The People of Our Past by George Dovel

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George Dovel was one of the writers I met at the Historical Novel Society conference last June. He’s the author of The Geometry of Vengeance, a novel that according to E.M. Powell “brings the violence and superstitions of the medieval world vividly to life.” Welcome, George.

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The People of Our Past

Tucked in among the weighty proclamations issued by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 is the delightful gem of Canon 16, which in part prohibits clerics from attending “the performances of mimics and buffoons” or wearing “curiously sewed together gloves.”

If they could be transported to the 21st century, the Council attendees would surely be appalled to see that the performances of mimics and buffoons are nearly the sum total of our contemporary culture, but what a relief it would be to note that the great danger of curiously sewed together gloves has passed.

After having a nice chuckle about Canon 16, though, anyone with a mind for digging into history is compelled to ask a couple of questions. First, how had this society developed in such a way that these matters were important enough to command attention from one of the most significant conferences in European history? Second, how has our society grown so far apart from theirs that these once-important matters now seem trivial?

And this was a problem?

Moving most of a millennium even further back in time, as the first major gathering of church leaders after the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, the Council of Nicaea in 325 had its own catalog of important matters to resolve, starting with the so-called Arian heresy and its assertion that Christ was not divine. Two or three hundred bishops attended, as did Constantine himself.

And yet, in what might well have been the most important international meeting in the world up to that point, and a meeting that shaped the long-term trajectories of countries and cultures all over the world (imagine how different the world would be if institutionalized Christianity had not survived this fledgling stage), the emperor and this assembly of prelates were compelled to address the problem of priests who had transformed themselves into eunuchs.

In fact, it’s the very first of the 20 canons issued at Nicaea. Canon 1 makes allowances for men who had the operation for medical reasons or who were victims of barbarian savagery, but it states that priests who had emasculated themselves should leave the priesthood, and that in the future, no man who had done so would be allowed into the priesthood.

Buffoonery and curious gloves are one thing, but voluntarily unburdening oneself of body parts is on an entirely different plane of un-understandability.

Again, the two questions. First, what would a society have been like in which instances of men self-administering such a transformation must have been common enough that an international meeting of bishops, presided over by the Roman emperor, was compelled to address the problem? Second, how did we grow so far away from this society that such a phenomenon is almost impossible to imagine?

It’s tempting to dismiss these odd and old ideas as just that, the inexplicable behavior of benighted people left far back in the dust behind our ever-advancing selves. But to dismiss these ideas as irrelevant is both an error and the waste of a wonderful opportunity.

They are in us; we are of them

The auto-eunuchs of 325 and the curiously gloved buffoon watchers of 1215 may belong to lost and distant cultures, but they are not members of another species or visitors from another planet. They are us, or at least earlier incarnations of us.

There are no step-function discontinuities in human history. The world didn’t jump from 325 to 1215 to today. It lunged and lurched, one year, one day, one connected human moment after another. The path might have been tortuous, regressive, and downright insane at times, but it has been continuous.

Not only has the path from then to now been continuous, but the way we define ourselves is largely in reaction to the generations that came before us. We may have rejected many of their beliefs and behaviors, but we reject in opposition to them and in so doing are defined in large measure by them. We are not painting on a blank canvas. As Booker winner Barry Unsworth put it, the past “belongs to us because it made us what we are.”

The better we can understand them (although we never will completely understand them, of course), the better we can understand ourselves and the behaviors we exhibit that will have future generations looking back at us with derision and disgust.

Exploring the past through the lens of historical fiction

The wonderful opportunity these old and odd ideas present is the glorious pleasure of discovery, that addictive feeling of uncovering the who, what, when, and how—and every once in a while getting a glimpse of the why.

What was it like trying to build a supranational religious organization at a time when even rudimentary education was far from universal and many clerical candidates surely did find the tavern and town square more appealing than sacred texts and liturgical practice?

And regarding eunuchs who aspired to the priesthood, how widespread was the barbarian savagery mentioned in the canon from Nicaea? Were some of these men freed slaves who hoped for nothing more than to devote the rest of their lives to God? Or were eunuch priests in goddess cults converting to Christianity in large enough numbers to cause concern for the new church? The number of questions this canon alone raises could occupy (or distract!) a curious mind for days.

