Tag Archives: history

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.

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!

Walking the Camino

MV5BMTU4ODIyNTc4Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTg0ODM3MDE@._V1_SX214_AL_I saw this documentary, “Walking the Camino” last night at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I think what moved me more than anything, beyond the beautiful scenery which I am already familiar with for the most part, was the way the faces of the pilgrims were transformed as their journey progressed. They all radiated a kind of peace and clarity you hadn’t known they were missing when they left. It is the advantage of watching a documentary with real pilgrims, rather than a movie like “The Way.” You can’t perform that kind of internal change; it must come from within. The film is on for one more night in Chicago, so catch it before it leaves. It is also showing elsewhere in a number of Canadian and American cities.

I have been interested in the Camino since by chance I read Laurie Dennett’s A Hug for the Apostle back in the 80s. She did her walk before Paulo Coelho’s Pilgrimage and other popularizing accounts transformed it from an almost forgotten walk known to enthusiasts and Spaniards into the huge phenomenon it is today. I loved the book, read everything I could about the road, medieval and modern, and dreamed about doing the walk some day.

But I haven’t done it yet (this is the first question people ask me when they discover I have written a historical novel about the medieval Camino so I might as well get it off the table) and I don’t know if I will. It is not the physical challenge that scares me; that I welcome (though I may be deluding myself). There is the problem of fitting it into an academic schedule of course. Once, it was the fear of the frustration of missing some medieval gem a few kilometres off the road because I am tired and have to get to Pamplona or Ponferrada by nightfall. But I return often enough now, that should not be an issue. I have criss-crossed the road numerous times in different places on research trips to Spain, reading medieval manuscripts in towns where medieval pilgrims once walked and modern ones trace their footsteps. I was going to add “and as a tourist” but if I want to be honest, I am never just a tourist in Spain. Everywhere I go, I am thinking about the country’s past, learning its history from its geography. And that, I think, is the real problem. I fear I know the land too well, that I won’t be able to bring to the Camino the open heart I need, ready to learn all it has to teach. I’ll be the annoying one in the albergue, debunking the myths. I worry that to be a true pilgrim, I need to go to Japan or Mexico or somewhere less freighted for me.

But it still calls to me. I still want to do it. And one day, maybe I will.

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.

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.
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Tracy Chevalier, The Lady and the Unicorn

LadyandtheUnicorn

I am that strange person who did not like The Girl with the Pearl Earring, but loves the rest of Tracy Chevalier’s work. This goes true for her The Lady and the Unicorn, which I just finished tonight. To be honest, I started it tonight too. A story of the creation of the famous Unicorn tapestries, now housed at the Musee de Cluny, in Paris, it is that good.

If you read other reviews of this book, you will find that their authors can’t resist the chance to use “tapestry” metaphors when describing Chevalier’s skill. “A deftly woven tapestry,” “not a stitch is missing,” they write. However, this attention to the book as the fully-realized production of a single person, an “author,” seems to miss the exact point Chevalier is trying to make about artistic creation. Nicholas des Innocents, the painter who designed the tapestries, is at the heart of her book, and it is he whom a modern audience would credit with being their “author.” But the story is designed to show us how these wonderful examples of the fifteenth-century art of weaving are in fact the product of many, many hands and brains and sources of inspiration. Chevalier reveals to us, not only the contribution of the designer and the members of Brussels atelier that weaves the tapestries, but the the role of the patrons who debate over the design; the merchant who acts as go-between, hiring the designer and arranging for his work to be made a reality; the women who serve as muses; the servants who care for the house so the work can be done; the English wool workers who ship their cloth to Ostend; and even the unappealing Jacques Le Boeuf, smelly because of the urine used to fix the woad that gives the beautiful blues to the tapestries.

It is easy to suppose that Chevalier sees her own creation as an author in the same light. The fantasy is of an author who toils alone and creates a book as a pure, solitary act, the work of her brain transmitted through her hands onto the page. The reality is that Chevalier’s book had as many hands in it as the tapestries themselves: an agent and an editor and maybe other readers who suggested revisions and made comments at an early stage (Chevalier thanks a long list of people in her acknowledgements), and closer to publication, there was a copyeditor and proofreader. Someone designed the cover (actually, his name is Richard Hasselberger — it is on the back flap of the dust jacket — and it is a very nice cover indeed) and took the author photo (Jerry Brauer) and created the layout and chose the type face and given that this novel followed the huge success of Girl with the Pearl Earring there was probably a substantial group in charge of publicity and promotion. And we can add to this list the booksellers who hand-sold it, the librarians who recommended it, and all the people who reviewed it. All of these were needed to make The Lady and the Unicorn what it is. And none of this takes away from Chevalier’s work.

Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Curse in the Colophon

UnknownSo many friends greeted my acquisition of this book with so much excitement that I thought a review was in order now I have finished reading it. For those that you don’t know, Edgar Goodspeed was a Theologian and New Testament scholar at my very own Divinity School at the University of Chicago, getting his degree from there in 1898 and teaching there between 1900 and 1937.   Goodspeed was responsible for building up the manuscript collection that now bears his name at the university, a collection of New Testament manuscripts and papyri. How could I resist a book by another novel-writing colleague?

Especially a book devoted to the hunt for medieval manuscripts, a hunt that bears striking similarities to his own real-life acquisitions. For while he was a New Testament scholars, the materia for the study of the Greek New Testament is manuscripts copied in the Middle Ages. In his story, the first-person hero and narrator of the tale is assisted by the as-intelligent-as-she-is-beautiful Letitia (“Tish”) in a hunt for a cache of manuscripts hidden, after the fall of Constantinople, revealed by a curse found in the colophon of a manuscript being studied at the University of Chicago. It is a a sea-borne quest in which the scholars are assisted by wealthy American patrons to reach the monastery of Selime where they find the treasure they seek behind a trapdoor in a tomb: Byzantine regalia, and relics, and, best of all, illustrated manuscripts.

Shades of Indiana Jones. Only, not really. For while Goodspeed knows he has to add a few dastardly ruffians and menacing Greeks to his tale, he isn’t as comfortable with tales of high adventure as he is writing about the mundane frustrations and excitements of ordinary manuscript study. And that is the best thing about this book, from the perspective of this medievalist. We learn the virtues of using ultra-violet light over reagents to uncover text written in palimpsest, that is to say, text that has been over-written by another text. It is under the original cursed colophon that they find their clue to the location of the manuscripts they seek. They are thwarted by the demons that plague all of us: libraries with inconvenient opening times and backward equipment, jealous librarians who refuse to understand the crucial importance of our own personal quests, languages that need to be learned, transportation that must be acquired, and the religious agendas of those who are the custodians of the treasures the scholars seek to reveal. The final crisis comes, not at the hands of the enemies who have been dogging their every step (book dealers who *gasp* cut up manuscripts in order to sell their miniatures one by one), but at the hands of the customs officials who threaten not to let them remove their prizes from the country.

If you ever have had to sweet-talk someone in a language you don’t know very well to look at a manuscript you are sure will be crucial for your work, this is the novel for you.

When I Knew

The title is misleading. The question I still ask myself is not, “When did I know I was Jewish?” but, “How, in God’s name, did I not figure it out sooner?” I blame Captain von Trapp.

I cannot remember a time when I did not know the story of how my grandmother fled Czechoslovakia, weeks after the Germans invaded, with my two-year-old father in tow, to meet my grandfather in London (the story of how he got to London, however, remained a secret until much more recently). She was a great storyteller, and in her version, she was not a bold heroine, but a foolish and somewhat spoiled girl, slightly oblivious of the danger around her. I heard many times about how she charmed the Gestapo at the border into letting them leave, how they had to stay in Versailles, and how my grandmother abandoned my father every morning to the tender ministrations of “la promeneuse” so she could hot-foot it to Paris, and later, of their life in London and Wales, of ration cards, and air raids, and shoes that unaccountably did not get polished when you left them outside your door at night. What I did not hear anywhere attached to the story was the word, “Jew.” It was a word I never heard used by any member of my family, in any context.

And that is where the Sound of Music comes in. I saw it for the first time a long time ago, long enough ago that I remember standing for the national anthem before it began. My grandparents had come to visit in Toronto, and we all went together. And there, on the screen, was their story, their love for their homeland, the evil Nazis, and their flight to freedom. They even lived high on a hill with a lonely goatherd, in a Swiss Chalet. In Quebec. Here it is:

Granny and Gumper's house in North Hat;ley

When the Captain sang “Edelweiss,” my mother says, tears rolled down my grandfather’s cheeks. Bless my homeland forever.

And once again, not a mention of the word “Jew” in the whole movie (Weirdly, when you think about it. Sure, the von Trapps weren’t Jewish. But Max? Max?). No wonder I was confused as the evidence began mounting and the questions started to come. Because I knew, I knew. But I didn’t know. I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and then all the Leon Uris books. I had dreams about being chased by Nazis. I even wrote a short story for school about a young girl, oh roughly my age at the time, escaping. I asked my father where our name came from. He lied (Miners from Lancaster come to work in the Silesian coal fields. I still have not forgiven him for this one!). I asked him why Gumper was smart enough to leave when others didn’t (you can tell I am getting close at this point). I asked my grandfather what happened to his two sisters. He left the room, and my grandmother changed the subject. I knew we weren’t Catholic, like all the other Czechs I knew, though when my grandfather swore, it was by Jesus and Mary (this also threw me off). Did I think they were Hussites? But no, the von Trapps weren’t Jewish. You didn’t have to be Jewish to flee the Nazis. It wasn’t a question about myself that I asked; it was one I had already answered.

