Unexpected Visitors


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It’s late summer, my novel A Triple Knot has been out for almost eight weeks, and I find myself immersed in an idea I shelved years ago. Over the past week several intriguing characters have materialized in my office with some sense of urgency, as if breaking out of an irritatingly prolonged suspension in the shadows of my subconscious and impatient to be heard at last. The concept and the place are familiar, but not these characters. I am meeting them as if for the first time, bewitched by their candor, their wit, their stories. Now is not the time to ask whether this is going anywhere. One breath of doubt might dissolve this dream, and I’ll never know what might have been. Such is the creative spark–easily doused by skepticism.

I love how Clarissa Pinkola Estes described this moment in Women Who Run With the Wolves: “…balancing a big cardhouse of ideas on a single fingertip,… and…carefully connecting all the cards using tiny crystalline bones and a little spit, and if [I] can just get it all to the table without it falling down or flying apart, [I] can bring an image from the unseen world into being.”



Q&A with Elena Woodacre (part 2 of 2)


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My recent interview with Michael Evans seems like a companion piece to this interview, originally posted in January, so I thought I’d repost it for those who missed it. Enjoy!

I’m back today with Elena “Ellie” Woodacre, editor of the recently published collection Queenship in the Mediterranean and founder of the Royal Studies Network.

AWR: What piqued your interest in the study of queenship?

Ellie: In some ways, I blame my mother–when I was a child I was a voracious reader and I quickly ate up the material in the children’s section of our local library. My mother who was tired of my moaning about not having anything interesting to read suggested flippantly “Go look at a book on Cleopatra–she had an interesting life.” I did as she suggested and soon became obsessed with the Egyptian queen-soaking up anything I could, historically based work, fiction, even the Elizabeth Taylor film. After that as a teenager I was obsessed with medieval queens, particularly the Plantagenet queens, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Blanche of Castile.

But as far as real research goes, my MA is when I had a bit of an epiphany–I was researching the Queens of Jerusalem and one day in the library I thought to myself “wouldn’t it be great if I could just read about queens all the time?” I find them endlessly fascinating-in particular I’ve always been intrigued with how women were able to access and exercise power in a period when politics was completely dominated by men. However, I’ve also become increasingly interested in the marriages of reigning queens-the diplomatic repercussions which come from the choice of a consort and how effectively royal couples are able to form a personal and political partnership.

AWR: How is current research changing our understanding of the roles of queens in the Middle Ages?

Ellie: I’m really excited about the variety of research emerging on queens and the practice of queenship. I know Theresa Earenfight has also highlighted developing work in the field in her blog on queenship-it’s wonderful to see the work emerging from established scholars, early career and independent researchers and students to increase our knowledge about the lives of queens. This new research is drawing out many queens who had either been sidelined or completely omitted in historical studies or had not previously been examined in the context of queenship. There are so many interesting figures who really deserve our attention-the field was dominated from its earliest beginnings by ‘women worthies’ or the most famous figures and there is still a predominance of well-known queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine or Elizabeth I. However, new studies on lesser known figures-many of whom feature in Queenship in the Mediterranean–add breadth and depth to our knowledge of queenship. I’m also encouraged by the interdisciplinarity of the field–there are many wonderful studies from literature and drama specialists, art historians, archaeologists for example which again provide a much more well-rounded understanding of the lives of queens in the Middle Ages and beyond.

AWR: You caught my attention with a paper at the 2012 International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kzoo), Leonor of Navarre, The Price of Ambition, whose father chose her to succeed over her elder siblings, Carolos and Blanca. One of those situations which in fiction would inspire the reader to whisper, “Walk away! Save yourself!” But you know she must accept the challenge or there would be no story. And what a story. Could you recount some of the highlights of her remarkable life?

Ellie: Leonor is a fascinating character–she has suffered at the hands of historians, novelists and even travel writers who had perpetuated this idea that she was directly involved in the death of her sister and possibly even her brother, who both met shady ends. She certainly had a challenge on her hands, governing Navarre in the wake of the civil war between her father and brother. Her authority as her father’s lieutenant and the heiress apparent of the realm was challenged by those who felt her sister had a better claim or opposed her due to their hatred of her irascible father, Juan II of Aragon. When I first started to read about this chaotic family feud which spawned a civil war, divorces and several untimely deaths, it felt like a soap opera-I thought to myself “you couldn’t make this up!” I wish I could recount more of Leonor’s story here but if you or your readers want to know more about her, there is an entire chapter devoted to her life in my monograph The Queens Regnant of Navarre: Succession, Politics and Partnership 1274-1512 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and an extended version of the paper on Leonor that you heard at Kalamazoo (which includes her ‘afterlife’ in fiction) is due to be published in another collection which will hopefully emerge this year.

