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.


Changes Afoot!


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As publication day for A TRIPLE KNOT grows nigh (8 July!), the delightful Sarah in Random House’s marketing department is putting together a beautiful website for me. At last Candace and Emma will share a website.  Fair warning! Sometime in the next week or so this blog might go dark for a while, or at the very least I won’t be able to write new posts–it’s being incorporated into the website. And when it reappears, this blog might look a bit different. But the archives should survive!

I’ll be available all along on Facebook–in fact, I’m switching over from the Emma Campion author page on facebook to a new Candace Robb author page on facebook. The Candace Robb page is already up–come visit! And, as if that’s not enough, I’ll soon be all atwitter as well. So stay tuned!



The Beguines of Medieval Paris—guest post by Tanya Stabler Miller


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First, I’d like to thank Candace for inviting me to discuss my book. I’m so pleased to have discovered her work, as well as her blog (through fellow beguine-scholar Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane!)

The study of beguines represents a significant challenge for historians of women and gender. In the beguines, the historian is confronted with a gendered label (“beguine” as French historian Nicole Bériou has observed, might refer to a way of being perceived by others) as well as the experiences of real women who chose to live religious lives in the world.[1] Women who wore humble garb and stood apart as living a religious life above and beyond the ordinary practice of their peers might be labeled “beguine,” perhaps admiringly, perhaps derisively. At the same time, some women consciously joined communities of like-minded lay religious women, adopting the label “beguine” by virtue of entering a recognized community.

The remaining wall of the beguinage of Paris ( which was actually the wall of Philip Augustus in the Marais).

The beguine communities of medieval Paris—heretofore unstudied save for a single article published in the late nineteenth century—usefully illustrate these complexities.[2] Upon returning from crusade in 1254, the French king Louis IX (also known as Saint Louis) founded a house—or beguinage—on the eastern end of Paris to house “honest women called beguines.”[3] The Paris beguinage was modeled on the court beguinage of St. Elizabeth in Ghent, giving the French king’s house a useful boost as a solid community of lay religious women. The Paris beguinage was surrounded by walls, governed by statutes, and eventually overseen by the Dominican prior (it should be noted, however, that the Paris beguinage was quite porous, with residents and visitors regularly entering and leaving the enclosure). Its residents wore a distinctive habit and enjoyed the support and projection of the French kings until the house was turned over to a community of Observant Poor Clares in 1485.

Even with the existence of this more “official” beguine community, Paris was home to dozens of households of women who self-identified, and were recognized in their local communities, as beguines. These households are known to us thanks to the tax assessments compiled during the reign of Louis IX’s grandson Philip the Fair (r. 1285-1314) and represented another possibility for Parisian lay religious women. Significantly, some religious and secular authorities insisted on approximating beguines to nuns, denying the beguine “status” to women who did not reside in an officially-recognized, enclosed, and regulated beguinage.

One of the more noteworthy—though perhaps obvious—points here is that beguines were women who stuck out. People noticed them. As a mostly urban phenomenon, beguines made a visible claim to live a life apart—in the sense of living a distinct, even superior Christian life—while residing and working among their fellow Christians. Thus, the term might be used to describe someone’s deportment, without necessarily referring to her “status.” Some viewed the voluntary adoption of the beguine label as opportunistic—a way to gain the admiration and favor of others. The thirteenth-century Parisian satirist Rutebeuf for example ridiculed the beguines’ claims to live a religious life, asserting that the “Order of Beguines,” as he mockingly called it, was easy. To enter the “order,” all one has to do was bow one’s head and wear a wide garment.[4] Even more troubling, a woman could leave the “Order” any time to marry, since she had taken no vows. Clearly, for Rutebeuf and many of his contemporaries, religious commitment was not a true commitment without the permanent pledge of self and property. Those who claimed otherwise were self-serving opportunists, seeking to hide their sin under the veil of sanctity. As Rutebeuf quipped, “We have many beguines who have wide garments; whatever they do beneath them, I cannot tell you.”[5]

Jeanne Brichard, one of the mistresses of the Paris beguinage (a sketch of her tomb, which was located in the Dominican convent in Paris).

Jeanne Brichard, one of the mistresses of the Paris beguinage (a sketch of her tomb, which was located in the Dominican convent in Paris).

On the other hand, admirers such as the secular cleric Robert of Sorbon (d. 1274) noted that beguines exhibited far more devotion to God than even the cloistered, since they voluntarily pursued a religious life without vows and walls, surrounded by the world’s temptations. Robert was a contemporary of Rutebeuf and he was a close friend of Louis IX. He was also the founder of the famous Parisian college for secular clerics, the Sorbonne. Robert’s opinions of the beguine life clearly reflected his personal views on community, public perception, religious sincerity, and the secular clergy’s mission in the world. He was not alone in this tendency to interpret the beguine phenomenon in light of personal concerns. Beguines, in a sense, were all things to all people.

