NB. This has a distinctive medieval flavour as the novel I’m currently working on is set in the 1100s.
People who write thrillers and crime novels probably have the first prize award sewn up when it comes to outlandish and crazy (if not downright macabre) Google search history. However, as I edit my historical novel and do some triple checking of my facts, it occurs to me that my Google search history is also rather, um… let’s go with “unique”.
Most of my research comes from history books and I’ve bought several great books on various topics of medieval history. But it isn’t always practical to buy a book for every obscure or mundane fact you need to check and I definitely can’t always find what I want at the local library. Which leaves us with the wonders of Google. I love the Google Library Books Project as it allows us to find answers to very specific questions in reputable printed book sources.
Without preaching to the converted, us historical novelists have to be careful about the sources we use when finding out information on the internet, otherwise we could make a terrible faux pas (I once read a traditionally published medieval romance novel which described serving potatoes – *insert wince here*). Whilst writing even the most straightforward scene, questions occur to you that anyone not writing an historical novel wouldn’t have to think twice about. Suddenly, it’s really important to know if there were pigeons and ducks in England during the Middle Ages (there were).
There are obviously also differences between UK and American or Australian historical facts which have to be considered when writing about British history so it’s very exciting when you stumble across a British-history-only answer to your burning question. The further back in history that you’re writing about, the more difficult it can be to find sources that make you feel comfortable that your novel is as historically accurate as it can be. I find it’s also really important to be able to access the answers you want without reading something very long and/or boring (I can’t be the only historian who finds some textbooks exceedingly dry and insomnia-curing). However, I’ve found some fantastic online historical sources, particularly well researched and credible blog posts by other historical aficionados and am thrilled to share them with you here:
Here are some of the things I could think of that maybe only historical novelists would Google:
1. When were knickers (undies or panties) invented? When it comes to writing a romantic scene, did the hero have easy access or was there an additional layer of clothing that needed to be removed? Men wore braies but for women, the evidence is inconclusive, particularly for my period of medieval history, the 1100s, as very little has survived from then. In a novel set during the early 1200s, Elizabeth Chadwick has one of her female characters wearing a loincloth and as she does medieval re-enactments, I’m going to assume she’s right. Additionally, The Word Wenches have fantastic blogs on a variety of historical subjects, including this one devoted to knickers, that you can rely on to be entertaining and informative. This question also inevitably evolves into what other clothes were worn in the time in which you are writing. For this, I’ve found FashionEra.com to have the best in-depth articles on fashions and clothing for practically every period of English history. A lot of people out there also seem to like making medieval clothing, all of which are backed up with historical research. I like Cynthia Virtue’s best for the sheer volume of information (she also has a great Pinterest page).
2. What materials did women historically use during their period? I am a devotee of modern-day hygienic solutions available for use during that time of the month and the thought of no tampons makes me shudder. So what options did women have? Metro’s done a great overview – who knew that the Ancient Egyptians used rolled papyrus as tampons?! For a more in-depth history Amy Licence has the best blog that I’ve found, which also touches on birth control, herbal remedies and abortion. For delving deeper, The Trotula is a great source and there are varying bits available online if you don’t want to buy the book.
3. Medieval armour – just as fashionable dress changed throughout the Middle Ages, the types of armour worn by knights also evolved. When imagining a medieval knight, we probably go with the stereotypes of a head to toe metal suit, like those portrayed in Disney’s Sword In The Stone. However, a metal suit of armour wasn’t common until the fifteenth century. So what did knights wear for protection in the 1100s? The Met Museum has a great myth-busting article and Twelfth Knight has some great images on Pinterest. The most accurate detail I’ve found on a website called British Heritage.com.
4. Native herbs and spices to the British Isles and traditional healing remedies – when writing about life in a medieval castle, knowledge of herbs and spices becomes mandatory. Cue internet crash course. The lady of the castle was likely to be in charge of healing the sick and wounded and there may have been a wise-woman in towns and villages. So what herbs could be cultivated naturally and what would have been bought? Which herbs were used for which illness? The BBC has a great introductory article here to the weird and wonderful ingredients used to treat common ailments.
5. Origins of the word/phrase [insert here] – I don’t know about you, but I can be happily writing a scene or some dialogue and it only occurs to me on a re-read that a phrase or word I’ve used is far too modern for the period in which I’m writing. In case you were wondering, the phrase “every cloud has a silver lining” was first documented in 1634. I know some historical novels are deliberately written with modern-day phrasing, language and speech patterns but I definitely belong to the Writing As Historically Accurate As Possible Club. Naturally, I don’t want my medieval novel to read like Chaucer (I think that’s out of my reach anyway) as I want my novel to remain accessible to the modern reader. Recently, I’ve found myself Googling the origins of swear words and was rather delighted to find this article by Newstatesman; the wonderfully named Gropecunt Lane referred to the red light district in London in the 13th century.
