Friday, April 24

Everyday Medieval Women

So much of the fascination of history is accounts of kings and queens, mighty battles and events that helped shape the modern world. Medieval history is no exception. The murder of Thomas Becket, The Wars of the Roses, Magna Carta, Richard the Lionheart, the Crusades: all indeed showstoppers. But what of the everyday day life that millions of people had to lead? I confess to finding that equally, and at times, even more absorbing. When visiting re-enactments or museums, I’m less taken with sword A or helmet B, but more likely to watch as a woman makes a dish of pottage using twelfth century implements and ingredients.

Medieval Cooking Pot
© York Museums Trust used with permission.

The fascination for me is that it’s so relatable. Everyone has to make their way in the world and we (most of us, anyway) don’t do it from the battlements of a castle. Yet even in the history of the ordinary man, it tends to be just that. Men. Whatever sparse records exist tend to disappear almost entirely when it comes to women, as so many records are linked to land. We do know some of what life was like for a woman who was not at the top of the social tree: challenging is a word that springs to mind.

Amazon.co.uk
Everyday women were excluded from holding any kind of office. A woman’s legal rights were defined primarily by men throughout her life. Men defined her description. When she was a maiden, her father was in charge. As a wife, her husband. A medieval legal definition of married women from 1180 tells us that “every married woman is a sort of infant.” A wife has to agree to her husband’s sexual demands, cannot borrow money without his permission and is not able to make a will. A widow’s standing is based on her late husband’s status. This might suggest some level of independence.

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But the widow of a villein (a tenant entirely subject to a lord) had, in reality, to remarry. She had a brief few months to make her own choice. If she did not, then the lord’s bailiff or reeve would select her next spouse for her. Refusal brought a fine, or imprisonment. Giving birth to an illegitimate child carried a fine called childwyte. This seems particularly punitive when one considers the law on rape. It was believed that conception could only occur when a woman experienced orgasm. And if she did so, then she had enjoyed the encounter with the man. And so it wasn’t rape. Blinding logic. For medieval men, that is.

Amazon.co.uk 

Childbirth was a terribly risky endeavour for medieval women, no matter what their status in society. It is estimated that for every pregnancy, a woman had a one in fifty chance of dying in childbirth. Women from the lower classes were often employed as wet-nurses for the wealthy.

The wives of peasants and villeins shared much of the agricultural labour with their husbands. They could earn money as labourers but were paid about half than men for the same work. Seasonal work paid better than service. Women’s tasks included sheep shearing, milking cows and looking after livestock and chickens, planting, winnowing and weeding. This was on top of all the domestic tasks: keeping a fire, cooking, washing.

Amazon.co.uk
The dark hours were put to good use also. Cheese making and brewing could yield a woman some extra income. Many women brewed ale. The demand for ale was high as drinking water was frequently dirty and unsafe. While the brewers were women, the tasters were male and women could be fined for sour beer. With the introduction of hops to brewing (which makes beer, rather than ale and preserves the drink for a lot longer), it became a male-dominated practice, through women continued to sell it.

With the expansion of towns and cities in the medieval period, women found other opportunities to earn an income. Many unmarried young women opted for service as it gave a yearly wage and moved from the countryside to secure a place. Women also worked as huxters. They would buy produce such as bread, eggs, vegetables or other foods and sell from baskets, either door-to-door or on foot in the increasingly busy marketplaces. The female ale sellers went by some rather wonderful names: gannockers, tapsters or tranters. The money earned in these ways was pitifully small.

Amazon.co.uk
Medieval towns also saw the rise of the apprentice, where a young person could be trained to learn a craft over many years. But there were no female guilds, and female apprenticeships do not occur in large numbers in the records. The skilled weavers, for instance, were men. The preparatory work for weaving, such as combing, carding and spinning of the wool tended to be done by women who would be paid little for this work. Silk weaving developed as an all-female craft in London, yet the silk-women only formed a collective, not a guild.

Laundry was an all-female preserve. Women did their own washing at home, often using unpleasant substances such as lye and urine as cleaning agents. They also worked as laundresses, travelling to the houses of the rich to carry out their duties. Naturally, the work in the laundry is dismissed by some chroniclers as a hot-bed of gossiping. It must in reality have been back-breaking.

