Time Travel – a 12th century view

The-Journey-EastMark Richard Beaulieu is a frequent visitor to A Writer of History. When I posted the article Time Travel – The Work of Historical Fiction, he volunteered to provide a perspective from the century and location that fascinate him, specifically 12th century Paris. Having written four novels on Eleanor of Aquitaine, Mark is an excellent guide. Over to you, Mark.

Time travel as the work of historic fiction is an interesting article, Mary. I liked your table of topics to assist writers in researching a period, particularly for your 1870 book set in Paris. I can smell the sewers! I am here to talk about sources that cover 12th-century Paris, straying to Eleanor of Aquitaine.

First, some comments that fall out comparing your table of topics against mine to ground characters, set the stage, and form the mindset of an era. I also cover superstition and fear. And I’m glad you mention family which expands to clans, tribes, classes, and generational anthropology. I’d list sport, games, and pranks.

Another category is direct experience. I’ve flown hawks, ridden horses and taken archery to know my characters. I did not see privacy, standards of living, and property rights in your list. Most often people slept in partitions, not bedrooms. Sex expands to romantic behavior, choice, and its opposite – force (a polite way of saying rape, an unsettling issue that Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander continually takes on). Celibacy, marriage, childbirth, and upbringing fit here. Going to mindset – determining what THEY know of past, future, and place in the universe. Chain of Being is critical in my era. Finally, gestures and words.

A tool of great advantage is the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). Read citations of usage in your era. Sort the entire dictionary by time! From 550 AD forward you can slim down an appropriate vocabulary in short order. AND, cusswords. Find some real dung-flingers. Here’s my research game.

Level 1 – Research to find conflict

Paris brought to life in the 12th-century book “Eleanor of Aquitaine – The Journey East” has orphan Alienor arriving at age 13, newly married and anointed as the Queen of France. She comes from prosperous Aquitaine with its vibrant culture of fashion, fine food, new music, dance, worldly educated – everything Paris is not. Little Eleanor is wagoned into a repressive, aggressively intolerant holy city. So see, research gives us dramatic conflict at the start. Spritely Eleanor must somehow overcome the French court to make her own.

Level 2 – Some research, please

It was a time of no plumbing, as many churches as bakeries, the Louvre was a hunting lodge, and . . . Notre Dame? A range of Eleanor novelists cast her in a place that was as non-existent as potato souffle. (Potatoes came to Europe in the 1600’s).


The historical Paris in which Louis and Eleanor Capet worshiped was centered on Notre Dame’s predecessor, St. Ettiene – the Saint famous for being the first martyr to be stoned to death. Ironically, this Merovingian cathedral was so old that tiles fell at random from the ceiling killing worshipers. ‘Meet-your-maker’ stones as they were perversely called. Well, it did keep your eyes heavenward. The royal couple opened the first stained-glass cathedral, St.-Denis. This beacon launched pilgrims into the 2nd Crusade; a failure was so catastrophic it had its own charm – a veritable Joseph Heller Catch-22 of mismanagement, blind belief, and incompetence. The historic accounts of Odo are so horrible that the Latin Church cut the ending. What a great backdrop for Eleanor! Only 1 in 20 came home. Dispirited having seen so much gore, who wants to worship in a house of bloody martyrs? And so, at the end of Eleanor’s reign with Louis, they put in motion raising St. Etienne to create Notre Dame.

Level 3 – The Past Should Shock

Not everyone agrees, but LP Hartley said most insightfully, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Strangeness is stimulating. Some examples. The Notre Dame cathedral was built by a people accepting it would take generations to complete. Marriage came young. Our modern norm delays it, protracts education, and ignores apprenticing. We become adults at 21, but 12th-century humans predominantly married, became dukes, queens, and kings by age 15.

Level 4 – The Other Side

A contrasting view of the Battle of Damascus includes Arab accounts. The biography of Eleanor’s husband, Henry II by W.L. Warren improved my respect for him, almost saying Eleanor appears never to have existed. Michael Evans ‘Inventing Eleanor’ defines who she was not.

