Tag Archives: medieval

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.

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

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

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 LabĂ©.

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

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.

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