...in which I share some of my favorite medieval research resources and methods for the benefit of others interested in also writing about the Middle Ages

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Christmas in the Middle Ages

I just finished creating a new blog, entitled Medieval Vignettes. My intention in this post is not to try to “promote” my new blog here (if you’re interested, you can check it out at medievalvignettes.blogspot.com), but to share with you a few lessons I learned while writing my first post for that site.

My goal was to write a sort of “flashback scene” of an earlier Christmas with some of the characters from my medieval novel, Loyalty’s Web. I thought it would be a fairly easy process to present a “typical” medieval Christmas celebration via this scene, but to my surprise, it turned out to be the very opposite!

Why? The two major roadblocks I ran into were: (1) most medieval Christmas information I found was about Christmas traditions in England, while my novel is set in an area of France called Poitou; and (2) what broader information I could find that included France, was mostly representative of the later Middle Ages, as opposed to the late 1100’s where my novel is set.

Let me share an example.

I bought a wonderful book entitled, Medieval Celebrations, by Daniel Diehl and Mark Donnelly, filled with fun and fascinating facts about various medieval celebrations and how to recreate them. One of the celebrations discussed is, of course, Christmas. There is a whole chapter on Christmas Celebrations. I thought all my questions would be solved by the purchase of this book, but this was the problem I ran into: when writing about the Middle Ages, one must always keep in mind that we are talking about 1000-year stretch of history. So what might have been “traditional” at a Christmas celebration in the 1400s, may well not have been a “tradition” in the 1100s.

Let’s take Christmas carols as a specific example. While reading about the popularity of carols in Medieval Celebrations, I of course thought that including carols in my “flashback scene” would be a splendid “touch” to add! However, keeping to my rule of always double-checking a fact with a second or third source, I decided to do a little internet Googling on the subject of Christmas carols. What I discovered was the following:

Citing from About.Com: Music Education: History of Christmas Carols, I learned:

“Word Origin: The word carol or carole is a medieval word of French and Anglo-Norman origin, believed to mean a dance song or a circle dance accompanied by singing.”

Ah, so far, so good! My setting is medieval France, so the origin location is perfect! But…

“History of Christmas Carols: 
It is unclear when the first carol was written but it is believed that circa 1350 to 1550 is the golden age of carols…During the 14th century carols became a popular religious song form…. By the 15th century the carol was also considered as art music.” (http://musiced.about.com/od/christmasnewyeararticles/a/carols.htm)

1350-1550 was way too early for my setting! Even good old Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_carols, backed up by many other websites if you Google “History of Christmas Carols”), which traces the beginning the Christmas carol tradition back as far as the 13th Century (1200s), confirmed that there should be no carol singing in my “flashback”.

How, then, to set a Christmas setting for my scene? Aside from describing a massive feast/banquet (which, in the end, I decided not to do, by retreating back a day to Christmas Eve, instead of Christmas Day, for my setting), what sort of “authentic” touches could I add to my story?

Christmas trees didn’t become a Christmas tradition until the 16th century. (http://www.theholidayspot.com/christmas/history/xmas_tree.htm)

Carols and Christmas trees were off the list. What about such evergreen decorations as mistletoe, holly, and ivy?

Our modern tradition of kissing under the mistletoe didn’t begin until the 18th Century. (Alas, no kissing in my scene.) (http://www.theholidayspot.com/christmas/history/mistletoe.htm)

Although holly, like mistletoe, originally carried with it pagan connotations connected to the Druids, Christians were beginning to adopt it as a Christian symbol as early as the Roman era. (http://www.christmascarnivals.com/christmas-history/christmas-holly-history.html) Ivy had a similar history.

From this information, I admit, I did some “extrapolation” for my scene, weaving in these evergreens as “decorations”, without exactly referring to their modern connotations at Christmas.

To be honest, I did far more extrapolation for my “flashback” than I would ever have allowed myself to do for a full-fledged novel. I hope I did not go too far adrift in doing so. But the exercise did teach me some valuable lessons, the most important one being (yes, repeating myself here, but a point that must be strongly stressed):

The Middle Ages covered a period of 1000 years. Once you have chosen the exact time setting of your medieval novel or story, it is vital that you double-check “generalized medieval facts” to be sure that they coincide with the specific sub-period that you have chosen.

