Tuesday, November 27

Medieval Crime and Punishment: Henry II and the Common Law

King Henry II of England is best known in the popular imagination for the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket, a murder for which the King was blamed. Four knights broke into Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170 and slew Becket in the most brutal manner.

The Murder of Thomas Becket c 1480 Public Domain- British Library

Whatever one’s view of the volatile Henry, there is one achievement from his thirty-five-year reign that stands above all others: his reform of the English legal system, which laid the foundations of the English Common Law. When he came to the throne in 1154 at the age of just twenty-one, his realm was in deep disarray following civil war. He urgently needed to re-establish royal authority and impose order and set about doing so with his customary relentless drive. The judicial system was the subject of much of his attention and he was aided in this by the talented Becket, who was his chancellor at the time.

Henry II enthroned, arguing with Thomas Becket c. 1307 - c. 1327 Public Domain- British Library

Henry addressed reform of both land law and criminal law. With land law, cases relating to an individual being dispossessed or those in which inheritance was in dispute were now settled in a trial by jury. The jury system was far quicker and more efficient than the system it replaced. Given that said system was one of trial by combat, one can see why it was not just the efficiency of the new system that made it so popular.

His reform of criminal law was even more impressive. He issued new legislation at Clarendon in 1166 and Northampton in 1176. It was at Clarendon where the procedures of criminal justice were first established, addressing how serious felonies such as murder, robbery and theft would be dealt with. Juries of presentment were established, consisting of twelve lawful men in each hundred (a subdivision of a county) and four in each vill (village). These juries were not there to decide on guilt or innocence, but to support an accusation of a serious crime.

Anyone who was accused of such crimes would be put in prison to await trial. Those trials could only be heard by the King’s justices, who travelled the country to do so. Henry first introduced his system of itinerant justices at Clarendon but refined the system at Northampton. England was divided into six circuits, with three justices, the justices of the general eyre, allocated to each.  Twelfth century chronicler Roger of Howden lists the eighteen justices itinerant and their circuits for 1176.

Detail of an historiated initial 'I'(udex) of a judge c. 1360- c. 1375 Public Domain - British Library

One of the justices listed was Ranulf de Glanville. De Glanville was one of Henry’s staunchest allies, securing key victories for the King in the rebellion of 1173-74 and rising to the position of Justiciar of England. The ‘Treatise on the Laws and Customs of the Kingdom of England’, produced in the late twelfth century, is the earliest treatise on English law and is commonly referred to as ‘Glanvill’, though it is unlikely that de Glanville was its author.

The justices provided a system of criminal investigation for the whole country. The impact of the arrival of the travelling court should not be underestimated. It could consist of several hundred people, all of whom were tasked with supporting the royal justices in administering the law in the name of the lord King. As well as being administratively impressive, it would have been a spectacle that reinforced Henry’s power over all his subjects. It would also have instilled awe and fear in all those who witnessed it, especially those who were accused of a serious crime.

The accused were brought before the justices. Proof of their guilt or innocence could be established in a number of ways, such as witness testimony, documents or the swearing of oaths. Unlike criminal trials today, the jury acted as witnesses and not an impartial panel. They would give the account of what had happened.

Five judges and three plaintiffs c. 1360- c. 1375 Public Domain - British Library

In cases that were not clear cut or in those of secret homicide where there were no witnesses, the justices used the ordeal. Ordeal could be by cold water or by hot iron. The blessing of the water and the iron served to bring the notion of God’s judgement, judicium Dei, into the proceedings.

There was great ceremony and a long build-up attached to the ordeal, which would have added to the pressure on the accused to confess. The accused would be taken to church four days before the day on which the ordeal was due to take place. They had to wear the clothes of the penitent, fast and hear several masses. If they still did not confess, the ordeal would take place.

Two judges addressing a prisoner held by a court officer c. 1360-c. 1375 Public Domain - British Library

The most innocent of hearts must have quailed. Stripped to only a loin cloth, the accused would be led to the pit, which was twenty feet wide and twelve feet deep and full of water. A priest would then bless the water. God would now be the judge: His blessed water would receive the accused if innocent, reject him if he was guilty. The accused would be bound, thumbs to toes, and lowered in from a platform.

With ordeal by hot iron, the accused had to undergo the same preparation of fasting and penitence. A length of iron would be blessed and heated in a fire until it was red hot. The accused would have to take it in one hand and carry it for three paces. The injured hand would be bandaged and then examined three days after the ordeal. If it had healed, then innocence was proclaimed. If it had not, then the accused was guilty.

Both forms of ordeal were terrifying and horrific in themselves, and the lengthy preparations would have only added to the pressure to make a confession. Once the accused made a confession, it could not be retracted. In 1215, the Church forbade priests to take part in the ordeal, bringing an end to its use.

