Thoughts on “Medieval Imaginings”: Medieval History and Historical Fiction at Northwestern University

MedievalImaginings
The books have been signed, the taxis boarded for O’Hare, but before we all move on to the next adventure, I wanted to write about few of the things I learned and lessons I valued from yesterday’s conference, “Medieval Imaginings: A Celebration of Historical Fiction.” Organized by Barbara Newman as one of the last events sponsored by a Mellon grant that has brought so many exciting ways to think of the Middle Ages, not only to Northwestern University, but to all of us in the Chicago area, the day gathered together students and teachers, historians and literary scholars and writers, as well as a few people who were all of the above.

Cecelia Holland, last but not least, was my favourite part of the day. She read a few passages to us from her 1997 novel about the Templars, Jerusalem, and every time she stopped, I wanted to shout, “No! Keep reading! I have to know what happens next.” But even more than that, she talked about how, when you write about the past, the past must connect to the present. The past is gone; we are here, and it is for us that we are writing. Before she started reading, she spoke about the place she was in when she began the book, about teaching prisoners how to write, about how she loved them and how they were desperate and hardened, hopeless and full of longing, and how writing gave them the chance to be themselves again. We could see those prisoners in the Templars she described, Rannulf and Mouse the rest.

I learned other things too. From a thoughtful discussion of sources and the uses we make of them between Paul Strohm and Bruce Holsinger (whose Invention of Fire we eagerly await), I discovered that I am more fearful of the claims made by historical biography than historical fiction. I know this comes from reading Robertson Davies’s What’s Bred in the Bone as an impressionable youth. Its twin story lines of biographer and subject force us to recognize all that the biographer can never know. I learned that my own initial stirrings of an idea to write a novel about the medieval pilgrimage to Compostela must have begun very close to my reading of Sharan Newman’s novel with the same theme, Strong as Death.

We spent a little too much time talking about Dan Brown. We don’t get upset when someone writes something wrong about the Middle Ages that sinks like a stone; we get upset when it sells a lot of copies and makes a lot of money. My own explanation, not voiced at the conference, for the popularity of The DaVinci Code (and 50 Shades, and Harry Potter) is that they are easy to read, their themes and claims are big, and they satisfy a longing we have for a shared text, now that the Bible no longer fills that space. One question that came up over and over again was whether we are doing the right thing, drawing on the past for the needs of the present, slicing it up and making stories out of it with beginnings, middles, and ends; with character arcs and conflict resolved. What if people read what we write and…believe us? And what if we’re wrong? As we are, as we all are because, remember what Cecelia Holland said: the past is gone. My serious answer to this question is that I would not put my name on any piece of writing I was not prepared to stand behind, with all of its longing, and failure, to hear and convey a voice that is not my own. This is as true of my historical as my fictional writing. My flippant answer (But felt no less strongly. Maybe felt more strongly.) is that, who cares if it is wrong and they believe it? The only problem would be if, “and they believe it,” meant, “and so they stopped telling stories of their own.” Of course it is wrong. I read a history and I tell a history, then you read it and out of that your own history emerges, and together a great chain of stories continues to grow, connecting us and allowing us to share in each other while becoming more thoroughly our selves. Long live stories, and the people with the courage to tell them, and believe them.

I think the writer at the conference may have been the best historian in the room.

