Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures 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.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Physical Factors in Historical Fiction: Distance by Land

 When writing historical fiction, one of the challenges is recognizing (and remembering) that even objective and measurable physical factors such as distance, heat or light, impacted people differently in different historical periods. Today I start a five part series looking at such factors.

Today I look at distance, specifically distance over land.

Since the introduction of telecommunications, the internet and social media, people have obtained the means to communicate directly and instantly with complete strangers located almost anywhere on the globe. Indeed, we can communicate with people who do not even share a common language by means of translation programs. This is an incredible and marvelous development ― and a very recent one.

For all books which carry the rubric “historical fiction” ― i.e. books set in ages beyond the range of living memory ― interaction between humans was limited and defined by the physical distance between them. For books set before the invention of the telephone and telegraph, this meant that all communication was either direct ― within the range of the human voice and eye ― or dependent on means of transport by which letters or oral messages could be delivered to someone not within hearing/sight.

Because direct communication by voice and sign language is still part of our repertoire (at least for now, although some would argue the art of direct conversation is dying out in favor of everyone typing on their iPhones), it poses little challenge. Indirect communication, on the other hand, is often a challenge for a historical novelist.

How does a character living in, say, the 12th century get a message to his brother (lover, lord, servant, business partner etc.) who happens to be in a different city, country, or continent? No telephone, no telegraph, no email, no Facebook. Back to written letters ― assuming the sender and recipient are both literate, which in the 12th century might, or might not, be probable depending on class and location.

Assuming the characters can write, then a letter could be sent, but not by mail. It would have to be entrusted to someone. Depending on how private, sensitive or urgent the message is, the sender would have to select a messenger. Handing a routine letter to a passing peddler might work for some kinds of messages, but hardly a missive to an illicit lover or a warning of a possible arrest to a co-conspirator in treason. Depending on the importance and intimacy of the message then, a messenger might need to be paid and trusted highly, with all the complications this entails.

Assuming the characters cannot write, the situation is even more complicated because they would have to share their message ― no matter how delicate, private or potentially incriminating ― with someone else: either a scribe who could write the letter or a person, who would deliver it verbally for them.

In short, something very simple today (make a call, send an email) can become very complicated in a different time period ― and that even without considering the distance involved. Sending a message to the next village is one thing, from London to York another, or sending it from England to France something else again, while sending it from Norway to Constantinople or from Sicily to Alexandria etc. etc. etc. entails difficulties on a totally different scale altogether.

Messages at least were light weight (or weightless if oral), but travel entailed moving a body and usually some amount of luggage over distances. We all know what a hassle travel is: packing suitcases, manhandling them in and out of cars, or worse lugging them to check-in counters for buses, trains and planes, and then being packed in like sardines…. But nowadays we can travel to the other side of the world in 48 hours, even allowing for changing planes and transit stops. We can travel across continents even by ground transportation in four or five days. But any book set in a period more than 200 years ago entails returning to an age where the speed of ground transportation was limited by the speed one could travel by foot or horse.

Furthermore, this is not a simple matter of multiplying the pace a man can walk in an hour by the number of miles the character wishes to travel because roads were not consistently good and terrain impacts the average speed of both man or horse. We are too used to simply pressing harder on the accelerator when going uphill to fully appreciate the impact of terrain. Hiking cross-country in rugged countryside is extremely educational for a historical novelist!

Given the fact that horses were the principle form of transportation for those who could afford them even back in the age of Greece and Rome, understanding about horses, their needs, weaknesses and limitations is also useful for a novelist whose books are set before the age of the internal combustion engine. (Horses remained the primarily means of transport long after the invention of the steam engine.) Horses, contrary to the descriptions of many writers of historical fiction, vary greatly in terms of temperament, capability and character. They are not like cars. They do not just start and go at the turn of a key. They can be ornery, dangerous, lazy, loyal, vicious, nervy, etc. etc. I wish I had a dollar for every reference to horses in fiction that is utterly implausible.

Equally important: not everyone can get on a horse and ride it. There are some horses that anyone can ride ― but they are rarely fast, willing or intelligent. There are also skilled riders who can ride any horse. But the vast majority of people require some training and practice before they can do more than sit on a quiet, biddable horse at a walk. If a character is going to be riding even at a trot, much less a canter or gallop, or be fighting on horseback, then the character needs to have had corresponding amounts of time to learn how to control a horse during those various activities. 

