Anna Belfrage

Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time. Welcome to my world!

The good reasons behind strict courtship rules

MG 2014 posterToday, I turn my blog over to Maria Grace. She has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, but those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate in Educational Psychology. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

She has one husband, two graduate degrees and two black belts (which I find most impressive!), three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, six new novels in the works, attended seven period balls, sewn eight Regency era costumes, shared her life with nine cats through the years and published her tenth book last year. Phew: just reading that makes me exhausted, even if I keep even pace both on the sons and books front. No nieces, though…Anyway: without further ado I turn you over into Maria’s capable hands – did I mention she’s something of an expert on the Regency era?

*********************

I’m so excited to be visiting with Anna today. I love her blog and all the wonderful stories she tells. Often, she writes about the consequences and intrigues associated with arranged marriage.
I can’t say I long for a return to those days myself, but it is really interesting to look at what a tizzy parents went into when society moved away from the practice.

MG pnp-man-courting-woman Felix Friedrich von EndeUntil around 1780, arranged marriages were de rigueur. It made sense – more or less – considering that marriage was a business and often political arrangement. But then the Enlightenment happened and philosophers made a mess of things that were working perfectly well – more or less.

The pesky notions of reason and individualism over tradition got people thinking that perhaps personal preference should play a role in one’s marriage choices. That led to considering love and – ack! – romance as possible players in the field and that lead to something near panic for parents and anyone else who cared about social order and stability.

But never fear, enter the conduct literature writers to rescue humanity from itself. Authors readily offered advice on how to judge character, how to behave in public toward the opposite sex, how to attract the opposite sex, even the proper way to make or refuse an offer of marriage.

Out of this advice, strict rules for behavior during courtship developed. The rules safeguarded both sexes. Gentlemen required protection from being trapped into matrimony and ladies needed to be guarded from becoming attached to men who were not honest in their intentions toward them.

Arguably, the cardinal rule of courtship became to seek compatibility and friendship rather than romance, since the former might stand the test of time and could provide far more enduring and stable relationships than fleeting passion. Young men were counseled not to embark upon courtship lightly, and young women not to give affections too easily.

MG regency englandI cannot even understand how it is flattering to a man’s vanity, to gain the affections of a deserving and too credulous woman, whom he never intends to marry. He ought to lose more in his character for integrity, than he can gain as one successful in courtship. His manner of address, consisting of a visible attachment. While his heart is not engaged, is most detestable hypocrisy. And to say that he is not bound in honour, because he has subjected himself to no specific promise, is the highest aggravation of his guilt. Were he to act in the same manner in his common transactions with mankind, his character would be forever blasted. (Gener, 1812.)

A woman is often placed in a very delicate situation. She may be distinguished by a kind of attention which is calculated to gain her affections, while it is impossible to know whether the addresses of her pretended lover will end in a serious declaration. (Gener, 1812)

Female conduct manuals universally cautioned women not to be forward in their dealings with men or to encourage their advances. A woman must never confess her feelings until absolutely convinced of his intentions. Some went so far as to insist a woman must never look at a man unless he made the first advance.

Other rules to help squelch the possibilities of romantic passion included forbidding the use of Christian names, paying compliments, driving in carriages alone together, correspondence, and any kind of intimate contact.

Young, unmarried women were never alone in the company of a gentleman or at any social event, without a chaperone. (Who knew what kind of ideas she or he could get!) Except for a walk to church or a park in the early morning, a lady could not even walk without an appropriate companion. (Of course a potential suitor would not be appropriate!) Though a lady might drive her own carriage or ride horseback, if she left the family estate, a groom must attend her.

Millais The-Black-Brunswicker_John-Everett-Millais

Not the done thing…

Naturally, all forms of touching were kept to a minimum. Sakes alive, what kind of unrestrained behavior might that lead to? Putting a lady’s shawl about her shoulders, or assisting her to mount a horse, enter a carriage or climb stairs were acceptable. A gentleman might take a lady’s arm through his, to support her while out walking. But he must never try to take her hand, even to shake it friendly-like. If he did, she must immediately withdraw it with a strong air of disapproval, whether she felt it or not.
Conversations had to be extremely discreet leaving much to be interpreted from facial expressions alone. Even those were proscribed by many advice writers.

There is another Character not quite so criminal, yet not less ridiculous; which is, that of a good humour’d Woman, one who thinketh me must always be in a Laugh, or a broad Smile, because Good-Humour is an obliging Quality… . (The Whole Duty of a Woman, 1737)

Not surprisingly, it was difficult for either party to truly discern the feelings and intentions of the other. Only at the moment an offer of marriage was made could a man declare his feelings and a woman her own in return. This was arguably the desired effect and what makes it all sound so laughable to modern viewpoints.

But there were some genuinely good reasons for all of the restrictions. While philosophy did alter some perspectives about marriage, some things did not change. At the core, marriage was still a business arrangement, men and women each bringing their part to the matter. Real property, dowries and fortunes, trades, skills (including those of keeping house), social connections (of course those might be good or bad, just saying… ) and the provision of heirs were all very real commodities in the transaction. One needed to make sure that arrangements offered equitable compensation as it were, for all involved and no one, including the extended families, was being shorted in the exchange.

It light of all the fuss, modern minds might argue in favor of simply staying single and being done with it all. However, in the day staying single was definitely not a good alternative. Society did not look with great favor upon the unmarried adult. Spinsters were considered the bane of society, but bachelors were also looked down upon as still not having come into their own in society, not quite fully participating in adult life. (Vickery, 2009) A great deal rode on establishing oneself in a comfortable married state.

MG signing-the-register-by-edmund-leighton-blairIf this weren’t enough reason for anxiety, add to it that divorce was nearly impossible to obtain. It was entirely possible that one might have only one opportunity to ‘get it right’ as it were. Granted, widowhood was common enough, and some married multiple times because of it, but it probably wasn’t a good thing to count on.

No wonder parents were in a dither that their children might make a tragic mistake choosing a marriage partner. With so much on the line, can you really blame them for supporting rules designed to keep runaway passions at bay and encourage level-headed decision making?

*****************************

Thank you, Maria, for that informative piece. Must say I feel relief at not having had to negotiate such convoluted courtship rules:) Now, Maria does not only write posts, she also writes books – many of them Jane Austen spin-offs, and having read one or two I can assure you she does that very well. Her latest release is called The Trouble to Check Her, and here we have that disobedient sprite, Lydia Bennet having to handle the consequences of her reprehensible behaviour (well, as per the standards of the day) in Pride and Prejudice. As per the blurb:

MG The Trouble to Check Her MEDIUM WEBLydia Bennet faces the music…

Running off with Mr. Wickham was a great joke—until everything turned arsey-varsey. That spoilsport Mr. Darcy caught them and packed Lydia off to a hideous boarding school for girls who had lost their virtue.
It would improve her character, he said.
Ridiculous, she said.
Mrs. Drummond, the school’s headmistress, has shocking expectations for the girls. They must share rooms, do chores, attend lessons, and engage in charitable work, no matter how well born they might be. She even forces them to wear mobcaps! Refusal could lead to finding themselves at the receiving end of Mrs. Drummond’s cane—if they were lucky. The unlucky ones could be dismissed and found a position … as a menial servant.
Everything and everyone at the school is uniformly horrid. Lydia hates them all, except possibly the music master, Mr. Amberson, who seems to have the oddest ideas about her. He might just understand her better than she understands herself.
Can she find a way to live up to his strange expectations, or will she spend the rest of her life as a scullery maid?

Buy links:
Amazon
BN NOOK
KOBO

Should you want to know more about Maria and her books, visit her excellent blog, Random Bits of Fascination, her other blog Austen Variations or her Amazon page.

An author’s best friend…

The_Magdalen_Reading_-_Rogier_van_der_Weyden

The Magdalen Reading, Rogier van der Weyden (National Gallery, London)

…is a good reader. Today, I’ve invited Lisl Zlitni to visit, precisely because she is just that – a good reader. She also happens to be a very good writer, which is apparent not only in her excellent reviews but also in her poetry and those snippets of prose she has chosen to share. If you want to experience Lisl’s writing (and fab reviews) at length, do stop by her blog, Before the Second Sleep. In honour of the occasion, I’ve baked us a nice apple-pie. Plus, I might add, my home-made custard is to die for.

It is so nice to see you here with me, Lisl, what with you being all the way over in Alaska! 
Thanks so much for having me, Anna! I’m loving your weather—makes me feel so at home.

Lisl Denali_Mt_McKinley

Alaska – Mt McKinley (Denali)

Ha! I imagine it does…Speaking of Alaska, what is it like to live there? I suspect you too struggle with myths along the lines that polar bears wander down your streets in full daylight (at least it’s a myth here in Sweden)
Well, it can be somewhat isolating, especially if one doesn’t have many connections to Outside, as we call it. I don’t have television programming, for example, which is why I rely so much on the Internet, because I want to know what’s going on in the world. But that’s just me—we do have television here! It’s also really lovely in summer and winter with loads of stuff to do.
The myths I hear most are how many people don’t realize we don’t have penguins, they think we might not accept American money and are surprised to learn we have cars. At one time I worked in a small specialty shop frequented by tourists and loved hearing these silly things—typically they came from people who genuinely wanted to learn about Alaska, and interacting with their sincerity and friendliness made that one of my favorite jobs ever.

Like me, you live in a place where the seasonal differences are not only due to temperature but due to lack or excess of light. Do you think the dark of winter vs the endless light of summer has a permanent impact on the people living that far north?
Oh, definitely. People form habits and patterns based on these conditions and as part of our culture they are so ingrained we joke about them while simultaneously don’t even notice, if that makes sense. For example, the Summer Solstice is observed by just about everyone, even those with zero interest or real knowledge in the history behind it, because it marks a transition in our year when we psychologically start prepping ourselves for termination dust and the coming of winter. There’s an old joke (one of many) about how you know you’re an Alaskan, because you make your Halloween costume large enough to wear over a coat.

People who run into you on FB and the like, will probably mostly know you as a book reviewer – one of those readers who highlights aspects of the book not even the author may be entirely aware of. I get the impression you read very carefully. Does this mean you also read very slowly?
I don’t suppose I read slowly, though certainly I’m no speed reader. Overall it probably depends on the book. I think I do read carefully, which is a natural habit but there are others to thank for helping me develop my skills, including a particular professor. She engaged our classes rather than lectured and with her we learned so much regarding reading and writing about literature. I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers her fondly.
In my reading I use a great deal of what I learned to this day, even with casual, not-for-review reading, though it doesn’t necessarily slow me down. Having said that, there are some books I do read more slowly, especially if it’s new information or a lot of characters to familiarize myself with.

