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Medieval Historical Backgrounds
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Historical Background to The Protector
The Protector opens in 1348, the year of The Black Death. The plague that ravaged Europe in the middle of the 14th century was one of the most devastating catastrophes in medieval history. Scholars still debate the identification of the disease, the death toll, and its impact. It is believed that the Black Death (or The Death, as it was called at the time) was the bubonic plague. It could spread fast and kill swiftly, and historians estimate that between one-third and one-half of the European population died during its two major sweeps through the continent. A few pockets were spared, mostly regions where the ruler sealed off the affected areas to let the infected die without contaminating others. Rats did not carry the plague as is commonly thought. They and other animals, including humans, did carry the fleas whose bites helped the disease spread.
Cities, towns, abbeys, and other places where large groups lived in close proximity were especially vulnerable. It did not spare the nobility, but the deaths among the highest classes were fewer than among the lower ones. Better diet and health probably explain this, but the availability of isolated manors for sitting out the worst accounts for it too. For example, of King Edward III's many children, only one, his daughter Joan, most likely died from the plague. She was on a ship bound for Spain at the time, and flea-infested ships were notorious plague breeding grounds. That she sailed to Spain and an arranged marriage in the midst of this devastation attests to the way life and politics went on. The plague did not cause everything to simply halt.
The world might still turn, but for a few years it was, as described at the time, a "world turned upside down." Medieval people always lived with death in a way we no longer do, but this was different. Panic, fear, and resignation caused many social conventions to crack or be ignored. Normal restraints disappeared, and in many cases an "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die" mentality set in. When the disease claimed a manor's lord and family, the surviving peasants found themselves in a peculiar situation. The breakdown in the social order created opportunities and there were individuals, both honorable and dishonorable, ready to take advantage of them. In The Protector, it is historically accurate for the people of La Roche de Roald to turn to Anna under these circumstances, and for Gurwant to pursue a spurious claim on the estate at a time when the authorities had bigger concerns (if they were even alive!).
The plague had huge repercussions on the economy of Europe. It seriously altered the supply and demand for goods and radically decreased the supply of labor. Prior to the plague, a serf would often not run away from his manor because finding work elsewhere was unlikely, and the life of an itinerate laborer was less appealing than bondage. After the plague some manors actually enticed runaways to come and work by offering wages that were higher than normal, in order to replace their lost labor supply. Eventually laws were passed to prohibit competition on wages. That in turn led to peasant uprisings later in the century in both England and France.
If as many half died, that means that at least half lived. Many of those who survived were exposed to the disease but either did not contract it or survived the illness. In an attempt to comprehend the horror, people concluded that the plague was a punishment from God. In that point of view, the survivors had been blessed with a reprieve.
THE BRETON CIVIL WAR
The civil war that ravaged Brittany in the middle of the 14th century was in many ways prophetic of things to come. It overlapped the beginning of the Hundred Years War between England and France, and served as a proving ground for the sort of conflict that would grip Europe over the next decades. England and France each took sides because both had claims on Brittany and the territory was also strategically important to their larger conflict.
The war was ferocious and relentless. A state of anarchy developed. Free companies, groups of unattached soldiers and knights, roamed the area just as they would throughout Europe in later years. They would lay siege to manors and towns and not leave until a tribute was paid. During the next decades these companies created such big problems on the continent that eventually the Pope and rulers created a crusade in order to find a way to direct their energies to something productive.
At one point in the war an individual challenge between an English knight and a French knight grew into a "media event." The challenge added knights until it became a ritualized "battle" that merged war with tournament. Known as the Battle of the Thirty, it featured 15 knights on each side in a day-long melee of arms. Nothing of political significance was resolved by it, but at the time everyone considered it a contest epitomizing chivalry and honor. The surviving participants enjoyed fame for the rest of their lives, and the names of all of the knights have survived. The list includes Italians and Germans as well as Bretons, English and French. One of the instigators of the battle was Roger de Beaumanoir, who appears at the end of The Protector as Gurwant's kinsman.
Everyone knows about Joan of Arc. History treats her as an anomaly, a woman who wore armor and fought in battles during an age when females were protected and elevated. She was not the only medieval woman to fight in battles, however. There were other cases, such as the one mentioned in The Protector, that of Jeanne de Montfort.
Jeanne was the wife of Jean Comte de Montfort, one of the claimants on the ducal crown of Brittany. Early in the civil war, the French captured her husband. While he was imprisoned, she led his army. Throughout the middle ages, wives of barons often took on the role of directing the defense of castles, but Jeanne devised strategy and donned armor to fight. In The Protector, Anna is aware of this woman and even of her victories, and goes so far as to employ one of her strategies when Anna's own home in under siege.
Jeanne's story is no more pleasant than Joan of Arc's, unfortunately. As explained in The Protector, after her husband's death she sought the continued support of King Edward III who had been their ally. While she was in England, historians tell us, she "went mad" and Edward put her away. He then took upon himself the guardianship of the young duke, and of Brittany itself.
Did she go mad? At the time, her unconventional behavior could have been easily interpreted that way. Edward may have honestly thought she was mad, and perhaps more was involved than the behavior we know about. I cannot help but raise an eyebrow, however. It was a very convenient insanity for England.