A man hanging from gallows c. 1360-c. 1375 Public Domain - British Library

For those found guilty, the King’s punishment awaited. Hanging was reserved for the worst crimes. Thieves and robbers could lose a foot and, from 1176, their right hand. The law also had a final judgement it could impose, even if the accused was acquitted by undergoing the ordeal. If it was judged that the accused had a particularly bad reputation, as sworn to by the jury, then the accused was to leave the King’s lands as an outlaw and had to swear under oath that they would never return.

And lest anyone think that they could take the law into their own hands and administer punishments themselves, the King’s justices had a clear system of heavy fines for those who would dare to do so. Order would prevail. Henry, the consummate administrator, had thought of everything.

All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 
Bartlett, Robert, Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal (Oxford, 1986)
Bartlett, Robert, The New Oxford History of England: England under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075–1225 (Oxford, 2003)
Hudson, John, The Formation of the English Common Law (London, 1996)
Pollock, Frederick, and Maitland, Frederic William, The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I (Cambridge, 1898)
Warren, W. L., Henry II (Yale, 2000)

I wrote this post for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog where it was published on October 3, 2018.

Wednesday, June 20

Medieval Monks & Their Meals

The medievals were well acquainted with the Seven Deadly Sins, one of which was/is gluttony—the vice of excessive eating and drinking.

It is therefore no surprise that it was one of the vices that Saint Benedict, a key figure in starting the monastic movement in the early Christian Church, wanted to avoid. Benedict was a Roman nobleman who in around 500 AD, chose to leave Rome and worship Christ in an isolated setting. His popularity grew and he founded his own monastery, writing his famous Benedictine Rule. The Rule is a set of regulations for those in the monastic life and shaped almost every aspect of that life in the medieval period.

Saint Benedict

Saint Benedict did not approve of personal possessions and he prescribed how many hours a monk should sleep. And the Rule also laid down what monks should eat and the quantities of food that should be eaten. Benedict forbade the eating of meat from four legged animals. He was a fan of black bread, plain water, greens and vegetables.

He believed that monks should eat once a day in winter and have a second lighter meal in summer, in the evenings when days were longer. His plan was that monks should have a choice of two cooked meals, vegetable or cereal based and which could include a modest amount of fish or some egg. Meat was only for those who were ill. On feast days, monks could be allowed a supplementary treat known as a 'pittance'. A pittance might be better quality bread or wine instead of beer.

The rationale behind Benedict's Rule was to support one of the three monastic vows: chastity. There was a belief that a rich diets inflamed the senses, incited greed and lust. A full monk was a sleepy monk, and so would not be in a fit state to pray for hours at a time. Benedict did acknowledge that monks needed to have extra treats every now and then. Brothers were allowed to eat more if they were invited to the Abbot's table.

But as with all good intentions, the Rule was adapted over the centuries. A special room called the misericord was built for infirm monks. This was separate to the main refectory (dining room), so meat could be eaten here. Yet monks in full health would retire there to consume meat. By 1336, Pope Benedict XII (yes, another Benedict) permitted meat on four days outside of fast days. And what meat: records show the consumption of beef, mutton, pork, veal and suckling pig. Poultry and game were also popular: monks consumed swan, cygnet, chicken, duck and goose.

Another way in which the Rule was adapted was with regard to communication. It was stipulated that monks’ meals should be eaten in silence. However, no-one mentioned sign language. Or whistling. The monks adopted a practical solution to the extent that twelfth century chronicler Gerald of Wales complained of dining monks behaving like ‘jesters’ after one visit to Canterbury.

It has been calculated that some monks could have been consuming up to 7000 calories a day. Astonishing when you think that today, the recommended calorie intake for an adult male is 2500 calories. This level of consumption is certainly not what Benedict would have had in mind. His rule on gluttony did not just cover quantity but also quality. Monks should eat only at allotted times and consume whatever was presented. Food should be fuel for the body and nothing more.

What is also of note is that as much as one fifth of monks’ enormous calorie intake could have come from alcohol. Monks had access to beer (as did the rest of the population: it was safer to drink than water) but also wine, the bulk of which was imported from Gascony. One could argue that the monks practised restraint by only drinking wine on saints’ days—of which there were about seventy in the year.

Fish was also popular, especially as no-one was allowed to eat meat on a Friday. In the days before effective refrigeration, fish would come from the fresh waters of rivers, lakes and managed fish ponds. Coastal communities would eat fresh sea fish. For those further inland, this fish was eaten salted, smoked, dried or pickled.

Earlier in the medieval period, Wednesdays and Saturdays were also non-meat days, as well as the dietary restrictions imposed for Lent and Advent. That didn't stop the monks. With another bit of monastic Rule tweaking, certain types of geese and puffins were deemed to be fish because of their close association with water. A monastic feast day could consist of a couple of dozen dishes.