Two More Cookies

I finished making two more kinds of cookies today, Uly, or Vosí hnízda (Czech beehive cookies) and a type of sandwich cookie called an Amadeus cookie. For both, I began by making Lillian Langseth-Christiansen’s Suvaroffs, from the Gourmet Magazine Old Vienna Cookbook. They would form the base of the Uly, and the “bread” for the sandwich cookies.
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Then I made a paste of marzipan, pistachios, and kirsch to fill the sandwich cookies.
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The cookies were dipped in a chocolate glaze, then left to cool.
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All the Uly recipes on the internet seem to used crushed biscuits for the “hives,” except this one, which used walnuts, so it became my inspiration. I made a half recipe of the walnut dough, and it seemed a little sticky, so I added a couple of tablespoons of cocoa, and some breadcrumbs. I’d add the former again, but I don’t think I needed the latter. Then I shaped them in my Uly mold, given to me by my very kind cousin (who can bake me into the ground, so to speak), Erika Pick.
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I filled them with a buttercream made from a stick of butter, an equal weight of icing sugar, and a tablespoon of rum. Then I filled the hives, and affixed them to the suvaroffs. Yum!
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Vanilkové Rohlícky

Or Vanillekipferl, or vanilla crescents. They go by many names. The traditional Czech Christmas cookie plate is a thing of awe and beauty — a dozen or more different kinds of cookies, stuffed with apricot, layered with raspberry, filled with cream, or coated with chocolate or sugar, arranged in rich profusion. The wife of my grandfather’s nephew is the champion, and she would always send my grandfather a box each Christmas. But even my grandmother, who was not one of the world’s great lovers of cooking, always put together a cookie plate each year, repeating the tradition she learned as a child. Rum balls (hers were made of chopped chocolate and nuts, not cookies), shortbread (not as good as my Mum’s. sorry, Granny), and small florentines were on it, but the very best were the vanilkové rohlí?ky. We tried to make them; they fell apart, took hours, and tasted good, but ho hum. “Oh?”my Granny would say, puzzled, when we complained about how hard they were to make, “I just roll them out in long ropes and cut them.” Hmm. Clearly we weren’t using the same recipe.
Enter the handwritten cookbook of my great-grandmother, Marianne, which I talked about in a recent post. Sure enough, in its pages, handwritten in German, her first language, is a recipe for Vanillekipferln. Would they work? I had to try them out:
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    280 g Butter
    300-460 g Flour (I used a mix of all purpose and cake flour. I think all purpose would work fine)
    100 g ground hazelnuts (I toasted whole nuts in a low oven until the skins began to come off)
    100s sugar
    1 egg yolk

I ground the toasted nuts in a nut grinder. You could also process them until fine in a food processor, but the grinder is best. I then put all the other ingredients except the egg yolk into the processor, and processed them until the mixture began to come together in a ball. Then, I added the yolk and processed that too, until thoroughly mixed. The dough was too soft to work with at that point, so I put it in a cold place overnight. In the fridge for an hour would also work. In the morning, I preheated the oven to 300o F (yes, a low oven) and, miracle dicta, rolled pieces of the dough into ropes (about 1 cm diameter), cut them, and shaped them into crescents. I suggest using small pieces of the dough, no more than four cookies worth. Rolling on a cold surface helps. I used the smaller amount of flour — more flour would make a sturdier (though less buttery) dough. I baked them on greased sheets for 20-25 minutes. Begin with the shorter time, and check. There should be just a hint of brown at the tips of the cookies.
But wait, you ask, these are called vanilla crescents. Where does the vanilla come in? Once the cookies are baked, and before they cool down to much, I rolled each cookie carefully in vanilla sugar (superfine sugar to which I had added a vanilla bean a long time ago). About half a cup should do it. You could also use icing sugar, but I don’t like the taste of that.
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The Back of the Polyptych

A lot of my readers know that image on the cover of my novel, Pilgrimage, is a detail from a painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, a polyptych (that is to say, a panel painting that folds up) that had once been an altarpiece. The altarpiece as a whole is quite incredible, and shows scenes from the life (and death) of Saint Godeleva; in my novel, the mother of my heroine, Gebirga. The panel even includes images of the blind daughter who inspired Gebirga, so I was delighted to be able to use a part of it for the cover. Here it is in all its glory:
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Well, not quite all its glory, as I discovered this evening. As an altarpiece, this polyptych would have hung behind and above the altar of a church. Polyptychs were designed to fold closed during Lent and other times of penance, concealing their beauty from the congregation. The closed doors of the polyptych would often have different painted scenes on their backs. You can see how this works in this link to the Ghent Altarpiece, which shows how it looks both open and closed.