For stories set in the later Middle Ages, Medieval Celebrations, by Daniel Diehl and Mark Donnelly is a highly accessible place to start.

As for myself, my goal for this coming year is to hunt for medieval Christmas sources that apply more specifically to my chosen time setting in the late 1100s. Look for me to share my new discoveries with you in 2008!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Castle Explorer’s Guide, Part II

In my last post, I shared but a single example of how I used The Castle Explorer’s Guide, by Frank Bottomley, to create a scene in my medieval novel, Loyalty’s Web.

I simply cannot express strongly enough how valuable I have found The Castle Explorer’s Guide (hereafter referred to as TCEG) to my writing of “things medieval”. Not only will this book describe (frequently with accompanying drawings) the physical “outer” aspects of castles such as: the barbican, the gatehouse, the portcullis and drawbridge, the curtain wall, the bailey, the stables, etc, as well as “inner” aspects such as the great hall, the kitchens, the chapel, the bower, even fireplaces and chimneys, but you will also find entries for nearly every aspect of castle life you have ever wondered about, as well as those you have never thought to wonder about before you discovered this book!

I had wondered about the castle garrison. I knew basically what a garrison was (the defenders of a castle), but how exactly were they set up and how many men commonly made up a garrison? I had always thought of a garrison as being made up only of knights, but thanks to TCEG, I now know that these knights were supported by “men-at-arms” (men who fight with lance, sword and shield, but who have not obtained the rank of knight), crossbowmen and archers. How many men made up a “typical” garrison? According to TCEG: “Rochester held out against King John in 1215 with some 100 knights and ‘many men-at-arms’, while in the same war Odiham held out for a fortnight with only three knights and ten men-at-arms….. At Burton in Lonsdale the garrison was a knight, ten sergeants, a watchman and a porter…. Walton had a peacetime strength of four men and two servants.” (“Garrison”, TCEG, p 71)

I’d always envisioned much larger forces whenever I’d read the term “castle garrison”. Prior to discovering this entry, I’d had no idea how small, yet effective, medieval garrisons might be.

Other items of interest in TCEG:

How much were garrison members paid? Look under the entries for “wages” and “income”.

How did castle occupants amuse themselves? Look under the entry for “entertainment”.

There are entries on “Knightly Career”, Ladies Favour”, “Heraldry”, “Robber Barons”, “Furnishings”, even “Salt”.

Of course, most of these subjects are addressed in other research books, and as I said last time, I always advise a writer to seek out a secondary source to confirm any information you decide to use from TCEG. Also, you should be aware that despite the plethora of information contained in TCEG, the size of the volume necessarily limits the degree of detail each entry can address. But for a single, “starting source”, whether for small “touches of authenticity” or to point you towards deeper research on a given castle subject, The Castle Explorer’s Guide by Frank Bottomley can’t be beat!

(Note: I must remind you that The Castle Explorer’s Guide is currently out of print. Amazon offers used versions, but the ones I’ve seen listed there come at a steep price. However, if you Google “frank bottomley castle explorers guide”, you can find used copies for as low as $4.12. In fact, looking further down my “google” list, I just discovered several copies selling for $1.99 at Alibris! (See http://www.alibris.com/search/books/isbn/0517421720) If you’re serious about medieval research, once you get a copy in your hands, I’d suggest you never let it go!)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Castle Explorer’s Guide

Her brother had left the longbow behind when he had been sent away to his uncle’s. And his parents would have been furious had they known how frequently over the past few months their younger daughter had borrowed it and carried it down to the field to practice there like a common bowman.

But Heléne was determined to master this weapon. The crossbow was too cumbersome for her, while her shorter hunting bow lacked both power and range. Carved of yew, with its string of long-fibered hemp, the longbow, despite its proportionate height, was much lighter than the crossbow, and more flexible in her hand.