The monks were fans of toe-to-tail eating. Umbles, for instance, were sheep’s entrails cooked in ale with breadcrumbs and spices. Deer entrails might also be on offer, as would tongue and mutton in sauce. Dowcet sounds far more appealing, certainly for this writer: a sweet custard made of milk, cream, sugar, dried fruits and eggs. It is unlikely such dishes were a rare treat. Archaeological remains from a medieval hospital in London found evidence of monks with worse teeth than their patients. Others from priories and abbeys have found skeletal remains with obesity-related joint disease.

But these huge levels of consumption were taking place in a society where the vast majority of people were at the brink of starvation or were actually starving. Ordinary people began to deeply resent the excesses of the privileged religious. By the fourteenth century there were poems and ballads mocking the monastic life and the over-privileged monks. The stereotype of the overfed monk, portly in his robes, immune from poverty, became one focus for discontent with the established church—and a very visible one.
All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 
Jones, Terry & Eriera, Alan: Medieval Lives, London, BBC Books (2004)
Kerr, Julie: Life in the Medieval Cloister, London, Continuum Publishing (2009)
Livingstone, E.A.,ed.:The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2 rev.ed.), Oxford University Press (2006, Current Online Version: 2013)
Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England. London: The Bodley Head. (2008)
Whittock, Martyn, A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages: London, Constable & Robinson (2009)

I wrote this post for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog where it was published on June 29, 2016. 

Monday, June 5

What if....the Norman Invasion of Ireland had never happened? Guest Post by Ruadh Butler.

It was my great pleasure to host Ruadh Butler, fellow author of historical fiction set in Medieval Ireland, to my blog last year. Ruadh's excellent post on the arrival of the Normans in Ireland has proved really popular with readers and, in case you missed it, you can find it here

Ruadh guested to celebrate the release of the first in his Invader series, Swordland, which was published by Accent Press. I'm delighted to say that book #2, Lord of the Sea Castle is now out and Ruadh has returned for another visit. This time, he's putting his speculative hat on as he looks at the Norman invasion and wonders how Irish and wider history might have changed if the invasion had never taken place. Over to you, Ruadh!

History is often the product of the slimmest odds. In Irish terms, few moments – save perhaps the coming of St Patrick – had greater consequences for the island than the Norman invasions of the 12th century. Few spent so long balanced upon a knife’s edge.

But what if the Norman incursions had been only that? What if there never had been a Norman conquest?

The events of 1169 were portrayed in my first novel, Swordland, and will continue in Lord of the Sea Castle which was released on June 1st 2017.

The first book outlined how a Welsh-Norman knight, Sir Robert FitzStephen, was sprung from imprisonment to lead a force of just four hundred on a campaign to put an exiled king back on his Irish throne. Despite having so few warriors, Robert’s command was central to Dermot MacMurrough returning to his position as King of Leinster.

Henry II grants Dermot MacMurrough permission to raise forces to take back the kingdom of Leinster.
As depicted by James William Edmund Doyle, 1822- 1892 (Public Domain)

He quickly conquered the Viking city-state of Wexford before conducting a fierce operation which forced all dissenting chieftains into submission. So successful was FitzStephen in his task that the High King of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, was alerted to his and Dermot’s schemes.

Rory - Stone Carving of High King Rory O'Connor from Cong Abbey.  (Public Domain)
Might he have founded a great dynasty controlling all Ireland in the absence of the Norman invaders? 

With winter fast approaching Robert and Dermot retreated into the foothills of the Blackstairs Mountains where they constructed fortifications behind which they hoped to survive the High King’s overwhelming army which marched against them.

The annals tell us that Rory O’Connor did not immediately launch an armed offensive upon his enemy’s defences but instead (and under pressure from the bishops) began to negotiate. The outcome was to confirm Dermot as king of one of the most powerful provinces in the land. Publically, Dermot acknowledged Rory O’Connor as High King and handed over hostages – including his own son – as surety for his good behaviour.

Secretly, however, there was another clause in his treaty with the High King: Dermot had to rid Leinster of his mercenary Normans.

IRELAND - The greater kingdoms of Ireland in the generations before the arrival of the Normans in 1169.
(Public Domain.)

Perhaps surprisingly, given his later reputation in Ireland, Dermot did not betray Robert FitzStephen. This was far from an honourable standpoint, however. Rather, he had set his sights on nothing less than the High Kingship itself and believed his only way of obtaining that office was with Norman blades. It would prove his and Ireland’s undoing.

To use the jargon of the alternative history, this will be my point of divergence. Dermot chooses to accept his return as King of Leinster, an alliance with the family of O’Connor, and the safety of his own son rather than allowing his ambitions to rule his better judgement. In order to do that he would have to kill Robert FitzStephen or drive him from his shores.

