Thursday, July 30, 2009

Starter for Twenty - Medieval novels from my collection

Having recently finished my latest novel and having handed it in, I got round to a bit of tidying around and came to perusing my keeper bookshelf. This gave me the idea for a post listing twenty medieval historical novels that live there. All are friends I wouldn't dream of parting with. I haven't listed them in order of preference - just in order of scanning, and they are only representative, but here they are with brief notes. A selection of the well-worn and the slightly newer that have taken me on far-ranging adventures, educated me, and kept me sane. (I know the latter is debatable, but you know what I mean)!


I was very tempted to put all of Sharon Kay Penman's novels on my list, just as I was tempted to put all my Dunnet's or Gellis' but that would have left room for nothing else. So I've put up my 'read most times' Penman as a representative of the rest. Sharon Penman has an unsurpassed talent for bringing the Middle Ages to life and for explaining the complex politics in a thoroughly readable way that leaves you wanting more. Her research is deep and her characters are of their time, but people you can still recognise. SKP is the true royalty when it comes to writing historical fiction set in the medieval period.


Part 2 of a trilogy, but I read this first and it stands alone. The story of Margaret Kendall, wealthy merchant's widow, who is forced into marriage with Gregory de Villiers, a younger son and unfrocked monk. A glorious, tongue in cheek romp. The others in the trilogy are A Vision of Light and The Water Devil. First read this around 1990


Arn de Gothia is given to the church, but his skills lie with the military arts. Something of a Parsifal character, this is the story of his early years and the forging of a Templar Knight. Don't expect a strong resolution at the end though. This is only the beginning of the journey.
Read this year.


I love all of Cecelia Holland's Medieval novels. Hammer For Princes and Great Maria could have as easily appeared here, but Until the Sun Falls is also a tour de Force. The story of the Mongol Empire following the death of Ghenghis Khan.


Another Holland. Kevin Crossley this time. This is the story of 12th century boy Arthur, living on the Welsh Marches and with a mystic connection to older legends. Holland has a gift for bringing the period to life. It's a young adult novel but easily makes the crossover.


The story of Henry I. Not many authors have tackled this particular king who is probably one of England's greatest monarchs - but in an understated kind of way. He ruled with a rod of iron and his nature was not always endearing, but the country had 35 years of peace under his rule. Juliet Dymoke writes his story with apblomb.


From the days when medieval romances were meatier tomes you could really sink into. Eden Hawkhurst's husband goes missing on crusade and of course she sets out to find him, but on her way she meets Tristan Damartin and things start to get complicated. A great romp - sexy and forthright but rich story telling nevertheless - or so I thought back in 1977!


More Crusader stuff. I read this one last year and it made me laugh out loud. The tale of a young lad who becomes a Templar squire, the narrative told through his irreverent and cheeky banter. Aimed at the YA market, but I loved it.


More Holy Land mayhem. The background to the events that led to the third crusade. This was probably the first 'gritty' historical that I read in the early 1970's. Retail price 30p


The incomparible Dorothy Dunnett and the first of her six books about Francis Crawford of Lymond. I can't say it better than one of the original quotes for this book from Neil Patterson of the Sunday Times: 'This is the first time I have stood in the market place and shouted and I wish I were more practised and my voice were bigger, for I have something of delight for all who care for excellence.'
There are historical novelists, and then there is Dorothy Dunnett. My edition, bought after having read it from the library, is the 1984 printing.


Another great dame of the genre, Roberta Gellis. Alinor has one of the best romantic heroes I have ever come across. Ian de Vipont is a tour de force - and so is Alinor. She's a woman of her time and yet she runs ring around the men. I've read this one to bits in the past. Ignore the cheesy cover. It's a well-researched, meaty historical novel.


Madselin - my favourite Norah Lofts. The story of a noble Saxon young woman forced to make adjustments in the wake of the Norman Conquest. A very fine novel.


Having read all the Dunnett and suffering from withdrawal symptoms, I came across this one. Vainglory by Geraldine McCaughrean is like stepping into a richly illuminated Book of Hours. I love the language, and I am still a little in love with the hero, Victoire de Gloriole.


Grace Ingram is also known as Doris Sutcliffe Adams. This particular novel is part romance, part medieval mystery, written in a pacy, tongue in cheek style with an endearing 'feisty' heroine very much of her time and a believable, vulnerable hero. A favourite comfort read for me.


Carla Nayland is a friend from the historical fiction community but I wasn't asked to read this; I did it of my own accord and read it just like any other book. This is early medieval - what used to be called the 'Dark Ages' but Carla skillfully weaves the story of Eadwine and his struggle for survival and inheritance.
I read this about a year ago or thereabouts.


Queen Melisande of Jerusalem and the Christian Holy Land in a state of flux comes to life in this one. Again, the rich texture and use of language puts this one in the Dorothy Dunnett field of operation. I was hooked from the moment I read the opening paragraph.


The first work of historical fiction I ever bought for myself with a book token. I was fifteen at the time. I'd bought books in other genres before, but this was the first historical. I'd recently fallen in love with the Middle Ages in a swash buckling romantic sort of way, and the cover sucked me in!


