Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Research Corner #8: Medievalism

This is a sad thing to admit in public, but one of my big regrets in life is that I dropped History in favour of English Literature in my first year of university.  To this day I have no idea why I did it, because I find History fascinating and studying English Literature just gave me an enormous inferiority complex that put me off writing my own work for years.

Point being, it's been weirdly thrilling to become an amateur historian this year, sort of an insight into a life not lived, and it's been great too to be learning stuff again; how weird that that's become a privilege rather than an obligation!  On the other hand, that isn't exactly to say that it's been easy.  And perhaps the most difficult thing so far in researching next novel White Thorne is that I don't yet have enough of a plot worked out to know exactly what I should be researching.  Unlike pretty much everything else I've written, White Thorne began with a character - a young witch in the late Middle Ages forced to turn her abilities to solving a murder - and has spiraled from there. 

This may sound like a crazy way of writing a book, and a year ago I'd have probably agreed.  Hell, I'd probably agree right now.  Nevertheless it's what I'm doing, and I'd hesitantly call it a success so far, in that a plot is slowly taking form out of the murk.  On the other hand, I've pushed back my start date by two months to accommodate, so perhaps this isn't a method I'll be quick to pursue again.  Nevertheless, there's no denying that it's taken me down some unusual avenues.  Here are just a few...

Dreaming the Middle Ages by Steven F. Kruger

That should be an interesting subject, right?  I mean, dreams are interesting.  The Middle Ages are interesting.  So probably people in the Middle Ages had some wacky dreams that would be good for an anecdote or two down the tavern?

Well, maybe, but if they ever existed then this book would want nothing to do with them.  If two people told this book about their dreams, and one of them dreamed about being kidnapped by ninja pterodactyls and the other one dreamed about doing their accounts on a wet Tuesday, it sure as hell wouldn't be the ninja pterodactyl dream that made it in.  This, in short, was my wake up call that a lot of what I'd be reading would be really goddamn dull.  Dreaming in the Middle Ages?  Sliding into a coma while you read about dreaming in the Middle Ages, more like.

Oh, and if you fancy a copy in hardback it'll set you back £90.  One other thing I'm learning as an amateur historian ... academic history books are a rip-off.*

The Medieval Garden by Sylvia Landsberg

Conversely, this doesn't at all sound like an interesting subject and turned out to be really good.  Landsberg is more than usually passionate about the practicalities of her subject, digging deep into just why and how medieval horticulture must have worked, probably because she's been involved in recreating medieval gardens herself - something the book explores in depth towards its end.

Another thing I'm learning is that coming at the period from oblique angles like this, or looking at it through the lenses of very specialized topics, can be more revealing than trying to get a sense through more generalized text books.  Oh course, that was my thinking with Dreaming in the Middle Ages too, so maybe it's not going to work out so well every time...

Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History by Owen Davies

I'm pretty certain I'd read this before, as research for my MA dissertation, which was on the historical phenomenon of witchcraft, (hence, I guess, a large part of why I'm now planning a novel with a witch as the protagonist.)  Anyway, I remember because, coming back to it, I was annoyed and frustrated by all of the same things that annoyed and frustrated me the first time round.

Witchcraft is a fascinating subject, and a surprisingly under-researched one, and Davies spends his entire book coming tantalizingly close to saying truly interesting things - before either shying away or tripping himself up by being a monumental pedant.  Most exasperating for me was the lengthy section where he dismisses connections between English cunning-folk and European shamanism because the former don't meet his crazy-restrictive definition of the latter.  (Basically ... they can't be shamans!  They don't play drums!)  But the whole book, really, suffers from the same flaw: it's the story of a whole lot of phenomena that don't conform to what Davies has decided cunning-folk were and a very few that do.

All of that said, this would probably be massively eye-opening if you didn't know much about the subject of English witchcraft, and there's no getting around the fact that it was a revolutionary text when it came out.  So, as much as it personally wound me up, I guess I find myself still recommending it.

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

This, on the other hand, I have no hesitation in recommending to anyone.  Of everything I've read so far, this was surely written with exactly me in mind.  When I was studying History there were signs of a trend towards focusing on how actual people actually lived rather than the bleak, narrativeless, traditional approach, which tells you about as much about people's day to day existence as a spreadsheet would.  Based on what I've read so far, I'm not sure what happened to that, but at least Ian Mortimer took it to heart.

So, The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England has a fair go at doing exactly what it claims to do: it pretends that you the reader have gone back in time and then does its very best to prepare you for that (frankly, horrible) experience.  And if Mortimer doesn't quite pull that nigh-impossible goal off perfectly, he at least does a very good job.  As such, if you write European-modeled Fantasy, or are at all interested in how other human beings have lived in other times, then this is surely a must-read.  It's fascinating stuff, and as entertaining as any History book you're ever likely to come across.

* This being where library's come in useful.

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