Sir Arthur’s favourite of all his many novels was not one of the Sherlock Holmes puzzlers read so avidly today. It was the one he called The White Company. This is the novel he wished to be remembered for. Sadly, nowadays it’s little read. If you’re familiar with the New Forest, however, you’ll find it endlessly fascinating in its descriptions of places as well-known today as in the late fourteenth century. If you’re a medievalist you’ll love it. He gives a lively picture of what it was like during The One Hundred Years War as the action follows the adventures of three men-at-arms travelling from the Abbey of Beaulieu, via Lymington and Christchurch before crossing by boat from Lepe to northern France and then on down to Aquitaine to join the army of the Prince of Wales, Edward, the Black Prince.
Unlike today’s action-heavy medieval novels Conan Doyle takes his time to describe the landscape, the changing seasons, the customs, arms, clothes, the food and drink and all those other details that are fascinating to medievalists. Here’s a thought, though. Were readers better educated in his day? I ask this because he does not limit his vocabulary to the familiar and well-worn but uses the apt word to specify his meaning. Given that his book was a massive bestseller and wasn’t short of readers or popularity for decades, the unfamiliar words clearly didn’t put anybody off. I’ve had to add a glossary to my own novels set in the same period because, I’m told, readers will not want to struggle with words they don’t know. But I wonder what readers really think about this? It seems commonsense to use a word like arbalest, for instance, when that’s the exact word. Those massive cross-bow missile throwers are no longer used in warfare today but how else to talk about them without circumlocution?
In the pages of The White Company I must have found over twenty words unfamiliar to me but it was a great joy to look them up in the O.E.D. Here are some – you might know them already but they were new to me. For instance, there’s camisade – a shirt worn over armour for a night attack; galeasse – a warship with oars and sails and bigger than a galleon; rovers and hoyles – the first refers to random shooting by an archer, the second when a specific mark is aimed for. There are many more.
Maybe you won’t find a use for them in your everyday life but what about a culpon – a cut or portion – or a rammocky lurden? No translation needed. In fact, I think I’ll use it right away…