Saturday, 30 January 2010

Medieval Women as Master Craftsmen

Often, when speak to groups about Testament, the same question will arise: 'Would Gwyneth really have been able to be a master craftsman in her own right?'

It's an interesting and valid question but it does seem to be based, as most of the askers are prepared to admit, on preconceptions of a time about which people know very little. Even if medieval history is taught in schools it will mostly consist of political history – the Norman Conquest, the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, the Hundred Years War with France, the Wars of the Roses. Social history doesn't get a look-in. And the fourteenth century was probably the century in which English people experienced the greatest social upheavals until the dawn of the industrial age.

Given this dearth of social history teaching, a general assumption seems to exist that the role and position of women started out, at some stage in pre-history, as a species of semi-slavery and proceeded, by excruciatingly slow historical degrees, to the equality of rights and opportunities that exists in the twenty-first century. On this thesis, if women were given few rights in the sixteenth-century Tudor period (a period most people seem more familiar with, though, again, I would suggest that their preconceptions come, largely, from the experience of noblewomen rather than those lower in social status) then it follows that they must have enjoyed even fewer rights in the fourteenth century.

This is a false assumption. Women were far less constrained in many ways in the medieval period and - certainly, in terms of labour and the workplace – the lower the woman's social class, the less constrained she was. In terms of work on the land, there is a certain amount of controversy about whether women (I'm not going to use the term peasant but you can if you like) were allowed to do things like wield a scythe because there is no pictorial evidence for this and a good proportion of our evidence for life on the land comes from pictures, as well as manorial records. However, women certainly did work in the fields and the poorer your family, the more likely the women were to have to work – there was no choice, the land had to be worked and if you didn't have enough men and boys, the women got roped in.

This wasn't just the case on the land, either. In the craft guilds, the need for cheap labour made family involvement a must and all the children of a family would have been expected to help; unless there was an abundance of sons, daughters would get at least the rudiments of their father's craft. Obviously, the expectation was that, once a girl was married, her job was to look after her husband and children but, before she were married, her help could be vital to the family economy. Unless her husband was a particularly high-ranking guildsman (and therefore rich enough to employ lots of people) he would also be likely to expect her to help him at times of need. If a woman was widowed young, she might very well carry on her husband's trade after his death because, frankly, otherwise she and her children would starve.

I think people tend to forget that, in the pre-modern period, what you did for your 'living' meant exactly that: if you didn't work, you didn't earn money, you couldn't afford to eat and therefore you didn't continue living. What you did – your profession or job – was, literally, your living.

But, back to women. If a woman was widowed on the land, she might, if she was very lucky, be taken in by a member of her extended family. More likely, she would be expected to marry again or manage the land on her own or with her sons' help. In the towns, where many people of Gwyneth's generation didn't have family because they were first-generation immigrants following the Black Death, there was nobody to step in and look after you so you had to marry again or work. And if you had the means at your disposal to work at a trade or profession, then you did that.

It wasn't a lifestyle choice, it was a necessity.

Admittedly, there was not this compulsion in Gwyneth's case but her working for Simon has to be seen against this background of economic necessity.

The fourteenth century is also a very interesting time in terms of female roles because, in the wake of the cataclysm that was the Black Death, opportunities didn't so much knock as come in through the door and drag you out to the workplace kicking and screaming 'but I want to be in the kitchen!' The workforce had been reduced by anything from a third to a half and anybody who had a marketable skill found themselves in a seller's market. Gwyneth is approaching forty when Testament opens in 1385. This means that she survived the Black Death as a child of four and that she grew up in a world that lacked an abundance of skilled people.

Gwyneth's backstory, as anybody who has read the first chapter of Testament carefully will know, is that she was raised by her father as an only child. He taught her his skills as a master carpenter because he had no other children and because he was worried, in that rather uncertain time, about how she might make ends meet if he died suddenly. And, don't forget, people did die suddenly. Quite apart from the astonishing violence of society and the fact that you could die (from septicaemia) of a casual cut or (from gangrene) of a broken limb there were recurrences of the plague throughout the 1360's, most notably in 1361 and then, again, in 1369.

I'm not saying that female master craftsmen were common. They weren't. A women practicing a craft independently was an exceptional circumstance and I known of no evidence, anywhere, of a woman who was recognised and accepted by an English town guild as a master craftsman in her own right. Gwyneth's father explicitly says this: 'They may not see you a master, Gwyneth, who can tell in these times? But the craft may be meat and drink to you.' (p.4)

So, what the novel catalogues is a chain of events which is unlikely but not impossible (and it is a novel, remember, a book that asks 'what if..?'.) Gwyneth, a child at the time of the population-decimating Black Death survives as her widower father's only child and is, therefore, taught his trade. He, in the absence of readily-available apprentices because of the labour shortage following the plague, is happy to rely on her home-grown talents. She marries a man who has professional need of the skills she possesses and, as his wife, her skills come free which is no small consideration to a man making his way in the world. She continues to be able to work with him as their marriage progresses because she has failed to conceive. Simon is not in the king's favour so the pool of carpenters he can draw from is never going to contain the real stars of the day but, fortunately for him, his wife possesses the kind of talent he needs. Their son is born damaged and this, together with Simon's association with heresy, further reinforces their professional isolation. Simon makes it quite clear to Gwyneth (and the reader) that, without her as his master carpenter, the college simply will not be built. As it is to be their son's memorial, she cannot refuse.

