...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

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Happy Norman Conquest Day!

On this day, October 14, 1066, Duke William of Normandy defeated the Saxon King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings, becoming known to history as William the Conqueror (as well as King William I of England).

Although it has become politically correct in recent years to celebrate the “noble Saxons” and condemn the “greedy, avaricious Normans”, the simple fact is, those of us with English heritage undoubtedly have both Saxon and Norman blood running through our veins. So why not honor both sides of our ancestry? After all, if it weren’t for the Normans, we would be eating cow and swine (Saxon) at our tables, rather than beef and pork (Norman). Our police would be fighting “firen” (Saxon) instead of “crime” (Norman), and we would all have “eams” (Saxon) instead of “uncles” (Norman). Furthermore, we would be spelling words such as “question” (Norman) as “kwestion” (Saxon…although generations of English speaking school children might have thanked the Saxons for that one!)

Every year I celebrate Norman Conquest Day by buying cake and decorating it with knights from my pewter collection. This year, the blue rose symbolizes the hill near the town of Hastings where the native English Saxons took up their defensive position against the Norman invaders. The Normans utilized a relatively new military tactic—armed knights fighting on horseback, while the Saxons clung to their traditional “fighting on foot” strategy. You might think this would give the Normans an overwhelming advantage, but the Saxons held off the invaders for most of the day. In the end, it was not a charging knight, but a lowly Norman archer who successfully shot an arrow over the shields of the Saxons and killed the Saxon King Harold, more or less by sheer “good luck”. (Or “bad luck”, if you happened to be King Harold!) Hence, the “knights” standing on foot on my cake represent the Saxons, while the knights on horseback represent the Normans. Unfortunately, I don’t have an archer in my pewter collection. And if the knights on my cake look a little blurry, just remember—it’s hard to snap a clear photo when knights are in motion, riding into battle!

So tonight, I’ll be sitting down to a nice piece of Norman Conquest Day Cake. And since cake simply cries out for a goblet of milk, I’ll also be using my Norman Soldier coasters to set my goblet on.

You can read more about the Norman Conquest if you’d like on EyeWitnesss to History.com.

For Saxon vs Norman words, see: A Very Brief History of the English Language (scroll down to The Norman Conquest and Middle English) and Everything2: Anglo-Saxon Words for Animals, Norman Words for Meat.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Apologies, a New/Old Book, and Another Research Tip

First off, I need to offer my apologies to all for not keeping this blog properly up-to-date. (Although I do hope you enjoyed my interview with G.G. Vandagriff.) My excuses (and that’s exactly what they are…excuses) boil down to this:

Originally, I was hoping to publish the next novel in my series, Illuminations of the Heart, and subsequently was looking forward to sharing all kinds of new research sources with you that I used for that novel. But then Leatherwood Press picked up Loyalty’s Web and asked me to put Illuminations of the Heart on the shelf for awhile, while they publish Loyalty’s Web and see how it does in the marketplace. If well, then they will likely want to publish Illuminations of the Heart as well. (So keep your fingers crossed for me!)

I did proceed with some revisions of—oh, let’s just call it Illuminations, it’s shorter that way!—this summer and hopefully have it in good submittable form now, but it remains on hold for the foreseeable future—and so, for now, do my coordinating research posts.

But I do owe you, my faithful readers, something in the meantime. So here’s a book and a tip that I haven’t mentioned before. I haven’t mentioned the book because I assumed it was such a basic resource that everyone would already know about it. But I should know better than to make assumptions like that—maybe you don’t know about it at all! So here it is:

Life in a Medieval Castle
, by Joseph & Frances Gies. This is one of the first research books I ever found on the Middle Ages, way back in the late 1970s. And the good news is, this book is STILL IN PRINT. (I was going to tell you about another favorite medieval book of mine, but when I discovered it is out of print, I decided I’ve tortured you enough for awhile with wonderful but difficult to obtain titles. I’ll share it another time.)

Life in a Medieval Castle
includes the following chapters:

1. The Castle Comes to England
2. The Lord of the Castle
3. The Castle as a House
4. The Lady
5. The Household
6. A Day in the Castle
7. Hunting as a Way of Life
8. The Villagers
9. The Making of a Knight
10. The Castle at War
11. The Castle Year
12. The Decline of the Castle

The chapters are followed by a Glossary of Castle Terms and a Glossary of Feudal Terms.

This really is an excellent, basic starting point for anyone researching the Middle Ages. (Of course, each chapter should be just that, a starting point for your research, and not the beginning and end of your research journey.)

Now, here is the tip that I wish I had followed more consistently in my research books. It’s basically the same tip that I offered much earlier in my post on Medieval Gardens, Part II—don’t be afraid to write in the margins of your books!

For example, in Life in a Medieval Castle’s chapter on “Hunting as a Way of Life”, I made the following margin notes:

Paragraph 1: morning hunting
Paragraph 2: huntsman-sizing a dear
Paragraph 3: hunting dogs
Paragraph 4: hunting equipment
Paragraph 5: boar hunting
Paragraph 6: the huntsman/the hunting company—members
Paragraph 7: hawks
Paragraph 8: kinds of falcons
Paragraph 9: the mews
Paragraphs 10-14: training of a falcon
Paragraph 15: training of a falcon—to stand on human wrist
Paragraph 16: guarding the falcon
Paragraphs 17-18: falcon training to return to master
Paragraph 19: training the falcon—the lure
Paragraph 21: training the falcon
Paragraph 22: dogs and falcons
Paragraph 23: falcons and ducks
Paragraph 24: description of a falconer/care of falcons
Paragraph 25: forest supplements
Paragraph 26: poaching penalties
Paragraph 27: royal forest, the warren, forest dogs

Okay, I’m going to stop counting now, but other paragraphs in this chapter include the margin notes: forest courts; forest courts & enforcement; forest courts—the forest eyre—penalties; forest administration & officers; private forests or chases; ecclesiastical preserves; exceptions to forest law; foresters—abuse of powers; “hue and cry” against forest offenders; forest officers a hated class.

These were all notes I took the time to make in the margins as I read this chapter. Can you see how now, when you want to know about falconry, you don’t have to plow through the entire chapter every single time to find only the particular information on falconry that you want? Or if you want to know what happened to poachers, you can quickly skip over the falconry paragraphs to quickly grab the information you need?

Sadly for me, I have followed my own advice quite erratically in my research books, including Life in a Medieval Castle. Some chapters I took the time to mark with margin notes, others I didn’t, always making the search for information harder than it would have been if I had consistently followed the advice I just gave you. Learn from my mistakes, if you can. And thankfully, it’s not too late for me to learn myself and go back and make the notes I should have made in the first place.

Other books by Joseph & Frances Gies include (all still in print, with one exception):

Life in a Medieval Village
Life in a Medieval City
Women in the Middle Ages (apparently out of print, I don’t know why—good thing I bought my copy when I did!)
The Knight in History
Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages
Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages


NOTE: If you scroll down the right side of this page, you’ll see that I’ve added two new widgets: Castles of the World and History Trivia. Both should be changing daily. (Or, from the looks of it, possibly more often than that!) I hope you enjoy the new additions!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

My New Cover—finally!

My new cover art for Loyalty's Web has finally been approved. What do you think?



Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Interview with G.G. Vandagriff, The Arthurian Omen

Just for a change of pace, I thought it would be fun to let you hear from someone beside me about how they research the medieval history in their novels! I chose to begin with G.G. Vandagriff, author of The Aruthurian Omen, a mystery/thriller type novel that takes place in modern day Wales, but is highly influenced by Wales’ medieval past. I hope you enjoy the interview that follows, and if interested in Welsh research, find some helpful tips in my discussion with G.G.

Joyce: Even though your novel, The Arthurian Omen, deals with a modern-day chase to discover a lost Arthurian manuscript, you refer to a great deal of medieval Welsh history in your book. What inspired you to set much of the background of your novel against the history of medieval Wales?