Then she should have been able to hit her mark square in the center of its eye. She drew another arrow from her quiver and took careful aim. Her eyes were clear, her hand steady... she drew back the string, slowly, slowly...

The string snapped as she released the shaft--and the arrow landed with a thwack a shade to the left of its twin.

“Not bad, my lady. In truth, a most respectable hit.”

Heléne whirled at the voice. No one ever ventured down to the butts at this hour--and why on earth did it have to be him?

The Earl of Gunthar, casually dressed in a sturdy green tunic, leaned with one foot propped on a nearby bale of hay, his elbow on his knee and his chin in his hand, watching her with evident amusement. His cool grey eyes swept over her attire [note: she is wearing her brother’s clothes] before one heavy brow cocked quizzically. To her disgust, she felt a wave of color sweeping into her cheeks.

“I was not expecting an audience, my lord.”

“Is that your way of telling me you wish I would go away? But I am a most discreet gentleman. I assure you, no one will learn of your--er--rather novel attire from me.” His gaze ran over her again. “Quite convincing, really. I daresay I should not have guessed the truth from a distance--save that this rather gives you away.” He crossed the space between them to playfully tweak her braid.

She had cast off her brother’s cloak to permit herself greater freedom of movement, thus freeing her hair, as well. She jerked her braid out of his hand now and turned stiffly back towards the butts.

“I can’t seem to get it right,” she murmured. “I practice and practice, but... Perhaps Papa is right. ’Tis a weapon fit only for barbarians like the Welsh.”

She heard Gunthar laugh.

“I doubt your mother would agree with that. And I have seen it used to great effectiveness in battle, piercing a mailed knight through both breast and back with a shot loosed more than a furlong away.”

She wrinkled her nose in disgust. “That is a wretched commendation.”

“Aye, but an accurate one.”

“My father and brother both prefer the crossbow.”

“A formidable weapon,” he agreed, “but slow. A longbow-man can discharge five to six arrows in the time it takes a crossbow-man to release a single bolt. No small advantage when the enemy is thundering down upon one. And if the longbow-man is sufficiently skilled in his aim-- But I have already made that point.”

“So you have.”

This scene from my novel, Loyalty’s Web, found its inspiration in my all-time favorite quick research book on castles…The Castle Explorer’s Guide, by Frank Bottomley. The Castle Explorer’s Guide reads like a one-volume encyclopedia of nearly anything and everything having to do with medieval castles. Arranged alphabetically, the entries are amazingly detailed considering their brevity, but a treasure trove of helpful sketches enables the reader to easily envision the verbal descriptions that accompany them.

While merely browsing through The Castle Explorer’s Guide, I happened across this entry:

Bow, Long: Appears first among the South Welsh in the mid C12 who (according to Gerald de Barri) were able to penetrate an oak door four fingers thick. By mid C13 it had become the national English weapon…. The weapon was practiced by all freemen at communal butts. The trained archer of the Hundred Years’ War was able to beat the crossbow-men in range and penetrating power with a vast superiority in rate of fire. At a furlong range he could pierce a mailed knight through breast and back or nail both thighs to his horse with one shot…. It was made of yew…The length was proportionate to the user: a full-sized bow seems to have been 5 ft 8 ins but there is some evidence of 6 ft bows…. The strings were made of long-fibred hemp…. At 50 or 60 yds, it was extremely accurate and bowmen could fire six aimed shots a minute. (The Castle Explorer's Guide, p 18)

By turning back a page to the entry for Bow, we find a comparison between the merits of the crossbow vs the longbow.

There is much indecisive controversy about the relative effectiveness of the longbow and the crossbow. From the C12 to the end of the C15 the crossbow was the favoured weapon except among the English…. The crossbow seems to have had more penetrating power but no greater range…. The longbow was light and comfortable while the crossbow was heavy, cumbersome and had more moving parts. The longbow-man could fire five or six arrows while the crossbow-man discharged a single bolt. He could also keep his eye on the foe while re-loading while the crossbowman could not. (The Castle Explorer's Guide, p 17)

From these two entries, I was able to construct the scene above, keeping in mind that because my story takes place in the mid-12th century, the longbow had not yet become the predominate archers’ weapon in England that it would become a century later. However, since my heroine’s mother was Welsh, I considered it plausible that her family might have sent a gift of a longbow to her husband (subsequently passed down to their son), and that considering the European preference for the crossbow, the Welsh gift might have been scorned and well-nigh ignored by both father and son.

