Saturday, 24 June 2017

MEDIEVAL BRITAIN C.1000-1500 By David Crouch. An overview by Elizabeth Chadwick

The other day a signed copy of this beautiful book landed on my desk, courtesy of David Crouch, professor of medieval history at the University of Hull.
I think I have most of Professor Crouch's works on my book shelf.  The first one I bought was his biography of William Marshal (now recently in its third and updated edition) and I have since added many more.  David Crouch has an easy, conversational writing style that at the same time remains erudite.  He knows his history and does not suffer fools gladly.  He also has a dry and sometimes mischievous sense of humour.  For example, one of his sub-chapter headings is playfully titled 'One King to Rule Them All.'

This most recent work features the striking jewelled crown of Ann of Bohemia (or possibly Edward III)  on the  cover. museum information here.

The book itself (in my opinion) is aimed in the direction of history students finishing their secondary education and looking to take a degree in Medieval history, and perhaps new undergranduates who need to get themselves up to speed on the subject it matter.  It will also suit curious and switched on members of the general public who enjoy reading historical non fiction.  In content the work is a broad overview of Britain between the years mentioned in the title. Some reigns are covered in more depth than others.  Readers seeking a full analysis of the reigns of Richard the Lionheart or Henry IV will not find them, for example, whereas the reigns of John and Richard II receive more attention by contrast. Professor Crouch explains that he has been "deliberately selective, focusing on those events  which span the centuries and have a broader significance for Medieval life.'  Personally I would like to have seen Professor Crouch air his views in these areas, but I understand the constraints of word count, and also that the main narrative of the subject matter has to be kept on track.

The work is arranged in three major parts.

The Empire of Britain
Living in Medieval Britain
The Great Divorce.

Each part is then divided by clearly delineated large sub-headings with an overview.   The Empire of Britain for example has the headings 'A Century of Conquest 1000-1100' and 'Francophone Britain 1100-1217.'
Living in Medieval Britain has clearly numbered sub-headings dealing with - among others - monarchy, language, the state, the church, establishing the church, life experience, Material Britain.  Part 3 looks at redefining Britain, Scotland between 1306 and 1513, and dynastic struggles.  

All of these larger sub-heading sections are further divided up into concise but informative essays on particular subjects, all clearly numbered in progression.  So, for example,  Life Experience, number 9 in the progression begins with an overview. It's followed by a headed section on The Expectations on Women,  then the same for men. The Shape of the Family, Ancestry and Kingship,  Family Love,  Marriage, Sex outside Marriage, Sexuality, The Tyranny of Normalcy, The Widow, Medieval Childhood,  Life Expectancy,  Anxiety and Disease, Mortality Crises, Ageing.  Each section is discussed with examples cited from primary sources.

The end of each of these numbered sections features a post script and suggestions for key texts to be read as well as further reading. Also some end notes on quotations in the essays.  

It's all very clearly laid out and excellent for absorbing, not so much in bitesize chunks, as in satisfying but not over-filling small meals. 

The work is illustrated throughout with black and white photographs and maps.  There is a handy timeline at the front of the book to keep the reader on track with who was who and what was happening at a given time.  There is also a useful glossary at the end. 

Every part of the British Isles is covered and discussed both separately and in connection with the individual nations and territories. Again, not in great depth, but sufficient unto a clear overview leading to further investigation. 

I would recommend this work as a great addition to the bookshelf if you are in any way interested in Medieval history. It is lucid and set out in a way that makes the content easy to absorb. It's highly readable and occasionally raises a smile.  It also might challenge various mainstream preconceptions. Readers interested in the fine details of a specific reign may not find them here beyond the broadest brush strokes, but that is not what this book is about or intended for. Its aim is to point out the general trends taking place over time and to act as a launchpad into further reading.

Definitely recommended. 

Friday, 23 June 2017

The Apothecary's rose, by Leslie Wilson

It is in flower in my garden now, and on warm days and evenings it fills the air with scent. It is a healthy, beautiful rose, flowering only once, but profusely, over a long period. Fly sometimes appear on it, but it seems to shrug them off, and it never gets black spot, though it's grown in shallow, poor topsoil (though I do mulch it with compost and horse manure).
It is rosa gallica officinalis, the apothecary's rose, and its history in these islands goes back to the Middle Ages. As its name implies, it was used in medicine. Nicholas Culpeper wrote of it: “Red roses cool, bind, strengthen both vital and animal virtue, restores such as are in consumptions, strengthen.' In 1597, Gerard's Herbal suggested that the petals of red roses 'should be ground with sugar and used to "strengthen the heart and take away the shaking and trembling thereof".

