Authenticity in historical fiction (VI)

In this, my final blog post on the ways in which an historical novelist can achieve authenticity in their writing, I am completing my previous post looking at how to introduce a sense of “otherness” into an historical novel.

Superstition, in particular, but also a belief in charms and spells and in the possibility of monsters, are elements of the “other” that I have found I can incorporate naturally into my stories.

midsummer bonfireThe traditions and rituals of the Midsummer Eve celebrations are important in both Fortune’s Wheel and in the second “Meonbridge Chronicle” that I am currently writing. When bonfires (“bonefires”) were lit across a village, they provided a focus for the merrymaking but also had a superstitious purpose.

Yesterday evening the customary Midsummer bonfires were set around the village, for the flames to ward off evil spirits and the smoke to purify the air. Fortune’s Wheel, p 19

Superstition often seems to be an extension of religious belief. So if a man was so sinful that he’d  be assumed to be bound for Hell, as a criminal – an outlaw – he’d also be buried beyond the village boundaries, and at a cross-roads, where his ghost would be prevented from returning to haunt his accusers by the confusion of knowing which road to take.

‘I’m glad he died without being shriven, so he’ll be forever in mortal sin and go straight to Hell.’ … …

Some hours later Sir Richard sent the sexton and a couple of manor servants to the cross-roads outside Meonbridge, where they buried [his] body. None but those three witnessed the burial and Sir Richard gave instructions that no sign was to be left to mark the spot. Fortune’s Wheel, p238

Carsten Tolkmit, Keil, Germany        [CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
Suicides too were buried at cross-roads where, seeming to be considered dangerous – something like the “undead” perhaps? – they’d also be confused and unable to return.

Suicide was a sin: she knew those who took their own lives couldn’t be buried in the churchyard; and she’d heard in some places their sinful bodies were mutilated before they were buried, to ward away the Devil. Fortune’s Wheel, p 173

In The Nature of Things, one woman’s understanding of the nature of lovemaking and another’s fears about the results of her sinful sexual relationships as a prostitute show different perspectives on the same superstition.

I’ve always thought a woman must enjoy the act of love as much as her husband if she’s to conceive a child, but now I know that’s just something people say. For though in truth I shrink from Richard’s nightly ploughing, and have to grit my teeth to bear it, yet a child’s growing inside me, conceived, I think, not long after our wedding night. Already, it’s kicking against my belly. The Nature of Things, p.102

… as I lie each night next to my beloved husband, worry stops me sleeping: we’ve been married months and still there’s no baby in my belly. And now I wonder why, since that first time with Gilbert, I’ve never got with child, despite all those men I’ve been with. … …

‘Everyone knows,’ [she] used to say, ‘unless a woman enjoys it as much as the man, she’ll not get a child. So you just make sure it’s them getting the comfort, dear, and not yourself, and you’ll be safe enough.’

I believed her, because I always hated what those men did to me and certainly got no pleasure from it. But, now, I love what Tom and me do together. So why isn’t there a child growing in my belly? The Nature of Things, p.391

1_3_2_mansel-smlBut how far beyond superstition is a belief in the power of magic charms? Perhaps not very much… In Fortune’s Wheel, a young pregnant wife, fearing that her growing belly is encouraging her husband’s eyes to wander, turns to a wise woman for a love potion to prevent him straying.

‘Foolish Isabella,’ said Margaret, raising her eyes to the heavens. ‘Oh, she was a stupid girl, Alice. She told her maid that she thought Philip’s eyes were straying because her belly had become so distorted with her growing baby. The maid, a simple wretch of a girl I should never have allowed to be a manor servant, told her that Mistress Kemp could give her a love potion, which she could slip into Philip’s wine. Isabella of course believed her. And she chose to ignore Richard’s rule that no-one was to leave the manor and go into the village. She slipped out without anyone noticing, and soon after she returned she fell ill and died within a few days.’ Fortune’s Wheel, p.88

In The Nature of Things, a man casts what he considers a magic spell, following the example of his mother – presumably a wise woman or witch. But his purpose is much darker than that of the unhappy young wife above.

His old Ma knew how to hurt people. When he was a lad, he watched her from his hiding place, listening to her mutterings. She filled a jar with pins and something her victim owned: a trinket or a scrap of clothing. Then she pissed into the jar, stoppered it and hid it beneath the hearth. What happened then? He is not quite sure, but thinks that, when the fire was lit and heated up the jar, the victim’s skin would prick all over, his guts burn with searing pain. The Nature of Things, p.27

It is worth noting that many modern depictions of “the Middle Ages”, particularly in film, draw as much on fantasy as on history, and conversely much fantasy fiction (The Game of Thrones among many, many others), and many films and computer games, draw on what is perceived as “mediaeval” as the apparently natural setting for fantasy worlds.

