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Medieval Historical Backgrounds
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Historical Background to By Arrangement
At about the same time that I began thinking that I might write historical romance, I reread Barbara Tuchman's book A Distant Mirror. The 14th century was a tumultuous period, full of war and plague and conflict, and her history of it brought the century alive for me. Surely, I thought, with so much material and such colorful characters at my disposal, I should be able to harvest a plot or two.
In By Arrangement, the backdrop and intrigue concern the opening years of The Hundred Years War between England and France. Before the novel begins, there had already been several battles and aborted campaigns. A young Edward III had achieved a victory at the famous Battle of Sleuys, where fighting mostly took place on ships anchored in the city's harbor. His attempt to launch a more extensive campaign had not been successful. His reasons for warring with France were complicated, but his excuse was his claim, through his mother, on the French crown itself. It went without saying that whatever the merits of his claim, the French barons did not intend to hand the crown over to him. The political situation provided me with a world in which my hero, David de Abyndon, could move. Most of the historical developments serve primarily as catalysts, however, and occur off stage. My real fascination with the 14th century lays in the social history of the period. That aspect of its history has a bigger impact on the story than any decision by a King. The 14th century was an age of transition when old institutions were dying out and new ones were being created, and when words like nobility, feudalism, and warfare began to take on different meanings.
The 14th century is part of what historians call the Late Middle Ages. It is easy to forget that the Middle Ages lasted 1,000 years. While change did not occur with the speed it does today, neither did things stand still. For example, by the 14th century, feudalism had become a mere echo of its former self and had developed features that cause historians to refer to it as "bastard feudalism". The old system of feudal obligations, of vassals answering the lord's call to arms, had been replaced by a system of monetary payments. Increasingly a lord's fighting force was a paid force, not one made up of his vassals, and a knight joined a lord's retinue for a period of time for a certain amount of money. In other words, knights contracted themselves out. Land holdings had become subject to traditions of inheritance, and the days of receiving land for one's services were over.
Even the position of serfs had changed, with their value being in the fees that they paid to their lord and with custom and tradition granting them certain rights. (My second novel, By Possession, deals with this since the heroine is serf-born.) The common belief that serfs were at the bottom of the social ladder had never been true in the Middle Ages and it was not in the 14th century. Serfs could and did own property. In addition, a serf family had a plot of land on the manor which was theirs to work by right. They could earn money selling the excess products of their labor (that is how they got the coin to pay the feudal fees), and they at least had a place that provided some security. Manor documents survive that show freeborn men asking to be made serfs. Below the serfs on the economic scale were a manor's impoverished freeborn who had no rights to land that they could work (the "cottagers" of later centuries) and itinerant workers who did not even have a permanent home.
Another major change occurred in the 14th century, although it very likely existed well before then. Historians have found evidence of significant social mobility. The common belief that in the Middle Ages one was doomed to die at the same status one had at birth was not true. Families died out in the landed class with amazing frequency (hence the obsession with having heirs) and their places were taken by others. The aristocracy had developed layers, and the term gentry, so common in later centuries, was in use by mid century. Wealthy merchants could buy their way into this lower echelon of the upper class. As David reminds Christiana in By Arrangement, the need for knights was great enough that Edward III required that any man with income from land over 40 pounds a year be knighted.
Social mobility occurred in other ways. Younger sons of the aristocracy might be apprenticed to merchants. A knight's daughter might marry a tradesman or a merchant's daughter might marry into the gentry. Already status might be acquired, or a family's fortune saved, through a daughter's marriage, much as in later centuries. I discovered another little detail that made me laugh. It seems that a favorite career for younger sons was the law. By the end of the century, there were already complaints about the large number of lawyers in London.
On the business side of things, the 14th century saw major developments. London was the center of trade and finance in England, and one of the largest cities in Europe. A London citizenship bestowed certain privileges, among them the right to sell goods at what we today call wholesale. It was possible to become a London citizen in several ways. Serving an apprenticeship and achieving the rank of master would do it. However, one could also purchase a citizenship, and some merchants from other countries did that. A person from another country was called a foreigner. An English person who was not from London was called an alien.
The term guild was only used in London for craftsmen. There were no merchant guilds there like there were in other countries. Instead, the merchants formed "companies" that functioned much like guilds. Among other things, they regulated prices and the quality of goods. Some companies became very powerful, and took to wearing livery (or uniforms) at public functions. They came to be known as the liveried companies.
Several Florentine families provided international banking networks. The Bardi and the Peruzzi (the Medici would come a little later) had trade representatives in most of the major trading centers in Europe. One could deposit a sum with them in London, receive a receipt, and upon arriving in a city like Ghent or Genoa, go to their representative there, produce the receipt, and get the money. The extensive trade of the Italian bankers and merchants also provided a rudimentary mail system among the major cities. David's youthful decision to establish his own trading network so he would not have to pay the high prices of the goods imported to England by the Italians was rare, however. Most English merchants let the goods come to them.