Its origins are in Central Asia, but it was grown in many countries in the ancient world -Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome - not surprisingly, given its virtues and beauty, as well as its medicinal applications.It was used for medicinal purposes long before Gerard or Culpeper recorded its use in their herbals. It's also called the 'Provins Rose' because it was grown in this town in France, and the name 'rosa gallica' means 'the rose of Gaul', indicating its French origin; though Jenny Uglow, in her 'Little History of British Gardening', says the Romans first brought it to Britain and grew it in the gardens of their villas. The wild form is single; the ancient cultivar is semi-double, which means it is still of use to pollinators, and there is usually a  bumble-bee's eager rear end to be seen in the heart of many of the blooms throughout the day in my garden.

Shakespeare told the tale of the different contenders in the Wars of the Roses picking blooms to indicate which side they supported; the Yorkists picked white roses, and the Lancastrians red ones. The rosa galllica was the emblem of the House of Lancaster, as the rosa alba, the Great White Rose, was the emblem of Eleanor of Provence, and became part of the design of Edward I's Great Seal of State.I went to school in North Lancashire, and it was important, in the late 50s, that it was Red Rose country.It is still the official emblem of Lancashire.

My daughter got married in the Walled Garden at Cowdray, a venue that had personal historical significance  as my great-grandparents lived in Midhurst, and my grandmother was born there. But of course, the Walled Garden was the garden of the now ruined castle, and when the original manor was built, I should think it extremely likely that rosa gallica was grown in the garden, though I didn't notice it in today's walled garden. It might be there. However, the petals were there that day, as I brought a bagful of them from our garden to throw over her and her new husband. One of the things that impressed the ancients about the gallica was the ability of the petals to retain the scent, even when dried, which made it the rose of choice for pot-pourri, and then of course there were the medicinal applications. I opened the bag, before we did the petal-throwing, and let privileged guests inhale the scent and be enraptured.

When I go out there and put my nose to the blooms, or just stand there and let the scent waft into my nostrils, I am just the latest of people who, over the centuries, have benefited from this rose. I love it that it's so sturdy and vigorous and not at all a challenge to grow. It's survived for a long time, so why wouldn't it be tough?

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Museums, Doll Houses and Giant Scones by Catherine Hokin

I have recently started working on a project with the Glasgow Women’s Library as a Community Curator which is all a bit fab. I will be doing a post about the library shortly and, when we work out what it is going to be from the trove of delights in the archive, a preview about the exhibition we are planning in 2018. One of the many things we have been reflecting on as a team is what makes a museum memorable. From my own experience I know that you remember museum visits for all kinds of reasons which may having nothing to do with the exhibitions. My eventual refusal to leave the Barcelona FC museum because I loved it is remembered far less than my behaving like Kevin and Perry at the suggestion of going and the irony of the Dunbrody Ship and Famine Experience in Ireland having scones bigger than our heads will live on as a family folk tale.

Pritzker Military Museum
So to my own shared tale. In 2010 I found myself stranded in Chicago for a week following the volcanic eruption in Iceland. It was an odd experience, coming as it did at the end of a holiday: we were mentally adjusting to returning to everyday life (and physically adjusting – we were actually airborne on a plane that was sent back) and no longer felt like tourists. I was teaching at the time and had touched on the origins of photo-journalism with a class – the American Civil War (which I have always been obsessed with) was the birthplace of this so I decided to use my time to do some research, which was when I discovered the wonderful Pritzker Military Museum and Library. 

Once the staff recovered from their hilarity at my pronunciation of Antietam they fell over themselves to help me; once they realised I had an interest in women’s history, they pulled out a whole new set of photos and documents about the women who had fought in the conflict disguised as male soldiers. These women were astonishing. Not all cases could be documented but estimates suggest 400-750 ordinary American women actively participated, fighting as men. Writing in 1888, Mary Livermore of the US Sanitary Commission wrote“Someone has stated the number of women soldiers known to the service as little less than 400. I cannot vouch for the correctness of this estimate, but I am convinced a large number of women disguised themselves and enlisted in the service, for one cause or another, than was dreamed of. Entrenched in secrecy, and regarded as men, they were sometimes revealed as women, by accident or casualty. Some startling histories of these military women were current in the gossip of army life."

