Wednesday 31 December 2014

Great Reads from 2014

Without doubt my greatest love, second maybe to writing novels, is reading books. During 2014 I read many great novels, a variety of genres and styles, some of which were published before 2014. Here I collect together a selection of my favourite reads of this year.

The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland 

The Vanishing Witch

I admire Karen Maitland's approach to the historical novel and particularly enjoyed The Vanishing Witch. She mingles fact and fiction in a convincing manner throughout her work. This particular novel is set during the aftermath of The Black Death and The Peasant's Revolt of the fourteenth century. It is situated in the north and is a story that embraces suspicion, ordinary lives and contains within it a suspenseful story. The narrative is straightforward. A merchant widower makes an ill-fated marriage. His son is suspicious and becomes caught up in events that spiral beyond his control. There is an uncanny sense of fate haunting this novel. This book is beautifully written and has a threatening atmosphere that haunts its pages. The historical background and the way in which its characters perceive their world is exceptionally engaging and seamlessly woven into the story.

Longbourn by Jo Baker


Longbourn is a reimagining of Pride and Prejudice from the servants' point of view. Baker really builds up a believable and informative sense of the domestic life below stairs over which Mrs Hill the housekeeper has control. That is until a new footman arrives. He is a man with secrets and of course the maidservant who longs for love gets more than she had wished for. The story beautifully interacts with moments made famous in the original novel. In fact, Baker does not interfere with the characters of the novel, which I liked, but instead she adds a whole new dimension, creating a story that enhances the original work and is a superb, beautifully written novel in its own right.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

I thought that, although exquisitely written, The Miniaturist was slow to take off but once it did I was captivated. Set in the late seventeenth century in Amsterdam, Nella Oortman, the novel's protagonist is about to begin her new life in Amsterdam with her wealthy merchant trader husband. She is a wife who is not a wife. The household has secrets. Johannes Brandt, her husband, has dangerous secrets. He presents her with an unusual wedding gift which is a cabinet-sized replica of their home. As miniatures mysteriously begin to appear secrets do too. As she uncovers these she wonders if the mysterious miniaturist will save all their lives or destroy them. It is a beautifully written suspenseful historical novel and evokes Amsterdam's Golden Age with perfect pitch.

  The Goldfinch by Dona Tartt

The Goldfinch was published in 2013. Persuaded by daughter, Tara, I accompanied her to hear Dona Tartt speak in London in November 2013 but I did not actually read the novel until this December. It is a wonderful novel and is deserving of every accolade granted to it. What a treasure I had unwittingly stored away. Theo Decker survives a catastrophe that comes near to destroying his life. Because of his action during the tragic event that takes his mother's life his own future is haunted. This is a brilliantly constructed novel with wonderful characters. Every word, every sentence matters. I cannot praise it enough. Without doubt it is the jewel in the crown of this selection.

My other best reads this year include:

Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

Little Egypt by Lesley Glaister

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Brothers' Fury by Giles Kristian

And these are but to name a few. I would love to know a few favourite titles enjoyed by my readers. So what did you read in 2014?

Saturday 15 November 2014

Was Waterloo entirely a British Victory?

Waterloo is a much written about battle. My great, great grandfather's regiment, The Scot's Greys, fought at Waterloo. Author Tom Williams has written a guest blog about how he is researching the battle for his new novel in his historical adventure series His Majesty's Confidential Agent.

Uniforms of the period

Regimental Banner

Tom's novels are set against the meticulously researched background of the Napoleonic Wars. Burke, his hero, will become involved with a Belgian (Flanders) regiment during the Battle of Waterloo.

Was Waterloo Entirely a British Victory? 

by Tom Williams

After his adventures in Argentina (Burke in the Land of Silver) and Egypt (Burke and the Bedouin), the next book in the Burke series will see Burke at Waterloo.
It's inevitable, really. There's more or less a legal requirement for anyone writing a Napoleonic series to get to Waterloo sooner or later. I decided to bite the bullet and do it now.

Waterloo is a tricky thing to write about. It is, for most British military history enthusiasts, the battle of the 19th century. Hundreds of books are written about it. (Bernard Cornwell's effort, Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles was published in September.) The Internet is full of websites, including some very erudite ones, discussing various aspects of it. War-Gamers refight Waterloo all the time. Anything you say is likely to be read by quite a lot of people who know enough about what happened to pick up any mistakes.