However, in some ways, this tendency seems more than simply natural, for the mediaeval world was full of “fantasy”: the fantastical images in, for example, the thirteenth-century mappa mundi housed in Hereford Cathedral, or the fourteenth-century Luttrell Psalter, or the writings of, for example, “Sir John Mandeville” about his travels to supposedly real countries. And then there are the terrifying paintings on church walls – fantastical certainly to our eyes –put there to chasten the congregation’s wicked hearts.

In The Nature of Things, a priest, fleeing from a catastrophic fire broken out in a decrepit ale-house, recognises in the inferno the images of Hell he’s seen in church murals.

As I near the door, I turn my head once more to look on what is truly a vision of Hell. I have seen demonic visions such as this in church wall paintings, put there to terrify and teach. And I am no less susceptible to their lesson than is the smallest child. The Nature of Things, p.10

church wall painting
12th c. wall painting in Church of St Peter and St Paul, Chaldon, Surrey (

A woman, knowing that her greedy husband has died unshriven, and fearful for his soul, recalls another church mural that exacerbates her fear.

At her prie-dieu, Alys began to shiver as well as weep. An image slipped into her mind, from the painting on the wall in Saint Nicholas’s church, a painting that had alarmed her as a child and still made her tremble: a naked man, fat moneybags suspended from his neck and coins pouring from his gaping mouth, was squatting over fiery flames, while horned devils prodded at him with their forks. The Nature of Things, p.16

The priest mentioned above (who in fact escaped the fire), more educated than the average village clergyman, has seen a map – perhaps something like Hereford’s mappa mundi – and was struck by the marginalia depicting strange creatures. Readers might question whether such a man would believe such creatures really existed, but perhaps he simply doesn’t know.

Sir Philip is not a noble man – or at least not in his bearing…Yet it is Philip’s face that detracts most from his lordly mien, for it is very long, his nose uncommonly sharp, his dark eyes prominent and widely spaced, his mottled beard poorly clipped and straggling over the neck of his crimson velvet hood. When I look at Philip, I am reminded of drawings I once saw upon a map, of men called cynocephali, dog-headed men, who some say live at the far edges of the Earth. The Nature of Things, p.19

By Hartmann Schedule (1440-1514) (Beloit College) [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
A boy has heard about monsters living in the seas and at the edges of the world, as has his patron, a much older, well-travelled merchant. Do either of them believe in the existence of these creatures? The boy is young and naïve enough perhaps to imagine that they could exist. But the older man, like the priest, doesn’t know the truth, but perhaps he shares the mediaeval delight in the fantastical and wants the monsters to be there.

‘But now I know the sea doesn’t end, but just goes on and on, further than you can ever see.’ I pause for a moment. ‘How far d’you think it does go, Master Godfrey? The edge of the world? And what happens then?’

Master Godfrey laughs and shakes his head. ‘Some say monsters lurk at the edges of the world.’

I nod. ‘When I was little, my Ma told us a story about sea monsters, great fearsome beasts with scales and claws.’

He laughs. ‘Ah, yes, but these monsters are not dragons, but men with their faces in their chests, and men with one foot so large they can use it to shield their heads from the sun.’

My skin tingles at the thought of meeting such strange creatures. ‘Are they dangerous?’ The Nature of Things, pp.202-203

However, some novels are both historically accurate and suitably religious and full of superstition and yet, without really including anything particularly fantastical or supernatural, move beyond superstition into something somehow a little stranger. I’d like to mention two such novels, both of which I admire greatly for achieving a strong sense of otherness. (I have in fact mentioned them both before in earlier blogs!)

cover-of-hoddAt the very beginning of Hodd, by Adam Thorpe, it is hard to be sure what the narrator is thinking, but it is certainly strange. I do not know where Thorpe found the idea of birds as flying fish, perhaps from bestiary lore, or perhaps it alludes to the belief that swallows hibernated under water?