Effigy of Rhys ap Gruffydd in St David's Cathedral, Wales.
(Public Domain)

Forcing the 400 Normans from Ireland would’ve been difficult for Dermot. Return to Wales would’ve meant utter penury for FitzStephen or perhaps even imprisonment at the hands of his former captor, Rhys ap Gruffydd. For his men too it would’ve meant return to the never-ending and losing wars that threatened their very existence in Wales. FitzStephen and his army would’ve fought tooth and nail to retain their newly won lands in Wexford and, given how effective he had proven against Dermot’s enemies, it would’ve taken something rather special – or indeed underhand – for his former ally to destroy the Normans. Perhaps he could’ve brokered a deal with the Ostmen (the Gaelicised descendants of the Viking invaders) of Wexford, promising to return their independence under his kingship in return for their help. From his point of view, a Wexford controlled by the Normans or the Ostmen probably didn’t make much difference.

The marriage of Strongbow & Aoife.
(© E.M. Powell)

Having dealt with FitzStephen, Dermot’s next task would be to disappoint another Norman baron keen to come to Ireland and win new lands. Two years before FitzStephen’s invasion, Dermot had come to an agreement with Strongbow, the Lord of Chepstow, to swap Norman military help in return for marriage to his daughter, Aoife. Dermot also threw in a claim to the throne of Leinster after his death. Strongbow’s desperation for a crown was absolute and so perhaps he would still have crossed the sea in 1170 despite Dermot’s reneging on their agreement. However, rather than storming the walls of Waterford with Dermot’s support he would probably have faced a Viking city emboldened and strengthened by Dermot’s veteran warriors. I suspect that in those circumstances Strongbow would’ve quickly been forced to withdraw to Wales.

Henry II at Waterford.
As depicted by James William Edmund Doyle, 1822- 1892  (Public Domain) 

Without Strongbow’s conquests, there would have been no real reason for King Henry II of England to become embroiled in Irish affairs. He did not take an army across the Irish Sea in 1171 in order to extend his borders or to satisfy his greed for power over another nation. He wished to curtail the ambitions of Strongbow for he feared the rise of a rival Norman kingdom on his western seaboard. With that threat having never risen, King Henry could refocus his efforts towards his continental possessions.

There remains the question of a certain troublesome priest well-known to all who have read The Fifth Knight. ( E.M.: Yes, a plug for my book- this is why Ruadh gets asked back!)

The murder of Thomas Becket.
As depicted by James William Edmund Doyle, 1822- 1892 (Public Domain) 

Thomas Becket’s death in 1170 certainly had an impact on King Henry’s decision to invade Ireland. Up to that point the Irish church was beyond papal control and so Rome’s coffers received no income from the island. To impose his rule over Ireland meant that Henry could establish Rome’s authority in place of the independent Celtic system and in so doing ingratiate himself with Pope Alexander III who threatened excommunication and interdict as a result of Becket’s murder. If robbed of a safe port provided by Strongbow’s conquests in this alternative history, I don’t think Henry could’ve launched an attack on Ireland in order to toady up to Rome. Instead (and as later stipulated in the Compromise of Avranches) Henry might’ve been forced to go on Crusade to the Holy Land.

 The second Synod of Cashel was held in 1171/72, under the auspices of Henry II
and with the full backing of the Pope. (© E.M. Powell)

By early 1170 King Amalric of Jerusalem, Henry’s first cousin, was surrounded by the armies of Nur ad-Din in Syria and Saladin in Egypt, facing invasion from north and south. Such were his troubles that Amalric sent envoys to all the great kings of Europe to send military aid in his time of need. In our timeline he was let down, but given Henry’s own difficulties might he have negotiated a settlement with Pope Alexander in return for sending assistance to Amalric? I have no doubt that Henry would’ve dragged his feet for as long as possible to avoid the great expense of such an undertaking but I can anticipate one scenario in which he might’ve relented.

The cause of the 1173 Rebellion was a general disaffection with Henry’s rule stoked up by the King of France. Most serious was the involvement of the heir to the throne, Henry the Young King, and his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. In my alternative timeline Henry might’ve considered packing off his 18-year-old son and some of his most troublesome knights to aid Amalric. A crusade would’ve served as an answer to many of his problems.

I presume this would’ve gone a long way to making peace with the church following Becket’s death while, with the church’s help, his lands would’ve been protected from his rebellious subjects by the threat of interdict. Henry might even have been able to weaken the King of France by using his newly found favour with the pope to force him to accompany his army to the Middle East. In the absence of her eldest son, Eleanor of Aquitaine would’ve been isolated as would any remaining rebels, ready to have been picked off by Henry at his leisure. The Young King, meanwhile, would’ve been given the responsibility he so craved at the head of a great army.

Herbert Railton's 1891 illustration of  William Marshal's tomb.
(Public Domain) 

I will let people more at home with the politics of the Crusader Kingdom pick up the story of what have happened in those circumstances, but the idea of Sir William Marshal – the Young King’s tutor – in command of a royal crusading army in Outremer during the 1170s is tantalising. Might he and the Young King have saved Jerusalem? And what would the Middle East look like today if they had become involved fifteen years before Richard Lionheart’s Third Crusade and the rise of Saladin?