It wasn’t until tonight that I discovered what was on the back of the doors of the Godeleva altarpiece. When closed, the four panels each show a different saint, with kneeling donor portraits in front of the saints on the far left and far right. Here is how it looks:
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It was the two saints on the left who immediately caught my eye. I recognized them right away. The bishop in mitre and cope, holding his crook and a book was obviously Saint Nicholas, rescuing the three boys who had been chopped up and put in a barrel. Saint Nicholas, or at least his relics, play an important role in my novel. In their silver reliquary, they are Gebirga’s prized possession, carried with her on her journey until she relinquishes them so they can travel back to the Low Countries from Spain by boat. And as all Dutch children know, every year Saint Nicholas sails again from Spain around this time to reward them with treats. And the saint on the far left? The saint with staff, and pilgrim’s purse and hat, his neck ringed with scallop shells?

That is none other than Saint James, Sint Jaakob, Santiago himself.

Gebirga’s Dog

shutterstock_96854167 copyAn author may think she knows what her book is about, but she only really discovers what it’s about when it moves into the hands of her readers. I have always had the most terrible time distilling my novel into a “pitch” sentence, but thanks to my friend Kyle I can tell you now that it is a book about a girl and a dog who go on an adventure.

And what a dog she is. Her name is Liisa, and after Gebirga, she was the second character to populate my novel. If I were going to send Gebirga out into the world blind, I reasoned, the least thing I could do is give her a dog. Of course, the formal origin of the seeing-eye dog was not until after World War I, when they began training dogs to work with soldiers who has lost their sight during the war. But centuries before that, children’s alphabets had “B is a Blind Man, led by his Dog,” and so I felt it was fair to use a wise dog in my novel. But what kind? The breeds we know now were largely fixed in the last century or so, though many have medieval origins. We know most about medieval hunting dogs, because a good deal was written about them. We also know about medieval lap dogs, and both hunting and lap dogs appear in illuminations. We know rather less about what other kinds of working dogs would have looked like, though we know they existed. Dogs guarded sheep and property long before the Middle Ages, and sheep dogs would have been common in sheep-rich Flanders. So I chose to make Liisa the long-ago ancestor of the Belgian sheep dogs we know today, in the slightly rarer white version. This photograph is a remarkably good likeness of Liisa, considering she lived long before colour photography.

So that is what she looks like, and her instinct to protect Gebirga is built into her bones. I grew up around working dogs. My father and grandfather hunted, and my grandfather always had a dog, a yellow or black Laborador retriever. Remembering the bond between my grandfather and his dogs, like they were one person in two bodies when it came time to work, helped me think of the connection between Gebirga and Liisa. So Liisa is a little bit Nena, a little bit Sally, a little bit Tricky, a little bit Taffy. But mostly Sally.

Marianne Bauer

L to R Marianne (Grunfeld) Bauer, Fritz Waldsheim, Liska Bauer, Oskar Bauer

L to R Marianne (Grunfeld) Bauer, Fritz Waldsheim, Liska Bauer, Oskar Bauer


My father died in July 1987; my uncle told us about our Jewish background that same summer; in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down, and in June 1993, my sister and I went to Czechoslovakia (as it still was then, though not for long) with my grandmother, Liska. Travelling through Prague and the Czech countryside with Granny was like listening to Marcel Proust. We would turn a corner, she’d see a building, and the stories would pour forth. A visit to the the Kinsky palace, in Chlumec where my great-grandparents had lived, reminded her of how when they’d pass it on their weekly drive between Prague and Hronov, my Gumper would tease, “Don’t look up. The Count will invite us for lunch, and we just don’t have time.” In the Prague Castle, we saw the Spanish Hall where she went to a Red Cross Ball then, “That’s the Schwartzenburg Palace,” she exclaimed before one sgraffitoed building, and told us how it used to be the Swiss embassy, and how she had gone there to beg (successfully) to have her Swiss visa extended, though she did not yet have her exit permit from the Gestapo. To get the permit, her father bribed a high Nazi official who came to their house and was “decent to them” and gave her the right permit. All my photos of this trip show my sister with her arm around my small Granny, holding her and protecting her.

