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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