• Strict Rules

    I was in the New Forest archive the other day – not at all dusty as archives are said to be – when I came across a few rules for nuns that would have irked Hildegard more than somewhat.

    It was men who made these rules up, of course, so we have to bear that in mind, and their interests become clear when we see what got them really agitated.

    Clothes.  Rules for how the nuns looked seemed uppermost, so nothing has changed much there then. It was suggested that hair- cloth should be worn next to the skin.  It must have been very itchy. To be fair, St Jerome, among many other sainted men, was said to wear a hair-shirt.  And Becket too, and when he was entombed he was also found to be crawling with lice – but that’s another story.

    The nuns’ garments whether of hair or rough wool, linen of course being forbidden, had to be very well tied, with strapples to the feet, and everything had to be laced tightly. Really tightly.  Well, you can see where that’s heading and I do believe some of them wore grey too, in various shades of…

    They were also forbidden to wear silken veils in any colour but black. Purple was absolutely forbidden.  The men also fulminated against silk girdles and purses (worn, as they were, on a belt slung suggestively low round the hips).   There were also to be no pins in silver or gold whether for the hair or for holding the clothes together.  They were allowed only one ring.

    What was called a peculium was money set aside from the nunnery’s common fund specifically to provide clothes although of course many women who retired to nunneries when their husbands died took their own clothes with them (as well as pet dogs, monkeys, singing birds and so forth, as you do).

    But did the nuns obey these edicts from on high?  Not likely.  The records are full of lists of the nuns’ transgressions despite the many inspections by their male bosses, the bishops, or whoever had the upper hand.  Did these men inspect the hair cloth underwear?  Not much point in making a rule if you can’t enforce it.  Records tell us that a nun called Anneys Bonneville actually wore a fur coat. Scandal.  It was full length.  For the warmth, she said.  Oh yes?  What her punishment was we might imagine but apparently she refused to give it up.

    I found an intriguing note about a priest who bequeathed to Agnes Harvey, a nun and obviously a close friend, his red mantle – a nun in red? – and, suggestively, a tapestry bed cover.  We can maybe imagine to what use these two articles were put when he and Agnes were alive.

    It’s a pleasure to discover that these distant ancestors of ours share the same delights as we do.  Some, like Hildegard, took their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience seriously and wrestled with the morality of breaking them but most people, men and women, were as naughty as they wanted to be. Human, after all.

    An intriguing and beautiful line from the Ancren Riwle is as follows: “They came forth into the nymph-hay with their rocks and wheels to spin.”

    It sounds lovely and there must be a painting somewhere to match such a line.  Any suggestions?


  • Medieval marriage

    Changes in marriage laws have been in the news recently.  They led me to think about medieval marriage and in which ways it was different to how it was before the recent change.   I hear a lot of misconceptions about it, as about the middle ages altogether, so here are a few facts gleaned from my general reading around the period.

    Medieval canon law inherited the rules of Roman law which decreed that no betrothal could be undertaken below the age of 7 and that the age of consent for a girl was twelve and for a boy, fourteen.   The essence of marriage was the begetting of children.  Free consent, even between slaves, was deemed a necessity.

    Two kinds of agreement were in force.  They may seem quite lax to us, probably because all a girl or boy had to do to make a legally valid consent to marry in the future was to say I promise to take you as wife/husband some time.  This was like an engagement, per verba de futuro.  If both of them said I promise to take you here and now it was verba de praesenti and they were tied for good.  Divorce was more difficult than these days and usually only allowed for ordinary mortals if a previous marriage vow had been taken or if the intricate laws of consangunity could be shown as an issue.  Unless, of coure you were royalty.  Henry VIII showed his contempt for the law by simply having his unwanted wives executed.

    The rituals of marriage developed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries with the exchange of gifts and the blessing of  a priest.  The church wanted to have some control over the event as they collected taxes from the participants and saw it as a way of controlling the sinful sexiness of ordinary people.  The church’s idea of the perfect marriage was one with celibacy at its heart – not the usual reason most people want to shack up with someone.  If you remember Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, she had five husbands ‘at church door’  and we can believe she didn’t have celibacy in mind.

    It was not until the sixteenth century that marriage in church became a legal necessity after an edict of the Council of Trent.  This was mandatory for Catholics but ignored by Protestants.  In England the old, easygoing form from the twelfth century survived until Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 that enforced marriage in church.  It was not until 1836 that civil marriage became part of English law.

    This is just a brief account of the main differences between then and now.


    If you want to findout more you could read a paper by Frederik Pedersen called ‘Romeo and Juliet of Stonegate': a medieval marriage in crisis,’ for its clarity.  It is well worth a read and condenses over eight hundred legal documents into a few pages.  Christopher Brooke’s ‘The Medieval idea of Marriage,’ gives a fascinating overview of marriage as it existed in the rest of Europe at this time.