I always consider it wise, however authentic a research source sounds, to try to confirm information I would like to use in a story through a minimum of at least one other source. And so I turned to Longbow, by Robert Hardy, to obtain a second opinion before constructing my scene. Longbow is considerably more scholarly in nature, and less easily “browsable” for information (a more detailed index would be helpful) than The Castle Explorer’s Guide, but from it we can still glean the following:

“There is reliable evidence of Welsh archery 11 years before Hastings (1066) in the account of Ralph, Earl of Hereford, and an expedition he led into Wales…. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle explains that in England at that time archery was used for the killing of game, but was not much practiced in battle.” (Longbow, p 31)

Gerald de Barri [referred to above], also known as Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald the Welshman, is one of the primary sources on the longbow in the Middle Ages.

“The most important thing about [Gerald’s] description of those old Welsh bows is the way in which he makes it clear that by the second half of the 12th Century [the setting for Loyalty’s Web] composite bows were well known in Britain if not much used (‘horn and ivory’), that yew was appreciated as the finest bow timber…and that here in Wales were tough bows and the bowmen to shoot them. There were all the ingredients of a new breed of bow…and from the mixture came the great yew longbow.” (Longbow, p 58)

Longbow also confirms that “the importance of the [crossbow] in 12th century Europe bid fair to oust the simple bow altogether. That it did not has been thought largely due to Welshmen lying between the upper waters of the Wye and the Bristol Channel.” (p 35)

Longbow, with its detailed history of the bow and its use in battle tactics, would be an indispensable book, had I been including a large scale military scene in my novel (and hence, it continues to hold a place in my personal library, as one never knows when one might need to create just such a battle scene). Since, in this particular case, the bow plays only a small, though important, role in my story, I did not feel the need to study the text of Longbow at length. However, although the confirmatory information to the entries in The Castle Explorer’s Guide is much harder to dig out from the text of Longbow, I reiterate that I consider it worth the effort in establishing a secondary source before using a so-called “historical fact” as a springboard for constructing a scene in historical fiction.

Next time: More about The Castle Explorer’s Guide

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

New Poll

I have some friends who say they never read a book twice, and others who keep and re-read books as “old friends”. Which do you do? Scroll down the right side of this page and vote in my new reading poll!


I once attended a writing class where the instructor, a successful writer of medieval romances who was sharing her medieval research methods with us, ended the class by informing us all that she would soon be returning to England to research her next novel, because she “finds it difficult to write about things she hasn’t actually seen for herself”…such as castles.

There I sat, thinking to myself, “Hmm, does that mean I can’t write about the Middle Ages unless I go to England and ‘see for myself’?” A thought immediately followed by the dour recognition that a trip to England was in no way compatible with my current budget, or likely to become compatible anytime in the near future. (Much though I still dream of visiting England and its castles “someday”.)

As I have said previously, I, too, am a very visually oriented person. It’s difficult for me to describe something I haven’t actually seen, hence my fondness for “picture books”, such as the books on medieval clothing I referred to in my last post. Once I have seen a picture or image, I can then store that in my imagination to use as a point of reference when studying more detailed, less visual texts.

For those of us who write about castle-dwelling characters, but who have never had the opportunity (and no immediate prospect) of seeing even so much as the ruins of a medieval castle in “real life”, how do we begin to imagine, much less transport our readers, back to this far-distant environment?

Modern technology is…well…marvelous. And thanks to a History Channel DVD called Modern Marvels: Castles & Dungeons, those of us with limited budgets can now enjoy a striking tour of medieval castles from the comfort of our own homes.

