Thursday, April 19, 2012

LIONHEART: Sharon Kay Penman talks about her latest novel and a legendary king.

I first came across the novels of Sharon Penman via a book club edition of The Sunne in Splendour and it completely changed my views on Richard III. Not that I knew that much about him, but at that time, his reputation taught in schools was pretty much dyed in darkest evil.  Sharon, however, took Richard, his family, his loves and affiliations - and yes, his flaws and made him in a fully rounded living, breathing human being. A man of his time but with whom modern readers could empathise. She afforded the same courtesy to all the other characters in the novel and she never once defamed the dead.  I became a fan and I have been one ever since, both of Sharon's epic historicals and her Justin de Quincy mysteries. I eagerly await each new publication because I know I am in for a great read and research I can trust. Very little else matches up in the quality stakes.
With Lionheart, Sharon has again taken another king with a larger than life reputation (although not for supposed nephew murder, that speculation lies in his brother John's department) and put flesh upon bone and given nuance to character.  How much of the legend is myth and how much is truth?  Sharon goes in search of  the man behind the smoke and mirrors of the centuries and renders a fascinating portrait for readers to savour and think about. 
Without further ado here is Sharon in her own words.  Enjoy.  
p.s. She is also very modest. I am at home in the twelfth century but certainly not more than Sharon!  I also need to add that I am suffering from more than a touch of serious cover envy.  What a wonderful jacket.


 Elizabeth, thank you so much for inviting me to do this interview.  I am such a fan of your writing; I think you’re even more at home in the twelfth century than I am.

Devil’s Brood was to be the final book in your trilogy about the Angevins.  Why did you decide to continue their story with Lionheart?
      It was a gradual process.  As I’ve indicated elsewhere, for years I had a rather negative view of Richard I, and I’d have been astonished had I been told I’d eventually be writing not one but two books about him.   But once I began to research my Angevin trilogy, a different and surprising Richard began to emerge.   I discovered that when it came to his discord with his brothers, he was more sinned against than sinning; it was Hal and Geoffrey and then Geoffrey and John who’d attacked his lands in Aquitaine.  And I soon saw that Dr Stubbs’s indictment of Richard as a ‘bad son” was open to question, too.  Henry is my favorite king, but he made some dreadful mistakes with his sons, and both Geoffrey and Richard had legitimate grievances.  So by the time I was finishing Devil’s Brood, I was more receptive to the idea of continuing Richard’s story, which was certainly not lacking in high drama.   And of course this would give me another opportunity to write about Eleanor, which you will certainly understand!

I know you did extensive research for Lionheart.  Can you tell us something about that?  What surprised you the most?
Lionheart was a joy to research for an obsessive-compulsive type like me.  Never before had I such a treasure-trove of contemporary sources to draw upon.  A number of English chroniclers wrote about Richard’s crusade, but two in particular were invaluable, for they were written by men who accompanied Richard to the Holy Land and were eye-witnesses to the events they wrote about.   Life got even better when I found three Saracen chroniclers, two of whom were members of Saladin’s inner circle.  I was able to read accounts of battles by the men who actually fought in them; it does not get any better than that! Just to cite one example—Baha al-Din watched as Richard stormed the beach at Jaffa, sword in one hand, crossbow in the other, and he described that scene in his chronicle.   For interested readers, I discuss these chroniclers at some depth in Lionheart’s Acknowledgements.
            As to what I found most surprising in the course of my research, that is easy to answer.  It was Richard himself.   The Richard of legend is a like a smoldering torch, glowering, dour, and dangerous.  But the Richard I found on the pages of the chronicles was very different, a man with a lively and sardonic sense of humor, unpredictable, playful, imaginative, and shrewd.  I’ve said elsewhere that this Richard reminded me of that Johnny Cash song, “A walking contra-diction, partly truth and partly fiction.”   He was almost insanely reckless with his own safety, but a cautious battle commander, careful with the lives of his soldiers.  He was one of the first princes to take the cross, but he not only formed unexpected friendships with Saladin’s brother and some of his emirs, he even knighted several of them—in the midst of a holy war!   He is celebrated for his military genius, but he inherited his parents’ political skills, too.  He had his full share of the notorious Angevin temper, but he proved willing to compromise with the French king when need be.  He was undoubtedly prideful, yet he was able to laugh at himself.   I had not expected Richard the man to differ in so many ways from Richard the myth, and I think my readers will share my surprise. The Richard in Lionheart is more complex than the Richard of legend and therefore more interesting; at least I hope readers think so. 