Do you read more than one book at the time? If yes, do you read similar genre or totally different genre?
For better or worse, I do this a lot. At one time I tried to give it up, but finally just accepted the habit. It can be overwhelming on occasion, but then comes the satisfaction of closing up that last page of one book, then another and then another all within a short period of time.
Whether the genres are similar or different just depends upon circumstance—if I happened to have seen a book that looks really great, for example, and can’t wait, like a book on Kepler I recently came across. Now you’ve got me thinking about it, I think most of the time they aren’t the same, but perhaps there is always some connection: something in, about or related to one book leads me to another. What I can say for certain is that except for review books, which I read in order of when I received them, books choose me, not the other way around.

Lisl 51mASzxex8L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_I have recently noted a certain fascination from your part regarding graphic novels – the modern day version of what I used to call comic books.
I first read a Spiegelman’s Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale in a lit class in which we discussed the controversy of placing Holocaust memoir in graphic novel form. I thought it a great way to engage readers on all levels. Later I came across Satrapi’s Persepolis and Persepolis 2, of growing up in an Iran adversely affected by the 1979 revolution. They could be painful to read but by the genre’s nature the pictures show more than just events: we as readers gain greater dimension to the author’s insight, including images of herself as she perceives herself. It is very, very powerful.
I can’t say I’ve read a ton of graphic novels, but you’re right; largely thanks to Turtle they are becoming more of a presence in my reading repertoire and it seems a shift is indeed occurring.

lisl 51Sqw7p5T2L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_What brought you to your love of reading, and what books were fundamental to igniting this passion you have for the written word?
Honestly, I don’t really know how I came to love reading in the first place, though my parents modeling it as a worthy pursuit—they were both enormous readers—surely played a large role. I can remember, even picture in my mind, books I found on shelves and flipped through, books about a boy in a jungle and animals that talked. Like now, perhaps the books beckoned to me and I couldn’t resist. Various people habitually brought me books as well: The Witch of Blackbird Pond; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Island of the Blue Dolphins; Strawberry Girl and The Cricket in Times Square were just some from my mother. My father also brought home books for me, most memorably Francis Marion: Swamp Fox of the Revolution. Even my older brother—horrible in my then opinion– picked up books he thought I might like. I still have from him Galahad: Enough of His Life to Explain His Reputation and The Favorite Poems and Ballads of Rudyard Kipling. The Crystal Cave and The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself both also surely went a long way toward my own writing, possibly because they both instigated a deeper delving into myself, owing to my fascination with and curiosity of their subject matter, but also they spoke of times I instinctively felt a close connection to, and it seemed almost as if I was trying to discover who I was, and why what mattered to me, did.

I know you have a son – and that he too is a voracious reader. How have you transferred over your love of reading to him?
I did the easiest thing any parent could do, but what is also the most powerful—I read near and to him. I never gave him any kind of spiel about how important books are, and didn’t have to act enthusiastic because I really was. Before he was born I read aloud—partly because I’d heard about how babies can hear their mother’s voices—but also I really enjoy feeling the words as I read. After he was born I continued to read to him, at that time whatever it was I was reading. As it turns out talking or reading to babies triggers an amazing series of events within the brain that in turn opens windows to further development. I remain in awe of how such a simple, pleasant act can benefit such complex systems.
Lisl 51DLJEfFIEL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Turtle has been a library enthusiast his entire life. Very early on he shared plots, illustrations, criticisms, favorites and so on with me, and we still read to each other. Over the years we have developed our own special little traditions or funny jokes, a development covered in Mem Fox’s wonderful Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever. Simple to read; colossal in guiding children toward reading and other success
I also try to support the idea that what he chooses matters—ask questions, let him read funny or other parts of note to me, discuss ideas that arise from readings—and have always let him choose his own books from the time he could. Unless it’s for school I never make him finish a book he isn’t enjoying—how is that reading for pleasure?—and provide a nice place for his collection as well as comfortable spots to curl up and read.

What would you consider are the main benefits of instilling a love of reading in a child?
Apart from what I’ve mentioned above, there are some very practical benefits. While nothing is fool proof, I have nevertheless seen over the years that children who enjoy reading are less likely to be drawn into negative behavior. They also have a larger vocabulary, especially if they have been read to because they’ve made the connections between how a word looks as well as sounds, and are more confident about experimenting with new words. Children develop better communication skills and academic achievement tends to be higher. Perhaps best of all, it fosters loving relationships between people who truly share when they communicate.

Are there books you wouldn’t allow your son to read? And if so, why?
Well, I’ve found there are goalposts that have to be shifted a bit periodically, as well as maintained.
I don’t own a single book I wouldn’t let him read, primarily because we have always been able to discuss different topics, even if my side of the conversation was/is delivered with age appropriateness in mind. Having said that, I will say that when he was younger I might have had some difficulty with this “policy” of mine I have maintained because some books—specifically history—might have been really scary for him. Some of them are scary for me. As for books we don’t own—as far as I know, no, though that is said with some relief at him having reached this age, when I feel he is ready to read some of the more disturbing historical events.
Most parents worry about sexual content as well, and though that is a concern for me, I have to let him learn to be a responsible reader. Plus, I’ve tried to communicate that he’ll never get in trouble for asking me questions. In support of that I attempted to go beyond the standard “You can ask me anything” by communicating that while many kids ask and tell each other lots of details, much of this is incorrect and can lead to real trouble. He agreed the possible awkwardness of asking mom is way better than trouble encountered from following bad advice. I periodically re-inforce that with how I respond to books we read together, though we haven’t come across any real sexual situations in the books he chooses. Swear words, yes, and we’ve had decent conversations about appropriate—and not—places to say that sort of stuff. Hopefully this will keep working with continued maintenance, which is the real point.

I note that quite a few of my “new adult” acquaintances never read – they spend their time on social media and streaming movies instead – or channel-hopping between TV shows. Personally, I worry this leads to a general lack of reflection. Would you agree? And do you see a similar trend?
Sadly, yes on both counts. I suppose some people are more inclined to reflection than others, so even movies could trigger that for them. However, film can’t convey what words can, so a lot will get missed. And of course there’s the danger of shutting down imagination—if the film production company tells you what a dragon looks like, why should you try to imagine it? It creates lazy thinkers, in my opinion.
Nowadays I become really happy when I see people exchanging ideas or engaging in healthy debate, largely because it’s sorely lacking anymore. Even many families act, as someone wrote recently, like a group of people who happen to live in the same house rather than as a cohesive unit. We’ve got a rule we hope can create a positive difference: Read the book first.

You are not only a reader, you are also a writer. Tell us a bit about this!
Well, in school I loved to read and had a really great rapport with my English teacher. She encouraged my fledgling efforts, which at that time I think were small and not necessarily directed toward a bigger picture; they just sort of came and I didn’t have any real desire to complete them. This changed at one point, however, when I wrote a short story about two teenage girls during the Salem witch trials; I really liked the tale—secretly though, because I was unsure it was any good by actual standards. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep it, though it has been in my mind lately and I think at times of trying to re-write. At any rate, from there I did start to write more, but the results were most often poems. I later did write down some rough outlines for stories that lately have been repeatedly knocking, so I’ve been working on them.

What is it that attracts you to writing poetry? Which are the challenges vs writing prose?

Lisl Flammarion woodcut

Flammarion: the astronomer crawling under the edge of the sky

My mother was an enthusiastic reader of Edgar Allen Poe—she read and re-read his works a lot, and aloud, especially his poetry. She never came out and said poetry had to be read aloud, but I could hear in her voice what came to pass in the words, the narrator’s passion as he speaks of his Annabel Lee, or the isolated anguish of the man mourning the lost Lenore. Though at the time I wouldn’t have described it this way, I had an appreciation for how so much—events, emotions, information, even entire lifetimes—could transpire in so few words. That they were also lyrical and lovely captured my entire imagination and as I began trying my own hand at poetry, I experimented with different words, explored their meanings and histories, sometimes simply repeating the words to hear the way they sounded as compared to how they looked. Unarticulated thoughts began to transform into phrases born within my soul, and it was slightly intoxicating. I had never before been able to speak with great confidence—I was a rather shy child—but poetry was akin to a new language possessing the words I needed that my native tongue didn’t have, and it opened the world to me. Though the contexts are not exactly the same, I felt a little like the astronomer depicted in L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire as he crawls under the edge of the sky.
In some ways it seems like poetry comes easier to me, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say poetry is easy. In university, when my writing skills really improved a lot, I was a language tutor and somewhat of an MLA geek. Between that and the papers I wrote, I developed into more of an analytical writer. When I first started trying to expand on my stories this presented a great challenge as creative writing skills were now what I needed, but didn’t really possess.
Writing poetry requires saying a lot with few words, which is true of prose, of course, but the parameters tend to be narrower. Also, a word might not feel right, or could turn out to be much different to what you’d intended and you think, “What do I do with this now?” Although in poetry, this may be a pro because of the separations between poems, despite the relationship uniting them all in one volume. For example, I once tried to write a poem directed at a country—not my own, but one I really do like. I was trying to express anger, but the end result was something so radically different to what I’d aimed for I was astounded. When I thought about it more I wondered that what I had inside me was communicating a different anger that also needed to be directed elsewhere, not at this place I was so fond of. But the result was a complete product—with its own challenges toward my intentions, but still a workable poem.

Like all writers, I suppose you also use your writing as a cathartic exercise, i.e. you write with no intention of ever letting those particular words see the light of the day. And yet – in my case, at least – sometimes that writing is so intense it is almost a pity to hide it away. Your thoughts?
Ohhhhhh, yes. The poem I just talked about falls into that category. It feels so very personal, and I have some reservations, but I still thought, “And now I just put it back in the drawer?” Some work is so emotive it just can’t be contained again.

Lisl 51Ejl48vJ+L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_As a final question, which books would you bring with you to a desert island? You are only allowed three and they must last you a life-time…
This is really difficult. I mean really difficult. Just three?
I thought about The Complete Works of Shakespeare. I have a Bevington edition from my university class that could keep me busy for many years. It’s not that I’m a huge fan of Will, but what he did with language was inspirational, and all those plays could really keep me thinking, and probably writing. And let’s not forget the poems!
Possibly Boorstin’s The Discoverers. He covers a variety of topics—astronomy, measurement of time, science, geography, history, key figures in exploration and expeditions for spices, discovery, the opening of China and so on. I’ve read it a few times and each reading grants me a new observation on something that didn’t quite settle in the last time.
Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Quest for Merlin. This may come as a surprise for you, given my oft-repeated love of Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave. (“Yup,” Anna says) I do love Stewart’s book and feel almost drained leaving it off, but would have to confess that Tolstoy’s, which I read just once, leaves more room for discovery. Plus it has pictures. OK, well in all seriousness I don’t feel quite so connected to Merlin as with Stewart’s work, but the less familiar material would lead me through terra incognita and perhaps a few wonderful surprises.