  • Mehala

    I’ve just finished reading the most sensational, passionate and powerful novel ever.  I really couldn’t put it down until the last word was read.  The hero out-Heathcliffes Heathcliffe.  It makes Shades of Grey look colourless.  The heroine was the source for  The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowle’s smash hit novel.  I’ll tell you more when I’ve had chance to get my thoughts in order.  Wow!  What a story!  It should never be out of print.

  • Historical fiction

    Most historical fiction is divided by publishers into ‘sword and slaughters’ with snarling, blood-stained brutes on the covers or the girlie sort, all busts and bodices.  Presumably this is for the convenience of the salesmen – like labelling cans of beans so they can offload them in bulk.  I find it limiting, unrealistic and neither type fits with what I want to write.  Of course my characters, both fictional and real, sometimes confront each other in a violent and bloody manner and they lust and love and, I hope, show more subtle feelings like characters in literary novels who express something authentic about real life.  But this rose pink or all black division bores me.  I suppose I’m out of step with current marketing patterns.  So be it.  I’m just so glad that there are readers who like what I do. As I reach the end of book 7 it’s good to know there may be one or two fans of Hildegard waiting to see what she does next.

  • Food facts

    Several things about medieval food you might not know:

    – did you know, for instance, that your medieval ancestors ate pasta? Called losyns it could be layered like lasagne or rolled out like spaghetti and cooked in a creamy broth.

    – they also ate sweet and sour dishes.  Really popular they were cooked with rabbit, venison, wild boar and other meats, the sauce consisting of red wine, currants, onions, ginger root, cinnamon and black pepper.

    – rice was eaten but perhaps not always cooked the way we do.  It was made into a pudding but was cooked with chicken, sugar and spices.  They also ate a pudding version made with almonds, honey and…primroses.

    Sounds good to me!

    Find more recipes in King Richard II’s Cook Book (the first collection of recipes in English)

    Buon apetito!

  • Fiction or reality?

    Readers often ask where characters come from.  For me the answer is that some arise from what I can find out from the records and others are invented.  As I’m interested in shadowing real historical events I set my fictional characters in as well-researched a context as I can.  A murder mystery is a useful genre to frame the facts.  Many writers these days see nothing wrong with changing what we know about some historical figure to fit some fancied notion about their period but for me this is a real sin.  We don’t have the right to play fast and loose with the lives of real people. To me that’s the worst kind of lying.  We know so little about the past and what we do know comes to us in fragments from documents and records of major and minor events.  The exciting thing is to discover what really happened as far as we are able.

    Do readers care one way or the other?  I like to think that the people who choose my books care about the truth.  I want them to trust me not to fob them off with a lot of nonsense.  The fictional element, Hildegard’s involvement in a series of murder mysteries, should be obvious, but it takes place against an authentic background when real events impinge on the lives of historical and fictional characters alike.

    Example:  in The Butcher of Avignon the context is the palace where th anti-pope Clement VII has his court.  His character is mentioned in many sources so we can be fairly sure about what he was like.  The cardinal, too, who plays a large part in the plot, did in fact exist.  I was about to invent someone like him when I came across a footnote about a Cardinal Grizac.  What made it such a gift is that the facts fit in so neatly with the story.  He really was a Dean at the Song School in York and died, we don’t know how, at the time the story ends.   Thomas Woodstock is real, of course, although  he will be more familiar under his later title bestowed by his nephew King Richard II.  As the Duke of Gloucester he was by no means the ‘hoary duke’ of Shakespeare’s invention.  In fact he was only forty when he died at Calais and not at all the benign elder statesman of the play but a virulent enemy of his young nephew, the king.

    This mixing of fact and fiction is what to me gives historical fiction its buzz.  But only if the facts as far as we can know them are honoured.  Hildegard and Hubert are fictional enough for me.

  • Plantagenet Fever

    What is it that makes people obsessed with certain figures from the past?  The tedious Tudors are probably reaching the end of their undeserved popularity (surely!) and now it’s the turn of King Richard III to take centre stage.

    This is nothing new.  My daughter’s drama teacher in York had a framed portrait of Richard on her studio wall and founded the Richard III Society in York against all the criticisms of the academics.

    Now she’s justified.

    I recently came across someone else who thought that Richard III had been maligned for political purposes by Henry Tudor and the rest of that egregious bunch.  This is the Canadian author Thomas B. Costain.  In his masterly and very readable account of the Plantagenet dynasty he offers the standard Tudor view that Richard was a bad lot.  But then, after examining the facts as we know them, in an author’s afterword, he adds this:

    “Is it necessary to recapitulate all the evidence in Richard’s favour in order to believe that the verdict of history should be changed…?…Should not the history taught in schools be changed to an impartial basis in accorance with what is now known?  Must schoolrooms and reference books go on indefinitely with the old version, stubbornly grinding the Tudor axe?”