Tom Williams on one of his 
adventures in South America,
the land of silver

This should make research easy. Unfortunately, although much has been written about the battle, it was not particularly well documented as it happened. Wellington’s dispatch to the Secretary of State for War, formally describing the battle, runs to just over 2,300 words. This created considerable controversy at the time for its failure to mention many of the acts of valour performed on the field. Wellington started writing it on the evening of the battle and he had, by any standards, had rather a hard day. Even if he had delayed and written a longer account after he had had time to consult with his generals, it would still have had errors and omissions.

Although Waterloo was fought on a very small field (barely three square miles) it was a large and complex battle. Napoleon had around 72,000 troops and Wellington commanded just under 68,000. (Even these figures are much disputed: I’ve used Elizabeth Longford’s.) 

Wellington’s force included troops of the Netherlands Army (Dutch and Belgian) and 5,000 men of the Brunswick contingent. Although all accepted him as the supreme commander on the field, they had different command structures, different languages and different uniforms. On at least one occasion, confusion as to the uniforms led to British troops opening fire on their allies with significant loss of life. Confusion was not only possible, but practically guaranteed.

Waterloo (from Wikipedia)

 We talk nowadays about "the fog of War" but it is difficult to imagine the chaos of a 19th-century battlefield. There was no radio or other means of long-range communication. Wellington's orders were carried to his commanders by riders who would cross the field of battle to take them to the people who would carry them out. It was dangerous work and many of his staff officers did not survive – and thus the orders did not necessarily get through. 

Wellington positioned himself on the ridge overlooking the battlefield because he had to rely for information about where his troops were on what he could personally observe. Unfortunately, once the firing started the smoke from the muskets and cannon fire obscured much of the battlefield, so generals often had no idea where their forces were. The reason that military flags (the colours that are trooped at Trooping the Colour) are so significant is because that gave everybody at least a chance of seeing them through the smoke.

Waterloo, The Chaos of Battle (from Wikipedia)

With the chaos and confusion that threatened the field, it is hardly surprising that both Wellington and Napoleon made really serious mistakes. Both were brilliant generals, but both seem to have been performing badly that day. The battle was not a series of brilliant tactical manoeuvres, rather it ended up simply being a slogging match, in which the Allied forces stood their ground, taking horrific punishment from the French all day, until finally the French – having taken heavy losses themselves and now threatened by the arrival of the Prussians – broke and fled the field. At the end of the day almost fifty thousand men had died.

Waterloo, Charge of The Scot's Greys ( from Wikipedia)

The loss of life is even more appalling when you consider what this battle achieved. It is often described as having shaped the history of Europe. This is nonsense. The whole continent was united against Napoleon and the armies of Austria and Russia were ready to move on Paris. Napoleon faced opposition even within France – many of his troops had to be left behind to protect against monarchist opponents at home. Victory at Waterloo might have bought Napoleon time, which he could have used to consolidate his domestic position and negotiate improved surrender terms with the Allies. It might well have changed the history of France: it can hardly be claimed that it would have changed the history of Europe.

What Waterloo did do was define the character of Britain for the next hundred years. Wellington's famous calmness and "stiff upper lip" (typified by his insisting that the Duchess of Richmond go ahead with her ball, even as the French crossed the Belgian border) may have been nothing more than a propaganda ploy to reassure nervous civilians, yet it came to define how an English gentleman should behave. The steadfastness of the British troops, who held their positions all day under heavy fire, also came to typify the martial virtues of the British Army. It is significant that the British attribute heroism to stoicism under fire, such as that shown by British troops in the trenches during the First World War or Dunkirk in the Second, rather than enthusing about the kind of strategic genius that can lead to victory without heroic losses.

Wellington (from Wikipedia)

Waterloo was also seen as confirming Britain's pre-eminent military position in Europe. Although the battle had been an Allied effort – less than half of Wellington’s troops were British and he admitted that it could not have been won without the Prussians – it was presented as a British victory. Wellington (although Irish – a fact that he did not care to advertise) was the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces. Britain was the only country to have fought against Napoleon consistently throughout his rule and now a British commander had put an end to Boney once and for all. Waterloo has therefore attained a mythic status in British history and inconvenient details that do not fit with this narrative are forgotten or ignored.