AWR: I was interested to read in your paper “Questionable Authority: Female Sovereigns and their Consorts in Medieval and Renaissance Chronicles,” (Authority and Gender in Medieval and Renaissance Chronicles, Julia Dresvina and Nicholas Sparks, eds, Cambridge Scholars 2012) that the resistance to a queen’s reign was more often opposition to her consort’s rule than it was about a woman’s ability to rule. As you state: “A king consort was a fairly unusual monarch, for he owed his position to those who selected him as a worthy husband for their heiress…. His authority was therefore weakened by his indebtedness to others for his position and by the fact that he was usually a foreigner, and therefore, somewhat suspect.” It reminded me of a quote from János Bak’s “Queens as Scapegoats in Medieval Hungary”, which I read when I was researching Alice Perrers: “Queens were apt to be regarded as instigators of evil not only because of their sex but because they tended to be foreigners and, to boot, usually the highest ranking foreigners in the land. Moreover, when there was dissatisfaction with the government it was usual to blame not the king but the ‘evil counsellors’, and queens were regarded as having the ear of the sovereign more than anyone else.” But of course you’re referring to reigning queens and their male consorts, whereas Bak was writing about reigning kings and their female consorts. Still, it strikes me as a similar problem. Any thoughts?

Ellie: You’re absolutely right–it is a similar problem, foreign consorts have always faced a level of opposition due to the combination of xenophobic suspicion and their proximity to the ruler and therefore, power. For kings consort, the problem is exacerbated by the expectation that as men, they would have a greater degree of influence or even authority over their wife-as Margaret Sommerville noted in Sex and Subjection (Arnold, 1995) Saints Peter and Paul did not put in an exception for reigning queens when it came to a man’s supremacy in the marital partnership. Hence there was a real concern that a king consort from another realm meant foreign rule by the back door. This fear of the power of foreign kings consort could also translate to fear of female rule or weaken the position of a reigning queen, hence the examples from “Questionable Authority” about Sibylla and Isabella, two of the reigning Queens of Jerusalem. Mary Tudor faced considerable opposition to her marriage to Philip of Spain, which was only alleviated (to a certain extent) by the restrictions placed on Philip in their marital agreement and the ‘Act Concerning Regal Power’ which reinforced her authority as queen regnant.

A note to readers—feel free to query Ellie in comments.

And now I’m off to check whether the UW library has a copy of The Queens Regnant of Navarre!

Interview: Michael Evans on the Mythic Eleanor of Aquitaine


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Today I am delighted to welcome Michael Evans, whose book Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in late September. Michael has lectured in medieval history at several universities in Britain and the United States. He is currently a lecturer at Central Michigan University, and is on the editorial board of the excellent blog Medievally Speaking, a project of the International Society for the Study of Medievalism. Michael has also published The Death of Kings: Royal Deaths in Medieval England (2003).

  •  In this book you address the myths that have grown up around Eleanor of Aquitaine, a process that began in her lifetime. Did a particular myth serve as your inspiration?

Yes, it began when I was researching a paper about women and the crusades, and was forced to examine critically the story that Eleanor and her ladies had dressed as Amazons on the Second Crusade.  I found that modern historians often cited one another in a circular fashion, while nineteenth-century writers cited antiquarians rather than medieval chroniclers. A reference in Alison Weir’s biography of Eleanor even turned out to be a typo! There is no medieval source whatsoever for the idea that Eleanor and her ladies dressed as Amazons at the French court in 1147, when she and her husband Louis VII took the cross. This was an invention of early-modern antiquarians. The claim that she dressed as an Amazon queen when the army passed through Constantinople at least has a medieval source behind it, the Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates. However, Niketas was writing seventy years after the event, did not name Eleanor, and referred to a German queen.

  •  In preferring the myths over the facts about Eleanor, have her admirers overlooked aspects of her life or character that you find particularly admirable/fascinating/surprising? If so, could you name a few?

Yes, they have. The focus on her exceptionalism – the idea that she was a remarkable woman ahead of her time – detracts from her role as a powerful woman of a type that was not unusual in the twelfth century (we may compare her to her mother-in-law the Empress Matilda/ Maud, for example). She was a 220px-Empress_Mathildamore-than competent ruler on behalf of her husband Henry II during his absences from the kingdom, and when her son Richard the Lionheart was absent on crusade and in captivity. In particular, I think her role in the reign of her son John has been neglected, perhaps because the Plantagenet family dynamics of Henry’s reign are seen as more dramatic, or because John’s reputation is so bad that there is a reluctance by Eleanor’s modern admirers to see her as an advocate for ‘Bad King John.’ She was well into her seventies by then, but played  a vital role in securing him the succession in 1199, and came out of retirement to defend the castle of Mirebeau against his enemies in 1202, by which time she was at least 78 years old.

  •  What do you hope readers glean from Inventing Eleanor?

I hope they come away with a sense of how much of what we think we know about Eleanor is a myth, but that they also retain a sense that she was a remarkable woman who is well worth studying on the basis of the real historical record. More generally, I hope they appreciate how all history is shaped and mythologized, and that they are inspired to read about the remarkable medieval women who have been overshadowed by Eleanor’s powerful image.

  • Some consider Eleanor an early proponent of women’s rights. In your research, have you found any evidence she actively sought for more freedom and power for all women? Perhaps for noble women? Or at least royal women?

