Sex, drugs, and other useful things you need to know when writing medieval England

My interest in medieval England began when I started writing Shalott, a reworking of Arthurian legend and a new interpretation of the famous poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I’d begun with the sorts of ‘what if’ questions that won’t leave authors alone: what if it’s possible to go back in time and rewrite history (or, in this case, a legend?) What if, at the same time, you’re actually creating the legend of the Lady of Shalott (aka Elaine of Astolat)? What if you also rewrite your own life in the process?

Shalott turned into a trilogy, during which time I researched frantically to get up to speed both on Arthurian legend and on life in medieval time, as I knew very little about either when I first started. At the time, I figured I could excuse any mistakes by saying that the teenagers were time-slipping back to a legendary world rather than ‘real time’ – and with so many different versions of Camelot, I felt free to invent what I didn’t know.

Once I’d finished the Shalott trilogy, I tried to bring my imagination back to Australia. By now I was hooked on history, and I cast about for some interesting aspect to write about, along the lines of my very successful time-slip novel for children, titled Ghost Boy, which explores the grisly past of the Quarantine Station in Sydney in the 19th century. But nothing appealed; nothing set my imagination on fire - and I don’t believe in writing anything unless I’m passionately committed to it. I realised then that my heart, my dreaming, were still firmly lodged in medieval England.

And so my new medieval crime series for teenagers, The Janna Mysteries, was born. The overarching quest is Janna’s search for her unknown father, in order to avenge her mother’s death and bring the killer to justice. She comes to realise that her mother’s past is also a mystery to her, a mystery she needs to unravel if she is ever to find her father. Janna is the daughter of a wortwyf (herbwife); her skill with healing takes her from the cot she shared with her mother on the edge of a forest to a manor farm, an abbey, on the road with pilgrims and jongleurs and eventually into the heart of the royal court. Janna unravels the mystery of her birth as well as solving crimes and other mysteries along the way. To date, Book 1, Rosemary for Remembrance, and Book 2, Rue for Repentance, have been published by Random House Australia, with Book 3, Lilies for Love, to be launched at the Writers Centre during the festival.

Giving the novels different settings (and almost a new cast of characters each time) frees me to explore different aspects of medieval society along with different sorts of crimes. The downside is that I’ve had to do far more research than if my character had stayed in one place and within the same stratum of society! However, it does give Janna room to educate herself, to acquire wisdom, to empower herself, to change and grow – which was an even more important consideration for me when planning the series.

The novels are set in the 1140s, during the civil war between King Stephen and the rightful heir to the throne of England, the Empress Matilda. While my characters are fictitious, they meet people from history and become involved in events that actually happened, which means that I’ve had to take my research far more seriously. It’s an ongoing challenge: how to write medieval England from so far away both in time and place?
First of all, I am in the throes of acquiring a huge library of both fiction and non-fiction. I find that reading novels in a similar period helps to get me in the mood of the time – in my case, the Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters and ‘When Christ and his Saints Slept’ by Sharon Penman are a wonderful resource. I’ve also collected a diverse range of nonfiction texts.

As Janna is a healer, I have copies of Gerard, Culpeper, Abbess Hildegard von Bingen and even Leechcraft, a highly entertaining look at Anglo-Saxon medical practice compiled by Stephen Pollington. In addition, I have several English wildflower texts plus English birds and trees to help identify what Janna might have seen and what plants she would have used for her medicaments.

An ordnance survey map of the area is also invaluable, so I can work out the position of streams, tracks, ancient building sites, their distance from each other, and how Janna will travel from place to place.
Something else I’ve found invaluable, apart from various writers guides, books on medieval history and society, chronicles of the time, costumes through the ages, etc, are illustrated children’s texts. For example, the ‘See through history’ series published by Hamlyn featuring the middle ages has double-layered plans, exterior and interior, of a water mill, a castle, a market street and a monastery as well as diverse illustrations of food, dress, pastimes, hunting, farming, etc. It’s certainly true that a picture is worth a thousand words!
Pages from illustrated mss also give a wonderful feel for the time: the British Library publication ‘Medieval Rural Life in the Luttrell Psalter’ was a great help when writing Rue for Repentance, while ‘The Medieval Church in Manuscripts’ helped me with Lilies for Love, where Janna spends time in an abbey learning to read and write.

I have travelled to England and walked in the footsteps of my character, which I found invaluable. While there I stayed at a manor farm, which helped with the writing of Rue, until I came to ‘the sheep thing’. In medieval time were sheep washed before or after shearing? My farmer friend couldn’t tell me, but the order was important for plot purposes. I’m fortunate, in that the universe seems to provide me with the books and information I need when I need them. I was running early for a doctor’s appointment one day, so ducked into a second-hand bookshop nearby (always a great source of the weird and wonderful!) and came across Seebohm’s ‘The Evolution of the English Farm’, which told me exactly what I needed to know and a lot more besides.
On another occasion, I walked across downs and through the forest, picking wildflowers. Tired and thirsty, I called into a pub and, while waiting for my lunch, pulled out my collection of drooping plants and my flower guide. The chef wandered out and was horrified: apparently it’s illegal to pick wildflowers in the UK. Oops! But I explained why I’d done it, and at the same time asked if, as a chef, he knew what my character might eat while hiding out in a forest. He raced off and brought back a wonderful little book, ‘Food for Free’ – thus ensuring that Janna wouldn’t starve in Book 2 while hiding from those who wished her dead!

If you’re under 20 and reading this, your first recourse when it comes to research is probably to Google what you need to know. Google, of course, is a wonderful tool so far as it goes - but beware of traps for the unwary. For example: in Lilies for Love, Janna witnesses a cockfight. None of my books gave the sorts of details I needed to know, so I googled ‘cockfight’ – and immediately accessed several porno sites which may well have been entertaining, but weren’t much use for the purposes of my novel! Fortunately a friend of mine had witnessed a cockfight many years ago in Indonesia, and could tell me all about it.

Along the research route, I’ve come across many intriguing and funny things, some of which I am able to weave into my stories, some not. Births, deaths and arranged marriages are a source of fascination, particularly when it comes to plot possibilities - like a medieval recipe to ‘put courage in your man’. The Viagra of the middle ages, according to Lacey and Danziger’s ‘The Year 1000’, was to boil agrimony in milk. (Don’t use Welsh ale instead, for that has the opposite effect!) There were always herbs to take if an unwanted pregnancy resulted – but only if you were prepared to go against the church’s teaching and risk eternal damnation.
As for LSD and how the peasants got off their faces during ‘the hungry month’? Come to the history festival and find out!

© Felicity Pulman, 2006