 Family Devotion: the ideal wife and mother
Choosing this active, masculine role was a step outside the social boundaries of the period which rigidly fixed the female role. The American Civil War lasted from 1861-65 and was fought to determine what kind of a nation it would be: the war’s coming challenged most of the attitudes that held sway across the country, including the ideology of domesticity that shaped the lives of men and women in both the North and South. In the antebellum period, life for women was shaped by a set of ideals American historians often refer to as The Cult of True Womanhood. As men’s work moved more into the external sphere of offices and factories, the household became more feminized and private, a haven in which ‘true women’ were encouraged to strive and build their husbands a comfortable home. Under this world-view, women were perceived as frail, subordinate and passive creatures with no interest in the outside world. The war changed all this and is seen by many as the first step towards emancipation.

From 1861 women were actively involved in the war effort on both sides, engaged in domestically-based work such as knitting, baking and fund-raising galas as well as the horrors of front-line nursing such as experienced by author Louisa May Alcott. For some women, however, even nursing, which remained strictly socially-controlled, was too small a step beyond the domestic sphere. The reasons they became soldiers were as different as the women themselves: for some it was freedom, for others it was patriotism, or more money than they could hope to earn in their narrow worlds, to follow their husbands or, simply, to have an adventure. One of the few women very open about what she was doing was Sarah Rosetta Wakeman who served with the 153rd Regiment out of New York and wrote to her strict family about her choice saying she was “as independent as a hog on ice.” The reasons differed but all broke the stereotype of how women should think and live.

 Jennie Hodgers
These women did everything the men did, including working as spies and fighting in some of the worst combat: at least four women were known to have fought at Antietam on 17 September 1862 which, with its 30,000 casualties, was the single bloodiest day in the conflict. They were rarely discovered: physical examinations were scant, uniforms were baggy and so many young boys volunteered that the lack of a beard was nothing remarkable. Jennie Hodgers fought the whole war undiscovered as Albert Cashier and then lived the rest of her life as a man. Sarah Edmonds, who served for two years as Franklin Flint Thompson and whose career only ended when she contracted malaria, was described by comrades as a “frank and fearless” soldier and was awarded a military pension for her services.

After the war ended the existence of these soldier-women became widely known, at least among the reading public. An 1866 publication, The Women of the War by Frank Moore, included a chapter on female military heroines and some women, including Loreta Valazquez who fought as Harry Buford, published their memoirs. The US Army, however, denied women had played any role. In 1909, in response to a query about women who had served, Adjutant General Ainsworth responded: “I have the honor to inform you that no official record has been found in the War Department showing specifically that any woman was ever enlisted…at any time during the period of the civil war. It is possible, however, that there may have been a few instances of women having served as soldiers for a short time without their sex having been detected, but no record of such cases is known to exist in the official files.”  This was despite the detailed records that existed, including examples of discharge on the grounds of ‘sexual incompatibility’. A poorly timed attempt to put women back in the doll’s house.

The women who fought were ordinary soldiers, not generals or commanders: they did not change the course of battles. They were not, however, ordinary women: they displayed revolutionary attitudes by refusing to stay in their socially-delineated place. It is heartening how many of their stories are now being uncovered after too long a period in which their role was denied or reduced to the activities of a few oddities and eccentrics. For anyone who wants to find out more, can I recommend She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers of the Civil War by Bonnie Tsui. And, if you are in Chicago, go to the Pritzker and lose yourself: they’ll welcome you with open arms.  

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

London Books by Imogen Robertson

Being a Londoner feels a bit tough this month. I’ve worked in Borough Market and lots of my friends still do, as does my husband from time to time. Now the horror of that attack has been subsumed by the nightmare of Grenfell Tower and as I write this, news is coming through of an attack on the Finsbury Park mosque. I’m not going to draw any historical analogies or share any platitudes about how London will carry on, but I will say this: I believe that the divide between rich and poor in this city is a greater threat to its health and character than any terrorist plot however tragic and grim those are. It is the diversity of the capital, the mix of nations, religions, and backgrounds, artists, opportunists, adventurers and refugees which has formed London's enduring appeal and is the corner-stone of its particular and particularly rich culture. I don’t think there has ever been a time when living here has been as precarious as it is now for the vast majority of Londoners. The empty luxury flats, the crippling rents forcing out middle and low income earners and the horrific squeeze on social housing is making us all poorer. Surely at some point we have to realise the greater good is not always compatible with maximising private profits.

These are some of my favourite books about London in all her messy glory to celebrate what the city is, and a reminder of what we could lose if we abandon the streets to the oligarchs and landlords. Two novels, three non-fiction, all brilliant.

This lyrical, deeply felt novel tells the story of another London tragedy. The novel explores the lives of the people of Walworth in 1912 and renders their voices with subtle care. It is rich with folklore and closely observes how tradition changes with the movement of people into the capital, and adapts, as they do, to the city.