A fast-paced intelligent romance novel that isn't just about the bonk. In fact, although the intimate moments have you reaching for a cold drink, they are not over done and the story itself with its mystery and developing cooperation between hero and heroine, is very rewarding. One of the best historical romances I've read.


H.A. Douglas is a re-enactor friend and this is self-published by Lulu. Again, I wasn't pushed into reading it, nor obliged to say nice things, but this is a superb little novel about life in the north of England in the tenth century. The author is very good at writing a female viewpoint and the story has a powerful sense of time and place. It's as good as anything published by the big houses.


I was a fan of Ellis Peters' Cadfael looooong before the mainstream cottoned on. Here's my bookclub edition from 1979. This was my first meeting with the gorgeous Hugh Berenger for whom I formed a lifelong attachment. Never mind the mystery, never mind the monk, just give me dark-eyed light on his feet Hugh!
Seriously, I loved the Cadfael books and I have them all.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Fessing up - more medieval sex-life

'Have you had sex with your wife on a Sunday?' You shall do penance for four days on bread and water.'

'Have you had sex with your wife or with another woman from behind doggy style? If you have done this, you shall do penance for ten days on bread and water.'

'Have you kissed some woman due to foul desire and thus polluted yourself? If you have done this, you shall do penance for three days on bread and water. But if this happened in church, you shall do penance for twenty days on bread and water.'

'Have you tasted your husband's semen in the hope that because of your diabolical deed he might burn the more with love for you? If you have done this, you should do penance for seven years on the legitimate holy days.'

Excerpts from History Laid Bare by Richard Zacks, in turn extracted from the early 11thC penitential of Burchard of Worms.

Continuing my blog post on medieval attitutes to sexuality, the above is copied from a penitential written around 1012 by German bishop Burchard of Worms. It's part of a twenty volume work covering every imaginable sin, but volume 19 chapter 5 contains the ones pertaining to sexual sins, of which 194 are listed. I should think that by the time the scribe finished writing them down, he would have had to go and dunk himself in a cold bath and head for confession himself! It appears that every permutation likely to ocurr in the confessional has been touched on and then some! The ones above are the more mundane. I haven't listed the ones pertaining to nun ravishing, various forms of incest and ummm... bread abuse.
Obviously people did these things or there wouldn't be a need to have the guidelines, although some sins were rarer than others and some were seen as far more serious. Semen swallowing for example, gets you seven years' worth of penance, whereas kissing is only three days (except in a church!) and sex on a Sunday four. Other than the missionary, alternative sexual positions equals ten days on bread and water. It upset the order of the world to have the woman on top or to engage in unnatural sexual positions. And since sex was for conception as mentioned in my earlier post, there was only one place semen was supposed to be deposited so there were heavy penances for putting it elsewhere.
Albert of Cologne, a Dominican friar and bishop was of the opinion that the missionary position was 'the blameless path.' A slight deviation was the sideways position, 'then comes the sitting position, the standing, and, finally, the greatest sin is 'retrorsum' like mares. That's why certain people have said this position constitutes a mortal sin, but that's not my opinion.'
Did people keep to the letter of church law? Did they go to confession with clear consciences? Again, it's a case of different strokes for different folks. Side by side with strictures from the church to behave in a sexually restrained and exemplary fashion, went medieval straightforwardness, fun and bawdiness. (you only need to see the British joy in Pantomime to see it at work in the national psyche). Grape Street in London was once Gropecu*t Lane. Pelican Street in Paris was once (13thC) the Rue de Poile-Con (Cu*t trimming street). Then there was Swylcontdich in Cheshire. By 1848 it was Swillinditch. Alongside the religious chants, the teachings, the warnings from the pulpit, were bawdy folk tales and soldier's songs involving lusty copulation all night long. There are explicit riddles such as this one from a book of Anglo Saxon Riddles.

I am a wonderful help to women
The hope of something good to come
I harm only my slayer
I grow very tall, erect in a bed
I am shaggy down below
The lovely girl grabs my body, rubs my red skin
Holds me hard, claims my head.
That girl will feel our meeting!
I bring tears to her eyes!
What am I?

You can almost hear and see the giggles can't you? Answer is at the end of the post.

A marriage did not have to be consummated to be valid but the non consummation had to be voluntary on both sides. If either party was unable to have sexual intercourse then the marriage could be dissolved. A jury of matrons could be called to examine the woman and say whether or not she was capable and and the same for the man. There is a known English court case where a man was brought before a female jury, having been accused of being unable to produce the goods. The jury then proceeded to give him a physical examination. One of their number showed him her breasts and fondled him him intimately and tried to get him interested while the others looked on. When nothing stirred in the bushes, he was pronounced a fraud. In another case though, similar treatment resulted in a response that made the jury declare that the man's equipment was 'large enough for any woman living in the world.'

As a writer of historical fiction, I have plenty of examples of variation through which to choose my path. I think the most important thing for me in choosing that path is being as aware as possible of all the variations. Absorbing the rich melange of thought and custom by detailed reading across the disciplines is, I believe, the best way to get the hang of a workable model of the mindset.

