Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The Real Book 5!

[Wikipedia cartoon from xkcd cartoon site]

The last book on my list of the five that have contributed most towards my research for The Black and The White is a bit of a cheat because it’s not a book at all. It’s Wikipedia.

In all the current debate – and doesn’t it rage? – over online versus print sources of information there seems to be a prevailing assumption that people engaged in some kind of serious endeavour will always prefer print over web-based information. I think that’s misguided, or at least simplistic. After all, haven’t we all read books that were ill-informed, badly written and just didn’t provide the kind of user-friendly information we actually wanted? Maybe they skated over the details we were after or told us stuff we’d already read a dozen times elsewhere.

I’m not saying that the internet is fool-proof. Far from it. As far as Wikipedia specifically, is concerned, I know there have been gaffes aplenty, but I don’t take uncritically the unreferenced things it says, any more than I’d take those things uncritically from print media. But where the articles are carefully footnoted, I’m prone to take it reasonably seriously.

Where it’s not footnoted or where it has one of those ‘citation needed here’ notes, obviously, I try and check the facts and see if I can find them quoted elsewhere. But you can come a little bit unstuck here. On dozens of occasions, I’ve been checking out a second source of information on another website, only to have the feeling of déjà vu. When I flick back to the wikipedia entry, I see that what I’ve been reading on the other site is quoted, word for word, on the wiki entry. Either the same person is responsible for the information on both sites or the article from one site has simply been lifted and pasted into the other. So you do need to keep your wits about you when verifying facts and not simply think ‘OK, good, this says the same things as Wikipedia’. Helps to have a good audio-visual memory, of course.

That all sounds as if I’m writing a cautionary post instead of a celebratory one, but I think it’s important to recognise any source’s shortcomings as well as its advantages.

So, why do I like Wikipedia so much that I’m citing it as one of my top 5 sources for my book?

Well, what other single source could give you information about things as diverse as these:

  • The exact form of words used in the prayers said for the dead in the fourteenth century.
  • Ditto the ‘hail Mary’ – different prior to some Vatican pronouncement which I’ve now forgotten in the late fifteenth century as it lacked the ‘Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death’ element.
  • The history and geology of tiny villages nobody’s ever heard of if they live more than ten miles away. (Don’t forget, my main character was travelling on foot from the west country to the eastern edge of England.)
  • Particular battles that took place in the Hundred Years War.
  • How charcoal is made
  • The difference between ‘bloomer’ smelting of iron and the later blast furnace technique (I ended up not needing to know this but found it fascinating)
  • The history of the Pilgrims’ Way.

I could go on and on.

Of course, a lot of those things were on numerous other websites as well but the beauty of Wikipedia is that it gives you references and links so that you can read up elsewhere about the subject. It’s a great jumping off point and often gives you and overview of a subject so that once you hop on to another site, you’ve already grasped the basics of the subject and are ready for more information.

Have I got shares? I wish….

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Book 5 - What the Things You Eat say about The Medieval You

They say you are what you eat. And it’s certainly true that you can tell a lot about people by what they consume, both nutritionally and in a broader sense, as I have discovered in the fourth of the five books that have been most influential to me in writing The Black and The White.

The subtitle of Christopher Dyer’s book Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages (actually Social change in England c. 1200 – 1520) could, quite plausibly, have been ‘Seeing the Population as Consumers’.

Consumers: it’s a word with a modern feel, isn’t it? Smacks of the retail prices index and the FTSI 100 and market research. But, once we stopped being nomadic hunter-gatherers and got the hang of staying in one place and growing things we’ve had the leisure to make stuff. And, once you make stuff, you’ll soon find you make more than you can use. And the market is born.

OK, so that’s a bit reductionist. But the same could not be said of Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages. By looking at very dry sources – invoices, account rolls, court records of fines, wills, bills of distraint etc – he paints for the reader a fascinating account of what life was actually like, on a day-to-day level, for the people of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. What did they eat? What did they wear? What kind of houses did they live in? And, above all, why? Why that diet, why those clothes, why that style of house?

I don’t know whether any of you followed the recent series A History of the World in 100 Objects on Radio 4 (also available on iTunes as podcast) but I was an addict and, in one of the earlier episodes the point was made that writing didn’t develop as a literary tool – far from it, it was around for centuries before anybody thought to write down orally-transmitted stories – but for the purposes of administration. Once you begin trading you need to record what you’ve got, what has moved from whom, to whom, and in response to exactly what transaction. Otherwise you won’t know how much you should have and how much money there should be in your coffers as a replacement for the stuff you don’t have any more.

It’s that kind of record that Dyer is drawing on. The vast majority of the written material which survives from the medieval period is not literature but legal and administrative records – manorial rolls, court rolls, parliamentary rolls and, strangely enough, individual records – wills and contracts and leases and so forth, all kept with the manorial records. And all of these deal with stuff. Stuff that people possessed, stuff that they were entitled to, stuff they ate, stuff they wore.