Clerical opinion of the beguines was quite mixed. For some, it was too flexible, too dynamic. Yet, it was the flexibility and dynamism of the beguine life that encouraged thousands of women all over medieval Europe to take it up in the first place. Inspired by the new apostolic piety of the thirteenth century, with its emphasis on poverty, preaching, and imitation of Christ, beguines found ways to pursue their spiritual ambitions, in spite of contemporary prohibitions against women’s participation in these central features of the vita apostolica (that is, the apostolic life).

My interest in these communities reflected my preoccupations with the ways in which the term “beguine” was wielded, adopted, or disavowed, as well as with the lived experiences of lay religious women. Integrating these interests was an important aim of my book, The Beguines of Medieval Paris: Gender, Patronage, and Spiritual Authority. In many ways, this integration effort represented the conflict medieval historian Dyan Elliott so eloquently described in her important contribution to an AHR forum on Joan W. Scott’s seminal article “Gender: A Useful Category for Historical Analysis.”[6] Discussing transitions in medieval historiography on “Women” and “Gender,” Elliott noted contemporary concerns about medievalists “turning away from the study of real women in favor of gender analyses.” Deftly exploiting literary sources, such studies have gone a long way toward uncovering gender categories in medieval thought, but there is so much more to learn about “real women.”

The power of the label is evident in the “watershed” moments of beguine history, from its first appearance in the sermons of James of Vitry (the beguine movement’s earliest and perhaps most famous promoter), to its reference in the trial of the doomed mystic Marguerite Porete (who was burned at the stake in Paris on charges of heresy in 1310), to its centrality in the condemnation of lay religious women at the Council of Vienne in 1311-1312.[7] Nevertheless, the Paris community continued to exist, with its residents unabashedly referred to as “beguines.”

To reconstruct the world of Paris’s beguine communities, I needed to tell the story from a multiple perspectives. Parisian women who decided to live as beguines did so under specific social, cultural, and economic conditions. As a historian attempting to understand these conditions, I found myself grappling with the categories and labels with which medieval observers discussed the beguine phenomenon. I needed to understand why medieval people adopted or applied the label “beguine” and what they meant when they used the term.

15228At the same time, I could hardly ignore the lived circumstances of women who were known in their communities as “beguines.” The tax rolls—perhaps considered among the driest of documents—were, and are, an incredibly exciting treasure trove of information, since they help illuminate the world of women’s work and friendships. Testaments and property records helped fill the gaps, fleshing out women such as the beguine and silk merchant Jeanne du Faut, who made frequent mention of her “beloved” business partner and fellow beguine Beatrice la Grant in her testament. A wealthy silk merchant with a broad social network, Jeanne bequeathed her entire estate to Beatrice, in spite of the existence of several male relatives. Medieval Paris was home to many other women just like her.

The beguines living in Paris’s beguinage forged productive and enduring ties to clerics studying and teaching at the University of Paris. While there are still many who assume a hostile—or at least tense—relationship between religious women and clerical authority, sermons and pastoral literature produced by scholars affiliated with the medieval college of the Sorbonne paint a far more complex picture. Masters and students of the Sorbonne frequented the beguinage of Paris, following the example of the college’s founder Robert Sorbon. Sermon collections contain dozens of sermons preached at the beguinage of Paris, as well as several excerpts preached by the mistress of the beguinage herself.

Bringing these threads together, the book seeks to uncover the history of communities of women who were at the center—not the periphery—of economic, social, political, and cultural life in medieval Paris.


[1] Nicole Bériou, “Robert de Sorbon, le prud’homme et le béguin,” Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, (Paris:1994) 474-82.

[2] Léon Le Grand, “Les béguines de Paris,” Mémoires de la société de l’histoire de Paris et de l’Ile-de-France 20 (1893) : 295-357.

[3] As reported in Geoffrey of Beaulieu, “Vita ludovici noni” Recueil des historiens des Gaules et de la France, (henceforth RHF), ed. Martin Bouquet et al. vol. 20(Paris, 1840), 12.

[4] Rutebeuf, “Les ordres de Paris,” Oeuvres complètes, 2 vols., ed. Michel Zink (Paris: Garnier, 1989), 1: 227.

[5] Rutebeuf, “La Chanson des ordres,”Oeuvres completes, 1: 332. Beguines were a frequent target in French literature; see Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, “Satirical Views of the Beguines in Northern French Literature,” New Trends in Feminine Spirituality: The Holy Women of Liège and Their Impact, ed. Juliette Dor, Lesley Johnson, and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Turnhout: Brepols, 1999), 237-249.

[6] Dyan Elliott, “The Three Ages of Joan Scott,” American Historical Review (2008):1390-1403.

[7] An early attempt to discuss the power of the label is found in my article “What’s in a Name? Clerical Representations of Parisian Beguines (1200-1328).” Journal of Medieval History 33, no. 1 (2007): 60-86.

New Book on Beguines and forthcoming guest post


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15228The University of Pennsylvania Press has just published The Beguines of Medieval Paris: Gender, Patronage, and Spiritual Authority by Tanya Stabler Miller http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15228.html, and tomorrow Tanya will be a guest on this blog! My thanks to Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane, who was my guest in December, for alerting me to Tanya’s book.

