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Saturday, January 5, 2013

Let's argue about history


When you write a historical novel, you can expect to argue about history.

12th C Llansteffan Castle, Wales
I wasn't surprised when my network of critical friends found some mistakes in the period background of my 12th century novel and it was incredibly useful to have their input. Usually, they were right.

What did surprise me though was how passionate I felt about some aspects of my background research; black armour, chastity belts, riding side-saddle, handkerchiefs, pills, sweets and Damascene swordmaking are just some of the topics that raise my blood pressure.

Sometimes, I really did have evidence that bucked the received opinion. Sometimes I just felt plain stubborn about the practicalities of life. I haven't felt like this since a historian told me that prehistoric men did cave-drawings of prey animals either to plan or to celebrate a hunt. 'How do you know they were men?' I asked him. 'Why couldn't women have been drawing to entertain and teach the children?' And that's if you assume a patriarchal gender-stereotyped society. What if it wasn't?

In a nutshell, these are some of the problems with 'history'

- Evidence is limited and open to interpretation.

- Theories are based on assumptions - and collapse like a house of cards if the assumptions are changed.

- The history passed down to us was written by men, and is mostly about male leaders - HIS story.

- Different places and peoples communicate history differently.

11th century part of the Alhambra, Spain


So, in random order - and feel free to comment:-

chastity belts - were they around in 1150 and what were they used for? I found some online suggestions that  the Crusades of 1147 onwards, resulting in husbands' long absences, motivated the use of chastity belts. I like the idea that they were perhaps used by women to prevent rape rather than by husbands to lock up their wives' chastity but I don't see why both aren't possible.

handkerchiefs - apparently not around in 1150 but what I want to know is whether this just means that the word hadn't been coined or did everyone wipe their noses on their sleeves? Just because there's no evidence of something doesn't mean it wasn't there and I don't believe that inventive individuals didn't ... invent!... useful items ahead of their official appearance in language or records. If I'd lived in the 12th century, I'd have had a nose-wiping scarf! As well as a pretty no-snot one to give to my true knight.

the Black Knight - OK, no black armour in 1150 (although I bet the Japanese Samurai had some) but everyone who's watched 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail', or of course read the Mabinogion, knows that the black knight is the baddy. So what was black about him? No, I don't believe it was just his black heart showing.

riding side-saddle - didn't happen until much later, when the saddle for riding in this manner was invented. Pictures show women in medieval Europe riding astride. I agree, women rode astride! That doesn't mean they never rode side-saddle. Absence of proof doesn't mean it didn't happen. And have you tried sitting astride on a horse, while wearing a long, slightly flared gown? You have to hitch your skirt up to your knickers (which you wouldn't have been wearing in 1150) and, believe me, the pose is really not lady-like. So, unless you were wearing your incredibly wide circular riding-gown, I reckon you'd have gone for sitting side-saddle! I found one person who agrees with me - hooray!

pills, sweets and Damascene swordmaking - not known in northern Europe in 1150. Agreed. But it is difficult for someone British (me) to take in just how sophisticated al-Andalus (Muslim-occupied Spain) and the Holy Land were in 1150. The Arabs, other Middle Eastern peoples, and the Jews, wherever they lived, had highly developed science, medicine, surgery, engineering, geography. They could make pills and sweets.

Britain had no sugar. This luxury good only reached southern France in 1150, reportedly brought back from the crusades by Alienor(Eleanor) of Aquitaine.

The superb filigree swords of Damascus, combining strength and beauty, cannot be recreated today. Scientists think that one of the ingredients, probably coming from India, was exhausted so that it is no longer possible to recreate the chemistry.

woman with sword
Any Christians trading with other peoples, or crusading against them - especially those who settled in the Holy Land - came into contact with all this knowledge.They brought it back to the south of France in 1149, to barbaric Britain at the end of the 12th century. And the Church stamped out every example of 'heresy' it found, from papermaking to astronomy.

I would like to believe that individuals like my character, Dragonetz, learned from their neighbour Moors and Jews, and that little candles of knowledge were passed on, despite the Church, to blaze into the Christian community's collective mind two hundred years later. We did finally, get books for everyone. And now look what's happening to them.

Lady of the Lake



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