Unfortunately, in my plot the British spy, James Burke, is fighting in a Belgian cavalry regiment (the 8th Hussars). As everyone knows since it was a British victory, the role of regiments like the 8th Hussars has been quietly forgotten. In fact, many historians claim that the Dutch and Belgian troops were cowards and made little, if any, contribution to Wellington's success. Far from this being the case, many units of the Netherlands Army behaved with conspicuous bravery. This was particularly true of the First Netherlands Light Cavalry Brigade of which the 8th Hussars were a part. They covered the retreat of the Scots Greys, saving the remnant of that regiment after their famous charge. The brigade was described as fighting with "insane gallantry".

Scot's Greys (from Wikipedia)

In the end, I am sure that much of what I write about Waterloo could be debatable. None the less, I shall pursue research, trying to get it right, knowing, too, that so many others have got it wrong before me – not least all those who reduce the Belgian contribution to what, in this country, we insist on believing a British victory. Two hundred years after Waterloo, perhaps Burke can help to put the record straight.

Tom William's novels are truly fabulous, really fast paced historical adventures. They can be found on Amazon or ordered from bookshops.

UK paperback:
UK kindle:

US paperback/kindle:

To find out more about events relating to these 
historical adventures look for Tom Williams:

Sunday 26 October 2014

Revisiting Battle Abbey 1066/ 2014

Early this month I revisited Battle Abbey for the first re enactment of the Battle of Hastings in several years. It was a superb event and it made me wonder why I am so fascinated by battles and why I am writing a trilogy about the noble women of the Norman Conquest and how they survived 1066. I studied both Medieval history and The English Civil War as a student and those eras are of particular interest to me. Another reason for my passion resides deep inside my personal past.  A direct ancestor who fought as a captain with the Scots Greys at The Battle of Blenheim was awarded a family crest by King George 1 and a parcel of land in Ireland as a reward for valour. In fact, I, absurdly used to use the family crest on notepaper when I applied for jobs (I was a student) thinking it made my applications look more impressive. I think I got the student jobs because I was suitable not because of my illustrious ancestor.

The Women of Hastings, The Saxon Camp, Re enactment 2014.

My father's family came from the Scottish Highlands. It was not until later in the eighteenth century that they took up residence in Ireland. They were military men until my great grandfather rebelled. He refused to join the army and decided to marry an unsuitable bride. William Baxter was banished from the family home. However, the land eventually came his way.  He ended up as a gentleman farmer who was also a carpenter. My mother's family were 'planted' in Ireland as a result of another war. Her ancestor fought as a mercenary in the Williamite wars of the late seventeenth century. He got his reward after the Battle of the Boyne which was the largest battle ever fought in the United Kingdom and ended up carving a successful future for himself in Northern Ireland. The shameful part of the story is that, just as after The Battle of Hastings, the victors literally seize territory from those who lived there before them. They destroy the lives of others. They bring about regime change and help to establish it. With this comes both positive and negative results but sadly human cost, the loss of life in battle and dispossessed. It is not a history to be proud of but it does explain my fascination with the past and, in particular, the effect of battles such as The Battle of Hastings on women.

Blessing the Battle

The event which took place on Senlac Hill almost a thousand years ago brought great change to England. The poor may not have noticed it greatly in that they exchanged one group of warlords for another. A feudal system was already in place in England by 1066. But for the noble wives of those who fought at Hastings the change was significant. They were survivors. Many wealthy women fled forced marriages with the enemy and took refuge in convents. Others looked after their families and estates until these were taken from them. Either they remarried or they took refuge where ever they could, and became exiles as did the heroine of the novel that I am writing currently. This is about Gytha, Harold's elder daughter who went into exile in Denmark and then married a prince of Kiev. Often the exiles lived in extreme poverty.

In the Saxon Camp

Attending a re enactment whether it is an eleventh century experience or a seventeenth century Civil War experience helps us appreciate what these battles were like, what people wore, what they ate and how people lived then. For a writer it is a perfect way to immerse oneself in the period you write about. For the reader, the student or the history lover it is a superb day out.

