HISTORY VS FICTION
HISTORY VS FICTION
A number of years ago, I attended a writer’s conference in the Midwest, where I was asked to give a speech about writing as a craft. I said that my aim as a novelist was “to entertain and to inform.” Later in the program, another writer surprised me by quoting what I’d said, and then declared that her aim was “to heal.” That seemed overly ambitious to me and so I’ve stayed with my objectives—to make the MA come alive to readers in a way that makes them want to keep turning the pages.
As those of you who’ve read past blogs or my Facebook posts know, I am somewhat (okay, very) obsessive-compulsive about historical accuracy. Obviously a historical novel must draw upon the writer’s imagination, but I always attempt to build a sturdy factual foundation for each book, and if I have to take dramatic license or historical liberties with known fact, I try to play fair and alert my readers to this in the AN. The real challenge comes in depicting a way of thinking that is often alien to ours today. I can think of at least five topics in which medieval and modern views have little in common: the concept of religious tolerance, anti-Semitism, the conduct of war, the status of women, and the treatment of animals. I thought (hope) it might be interesting to discuss how a historical novelist approaches these controversial issues.
Anti-Semitism is the ugly underside of medieval life. In Falls The Shadow, I addressed this, making no excuses, but seeking to root it in the context of the 13th century. Anti-Semitism exists to this day; the difference is that in the MA, the Church gave official sanction to it. My Christian characters were taught from birth to view Jews with suspicion and hostility. In Falls The Shadow, Simon de Montfort tells Rabbi Jacob that “I was taught that over every Jew, God holds His breath, waiting to see if he will decide for Christ. How can you give Our Lord such grief? How can you reject salvation? It took courage for you to come here. Yours is a soul worth saving. Why will you not admit that Christ is the Messiah? Do you not fear damnation?” In this passage, I distilled the essence of the medieval view of Judaism. Rabbi Jacob then reminds Simon of his time on crusade and asks if Simon would have abjured his Christian faith had he been captured by the Saracens. Simon says he’d have chosen death, and Jacob says softly and sadly, “Just so, my lord.” The chasm between the two men is too vast to bridge.
I try to stay true to the tenor of the times, so virtually all of my characters are infected to some degree. When I needed a character to voice doubts, I had to choose an outsider to make it believable, a character who was a natural rebel and therefore more likely to question even the teachings of the Church—Llywelyn Fawr’s strong-willed daughter, Elen. In When Christ and His Saints Slept, Ranulf is ambushed and almost killed by bandits, rescued by two young peddlers. He is naturally very grateful to them, but when he learns that they are Jews, his first reaction is an involuntary recoil, for they are aliens and infidels. “For an unnerving moment, Ranulf felt an instinctive unease. But then common sense reasserted itself. These men had saved his life. They had chased after his horse, bandaged his wound, even buried his dog. What more proof did he demand of their goodwill?” Because Ranulf is an intelligent, decent man, he is able to recognize that his suspicions make no sense under the circumstances, and he and the brothers, Aaron and Josce, are able to forge a tentative, temporary bond.
Religious tolerance was as rare in the MA as the unicorn. All men—be they Christian, Jew, or Muslim—were convinced that theirs was the True Faith. In Lionheart, the crusaders and Saracens each refer to the others as “infidels.” They can respect one another’s courage, but neither side doubts that damnation awaits their foes. So I have to take care in my novels to acknowledge this bedrock belief, so alien to most of us today. And to show that they could be less forgiving of sinners than we are. I recently interviewed a writer friend, Margaret Frazer, on this blog, and I said that she is even more obsessive-compulsive than I am about historical accuracy. In her medieval mystery, The Apostate’s Tale, Sister Frevisse is confronted with a ghost from their abbey’s past, a nun who’d run away and taken a lover. I was sympathetic to this woman, who’d been compelled to take holy vows, who’d never wanted to be a nun. Sister Frevisse was not. Margaret did not take the easy way, did not have Sister Frevisse embrace the erring sister as many another novelist would have done. To a nun of the 15th century, there would be no greater sin than apostacy, for it was a rejection of God, and Margaret was true to that in Frevisse’s uncompromising, medieval judgment. Had this been my story, I hope I would have been as honest and as brave.
We also have difficulty comprehending the medieval attitude toward war. They glorified it in a way that we no longer do. It is impossible to understand Richard I without taking this into consideration. Some modern historians have found fault with him for the very actions that his subjects most admired. War was a medieval king’s vocation and at that, Richard excelled. Ours is a time in which we sincerely decry attacks upon noncombatants, although the body count continues to mount in much of the world. During the MA, the Church attempted to shield noncombatants, too—women, children, priests, pilgrims, etc. But the nature of medieval warfare—laying waste the lands of one’s enemies—all but guaranteed there would be civilian casualties. And kings, knights, and soldiers accepted this as inevitable. Some of my characters might regret the burning of a village and its crops, but they would still do it, for that was how their wars were waged. There was a strain of pacifism in the MA; there were even a few to criticize the crusades. But we’re talking of a small minority and their views never wielded any influence. This was an age, after all, in which even bishops rode out into battle, wielding swords instead of crosiers, and no one saw anything odd about this. (The oft-repeated legend that warring clerics always used maces instead of swords so as to avoid the Church stricture against spilling blood is just that, a legend.) So to be true to the times, I cannot have my characters reacting to the destruction of a town or the raping of its women as if it were a war crime, the way we would characterize it today. I do try to take our modern sensibilities into account by not dwelling needlessly upon the atrocities of war, but further than that, I cannot go.