I remember reading for years about the “motte and bailey” model on which the earliest castles in England were built. And I remember straining for years and years to try to imagine exactly what these books were talking about. I didn’t want to “guess” at what a motte and bailey castle looked like. I wanted to know. Castles & Dungeons took away all my guesswork by showing me exactly how closely my imagination had and hadn’t matched “the facts”.

In addition to learning how castles were built, first of wood and later of stone, this DVD gives the viewer an up close and personal look at such castle features as: crennelation, glass windows, loop holes and arrow slits, the portcullis, murder holes, the oubliette, the great hall, and castle kitchens. The visuals and narration are so well done, that one comes away feeling reassured that an actual trip to England isn’t an absolute requirement for writing medieval fiction with some degree of authenticity and confidence.

Modern Marvels: Castles & Dungeons is currently only available from the History Channel, but you can get a copy by clicking on this link: http://store.aetv.com/html/product/index.jhtml?id=72080

The drawback to DVDs, of course, is that they’re difficult to reference while sitting at a computer, tapping out one’s story. In my next post, I will tell you about my all-time favorite quick reference book to castles. So be sure to check back here in two weeks!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Dressing your characters

The Earl of Gunthar stood while his squire, Julian Parr, turned back the cuffs of his dull yellow tunic to expose the ornamental embroidery worked along the narrow wrists. Gunthar had selected the undergarment for the roomy cut of its sleeve, to relieve his bandaged arm of unnecessary discomfort.

When Julian finished, two younger servants pulled forward a heavy, elaborately carved chair from the corner. Gunthar sank onto its crimson cushion and extended a well-turned foot towards a kneeling pageboy. It was unlikely that anyone would have a chance to admire his pale green hose, destined as they were all evening to be concealed beneath the ankle-length folds of his costly silk tunic. But, he mused, an appreciative audience might be found for his handsome red shoes, cunningly embellished with row upon row of tiny gold rings.

The above is an excerpt from my medieval novel, Loyalty’s Web, describing the hero as he prepares to attend a banquet in his honor given by the heroine’s father.

What sources did I use to help create the excerpt above? What sources can you turn to, to create an “authentic” costume for the characters of your medieval fiction?

There are a great many source books available on the subject of historical dress and costumes, but most seem to fall into two general categories: those that “show” and those that “tell”. Those that “tell” are heavy on verbal description, with some accompanying pictures from medieval manuscripts, etc. Those that “show” rely more heavily on “reproductions” via drawings, with accompanying description directing your attention to specific elements of those drawings.

Since I am a highly visual person myself, I prefer “showing” to “telling”, especially when I’d rather be using my limited time to create a written image of my own (as above), rather than spending hours and hours researching through text-heavy, image-light costume books. (Especially those devoted to telling me how to cut and sew my own medieval costume, when I can barely even thread a needle!)

First, allow me to share a cautionary tale about research. Always, ALways, ALWAYS write down, at minimum, the title and author of any books you copy or photocopy information from in libraries, bookstores, or other sources only temporarily in your possession. You’d think that advice would be obvious, but to some of us, it wasn’t. During my inexperienced years of writing “on the side” while studying at the University of Arizona, I found a treasure-trove of medieval information in the U of A main library. (This was well before the advent of the internet, remember.) Being inexperienced, as I said, in research methods, I photocopied pages of the most wonderful historical costume sketches (with accompanying descriptions) from a book I found in the library, but I never made a note of the source. I photocopied information for the 12th and 13th centuries, but when I found myself in later years longing for similar information on the 11th century, all I could do is kick myself for the negligence that made refinding the original book all but impossible. That was in the late 1970s. It was not until the early 2000s that, to my utter amazement and eternal gratitude, I stumbled across the very same book (this time for sale), in the gift store of the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, UT. (Thank goodness I have a sister who lives in Salt Lake City, who decided to take me to the festival one summer during a visit!) Needless to say, I bought the book right up. But there remain other pages from other books that I photocopied and still refer to, but can never refer them anyone else, because to this day, I still don’t have the titles or authors to pass on.

So, with that hard-learned lesson out of the way, let me now share with you three of my favorite source books for “dressing” my medieval characters.

