This month I thought I’d discuss the historical research I’ve been doing as background for my new series: Oxford Medieval Mysteries. Recently I’ve been setting my historical fiction in the late Elizabethan years and in the seventeenth century, the era generally called the ‘early modern’ period. It was a time of transition in many ways: the spread of Protestantism, the recognition of science as a legitimate intellectual pursuit and not a form of alchemy, the questioning of the old social hierarchies and forms of government, the introduction of more lethal forms of warfare, the exploration of the globe, the settlement of the Americas.
All of this makes for a rich field in which to set historical fiction, and, because of these changes and innovations which have led up to our own day, it is not difficult to take on the mindset of people at the time.
However, I have been fascinated by the Middle Ages since I was a child. For my tenth birthday, my grandmother gave me The Woods of Windri by Violet Needham, and I was forever enslaved! (It was out of print for many years, but has recently been reissued. Highly recommended.)
Shortly afterwards I fell very ill with double pneumonia and spent some time in hospital. I then missed most of the remaining school year convalescing, time which I spent reading voraciously, primarily historical fiction. My favourite periods were the classical periods of Greece and Rome and the Middle Ages.
It isn’t surprising, therefore, that I have been intending for some time to start writing a series set in the Middle Ages, to run in parallel with my Elizabethan series featuring Kit Alvarez. The period I have chosen is Oxford in the second half of the fourteenth century, shortly after the Black Death had swept through the whole of Europe, leaving the population reduced by anything from a third to a half, traumatised and facing major social upheavals as the peasant class began to assert itself. The period also produced two major literary figures, William Langland, whose passionate outcry Piers Plowman gives voice to those new social and spiritual demands, and Geoffrey Chaucer, one of the towering figures of English Literature.
Unlike the early modern period, the late fourteenth century makes more demands on us to identify with certain of the beliefs and mental attitudes of people living at the time. In the Christendom of western Europe, this was a period of universal, consistent belief under a single church, ruled from Rome. Or was it?
For this was also the time of the Avignon Papacy and the Western Schism, when there were eventually two Popes, one in Rome, one in Avignon, and two factions within the Church, vying for power. Little wonder, then, that lesser mortals began to question the character and morality of men who governed their spiritual welfare.
On the one hand people at this period had a profound and terrifying belief in the reality of Purgatory and Hell. This life on earth was but a brief prelude to the eternal life hereafter, which might be spent in perpetual torment. With our modern secular minds it is difficult to grasp the full horror of such a belief. And when an irresistible plague had recently cut down old and young, innocent and sinful alike, grounds for belief in a benevolent Almighty were bound to be shaken.
So, on the other hand, it is little to be wondered at that some began to question, not Christianity itself, but the way it was being channelled through an increasingly rich and powerful yet occasionally corrupt Church. Should people be able to read the Bible for themselves, in order to understand what it really said? For example, it contained no mention of Purgatory. However, as long as the Bible was not available in the vernacular, access to it was limited to the minority who had Latin.
One of the leading figures to assert the need for reform in the Church and for the availability of a Bible in English was John Wycliffe, a contemporary of my central character, Nicholas Elyot, Oxford bookseller and stationer. And Wycliffe was a young academic in Oxford at the time. Later, his ideas were spread by the Lollards, the first Protestant movement in England, ruthlessly suppressed early in the next century, but that lay in the future. Moreover, less than thirty years away lay the peasants’ revolt, the movement which had been growing since the upheaval of the Black Death.
So here we have a fascinating period, still part of the Middle Ages, yet a time of unrest and questioning of the old order. This represented the most important aspect of the historical research on the period, which I needed to get right, and it involved extensive reading, both of original sources like Piers Plowman and Chaucer, and of modern studies of the period, from the Black Death (known as the Great Pestilence at the time) to life in the medieval universities and the teachings of John Wycliffe.
During these years there was constant conflict in Oxford between town and gown. My central character has abandoned his studies in order to marry, has been widowed during the Black Death, and is now bringing up his two small children in his bookshop on the High Street. He thus has a foot in both camps, the university and the town, which can make for a difficult life when his loyalties are tested.
As well as exploring the whole mental landscape of the time, I needed to research the kind of domestic detail that would bring my characters’ circumstances to life. In the first chapter of the first book, Nicholas’s daughter acquires a puppy. This led me into investigating pets in the middle ages and even resulted in a post on the subject! here
Domestic and commercial architecture is important to set the scene. Shops at the time often had outdoor ‘counters’, a sturdy flap let down from a front window, so that customers could view the goods and make purchases from the street, while the ‘workshop’ part of the business went on inside. I reckoned that Nicholas would not expose his expensive stock to the dirt and rain, so I modified the design of his shop. According to a map of Oxford in the late fourteenth century (I love maps), properties (‘messuages’) on the High Street extended well back, allowing plenty of room for a vegetable garden and fruit trees. Shopkeepers would live behind and over the shop.