Amazon.co.uk
Moving to towns and cities made women vulnerable to exploitation. Prostitution was rife. Female prostitutes were tolerated in fourteenth century London so long as they wore a yellow hood that marked them out. This was to save confusion on behalf of men who might mistake a respectable woman for a prostitute.

I like chain-mailed heroes as much as the next medieval history fan. But for me, these forgotten women were pretty darned heroic too. Speaking as an everyday woman, I'm so privileged I have my life and not theirs.

References:
Included in the post above with Amazon links: there is so much more to discover in them about ordinary life in medieval times.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Note: I originally posted this article on English Historical Fiction Authors on April 17th 2015.

Medieval thrillers The Fifth Knight and The Blood of the Fifth Knight have been #1 Amazon bestsellers in the US, the UK and Australia. I'm working on the next novel in the series, Lord of Ireland, based on the Lord John's disastrous 1185 campaign in Ireland.
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Wednesday, April 1

The Medieval Origins of Popular Games

Yes, it seems impossible that already in 2015, it's time to greet the month of April. We may still be huddling in inclement weather but we know, just as the medievals did, that Spring is on its way and with it the chance for children to play outdoors during the long evenings. What's less well known is that many of the games still played today by young and old alike have their origins in medieval times.

Medieval Zodiac

Hide and Seek

This game first appears in records around 1042. It was originally called "Hyde and Squeak" and involved getting a cow (the "hyde") to sit on a mouse and make it squeak. Pest control was a major issue for medieval people, and it is thought that the game was introduced to alleviate the relentless tedium. Pictorial records exist that clearly reflect the fun that could be had. Some people were less good at following the rules, such as the early twelfth century painters, Hildebert and Everwin.

Hildebert and Everwin with Mouse (and Lion)

Here we see Hildebert merely cursing the mouse and has his lectern balanced on a lion. That is a different game, and has fallen out of favour, especially in Las Vegas.

Tic-tac-toe

These days an easy game that can be played anywhere. Its medieval origins were more demanding. Players had to each collect a "Ticke, a Tacke and a Toe". For most, the Tick and the Tack were straightforward: people had any number of bodily parasites and it was easy enough to find a nail. The Toe was also easy to acquire as most people had at least one.

Not-so-welcome visitor- the Tick

But as a game to pass the long winter nights, it tended to be good for only about five minutes. In the late 1300s, we see the Toe rule changing to mean "the toe of another."  The chroniclers report a huge surge in popularity but for the very ticklish, it brought nothing but misery. One abbot in Munich refused to go to sleep for three months for fear of having his digits grabbed.

Follow the Leader

It is interesting that this game was first popularized by medieval kings. The game started with someone at the head of the line. Anyone who didn't follow the action of the leader was out of the game, in a slain-in-battle sort of way. The last person standing was the new leader. Some uncles liked to play this game with their nephews but there are no records of what the nephews thought of it.


Uncle Richard III

Catch!

The medieval version of this game was very different to what we play today. It involved scanning your friends and neighbours for any suspicious eruptions. At the first sight of a boil or pustule, you ran away, screaming "I'm not flipping catching that!" It is a game that has prompted much debate amongst historical fiction writers and some real historians. Central to the controversy is the precise date of the game's origins. There are those who have evidence for February 11th 1406, a claim vociferously challenged by the February 12th 1406 Society. There was an ugly scene at a recent Historical Novel Society Conference where the issue was debated by a panel and a plastic cup of water was spilled. The organisers of the upcoming HNS Denver 2015 conference have decided to cancel their related panel as a precaution.

Good call, HNS!

Rock, Paper, Scissors

A game which has evolved over time. In the general absence/rarity of paper or scissors, it was just called "Rock". Players pelted each other with rocks until one person fell down. Or ran away. It is a topic in history that continues to fascinate. The most recent edition of Exciting Archaeology reported on a find from a garden in the north-west of England that bears an uncanny resemblance to a description from a text from 1308: “A nyse whyte one, of goodly size, that fittes in the hand and has mosse on that it does not slippe.”