The Normans believed God was on their side

Norman Kite Shaped Shields

Saxon Round Shields

Musical Instruments

I wonder if anyone who reads this blog has any interesting family history. I have a signed copy of The Swan-Daughter, a novel about King Harold's younger daughter, which will be on general release on 11th December, as a prize for the most interesting comment. I would love to hear, too, if anyone is descended from Harold and Edith Swan-Neck.
The Raven

I shall choose the winner from the hat and announce the result here on this blog on 1st December ten days before the paperback release of The Swan-Daughter.

The winner can then send me his/her address for the signed book through my website email.

This competition is open internationally. I look forward to reading small snippets of your family history either via my web site email or here in the comments section.

Saturday 4 October 2014

St Nicholas, a Greek Byzantine Church at Chora

Many of the Byzantine churches in the Greek Mani were  built during the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries. Over the past two years I have visited so many of these in villages in the Taygetos Mountains that I cannot even remember all their names. However, the icons and frescoes they contain are fascinating and tell familiar stories. It interests me to think that people who lived during these centuries gazed on these with awe and through them learned the stories of the Old and New Testaments.

Bruce Chatwin, the writer who fell in love with the Mani and also who converted to the Greek Orthodox religion before he died of aids in 1989, must have felt likewise. I write about Bruce Chatwin here

If the video does not show here is the link:

Recently, my husband made a short video about the church in the Greek Mani where Bruce Chatwin  requested his ashes to be placed after his death. The Church of St Nicholas at Chora has a special sense of place, a perfect location for a Greek Othodox Church. It was built in the tenth century. Unfortunately, as it was locked on the day we made the video, we could not see the frescoes. Yet, walking around it on a sunny evening, just before sunset, is enough to convince me that a sense of timelessness exists here amongst olive trees and above the Viros Gorge. I cannot think of a better place for one's last journey.

The photographs above were taken last week at St Nicholas at Chora. Whilst it was impossible to view frescoes inside St Nicholas, another local church which is easily found as you walk from Chora to the main road, is usually open. The frescoes in this Orthodox Church date from a later century.

The best frescoes I have seen in village chuches in the Taygetis Mountains are to be discovered in the medieval churches of the village of Kastania. This beautiful hill village can be found by carrying on past Chora around the mountain route via Sidonia.

Fresco from one of the many medieval churches in Kastania

Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife and the recently published historical novel The Swan-Daughter , published by Accent Press in July 2014, initially on amazon kindle but on general distribution on December 11th 2014. This is a novel about the aftermath of 1066 from the point of view of Gunnhild Godwinsdatter, King Harold's younger daughter. It is based on a documented historical story.

Monday 15 September 2014

The Swan's Song in Medieval Literature

Swans feature as an image in both The Handfasted Wife and in The Swan-Daughter, novels set at the time of The Norman Conquest of the eleventh century. Edith Swan-Neck, the protagonist of The Handfasted Wife allegedly possessed an elegant swan-like neck and white skin. This was considered a sign of great beauty during this period. Her daughter Gunnhild, the heroine of The Swan-Daughter which is connected to The Handfasted Wife (though a stand alone novel) resembles her mother. She is often referred to as Swan-Neck's daughter. Gunnhild was the youngest daughter of Harold II, who was defeated at Senlac Hill by Norman Duke William.

Her fictionalized story is an Anglo-Norman elopement, a love triangle: one that is documented in letters between Gunnhild and Archbishop Anselm, circa 1090, and in The Ecclesiastical History of Oderic Vitalis, 12thC.

Swan from a Medieval Bestiary

During the medieval period, swans had special significance. Illustrations of swans grace the pages of bestiaries: collections of medieval creatures with primary text explanations of their significance. The swan's Latin name is Olor. The swan has a harmonious voice and sweet song. These bestiaries tell us that swans sing most sweetly before they die. The swan is attracted by the zither or the harp and will sing along when one is played. A swan's long neck makes the song more pleasant because its voice is struggling to get out through the long winding way. This causes it to emit various notes. Isidore of Seville also tells us that the swan is a good omen especially for sailors as she only touches the sea, then rises to seek air and land.

There are many romantic associations with swans:

Bartholomaeus Anglicus, 13th C, writes:

'When a swan is in love he seeketh the female and pleaseth her with beclipping of the neck, and drawing her to himward; and he joineth the neck to the female's neck, as if it were binding their necks together.'

