The Benefit of Feline Companionship


, , ,

After a deadline push I always feel a bit at sea, at odds with myself, uncertain what to tackle next. I felt it when I sent off the final proofs of A Triple Knot in late winter, I feel it now having just send off a proposal for a new series, including 3 chapters of the first book.

the white rabbit outside my window is all about deadlines

the white rabbit outside my window is all about deadlines

I have two fairly immediate deadlines, a book review for the Medieval Feminist Forum (a wonderfully engaging microhistory about a poisoning case in medieval France–more about that in a later post) and an essay for a Random House site about how I begin a project. And then, of course, there are the two crime novels I’m writing, an Owen Archer and the first in the proposed new series. I’ve also neglected the annotated bibliography that will reside on this blog as a companion to my published novels, providing background material for those who would like to explore more about the history and/or for those teaching one of my novels in a class. So much to do!

That’s the problem–too many choices. I was jumping from one to the next, accomplishing little other than creating chaos in my office. I’d made towering piles of books that are now threatening to slide off the top of my desk and the windowsill bookcases and spook my cat Ariel, who has just begun to spend time in my office, finally filling the void left by my beloved Agrippa. (She’s preferred the upstairs.) This is not the time for avalanches.

IMG_0070Fortunately, she took matters into her own hands this afternoon, settling on my lap while I was browsing in the first volume of The History of Parliament: The Commons 1386-1421 (J.S. Roskell, Linda Clark, Carole Rawcliffe, Alan Sutton 1992). I resolved to sit still as long as she wished–else she might not do it again. My reading extended a bit over 1 1/2 hours, during which time I read the introductory material and the specific background on York, all of which provided helpful insight into York politics in Owen and Lucie’s time as well as at the turn of the century (14th-15th), which is the period in which I open the proposed series. What a gift Ariel presented me–focus, stillness. After she departed, I pulled out my notes on both novels and added the insights I’d gleaned. Now to arrange the piles on bookshelves so that they won’t disrupt Ariel’s sleep. A good afternoon’s work.

More Thoughts on Detective Fiction


, ,

I have been reading and thinking about PD James’s little book, Talking About Detective Fiction (Knopf 2009) while putting together a proposal for a new crime series. I feel as if she’s been my companion through this process, my reactions to her observations revealing my own preferences. But alas, I’ve used up all the renewals at the local library, and must return the book tomorrow. So I wanted to share some of the passages I particularly enjoyed, the one relating to her own choices.  content

Talking about point of view, she says: “My own choice of viewpoint is partly authorial, a detached recorder of events, and partly to move into the minds of the different characters, seeing with their eyes, expressing their emotions, hearing their words. …This for me makes a novel more complex and interesting [than first person], and can also have a note of irony as this shifting viewpoint can show how differently we can all perceive the same event.” (149-50) I, too, choose multiple points of view for much the same reasons. However, I seldom (if ever?) use “authorial, a detached recorder of events”; perhaps occasionally to give an overview of the setting. But ever since I realized that as a reader I often skip over long descriptions unless I’m learning something about a character, I tend to describe the setting from a character’s point of view. My preference, certainly not a RULE.

In the same chapter James describes how she went about choosing her main character. I didn’t find that helpful because my main characters choose me. But I did enjoy what she had to say about “the other characters, particularly the victim and the unfortunate suspects”: “If we do not care, or indeed to some extent empathise with the victim, it surely hardly matters to us whether he lives or dies. The victim is the catalyst at the heart of the novel and he dies because of who he is, what he is and where he is, and the destructive power he exercises, acknowledged or secret, over the life of at least one desperate enemy. His voice may be stilled for most of the novel, his testimony given in the voices of others, by the detritus he leaves…, but for the reader, at least in thought, he must be powerfully alive. Murder is the unique crime, and its investigation tears down the privacy of both the living and the dead. It is this study of human beings under the stress of this self-revelatory probing which for a writer is one of the chief attractions of the genre.” (153-54) Yes! I love the passage , but particularly the part I’ve italicized at the end. This is precisely what engages me, watching the community squirm. And always I want to remember the victim, that what is at stake is not only the danger that the murderer will strike again, but also that the murderer will escape punishment. I find it fascinating that she considers five suspects unwieldy—not that I disagree, but I’ve never counted.