 What did you most admire about Richard?  What were his less admirable traits?
I already knew, of course, that military historians consider Richard to be a brilliant battle commander as well as a superb soldier, and his courage is one of the reasons why he remains one of England’s best-known kings.   But until I read the crusader chronicles, I had not known the responsibility he took for the welfare of his men.  It went beyond transporting the wounded back to Jaffa.  On his celebrated march from Acre, he showed an impressive grasp of war psychology by forming three lines of march.   The safest duty was accompanying the supply weapons for they traveled next to the sea; the most dangerous duty was on the left flank, for those men were expected to fend off the Saracen skirmishers.  Richard rotated these shifts; one day a man would be in the line of fire, but the next day he would be assigned to the compara-tive safety of the supply wagons.    I was also impressed and surprised by the cordial relations Richard forged with many of his Saracen foes.  And he turned out to be a pragmatist, refusing to assault Jerusalem because he’d become convinced that it could not be taken and men would die in vain if they tried; from the first, he sought a negotiated settlement with Saladin.
I would say his less admirable traits were his explosive, Angevin temper and his arro-gance; he could also be very ruthless, but that seems to have been an occupational hazard for medieval kings.  Virtually every ruler that I’ve written about in the past twenty-plus years, with the possible exception of the hapless Henry VI, committed acts that are jarring to  modern sensibilities. 

Did any characters surprise you as the book progressed?
              I was surprised to develop some sympathy for Tancred of Lecce, who took the crown after the death of the Sicilian king, William, husband to Richard’s sister Joanna.   I became quite fond of Isabella, Queen of Jerusalem, a young woman of considerable courage and intelligence.   And I liked writing about Richard’s nephew, Henri of Champagne, so much that I have expanded his role in my next book, the one I hope to write after A King’s Ransom. 

Was it a challenge to write about Richard’s queen, Berengaria, since so little is known of her?
It was actually liberating to write about a character about whom so little is known.  Berengaria was not even her real name; it was Berenguela, which was then translated into French as Berengere and eventually the English Berengaria.  She was surely the only royal bride to spend her honeymoon in a war zone.  But she has glided through history like a sad ghost, leaving few footprints behind.  We  know she was very pious; she founded an abbey where she would eventually be buried and where her stunning effigy can be seen.   She came from a close-knit family, so the Angevins must have been something of a shock to her.  She had considerable courage, but it was the quiet kind.  She endured serious hardships and her life was at risk during the crusade, but if she ever complained, none of the chroniclers mentioned it.  She would later need that courage when she had to fight her brother-in-law John for her dower rights; not surprisingly, John treated her rather shabbily.  But she made no scenes, certainly not in public, and probably not in private, for she was not a royal rebel like her redoubtable mother-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Only once does the veil lift, giving us a glimpse of the woman behind the queen’s mask.  The Bishop of Lincoln visited her upon learning of Richard’s death at Chalus and it was reported by his contemporary biographer that he’d consoled the “broken-hearted” widow.  But was she grieving for Richard?  Or for what might have been?  Or for the difficult future she may have foreseen without Richard’s protection?  Those are secrets the real Berengaria took with her to her grave.   
   Since we know their marriage was on the rocks after Richard returned from his German captivity, I’d assumed that they’d been incompatible from the beginning.  I was surprised, therefore, to learn that Richard went to some trouble to have her with him in the Holy Land.  I am not saying that they were madly in love; medieval people—especially the highborn—did not marry for love. And on the few occasions when this actually happened, it usually did not end well; see Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.  There was a reason public opinion was so scandalized by Edward’s secret marriage to the commoner Elizabeth—because in their world, this was not done.  Royal marriages were made for the most pragmatic of reasons—to form or cement alliances—and we can be sure Berengaria did not expect to find her soul mate when she made that arduous journey over the Alps to join Richard in Sicily.  But what little evidence there is seems to suggest that they got along well enough in the Holy Land.   
     Whatever went wrong between them happened after their return from the crusade.  She then found herself in a difficult position, for Richard had the power to act—she could only re-act, and in the centuries since her death, she has been unfairly criticized for her seeming passivity, for not holding his attention, for not being another Eleanor.  Her tragedy was not that her husband did not love her; it was that she’d failed in a queen’s prime duty, to give him an heir.  For in the Middle Ages, the woman was always the one blamed for a barren marriage, and sadly, she probably blamed herself, too, for that is what she’d have been taught.  I liked writing about Berengaria in Lionheart and hope to do justice to her in A King’s Ransom.   As I’ve said elsewhere, I see her as a young woman who was dealt a bad hand and played it as best and bravely as she could.