6. The above then leads into Origins of [insert name]. I had a character all mapped out and his name, like all my character’s names, had magically appeared in my brain as the ‘right’ name. However, halfway through the novel I realised that his name was Anglo-Saxon and he was meant to be a Norman. During the 1100s, that probably wouldn’t have happened; Henry III (thirteenth century) is credited with the revival of Anglo-Saxon names, hence calling his son Edward. Thank god for Find and Replace so I could easily change his name.
7. What food was eaten in medieval times? (or any other period of history) As per the above mentioned potato faux pas, the same issues can be found with many of our modern day favourite foods. Chocolate? Not until the 17th century. Pasta? In Italy from 1700s, rest of the world only in the 20th century. The best blog I’ve found on the history of food is the lovely Anna Belfrage’s here, which is also a bit of an ode to the pea.
8. Legal tender in medieval England – I always want to know what everyday items would have cost and what were realistic sums for people to earn and spend. Today I’ve learnt that pounds, shillings and pence originated from Anglo-Saxon times, probably the seventh or eighth century and the same system was used in England up until 1971. Quite astonishing really. The University of Exeter has undoubtedly the most thorough collection of weblinks and sources I’ve come across and, with a bit of searching, I think you could probably find your currency and cost answer for any item in any place in any period of history.
9. Were there bluebells and daffodils in medieval times? – OK, I know this one is quite specialised but I found myself asking this question when writing about spring. I didn’t want to take for granted that the flowers we associate with each season are the same now as they were nearly 900 years ago. I found the Google Library Project really helpful here and came across a book called Medieval Woman: Village Life In The Middle Ages by Ann Baer. Here she describes several commonly found flowers and trees. Kew Gardens has a more extensive history on pretty much any plant ever. It seems daffodils were probably around but as slightly different varieties than we have today (they’re a member of the Narcissus family). Bluebells were also around but they would almost certainly have been the English variety and not the Spanish flowers we have now.
10. Did medieval women dye their hair? If so, how? – also a bit specialised but the answers were really intriguing. Yes, it seems our medieval counterparts could also be as concerned with hair vanity as a modern day teenager. Everything from encouraging hair growth to dyeing it to getting rid of lice appears to have gone on. What looks like a university essay from Pani Jadwiga Zajaczkowa provided the most comprehensive answers to my questions.
11. What religious festivals were celebrated in the twelfth century? (or any historical period) – I just wanted a comprehensive list of all the many, many festivals that were celebrated. My novel is set in a large and busy castle over a period of two years so festivals played a major part of monthly – if not daily – life. This article by lordsandladies.org is a great starting place. For more detail about specific celebrations, like Christmas, there are quite a few sources but this BBC article is a good starting point.
12. What was childhood like in the twelfth century? (or any historical period) – I had a pretty good idea from reading history books of what life involved for adults, but what about children? What did they wear? What games did they play? About.com actually had the best answers with a whole series of articles on the different stages of medieval childhood.
12. How long would it take to get from London to Dover on horseback? (or any other ride-able locations) – Despite being semi-familiar with horses and a regular walker, I had absolutely no idea how long it would take to get from A to B on a horse or on a cart. Fortunately, The Cartographer’s Guild has done all the work for us – and they’ve also done how long it takes to walk somewhere too, all in the same informative post.
14. How long did it take to build a castle or cathedral? – Well, this really depends on the size and location of the building. I don’t think there’s a better fictional description of building a cathedral than Ken Follet’s Pillars of The Earth. Durham World Heritage has a great website too regarding the building of their cathedral. The Royal Collection has details about who built which castle, approximately how long it took and how much it cost. Britannia is also a great introduction to castle building. However, the best castle source has to be Guédelon Castle that they’re currently building in France with medieval materials and methods. There was a TV series on BBC 2 about it last year which is just fascinating.
15. Did medieval people give birthday/Christmas presents? – It’s hard to sort through the thousands of websites Google turns up when I asked this question (who knew that throwing medieval themed parties was so popular?). By lots of trial and error, I’ve found some good websites including Historic-UK.com and Medievalists.net. It seems gift giving did occur at Christmas by the twelfth century but there’s a lot of debate over gift giving on birthdays. Consensus seems to be that Name Days were much more important celebrations and medievalists.net has the most fantastic calendar listing all the saint’s days. Apart from royalty or high nobility it was unlikely that most people knew the date they were born.
If Googling does fail to answer my questions then I usually turn to an Elizabeth Chadwick or Sharon Penman novel of the right historical period as these ladies don’t get historical detail wrong. And Elizabeth Chadwick and Alison Weir have great Bibliographies at the end of their books. I’ve also got a great couple of children’s books on Knights and Castles that I’ve picked up in National Trust shops outside Corfe Castle and Powis Castle.
Have I missed any strange but important burning questions? Let me know 🙂
© This blog is an original rambling of Eleanor Small
Disney’s Sword in the Stone via http://www.cornel1801.com/disney/Sword-Stone-1963/film3.html