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Historical Notes

Posts on the historical context informing my fiction

I don’t know about you, but when I think of medieval warfare, I imagine it being fought with swords, bows, spears, and the occasional siege engine. I don’t think of cannons and gunpowder. I had assumed explosives only turned up at the very end of the Middle Ages. I was wrong.

So I began investigating the matter. It wasn’t news to me that gunpowder was invented in China in the first millennia AD. What was slightly startling was that Chinese alchemists may have stumbled over the sulphur, charcoal, and saltpetre mix that is gunpowder while looking for an elixir of eternal life. I trust no one ironically lost their lives in the discovery.

(The image to the right is from the 10th century. It shows demons threatening Sakyamuni with a fire lance and grenade!)

We don’t know for sure how gunpowder got from China to Europe (maybe via the Mongols, maybe along the Silk Road), but Roger Bacon was writing about an explosive powder by 1267, and the oldest written recipes for gunpowder in Europe appear between 1280 and 1300 in Marcus Graecus’s Liber Ignium, or Book of Fires. From that point on, you’d think that pugnacious Europeans would grasp the potential of making things go bang with indecent haste, but no. Gunpowder doesn’t seem to have much been used for hostile purposes until the 1320s, and even then, it didn’t revolutionise warfare immediately. It was more of a slow burn.

(Image of a very early European cannon, from Walter de Milemete's De Nobilitatibus Sapientii Et Prudentiis Regum, 1326.)

So what was holding gunpowder back in the 1300s? Why didn’t military commanders grasp its explosive potential for destruction more quickly? Here are a handful of the more important reasons:

o early cannons were very inaccurate;

o they were very slow to load and refire (maybe 5 to 6 shots per day);

o gunpowder was very expensive in the 1300s;

o cannons were heavy and hard to manoeuvre.

Then there was the danger involved in handling cannons. It wasn’t just those being fired at who were in danger of injury or death – being a military engineer was a hazardous occupation. The intense pressure gunpowder exerted on the interior of the cast metal sometimes caused the cannon itself to shatter. If the cannon were cast of iron, deadly shards would fly all around, decimating bystanders. One famous casualty of such friendly fire was King James II of Scotland at the siege of Roxburgh, in 1460. The immobility of a cannon, combined with its loudly advertised presence, also made it and its operators a prime target for enemy attack. Kill the gunmen, and you stop the nasty cannonballs.

Not only was firing cannons a job reserved for madmen, but it required considerable technical know-how. Cannons fired at an incredibly slow rate because they required careful and laborious loading. As Clifford Rogers tells us:

working from the mouth of the weapon, the gunner had to ladle and pack in enough powder to fill 3/5 of the chamber, and then plug the opening tightly with a wooden tampon that filled another fifth of the space, leaving an equal volume of empty air between the powder and the wood. The ball was then loaded in, wedged in place with triangular pieces of soft wood, and covered with some mixture of mud, loam and hay, which then had to be allowed to dry. All of this served to keep the ball in place as a plug for the powder chamber until the pressure of the gas generated by the burning powder built to a high level

Then BANG! But only if the gunpowder you put in the cannon was prepared properly and hasn’t absorbed so much water since that it is largely useless. (Early gunpowder was hygroscopic: it absorbed water, and wet things don’t tend to burn well.) Add to that, the correct proportions of sulphur, saltpetre, and charcoal were hotly debated, and saltpetre itself (potassium nitrate) was very expensive and hard to acquire.

Why all this investigation into the fickle and deadly beast that was medieval gunpowder? I wanted to get a secondary character right. In The Assassin and Her Knight, my heroine joins a small mercenary company in 1360s France. Its least attractive and most lovable member is John “The Wreck”, a man besotted with gunpowder. He’s not particularly murderous, just a man with an explosive obsession—a very useful insanity in the context of fourteenth-century warfare.

Further Reading:

Cressy, D., Saltpeter: The Mother of Gunpowder, Oxford University Press, 2013.

Hamer, M., “Blast from the Past”, New Scientist, vol. 188, iss. 2524, 2005, pp. 33-35.