G.G.: It’s impossible to be in Wales without being captivated by its medieval history. To the Welsh, it might have been yesterday. They have their own language, their own history, their own heroes. In 2000 there was a huge celebration in Wales commemorating the uprising by Owain Glyndwr who was pledged to reclaim his land from the Anglo-Saxons six hundred years ago. He is their hero, along with Arthur (who Glyndwr claimed to represent). The beautiful ruins of the castles built by the English and later captured by Glyndwr are such food for the imagination. (See my website: arthurianomen.com for links to all the castles and monasteries in the book.) I was so interested in the tangle of events back in the days of Glyndwr and the stand off between the Arthur of legend and the barbarian Anglo-Saxons, I got carried away and started researching the period in detail. I now have a cursory knowledge of Welsh medieval history—nowhere near as in depth as yours, I’m certain. [JOYCE’S NOTE: What “expertise” I have lies in medieval England and portions of medieval France, so G.G. is definitely much more of an expert on medieval Wales than I!]

J: How did you choose the historical background—social, political, etc—for The Arthurian Omen?

G.G.: I became very intrigued when reading Geoffrey Ashe’s book about Arthur. He had based his whole theory of who Arthur really was on the existence of a manuscript from the 5th century that had never been found, but only alluded to in a 12th century manuscript. This 5th century manuscript was purported to exist in the library of Archdeacon Walter of Oxford, but no one knew what had become of it. To a storyteller like myself, it was the starting point for a thriller. What would happen if someone had a clue that would tell where the fifth century manuscript was hidden? They could prove Arthur’s existence! Plus, it would obviously be worth millions. And the sentimental value to the Welsh would be enormous. I decided to use people with all of these motives as characters. The “omen” is the manuscript. It is coveted in particular by a deluded Welshman as a tool to facilitate a Welsh revolution which would do away with the Windsors, making way for the return of the “The Once and Future King.”

J: What did you enjoy most about writing the historical aspects of your book?

G.G.: I studied history in college and did a lot of traveling. I love the FEEL of history. I love standing in historical places and imagining all that went on there. To a person of my imagination, it’s heaven. Real historic places are something we have very little of in this country. I think the travel and my actual presence in the historical places was the best part of writing the book. It had its birth in the bewitching, mystical Welsh countryside.

J: What did you enjoy least about writing the historical aspects of your book?

G.G.: There wasn’t really anything I didn’t enjoy about the history, except the Welsh myths were a little hard to decipher. A friend of mine who lived in Wales explained them to me, but I’m still not certain I understand the importance of them to the Welsh.

J: How did you research the Welsh history included in The Arthurian Omen?

G.G.: I used books such as King of the Celts: Arthurian Legends and Celtic Tradition, by Jean Markale.; The Discovery of King Arthur, by Georffrey Ashe; The Celts: Uncovering the Mythic and Historic Origins of Western Culture, by Jean Markale; Insight Guides: Wales, Celtic Myths by Miranda Jane Green; and Arthurian Legends, by Marie Trevelyan. I also had a picture book of Wales that really helped me with the history of the sites, and I also used guidebooks and road maps. Of course, I did a ton of research on the Internet, as well, particularly about Owain Glyndwr. [NOTE: G.G. says she typed "Owain Glyndwr" into Google to find websites devoted to him.]

J: Which books or websites have you found most helpful to your historical research, and why?

G.G.: The Owain Glyndwr site was extremely helpful. All the sites of the towns and castles in the book were goldmines. The book that was most helpful was The Discovery of King Arthur, by Geoffrey Ashe. I also enjoyed reading Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part one, for the English take on Glyndwr.

J: How did you choose authentic Welsh names for the non-historical characters in your book?

G.G.: Throughout the years, I’ve learned (through doing genealogy), the most common Welsh names—Griffith, Jones, Morgan, Williams, Thomas, etc. It is kind of an instinct with me to know the history of names.

J: How do you balance story vs. history in your books?

G.G.: That is difficult, because different readers like different things. I just finished writing a book based on the decline and fall of the Hapsburg Empire. Some readers loved the history and other wished I’d do away with it. Welsh history is so interesting and so interwoven with all aspects of their life and culture, that it was easy to use it as almost a “character” in the story. A lot of Americans don’t know a lot about Wales, so the whole setting of the book was kind of “magical”. Also, everyone seems to love King Arthur and what he represents. Knowing the history of Wales was imperative for Maren (my main character) in order for her to solve the mysteries, so the reader learned along with Maren.

J: Do you have any favorite medieval historical personages, either Welsh or otherwise? And why are they your favorites?

G.G.: I must confess that I have a weakness for Owain Glyndwr. He had vision and was capable of inspiring men to do great things. Imagine reuniting Wales after a millennium. There hasn’t been anyone like him since. I feel that he must have had a very complex personality and a great belief in the Arthurian Legend to empower him.

J: Tell us a little about The Arthurian Omen.

G.G.: The book opens with a 15th century monk (a follower of Glyndwr) discovering and then burying the manuscript that would prove Arthur’s identity. He dies while being pursued by Prince Henry’s men [the future King Henry V]. Maren’s sister, Rachael, discovers a clue to the hiding place of the manuscript, but before she can begin her search, she is brutally murdered. Her estranged sister, Maren, wants to find closure in her relationship with her dead sister by pursuing her quest and unmasking the murderer. The reader knows who the murderer is, but he is not obviously one of the characters (Arthurian scholars, policemen, an old lover) joining Maren in her search. Who is this psychopath who believes himself to be Owain Glyndwr trying to unite the Welsh and overthrow the current monarchy? Who murdered her sister? Are these people among the little group of traveling companions who are searching monasteries and castles for the manuscript? The reader knows this person is one of her companions, but doesn’t know who. The book is a psychological thriller, running against the clock which is set at the anniversary of Glyndwr’s uprising when the new “Glyndwr” plans to murder Prince Charles, and use the “omen” to rally the Welsh to Arthur’s ancient cause of ridding the island of Anglo-Saxons and returning rightful rule to the Celts.

J: Would you like to share anything with us about any upcoming projects you have going on?

G.G.: I have written a mystery series about two genealogists (a rifle toting grandma and an angst-driven young widow). The fourth book in that series, Poisoned Pedigree, is due out in September. The project of my lifetime has been The Last Waltz, a romantic epic set during the years of 1913-1938 in Austria. I am very excited for that to come out next spring. In the autumn of next year, there will be either a collection of my essays or another mystery. It depends on whether I am writing the sequel to The Last Waltz yet. I cannot write the sequel without traveling to Poland, France, Scotland, and Hampshire, England.

J: Do you have any advice to share with other historical writers?

G.G.: Know your history so well that you can integrate it in your book either by metaphor, allegory, or as a “character”. Don’t write a textbook. Make the history absolutely relevant in the lives of your characters, whether they are living through it or whether they are trying to discover it.

J: Thank you so much for joining us today, G.G.

G.G.: The pleasure is all mine! Please visit my website at www.arthurianomen.com. If you are interested in reading the book, you can order it on line through my website or from your local Barnes & Noble if they don’t have it on their shelves. And of course, there’s always Amazon!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

New Medieval Poll

I think it's time for a new poll! Since we're all interested in the Middle Ages (or presumably, we wouldn't be reading this page?), we should all have some familiarity with the medieval kings of England. Scroll down the right side of the page and vote for your "Favorite Medieval King". I've started with Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwinson, to give any Saxon fans a vote, and ended with Richard III, at the end of the Wars of the Roses.

As blog mistress, I'll go first. I freely admit that my favorite medieval king is Henry II, and I cast my vote accordingly.

Now it's your turn!

(Maybe next time, we'll do a poll on their wives?)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Winner of Medieval Chapbook Drawing

Congratulations to Rebekah Elrod of Colorado, winner of my Medieval Chapbook Drawing! Rebekah's prize is a D'Vyne Wrytes Chapbook, A History of Feasting in the Middle Ages, With 25 Authentic Recipes.