Please note: the 13th century historian and legal counsellor Philip de Novare claimed that “... he will never ride well who did not learn it when young.”[i] Again, a dollar for all the implausible scenes involving horses and riders would make me a wealthy woman!

And then there are vehicles drawn by draught animals. In ancient times there were chariots with two, three or four horses side-by-side but only a platform balanced between two wheels for humans ― not a form of transport for long distances, women and children. By the 19th century there were, of course, a whole range of vehicles from carts to carriages (and all the variations in between that readers of Jane Austin will know.) These included two and four wheel vehicles drawn by anything from one to eight horses.

The problem is that countless authors of historical fiction don’t bother to do even cursory research about these vehicles and blithely assume that “carriages” existed forever. No. Carriages didn’t evolve from more primitive carts and wagons until the 16th century ― and then only in an early form. It was not until the 17th century that covered vehicles for passengers pulled by teams of horses came into use. Furthermore, the development of wagon brakes, swivel axles, and harness for the drought horses was likewise slow and incremental, meaning that depending upon what period one is writing about the level of development in wheeled transport could have been very different ― with dramatic impact on the speed at which these vehicles could travel, the type of cargoes they could carry, the level of comfort for passengers, and the kind of terrain they could cover. A novelist should not assume that a 12th century cart, for example, could cross a swamp or go through snow or navigate in narrow medieval streets.

Join me next week when I look at travel by sea.  

Meanwhile, 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.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!

[i] Prawer, Joshua. “Social Classes in the Latin Kingdom: the Franks,” Zacour, Norman P. and Harry Hazard, A History of the Crusades Volume Five: The Impact of the Crusades on the Near East. University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, pp. 124-125

Friday, April 20, 2018

Women in the Middle Ages 4: Women and Love

Today I  conclude my mini-series on women in the Middle Ages with a look at cult of courtly love and the controversial topic of how it impacted the status of women.

The “Middle Ages” ought to be called either the “Feudal Ages” or the “Age of Chivalry” since the term “middle" (suggesting something interim or transitory) is an odd designation for more than a thousand years of history.  Feudalism, on the other hand, was a defining characteristic of the Middle Ages, and Chivalry was the secular ethos of that age. It was chivalry that gave birth to a radical transformation of man’s understanding of “love” and with it to a revolution in sexual relations.

To understand the latter, it is necessary to briefly reiterate the importance of Christian beliefs, and then to look more closely at chivalry itself. Christianity impacted the concept of love in two ways: 1) God is defined as Love with Christ as Love incarnate, and 2) it elevated women into souls, making them spiritual beings, equal to men in the eyes of God. Thus Christianity values love, including love for women, while making a clear distinction between love (which is divine) and lust (which is a mortal sin.) Love for the Virgin was an expression of the former, and extremely important in the history of the Medieval Church.  Yet chaste love for a living woman was also valued and cherished. Such feelings are well-illustrated by a letter from the 6th Century poet and priest Venantius Fortunatus to the fifty-year-old Queen Radegund, then living as a nun in the convent of the Holy Cross at Poitiers. Fortunatus writes:

Honored mother, sweet sister

Whom I revere with a faithful and pious heart,

With heavely affection, without bodily touch,

It is not the flesh in me that loves
But rather the desire of the spirit… (Pernoud, p.35.)

Chivalry, on the other hand, introduced for the first time the notion that a man could become more worthy, more “noble,” through love for a lady. Love for a lady became a central – if not the central – concept of chivalry, particularly in literature. Other characteristics of chivalry, as defined in handbooks on chivalry such as that written by the Spanish nobleman Ramon Lull, were nobility [of spirit not birth], loyalty, honor, righteousness, prowess (courage), courtesy, diligence, cleanliness, generosity, sobriety, and perseverance. Wolfram von Eschenbach in Parzifal stresses a strong sense of right and wrong, compassion for the unfortunate, generosity, kindness, humility, mercy, courtesy (particularly to ladies), and cleanliness. Simplified, chivalry entailed upholding justice by protecting the weak, particularly widows, orphans, and the Church. Yet regardless of the exact definition, the inspiration for knights striving to fulfill the ideal of chivalry was love for a lady.