Her story, and that of Joan of Arc, reveal the delicate balance a woman with these inclinations faced in the middle ages. All of the old mythologies of Europe include warrior goddesses, so the notion of a female warrior was not completely foreign. Still, such a woman defied conventions with a visibility that made her potentially dangerous to the social order.
The history of Joan of Arc reveals something of how the medieval mind accommodated this. The French considered her a saint, and even the English hesitated to execute her. Initially she was only imprisoned, and forbidden to wear men's clothing. It was only when she deliberately began wearing them again that the English condemned her to death.
Joan of Arc was a virgin, just as most of those warrior goddesses had been virgins. The medieval mind was fascinated by the notion of a maiden warrior, sent by God as his handmaiden. The image of an armor-clad woman was so outrageous that it had to be justified in religious terms in order to be swallowed. It is not surprising that some of the most famous warrior women to be acknowledged by their times were unmarried, virginal, and often beatified by their people. In creating Anna de Leon I made use of this profile.
Jeanne de Montfort was not a maiden, but a married woman. She herself did not inherit Brittany; it passed to her son. Behavior that in another woman might have been seen as divinely inspired could be considered madness in her case.
In The Protector, Anna is teetering on this delicate balance, and she knows it. She is, as she tells Morvan, walking a fine line through no choice of her own, and knows that only the disruption of her world has made her acceptable. She is aware that her situation is temporary, and that there is no permanent place in her society for a woman with her inclinations. "Today I am a saint. Next year the crops fail and I am a witch."
There were undoubtedly many Anna de Leons in the middle ages. Many of them chose the course she did and entered convents. Convents were sanctuaries for women who did not and would not conform. Others did conform, and suppressed their true natures, a choice that Anna considers and rejects. Anna's physical abilities have only recently become acceptable in western society. The celebration of the female "jock" is a relatively new phenomenon. Only in the last several decades have movies and books begun to feature woman warriors, and they are still most prevalent in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Women like Anna have always been born, but until very recently were made to feel unattractive, unfeminine, and out of place.
The Protector is not the first romance novel to feature a warrior heroine. With Anna's story, however, I wanted to explore the dangers and vulnerabilities, both physically and emotionally, that her nature creates for her. Although I can enjoy a story in which a warrior heroine is taken in stride by society, it is not very accurate. Nor is the notion that slight, small females could wear armor and wield medieval swords. So Anna is a big woman, athletic and strong, and undoubtedly some of the men who met her were repulsed. Her insecurities about her appeal and femininity are, I think, not only plausible but predictable considering the world in which she lived.
HISTORICAL CHARACTERS IN THE PROTECTOR
I have mentioned some of the historical characters already, but there are a few more who have interesting stories. Once more in this book we meet Princess Isabella, Edward III's eldest daughter. She is grown now, and in the intervening years since BY ARRANGEMENT she has almost been married. The story of that embarrassing episode was so famous that troubadours wrote songs about it.
After her father's victory at the battle of Crecy, he and the burghers of Flanders tried to force a marriage between Isabella and the young Count of Flanders, whose father had been killed at Crecy fighting for the French. The count was put under house arrest for all intents and purposes, and coerced to agree to the wedding. He pretended to agree in order to appease everyone, but one day while out hunting he gave his guards the slip and ran away, seeking sanctuary with the French. Poor Isabella's humiliation was very public. When several years later her father again tried to arrange a marriage, she only got as far as the port city where her ship waited before refusing to go on. Edward never played matchmaker for her again and Isabella did not marry until she was in her 30s.
Another historical character has a walk-on role in the novel, Harve de Leon, who is presented as Anna's distant kinsman. He is most famous for his death. Caught on the English Channel in bad weather, his ship could not make port for two weeks and Harve ultimately died from the toll on his health.
HISTORICAL ROMANCES AND ROMANTIC HISTORICALS
I write historical romances. That means that no matter how accurate the history may be, no matter how often actual events serve as catalysts to the plot, the main focus of the story is the relationship between a man and a woman. This is different from a related type of book, the romantic historical. In those books, which may appear very similar to historical romances to some readers, the romantic relationship is more of the subplot than the main focus, and other developments take center stage.
In the United States, historical romances are very popular, while romantic historicals have a more difficult time finding an audience. On the other hand, there are countries such a Great Britain where the situation is reversed. Whatever the reasons, there are differences in national tastes in fiction and it is reflected in the market for books.
The romantic focus in historical romances affects more than just how much time is spent on the development of the relationship. It affects pacing, and even the way that the book unfolds. A battle or political development that happens offstage in an historical romance might take up several chapters in a romantic historical, and in the latter type of book the romantic relationship might not become significant until well into the story. Increasingly in historical romances, the leisurely and fastidious description of setting, clothing, and the ins and outs of political events are being suppressed. Rather one finds the "telling detail" that encapsulates the mood and experience of the period in many fewer words.
I mention this difference because on occasion readers and writers of romantic historicals will read an historical romance and express dissatisfaction with the focus or style of the book. Fans of romantic historicals may criticize the level of sensuality in an historical romance, or the sketchiness of the political background, or any number of things that do not appear up to snuff for historical fiction. I have been blessed that such criticisms have rarely been leveled at my books, but on occasion they are. In response I can only repeat what I stated above. I write historical romances.
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