Thank you to all who entered my drawing. And hey, Rebekah, if you decide to bake that grene apple pye for dessert, we'd love to hear about your experience on this blog!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

"Every One a Witness" Series

It seems like all the best research books are out of print! That is again the case with one of my favorites, The Plantagenet Age: Every One a Witness, by A.F. Scott. I found my copy in 1976 at the University of Arizona student bookstore. It was part of a series of Every One a Witness books.

Fortunately for those of us who delight in “first hand history”, there appear to be plenty of people willing to sell their old copies at quite reasonable prices on such websites as Amazon.

The Plantagenet Age (also subtitled, Commentaries of an Era) is a compilation of contemporary source materials beginning with the reign of King Henry II through the death of King Richard III, last of the Plantagenet kings of England. But these are no dry political treatises by those who kept the royal chronicles. Although royalty is, indeed, included, the majority of the book covers such wide ranging topics as towns, family, food and drink, dress, education, sports and pastimes, travel, law and crime, and many, many more subjects.

Let me share with you just a few intriguing tidbits about medieval life that you will find in The Plantagenet Age

(Ack! Two of my pages just popped free of their binding! Now I’ll have to take extra-special care not to lose them. Old, dried-out bindings can be so annoying.)

Okay, forgive my little panic attack there. I take my research books very seriously.

On with the examples I promised!

On the subject of “Health”, here is a quote from John Arderne’s 14th Century Treatise on the Fistula:

“And if the patients or their friends or servants ask by what length of time he hopes to cure the complaint, let the doctor always promise double what he supposes: that is, if the doctor hopes to heal the patient in twenty weeks—that is the common course of curing—let him add so many over. For it is better that the term be lengthened than the cure. For to prolong the cure brings despair to the patient, when trust in the doctor is the strongest hope of cure. And if the patient wonders why he was told the cure would be so long when he was healed in half the time, tell him he was strong-hearted, bore the pain well and had a body to heal quickly. The patient will be proud and delighted to hear such words.” (The Plantagenet Age, p 131-132)

Under “Sports and Pastimes”, the following story is told of a tournament that took place in 1347:

“And a little before the feast of St. Michael at London in Chepe there were very beautiful lists. Here the lady Queen Philippa [wife to King Edward III] with a great party of her ladies fell to the ground from the pavilions which had been newly built so that they could watch the knightly deeds; but they were not hurt. That most pious queen would not allow the carpenters to be punished for this, but she assuaged the anger of the king and his courtiers with prayers on bended knee. This merciful act of the queen aroused the love of all towards her when they considered her piety.” (The Plantagenet Age, p 119)

In 1381, Thomas de Walsingham wrote in his Historia Brevis, the following regarding Wat Tyler and his followers:

“See too what they did against the faith; how they compelled masters of grammar schools to swear that they would never again teach grammar to children! It was perilous to be recognized as a clerk, and far more perilous if any were caught bearing an inkhorn at his side.” (The Plantagenet Age, p 92; I know more than a few modern school children who would have sympathized with Wat Tyler on this subject!)

Let’s see if I can find one more short passage to share with you. After that, you’ll have to find a copy of this delightful book for yourself.

Ah, let’s end with this. “Medieval amusements around an evening fire” recorded by Wynken de Worde in 15th Century England. Try these on some of your friends, and see if they’re any smarter than our medieval ancestors!

“Question: What thing is it that never was nor never shall be?
“Answer: Never mouse made her nest in a cat’s ear.
“Question: Why come dogs so often to church?
“Answer: Because, when they see the altars covered, they think their masters go there to dine.
“Question: Why do men make an oven in the town?
“Answer: Because they cannot make a town in the oven.
“Question: What is it that never freezeth?
“Answer: Hot water.
“Question: What thing is it, the less it is the more it is dreaded?
“Answer: A bridge.
“Question: Who was he that slew the fourth part of the world?
“Answer: Cain, when he slew his brother Abel, in which time there were but four persons in the world.”
(The Plantagenet Age, pp 64, 65)

Whether the audience groaned when the answers above were revealed, Wynken de Worde fails to tell us.

The Plantagenet Age is not only a solid research source, it is also a delightful “browsing” book for the modern reader interested in fascinating bits of historical trivia.

And it is not alone. In addition to The Plantagenet Age, these titles are also available in the Every One A Witness series:

The Roman Age
The Saxon Age
The Norman Age
The Plantagenet Age
The Tudor Age
The Stuart Age
Early Hanoverian Age
The Georgian Age

Not all of these are available on Amazon. You can Google “books by Arthur Finley Scott” to find additional buying options from both US and British booksellers. And don’t forget, you can always try interlibrary loan. Surely some library somewhere in the United States has copies, too!


REMINDER: My drawing for a copy of A History of Feasting in the Middle Ages, With 25 Authentic Recipes ends on Friday, June 20th. To read more about this chapbook and how to enter my drawing, see my post on Let’s Have Another Drawing.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Let’s Have Another Drawing!

I’ve been running drawings recently on my website and JDP NEWS blogs, and it occurred to me that medieval research with joyce readers might be feeling a little left out. So let’s have another drawing of our very own!

I have here a 17-page chapbook entitled, A History of Feasting in the Middle Ages, With 25 Authentic Recipes, filled with mouth-watering information on…well, feasting in the Middle Ages…but with print so small that my aging eyes can barely read it. (Actually, that’s not the real reason I’m giving it away. It’s really a brand new chapbook that I picked up at the Arizona Renaissance Festival especially for a medieval research with joyce drawing, but then forgot to ever hold the drawing. The small print, however, does make it easier for me to give it up and not succumb to temptation to keep it for myself.)

If there is anyone out there with young eyes (or a magnifying glass) who would like to win this very useful research chapbook, send an email to jdipastena@yahoo.com. Type “Medieval Chapbook Drawing” in the subject line, and then type, “I want a grene apple pye for dessert!” (watch the spelling!), along with your name and mailing address, in the body of the email.

Deadline for entries: June 20, 2008.

I hope at least one of you out there is hungry enough to enter!


Loyalty's Web is being reissued with brand new cover art by my brand new publisher, Leatherwood Press, in July. I have a handful of "old cover" copies that I'm offering at a 30% discount to anyone who is interested. They are available for $13.25 (a $5.70 savings off the cover price) plus $2.00 shipping. Email me at jdipastena@yahoo.com to reserve a copy, since this offer is only good for as long as my supplies last, and I will email you back with details on payment options. International orders will have to pay the full cost of shipping, minus $2.00/USD.

Friday, May 9, 2008

More on Castles

Remember how I’m always harping that, when doing research, you need to be sure your medieval “facts” are applicable to your particular era of the 1000 years that made up the Middle Ages? Well, a very helpful comment from British medieval novelist Elizabeth Chadwick, left on my post And In the Children's Section, We Have..., tipped me off to an excellent book to simplify some of your research all in one source, at least where castles are concerned. The book is called The Castle Story, by Sheila Sancha. After reading Elizabeth’s comment, I ordered a used copy through Amazon, and have discovered for myself what a truly splendid book this is!

The Castle Story not only traces the evolution and changes in castles through the Middle Ages, it does so in a lively narrative fashion (this is no dull and boring scholarly tome), accompanied by a liberal number of photos, captions, sketches, drawings and explanatory arrows.