Wow, not exactly the easiest of reads…Thank you so much for dropping by, Lisl – it has been most inspirational!
Thanks so much, Anna, for having me and I hope we’ll do this again sometime

 

The unfortunate Stephanie

In Spanish, today’s protagonist is Estefanía la Desdichada, Stephanie the Unfortunate. If we’re going to be quite correct her name is Estefanía Alfonso and she was the illegitimate daughter of Alfonso VII of Castilla and León and his paramour, Urraca. (And no, this Urraca was not his mother, whom I wrote about here, she was just another lady of good birth burdened with an odd name)

Little Estefanía is mainly remembered because of her death. Always somewhat sad, IMO. I am assuming she had an okay childhood – her royal father seems to have been fond of his mistress and readily recognised his daughter, which if nothing else guaranteed a life of some comfort. We know nothing about her early years, but reasonably she was raised to be a good, pious lady – her father was a very pious king, despite his extra-marital relationships.

Estefania Alfonso_VIIAt the time, Alfonso VII was the most powerful of the Christian kings in Spain. Since the death of his step-father, Alfonso I of Aragón, there was no one to threaten our Alfonso’s position. The kingdom of Castilla and León thrived, the relationship with the Moors was, as always, fraught but not unbearably so. Alfonso VII could concentrate on giving his court the trappings of grandeur his title, Emperor of Spain, required. His co-kings did homage to him, and all in all, Alfonso was quite content: after the tumultuous years during his mother’s reign, he was now recognised as the supreme Christian power on the Iberian Peninsula.

All of this was neither here nor there for little Estefanía. Instead, she learnt to embroider and spin, to converse and sing. In 1157, when Estefanía was about seventeen, her father died, and instead her half-brothers, Fernando and Sancho took over, one as king of León, the other as king of Castilla. At the time, Estefanía was as yet unmarried. Yes, she was the daughter of a king, but she was the illegitimate daughter, which made her hand less sought after, especially as she didn’t come laden with dowry – Alfonso had many children to look out for.

In 1158, Sancho III died young, leaving a three-year-old son, Alfonso, as the new king of Castilla. A year or so later, and the kingdom of Castilla was torn asunder by civil war, on the one side the House of Lara, on the other the House of Castro. What they were fighting for? Control over the young king, of course. The House of Castro had the silent support of Fernando of León, who no doubt saw an opportunity to annect the kingdom of Castilla. Anyway, at the battle of Lobgregal in 1160,  the House of Lara hit the dust. Riding with the count of Lara was a man named Osorio Martínez. In the fighting he was killed, by none other than his own son-in-law Fernando Rodriguez de Castro. In the aftermath of the battle, Fernando repudiated his wife (he couldn’t very well have the daughter of a rebel as his wife, could he? Or maybe she couldn’t stand the sight of him, what with him having killed her father). Instead, he was given the hand of Estefanía Alfonso in marriage.

What Estefanía thought of all this is unknown. But Fernando was not a bad catch, and although older than her, he was still in his prime. Plus, of course, they were related, so it wasn’t as if she was marrying a stranger.

Estefanía’s brother, Fernando of León, had probably hoped that Fernando Rodriguez would hand over his little nephew Alfonso VIII on a silver platter. And maybe he would have, but the young king was whisked away by the surviving members of the House of Lara. Some years later, the Lara family was cornered, with Fernando Rodriguez having conquered a number of castilian cities, and they decided to turn over the boy-king, now about eight, into the tender care of his uncle. Didn’t happen, as an unknown gent smuggled the boy out of the castle where he was held. Alfonso VIII would go on to claim his lands, marry Eleanor of England (daughter to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine), have many babies, and in general lead his own exciting life, among which sticks out the victory over the Moors at the famous battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.

None of this had much effect on Estefanía. She presented her husband with at least one son and a daughter, and I’d assume her life would have included a lot of waiting about for her husband who was ususally off on some royal assignment or another.

Sex post illicit-sex-e1436561949425By 1180, Estefanía and Fernando had been married for twenty years. She was around forty, he in his mid-fifties. Were they content with each other? Maybe, maybe not. But when Fernando was informed that his wife had been seen sneaking off to secret assignations with a man, he had no problems believing what he was told, which indicates it wasn’t all sunsets and roses in the Fernando/Estefanía marriage. Or maybe he was feeling the weight of his years, worried that his wife was not getting what she needed at home.

Whatever the case, Fernando had her followed. On repeated occasions, she was seen hastening off, returning some hours later. At long last, Fernando couldn’t stand this any longer. His honour was being dragged through the gutters by his adulterous wife, and he was not having it! Nope. No more. So one night, when the veiled and cloaked lady of the house yet again disappeared down an alley, it was Fernando who followed, dagger in hand.

He waited in the shadows, gritting his teeth at the sounds of love-making that escaped the closed shutters. And once she was gone, as veiled and cloaked as when she’d arrived, Fernando entered the room and swiftly killed the lover – a man so young he qualified as a toy-boy, except that the term wasn’t invented yet.

Fernando rushed home, burst into the bedroom and found his wife in bed, sleeping. He attacked her, stabbing her repeatedly until she died in a spreading pool of her own blood. Which was when Fernando stopped to think. How could she be fast asleep in her bed when she had at most returned home some minutes before him? And where were the clothes she’d been wearing? He couldn’t find them anywhere. So he turned the room up and down, and this is when an icy weight started to collect in his guts, even more so when under the bed he found one of his wife’s maids, dressed in her mistress’ cloak and veil.

Turns out the maid had been using Estefanía’s clothes for months so as to hide her identity when she sneaked off to see her lover. After all, having sex outside of marriage was a sin, and the maid didn’t want to risk being fired for her low morals. Instead, her subterfuge had led to two people being murdered by a man who was by now a sickly white, staring down in shock at his bloodied hands. Fernando had killed his loyal wife, the sister of his king, and all because his pride had made it impossible for him to confront Estefanía and ask her if she was cheating on him…

Estefania PanteónSanIsidoroLeón

Estefanía’s final resting place: the royal pantheon, San Isidoro, León

Fernando draped a heavy noose round his neck and went directly to the king where he confessed his crime. The king chose to pardon him, moved no doubt by the genuine grief displayed by Fernando. Estefanía was buried side by side with her paternal grandmother, Queen Urraca, a simple inscription making no mention of how she died, only who she was, who was her father, who she was married to and who she gave birth to. And as to the maid, she was burned alive at Fernando’s orders.

Some centuries later, Lope de Vega (Spain’s equivalent to Shakespeare – well, together with Calderón de la Barca) would write a play based on Estefanía’s fate, La Desdichada Estefanía. Other than that, she remains a footnote in history, a woman who never quite steps out of the shadows – except for her gory death. And even that, dear people, we may have to take with a pinch of salt, as not all sources relate the same story. All we really know is that she died on July 1, 1180 and was survived by her husband and son.

Finally, Fernando Rodriguez “borrows” the words of  Ramon de Campoamor, 19th century Spanish poet:

Mi esposa Estefanía, que está en gloria,
fue del Séptimo Alfonso hija querida;
desde hoy sabréis, al escuchar su historia,
que hay desgracias sin fin en nuestra vida.
Yo la maté celoso; y si, remiso,
no me maté también la noche aquella,
fue por matar después, si era preciso,
a todo el que, cual yo, dudase de ella.

My wife Estefanía, who is in glory,
was of Alfonso VII a dear daughter;
As of today you will know, upon listening to this story,
that there are sorrows without end in our life.
Jealous, I killed her; and if, remiss,
I did not kill myself also that night,
it was to kill later, if it was necessary,
all who, like me, doubted her

Yet another finalist

A week ago, I introduced you to one of the finalists in this years Historical Novelist Society Indie Award. As some of you know, I was the proud recipient of this award last year, and this year I am just as proud to be one of the final judges.

HNSIndieFinalist2016I thought it might make sense to have the finalists introduce themselves and their books – having read all four, I can warmly recommend them. All of them are worthy winners, all of them are great reads. Not exactly a surprise, as the Historical Novel Society‘s Indie team under Helen Hollick does a great job of sifting through hundreds upon hundreds of indie books to create first a long-list, then a short-list. The short-listed books have been read by three judges, and their scores have chosen the final four. These final four will be judged by two judges, and hopefully James Aitcheson and I will agree on who the winner is. Well; we have to agree:)

HNS june 11download 008Anyway: today I’d like to introduce you to Maria Dziedzan. An English teacher and a philosopher, Maria was born in the UK, has lived and worked in the UK, and these days mostly lives there as well. But her father came from Ukraine, and it is his homeland, his people who have inspired When Sorrows Come. Set during WW II, I can assure you sorrows do come – en masse – and at times this is a read that tears your heart out. Populated by a number of unforgettable female characters – because this is a story about the women rather than their men – this is a tale of gritty survival in a Ukraine torn apart by Stalin and, subsequently, the German war-machine.

Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind your finalist book!
The first time I visited my father’s village in Western Ukraine with him, I met an old friend of his who had helped the partisans and paid the price. Nastunia had been betrayed, captured and tortured by the NKVD…and had lived to tell the tale to my father over fifty years later. She was a wizened old lady living in poverty when I met her and I was so struck by her indomitable spirit that when I came to write my first novel, after retiring from teaching, I inevitably remembered her story. So When Sorrows Come came into being.

Did you know already from the beginning how the plot would progress, or did “things happen” as the story trundled along?
Yes and no. To some extent, I was in the iron grip of historical events and I chose to limit the period of the story essentially to 1939-46. I also wove oral histories which I knew into the fabric of the timeline and then I sketched in my fictional tale around my heroine, Anna. But I also found myself exploring new seams of sub-plots along the way as I was guided by some irresistible characters.

For me, it is with the re-write of the first draft that the story goes from black and white to technicolour – i.e. this is my favourite part of the writing process. Which is yours?
It is certainly not the first draft…or not usually. I write the first draft by hand and it is then that I am assailed by thoughts of the unformed nature of what I’m putting on paper. But then I type it up and work and rework the section I’ve just written and I enjoy that more. I like the layering aspect of this stage as the storytelling is embroidered and polished. Apologies for the mixed metaphor!

What was the most difficult scene to write in your novel?
With reference to the above, a perfect example would be the wedding scene. It comes about two thirds of the way into the story and has a great deal of work to do. It must move on a sub-plot but also show changes in the heroine’s relationship with her lover. It must include a myriad of minor characters and pre-figure several disasters. And it must also be a Ukrainian village wedding. If the reader has never attended one, they must feel they’ve had a chance to enjoy one by the end of the chapter. I wrote this chapter at least 9 or 10 times in the first draft and even then came back to add details when I was re-drafting the whole novel.

Describe your protagonist in maximum five words.
Brave, indomitable and loving.