The picture in Ireland is rather more difficult to discern. The Ostman colony towns of Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Limerick would’ve continued to grow, if a little slower in the absence of Norman administrators who so advanced their commercial reach in the medieval period. Control of the towns would’ve become absolutely critical to the leading dynasties as the merchants grew in power. In the years around 1170, Rory O’Connor’s confederates had forced the submission of each of the five great cities of Ireland except Wexford. This was a very fluid situation, however, with fealty withdrawn and re-imposed almost on a yearly basis.

Reginald's Tower in Waterford.
© E.M. Powell

In the absence of the Normans I suspect Rory O’Connor would’ve retained the High Kingship using his proven strategy of partitioning the lands of challengers to curb their influence, setting up rival families to vie for their power on the local level, and to force the defeated to hand over loved ones as hostages. Given his own long life and the apparent talent of his son and heir, Conor O’Connor, I believe that sooner rather than later the dynasty would’ve unified Ireland in a meaningful way (as had the descendants of Alfred in England). The Irish method of succession and outlandish style of land ownership might have proved a real stumbling block for this process, but given that Rory was already well on his way to nullifying all opposition in 1166, I suspect his line would’ve accomplished the task and imposed a nascent type of feudal kingship upon Ireland.

Conflict between the families and septs would no doubt have remained a constant and not just for possession of the cities.

The further we get from the point of divergence the more questions arise and the more difficult it becomes to predict. Would the Latin rites ever have arrived in Ireland without the Normans? Might the Celtic Church have been targeted by a crusade as were the Cathars of France? How would a politically independent Ireland have impacted the evolution of the British, Scandinavian and continental nations? Would Irish ideas and culture have penetrated and influenced as widely as English and British notions? How would they have been affected by the rise of Spain during the sixteenth century? Would Tudor England have attempted to impose its will over Ireland? Might an independent Ireland have been better positioned to establish colonies in the New World than England?

Baginbun Point Co. Wexford, site of 1170 Norman landings.
© Ruadh Butler
Such was the impact of the Normans on the population that in their absence most of those alive in Ireland today would never have existed. That would have also affected millions around the world. There certainly would’ve been no Queen Elizabeth I. Would John F. Kennedy have been the same guy if he was missing the Fitzgerald part of his character?

The first Norman invaders may have gone to Ireland in small numbers but their affect was earth-shattering. They created reverberations that are still being felt today. The world might have been so different had Dermot simply chosen peace over war on a small island off the western shoulder of Europe.

Ruadh Butler is the author of Swordland and the newly published Lord of the Sea Castle. The series tells the story of the Norman family from Wales and their part in the first invasion of Ireland. Catch up with Ruadh at www.ruadhbutler.com, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ruadhbutler and on Twitter @ruadhbutler.

You can buy Lord of the Sea Castle from the following retailers:
Barnes & Noble

Saturday, February 11

With a Little Help from the Saints: Medieval Lovers.

You probably can't have failed to notice that wherever you turn at present, your senses are assailed by objects of the red, heart-shaped variety. Although it's not a particular wave I personally like to get swept up in, I couldn't fail to be halted by this gem in a local card shop: 'To My Gran on Valentine's Day.'  I did brace myself for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to come crashing through the door at any second, but all remained calm. And just as I was about to deride twenty-first century consumerism for this new level of madness, it occurred to me that, like so much in our world, it is all the fault of the medievals.

From: The Roman de la Rose
The Lover (L'Amans) in bed with a man (Dangier, or Danger) holding a club.

The medievals loved their love and especially of the courtly variety. It found its expression in poetry and among the most famous is the French Roman de la Rose, or The Story of the Rose. It was composed by two authors: Guillaume de Lorris in around 1230 and Jean de Meun in around 1275, some forty years later. The poem takes the form of a dream, in which the dreamer, the Lover, approaches the rose (the symbol of his lady's love) in a garden but is spurned. The Lover then has to learn the rules of love to win the object of his desire. The complete work is over 21,000 lines and was hugely popular amongst the elite of England and France. Several copies are still in existence.

The Lover pierced by an arrow,
kneeling before the God of Love (Diex d'Amour).

I have chosen the images from a manuscript from c1320-1340 for this post. Interestingly, it is a non-religious work, so no saints (of which more later). The fourteenth century also saw the introduction of a custom for lovers within court circles that is still with us: Valentine's Day. February 14th is the day that the medievals reckoned birds began mating. So why not have a day when refined men and women could do the same in elaborate rituals and games?

Male Lovers pierced by arrows.

The poetry of the time again reflects the custom. Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls is the earliest, dating from around 1381. In it, lovers are birds, quarrelling over the finest partner on Valentine's Day.

Female Lovers- and a Monk.

By 1400, the French Court had founded the Cour Amoureuse, or the Court of  Love, 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. It sounds very charming until one realises that around 600 people took part. One can only suppose that, with those sorts of numbers, everyone probably went home with something out of the day.