The book is made up of thirteen chapters:

“(1) A Glance at Early Fortifications”, beginning with Iron Age forts through the early Anglo-Saxon period;

“(2) Digging in Behind Earth and Timber Defences”, the evolution of castles in Normandy;

“(3) A Quiet Life in Hall and Chamber” continues with the building of Norman castles in England after the Conquest of Duke William of Normandy, and gives us a feel for the domestic side of castles;

“(4) Great Stone Towers and How to Take Them” turns early wooden castles to stone as we proceed through the reigns of William’s sons, William Rufus and Henry I;

“(5) Siegecraft, Chivalry, and Sheer Brute Force” describes castle developments, and methods invented to overcome castle defenses, during the war between Henry I’s rival successors, King Stephen and the Empress Matilda;

“(6) Changing Times” traces new castle developments during the reign of Henry II, son of the Empress Matilda and successor to King Stephen;

“(7) The Rise of the Gatehouse and the Decline of the Keep” describes castle innovations during the reigns of Henry II’s sons, Richard I (the Lionheart) and (Bad) King John;

“(8) Gothic Arches and Painted Chambers” deals with the great building projects of John’s son, King Henry III, who (as many a history book has suggested), would have been a better architect than he was a king, while…

“(9) Trouble in Wales and Other Matters” shifts the focus to Welsh castles, still during the reign of King Henry III;

“(10) The Heyday of English Military Architecture” describes the great castle building projects of Henry III’s son, King Edward I;

In “(11) Castles Begin to Lose Their Importance” we begin to see the long, slow decline of the castle through the reigns of Edward I’s descendents, Edward II and Edward III;

At the same time, in “(12) The Return of the Square Stone Keep” we follow a fresh surge of castle building taking place in Scotland;

And in “(13) Ending the Story”, we finally come to the end of the great era of castles as the defenses that at one time seemed nearly impenetrable now fall before the discovery of an overwhelming weapon…gunpowder.

I have given you the briefest overview of the chapters above, merely so you can see how in a single book, the chronology of castle development is presented. Choose your characters, choose the king they lived under, and you can then move quickly to study the chapter aligned with that king to help you invent an historically appropriate castle for your characters to inhabit in your own story.

In addition to the chronological advantage of this book, The Castle Story is also chockfull of incredibly useful sketches, drawings and photos. You’ll find examples of castle floor plans, cutaway views of castles, with explanatory arrows pointing to (for instance) the kitchen (on floor one), the chaplain’s chamber (on floor two), another kitchen (on floor three), a water cistern (on floor four), and a guard room (on floor five). On the opposite side of the same castle drawing, arrows demonstrate where the prison would be (below ground level), the portcullis and lobby (first floor), the chapel (second floor), an outdoor fighting deck, and a stair turret.

There are miniature drawings of archers, including how they cocked a crossbow, and miniature men engaging in numerous other means of defense, such as using hand slings, firing a catapult (and how a catapult worked), hurling stones over the castle walls on the heads of their enemies, etc. There are also a multitude of castle photos, many of them with sketches of miniature people “inserted” into the photos. One example: a photo of an actual castle hall, with sketched in people setting up the tables for an upcoming meal.

This book is both incredibly useful and utterly charming in its presentation. Once again, like so many truly excellent research books, The Castle Story, by Sheila Sancha, is out of print, but used copies are available at reasonable prices on Amazon and Alibris.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Book Review: Walk With Peril, by D.V.S. Jackson

Book Summary (from dust jacket):

Two young men walked with peril during those months of 1415. One was Robert Fairfield, in danger because of his religion, and because of the enmity of the Duke of York. The other was King Henry V, who knew he was always surrounded by deceit and treachery and who let no man stand behind him.

Robert Fairfield came from Wales to London to become King Henry’s loyal follower in the hope of winning the accolade of knighthood. Since Robert was poor he rode alone, with his long sword, a belt of golden bells, and a shield bearing the device of a sleeping lion on a green field and the legend “Wake Me No Man.” The wealthy merchant, Lewis Chappelle, hurrying citywards with his lovely daughter Constance, grudgingly asks Robert to join his party for the sake of his sword, and then to stay in the vast mansion by the Thames. Here Robert sense strange and secret currents, and is on his guard as a stranger and as a member of the Lollards, the sect that even so early believed in religious freedom and whose members were now banned, persecuted and killed. And in a tavern brawl he met again the Duke of York, cousin to the king, whose enmity Robert had gained in Wales. York’s hatred is to follow Robert through the roads and battlefields of France to Robert’s mortal peril.

This is an exciting and colorful novel about two fascinating men. Robert is brave, resourceful, loyal, and his love story is as touching as it is honorable. But even more fascinating is the picture of Henry V, brave, determined, hard and cruel on behalf of England, kind and winning to his friends, who moves alone among his courtiers and his men, with his hidden dread of the assassin’s knife or poisoned cup, yet always pressing forward to make England strong at home and abroad.

It isn’t often that I write book reviews, here or on any of my other blogs. In fact, I’ve never written a book review before, aside from the Amazon.com-type. But for anyone interested in King Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt, I found a book I’d like to share with you.

Actually, “re-found” would be more accurate. I first read this novel probably in junior high, and most likely because my sister was reading it. She’d checked it out from our local library. Judging from how much I had forgotten, much of it must have been over my head at the time. But I was struck enough with the characters, that I remember going back to the library, checking it out for myself, and reading it at least a couple more times between junior high and when I graduated from high school.

Oddly enough, I never paid any attention to the title or author. I just remembered that it had a light blue/gray binding (without a dust jacket) and I always knew which shelf to look on at the library to find it. Sadly, my carelessness meant that when I reflected on the book many years later, long after it no longer sat on that library shelf, I had no way of tracking it down to ever read it again.

Then, this past March while visiting my sister in Salt Lake City, the subject of this long lost, but never quite forgotten, book surprisingly sprang up in a conversation between us. My sister remembered it, too, and while she had also forgotten the title, she at least remembered that the author’s name started with a J, “…something like Jackson or Johnson”, she said.

Oh, for the wonderful and blessed miracle of modern technology! I immediately jumped on her computer and Googled, “novels about Henry V by Jackson”, or something like that. And what should come up almost immediately but the title: Walk With Peril. “That’s it!” my sister exclaimed. We read a brief blurb together to confirm it was the same book, whipped over to Amazon.com, and I promptly ordered two used copies, one for me and one for her. Because, of course, the book had since gone long out of print.

I just finished reading this splendid book again. I was afraid I might be disappointed, that the book might be somehow “less” than I remembered from my youth. Instead, it was much, much more.

The subtitle of Walk With Peril is An Exciting Novel of Henry V and Agincourt. Fortunately, that subtitle only appears on the dust jacket, so I’d never seen it on the bookbinding or on the inside pages of the book. Otherwise, I might have dismissed it as “a book about battles”, instead of “a book about characters” and never picked it up to read it. I’ve never been much interested in reading books about battles. But catch me up in a character, and I’ll go all the way with him.

And that’s what Jackson does in Walk With Peril. She spends the first ten chapters developing the hero (Robert Fairfield), the woman he loves (Constance Chappelle), her merchant father, a surly servant who ultimately becomes Robert’s most faithful companion, and even in some nearly heartbreaking scenes, a great mastiff dog. (Don’t worry, she stays strictly in Robert’s POV to do so.) By the time the hero Robert joins the troops of King Henry V and follows him on the campaign that will end in the famous battle of Agincourt, one is no longer worried about it being a “battle book”. One merely is as ready to follow Robert wherever he goes, as Robert is ready to follow the king.

Walk With Peril was published in 1959. If you’re looking for a “hot romance”, this book isn’t it. The romance is tender and touching and a little sad. It is also honorable, for above all things, Robert Fairfield is an honorable man, but the author does leave us with hope for him and Constance at the end.

Neither is this book filled with page after page of detailed battle scenes. Yes, the battle comes…more than one, in fact…but once Robert leaves Constance to follow the king, the focus shifts to introducing the characters of Henry V and his plotting cousin, the Duke of York. And what characters they are! Each one shines like a jewel…each a flawed jewel, perhaps, but each all the more human and, therefore, intriguing and heroic for it.

This book read almost new to me. I was shocked by how little I actually remembered. But two very, very brief scenes had continued to hover in my memory all these years, and influenced my writing in ways known only to myself and to Heaven. (No, I promise I didn’t plagiarize!) The scenes—actually, they were more like mere moments in the book—had somehow melded in my mind as one, but on my recent re-reading, I discovered they were, indeed, two separate moments within two separate scenes. I’ll not tell you what they were, for what touched me may well not touch you, and each reader should have the joy of discovering favorite, influential scenes and moments of his or her own.