Subtitled The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum, this is a remarkable history of a particular culture in place and time. Wise is a great historian, but also has a novelist’s eye for the telling detail, the particular incident, person or story which makes the general feel vivid and personal. This is the opposite of nostalgia and a study which does not patronise or smooth off the rough edges of a society on the margins, but brings it to full-bloodied life. 

A wonderful collection of traditions, histories, ghosts and legends from an expert in folklore. Bad behaviour in Mayfair, the Lion Sermon, the rose rent, Dogett’s boat race and the story of the first ‘pearly king’. Written with fluency and affection. 

One of the most important books on immigration and the growth and culture of Black Britain you can read. Vast in scope and scholarship and as relevant today as when it was published in the 1980s.  

A wild celebration of the multi-cultural mashup which is London and built on all sorts of strands of magic myth and folklore, it’s no surprise that these novels are favourites of mine. They are also witty, thrilling and kind which makes them a much needed balm. I suspect you’ve all read them already, but if you haven’t I envy you the delight in store. 

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Lost worlds, changed lives: life beyond the Black Death

I have always thought, perhaps along with many people, that, after the devastation caused by what we call The Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, huge numbers of communities, villages and hamlets, must have become deserted. But historians and geographers have known for quite a while now that this was not in fact the case, but rather, where medieval villages were “lost”, and they obviously were, it happened over a matter of centuries, not as a direct result of that terrible plague.
Danse macabre by Michael Wolgemut, 1493

But perhaps what happened in the longer term did have its genesis in the events of the fourteenth century, and I thought it might be interesting to examine how the change in the structure of the English countryside unfolded.

It is hard to imagine what it must have been like – indeed, felt like – to see a third to a half of all your family, friends and neighbours killed within the space of a couple of months, or maybe even only a few weeks.

In the fourteenth century, death was everyday – illnesses were mostly incurable, accidents commonplace, life subject to all manner of risk. Medieval people were “fatalists”, or rather they ascribed every disaster, be it the loss of a child, dead cows, a bad harvest, or the failure of the butter to churn, either to God’s will or the Devil’s work. People did not believe they were in control, so they might as well accept whatever occurred and get on with their lives. However, I am not suggesting that this means people were intellectually feeble, but rather that they remained resilient in the face of tragedy.

Nonetheless, how truly devastating it must have been to witness death on such a scale! You can imagine that survivors might have found it too grim a prospect to try and carry on in a place where the memories – ghosts? – of so many dead friends and family still lingered. Despite the fact that their families had lived there for generations, they might well have preferred to abandon their community for somewhere new, where they could start again.

Some chroniclers of the fourteenth century, such as Henry Knighton, a canon in Leicester, have suggested that many settlements were abandoned, as a direct result of the plague:
After the pestilence, many buildings, great and small, fell into ruins…many villages and hamlets became desolated…probable that many such villages would never be inhabited.
But, while you can easily envisage that whole communities would have been wiped out, especially small hamlets, where every member of the few families who lived there succumbed to the disease, in fact, according to what records show us, it seems that this happened only rarely.

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a period of relative growth and prosperity. Fair weather and successful harvests produced surpluses that financed the building and rebuilding of castles, cathedrals, monasteries and churches, and encouraged and created flourishing towns and expanding villages. Expansion and wealth meant a growth in population, which in turn meant a demand for more land to sustain it. As a consequence, some new settlements were created on more marginal land, including heathland and woodland areas, and, for example, on the higher downland of Hampshire. Assarting, the clearing of land to make new settlements, took place on the edges of the Forest of Bere, in the Soberton area, close to my fictional “Meonbridge”.

Chalk downland, Hampshire cc-by-sa/2.0© Oswald Bertram

The countryside around “Meonbridge”, the valley of the River Meon, being relatively close to Winchester, was probably quite prosperous. The area between Havant and Fareham, a bit further to the south, was highly productive in cereal growing. But prosperity was also growing on the back of an expansion in the farming of sheep, including in the areas around Winchester, to support that city’s thriving wool and cloth industry.

The Great Hall, added to Winchester Castle by Henry III 1222-1235

However, while England was a reasonably prosperous place by the end of the thirteenth century, the growth in population and the resulting pressure on land was already bringing inevitable poverty and, with it, unrest, particularly among the poor and landless. Then, by the second decade of the fourteenth century, increasingly poor weather brought a series of bad harvests, and with too many mouths to feed and too few resources, people began to show their vulnerability. Famine took hold and continued for several years. Cynically, one might say that it began to ease the strain of overpopulation, but it must have been seriously debilitating to soul as well as body, even to those resilient medieval fatalists.

