Saturday 4 February 2012

Snippets! by Katherine Langrish

I know we’ve all got plenty of these. All historical novelists must have. Fantastic snippets of material we’d LOVE to fit in to the book, anecdotes and incidents far too good not to use, but for which there turns out to be simply no room. But they often still provide invaluable insights into everyday life and attitudes.

Here are some of mine.

Gerald of Wales: Journey Through Wales, copyright British Library

Gerald of Wales, writing in about 1191 in his Description of Wales about hospitality in Welsh homes: he’d travelled through Wales with Archbishop Baldwin to raise support for the Third Crusade, and this account has all the immediacy of personal experience:

"In a Welsh house there are no tables, no tablecloths and no napkins. [Note how this means Gerald expected these items in an Anglo-Norman establishment.] Everyone behaves quite naturally, with no attempt at etiquette. You sit down in threes, not in pairs as elsewhere, and they put the food in front of you all together, on a single large trencher containing enough for three, resting on rushes and grass.

"Alongside one of the walls is placed a communal bed stuffed with rushes (and not all that many of them.) For sole covering there is a stiff harsh sheet, made locally and called in Welsh a brychan. They all go to bed together. They keep on the same clothes they have worn during the day, a thin cloak and tunic, which is all they have to keep the cold out. A fire is kept burning all night at their feet… and they get some warmth from the people sleeping next to them. When their underneath side begins to ache through the hardness of the bed and their uppermost side is frozen stiff with cold, they get up and sit by the fire, which soon warms them up and soothes away their aches and pains. Then they go back to bed again, turning over on their other side if they feel like it, so that a different part is frozen and another side bruised by the hard bed."

A page from the Peterborough Chronicle

Or this, from the Peterborough Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1095:

"In this year Easter was on 25 March, and then after Easter on the eve of St Ambrose’s day, which is 4th April, there were seen nearly all over this country nearly all night very many stars falling from the sky, not by ones or twos but so thickly that nobody could count them."

Or this, the opening of urbane clerk and courtier Walter Map’s description of the court of Henry II some time in the 1170’s:


" 'In time I exist and of time I speak,' says Augustine: and add, 'What time is, I know not.' In a like spirit of perplexity I may say that in the Court I exist and of the Court I speak, and what the Court is, God knows, I know not. I do know however that the Court is not Time: temporal indeed it is, changeable and various, stationary and wandering, never continuing in one stay. When I leave it, I know it perfectly: when I come back to I find nothing or but little of what I left there: I am become a stranger to it, and it to me.

"…Hell, it is said, is a penal place, and if I may presume so far I would rashly say that the Court is, not Hell, but a place of punishment. What torment has Hell which is not present here in an aggravated form? Have you read how Tantalus down there catches at streams which shun his lips? Here you may see many a one thirsting for goods of others which he fails to get…"

Later in his book the same Walter Map expresses an eloquent criticism of the Crusades and the crusading order of Knights Templar. We’re all so used to being told that medieval Christendom unanimously approved of the crusades, that to modern ears this may be quite surprising:

"Kings and princes came to think that the object of the Order was good and its way of life honourable, and by the help of popes and patriarchs, honoured them as the defenders of Christendom and loaded them with immense wealth. Now they do what they will and attain whatever they aim at. Nowhere save at Jerusalem are they in poverty; there they take the sword to protect Christendom, which Peter was forbidden to take to defend Christ. There Peter was taught to ensue peace by patience: who taught these to overcome force by violence I know not. They take the sword and perish by the sword. But, say they, all laws and all codes permit the repelling of force by force. Yet He renounced that law Who, when Peter struck a blow, would not call out the legions of angels. It does seem as though these had not chosen the better part…"

In this case I found a way to use Walter Map’s words: not directly, but as evidence that it was actually possible for a medieval man to question the attempt to ‘rescue’ the Holy Land by force. In my book ‘Dark Angels’ set in the early 1190’s, the eager young hero Wolf asks an old soldier, Rollo, to tell him about the siege of Acre.

The joviality died out of Rollo’s face. “Nothing to tell,” he mumbled. “The Saracens opened the gates and came out to surrender: two and half thousand of ‘em, maybe closer to four thousand with the women and children. Two bitter, bloody years they’d held out, and they came out in good order and gave themselves up.”

Wolf felt cheated. He’d wanted tales of gallantry and chivalry. “But there must have been some fighting,” he persisted.

“You want blood?” Rollo twisted round suddenly. “I’ll give you blood. Ask me what we did to the prisoners. Go on, ask! …We butchered them. Every single one of ‘em, men, women and children. The king ordered it and we did it.

“… Killing in battle’s one thing. Slaughtering prisoners - it can’t be right now, can it? In your heart of hearts you know it’s wrong. It would be a relief if someone said so. Seems to me I might have done something bad. Seems to me God might not want people climbing up to Heaven on a pile of corpses. But there’s the pope and the bishops and Holy Church all a-patting me on the back. What if they’re wrong? What if I’m going to Hell instead? What’s - I mean, what’s a man to think?” 

Gerald of Wales, The Description of Wales, trs Lewis Thorpe, Penguin
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, English Historical Documents 1042-1189, ed. David C Douglas, Eyre Methuen
Walter Map's De Nugis Curialum (Of Courtly Trifles) trs M R James, Cymmrodorion Records, 1923


H.M. Castor said...

Fascinating snippets. Including your own! I especially love the Welsh nighttime routine and the meditation on the Court.

Astrid Holm said...

Thank god for central heating and duvets! That snippet made me very grateful for the comforts of modern life. Walter Map sounds like an interesting fellow too.

Linda B-A said...

We rented a farmhouse half-way up Snowdon a few years ago and had the kind of weather you pray you won't have. That 11th-century description is bringing it all back... Fabulous description of shooting stars, too.

Susan Price said...

I've often wondered how anyone survived medieval life, and this makes me wonder the more! I like the criticism of the Crusades - yes, I think opinion in the past was always just as wide as it is today. I remember seeing a contemporary Roman quote criticising the killing of people during the Games, though I can't remember who said it. When told that the people dying in the arena deserved it because they were criminals, this Roman writer replied, 'Yes, but what have done that we deserve to see it?' (I think attendance was compulsory at the time.)

madwippitt said...

The description of Welsh life was riveting! Or could it have been a bit of Welsh cunning, designed to encourage the English to go away? And once departed, out came the warm bed covers and thickly stuffed mattresses ...

Unknown said...

It's extremely rare that an author makes me want to read a book (especially as I'm not an MG reader) by posting some words online.

But I just loved your snippet of dialogue! So onto the TBR list it went.