...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

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.


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

The best children's book I have on castles is The Castle Story by Sheila Sancha, highly commended for the Carnegie medal. This one goes through the ages and notes the changes an author should be aware of down the centuries. The illustrations are charming and lucid. I have the Macaulay books on my shelf too. Not sure that Kevin was a common noble name in Medieval England or Wales!
Sancha has also written two terrific books illustrating town and country life in the medieval period. The Luttrell village and Walter Dragun's Town - the story of trade in Stanford in the 13thC.

Joyce DiPastena said...

Great to hear from you, Elizabeth! Thanks for the tip about Castle Story. I just ordered a used copy from Amazon (since it seems to have gone out of print...don't all the best ones?)