Rogers, C.J., “Gunpowder Artillery in Europe, 1326-1500: Innovation and Impact”, in D. Curzon, et al (ed’s), Technology, Violence, and War: Essays in Honor of Dr. John F. Guilmartin, Brill, 2019, pp. 39-71.

A little while back, I blogged on why historical novelists make characters speak in peculiar ways. I argued that it’s not just about making characters sound historical (i.e. verisimilitude): authors also make dialogue deviate from modern Standard English for characterization, social or political statement, and for sheer fun.

In this post, I’m going to investigate how novelists evoke historical-style dialogue in their fiction. What exactly does one do to make dialogue sound “historical”? In brief, my answers are: with historical forms of grammar, altered word order, historically specific or foreign words, and—counter-intuitively—deliberate anachronism. (Actually, because I spent too much time digging about in historical grammar, I’m going to leave the latter three for the next post.)

At first glance, it might seem I am overcomplicating matters. It’s a historical novel—just make the dialogue sound exactly like speech would have done in that period! Actually, such a feat is not only impractical from both a reader and writer’s standpoint, but also simply not how any novel works. Real human speech is full of ums, awkwardness, rambling, and—most importantly—inconsequentialities. Writers occasionally echo this sort of tedious reality if they want to make a point (e.g. this character is nervous ... um, er), but they don’t want to fill their novels with boring dialogue. Characters in novels (contemporary or historical) simply don’t speak like real people. They’re far more concise, or witty, or eloquent.

Then there’s the issue of comprehension. If an English-language novel is set in Indonesia, clearly the dialogue needs to be cast in English, even if we understand the characters are actually speaking Indonesian. Language changes with time as well as geography. We might comprehend the language spoken in World War One England, but we’d seriously struggle with the language of War of the Roses England. Not only would it be draining to read, but it would demand a Herculean feat of linguistics from the author to create. My point is, unless an author’s making a literary point or writing in a very recent, same-language era, their characters will speak quite differently from the real inhabitants of that period.

Given all that, how does a novelist create dialogue that we can both understand and yet seems spoken by vivid characters in a credibly historical way?

Historical Grammar

One way to make speech sound “historical” is to sprinkle archaic forms of grammar throughout. This technique was used liberally in nineteenth-century historical fiction, became established as a convention through influential authors like Sir Walter Scott, and still lingers to haunt us today. I, for one, believe this particular ghost ought to be laid to rest.

But let me offer some illustrations so you can see what I mean. Here’s some dialogue from Scott from his 1819 medieval-set bestseller Ivanhoe:

“A murrain take thee,” rejoined the swine-herd; “wilt thou talk of such things, while a terrible storm of thunder and lightning is raging within a few miles of us? … Thou can’st play the rational if thou wilt; credit me for once, and let us home ere the storm begins to rage”

Apart from the old-fashioned term “murrain”, Scott largely relies on archaic grammar to lend pastness to the speech. There are the personal pronouns (thee and thou), and the verb forms (wilt and can’st). This speech looks incredibly stilted and artificial today, yet the principle of giving the occasional pronoun or verb an archaic tweak lingers on in historical fiction even now.

Archaic personal pronouns are particularly prevalent in Scottish-set historical fiction, as exemplified in Hildie McQueen’s The Lion, (2021):

“Do ye even hear me, Laird?” one yelled.

“Ye do not care, do ye?” the other screamed.

“Enough!” Darach roared and stood to his full height, towering over the men from the high board. “I am yer laird and will not tolerate insolence.”

Here, the “ye” and “yer” apparently signify that this dialogue is spoken in a strong Scottish accent. Unfortunately, “ye” is an archaic English word. In Scottish Gaelic, which was certainly the primary language in this 1601 Hebridean setting, “you” is thu (singular) or sibh (plural or polite).

“Thee” and “thou” also make occasional historical-novel appearances, but the chief culprits of archaic grammar are contractions of “it”, usually with the verb “to be”. ’Twas and ’tis play starring roles here, but there are other variants, as Maid Marian sums up with ludicrous style in the film Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993):

Maid Marian: Oh darling, don’t despair! for it is written on a scroll:

One day he,

who is destined for me

shall be endowed with a magical key

that will bring an end to my ... virginity.