The seas are folded over us, above our heads, the lower sea becoming the upper sea and yet still blue when not girt with sea mist, which is grey and melancholy. Some men when they look up see birds, but I see only a kind of fish… These fish are beaked and feathered, as we all know, and return to dry land to nest in trees… Hodd, p.1

morality-playIn this passage from Morality Play, by Barry Unsworth, despite appearances, there is no beast; the narrator has mistaken what he thinks he has seen because his mindset tells him to expect the supernatural. But the image, and the fear it engenders, are strikingly “other”:

The snow made a mist…dark shapes in it…a great black beast…[with] red eyes and above its head there moved a shape of red, dark red in the white of snow, and I knew this for the flame of the Beast’s breath and I knew what Beast it was…and I crossed myself and groaned aloud in my fear, seeing that the Beast had come and my soul was unprepared. Morality Play, p.58

I feel that both these writers found their “otherness” by absorbing what Unsworth once referred to as “the spirit of the age”1 and interpreting it in a way that produces, for me, novels with a deep sense of mystery and mediaevalness.

As I have been attempting to show in this series of blog posts, the historical novelist has many ways to try and achieve a sense of authenticity: narrative form and recorded history, social context and physical details, the historical thought-world, including religion and superstition, and a sense of otherness. In respect of most of those ways, I feel that Fortune’s Wheel does achieve a fair sense of authenticity (although of course my readers will pass their own judgement on that), but it does not, perhaps, have a very strong sense of otherness. The Nature of Things incorporates a little more of the “other”, though not, I hope, so much that it has lost its naturalistic tone.

My readers cannot of course yet judge The Nature of Things, but I might ask those who have read Fortune’s Wheel, does its relative lack of “otherness” mean that it presents a less “authentic” mediaeval picture than it could or should?

I’d welcome views from other authors – how essential is otherness to the authenticity of an historical novel?

(Note: I have discussed this and other aspects of writing historical fiction in my PhD thesis, Authenticity and alterity: Evoking the fourteenth century in fiction, University of Southampton, Faculty of Humanities, 2015 <>)


1  Arlo Haskell, ‘Barry Unsworth: The Economy of Truth’, Key West Literary Seminar, Audio Archives (7th October 2009) <> [accessed 25th March 2014].

Authenticity in historical fiction (V)

Continuing from my previous blog posts on the ways in which an historical novelist can achieve authenticity in their writing, today I am looking at the matter of “alterity”, “otherness”, the essence of what makes the past “a foreign country” and which, in a novel, can bring the reader that delightful frisson of unfamiliarity and strangeness…

(Because I have rather a lot to say on this topic, I’m going to split it into two, so the next post (22nd March) will be the final one in this sequence of posts about authenticity.)

In a previous post (16th November 2016, The problem with historical fiction (III)) I referred to one of the so-called “problems” of historical fiction, that it often fails to portray the strangeness of the past. This strangeness – I like the term “otherness” – refers to those aspects of life in the past, in particular mindsets and behaviours, that are unfamiliar or obscure to the modern reader. So it will include differences in attitudes and beliefs but also, for an historical novel set in the mediaeval period, such things as superstition, religious charms and relics, dreams, magic and spells, monsters and mediaeval art (illuminations, misericords, church paintings), strange ideas and seemingly fantastical happenings that today could be readily explained or dismissed – all of which seemed normal to people of the time. In other historical periods, the list might be a bit different, but would still include those things that make that period seem “other” to our own.

Yet, when I embarked upon writing Fortune’s Wheel, and then later, The Nature of Things, because my declared intention was to write “naturalistic” novels, novels that portrayed what I thought of as everyday life, strange and fantastical elements did not seem to have a place. I felt that such elements might somehow detract from the naturalism I wanted to achieve. For, although “magic and monsters” may have been part of the mediaeval person’s ordinary experience or belief, they are the opposite for us – we tend to consider them fanciful or fantastical, not commonplace. When writing an historical novel, one must be conscious of how certain aspects of the past might be perceived by a modern reader. A potential danger of introducing “magical” elements – however authentic they might be to the mediaeval mind – would be that the novel might appear less naturalistic historical fiction than fantasy.

A balance must be drawn between the authentic past and the sceptical present.

Fortune’s Wheel does not, however, eschew otherness entirely – the religious thinking of the time, often strange to us, and superstition are there. For The Nature of Things, however, I pushed the boundary of otherness a little further, while still trying to maintain a naturalistic tone. The characters in my novels are normal, everyday kind of fourteenth century people, who would be likely to hold at least some strange (to us) views of the world. Alongside their belief in God and the teachings of the Church, some people, maybe most, would have embraced a variety of superstitions, and believed in or feared monsters, and might consider potions and charms (if not actual witchcraft) a natural way of curing ailments or influencing behaviour. I do not want the supernatural to be a major influence in my novels, but I cannot deny that bringing a sense of otherness to them might well contribute to their authenticity.

