it does include some historical facts and actual figures. Robert II was crowned King of Scotland in 1371 and was the first Stewart king. He had alliances beyond Lothian and is believed to have fostered the increased raiding on the Scottish borders from 1375 – 1377. In 1378, he reclaimed Annandale. I think he would have been very glad to have a mercenary like the Silver Wolf move into that region.


Upon his coronation, Robert granted the earldoms of Fife and Monteith to his son, Robert; the earldoms of Buchan and Ross to his son, Alexander; the earldoms of Strathearn and Caithness to his son David by Euphemia. (Alexander was known as the Wolf of Badenoch for his savagery and cunning.) Robert also wed his daughter Isabella to James, the son of William, Earl of Douglas, as part of a settlement to address William’s protest against Robert taking the crown. Douglas was also name Justiciar south of the Forth as part of that arrangement. Robert’s son-in-laws were James (who became second Earl of Douglas), John Dunbar, Earl of Moray, and John MacDonald, Lord of the Isles.


This last marriage of the Lord of the Isles (also known as John of Islay, Eòin mac Dòmhnuill, and the chief of clan Macdonald) to Robert’s daughter, Margaret, required John to divorce his wife, Amie mac Ruari. John and Amie had three sons—John, Ranald and Godfroy—who also had to be disinherited as part of this arrangement. Upon that divorce, Amie’s dowry of Garmoran (Knoydart, Morar, Moidart, Ardnamarchan and the small isles) had to be relinquished by John, as well. It was returned to the macRuaris and granted to Ranald—after the death of the son, John—and ultimately granted to Godfroy after Ranald’s death. Little is known of the sons other than Ranald, but it seemed likely to me that they might have been dissatisfied with their father’s decision: Alys’ betrothed, Godfroy, is modeled upon him. He was the youngest and I chose to make him an indulged favorite who dealt poorly with rejection.


Kilderrick itself was inspired by the Hermitage, a fortress in Liddesdale (there is a post on my blog about this keep) and Alys’ father, Robert Armstrong, was inspired by Robert de Soulis, who first began to build a keep in the location of the Hermitage. His descendant, William de Soulis, was said to have had a reputation as a sorceror and a redcap as his familiar. Sir Walter Scott recorded a ballad by J. Leyden about him in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders called “Lord Soulis.” The family had a claim to the crown through Margaret, an illegitimate daughter of Alexander II, and that claim prompted William de Soulis to enter a conspiracy against Robert the Bruce. It was foiled in 1320 and his lands were forfeit for treason. He died imprisoned at Dumbarton. In the story, however, he is boiled alive in a cauldron at the Ninestang Ring, a local stone circle, in a revolt by the peasants against his villainy.


Jean le Beau is fictitious but characteristic of mercenaries of the fifteenth century. These warriors joined into armies for hire called free companies (because they were not beholden to any specific king or baron), were sometimes called routiers in the chronicles, and could be of noble background. Scotsmen often traveled to the continent to join these companies in the hope of earning their fortune. One famous free company was called the White Company, led by John Hawkwood and active in the Italian states in the 1360’s, was likely the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventure stories of The White Company. The actual company may have been named as much because they wore white tabards in battle. John Hawkwood was an Englishman, who had English archers in his company, and eventually married into the aristocracy. He was not particularly known for his handsome features or his numerous bastard sons, but Jean le Beau, the Silver Wolf’s father, was inspired by him just a bit.


Of course, events of this story did not happen, but I like to tuck my stories into historical events as if they could have happened. I hope you enjoyed The Wolf & the Witch, and will join me for Elizabeth and Amaury’s story, The Hunter & the Heiress.


14th Century Mercenaries

The Wolf & the Witch, book one of the Blood Brothers trilogy of medieval Scottish romances by Claire Delacroix

The hero of The Wolf & the Witch, Maximilian de Vries, is a mercenary and formerly the leader of a free company called La Compagnie Rouge. That free company was formed by his father, Jean le Beau, the bastard son of a baron with a reputation for violence. This is fiction, but based on historical fact. Today, I thought we’d talk a bit about those 14th century free companies of mercenaries.