In everyday life, things had changed too. The piped water in David's house is not an historical inaccuracy. The poshest manors and town homes had it, as archaeological evidence has revealed. It was not very difficult to achieve. One need only install a large container on the roof to catch rainwater, and pipes leading down to basins set in niches in the wall. Gravity did the rest. One used this water for washing hands. One did not fill a tub with it. In at least one case, the technology was developed further, however. By the end of the century Windsor Castle had a bath that employed piped hot and cold water.
In general, homes and castles provided more comfort than in previous centuries. Trade brought in luxurious tapestries and carpets. The wealthy might have their floors tiled. By the end of the century, large bay windows, called oriels, began to be added to castles and palaces. Glass had been available for years, as can be seen by the stain glass windows of cathedrals from centuries earlier, but it continued to be very expensive. It was common for those who could afford it to have it set in frames that could be removed from the windows. Then, when the family moved to another manor, the windows could come along and be used there. All of the windows consisted of small pieces of rough, wavy glass, held together with lead (large sheets of plate glass were not available until about 1830). For domestic use these windows would be clear, and not made of colored glass like they were in cathedrals.
Historical Characters in By Arrangement
While the main characters in the novel are fictional, some of the secondary characters actually lived during the period in which the novel is set. Many of their stories are colorful in their own right.
Edward III enjoyed a very long reign. During most of it he was a good king, and he did much to advance the legal system in England. He was an astute politician who healed the wounds inflicted by his father, and he showed remarkable forgiveness to the barons who had opposed his ascension to the throne (for the story of those tumultuous times, see my next book, By Possession, which is set against the backdrop of the events leading up to Edward III's coronation). Unfortunately in his old age his frailties obscured his judgement, and he came under the influence of a mistress who took advantage of him. His initiation of the conflict with France that led to the Hundred Years War is normally not held against him. His claim on the French crown was legally supportable if not politically practical. In order to keep him from getting it, the French changed the rules and decided that a claim through a female line could not be made. Edward's mother, Isabelle, had been the sister of the previous French King.
Joan of Kent was a cousin to Edward III. Her father was Edmund, the Earl of Kent, and the brother of Edward II. After his death she became a ward of the crown. Remarkably beautiful, she was known as the Fair Maid of Kent. The chronicler Froissart also referred to her as "the most amorous lady at court." Her story would make a romance novel in itself, and has been the subject of at least one. At a very young age (some historians claim at age twelve) she had a liaison with Thomas Holland. Later, while still in her teens, she married William Montagu, the young Earl of Salisbury. Both of these relationships are mentioned in By Arrangement. Thomas Holland protested the marriage, claiming first rights, and petitioned the papal court where it was decided that Joan was the wife of Thomas. After Holland's death she married again. Her new husband was the King's son Edward, better known as The Black Prince. It was his first marriage, he was in his thirties, and some romantics like to think that he had been in love with her all along and had been waiting for her to be free. Who knows, maybe so. By Prince Edward she gave birth to the future Richard II. It was Joan's lost garter that gave the Order of the Garter its name. She was reputed to be so lovely that even at age 50, during a popular uprising, she bought her safety with a kiss.
Thomas Holland has some stories of his own, aside from those involving Joan. Two different chroniclers record him as saving women from ravishment during the sacking of towns or keeps that had been defeated. I could not resist using that detail in my book.
There are some minor characters who also have colorful histories. The Comte d'Eu, the Constable of France, was taken prisoner by the English at the Battle of Caen. In order to pay his own ransom, he eventually ceded to King Edward some lands in France near the coast. Returning home after his long imprisonment, he was summarily executed by the French king for treason, despite the collective protests of the French barons. His King saw the future--those lands proved to be a strategic foothold for the English in the subsequent war years.
While the main characters are fictional, they are not complete figments of my imagination. I based David de Abyndon's wealth on the stories of individuals living in 14th-century London. The expansion of trade made some merchants very rich, and it was a wealth calculated in silver, not land. Edward III often turned to them for loans, and the sums that he borrowed were astounding. He also borrowed from the representatives of the Florentine banking families, and financed his war with France on credit. When he did not repay those loans, at least two of those families were ruined.
David's activities on behalf of King Edward are also plausible. I show him giving some very specific advice that "fills in" certain gaps in the historical record regarding why Edward made some of the choices that he did. They are all cases of history inspiring the development of the story, and providing plot points that affect the unfolding of events in the novel. To give more detail here would spoil the story for those who have not yet read it. Anyone who is curious, however, can email me I will send a response that outlines how I integrated David's story into the historical record.
Finally, I could not resist giving some of my fictional characters the names of individuals who are recorded as being alive during the period. My source for these names was a list of families in London who had members who became aldermen. Derived from archival documents, it also included wives and children if the documents mentioned them. Abyndon is on that list, as is Constantyn. I borrowed the names Christiana and Idonia from the list as well. No David is mentioned, however. In fact, I have found few instances of the name David in England in the Middle Ages. That may be because it was a common name for Scottish kings, and the conflict with Scotland made it unpopular in England.