Are you planning a sequel to your book?
I have just completed my second novel which is not a sequel to When Sorrows Come but some of the minor characters re-appear and one in particular plays quite a large role. The two novels stand alone but contribute to each others’ stories. This current novel, though, IS the first of two, possibly three, novels which will have the tighter link of a sequel.

What were your main reasons for going down the indie route with this book?
Having sent off the first three chapters of When Sorrows Come to various agents and receiving the same polite rejection repeatedly, I decided to publish it myself because it was a story I thought should be told and one which I wanted people to read. It seemed pointless to spend a great deal of time and effort on something which would remain dormant.

Going forward, do you see yourself as remaining an indie author? Which are the pros and cons?
There is undoubtedly a lot of satisfaction to be had in seeing something you’ve worked hard on coming to fruition without waiting for chance or fashion to find you. But it would be great to have the support of a publicity department!

What does it mean to be a finalist for the HNS Indie Award 2016?
Being a finalist has given a great boost to my confidence as a writer, of course. I was still working on my second novel when the news came and it energised me to finish it although I was only about half way through. It is also wonderful to have the approbation of people who see a lot of novels, especially as When Sorrows Come is my first. Writing is a solitary activity and feedback from readers is a very precious thing…especially when it’s as positive as this!

Thank you for that, Maria! And for those eager to know more about Maria, why not visit her website? And as to When Sorrows Come, here is the blurb:

HNS WSC new front coverAnna is a young woman whose family is torn apart by the brutality of Stalin’s bullies when they enter her village in Western Ukraine in 1939. Her community, like many others, is trampled and desecrated by Bolsheviks and Fascists in turn, while Russia and Germany fight for dominance in the East. But Anna is a resilient survivor who finds her own path, despite the dangers. When her lover joins the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, she decides to help the partisans in their fight against powerful enemies. Her determination only grows as she gradually loses those she loves…but being brave doesn’t guarantee survival.

 

On Amazon US 
On Amazon UK

 

In search of a saint

Saints The_Olivetan_Master_Monks_Singin_the_OfficeToday’s post is about a saint I’ve always believed never existed. In actual fact, I suspect quite a few saints never existed – or were particularly saintly – but when a country embraced Christianity it was sort of important to produce a nice paragon of virtues to hold up as an example to the previously pagan population and inspire conversion. Seeing as saints very often met grisly deaths, I’m not so certain this worked all that well, but still.

Saints 800px-Heliga_Birgitta_på_ett_altarskåp_i_Salems_kyrka

St Birgitta

Anyway: us Swedes would say we only have one real saint, namely St Birgitta. We would like to claim St Lucia as ours, but she is Italian, no matter that, in our opinion, we do a far better job of celebrating St Lucia than any other nation in the world. Some Swedes would put forward that St George must be a Swedish saint – if nothing else because of the absolutely fabulous sculpture depicting St George in Stockholm’s Cathedral (A true work of art, commissioned in the 15th century). St George would probably object. The English might object as well, although St George was no more English than St Lucia is Swedish.

But we do have a longish list of home-grown saints – starting, of course with St Birgitta who scared everyone from her king to a sequence of popes silly. A tough lady, St Birgitta – but then what was a woman to do if she wanted to get ahead in the 14th century? Sit and spin? Other than St Birgitta, only two of the Swedish saints have been canonised by the pope: St Sigfrid (who was English) and St Helena of Skövde (never heard of her – must read up – but it seems the pope had his arm twisted to canonise her so as to inspire conversion…) So the rest of our saints were mostly canonised by local bishops, and one of these is the subject of today’s post, namely St Erik.

saints erik_den_helige

St Erik as depicted on a church wall

St Erik is the patron saint of Stockholm, and died gruesomely – as saints do – in 1160. At the time, he was king Erik, although he wasn’t necessarily recognised as being king by all his subjects. In the 12th century, Sweden was not a cohesive kingdom. The southern part of present day Sweden was Danish, the middle part was divided into Götaland and Svealand, and as to the north, no one really cared: it was forested, wild and preferably avoided as God alone knew what lived up there beyond giant wolves and strange people who had tame reindeer. Note that the “north” corresponded to roughly half of present day Sweden…

What we truly know about St Erik can be summarised in like eight words, i.e. it’s not exactly much. We do know he had a son, who did his best to promote his dear, departed father’s saintliness. Seeing as this son murdered to become king of Sweden, maybe his opinion is neither here nor there. On the other hand, at the time kings were murdered regularly in Sweden.

Back to our Erik: he was one of those murdered kings. Yup. Very sad, but there you have it. The story goes like this: Erik Jedvardsson was a pious man, who took the celebration of mass very seriously. After becoming king (probably through violent means) in 1150, Erik had spent most of his time fighting off other claimants – and spreading the word about God in a country that still contained deep pockets of pagan beliefs (and in Finland: Erik led a crusade to Finland). By all accounts, Erik was a capable king, and under him the country flourished. Laws were implemented, trade grew and for some years there was peace.

saints The_battle_of_PoitiersOn the 18th of May 1160 – exactly 856 years ago today – Erik was attending a church service in Östra Aros (close to Stockholm) when word reached him that one of his enemies was approaching fast, accompanied by many, many armed men. Erik was urged to flee, but he refused, saying he had no intention of cutting short the service in honour of God. (That’s what saints do: they set God before life). By the time mass was concluded, the church was surrounded. Erik, however, was a brave man and a proven fighter, so he stepped outside to meet his enemies.

A battle ensued. Erik was swarmed and wounded repeatedly until at last he fell to the ground, too weak to remain on his feet. His enemies, led by Magnus, the Danish claimant to the Swedish throne, jeered at him, taunted him, hurt him some more, and in general had their fun before finally chopping off the prostrate Erik’s head.

Immediately, a spring welled forth where the decapitated king lay. Miracles were reported not only at the spring but also at the king’s grave. A king was dead, a saint was born. Not that it helped Erik – or his son, who fled for his life. God was clearly most displeased by all this, and within a year Danish Magnus was dead, the crown passing instead to Karl Sverkersson, the son of the man who was king before St Erik. (This King Sverker was murdered on his way to church, but not by Erik). Some years later, Knut Eriksson invited Karl Sverkersson to visit him and had him killed, thereby taking the Swedish crown as his own.

saints Pilgrims-In-Front-Of-The-Church-Of-The-Holy-Sepulchre-Of-JerusalemSome decades after his death, Erik’s remains ended up in a reliquary. People made pilgrimages to pray by his bones or the well, and he was one of those household saints people directed their daily prayers to. He was one of the most depicted saints in contemporary art, churches were built in his name. Over the centuries, the veneration grew. And then came the Reformation. Suddenly, saints were not the thing. Shrines were packed away, bones were thrown on the garbage heap. Well: not all bones. However cocky, the new Protestant bishops were hesitant to dump dear old St Erik on a midden – or, as we say, a “kökken-mödding” – so instead they put him in deep storage. Which is why his bones are still around…

Recently, these bones have been examined. Not for the first time, I might add, but back in the 1940s techniques were not all that advanced, so the conclusions were not exactly riveting. “His head has been chopped off.” Err…we already knew that.

The new examination has revealed more. First of all, our Erik ate a lot of fish – which was in line with the teachings of the Church. He was roughly forty years old at the time of his death and was all of 1.67 metres tall (5 ft 6 inches). Preliminary isotope analysis shows he spent most of his life south of present-day Stockholm, and healed injuries to his cranium match stories from his exploits as a crusader in Finland. Dating is consistent with a death in the 12th century. The skeleton also shows signs of several unhealed wounds, received just before death,  none of which are on the torso. This, the experts say, indicate that Erik was wearing a hauberk.

Cuts to his shin bones show he’s been wounded while lying on the ground, consistent with the legend’s version. And then there’s the damage to the neck vertebrae, which indicates that someone actually relieved the king of his hauberk before delivering the fatal blow – with the poor man flat on the ground. Maybe he was unconscious by then, because all those blows to his legs must have bled a lot. Whatever the case, someone said “off with his head” and Erik was no more – just like in the legend.

In conclusion, the bones confirm that once upon a time there was a man who was attacked, badly wounded, thrown to the ground and decapitated. We must take it on trust that the bones belong to Erik Jedvardsson – his bones don’t exactly come with an engraved name. Likewise, we cannot assess his character: all we know about Erik comes from the legend constructed by his son who had a vested interest in painting poor dad in the brightest of lights. But whether Erik deserved the sobriquet of saint yes or no, at least he did exist. Always a good start, I’d say.

A magpie with ambitions

urraca eggplantThe other day, I made a comment to a friend regarding Richard the Lionheart’s wife, Berengaria (or Berenguela) de Navarra. You see, I always confuse her name with berenjena, which is Spanish for eggplant, and so I keep on seeing a rather violet lady in my head. Berengaria is a bit of an odd name, I suppose, but nothing comes quite close to that royal Spanish name, Urraca.

Other than being a rather harsh name, (double rr in Spanish is not exactly a caressing sound) Urraca means magpie, and why one Spanish king after the other saw fit to load his daughter with a name representing a thieving bird is beyond me. Although to be fair, at the time magpies were often held as pets, and seeing as these handsome birds are very intelligent, I imagine they made quite an impression on their owners.

Today’s lady is one of these Urracas – perhaps the most famous of them. And so, with no further ado, let me sweep you several centuries back in time, to the very distant Spanish kingdom of Castile in the very early twelfth century.

Urraca a3260-batalla-guadalete-711-la-reconquistaAt the time, Spain did not exist. Instead, the Iberian Peninsula was home to various kingdoms, such as Aragón, Zaragoza, Castilla, Galicia, and, in the south, al-Andaluz, the most famous of the Moorish kingdoms on the peninsula. At one point in time it seemed as the Moors were about to conquer all of Iberia, but in a cave in the mountains of Asturias, the determined (and very few) Christians led by a certain Pelayo made a stand, and no matter what the Moors hurled at them, the Christians refused to give up. The cave of Covadonga represented a turning point: “here, but no further!” Don Pelayo yelled, and as per some of the more exaggerated chronicles, 31 Christian heroes wiped out 250 000 Moorish warriors. Not likely, but Covadonga was a victory, and Pelayo was elected king of Asturias and went on to spend the rest of his life being a burr up the Moors’ backside.

Urraca BAC09690While the “faithful & righteous” of Europe had to gallop off all the way to the distant Holy Land to battle the infidel, in Spain, they were the next-door neighbour. Truces, skirmishes, more truces, war, more war. The Christian kingdoms were determined to reclaim their lands from the Moors, a holy war waged over generations (it took 800 years to re-conquer the lost territories). Accordingly, the various kings of the various kingdoms were first and foremost military leaders, men who donned armour as a matter of course and spent their lives expanding their borders – preferably at the expense of the Moors, but now and then at the expense of their Christian neighbours.

