...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!)