Critically, the chivalric notion of love was that it must be mutual, voluntary, and exclusive – on both sides. It could occur between husband and wife – and many of the romances such as Erec et Enide or my favorite Yvain, Or the Knight with the Lion (both by Chrétien de Troyes) or Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, revolve in part or in whole around the love of a married couple. The notion repeated so often nowadays that courtly love or the love of the troubadors was always about adulterous love is nonsense.  Nevertheless, the tradition of the troubadours did put love for another man’s wife on an equal footing with love for one’s own – provided the lady returned the sentiment. The most famous of all adulterous lovers in the age of chivalry were, of course, Lancelot and Guinevere, closely followed by Tristan and Iseult.

Likewise noteworthy in a feudal world was the fact that the lover and the beloved were supposed to be valued not for their social status or their wealth, but for their personal virtues.  A lady was to be loved and respected for her beauty, her graces, her kindness, and her wisdom regardless of her status, and a knight was to be loved for his manly virtues, not his lands or titles. 

Even more important, however, is the fact that regardless of which of the partners was the social superior, the lady always took on the role and status of “lord” to her lover. The term of address that a lover used in addressing his lady was “mi dons” ― literally “my lord.” The term denoted the knight’s subservience to his lady, his position as her “man” ― her vassal, her servant, her subject. In art, knights are shown kneeling before their lady and placing their hands in hers ― the gesture of a vassal taking the feudal oath to his lord. (I couldn't find an example of this exact gesture on the internet, but here are two images of knights keeling with folded hands before their ladies.

Last but not least, courtly or chivalric love was not a means to sexual conquest. For lovers who had the luck to be married, it certainly included physical love, and in many of the adulterous romances consummation was also achieved. Yet physical love was not the objective of courtly love. The objective of love was to become greater ― more courageous, more courteous, more generous, more noble, in short, more chivalrous than before. In this sense, courtly love reflected religious love because it was first and foremost love of the spirit and character rather than the body. 

All of these features set courtly or chivalric love apart from the erotic love of the ancients, the Arabs or the modern age.  Sadly, people still confuse “chivalry” with superficial gestures of courtesy (such as opening doors) and women in the name of “liberation” reject the concepts that first truly liberated them.

For more on this fascinating, complex and hotly debated subject, I recommend:

Barber, Richard W. The Knight and Chivalry. The Boydell Press, 1995.
Hopkins, Andrea. Knights: The Complete Story of the Age of Chivalry, from Historical Fact to Tales of Romance and Poetry. Quarto Publishing, 1990.
·                 Pernoud, Regine. Women in the Days of the Cathedrals. Ignatius, 1989.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures 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.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!

Friday, April 13, 2018

Women in the Middle Ages 3: Women and Education

Today I continue my mini-series on opportunities for women in the Middle Ages with a look at women's access to education.

After wealth, education is arguably the most powerful means of empowerment. As I noted in last week’s essay on women and economic power, professional skills were mobile and endowed women with independence and self-respect.  Today, however, I want to look at abstract learning, “book-learning,” rather than practical, professional skills. It is still common to impute ignorance to people in the Middle Ages generally, and even more common to assume that women were not generally literate.

Certainly, literacy was not as widespread or common in the Middle Ages as it is today. There was no requirement to attend school, and for the poor, the need to work from a very early age made schooling a luxury. It was possible to learn a trade by watching and listening to a master, rather than reading texts. Thus for a significant portion of society at the lower end of the social scale, reading and writing was neither a necessity nor particularly valuable. 

Yet, as with everything in feudal society, class more than gender determined whether a person was likely to be literate or not. Among the classes that valued and required higher levels of education, women were as likely to be educated as their brothers and husbands.  In the early Middle Ages among the upper classes, some historians argue, women were more likely to read and write than their husbands and brothers. Because their men were too busy fighting, women were expected to provide a basic education to children and maintain control of the estates by doing the book-keeping and correspondence.

For merchants or skilled craftsmen running a business, the support of wives in keeping the books, conducting correspondence, collecting arrears, etc. was vital.  Recognizing this, burghers ensured that their daughters were sufficiently literate and numerate to carry out these tasks ― or they risked having unmarriageable daughters.