Such kings needed male heirs. In medieval Europe, the idea of women riding into battle was preposterous. Men wanted to be led by men, not by a frail creature in skirts. So when Alfonso VI of Castilla and León, despite several marriages, found himself with only three legitimate daughters, he had a major problem on his hands.

Urraca AlfonsoVI_of_Castile

Alfonso VI (?)

Alfonso was something of a complex characters: born the second son of three to Fernando the Great, he was given the kingdom of León when his father passed away. Not enough for our ambitious Alfonso, and after a decade or so of manoeuvring he had claimed Galicia from baby brother García (whom he kept locked up) and Castilla from big brother Sancho (who was serendipitously assassinated). After this, Alfonso proclaimed himself “Emperor of Spain” and continued with his efforts to dislodge the tenacious Moors.

As per the various cantares about Alfonso, he was honourable and brave, a man who treated his foes with respect. Hmm. Not so sure García or Sancho would agree, but his sister Urraca most definitely would, seeing as Alfonso had defended her and her lands against Sancho’s grasping hands.

In difference to his predecessors, Alfonso went beyond the Iberian Peninsula for a bride, which is how he married Constance of Burgundy as his second wife. Alfonso was pushing forty, his first wife had died childless, and his French wife – granddaughter to Robert II of France – had high expectations to live up to. She didn’t. After producing a healthy girl child who was named Urraca after her paternal aunt, Constance went on to have several more pregnancies, but none resulted in a living child. She died in 1093, leaving Alfonso plus fifty – and still without a male heir. Unless…

You see, Alfonso did have a son. A strapping lad called Sancho who was the result of Alfonso’s affair with the fair Muslim princess & refugee Zaida of Seville. This lady seems to have had quite the grip on Alfonso’s heart, and some speculate that she converted to Christianity, took the name Isabel, and as such is the same Isabel Alfonso took as his fourth wife. Whatever the case, baby Sancho was born prior to any such marriage, making him illegitimate. But he was a boy, and so Alfonso designated Sancho as his heir. I imagine this did not please his daughter Urraca – or her French husband, Raymond of Burgundy.

Urraca RaymondofBurgundy

Raymond

Urraca was only eight when she wed Raymond, at the time made Count of Galicia. The marriage was not consummated until later, but by the time she was 13 or 14, Urraca suffered a stillbirth before going on to live through nine pregnancies that resulted in a surviving daughter, Sancha, and, after ten years or so of trying, a healthy son, also an Alfonso. Very confusing, with all these very similar names…

In the meantime, her bastard brother Sancho had upped and died, as had Raymond. Alfonso saw no other option but to proclaim Urraca his heir – but just to make sure things would go well, he also insisted she marry again. Her new husband was Alfonso I of Aragón. Urraca was vocally opposed to this union, and hoped to get out of it when her father died, but her nobles insisted, and so, in 1109, Urraca and Alfonso were wed.

It was not a happy marriage. Some say Alfonso I was homosexual, and found the idea of sleeping with his wife repugnant. Obviously, this may just be slander, and Alfonso must have done his duty in the marital bed, as he loudly complained about the lack of little heirs. The marriage agreement stated that should there be a child born of this union, that child would inherit it all: León, Castilla and Aragón. If there was no child, the respective kingdoms would go to the respective heirs. Urraca had a son she loved and wanted to see as king, so maybe she did what she could to avoid conception.

Whatever the case, the marriage quickly fell apart. Urraca refused to play the role of submissive wife – she was the ruling queen of Castilla and León, he was but her husband – and this drove Alfonso nuts. In his opinion, women should stay well in the background and leave the ruling to men of worth such as himself. Their quarrels became increasingly heated and Alfonso reputedly abused Urraca physically – repeatedly and brutally. In fear of her life she fled for the security of a nearby convent.

Urraca Alfonso_I_de_Aragón_por_Pradilla_(1879)

El Batallador as per Pradilla, late 19th C. Just love Pradilla…

Domestic hostility exploded into civil war. Alfonso was known as “El Batallador”, the warrior, and this was a well-earned sobriquet, him being an astute general, veteran of close to thirty pitched battles. He’d learnt the art of warfare from El Cid himself, and years of fighting the Moors had left him an experienced campaigner. There was not a chance in hell Urraca could beat him, but fortunately for Urraca, Alfonso managed to antagonise the powerful church, and by 1110 the marriage had been annulled by the pope.

Alfonso chose to ignore this at first, and even managed to lure Urraca into believing their marriage could be salvaged – only to imprison her in Aragón. Urraca fled, returned to Castilla and insisted the marriage was over. Only in 1114 did he relinquish his claims on Urraca – by then, he’d realised the men of Castilla and León might not be happy with a female ruler, but they were even less happy with the idea of an Aragonese king. Plus, of course, a little bird had whispered that Urraca was not beyond assassinating him if she had to.

Urraca’s problems were far from over. Her treacherous sister and her husband, the count of Portugal, had taken the opportunity to claim Extremadura. Large parts of Castilla remained in Alfonso of Aragón’s hands. And then there were the Moors, eager to take the opportunity offered by the spectacular fall-out among the Christians to forward their own interests. On top of this, her nobles remained disgruntled at having a queen, and in Galicia things were fast spinning out of control.

UrracaRegina_TumboA

Urraca

In an effort to keep some of her lands out of Alfonso I’s grasping hands while they were married, Urraca had approved the coronation of her little son, Alfonso VII, as the king of Galicia. Now Urraca wanted to retake the reins of government (her son was ten or so), but this was violently opposed by the Galician nobles who quite enjoyed doing their own thing, their boy-king an easily managed regent. To show their independence, they even chased the bishop of Santiago de Compostela out of the city.

Urraca opted for a show of force. She had Santiago de Compostela besieged, and soon enough the nobles were suing for peace. Urraca, triumphant, entered the city to receive their submission with the ousted Bishop Gelmírez at her side. No sooner were they ensconced in the bishop’s palace but the people of Santiago de Compostela rose in revolt. A howling, angry mob surrounded the bishop’s palace, the central tower was set alight, the mob demanding the death of the bishop, who was seen as too loyal to the Castilian cause. Death was imminent. The doors creaked under the weight of the angry men attempting to break through, the crowds bayed for blood. The bishop heard the confessions of his few companions, including that of the queen. They prepared to die. The wood splintered, someone cheered. Urraca ordered that they stop this nonsense. I guess she was met with derisive laughter and a mocking suggestion that she come outside to talk to them if she wanted to save her precious bishop. Seeing as Urraca did not lack balls, whatever her gender, she did just that. The mob surrounded her. She was beaten, her clothes were torn off and she was thrown into the mud, where her naked body was subjected to stones, whips, feet, whatnot. Somehow, she got away – as did the bishop, disguised as a mendicant.

Once reunited with her troops, Urraca unleased her revenge: the besieging army entered Santiago de Compostela, looting and killing at will. Pay-back for her recent humiliation, with the further benefit of making it very clear to the Galician people that they might have a boy-king, but it was the mother, Urraca, Empress of Spain, who held the true power. At last, Urraca had come into her own, respected as a ruler throughout her various kingdoms.

Other than being queen, Urraca was also a woman of passions. Once her marriage had been annulled, she lived openly with Pedro Gonzales, count of Lara, and gave birth to at least two more children. By late 1125, she had re-established some sort of control over her extensive lands, ensuring her young son’s inheritance was safe. She’d reclaimed most of Castilla from Alfonso, had thwarted her sister’s ambitions to expand at Urraca’s expense, and had brought the Moors to a halt. All in all, our king in skirts had proved she too could lead an army, as determined as any man to safeguard her dominions.

Urraca died on March 8, 1126, giving birth to yet another child. A propitious date, IMO: a strong woman dying on the day that would one day become the International Women’s Day.

Urraca Alfonso-Privilegium

Alfonso VII

Alfonso VII would go on to become a strong ruler. In 1128 he married Berenguela, daughter to Ramon Berenguer III, Count of Barcelona. And there, somehow, this post comes full circle: yet another Berenguela (although this Berenguela is the grandmother of Richard the Lionheart’s wife) . And as to Urraca, there would be very many more such little magpies in the royal nurseries of Castilla. But none would ever become as famous as this Urraca, Queen of León and Castilla, Empress of Spain.

And the finalists are…

Those of you who follow my blog will know that one of my proudest moments as a writer was when I won the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Award in 2015. Seeing as it all happened in Denver, that particular city will always have a special place in my heart.

HNSIndieFinalist2016The Historical Novel Society does an awesome job when it comes to spreading the word regarding good historical fiction – both traditionally published and self-pub. This year, I have the honour of being one of the final judges for the HNS Indie Award 2016, and I thought it might make sense to allow the four finalists to introduce themselves. Having read all four books I can conclude the quality is impressively high – which does not exactly make my job any easier:) Not that I’m surprised: to reach the finals, these books have gone through a rigorous selection process, and what remains is la crème de la crème as one says in French. All are worthy winners, and at this point it comes down to the subjective preferences of the judges – a bit like selecting the winner in the Olymic Women’s ice-skating event.

HNS BARBARA_S-3800(web)Today, I’d like you to meet Barbara Sjoholm. An American lady with a Swedish name – but with a large dollop of Scottish blood, she tells me. Barbara’s book is called Fossil Island and is set in the late 19th century in Denmark. For me, as a Swede, it was a pleasure to read about Georg Brandes, Carl Nielsen and Victoria Benedictsson. I suspect these are not household names elsewhere in the world, but for us up here in the north they most definitely are. Not that knowing about these people is fundamental to enjoying the book: Fossil Island is a lovely story featuring a young teenager and her first, faltering steps towards adulthood. Ms Sjoholm writes in small letters throughout, her intense scenes crawling in under your skin and leaving you short of breath. There is one particular scene involving a desperate woman, a man, and his handkerchief that is among the best I have ever read. Ever.

I’ve prepared a set of questions for all four of the finalists, and without more ado, I hereby give you Barbara!

Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind your finalist book
Fossil Island is set in late 19th century Denmark at a time of great changes in women’s roles in society and is loosely based on the real life character “Nik,” otherwise known as Emilie Demant Hatt, who later became an artist, writer, and an ethnographer in Lapland. I had earlier translated Demant Hatt’s delightful travel book, With the Lapps in the High Mountains, and had read a memoir she’d written but that wasn’t published in her lifetime. This memoir told the previously unknown story of her adolescent romance with the composer Carl Nielsen, which began when she was fourteen and he was twenty-two. There were just enough details in the memoir to awaken my interest and think what a marvelous novel it would make. Fossil Island allowed me to write about music and art, natural history, rural Denmark and Copenhagen, bicycling, and repressed and expressed sexuality, subjects just hinted at in the memoir and Carl Nielsen’s collected correspondence.