In theory, medieval kings summoned armies from their vassals, who owed military service—or the service of knights sworn to their service—to the monarch on demand. In reality, this didn’t always work out well. Military training was likely to be inconsistent. Knights might not arrive on time or prepared for battle. Mercenaries, which were warriors paid to take any cause, filled the gap. They were professional fighters who could be hired at a price. In the fourteenth century, mercenaries proliferated in Europe and joined together in free companies: “free” because they weren’t bound to any particular monarch or territory. Philippe Contamine (in Wars in the Middle Ages) defines mercenaries as warriors who are 1/ specialists; 2/ stateless; and 3/ paid.

What’s interesting about these men is that even though they contributed to the course of history, often in significant ways, they are seldom named in chronicles. This doesn’t mean that they all had humble roots—remember that being trained for battle was a privilege of aristocratic society. I suspect there were a lot of bastard sons and younger sons without legacies in these companies. As Jean Froissart notes in his Chronicles (a 14th century account of the Hundred Years’ War), Scottish warriors often journeyed to the continent to seek their fortune as paid mercenaries.

Here’s a wonderful excerpt from Medieval Mercenaries by William Urban, for those of you who like words as much as I do:

“Territorial rules wanted warriors who were young, skilful, ready to obey orders…and numerous. Vassals often failed on all four counts, especially the last one. Therefore, rulers turned to mercenaries. A mercenary soldier is obviously one who fights for pay. Strictly speaking, to say mercenary soldier is a redundancy. Mercenary comes from mercer, meaning to buy and sell. Sold is the German word for money; solde in French. Both have their roots in the word for a silver coin, a solidus, which ultimately goes back to the Latin word for salt, which Romans used for paying salaries (“worth his salt”). Consequently, the word soldier implies an individual who hires out his talents, much like a common workman. We only need the two words together now because the evolution of governmental institutions later transformed irregular hired warriors into a professional class. Warriors who fought because of personal obligations, such as knights, were referred to as one’s men or one’s vassals. Today soldiers are committed to serve a nation no matter whether they are volunteers or in a professional army. A soldier no longer changes employers and rarely goes on strike for higher wages.”

The French word for free companies of mercenaries is routiers, which certainly brings to mind the idea of a raiding company roving over the countryside. When free companies were not employed (or not paid), they pillaged. All the same, their numbers grew during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France—because they were so useful. By the middle of th fourteenth century, several companies were sufficiently large and successful to be known by their names and reputation.

The White Company was composed primarily of English warriors who left France after fighting in the Hundred Years’ War, traveling to Italy in 1361. They were hired by the count of Montferrat to battle the Milanese Great Company employed by the duke of Milan—they won. They wore plate armor, highly polished, which might have contributed to their name (or they might have worn white tabards in battle.) They also had many archers with longbows in their company, an effective weapon mastered by the English. In 1364, the Florentines offered the White Company a ransom to leave Tuscany, the money was accepted. Part of the company moved south toward the Papal States, following Albert Sterz and calling themselves the Company of the Star. The remainder of the White Company followed John Hawkwood and remained in Pisa.

John Hawkwood (1323- 1394) was an English mercenary and longbowman who later led the White Company. He was knighted at some point, married twice, and had five legitimate children as well as many illegitimate ones—two of his illegitimate sons are documented. What is striking is the money he earned as leader of the White Company: he was paid in gold florins, and according to L.W. Mazzeno’s John Hawkwood, “In the 30 years that he served as a captain, Hawkwood’s earnings ranged between 6,000 and 80,000 florins annually (in comparison, a skilled Florentine craftsman at the same time earned 30 florins a year).” He was reputed to have been brutal and cunning, as well as loyal, even though the record challenges that last one. John died in Florence and there is a fresco in the Duomo of him on horseback. You can read more about the specifics of his military career in the Wiki about him.

John Hawkwood was not specifically my inspiration for Jean le Beau, Maximilian’s father (I had already chosen his name by the time I dug deeper into the history of free companies) although his story helped me to add details to Jean’s history and to understand better how free companies functioned. Jean le Beau is much nastier piece of work than I believe John was, and is much more enthusiastic about sexual conquests. When I named Jean le Beau, I was thinking of Philip le Bel (Philip IV, King of France 1285-1314) who was notoriously handsome but so inflexible that he was also called the Iron King.