It all comes back to fathers and their children; to Gwyneth's father who has passed on all his skills to her; to Simon's father whose forthrightness to a king has denied Simon the royal patronage and name-making work he craves; to Simon and his desire for a son and the consequences of that desire.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Catch me elsewhere...

The lovely Norm Geras of the Normblog runs a Writer's Choice feature every Tuesday in which an author chooses a book that means something specific to them or their work.

He very kindly asked me if I would contribute something so I have written a piece on Geraldine Brooks' wonderful Year of Wonders.

You can read it here.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Cornflower book group

As I may have mentioned, Testament was the Cornflower blog's book group read this month and generated a certain number of comments which you can read here if you're so minded...

Many thanks to the group for all their comments and for picking Testament in the first place. (For which I have the inestimable Juxtabook to thank.)

Friday, 22 January 2010

A really nice review

Thanks to Google alerts, I came home from work yesterday to read this on the Shelflove book blog. I don't often come across readers who prefer the contemporary strand of Testament, so it was nice to read Teresa's opinion on this in the comments trail.

I understand that some better-known book bloggers - Dove Grey Reader, for instance - are now being quoted alongside print reviewers on book jackets. They are also inundated with review copies of new novels and I notice that, on the Shelflove site, co-bloggers Jenny and Teresa make it clear that publishers are welcome to send review copies.

So, has the day of the independent, amateur book blogger come - are they now becoming as influential as print reviewers where readers (as opposed to the literary establishment) are concerned? The comments on this post would certainly suggest that they are.

Do others have a similar experience?

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

A Waterstone's Volte Face

Has everybody heard - I've literally only just picked it up from the booktrade update Book2Book (subscribe here) - that Waterstone's is abandoning its central command-and-control model and going back to 'localised' bookselling practices as Tim Waterstone initially set out to do with his shops?

You can read about it here.

What about that then, readers and writers?

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Creating a Blog Splash

Writers are always looking for new ways to get their books noticed, to generate an audience and the word-of-mouth buzz I was talking about in my previous post. I'm guessing the fact that you're reading this means that you may have a blog of your own whether you're a writer, reader, bookseller, publisher or other person involved in the whole business of books.

Author and blogger Fiona Robyn (author of The Letters and The Blue Handbag) has come up with an innovative idea to generate publicity for her new novel Thaw. Starting on the 1st of March next year she's going to blog it so that peole can read it, free, online. The novel follows 32 year old Ruth’s diary over three months as she decides whether or not to carry on living.

To help spread the word she’s organising a Blogsplash, where blogs, including mine, will publish the first page of Ruth’s diary simultaneously (and a link to the blog).

I think it's a really innovative idea. Not only does it generate reader traffic for her blog (and those of the others involved) but it's using the blog network to give people access to the new novel rather than relying on readers' (notoriously subjective) reviews after the book is published.

She’s aiming to get 1000 blogs involved – if you’d be interested in joining in, email her at or find out more information at

Monday, 11 January 2010

Recommendations and Word of Mouth Successes

One of the things all writers want is for their book to become a word of mouth success – not to be depedent on the vagaries of marketing and publicity but simply to have written a book so amazing that everybody is recommending it to their friends.

The internet, of course, means that there are other ways of generating a word of mouth success. Because I have a Google alert set up to tell me when anybody mentions my name online, I came across Fiction Forum on Amazon where people can share their favourites and their opinions with others and where people can ask questions about those of similar tastes. The page I was directed to was this one on 'time-slip' novels. Which, when I read the comments by Kesali and I Readalot, was a pleasant surprise.

Older, more traditional media are also getting in on the act. Mariella Frostrup hosts a Radio 4 programme called Open Book which has a section called The Reading Clinic. A couple of weeks ago a listener wrote in to say that he had very much enjoyed Ian Mortimer's A Time Traveller's Guide to the Middle Ages and would like to read fiction from the same period. Could Ms Frostrup's guests offer any advice?

Interestingly, from the point of view of somebody who has also read Mr Mortimer's excellent book (subtitled A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century) and who is writing a book very firmly based in the fourteenth century (ie me) there seemed to be little recommendable adult fiction set in the medieval period and written in English. Umberto Eco's novels were - of course – highly recommended (though it's astonishingly difficult to find the name/s of his highly talented translator/s) and I was introduced to the works of George Mackay Brown but, other than that, the novels the panel were keen on were mostly children's books by Kevin Crossley-Holland and German author Lilli Thal (whose work is translated by John Brownjon).

Looking at the list (follow the link above) I can't help wondering about the prejudices of the panellists. I mean, can you seriously make recommendations about current medieval fiction without even mentioning Karen Maitland's Company of Liars and Owl Killers?