I love nitty gritty details of people’s daily lives and, in Dyer’s book they are very exact. Unlike most general reference books which say infuriatingly generic things like ‘most people ate pottage’ without any attempt at stratifying ‘people’ or explaining the many and varied meanings of ‘pottage’, Dyer’s books is absolutely precise because he’s working from written sources from actual places, often referring to named individuals. A widow from Essex, for example, was known to have had a good amount of vegetables in her diet because the record of a maintenance agreement with a family member says that she was allowed ‘half of the garden for her own use’. (Nobody below the level of aristocrat sat about in a flower-garden in those days – her ‘use’ was growing food.)

Stereotypical views of the medieval world – promulgated by many a Robin Hood film and others of the same ilk – are regularly punctured. For instance, many tenants at Alrewas, Shropshire, were allowed, by customs written down in 1342, to catch fish from the Trent for their own use on the meatless days (Fridays and many, many other ‘fast’ days). So much for the stock medieval picture of the rapacious lord cutting off peasants’ hands for the smallest attempt to feed themselves from what he might consider to be his property.

And, being an economic historian, Dyer is keen to show trends over time. There’s a wonderful graph (OK, wonderful to me, the major medieval geek) showing how the diet fed to harvest workers on a particular estate changed over almost two centuries from 1250 to 1430. And there it is – the sudden rise in meat after the Black Death. In the decade following the calamity, when labour was scarce and therefore valuable, almost twice as much meat is being fed to workers as in the previous decade (or any of the decades before that excepting the boom years of the 1280s). Meat – good thick slices – was being used as an inducement. ‘Come and work for me, I’ll pay you well and feed you better’. I had read in other sources that, after the Black Death, villeins were refusing to do their customary service – work they were obliged to do for their lord – preferring to work for money elsewhere and pay the fine that would result from their defiance of manor law. And there it is, in Dyer’s book, in stark accountings, proof that workers were having to be treated better, proof that their standards of living were rising.

Though I’ve read the book at least twice and dipped in countless times for a detail here, a fact there, I’m going to read Chapter 7 - Urban Standards of Living - again, today. Because A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing is set, not in the countryside like The Black and The White, but in Salster, the city I invented for Testament.

I know that the Black Death changed things profoundly in the countryside – or at least that it speeded up change that had been slowly making itself felt for half a century or so – but it had just as big an effect on the towns. That’ll be another post, no doubt!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

I'm not here really...

...there's a long post from me over on the Macmillan New Writers' blog on the subject of fourteenth century fiction.
Do pop over - here - and have a look!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Yet another diversion...

...but a worthy one, I hope.

My fellow Macmillan New Writer and all-round Good Egg, Len (LC) Tyler, is offering his services in an auction to raise money for autism research.

Len will be offering to critique ten pages and a synopsis of an unpublished work (brave man) so go on, you know you want to - bid for it!!

More details here and here.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Another diversion

I just had to break in to the sequence (again) to ask you all - have you read the Guernseay Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? If not, you really must. I've just read it for one of the book groups I belong to (I only belong to two, don't imagine me out discussing literature every night of the week - when would I watch Spooks or Grand Designs or Downton Abbey?) and i ABSOLUTELY LOVED it.

You know those books that they tell you will make you laugh and cry? Well, unlike the rest, this one actually does. I laughed out loud at the sheer unexpectedness of some of the lines and I cried at the poignancy of the characters experiences.

I'll try and get a proper review up soon but I just had to tell you that, if you haven't read this lovely book, you should do so as a matter of urgency.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Book Three, The English Year

The past, as has been noted, is another country. Or, if it's not, it might as well be for all the resemblance it bears to modern life. The third book on my list makes this abundantly clear as it details all sorts of customs and traditional observances that most twenty-first cntury people have never heard of, much less taken part in.

In reading The English Year, A month-by-month guide to The Nation's Customs and Festivals, From May Day to Mischief Night – or rather in flicking through it and consulting it, it's not the kind of book you can sit down and read cover to cover (even the cover takes long enough to read) – you realise how much has changed since the time when The Black and The White is set [ie the mid-fourteenth century].

For instance, did you know that during the fourteenth century (and for centuries before that) the new year was on a different day? Not a little bit different, not a day or two for some weird adjustment of the calendar – months different. The church, in its wisdom, had decided that the December31st/January 1st-style new year was altogether too pagan and had decreed that the beginning of the year must be pegged to the Christian character. So they decided that if Christmas was the pivotal moment of the calendar – the moment at which God arrived on earth and everything in history changed - then the moment at which Christ was conceived must be the beginning of the change. So they decided that the Feast of the Annunciation, aka, the conception of Christ on the 25th of March, would be the beginning of the Christian New Year.