Did you know already from the beginning how the plot would progress, or did “things happen” as the story trundled along?
The basic plot was set: talented boy meets girl, and boy eventually moves on, leaving girl behind. I didn’t change Nik’s situation in life, but brought out as much as I could based on the limited facts and my knowledge of Danish society and culture. That said, I felt free to invent other characters and give them different fates, and yes, I was surprised at times at what everyone got up to.

For me, it is with the re-write of the first draft that the story goes from black and white to technicolour – i.e. this is my favourite part of the writing process. Which is yours?
I love all aspects of novel writing, from early inspiration and research to revision and polishing. Rewriting is satisfying because it’s possible to work more deeply with the underlying themes and metaphors. For instance, in real life, Nik had an uncle who owned a bicycle factory and she lived in a small village on the Limford, across the water from the island of Fur, very well known for its Eocene fossils. Both bikes and fossils play a role in the novel; it was in rewriting I explored their connections to freedom and to the layers of the past.

What was the most difficult scene to write in your novel?
It’s often the subtle scenes that are more taxing to write than the more dramatic ones. Fossil Island reproduces the repression of the 19th century novel, but also tries to suggest what Nik and her older sister might actually have been feeling about their impossible loves and longings. I felt I had to walk a line in some scenes—not saying too much, but allowing the reader to guess what emotions were stirring below the surface.

Describe your protagonist in maximum five words.
Tomboy, passionate, uncertain, high-spirited, curious.

Are you planning any sequels to your book?
Fossil Island has a published sequel, The Former World, which carries on Nik’s story through age eighteen.

What were your main reasons for going down the indie route with this book?
My agent, Robert Lescher, died while I was writing the novel, which eventually became two shorter novels. I had difficulty attracting a new agent for Fossil Island, perhaps because of the length or the relative obscurity of the subjects. I’d previously published with mainstream, independent, and university presses, but I was curious about the new technologies of printing and publishing on demand, and thought I’d like to explore them.

Going forward, do you see yourself as remaining an indie author? Which are the pros and cons?
I wouldn’t rule out doing another indie publication. I really liked the copyeditor I hired and enjoyed the whole process of making an attractive-looking book. Actually, books, plural, because my process allowed me finally to accept that I had a novel and a sequel in hand. The production, through IngramSpark, was surprisingly easy and professional looking. I had the usual indie problems afterwards with publicity and distribution, in particular getting Fossil Island into bookstores and libraries, even though I had some good reviews, but I found some ways to overcome at least some of the obstacles. It helped that I published the novel in 2015, when Carl Nielsen’s 150th anniversary was being celebrated.

Finally, what does it mean to be a finalist for the HNS Indie Award 2016?
This is my first historical novel. It’s always been a genre that I’ve enjoyed reading and it’s been lovely to be in the company of other novelists working in this field. It’s an honor to have been chosen as a finalist by HNS.

Thank you, Barbara! And for those of you who want to know about Barbara, I suggest you pop by her website. If you’re curious about Fossil Island, here is the blurb:

HNS Sjoholm_FossilIsland_Cover194xDenmark, 1887. Nik Hansen is a fourteen-year-old tomboy who spends her time dreaming and fossilizing on the nearby island of Fur, a geologic marvel. Her older sister, Maj is starting to entertain ideas of women’s rights. The summer begins with a visit from the girls’ aunt, accompanied by a young man she calls her foster son. Carl Nielsen has just finished his music studies and plans to become a composer. Flirtation turns to a secret romance between Nik and Carl, as Maj weighs an engagement to Lieutenant Frederik Brandt. The following summer brings the sisters’ intertwining stories to a head during a month in Copenhagen with their aunt, where they juggle passion, jealousy, and violent events with their search for independent lives of their own.


On Amazon US

On Amazon UK

 

Who let the dogs out?

Dogs Boy w a dog Paolo Veronese

Boy with greyhound – Paolo Veronese

Many, many moons ago, man sat outside the cave he called home and stirred the embers of the dying fire. From inside the cave came the sounds of his sleeping companions. He, however, was on guard duty, one puny human to keep an ear out for cave lions, sabre-toothed tigers and other potential predators. Above him spread the star-studded sky. Around him, was rustling darkness. Our man of the moment felt very small – and frightened. Something shifted, a shadow slinking closer to the fire. A wolf? Man’s hand closed on the cudgel he had beside him.

His visitor sat down and licked his chops. Not exactly the most threatening behaviour, and this close man could see wolf was in a bad shape, thin and dirty and with some sort of festering wound down his shoulder. Inspired, man tore off a piece of dried meat and threw it at the animal. It was wolfed down. He did it again, and over the coming hours man and wolf moved closer to each other, both wary, both intrigued. A long-lasting love story had just begun, that of man and his most faithful companion, the dog.

If we’re going to be quite correct, does not descend from wolves (canis lupus) but is rather a sub-breed within the wolf family (canis lupus familaris). Those who have tried domesticating a wolf will tell you it is almost impossible – once the animal reaches puberty, in goes the wild, out goes the domestication – which is why one should be careful of ever taking on a puppy purportedly half-wolf. The wildness lies too close to the surface to cope with our civilised form of life. Besides, why on earth go for a half-wolf when there are so many real dogs to choose from?

Dogs pompeiiOver the millennia, dogs were bred for various purposes. First and foremost, as guard dogs – companions to sit by the fire with the sentry, but with the benefit of better hearing and a much, much better sense of smell. Guard dogs needed to be lithe and big enough to intimidate, robust enough to spend their entire lives outdoors. Come to think of it, early man himself spent most of his life outdoors…

Man, being rather pleased with the success of his domesticated dog, went on to domesticate other animals, such as goats and sheep. Now dogs were needed not only to guard man, but also to guard the flocks. The present day Pyrenean Mountain Dog is a descendant of these early sentinels, and for those with a close acquaintance with these dogs, you know that behind that cuddly (if huge) exterior is quite the protective beast.

The flocks grew larger, and now man needed dogs to help him drive the sheep and goats (good luck with the goats) and so a new breed of dog came into being, the herding dogs, those agile and intelligent creatures that can turn on a penny and stare a sheep – well, a whole bunch of sheep – into obedience. While this dog probably had little of its exterior in common with modern day border collies and kelpies, its instincts were the same.

After the guard dogs and the herding dogs came the hunting dogs. Man spent a lot of time on the steppes, endless seas of grass where a distant movement would indicate a potential quarry. The sighthounds came into their own – tall, elegant and swift they sped through the grasses, with man cheering them on. Now we can add the ancestors of the greyhounds and borzois, the Scottish Deerhound and Irish Wolfhound to our roster of breeds. But there were other hunting breeds: dogs to startle fowl out of bushes, to follow the scent of their quarry through forests and dales (logically named scenthounds). Man was now into the business of refining his various dog breeds – just as he was refining his sheep and goats, his horses and pigs.

All of these dogs were utility dogs. They had a purpose, a function to fulfil. Dogs who were too old to do their job were probably knocked off quickly – food was scarce, after all. But I’d guess that even these dogs were also pets, warm wet tongues licking baby’s face or cuddling up with their masters in bed. Already back then, dogs were undemanding creatures: they loved you for who you were, went into ecstatics when they saw you, and generally made you feel like the most important person in the world – well, their world at least. This is a quality dogs have retained until today.

dogs huntingOn went the centuries, and by the Middle Ages, the noblemen surrounded themselves with various dogs: alaunts and greyhounds for the hunt, mastiffs for guard-duty. More common folk had dogs to help carry water, guard the hearth, hunt rats,  and turn smaller mills or spits. Stories abound in which dogs play the central role, starting with the King Garamantes who was saved from his enemies by his pack of loyal dogs, to Llewelyn’s faithful Irish Wolfhound who reputedly saved the baby from the wolves, was badly wounded and then killed by his master who thought it was the dog who’d killed the baby. (Baby was uninjured, found safe under the overturned cradle – all very sad). The recurring theme in all these stories was the dog’s loyalty – to death.

Dogs Giovachino Gamberini

Lapdog? Giovachino Gamberetti

By now, the lapdog had made an entrance. Tristan of Tristan and Isolde fame had a lapdog, nuns had lapdogs, rich ladies had them to. Pampered little yappy things, these were as loyal and ferocious as their bigger counterparts – still are, when you consider the spirit of a Maltese of a Pomeranian. The dog had been upgraded, from purely utilitarian to a pet.

 

Dog Rupert_of_the_Rhine

Rupert

Even big strong warriors had dogs as pets. Take, for example, Prince Rupert of the Palatine, this the most dashing of Royalist commanders during the Civil War. I am not a major Rupert fan, but I’ve always been rather fond of his dog, a poodle named Boye. Well, if we’re going to be quite correct, Boye was a white hunting poodle, and the superstitious among the Parliamentarians muttered the big hairy dog was a witch’s familiar. Huh. Now, the poodle is an ancient breed, thought to be the descendants of Berber herding dogs. By the 15th century, it was a water retrieving hunting dog. Its name, poodle, is a variant of the German word for puddle, and while the French have more or less claimed it as their national breed, the truth is rather that it is a German breed, the curly coat ideal to keep a water-working dog relatively warm.

Dogs Prince_Rupert_-_1st_English_Civil_War

Rupert and Boye

Boye was given to Rupert while our dashing prince lingered in captivity in Germany. All of Europe was one huge bloody battlefield back then, in the first half of the 17th century, and Rupert, being not only dashing but also a devout Protestant, was fighting for the Protestant faction against the Catholic faction in the Thirty Years’ War. (As stated in previous posts, this is a simplification: The Thirty Years’ War may have been presented as a religious war, but seeing as the Catholic French bankrolled the extremely Protestant Swedish Army, it was also about redrawing the political map of Europe, effectively twisting the Holy Roman Empire’s nose out of joint) Anyway, Rupert ended up imprisoned, and Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, decided to give him Boye to help him handle his captivity. Love at first sight, I presume, and Boye became Rupert’s shadow from that day forward.

Dog Boye_Marston_Moor

Rupert dead (and black)

When Rupert went to fight for his uncle, Charles I, in England, Boye as a matter of course came along, tagging after his master from battlefield to battlefield. At Marston Moor, one of the decisive battles of the English Civil War, Rupert had taken the precaution of tying Boye up – he didn’t want the dog hurt in the fighting. The battle did not go well for the Royalists who were forced to flee. Boye somehow slipped his leash, searched frantically for his master, and was cut down on the field. So died a good and loyal dog, and I imagine Rupert was quite crushed.

Dogs Charles_XII_1706Another warrior type who loved his dogs was the Swedish king Karl XII. Karl XII was not the easiest of men – we are talking about a man who enjoyed hitting bears with cudgels as a pastime – imbued with an exaggerated sense of his own worth and a determination to never, ever let that tall Russian oaf Peter the Great win the Northern War. (For more on all this, go here). Karl XII never married, nor are there any anecdotes of him ever having been with a woman. Some have whispered that maybe the king preferred men – and yes, I’d say he definitely preferred male companionship, but access to his bed seems to have been restricted to his dogs, one of whom was called Pompe. In actual fact three of his dogs were called Pompe. One died in 1699, the other accompanied him out in the field in 1700 and died in 1703, and the third went with his master to captivity in Turkey and died in Hungary on the way back home to Sweden.