Now see? This is why you will not often find me writing a book review. Because I ramble and blather and once I start talking about a book I love, I find it very difficult to stop.

Simply put: In my opinion (for all book reviews are basically one person’s opinion), Walk With Peril is a long lost jewel of an historical novel. I would love to see it reprinted some day. But for now, you can find used copies for as little as $0.01 on Amazon. (Used copies are also available at Alibris and Barnes and Noble.)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Modifying posting schedule

I am now entering an intensive revision stage for my upcoming medieval novel, tentatively titled: Illuminations of the Heart. As a result, I will for the next few months no longer have time to post here twice a month. I will try to maintain a monthly research update, so continue to check back periodically.

Thank you to all who support medieval research with joyce by your faithful reading of my posts. I hope you have found them useful, and will continue to do so in the future!

If any of you are interested in reading my medieval novel, Loyalty's Web, before my sequel, Illumiations of the Heart, comes out, Loyalty's Web is now available for 10% off at both Amazon.com AND Barnesandnoble.com. Isn't competition wonderful?

Friday, April 4, 2008

Loyalty's Web: now on sale

Loyalty's Web is now available at a 10% discount on Amazon.com. If you don't already own a copy, this would be a great time to hop over to Amazon and snap a copy up!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

And in the Children’s Section, We Have…

Okay, I admit it. One of my favorite visual sources for information on the Middle Ages is children’s books.

If you want to know exactly how a castle was built, you can’t beat David Macaulay’s Castle. Why this book insists on being filed almost exclusively in the children’s section of bookstores (along with its companion volumes, Cathedral, City, Underground, and Pyramid, only the first of which actually fits our time period) remains a mystery to me. Yes, it won the Caldecott Honor Medal, which is undoubtedly why libraries and bookstores place it where they do, but it’s such an invaluable resource to adults as well, that if it does not occur to one to wander occasionally into the children’s section to browse the history books, a would-be writer/researcher might never stumble across it.

The Preface to Castles reads:

“Lord Kevin’s castle, although imaginary, is based in concept, structural process, and physical appearance on several castles built to aid in the conquest of Wales between 1277 and 1305. Their planning and construction epitomized over two centuries of military engineering and accomplishments throughout Europe and the Holy Land.

“The town of Aberwyvern, also imaginary, is based in concept and physical appearance on towns founded in conjunction with castles in Wales during the same twenty-eight year period. This combination of castle and town in a military program displays both superior strategical skill and farsightedness required for truly successful conquest.”

Macaulay provides outstanding sketches throughout the book in addition to verbal descriptions, to assist those of us who are still awaiting an opportunity to visit a “real” castle in England. (Or France, or Spain, or Italy…) Do you want to know the difference between an arrow loop and a typical castle window? Just flip to pages 30 and 31, and voila! You couldn’t ask for a clearer mental picture to incorporate into your own stories.

Exactly where was the castle dungeon, and how did one access it? Check out page 40.

Remember our castle garrison from The Castle Explorer’s Guide? If you’d like to know where their living quarters were and what they were like, you can find a description on page 54 of Castles.

Many, many more treasures await you in this book. But unless you search for it online, you’ll have to wander into the children’s section of bookstore or library to find it!

Bonus: Castle, hosted by David Macaulay, is also available as a DVD, available on Amazon.com.

Another of my favorite children’s resources is A Medieval Castle: Inside Story by Fiona Macdonald and Mark Bergin. Through colorful illustrations, this book describes: “A Day in the Life of a Workman” (crafters/builders)—literally—by breaking the pictures and short descriptions into “time increments”. When did the worker arise? 5:30 am. What was he doing by 7 am, by 7:15 am, by 7:30 am, by 8:30 am, clear through till bedtime about 10 pm? Page 11 of A Medieval Castle will break it all down for you.

What did medieval farmers do in January, February, March, April, May, and on through the end of the medieval year? Look up “The Farmer’s Year” on page 23 of A Medieval Castle.

Of course, there are also sections on “The World of the Castle”, “Food and Drink”, “Meals and Manners”, “The Village Fair”, “Hunting and Hawking”, “Tournaments”, and many, many more fascinating subjects, all beautifully illustrated to help your imagination along.

A Medieval Castle (Inside Story) is, like many of my favorite books, no longer in print, but can be bought used on Amazon.com and undoubtedly a
Google search on the title will lead you to other buying options.

If you find yourself stumped to know how to describe, let’s say, a medieval castle kitchen in your fiction, you can’t beat children’s books for a wealth of pictorial ideas. I once drew on a picture of exactly that…a “typical” medieval kitchen from The Oxford Children’s History of Britain: The Middle Ages, by Roy Burrell. There was a boy sorting through a basket of fish, another man boiling fish in a huge iron cauldron, and what particularly leaped out of the picture at me were the two dead geese with their heads dangling over the edge of the table, undoubtedly waiting to be plucked and dressed and served to the lord of the castle for dinner. I wrote a kitchen scene employing a verbal description of snippets of that picture (including the geese with the dangling heads) in my medieval novel, Loyalty’s Web. Sadly, I ultimately had to take out the dangling geese heads during a later word cutting edit, but the fish remain an active part of my scene, as those of you who have read my novel will find on page 29 of Loyalty’s Web.

Again, The Oxford Children’s History of Britain: The Middle Ages is no longer in print, but used copies can be found on Amazon, Alibris, and probably other online book dealers if you Google the title.

However, if you can’t find a copy, there are probably many, many more current, in print books of similar usefulness if you’ll only take the time to visit the children’s history section the next time you wander into a bookstore. (And don’t forget, there’s always your friendly neighborhood public library, too!)

One caveat: Children’s books on the Middle Ages often address their subject with broad, general strokes. If you’re writing a period-specific story, you’ll need to double check the “facts” in these books, to be sure they line up with the era of your own story. For example, jousting (a popular feature of children’s books) did not become a part of the tournament until the 1200s. If you’re writing in the 1100s, you’ll have to stick to the mêlée. Plate armor also came into use much later than the 1100s, so you’ll need to stick to chain mail, regardless of the armor described as “medieval” in an illustrated children’s book. In other words, just double check to be sure the information is historically compatible with the medieval era your story is placed in, and you’ll be fine.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Winner of Medieval Wordbook Drawing

Congratulations to Melissa Keith of Rhode Island! Melissa has won my "spare" Medieval Wordbook copy. The book will be on it's way to you soon, Melissa!

Thank you to all who entered my drawing. Keep an eye on this site. You never know when I'll run across another duplicate research book in my house!

I'm off next week to attend the Storymakers Writing Conference in Sandy, Utah, where my medieval novel, Loyalty's Web, is a finalist for a Whitney Award. The winner will be announced at an awards gala next Saturday night (March 22). Wish me luck!

Since I'll be in Utah the next two weeks (staying to visit with my sister), my next medieval research blog will be posted on April 4th. See you all then!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

What’s for Dinner?

One of my favorite resource books on medieval meals is Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony, by Madeleine Pelner Cosman. There are many books containing medieval recipes, and others that describe medieval table manners, but you won’t find a better, all-in-one resource book that includes all of the above, and much, much more.