Noblewomen, likewise, needed to be literate and numerate in order to manage their own and their husband’s property. In fact, even in the later Middle Ages the everyday management of a household and estate generally fell to the lady of the house, since men were often engaged in warfare and politics, activities that took them away from their estates, sometimes for extended periods. The higher their status, the higher the level of educated expected. Noblewomen could usually correspond in both their own language and Latin. They were frequent patrons of the arts, owners of books, and in some cases authors as well. It is no coincidence that Eleanor of Aquitaine’s tomb shows her reading a book, while her daughter Marie of Champagne was the patroness of Chrétien de Troyes and it was to her that he dedicated some of his greatest works such as Yvain, or The Knight with the Lion.

Finally, women who chose a religious vocation chose a lifestyle that revolved around reading, writing, copying and illustrating Holy Scripture and more. The most highly educated women of the Middle Ages were, therefore, often found inside convents. Furthermore, by their work copying and illuminating manuscripts, nuns played a key role (along with monks) in preserving knowledge both sacred and secular, and in their role as educators, they were instrumental in spreading literacy to others.

The latter point is particularly important because it was only the wealthy that could afford to retain tutors for the education of their young. (Household accounts, incidentally, sometimes list women as tutors.) Thus education often fell to parents, who might not have the necessary time, inclination or talent for the task. Yet, it is evident that starting at least by the 6th century AD convents and monasteries across Europe offered education to children. Interestingly, the sexes were not always segregated when very young; little boys were often entrusted to the care of nuns and only later sent to monasteries or given secular education as pages and squires.  Alternatively, particularly bright girls might be sent to monasteries to learn more or be trained in particular skills such as singing or illumination. Also notable is anecdotal evidence of education in the convents being affordable as there are references to poor children attending them.  

The most dramatic evidence of female education in the Middle Ages, however, is provided by the large number of women who were authors of important works. A certain noblewoman, Dhuoda, for example, wrote an extensive and erudite treatise on education in or about 842; the book is full of biblical and other references that indicate this “ordinary” noblewoman was herself very well read (and incidentally very busy). In 965, a certain Hroswitha composed a long epic poem of Otto I. In the 12th century, there was Heloise, famous, unfortunately, more for her affair with Abelard than the fact that she was accounted a brilliant scholar in Latin, Greek and Hebrew before she even met him.  Indeed, Abelard claims to have wanted to seduce Heloise because of her learning ― as well as writing that he never really loved her, only lusted after her. In her letters to him, Heloise espoused a radical feminism that rejected both marriage and children. In the 15th century, there was the poet Christine de Pisan who in the early 15th century took on the University of Paris, mocking their misogyny.

Christine de Pisan with her Son

My personal favorite among the women of letters of the Middle Ages was Hildegard von Bingen. She was born in 1098 and died in 1179. She joined a convent at eight, took the veil at 15 and was abbess from 1136 onwards. She had visions, as she describes them:

Through God’s goodness, my soul sometimes surges up to the heights of the heavens and the air and sometimes wanders among different peoples, although they live in far regions and unknown places…I see them only in my soul, and the eyes of my body remain open, for I have never fainted in ecstasy. I see them awake night and day…The light that I see is not local, but infinitely more brilliant than the light that surrounds the sun.” (Cited in Pernoud, p. 43)

Yet for all her mystical visions, she remained a highly practical woman who wrote books on “simple” and “composite” medicine, books on linguistics, and also composed music (which can be found on the internet today.)  Furthermore, returning to my thesis on women wielding political power (See Women and Political Power), she corresponded with all the important rulers of her day from Pope Eugene III to Friedrich Barbarossa and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Hildegard, in short, was recognized as an intellectual and spiritual giant event by individuals themselves revered for their learning, power, and spirituality.

The heroines of these award-winning novels set in the Middle Ages reflect their respective class in terms of their level of education -- from Dowager Queens to serving girls.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures 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.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!

Friday, April 6, 2018

Women in the Middle Ages 2: Women and Economic Power

Today I continue my mini-series on opportunities for women in the Middle Ages with a look at women's access to economic power.

Nothing gives women more power and status than wealth. In societies where women cannot own property (e.g. ancient Athens) they are not only powerless to take their fate into their own hands in an emergency, they are also generally viewed by men as worthless.  Where women can possess, pass-on, and control wealth, they enjoy independence, respect and are viewed (and coveted) not only as sexual objects but as contributors to a man’s status and fortune (e.g. ancient Sparta).