There were more mercenary captains in Italy—called condottieri—including Giovanni de’ Medici (della Bande Nere), and Cesare Borgia—but these tend to be later, in the fifteenth century. If you watch The Borgias, you can see them in action in that era. If you watch The Tudors, you’ll see how reliant Henry VIII became upon mercenary armies in the fifteenth century. Watching either series, you’ll get to enjoy some wonderful eye candy, too.

One of the things that interests me is how a father’s nature will shape the choices and the characters of his sons, legitimate or illegitimate. All four of the heroes in Blood Brothers struggle with the legacy of Jean le Beau, partly based on how well they knew him and how close they were to their mothers. They all despise their father, but that manifests differently for each one—and they all find it particularly troubling to notice any resemblance between themselves and Jean le Beau. That struggle is something we’ll see more of in the rest of the series.

William II de Soules

I promised you another post about my inspiration for The Wolf & the Witch, but things got away from me. The last two months have been hectic, but I’m catching up.

The Wolf & the Witch, book one of the Blood Brothers trilogy of medieval Scottish romances by Claire Delacroix

In The Wolf & the Witch, the father of the heroine, Alys, was Robert Armstrong. He died when she was a child (no spoilers from me!) but had a reputation as a man who had made a deal with a demon. She reveals that he had lost a great deal before he died himself: her mother had died in childbirth, so he was a widower; he had made some poor decisions in administering his holding and household, so had no servants or villeins any longer; he had been robbed of all his wealth and his treasury was empty; and finally, he was reputed to have made a deal with a demon of the classic one-soul-for unlimited-power variety. (Why he would have been in such dire straits after making such a deal is another question altogether.) The ruin of Kilderrick is said to be haunted by a redcap goblin, which was Robert’s familiar – a detail that Alys uses to advantage to keep intruders away. In the course of the story, Alys realizes a few key truths about her father.

But the point of this post is to share my inspiration for Robert, which was William II de Soules. (I’ve already posted about Hermitage Castle being the inspiration for fictional Kilderrick.) William was a nobleman in the fourteenth century who held Hermitage castle and died in 1321. Like the fictional Robert, William had a considerable reputation, not all of which was true.

Let’s go back a bit. The first William de Soules was a Scottish nobleman granted the holding of Liddesdale by the Scottish king, and Butler of Scotland. His son, Nicholas de Soules, inherited the holding and the titles upon his father’s death around ???. When Margaret, the Maid of Norway, died in 1290, Nicholas was one of the contenders for the Scottish crown—the story was that his grandmother had been an illegitimate daughter of King Alexander II. His quest for the throne did not succeed and in 1296, he pledged homage to Edward I of England. He and his wife, Margaret Comyn, had two sons, William and John.

Nicholas’ son, William (II), was received into the peace of England by Edward I in 1304. He remained in the service of the English until Robert the Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn in 1314—then he changed his allegiance back to Scotland. He became Butler of Scotland, like his father and grandfather, but then, in 1320, was part of a plot challenging Robert the Bruce. It seems likely that the old idea of the de Soules line having a claim to the throne might have been behind this. The plot was found out and William arrested at Berwick. He confessed to his treason at the Black Parliament of 1320, but the king spared his life, making his considerable lands forfeit instead. William was imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle, where he died in 1321, leaving a daughter and heiress, Ermengarde.

The rumors about William are far more interesting! He was reputed to be a sorceror, tutored by the famous (dead) magician, Michael Scot. William could not be bound with ropes, injured by steel or killed by ordinary means because of his powers. He was large and cruel, seizing children for his blood rites and terrorizing both his vassals and his neighbors. He was said to have fortified his fortress, Hermitage Castle, against the king using supernatural means. (Even so, it wasn’t the castle that we recognize on that site: the castle that survives is a remnant of the fortification build by the Earl of Douglas after the holding was forfeited by Soules.) William’s abused vassals complained repeatedly to the king, Robert the Bruce, who is dismissive of their concerns in these stories, telling them “Boil him, if you please, but let me hear no more of him.”

And so, they do. The villagers have a chain forged to restrain the large and powerful William. He is taken forcibly to the Ninestang Ring and boiling him in molten lead. The story continues that Hermitage Castle sank into the ground after the passing of its lord, and that the keep is haunted still by William’s familiar, Robin Redcap.