FUDGING ON HISTORICAL ACCURACYEvery writer of historical novels fudges. It is a necessity if one wants the novel to be accessible to modern readers. For example, we all fudge on the language. If I were to use the language of the 14th century, I would have to write in Middle English, like Chaucer. I personally do not hold with the practice of creating antiquated speech patterns for medieval romances. It seems to me that only compounds the inaccuracy. My characters might speak with a certain formality, and I try mightily to avoid anachronisms, but the speech is fairly direct.
I might as well add that I do not avoid contractions, but this is not a matter of fudging. There is a myth among romance writers, its origins unknown, that people did not use contractions until late in the 19th century. They may not appear often in written language until then, but written language was, and still is, more formal than conversation (I am composing this in Word, and the grammar check wants me to eliminate all contractions). There is literary evidence of contractions as far back as the 16th century and documentary evidence even earlier. I suspect that people have used contractions in conversation as long as there has been spoken language. I make my own decision whether or not to use one based on the rhythms of the sentence.
Although contractions do not represent an inaccuracy, the issue of accuracy raises a constant dilemma for writers. Where to fudge, and where to draw the line? We all make our own decisions about that, and readers have to decide whether those lines are consistent with their notions of appropriate accuracy.
In my own case, I decided to fudge on things that, if handled accurately, would confuse the reader or cause her to stop while she figured out what I meant. Therefore, I use terms like miles, hours, and days of the week with a frequency that is not accurate. Although there were some clocks in the 14th century, most people did not keep time by them. The day was divided up into general periods marked by matins, tierce, etc., at which points the church bells rang. The movement of the sun guided one's awareness of the passing of time more than any sense of minutes or hours.
People living then did not refer to April 10 or July 21. Writings from the period indicate dates by referring to the closest major saint's day, the saints' feast days being itemized in the liturgical calendar. So one would say something like, "six days after the feast of St. Stephen" rather than the actual month and year.
Monetary units can cause problems too. There was no coin called a pound in the 14th century. However, documents show that both the pound and the mark were used as measures of valuation. When, in By Arrangement, David pays the brideprice, it was valued in pounds but most likely he brought a quantity of gold or silver or shillings that equaled that valuation.
Finally, there is the matter of clothing. Dropping in the correct term for this or that garment certainly lends a sense of authenticity, but if the reader can not picture the garment, it can also prove confusing. I try to sketch a brief description when I first use such a term, so at least a general (perhaps too general for some readers) visual sense is conveyed. Actually, "robe" was the most common term that 14th-century writers used when referring to clothing. A robe was a loose garment that hung from the shoulders and might be belted, or not. The term was used to describe both male and female garments.
A final word about clothing, and about the necessity of writers to apply some common sense when interpreting the information found in reference books. In the 14th century, men wore hose. Modern costume handbooks refer to these hose being made of knitted or woven wool.
Now, think about that. A man rides a horse for many miles and he has nothing between his skin and the saddle but a layer of woolen hose? Were medieval knights tougher, or dumber, than American cowboys were? I found the answer to this curious assumption in a very old, very scholarly, history of medieval clothing. After describing these hose, and how they were mostly held up by something much like suspenders (riding a horse just got a lot dicier), the author mentioned that some of the remnants that survive are of leather.
Of course they are, and not just because leather offers more protection. In the Middle Ages, cloth was expensive. Making it was labor and resource intensive. Leather was cheap. Every time an animal died you had leather. London had whole streets crammed with tanners and skinners. All of those romance novel covers showing the hero in tight leather pants are probably more accurate than anyone guesses.
Because it was a luxury, cloth was the preferred material and those cloth hose would have been worn in social situations where leather would have been considered too primitive. But I strongly suspect that a man facing a long ride on a horse did not concern himself with such things. I have been horseback riding, and I know that I would not.
I have fudged on a few other things. In the 14th century, there were no countries known as Spain and Italy. In the former case, there were the countries of Aragon and Castile, and in the latter there were a host of city-states. On occasion, however, I make mention of "Italy" or "Spain" for convenience sake.
By Arrangement has one final, major fudge. It has to do with Christiana's age. In the novel she is 18, and her innocence is explained by her sheltered life. If I had wanted to be accurate to the practices of the 14th century, I would have made her younger-no more than 16, since 15 was the average age for girls to marry. On the other hand, London men normally did not marry until they were close to 30 since an apprenticeship began at age 15 and lasted until about age 25 (this is later than the practice in some other countries. In Italy, for example, a boy was apprenticed at about age 10 and completed his training at about age 20. The London system resulted in older and more productive workers, and ensured that the master had a mature labor force at his disposal). Since an apprentice could not marry, and since it took some time to become independently established, the disparity in ages between husband and wife was often close to 15 years even when it was the first marriage for both of them.
You can understand my dilemma. Modern readers would find it a bit odd to have a 30 year old man smitten by a 15 year old girl (although romance readers did not seem to mind such things as much 20 years ago). Nowadays, we either put men like that in jail or send them to a therapist. Therefore, I nudged Christiana's age up out of bit in respect for the sensibilities of my readers. I could neither fudge nor nudge more than that without interfering with her story and character.
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