(1) English Costume: from the Early Middle Ages Through the Sixteenth Century, by Iris Brooke. This is the book I “lost” when I graduated from the U of A, and rediscovered in Cedar City only a few years ago. This book is divided into sections on “English Costume of the Early Middle Ages (10th-13th centuries)”; “English Costume of the Later Middle Ages (14th-15th centuries)”; and “English Costume of the Age of Elizabeth (16th century)”.

Each section is further divided into individual centuries. For the 1100-1200s (the time setting for Loyalty’s Web) I found the following description:

“The length of the sleeves on the supertunic [i.e., outer tunic] might be merely a few inches in length and finished with a broad band of embroidery, with the contrasting and tightly-fitting sleeve of the tunic beneath reaching to the wrist, or they might be quite full but fitting to the wrist with a cuff of some contrasting material or embroidery.”

From this information came the following description in my novel:

The Earl of Gunthar stood while his squire, Julian Parr, turned back the cuffs of his dull yellow tunic to expose the ornamental embroidery worked along the narrow wrists. Gunthar had selected the undergarment for the roomy cut of its sleeve, to relieve his bandaged arm of unnecessary discomfort.

Across from each descriptive page, is a facing page of drawings of medieval people wearing the clothing or hair styles mentioned on the preceding page.

Furthermore, there are descriptive pages and sketches devoted to footwear, headwear, and as I said, even hairstyles. Here is a description of footwear from the 12th century:

“The extensive use of rings as a means of fastening garments at this time even extended to the footwear… The shoe itself was not often embroidered and separate bands of embroidery were sewn on. Another means of ornamentation was to sew small rings of gold and silver, sometimes even on to the toe and heel of the shoe…”

This became the inspiration for:
But, he mused, an appreciative audience might be found for his handsome red shoes, cunningly embellished with row upon row of tiny gold rings

(2) 900 Years of English Costume, by Nancy Bradfield. Actually, this title is no longer available, except as a very expensive used book. However, the exact same book is available for a reasonable price under a new title: Historical Costumes of England 1066-1968.

This book is divided by the reigns of the kings and queens of England, and further divided by “Men’s Fashions” and “Women’s Fashions”. Again, on one page are sketches of people dressed in medieval clothing. In this instance, the figures are each assigned a number. On the facing page, again there are descriptions, this time coordinating the “figure number” with the opposite sketches. An additional advantage of this book is that there are marginal notations to speed you along to that portion of clothing you may be particularly interested in reading about. For example, under Henry II-Richard I (1154-99), the following marginal notes appear: tunic, sleeves, scarlet cloth, hose, shoes, cloaks, hoods and hats, hair, gloves and purse, colours.

Under tunics, I find the following: “The skirts were long to the ankle.” Under hose, it reads: “The hose remained the same as in the previous reign, fitting the leg to above the knee and fastened to the girdle of the breeches (Figure 5)”…which directs my attention to a sample sketch labeled "5" on the preceding page. Since the sentence on “hose” directs me to the “previous reign”, I flip back a few pages, where I read: “From 1150 the hose were made long, fitting the leg well, to above the knee.” Returning to my original page, I read under “colours”, “Colours are on p. 17; no new ones are mentioned,” so again I flip backwards, to page 17, where under “colours”, I find, “Light blue, red, and greens were fashionable; black, yellow, red-browns, and grey were also worn.”

Hence, from all this information, I am able to write:

It was unlikely that anyone would have a chance to admire his pale green hose, destined as they were all evening to be concealed beneath the ankle-length folds of his costly silk tunic.

(3) Medieval Fashions, by Tom Tierney (A Dover Coloring Book). Never underestimate the value of a good, historical coloring book! They are excellent for further illustrations of historical clothing and how people wore them. Among other examples, this title includes several pages filled with sketches of common head-dresses worn by both men and women in various centuries of the Middle Ages, along, of course, with the accompanying hair styles.

These titles are simply three of my favorites, because of their “quick reference” nature.

