The Black Death in Meonbridge

“It is June 1349. In the Hampshire village of Meonbridge, the worst plague in England’s history has wiped out half its population…”

We call that plague the Black Death. At the time they referred to it as the great death, the mortality or the pestilence. It arrived in England in June 1348 and lasted a matter of months in any one location, although overall, as it spread relentlessly across the country, it persisted for the best part of two years.

It’s hard to imagine how shattering the plague’s arrival must have been. It was of course quite terrible enough in itself, but it followed in the wake of two other appalling disasters: overpopulation and severe poverty in the first decade of the century, ruinous weather, disastrous harvests and devastating famines in the second.

We know now that this appalling, terrifying disease was caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, carried by a flea that lives on the black rat. Then, such a disease – like other natural (or perhaps man-made) disasters – was presumed to be God’s punishment for man’s sin. This would, I think, have been what priests would have taught their congregations. Yet people might have wondered which of their sins could be so great that God would want to punish them so severely. And how fearful they must have been when they saw how randomly the plague found its victims – rich and poor, old and young, reprobate and innocent.

How on earth did people cope with such continual calamity?

This was the question I asked myself when I set out to write Fortune’s Wheel. But I didn’t really want to write a novel about the Black Death. Rather, I was interested in what happened after the plague had passed on, leaving communities with, on average, half of their previous population.

Social change had in fact already begun in rural manorial communities, with the feudal system of lords and peasants starting to break down. But the huge demographic shift that resulted from the simultaneous deaths of so many people during the plague accelerated that change. It is an interesting period of social history.

But imagine the sheer turmoil that must have ensued, not only in society as a whole, but also at a personal level.

Women lost husbands, men lost wives, and both lost children. Young people were orphaned and had to learn to fend for themselves. Workers realised they were now a scarce resource and had some bargaining power, and said so, while their lords and masters tried hard to cling on to the status quo and keep the workers in their place. As the peasants rebelled against the old ways, priests railed against the upsetting of God’s pre-ordained social order, and preyed upon people’s fears of further divine retribution for their sinful lives.

Yet, amidst all this turmoil and fear, normal life must have continued: fields had to be ploughed and sown, crops harvested, meals made. People fell in and out of love. Babies were born and children cherished. Friendships and families were sometimes put under strain. Resentments boiled, some of which found reconciliation, while others ended in treachery.

And all that is the story of Fortune’s Wheel.

The meandering river Meon

A few people have asked me about the significance of the photo I use on my website and other social media sites…

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Photo: Carolyn Hughes

This is a view of the river Meon, in Hampshire, very close to where I live. The Meon is not a grand river, for it is only twenty-one miles in length, and for much of that length it is a somewhat shallow chalk stream – in summer months, at any rate. The river rises in the South Downs, near the village of East Meon, and winds and meanders – how aptly is the river named! – through the other villages of the Meon Valley, until it rushes, broader and deeper, out into the sea, the Solent, to the south of Titchfield.

The early form of the name, Mēon, is Celtic or pre-Celtic. The meaning and etymology seem unclear, but it may be associated with a word that means ‘damp’ or ‘to wash’.1 Yet that seems unromantically mundane – too obvious, perhaps – and I prefer to think of the lovely Meon simply as the river that meanders…

But despite the rather gentle, meandering nature of the Meon, it nonetheless has power. Within the past few years, villages at either end of the Meon’s length – East Meon and Titchfield – have experienced severe flooding when the river burst its banks and overwhelmed their roads and houses. More helpfully, for centuries, the steep gradient of the terrain over which the upper reaches of the river flow has enabled the water to be exploited for a surprising variety of manufacturing processes – iron working, wool processing, paper making, tanning, and flour milling.2

The peace and beauty of the Meon’s landscape – with its gently flowing stream, the occasional heron or egret fishing at the river’s edge; the lush water meadows, sometimes occupied by grazing cattle; the odd rushing weir; and the few surviving stone and brick arch bridges that span it at various points along its length – are, you might think, reason enough to use a photo of it to illustrate my social media pages. But there is a little more to it than that.

If you already know that my novel, Fortune’s Wheel, is the first of the “Meonbridge Chronicles”, you will of course put two and two together and conclude that these novels are almost certainly set in the Meon Valley. I will confess, however, that you will not be able to find “Meonbridge” on any map, or indeed any of the other local geographical features referred to in the book. Meonbridge is a fictional village, a fictional manor, but one that, in my imagination, is located broadly here, with the river Meon running through it, and the hills of the South Downs rising behind it.