I laughed when I read the following, wholeheartedly agreeing: “…however well I more fb books 002think I know my characters, they reveal themselves more clearly during the writing of the book, so that at the end, however carefully and intricately the work is plotted, I never get exactly the novel I planned. It feels, indeed, as if the characters and everything that happens to them exists in some limbo of the imagination, so that what I am doing is not inventing them but getting in touch with them and putting their story down in black and white, a process of revelation, not of creation.” (157-58) When my characters begin to act up, I relax. Now I’m in play.

And lastly, I appreciated this summation: “Murder is a contaminating crime and no life which comes into close touch with it remains unaltered. The detective story is the novel of reason and justice, but it can affirm only the fallible justice of human beings, and the truth it celebrates can never be the whole truth any more than it is in a court of law.” I think of the characters in my novels as poignantly, tragically human, even the murderers. They are all contaminated by the violence of the crime.

And yet I don’t find the writing of murder mysteries depressing. In fact, I find them more optimistic than the historical novels I’ve been writing. I think it’s because the continuing characters are, for the most part, safe at the end of the story. I can create loving relationships for them, and much joy. I didn’t have that power with Alice Perrers or Joan of Kent.

Much to ponder, from a writer I admire. As always, your thoughts are welcome.

Evolving Characters in a Series


, , ,

As I line up a cast of characters with whom I will live for years to come if this new series is a go, I am paying close attention to what seem to be my rules of thumb for a mystery series. I’ve also been slowly reading P D James on the detective novel (Talking About Detective Fiction)and articles/interviews with other crime authors. I’m curious whether we  agree on anything. So far it seems we don’t agree on much. I wrote in another post about PD James’s comment that few crime writers age their series characters.

Here’s a comment that surprised me, in an excerpt from a Publishers Weekly interview with Alexander Campion [no relation to my less-murderous alter-ego]: “There’s a trick to writing stock figure books. First off, nobody evolves.” Hang on, hang on, what?! Nobody evolves?!

Brother Michaelo is interesting to me because of the gradual changes in his character. Margaret Kerr matures over the course of her trilogy. Owen changes over time, as do Archbishop Thoresby, Alisoun Ffulford, Jasper de Melton…. I can’t imagine spending years with static characters. How tedious!

That’s not to say Alexander’s wrong. That’s his rule of thumb, and it works for him.

As for me, my characters evolve as I write them. Just this afternoon a character I had envisioned as blandly pleasant smirked on her first appearance. I don’t know how it happened. But when I reread what I’d written (or she’d written?), I realized it was better this way. Yes. She’s a bit irritating. She evolved right before my eyes, beneath my fingertips. I love unruly characters!

Walking Out Sticking Points


, , , , , ,

Earlier this week, Terri Windling posted on her blog, Myth and Moor, a collection of quotes about the power of a walk to help clear the mind, connect us with our bodies, and invite inspiration. She shared this passage from Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking: “Walking, ideally, is a state in which mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.”

I am fortunate to live in a neighborhood close to the city and the university with the research library I haunt, yet perched at the edge of a wooded area that is inhabited, but gently. I can accomplish many errands on foot, no one aware that I have a crowd of characters in tow with whom I’m arguing (far safer than piling them into the car). When I don’t want the distraction of shops and post offices and libraries I can drag the gang down through the wooded area to and along a lake. Worried about a deadline? I hang that worry on an obliging branch and move on. Encounters with hummingbirds, eagles, neighborhood cats and dogs, gray herons, opinionated crows and blue jays, operatic robins–they all remind me to lighten up. And I pass that advice on to my invisible companions. Although it’s a steep climb back, I often hurry up the hill composing sentences in my head, the problem solves, the floodgates open. I know I could just pull out my phone and dictate, but I hate that intrusion.

If I don’t want to venture too far from the page, I pace in my own garden. Somehow just stepping out onto the earth helps clear my head.