Then cousin Frances came for one of the last Christmases before my grandfather and father died, and this time brought with her a family tree. On it were large branches that were missing, unknown relatives marked only “died in the war.” And Frances told us that we had a Jewish background. I didn’t fully absorb it, confused as I still was by the Captain. Maybe Gumper’s mother had been Jewish?

After my father died, my uncle sat me and my sister down with my mother and told us the story of our origins and swore us to secrecy. My mother already knew; my father had told her before they were married in an offhand way, and she regarded it as a matter of complete indifference. We didn’t keep it a secret; we started talking about our background and history with our father’s cousins, and with our grandmother, especially when we travelled with her to the Czech Republic after the wall came down. My sister remembered revealing all to our Kitchener cousins when we visited them for Christmas a couple of years after our father’s death.

For me this knowledge came, not as a revelation but as a confirmation, an “Oh, of course.” It was like I had spent my life doing a puzzle without the picture on the box, trying to piece together the faces I saw from the pieces I had. Someone handed me some missing pieces and suddenly all the sections I had been working on began to fit together. And on the woman’s face, the pieces now formed a smile.

Christmas at the Picks

Christmas 1939

The official part of Christmas with my new family is over, and I have an evening alone, as the rest of them go out to shop, eat, and watch a movie, as is their usual custom on Boxing Day. We have been talking a lot about what our Christmas traditions are over the past few days, as we attempt to merge our practices and rituals, honouring what is most important to all of us. Like most of us, I have had a series of Christmas traditions, depending on where I lived and who I was living with at the time, but if you ask me what I think of when I think of Christmas, it isn’t Toronto in the 1970s or Detroit in the 1990s; it is spending Christmas in North Hatley, for many years at the incongruous Swiss chalet on a Quebec hillside house built my Gumper, my grandfather Jan Pick, and later also at our own cottage. It was always our family and my grandparents; sometimes our cousins from Kitchener joined us, and in later years, my father’s cousin Frances would come from Mexico.

What did it mean to us? It was the light in the darkness of winter. We feasted and burned candles. We skied through the woods and snowmobiled, and chopped down a tree, bringing the freshness of the forest indoors. The ornaments were battered and glittering survivors of those collected by my grandparents in their years as exiles and refugees from their native Czechoslovakia. We ate fish soup, and herring, and salmon, and eel. We ate turkey and plum pudding, and spiced beef. We ate candied orange peel, truffles, florentines, pepperkakor, vanilkove rohlicky, rum balls, Turtles, mince pies, and shortbread.  We opened a mountain of presents (This was the only part my grandfather did not like — he thought we had too many presents, and he was right. And it only got worse when the Kitchener Picks joined us!). And like the Whos down in Whoville what we did most of all was sing. At Christmas Eve dinner, the apex of our feast, we would sing and sing and sing, songs in English and French; Czech, Slovak, Swedish, and Hungarian. Some were toasts and drinking songs, some were folk songs; we sang songs about the black earth of my grandparents’ homeland and about battles fought in far off Herzigovina; we sang songs my grandfather learned as a student in France and songs my mother grew up singing around a Swedish Christmas smorgasbord. We banished the darkness and drew our family together around the table. It was this family we were celebrating as we sang, especially my grandparents, especially my grandfather.

The Picks were Jewish of course, and it may be surprising for some of you to read that Christmas was so important to them. It is one of the curiosities of the ways a culture borrows from another that many Czech Jews celebrated Christmas with as much enthusiasm as their neighbors, albeit with less piety. I remember my grandmother taking about childhood Christmasses, about the carp who would come to live in the bathtub to be cleaned of its muddy interior before it would be eaten on Christmas Eve. And their family was not alone. My grandfather’s best friend from the old country was a man who survived Auschwitz and wrote a memoir of his experiences. “It was a very sad Christmas for the Jews this year,” he wrote without irony about Christmas 1939 in occupied Czechoslovakia.

The grainy photo at the top, which shows my grandmother, Liska, lighting the candles on a Christmas tree, is a still from a movie made by our cousin Frances’s father at Christmas in 1939 in the UK. He and my grandparents and my father, Michael, had managed to escape there. Also in this film are my father’s young cousins, Peter and John, kindertransport children who had been saved by Nicholas Winton, and my great grandmother Ruzena, whose necklace I wore at our own Christmas dinner last night. The people in the film are all people I knew well, so even though the film is silent I can tell what they are saying and even what they are thinking, as they greet Father Christmas, and praise my father for riding his first tricycle. And I can see the moment when the mood grow dark and they raise a toast their friends and family left behind — my grandmother’s parents, my grandfather’s sisters, all to perish, with so many more — and my grandmother knocks back her drink, and stiffens her jaw and smiles again, prepared to defy the darkness for another year.