It’s anachronistic to see her as a feminist or women’s rights advocate. She was a product – and beneficiary – of the political and social system of the time (is it still OK to call it feudalism?) I like to joke, somewhat cynically, that it is easy to be an independent woman when you have inherited half of France. The idea of Eleanor the proto-feminist is based on misunderstanding the role of elite women in the twelfth century – while obviously women did not enjoy the same rights and privileges as men, they were able in certain circumstances to hold land, rule kingdoms, put armies into the field, etc. There was no occasion when Eleanor was an advocate specifically for women – indeed, she fought hard for the inheritance of her male offspring, to the extent of siding with John against her daughter-in-law Constance of Brittany.

  • Do the various arts favor specific aspects of the Eleanor myth? For instance, do painters tend to favor certain myths about Eleanor vs those favored by composers and librettists? Playwrights vs novelists?

I don’t think we can generalize about Eleanor’s treatment in particular art forms, as, until the twentieth century, artists of all disciplines tended to focus on what the French historian Martin Aurell has dubbed the ‘black legend’ of Eleanor. The Fair Rosamond story featured in many artistic representations of Eleanor; readers will no-doubt be familiar with Rosamond Clifford, Henry’s lover, and the later legend 220px-Queen_Eleanor_&_Fair_Rosamundthat Eleanor had her poisoned. Playwrights and librettists of the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries portrayed Eleanor almost exclusively in the context of works about Rosamond, but interpreted her character in different ways. Sometimes she was the vengeful murderous queen, other times she was treated more sympathetically as Henry’s neglected and wronged queen. For example, Thomas Addison’s comic opera Rosamond of 1706 has a happy ending – Rosamond does not die, and Henry and Eleanor are reconciled. By Victorian times, however, the negative view of Eleanor tended to predominate – she appears as a malevolent force in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century paintings of the Rosamond legend, while Tennyson’s play Becket of 1884 even contrives to give Eleanor a hand in the archbishop’s murder, as well as that of Rosamond.  This may reflect the Victorian cult of domesticity, to which a powerful woman like Eleanor represented a threat. Twentieth- and twenty-first century novelists have been more favorable to Eleanor, reflecting the rise of the feminist movement and the improvement in the position of women – modern readers of historical fiction (the majority of whom are women) want strong female characters, not simpering damsels or grotesque crones.

  • How accurate is the Eleanor in The Lion in Winter?

lioninwinter1It’s hard to judge, as the film version contains such a wonderful portrayal of Eleanor by Katharine Hepburn that it is difficult, even for the skeptical historian, to disassociate Eleanor from Hepburn in one’s mind. I think the play captures her well in spirit, but does perpetuate some myths, such as her riding ‘bare-breasted half-way to Damascus’. We also have to remember that James Goldman was being deliberately anachronistic and tongue-in-cheek at points, such as the scene where she and Henry exchange gifts under a Christmas tree (“It’s my tombstone! Eleanor, you spoil me”).  Goldman seems to be saying “we all have family members we’d like to murder at the holidays.”

  • Did you find any periods in which Eleanor of Aquitaine seems to have been forgotten?

Eleanor has been written about pretty continuously from her own time to the present. She does seem to have been relatively absent from ‘high’ culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although she was represented in ballads at this time (and these appear to be an important source for the formation of her ‘black legend’, notably the idea that she killed ‘Fair Rosamond’). She is featured in Shakespeare’s King John, but that was his only play set in early-Plantagenet times.

  • Are all the myths about her essentially positive? A woman to be admired?

Far from it; they were mostly negative until recent times. Eleanor the incestuous adulterer (the one part of the myth that is actually contemporary to her, originating in rumors about what she and her uncle Raymond of Antioch may have got up to when she was on crusade). Eleanor the lover of Saladin (a later medieval elaboration on the rumors of her adultery with Raymond). Eleanor the murderer of Adam Bishop Church_of_Fontevraud_Abbey_Eleanor_of_Aquitaine_and_Henry_II_effigiesRosamond. Eleanor the ‘canker’d grandam’ of Shakespeare’s King John. The ‘positive’ myths are mainly products of the twentieth century; for example the idea of her as queen of the courts of love is attractive as it makes her a figure of female authority and agency, as well as a key patron of culture. She has been celebrated not just as a powerful woman, but as a symbol of other causes; for example, the erroneous belief that she was uniquely important as a patron of troubadours has seen her turned into a champion of the Occitan culture of southern France, even though she spent most of her life in the north of France or in England. In modern times even negative myths have been given a positive spin; when, in The Lion in Winter, she talks of dressing her ladies as Amazons it is a proud boast, not an example of girlish frivolity.

  • The troubadours and the courts of love–are they myth?

Yes, largely. She was undoubtedly raised in a courtly, troubadour culture, given that her grandfather was William IX of Aquitaine, ’the first troubadour’. However, there is no evidence to suggest that she or her court were important sources of patronage for troubadours. She is more firmly linked to Norman-French authors such as Wace, who dedicated his Roman de Brut to her, than to the Occitan-speaking troubadours. As for the ‘courts of love,’ the scholarly consensus today is that they were a literary device – or even a satirical joke – invented by Andreas Capellanus.

  • What surprised you in your research?

