I admit to being a research nerd. For the characters to feel real to me, I need their stage to be authentic and the characters themselves to possess believable mindsets and attitudes. As I have researched down the decades, I have come to realise how much I actually don't know, which is humbling, frustrating at times, but also very exciting when that epiphany moment sends a beam through the murk. I have learned never to trust a source in isolation and that studying widely in my chosen genre is, for me, the only way to go.
Recently, when reading M.T. Clanchey's wonderful book From Memory to the written word. I was struck anew by how a little knowledge can take you to a very different place from deeper knowledge.
There is a tale dating to the late 13th century - one with which I was familiar from reading novels and general history, that the royal judges demanded to know by what right the barons held their privileges. One earl, John de Warenne, produced a rusty sword.
'Here, my lords, here is my warrant! For my ancestors came with William the Bastard and conquered their lands by the sword, and by the sword I will defend them from anyone intending to seize them!' That is fighting talk in anyone's language and one receives the impression of a belligerent warrior baron ready to cut down anyone down who got in his way. However, while much of this is true, it was more than just a case of sword shaking in threat of violence. There's more to it than that; there's a deeper magic.
It all goes back to 1069 when William the Conqueror endorsed a gift of English land to a Norman abbey. The transaction involved a charter which was witnessed by nine people on the charter itself and others gathered to witness. Crucially, the gift of a knife to authenticate the charter was involved. The charter detail says 'This gift is made by a knife which the aforesaid king jokingly gave to the abbot, as if threatening to stab it into his palm saying: 'That's the way land ought to be given.' The custom was a Norman one and used as an aid to memory. In future decades conveyancing charters were made valid by the accompaniment of a symbolic transfer object. It might be a knife as in the case of William the Conqueror or his son William Rufus who gave one with an ivory handle to Tavistock Abbey. It might be a rod of office, a helmet, a horn, a cup...or a sword. You can see a chirograph from 1148 with a knife attached here. chirograph with knife
So, when John de Warenne came marching before the judges with his rusty sword, dating back two hundred years, his claim was not just a fist-shaking threat, he was carrying legal authority. His sword was his warrant both on the battlefied and in a court of law. Should I ever comes to write that scene in fiction myself, knowing this detail about the symbolic objects attached to writs, might make all the difference to the way I nuance that scene.
I found the research and nuance thing especially important when writing my novel A Place Beyond Courage about John FitzGilbert, the father of the great Medieval knight and magnate William Marshal. As a child of about 5, William was taken hostage for his father's word of honour during the fight for the throne between Empress Matilda and her cousin Stephen. John, a supporter of the Empress had promised to yield his besieged castle at Newbury to King Stephen providing he first made it known to the Empress what he intended to do. However, instead of commencing the surrender process, John promptly reinforced Newbury to the hilt. Stephen promptly threatened to kill William because John had reneged on his word. "Word came of this to his father, but he said he did not care about the child, since he still had the anvils and hammers to produce even finer ones." William's life was saved because King Stephen was too soft-hearted to do the deed, and although he bluffed via threats of hanging, catapulting and tying to an attacking siege machine, eventually took young William away to his tent to play games with him.
The incident has made strong historical mileage in our own century. How shocking that a father would say that about his own child. How callous. But that's to skim the surface. The quote comes from a family chronicle - the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, which was a family celebration piece designed to put William Marshal and his family in an illustrious light. A poem of almost two thousand lines, the Histoire was written to be read aloud on William's anniversary. It was commissoned by his son shortly after William's death in 1219 at the age of 72.
The family view of John Marshal's actions would have been the acknowledgement of a man who wasn't going to be intimidated by anyone. Anvils and hammers are the symbols of a marshal, so that quote is a pun on the name as well as being a euphemism for the male reproductive organs in virile function. It says that this man has the balls to deal with any situation and no king is going to emasculate him. The Marshal family listening to the tale would have appreciated the riposte and perhaps even chuckled. Was it ever actually said? No one knows. While the siege and the hostage situation itself is a matter of fact, those words only appear in the family history. There's a whole other context to them; they're not the casual utterance of an indifferent father, but a declaration of standing hard in adversity, and they appear in no other source. Knowing this threw the door wide open to me the writer. What really happened? What was this man really like?
The same goes for smaller matters. A couple of years ago I was reading a 12th century novel where a character wrote a letter and enclosed two marks of silver inside as payment of a debt. The shell is knowing that one of the monetary units of the time was the mark. The kernel is knowing that a mark was a unit of weight equating to 13shillings and fourpence, and since the only coin in the land was the silver penny, you'd need 160 of them to make up your mark. Try putting 320 of them inside a letter!
Or the beautiful white stallion given the Medieval name Morel by his proud owner. That's the shell. The kernel is knowing that Morel was indeed a horse name in the Middle Ages - but one always given to black or almost black horses - like morello cherries! A white horse would more likely go by the name of Blancart.
Details like this are going to go over most readers' heads, I admit. It's the stuff of 'swots, letter writers and anoraks' to quote Julian Rathbone's note in his novel The Last English King. I suppose it is those traits in me that make me love coming across the nut in the first place and then cracking the shell to get at the kernel, which may look entirely different to the shell! When that happens, it brings a whole different perception to my writing - and to history. Do we know what we think we know, and isn't the quest to find out illuminating and exciting!
Super - I agree, it's a great part of research, even if hardly anyone ever notices.
Wonderful. I love the research, but I am sure I sometimes mistake the shell for the kernel. And when I find the inner story, I have to be careful not to add so many paragraphs just so as I can fit it in!
I love the way you keep the kidnap riposte story open to interpretation - reminds me of Carol Ann Duffy's interpretation of Shakespeare famously leaving his wife his second best bed - that's the shell, she invented a kernel: http://thepoemoftheweek.blogspot.co.uk/2005/02/poem-of-week-2142005-anne-hathaway.html
Another reader has just pointed out my typo error - put it down to lack of sleep! I should have said the Histoire was twenty thousand lines long, not two!
Excellent points, all! I think that what you said, going deeper and getting to the kernel inside the shell, is what makes the distinction between a good historical novel versus a truly great one.
Great post Elizabeth - from one research nerd to another! Searching for kernel means I am frequently 'lost in the library'
Well, I do try and do my homework, and have often found bits of fantastic detail that are really powerful - like the people crying during the terrible air-raids in Berlin. Also, I discovered from reading Sebastian Haffner's memoir of pre-war Germany (I think it's called Against Hitler, in English?) exactly what the weather was like during the final days of World War 1 in Berlin, after the Revolution, and the fact that it was foggy made a wonderful metaphor for the uncertain future of Germany after the war, in my short story of WW1 in an up-coming collection. Which will be published a month after the History Girls' Daughters of Time which is out very shortly, guys!!
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