Of course, what with people having been wassailing and hanging out the holly and ivy for some considerable time before the Church got here, things became a bit confused. It seems that, from at least the thirteenth century, January the 1st was accepted by everybody as the official start of the year but the habit of letting the church dictate was hard to shake. Even as late as the 17th century Samuel Pepys refers to New Year's day at the beginning of January, but never changes the year in his diary until March 25th!

Which goes some way to explaining the oddity of financial and tax years coming at the end of March/beginning of April.

This is a dramatic example of what The English Year can tell you but there are lots of less dramatic but more picturesque examples. Kit-dressing at Baslow (Derbyshire) on the 4th of August. (Get your garlanded milkmaid's pail [kit] here!). Church clipping in Painswick (Gloucestershire) on the 19th of September. [Basically a saint's name day from the old word ycleped 'called'.) Hungerford (Berkshire) Hocktide court on the Monday or Tuesday after Easter. (Nobody knows...)

[Both Painswick and Hungerford appear in TBTW, though I don't mention either of the festivals in the book. But, somehow, just knowing they took place gave the feel of the places more depth in my mind.]

One of the things that I found fascinating was how often pagan supersititions were welded to apparently Christian festivals – usually saints' days.

For instance, the 24th of April, St Mark's Eve is, apparently, one of the key nights on which to divine the future. As Steve Roud, author of The English Year, points out 'Certainly, there seems to be nothing in the life or writings of the evangelist St Mark that would deserve this reputation, but the idea was extremely widespread.'

Widespread and wide-ranging, from the sane and familiar dreaming-of-your-future-lover motif to the startling notion that the wraith of your future lover would be summoned to your side; and not just summoned, but called to your side by a 'cake' baked of equal parts of flour, salt and the urine of all those taking part in the ritual!

Then there's St Vincent's day. Nobody knows why St Vincent of Saragossa was so popular across Europe in the middle ages – he doesn't seem to have been martyred in any particularly spectacular or horrifying manner (though ravens did guard his martyred corpse until it could be buried) – but popular he was. And his day was, like St Mark's, allied to divination. In this case it wasn't lover-divination but weather-foretelling of a sub-St Swithin kind. It seems to have been agreed that if the weather was nice on his feast day – January 22nd – then it was likely to be a pleasant year. Not amazing. Just pleasant. Clement. Nice.

He may have been from Saragossa but we English obviously took St Vincent and his weather to our hearts.

Of course it's not all saints and divination and calendar weirdness – though any one of those, ignored, could derail your novel. (Woe betide the historical novelist who doesn't know when the major festivals of the church year were because that's how people way-marked the year and dated their letters. It was 'the Tuesday after Ascension day' or 'the Wednesday before the feast of St John the Baptist' and all that. ) No, there are some plain silly customs in The English Year too. Some we've heard of like the cheese rolling Gloucestershire villagers (Painswick features again – I think it's the hill, Painswick beacon, which does get a mention in TBTW) and some are less well-known like the Shropshire practice of men and women lifting each other bodily off the ground on Easter Monday and Tuesday respectively. A Manchester correspondent of the Gentleman's Magazine of 1784 described it:

'The men lift the women on Easter Monday, and the women the men on Tuesday. One or more take hold of each leg, and one or more of each arm, near the body, and lift the person up, in a horizontal position, three times. It is a rude, indecent, and dangerous diversion, practised chiefly by the lower class of people.'

Hmm. Methinks maybe he protested too much and might quite like to have been 'liften horizontally' by multiple ladies of the lower class himself.

So. The English Year. Customs large and small, sedate and mad, lost to history and still practiced. (You have to check out the website for the Mad Maldon Mud Race, described in The English Year as belonging to a category of custom which will be known to future historians as 'started with a discussion in the pub'. Discussion, or in this case, dare.) Customs based on religion – both Christian and pagan – and agricultural practices and beliefs and traditions that have vanished in the mists of time. But all fascinating. And all part and parcel of our world – even as half-recalled folk memories - as well as the world of the fourteenth century.

I'd have made lots of mistakes without The English Year. And I'd have missed out on lots of laughs and 'well I never' moments, too.

Monday, 1 November 2010

A new book begins...

Just a quick diversion from the 5 books theme to tell you that, today, I've started work on my next book – the second in the putative trilogy, provisionally entitled A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing. I'm very excited about it, especially as I'm going to be using Scrivener – the research and drafting tool for the Mac – for the first time.

Today I have been reading up about hwo the Black Death changed the English wool trade and mulling over the major plotlines of the book to see whether they gel. More mulling will take place as I read. I'm also trying to work out where the book starts. We've moved on almost twenty years from the events described in The Black and The White and I need to find exactly the right moment to reintroduce the reader to our characters. Which means finding the right POV for the book's opening. Unlike TBTW, which is first person throughout, AWISC is going to be multi-viewpoint.

I love researching and planning a book. Anything seems possible. And it'll keep my mind off the wait to hear the first professional verdict on The Black and The White.