Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Seven Deadly Sins – And What They Say About Medieval Society

The other day, a friend and I were trying to list the seven deadly sins. We couldn’t, so we went and looked them up. The list surprised me for including “sins” that seem odd in modern society and that got me thinking about how the definition of “deadly sins” reflected the ills of Medieval Society.  Essentially, the Church was trying to discourage certain types of behavior thought to be detrimental to a functioning, Christian society by proclaiming them “deadly” sins – sins so egregious that they brought the sinner “spiritual death” – if the sinner did not repent, do penance and receive absolution.

Now some of the deadly sins still strike us as reprehensible behavior. Wrath, for example, is something no one would recommend and most people would agree brings harm – usually not only to the intended target. Likewise lust is a sin whose negative impact is widely recognized to this day. No matter how tolerant modern society may be of sexual freedom for consenting adults, lust remains a dangerous emotional force behind many modern crimes from child abuse and rape to trafficking in persons. Finally, envy is still seen as undesirable. 

But greed has more recently been praised as “good” – some people in modern society equating it with ambition and the driving force behind capitalism and free private enterprise. Even more striking, “pride” is something we hold up as a virtue, not a sin. We are proud of our country, proud of our armed forces, proud to be who we are – or at least we strive to be. And who nowadays would put “gluttony” or “sloth” right up there beside lust, wrath and envy?

Upon reflection, however, I concluded that the deadly sins tell us a great deal about what behavior Medieval Society particularly feared.

In a society where hunger was never far from the poor and famines occurred regularly enough to scar the psyche of contemporaries, excessive consumption of food was not about getting fat it was about denying others.  Because there were always poor who did not have enough to eat just around the corner, someone who indulged in gluttony rather than sharing excess food was clearly violating the most fundamental of Christian principles. Nothing could be more essential to the concept of Christian charity than giving food to the hungry, and a person who not only kept what he/she needed for himself but engaged in excess eating was therefore especially sinful.

"Charity" by Edmund Leighton
Sloth is the other side of the same coin.  In a society without machines, automation or robots, the production of all food, shelter and clothing depended on manual labor. Labor was the basis of survival, and survival was often endangered. Medieval society could not afford for any member to be idle. Even the rich were not idle! Medieval queens, countesses and ladies no less than their maids spun, wove and did other needlework – when they weren’t running the estates of their husbands. The great magnates of the realm were the equivalent of modern corporate executives, managing vast estates and ensuring both production and distribution of food-stuffs. The gentry provided not just farm management but the services now provided by police, lawyers and court officials. In medieval society every man and woman had their place – and their job. Whether the job was to work the land or to pray for the dead, it was a job that the individual was expected to fulfill diligently and energetically. Sloth was a dangerous threat to a well-functioning society.

"Sewing" by Edmund Leighton
My most recent work is a biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts. Here, as always I strive for an accurate portrayal of medieval society.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                    Release August 2016 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Of Portraits and Biographies: The Art of Biographical Fiction

 Two great works of biographical fiction.

Writing historical fiction in which real historical figures play a role creates the obligation for careful research. Biographical fiction requires an even higher standard of research, since the entire book must adhere to the known biographical data. Biographical fiction ought to be a biography -- written in a fashion that is easier and more enjoyable to read.

Yet any biographer can tell you that two completely accurate, non-fictional biographies can produce radically different images of the subject. There are always gaps in the historical record, phases of a person’s life that were not meticulously recorded, or events so controversial that no one version of them exists. Unless the subject of a biography also kept diaries of their thoughts and doings every day of his/her life, there is also the challenge of trying to understand motives for recorded actions. And even if the subject of a biography did keep diaries or write letters, there is the issue of how honest or self-serving such documents are. Biographers, like novelists, fill in the gaps, select which of several competing versions of events seems most plausible and speculate about motives and emotions not recorded. Non-fictional biographers do this by openly discussing options and explaining their interpretation of events. Novelists do this by turning their interpretation into a novel.

A modern biographical novel that provides new insight and a new perspective on a familiar historical figure.

But whereas the best biography is inherently the image that is most like the subject (most comprehensive and accurate in every detail), the same cannot necessarily be said of the best biographical fiction. A very “good” biography might be long, dry and boring, but biographical fiction strives to be not only a record of history (in this case a historical personality) but also a work of art. This means that biographical fiction must be more than just accurate, it has to also be exciting, evocative, moving, and well-written.

Let me give an example from the world of painting. There is only one known (or surviving) painting of Isabella the Catholic, Queen of Castile, which was painted during her life time by an artist who had met her.  It is not a very good painting; it is stiff and lifeless, dark and, well, almost amateurish. Yet, there are many portrayals of Isabella by artists, who did not know what she looked at all. These later works may not as accurately depict Isabella’s features, yet they may capture her “spirit” in that they make the viewer “see” aspects of Isabella’s known personality – her piety combined with iron will etc. etc. 

Three interpretations of Isabella of Castille, "La Catolica"

Or consider sacred art. No one knows what Jesus or his mother looked like, but this does not detract from the magnificent works of art portraying them. We judge sacred art not on whether the image correctly shows Jesus as blond or brown-haired, with a long beard or clean shaven, but rather on whether the depictions of Him move and inspire us. Michelangelo’s pieta is not necessarily more accurate in depicting Christ and Maria’s features, yet it stands out above other works of art on the same subject by virtue of its ability to convey the agony of a grieving mother for her murdered son.