Robin Hood: Oh Marian, if only ’twere me.

Maid Marian: Oh, if ’twere you, ’twould be ... twerrific.

Pray excuse me for using a film example, but Mel Brooks’s parody presents the matter in a nutshell: to modern ears, ’tweres and ’twoulds sound slightly ridiculous. (Slightly?) They are an outdated approach to making historical-fiction dialogue sound authentic. Like ye, ’twas is used to signify pastness in speech. Maybe these grammatical tactics worked for nineteenth-century readers of Scott, but for me, they have the opposite-to-intended effect: clichéd archaisms break the historical spell.

I could offer up further examples of archaic grammar in historical fiction, but I’ll spare your sensibilities. Besides, I don’t want to deride authors who employ these tactics. Archaic grammar is a convention of historical fiction, if a dated one now. It can simply seem right to an author to sprinkle this language in. I know I made a Scottish character “ye” with the best of them in my first book for exactly this reason.

And that’s the point of my ranting on about this topic in the first place: I want writers of historical fiction to think about the language they put in their characters’ mouths. In my next post on this topic, I’ll address other ways novelists make their dialogue sound historical ... or deliberately choose not to.

Humans and whips. They’ve got a long, tangled history—far too long to address in any one post. So today I’m going to focus on flagellation: the strange practice of plying a whip against one's own flesh, particularly as engaged in by medieval Christians of western Europe.

Perhaps you remember Silas, the black-clad monk played by Paul Bettany in The Da Vinci Code movie (right). He was clearly a fanatical and “medieval” nutcase—as illustrated by his penchant for whipping himself bloody. The Middle Ages are often understood as barbaric: centuries of wild emotions, bad and mad behaviour and, of course, religious extremes. Thus, medieval people whipped themselves bloody to purge themselves of sin with distressing frequency. Silas is a throwback to these dark times.

Well, no. It seems that for the first 500-odd years of the Middle Ages, no monk or any other variety of Christian was plying a whip against their own skin. Desert Fathers and later hermits and holy people might starve themselves or live in a cave, but they didn’t get creative with a whip.

Did medieval people whip others? Absolutely, but whipping as punishment also happened in Roman times beforehand and the early-modern centuries after the European Middle Ages. Whipping others as a form of discipline is not uniquely or even particularly medieval. But flagellation—whipping oneself as penance for sin—did begin in this period. In the middle of the Middle Ages, in fact: it was first advocated for monks by Peter Damien in the eleventh century. Damien encouraged his monks to get naked together and whip themselves as a group. Sounds incredibly risqué? No, this was a penitential act. Only God could forgive you, but you had to show Him you were truly sorry.

Even so, self-whipping probably wasn’t a widespread medieval activity, even among monks. It didn’t really catch on until a few centuries later ...

Then, in 1260, ordinary people began to whip themselves in public in Italy. It started in Perugia, now central Italy, and spread through the land like a holy contagion. The Chronicle of Genoa tells us:

“suddenly the whole city was moved by the will of God, so that small and great, nobles and commoners, day and night, proceeded from church to church, whipping themselves and singing angelic and celestial songs .... Many enmities and conflicts, both old and new, in the city of Genoa and almost everywhere else in Italy were turned to peace and concord.”

This strange and sudden phenomenon apparently arose in reaction to the political violence that was rife in Italy at the time. Self-afflicted violence to counteract external violence. A hermit with a fondness for flagellating probably began the whole thing when he had a vision of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin warned him that mass penance was required to avert the wrath of God. The hermit passed the message on, and people took power into their own hands—in the form of a whip.

After some months, the flagellation frenzy died down and, in 1261, Pope Alexander IV decreed that self-whipping be confined to private, individual devotions. As a result, mass flagellation largely disappeared ...

... until nearly a century later, when an even greater form of external violence appeared in Europe. The Black Death.