Two Swans

One of the beautiful pieces of music from the Middle Ages is the Swan-Sequence. This is an anonymous Carolingian-Aquitanian Latin sequence, first recorded around 850. Its melody was popular for centuries. Sometimes it is called The Swan's Lament which I find poignant and which explains how it was used in the Church year. It was, for instance, used for Sunday services in Limoges and Winchester during the 10th C. During the 11th C it was a common melody for liturgical texts for the Feast of the Holy Innocents. By the 12thC it was a common setting for Whitsun sequences in Southern France. The Swan-Sequence shares characteristics with the lai. In this it differs from the Gregorian Chant.
Swan image from a poem by Guillaume Cretin 16thC

The Swan-Sequence may have been viewed as an allegory for 'The Fall of Man'. Avian imagery was used for the wandering searching mind or soul and is evident in the Old English poems The Wanderer and The Seafarer. Its last manuscript appearance is in a Norman manuscript dating from circa 1100.

In The Swan-Sequence the swan has left the lush land and is trapped on the ocean amongst terrible waves, unable to fly away. She longs for fish but cannot catch them. She looks up towards Orion and prays for light to replace darkness. When dawn finally comes, she rises to the stars and flies to land. All the birds rejoice and sing a doxology, a short hymn of praise to God.
The Lady and the Swans, medieval image.

The swan image is therefore truly appropriate for my new historical novel, The Swan-Daughter. In war and conquest we see man's fall at it most vicious. After the Norman Conquest there was eventually, an amalgamation of English language, laws and culture with Norman culture and laws. The noble women in my novels, the shadows in the corner, remind me of the swan's prayer for light to replace darkness. They had longings and aspirations and most of all they desired a place of safety, a secure land.


The Swan-Daughter, published by Accent Press, 2014.

The Handfasted Wife, published by Accent Press, 2013, in paperback and for all e readers

Wednesday 6 August 2014

Legends and History- Tristram and Iseult and Robin Hood

The Swan-Daughter, the second novel in The Daughters of Hastings series was published in July as an e book by Accent Press and it will be published on 11th December as a paperback. The Swan-Daughter is the story of King Harold's youngest daughter, Gunnhild. I write about her here.

Her story is very romantic and like her mother, Edith Swan-Neck's story, parts of it have been the subject of legend. There was even the possibility that she was a model for some of the Breton versions of the Guinevere story. Guinevere did not enter the Arthurian legends until much later on.She was not in the version of the story as given by the early 12th century historian, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Monmouth's stories of King Arthur, the knights and the quest for the Holy Gail were designed to mask the more ghastly events of the first crusade. He was an early 'spin' historian!

Arthur and Guinevere

I researched where I could in Chronicles resourced on the shelves of the Bodleian Library Oxford in order to find concrete information about Gunnhild. I discovered that she really did elope from Wilton Abbey with Count Alan of Richmond (Alain of Brittany) and that she was later involved with his brother, Alan the Black whom I call Niall in the novel. This history is documented by Oderic Vitalis in the early 12th century. Other evidence for the elopement and her relationship with Alan's brother is a correspondence between Gunnhild and Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury. This is an archived correspondence in which the Archbishop tells Gunnhild not to live with Count Alan's brother but instead to return to the abbey of Wilton. These sources are the bones, the skeleton of my story The Swan-Daughter. Into this I integrate politics that followed the Conquest of 1066, for instance- The Earls' Rebellion of 1075, Domesday Book 1085 and King William's troubles with his son, Robert which occurred in the late 1070s and again during the 1080s.

Oderic Vitalis wrote about the 11th C, especially The Conquest

I decided to parallel the story of Gunnhild, Niall and Alan in The Swan-Daughter with that of Tristram and Iseult. In the story of Tristram and Iseult, Tristram who later becomes one of King Arthur's knights, kills a dragon and seeks a wife for his uncle Mark of Cornwall. Iseult's maid, either by accident or design depending on the version you read, gives the couple a potion intended for Iseult and King Mark. It would cause them to fall in love at first sight. This leads to a famous literary love triangle and an impossible situation. It leads to many circuitous adventures in true romance tradition.

Tristram and Iseult

Medieval romance was emergent in stories and in song by the end of the eleventh century. These early medieval romance stories were written down in the vernacular Norman French. Romances were long narratives of adventure that combined the real and the improbable. They appeared in Britain a few years after they originated in France, written down in Norman French for the descendents of those barons who had landed with William the Conqueror. Other romance tales were recorded in Occitane, a language of the French south. Troubadours carried this vernacular romance literature from Spain to the court at Aquitaine where they became popular during the first half of the twelfth century.