Then, in 1348-50, came the worst plague in history, taking a much more dramatic toll on the population. Further outbreaks of plague occurred throughout the century (and indeed beyond, up until the 1800s), and it took a very long time for the population to even approach again that of the thirteenth century.

But, for those mid-fourteenth century English men and women, the Black Death meant that, with far, far fewer of them, working people – the farming and labouring majority – were suddenly much more valuable, while land was no longer at a premium. The world had turned upside down, and things were going to – had to – change.

The shape of the countryside and its communities were perhaps most affected by two principal factors: the breakdown of the feudal system and a gradual change in farming practices.

Peasants harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks.
Queen Mary's Psalter (Ms. Royal 2. B. VII), 
fol. 78v (Public domain)
The old order, the system of lords and bonded tenants, had already begun to change. But when a third to a half of the tenants in a manor died in the space of a few months, it soon dawned on the tenants how valuable they had suddenly become, and also that the emptier world offered them considerable opportunities. Tenants became increasingly less prepared to submit to their lords’ wishes, such as forcing them to provide “boonworks” (unpaid work provided as partial “rent” for their tenancies) on their demesnes, or imposing constraints on their freedom of movement, and labourers were no longer willing to work for low wages, if they could get more elsewhere. The lords, if at first they resisted change, pleading with the government to help maintain the status quo, at length had to accept that change was happening and they could not stop it. Despite the government’s labour legislation, the 1351 Statute of Labourers, working people did not submit.

Some undoubtedly did leave the manors their families had lived in for generations, sometimes to receive better wages elsewhere, either on other manors or in the towns, sometimes to take up valuable land holdings on other manors, sometimes, perhaps, to occupy “abandoned” hamlets or villages. Despite the memories and ghosts, the draw of land was probably very strong and, like pioneers and settlers everywhere, they repopulated many initially deserted locations surprisingly quickly. The evidence from records does seem to suggest that, if hamlets or villages were abandoned, mostly it was only for weeks, months, or perhaps a few years. Some communities were invigorated by “fresh blood” and a determination among the incomers to succeed in the new window of opportunity. It is said that Winchester city could not in fact attract sufficient workers from the countryside to replace those it had lost because the opportunities of taking up abandoned land holdings were simply too attractive to pass up.

Even in the most tragic of times, some people – lord, freeman or bondsman – might respond in opportunistic vein. For every one who died in the plague, there was perhaps someone else who simply saw the availability of more resources. They were probably not actually grateful that the plague had given them these opportunities (to do so might invite some sort of divine retribution!), but the entrepreneurial spirit in those who would go on to make England prosperous again was perhaps released. In some cases, freemen or even wealthier tenants grew rich on the acquisition of land, eventually building holdings that would become the grand estates of later centuries. In contrast to the generally rather gloomy picture one has of the fourteenth century, in fact, in Hampshire at any rate, for some, there was a considerable expansion of fortune in the latter part of the century and beyond.

So, change in the structure of society was one concomitant outcome of the Black Death. Another was the change in farming practices.

Again, farming practices had already begun to alter, but the change accelerated in the century following the Black Death. The farming of arable land further declined. It must, after all, have been difficult to sustain such a labour-intensive form of agriculture with the availability of far fewer workers, both skilled and unskilled. Equally, with fewer mouths to feed, it was perhaps neither necessary nor worth the effort to maintain it on the previous scale. The growth of sheep farming was already happening, and the wool trade was thriving. With fewer working people available, farming sheep was undoubtedly easier to manage than arable. Evidence from the Winchester bishops’ estates shows that, by the mid-fourteenth century, a third of the arable land had ceased cultivation by comparison with a hundred years earlier. Presumably, the bad weather and poor harvests, and also a possible decline in soil fertility caused by poor husbandry, meant a move from arable to sheep was likely to prove more profitable, especially perhaps in Hampshire, where the downland was perfect for rearing sheep.

From The Luttrell Psalter, British Library.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Lords, freemen and tenants, any of them might make the change to farming sheep, anyone indeed who wanted to jump on the bandwagon of the burgeoning wool economy. In some cases, sheep presumably simply became a more important aspect of farming life in a mixed agricultural economy. But, in the worst cases, the change had a profound effect on the community, where a particularly acquisitive lord might turn his tenants out of their homes to make room for more pasture. Some “generous” lords might build cottages for the displaced tenants elsewhere, but others just pushed them out – they were simply not needed any more. So, in some cases, communities were indeed deserted through these actions, although in practice it did not happen all at once. For example, Lomer, a small community just above the villages of the Meon valley, did eventually die out through such a gradual change of land use, but not until the seventeenth century.