The longevity of some of the myths about her! I set out, rather arrogantly as it turned out, to be the first person to write a ‘myth-busting’ account of Eleanor’s life, only to discover that the myths had largely been ‘busted’ already by academic historians. For example, the reality of the ‘courts of love’ was challenged over 150 years ago. Yet the legend lives on… I think the popular image of Eleanor is so powerful, and so appealing, that it will not die. After all, who would not want to picture Eleanor, dressed as an Amazon queen, riding off on crusade at the head of a band of armed women?

  • Writing a book is a journey, isn’t it? Did you find yourself in weird or simply unfamiliar territory?

Very much so! I was nearly overwhelmed by the sheer volume, and diversity, of material I had to deal with. Italian operas, early-modern English ballads, eighteenth-century French pulp fiction, erotic novels, TV shows, graphic novels…  I think the most unlikely Eleanor that I encountered was in a series of French novels where she is accompanied by a woman druid, ‘the last descendent of the priestesses of Avalon.’

  • How did the research for this book differ from that for your previous book The Death of Kings?

As we’ve seen, this book took me far beyond the medieval chronicles that had been 9781852855857my source material for the previous work. In a sense, this worked in my favor – moving from Oxford to central Michigan took me far away from the research libraries that I had taken for granted, making medieval sources harder to access, so it made sense to turn more to post-medieval works. The internet was my friend, especially the wonderful resource Gallica, which is an online archive of material from the Bibliothéque nationale. This has given my book more of a French spin than I had intended originally, but Eleanor is as much a figure of French as of English history, so this seems appropriate.

  • What’s next for you?

I am currently enjoying not having to work on a single project, and am working on miscellaneous papers that grew out of the Eleanor research. They are linked by my interest in the growing field of scholarship in medievalism – that is, post-medieval views of the Middle Ages. The continuing interaction between our own age and the medieval past is fascinating, and deserves more serious study.

Guest Posts on Word Wenches and Passages To the Past


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I love hosting guests on A Writer’s Retreat, but this week the tables are turned and I’m the guest of two wonderful blogs, Passages To the Past and Word Wenches. Come have a look!

http://bit.ly/1rDR2Io   Passages To the Past

http://bitly.com/1kf8IrI  Word Wenches

And coming soon, I’ll be interviewing Michael Evans on the release of his new book, Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine. http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/inventing-eleanor-9781441169006/

Stay tuned!

A Moment in Time: Focusing the Historical Novel


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On Saturday, 19 July, 4:00-5:30 pm I’ll be facilitating a workshop at the annual summer conference of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. Details of the location are on the events page on my website (emmacampion.com).

A workshop is a workshop, not a lecture. I do talk a bit, moving from general ideas about writing to the topic at hand, in order to give everyone a chance to arrive, physically and mentally. And then we begin. In this workshop, “A Moment in Time: focusing the historical novel,” I’ll introduce the prompts, giving some examples, and then invite each person in the room to formulate a story concept using the prompts. We’ll then workshop them, talking about what works, what doesn’t, and why.

So here’s the “handout”. I begin with a bit of background information:

current reality of what publishers want in historical novels

  • tight focus
  • an emotional experience
  • a clear protagonist
  • 100-110 k words

The panoramic historical novels of, say, Michener and Renault, are out except for authors who have track records of high sales.

Knowing that, here’s a way to narrow down your concept:


  • involve your protagonist in a transitional moment in history
  • show your protagonist swept up in it
  • show your protagonist profoundly challenged by it
  • the story is about how your protagonist changes, grows in dealing with it
  • no matter how exciting or famous a fact or event, if it moves the story away from your protagonist’s struggle, take it out

Try it:

prompts for this workshop

  • think of an event or a character in history you find fascinating or puzzling
  • choose a protagonist—can be the historical character or a fictional character caught up in the historical event
  • find a transitional moment leading up to the event or in the protagonist’s life that will result in entangling them in a momentous event

Not going to be at the workshop, but trying this out? Feel free to share your concept in the comments.


Here’s some general background that might help:

Some key ideas from Lisa Cron (Wired for Story) in a TEDxFurmanU talk this year, The Power of Story:

Brain science has revealed that we use story to make sense of our experience; it’s a cooperative effort of left and right brain.

We turn to story to navigate reality. The brain learns by feeling something subjectively.

Hence the “power” of story: You can’t change how people think about something until you change how they feel about it.

All stories are a call to action.

I highly recommend, Wired for Story by Lisa Cron (10 Speed Press 2012)


Video Interview and Upcoming Conference


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A month ago I had the pleasure of meeting William Kenower, editor of AUTHOR magazine, when he came to my office to film a 10 minute interview. As you’ll see, he has a knack for putting an author at ease. We had such a good time! I think it shows in the finished product. Enjoy!

AUTHOR magazine is sponsored by the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA). This coming weekend, writers, editors, and agents from far away and nearby will convene at the the 49th annual PNWA summer conference: http://bit.ly/1oYW79h

I’ll be at the big autograph party Friday night (18 July) from 8:30-10:00. On Saturday (19 July), I will lead a workshop on A Moment in Time: Focusing the Historical Novel. I intend it to be very interactive; I want everyone to have a chance to work through the steps and get feedback, if possible. So this Thursday I’ll post some ideas to ponder in preparation–just in case you’re going to be there. And if you can’t attend, you can interact in the comments at any time. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Joan’s Catch-22 (and it’s publication day!)