© Exciting Archaeology 2015

Monopoly

We may think of it as modern, but Monopoly is a corruption of the early medieval game of "Mon au poly." The name can be translated from the Old French as Mine of Many, or the Old English Kiddersham dialect, meaning "The Whole Boiling Lot." Again, it was mostly played by kings. Henry II and his sons, Richard and John, were keen players, especially at Christmas.

Henry II with sons Richard & (cheat) John
© 2015 E.M. Powell 

Henry and Richard were extremely skilled, but there are accounts that John frequently stole from the bank and had a tendency to tip the board over when he was losing.

Game of Thrones

Our last game, which, ironically, is often mistakenly believed to have medieval origins. But it doesn’t. Honest.

This one belongs to George.
I wouldn't, if I were you.

References:

Exciting Archaeology, Volume III, February 2015
Facebook: THE REAL MEDIEVAL HISTORY PAGE- YOU’LL NEVER BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!!!!!!!
Fun With Leeches: A Dorling Kinderegg Rough Picture Guide
Martin, George R. R.: A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1), Bantam; Reprint ed.(2011)
Oxen Droppings and Other Related Signs, 1233-34: Oxford University Press
Powell, E.M.: King John: Tyrannical Rex: Bandwagon Press (2015)
Powell, E.M.: King John: Good With Kittens and Liked Rainbows: Bandwagon Press (2015)
Powell, E.M: Kitten Slaughter- the making of King John: Bandwagon Press (2015)
Starkey, David: History: A Catholic Conspiracy.(Various eds.)

All images Public Domain unless otherwise stated. I wrote this post for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog.
Please note: the information in this post is only ever valid on April 1st. Except the part about King John cheating at Monopoly. That is historical FACT. Thank you.

Tuesday, March 17

Medieval Ireland

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh- Happy Saint Patrick's Day to you all!

Saint Patrick

Yes, it's the day when much of the globe celebrates all things Irish by a) donning green and b) taking leave of their senses. Fair enough. As an Irish person, it's nice to see that the small island from which I hail is so widely/wildly celebrated, and I was very pleased that I could snag today's posting date to add to the acclaim.

Much has been written about Ireland's history, but not many people are aware of a history of Ireland that was written in the 12th century, Topographia Hiberniae, or The History and Topography of Ireland. It was written by Gerald of Wales, a cleric and chronicler at the court of England's Henry II. (In case anyone's disappointed, please be assured that there will be snakes.)

Topographia Hiberniae

Partly Anglo-Norman and partly Welsh and a member of the hugely powerful and successful fitzGerald family, Gerald wrote seventeen books and planned several others. He wrote the Topographia following two visits to Ireland in 1183 and 1185. It is a remarkable work, shedding light on many aspects of medieval Irish life and society. However, it is at all times Gerald's light, and Gerald was on the side of the conquerors. Bearing that in mind, let's look at the Ireland of 850 years ago from a man who was there.

The island of Ireland
NASA

Gerald divided his book into three parts. the first part he called The Position of Ireland. For the medievals, Ireland was the most westerly point in the world. Sorry, Americas, but there was simply nothing else. As Gerald so beautifully puts it: " Beyond these limits, there is no land, nor is there habitation either of men or beasts- but beyond the whole horizon only the ocean flows and is borne on in boundless space." He describes Ireland as about half the size of "greater Britain and ...more round."

Atlantic Ocean, Spanish Point Co. Clare, Ireland
© Copyright Angella Streluk http://www.geograph.ie/

Ireland's natural resources greatly impressed Gerald. He writes of rivers of magnificent size, with their "abundance of fish...beautiful lakes full of fish of magnificent size...a kind of speciality here." The fertile land and the mild temperatures, along with the ease with which grass could be grown also pleased Gerald: "The grass is green in the fields in winter, just the same as in summer." But like so many visitors to Ireland, Gerald quickly found out what made all that green in the first place: the Irish weather. (Or as we natives like to call it, the rain.) Gerald is not happy: "[The harvest] can scarcely be reaped...because of the unceasing rain. For this country more than any other suffers from storms of wind and rain... There is such a plentiful supply of rain, such an ever-present overhanging of clouds and fog, that you will scarcely see even in the summer three consecutive days of really fine weather." 