Medieval women across Europe could inherit, own and dispose of property. The laws obviously varied from realm to realm and over time, but the fundamental right of women to inherit was widespread and reached from the top of society (women could in many but not all realms bequeath kingdoms) to the bottom, where peasant women could also inherit and transmit the hereditary rights to their father’s lands, mill or shop. 

Significantly, it was not only heiresses that enjoyed property and the benefits thereof. On the contrary, every noblewoman received land from her husband’s estate at marriage called a “dower.” 

A dower is not to be confused with the dowry. A dowry was not an inheritance. It was property that a maiden took with her into her marriage.  Negotiated between families before a marriage, dowries were usually land. Royal brides brought entire lordships into their marriage (e.g. the Vexin), but the lesser lords might bestow a manor or two and the daughters of gentry might bring a mill or the like to their husbands. Even peasant girls might call a pasture or orchard their dowry. The key thing to remember about dowries, however, is that they were not the property of the bride. They passed from her guardian to her husband. 

Dowers, on the other hand, were women’s property. In the early Middle Ages, dowers were inalienable land bestowed on a wife at the time of her marriage. A woman owned and controlled her dower property, and she retained complete control of this property not only after her husband’s death, but even if her husband were to fall foul of the king, be attained for treason, and forfeit his own land and titles.

Whatever the source of a woman's wealth, in Medieval France, England and Outremer, women did not need their husband’s permission or consent to dispose over their own property. There are thousands of medieval deeds that make this point. While it was common to include spouses and children on deeds, this was a courtesy that increased the value of the deed rather than a necessity ― and that principle applied to men as well as women.  Thus many deeds issued by kings and lords included wives and children as witnesses as a means of demonstrating that the grant or sale was known to their co-owners/heirs. 

Middle-class women could inherit whole businesses, and as widows they ran these businesses, representing them in the respective guilds. Indeed, most wives were active in their husband's business while he was still alive. Manuscript illustrations show, for example, a women bankers (collecting loans, while the husband gives them out), and "alewives" -- including women in helmets bringing refreshment to archers engaged in a battle! (I could not find that picture on the internet, but here's another allegorical picture of women fighting.)

More important, however, women could learn and engage in trades and business on their own. They could do this as widows, as single, unmarried women (femme sole) or as married women, running a separate business from that of their husbands. The skills acquired, even more than property, fostered economic independence and empowerment because property can be lost — in a fire, an invasion, from imprudence and debt — but skills are mobile and enduring, as long as one remains healthy enough to pursue one’s profession. Furthermore, once qualified in a trade, women took part in the administration of their respective profession, both as guild-members and on industrial tribunals that investigated allegations of fraud, malpractice and the like.  In short, there was no discrimination against qualified women engaged in a specific trade.

Furthermore, women in the Middle Ages could learn a variety of trades. Some trades were dominated by women, for example, in England brewing, in France baking, and almost everywhere silk-making.  However, women were also very frequently shopkeepers, selling everything from fruit and vegetables (not very lucrative) to spices and books.  In addition, women could be, among other things, confectioners, candle-makers, cobblers, and buckle-makers.  Women could also be musicians, copiers, illuminators, and painters, though I have not come across references to women sculptors. More surprising to modern readers, medieval records (usually tax rolls) also list women coppersmiths, goldsmiths, locksmiths, and armorers.  A survey of registered trades in Frankfurt for the period from 1320 to 1500 shows that of a total 154 trades, 35 were reserved for women, but the remainder were practiced by both men and women, although men dominated in 81 of these.

Notably, in the early Middle Ages women could be medical practitioners. All midwives were women, of course, and sisters of the Hospital provided most of the care for women patients, but women could also be barbers (who performed many medical procedures such as blood-letting), apothecaries, surgeons, and physicians. A female doctor, for example, accompanied King Louis IX on crusade in the mid-13th century. Women learned these trades in the traditional way, by apprenticing with someone already practicing the profession, who was willing to take them on.  It wasn't until the 14th century that universities imposed the exclusive right to certify physicians -- while excluding women from universities. 

All my novels set in the Middle Ages strive to show women as active participants in society and the economy. A woman confectioner is an important secondary character in “Envoy of Jerusalem,” for example.
For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures 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.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!