We went to the farm where she grew up in Herelec, and the second floor apartment on Anny Lekenske street in Prague, where she moved with her parents and brother. And a lot of the stories she told were about her parents, especially Marianne, her mother. Marianne was born in 1894 in Jihlava, or Iglau as it was called then. Her father, Julius Grünfeld died the year after she was born and her mother, Anna Feldmann, remarried a man named Fuchs who had been ennobled with the name Fuchs-Anshort. It seems that Marianne lost contact with her father’s family, but just in the past year my sister and my niece have been able to reconnect with a branch descended from Julius’s oldest brother. They…look like our cousins! Which they are.

Marianne’s step-father was an army officer, and moved the family to Przemysl. Now part of Poland, it was then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where it was a crucial crossroads for trade, and a strategic barrier against the Russians. Some of the most important battles in World War I were fought there. It was also home to an ancient and substantial Jewish community, which formed a third of the population of the town. There, this ennobled sophisticated family, whose livelihood depended on assimilation to the norms and values of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its military, encountered, perhaps for the first time in large numbers, the Ostjuden, whom they would have seen as threatening and strange. It is perhaps this experience that best explains Marianne’s indifference, or perhaps better, hostility, to her Jewish background. The nineteenth-century emancipation of the Jews was not just an emancipation from the punitive restrictions of the state; it was also, for those who chose — and the families of both my father’s parents did so choose — an emancipation from the rabbis. Her son, Willy, was not circumcised at birth (and, poor boy, medical problems caused him to have to undergo circumcision as a youth). My grandmother’s name was entered in the record of Jewish births in Iglau, but the same document also records her abandonment of the “israelische religion” at the age of three to become a Catholic. Granny showed us the church where Marianne encouraged her children to participate in the Ascension day procession, and she told us how a crew of thirty Slovaks would come to bring in the harvest in the autumn. They wore their national dress on Sunday and to her mother’s delight, made grain crowns for the family, which they would keep safe until the following year. These folk customs delighted Marianne, but she showed no interest in her own tradition. Moreover, she identified herself with the traditions of Austria, not this new country of Czechs. Granny showed us the old Deutsches Haus in Prague where Marianne would go to meet friends. “Of course,” my grandmother then said under breath, “They all became Nazi collaborators.”

My grandmother loved her mother; you could hear it in her voice. The photos show them smiling together like sisters, my grandmother a little shorter, plumper, and more ordinary-looking than her elegant mother, but raised to be strong, and to value herself. I have a few things that belonged to Marianne: the family portraits that were passed down through the daughters of the family, her handwritten recipe book, a pair of earrings — chased gold lozenges, each inset with a pearl. My grandmother loved clothing, and she loved to go shopping, a trait she passed down to her granddaughters, though she wasn’t interested in labels, and she despised the boutique-ification of women’s fashion (one of my favorite stories about my Granny was her tale of walking into a Valentino boutique and picking up some of the garments, whereupon the salesman rushed up to her, distressed that she was touching the clothing. “Madame,” he said, “You mustn’t touch. If you want something I will help you. This is haute couture, you know.” Granny turned to him and said, “THIS is not haute couture; THIS is prêt-à-porter,” and stormed out of the shop.) When she died, we divided up her clothing, and one of the pieces I chose was Marianne’s alligator purse.

