...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

Monday, September 23, 2013

Silver and Gold (and I’m not talking Christmas!)

I’m talking money. Medieval money, to be specific. When I wrote my first published novel, Loyalty’s Web, I had few resources to help me understand the monetary system of Western Europe in the 12th Century. The internet wasn’t widely available when I wrote my first draft. I thought it made perfect sense that the upper classes, like royalty, would have coffers and coffers filled with gold coins, so I put gold coins into my draft and didn’t look back. Loyalty’s Web was first published in 2007 (years after that draft was actually written) and no one ever called me on the gold coins in the story.

This year, I have been focused on a rewrite of an even older story of mine called The Lady and the Minstrel. In a new scene that I wrote for the book, I wanted to contrast an English gold coin with a French gold coin in the early 13th Century. This time I had easy access to internet research, so on the internet I hopped. And what, to my dismay, did I discover? Gold production took a nose dive along with the fall of the Roman Empire! While gold continued to be used in small amounts like jewelry, illuminated manuscripts, and even embroidery thread for the rich, when it came to money, silver ruled the day during the Early and High Middle Ages. (Roughly the 8th-13th Centuries.)

(Oops! No! Very, very rare! And a later century)

The first significant gold mine in medieval Western Europe wasn’t established until around 1320 in Slovakia. And it took the discovery of additional gold deposits to begin mining enough gold to mint coins in any kind of sizeable numbers.

The first thing I did on learning this was to go through The Lady and the Minstrel and change all my gold coins to silver ones. I also received the publishing rights back to Loyalty’s Web this summer and am planning to republish it soon. But not before I do a find/replace search to change all the gold coins in that story to silver ones, too!

(Yes! This is more like it.)

So when you write your medieval novel, don’t make my mistake. Give your characters silver coins from the beginning and keep the gold for fripperies like jewelry and embroidery threads!

Here are some helpful websites to learn more about coins in the Middle Ages:

Oh, and if you’re wondering, like one of my characters did, what one of King John of England’s coins looked like vs. one of King Philip II’s of France, check out these two websites:

King John’s coins: The FitzWilliam Museum: King John, 1199 - 1216. Silver penny, Winchester mint

(Here’s another version of a coin for Philip II: http://home.eckerd.edu/~oberhot/froy.htm#Philip2)

And if you’re interested, here’s a website to see coins from the various Plantagenet kings up through the Wars of the Roses. You’ll notice that they’re all silver.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Building a medieval lute – fiction style!

The hero of my current WIP, The Lady and the Minstrel, is…well, a minstrel. Every good medieval minstrel needed an instrument, and for my hero, Robert, his instrument of choice is the lute. I don’t play the lute. I don’t own a lute. How can I, then, learn how to describe my hero’s lute? I can look at pictures, of course, but I wanted to go deeper than that. Here are some of the internet links I used to help me “put the lute together.” I’ll tell you how I used each link, then I’ll show you how I assembled all of this information into an actual scene.

Yes, I began with Wikipedia for the basic components of lute construction:

This article broke down the components of a lute into the following parts: soundboard, back, neck, belly, bridge, frets, strings.

While I don’t like to rely on Wikipedia as my sole research source on a subject, it is often a good beginning point. This article gave me the terminology I needed to research further. When writing a fiction scene, you don’t want to describe every minute detail of an object. It is best to seize upon a few aspects and highlight those for the reader, just enough to give the reader a flavor of what you are describing. After studying this Wikipedia article and comparing it against a Google search for pictures of lutes, I decided for my description to focus on the following parts:

The soundboard, with its sound hole or rose
The neck, with its pegs
The back
The belly
And a brief, non-specific mention of the strings

From the Wikipedia article, I learned that a lute is made from a combination of woods. Here are the websites that helped me decide which specific woods to use for my hero’s lute:

Build Your Own Renaissance Lute! : http://www.vanedwards.co.uk/renwood.htm This site gives a list of wood options for each of the lute’s components (neck, ribs, soundboard, pegs, etc), along with dimensions needed to build an actual lute. I didn’t go that far in my description, but you might like to in your novel!

A web page with answers to the question: “Which is a more naturally resonate wood?” : http://www.thegearpage.net/board/archive/index.php/t-282046.html

After studying the above two sites, I decided to go with the following woods for my hero’s lute:

Ash for the soundboard
Boxwood for the neck
Maple for the ribs on the back

But there was one final check I needed to do. I needed to be sure the woods I was using were actually available in Europe and England during the Middle Ages. To my excitement, I stumbled across this lovely site:

Woods in Use in the Middle Ages & Renaissance : http://www.medievalwoodworking.org/articles/wood.htm

This article confirmed that I was good to go.

After researching all of the above, here is the scene I came up with. I’ve highlighted the lute description words in red so you can see how I worked them into the scene.

Robert removed the lute from its case, and set it in her lap.

“Oh!” Marguerite exclaimed. “The design of the rose is lovely.”