Illustration of a Medieval badge from The Secret Middle Ages by Malcolm Jones.

Here are some books from my own library covering the subject - not comprehensive. I have other works with snippets here and there.

History Laid Bare - Love, sex and perversity from the ancient Etruscans to Lawrence of Arabia
by Richard Zacks

Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others by Ruth Mazo Karras.

The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern France around 1200 by John.W. Baldwin

Love, Sex and Marriage in the Middle Ages: A Sourcebook edited by Conor McCarthy

The Medieval Idea of Marriage by Christopher Brooke

Medieval Obscenities Edited by Nicola McDonald

Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England by Ruth Mazo Karras

Handbook of Medieval Sexuality edited by Bullough and Brundage

The Secret Middle Ages by Malcolm Jones.

Answer to the Riddle - an onion....

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

No Sex Here, we're Medieval!

There have been one or two discussions online about Medieval sexuality, so I thought I'd post a few thoughts of my own on the subject. Being a historical novelist who features detailed relationships between my characters, it's inevitable that their sex lives become part of the equation. So, the question is: If I'm going to try and be as historically accurate as possible, what are the do's and don'ts for my characters? Over the next few days, I'm going to post on matters of the heart and areas further south in the medieval world view.

The first thing to realise even before I begin, is that just like now, one size doesn't fit all. I have to be prepared to accept that there's more than one model going on here, but that within the spread of opinion, there are still general rules.

Incidentally the tasteful above illustration is courtesy of the border of the Bayeux Tapestry.

They married really young didn't they?
Well, that depends. The aristocracy tended to marry at a younger age than the peasantry. Aristocratic women were married off pretty young, while aristocratic men were often batchelors into their forties - William Marshal being a case in point. Roger Bigod was well into his thirties. His son Hugh was 25 when he married the probably 14 year old Mahelt Marshal. Twelve was the age of consent for a girl and fourteen for a boy. Some marriages were consummated at this young age. On other occasions the girl - or boy was left to mature a while longer. There are marriage clauses in existence where pacts are made between families concerning consummation dates. Mahelt Marshal bore her first child when she was about 16 years old. Margaret Beaufort was just thirteen when she bore the future Henry VII. While our society is somewhat censorious about the age thing, the medieval mindset on the matter was somewhat different. The medievals would have been shocked to think that we might regard such juvenile marriages as child abuse. A teenage girl getting married in the middle ages was seen as taking a responsible place in adult society. i.e. maturity was placed earlier than it is now. Most medieval children would have been accustomed to the mundane aspects of sexual activity among adults. There was little privacy in society and the medievals were not prudes. They had no problem placing a married couple in bed together, naked, with witnesses - but would probably be horrified by the titilation offered by a standard modern pop video, available for children of any age to watch. e.g.

Sex wasn't for fun - it was to beget children.
Yup. That was the general idea. Medieval writers regarded sex as sinful, but that sin was mitigated if you did the deed to procreate. 'Carnal connection with wives must take place for the sake of offspring, not pleasure, and a man should abstain from sex with his pregnant wife.' So said a 9th century Frankish church council. Henry I of England had more than 20 illegitimate children - apparently because he liked children. (oh yeah?) No one asked what the mothers thought! This of course would have nothing to do with his wife's predeliction for kissing the feet of lepers. Her brother, the future King David of Scotland caught her at this habit on one occasion and asked her if her husband knew about it. The fact that they had one son and one daughter, as opposed to the other scattered twenty, does make one pause for thought!
Basically the Christian idea was that if sex took place in marriage, it should be open to the possibility of conception and contraception was forbidden.

But people used contraception anyway?
That would depend on their own belief and how strongly they followed church teaching. Sometimes people know the rules but break them anyway. (riding a bicycle on a pavement for e.g. or dropping a cigarette stub on the pavement). Contraceptive practices were undertaken. The Trotula, an 11thC treatise on women's health has various suggestions on preventing conception. The woman should wear against her naked flesh the womb of a goat that has never borne offspring, or hang the testicles of a weasel around her neck. After a difficult birth, if a woman did not wish to conceive ever again, she should throw a handful of barley into the placenta. Perhaps with slightly more success, other methods such as inserting a stone or piece of moss up against the cervix, or douching with vinegar are recommended elsewhere. Coitus interruptus was practised. How widespread all this was, we don't know, but since it's all mentioned here and there, it was obviously part of life's pattern. Breast feeding might have given some natural protection for a while, but breastfeeding women were supposed to abstain from sex anyway. The nobility often employed wet nurses (although not always. It bears emphasising that not everyone was running down the same path) and once a wife emerged from her forty days of childbirth confinement, she was straight back on the breeding programme.
I found it rather interesting when researching TO DEFY A KING, that Hugh Bigod and Mahelt |Marshal appeare to have had several of their children at three year intervals i.e. 1209, 1212, 1215, 1218. I don't know when the fifth was born. In the novel, I've gone with them using contraceptive practises.

Next time around:

Getting into position
Who wears the trousers
Grounds for divorce