    He concludes:

    “By living, he might have allowed himself a long span of years in which to employ his great administrative gifts as king and to put into the form of laws the changes he had in his mind.  This might have made possible a more satisfying end to the chronicles of a great dynasty.  It could then perhaps have been possible to present Richard, not as the last and the blackest of that fantastic family whose achievements and adventures have engaged our attention through these long volumes.  It might even have been possible to show him as one of the most constuctive, perhaps as one of the greatest, of the kingly Plantagenets.”

    Yes, that would be something, wouldn’t it?  Costain said all this in 1962 in his book The Last Plantagenets 1377-1485.  Time grinds exceedingly slow in the groves of academe.

    Perhaps one day a reassessment of Richard II might be made too.  It was his murder by his greedily ambitiious cousin Henry Bolingbroke that started more than eighty years of bloody civil war called The Wars of the Roses which only ended with Richard III’s death at Bosworth.  His kingly predecessor also received short shrift from his enemies in an effort to conceal their crime.

    I hope, in the entertainment provided by a mystery series like the six books of Hildegard of Meaux, to give readers some idea of the events that led to King Richard II’s murder.  I believe this will be as radical as the current rethinking about Richard III.

    Let’s hope it doesn’t take another fifty years to bring this Richard out of the darkness.



  • Looking good at the Castle

    There’s a myth that eveybody in the middle ages ran around looking rough, with uncombed hair, black teeth, bad complexions, and smelling rather bad.  Nothing could be further from the truth if contemporary records are anything to go by.  Beauty tips abound.

    Take hair for instance.  This applies to men and women:  mix dried rose petals, cloves, nutmeg and galangal with rose water and rinse through the hair.  Leave to dry.  Should smell re-e-a-ally good.

    For a smooth, touchable skin melt beeswax, almond oil, rose oil and frankincense in a dish over a flame.  Allow to cool.  Massage into face and body.  It also eases aches and pains after jousting.

    For bright eyes mix one part of wych hazel with four parts water.  Use as eye lotion.  Is said to improve eyesight too so you’ll see those pointed swords coming and it’ll give you an edge down at the butts.

    To lighten dark hair to look like a Florentine blonde soak hair in a bowl of fresh urine.  OK so that does sound wiffy but if you rinse the hair with the rose petal concoction afterwards you should still have plenty of allure.

    Teeth should be brushed using a hazel twig with mashed up fennel and lovage.  And, if you can get it, salt.

    For pleasant breath chew a leaf of mint or parsley.

    To make lips looks red and kissable rub them with beetroot.

    To round off your beauty treatment go to one of the town baths (the stews) and have a bran soak to make your skin  feel like best Cathay silk.

    After all that, don your best poulaines and a clean houplande and go to the feast at your nearest castle where you’ll be the belle or beau of the ball.



  • St Valentine’s Day

    Another of the things we can thank Richard II for is St Valentine’s Day.  He didn’t invent it, of course, but he and his beloved Anne made it a popular celebration in medieval England.  They spent time on a pleasure island in the Thames called Little Eyot where they could dance, and sing and listen to poets like Chaucer and Gower with their friends.  On the island they were well away from Richard’s snarling uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of Gloucester, and his unwashed war-lord companions.

    It must have been beautiful on the island, sweet Thames flowing by, garlands of flares along the beach, decorated boats, fireworks, the best musicians in Europe, feasting and fun and everyone wearing the most gorgeous clothes that fashion could devise.

    Brutal Woodstock hated Richard and his friends so much that in 1388 when Richard was just turned twenty-one, he had the king’s friends who didn’t escape into exile, beheaded on Tower HIll, or hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.

    His ally, Bolingbroke, Richard’s cousin, who wrested the crown from Richard years later, must have had a sick sense of humour.  He chose St Valentine ‘s Day to have Richard murdered at Pontefract Castle.  Some Valentine.

  • It’s those tedious Tudors again

    Enough of this obsession with the tedious Tudors.  Yesterday I even heard Henry VIII described as ‘a hands-on gardener.’  Please!  I can just see him kneeling in the mud doing a spot of weeding.  Why is it the Tudors make people’s brains fly out and their eyes fill with pound signs?

    If you  want family betrayals, choose the Plantagenets.  If you want unfettered ambition, choose the Plantagents.  If you want blood and beheadings, choose the Plantagents.

    Let’s put the Tudors back on the shelf.  There’s all history to explore.