Friday, July 17, 2015

Thinking Medieval

by Carol McGrath

It is always difficult for the writer of historical fiction to completely slip into the mind set of a particular era. The old adage applies- "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." Sometimes, the best that fiction writers can do is to be aware of the thinking that dominated a particular era and to create within an historical story a sideways glance to fool us into believing in the authenticity of the recreated world. Writers achieve this through meticulous research about day to day life such as clothing, homes, architecture, country, town, food , occupations and so on.

Medieval Kitchen at Chenonceau Castle in France Stock Photos
Inside the Kitchen of a Medieval Castle

For my first set of novels which have been set in medieval England, Denmark, Ireland and Russia I did, in fact, research how religion dominated contemporary thought. The Norman Conquest, for example, brought a significant wave of religious changes to England. Before the eleventh century, the English Church was a Royal Church. It was freer than the Continental Church. For example, there was a Bible in the Vernacular. Ordinary people could understand the Mass and Plain Song which was not always conducted or sung in Latin.

Southwall Minster

William the Conqueror sailed to England from Normandy with the Pope's banner fluttering amongst his pennants. In partnership with the Church, he had been able to claim support for what he 'sold' as a crusade against the perjurer King Harold. Harold had sworn to support William's claim to England's throne on relics gathered from all over Normandy. This event is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry and is recorded in many Norman Sources of the period. At the time the reforming Roman Church was  was increasing its control.  The Augustine Reforms were aimed at preventing priests from marrying and bishops from holding more than one see simultaneously, amongst other agendas. After the Norman Conquest, Cathedrals replaced old Minsters, just as castles represented secular control over the kingdom. There was the tightening of an already existent Feudal System.

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Harold's Oath as depicted on The Bayeux Tapestry

The Church controlled peoples' thoughts. A duel interactive secular and non secular control meant that individuality of thought was suspect. People, of course, had personal conflicts. They cherished emotions such as love, jealousy, greed, joy, sorrow etc. None the less, the Church controlled their souls and, as a consequence, the way these emotions played out. Think of Heaven and Hell paintings in Medieval Churches. Consider reenactments of Biblical, particularly Apocryphal episodes that were dramatized for audiences from Church to market place. Simply, people believed in Divine Providence as the cause of human affairs.

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Medieval Heaven and Hell Depiction

Society was organic. This was in itself Body Politic. By this, I mean that each member of society was meant to work in cooperation with all others, each performing its divinely appointed and fixed function that in turn contributed to the welfare of the whole. Antithetical movements were dangerous. Why did Robin Hood live as an outlaw? Why was Wat Tyler's rebellion ruthlessly quashed? Medieval thought process continued into the Tudor period despite movements such as Humanism which encouraged study and discussion of texts, despite the rise of the merchant middle class, despite the increase of literacy with the development of the printing press. Despite all these factors, the early Tudor monarchy fostered a sense of unity and common purpose.

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Robin Hood, the rebellious thinker.

However, change was in the air. Men began to seek for policies that might create a new England. It was initially more of a literary than political movement. In fact, new concepts had emerged in literature between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. A social comment is apparent in Piers Plowman, a text which blended secular and religious problems into a single moral analysis pointing out society's ills. It is not the same as addressing these ills. There remained the sense that social problems were moral in origin. Landlords, tenants, churchmen would all suffer in proportion to their sins. If individuals acted towards each other as Christian precept would have them act, the conflicting situation would vanish. There was no real thought given to manipulating social problems such as poverty prior to the Elizabethan Age using governmental legislation.  The ideal remained that of an ordained society of rigid divisions dependent on the proper conduct of each person in his or her appointed place. Moreover, usury was a sin!

Thomas More educated his daughters, was a Humanist thinker but would not criticize the Church

Human nature outs. With huge profits to be made for merchants, particularly cloth merchants, with the printing of Bibles in the vernacular, with increased literacy, the dissolution of monasteries, enclosures of common land for profitable sheep farming, individualism emerges within society during the sixteenth century. In England, people are not quite controlled in the same way by the Church and State as they were in the era of Heaven and Hell paintings and reenactments of Biblical and Apocryphal episodes that were dramatized throughout the land on saint's feast days. Society begins to break free of the notion that the process of knowledge is only completed by one's elevation to a state of grace achievable only by each member of society performing its divinely appointed and fixed function for the welfare of the whole.


Carol McGrath's The Betrothed Sister, to be released in September, is the third in Carol McGrath's acclaimed historical series, the Daughters of Hastings Trilogy.

Carol McGrath lives in Oxfordshire with her husband and family. She taught History until she took an MA in Creative Writing at The Seamus Heaney Centre, Queens University Belfast, followed by an MPhil in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her debut novel, The Handfasted Wife, first in a trilogy about the royal women of 1066 entitled The Daughters of Hastings, was shortlisted for the RoNAS, 2014 in the historical category. The Swan-Daughter and The Betrothed Sister followed to complete this best-selling trilogy. Carol reviews for the HNS. She is the co-ordinator of the 2016 Conference in Oxford.  Find Carol on her website:

Facebook: The Daughters of Hastings series

The Handfasted Wife
The Swan Daughter
The Betrothed Sister


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you. I think about this stuff too much perhaps. I know Ecco did. His Name of the Rose truly enters the medieval mind set.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you. I hope it makes us all think a little about why emotions were not worked out in the same way as they are in 21st C and if they were there would be consequences.

  3. Thanks for posting this - very informative

    1. Look at Name of the Rose , a fabulous novel that does get it right.

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  5. An interesting post, and I appreciate your sharing it. However, I must take issue with the way you present "Harold's oath to William." You indicate that "the perjurer King Harold... had sworn to support William's claim to England's throne on relics gathered from all over Normandy. This event is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry and is recorded in many Norman Sources of the period." This seems a bit biased to me. Of course the Normans would remember it that way... or make it up to justify William's ruthless conquering of a country that wasn't his. Edward promised the throne to many, including the Dane King Swein, but in the end, he named Harold to be his successor. Whether there was an oath by Harold made earlier to William and if there was, whether it was made under duress, which many believe, is a matter of considerable historical controversy. You might at least reflect that controversy. At any rate the Witan, the body that chose the Anglo-Saxon kings, confirmed Harold as King of England, not William. So end the end William was a usurper.

    1. Yes, I know all this . When I used the word Perjurer it should have been in inverted comas. I was being cynical. I have read the primary sources in Latin. I have come to the conclusion that Harold made some sort of promise under duress. It may have been a fealty type thing, a promise to support William's interests though we all know where William's ambition lay. Yes, I could have clarified this. Equally, what was being said on the death bed could have been take care of my kingdom. Edward had care of the young aethling. It may have been a question of asking Harold to act as a regent. Simply we do not know. I think I get this all over very clearly in the opening chapters of The Handfasted Wife.


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