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“What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”–Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn) in The Lion in Winter.

Katherine Hepburn’s droll delivery of that line became a mantra in my head as I wrote A Triple Knot, my book about Joan of Kent, the daughter of Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent.

Edmund of Woodstock was the youngest son of King Edward I and his second wife, Margaret of France. So Joan was the granddaughter of King Edward I, the niece of King Edward II, and the cousin of King Edward III. It was her cousin’s mother, Queen Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, who raised an army and deposed his father, Edward II. And Joan’s father was executed for having tried to rescue his half brother the king; or perhaps Edmund’s true crime was that he’d seemed to support Isabella for a while, and then changed his allegiance.

Joan’s mother was implicated in the “treason” of which Edmund was accused, and for which he lost his head, but she was spared because she was pregnant. Nevertheless, her lands and titles were forfeit, as she was the wife of a traitor. So it could be seen as a noble, generous, quite forgiving gesture on the part of King Edward III that he provided for Margaret and her children by bringing them into his queen’s household. But this Edward, Joan’s cousin, had been king when Mortimer executed her father, and he did nothing to stop it. He claimed he was king in name only. But in short order he took control, captured Mortimer, ruled him a traitor, and had him executed. Too late. Nothing could bring back Joan’s father. Nothing could right the wrong that had been done her family. And so, in my sense of Joan, her distrust took root.

“I’ve snapped and plotted all my life. There’s no other way to be alive, king, and fifty all at once.” –Henry II (Peter O’Toole) in A Lion in Winter

By the time Joan was of marriageable age, she would know this about her cousin the king: she was safe in his household only so long as she was useful to him. Relatively safe. But she did not want to be useful to him. He’d done nothing to save her father. And it was through his mother’s blood that he claimed the right to rule France–Joan certainly had no cause to support her. But as long as she cooperated with them, she was safe. Temporarily. Once married off, her new family might change sides, support the French, and then how safe would she be? Or Edward might lose, and then how safe would she be? And how carefully might he have vetted the family? Hence her catch-22. And that’s why Henry’s “snapped and plotted all my life” quote kept running in my head. But it wasn’t Edward saying it, it was Joan, altered slightly: “There’s no other way to be alive, a Plantagenet, and thirty all at once.” (Joan’s in her early thirties at the end of the book.)

I’ve spent the day thinking about Joan, on this, publication day of A Triple Knot. I do enjoy her company.



Little, Big: the Royal Court vs. Owen Archer’s York


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While you await the publication day of A Triple Knot, I thought I’d share with you the paper I presented at the most recent International Congress on Medieval Studies. The session was The Real Generic Middle Ages, sponsored by the Tales After Tolkien Society. It’s long, but if you’re curious why I move back and forth between genres, well, here’s the inside scoop.

Even before I read John Crowley’s magnificent novel, Little, Big, or the Fairies Parliament, I understood the concept evoked in the title, or, at least, one of the concepts, because of Dr. Who’s TARDIS. As doubtless most of you know, the TARDIS, or Time And Relative Dimensions In Space, is the Doctor’s, and all Gallifreyan Time Lords’ method of traveling from then to now. Dr. Who’s TARDIS appears as an English police box on the outside, thanks to its chameleon circuit having been jammed on earth in 1963, but within, it’s an enormous ship with many rooms. Rather like the house in Edgewood in Crowley’s novel, a pentagon with five individual façades, so that from each front one has the impression of a much smaller, far more organized interior than exists. The illusion of the outer shell hiding a vastness within. Or how it really is. By which I mean, the depths we discover when we delve beneath a façade. Which is what I’m after in recreating the 14th century, what I seek in research. My books are my TARDIS, my method of traveling from now to then.

The HarperPerennial Modern Classics edition of Little, Big includes in the back a reprint of Roz Kaveney’s review of the book[1] in which she talks about the importance of the comma in the title. “Little, Big is a formula cognate with Hermes Trismegistus’s ‘As above, so below.’ The comma can also imply a simple listing—Little and Big; given the frequency with which Dr. Johnson occurs in the chapter epigraphs, this can be taken as a self-mocking reference to the lexicographer’s remark a propos of Swift that once you had thought of the little men and the big men the rest was easy.”

Let this introduction serve as a caution about creative titles—they take on a life of their own. The very thing that happened once I settled on a title for the Owen Archer novel I’m writing, A Rumor of Wolves—which suddenly had me pulling books off the shelves relating to wolves, werewolves, and The Master of Game, Edward of Norwich’s book based on Livre de chasse by Gaston Febus, Count of Foix. But it all began with a pack of dogs baying in the night.

And that, in a remarkably roundabout way, brings me to what this paper is actually about—the contrast between writing historical crime and mainstream historical, as I experience it. When I proposed this paper I thought my point would be best illustrated by listing what books I pull off the shelves while working on a manuscript.