Fabulous Feasts makes researching easy, thanks to the many helpful subtitles within each chapter. Without reading the book straight through from cover to cover (although of course, that can be fun, too), a mere random flipping through the pages will quickly alight one’s eyes on such topics as: “Wines” (from which I discovered the perfect wine to use in my upcoming sequel to Loyalty’s Web); “Food Painting”, describing how such things as sauces, soups, pastries, breads, and even batter-encrusted meats were dyed various, fanciful colors with such flowers and herbs as parsley (green), sandalwood (red); saffron (yellow and orange), and even a concoction of egg yolk mixed with ginger powder and saffron to imitate an illusion of gold (FF, p. 61-63); and “Marvelous Entertainment”, which in addition to mentioning jugglers, acrobats, jesters, etc to entertain the diners, also includes this delightful example of “illusion food”: “At one banquet, a sculptured castle with beasts—deer, boar, goats, and hares—was borne into the hall by squires. It had a fountain in whose center a tower spouted wine in five directions, each wine of a different quality.” (FF, p. 33)

There are sections on “Bread and Baked Goods”; “Sauces at Table”; “Cooking Processes”; and even “Salt”. One can learn about “Food and Social Class”: (“When a lady royally born married a lowly knight, or a poor lady married a lord of noble blood, the lady of royal station kept her state as before her marriage; and the lady of low blood took with her husband his high seat at table.” (FF, p. 107) Descriptions of a medieval kitchen can be found under the section on “Various Kitchen Utensils” (FF, pp. 56-59).

The section on “Table Manners” tells us that, although spoons and knives were used when dining, most of the food was “picked, balanced, and conveyed by those most portable, manipulable, graceful terminals of the hands. Certain fingers were extended while eating specific foods to allow grease-free fingers available for the next dish, as well as for dipping fingers into condiments and spices.” (FF, p. 17) An example of incorporating this “finger food” into a fictional medieval scene can be read in an excerpt from Loyatly’s Web on my website at www.joyce-dipastena.com.

Fabulous Feasts ends with a chapter on “Medieval Feasts for the Modern Table”, with suggestions for how to reproduce a medieval feast in the 20th (and now 21st) Century, followed by an extensive list of recipes with instructions for producing medieval dishes for your guests. A mere sampling: Floteres, i.e. salmon and current dumplings; Oreoles, i.e. elderberry funnel cakes; Porpoise Pudding, i.e. oat-stuffed pike; Nekkesan, i.e., swan-neck pudding or capon or turkey-neck pudding; Garbage Pie, i.e. giblet custard pie; Flore Frittours, i.e. fried squash flowers; Joutes, i.e. herbed beets; Figeye, i.e. a tricolored fig confection; Faun Tempere, i.e. gilli flower pudding; and even such “Spectacles” or “Illusion Foods” as Hasle, i.e. mock entails. Yum!

Fabulous Feasts is abundantly filled with beautiful and useful illustrations and color plates to help you visualize the text. The only drawbacks to this exquisitely useful book is the lack of an index (always regrettable, in my opinion, with research books—I find indexes indispensable for “quick research” purposes); and the failure to list page numbers for the subtitles listed in the table of contents. For example, while typing the section on “Food Painting” above, a distraction caused me to lose my place and required me to go hunting through the text once more to re-find that section. Either an index or page number for the “Food Painting” subtitle in the table on context would have whizzed me back to my misplaced section. The moral? When using Fabulous Feasts, keep lots of small bookmarks handy to stick in the sections you’re studying, in case “real life” or other interruptions call you away.

These are, however, small quibbles for such a valuable book. Fabulous Feasts, by Madeleine Pelner Cosman, is available on Amazon.com (see my "So you'd like to...Write Medieval Fiction" link, under "Links" on the right side of this screen for details). Since the book is still in print, it is undoubtedly available at most other online books sellers, or can be ordered through brick and motar bookstores, as well.

FINAL REMINDER: This is your last week to send me your name and address, if you want to enter for a chance to win a FREE copy of Medieval Wordbook. Deadline is March 14. Go to Research Book Drawing for details.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Medieval Gardens, Part II: medieval healing

In my last post, I demonstrated how you can build a medieval garden for your characters with the help of the book, Medieval English Gardens, by Teresa McLean. Today, I’d like to share another useful function of this book.

In addition to wanting a garden for my heroine to enjoy in Loyalty’s Web, I also wanted her to have some healing skills. Not the “mystical” kind, but the “practical” kind. And for that, I needed to know something about the healing abilities of plants that were available in the Middle Ages.

Medieval English Gardens proved a treasure trove of such information for me. The two most pertinent sections for my research on this subject were chapters 5 & 6: “Many a Fresh and Sundry Flower”, and “The Herb Garden”. Each chapter contains sub-chapters, as follows:

Within: “Many a Fresh and Sundry Flower” are the sub-chapters: “Useful Flowers”; “Useful and Pretty Flowers”; “Beautiful, Flower Garden Flowers, and Flower Gardens”; and “Medieval Roses and Rose Gardens”. The last two sub-chapters are more useful for assistance in garden descriptions (as per my previous post) than for information on the healing properties of medieval plants, but the first two sub-chapters were extremely useful for my “healing heroine".

Within: “The Herb Garden” are the sub-chapters: “Infirmary Garden Herbs”; “Herb Garden Herbs”; “Kitchen Garden Herbs”; and “Backyard Herbs.”

Let me share with you a few examples of the kinds of information contained within each sub-chapter, and the method I used to transform these chapters into a permanent “quick research” resource for me.

This was where a red pencil or highlighter, and a pencil or pen came in extremely handy. The paragraphs are pretty much broken down by flower or herb, which makes it easy to mark each flower or herb individually.

For example, beginning on p 140, under “Useful Flowers”, I red-lined the flower “southernwood”, along with its description and uses. Then, in pen, I wrote the word “southernwood” in the margin, underlined it, and underneath that wrote: “uses”, under which I wrote the words “fever; wounds; pot-pourris”.

The next paragraph (on p 141) dealt with the wormwood plant. So I redlined “wormwood”, together with some pertinent information about it within the paragraph, then in the margin, I penned “wormwood” (underlined), and underneath again wrote: “uses”, then listed “flea repellant; expel poisons; constipation; stomachache.”

I followed this pattern with the following paragraphs on “mugwort”; “tansy”; “marigold”; and so on, throughout the above mentioned chapters (“Many a Fresh and Sundry Flower” and “The Herb Garden”).

Yes, this process can be somewhat time consuming, but it also the kind of task that can be done a little at a time…during commercials when watching TV, while waiting in a doctor’s office, while waiting to pick up a child from an activity…a few minutes here, and few minutes there, and before you know it, you have the quick research guide I referred to above.

Now that I had these chapters thus marked, when I found my hero with a knife wound in his arm and my heroine with a need to help heal it, all I had to do was flip through the margins of the chapters for plants that were used for healing wounds. I was very quickly able to whittle down my list to: southernwood; milfoil/yarrow; primrose; plantain/waybread; comfrey; burnet and orpine; and tutsan.

In the paragraphs I’d marked with red pencil, I could then look from the word in the margin to a more full description (in parentheses below) of how the flower or herb was used to heal wounds:

Southernwood (soothes wounds)
Milfoil/Yarrow: (staunched bleeding)
Primrose (leaves rubbed into wounds to relieve soreness)
Plantain/Waybread (ingredients in ointments to cure wounds)
Comfrey (power to heal wounds and stop bleeding)
Burnet and Orpine (wound soothers)
Tutsan (antiseptic for open flesh wounds)

My heroine ultimately settled on the following:

She gathered up a handful of fresh green leaves from a bowl and turned to lay them on the Earl's arm, squeezing them first so that the juice ran into his wound. The wine had dulled the fiery pain to a bearable throb, but even that discomfort began to subside, as the flesh around the wound grew numb…. [Some dialogue ensues…]

She removed the leaves she had spread on his arm and replaced them with a different kind, gathered from another bowl. "Plantain," she explained, crushing them between her fingers as she had done before. "It will slow the bleeding, and then we will spread on the comfrey poultice to help in healing."

She followed through with this prescription and finished by binding up his arm with several strips of linen, which Flora handed her from the tray.

"There. Your arm should remain numb for several hours. The pain may return after that, but you may send to the kitchen for more leaves if it becomes too uncomfortable. Mind they be of the tutsan plant and fresh enough to squeeze as you saw me do. If the bleeding resumes, it is plantain you must ask for. The bandages should be changed frequently for the next day or two, each time reapplying the poultice. I will see that some be kept in readiness for you."