Lough Leane, Killarney, Co. Kerry
© Copyright Ian S  http://www.geograph.ie/

Gerald was cheerier about the plentiful supply of birds and the lack of mammals that would pose a threat to man. He even mentions snakes, (I did promise), or rather, lack of them. He assures us that "Ireland has no serpents or snakes, toads or frogs, tortoises or scorpions."  His readers will also have been relieved to know "It has no dragons." For those of you waiting to see if Gerald has the definitive answer on Saint Patrick and the snakes issue, Gerald provides one. But you may be disappointed: "Some indulge in the pleasant conjecture that Saint Patrick...purged the island of all harmful animals. But it is more probable that from the earliest times...the island was naturally without these as well as other things." 

Snake!

The first part of the Topographia is a wonderful read, in that so much of it is recognizable as the Ireland that still exists. The second part is also remarkable but in a way that is less based in reality. In it, Gerald relates The Wonders and Miracles of Ireland.

Under Wonders, we have reports of a small island where corpses don't rot. A bearded woman with a mane on her back at the court of the King of Limerick. A priest who conversed at length with a wolf. A whale that was found with three gold teeth. Wonders, indeed, but the lake that was formed in a flood because the people were addicted to bestiality is probably the show stopper.

Wolves from a Medieval Bestiary

Moving swiftly onto Miracles, Gerald includes (among many others), the fleas banished by Saint Nannan, a cross in Dublin that speaks the truth and the inextinguishable fire of Saint Brigid. My personal favourite is The Mill that Women Do Not Enter. The mill in question was carved by Saint Féchín, and women weren't allowed in. But an archer of Hugh de Lacy (de Lacy was Henry's man) dragged a woman in "and lustfully violated her there."  Happily, according to Gerald, the archer was "stricken in his member with hell-fire in sudden vengeance and immediately began to burn throughout his whole body. He died that same night." Good for Saint Féchín, I say. 

Ruins of the 7th C St Féchín's church, Omey Island Galway, Ireland
© Copyright Oxana Maher http://www.geograph.ie/

The third part of the Topographia is where Gerald gets up close and extremely personal with the Irish people. Its title is The Inhabitants of the Country. One gets a sense of what is to come when he begins it by restating the legitimate claim that the kings of Britain have over Ireland. Following a brief mention of "beautiful, upright bodies and handsome and well-complexioned faces", there are positives no more.

Firstly, the Irish are "barbarous..and cannot be said to have any culture. they are a wild and inhospitable people...they live on beasts only and live like beasts." Secondly, they are lazy, "think that the greatest pleasure is not to work and that the greatest wealth is to enjoy liberty." Gerald really gets into his stride with the third national trait, which is incest: "This is a filthy people, wallowing in vice." Fourth has us always treacherous, and he warns "You must be more afraid of their wile than their war." The fifth is the tendency to "always carry an axe as if  it were a staff...beyond being raised a little, it inflicts a mortal blow."  

Ancient Irish Warriors- as imagined in the 1920s

If only it were some nifty axe-work we were accused of. Gerald has more. He cites the example of a new and outlandish way of confirming kingship by the Irish in Ulster (where he never went). A white mare is brought before the ruler, who has intercourse with the animal, slaughters it, then boils up the meat and has a bath in the broth, "quaffs and drinks of it...in which he is bathed...just dipping his mouth into it round about him." The Irish Church isn't spared either. Gerald despairs that all the Irish saints are "confessors and there is no martyr...to cement the foundation of the church with his blood, not a single one." 

Gerald ends by countering his earlier statements about handsome Irish people. Yes, there might be some. But he has never seen so many suffering from defects and "turn out in a horrible way."  What can the Irish expect? They are a people "that is adulterous, incestuous, unlawfully conceived and born, outside the law, and shamefully abusing nature herself in spiteful and horrible practices."

So positives no more, except for an unexpected section in the third part of the Topographia where Gerald acknowledges and praises the Irish as highly skilled and talented musicians. Mind you, even this is qualified with a statement that the Scots have probably overtaken them.