I would like to explore these aspects of “otherness” a little further, by illustrating where I have found it in other historical novels, and where and how I have included it in my own work.

First, two examples of novels that I do feel embrace otherness…

company of liarsI greatly enjoy reading the novels of Karen Maitland, an expert at writing novels redolent with “mediaeval” atmosphere, dark and suffused with weirdness. In Company of Liars, set against the spread of the Black Death, the principal characters are mostly rather uncommon people, including a magician, a one-armed storyteller and a child witch, and the story has elements of the fantastic and the supernatural. For example, the storyteller, who has a swan’s wing where his missing arm should be, describes his childhood:

‘One day my mother found me in a corner of the byre, beating my little stump with a stick and sobbing. It was then that she…explained that my little buds would soon sprout feathers and grow into a beautiful white wing just like a swan’s.’ Company of Liars, p.158

It is by no means unrelievedly fantastical, but, while the otherness of Company of Liars certainly lends it a real sense of the “mediaeval”, the novel does not evoke (for me) the naturalistic everyday atmosphere that I wanted for my own novels.

the-lepers-companioins-coverThe Leper’s Companions by Julia Blackburn seems largely fantastical. It has the strange premise of a modern woman suddenly, and inexplicably, transported back to the fifteenth century to live as an unseen ghost among the villagers. Initially, the picture of mediaeval life painted by Blackburn appears normal enough, yet superstition and strange ideas soon pervade the novel to a degree that makes it appear more fantastical than naturalistic. It is perhaps difficult to draw the line between the simple otherness of the time and the introduction of magical elements into an otherwise normal setting.

On the following morning a cow died for no good reason and the shoemaker’s wife gave birth to a baby with the head of a monstrous fish. The Leper’s Companions, p.13

She ate the map entirely…it made her feel she now contained the knowledge of distant lands growing inside her like a new baby. The Leper’s Companions, p.62

Whatever Blackburn’s intention, it is disconcertingly strange and detracts sufficiently from the naturalistic to be a form that, again, I did not want to emulate.

By contrast, there are many novels with settings in the Middle Ages that do not seem to include much of what I might consider fantastical, but have, for example, no lack of the commonplace superstitions of the time.

scarlet-lionElizabeth Chadwick’s novels about real mediaeval historical figures seem essentially naturalistic; all her novels are noted for their historical accuracy and sense of period. If any of them have more fantastical elements (I have not read them all), I imagine that these elements would be incidental, rather than fundamental, to the story. Superstition, however, was perhaps too normal for the time to be overlooked. Here, the ship’s master’s reference to a superstition is not derided by the well-born lady, Isabelle – it is presumably as normal an idea to her as it is to him.

[The ship’s master] nodded with grim approval at their prayers, shouted something about being fortunate if you were born in the caul and returned to his crew.

‘What’s “born in the caul”?’ Richard wanted to know.

‘It means that you were born inside the bag that held you in the womb,’ Isabelle told him, ‘and that you’ll never drown.’ The Scarlet Lion, p.73

vein of deceitSusanna Gregory’s mediaeval mystery novels manage to achieve what seems like a very naturalistic portrayal of fourteenth-century life: all the characters seem perfectly of the time, with superstition, as well as religion, prominent in their everyday thinking. In A Vein of Deceit, there is nothing especially other, and yet mediaevalness is somehow on every page, making the slightly other seem utterly normal.

‘Tell him, sir,’ Risleye cried, outraged. ‘Tell Valence that garden mint should not be given to teething children, because it is a herb of Venus, and so stirs up bodily desires. That is bad for babies.’ A Vein of Deceit, p.32

The_Clerkenwell_TalesThe same could be said of The Clerkenwell Tales. Here, Peter Ackroyd’s leech – a doctor – has some quite strange ideas. They are essentially superstitious rather than fantastical, but really do lend a tone of otherness.

‘Comb your hair each morning with an ivory comb, since nothing recreates the memory more. Walnuts are hurtful to the memory. And so are onions. Avoid them. Do not stay in the house of a red-haired or red-faced person.’ The Clerkenwell Tales, p.10

The balance of naturalism and otherness achieved in these three novels is closer to what I also wanted to achieve in my own writing. Superstition, in particular, but also a belief in charms and spells and in the possibility of monsters, are elements of the “other” that I have found I can incorporate naturally into my stories, and I will illustrate some of them in my next and final blog post on authenticity in historical fiction.

(Note: I have discussed this and other aspects of writing historical fiction in my PhD thesis, Authenticity and alterity: Evoking the fourteenth century in fiction, University of Southampton, Faculty of Humanities, 2015 <>)