I’d start with the different piles for my forthcoming book, A Triple Knot, about Joan of Kent’s early marriages, and my current work- in-progress, the Owen Archer mystery, A Rumor of Wolves.

9780300119107For A Triple Knot, the reading list included: the first two volumes of Jonathan Sumption’s The Hundred Years War, Mark Ormrod’s Edward III, Juliet Vale’s Edward III and Chivalry, Malcolm Vale’s The Princely Court, two Clifford Rogers volumes—War Cruel and Sharp and The Wars of Edward III, Munby, Barber and Brown’s Edward III’s Round Table at Windsor, Caroline Dunn’s Stolen Women in Medieval England, Michael Sheehan’s Marriage, Family, and Law in Medieval Europe, Francis Ingledew’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Order of the Garter, Juliet Vale’s and Mark Ormrod’s articles in St George’s Chapel Windsor in the Fourteenth Century, Hugh Collins’ The Order of the Garter 1348-1461, and unpublished dissertations on Joan of Kent, the Holland family and the Montagus. As you can see, mostly about Edward III’s court, his wars, his Order of the Garter, the key noble families in Joan’s life, and what makes a legitimate marriage in the 14th century. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but gives the flavor of my pile.

For A Rumor of Wolves, the reading list includes (so far) The Master of Game, as I noted, Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages by Aleksander Pluskowski, Matthew Beresford’s The White Devil: the Werewolf in European Culture, George Bensen’s Later Medieval York (great maps), Angelo 51Gk+uzPUPLRaine’s Medieval York, R.F. Hunnisett’s The Medieval Coroner, Jenny Kermode’s Medieval Merchants: York, Beverley and Hull in the Later Middle Ages, Anne Van Arsdall’s Medieval Herbal Remedies, Stephen Pollington’s Leechcraft, and Healing and Society in Medieval England by Faye Marie Getz—again, just a sampling. I know it’s difficult to hear such lists and organize them in your mind, but let me point out that nothing that even remotely smacks of nobility or the court shows up on this second list. It’s all about dogs, healing (especially of dog bites but also other complaints), merchants, York, wolves, and superstitions about wolves.

But the difference in research is not just what sources I use, but how I use them. Of course I share research between the two genres. Why would I need to pull out books about the royal family when I’ve been living in their midst for 3 years writing A Triple Knot? But what I need to know can be quite different for the two genres. The early years of the Hundred Years War are always in the background in the Owen Archer novels. It was in Normandy that he lost the sight in his left eye. He’d fought under Henry, Duke of Lancaster, and was proud of that. But when I approached those years to write about Thomas Holland and the ransom that provides the money to go to Avignon and petition the pope to honor his vows with Joan, I needed to know far more about the battles and the politics behind them. Hence reading Sumption’s books.

I don’t mind more research. I love the research! It was great fun to explore Antwerp, Ghent, and the politics of the Low Countries, as they were called. Quite an eye-opener for me. But in writing the novels about Alice Perrers and Joan of Kent I quickly came up against limitations I hadn’t prepared myself for, which, with a little mindfulness, would have been clear from the start: when the central character is someone who actually lived, I’m not nearly as free to choose the direction of the story and with whom my characters can interact than I am with my fictional detectives. This takes me back to what felt like dismal advice in 1988, but turned out to be a gift.

When I began the story that eventually became my first published book, The Apothecary Rose, it wasn’t a crime novel. There was no Owen Archer in my plan. I meant to begin with an apothecary’s wife in 14th century York and then expand out into a big fat saga about the Hundred Years War and the siege of Calais. But as I wrote I became so interested in portraying the lives of everyday people in York that the Calais story receded into the background. I felt as if I were, in a small way, recreating what it was like to live a simple life more than 6 centuries ago, like Tolkien’s vivid depiction of wayfaring life in the middle ages. An agent’s reader advised me that it was a period piece, and would be a tough sell unless it was a romance or a mystery. Eventually I took her advice and rewrote it as a crime novel. Reluctantly, because I expected to feel constricted by the format. But I discovered that within the general outline of crime-investigation-solution I was quite free. With each novel I explored topics in 14th century England that interested me, something fresh for each book. In The Lady Chapel it was the mystery plays, town waits, and King Edward’s manipulation of the wool trade to fund his war. In The Nun’s Tale I used a true story from a history of St Clement’s nunnery to explore faith, relics, and the slow descent into madness. In The King’s Bishop I visited the Cistercian abbeys in Yorkshire and King Edward’s battle with the Pope over the bishopric of Winchester. The Riddle of St Leonard’s involved the plague, medieval hospitals and the concept of corrodians. With each book I learned more about the culture. It felt rather like a virtual reality tour of 14th century Yorkshire and England at large.

But I was still convinced that I was missing something in focusing on crime novels.

So after 13 novels in the genre I decided to try my hand at historical novels about women of King Edward III’s court, women with whom I’d become familiar by casting them in a few of my mysteries. I would first work with Alice Perrers, whom I felt I’d lazily used in the clichéd manner in which she most often appears. I meant to redeem myself. And then I would tackle Joan of Kent, whose complicated marital history baffled me. I imagined myself painting on an oversized, quite grand canvas, after working on miniatures for years.