Irish Harp

What to make of the Topographia, with its praise for a country but its condemnation of a people? Well, as I remarked at the start of this post, Gerald was on the side of the invaders. And if you make those you seek to conquer less than civilized, less than human, then you have the sword of justification in your hand. It's a very powerful weapon and has never been sheathed for very long in human history. The history of Ireland is no exception. The Topographia records some sadly prescient words to that effect, attributed by Gerald to Tatheus, Archbishop of Cashel in Ireland.

The Rock of Cashel, seat of the medieval Archbishopric
Public Domain Courtesy of John Sullivan http://pdphoto.org/

Gerald was bemoaning  to Tatheus the fact that the Irish had never produced a martyr. Tatheus replied: "But now a people has come to the kingdom which knows how, and is accustomed, to make martyrs. From now on, Ireland will have its martyrs, just as other countries."

Reading them with the hindsight of eight centuries of Irish history, these words are heartbreaking. And what did Gerald make of them? They were, according to him, "sly." 

References:
Cosgrove, Art, ed: A New History of Ireland Volume II, Medieval Ireland: Oxford University Press (2008)
Duffy, Seán: Ireland in the Middle Ages: Palgrave Macmillan (1997)
Gerald of Wales: The History and Topography of Ireland: Penguin Clasics (1982)
Otway-Ruthven, A.J.: A History of Medieval Ireland: Ernest Benn Limited (1968)

All images are public domain unless otherwise stated.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Note: I originally posted this article on English Historical Fiction Authors on March 17th 2015.

Medieval thrillers The Fifth Knight and The Blood of the Fifth Knight have been #1 Amazon bestsellers in the US, the UK and Australia. I'm working on the next novel in the series, Lord of Ireland, based on the Lord John's disastrous 1185 campaign in Ireland.
Find out more at www.empowell.com
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Saturday, February 14

Medieval Saints and Lovers

Medieval Saint Valentine
Public Domain
I write historical thrillers and have long had a fascination for all things medieval. One of the aspects of medieval life that has always intrigued me has been people’s devotion to saints. I’ve touched on other blog posts, where I looked at saints' relics.

Hang on a minute, I hear you say. This blog is for Valentine’s Day, for lovers. Should I be looking at preserved body parts here? I think not. But I would like (like our medieval forebears would have) to look at the saints that might appeal to us at this time when all thoughts turn to love. You might be surprised by the findings.

Let’s kick off with the saint who names the day. Saint Valentine himself. As with many saints, the origins of who he was (and there is evidence there may have been three saints) are vague. But don’t expect him to have been elevated to sainthood because of any kind of special involvement with lovers.

Valentine was a holy priest in third century who helped out persecuted early Christians. He was arrested and tried before the prefect of Rome. The prefect tried to make him renounce his faith but Valentine refused. The prefect ordered Valentine be beaten with clubs, which still didn’t make him change his mind. He was then beheaded. His execution took place on February 14, about the year 270. Interesting that the record is clear about the date being February 14, but a bit hazy about the year.
Alain Chartier
Edmund Blair-Leighton, 1903
Public Domain

This can be explained when we fast forward to medieval times.  The concept of courtly love with aloof, desirable women was hugely popular during this period. Troubadours celebrated these women through song and poems. In the fourteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer brought the popularity of courtly love to new heights with his poem The Parlement of Fowles. 


This poem first introduced the idea of Valentine’s Day being a day for lovers. The Cour Amoreuse was founded in the French Medieval Court, supposedly in honour of women. It first met on Valentine’s Day in 1400, ruled over by a ‘Prince of Love’ who was a professional poet. Noble ladies heard various love-poems and presented prizes to the winners.  



But what’s interesting is that in the canon of Catholic saints, Saint Valentine isn’t the saint of wistful lovers in the throes of a new romance. He is the patron saint for those who have already found their perfect partner. 


The Angel Raphael
leaving the family of Tobias
Rembrandt, 1637
Public Domain


Being the patron for those seeking love actually belongs to the Archangel Raphael. Saint Raphael, according to legend, helped Tobias enter into marriage with Sarah, who had seen seven previous bridegrooms perish on the eve of their weddings. (That has to be a run of bad luck if there ever was one.) Saint Raphael is the patron saint for what is called happy encounters (how sweet!).