You’d decided at the mid-point of Lionheart that Richard’s story could not be com-pressed into one book.  Can you tell us about the sequel, A King’s Ransom?
I’d begun to panic when I’d realized that I could not hope to meet the deadline for Lionheart.  But then a dear friend saved my sanity by suggesting I tell Richard’s story in two books.  That was not only inspired, it made perfect sense, for the crusade was the natural breaking point.  So Lionheart ends with Richard making peace with Saladin and preparing to sail for home—or so he thinks.  Fortunately for him, he does not know what lies ahead—two shipwrecks, an encounter with pirates, a wild dash through enemy territory with only a handful of men before falling into the hands of the Duke of Austria, who bore him a bitter grudge,  and then being turned over to the mercies of a man who had none, the Holy Roman Emperor, Heinrich.  In A King’s Ransom, I will write about that epic journey, his captivity in Germany, his eventual return to his own domains, where he will fight a bitter war with the French king to recover the lands he lost while he was a prisoner, his death at Chalus, and the first year of the reign of his brother John.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Getting In a Lather

I have realised that there are many posts I have written for my various blog tours that could well do with migrating to my home blog.  So I'm gradually going to put them all in one place.  This one is about medieval bathing habits.  While I'm here, I've also added the wonderful re-issued cover of THE GREATEST KNIGHT to the sidebar.  

