Category Archives: Middle Ages

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:
MasterofGodelieve

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:
JamesNicholas
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.

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

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!

Review: PILGRIMAGE

Julianne Douglas has written a wonderful review of PILGRIMAGE on her blog, “Writing the Renaissance.” I say “wonderful” not only because it is positive, but even more because I think she really captures in her review what this novel is about and what I was trying to do. I can fairly say that if this review appeals to you, you will probably like the novel. You can check it out here:

Review of PILGRIMAGE

And do keep Julianne’s blog bookmarked. It is a great place to catch up on the latest historical fiction. Julianne performs a real service to the HF reading community with her thoughtful reviews and interviews. I have been turned on to a lot of great novels I would not have known about otherwise on its pages. But more than that, it is a place for Julianne to explore her own writing interests in Renaissance France. Recent posts have been on John D. Rockefeller (yes, UChicago people, that Rockefeller) and the excavations at Fontainebleau; the illuminations in Claude de France’s prayer book; and a gorgeous nineteenth-century stained glass image of Renaissance poet, Louise Labé.

And check Julianne’s blog again tomorrow, when she will be interviewing me about the novel

PILGRIMAGE is out!!

Pick-Cover-Sized-A.inddAt last! My historical novel about the pilgrimage road to Compostela in Spain in the 12th century was released on Monday. I’ve been telling people all over the internet about it, and even added a page here, but this is my first chance to do a full blog post. So I have a whole bunch of links for you.

First is the book’s Goodreads page. If you have an account, do drop by and take a look. Reviews are always very welcome.

Next, I made a Pinterest page showing images from the different places my heroine visits on her journey, all keyed to a map. If you zoom in on the map, you get a better idea of the different locations.

I joined Twitter. My handle is @lucykpick. If you follow me, I will follow you, la-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la.

And last but not least, here is a link to the publisher’s website where you can buy a copy all your very own with free shipping within the United States. Yes, it will be available in bookstores, in Canada, and as an ebook very soon. Believe me, I will let you know!

Cynthia Robinson, Tatiana’s Wedding

She’d earn her place on this earth for her contributions to the history and culture of medieval Spain alone, but Cynthia Robinson is also an author of compelling and engaging contemporary literary fiction. I read the first few chapters of this in draft, and I am really glad to see it has been published. So check out Tatiana’s Wedding if you are looking for a good read. Lovely cover too:
Tatiana'swedding

Kim Silveira Wolterbeck, A Place of Light

KSWcoverAPlaceofLightRobert of Arbrissel is one of the most fascinating characters from the Middle Ages. A truly counter-cultural figure, he was a monk and a hermit who preached poverty and renunciation of the world, and surrounded himself with the rejected and outcast of medieval society: lepers, the poor, and women, including prostitutes.

A Place of Light builds off one of the most compelling stories told about him by his contemporary, Baldric of Dol. According to Baldric, one day Robert walked into a brothel in Rouen, and preached about sin to the women inside. They, swayed by his words and moved by his vision for their future, followed him into the wilderness on his path to found a new community where they could live in peace and safety. In her novel about Robert and how he founded the medieval abbey of Fontevrauld (known best of all now as the site of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s vivid tomb) with these women, Wolterbeck asks who they might have been, what their stories were, and why they followed Robert. It is a richly imagined and gripping portrait that treats religious ideals and idealism alongside vanity, pride, envy, greed, and lust with authenticity and nuance. If you are tired of historical novels that promise “meticulous research,” then deliver cardboard characters out of step with their age (medievalist friends, I have you especially in mind), you will love this book as I did. Wolterbeck never takes the easy or obvious route with any of her main characters (who include, in addition to Robert the monk, Madeleine, the wary prostitute; Philippa, the mis-married duchess of Aquitaine; and Girard, the failed Benedictine). The unsympathetic characters have virtue and potential; the characters we love the most have flaws and hidden damage. Indeed, if there is a theme to this book, it is the relationship between damage and redemption. Its message is one the medieval audiences of Robert’s sermons would have understood: we all are sinners; we all can be saved.

