I love doing the historical research for my novels, partly because I simply enjoy plunging into the past, but also because of the oddities and curious byways it entails. Some of these find their way into my fiction, some do not, but all are intriguing and enjoyable, so I thought that this month I would share a few of them.
When I was writing The Testament of Mariam I was surprised to discover that there was a great deal more known about Jesus and his times than I had realised. Moreover, the fact that his followers included women, and some of the texts speak of his sisters, started me thinking about what it would have been like to be the sister of such a man. How could you think of your own brother as somehow divine?
The general background of the Roman Empire was familiar to me, as I started out as a classicist. However, I hadn’t realised that there had been so many rebellions in the north of the country, almost invariably led by Galileans, several of whom were called Jesus, so that threw a whole new light on the name. It was also surprising to learn that there could be snow on the hills there in winter.
I knew that a number of scholars believe that Jesus spent some time amongst the separatist sect of Essenes, so I read the whole of the translation of The Dead Sea Scrolls, finding a number of surprising facts, such as their elitism, and the fact that they had a ritual meal involving sacred wine and bread. Most relevant, of course, were their medical practices, which they took out to surrounding villages. These included a form of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and a method of ‘casting out devils’ which sounds very like modern hypnotherapy. Their methods closely resemble those used by Jesus, mainly known to his contemporaries as a healer.
At one point I wanted to incorporate a psalm, sung at sunrise. Initially I thought I would use one from the Scrolls, but then realised that might infringe the copyright of the translator, so I decided to write my own. This involved reading a whole scholarly tome on the psalms, working out the prosody, and then composing a psalm. Time-consuming, but fun!
The whole Christoval Alvarez series has led me down byways far too numerous to mention here, but these are a few. Of course, late sixteenth century medicine, in its various aspects, has been a major one – both standard practice in Tudor times and the less familiar practices of Arabic medicine brought to England by the Marrano doctors. It isn’t surprising they rose to prominent positions, including that of chief physician to Queen Elizabeth. I also needed to understand the examinations for a licence conducted by the Royal College of Physicians, and here the present archivist was very helpful.
The whole history of the Marranos, their treatment by the Inquisition and their community in Tudor London, has been covered in a number of volumes. Don’t let anyone tell you there were no Jews in England from their expulsion in the Middle Ages to their readmission in the latter part of the seventeenth century. Not true! Of course, many were the so-called New Christians, and the younger generations seem to have been assimilated quietly into English society.
Christ’s Hospital was another fertile area of research. I knew about the modern schools, but was fascinated to learn how a group of kindly and far-sighted benefactors in sixteenth century London took over one of the former monasteries and set it up as a refuge for the destitute, abandoned, and orphaned children of the city. They had been left without care after Henry VIII dissolved the religious institutions which had provided for them – as indeed they had provided care at St Bartholomew’s and St Thomas’s, whose survival as hospitals is also owing to the charitableness of certain citizens. For example, Dick Whittington (‘thrice mayor of London’) established a lying-in ward for unmarried women at St Thomas’s, which was located in Southwark, notorious for its brothels. The most remarkable thing about Christ’s Hospital is the fact that it not only provided for the physical needs of the children, it also gave them a good education, so that a few of the boys rose to some eminence. And even the girls were educated!
Voyage to Muscovy opened up a whole new world. The exploration in search of the northeast passage to China and the Orient, which led to the foundation of the Muscovy Company, is the hidden part of the background to this book. Fascinating that the greatest wealth in the trade came not from luxury items like furs, but from the much more mundane wax, canvas, and cordage. I could only touch on the violent episodes in the lives of the Tsars, but as it happened, one of the most poignant occurred in the very year I had decided to take Kit to Muscovy. Sometimes these things come about by happy accident. Or perhaps were just waiting to be discovered and connected?
There are so many other threads and sidelines in Kit’s stories – the Counter Armada, the English in the Low Countries, fairs and puppet shows, the use of explosives, heirs and wardship, all the ins and outs of Elizabethan theatre, cannon foundries, ships, loan sharks (coming soon), entertainments, shops . . . I could go on at some length!
This Rough Ocean, being based on the real life experiences of my husband’s ancestors, involved reading their letters. (I got quite good, for a time, at reading seventeenth-century handwriting.) The letters provided excellent guidance to the personalities of the characters. The research also meant sorting out the complexities of the different political parties, for not all Parliamentarians were the same – Moderates like John Swynfen fell out with Cromwell and his party, for they opposed the killing of the king and advocated instead a monarchy combined with Parliamentary democracy.
When Anne Swynfen had to take over the running of a large estate, I needed to research just what that involved at the time, not simply the run of the mill agricultural practices, but how people coped during the Civil War, when armies or rogue bands of leaderless soldiers plundered wherever they went. I even discovered a genuine song for Dick, one sung by schoolboys when school ended for the holidays. Now that was an unexpected find!
While I was doing the research for This Rough Ocean, I came across the situation in the fens of East Anglia, which inspired Flood and Betrayal. All the things my characters do to resist the unscrupulous adventurers who are trying to seize their land are based on actual events found in the contemporary accounts, including the fact that women were involved in the resistance and sabotage as well as the men. Some, like Mercy, were leaders. (Soldiers baptising a horse in a church was also a real episode.) As it happened, this was also the Civil War period, and a time when there were ‘licensed iconoclasts’ sent out to deface churches, AND it was the time when Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, was up to his evil practices in the same area.
I managed to discover how a woman accused of being a witch, and subjected to trial by drowning, might escape. When I needed to work out how a man with an amputated leg would cope, I discovered the wonderful Ambrose Paré. I could only say a little about his devices, as carried on by a devoted disciple, but what a man! Then there was the whole situation of the abrupt changes to legal education in the Inns of Court, something I had not expected, but which needed investigation.
My latest series, set in medieval Oxford and beginning with The Bookseller’s Tale, has already given me the chance to research university education in the late Middle Ages, including the use of peciae, the rented portions of academic texts, which was quite new to me. My bookseller, Nicholas Elyot, had to know everything about the preparation of parchment and the whole process of making books before the invention of printing. I found that bookshops were a lot more complicated and sophisticated than I had realised when I first thought of a fourteenth-century Oxford bookseller. Then, of course, I needed to explore the organisation of a medieval nunnery for The Novice’s Tale. It was important to know how the management of Godstow Abbey was shared amongst the senior nuns, even though I said little about it. Inheritance of land – who might have a claim? Crossing the Thames by ferry with a horse and cart – how was it done?
Clothes, medieval pets, town organisation – all these are important parts of the research. How far can you ride in a day? What food would you eat, according to your social level and the time of day? Clothes? I am really looking forward to exploring the niceties of medieval hunting for the next book, The Huntsman’s Tale.
So those are some of the byways into which I’ve wandered in my research, but only a few of them. Some I went looking for. Some I stumbled upon. Some have found their way into the books as major elements. Some are only hinted at. Some are hidden.
But what a wonderful adventure it is, exploring the lives of ordinary people in the past! I’ve no interest in kings and queens. It’s the people like us that I want to know and spend my time with.
Only a little of the wonders I discover find their way into the books, but it is the hidden ground of research which provides the solid foundation of any historical novel.
Till next time,