Certainly sheep farming did change the shape of the countryside. But other structural changes also had an impact, the creation of parks – “emparking” – being one of them. In the fourteenth century itself, these often took the form of hunting parks. However, in the next couple of centuries, one of the eventual results of some wealthy people acquiring more (and more) land was that their expanded holdings would one day develop into great estates. And owners of such estates wanted the trappings of their wealth, a great country house and a fashionable park to set it in, and they were again more than willing to evict their tenants to realise their ambitions. Again they might build them a new village outside the estate, but equally they might not. In the Meon Valley, the village of Warnford is an example of a village where the medieval settlement was moved to a new site, to be replaced by a landscaped park. The still standing church and the ruins of the manor house are evidence of the location of the original village. At Idsworth, a few miles to the south-east, a church stands in the middle of ploughed fields, showing where a community was once removed entirely in favour of a park for the owners of Idsworth House.

Idsworth Church cc-by-sa/2.0 © Roger Pagram
But much of this emparking and widespread eviction of tenants from communities came in later centuries. Famously, the poet Oliver Goldsmith wrote of it in his 1770 poem, The Deserted Village, where he bemoans the fate of a settlement destroyed by the ambitions of the landowner:
"The man of wealth and pride, Takes up a space that many poor supplied; Space for his lake, his park’s extended bounds, Space for his horses, equipage and hounds"
Although it seems clear that the Black Death did not directly lead to the long term desertion of villages, maybe what happened in the middle of the fourteenth century – the huge loss of population, the breakdown of the old way of life and the large scale move towards sheep farming – did at the very least accelerate changes that had already begun, changes that would, eventually, have significant effects on the shape of the English countryside.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Alternative history: It’s not just about Nazis by Alison Morton

Adaptations of The Man in the High Castle (original story by Philip K Dick, 1962) and SS-GB (Len Deighton, 1978) have been the most prominent ‘what if’s in front of the viewing public’s eyes recently. These stories have fascinated us as they depict the most horrific thing that could have happened to Western Europe and America in modern history. Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992) gave Nazi alternative history fiction a good nudge and then along came C J Sansom’s Dominion in 2012. Perhaps the first two are a projection of fears about the Cold War, the second two a re-examination after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

But as the Tudors are not the only historical period, so the Nazis are not the only alternative history subject. Our cousins in the US enjoy speculating about the outcomes of the War of Independence or the American Civil War, while any respectable French bookshop inevitably has a section on the ‘what if’ of Napoléon winning at Waterloo.

Alexander the Great, Naples Museum (author photo)

Alternative history is nothing new

Roman historian Livy speculated on the idea that the Romans would have eventually beaten Alexander the Great if he’d lived longer and turned west to attack them (Book IX, sections 17-19 Ab urbe condita libri (The History of Rome, Titus Livius). In 1490, Joanot Martorell  wrote Tirant lo Blanch about a knight who manages to fight off the invading Ottoman armies of Mehmet II and saves Constantinople from Islamic conquest. This was written when the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 was still a traumatic memory for Christian Europe.

What is alternative history fiction?

Althist is a speculative genre with two parents: history and science fiction. Like any genre there are conventions:
– the event that turned history from the path we know – the point of divergence (POD) – must be in the past.
– the new timeline follows a different path forever – there is no going back.
– stories should show the ramifications of the divergence and how the new reality functions.

The world of the alternative timeline can partially resemble our own or be very different. Sometimes documented historical characters appear with or without changed roles and views; sometimes the story centres on entirely fictional characters or a mixture of both. Stories such as Ken Follett’s The Key to Rebecca or Alexandre Dumas’s The Knight of Sainte-Hermine, although ‘what if’ in nature don’t result in a change of the course of history as we know it.  Noami Novik’s excellent Temeraire series where dragons fight in a Napoleonic era is, of course, historical fantasy. Time travel machines, heroines falling through temporal portals, time travellers dropping in to sort out history then popping back out, or goddesses putting everything back as it was are not included. Once the historical timeline diverges, that’s it.

In alternative history, the jumping-off point is the point of divergence from the standard timeline, so wise writers research that period to death; religion, customs, dress, food, agriculture, legal background, defence forces, cultural attitudes, everyday life of all classes and groups. Landscapes and climate should resemble the ones in the region where the imagined country lies. And no serious alternative history writer can neglect their imagined country’s social, economic and political development. Every living person is a product of their local conditions; their experience of living in a place, and struggle to make sense of it, is expressed through culture and behaviour.