The God of Love taking hold of the Lover.

In the fifteenth century, the poet and prior of Hatfield Regis, John Lydgate, wrote ‘A Valantine to Her That Excelleth All’.  And we start to see the custom of the Valentine move beyond the confines of the court. In a letter dating from 1477 Norwich, Margery Brews writes to her fiancé John Paston as her ‘right wellbelovyd Voluntyn’.

Envie (Envy) looking at a pair of lovers.

What's even more interesting is that Margery's mother Elizabeth also writes to John to ask that the marriage takes place on 'Sent Volentynes Day'... [when] every brydde chesyth hym a make.' Yes, we have mention of the bird choosing a mate again. But we also have reference to Saint Valentine. It is likely that clerics began making the connection between a saint and the secular customs around finding a partner. Two third century saints were named Valentine: Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Interamna (modern Terni in Italy). We know little about them other than they were martyred and that is commemorated on February 14. They had never been associated with lovers up the middle ages.

Vilenie (Villainy, Abuse, Baseness)
offering the Lover a potion.

Of course other medieval saints were on hand to help steer the course of true love. Fifth century Saint Dwynwen is the Welsh patron saint of love. Dwynwen was one of the twenty four daughters and eleven sons of King of Wales, Brychan Brycheiniog and his wife, Prawst. When I came across those statistics, I felt perhaps that Brychan should patron saint of something, but I wasn’t quite sure what. Prawst, I continue to feel, should just be regarded with awe.

Oiseuse (Idleness, Ease, Leisure)
admitting the Lover through the gate.

Dwynwen was not as fortunate - or fruitful - in love as her parents. Her love story is of a bleaker kind and she suffered horribly at the hands of a man who should have loved her. After much travail, Dwynwen’s prayers were answered. As a mark of her thanks, she devoted herself to God's service for the rest of her life. She 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.

Tristece (Sorrow or Misery), tearing her hair and clothes.

I think blaming the medievals for the annual fuss about Lovers is fair. But I did find an account where some level-headed souls decided it might be nice to use the day to celebrate neighbourly love. A 1415 charter from Norwich records that the citizens should some together on Valentine's Day, 'make peace, unite, and accord, poore and ryche to ben one in herte, love and charite.' Now, that's more like it. And even if they didn't get a card, I'll bet all the Grans were happy.

All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 
Drabble, Margaret, ed. et al., The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature (3 ed.), Oxford University Press (2007, Online version: 2007)
Knowles, Elizabeth, ed.: The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (2 ed.) Publisher: Oxford University Press (2005, Current Online Version: 2014)
Lindahl, C., McNamara, J & Lindow, J. (eds.): Medieval Folklore, Oxford University Press (2002)
Livingston, E.A.,ed.:The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2 rev.ed.), Oxford University Press (2006, Current Online Version: 2013)
MacKillop, James: A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology , Oxford University Press (2004, Current Online Version: 2004)
National Library of Wales: Dictionary of Welsh Biography Online.
Simpson, Jacqueline & Roud, Steve: A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford University Press (2003, Current Online Version: 2003)

I wrote this post or an edited version of it for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog on February 12 2016. 

Friday, December 23

Isabella of Angoulême: Families, Fairies & Fish- Guest post by Erica Lainé

I would like to bet that not many readers of this blog have had the experience of being brought together by King John-- on Twitter. But that is how I came across historical novelist Erica Lainé. Both Erica and I have written about John in our novels: in mine, he is the eighteen year old sent by his father Henry to sort out medieval Ireland. (Spoiler: he doesn't. Or may be not a spoiler. He is John, after all.) In the first in Erica's The Tangled Queen series, we meet the very young Isabella of Angoulême who was abducted by John in 1200. Isabella became his second wife and queen consort, aged 12.

Yes- it's King John on Twitter. #unexpected
Both Erica and I are followers of (and are followed by) the man himself @JohanSanzTerre. John aside, Erica and I developed a mutually supportive relationship on Twitter. As with many online relationships, they remain just that. But at the Historical Novel Society's Oxford conference in September, fate intervened. The main dinner on the Saturday evening saw rain that was bouncing off the pavement and a mad scramble for seats and dryness. It may also have been the sniff of drink: historical novelists tend to drop all decorum when that's mentioned. In the random assembling, a woman dropped into the seat next to mine. Of course we introduced ourselves: historical novelists like to find out just who we're fighting for that bottle. And of course it was Erica. And of course we tweeted King John.

Erica & I at our serendipitous meeting!
Our dinner companions were at that point wondering just what was in that bottle but we explained- I think. Better than that, we talked all things John and writing and as happens at many HNS conferences, a lovely new friendship was formed. As her research provides another fascinating view of John's life through his relationship with Isabella, Erica very kindly agreed to write a guest post on Isabella's life and the mythology surrounding her family. So without further ado, I hand over to Erica's capable hands from hereon in.