You could of course always try the Welsh Saint Dwynwen. She is the Welsh patron saint of love and friendship, who lived during the fifth Century and was one of the 24 daughters of King of Wales, Brychan Brycheiniog. (When I came across those statistics, I felt perhaps that Brychan should patron saint of something, but I wasn’t quite sure what).



© Copyright Robin Drayton
http://www.geograph.org.uk/

Dwynwen founded a convent on Llanddwyn, on the west coast of Anglesey, where she was joined by other broken-hearted women. After her death in 465AD, a well named after her became a place of pilgrimage and it remains there today.

There are also of course related saints: Saint Agnes, patron saint of virginity. Saint Anne, the patron saint of fertility and childbirth and Saint Gerard Majella, patron saint of motherhood, both good to call on when Saint Agnes has gone off duty. And of course, good old Saint Fotino, the patron saint of erectile dysfunction, who has a reassuring big white beard, but alas, I couldn't find a usable image.
St. Agnes
Caesare Dandini, 16th C
Public Domain
So, lovers of love, you are not restricted to just Valentine on February 14. You can take your pick of saints- just like the medievals did.

Friday, February 6

The Medieval Romances of Chrétien de Troyes



The Accolade
Edmund Blair Leighton, 1901
Public Domain
If I were to ask you if you knew the story of Sir Lancelot, then I suspect you would answer in the affirmative. Chain mail. One of King Arthur’s knights. Caused all sorts of bother with Guinevere. Yes, you know all about him. But if I were to ask you who Chrétien de Troyes was, you might not have such a ready answer. It might surprise you to know that he is the medieval writer credited with bringing the legend of said Sir Lancelot along with the other Arthurian legends into the genre known as romance. And of course, writing about a British king, Chrétien was French.

It is frustrating that we know very little of Chrétien’s life. He was writing between 1160 and 1172, and it is suggested that he had a position as herald-at-arms at the court of his patroness in the city of Troyes. His patroness was the Countess Marie de Champagne, daughter of Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Familiar to us all will be the notion of Courtly Love: this was also a concept running through Chrétien’s work.

Marie played a major part in taking this romantic ideal and promoting it as fashionable behaviour. Devotion and courtesy featured, but so did adulterous love. It should be remembered that adultery was considered amongst the gravest of sins by the medieval church. But Marie’s influence, and perhaps that of her mother, created a surge of interest amongst European aristocracy. (One commentator describes her as ‘this celebrated feudal dame’, a description which, to my eternal regret, conjured up a medieval Mae West on first reading.)

The End of the Song
Edmund Blair Leighton, 1902
Public Domain

Chrétien wrote in Old French, rather than Latin. He composed at least five romances and two lyric poems. The word ‘romance’ also comes to us from this period. The Old French word romanz was first used in a literary sense to distinguish words written in vernacular French (romanz) from those in Latin.

So how did Chrétien happen on tales of King Arthur for inspiration? It would seem that Chrétien, like all good writers of historical fiction, liked a bit of a borrow from the past. Irish, Welsh and Breton legends have some mentions. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae, written in 1137, introduced the Arthurian legend to continental Europe.  This was a Latin history written in prose. Anglo-Norman poet Wace produced Roman de Brut in 1155, a version of the history now in French couplets.

King Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table
Michael Gantelet, 1472
Public Domain

Wace’s King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table (Wace’s is the first known mention of the Round Table; Chrétien has that for Camelot) were undoubtedly a more refined bunch than those written of previously. But they were still a group of fighters, rather than lovers. If his version were a historical novel, it would have swords and sandals on the cover, no question. It would take Chrétien to bring on the cover with the headless lady in the big dress.

In Chrétien’s romances we have knights riding out on adventures, fighting bravely against other warriors, monsters and magical creatures. And of course, the knights are also in pursuit of the love of their fair lady, often a love they lose, only to fight to get it back again. This latter storyline might be familiar to readers of the contemporary romance genre. But forget stereotypical images of swooning ladies.  Chrétien doesn’t hold with damsels in distress. His ladies can be just as courageous and daring as his knights. When one considers the powerful woman that was one of Chrétien’s patrons, along with other powerful female patrons, this is hardly surprising.