Medieval romance quickly becomes associated with the notion of chivalry, the rules of knighthood and the idea of setting up 'the lady' as an image of virtue and of love, actually dichotomy since woman was also seen as the temptress, the daughter of Eve. A knightly quality was to fall in love, usually with another's wife and certainly not his own wife. This was unsurprising really in a society where marriages amongst the nobility were arranged and their objective involved the transfer of land. As for 'the lady' who was the subject of such love, she could behave as unobtainable and disdainful as she wished. This love was not sexual but ideal and pure, at least for the most part. The veneration of the lady was tied up with the popular cult of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ, the ideal woman who had a virgin birth. Chapels were dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Flowers were named after her. Pilgrimages were made to shrines dedicated to her. She is always depicted as wearing blue the colour of purity. Gunnhild is no Virgin Mary. Throughout The Swan-Daughter she is haunted by guilt for her love of Count Alan's brother. She becomes Iseult to his Tristram.

One of my favourite versions from TV

An interesting subject of legend who has recently had a resurgence in historical novel form is Robin Hood. My first introduction to Robin Hood was Richard Green blowing his horn through Sherwood Forest's greenwood and calling his band of merrie men to stirring adventures in the 1960s television series Robin Hood. There are six major sources for the legends of Robin Hood, A Geste of Robyn Hood, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar, Robin and the Monk, Robin Hood and the Potter and The Death of Robin Hood. All of these works were written after the period that is usually ascribed to Robin of Sherwood. His time period appears to run from the last years of the reign of King Henry II around 1185 through the reigns of King Richard I, King John and ends during the reign of Henry III after 1235. In popular legend his death is circa 1247. Some sources do suggest a wider time frame. Local legends spring up about Robin Hood and the majority of these date from 200 years after the core legends were recorded. Unlike Gunnhild's story where there are snippets of her story recorded in chronicles it is difficult to establish the historicity of Robin Hood. It is likely that he was a real man who existed in history and not just in folklore. He is however essentially a legendary character. The following three fabulous writers have taken Robin Hood and turned him into their own successful stories.

Steven McKay's version

Steven A. McKay  The Wolf and the Raven is the second in a series about the outlaw.  These Robin Hood stories are, interestingly, set during the fourteenth century when the legends were first recorded. The books are great fun. I absolutely love them. If, like me, you are a 'Robin' fan read them.

Angus Donald The Rise of Robin Hood  This is the first of a series of which Angus has written four. They are superbly written. I recommend these novels highly for the adventure and the quality of Donald's writing style.
Gritty and Beautiful

Adam Thorpe Hodd  Who was Robin Hood? In the form of a medieval document Thorpe gives us the story of a free spirit and a not very pleasant outlaw. It is literary, superb and well worth reading.
Go to "Hodd" page
A beautiful and clever novel.

Jenny Kane Romancing Robin Hood This one has a heroine who like myself is fascinated by Robin Hood ever since she saw the stories on TV as a girl. She is a successful academic who is supposed to be writing a text book about medieval criminals. She keeps getting drawn into the world she is writing. There is a present day story with a linked love story to engage the reader also. I cannot wait to read this as it promises great fun. It will be released on 5th September but is available on amazon pre order. I love the cover too. Find Jenny Kane here:

Romancing Robin Hood
On my reading list

Finally, I wonder which legends and myths interest you as readers and perhaps writers most of all. Do comment. I have a complementary i tunes download available if you comment here or via my website :

 Do not forget to leave a contact email.


Friday 30 May 2014

Medieval Women, flowers, sex, motherhood

Medieval woman was constantly reminded of God's will and his divine justice. In fact everyone was, men, women and children. The notion of heaven and hell was very real, so real that, throughout the Middle Ages, churches contained wall paintings reminding the people, rich and poor, of Heaven's blessings and Hell's terrors. Women during this period were classified according to their sexual status. They were virgins, wives or widows and they were, of course, also mothers.

