Tuesday 2 December 2014

Many Middle Ages by Gillian Polack

We each have our own Middle Ages. For some of us the flare of a cloak and the aggressive slight lifting of a swordhilt epitomises it. For some, it’s the awe of the cathedral and the way lines of stone pull the gaze through and up to the heavens as we walk down the nave. For others it’s the crumble of age and the scent of a distant past. For others still it’s their past, their ancestors and finding bridges to how these ancestors shaped their lives. For yet others, it’s an intense passion for the lives of the interesting and great. We each have our own Middle Ages. More than any other period in history, it’s personal.

What does Middle Ages look like? And how did you reach it?

The romance of the ruined castle: Richard's Gaillard in Normandy.

This depends on the type of Middle Ages. Some of my friends started with Jean Plaidy and Sharon Penman. My mother still prefers the Brother Cadfael mysteries. There are people who love the built landscape and understand the Middle Ages through the monuments and furrows it has left us. There are others who fossick in archives or explore living history and re-enactment. 

Most of us reach our Middle Ages from a mixture of sources: we read novels and watch movies, but we also read history books and primary sources and explore old buildings and the residue of peoples’ lives. Our Middle Ages are developed through what we visit and read and enjoy: museums and books and stories.

My Middle Ages is pretentious, I’m afraid. (I firmly uphold that everyone must have a pretentious corner of their soul: this is mine.) It’s made of a series of inquiries into people and places and ideas and lives and how the evidence we have of these things weave together in the dynamic that creates history as we understand it. That sounds a lot less interesting that the flare of a cloak or exploring the field at Towton, but it’s not dry at all. It’s very intense and it’s very personal. 

Tales of Moorish mills near Cordoba.

As many love affairs do, it began with a man. He didn’t draw me into history: he helped me realise why I love it and he helped me create my personal Middle Ages. I’ll introduce you to him next month. I was going to introduce him now, but when I’d written my explanations I found out that I had two posts, not one, and in a month it’s holiday season, and his life and legends will be just right for holiday reading.

We each find our Middle Ages in different places and at different times. This is one of the reasons I swore I would never write a novel that didn’t have a clear fantasy element (and a strong one) for any Middle Ages. It’s why my first novel, Illuminations, had such a very invented Middle Ages – I also drew many of my minor plot points from popular literature of the twelfth and thirteenth century, just to see if anyone would notice. 

The nature of my Middle Ages controlled how I felt I could write about it: I couldn’t see how to bring the story into a series of inquiries without distorting my sense of the history beyond redemption. I could write a novel, I thought, and destroy my Middle Ages. Or I could leave it alone and my understanding of history would be safe.

In 2010, I was put firmly into a place that meant I had to write precisely such a novel. I had to write a science fiction novel, and time travel was the best for the purpose and the Middle Ages was the best period to set it. I didn’t want to lose my personal Middle Ages, and I wanted to write that novel. I had to find a solution, fast.

That solution was to introduce the Middle Ages of many people into the novel. Lots of views of the Middle Ages, not just one. I gave Langue[dot]doc 1305 a literary historian, an SCA member, and a pair who got their Middle Ages from the Da Vinci Code. I also gave the novel a dreamer and several scientists for whom the past is…past. I didn’t give all the possible Middle Ages people could own, just the ones that my characters were likely to lean towards. I used my own Middle Ages to inform this (for the big narratorial sweep) and to tell the stories of the Medieval people who lived alongside my modern time travellers. Many Middle Ages. 

By sneaking quite a few Middle Ages into this novel I swore I would never write, I dealt with the tough historian inside me. I found a way of letting my readers know that for me history is complex and compelling and dynamic and very hard to pin down. I did it by showing how a bunch of different people interpreted their own lives in the year 1305. 

The Middle Ages as an archaeological detective tale: Paris in 1985

It was a challenge though. It taught me a lot about how historians see history differently and what that can mean for the fiction we read. That, however, is another story. Today's story isn't finished yet, however. Now that you know what my Middle Ages looks like, I'd love to hear about yours.


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I must admit my very first draw was the flare of the cloak and the slight lifting of the sword hilt, although 'aggressive' is probably too hard a word for my particular pull into the world, and my perceptions have changed and broadened out over time. Nowadays it's like going into a house with many rooms and each room is still in the same house but it's very different to the one next door. I signed up to the Middle Ages around the age of 15 with no more than fictional romance and adventure in mind. I found both, but they weren't fictional and as I began learning, I embarked on a lifelong love affair that drew me from one room to the next, to the next. My own lifetime now has many rooms and can change from day to day. Even familiar ones can be refurbished. When I think of all the permutations for my perceptions of the medieval world, I see it as one awfully big adventure.

Unknown said...

I have always been drawn to history, the castles and cathedrals, the arched windows and the heavy wooden doors. But, I have to admit that researching my genealogy brought it all home. I like to say that William Marshal actually introduced me to Elizabeth Chadwick. As I was doing some research I came to the name William Marshal whom I had never heard of before. So of course I googled him and read the Wikipedia article which had Elizabeth's name listed at the bottom and her book 'The Greatest Knight'. I got my hands on it the next day and as they say 'the rest is history'.

Gillian Polack said...

You've both pointed out something that's rather important - life experience counts. We're following paths and they're unique to ourselves, but there are enough experiences along each path so that we can share and develop a group senses of the Middle Ages when we get together. It's one of those rare instances when we can have our cake and eat it to.