Isabella of Angoulême
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
No one knows for sure when Isabella of Angouleme was born but it was probably about 1188 as her parents were not married until 1186. She had good connections across Europe; her mother was the daughter of Peter of France who was the son of King Louis V1. Her maternal uncle was Peter de Courtney the Latin emperor of Constantinople. Her great uncle was Louis V11 who had been married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Eleanor later became Isabella’s mother in law. Isabella, a tangled Queen indeed! Isabella was an heiress in her own right, Countess of Angoulême suo jure and therefore a good marriage could be expected for her.

Battle scene at sea from Roman de Mélusine by Jean d'Arras c. 1450
Public Domain via British Library
Her father was Ademar, Count of Angouleme, and a Taillefer. His ancestors had been put into Angouleme in the mid-9th century by Charles the Fat, a great grandson of Charlemagne, to repulse the Vikings as they raided all the rivers of France. They came up the Charente to Angoulême three times and three times were driven back. What was once a wooden fort on a rocky promontory became a stone castle with commanding views.

Knights in Combat from Roman de Mélusine
Public Domain via British Library
The counts, lords and dukes of early medieval south west France were independent, fierce and not very loyal. Any king who lived north of the Loire had a difficult time keeping their fidelity. Oaths of fealty were easily broken. Near Angoulême, close to Poiters, was Lusignan and over the centuries the Lords of Lusignan and the Counts of Angoulême had quarrelled, fought, become allies, intermarried and quarrelled again.

Detail of miniature from Roman de Mélusine depicting Raymond
accidentally killing his uncle while hunting in the forest.
Public Domain via British Library
Lusignan and the Lusignans had a wonderful history of how their castle came to be built. Raymond the count of Lusignan had been hunting and after a hunting accident that killed his uncle, he was wandering through the forest at night, feeling desolate and guilty. He came to the Fountain of the Fays where he met Melusine a fairy spirit who entranced him. By dawn they were planning marriage but she, as all fairy spirits do, had conditions, he was never to seek for her on Saturday nights. He promised. They were married and she offered him much help.

The marriage of Melusine and Raymond.from Roman de Mélusine.
Public Domain via British Library
Everyone marvelled at the speed in which she built a strong beautiful château. Melusine definitely used magic. ‘A mouthful of water and two handfuls of stones’ were all she needed.

Melusine supervises the building of a fortified chateau in Roman de Mélusine.
Public Domain via British Library
The couple had several children and lived together happily but Raymond broke his promise and spied on Melusine to discover her in her bath with a serpent’s tail or dragon tail. He blurted out the truth in the Great Hall and betrayed her. She flew away lamenting and weeping, returning only to fly above the turrets and towers for the death or birth of a Lusignan.

Melusine discovered, circa 1450 and circa 1500
Anonymous (exposition.bnf.fr), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Isabella aged about 12 was betrothed to Hugh le Brun of Lusignan and living there when King John saw her, and with her father’s connivance, kidnapped her and married her in Angoulême on 24 August 1200. It was a mixture of politics and passion. He did not want the two domains linked by marriage; he did want the beautiful Isabella, considered a medieval Helen of Troy.

The Angevins also had a story of being descended from Melusine. Indeed many families claimed water spirits as their beginning including the French royal family, hence the Dauphin or dolphin.

Miniatures of dolphins and a scorpion in Roman de Mélusine.
Public Domain via British Library.
Isabella was destined to be part of that watery story, for after John’s death she returned to France in 1217 and married the son of Hugh le Brun. He was Hugh or Hugues the X, altogether there were 13 Lusignans called Hugh, which makes life tricky for the writer.

The castle in Lusignan burnt down in 1250; a violent fire destroyed it all. But it was rebuilt and is shown in the 1416 Book of Hours belonging to the Duc de Berry with Melusine flying overhead.

Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Folio 3, verso: March.
Limbourg brothers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Some say that the logo for Starbucks is based on Melusine so in our very modern life we are reminded of water fairies dating back thousands of years. 
Many thanks Erica for a delightful post- I'm sure King John enjoyed it, too!
Images: Isabella, Melusine discoveredTrès Riches Heures du duc de Berry are in the Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Roman de Mélusine Images are in the Public Domain via the British Library.

Erica Lainé was born in Southampton in 1943 and originally studied for the theatre at the Arts Educational School in Tring. She worked as a library assistant in London and trained as a speech and drama teacher before moving with her family to Hong Kong in 1977. Here she worked for the British Council for 20 years as a teacher and educational project manager. Since 1997 she has lived in South West France where she became interested in all sorts of historical research and writing, as President of the Aquitaine Historical Society.

This led to a focus on Isabella of Angouleme and her life and times. The Aquitaine region is rich in English and French history and Isabella is a person who was woven into both. Erica has begun writing Part 2 of The Tangled Queen which will show how Isabella played all sides against each other and how her intrigues became part of the beginning of the 100 Years War.