On December 14, 1941, Marianne and her husband Oskar were sent to Theresienstadt, and on January 20, 1943 they were sent to Auschwitz, where they perished. They had visas for Cuba, but Oskar said, “What do I want to do? Live in a hotel for the rest of my life?” and they did not go. My grandmother spoke to a survivor of Theresienstadt after the war who told her the last time he had seen her mother, she was smiling and taking care of the chickens. “And that is how I always like to think of her,” my grandmother said, voice shaking,’Smiling and taking care of the chickens.”

PIlgrimage, History, and Historical Fiction

When I would tell fellow academics I was writing a historical novel about my period, their eyes would widen and the questions and comments would come, always friendly and supportive, maybe a little wistful:

–Really?
–Is it hard?
–I could never do that; I don’t have enough imagination.
–How do you find the time?

(Answer: you make the time)
Reading historical fiction as a child (Rosemary Sutcliff, Jean Plaidy, Georgette Heyer…) was a huge part of why I became interested in history, so the link between historical writing and fiction was there from the beginning. Now my friend David Perry (another medieval historian who pushes his own writing beyond the confines of the academy) has written a thoughtful essay on fiction and scholarship that discusses my novel, Pilgrimage and Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book:

Fictionalizing Your Scholarship: Writing a novel is hard to do well, but it can serve as a powerful way to share your research with a wider audience

PILGRIMAGE news

A few very nice things are happening.
A lovely article appeared in the University of Chicago Magazine about PILGRIMAGE. The image at the bottom of this post is from the tomb of Sancha Ramirez that is discussed in the article. You can read it at the link here:
Novel Pilgrim
On October 26th, I will be talking about the book and doing a reading at the Seminary Coop Bookstore:
http://www.semcoop.com/event/lucy-pick-reads-and-discusses-pilgrimage
And on October 29th, I will be the featured speaker at the Divinity School’s weekly Wednesday Lunch. Follow the link to sign up:
Wednesday Lunch

Tomb of Sancha Ramirez

Tomb of Sancha Ramirez

Home Movies

10384832_10152210306181333_5492971820267235243_nA few years back, my uncle put my grandfather’s home movies onto three DVDs and I spent yesterday evening watching them. I had seen them before, of course. Well, most of them. I had always been a little wary of number three, with the unpromising title, “Hunting and Fishing.” But I decided it was time to watch that one too, though I admit I gave up somewhere around “the fish hatchery in Compton.” And it was worth it.

It begins with scenes of hunting in what was Czechoslovakia, in the years right before the war. My grandmother and grandfather are both there, dressed like they are about to climb every mountain, as they indeed did a couple of years later. They hunted in the way modelled for them by the nobility of Austria, with the rows of rabbits and birds and beasts lined up, a final report for the master of the hunt, and a moment of respect for the animals who gave their lives that day. They were probably at the hunting lodge of my father’s cousin and brother-in-law, Paul, and I can’t say for certain of course, but I imagine most of the people in the film, apart from the beaters perhaps, were Jews like them. In 1848,the same time that the Jews began to be liberated from the laws that constrained their lives, the right to hunt was opened beyond the nobility in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and my ancestors took advantage of all their new freedoms. The night before the hunt, they drink and laugh, most of them in their twenties, and my uncle’s voice-over names those he recognizes: Ruda Beck, my grandfather’s best friend, who survived Auschwitz; the Winters, Ernst and Ilona, who got out in time.

After the War, my grandfather returned to Czechoslovakia, to find what was left, first in 1946 and again, with my grandmother, in 1947. A film clip shows her on a train with final destination marked “Praha,” after a little skiing at Davos, or was it Zermatt? My grandfather hunted again with Paul, who had survived Theresienstadt. The film, now in colour, shows a much diminished group, Paul’s face, gray and worn but he smiles when he receives a bottle of Slivovitz in a newspaper wrapping from one of his guests. The prizes of all these hunts, the antlers of the deer and the fanned tail feathers of the capercaillie, still hang on the walls of the house my grandfather built in the 1960s.

