Friday 24 July 2015

THE MIDDLE AGES UNLOCKED: Elizabeth Chadwick interviews the authors.

About 15 years ago I met medievalist historian, lecturer, editor and author Gillian Polack on an online forum and over the years we gradually got to know each other. (she's also a History Girl!)  I often send her historical queries and she's my go to person if I want to ask anything about French or English 12th and 13th century culture. 

Gillian Polack

I have only recently met textile archaeologist, teacher and academic Katrin Kania but she is lovely and highly knowledgeable.  I recently sent her a query about men's shirts in the 12th century and she was able to give me the answer!
Katrin Kania 

For as long as I have known Gillian, she has been writing The Middle Ages Unlocked. It has gone through several changes from catterpillar to butterfly. Its working title was 'THE BEAST' because of its vast scope.   I was uitterly delighted for both Gillian and Katrin when they found a publisher for what I consider is an essential work that should be on every medievalist's bookshelf.  I was also honoured and delighted when they asked me if I would write the introduction.

I thought it would be interesting to ask Gillian and Katrin a few questions about UNLOCKING THE MIDDLE AGES and their journey together so far, so here they are, complete with some enlightening answers!

ELIZABETH:  Can you give the blog readers a quick resume of THE MIDDLE AGES UNLOCKED and its purpose. What do you think readers will gain from it? 

GILLIAN: The original main purpose behind the book was because there wasn't anything quite like it (though a few came close) and there was a crying need for it.  I know there was a crying need because people kept telling me so.  So many readers wanted an introduction that didn't assume that they knew a vast amount of history, but that alseo didn't treat them as intellectual lightweights.  This is why it was begun, originally, and why it kept changing form and content.  It was quite hard to establish what people really did need when the main thing they knew was that they hadn't seen it.

KATRIN: The main purpose of the book for me is to provide a basic understanding of the topics and how they interconnect.  With a basic understanding, the reader can go on to research, for instance, stone masonry or stained glass or Arthurian legends or Judaism.  But to find scholarly articles for research and to really profit from them you need a solid basis to stand on, and that can be difficult to find.

ELIZABETH: Is there anything you would like to say to potential readers?

KATRIN: Be aware that you will have deeply ingrained cultural assumptions and biases that will colour how you read and interpret history.  While working together, Gillian and I kept stumbling across little differences in our basic assumptions that made big differences in how we read the same text with the same facts.  Working together has been an eye-opener for me in that regard, and although I was theoretically aware of how one's own background can be an influence, actually dealing with effect of these influences really drove the point home.

ELIZABETH: THE MIDDLE AGES UNLOCKED has been a long labour of love for you - Gillian, I can remember you were working on it more than ten years ago and its unofficial title has always been 'THE BEAST'. What made you begin writing it in the first place and allied to that, can you tell us a little about its journey to publication?  I know that it has been a tale of ups and down.  How did the collaboration work between you and Katrin as part of that journey?

GILLIAN: There once was a mail list called LMB. Seriously it's where I met you and a lot of my friends. It's where we all chatted and swapped tales and a friend called Tamara Mazzei said (and everyone else echoed) 'We need this book.'  Tamara Mazzei was key to the first team, as was Wendy Zollo, who did some lovely sketches for clothes, and Lara Eakins (an astronomer) who was going to do the astronomy.  Life caught up with everyone and somehow I was left to carry THE BEAST through to publication.  I've joked so many times that it was my albatyross, for it was one of those tasks that one does for others and finds that it takes over one's life.  Now it's out there and people are finding it useful.  I'm glad I did it, but I'm also glad that Katrin joined me about this time of year in 2011: THE BEAST is not a book to be written by one person alone.  I'd like it if the material Tamara worked on saw the light of day sometime; she did some lovely work.  I'll hand over to Katrin to talk about the publishing end. 

KATRIN:  We did have a lot of ups and down - many of the editors we spoke to were interested in the book and did like it, but it still didn't work out.  There is more to getting a book into a publishing house catalogue than pleasing the editor: it also has to fit in with the rest of the programme, sales and marketing has to decide - whether it's saleable and so on.  Which means that we heard 'I like this book, but we're not the right house for it' more than once.
Our collaboration in finding a publisher was much like our collaboration in writing the book itself.  We tried to play to each other's strengths - I would often draft the letters and e-mails and provide the basic structure and Gillian made sure it was proper English (she can tell a tale or two of how German and English spelling clash at key points in letters) and that there was proper narrative.

ELIZABETH: How did you go about organising your sections? Did you always know that it would begin with 'Rich and Poor. High and Low: The People of Medieval England'  and end with 'How Many Miles to Babylon? Measuring Things?  How did you decide?  And how did yu decide on the great, evocative chapter headings?  Incidentally I love 'Death and Taxes you cannot avoid.'  Too true!