Clothes, of course, are vitally important to dress my people. No doublets or ruffs here. On the whole, clothing (except for the very rich) was loose and quite comfortable, though for men, tying up your hose with ‘points’ must have been very tiresome.
Food? Ah, food – a really fun part of research. People broke their fast in the morning with little more than a bite – some bread, perhaps some cheese, a beaker of ale, the universal safe drink. They were not perpetually drunk. This ale, often homemade, was very weak, but it was safer than water. No beer, that arrived in the following century. The main meal was dinner, eaten about eleven o’clock, after the students had attended morning lectures (which began very early, 5 or 6 a.m.). A light supper would be taken about dusk. What you ate depended very much on your financial position. Everyone ate a great deal of bread. The poor almost never saw meat, unless they received scraps from the rich. Various types of pottage – a kind of thick stew – formed a regular part of the diet, and could be made of nothing but cheap vegetables or, for the better off, enriched with meat. Roast meat was an occasional treat for people of Nicholas’s class. Eggs and cheese were fairly plentiful. Chicken was a luxury. Fish, of course, on the meatless days prescribed by the Church. Pies and pasties both savoury and sweet were filling and could be made at home or bought either from pie shops or street vendors. The latter hawked all kinds of quick food to be bought and eaten on the move, and must have been popular with workmen and students. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read about food!
As my setting is Oxford, understanding student life at the time is important. Boys commonly went up to Oxford or Cambridge at about fourteen, though some went as young as twelve. They did not live in the colleges, but in ‘halls’, under a warden or master, sharing three or four to a room, while they studied for the Trivium and the Quadrivium, after which they qualified as Masters of Arts. If there was insufficient room in the halls, some students lived in town lodging houses, but given the tension between town and gown this often led to trouble. If graduates continued with their studies, it was only then that they would be admitted to a college as ‘scholars’ and Fellows. The earliest undergraduate students to be given a place in a college were those of Merton College in the early 1380s. Gradually other colleges followed suit, although All Souls remained only for senior members of the university.
Because my central character is a bookseller, this involved a rather obscure area of research. Books were still written by hand and hence very expensive when new, although there was an extensive trade in secondhand books. Few students would have been able to buy their essential texts, so a very ingenious system existed. Booksellers like Nicholas held a licence from the university, and had to abide by certain regulations. A major part of their business involved the production of so-called peciae (Latin for ‘pieces’). A pecia was a sixteen-page section of one of the standard university texts, which students could hire for a small fee (fixed by the university). They could then copy it before returning it to the bookshop, gradually building up a version of the original book for themselves. Although this practice arose from the necessity imposed by the price of books, it seems like an excellent educational system to me, guaranteed to ensure the students read their texts attentively. The demands of Nicholas’s trade have meant also exploring the manufacture of parchment and the craft of bookbinding, so important in Oxford that there was even a Bookbinders Bridge.
Lest we should think that people of the fourteenth century were living in primitive, technology-free conditions, we should remember just how rich the Middle Ages were in inventions. The waterwheel (both overshot and undershot) was perfected not only for mills grinding corn but also for driving a number of other machines, such as fulling mills and hemp mills. The ‘toothed warper’ prepared the warp threads for looms, enabling the weaving of longer lengths of cloth, while larger horizontal looms were developed for cloth, and specialised vertical looms for tapestries The mechanism for clocks was being improved by the invention of the verge-and-foliot escapement. Glass-making, a specialism in Venice, spread throughout Europe. Building techniques had long employed scaffolding, pulleys, and hoists, but the invention of the flying buttress enabled church and cathedral architects to introduce huge windows of stained glass without losing the strength of the surrounding walls. Look at the fan-vaulted roof of a medieval cathedral and marvel – could we construct anything so beautiful today?
A glorious feast of historical research – and I hardly need to admit that I love doing it – then on to writing book one, beginning in the spring of 1353, when an inexplicable murder troubles the world of both town and gown.
So, here he is, Nicholas Elyot, my young Oxford bookseller, living in his rich, vivid, lively fourteenth century world, with his children, his sister Margaret, his friend Jordain, warden of Hart Hall, his two scriveners, Walter and Roger . . . This is my medieval world, and his first story, The Bookseller’s Tale, will be published soon.