Anyway, there are two ways of looking at the apparent dearth of medieval fiction from my point of view as the writer of a book set during in the Black Death.

One: Hooray! This is a niche that is crying out to be filled, bring it on!

Two: Bugger, there's no demand for fiction set in this period, I'm on to a loser.

Does anybody have any other recommendations or feelings about this market?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

After posting this, my lovely editor, Will, sent me a link to this article in the Telegraph. I think I know the answer - it's One above. Hooray!

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Writing Review of 2009

Over the holidays I've been thinking about what kind of a writing year 2009 has been for me and, slightly to my surprise, I've come to the conclusion that it was actually a rather good one. Inevitably, it's been coloured by the fate of Not One of Us but, not necessarily in a bad way. So, here's my writing year, 2009.

Testament was published in paperback in January and went into Waterstones' New Year 3-for-2 promotion which was amazing. I'm pleased to say that the exposure paid off and the paperback has sold in pleasing numbers. In January I heard that Testament had been longlisted for the Waverton Good Read Award and was asked to go and talk about the book to the Waverton book group which was an extremely enjoyable experience. Testament didn't win (Child 44 by Tom Robb Smith did) but it was fun to be part of the literary prize scene if only for a while.

In February, Testament made a brief appearance in the WH Smith's bestsellers list which was both amazing and encouraging.

In April, the blogosphere started to notice Testament's existence with a glowing review from Juxtabook which, latterly, has resulted in other blog activity.

Meanwhile, away from novel writing, in May I had been commissioned to write a promenade play for Rochester Cathedral's launch event for their new Heritage Lottery Funded interpretation project. Though I've always been interested in the theatre and have written bits and bobs of drama and sketches at various times, as well as a lot of unbroadcast radio drama, this was the first full length play I had written for public performance. It turned out to be a lot of fun putting it together (I directed the play as well as writing it) and it all went off extremely well on the day. It gave me a taste for working with actors so if you run a heritage tourism site and think that a play associated with your venue would be a good punter-draw, I'm your woman...

Also in May, the axe fell on Not One of Us, the novel I'd been working on since before Testament was published. Though it was a blow (obviously) it did make me take a couple of resolutions which you'll find if you read my post about the rejection here. And have I kept those resolutions? I'll come to that in a minute.

As well as writing and rehearsing the promenade play, the summer months were full of research for the new book whose working title is The Black and The White. I acquired several books on the history of charcoal burning and the Other Half and I went to the Forest of Dean for some hands-on experience of the craft. This doubled as excellent location research as the book starts out in the very real Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire and ends in the entirely fictitious Salster – the city in the east of England that I invented for Testament. I read wonderfully informative books like John Hatcher's The Black Death, An intimate History and Ian Mortimer's A Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England, A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century both of which have been massively helpful and which still bristle with those little page-marking post it notes. I scoured internet sites for everything from bird folklore and belief in fairies (and some of those sites were, I have to tell you, deeply weird...) to fourteenth century hemp-retting and bread-making techniques. I wrote a lot of notes on index cards and created spider-diagrams of thoughts. I bought maps, learned how to bend Googlemaps to my will and how to access OS maps online to plan a likely route for my hero, cross checking with maps of ecclesiastical sites from the medieval period and making sure that I knew whether what I was looking at was a river (probably there or thereabouts six hundred years ago) or a canal (almost certainly not there six hundred years ago). Eventually, by the middle of September, I knew enough to start writing - though, on average, an hour every writing day is still spent on the internet checking facts. (What kind of knives did fourteenth century people eat with? What was the difference between an eating knife and one used for hunting? What kind of herbs could they grow and what did they have to buy, when were tinder-boxes invented... etc.)

So, to pick up my earlier question – did I keep to my resolutions to write 'straight' historical fiction and to allow others to see the drafts along the way? Well, The Black and The White is now half written and is entirely historical; for the moment, at least, I am a very happy writer of historical novels. And, as for showing my working, as it were, I have kept to that too. Right from the discussion of the initial concept with my editor, Will, back in the summer, I have tried to get over my disinclination to talk about my work. I told my other half what the book was going to be about while we were on holiday in the Alps and she was able to help my thinking along significantly. She read the first few chapters and – in spite of a quite natural wish not to upset me – had helpful and astute things to say. When I was almost half way through, I asked another MNW writer whose work I admire and who had very kindly offered to read for me, to look at the first hundred pages before I sent them to Will. Her comments saw a far taughter, better-thought-through MS making its electronic way to his commissioning editor's desk.

And has it worked, all this unwonted discussion and reading of drafts? All I can say is that Will was very encouraging about what I've done so far and complimentary about the synopsis that I'd sweated blood over. Actually, though I hate to admit it, even the process of writing the synopsis helped as I was able to look at the bare bones of what I had decided the book was about and see that I need to strenghten certain threads which have, maybe, begun to wear a little thin in the narrative. Not, I suspect, that that will stop me bellyaching the next time I have to write one...

So the writing year ended on a very upbeat note which is a great place from which to start work again this week.

Anyway, enough from me. A happy new year to you all and, to those of you who write, may this be a year of fulfillment and success!