KATRIN:  We swapped chapters around more times than I like to remember.  Any book about a complex topic with lots of cross-connections will run into chapter structure problems, and we had them all the way through. Many of the tings we write about are relevant to more than one topic.  The final chapter order is a mixture of a big restructure that we did while discussing the book with another editor and our original structure - for a long time the book started with the government and religion sections.  The chapter headings were actually one of the last things we did before handing in the manuscript, our working titles were much less interesting.  Apart from the one about the land which was 'Nature Calls' for a long time!

GILLIAN: Some of our working titles were fun but not usable. We had one that was perfect for Katrin but reminded me of a well-known Australian song for instance, and it took ages for us to find a workaround that didn't bring the tune to mind.  I don't work with soundtracks because my soundtracks become earworms and that's exactly what Way Out West was.  Let me share it with you.
Way Out West

ELIZABETH: Which areas of this period do you think are well represented in terms of what we know and which have scarcer resources?  What would you liked to see researched in the future?  Is there anything  that especially interests you that you'd like to see? And are there any changes you'd like to see in the way we study history? 

GILLIAN: That's such a huge question.  I'm going to be quite evil and let Katrin answer.

KATRIN: I think that whatever topic you are looking into, as soon as you delve deep, you will find there are a lot of things we don't know.  On the surface many aspects seem to be well researched and well known but once you burrow down, there are holes in our knowledge and so many details that are confusing or unexplained.  As for changes in how we study history, I'd like to see more interdisciplinary work.  We can learn so much from our colleagues in adjacent disciplines - but it can be hard to get started because questions and methods are often very, very different.  So what I would like to see for future research is a way of teaching scholars how to communicate with those from adjacent disciplines.

ELIZABETH: If you could write a reference work as big as you liked, is there anything else you would add to 'UNLOCKED.'

GILLIAN: All the things we left out!  A vast and detailed bibliography, footnotes, lists of birds and animals and plants and comets and eclipses.  For THE BEAST as I would have preferred it, we would have needed four times the number of pages.  It would be unpublishable alas.  Most of the things we left out, we left out because there are limits to what one can do with a print book.

ELIZABETH: Can you give us examples of common misconceptions about this period that you have come across? 

 KATRIN:  Clothes were drab, grey sacks.  Making a fire with flint and steel was difficult and took a long time.  That's just naming two of them that irk me on a very personal level but Gilliam can tell you many, many more...

GILLIAN: So many misconceptions!  That castles were built in the geographical centre of towns, always. That people never washed and were deeply superstitious and weren't very bright. That people in the Middle Ages disguised rotting meat with expensive spices. That chastity belts and iron maidens were not later inventions. much.
I teach whole workshops in breaking down misconceptions.  We have a lot of fun, but there often comes a moment when I explain very gently to someone that these are our ancestors we're talking about and if their ancestors really did all these things, then I'm terribly sorry for them. We generally come to an agreement that I won't be rude about their ancestors and that they will pay attention to the historical evidence and do some serious thinking.

ELIZABETH: THE MIDDLE AGES UNLOCKED brings together a vast range of subjects under one cover - the life cycle from cradle to grave, languages, religion, taxes, the military, economics, travel, clothes, food and so on.  I am struck by the breadth, depth and scope of the work which never fudges or skimps, and unites disciplines.  It's one of those books that in my opinion should form part of the backbone in the library of anyone interested in the Medieval period.

GILLIAN: Thank you!  I learned more from working on it than from my doctorate.  I now have a a much better insight into how my own work fits into the wider medieval world.  I'd read a squillion books about the Middle Ages and of course I'd studied my own specific subjects, but it takes the depth of a big and broad project to see how it all fits together. Working with Katrin was also very good for expanding my horizons.  I studied a bit of archaeology as an undergraduate but that was all.  I know so much more about what archaeologists do and the insights they can give us.  It's been a roller-coaster ride, but I am very pleased to have ridden that roller coaster.

KATRIN; I can only second what Gillian says - both the thanks and the statement.  It really was a wonderful and very long roller-coaster ride!


Susan Price said...

The whole, vast, useful, fascinating book would be publishable as an ebook!

Susan Chapek said...

Thank you, Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania. Now please do publish "all the things . . . left out" in ebook format. You could do it a little at a time, and divided into topics.

Mike Hall said...

Well there is a Kindle version: I've just finished reading the first one and a half chapters in Amazon's "look inside" feature a d will definitely be making a purchase. Of course it does not include all the bits that had to be left out of the print edition.

A question for Elizabeth: do you think that the illustrations justify getting a print copy? I'm suffering a severe shortage of bookshelf space so I prefer e-books when this does not adversely affect the quality of the work.

Karen Maitland said...

My bookshelves are groaning, but I am determined to make space for this one. It sounds like just what we've all be waiting for. Thank you, Elizabeth.