It is wonderful to see, in these movies, the faces of the people I loved. My father, endlessly, as a baby, looking worried, my grandmother laughing and flirting for the camera. my grandfather, handsome and debonair as he carves through the snow on skis (a relatively new pastime in the 30s). My grandfather thought he was Cecil B.DeMille, so there are rather more shots of pre-war (unbombed!) Rotterdam, moody churches in Budapest, and dark Viennese palaces (with one tentatively goose-stepping guard) than I would like, when all I really want to see is my family, the ones I knew and the ones I didn’t.

My uncle was far better behind a camera than my grandfather, though his medium was the still rather than the video. Did my uncle take the photograph at the top of this post? I love this picture, because it shows my grandmother, grandfather, and father the way I remember them. My grandmother is glamorous and vivacious, smiling and having fun. I admire the way she seized the joy out of life, right to the very end. My father is laughing in this image that shows him almost at the exact midpoint of his life — and holding one of the damned cigarettes that eventually killed him, far too young. I see both myself and my son in his face. My grandfather looks serious, but apparently he is doing his “Jack Benny face.” Whether my uncle took this one or not, his attention to the faces of our family, to the way we look from the outside made him the eye through which we look back at ourselves, as a family. Most of my favorite photos of my family were taken by him, and it is not surprising that he was the one to preserve these videos for us. He talks, at the beginning of the video, of how bittersweet it is for him to do this work, to create this bridge between past and present. I am grateful.

Reading the Medieval Camino

Fromista

Fromista

I thought a word about the sources in English that I used for my historical novel, PILGRIMAGE might be interesting both for readers, and also for modern pilgrims who have tackled (or dream of tackling) the Camino to Santiago de Compostela. One of the wonders of the Camino Frances is not only that it is such an old track, but that there has been so much written about it over the centuries. I think knowing something of the history that created the road only enhances the journey. And it is not a history primarily of dates and politics, but one of art and architecture and real people with hopes and dreams and fears tracking off into the unknown (to them) world. My own heroine takes a roundabout route before joining the road through France via Arles and Toulouse. She takes the Camino Aragones before joining — after a few plot-required detours — the Camino Frances.

The first source pilgrims who are interested in the history and origins of the route usually encounter is the engaging and wonderful twelfth-century Pilgrim’s Guide to Compostela. I link to the Italica Press translation by William Melczer, which is also available in a Kindle edition, for those pilgrims who would like to carry it en route. I would not suggest you replace your modern guidebook with it, however. Let’s just say that Aimery Picaud was a little optimistic when he described the length of each stage…

The Miracles of St. James accompanies the Pilgrim’s Guide in manuscripts, and is now available in its own translation. The gem of this book is its translation of the medieval sermon “Veneranda dies.” If you want an idea of how they thought of the Camino in the twelfth-century, and the origin of traditions (and complaints) that are still relevant today, this is the place to look. Exerienced pilgrims will discover many differences, of course, but I think you will be surprised to see how the more things change, the more they stay the same.

If your primary interest in the Camino is its art and architecture, and if you want to know more about what you might see along all the main roads in France and Spain, you might like Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela: A Gazeteer by Paula Gerson and Annie Shaver-Crandell. I found it an invaluable resource for imagining my heroine’s journey.

A resources designed more for the modern pilgrim, because it describes what you will see stage by stage, is David Gitlitz and Mary-Jane Davidson’s The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook. It doesn’t provide trail directions or the addresses of albergues but it is an excellent source for explaining what it is you will actually see on the road and what it all means. I returned to it over and over again while writing.

If you would like to know more about the history of medieval Spain during the time when the pilgrimage road to Compostela was becoming popular across Europe, you could take a look at Bernard Reilly’s The Contest of Christian and Muslim Spain: 1031 – 1157. And last but not least, if you prefer some pictures while you are reading, and want to delve deeper into relations between Christians, Muslims and Jews in the peninsula, check out The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture.

Happy reading and happy walking!