At first I did feel deliciously free—Alice’s story could take whatever shape I liked. But that sense of freedom quickly died. Because we do have some information about her, and even more about King Edward, Queen Philippa, and the court in which Alice moved, so it became a matter of connecting the dots, finding plausible and satisfying paths by which her life moved from one piece of evidence to the next. This was even more the case with Joan of Kent.

Much to my surprise, my experience is that the members of the royal court led far more insular lives than the commoners in the Owen Archer mysteries. Though the influence of Edward’s court extended throughout the medieval west, the women of the court were largely restricted to interacting with courtiers, prominent members of the Church, and wealthy merchants. And their concerns, and therefore their stories, were centered in the court and the family. In my crime series, Owen Archer and the central characters, many of them women, interact with all levels of society, from archbishops and the royal family to alewives, bakers, merchants, and the hungry who gather at the gate of St Mary’s Abbey for alms, and in the course of an investigation Owen and those assisting him necessarily delve into detail of the everyday lives of this wide variety of people.

And I’m the one who chooses with whom they interact. This reminds me of one of my favorite poems, which I have posted near my desk. The Joy of Writing by Wislawa Szymborska.

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence–this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word “woods.”

Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they’ll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what’s here isn’t life.white hart
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.

I’d fallen in love with a world where I rule absolutely on fate. But I couldn’t change either Alice’s or Joan’s fates; well, I suppose I could, but that would defeat the very reason I’d chosen them—I wanted to better understand how they’d wound up as they had. Fortunately, before despair brought on writer’s block, I found a compromise. The parts of Alice’s and Joan’s lives that had made it into the record were, particularly for Joan, those that involved the powerful men in their lives. I wince in saying it, but it’s true. However—there were the quiet parts of their lives in which I had some leeway. I couldn’t stray too far. But I could explore plausible interactions outside the court.

Why am I so obsessed with this—besides enjoying ruling absolutely on fate? Why can’t I be satisfied with tournaments, castles, battles, feasts, power plays amongst the nobles? Remember the phrase Kaveney invoked in her review of Little, Big, Dr Johnson’s comment on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels: “When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest.” Is it possible that Johnson didn’t see the social satire and political commentary in Swift’s last chapters? Showing the big men and the little men (or women) is how a writer provides social and political commentary within the story. I wanted Joan and Alice to interact with all levels of society—because how they interact in such situations reveals so much about them, their ethics, and, often, their status, both 51NKukcYzzL._SL500_AA300_real and perceived. For Alice I was curious about how a merchant’s daughter and widow, wealthy or no, would adjust to living among courtiers, waiting upon the Queen. And how would she have been received? I could show Alice in her native setting—merchant society in London—early in the book, then begin to blend the two. That contented me. Joan was a bit trickier. She’s a member of the royal family. I took advantage of Tony Goodman’s suggestion that Joan was with the royal family in the Low Countries in the late 1330’s, so that I could explore how she would react to the counts and dukes who, though not kings in their own right, were in most ways as powerful as her cousin the king of England. Even more interesting, I could play with what she would make of the captains of the Flemish cities, particularly Jacob Van Artevelde. I had fun with that.

But the possibilities are limited. Consider all this research I’m doing about the keeping of dogs for the hunt; in a book about the royal court the kennels might be mentioned in passing, the dogs might interact with the characters on the hunt, one might even be a favorite companion. But in a crime novel I can spend time with the kennel workers, with the dog trainers, they can be main characters. And I can play with the common man’s attitudes about such pastimes—hunting that is more for sport than for sustenance. That books must be written to explain to the nobles the habits of the game animals because they live so apart from the natural world.

I’ve found a comfortable solution for myself—I’ll alternate genres, as much as possible. For I’ve discovered my own prejudices in writing about nobles and royals—I find their attitudes much more difficult to internalize than the attitudes of the common folk. Who knew I’d hate being a princess? But this discomfort has taught me a lot, has forced me to think harder about why they behaved as they did, why they so protected their status, and what they found threatening about free-thinkers amongst the rabble. It’s broadening my horizons, and enriching my virtual reality experience of 14th century Western culture. Little, Big. Those seemingly small-minded nobles have depths I’ve yet to sound. And Owen Archer will still prefer sitting in the York Tavern drinking ale with Tom and Bess to hobnobbing with his friend Chaucer’s masters.

There and Back Again.


[1] “Wit and Terror: A Little, Big Review”, Books and Bookmen 1982.

Blanche, Lady Wake


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revised Triple Knot_cvrAs I count down from 2 weeks (yesterday!) until the publication of A Triple Knot (8 July!), I’ve been thinking about the stories that didn’t make the cut. I knew from the first that living as she did in the thick of the royal drama, Joan experienced a great deal of history as it happened and knew many of the movers and shakers of the time. So I had to choose the moments and the people with care. Her aunt Blanche, Lady Wake, was a character I could not resist. But I didn’t have the space to delve into what first brought her to my attention.

