I write medieval. 1170 medieval, which is when The Fifth Knight is set. A lot of people said that it wasn’t a good time period. Too far back. Too remote. Readers wouldn’t engage. Hmm. I’ve never been sure about that. Because people were still people, even in 1170. While there have of course been huge changes to us and our world in the last 800 years, many things remain the same. As people, we have our loves, our hates, our struggles to deal with whatever the world throws at us.
And boy, can the world throw stuff. War, disease, famine and death is still a pretty good summary of what people have to face across the world of 2012. You can also add in tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes. Same as it was in 1170. And for all of these terrifying things that happen, we don’t fear them or react to them in a detached way. We fear them because we fear for our loved ones, for ourselves. The desire to protect, to keep safe is as old as humanity.
(Those of you who have stopped by to find out about the Dead Man’s Tongue are probably by now getting restless. Don’t worry, you’ve not been mis-sold.)
One of ways medieval people tried to keep themselves safe, to ward evil and harm from them was to appeal to the saints. The medieval church had a very strong culture of sainthood. The saints had been born ordinary people, but had lived their lives and died with such devotion to and sacrifice for God that the church had canonised them.
A pillar of the culture of sainthood was the concept of relics. In modern day Catholicism, you have classes of relics. First class relics are the bodies of saints or parts of their bodies, including bones, soft tissue and hair, and yes, a tongue. Such relics are housed in churches built and dedicated to that saint and are the subject of great devotion. Second class relics are taken from the clothing of the saint. Third class relics include anything touched by the saint, or by touching an object to a first or second class relic. The belief is that people who pray to these relics can be granted favours by God.
And did medieval people ever need those favours. In 1170, people lived a harsh live, with a life expectancy of late forties for the wealthy (and considerably lower for the poor). Things we (at least we in the privileged western world) take for granted were enormously risky for our 1170 dweller, who had access only to herbal medicine. Childbirth, a chest infection, a broken limb, a bad dose of food poisoning: the vast majority of us, thank goodness, can come through all these in one piece. Modern medicine sees to that. But without modern medicine, so much becomes life threatening.
If illness weren’t enough, there were risks of crop failure and starvation. Famines and food shortages were a regular feature of medieval life. Throw in wars and conflict, where just one injury could be enough to end a life and we begin to see why people sought protection where they could. For many, their devotion to the saints was all they had. So to have relics, to have a link to a saint in your possession, was hugely valued.
The containers used to keep relics in are called reliquaries. Those containing first class relics are fabulously made of gold, silver and precious stones and can be found today in churches across the world. But in my research for The Fifth Knight, I came across the far less grand thread-boxes. Archaeologists have found at least three dozen of these in women’s graves going back as far as the seventh century. Tiny boxes, with scraps of material and herbs, a defence against harm. Heartbreakingly, one of the finds was in a baby’s grave.
You could argue that such practice is consigned to the history books and has no relevance today. But pay a visit to a church such as the magnificent Saint Anthony’s Basilica in Padua, Italy and you will see devotion to a saint’s relics as real as it would have been in 1170. Saint Anthony’s tongue is indeed on display in a magnificent gold reliquary. It may be shrivelled and black, but it is still recognisably a tongue.
Many would think it strange that thousands of people go to see it every year. Under normal circumstances, most of us would turn down the opportunity to see a human body part. But it’s when you look around the church, you see it’s not about that. There is photo after photo of loved ones. People have placed them there, asking for the saint’s help. In the remarkable Museum of Popular Devotion next door, there are hundreds of exhibits people have submitted to show their prayers being answered. Many of these are in picture form and have no words to explain them. They don’t need to. They show people ill, in car accidents, in peril at sea. Child after child falling from a balcony, a window. One even shows a burning TV! But in all, Saint Anthony is represented as having intervened, as saving the loved one.
I think the women who kept their thread-boxes would understand those pictures immediately, no matter how many centuries separated them. A hope, a plea, that loved ones will be kept safe from harm, that they can be kept safe from peril. I don’t think that ever changes. So yes, I write medieval. But it doesn’t feel remote to me.
If you’d like to read a story about thread-boxes, and a woman who kept one, have a look at the tale of The Red Cap in Fifth Knight Tales. These are free short stories about other characters in the world of The Fifth Knight.
And if you read The Fifth Knight, you’ll find out if her prayers were answered.
Note: The Fifth Knight can be found on Kindle Serials. At this time, only US customers can purchase the serialized format. The book will be released in complete format by Thomas & Mercer in 2013.