Church Wall Paintings informed men and women of sin

Sexual intercourse was part of God's original plan. If Adam and Eve had not eaten the apple- a sin of pride- they would have had intercourse. Otherwise how would they have obeyed God's order to increase and multiply (Genesis 1: 27-8) ? By this rationale, if women chose to be virgins in paradise they would have been thwarting God's intentions. It was, therefore, after the 'fall' that the concept of lust crept in and, thereafter,became the problem for the medieval Church; not sex. If lust was not controlled it could lead to eternal damnation. The only legitimate outlet for sex was marriage. 'Marriage was ordained by God. Monasticism,' writes historian Henrietta Leyser, 'was instituted by man.'

This gave rise to the idea of mutual conjugal debt. St Paul wrote, 'Let the husband render to his wife what is her due, and likewise the wife to her husband.' It does not take much imagination for us as we glance backwards from the perspective of a more liberated 21st century to see the problems this presented for women.
The Medieval Woman

Two main medical theories about sexual differences existed during the medieval period. Galen said that female anatomy corresponded to that of a man. This theory also suggested that women must ejaculate her seed for there to be conception but could not conceive without enjoying intercourse. It seems on a first reading, egalitarian. Yet, what does this theory suggest for the medieval woman who conceives a child after a rape? However, just as unfair, Aristotle saw women as defective males with the male anatomy turned inside out. Women were perceived as the 'weaker vessel.'

The Weaker Vessel

Male seed was precious. It could not be wasted. Female seed was dangerous so women must purge themselves of bodily excesses. Menstruation was a part of this. Intercourse was also part of the purging process. Obviously not when a woman had her menses.

It was thought that women's seed and menstrual blood were dangerous to everyone and everything. It could turn wine sour, destroy crops. It could kill off bees and dogs tasting it could get rabbies. Even gazing at a menstruating woman might have dire consequences. Another theory comes into play here.

Health during the medieval period was all about balancing humors. This theory had been taught by Hippocrates and was inherited from Ancient Greece. The medieval believed that there were in existence four humors that must be in a state of balance. These were four elements: fire, air, earth and water. Three categories corresponded to these: heat, cold, dryness and moisture. Then the bodily humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm; third the temperaments: sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic and melancholic. Men and women were different. Men were hotter than women. They had physiological and moral superiority. Women had a lack of heat which made for physical weakness and untrustworthy nature. Women were more sexually greedy than men because their cold uteruses were in need of having hot semen to warm the uterus.
Wikipedia, The Four Humors

In the Trotula, a Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine written in Salerno in the 12th C we find that this defect was considered a sign of a less perfect life form. 'Women were unable to concoct ( cook) their ingredients as thoroughly as men.' ( Introduction). Men were able to exude residues through sweat and the growth of facial hair. Women, however, would accumulate excess materials from their bodies and this could lead to disease, an humoral imbalance. This imbalance was menstruation.

Menses became called a woman's flowers because trees without their flowers will not bear fruit. Women without their flowers will be deprived of offspring. Menstrual blood works like a tree. Before bearing fruit a tree must bear its first flowers. Nature had in effect established a purgation to temper woman's poverty of heat. Thus the 'flowers'. It was a vernacular term for menstruation used by rich and poor.

Childbirth was risky. It was believed that saints dispensed their favours equally between men and women. Mothers in the course of difficult labours would offer prayers to the Virgin and to Saints. St Margaret, a saint who was swallowed and spat out by a dragon, had unrivalled powers of empathy with the process of labour. During their ordeal women, surrounded by midwives, might seek comfort by listening to readings from her life.

Childbirth came to rich and poor, the village and the castle alike.

Girdles, known as birth girdles, were popular aids to birthing. As early as the 11th C Bald's Leechbook suggests that in a case of difficult labour a woman would put prayers upon her girdle to help ease the birth. At Westminster Abbey the monks guarded the Virgin's own girdle which had been given to them by Edward the Confessor. It was loaned out for aristocratic and royal births.

Image of St Margaret

So, Heaven, Hell, Saints, God's Will, were all notions that permeated the medieval mind. These were ideas that also existed in a misogynist society. As regards sex and motherhood, women were the 'weaker vessel.'

To read more I suggest:

Medieval Women, Henrietta Leyser, 1995, Phoenix Press.
The Trotula, edited and translated by Monica H.Green, 2002, University of Pennsylvania Press.

There is much on this subject in my new novel The Swan-Daughter to be published by Accent Press on 18th September 2014 as an e book and in December 2014 as a paperback.