Writers need to imbue their characters with a sense of living in the present, in the now. This is their current existence, for them it’s not some story in a book(!). Character-based stories are popular; readers are intrigued by what happens to individual people living in different environments as well as taking part in major historical events. Sometimes it’s more interesting to follow the person’s story than the big event itself.

Whether a historical story is fictitious or a near biographical novel, readers will engage with it and follow as long as the writer keeps their trust. If the story world doesn’t feel plausible and consistent, the reader’s trust will break. However fantastic that imagined world, it also needs to have reached the setting for the current story in a credible way, i.e. have good backstory and history of its own. But no amount of plausibility, research or attention to ‘the rules’, or sense of fun, will disguise poor writing, shallow characterisation and losing the plot.

But how plausible is alternative history?
Alternative history varies in ‘hardness’ with readers and fans grading it by how plausible the 'alternation' is when measured against historical reality. At the ‘hard’ end are well-researched pieces that take into account historical sources and trends and try to relate events that flow from the point of divergence by using historical logic. Having a grasp of how history works despite, or perhaps because of, the butterfly effect is essential. At the ‘soft’ end are works of pure fantasy and ‘Rule of Cool’, generally a result of alien space bats (more classically, the dei ex machina).

I’m very grateful to TV Tropes for dissecting and qualifying the main types so clearly on the sliding scale of alternate history plausibility, and I’ll use their categories to explain in more detail.

Type I – Hard Alternate History: These are works that stick to strict, sometimes scientific, standards in their plausibility. Research is often detailed and intensive. Most historical counter-factuals fall into this category.
Type II – Hard/Soft Alternate History: Often well researched with historical logic and methodology, but allows room for adventurous outcomes or Rule of Drama/Cool/Comedy
Type III – Soft Alternate History: Here, setting up a world that fits the writer’s creative objectives is more important than the plausibility of the setting’s alternate history. Research is often minimal to moderate and plausibility will take a back seat to Rule of Drama/Cool/Comedy.
Type IV – Utterly Implausible Alternate History: These are works that are so ‘soft’ that they melt and so implausible as to be effectively impossible. Often, the author puts their own ideology to the fore at the expense of research, historic details or sensible logistics. Readers with even a passing familiarity with history can’t take it seriously. The original term 'alien space bats' was coined to refer to this level of implausibility.
Type X – Fantastical Alternate History: In contrast with Type IV, these works are deliberately designed as pure fantasy, typically following the Rule of Cool. Mad ideas prevail such as Nazis on the moon in the 2012 film Iron Sky.

Perception is, of course, subjective and depends upon the individual reader’s personal interpretations or on whether they are looking for serious historically logical development, a lighthearted, if not positively wacky, adventure story or something in-between. I stand at the historical end of the scale because I’m a historian as well as a thriller writer.

As with all historical fiction, characters must act, think and feel like real people. The most credible ones live naturally within their world, i.e. consistently reflecting their unique environment and the prevailing social attitudes. Of course, it makes a stronger story if the permissions and constraints of their world conflict with their personal wishes and aims. But that’s what happens in all good fiction!

Some alternative history themes and stories

England has remained Catholic – Pavane, Keith Roberts or The Alteration, Kingsley Amis
Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn have a son and Elizabeth I and Philip II of Spain have a daughter – The Boleyn Trilogy/Tudor Legacy Series, Laura Anderson
Alaska rather than Israel becomes the Jewish homeland – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon
Roosevelt loses the 1940 election and right-wing Charles Lindbergh becomes US president – The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
Napoleon Bonaparte escapes from St. Helena and winds up in the United States in 1821 – Napoleon in America, Shannon Selin
Is John F. Kennedy killed by a bomb in 1963? Or does he chose not to run in 1964 after an escalated Cuban Missile Crisis led to the nuclear obliteration of Miami and Kiev? – My Real Children, Jo Walton
A secret fifth daughter of the Romanov family continues the Russian royal lineage –The Secret Daughter of the Tsar and The Tsarina’s Legacy, Jennifer Laam
An England in which James II was never deposed in the Glorious Revolution, but supporters of the House of Hanover continually agitate against the monarchy – Children’s favourite The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
A dystopian anti-female religious theocracy – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Prolific writers of althist especially from the US viewpoint include Harry Turtledove, Eric Flint and S.M. Stirling.
The Roman Empire has survived into the present day – Romanitas, Sophia McDougall


Alison Morton's latest alternate history thriller, RETALIO, came out in April 2017.  @alison_morton

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Guy of Warwick - A Very English Hero - Celia Rees

My last month's History Girls blog was about the gothic ruin,  Guy's Cliffe House, and the history and legend attached. One or two of the comments wanted to know more about Guy of Warwick, legendary knight and renowned hero who gave his name to Guy's Cliffe.