Pieta by Michelangelo in St. Peter's, Vatican

This explains how different biographical novels about the same subject can be very different, yet equally good. Is Schiller or Shaw’s Joan of Arc better? I cannot say off-hand which historians would choose as more accurate, but I do know that both – regardless of which is more accurate – are great works of biographical fiction.

My most recent work is a biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                    Release Aug. 1, 2016 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

A Lesson on Messenia - An Excerpt from A Peerless Peer

When it became completely dark, they had no choice but to find a relatively sheltered fold in the mountains and settle in for the night. They tethered and fed the horses, and then dug themselves into the leaves to set up a tent. They cooked a meal over a fire they built at the entrance to the tent, then crawled inside and lay down with Beggar between them.

After a moment Leonidas asked, “Is this safe?”

“The fire will keep away the wild beasts,” Mantiklos assured him.

“I was thinking of your countrymen,” Leonidas answered, remembering with unwanted vividness all the childhood stories of Messenians slitting the throats of unsuspecting Spartans. It even occurred to him that Mantiklos, up to now kept in check by the fact that they had
been with the Spartan army where Leonidas was surrounded by his comrades, might have been awaiting this opportunity.

“You are well armed and well trained. It is unlikely that the kind of men who live in the wilderness could kill you. And there is Beggar, too.”

The bitch lifted her head at the sound of her name, looked over at Mantiklos, then yawned and flopped her head back down, obviously intent on sleep after the long, hard journey.

“Do you regret your decision [to seek employment with me]?” Leonidas asked abruptly, the cold keeping him from sleep.

“No. But sometimes I wish I were not so alone.”

 “Alone?” Leonidas turned on his side and propped himself on one elbow to look at his attendant. They were never alone. They lived in barracks, drilled in units, went to the baths and gymnasia in groups, and sang in chorus. The rarest thing in the life of a young Spartiate
and his attendant was solitude.

“The others, the attendants, they’re all Laconian. They look on me with as much suspicion as you do. Not to mention your comrades! Sometimes I get very tired of all that suspicion and hostility.”

“It’s hard to forget two hundred years of warfare.”

“Especially when you declare war on us every year!” Mantiklos snapped back.

“That does not seem to bother the Laconian helots,” Leonidas pointed out. “And we only declare war on you because you are so hostile. We live in peace with the perioikoi, and Tegea, and all the cities of the League, which were our enemies once,” Leonidas pointed out.

“But not with Argos!” Mantiklos reminded him. “You only make peace with people who submit to you. Like hounds, the others have to lie down and offer you their jugular. Then you accept them as long as they run in your pack. But if men are as proud as you, then you cannot abide them, and you fight until one or the other of you is destroyed.”

“Then all Messenia needs do to have peace is to submit—truly submit—to us.”

“But that doesn’t make sense! You admire courage above all else. You should respect us more for not being submissive! You should admire our spirit.”

“But you would never be satisfied with our admiration. You want control of your country back. You want independence for Messenia.”

“Of course we do!”

“But we can’t afford to give it to you. We can’t support the Spartan army—not in today’s world where other armies are so well equipped—without the riches of Messenia.”

“Then you will always live in fear of us.”

They were silent for a few moments, each following his own thoughts. After a while Leonidas asked in a low, earnest voice, “Why did you want to serve me?”

“I wanted to learn what the Spartan army was really like, from the inside. I wanted to understand what made it so good, so I would know how to fight it.”

Leonidas held his breath for a moment, registering that this was more dangerous than the murder he had feared. He should have thought of this earlier. “And now you will stay here and start training rebels?”

Mantiklos laughed. “If only it were that easy!”

“What do you mean?”

The other shrugged, then sat up to readjust the sheepskins he had spread over himself to help keep warm before asking, “Do you think there are many Messenians like me?”

“I have no idea.”

“You will see. Most of my countrymen are craven. They want their freedom only if others are willing to fight and die for it. They want independence only if it does not cost them anything. The bulk of my countrymen are whiners—always complaining and moaning about their fate, but unwilling to take any risks to change it.” With these words, Mantiklos lay down again and turned his back to Leonidas.

The following day they kept to the coastal road following the shore of the Gulf, and at last Mantiklos seemed to lose his inhibitions and began to talk. He started hesitantly, but when he realized that Leonidas was interested, he talked more and more expansively. He told Leonidas about the battles that had taken place in the surrounding countryside during the First and Second Messenian Wars.

Of course, Leonidas had already heard about these battles. They were an essential component of agoge curriculum. But he pretended otherwise, responding rather with wonder and pressing Mantiklos for details, because Mantiklos’ version of what had happened was very different from what was taught in the agoge.

Mantiklos stressed again and again that his forefathers had been heroic freedom fighters, while Leonidas’ forefathers represented brutal and corrupt power. Mantiklos’ ancestors had been crushed by greater numbers, greater wealth, superior weapons—never by the cleverness or courage of their adversaries. Yet when Leonidas looked around him, he saw that Messenia was richer and more prosperous than Laconia. Messenia should have had numbers and wealth on her
side. As for weapons, it does not take long to imitate the weapons and tactics of one’s adversaries. They taught that at the agoge, too: if the enemy has something that you find hard to defeat, then learn what it is and how to counter it—fast.

So Leonidas did not discard what he had learned in the agoge. He thought that the agoge version could not be so far from the truth, or he would be Mantiklos’ attendant and Mantiklos the wealthy hoplite—not the other way around. But he realized that the way one was told about the deeds of one’s ancestors had a huge impact on one’s perception of oneself.