Tuesday, 15 April 2014

N is for Northmen

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This A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that might add some flavour to your fantasy or historical fiction. Today, I’m talking about Vikings. No, wait, that doesn’t work, does it? Northmen, then, which is a corruption of Norse men, and allows me to make the first point here, which is that your basic Vikings weren’t all one thing. “Viking” just meant the act of raiding, as in “we Northmen are going Viking”. Those who did it came from a variety of countries and attacked different places in different waves, with different tactics. North Men tended to refer to those from what is now Norway, but the Anglo Saxon Chronicle also says a lot about Danes, and the Swedes also did a lot. Generalising massively, we can say that in England at least, the Northmen raided, while the Danes conquered and the Swedes were too busy either in Ireland or off exploring elsewhere. One of the Byzantine empresses had an honour guard composed almost entirely of Swedish Vikings, because at least she could trust that they weren’t caught up in all the politics.


And then there are the Vikings who succeeded in conquering England. There are actually two lots involved here, because for many years, it did have what was called the Danelaw in the north of the country, while several English kings were Danish or Norwegian. Cnut is the obvious example. For a long time, then, it was essentially the southernmost point of a Viking empire. Ironically, it was another lot of Northmen, who had raided even further south and eventually become the Normans, who changed that.

Monday, 14 April 2014

M is for Monastic Orders

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This A-Z I’m looking at aspects of the Middle Ages that might help writers looking to set writing in something like a medieval Western European setting.


Monks and nuns were an important part of the period. Today, that doesn’t seem obvious. Even if we think of a religious society, we tend to think in terms of priests. Yet monks and nuns were critically involved in all kinds of episodes in the Middle Ages. We have St Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, persuading Louis VII to promote the disastrous Second Crusade in 1147. We have someone like St Hilda setting up her school in the early middle ages. We have the staff of the newly developing universities, and many of the clerics who accompanied nobles.


It was a period of new monastic orders, often fuelled by the nobles’ desire to give money to a cause designed to both save their souls and show their status. The Cistercians were one of the most successful (at least until they invested too heavily in sheep futures and lost everything), but it’s important to recognise that monasticism wasn’t all one thing. There were many different orders, following many different rules. There were orders such as the Gilbertines that had men and women living side by side, and others like the various friars who weren’t bound by the requirement to stay in one place. There were also orders of canons, who were somewhere between monks and priests, and who frequently filled administrative roles both in cathedrals and for kings. Remember that in an authentically medieval setting, any favourite of a royal who doesn’t have a lot of lands to hand out is likely to be given a benefice or prebend in a religious order instead. Probably while only occasionally showing up and leaving his junior vicar to do the job.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

L is for Love and Ladies

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I’m looking at bits of medieval history that might be useful for writers this month. Today, I’m looking at the notion of love, and more specifically, courtly love. It’s strange, in a time when the Catholic church was asserting its primacy, and when sex outside of marriage was deeply stigmatised, that a kind of cult following should have grown up almost simultaneously. The idea of courtly love idolised love in its slightly over the top romantic form, emphasising praise for the beauty of great ladies, romantic poetry (or lays in the old French), and a kind of institutionalised idea that all the young men and women of the court should be at least a little in love. The idea of ‘favours’ or scarves/flowers from ladies being worn in the joust is probably the key intersection of this idea with that of chivalry.


Like chivalry it was obviously a much larger than life idea, and like a lot of the ideas we have about the Middle Ages, including chivalry, it probably didn’t represent reality so much as a fantasy promoted at the time. The ecclesiastical court records showed just how much trouble young men and women got into when they actually acted on these romantic ideals.


We can’t finish here without mentioning Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was in many ways the heart of the courtly love idea in the Central Middle Ages. She was a great noblewoman who was married to two kings, who managed a great deal of power for herself in a largely male dominated society, and whose court was seen as a key centre for musicians, troubadours, poets and romance. If there was a romantic ideal of the medieval noble lady, then a large portion of that ideal was built on her.