Tanya Stabler Miller received her PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2007. She is a historian of medieval Europe, focusing on the social, cultural, and religious history of the High Middle Ages (1000-1400), with a particular interest in communities, intellectual authority, material culture, and gender. Currently, her research has turned to the medieval college of the Sorbonne and the interplay of learned and popular traditions in devotional literature, which led to the new book as well as several articles.

In tomorrow’s post she provides a brief history of the beguines in Paris, how they were received–they inspired some controversy, and how her particular interests led to writing the book. You’re in for a treat!

I’m delighted to continue the dialogue about these remarkable women.


ICMS 2014 White Hart Sessions


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On the last day of the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, I attended three sessions sponsored by the Society of the White Hart, which is always a high point for me as it tends to be in these sessions, focusing on the 14th and early 15th centuries, that I glean the best bits for my books. And I often present papers in their sessions, the better to get feedback.

white hartBut first, let me point out that the White Hart was Richard II’s emblem. When you read Emma’s A Triple Knot (40 days to publication!!!!!) you’ll learn that it was very special to his mother Joan. This is the figure as it appears on the Wilton Diptych, commemorating Richard II’s second marriage.

Richard’s first wife, Anne of Bohemia, was the topic of the first paper in the White Hart sessions. Lynn Staley talked about how Richard’s queen tried to make use of political culture to win support for her husband. But the deck was stacked against her–she came with no dowry–in fact, Richard loaned her brother 1200 pounds, which was quite a large sum in the late 14th century, and in their 12 years of marriage they produced no heir to the throne. But she worked hard to support her husband. Anne’s surviving letters show her emphasizing the happy harmony of their marriage, and playing up the successes of the realm’s young king, her husband. Alas, the nobles never warmed to her. She was given a voice by the poets she welcomed to the court–the 14th century queens understood the importance of the arts in celebrating their reigns. Queens Isabella and Philippa were both enthusiastic patrons of the arts. Philippa and her daughters were depicted on the walls of St Stephen’s in Westminster. In my notes I jotted down that “Joan of Kent was more of an enigma”. I can’t recall why I wrote that down! My problem is that the more fascinating the topic, the lousier my notes–I just sit back and listen.

Phillip Morgan spoke about the Dieulacres Chronicle on the disposition of Richard II. The choice bit that I made a note to learn more about was a comment that the Forest of Wirral occupied the mind of the Black Prince on his death bed.

Rhian McLaughlin, in a paper about gentry violence against crown officials in 14th century England, pointed out that it’s quite rare that all documents related to a case survive, and what does survive is often written in quite generic language, a sort of shorthand, so the details are often lost. Which is why it can help to literary works to understand contemporary opinions/values, in this case, medieval outlaw literature–Robin Hood, the Tale of Gamelyn. What she has gleaned combining the two is that the gentry saw violence as a tool to be used alongside the law to gain attention and status. By demonstrating his power locally a minor noble might be noticed by the crown–in a positive way. Performative violence–I smile at the term, but I find it a fascinating concept. There was, of course, no guarantee of success, but it didn’t harm their reputations or status. So the violence was for profit, but not always financial.

John Leland noted that Richard II wanted to be seen as prudent, wise, not a warrior. He modeled himself on Robert of Naples, focusing on statecraft, not warcraft. He saw wisdom as a sign of divine grace.

In the afternoon session, John Lee talked about English fairs in the 14th century, dividing them into major international fairs, regional fairs, and local fairs. It’s interesting that we have few depictions in art of English fairs. He showed an illustration of a Brabant fair with long lines of tents, much more orderly than I have imagined. He reminded me of a website I’d forgotten about: http://www.history.ac.uk/cmh/gaz/gazweb2.html, which is a gazetteer of markets and fairs in England and Wales to 1516. Check it out!

Chris Given-Wilson, who is working on the Yale Monarch Series biography of King Henry IV, seriously tempted me to move my focus in crime to the early 15th century. His talk “Common People and Chivalric Violence in Early Fifteenth-Century Chronicles” had me jotting down ideas for characters. His point was that the wars of the first 6 years of Henry’s reign were the peoples’ wars–coastal raids, piracy, the “heroes” often shipping merchants who were fed up with the lack of action from the knights and took matters into their own hands. It was an age of rumors, prophecies, popular politics. Such material!

Linda Mitchell is the woman to go to about powerful women in the 14th century, and her talk this year did not disappoint: “Eleanors and Isabellas: Queen and Chronicles from Matthew Paris to Thomas Walsingham.” Queens’ activities were deliberately excluded from chronicles, except regarding their marriages/coronations, the birth of the heir, and their deaths. Chroniclers did chatter more about queens involved in disruption–like Isabella. Which is why we know so little about them.

Oh, I almost forgot–George Stow convinced us all that Walsingham did not write both versions of what we call Walsingham’s chronicle. Well, at least he convinced me, and all the speakers who followed him couched their references to it in quotes.

Sorry my notes are so scattered, but you have a taste of the amazing amount of information one tries to absorb in 3 1/2 days!



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