I was especially excited/nervous/anxious to read this book, because it is the first published offering from Cuidono Press, the press that will be publishing my own novel, Pilgrimage and in the interest of full disclosure, the novel was a gift to me from its editor. But if you have been reading my reviews over the years, you know that I do no reviews by request, and that I only review books that I love. This is especially important to me for books about the Middle Ages. I am proud my book will be standing beside this one.

Whence Inspiration?

CalixtoIIhdr copiaEvery book is the product of a kajillion (give or take a gazillion) little twinkles of inspiration, intuition, or insight, but those key lightbulb-above-the-head moments, when you look up from whatever you were doing and know you have a story to tell are much more precious and rare.

PILGRIMAGE was the produce of two questions that combined into one lightbulb moment in the year or so after my son was born, when I was on a postdoctoral fellowship. This was back in ancient times, before the World Wide Web, Facebook, and Google. I used to spend my spare time connecting with other medievalists on those newfangled specialist listservs. One of my favourites had a “saint of the day” feature with a little biography, and one July 6th, the story was all about Saint Godeleva, patron of battered wives, whose Flemish husband had her murdered at the end of the eleventh century. The biography also recounted a late legend about Godeleva — that her husband had gone off on crusade to expiate his crime, and that he also had a daughter who was blind. What would it feel like, I wondered, to have a saint for a mother, who cured everyone except for you? That was my first question.

The second came from a manuscript, the Codex Calixtinus, to be precise. You can see an initial from the manuscript, showing Pope Calixtus II purportedly writing a section of the manuscript, at the top of this post. This manuscript contains a colophon, that describes the origin of the manuscript in an unusual way. It reads:

The Poitevin Aimery Picaud of Partheney-le-Vieux and Oliver d’Asquins and their friend Gebirga of Flanders gave this book to Saint James of Galicia for the redemption of their souls.

Now, figuring out the authorship of this volume is highly complicated because those who actually wrote the texts in it took care to attribute them to more important people, like Pope Calixtus, above. Our best guess is that it had several authors, and Aimery Picaud, whoever he was, was its compiler. Who then was Gebirga of Flanders, and how did an unknown woman become important enough to have her name mentioned in this work with its lofty pretensions?

That was my second question. And then, the light went on — Gebirga of Flanders became the blind daughter of Saint Godeleva, and I knew I had a story.

PILGRIMAGE — Some news and a description

As I wrote last October, my first novel, Pilgrimage, is going to be published by Cuidono Press, a new small press based in Brooklyn (I think those of you who enjoy the Middle Ages might be interested in its first released book, A Place of Light, on the origins of the Abbey of Fontevraud.) I am delighted to let you all know that my novel will be released this June.

And I think it is finally time for me to let you know what it is about. People who write talk about “conference pitches,” “elevator pitches,” etc. This is my current “dust-jacket pitch”:

For the rest of twelfth-century Europe, Spain was a far-off and exotic place, rich in silks, ivory, and gold, full of Muslims and Jews, and raging with battles between rival kings and kingdoms. It was also home to the mystical Christian holy site of Compostela at the western edge of the known world, shrine of Saint James. The saint’s tomb drew a perpetual wave of pilgrims, coming for adventure, seeking a miracle from the saint, or performing penance to expiate an old sin.

PILGRIMAGE is the story of one of those pilgrims. Gebirga of Flanders, the blind, dispossessed daughter of martyred Saint Godleva. She flees her callous family with a pack of pilgrims that includes a count’s daughter, bound for marriage, and a mysterious messenger with an unknown agenda, all bound for Compostela. The journey takes Gebirga from her home on the edge of the North Sea across the kingdoms of France and into the Iberian Peninsula, where she is caught up the swirling winds of political change, from restless, power-hungry kings and queens, to the Roman Pope. Beneath all the birthing of nations, churches, and ideas, PILGRIMAGE is a story of a young woman struggling with her station in life and trying to find her place in the world.

And speaking of dust-jackets, we are still working on the cover, but in the meantime, I want to point you in two directions. The first is to look up at the image in the header of this blog, shot by me in Spain at a place where one of the major scenes in the novel takes place. I discussed this place in my very first blog post, The Image in my Header. Next, look down. This is a painting I bought at the Hyde Park Art Fair several years ago because it reminded me of Gebirga’s journey from Flanders to Spain. I like to think those are the Pyrenees in the distance.
IMG_0898