There is a ballad about William called Lord Soulis composed by J. Leyden and included by Sir Walter Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. (It’s in Volume IV). It ends like this:

At the Skelf-hill, the cauldron still
The men of Liddesdale can show;
And on the spot, where they boil’d the pot,
The spreat and the deer-hair ne’er shall grow.

I didn’t have nearly enough fun with Robin Redcap in The Wolf & the Witch, but we’ll see more of him in The Scot & the Sorceress. I think Nyssa knows a lot more about goblins and hauntings than I do—and more than Murdoch would like to believe.

A Fifteenth Century Dress

One of the things going on behind the scenes here is the translation of many of my books into other languages. This is a really interesting exercise: I love seeing the covers translated and also the discussions with my translation teams. One team in particular sends me questions to make sure they get the details right. This can require a bit of detective work on my end, since we’re starting translations with the Jewels of Kinfairlie series, which I wrote in 2005. Sometimes I just don’t remember! I thought I would share one of my recent investigations with you, when I went looking for a 15th century dress.

The Rose Red Bride, #2 of the Jewels of Kinfairlie series of medieval Scottish romances by Claire Delacroix

The translators are working on The Rose Red Bride, and wanted more explanation about Vivienne’s dress. Here’s what it says in the book:

“Her finest chemise of sheer linen was an obvious choice, as she wished to impress her fairy lover with her finery. It was cut full and gathered at the neck on a drawstring, as was typical, but was distinguished by sleeves fitted from elbow to wrist and secured with dozens of tiny buttons made of shell.


It was no small feat to don the chemise without the aid of one of her sisters or their maid, but Vivienne managed the deed.


She then donned her favorite kirtle, also a gift from Rosamunde, which was wrought of silk woven in two shades of emerald. The sleeves were slit from the shoulders to reveal the chemise and trailed to the ground, while the hem pooled upon the floor. The hem and neckline and sleeve edges were all graced with intricate golden embroidery. The men in her family had called it a most impractical garment, while her sisters openly coveted it.”

Illustration from The Chronicle of Western Fashion by John Peacock

It sounded to me as if I’d been inspired by a specific dress, so I went looking in my library for the source. I found it in The Chronicle of Western Fashion, by John Peacock, a book of illustrations I’ve had for a long time.

It’s labelled as being the outfit of an Italian lady from 1410. If you look closely, you can see the buttons along the sleeve of the ochre chemise, from elbow to wrist.

I did wonder whether I could find more detail, though, and kept looking.

In Medieval Costume in England and France by Mary G. Houston, I found the image below. It looks like the same dress but the woman is illustrated with three other people.

Illustration from Medieval Costume in England and France by Mary G. Houston

One of the interesting things about medieval costume is that there aren’t that many sources, and the sources are a bit different than you might expect. Queens and kings carved onto cathedrals, for example, or depicted in marginalia of manuscripts or woven into tapestries will usually be dressed in the style of the times of the artist and not of their actual era. An illustration of Noah at the flood could show 13th century court dress very well.

This line drawing was inspired by an image in the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry, a 15th century book of hours filled with miniature paintings. Books of prayer are also a great source of social history details, including clothing styles.

This is the painting for April from the Très Riches Heures, which shows fruit trees in bloom in a walled garden, maidens picking flowers, men fishing and a couple pledging their troth. It’s just what you might expect to happen in April in the northern hemisphere. You’ll recognize the woman in blue as the inspiration for the drawings, and for Vivienne’s dress.

April from the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry

This image is from a website called Digital Medievalist. You can see it in more detail, here.

Here’s the Wiki on the Très Riches Heures, too, which is a comparatively large book of hours. It measures about 8″ by 12″ but many books of hours are tiny, only four inches or so in each dimension. The detail in them is incredible! If you’re ever at the Cloisters in New York, they have a collection of books of hours and there are always a few on display. You can also see selected pages from the books of hours in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum (which owns the Cloisters) on this page of search results.

The Rose Red Bride, book two of the Jewels of Kinfairlie series of medieval romances by Claire Delacroix, German edition

So, I found Vivienne’s 15th century dress, and now the translators know what the sleeves look like.

The German edition of The Rose Red Bride – which will be called die rosenrote Braut – should be available in January.