Fortunately my readers seem willing to judge my characters by medieval standards rather than ours. I say “fortunately” because almost every medieval monarch could be painted as a homicidal maniac if we held them accountable to 21st century standards, and that includes those who enjoy a reputation for mercy and chivalry such as Salah al-Din, better known to us as Saladin. Even Henry II, who shared none of his son Richard’s zest for battle, ordered the blinding of a number of Welsh hostages without hesitation; moreover, he saw it as a merciful act, since he was sparing their lives.
There is obviously a huge gap between the status of medieval women and women today, at least in the industrialized countries. This can present problems for some readers, those who want their female characters to be strong, to speak up for themselves, to have a measure of control over their own fate. I am not saying there were not strong women in the MA; there certainly were. But the restrictions placed upon them by society and the Church severely limited their choices; biology truly was destiny if you were born a woman in medieval times. There is a scene in Lionheart in which Berengaria’s brother Sancho is contemplating her future as England’s queen. “He could see that his father took comfort from his certainty, and he was glad of it. It was not as if he’d lied, after all. Why would Berenguela and Richard not find contentment together? The ideal wife was one who was chaste, obedient, and loyal. Berenguela would come to her marriage bed a virgin and would never commit the sin of adultery. She believed it was a wife’s duty to be guided by her husband. And she would be loyal to Richard until her last mortal breath—whether he deserved it or not.”
Yes, there were those rare rebels like Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Empress Maude, but they paid a great price for their independent spirits. It is obvious that both Eleanor and Maude chaffed under their matrimonial bonds, wanting more freedom than their world was willing to allow. But there is no evidence that they viewed themselves as part of an oppressed sisterhood; they wanted power and autonomy for themselves, not for all members of their sex. So it would be unrealistic if I were to write of a female character resentful of male dominance, one eager to prove herself as capable as any man.
It would be even more unrealistic if I had a female character determined to marry “for love.” Berengaria’s brother Sancho hopes that she finds “contentment” in her marriage. There were some marriages, of course, that held passion and/or love. By all accounts, Berengaria’s own parents had a loving relationship, and there was certainly passion aplenty in Henry and Eleanor’s union. But in the MA, marriage was a legal union, recognized by the Church and Crown as a means of getting children and transferring property in an orderly fashion from one generation to the next. Love was not a component of marriage then, especially marriages among royalty and the highborn, and there were no expectations of finding soul mates, not in the 12th century.
Medieval and modern views are even more divergent when it comes to the treatment of animals. The concept of “animal rights” could not be more alien to them. People did have pets, at least those who could afford such a luxury. There is evidence of loved dogs and cherished horses and valued falcons. While cats were not normally kept as pets, some apparently infiltrated nunneries and the hearts of their inhabitants, for nuns were occasionally scolded for doting on cats and small dogs. And there was even that occasional free spirit who truly empathized with all of God’s creatures. It will likely come as a surprise to learn that the notorious French queen, Catherine de Medici, was one of them; see C. W. Gortner’s The Confessions of Catherine de Medici.
But—and it is hard for me as an animal-lover to admit this—she was definitely an anomaly. When daily life is so hard, few can spare sympathy for hungry dogs. This is especially true in a world in which people believe that God has given them dominion over the earth and all in it. So when one of my characters is moved by the plight of a suffering animal, he often is vaguely embarrassed by his Good Samaritan inclinations. When Justin de Quincy rescues a drowning dog in The Queen’s Man, he does it after he “casts common sense to the winds,” and he is motivated in some measure by the tearful entreaties of a small child. The life of a horse was worth a great deal and the life of a pet dog might have mattered to its owner. But the lives of animals in general had no intrinsic value and my characters cannot display the same outrage in the face of cruelty that we would. I do cheat a bit; I’ve never dramatized a bear-baiting scene because I know my readers would find it as unpleasant to read as I would to write it!
Now it is your turn. Is it difficult for you to do what I am asking of you—to judge my characters by the standards of their time and not ours? I know that my “hard-core” readers feel as strongly as I do about historical accuracy, so I am guessing that most of you always make that effort, right? I wonder, though, if the casual reader does? Would someone unfamiliar with the MA be repulsed by the description of a medieval execution, with its throngs of avid spectators and its raucous fair-like atmosphere? Shocked that Henry and Eleanor married their daughters off before they reached puberty? How far do you think historical novelists should go to make their books palatable to modern readers? Is it necessary to make the characters in a novel about the anti-Bellum South all secret abolitionists at heart in order to win reader sympathy? What of a family living in Nazi Germany? Compared to challenges like that, I have it easy, don’t I?
January 14, 2011