God Speed!
Edmund Blair Leighton, 1900
Public Domain

So what of the romances? First is Erec et Enide, with its straightforward tale of love, estrangement and reconciliation on an adventure-filled journey. It is set in Brittany and depicts King Arthur sitting on a throne emblazoned with a leopard. Such court scenes may have been inspired by Henry II’s  Christmas 1169  court at Nantes in Brittany.

Second is Cligès, which is written against the background of the Tristan and Iseut story. It is an adulterous tale in which Cligès falls in love with Fenice, his uncle’s wife. She feigns her death with a magic potion, so they can be together.

Third up is Lancelot, or The Knight with the Cart. By far the most famous romance of Chrétien’s, it is the first tale of the adulterous love between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere. Though she is cruel to him, he obeys her every command and wish. Readers may not be familiar with its name, The Knight with the Cart. It is so called because in his search for Guinevere, Lancelot rides in a cart meant for convicted criminals. He is concerned for his honour (albeit briefly), but she is very displeased that he would hesitate in his search for her.

The Parting of Sir Lancelot & Guinevere, 1874
Julie Margaret Cameron
Public Domain

Fourth is Perceval, a very lengthy yet not completed tale. Again, it introduces a story which has inspired so many, many more tales of searches and quests: the quest for the Grail.

Last, but by no means least, we have Yvain, or The Knight with the Lion. It is a spectacular romance and adventure, with a lion, a giant, a magic fountain and the widow who falls in love with Yvain, her husband’s killer.

In Time of Peril
Edmund Blair Leighton, 1903
Public Domain

Lancelot and Guinevere. The Grail. King Arthur. Camelot. Chivalrous knights. All part of the popular cultural imagination, thanks to Chrétien de Troyes. We may not know much about him. But my goodness: we know about his stories. We are still retelling them today.

References:
De Troyes, Chretien: Arthurian Romances, Penguin Classics (1991)
Encyclopaedia Brittanica: Chrétien de Troyes
Jones, Terry & Eriera, Alan: Medieval Lives, BBC Books (2004)
Lindahl, C., McNamara, J & Lindow, J. (eds.): Medieval Folklore, Oxford University Press (2002)
Norton Anthology of English Literature: Chrétien de Troyes: www.norton.com
Weir, Alison: Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, Vintage Books (2007)

Note: I originally posted this article on English Historical Fiction Authors on February 1st 2015.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Fifth Knight and The Blood of the Fifth Knight have been #1 Amazon bestsellers in the US, the UK and Australia. Find out more at www.empowell.com.

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Amazon.co.uk
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Friday, January 16

Medieval Medley

At the last Historical Novel Society Conference in London in September 2014, there was a highly entertaining panel on the theme My Era is Better than Yours. (if you want to enjoy it for yourself, here's the You Tube link.) Historical fiction writers represented a number of historical periods, arguing whose should be the favourite. The choice was put to audience vote, and the Georgians won. (Note: this might be simply because HNS delegates have a keen interest in gin and syphilis. We may never know for certain). The medieval period of course got my vote. It isn't the most popular for readers of historical fiction, but I think people are missing out. I believe it to be one of the most exciting, extraordinary and at times downright bizarre periods there is. So if you’re not yet a fan, let me give you a flavour in my Medieval Medley. You may change your mind!

Medieval Mail

© 2014 E.M. Powell 

Chain mail-wearing knights often get bad press among the reading public. I am personally a very big fan. There may be some eye-rolling at this as appealing dress from male readers who are possibly envisaging a wimpy Sir Lancelot type. Gentlemen, a suit of chain mail and padded armour weighs in at four stone, or fifty-six pounds. You develop a lot of core strength simply wearing it. Wimpy? I don’t think so.

Medieval Métier

There are jobs in medieval times that could never be described as pleasant but are a novelist’s gift. Many people will have heard of barber surgeons, the early doctors who consulted astrological charts and administered leeches to their patients. The job of leech collector is rarely mentioned. These unlucky folk simply waded bare-legged into reed-filled ponds inhabited by the slimy creatures and let the little suckers latch onto their legs. After the initial nipping bite, the leeches would do their work, swelling to five times their size after about twenty minutes. Bearing in mid the barber surgeons required large quantities of leeches, the job of leech collector must have been utterly foul. It would have been day in, day out, with the multiple bites often turning infected.