Guy of Warwick is one of those figures, like Robin Hood and King Arthur, whose existence is more legend than history. His story has been told and re-told over the centuries in early English 'Histories', Medieval Romances, chapbooks and ballads. There may be a kernel of history there. He was probably Anglo Saxon. His name is connected to the family of Wigod, Lord of Wallingford under Edward the Confessor and events re-counted place his adventures in the reign of King Athelstan. He is always firmly placed in Warwick and the surrounding area, just as Robin Hood is associated with Sherwood Forest, and I always think there must be some truth within these stories, or why would they endure?

Embellished, and expanded, Guy of Warwick has taken on the trappings of the times in which his story was told, or re-told. The Anglo Norman warrior, Gui de Warewic, first appears in the early thirteenth century. He was further transformed in the fourteenth century in a number of romances, adapted from the French.

Guy of Warwick, from an illumination in Le Romant de Guy de Warwik et d'Heraud d'Ardenne
 Guy's 'History' would not look out of place as a plot line in Game of Thrones. It goes like this:

Guy was a humble cupbearer, a page at the court of the Earl of Warwick. He falls in love with the Earl's lovely daughter Felice but he is rejected as being too low born to win her hand. He has to go out and prove himself worthy of her. He embarks on a series of heroic tasks, ridding the country around of the Dun Cow, a monstrous beast twelve feet high and eighteen feet high. A rib bone (actually a whale bone) was on view for many years at Warwick Castle - a nice example of how the legend passes as history. The castle also holds Guy's two handed sword. The Dun Cow is remembered in place names like Stretton-on-Dunsmore and Dunchurch and there are many Dun Cow pubs in the area. Once he has despatched the Dun Cow, Guy takes on a giant boar that has been terrorising Coventry.

Guy of Warwick slating the Dun Cow, tableaux in the Bull Yard, Coventry City Centre

He returns to Felice after completing these superhuman tasks but it is not enough. To win her, he has to be famous, he has to gain renown. He leaves for Europe to prove himself as a knight in battle and combat, now more a figure of chivalric romance than a heroic beast slayer (although he does kill  dragon). After knightly adventures on the Continent, he returns triumphant. Felice marries him but this is not the end of Guy's story. Full of remorse for all the violence in his past, he decides to embark for Jerusalem disguised as a pilgrim, leaving a distraught wife who is only prevented from committing suicide by the thought of her unborn child. He wears a gold ring as his promise to return.

Guy of Warwick

Guy reaches the Holy Land but on his return journey he is involved in more adventures, fighting as a champion and doing battle, righting wrongs and delivering justice for various people he meets on the road. He also discovers a magnificent sword (see above) hidden in a cave. He travels in disguise, refusing to reveal his name and is often underestimated in battle by his opponents, to their cost.  When he reaches England, he finds the country under threat from the Danes. Still disguised as a pilgrim, he goes to Winchester where King Athelstan and his court are praying for deliverance. The king has called for a knight to fight the Danes' huge African champion, Colbrond but no-one has come forward. The king is visited by an angel in a dream and told that his champion will be the first pilgrim to be at the North Gate of the city on the next day. That pilgrim is Guy. In an epic encounter, worthy of Game of Thrones, Guy defeats Colbrond. He then returns to Felice in Warwick. Still disguised as a pilgrim, he joins a group of poor men being fed at the castle gate. Unrecognised, he is invited to eat with her in the castle but leaves to visit a hermitage, on the nearby banks of the Avon, where he hopes to receive instruction. 

Guy of Warwick's Cave. Guy's Cliffe

When he finds that the hermit has died, he replaces him. On the point of death himself, he sends a message to  Felice in the form of the gold ring. She comes to him as he lies dying and the pair are re-united. Felice dies soon after and is buried alongside Guy. 

And there ends the story. Told and re-told, more myth than history, it contains a wealth of different motifs: the mythic monsters of English folklore: the questing adventure, the dreams and miraculous discoveries, the battles and single combat of chivalric romance and the exile and return narrative,  the long separation, the disguise and discovery, common to so many myths and stories including the The Odyssey. 

Guy of Warwick has been rather eclipsed by Arthur and the Matter of Britain but his story is full of romance and adventure. He is a very English hero and his name lives on, not least on that quintessential symbol of England, the pub sign.

Celia Rees