Robert felt a surge of pride at her pleasure in the intricate grillwork over the sound hole. “My father carved it,” he said. “He fashioned the entire instrument for my mother and gave it to her on Epiphany when I was seven years old. I helped him gather the wood late at night while old Lord Simon slept. A minstrel who was passing through the village told us which wood was best: ash for the soundboard, boxwood for the neck, strips of maple for the ribs on the back.

She had pushed off her hood as he spoke and listened with her gaze flitting alternately between the instrument and his face, but she tilted the lute now to examine its deep, rounded body. He admired the graceful turn of her cheek, the whimsical freckles dusted across her small nose as he continued.

“The minstrel showed my father the thickness to cut the wood and showed him how to bend the ribs to form the belly so that the sound would be the sweetest. Father let me slide the pegs in their places after he had carved their notches before he attached the strings. In truth, my contributions were small, but at the time, I felt for all the world as though I had labored over the gift quite as much as he.”

Can you see how I only used a few elements from all the research I did to put together this description and how I tried to work in the description naturally through a dialogue section? Accurate research is crucial, but you don’t want to use so much of what you learn that it bogs down the story.

If you’d like to do a little writing exercise yourself, study the links I shared with you above and put together your own scene describing a medieval or Renaissance lute. If you’d like to, share it with me in a comment on this post. I would love to hear what you come up with!

(Painting: detail from "The Ambassadors", globe, lute and books, by Hans Holbein the Younger)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Name Your Medieval Character: new resource book

This week I published my first non-fiction title: Name Your Medieval Character: Medieval Christian Names (12th-13th Centuries)

Here's a description:

Medieval author Joyce DiPastena is always on the lookout for authentic medieval names for her characters. Internet searches are helpful, but occasionally they can lead a writer astray. Accurate lists can be found on the internet, but it can take a deal of searching and double-checking of sources. In Name Your Medieval Character: Medieval Christian Names (12th-13th Centuries), DiPastena has done much of this work for you. Name Your Medieval Character is a compilation of her 30-plus years of research into medieval Christian names. Every name and name variation in this book was borne by a living, breathing medieval man or woman.

Name Your Medieval Character includes over 800 female names (including variations) and over 1500 male names (including variations). This book will prove a treasure trove for historical fiction writers, fantasy writers, gamers, or anyone who just enjoys names!


I hope some of you will find Name Your Medieval Character helpful and enjoyable. It is available in e-book format on Kindle and Smashwords for just .99 cents! Print version coming soon.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Hug a Medievalist Day giveaway: Winner!

Congratulations to Melinda D, winner of my 2013 Hug a Medievalist Day giveaway! Melinda wanted to hug Joan of Arc, and if anyone in the Middle Ages needed a hug, it was very likely poor Joan!

Thanks to everyone who entered my giveaway. It's always fun to see which medieval characters you wanted to hug this year! :-)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Hug a Medievalist Day giveaway!

I'll bet you thought next Sunday is Easter, and you would certainly be right. But it is also time to celebrate Hug a Medievalist Day again! I recently moved into a new house and in packing up the old one, discovered that I have two copies of Medieval Women. This slim book (112 pp) is a collection of lectures by medieval historian Eileen Power covering "...medieval theories of the woman's work and her place in the world." These lectures "...give a vivid account...of the lady, the peasant, the townswoman, the nun. A chapter on education surveys the schooling available to girls, as well as the subjects and skills that were taught."

(Your copy's book cover will not look exactly like this. I couldn't find a copy of the cover on the prize version.)

If this sounds like a book you'd like for Hug a Medievalist Day, just enter via the Rafflecopter form below and leave a comment telling me the name of a medieval character, real or fictional, that you would like to hug.

Deadline to enter is Hug a Medievalist Day (March 31), 2013. The winner will be drawn on April 1. (That that's no fool!) USA entries only, please.

OFFICIAL RULES: NO PURCHASE NECESSSARY. Entrants must be 18 years or older. Winners will be selected on April 1, 2013 and have 48 hours to respond to an email notifying them of their win. VOID WHERE PROHIBITED BY LAW. Questions? Contact me at jdipastena@yahoo.com.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Announcement: The British Library's collection of medieval manuscripts is going digital!

A friend just passed on this news to me and I couldn't wait to share it with you! The British Library has announced a plan to digitalize their entire collection of medieval manuscripts (25,000 books dating before 1600) and make them accessible over the internet. Once the project is finished, “Anybody can enjoy them whether they are the leading academic on some aspect of that manuscript … or a schoolchild doing a project,” according to Claire Breay, head of medieval and earlier manuscripts at the library.

Financial Times magazine has been allowed to publish six of these manuscripts on their website, so you can go and view them right now! Here is the link to the FT article, which is also full of fascinating details about various manuscripts in the collection. (Like the one from a Book of Hours in 1540 with illustrations reflecting the first renderings of the game of golf.)


I am so excited! What a treasure trove this will be to researchers, including historical authors like me! (I am pretty sure one of Siri's descendants--my heroine in Illuminations of the Heart--is going to grow up to be an illuminator, too. :-) )