Monday, 18 October 2010

Five Books of Note

There was a great post on Juxtabook the other day about the Five Books blog on which, as its strapline explains, 'every day an eminent writer, thinker, commentator, politician, academic chooses five books on their specialist subject'.

It's the kind of site I could stay on all day but that's another story.

Now, I am not eminent but I thought it might be a wheeze to share with you the five books that have most informed my view of early fourteenth-century England and, therefore, the writing of The Black and The White.

So, today, Number One in the list.

I've mentioned Ian Mortimer's The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England before; subtitled 'A handbook for visitors to the Fourteenth Century' Ian's book tells you everything you'll need to know if, unaccountably but thrillingly, you find yourself somewhere in England between 1300 and 1399.

He says in his introduction:

'As with a historical biography, a travel book about a past age allows us to see its inhabitants in a sympathetic way: not as a series of graphs showing fluctuations in grain yields or household income but as an investigation into the sensations of being alive in a different time.'

His chapter titles show that he is serious. There isn't a whiff of socio-politics or economics about them:

The landscape

The people

The medieval character

Basic essentials

What to wear


Where to stay

What to eat and drink

Health and hygiene

The law

What to do.

It could be any travel book about going to Malaysia or Ecuador or Chad. Except that all the people he tells us about in chapter 2 have been dead for about six hundred years, the landscape he describes has been changed beyond pretty much all recognition by modern agriculture, the growth of towns and mass transport and the advice on health and hygiene is – thank goodness – rendered obsolete by antibiotics and santitation.

But chapter 3 – the medieval character – is revealing. Whilst I agree totally with what he says in his introduction:

'...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...'

he is very good on how they were different.

Consider this thought:

'The word which best sums up the medieval attitude to the Devil, miracles, and everything in between, is superstition. People do not understand the laws of physics, or the nature of matter, or even how the human body functions. Hence they do not see limitations on how their world operates. Their sense of normality is thus somewhat precarious. Anything can happen.'

Well, all I can say is, thank goodness for that, because without that mindset, I wouldn't have a novel. Things which we wouldn't believe for a second in the rational, post-modern, cynical, twenty-first century are entirely plausible in the fourteenth – and one of my main characters relies on his fellow-countrymen's consequent gullibility.

But it's not just what people believed that was different – it was the makeup of the society that believed it. We're used to thinking of a society which is heavily weighted towards the older end of the age-spectrum which is why there is such a mistrust and suspicion of young people – they're a misunderstood minority.

Not in the fourteenth century.

Listen to how it was then. (Or is now in the voice of the book. Ian Mortimer uses the present tense for his narrative as if it really were a travel book for somewhere we could visit):

'between thirty-five and forty per cent of those you will meet are under fifteen... just five per cent of fourteenth century people are aged over sixty-five... Half the entire population is aged twenty-one or less.'

Just that, in itself, would make everywhere look and feel very different. Just imagine your street, your town, your village if that was the demographic spread. Our society wouldn't work – you can't have almost half the population in full-time education – there would be insufficient workers to create the wealth and make things happen.

But their society wasn't like ours. Precisely because of the weighting towards youth, young people grew up faster and were given responsibilities much more quickly:

'in some towns citizens as young as twelve can serve on juries'

'medieval boys.... can marry at the age of fourteen and are liable to serve in the army from the age of fifteen.'

'At the battle of Crecy (1346) the command of the vanguard – the foremost battalion of the army – is given to Prince Edward [known to us as the Black Prince], then just sixteen years of age.'

These are not just random facts I'm quoting at you here. The early fourteenth century demographic is entirely germane to The Black and The White because my two protagonists are fifteen and seventeen. But they are not boys, they are men. Young men, but men nonetheless. Nobody frets about them being out and about without parental permission, they fret about them being out and about at all, given that the Black Death is raging across England.

In my novels I tend not to go on a lot about what people wear – my concern is not to get it glaringly wrong rather than to describe every tunic and shoe – but if I had been keen to wax lyrical about the different styles of town and country, rich and poor, The Time Traveller's Guide would have put me on the right track.

Similarly the various kinds of dwelling people lived in are not hugely TB&TW's concern – my two young men spend most of their time sleeping under their cart, but Ian Mortimer rounds up and summarises a lot of what I had – laboriously and painstakingly – gleaned from elsewhere about the various habitations of men pre-Black Death.

Given that my book is essentially the novelistic equivalent of a road movie, the chapter on Travelling was one of the most useful to me. Who knew how scarce bridges were (very, especially the stone variety) or exactly how much woodland on either side of a highway had to be cleared (200 yards).

I knew that maps were basically as rare as hens teeth and, anyway, no use for directions but to be given an actual request for directions was amazing:

'Good people I go to [wherever]. At which gate shall I go out? And at which hand shall I take my way?'

A character in TB&TW remarks that his method is 'journey and ask, son, journey and ask' which is a slightly snappier version.

I could go on and on about The Time Traveller's Guide. Where else can you find out about underwear, about the games that people played, about the scandalous behaviour of some younger sons of the aristocracy, about female sexuality and remedies for sexual frustration?

If you're remotely interested in social history – or if you're remotely thinking of writing a book set in the fourteenth century – this is an absolute 5-star book.


Tim Stretton said...

Alis, as you know, I think this a wonderful book. It's both entertaining and informative for the general reader, but for conveying those telling period he's invaluable for the writer.

Did you know he had a sideline in historical fiction as "James Forrester"? Haven't checked it out yet--like Aliya, I am surfeited with "men in tights" fiction...

Interested to see what other books you come up with!

Frances Garrood said...

I could never write an historical novel; I just don't have what it takes. But it must be so fascinating doing the research, and I quite envy you, Alis. I read a wonderful book (The Way We Lived Then by Norman Longmate) about life during WW2 for my fist novel, and really enjoyed it. Like the book you mention, it goes right inside life at the time, being full of first-person accounts. (What was particularly fascinating was how much things have chnged in such a short time. We know that - of course we do - but it really brings it home.)

How soon can you despatch your novel to the agent?

Alis said...

Hi Tim - Yes, I've just read Sacred Treason, his first outing as a novelist and I'm going to write a review once I've done the 5 books thing.

Alis said...

HI Frances

On the agent front - I've promised to send it at the beginning of next week so I'm trying not to bite my fingernails too much.

As for how much things have changed in such a short space of time - absolutely. One of the things which drives my family mad is me anachronism-spotting in period dramas - spotted a couple in Inspector George Gently last week - people assume that the 60s were more like now than they really were!

Akasha Savage. said...

How interesting that book sounds. I love doing research, I can get lost in it...and have many times.
Good luck with your agent.

Alis said...

Thanks, Akasha!

Juxtabook said...

Thank you for the link! The book sounds fascinating and I'm looking forward to the next four. And very good luck with the agent.

Alis said...

Thanks, Catherine!