Saturday, 19 November 2011
Graveyards as a Gateway into History Theresa Breslin
…are one of my favourite places to be.
OK, it’s a bit odd, but usually I explain it away by saying that I visit them as “Research For My Books” which reassures people, but, truthfully, if I’m travelling I usually visit the local graveyard even if it’s not specifically required for the current novel.
So I’ve trogged round catacombs and crypts, visited ossuaries under the Vatican, shaken hands with the mummified Crusader in Dublin, studied the reconstructed victims of Pompeii, listened to the Last Post at the Menin Gate and left flowers for Édith Piaf in Père Lachaise.
The reason this subject is in my mind is because at a recent YLG Conference in Northern Ireland I was doing a two-hander with the wonderful Sally Gardner on the subject of dyslexia. Sally, author of I, Coriander and The Red Necklace etc enlightened us with personal experience while I talked about the inspiration for and writing of Whispers in the Graveyard. Although this book is not an historical novel the story relies on past events, specifically the burning of a witch. About the time I was writing the book a ring road was under construction in my home town and it was necessary to move the interred bodies out of an old graveyard which lay in the path of the new road.
The Burial Book was lodged in the library where I was working. I began to look at the entries. As a social history it was invaluable, not just for the recording of the passing of my ancestors and how sometimes brief and harsh their lives were, but also revealing the ignorance of the medical profession where regularly people were recorded as having died from ‘Morticia’ which I guess means the cause of death was… death. I studied the gravestones, symbols, designs, codes… and I realised that a graveyard was the perfect place for my dyslexic hero to hide out. Solomon, loves stories and conjures his own from the language of the Memorial Stones. As I began to write and did more research on both my main subjects, the whole thing meshed together - Solomon’s father, the solitary grave, the potential for evil inside everyone, the power of words, the infinite resources of the human mind – the story locked.
After the novel was published my interest in burial places became a passion. And when researching a period of history often I’ll begin with the end, in that burial customs indicate mindset. Particular examples illuminate so much: the occupation and interests of the deceased, size of family, lifestyle and interests, and on and on. Older ones are sprinkled with Guild Marks, or with work tools that are now unfamiliar to us. You can have a guess at some of these. The glove on the 1687 memorial from Elgin Cathedral does not (as one child asked me) mean that Michael Jackson is buried there! Glove-making was big business in those days. Below the personal information about the deceased is one of my favourite inscriptions:
This world is a citie full of streets &
Death is the Mercat that all Men meets
If Lyfe were a thing that monie could buy
The poor could not live & the rich would not die
The Watch Tower with bell was a feature in many kirkyards as the place where someone would guard over a recently interred body and ring the bell for help if the bodysnatchers arrived.
Graveyards are a gateway into history.
Christina Larner, Enemies of God: Dane Love, Scottish Kirkyards: Betty Willsher & Doreen Hunter, Stones: Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, A Historical Account of the belief of Witches in Scotland: Vera Quin & Alan MacAuslan, Dyslexia
Theresa Breslin’s latest historical novel PRISONER OF THE INQUISITION has won the teenage section (12+) of The Historical Association, Young Quills Award, is shortlisted for the Scottish Children’s Book Award and was voted favourite book by the young people shadowing the Carnegie Medal Book Awards.