Wednesday, 17 June 2009

A capital letter century

The fourteenth century. You’ve gotta love it. The Great Famine, The Black Death, The Peasants’ Revolt – it’s a century of capital-letter happenings. And it also had something we’ve got – climate change. Between 1300 and 1400 mean temperatures fell by one degree centigrade in England. The country went from having numerous vineyards to, effectively, having none.

Like us, fourteenth century people had a feeling that things were going downhill rapidly and that they might be looking at the end of the world as they knew it. Except they thought that the Biblical apocalypse was going to be responsible rather than a catastrophic rise in global temperature…

Through my research I'm getting the sense that a feeling of impending doom was very real and it’s going to be interesting to see whether our twenty-first century feeling of personal helplessness in the face of global forces has any resonances with the fourteenth century’s feeling of helplessness in the face of a God who had apparently tired of the waywardness of humanity.

I’m reading a couple of books at the moment – Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century and The Black Death, An Intimate History by John Hatcher. They’re both very modern history books in the sense that they try to give the general reader a feel for what it was like to actually live then. They’re the kind of smell in the street, dirt beneath your fingernails, terror behind the next sneeze kind of books that I love.

These books appeal to me particularly, as both authors seems to be coming from a very similar standpoint to my own when I write about the past; their books ring with the conviction that human nature doesn’t change. The circumstances may change, the diet, the clothing, the worldview but human nature with its ambition, greed, violence, love, altruism and fear will always be the same until homo sapiens becomes another species altogether.

As Ian Mortimer says in his introduction ‘..most of all, it needs to be said that the very best evidence for what it was like to be alive in the fourteenth century is an awareness of what it is to be alive in any age, and that includes today.’

I think that’s right. What I aspire to in writing historical fiction is to make my reader see that though the people they’re reading about had a very different experience of life and very different expectations of it, they were the sort of people we meet, know and love in our own lives. They are us. In historical costume.


Tim Stretton said...

Surely the worst century of all to live in--but one of the most interesting to read and indeed write about. I look forward to seeing where it leads you.

You can understand why people thought they were living through the Apocalypse when entire communities were wiped out by the plague. A shocking, terrifying time.

Michelle (Mickmouse) said...

Most of my degree centred around the 14th to 16th century. Wrote my dissertation on the 100 years war and my specialist subject was Richard II. Love medieval history...cannot get enough of it. I am writing a book set in early victorian history, but hoping one of my sequels will be in a medieval period. Glad you are enjoying the research
PS Check out my blog for a little medieval writing exercise (just for fun!)

Alis said...

Tim - yes, it would have been like living in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust without the radioactivity.

Michelle - yes, there's just something fascinating about the medieval period, isn't there. I wonder why that is...?

Neil said...

I forgot to say before, Alis. Hurray for writing about the Peasant's Revolt. I never did get very far with my good intentions for tackling it:

David Isaak said...

Say, have you read "The Doomsday Book" by Connie Willis?

Alis said...

Hi Neil - I hope I can do it justice - if not it's back to you!

Hi David - No, haven't come across this one. Do you recommend getting a copy?

David Isaak said...

You might enjoy it. It's technically a science-fiction/time-travel thing, but it's really about the 14th century seen through 21st-century eyes. It was a Triple Sweep when it was published back in 1993--it won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Locus.