by Scott Higginbotham
For the uninitiated, the subject of history can be a bleak undertaking filled with endless battles, lofty titles, dramatic events, and names you would blanch at being called - Percival and Hedwise are no longer as popular as they once were, though they are beautiful names. However, historical fiction fills a unique niche, which has the power to draw readers into a love of the past.
An historical fiction author adds seasoning to the characters and the places, thus enlivening a time period in a fashion that transcends the span of time. This takes time and research to ensure that the tenor of that period is maintained. Additionally, real life experience combined with the factors that ail humanity can set an author’s novel apart from the others – from great to something to crave.
Have you ever tried boiled oats? By itself, a bowl of this concoction is maddeningly bland. But as you add spices, sugar, or butter an otherwise unpalatable meal can undergo a dramatic transformation to “great”.
I did not disappoint them.
Their Norman helm, complete with a nasal bar, would offer dubious protection as much of the face is uncovered. I would think twice before making a sally or charging headlong into the fray with such exposure. The flat-topped Great Helm afforded much better protection, but the heat and echo of your own voice inside that metal shell would help you very little, especially when there was no peripheral vision and when the frontal vision was limited to two small vision slits. The ventilation holes dotting the front would cool any wearer’s head, but only in winter and at a full gallop atop a destrier. God bless those men of iron who pushed through these limitations.
As I moved into the fifteenth century, I placed a fully enclosed jousting helm on my head after locking the hinged, lower faces into place and securing them with a clasp. I snapped the visor down smartly and found that the range of vision and ventilation was better, but that the fit was incredibly tight. An armor-denting blow from a mace would render any wearer senseless. And so, it was then that I decided that the middle ages were perhaps best left to books and helmet removal was the forte of squires, owing to the embarrassing fact that I had forgotten the donning sequence. Thirty seconds of sweating and frantic breathing, without asking for assistance, amazingly clarified my thoughts to the point where I could remove it unaided.
No one noticed my fumbling or the gasps of breath echoing from inside my steel shell.
God bless those men of iron. And their squires.
While writing this post I took a break and cycled each sword up and down – one in the left hand and the other in the right. Then I alternated the swords from one hand to the other and continued the process. The hand with the ornate sword began to wobble and weaken, while the hand with the functional sword was going strong. The difference can be chiefly traced to size of its pommel and the absence of the ricasso. For Richard the Lionheart and the depictions of his strength, I can guess that his choice would be the longer and heavier sword. For myself, I would trade beauty for function.
Is there a point in all of this?
I believe there is.
As writers of historical fiction, who are our characters? If they are knights or soldiers, then they have years of training, strength, and endurance under their belts, but they are still imperfect.
Does your character have poor eyesight? Did your protagonist have a sleepless night in a siege camp only to be awakened by shouts of a rout? How is his sword arm? Was he awakened on the wrong side of the ground with kinks to work out? Is there smoke that would further restrict his vision from the inside a Great Helm? Has it been raining? How about the heat?
I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone else.
Experience can buttress primary and secondary research in dramatic ways. It’s one thing to describe donning armor, a helm, strapping on a swordbelt, and then dashing down the field. Few would gainsay what you had written. It’s another to have actually experienced some of the annoying and restrictive nuances, coupled with human limitations, and wonder how anyone fictitious or real pushed through.
But these features create the novels that we crave. This is not a barb pointed at anyone in particular, who has not benefited from real life experience. Moreover, it’s a standard that I have noticed in some exceptional authors who have been blessed with experience or have listened and applied these types of word pictures from others.
Katherine Ashe depicts Simon de Montfort as having nearsighted vision and this makes for some interesting segues that colors some of his challenges. The first chapter of Montfort: The Early Years begins with a description of his youthfulness, his poor eyesight, and a challenge with another knight; he wasn’t afforded the time to put on his helmet, but imagine how much worse it could have been. Concerning young Simon, she writes, “At this distance the novice could see no more of his adversary than a dark shape melting at the edges into the gray rain.” Did Simon push through? You’ll have to read Montfort: The Early Years for the answer.
Elizabeth Chadwick has mentioned hands-on experience as a useful tool; she knows what it is like to walk up a spiral staircase to the battlements in medieval shoes, what it’s like to gaze across a field through a 12th century helm, or cook with period cookware. And I believe her. Reading her books is akin to stepping into the past.
If you do not have the good fortune to have had hands-on familiarity, ask questions, seek those opportunities to get it, and read what others have learned firsthand and apply. This could be that small, missing ingredient that makes your sugared, buttered, and spiced bowl of boiled oats go from great to something to crave.
And ask a squire for assistance.
Scott Higginbotham is the author of A Soul’s Ransom, a novel set in the fourteenth century where William de Courtenay’s capture and escape tests his mettle and forges his future, and For A Thousand Generations, where Edward Leaver navigates a fourteenth century world where he finds a purpose that the generations cannot contain. Both novels complement one another without detracting.