Karl XII was by all accounts very fond of his dogs. In his letters home, he writes of his grief at finding Pompe II dead in his bed, and in general where Karl XII went, there went his Pompe. So obvious was his affection for his dog that upon the death of the first, he was buried under a sizeable headstone in Stockholm (still visible today).  The second Pompe inspired a poem by a certain Israel Holmström:

Pompe Kongens trogne dräng
Sof hwar natt i Herrens säng,
Sehn af år och resor trötter
Leed han af wjd Kongens fötter.
Mången stålt och fager mö
Önskade som Pompe lefwa
Tusend hieltar eftersträfwa
At få så som Pompe dö.

Pompe, loyal servant to the king,
slept each night in his master’s bed
Wearied by his years and travels
He died one night at his master’s feet
Many a fair and loving maid
would have wanted to live like Pompe did
Thousands of heroes have as their aim
to die as gloriously as Pompe did (at the king’s feet, that is…)

The poem caused a bit of a kerfuffle, as some felt it was wrong to liken a dog to humans. Somehow, I don’t think Karl XII would have agreed: to him, his dogs were as important as the people who surrounded him.

Bartolomeo Passaroti Reniassance-dog-Wikimedia-Commons

Man with spaniel – Bartolomeo Passaroti

Many, many eons ago, man threw a piece of dried beef to the animal sitting on the other side of the fire. To this day, the dog remains at our side, a comfort when our days are heavy, a constant companion through life. And when we sit outside under a starry sky, it is almost as it was back then: just us and our dog, while all around the darkness rustles with things unseen.

Of writing, Star Wars and home-coming Crusader knights

CS me1smallToday I welcome yet another fellow writer to my blog. Char Newcomb is a Star Wars fan who writes excellent books set in medieval times – maybe not so much of a contradiction as one might think, seeing as swords play a major part in both these settings. Anyway, having recently read Char’s latest release For King and Country, I felt it appropriate to sit her down, serve her tea and cake, and throw her some questions. Plus, she has been kind enough to offer a giveaway – further details at the end of the post:)

First of all, congratulations on your new book. Me, I am always a bit ambivalent when I publish a book – there’s a great sense of pride and achievement, but there’s also a substantial amount of separation angst. Is it the same for you?
Thank you for inviting me to chat with you today, Anna. There is incredible satisfaction writing THE END, but a massive amount of angst when you release your ‘baby’ into the wide, wide world. It is hard enough to share with critique partners, beta and advanced readers, but now the novel is there for everyone to see. And then you have to do it all over again!

CS 20035702072_420e501e13_z-2I touched upon your fascination with all things Star Wars in the brief intro above. Would you say this iconic Sci-Fi story has any bearing on the story you tell? Are there any common elements? And why the Star Wars thing to begin with?
Star Wars is based on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, put very simply, the adventures and transformation of a character. Battle Scars I & II don’t have all Campbell’s elements, but my stories are the adventures, trials and tribulations of a young knight who goes off to war and is changed by that experience.
I started writing Star Wars to escape the stresses of real life. I was a fan of the movies since A New Hope debuted in 1977 and in 1992 discovered a novel by Timothy Zahn that picked up the story 5 years after Episode VI. Heir to the Empire plunged me back into that galaxy far, far away. I was driven to add to the saga and penned my first short story. A Lucasfilm-licensed role-playing game magazine was looking for short fiction, so I submitted my story and it was accepted for publication!

Your books are set at the close of the 12th century, and while this is very long ago, we still know quite a lot about the principal players. Tell us a bit about your research, and specifically about how you’ve recreated the world of everyday lives.
My initial research started on the web where I found gold – fully digitized (and translated) contemporary chronicles of the events, politics, and people of the Third Crusade. The Annals of Roger de Hoveden offers the crusaders’ side of the story; and a number websites give background information, but few provide the detail necessary to immerse a reader in the past. But – speaking in my librarian voice – a good online resource includes citations and bibliographies, which led me to Saladin’s chroniclers. I read biographies, general histories, books on society and culture, on warfare in medieval times, and found more citations and bibliographies – it’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it? Then there is more angst – have I missed some important aspect of the place and time? I plunged in with a deeper understanding of the life and times of Richard I, integrating my fictional characters into that world and hoping I have transported my readers to the past.

Is it the research that drives you or the story-telling?
It’s been a mix of both. My reading of de Hoveden’s Annals began purely out of an interest in learning more about The Third Crusade. It laid the groundwork and said ‘you have a story to tell.’ It became a matter of creating situations where Henry and Stephan could participate. For King and Country takes the knights back to England and introduces Henry’s family, and while there is the wider political context, Henry’s conflict really drives the story. I knew where I wanted each of the characters’ story arcs to go, and then confirmed that each would fit with the historical events through my research.

What inspired you to set your books in this particular period?
I had decided years ago that I was going to write a time-travel spy novel set during the American Revolution, which is an era I studied in more depth in college as a U.S. history major. A BBC television show on Robin Hood distracted me. It featured a couple of episodes with Richard the Lionheart in the Holy Land. I was hooked. Two books later, here we are…

CS kingMedWhy did you decide to build something round the old legends of Robin Hood? Was it your original intent to have Robin be the main character? If yes, when did Henry and Stephan take over?
Robin would like to think he was supposed to be the focus of Battle Scars – he does have a bit of an ego – but he started off as William, a knight and friend of the main characters, a fairly minor role. The original short story that began it all was Henry and Stephan’s story. I told my critique group that William was a Robin Hood-like character, but I had no intention of integrating the Robin Hood legend. I think I was intimidated by the thought of it when so many other writers had written such brilliant takes on the tales. At that point, I wasn’t even planning to write a novel, let alone a Book II, but I re-named William and his life took shape in my mind and in many notes on the computer when, more than two years later, I decided to write the novel. A few chapters into Men of the Cross, I introduced two young thieves, who were merely there to push the plot along and show sides of Henry and Stephan that the reader hadn’t seen. My critique group loved the boys and said, “I hope we see more of them.” That’s when the idea of creating my own version of the Robin Hood legend took shape, and suddenly those two thieves had names: Allan and Little John.

Your books are original in that there is no damsel-in-distress vs saving-knight love story. Instead, we have a fiery blaze of passion and love between Henry and Stephan. Was this planned from the beginning?
Henry had no plans to fall in love with another man, but that had always been one of the main themes of Men of the Cross. Henry did not think of himself as ‘gay,’ if I can use the modern term. And Stephan, who readily admitted his preference for male sexual companionship, changes as much as Henry does as their relationship develops from close friendship to love. The Church’s stance provided plenty of conflict, especially for Henry, and that continues in For King and Country, when Henry worries that his family will see the depth of his relationship with Stephan.

Did you find it difficult to write the Henry and Stephan scenes? (And I must add I think you’ve done a fantastic job, delivering a sequence of scenes of such tenderness I can but applaud you.)
Thank you! I love Henry and Stephan, so writing their love scenes and pouring a range of emotions into them became easy, but that only came after I experimented – with the writing, that is – with various levels of heat. Readers with faint hearts don’t have to worry about anything too graphic – there might be a scene or two in Book II that hits a 3 out of 5.

Obviously, homosexual relationships are as old as the human race, and Henry’s and Stephan’s closest companions take it in stride that they are lovers. Do you think this is indicative of how people would have reacted back then?
I wish I could say yes, but the Church was hugely influential in the daily lives of people, and the Church condemned sodomy, which included homosexual behaviour as well as many other types of sexual activity (e.g., adultery, sex in anything but the missionary position, sex only on certain days of the month). Of course, humans being human, rules were broken, but a quick trip to the confessional – where priests had a list of penitentials for such sins – and your soul was safe from the fires of Hell. Considering Henry’s concern about keeping his love for Stephan hidden from everyone but his small circle of friends, perhaps some people accepted (or ignored) it. Obviously, no one could openly condone it. (Anna says: if you want to read more about this, Char and I have collaborated on a post regarding sex in the middle ages – or rather the attitudes towards it.)

In your book, Prince John is portrayed as the ultimate bad guy. Leaving aside the fact that all good stories need a villain, do you think this is a correct representation of John?
Interestingly, for a short time whilst Richard was on crusade, John had the support of many English barons in the struggle against Chancellor William Longchamp’s quest for power, but I fully believe John’s motives were to consolidate his own power. He showed his shifting loyalties when he abandoned his dying father Henry II to go to the winning side. Prior to that he led the disastrous campaign in Ireland, and during the period of For King and Country, he plots with Philip of France to usurp Richard’s throne. He and the French king were willing to pay the Holy Roman Emperor to keep Richard imprisoned! My plan is to end Book III of Battle Scars with John ascending the throne and I’m having a hard time imagining a happily-ever-after. The tales of John’s treachery and abuses leading up to Magna Carta certainly make him look the villain. He made bad decisions. He trusted the wrong people, if he trusted anyone at all. If Philip of France had not been John’s adversary and he’d not lost most of continental realm to the man, it would be interesting to speculate on the ‘what ifs’.

Likewise, King Richard is the recipient of a lot of hero-worship from your protagonists. Here and there, you include the mutterings from the common people, who have little reason to love their king and his taxes. What is your take on Richard?
Richard was a great warrior and military strategist. I think he knew the art of diplomacy and was adept at negotiation, including during his time in captivity. But he was not a great administrator. On the other hand, with the exception of Longchamp’s appointment, Richard generally chose able men to manage the business of the kingdom. Unfortunately, because of the crusade, his lengthy imprisonment, and the campaigns against the French, he spent all but a few months of his reign on the continent. He gets a bad rap for bankrupting the kingdom and not spending more time in England, but the Angevin empire was more than England and the troubles happened to be with the Plantagenet continental holdings. Kings of the medieval period didn’t sit in the castle waiting for news from the front lines. They led their troops, fought alongside them. Philip of France invaded Richard’s territory. What kind of king would not want to keep his Angevin empire intact?

I know you’re planning for a next book in the series. Have you already started writing it or are you still at the research phase? And can we hope to see plenty of Henry and Stephan in that book as well?
Henry and Stephan will remain major players in Swords of the King. I am in the very early stages of research at this point and only have a few plot points mapped out. I wish I could say I was further along, but real life tends to get in the way of the writing. I hope to begin writing by the end of summer, but unlike some people – eyes the interviewer & smiles – it will probably take me at least 9 months to finish the first draft. In other words, don’t look for Book III anytime soon!