I am certain there are other equally useful books for learning about medieval flowers and herbs, but I am confining myself in these blogs only to books and resources that I have actually used myself, and Medieval English Gardens, by Teresa McLean, was my major resource in the writing of my novel, Loyalty’s Web, as well as in writing its sequel, which I hope to publish sometime in 2008. However useful other books may be, Medieval English Gardens is a true treasure, and is well worth the search for a copy of your own.

(See previous post for suggestions for locating copies of Medieval English Gardens.)

Reminder: My drawing for a FREE copy of Medieval Wordbook is still open. For details, see post on Research Book Drawing.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Medieval Gardens

When plotting out my novel, Loyalty’s Web, there came a time when I wanted an exchange between my hero and heroine to take place in a castle garden. I had just recently purchased a book entitled Medieval English Gardens, by Teresa McLean, and although my novel was set in a portion of France called Poitou, I worked on the assumption that, as far as medieval gardens went, castles gardens in medieval France were unlikely to be significantly different from castle gardens in medieval England.

Medieval English Gardens is chock full of information on gardens in the Middle Ages…their history, their variety (monastic vs. city vs. castle/manor gardens), and descriptions you can draw on to create your very own, imaginary medieval garden for your novel or short story.

As I’ve stated before, my purpose with this bog is not to review research books in detail, but to share with you how I used a particular book for my particular needs in writing Loyalty’s Web. For the purposes of my scene, I knew I did not need information on monastic or city/town gardens, so I turned immediately to “Castle, Palace and Manor Gardens” (Medieval English Gardens, beginning on p. 89). Within this chapter, I limited my research to those sections which dealt with gardens from “the period of the Conquest to the late fourteenth century”, since that was the time range in which my novel was set. (In other words, why read the chapter on “Late Medieval Pleasure Gardens”, until I decide to set a novel in that particular time period? I may read more just for “fun”, but for research purposes, I prefer to focus on information that pertains most immediately to the time and setting my novels are placed in.)

Here are some of the things I learned from the above chapter and sections, which I was then able to weave into my scene (and I do recommend using a red pencil or high lighter, to make quick reference easier when rechecking one’s facts—and regardless of what your mother told you about writing in books, don’t be afraid to make notes in the margins! They’ll be worth their weight in gold to you later.):

“The fact that they used turf lawns [in gardens] does not mean that they were bare of flowers. They may have been planted with small flowers—violets, daisies and periwinkles, to make the ‘flowery meads’ so beloved in the Middle Ages.” (Medieval English Gardens, p 94)

“Apart from the orchards and vineyards which were outside the walls of many castles, it was usual for there to be either no gardens at all in a castle or else just pleasure gardens.” (Medieval English Gardens, p. 96)

One castle built “a dove-house at the corner of the herb garden….its purpose was to enhance the herb garden’s pleasant appeal, for the cooing of doves was a popular medieval delight full of symbolic importance for romantic and religious love.” (Medieval English Gardens, p. 105)

“Gardens were walled, fenced, hedged and palisaded…so there was a good deal of stonework, carpentry, hedge-making, locksmithing and painting to be done in the making of them, and more of the same in the making of their mounds, fountains, benches, railings, paths and raised beds. (Medieval English Gardens, p. 106)

This information, combined with information on rose gardens in the section on” Medieval Roses and Rose Gardens” (pp. 164-171) under the chapter, “Many a Fresh and Sundry Flower”, culminated in the following two paragraphs in Loyalty’s Web (p. 146)

A shaft of sunshine broke through the hovering clouds and the roses danced their tangled heads against the breeze in what remained of the Lady Gwenllian's pleasure garden. Though spared devastation from the siege by its remoteness from the curtain walls, it had nevertheless been much neglected these eighteen months while rebuilding had gone forward in the outer bailey. The stables, the barracks, the forge, all had had to be raised again almost from scratch, so thorough a job had Gunthar's fiery missiles done. The orchard and herb garden had been maintained for their usefulness to the castle's occupants, but save for mending the dovecot, damaged by a winter storm, Laurant had insisted the roses would have to wait.

The bushes had grown shaggy and tall, climbing over the low, enclosing walls, and would have choked off the gate had Heléne not kept a path well pruned. She loved it here in the wild bower it had become, where no one ever seemed to venture but she. She did not mind that the benches were peeling, that the flowery mead had become a confusion of disordered weeds, or that the fountain had gone dry. The trill of the nearby doves usually soothed her nerves while she plied her needlework or immersed herself in one of the rare books she cajoled her father into buying. But on this grey, dismal morning both lay neglected, the former on the dusty plank beside her, the latter in her lap.

With the treasure trove of information on medieval gardens contained in Medieval English Gardens, by Teresa McLean, you, too can create a perfect (or even, as in Loyalty’s Web’s case, an imperfect) garden for your medieval characters to enjoy!

Sadly, as is the case with many of my favorite research books, Medieval English Gardens no longer appears to be in print. It can be worth the search for a used copy, though. I have found copies listed on the following sites (a little Googling will lead you to further options):




(United Kingdom)

(United Kingdom)

Next time: Medieval English Gardens, by Teresa McLean, Part II. I’ve only scratched the surface of the usefulness of this book, so be sure to return to medieval research with joyce in two weeks!

Note: Speaking of which, due to a scheduling conflict, beginning in two weeks I will be posting new blogs on this site on the first and third Thursdays, instead of Wednesdays, of each month. My next post will appear February 21st.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Research Book Drawing

Most writers who build up extensive personal research libraries of their own, will eventually find themselves with accidental duplicates of valued research books. This was exactly the dilemma I found myself in recently when going through a disordered pile of books in my house. Somewhere along the way, I inadvertently purchased a second copy of Medieval Wordbook, by Madeleine Pelner Cosman. My first thought was to donate my second copy to a library, but since our own very small public library is unlikely to make room for so specialized a research book on their shelves, I came up with another idea.

I presume that most of you who read this blog, do so because (1) you are interested in writing, and (2) you are interested in the Middle Ages. And since I maintain this blog out of a desire to assist others who fall into the above two categories, therefore, I have decided to hold my first medieval research with joyce book drawing, in the hopes that my extra Medieval Wordbook will fall into the hands of someone who will actually use and appreciate it.

First, let me offer you a brief description of the book, by quoting from the back of the book jacket:

“Terms and expressions that have worked their way into our everyday speech are at the heart of Medieval Wordbook, a perfect reference for word lovers… Generously illustrated with elegant period drawings, the book explains all aspects of medieval life and language. Included in this work are such words as : bezoar [any Harry Potter fans out there?], blackmail, coroner, patter, hodge podge, and folio. Fully cross-referenced, [this book] is a boon companion to all of medieval culture, including expressions drawn from art and architecture, sex and science, costume and cookery, literature and magic, liturgy and astrology, warfare and ceremony. Medieval Wordbook is an ideal guide for anyone interested in the full panoply of medieval history.”

The entires are arranged alphabetically, in easy to read print, the exception being the index. If you and your eyes are over 40, you might want to be sure you have your reading glasses on hand.

You can read more about Medieval Wordbook on Amazon.com (type in “Medieval Wordbook Cosman”, and you’ll go right to it), but the book no longer appears to be in print, so I’m offering one of you a good deal here. All you have to do to enter my drawing for a FREE copy of Medieval Wordbook is to send an email to:


Type: “Medieval Wordbook drawing” in the subject line, and include your name and mailing address. Since I don’t know how many people actually read my blog, I’m going to set a deadline of March 14, with the winner to be drawn and announced on March 15 here on this very blogsite! If I haven’t heard from at least one of you by then, my local library will be receiving a donation for their next book sale.

P.S. Not only am I offering you a free copy of this book, I’m going to let you have my hardback version, which aside from a slightly rumpled-around-the-edges book jacket, is still in excellent condition!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

In the News: Loyalty's Web

Loyalty's Web is a finalist in the Whitney Awards Competition!
For more information, click on the banner below.