K is for Knights

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This A-Z, I’m using my PhD in medieval history to look at aspects of the Middle Ages that might be useful to writers, trying to show how the history can make for a slightly different world. Today, it’s the turn of knights. We all know them in the stories. Noble men, bound by codes of chivalry, wearing nothing but the heaviest plate armour and going around righting wrongs.


Well, let’s knock those four things off the list, shall we? Certainly in the earlier part of the period, knights wouldn’t have been very noble. If you were being called a knight, it was because you weren’t noble enough to call yourself a baron or a lord. You were just a fighter with the money to afford a horse and armour. Later lords and kings affected some of the styles of knights, but not as often as you’d think. Codes of chivalry were mostly a later imposition, or an attempt by the clergy to get those borderline psychopaths in armour to behave themselves for once. “Chivalry” when it is used in earlier sources is not a reference to a code of honour. Instead, they say “the chivalry” in exactly the same way we would say “the cavalry”. It’s where we get the word, and it’s the people on the horses, not their behaviour. As for the armour, until the later Middle Ages, you only have to look at sources like the Bayeux Tapestry. Chain mail, not heavy plate, was the order of the day.


Then there’s righting wrongs. Read La Morte de Arthur. Even Arthur’s fictional, flower of chivalry round table knights spend their time fighting random strangers over petty arguments, sleeping with whoever they liked (often through trickery or force) and killing people for little reason. Believe me, the real ones were worse.

Friday, 11 April 2014

J is for Jousting

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For the A-Z, I’m looking at aspects of the middle ages that might be useful to writers in constructing their worlds. People who like the middle ages tend to be a little in love with jousting. Two heavily armoured figures, charging down the lists at one another…


Certainly in the earlier part of the Middle Ages, the tournament wasn’t much like that. It wasn’t nearly so controlled. It was more like a battle, with numerous sides, no requirement to focus on the use of the lance, and occasionally even units of foot soldiers employed. Knights would ride in and try to capture one another for ransoms or forfeits, using blunted but still frankly dangerous weapons. The playing area was often loosely defined in terms of the space between two villages, and cheating was common. At least one “side” made a habit of hanging around on the edges, pretending that they weren’t playing, and then charging in at the end to capture people.


It’s certain from the historical sources that knights did joust with one another, but the formal affair of jousting as we know it is probably a later medieval thing, and those who try to push it earlier tend to conflate it with the more chaotic tournament I’ve just described.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

I is for Intinerant Nobles

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I Itinerant Nobles


This year, I’m looking at aspects of medieval history that might be useful to writers in lending flavour to their fantasy or historical worlds. Today, I’m looking at one crucial fact about kings, nobles, bishops and just about anyone else who was important: they rarely stayed in one place.


I only really got this into my head while looking at the itineraries of successive Archbishops of York. In general, if they spent more than a week at a time in York, it was a rarity. Instead, they travelled between a succession of archiepiscopal palaces and minster churches, bouncing around like an ecclesiastical pinball. The same is true of kings and more important nobles.


Why? Partly as a way of imposing their power and reminding their further flung tenants that they owed them loyalty (and cash). Mostly, because all these figures were surrounded by large courts or retinues that would quickly have eaten any one place out of all resources if they had stayed still for long. The royal court in particular wasn’t some room down in London, but an army, moving about the countryside at the pace of its carts, setting up camp or demanding hospitality along the way. It’s worth remembering the next time you have a king sitting in a castle somewhere.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

H is for Histories

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This A-Z, I’m looking at some bits of medieval history, and thinking about ways they could add to the detail and interest of fiction. It’s worth remembering that while historians pick apart medieval life today, there were also historians in the Middle Ages. They wrote chronicles such as the Anglo Saxon ones, or works such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, or rather lopsided accounts of the crusades such as the Gesta Francorum. We also find some of the earliest biographies of non-kings/emperors, such as the one commissioned about William Marshal by his son.


Historians/chroniclers can be fun characters for historical or fantasy fiction. No, really, they can. They give you an excuse for asking questions as an author, and for the characters to try to interpret the story themselves as they go along. It can make for more complex and interesting takes on events, so that you have characters simultaneously living events and trying to interpret them. Which is something we all do.