Please be aware that there are many, many other excellent books on historical costume available, many of which include additional information not available in the above resources. One such example is Medieval Costume and Fashion, by Herbert Norris, which among other things, will provide you with a wonderful chart of “Names of Colors in Use During the Middle Ages” (aurnola = orange; jaune = bright yellow; pers = dark blue; verdulet = bright green, bluish in color; etc), but books such as this will make you work harder to uncover the treasures of knowledge within.

For purchasing information at Amazon.com regarding books cited in these blogs, click on "So you'd like to...Write Medieval Fiction" under LINKS to the right.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

More on names...

Here is a quick and easy tip for both supplementing your collection of names drawn from The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, and for identifying how frequently certain names were, in fact, used during the Middle Ages.

Walk into any library or bookstore and grab a medieval biography off a shelf. In this example, I am using William Rufus, by Frank Barlow. I admit my disappointment in the dry and plodding text of this biography (I’d hoped for a more colorful and lively treatment of this particular king of England). However, I did find it useful in the following manner, a trick which you can use with pretty much any medieval biography.

Flip to the index at the end of the book, and simply run down the list of names referred to in the text. While in the case of William Rufus, you will run across a few new and unusual names such as Achard (an abbot), Amieria (wife of a man named Warin), Boso (name of both a monk and a knight), Gisulf (a royal scribe), and Jarento (a bishop), you will also be able to quickly identify a list of “most popular names in use” during the time period.

For example, citing from the index:

Alan appears 5 times for different men
Baldwin appears 6 times
Geoffrey appears no less than 25 times
Gerald/Gerold appears 5 times
Gilbert, 12 times
Guy, 6 times
Henry, 10 times
Herbert, 4 times
Hugh, 31 times!
Humphrey, 4 times
John, 8 times
Nigel, 4 times
Odo, 6 times
Osbern/Osbert, 7 times
Peter, 6 times
Ralf, 22 times
Ranulf, 7 times
Richard, 19 times
Robert, 44 times!
Roger, 23 times
Simon, 5 times
Stephan/Steven, 5 times
Thomas, 4 times
Thurstin, 7 times
Walter, 15 times
William, 61 times!!! (beating out Robert, hands down)

Because men played a more frequently documented role in medieval times than women, it is harder to draw conclusions about the frequency of individual female names from such biographical indexes. However, from William Rufus we can collect the following information on women:

A form of Adela or Adelaide/Adelais appears 5 times for different women
Judith appears 3 times
Matilda appears 6 times

But it isn’t always necessary to know what the most popular names were in order to arrive at names for our characters…only that certain names were in use at all during the Middle Ages.

Drawing from the index of Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography, by Marion Meade, we can compile the following list of female names in use, at least during the 12th Century:

Aenor (the mother of Eleanor of Aquitaine)
Constance (appears 4 times)

While a quick glance through the index of William Marshal: Court, Career and Chivalry in the Angevin Empire 1147-1219, by David Crouch, will add such female names as:


As you can see, within a very short space of time, you can assemble an excellent starting list of medieval Christian names, merely by running through various indexes in biographies of medieval personages. All for the price of a few minutes’ browsing at a bookstore or your local library!

Never underestimate the value of a good index. In future posts, I will point out additional ways that this book feature can speed along research that will assist in setting a vivid and accurate setting for our medieval fiction.

Next post: I have a name. Now what am I going to wear?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Where do we begin?

When planning to write a medieval fiction novel, the obvious question is: Where to begin?

Speaking for myself (this is, after all, a blog devoted to the way I do my research), I like to start with the characters. And the first step in bringing a character alive is to assign him or her a name.

Since our fiction is set in the Middle Ages, we want our names to be as authentic to the time period as possible. No women named “Dakota” (for obvious reasons), or “Madison”, or “Jamie”, or “Bailey”. (A “bailey” was a walled enclosure of a castle, not a woman’s name.)

Interestingly, the often mocked, “Tiffany” originated as a form of the medieval “Theophania”, with the variant “Teffany” being recorded as early as 1200 AD, and “Tiffany” itself appearing by 1315. Still, since readers tend to be a skeptical audience, unless you intend to provide footnoted-authentication, you might want to leave all “Tiffanys” out of your stories.

