Tuesday, May 1, 2012

How to write a Medieval Novel: a practical guide no. 1

The Dark Ages?! Not at all. As I'm doing all this again, I thought I would list the things I've found useful in creating a convincing medieval setting.
1. The literature. Duh! In some ways there's nothing better than what contemporaries wrote about the world they lived in. For an Anglo Saxon setting this left me a little stumped, as anyone who's read any Anglo Saxon poetry, knows that the Anglo Saxons lived in a permanent winter, amidst ruins, and lamenting the fate that led them to exile/lordlessness etc. I was left a little stumped, because I couldn't have a novel set in a permanent midwinter. But then I came across this book, The Lost Literature of Medieval England, in the corner of Lingnan University library, which had last been taken out in 1962. A fabulous read, it also introduced me to the corpus of Anglo Saxon literature written in Latin, which composes of hagiographies, which are the opposite of the poetry, in that they chronicle how saints turned cold wilderness into flowering fields full of birds and bounty. Bingo! I now had contemporary sources chronicling both their of summer and winter. But of course it's not so straightforward, as writers often wrote because they had ulterior motives. Richard Fletcher is very good in The Barbarian Conversions, in teasing the religious accounts of conversions, where Saint A turned up at pagan site Z, chopped down their sacred oak, and then the people were amazed and accepted Christ. He asks the kind of questions any serious writer should ask: what exactly did that mean? How well did people understand what they were accepting. How much did older beliefs survive and continue in different forms. I find it's always good to remember that just because people lived in a less enlightened age, they were not necessarily any more or less daft than people now. And in many ways their concerns might prove surprisingly similar to worries now. Take the Anglo Saxon charms, for example. Often they say put a poultice on and say a certain prayer or charm three times. Now the simple reading would be that they believed in the power of mystical charms. Or - and perhaps a more practical and interesting explanation is that the repeating the charm five times took a certain and appropriate amount of time. Something of an ancient egg charmer.


Matthew Harffy said...

Interesting post, as usual. I'm going to try and find that book about the lost literature. Sounds very useful.

Justin Hill said...

Yeah: it's a great book. Pretty easy to find through Abebooks. I got my own copy for a couple of quid, I think.