Sunday, 14 February 2010

When WAS the fourteenth century?

When I tell people that my current novel is set in the medieval period, they will often say something like 'Oh, I love the medieval period, it's fascinating'. And it is, I'm not arguing with that. But I'm never quite brave enough, then, to go on and find out exactly what they mean by 'the medieval period'. Wikipedia – repository of all instant knowledge - defines it as covering a period from the fifth century to the beginning of the sixteenth century. In other words, a millennium that includes the Dark Ages. I think that's a bit broad, myself and would probably have the medieval period beginning somewhere about the reign of Alfred the Great in the mid-ninth century, though others prefer to refer to anything prior to 1066 as The Anglo-Saxon period and to see the medieval period in England as the years between Conquest and Tudors. Fair enough.

But, even if you limit it to the period 1066 to 1485, the medieval period still totals 419 years, which makes research for the historical novelist quite tricky. I mean, life was very different in 1066 and 1485. OK, not as different as between 1485 and 419 years later in 1904, but still, very different.

Even when you narrow things down to the century I'm interested in - the fourteenth - things get very little easier. As I've mentioned before, the fourteenth century was an eventful, happening time and to assume that things in 1400 would look anything like those in 1301 would be a big mistake.

Most of all, the century is hard for the historical novelist (and, by the same token, wonderful) because of the HUGE event that sits bang smack in the midlde of it. 1348 -1350 - The Black Death. It changed pretty well everything, some things immediately, some things slowly. But it changed them. And if you try and research the fourteenth century so that you can get your historical details right, it's sometimes very difficult to find out which bit of the fourteenth century people are talking about.

For instance, I've done a certain amount of research into medieval church wall paintings. Now, there are, sadly, few mural works left in medieval parish churches because of the iconoclasm of the Reformation. What's left was whitewashed or plastered over and is, therefore, not always in the greatest nick. However, conservators all over the country are conserving and writing about the examples that are left and their work is invaluable to people like me. The trouble is, because of the poor condition of the paintings, they can't always say when, exactly, they were painted.

So, when I read - in a reliable source - that it was widely believed 'in the fourteenth century' that to see an image of St Christopher would keep you from dying a sudden death that day, I was delighted. (Clearly, I'm easily pleased.) Surely, I thought, everybody who was afraid of dying of the plague (ie everybody who was alive) would be buying up St Christopher medals and painting images of the saint on their church walls like nobody's business, wouldn't they?

It seemed like a sensible assumption until further (a lot further) research revealed that this belief seems to have come about as a result of the Black Death and that, therefore, those remedies were not immediately available at the time of the Black Death. Most of the surviving St Christopher wall paintings seem to be late fourteenth or fifteenth century. They wouldn't have been there for people to look at while the plague was raging, they were there as a prophylactic, should the plague return.

So the nice device of having people relying on the fact that they wouldn't die that day because they'd taken the trouble to go and look at St Christopher carrying the Christ-child across the river was a goner. As was a point of contact between my characters and my readers – after all, most people know who St Christopher is; they're likely to be far less familiar with the story of the Three Living and the Three Dead which every medieval parishionner would have known. (I'll tell you another time if you're interested.)

And, though I am interested in wall-paintings (as any reader of Testament will know) that's not why they make an appearance in the book. You couldn't possibly have a character walk into a church in the period before the mid 1540s without knowing that the plastered walls of any parish church would be covered in paintings. Our austere way with bare stone was unknown to medieval people and they would have found it incredibly barren and unhelpful. Their religion was very different to anything practised in Britain now. And not just different but bigger. Much bigger. Bigger than most of us can possibly imagine; as big a social factor (though not in the same way) as Islam is in, for example, modern Iran or Saudi Arabia. And, of course, for 'religion' think Roman Catholicism, the only brand of Christianity then flourishing in Western Europe.

But any unwary novelist who assumes that medieval catholicism can be mapped straight on to pre-second vatican council Roman Catholicism is going to get things wrong.

Take a small example. The hail Mary. Even non-Catholics, like me, know that this goes:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen

As such, with its references to the hour of one's own death – which was pretty much in the forefront of everybody's mind during the Black Death – it seems to be the perfect prayer for my main character to be muttering pretty constantly.

Except that more detailed research reveals that the second part of the prayer was only added in the late fifteenth century, almost a hundred and fifty years after the Black Death.

Drat; another point of contact with modern readers gone.

So many things changed as a result of the Black Death – the value of labour, the standard of living, the status of English, the respect people gave to the church, the relationship between the land and the towns, the feudal system – that the early and late fourteenth centuries turn out to be very different times. People literally thought differently about life after it. Not immediately, of course, but the outlook and world-view of the generation that was born after 1348 is different in many ways to that born, for instance in 1308.

The unwary historical novelist has to tease all this out. Every reference to things 'in the fourteenth century' have to be explored, teased out, evaluated and pinned down to exactly WHEN in the fourteenth century. Otherwise, the howlers generated would be as bad as having a hip and trendy character putting a record on the gramophone in the year 1999, while they smoked their medically endorsed cigarette from a chic ivory holder.


Aliya Whiteley said...

Blimey. Rather you than me.

It seems The Black Death changed how everyone thought about everything, from religion downwards. Or am I oversimplifying again? Bound to be. But how could you write a damned historical novel if you didn't? Argh.

Alis said...

No, I don't think it's an oversimplification. But in terms of writing a novel about it, I think the trick is not to try to show its impact on everything, but just to focus on one person and show what changed for them. That's my hope anyway!

Akasha Savage. said...

I know exactly where you're coming from. Although Bathory is set mainly in the present day, when I do go back to the sixteenth century I want my facts to be as accurate as they possibly can be.
Hard work!

adele said...

This is completely fascinating to me and I can regard it all with equanimity, as I'm only a reader of fiction set in this period and not a writer of it!

Alis said...

Hi Akasha - of course, you have the added difficulty of historical accuracy in another country which adds a whole new layer of difficulty.

Alis said...

Hi Adele - I think those of us who write historical fiction are basically history geeks at heart - the kind of people who drag their children around English Heritage sites encouraging them to imagine things they are neither remotely interested in nor mentally equipped to imagine!!

David Isaak said...

"... they're likely to be far less familiar with the story of the Three Living and the Three Dead which every medieval parishionner would have known. (I'll tell you another time if you're interested.)"

Count me as interested.

Alis said...

Hi David - since you are kind enough to ask.. watch this space!

Michelle said...

Depending who you talk to and where in Europe you are, the medieval period can stretch to 1500, for others it ended sooner. Also there is early medieval, late medieval (none in between though). I studied mainly late medieval and early modern history (1300-1603 mainly my focus) and th changes were astronomical from monarch to monarch, never mind century to century. I specialised in Richard II and The Earl of Warwick who served under all three Lancastrian Kings - very very diferent indeed.

Alis said...

Hi Michelle - yes, why is it always 'early' or 'late' medieval - why is there no 'middle' medieval? Also the term 'High Medieval' seems in some debate - can you clarify?

Michelle said...

Not sure about that - I would guess at 13th century being the definition of High medieval.(Not a phrase I came across much) I went to Uni at Reading and their medieval history department is excellent, should you want a research source!

Alis said...

Thanks, Michelle!