As for the men: No “Blade’s”, or “Dillon’s”, or “Devon’s” (a place name, not a man’s name) or even “Jacob’s”, unless the character he’s representing is either a medieval ecclesiastic or a Jew.

How, of all the names circulating in the world today, can we learn which ones of present and past are acceptable for a medieval character?

One of the best resource books I have discovered on the subject is: The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, by E.G. Withycombe. The author not only includes a roster of English Christian names, past and present, but traces most of them back to their historical roots.

An example: "Alan is a Celtic name of a popular early Welsh and Breton saint. It was introduced to England at the time of the Norman Conquest. In French, it was Alain and Alein, and the spellings Allan and Allen have both been used in England. Alain is still a favorite in Brittany, but is not much used in the rest of France today. Other variants are Aleyne and Aleyn."

From this information, I know that if I want to include a character named some version of Alan, my time setting in England must be after the Norman Conquest (October 1066). If I want to use the name for a lower class character, then it should be as a result of an intermingling of the Saxon and Norman races, or I need to set my story a few centuries later when Norman names have "seeped down" to the lower classes. A character from England or Brittany will likely be named Alan, whereas a character from France will be Alain or Alein.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names has been an indispensable resource book for me. From this book, I have assembled a list of medieval names, with their variant spellings per country, divided into male and female. Thus, whenever I start a new project or create a new character for a project-in-process, I don’t have to go digging through this book anew, but can simply choose from among the list I have already compiled.

The beauty of The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names for an author doing his/her own research—and may I mention that this volume would be equally helpful in compiling a list of names popular during the Regency or Victorian periods, or later, as well as the Middle Ages—is that you can use it to assemble your own lists in small snippets of time. Keep a pen and notebook handy, and thumb through the book, beginning with the “A’s”, while waiting for a child at piano lessons, or in the dentist or doctor’s office, or simply during a 15-minute break between tasks during your day. When you come across a name in vogue during whatever time period you are interested in, jot down the name and its variants, with any additional historical information you wish, in your notebook. Then later, when you have more time, type up the names you’ve gathered onto your computer and save them, until you’ve worked your way clear through the “Z’s”. At that point, you can print out your list if you wish and keep it in a binder, or simply keep a copy on your computer. (Personally, I prefer a hard copy so that I can refer to it away from the computer, as well as while sitting at the keyboard.)

BONUS: The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names often gives examples of surnames derived from Christian names, so if you are looking for surnames for your characters, you will find this book equally helpful for that, as well.

Regrettably, The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names is no longer in print, but used copies are available on the Internet. The website: http://www.bestwebbuys.com/The_Oxford_Dictionary_of_English_Christian_Names-ISBN_0198691246.html?isrc=b-search will take you to a site offering comparison price shopping for this volume. And always remember that if purchasing a copy is not within your budget, your local public librarian will be happy to locate and order you a copy through the Interlibrary Loan program.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Welcome to my blogsite!

My goal here is not to instruct writers or would-be writers in arcane research methods, nor is it my intention to offer traditional book reviews of medieval resource books. It has been my experience that even the driest history may have worthwhile information buried in its depths, and therefore, may prove a book of great worth to a writer. On the other hand, slogging through hundreds of pages in search of the few “jewels” that might make your own story sparkle, is not always a writer’s best use of time, even presuming a writer has such necessary reading time to begin with. For many of us, shortchanging our limited writing time with reams of research reading is simply not an option.

That is not to say that research is unimportant. Indeed, it is absolutely necessary to tell an authentic story placed in a time period other than our own.

What I hope to do on this site is share with you some of the history sources I have found helpful in the writing of my medieval novels, along with some of the research shortcuts I have developed through the years. In doing so, I will occasionally be using examples from my own novels…beginning with LOYALTY’S WEB…since my only personal experience with intertwining research with story is, of course, through my own writing.

I hope you, my fellow writers of medieval fiction, will find these tips and resources helpful. Feel free to make comments, or to share your own tips and experiences with me, either through the “comment” feature of this blog, or by emailing me directly at jdipastena@yahoo.com.