The opportunity to bring old truths and questions and curiosities to life through the alchemy of storytelling is surely one of the reasons historical fiction is endlessly compelling for so many writers and readers.

The quoted passages from the Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council are from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/lateran4.asp; the quotation from Barry Unsworth is from a speech given at the Key West Literary Seminar.

Many thanks for this illuminating post, George. Exploring the past through the lens of historical fiction is why so many readers love the genre.

The Geometry of Vengeance by George Dovel ~~ Vital Moysett has spent half his life burying the tragic mistakes and deadly secrets of his youth, but in an instant he learns that even being the most celebrated cathedral architect in 13th-century France and a favorite of Louis IX is not enough to protect him from his enemies’ rage.

When his latest design suffers an inexplicable collapse, the terrified locals believe the devil himself pulled the daring vaults down. But Vital sees evil of a very human kind—and the threat of even greater destruction to come.

His frantic search to identify the next target turns into a maddening series of philosophical riddles and strangely personal attacks motivated by knowledge of his childhood that no one still alive could possibly have. With the help of his unusual wife and the famed encylopedist Vincent of Beauvais, he follows his tormentors to the glorious cathedral at Chartres, knowing he is stepping right into their trap.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (see left hand sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. 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 or on her website www.mktod.com.

 

This Son of York by Anne Easter Smith

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Anne Easter Smith has a passion for the York family. Her muse is the recently re-interred King Richard III, whose life and times she has studied for fifty years, and which led to a five-book contract about the York family during the Wars of the Roses with Simon & Schuster’s Touchstone Books.

Anne appeared on the blog several years ago writing about Edward IV’s women – a uniquely popular post on A Writer of History. I invited Anne to share an excerpt from her new novel to whet your appetites for more!

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Excerpt from This Son of York

The night before a battle affected men in various ways. Some spent it drinking and carousing with the camp followers; some spent it hiding in the woods and nervously emptying their bowels; others passed the time playing dice; others in prayer; and still more, like Richard, in contemplating the insignificance of their earthly lives. “No matter what the priests tell you about each of us being important to God,” Richard had once said to his wife, “How can one life mean any more than another among so many throughout the history of mankind? As an anointed king, I must be more important than the beggar in the street, but in truth, I know I am not. When we die and molder in our graves, who will remember us then, one any more than another?”

“God will,” Anne had said simply, “you must believe He will. And because you are a king, your grave will be marked by a fine tomb announcing to the world who you were.” She had laughed then. “If I am lucky, I will lie with you and be remembered, too.” Dearest Anne, he thought guiltily as he lay on his elaborate camp bed, I must see to it that you are remembered.

The night was warm, and his tent was open to any welcome breeze that might waft by. In the past on the eve of battle, Richard had recited his prayers, had a cup of wine with fellow commanders, and slept well. Tonight, he knew, was different. Tomorrow he must fight for his crown as well as his life. He could not quite believe it had come down to this moment. He had acted honorably all his days, he thought, done his duty to his family, England and, lately reluctantly, to God.

A remark of the earl of Warwick’s occurred to him: “Scheming is a virtue if kings are to survive.” Is that what I have done—schemed? Nay, it is not, he reassured himself, it is not.The other part of his mentor’s homily had warned: “To be a great leader, you must learn the skills to be flexible in wooing allies to your side.” It was a skill that had come easily to Edward, but Richard’s reticence to trust had not charmed those he should have sought as allies. Was that where he had gone wrong? Instead of winning with words, friendship, and diplomacy, he had tried to buy men’s trust with land and offices. How many of his men understood him, he wondered.

Richard gave up examining his flaws, failures, and missteps, knowing he must concentrate on the morrow. He tried to close his eyes to the pricks of light from the hundreds of campfires and his ears to the drunken shouts, laughter and singing of the soldiers, the stamping and snickering of a thousand horses, and the clinking of the armorers and smiths making last-minute adjustments or repairs to harnesses. Everyone faced death in his own way, and Richard had no illusions that this might not be his time. He had a fifty-fifty chance, because in the end it would come down to him or Henry. Only one of them would wear the crown after battle, because the other would be dead—either in the field or later by the axe.

Part of him wished the two of them could fight it out alone and let all others return to their homes. He had no doubt he would run the Tudor through. Richard had trained hard since boyhood and fought in many battles to become the experienced soldier he was now; Henry of Richmond, wrongly claiming the crown, would be seeing battle for the first time, and, as Richard had heard, had not enjoyed the rigors of knightly training while languishing at Brittany’s court. Another part of him relished the thought of a glorious military victory and of extinguishing Lancastrian hopes forever.

He was suddenly jolted back to the other time he and Edward believed Lancaster had been vanquished, and, as was their wont, his thoughts returned to King Henry’s demise. Lancastrian Henry VI, son of the great victor of Agincourt and Edward’s predecessor, had played a part in Richard’s life since he’d been in swaddling bands, Richard remembered. He sat up, pushing black thoughts back into hell, and reached for his book of hours—the very one given him as a gift by Henry when Richard was but a lad. He stared at it now. How I wish I had listened to your advice, your grace, and never agreed to wear a crown. He groaned. Sweet Jesu, how has it come to this,he asked himself yet again. Paging idly through the prayer book, the gold and silver of the exquisite illuminations glinting in the candlelight, he indulged in pondering his life and began to wish he could return to the days when the worst of his troubles was being called the runt of York’s litter. It seemed so long ago…

PART ONE

Dickon, York’s youngest

Leicester, August 25, 2012

I arrive at the car park just as the 360-degree excavator is ripping into Trench One, and the first piece of the tarmac is removed. The machine will very shortly be going right over the painted letter ‘R’, close to where my instinct told me Richard’s remains lay when I first came here. I still believe it. Nothing has changed my mind….

I can’t take my eyes off the excavator and have to pinch myself as I watch….

The scoop arm drops down and begins to lift out giant clods of earth, debris and rubble, swinging them on to the spoil heaps. I check my watch. It’s 2:15 p.m….

Suddenly Mathew Morris’s hand shoots into the air. The excavator stops and Morris jumps into the trench. He looks up at me.

There’s a bone.

—Philippa Langley, excerpt from The King’s Grave

Chapter One

Summer 1459 

Runt.

When was the first time Richard became aware the unsavory word was being used to describe him? Possibly as early as age seven, and it was then Dickon began to understand he would have to fight for his place in his illustrious family and indeed the world. Far too young, in truth.

It did not help to dispel the cruel moniker often given to a last-born that Richard, nicknamed Dickon to avoid confusion with his father, the duke of York, had a short, skeletal statureand had succumbed to frequent childhood illnesses. However, not long after Richard’s birth, when King Henry had happened by Fotheringhay, principal residence of the house of York, the king had raised the infant Richard high and proclaimed him, “A perfect prince!”

“He shall be king some day,” the king had declared. Duchess Cecily’s smile had frozen on her beautiful face as attendants gasped their horror. Not that the statement was untrue, but no one present could possibly have guessed Richard’s destiny. He was the fourth son of a duke—of royal blood, it needs to be said—but he was no king’s heir. Certainly there was mounting conflict between Henrys house of Lancaster and the house of York as to which had the better claim to the Plantagenet crown, but war between these cousins was far from anyones mind. No, poor befuddled Henry had simply and sadly mistaken this child for his own, as yet, unborn son. The king had had lapses of sanity of late, it was true, but he appeared perfectly well, and thus the York courtiers could be excused for believing the king’s words, which they thought tantamount to treason. But how could a king speak treason against himself?

But Cecily knew better; she recognized the blank stare with which Henry gazed on her son and knew the king’s fragile mind had drifted. She realized he had no inkling of his lapse, and she felt sorry for him. Despite their quarrels, she and Henry had always liked each other—Cecily’s feelings more of concern, to tell the truth—and now to silence the murmurings around the room, she swiftly came to the king’s rescue.

