Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades including:
BEST BIOGRAPHY 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
BEST CHRISTIAN HISTORICAL FICTION 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
BEST SPIRITUAL/RELIGIOUS FICTION 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
Find out more about her published and future novels, and share insights from her research here.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

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

Dominated by the unified and omnipresent Catholic church, every man and woman in Medieval Europe knew about deadly (also cardinal) sins.  These sins, according to Catholic theology, are behavior or feelings that are dangerous because they often lead humans to commit a mortal sin, the latter being an act that, unless repented and absolved, can lead to "spiritual death."  A look at the seven sins recognized in the middle ages as "deadly" tells us a great deal about the emotions and behavior that medieval man considered morally reprehensible. 



The seven deadly sins were:  envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath. Obviously some of these sins still strike us as anti-social 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, 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. 

Yet 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?

Yet it is precisely these deadly sins that tell us the most about what the types of 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 violating the most fundamental of Christian principles. Nothing could be more essential to the concept of Christian charity than giving food to the hungry. Therefore person who not only kept what he/she needed for himself but engaged in excess eating was especially sinful. Greed was seen in the same light -- as taking more than one's "fair share" of finite resources.





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 their estates and kingdoms. 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.
 


 











 
As for pride, the issue here was the fundamental medieval belief in God's Will. The prevalent belief of the Middle Ages was that each man was born into a specific place in society by the Will of God.  It followed that just as no man had the right to be ashamed of his station in life, since that amounted to doubting God's wisdom in putting him there, he should not be proud of his wealth or status either because God had put him there and he should be thankful not proud. In other words, the greater one's status, wealth and success, the more humble one ought to be for God's Grace. Thus while other sins violated the Christian ideal of relations between men, pride violated the proper relationship between man and God. As such, it was the most egregious of all the deadly sins, and often leads the list in medieval texts.


For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and characters based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.



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Friday, May 25, 2018

Physical Factors: Heat

For the final entry in my five-part series looking at how objective factors can cause havoc for an unwary writer of historical fiction, I look at heat. The problem, as I noted at the beginning, is that even these measurable and seemingly immutable physical factors impacted people differently in the past.



Americans are notorious for their dependence on air conditioning. Many Europeans laugh at the way Americans cool their shops, offices and houses to temperatures below what they heat these places to in winter. Americans cannot even drive a short distance in the heat without turning on the air conditioning in their cars. We have, as a result, largely lost an understanding of how people cope with heat in the absence of artificial cooling systems run by electric motors. 

Yet air conditioning was not widespread until the middle of the last century. For writers of historical fiction it is mostly irrelevant. People of the past who resided in regions where high temperatures could be expected for extended periods of time coped with heat primarily by designing homes for ventilation and/or shade.  The architecture of the Middle East, for example, distinguished itself from "Western" (meaning northwestern European) architecture primarily by being inward facing. Exterior walls lacked windows, so that the oppressive heat of the sun did not find its way into the interior of homes or workplaces. Light came from central courtyards, which could mitigate the effect of the sun with shady trees and fountains or running water. 
Even markets were shaded.  Whereas markets in the West were usually held in the open air -- in a 'market place,' a piazza, Platz or plateia, in places where the climate was more oven-like, markets were not only covered but windowless. The souks of the Middle East are long, interconnected, artificial tunnels, with only rare openings to the heavens.

Yet there were other architectural devices for coping with heat too. Southern France, Spain, and immigrants from the West to the Middle East adapted to the climate not by imitating the architecture of the Arabs (which had cultural as well as climatic roots), but by seeking to increase cross-ventilation. Instead of keeping windows to a minimum, they multiplied the number and size of them. Galleries, loges, and balconies enabled breezes to enter the shaded interior rooms. Rooms with windows or doorways facing different directions had air circulation, the same effect that fans had in later centuries. Additional cooling was effected with running water, i.e. public and private fountains, and with shade-giving trees, and hand fans.