When I was working on the Margaret Kerr books I boldly wrote to the novelist Nigel Tranter asking if we could meet while I was in Scotland. He graciously invited me to tea at his home. It was an afternoon I’ll always treasure. I bring it up because he told me about his walks, every morning a walk to the water, carrying a small notebook in which he would frequently pause to sketch out the scenes in his novel-in-progress, which he would flesh out at his desk in the afternoon. This was his daily writing routine. Even into his 90s he thought best when in motion. He was walking to and from the shore of the Firth of Forth–imagine the weather in which he walked in winter! But he did it, every day, until illness took him.

I noticed a story–big news!–recently about the discovery that walking is good for creativity. Oh, really?

Shop Talk: Allowing a Sleuth to Age


, , , , , ,

“One of the most interesting aspects of [Sir John] Appelby is the way in which he ages and matures so that readers who fall under his spell can have the satisfaction of vicariously living his life. ….no other detective writer has produced for his hero such a well-documented life. … most of us with a serial hero are content to take refuge in the fashionable illusion that our detectives are immutably fixed in the first age we assigned to them….” So says PD James  in Talking About Detective Fiction (Knopf 2009, p. 55) about Michael Innes’s detective and “most of us”, which I suppose includes me.

But of course it doesn’t. And here’s why that passage jumped out at me. It never occurred to me not to age my “serial detective”(s), i.e., Owen Archer and Lucie Wilton. Even with Margaret Kerr, though her story (so far) takes place in a short stretch of time in time, she does mature. I enjoy moving my characters along through time, showing how they absorb their experiences. My fascination with crime fiction is largely about the wake that a crime creates in its path, disturbing the community, unearthing the secrets of many who have no direct connection with the crime. So I’m also interested in how my sleuths are changed by what they learn about life, human nature, the nature of evil. And I enjoy that about the series I read.

How about you?

Out of Silence


, , , , , , ,

Over the Labor Day weekend and into the following week I was on silent retreat in the woods. Although I shared the retreat with over forty meditators, the solitude I found in silence was, as always, a revelation. Companionship and solitude–such a gift. It was dfficult at first, as it always is. The opening of John O’Donohue’s beautiful book Anam Cara comes to mind: “It is strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you alone. Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of another world waits. A world lives within you. No one else can bring you news of this inner world. Through the opening of the mouth, we bring out sounds from the mountain beneath the soul. These sounds are words. The world is full of words. There are so many talking all the time, loudly, quietly, in rooms, on streets…. The noise of words keeps what we call the world there for us.” But we need silence to connect with the world within–at least I do.

I certainly did not plan for this blog to be silent so long! My excuse is that I came home brimming with ideas, and I’ve been busily playing with them. Though I intended to set work aside while in the woods, some ideas I’d been toying with before leaving grew impatient, and on the last two days characters followed me on my walks through the woods, boisterous, insistent that I listen to their stories. Of course I wrote down what they told me. Surreptitiously. Never in the meditation hall.

But back to silence. Such a powerful practice.

“Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.”–Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

I’ve shared here before the tug of war that occurs while sitting in meditation between my intention to let the thoughts float by like clouds and the impulse to jot down the ideas that arise. They arise because I’m quiet. I’ve stepped out of my way. On a retreat, once I’ve sat with and fully seen all the unresolved, undigested experiences and emotions that arise in the first several days, my mind begins to reach out to the characters populating it. Perhaps in relief–enough angst already, how about this for a perfect murder? Or have you considered this about that character who’s stumping you? C’mon, this is more fun!

Or are they fictional characters? John O’Donohue again: “Often it seems as if there is a crowd within the individual heart. The Greeks believed that when you dreamed at night, the figures of your dreams were characters who left your body, went out into the world, and undertook their own adventures; they then returned before you awoke. At the deepest level of the human heart, there is no simple, singular self. Deep within, there is a gallery of different selves.” Am I using the silence to connect with the selves within? That’s a chilling thought considering some of the characters I’ve conjured over the years.

For now I choose to let that remain a mystery. I’m simply grateful that the insights that arise during my meditation or on retreat are so rich and deep, far more so than what comes up while I’m staring at the screen and willing inspiration to arise. That insight alone is such a gift.


Unexpected Visitors


, ,

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)


, , , , , , , , , ,

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


, , , , ,

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


, , , ,

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!   Passages To the Past  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.

Stay tuned!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 693 other followers