But although Meonbridge is fictional, in my heart and mind it lives and breathes. That really does sound corny! And yet it’s true. And the river plays an important part in the first of Meonbridge’s stories – the river, the flour mill built on its banks to serve the manor’s needs, and, most crucially, the mill wheel that harnesses the river’s power to drive the stones that grind the grain. In Meonbridge, the Meon proves it can be anything but “gentle”.

  1. From “Saxons in the Meon Valley: A Place-Name Survey” by Dr Kelly A. Kilpatrick, Institute for Name-Studies, University of Nottingham, Sept 2014. http://www.saxonsinthemeonvalley.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/MeonValleyPlaceNameResearch_Sep2014.pdf
  2. The River Meon, National Rivers Authority, Southern Region, July 1993. http://www.environmentdata.org/fedora/repository/ealit:3872/OBJ/20003280.pdf

 

Why write historical fiction?

Why have I decided to write a blog? Perhaps because I wanted to share some of the fascination and pleasure of the novel-writing journey that I have been undertaking these past few years.

I have been writing fiction for a long time – all my adult life, on and off, in between work and family life. But it was when I decided to study for an MA in Creative Writing that I took the first step to becoming what I now think I am – a writer of historical fiction.

Why historical fiction? Well, when I had to choose what to write as the creative piece for the MA, I chose historical fiction mostly just as a change from the contemporary women’s fiction that I had been writing. But the choice was somewhat serendipitous. For, in my twenties I had written about 10,000 words of a novel set in the fourteenth century and, by chance, I rediscovered the fading handwritten draft languishing in a box of old scribblings. Although, to be frank, the novel’s plot was pretty dire, I found myself drawn to its period and setting. The discovery gave me one of those light bulb moments and, a few days later, I was drafting an outline for the historical novel that is now called Fortune’s Wheel.

It was true that I had long been intrigued by the mediaeval period, for its relative remoteness in time and understanding, and, I think, for the very dichotomy between the present-day perception of the Middle Ages as “nasty, brutish and short” and the wonders of the period’s art and literature. I wanted to know more about the period, and, through writing an historical novel, I would have the opportunity both to discover the mediaeval past and to interpret it, to bring both learning and imagination to my writing, which is I suppose what all historical novelists do.

But what kind of story would I write? What sort of historical novel would it be?

There are so many different sub-genres of historical fiction… Yet I somehow knew that I wouldn’t write a medieval mystery, or crime, or romance, or adventure (although mystery, crime, romance and adventure would surely all play a part?). It would not be alternative history, or alternative biography, or fantasy, or time slip. But, if it were none of these, what would it be?

What does it matter, I hear you cry! Well, of course, at the beginning, it didn’t matter, but, later on in my MA, I would have to justify myself by declaring what genre of novel it was, if only for the sake of future approaches to agents and publishers, who would demand to know the answers.

However, what I did know from the start was that I wanted to try to write a “naturalistic” novel, one that portrayed the lives of mediaeval people – and in particular “ordinary” people – as naturally and “authentically” as I possibly could. (I will discuss the problems of “authenticity” in historical fiction in future blog posts.) I soon became excited by the idea of building an imaginary mediaeval English village society and populating it with a variety of interesting, albeit “ordinary”, characters.

To make a story, I would of course have to give them challenges to meet and problems to solve, private agonies to bear and public disasters to face. Nonetheless, I thought my novel would be more about the people than the events, more about their interactions with each other than the twists and turns of whatever situations I put them in.

And so it has proved to be. I sometimes think of Fortune’s Wheel as a kind of “relationship” novel, but set in the fourteenth century. It is also a novel that focuses mostly on the relationships of women, and the story is told through the voices of women. Although we do hear the words of men, it was the women’s viewpoints that interested me most, if only because women in history often do not get much opportunity to speak. And, in future Meonbridge Chronicles, the novel series of which Fortune’s Wheel is the first, it will undoubtedly again be the women of fictional Meonbridge who will be revealing their lives to us, and whose voices I hope we will all come to know.

Blog

Well, this is heady moment. My first-ever blog post!

What I intend for this blog is to relate something of the research that I have undertaken for writing my novels, and to give you a little background to why I love writing about the mediaeval period.

Yes, there will be novels in the plural. The first, Fortune’s Wheel, will be published soon, but I have a sequel under way, and further sequels in the pipeline. Hopefully one or more of these will become available some time next year.