Assuming Henry and Stephan would pop into your present day life for a visit, what would you offer them to eat? And what would they think of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker?
Lasagna – my Italian mom’s recipe – and some good red wine. I’m rather fond of Argentinian Malbecs myself.
Since I do spend many hours writing about Henry and Stephan at home, they are surrounded by Star Wars, and like my own kids, they think it’s pretty cool. Anyone who has never seen any of the seven films should always start with A New Hope, Episode IV, which is how I introduced the young knights to the Star Wars universe. They got past the strange aliens, the flying ships and robots, and the fact that Obi Wan looks like a priest in his long brown robe. Neither Henry nor Stephan were fond of the whinging Luke Skywalker, but as he showed his bravery and resourcefulness both knights were won over to the light side and became firm believers in Luke’s dedication to the Rebel Alliance. There was no question in their minds that Vader was evil and they were curious about his armor. But those lightsabers – most impressive!

Yes, I imagine having those at hand would have made it that much easier to win a medieval skirmish or two :) Thank you so much for stopping by, Char, and best of luck with your new book!

*********************

Now, I have already read For King and Country, and my review is as follows: WOW. Nah, just kidding, so here goes:

It’s well over a year since I read Ms Newcomb’s first book in her Battle Scars series, Men of the Cross. Set during the Third Crusade, this book introduced Henry de Grey and Stephan l’Aigle, two young men who find themselves in more ways than one while fighting the infidel in the Holy Land.
Now Henry and Stephan – together with the enigmatic Robin – have returned to England, only to find the enemy lives and breathes at home as well, in this case as the grasping Prince John, younger brother to the imprisoned King Richard – and determined to make England his own.
We all know the general story of Richard and his younger brother, we all know that England was ravaged by strife, with some men siding with John, others with their king. This is the complicated mess to which Henry and Stephan return, and soon enough it becomes apparent it will be very difficult to identify friend from foe – even within the immediate family.
Ms Newcomb has stepped outside the normal restrictions imposed on novels set in these times in that her Henry and Stephan are not only comrades in arms, they are lovers. In a sequence of beautiful scenes, she breathes careful life into their passion, moments of tenderness and love that make it abundantly clear theirs is not a short-term relationship, theirs is the love of a lifetime.
Unfortunately, Henry is the heir to estates and is expected to marry. Fortunately, the young bride, Elle, is no more interested in marrying Henry than he is in marrying her, which leads to a creative approach to things.
While Henry’s marital issues are a recurring theme throughout the book, the central plot is based round Prince John’s determination to fight his brother for England. In secret, he is arming and provisioning various castles – among them Nottingham – and this is where Sir Robin, loyal knight to King Richard, takes the lead, forming a band of men to create as much havoc as possible. Men such as Tuck and Little John, Allan and Will take on shape, becoming very different creatures than the outlaws we know from the old tales of Robin and his Merry men. And yes, there is a Marion too.
Beautifully written, chock-full of historical details imparted elegantly throughout, For King and Country is a compelling and wonderful read.

******************

I think it goes without saying that I warmly recommend this book, and so it is with great pleasure I can inform you that Char is giving away a Kindle copy! To enter the giveaway, just leave a comment in which you share your take on King John. Good or bad?

If you want to buy your own copy – of course you do! – click here!

To find out more about Char & connect with her, why not try her website or her Amazon page? Char is also on FB and Twitter.

Ba, ba, black sheep

wool 50px-PipeandbelldavidI seem to be on a woolly streak of late. First a post about tartan some days back, and today a post about sheep. Well: it’s not about sheep, it’s about wool, and seeing as no sheep equals no wool, that per definition means you cannot talk about one without mentioning the other.

Sheep have a reputation for being incredibly stupid. Not that I can boast of any in-depth relationship with a sheep, but what interaction I’ve had rather indicates that they couldn’t care less about us humans, they’re more into grazing and staring unstintingly at us if we get too close. I can also tell you they weigh a lot. With or without their fleece, lifting a sheep requires serious arm muscle.

Sheep are one of those animals that were domesticated very early on. Originally, mainly as meals-on-hooves, but over time as a source of wool, our forebears having discovered that wool is quite the thing if you want clothing that retains warmth even if it is damp. I imagine those nomads from whom we all descend quite often found themselves at the mercy of the weather, ergo damp clothes were probably a recurring event in their lives.

Wild sheep tend to be brownish. Domesticated sheep quickly went white, seeing as it is far easier to dye white wool brown than brown wool white, if you see what I mean. It was something of a lucky coincidence that white is a dominant trait – at least for our forebears who were doing their first forays into genetics – and so sheep are mostly depicted as being white. Except for the black sheep, that is. The scapegoat, if you will, the one who does not conform. (Incidentally, in Sweden the nursery song is Bä,bä vita lamm – Ba,ba, white lamb. Obviously, us Swedes don’t rate black sheep all that much…)

wool British LibraryAnyway: man ambled about with his sheep, his goats. At some point, man domesticated cows and pigs, and pigs aren’t that much for ambling really. I mean, they like a good day out in the forest eating acorns, but walking long, long distances to graze isn’t quite a piggy thing. Besides, man had discovered how to sow crops, and wheat and stuff does not go walk-about, which is why man eschewed the nomadic existence to instead become a farmer. Well, not all men. Some preferred to hunt and trade their meat for whatever the farmer produced.

Over time, man began amassing wealth. Lots of land was wealth. Lots of sheep, cows, goats were wealth. Lots of wives…yes, also a sign of wealth, but hopefully even that ancient male distinguished between his sheep and his women. And I guess most men weren’t rich enough to have more than one wife, which probably markedly upped the potential for domestic bliss. Women are somewhat possessive when it comes to their men.

1899-43305Civilisation picked up speed, and we’re going to whizz by huge chunks of it, and suddenly we are in medieval England. At the time, sheep were everywhere, one could say. Sheep were the mainstay of English wealth, the English sheep having quite the reputation for their high quality wool. Monasteries financed their human flock by keeping huge flocks of sheep, the man of the manor did the same, the income generated by the wool adding that little extra to a life mostly dominated by a lot of pea-soup and porridge. Wool was used to pay the ransom for Richard Lionheart (50 000 sacks of high-quality wool were put forward to contribute. To put into perspective, approximately 40 000 sacks of wool were exported during the peak years of the wool trade in the 14th century).

Effectively, England was a raw material producer. English sheep were sheared, the fleeces were washed, skirted, picked and bundled and transported abroad where others carded and spun after which the wool thread was woven into high quality cloth by Flemish or Italian weavers. Eventually, some of all this high quality stuff found its way back to England where it was bought by the well-to-do. The added value in this financial operation remained in other than English hands, with Flemish and Italian cloth merchants growing very fat and happy.

wool El_Buen_Pastor

El buen pastor, Murillo (and that’s a Merino)

BUT. No wool, no cloth, no income. Obviously, there was more than English wool around – specifically a lot of Spanish wool. Truth be told, Spain was the leading supplier of high quality wool, even more so since they cross-bred English sheep with their own native breeds in the 12th and 13th century, thereby creating that jewel among sheep, the Merino. Merino wool was of superior quality to anything else on the woolly planet, and prior to the 18th century attempting to smuggle a Merino out of the country was punishable by death. Before Spain “discovered” all that gold in the New World, their primary source of wealth, just as for England, were their sheep.

So imagine you were the purchaser for a Tuscan mill. Off you went to scour the various markets for high quality fleece, and in this case you decided to skip the expensive Spanish stuff and look for a bargain elsewhere. England was full of sheep – and other merchants swooping down to buy up what they could. Chances were you might end up with no wool unless you got there early or offered a premium price. Alternatively, a new approach was needed to ensure constant supply.

The Italians, being a savvy people with an innate aptitude for trade, had already in the early 13th century developed some sort of rudimentary financial market. Initially, it was more a question of advancing money to a farmer with the future crop as collateral, but soon enough these agrarian “futures” spread to other things. Like wool. That monastery out in the wilds really, really needed a new church, but at the rate of their annual income it would take them twenty years to finance it. Enter the creative wool-buyer:
“I tell you what: I’ll advance you the amount you need, and instead you sell me your wool for the coming twenty years at a fixed price.”
“What, all my wool?” the abbot said, and then they’d haggle for a while, before agreeing on fixed quantities and fixed prices.

As a financial professional, I must admit to being quite fascinated by these very early “futures” – goes to show that trade in medieval times was, in its own way, far more innovative than we generally give it credit for. The transactions were documented – several hundreds of these contracts survive, detailing the seller, the buyer, the price and delivery schedules. Advances have been recorded, there are contractual consequences should the seller not deliver, and all in all, these are quite sophisticated financial instruments. I would imagine that in some instances these contracts were sold on, but in general the purpose was not to speculate on the price in wool, but rather safeguard its supply.

Now the English kings were fully aware of how important the wool trade was for their economy. At times, desperate times required desperate measures, which was why in the 1290s Edward I confiscated all the wool from foreign merchants in England. He then sold it again and lined his coffers with the money required to continue his bellicose efforts. Wool was also taxed, creating a nice steady revenue – soft, fluffy stuff financing hauberks and swords, war-steeds and crossbows.

wool Edward_III_of_England_(Order_of_the_Garter)

Edward III, early 15th c depiction

Edward I’s high-handedness was quite the blow to the advance contracts on wool. And in 1337, his grandson, Edward III, attempted to create a wool monopoly, the Wool Company, with designated buyers purchasing all English wool and selling it on as it benefited the crown. Not only did Edward “borrow” the income generated by all this wool to finance his armies, he also took the opportunity of starving the Low Country textile mills of wool, thereby causing substantial unrest and poverty among the former textile workers. This was Edward’s way of punishing the Flemish rulers for their support of the French King in what was soon to escalate to the Hundred Years’ War.

Ultimately, the Wool Company was not successful, but it was definitely the death-knell to the innovative structure of the wool future, seeing as the number of new advance contracts declined sharply afterwards.

wool 07-5376373England’s wool export, however, continued to thrive, and throughout the 14th century wool remained the single most important source of wealth for England, which is why Edward III ordered that his Lord Chancellor should sit on a bale of wool, the “Woolsack”, a constant reminder to all those present that without those little critters that went ba-ba, England would plunge into obscurity and poverty.

These days, Australia is the world’s biggest wool producer, followed by the US, China and New Zealand. Together, they produce 60% of the total world production, while the UK, once such a dominant player, delivers 2% or so. And Spain is no longer on the top-ten list, although indirectly it is, seeing as the Merino remains one of the most important sheep breeds around.

P.S. Should you want to know more about the wool trade and those advance contracts, I recommend “Advance Contracts for the sale of wool in medieval England: an undeveloped and inefficient market?” by Bell, Brooks & Dryburgh (University of Reading)

Post Navigation

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 592 other followers

%d bloggers like this: