Tag Archives: medieval history

Books in Stories

The last couple days, I’ve been thinking about books.

(What a surprise, they said)

What I mean is, I’ve been thinking about books as objects, what those objects mean, and why they end up being in the story (rather than the story being in them) so often. This is largely because we’re finishing the programming for Can*Con 2017 (and, brief aside: I’m super excited about what we’re gonna have for you this fall, so you should really check it out) and one of the things I’ve been trying to do is get a panel on these kinds of ideas written up right so it can be on the list. I’ve been struggling to come up with the right way to sell the idea, so I’m sort of hoping that by writing this I can work through my ideas a bit and either save the panel for this year or at least be ready to make a better case for it next time around.

So, books. Obviously I appreciate them because I like to read, but I think my background as a historian is part of this too. Books, through the centuries, have had their uses, appearance, audiences, and status change tremendously. (And I say that really knowing only about the differences in European culture from the Romans forward. There’s tons out there I have no idea about.) They’ve gone from being the elitest of objects, costing a fortune to create and kept in the vault with other treasures, to being so disposable we abandon them, partly-read, in airport terminals.

It’s a misconception that books were ever just for religious subjects, and I’m not even sure it’s fair to say that the number of things we write books about has increased over the centuries; there were always works of fiction, works of science, volumes of history and all the rest of it. It is certainly true that the distribution of these various genres has shifted, a lot, and there’s also been a huge shift in who writes the books.

All of this is fascinating (to me anyway) but before I shift fully into Teacher Mode I guess I should also stop and acknowledge that none of it exactly explains why we have a lot of stories that feature books as important parts of the plot. I think it’s relatively easy to understand why, if you consider the book as an object as it was in the past, they would end up as vibrant parts of stories. They took months of labour and substantial expense to create. They were often accessed by a very limited number of people: in addition to Charlemagne keeping his books in his treasure vault, Domesday book was kept in a special chest with three different locks and the keys kept by three different people, so that no one person could ever access it alone. The city records I studied for my PhD dissertation were kept in an archive that, far from being open to all readers, kept out all but the carefully approved inner circle of government from consulting the books on the city’s history, and compilations of its law.

It isn’t hard to imagine why objects like that could become potent parts of a story, these elevated, exclusive, objects that held so many answers and so much information. Of course we must add to this that most people wouldn’t have been able to read the books even if they were allowed to access them, and the intrigue grows: a source of information and power that only a select few can comprehend. Our stereotypical magical tome is pretty close. And don’t forget, they were also frequently beautiful objects of visual art, intended to impress and delight a reader visually as well as through the text (or just someone who saw the book being used), and (can’t emphasize this enough) due to all this labour, impressively expensive.

(I would love to read a story about a quest for a book in a fantasy setting, not because it was magic or had the key to destroying the necromancer, but because it was worth a fortune)

The thing is that books have always also been intimate objects, as well as being these somewhat removed, elite objects. In the Middle Ages many people had special devotional volumes called Books of Hours that they would carry around with them throughout the day, to focus and inspire prayer, provide inspiration, and also impress people with your flashy l’il book. It’s hard to think of a more personal object than a book created specifically for one person, that they then carried with them all day every day.

(I am also probably about the billionth person to want to take the name ‘Book of Hours’ and twist it into a book that somehow controls time, or contains time)

Now, of course book ownership was an elite past-time at this point, but among book enthusiasts, they traded their books back and forth (sometimes with amusing marginal notes about the content), gave them as gifts and left them as bequests. There’s even a book that contains poems written in many different hands – it appears that when the family entertained visitors, they might write a favourite verse into this book, creating a volume that both collects poetry and serves as a memorial of friendship. (It’s kind of especially cool that analysts believe most of the hands are female) So books could be intensely personal objects, ways of forging and maintaining connections between people, at the same time as being Mysterious Tomes to many.

That aspect rarely comes across in fiction, and I think it would be cool to see more of it.

So I guess I think it’s easy to understand why books of the past were powerful symbols of knowledge and power (often restricted knowledge and power) and – as with a lot of things that are powerful and hard to understand – also potentially dangerous, and then show up in that role in a lot of fiction. It’s also true that (of course) there really were books on arcane lore and alchemy and spells and things so it’s not like the idea was invented for fiction.

Has the book, in its current, disposable form, lost this potency as a symbol? I know it hasn’t for me. I still love books, I love the physical act of reading and having a printed volume in my hand. I love the way a shelf of books looks, and one of the first things I will do in someone’s house (and this is probably not a great thing to admit) is to check out their bookshelf and see what’s on it. You can learn a surprising amount, or at least I think I can. So books-as-objects continue to have power to me, beyond their content, even though the symbolism is generally one of relaxation, comfort and rather more benevolent knowledge.

However, just as people who were literate were a minority in the past, I suspect people who continue to love books are a shrinking minority today, with the proliferation of electronic media, both e-books and reading on the internet. Perhaps that means that books, which were briefly (in a historical sense) ubiquitous and commonplace in Western society, are on a journey back to being unusual curiosities, and perhaps returning to the symbolic territory they used to occupy.

That’s quite rambly, and I think I’ll stop it here for this week.

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No Middle Ages

This is a topic I’ve been saving up for a week when I didn’t have a good idea to write about – and this is one of those weeks. Here we go.

You may (or may very well not!) know that I have a degree in medieval history. As a result, when a lot of people find out that I write fiction, they assume that I therefore write either historical fiction or classic fantasy (by which I mean fantasy set in some imagined society that takes medieval European society as its foundation, with castles and knights and so on). As of yet, I do not – both of my books are what I guess we could call contemporary fantasy, or fantasies set in some close analog of the modern world, rather than some version of the past societies that I study and love. My current project is set in the past, but not in the medieval past, or any version of it; this story takes place in an imaginary version of the 19th century (there is a whole question to be asked about how good an idea this is that I am cheerfully ignoring for now). I can’t argue with the idea that this seems to playing against what you might assume to be my strengths. Very often, people then ask why. I usually just say, “It’s complicated.”

This is the longer answer.

I want to make clear from the outset that I love to read both historical fiction and classic fantasy. Some of my favourite books are from those genres and some of my favourite authors work in them. There are reasons why these are enduring and popular forms of story with audiences spanning impressive distances of time and space. And yet, I’ve never seriously tried to write either kind.

I think there are two main reasons, and they kind of flow into each other. One is that I know, from talking to writers who do write historical fiction, how very hard it is to do well. An immense amount of work goes into figuring out the right vocabulary to put in the mouths of your characters, the appropriate technology to have available, the right sort of names to give them and populating the setting with the buildings, foods, animals, instruments, and a thousand other things that meet the demands of the story but also fit with the time being described. As an example, I did once try a short piece set in the Middle Ages, and ran into problems with what to call the hired muscle. Can’t use ‘thug’ (19th century). Can’t use ‘goon’ (20th century). Even ‘bully’ appears to be 16th century and thus too late. As I check now, I see I used ‘ruffian’, which also seems to be too late, although maybe I thought its Latin etymology let me get away with it.

And that’s one word. What would the food be like? Animals and their associated equipment are devilishly complicated. Ask any medieval historian about inns and prepare for a difficult answer.

So it’s very hard to do right, and I would be keenly aware, as a scholar of the past, of a need to do it right, and any mistakes (like ‘ruffian’) would bother me. I would also be concerned that people would read the thing, expecting all the pieces, large and small, to be just right, and be most displeased when they weren’t. I don’t exactly expect a thesis examination panel response to a history-based story that I might write, but I don’t exactly not expect one either. Now, it’s true that writing fantasy rather than historical fiction somewhat exempts you from all these problems – if you want your pseudo-medieval society to have had potatoes, it can just have potatoes – but I would still feel the need to portray a society that was credible based on what I know about the real past, which would be very nearly as hard.

So, part of why I don’t do it is that although it seems like it should be easy, I feel instead that there’s a great deal of pressure (most of it internally-generated) in writing about the medieval world (or something resembling the medieval world) that I don’t currently feel like tackling, or at least not until I have an idea that’s so exciting that I can’t avoid it. It’s true that I probably have more to build on than many other writers might, but I guess what I’m saying is that that also makes me aware of a great many more pitfalls that I worry about how to avoid.

However, there’s more to the problem.

Because I think I could, if I put in the spadework, produce stories set in the past, or something like it, that would be a reasonable approximation of what we think it was really like. The other trouble is that I’m not sure it’s what people really want to read. I think sometimes we (and I include myself in this) prefer our imaginary version of things to reality. It can be ever so much more fun that way, perhaps also more uplifting or comforting. I guess, on some level, I worry that if I wrote a story that closely represented medieval society the way I understand it, people would read it and think something like ‘well that’s just not very cool’.

I’m not really sure why I think that, because I think the real Middle Ages were amazingly cool, and I don’t think it was necessarily an awful grim joyless time to be alive, and I think when I teach courses on the subject I communicate that reasonably well. But stories are not lectures (or at least, I don’t think they should be), and my guess is that people may prefer the imagined past to the real one. As an example I’ve used here before: yes, it would probably be possible to write the story of the ‘real’ King Arthur, of whatever historical personage inspired some or all of the legend, but I don’t think people would like it very much because it wouldn’t have Lancelot and it wouldn’t have the quest for the Grail and so many other parts of the story that we love today. We don’t want the real story, we want the imaginary one. Which is wonderful, but then I think that if I’m not going to write something rooted in reality, then there’s no real advantage to me writing a medieval story at all, and I may as well just write another of the contemporary-rooted ones that I have rattling around my rickety brain.

(Yes, this all sits more than a little uneasily with my previously-expressed love for historical fiction and the fact that I know it is very popular. I know you can do this really well. I have never pretended that all my thoughts fit together terribly well and won’t start now. I suppose in the end what I doubt is my ability to do it really well.)

All this may just mean that I don’t have the right ideas yet, and when I do I will sit down to write about the Middle Ages, or my imagined version of them, with confidence and energy. It may be that I will never do it. I honestly don’t know, except that when I think about all the stories that I would currently like to get to writing at some time in the not too distant future, there still isn’t a medieval, or medieval-ish, one among them.

Just as honestly, I think that’s fine. There are, after all, so many people already doing it well. As ever, this is Not Advice, but I think the best thing most artists can do is do whatever work excites them and inspires them, rather than worrying about what makes sense for them to do or what they of course should be doing. Or such are the thoughts that I use to comfort myself, anyway.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. I appreciate your reading.


In case you missed the announcements on social media, Can-Con, Ottawa’s Speculative Arts and Literature conference, has booked its dates for 2017.  As part of the programming team I’m already getting excited.  The con will run from October 13-15 and returns to the Sheraton Hotel in the city’s downtown.  Details and registration here.

Also in case you missed it: I will be donating all of my royalties from sales of The King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures to the Canadian Council for Refugees from now until March 3rd.  It’s a modest gesture, but it’s something that I can do to help people who truly need the world to be just a little kind to them.  If you’d like to help people looking for safety and reward yourself with a story I think you’ll enjoy at the same time, I would be very grateful.

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The Monk and Me

Over the weekend a Twitter account I follow (@melibus1, which is a good follow if you like medieval things) sent around a picture of the Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child. Now, I love medieval art, I think it is amazing in all its creativity and strangeness and the wild variance in styles that you will see. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, I felt that this one had some, ah, entertaining aspects. Here it is:

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(Bodelian MS Canon Ital. 230, f. 53v., via @melibus1 on Twitter)

So I posted it on Facebook and some of my friends and I made some jokes about it, and about Nigel Farage (really) and there it probably would have lain, gathering digital dust, except of course I Got To Thinking.

I got to thinking about whoever the artist was who drew this picture, centuries ago. I don’t know the background of the manuscript it’s from (and am steadfastly resisting feeding my Procrastination Beast by researching it) but I assume it to be a monk or a nun. Something in the neighbourhood of 700 years ago, this person sat down and drew this little picture, and now here I am, looking at it in a way they wouldn’t have been able to imagine.

This is part of why I always get a little thrill looking at documents from the past. You are, in some way, making a connection to a real person who created that very thing before you, all those lifetimes ago. Medieval people very often did write (and create, in general) with a sense of ‘for the future’ in mind, so I often like to think those distant authors and artists would be pleased to know that people were still looking at what they created. But it’s hard to know exactly what they’d think, if you could explain the idea of someone looking at their work centuries later, and for purposes they would (probably) never have considered. Scholarly projects. Curiosity. Sheer entertainment.

In this case, would this monk (or nun!) be upset that we were laughing about it? I mean, the first reason I thought it was funny was that this is one of the very many examples of an artist who drew or painted a baby nursing that had, clearly, only a fairly vague idea of the female anatomy. (Which is why I think ‘monk’ is a much safer bet than ‘nun’, incidentally) So, why do this scene? Maybe they were told to do it by whoever ran the scriptorium and even though they didn’t really want to, they did their best with it anyway. Maybe (and I haven’t seen the rest of the page, so I don’t know) it’s appropriate to the written content, and so they gritted their teeth and did what they could. Or perhaps they really, truly, wanted to do this scene and made it as well as they were able.

Yes, by this point I was feeling slightly guilty about chuckling over the work of someone who has been dead for hundreds of years. But then I thought a little more and asked myself if someone made an offer to me, and said that in 700 years someone would be reading something that I’d written, but that they’d make some jokes about it, would I take it?

I’m pretty sure I would. In fact, I know I would. I love the idea of someone reading my stuff and getting a moment of entertainment or pleasure or amusement out of it, even if it’s not how I intended. (“To the SQ Mobile!” will be one of my favourite editor’s comments forever) That’s thinking about right now, but if I knew for sure that people would read something I wrote long after I was gone, that would be a thought I would enjoy very much, almost no matter what their reaction was. (Obviously, I’d prefer it if they didn’t think it was crap) That’s the closest I can imagine ever getting to living into that distant future.

So that Italian monk (pretty sure Italian, from how the manuscript is catalogued, but who knows?) did pretty well for themselves, really.

This also got me thinking about art (of whatever kind) that isn’t necessarily fantastic. And – quick sidebar here – I say that fully acknowledging the difficulty of writing, let alone drawing, with medieval tools, and not knowing the size of this picture (it is probably pretty small, judging from the text around it), and that therefore I absolutely could not do better. However, it did end up a little goofy.

I think there’s something deeply cool, in its own way, about people who have the desire in them to create art and go ahead and do it, even if what they produce is pretty flawed. (And I say that fully aware that there are or will be people who look at what I produce and would describe it as ‘pretty flawed’) But they just do it, because they want to create and that satisfies something in them and the rest of it be damned. I think that’s incredibly admirable and bold and awesome.

So by now, I’m really liking this monk, who set out to make this scene, did it as well as they could, and put it out there for an audience to look at. They did it probably not knowing exactly how big that audience would be, but even if this was a book intended to stay in the monastery, they would have known that their picture would at least be looked at by perhaps generations of their brothers (or sisters) and they put it out there anyway.

I also think this goes back to something I wrote a few entries back, Daniel Jose Older’s observation that artists need to take the pressure off themselves that everything has to be great and that everything they try has to work. You need to allow yourself the possibility of something that doesn’t work out so great, but the process of trying teaches you something or the attempt ticks off a box for you or even, maybe, you just end up with a final product that is ‘good’ rather than ‘world-shatteringly fantastic’ and you know, that’s pretty rad.

Perhaps this monk just tried drawing the BVM nursing her baby, it didn’t come out exactly great, but he figured out how to do it better on the next page. And, in the end, in sitting there in that distant, long-ago scriptorium, that person succeeded in creating a thing that we looked at on the weekend and that brought a few moments of pleasure into our lives. I like to think that would have pleased them.

Although I doubt I will ever know what the real story was behind the creation of that little picture, I think that I will be a better artist if I can remember to channel a little of the spirit of that medieval person.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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