GETTING IN A LATHER: Medieval bathing habits.
Modern audiences are often confused about the bathing habits and cleanliness of medieval people, and no surprise because there is a plenty of conflicting information - and masses of misinformation out there, especially of the ‘they were filthy and smelly’ kind.  Just as in our society, beliefs, notions, and behaviour according to status and century, differed widely in the Middle Ages.
People took baths a lot less frequently than we do today, but that does not mean they didn’t wash or not care about cleanliness.  King John had a bath attendant called William Aquarius and took a bath once every 3 weeks.  He also had a washerwoman called Florence to do his laundry.  According to a study of medieval laundry habits, the King is likely to have changed his shirt and braies (underpants) at least once every three days.   It’s not the height of hygiene on our radar, ( and perhaps we are over-scrubbed these days)  but neither is it a terrible state of affairs.
People bathed in streams in the summertime.  Geoffrey of Anjou, father of Henry II, caught a chill after so doing and died, but he was doing nothing out of the ordinary by taking a dip. In colder weather, indoor tubs were used.
Washing the hands and face were important daily rituals whatever your position in society.  People washed as a matter of course when they got up. Coroners’ records have incidences of people coming to grief when going to wells to wash at sunrise - presumably being still half-asleep, falling in and drowning.  Nuns were exhorted when they rose, to comb their hair and wash their face and hands in good cold water.  There are numerous references in literature and books of conduct that reveal how important washing the hands, face and feet were.  Indeed, washing the feet after a journey was a commonplace ritual, and as a form of relaxation was popular. Nothing like a nice warm footbath at the end of the day.  A host was always expected to provide washing water for his guest’s feet, and often to perform the deed himself.  I have enclosed a photo of a medieval bath towel that I took at London’s V&A Museum.  If you look at medieval illustrations, most towels, whether used in food serving or bathing, are white with these blue borders.  Generally they are made of linen.
 Soap receives a few mentions in medieval literature but became more popular as the period advanced.  The main soap of northern Europe was ‘black’ soap based on woodash and sheep fat. There was a flourishing soap-making industry at Bristol in the Middle Ages.  Black soap was not particularly salubrious and used more in the cloth industry than on people.  However, the Spanish manufactured a pale soap based on olive oil. ‘Soap of Castile’ was in great demand among the aristorcracy for their ablutions, although it cost three times as much as mutton fat soap.  ‘Knight’s Castile’ is still a soap brand today, although I suspect the formula and production has changed somewhat!
The nobility might order and take their bath in their chamber, but there were also public bath houses.  Several establishments existed in London on the South side of the river in the suburb of Southwark. (they became known as The Stews and developed a certain reputation for immoral behaviour including prostitution.  In the mid 12th century, King Stephen’s brother, the Bishop of Winchester was a landlord of some of them!).
Bath tubs were usually made out of wood and resembled either large wide-mouthed barrels, or long ovals.  Sometimes a short pole was erected in the bath and a sort of awning set up for the bather – a bit like a shower curtain – so that they could have  privacy and be sheltered from draughts.  Some tubs were big enough for two people and would have dividing boards set across the centre to hold plates, cups, or even games.
Baths were not just for cleanliness alone.  A bath was a purification ritual on the eve of marriage or knighthood.  For example, Eleanor, the sister of Edward III bathed on the eve of her wedding to the Count of Guelderland in 1332 when her chamberlain was paid 18 pence for herbs and other aids to prepare her bath.  Taking a bath was also seen as therapeutic.  A medical treatise of 1400 stipulated that the herbs and spices used in the bath and on the bather should take account of the seasons and be fine-tuned to the humours of the person.  The bather was to rinse his body in cooling scented waters and be anointed with ‘Saracen ointment’ if it was spring and summer. In autumn and winter the ointment should be myrrh and the juice of wild garden spinach.  He would be given a drink made from syrup of roses, and offered food and wine should he need sustenance.  Then he would be dried and go for a nice nap.  It doesn’t sound so different to our luxury ‘me-time’ bath moments with scents, candles and wine, does it?   Some high status medieval residences even had fixed bathrooms.  Leeds castle had a tiled one in 1291, as had Sheen in the reign of Richard II.  Edward III’s palace at Westminster had hot and cold running water.  Castle Rising had 'ladies and gents' toilets in the main domestic chamber.  Cleanliness and good odours were definitely seen as being next to Godliness. 
Sometimes people did eschew bathing as a deliberate mortification of the flesh and as a sign of absolute penitence – as in the case of Thomas Becket, whose garments were filthy and crawling with parasites when he was martyred, but that was not the way the general population chose to live.
The medievals did not have the current super-clean obsession of our own society, but neither were they mired in the stench and filth so favoured by Hollywood.  The reality, as with so many things, is not polarised, but lies somewhere in between.

Select bibliography:  Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe by Peter Spufford - Thames & Hudson  2002
Ye Shall have it Cleane - Textile cleaning techniques in Renaissance Europe: Article by Drea leed in Medieval Clothing and Textiles voolume 2 edited by Robin Netherton and Gale R. Owen-Crocker Boydel and Brewer 2006
The Senses in Late Medieval England by C.M. Woolgar Yale University Press 2006
A History of Private Life Volume 2 edited by Georges Duby - Bellknap Harvard 1988