Clothing too was affected by climate. As any history of costume will point out, people living in cold climates tended to wear fitted clothing, while people in warm climates prefer loose, draped clothing. In cold climates, people wore multiple layers of clothes from long fitted underwear, to looser hose and undershirts, various forms of over-garments such as aketons and gambesons, tunics and surcoats, on to vests, frocks, jackets, coats, cloaks, and capes.  Women wore not just stockings and layers of petticoats, but corsets and slips and chemises under dresses, and shawls and capes and cloaks over them. With comparatively wind- and water-proof leather, wool and fur the effectiveness of these various garments in protecting against cold could improve. 

But dressing for high temperatures was more difficult because there were often moral objections to absolute nakedness -- at least for women -- and the practical problem that too much exposure to the sun is harmful. The solution from Ancient Greece to the modern Bedouins was to develop clothing that created its own shade, while allowing the air to move around the body, thereby cooling and drying sweat. 

The greatest difficulties in coping with heat in the past were encountered when people used to cool climates were confronted either with abnormal heat-waves in their own place of residence or traveled to a hot climate. One needs only think of difficulties English colonial officials and (even more so their wives!) encountered when trying to set up an English lifestyle in the hot and humid climate of Bombay or on the Potomac!  But when settling or traveling for extended periods it was possible to adapt lighter fabrics and various tricks known to the natives.

Greater discomfort was created when unusually warm weather descended upon people in regions where it was uncommon.  A heat wave in  regions where homes and clothes were designed primarily for warding off the cold would have been intensely unpleasant. It was not possible for an Elizabethan or a Victorian lady to simply strip down to a tank top and shorts and walk around half-naked as women do today. Thus, dressed for the cold, they had to endure the heat without the benefit of easy bathing or deodorants. Yet, as I noted before, they may have had other ways of coping which we have long since forgotten.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and characters based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.



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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Physical Factors: Cold

Continuing with my five-part series looking at how objective factors can cause havoc for an unwary writer of historical fiction I look at cold. The problem, as I noted at the beginning, is that even these measurable and seemingly immutable physical factors impacted people differently in the past.


There is an old adage that there's no such thing as bad weather -- just the wrong clothes. The same could be said about housing. Eskimos have developed ways to deal with intense cold, enabling them to live in conditions the rest of us try to avoid. Furthermore, the exact same temperature can seem "chilly" to one person and "toasty" to another. Raised in Michigan and Maine but living many years in Africa, I always found it amusing when Africans would started wearing fur-trimmed parkas and gloves in weather I still found pleasant in a light jacket. When considering the impact of cold in the past, therefore, we need to consider not only the means of heating and dressing for cold, but also the fact that people may simply have been more "hardened" to cold than those of us pampered by central heating all our lives. 


Another factor for novelists to consider when writing about cold in past centuries is that we have lost a great deal of knowledge. With the advent of central heating, we discarded bed-warmers and braziers, nightcaps and long-underwear. While we can rediscover some of these by reading accounts written in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, it is harder for novelists writing about more distant periods to fully understand just what devices people used to keep themselves warm. 

It is, for example, still assumed and alleged that women wore no underpants in the Middle Ages simply because we have no images of women wearing this garment. But then again, why would we? Saints, queens and ladies, obviously, were not going to be shown in their underwear, while pornographic images tended to prefer women completely undressed. The fact that we know about men's underwear is because laborers often stripped down to their braies while working in the summer heat; women didn't do that. That doesn't mean they didn't wear underwear, and recent discoveries in Germany of braies with very pretty embroidery suggest that, indeed, many braies we assumed to be men's wear might have been worn by women instead or as well. In short, there is inevitably much we don't know about what people wore to keep warm.

Note the layers of clothing and hats worn even during a banquet.
Similarly, because most of us encounter medieval life by visiting the ruins of castles, it is easy to forget that castles were not naked walls with the wind blowing through them. There were tapestries and wall hangings, carpets and rugs, and there were, if not glass windows, horn and parchment window coverings and shutters, sometimes inside and out. The equivalent of modern heating? Hardly, anything other than glass over the windows reduced the light, while anything short of double and triple glazing let in more cold than we are used to.  Nevertheless, the temperatures in most castles were probably not as icy as you would think from reading many novels. If nothing else, most castles housed large numbers of people and they create their own heat!

