...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, 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!