Sometimes What You Need Is a Little Serendipity

I promised in my last post that I would share my “backup source” for my choice of water hemlock as the poison I used in my novel, Loyalty’s Web. Sometimes backup sources (or any sources, for that matter) come about by simple “luck”…serendipity, if you will. Prior to my discovery of Deadly Doses (see January 5, 2008 post), I focused my search for an appropriate medieval poison on various books about herbs, especially since I wanted to incorporate some “healing” techniques in my story, as well. While useful for the latter, what I quickly discovered is that most generalized books about herbs are not very interested in helping you poison someone, even if that someone is a fictional character. Consequently, the herb books I bought mostly proved to be a bust for my poison angle…with one exception. The Herb Book, by John Lust.

The sequence of events went like this: I bought a book entitled Medieval English Gardens (the subject of my next post). In this book, one of the herbs that attracted my attention was a plant called “angelica”, which among other things, was used to ward off plague, made into cordials and perfumes, and eaten as after-dinner sweets. Intrigued by this plant, I turned to my copy of The Herb Book to see what it had to say about angelica. Lo and behold, to my utter surprise, what did I find written under “Cautions” for the herb but this statement: “Wild angelica can be confused with European water hemlock, which is poisonous.”

This was the “Aha! moment” when I knew for a certainty that water hemlock, aka cowbane, would without doubt be the poison of choice for my story. After all, if the would-be poisoner were challenged, he or she could always claim “accidental confusion” between the noxious (cowbane) and the benign (angelica).

My first draft of Loyalty’s Web was written some years before the internet became nearly as common as air in our lives, hence my dependence at the time on printed sources, such as The Herb Book. Nowadays, I could go to the internet to find more information on water hemlock. (Be sure to Google for “European water hemlock”, otherwise you’ll go straight to the American version.) You can even find photographs of the plant (see http://www.all-creatures.org/picb/wfshl-waterhemlock.html), whereas all I originally had was a word description and my imagination.

Even so, I’m not sure that modern technology would have led me to the angelica/water hemlock link any more directly than my fortuitous reading of my little paperback Herb Book. After all, it never would have occurred to me to search for a link until I had accidentally stumbled across it in the first place!

So whichever route your research takes…the old-fashioned printed word or the internet…sometimes nothing trumps pure and simple “luck” in discovering some critical detail to click a plot-point into place.

Note: The Herb Book, by John Lust, remains widely available. Arranged alphabetically with drawings, each herb listing includes: Common Names; Medicinal Parts; Description; Properties and Uses, including CAUTIONS (helpful for an author with a character interested in misusing a plant); and Preparation and Dosage.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Adding a Touch of Suspense by Slipping Some Poison in the Cup

Want to up the suspense of your medieval novel or short story? There’s nothing like a drop or two of poison in a character’s wine to make a reader sit up and take notice.

But where do we go to find information about medieval poisons?

An excellent starting point is Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons, by Serita Deborah Stevens with Anne Klarner. Deadly Doses is part of the Howdunit Series published by Writers Digest Books.

Now, this book is not strictly about “medieval” poisons, so you must do a little searching to find an appropriate poison for your time period. But of the eleven chapters, several can be quickly eliminated from your search: “Houshold Poisons”, “Medical Poisons”, “Pesticides”, “Industrial Poisons”, and “Street Drugs” all belong to a more modern age, so there’s no need to waste precious research time on those sections.

That leaves “Poisonous Plants”, “Fragile Fungi”, and “Snakes, Spiders, and Other Living Things” as topics to explore.

For my novel, Loyalty’s Web, I found myself leaning towards some use of a poisonous plant. After a short chapter introduction, the chapter breaks down into the following poison subsections: “Quickly Fatal”; “Mistaken for Edible or Eaten by Mistake”; “Edible in Small Quantities, Certain Parts Edible, or Edible Certain Times of the Year”; “Flowering Plants”; and “Miscellaneous Plant Poisons”.

Each of these subsections is further broken down in the following super-sub categories:

“Name”, “Toxicity”, “Location”, “Deadly Parts”, “Effects and Symptoms”, “Reaction Time”, “Antidotes and Treatments”, and “Notes”.

The first thing I did was take a red pencil and mark the name of each plant under the “Location” category, that was listed as “native to Europe, Britain or England” or that may have been brought there by the Romans. The important thing is to be sure that whatever poison you choose was actually available to the people of the Middle Ages in the area of Europe that you are writing about. (I’ll talk about backup sources in my next post.)

Once you’ve whittled the possibilities down with a red pencil or other highlighter, you can focus your research on the additional information for each of the poisons you’ve marked, and gradually come to a decision about which poison will best serve the plot of your story.

Since I wanted to keep my readers guessing a bit about the poison angle at the beginning, I decided to go with a plant that could be “Mistaken for Edible or Eaten by Mistake”. I eventually settled on water hemlock, also known as cowbane. Although the “Location” information seemed to place water hemlock mostly in North America, a note in the first chapter to Deadly Doses, “A Short History of the Dreaded Art”, informed me that : “Water hemlock, foxglove, henbane, and the prussic acid of the almond tree were all found in the Parisian woods and meadows.” (Deadly Doses, p 6) This told me that the plant I wanted also grew in France (the location of Loyalty’s Web). It also taught me that it can be well worth your while to read “generalized” chapters about the background of your subject, before moving on to seemingly more pertinent “specialized” chapters. Valuable tips and facts are often “hidden” in Introductions and the like.

Once I’d settled on water hemlock, which I referred to by its nickname, cowbane, throughout my novel, I went on to glean the following information from its entry:

It had a toxicity level of 6, placing it in the “supertoxic” category, meaning that only a very, very small amount of the poison would cause death. I also learned that younger plants, growing in the springtime, are more poisonous, which again fit with the springtime setting of my novel.

Under “Deadly Parts”, I learned that although the entire plant is poisonous, most of the poison is contained in the roots and rootstock. So when I finally had a character uncover the “source” of the poison, I had her discover a portion of cowbane root that someone in the castle had been hiding. (Don’t want to give too much away here by telling you who!) The poison was also dissoluble in alcohol, which made it perfect for adding a few drops to a cup of wine.

Although it never went that far in my novel, if my hero had actually drunk his tainted cup of wine, this would have been the effect: “Restlessness and feelings of anxiety, pain in the stomach, nausea, violent vomiting, diarrhea, dilated pupils, labored breathing, sometimes frothing at the mouth, weak and rapid pulse, and violent convulsions terminated by death. Respiratory failure is the cause of death.” (Deadly Doses, p 61)

Death would occur between 20 minutes to an hour. (Given the process leading up to death, I think I’d rather go fast, than slow!)

There are antidotes and treatments, but most of them belong to a more modern age, and if the source of the poison had been concealed in something like wine, one would not have known what sort of antidote to try in the first place. Besides which, given the potentially fast-acting nature of the poison, a character would have to be very self-possessed, knoweldgable, and/or experienced to gather one’s wits quickly enough to act in time to save the victim.

This is just a single example of the kinds of valuable, detailed information available in Deadly Doses. As a starting point for authors of mystery, suspense, or who just like to throw in a bit of “surprise” to keep their readers guessing, I highly recommend Deadly Doses, by Serita Deborah Stevens and Anne Klarner.

This post has run on long enough, so I’ll stop here. Next time, I’ll share with you my “backup sources” and more on medieval plants.

Note: Deadly Doses is widely available in Used Books on Amazon.com. Writer’s Digest Books lists the title Howdunit: Book Of Poisons, by Serita Stevens and Anne Louise Bannon, which may well be the same as Deadly Doses with a new name, but not having a copy of my own, I can’t vouch for that. The description sounds very similar, and since my copy of Deadly Doses is 298 pages, and Book of Poisons lists at 368 pages, I’m guessing that Book of Poisons may merely be an updated version of Deadly Doses, with a new title. If so, this is definitely a book you will want to consider including in your library!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Posting delay...

Due to a scheduling conflict, my next medieval research blog will be posted on Saturday, January 5th. Please be sure to check back then, and thank you for your patience!