Note the wall hangings and carpets.
For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and characters based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.



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Friday, May 11, 2018

Physical Factors: Darkness

Continuing with my five-part series looking at how objective factors can cause havoc for an unwary writer of historical fiction, I look at darkness. The problem, as I noted at the beginning of this series, is that even these measurable and seemingly immutable physical factors impacted people differently in the past.


Modern man is so surrounded by light that even when we seek the darkness it can be hard to find it. Cities have so many lights that they blot out the stars at night -- while revealing human concentration from outer space. Light is also available (most of the time) at the flip of a switch or the push of a button. It is readily available without noise, smell, sound or danger. This was not always the case. 

What this means is that before the advent of electricity, light was much scarcer than it is today. For much of the past -- as is still the case in much of Africa today -- there was very little light after sunset at all. For the poor, activities requiring light -- repairing tools, needlework, reading -- could not be done after dark. Enter the story-teller and singers!

While there were some forms of lighting (to be discussed below) for lighting the interior of houses, workshops and taverns etc., there was no effective way to light up exterior spaces, except in densely populated cities. These, in periods of intensive urban life, possessed "street lighting" based on gas or oil lamps. What this meant is that travel beyond urban limits by night was greatly inhibited. Horses do not have headlights to help them find their way along the (often poorly maintained) roads. A lamp or torch had to be carried by a rider, which meant it did not light the surface of the (probably uneven, rocky or muddy) road on which the horse had to travel -- or by someone walking along beside or in front of the horse, which meant, of course, that the pace of travel was slowed to the pace of that man walking. Galloping across country in the dark of night is for Hollywood (which artificially darkens scenes filmed in broad daylight) not for the real world of the past. (I've tried to ride after dark by the way; it was a terrifying experience.)

Even inside, before the age of electricity, light was either natural light (from the sun) or it was produced by some sort of flame. Flame/fire, by its nature, brings a variety of risks with it. Fire/flames are hot and they can burn -- or set fire to other materials. Just as a reminder. A candle that simply falls -- or is knocked over -- can set an entire barn on fire, the straw easily igniting if dry. Hot wax burns. It can be a weapon. Things for a novelist to think about....


There were a variety of materials used to produce flame over time -- e.g. wood, reeds, wax, tallow, and different kinds of oil from blubber (whale fat) to olive oil. They have various properties, were more or less readily available depending on location, and more or less expensive.  Tallow, for example, smokes and smells; bees wax, olive oil and blubber are comparatively clean flames -- and correspondingly  more expensive. In short, a novelist needs to keep in mind a character's means and his/her ability to buy candles before describing their profuse use.  Likewise, the number and kind of lighting can be used to hint at the economic status of a character.


Because candles are still in use today, we are generally familiar with the kinds of candle-holders that can be used. We are less familiar with candles marked with lines at intervals so that time could be measured by how far down they burned. Candelabra and chandeliers were also available to the wealthy in most past centuries, but the larger they were the more candles the consumed and so the more expensive they were to light. In most societies it was a sign of wealth to be able to burn chandeliers and candelabra. They were more likely to be used only on special occasions even by the rich. 

Less common today, but very popular in ages past, particularly the ancient world, were oil lamps. These could be very cheap and simple pottery lamps, or more expensive and elegant lamps of bronze or glass. Below some examples from Roman times.





 









Note that two of these have handles so they could be carried around. As with torches and candles, the mobility of light was important because it was expensive and dangerous to leave flames, whatever their source, burning unattended. So rather than leaving lamps, lanterns, candles or torches burning everywhere, they were lit where people were collected and taken with people when they moved. 

While candle and oil light, not to mention flames from a fireplace are less intense than modern electric lighting, it also has it's appeal. It is less harsh, less revealing, and less steady. It flickers and wavers. There are reasons why the classic "romantic dinner" is by candle-light. And anyone who has experienced the splendor of a candlelight mass will understand the spiritual strength of a candlelit cathedral or crypt.

(I know, not candle light, but lighting designed to imitate it.)
For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and characters based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.



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Friday, May 4, 2018

Physical Factors: Distance by Sea

Continuing with a look at the physical factors that, despite being objectively identical, impacted people in the past differently than today, I look at covering distance over water rather than land, i.e. sea travel in the past.