The bacterium Yersinia pestis hit Europe for the first time in nearly 800 years in October 1347, making landfall in Sicily, thanks to Genoese sailors fleeing the plague-ridden near east. By 1348, plague was decimating the population of southern Europe and spreading north. We don’t know how many people it killed, but a third of Europe’s population within three years is a generally accepted estimate. Medieval people explained the epidemic in different ways—astrological, well poisoning, bad air—but clearly God’s wrath was at the root of it all. One solution? Appease God’s displeasure with human sin by doing extreme penance. Bring on the whips.

In 1348, a chronicler described processions of men in Austria walking barefoot, fasting, and entering churches to whip themselves over their naked shoulders. The trend caught on and, in 1349, flagellants were active in Hungary, Poland, Germany, and the Low Countries. Of course, not everyone responded to plague by whipping themselves, but bands of such penitents could easily number 100. For example, on one day the German town of Erfurt closed its gates to 3000 flagellants.

Again, eventually the Pope put his foot down. Initially well-organised and well-behaved, the groups of flagellants were now engaging in extreme and unacceptable ways. Yes, worse than beating oneself bloody. They interrupted church services or refused to revere the Eucharist; they claimed the blood they shed mingled with Christ’s and that simply whipping oneself bloody could save your soul. Clearly heretical claims. And flagellants were joining in the trend of killing Jews. Remember that well-poisoning explanation for plague? Word was the Jews were doing it.

So, at the end of 1349, Pope Clement VI decreed that flagellants would henceforth be excommunicated. They were impious people who abused Jews, acted violently, damaged property, and claimed false religious authority. In short, if you must whip yourself, for the love of God, do it privately and only for sin a priest has already absolved! True, there were some outbreaks of public flagellation after this point, but in the main, the Pope’s orders were obeyed. Whipping oneself was again confined largely to monasteries and devout private religious practice.

Yet, according to Patrick Vandermeersch, even self-whipping within monasteries underwent shifts over time. For example, the Jesuit Order, founded in post-medieval 1540, promoted a gentler form of flagellation. Ignatius of Loyola, its founder, even invented a new type of whip so it could be used more often but with less damage. No more bleeding, please!

The terminology of whipping too was changed. Self-whipping used to be called flagellation. From the 1500s on, it was referred to as “discipline”, which had previously meant whipping by someone else.

It is possible too that the preferred part of the body one whipped also changed. Medieval flagellants took off their shirts and whacked themselves over the shoulders. Vandermeersch suggests that the early-modern preference was for whipping the buttocks. Given, however, that self-whipping of naked bums usually occurred in private, this is a hard point to prove.

One point respectable historians either sidestep or simply deny is any connection of self-whipping with sexual pleasure. For example, Nagy and Biron-Ouellet happily focus on the extreme emotions obvious in flagellant processions, pointing out that:

“All the senses of the body were activated ... one was exposed to the sound of the whipping and crying, the sight of lacerated flesh, the smell of blood, the pain of the scourging, the taste of tears .... Gestures, sensory experience, and emotions were intertwined.”

But they note that, of course, such “culturally meaningful violence had nothing to do with sadomasochism bringing erotic pleasure to its practitioners.” Heaven forbid.

Dear reader, let me push the bounds of respectability. With so much heightened emotion and feeling involved, is it probable that erotic pleasure was completely bypassed? Are human feelings so compartmentalised that “all the senses” but the erotic were activated?

I suggest not. In fact, I have spent a whole novella exploring how one medieval whip practice might bleed into another. (Pardon the pun.) My Lady of the Whip opens in plague-ridden medieval London. Lady Bess picks up a whip to defend herself in the madness and one thing leads to another ...

Some References:

Nagy, Piroska, and Xavier Biron-Ouellet, “A collective emotion in medieval Italy: The flagellant movement of 1260”, Emotion Review, 2020, pp. 1-11.

Patterson, Keith Charles, “The flagellants of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: Their rise and decline”, MA thesis, 1977.

Vandermeersch, Patrick, “Self-flagellation in the early modern era”, 2009, pp. 261-273.

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