Level 5 – Social Anthropology

Customs, etiquette, coming of age. I purposely choose an era that invents new customs. I deconstruct the origin of romantic tradition from Andreas’ “The Art of Courtly Love,” the stories of Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France, the lyrics of troubadours, and various accounts.

Historical maps and chronicles illuminated the 12th-century pilgrim journey by land and sea. My real tip that most writers of historical fiction could benefit from is Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday.” Jared stuns with observations of predominant social anthropology that we are losing touch with. For example, we take for granted travel. In the 12th-century, very few ventured further than 30 miles from home. What awe to march 3,000 miles. Jared lists incredible travel barriers. Gestural signing of these tribal and horse cultures becomes an expressive survival skill in the medieval mindset.

What great additions to the topic, Mark. I’m so pleased you had time to create this post.

Mark Richard Beaulieu grew up in Heidelberg, New York City, Texas, and California, receiving an MFA from UC Davis and a BFA from Trinity University. He is an energetic writer, fluent on the 12th century life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a collected painter, photographer, and innovative software technologist. He lives in Escondido with his wife and pets, and cooks for Eleanor and her circle from time to time. The Journey East is the second of six novels in the Eleanor code series. Mark can be found on FacebookPinterest, on his website, and on Twitter @MarkRBeaulieu


FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016.

Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

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6 Responses

  1. A small addendum, Notre Dame did exist in Paris in Eleanor’s time, but it was a small church known for its chorus, across the street from the massive St. Etienne (Saint Stephen). This Merovingian Cathedral would be raised at the end of Eleanor’s reign to make way for the Notre Dame we knew it as today. She never visited Paris to see it.

  2. Taken with the earlier list you posted, M. K. Tod, these additional thoughts posted by Mark Beaulieu are invaluable — even though my historical fiction is stuck mid-19th Century. Here, I see categories that organize the longer list into something manageable. Step-by-step, so we go, into the past! Thank you both.

    1. Beth, it is useful to brush yourself against these categories for they give the reader some bridge to a past time. (Don’t tell anyone, but I too am working on a 19th project). I can totally relate to your reexamination of these frames of reference for the 1800’s. With 1850’s employment of electricity, society increases its rate of change. Fashion and art undergo revolutions. In one century: Romanticism, Naturalism, Realism, Impressionism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism. There are these marvelous scenes in the film “My Twentieth Century” (1989) where people at night encounter electric light bulbs hanging in trees. Technology yes, but the magic and superstition evoked is moving. Best of luck to you in the 19th century. Wrap yourself in it.

  3. I couldn’t agree more. The past is a stranger land… and still a land we remember as if it was ours.
    We are social beasts and the rules of society change all the time. But we are still humans like our ancestors.

    I think writing historical fiction challanges us to find that fine balance between the stranger’s land and the remembrance.

    1. Jazzfeathers, “Between the Stranger’s land and the Remembrance” sounds like a worthy book title. As social beasts, I still feel the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnons are still bonking it out. You get to the nub – what does it mean to be human? That is one of the gifts of historical fiction, indeed, and to readers who benefit from it. As I lived my American Life, stimulated by early travel by my father’s military postings, I settled down into high school. Friends were mischievous but often dull. In the background were these young women and a few young men who would act out being Greek gods, goddesses, and muses even in the lunch cafeteria. They read historical fiction and the classics – on their own time. Imagine. Later, as I became an artist when they practiced their muse skills on me, I cannot say I was immune. Who knows what a muse is today? Or the proper conduct of one? Or the spirituality of gods and goddesses, deities of equal weight and gender? So Jazzfeathers, I am illustrating that within the Stranger’s Land and Remembrance is the power of finding — that humanity may have been greater. Time travel via historical fiction allows us to experience and even bring back from the story human models and attitudes of living into our modern lives. A good proper shocking can help pitch us into what it was, it is, and it ever can potentially be — this human being.

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