Before the invention of the steam engine, travel over the water depended either on manpower (oars or paddles) or the wind. The forms these means of propulsion took varied enormously across time and space. An American Indian canoe does not have much resemblance to a Greek trireme!  Likewise, the advanced sailing machines of the 19th century, whether a great Man o' War of the Napoleonic Wars or the graceful clipper ships of the tea and gold trade, had sailing characteristics unknown to earlier centuries of sailing. In short, as with forms of land transportation, a novelist needs to do detailed research into the type of ships used in the era and setting of a particular novel. 



The ships of the 19th century were the very pinnacle of evolution for fighting and commercial sail respectively, and they required large and highly trained crews -- factors that impacted both life on board, and the speed and cost of transportation by sea. 

Unfortunately, the further back we go in time, the less we know about the ships in use.  Paintings of ships from the Middle Ages, for example, are not intended to be perfect representations of nautical technology but rather symbolic. Here are a couple of examples:






Note, this last image actually has considerable detail on the hull, but provides no useful information about how the boat (or ship?) was propelled, what the accommodation was like, or the speed at which she could travel.  Fortunately, modern marine archaeologists have been able to envisage a great deal more based on the wrecks of vessels that have been discovered and investigated.
 



You will note that the second of these vessels is a galley, which means she could be propelled by oars as well as sails. This in turn meant she had a comparatively low free-board, sitting much closer to the surface than the larger cog-like vessel above her. She also has lateen sails rather than square sails, another feature that would make her sail very differently from the square-rigged cog. A novelist interested in authenticity needs to consider both what kind of vessel was likely to be used at a specific time and place for a specific purpose -- and then look into the sailing characteristics and accommodations available on such ships.

Another important factor to consider when looking at travel by sea was who controlled maritime transportation and the nature of the crews. Growing up with images from the film "Ben Hur" in my head, I was astonished to learn that the Greek triremes (those magnificent vessels that defeated the Persians in 479) were manned not by slaves but by citizen crews. That fact alone, perhaps even more than the design and maneuverability of the ships themselves, my explain the Greek victory at Salamis!

Hollywood's Depiction of a Greek fighting ship from the film "Troy" -- not a trireme as it only has one oar-deck, a trireme had three but I have found no good images copyright free.
Last but not least, when describing travel by sea in the age of sail, novelists need to understand a number of fundamentals about sailing. First and foremost, a sailing ship cannot sail into the wind. A sailing ship had to tack, slicing through the wind and clawing its way to windward to make progress in the direction from which the wind blew. Depending on the rig and sailing qualities of the ship, this could be very time consuming and hard on a ship and crew. Tacking has to do with the wind direction not the rig of the ship; square-riggers tack too.

Another simple fact: a sailing ship sails most comfortably with a following wind and sea. When sailing before the wind, a vessel is comparatively steady, the sensation of wind (and speed incidentally) is reduced, and the decks are most likely to be dry. It is when tacking that a ship is slicing into the wind and sea, which means it breaks the waves with the bow and sends spray back over the railing onto the deck.  A quartering sea on the other hand is one that is most likely to make passengers queasy and sea-sick.  Sea-sickness, however, is mitigated by the heel of the ship that keeps it from rolling as much as ships without sails. "Heeling" is that act of leaning away from the wind. For a writer it is important to remember that this means a deck is rarely level on a sailing ship -- and nor are tables or bunks. Every time a ship changes tack, the ship rights itself and then leans over in the other direction. 

Finally, sailing ships could be completely becalmed and end up drifting on currents and tides. There are places notorious for light winds (the doldrums, for example), just as there are places notorious for heavy winds (the Straits of Maleas,  Cape Horn etc.) Captains knew the wind patterns and the currents of the waters in which they sailed and tried to use these to their advantage as much as possible.  Which reminds me that just like riding horses, learning to sail is a long and difficult process. The inexperienced could not simply climb aboard a boat and set off on a long journey. It took years to make a man a master mariner, and this was why they were so highly respected in all cultures.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and characters based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.


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