I’ve been intrigued by Blanche for a long time. ever since historian Compton Reeves recommended John Aberth’s book to me: Criminal Churchmen in the Age of Edward III: The Case of Bishop Thomas de Lisle (Penn State University Press 1996). It’s an account of a churchman gone rogue, but what Compton pointed out was that his greatest adversary was none other than the sister of Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster, Owen Archer’s former lord, the “old Duke”. Unfortunately, this story begins and ends before Owen arrives in York in The Apothecary Rose, and I’ve not yet found an interesting way of using it that would make sense for the series.

As the cover copy summarizes it: “Thomas de Lisle, Bishop of Ely from 1345 to 1361, was not a typical English churchman. …de Lisle was leader of a local gang of thugs and bullies who terrorized both the poor and the rich of East Anglia and assisted the bishop in his extensive, unholy activities, including arson, kidnapping, extortion, theft, and murder. His criminal career culminated in a final, disastrous assault on Edward III’s cousin, Lady de Wake, in 1356, which resulted in his banishment by the king.” It’s quite a read, and de Lisle proves adept at twisting circumstances so that he seems the victim–until he messes with the wrong woman. So when I began to plan out Joan’s story I knew I wanted this strong, comphttp://bit.ly/1v6G9fnetent, legally savvy woman in the novel.

But this is the tale that didn’t fit (though in one draft I tried!): On the night of 28 July 1354, “some of the bishop’s [Thomas de Lisle's] most trusted officials, including his brother John,… [his] chief steward,… “burned down property claimed by Lady Wake in Colne, Huntingdonshire. (119)” Blanche and Thomas seem to have no history before this; however, four years earlier the same men were accused by her brother Henry, then Earl of Lancaster, of burning down several of his houses in Lincolnshire and carrying off the goods. The case never came to trial.(120)  It seems this new conflict was an old land dispute between servants of the two landholders, and Blanche and Thomas felt it was in the interest of responsible lordship to support their men. The trial was repeatedly adjourned from one term to the next because the jury failed to appear or the sheriff did not submit the paperwork on time (even then!) or the defendants themselves failed to appear (sounds a little like Joan’s case before the papal court). But at last, in 1355, the defendants were allowed to make bail and released into the custody of four knights. Essentially they were free. UNTIL one of the men “allegedly” murdered one of the servants in the dispute. The defendants were rounded up an imprisoned, and it’s possible that some of the accused, including the bishop’s brother John, were kept in prison until the death of Bishop de Lisle in 1361.(125)  Meanwhile, Blanche brought a separate case against the bishop as the chief instigator, and although the original estimate of the damages to her estates was 200 pounds, he was fined 900 pounds. De Lisle appealed, he was shot down. And then he thought to appeal directly to the king. Bad move. He wound up insulting him, claiming (allegedly) that he was “unable to have the law or justice in my lawsuit, being hindered, as I believe, by the royal power.” To which the king responded rather heatedly, being the royal power in question. Even so, it wasn’t until the court threatened to deprive de Lisle of his temporalities (income) that he finally handed over the money, all 900 pounds.

But this was before one of his men murdered William Holm, whose property was in dispute. On the morning after the murder a mob led by the deceased’s sister attacked the bishop and his entourage as they were departing his manor for London. He escaped with his life, but not his possessions. Realizing that now he was even more likely to lose his temporalities, de Lisle arranged for the sale of his estates, the money to go into the safekeeping of merchants who would hand it over in case he had to flee the realm. The king got wind of this and ordered him to attend parliament. At which Lady Wake presented a petition citing all her suffering at the hands of de Lisle and his men. She did so with some melodrama: “All she wanted, she said, was that ‘she and her men can live in peace, for they are greatly menaced from day to day.'”(133) This property represented an insignificant piece of her vast estate. But the conflict goes on and on, the king making threats, his legal team advising him that some things even he could not legally do, more and more of de Lisle’s questionable activities being revealed. Until on 19 November 1356, de Lisle leaves England, never to return. Thomas de Lisle spent the last 5 years of his life at the court of Pope Innocent VI at Avignon “appealing the king’s judgment in a vain attempt to win back his temporalities.” (142)

I’ve left out a great deal of detail–John Thoresby, Archbishop of York, gets caught up in it, and his sympathies seem to lie with his fellow cleric. You see why I wanted to use it. Well, someday…. Meanwhile, I gave you my impression of Blanche, Lady Wake, in A Triple Knot, warts and all, as they say.


What’s On My Mind….


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Yesterday, sitting in a friend’s living room with a serene view of Puget Sound, we talked about art being a process of expressing the essence, not the outer form–whether it’s writing, dance, painting, composing music, performing music. And to arrive there, to see it, feel it, hear it, we need to be quiet. Our unique insight arises from quiet observation with all the senses in play.

Getting to that quiet place is a challenge three weeks before publication of A Triple Knot. There are interviews (one with Bill Kenower of Author magazine last week), a new website in the works (I’m not creating it, but I have many tasks), readings/signings to arrange and prepare for–each day new tasks. A book proposal for the next Emma Campion work, a plan for the workshop I’m offering at the PNWA conference in mid July, an unexpected request to summarize some old work.

What’s on my mind? Too much! So I’m waiting for the rain to pause, and I’ll go pull some ivy, take a long walk, refresh my senses.



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