Find her on Facebook as An Aquitaine Historical Society and Isabella of Angouleme the story. She's on Twitter @LaineEleslaine. Isabella of Angouleme (The Tangled Queen Part 1) is available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Tuesday, November 1

Spreading the Word: Having a Novel Translated by Amazon Crossing

Every writer knows the amount of work that goes into a 100,000 word novel. The research, the plotting, the writing, the rewriting, the editing, the proofing, the cover design and more. All add up to many hundreds of hours before your story, that tale that started life in your head, becomes a reality and hits the electronic/physical book shops. Then comes the miracle of readers discovering what was in your head and even more miraculously, loving it. It’s all good. Your story is out there, and readers are reading it. Job done. On to the next.

But there are of course those readers who can’t discover your story. Those who speak a different language to yours, who read in it. They remain out of your reach as a writer.

Age-old problem: this fox doesn't speak Goose. Or Hen. 
So as a writer, the only way to bridge that gap is to have your novels published in translation. Happily for me, I got that very opportunity in January 2016, when the first novel in my medieval thriller Fifth Knight series, was published in Germany as Der fünfte Ritter. Even better, Der fünfte Ritter was published by Amazon Crossing, who are currently a global success story in translated genre fiction. Sir Benedict Palmer's first outing in German hit the Bild bestseller list. Now book two in the series, The Blood of the Fifth Knight, sees its release today as Das Blut des fünften Ritters.

Amazon Crossing invited me to Frankfurt Book Fair last month to talk about my experience in having my books translated. It was interesting that many of the questions I received at Frankfurt from German authors were exactly the same as those I received from those here in the UK. I thought I’d share the most common.

‘You’re having a book translated? How do you trust someone with your novel?’ 

I have to admit that this one surprised me the first time I was asked it. But as I get asked it more and more, it’s clearly something that bothers authors. It’s worth mentioning that we authors are very well known for our control freakery. Manuscripts often have to be prised from our cold, dead hands before we allow them to go through the editorial process. Part of the fear with translation is that we have very little control over what happens. We have to allow a professional translator to do their amazing job- but we have no way of checking up on them. I suspect that many scribes are coming out in hives even at the thought. But that’s the deal. If you want your work to be translated (and like me, don’t speak a word of the translated language) then you’re going to have to trust the translator.

Me at Frankfurt-where (thankfully!) 
my lovely audience were fine with me speaking in English.
My Amazon Crossing translator for both books has been the very wonderful Oliver Hoffmann. The perceptive amongst you will wonder how I know he’s wonderful. Aside from his consulting with me on my exact meaning from time to time, the answer lies in the reviews. I have had many great ones but also a few negative ones (yes, astonishingly: they do exist), which I’ve accessed via the wobbly Google Translate. I’m very pleased to report that those negative reviews were from readers who didn’t like my book. And here’s the thing: none of them cited poor translation.

With translated books, clunky translation almost always gets a mention and it puts other readers off. It also leads to lower ratings. So for those who may be going down the Indie route and are considering hiring a translator, consider it as just as an important investment as you did when you hired an editor, cover designer etc. A good translator is another professional who is going to help you put the best book out there.

‘Do you have the same covers as the English version?’

Short answer, no. Amazon Crossing produced their own covers for the German Editions. They know their market and what is likely to appeal. Asking which I prefer is too much of a Favourite Child question. But there is no doubt that the guy who has found his way onto Der fünfte Ritter is a big hit. Funnily enough, no one mentions language when they comment on him. Even my sister (otherwise known as The World’s Toughest Sell) refers to him as Mr. Broody.

Book Covers as seats at the Amazon stand- cool!
My book as a seat- even cooler!
One thing about cover design that is common to both Amazon Crossing in Germany and Amazon Publishing’s Thomas & Mercer in the UK is how much they consult on cover design. I do feel ever so slightly sorry for them when they send me a very eye-catching draft and I tell them that the sword has a flat pommel (the bobble on the end of the sword) where it should be round, or a shield that would be better used for jousting and could I please have a Norman kite shield instead. I always send them pictures of what I mean. To their credit, they pull out all the stops and said shields and swords are found. I’m only guessing, but I’ll bet at times they’re really dreading my emails. Pommelgate, anyone?

‘Do you feel frustrated that you can’t read your own book now that it’s in another language? I know I would!’

To a very minor extent. But, for me, a translated book of mine is no longer mine alone. The translator now tells my story, too, so it can’t be 100% me anymore. Oliver Hoffmann's name is on the cover along with mine, which is exactly how it should be. Translation is not just the swapping of language for another. It's a creative process in its own right.  Done well, it captures the nuances and colour and tone of the original. Translation is a collaboration that means my words are brought to a whole new audience.

We historical fiction authors pride ourselves on being able to bridge time. Thanks to translation, we can cross borders, too. And that’s a rather wonderful thing.

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