Public domain

Medieval Meal

There’s nothing like a medieval banquet for show-off food. When Catherine de Valois, wife of Henry V, was crowned in 1421, the feast was held during Lent and so could contain no meat. Yes, it had eels, salmon, trout, huge crabs and whelks. I can tell you’re unimpressed. But it also had ‘subtleties’: non-edible dishes that introduced each course. This feast included pelicans, panthers and a man riding on a tiger. Eat your heart out, Gordon Ramsey.

Public domain

Medieval Manor

The lords of the manor knew how to keep themselves in luxury. And they used colour to great effect when decorating their homes. The reconstruction of Edward I's bedchamber in the Medieval Palace at the Tower of London gives us such a wonderful example of this. It's decorated as it would looked when he stayed there in 1294.

© 2014 E.M. Powell 

Medieval Monasteries

The medieval period in England saw the construction of hundreds of magnificent monasteries, priories, abbeys and convents. So many were destroyed by Henry VIII's dissolution but even the ruins are still breathtaking. There aren't many words needed to win this argument. This picture of the ruins of  the 12th century Bolton Abbey say it all.

© 2014 Graham Mather - Private Collection
Used with permission

Medieval Madness

Christianity was of course the religion of Western Europe. It wasn’t just part of society: it was society. The fear of hell and of the Devil was very real. It’s the medieval period where we see the rise of sorcery, with many people genuinely believing in it as the Devil’s works and that people here on earth practised it. There are many colourful and bizarre accounts.

© 2014 E.M. Powell 

Pope Gregory IX, in his 1233 letter Vox in Rama, writes of gatherings of heretics who are engaging with the Devil, and indoctrinating a novice into their midst. The novice is met by 'a man of marvellous pallor, who has very black eyes...emaciated..and feels cold, like ice.' The man kisses the novice, and 'after the kiss, the memory of the catholic faith totally disappears from his heart.'  There is more kissing in the ceremony, involving a toad's tongue. And a cat's bottom. I did promise colour.

Medieval Murder

Every period in history has infamous murders. But the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 has got to be one of the most well-known of all. It is also the most gruesomely shocking. Four knights, acting supposedly on the orders of King Henry II, broke into the cathedral on a late December evening and butchered Becket on the altar.

Monks witnessed the crime first hand and produced several blow-by-blow eye-witness accounts. The murder sent shock waves through though the whole of Europe. Becket was believed to be God’s representative on Earth. Miracles began to be attributed to the dead Archbishop immediately after the murder and he was canonized with great speed. Canterbury rapidly became one of the most popular destinations for pilgrims in the known world.

© 2014 Paul Fogarty - Private Collection
Used with permission

Medieval Marvels

So those are some of the highlights. I think you’ll agree that they give a flavour of why the medieval period is one of the most interesting, exciting and downright bizarre historical periods of all. For me, gin and syphilis are dull by comparison. Why not come and find out more? Oh, and if any medieval fans are reading this, feel free to add your favourite Medieval Marvel in the comments. We will prevail!

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My latest novel, The Blood of The Fifth Knight, was published by Thomas & Mercer on 01.01.2015. An intricate medieval murder mystery, it has already reached #1 in Historical Fiction on Amazon.co.uk and is on worldwide release.

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Monday, December 29

The Murder of Thomas Becket



© 2014 E.M. Powell 
Midwinter in England can indeed be bleak. Iron-hard frosts, smothering snow, torrential rain and gales: all can sweep down on these short days where daylight is gone by mid-afternoon. But at day's close on the twenty-ninth of December 1170, an event occurred that stunned medieval England and all of Christendom. Archbishop Thomas Becket was brutally murdered by four knights in his own cathedral at Canterbury. The knights came to Canterbury following an outburst by Henry II, king of England and much of France. It was a tragedy that had been set in motion many years before.

My account of Becket's murder can be found on my post for English Historical Fiction Authors.

I'm also running a Giveaway for a signed copy of The Blood of the Fifth Knight this week on EHFA. Entries are open until January 04th 2015. Click HERE to enter. Good luck!

© 2014 Paul Fogarty