“Your grace, this is my son Richard,” she had declared brightly. “Let me take him from you before he pulls off that pearl button. We cannot have him swallowing such a treasure!” She chuckled. “I see he already has good taste. Your son will be born soon, I hear,” she had run on smoothly. “What happy news!” Turning to her steward she asked that he escort the king to his chamber. “I can see you are weary, your grace. I pray you allow Sir Henry to make you comfortable.” And with her gracious and quick-witted intervention, the duchess had dispelled what had been an embarrassing but prophetic slip of Henry’s tongue. Looking down at her child, gurgling in his cradle, she could not possibly have dreamed what Fortune had in store for him.

This Son of York by Anne Easter Smith ~~ Concluding her best-selling Wars of the Roses series, Anne Easter Smith has made Richard III her protagonist in her latest book This Son of York. The much maligned Richard is brought into new focus following the discovery of his bones under a car park in Leicester in 2013.

As the fourth son of the duke of York, Richard of Gloucester could not have hoped for much more than the life of a wealthy, but insignificant nobleman. Instead fate took him down a drama-filled, unexpected path to the throne. As York challenged Lancaster for the crown, early tragedies and betrayals, including by his faithless brother George, led the young Richard to count on none but himself. Imbued with the traits of loyalty and duty to family and country, he proved them time and again especially when he reluctantly came to wear the crown. Buoyed by the love of two women, he stayed true to one while cherishing the other, both helping him bear the burden of his scoliosis.

A warrior of renown, a loyal brother, loving husband and father, a king mindful of injustice yet beset by betrayal, and a man convinced his God has forsaken him by burdening him with crippling scoliosis, This Son of York has a compelling tale to tell. With her meticulous attention to detail—and the truth—Easter Smith’s compelling storytelling paints a very different picture of the king Shakespeare reviled as “…thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog.”

Many thanks, Anne. I’m hooked and I know others will be too.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (see left hand sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. 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 or on her website www.mktod.com.

Book blogger Erin of Historical Fiction Reader

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Erin, the blogger at Historical Fiction Reader, and I have been Facebook friends for several years. She’s passionate about historical fiction (hmm – maybe you’ve already guessed that?) and shares that passion regularly on her blog and on Facebook. Welcome, Erin!

Why did you start blogging about or featuring books?

I’m a voracious reader and love talking about books. Unfortunately, I don’t know as many book enthusiasts in the real world. Blogging allowed me a means of connecting with other readers regardless of geographic distance between me and them.

What type of books appeal to you and why?

I’ve always been drawn to historical fiction. Something about utilizing the past as a lens to explore people and ideas fascinates me to no end.

Do you concentrate on a specific genre? If so, can you tell us a bit about your passion for that genre.

I owe my enthusiasm for historical fiction to Elizabeth Chadwick. I stumbled over one of her books, The Champion, on accident and fell head over heels in love with it. I’d always been passionate about history, but the book marked my first real experience with the genre. The framework of the narrative resonated with my passion for the past and I suppose I’ve never really gotten over it.

Who are your readers and followers? How do you engage with them?

I’m followed by fellow historical fiction enthusiasts. Some are readers, but several are writers and/or publishing professionals. Most of my engagement takes place on my Facebook page where I feature titles that have caught my eyes, share historical fiction articles, and host literary inspired discussions.

If you have a blog, what features does it offer? For example, ‘best of’ lists, author interviews, a book rating system.

I post historical fiction reviews and author interviews at Historical Fiction Reader. I post new release slideshows once a month and a weekly reading lineup on my Facebook page. Recently, I’ve also begun experimenting in historical fiction inspired flat lays on Instagram.

What ways do you use to attract new readers and followers?

Engagement mostly. I am naturally introverted but I love talking books and I find that simply posting questions invites others to share their thoughts with me.

How do you interact with authors and publicists?

Much the same way I interact with readers. Both camps are passionate about literature and publishing. Most seem to enjoy sharing their insights and opinions in casual social media discussions. That said, I am trying to attend more writer events. The Southern California Chapter of the Historical Novel Society has graciously allowed me to attend their bi-monthly meetings and I believe I’ve grown as a reader from their insights and expertise.

What trends or changes have you noticed in the book world?

The market is becoming increasingly dominated by trends, to the point where the market is flooded by the “it-topic” of the moment. I respect and understand the realities of the marketplace, but as a reader, the tidal wave of single subject lit is overwhelming.

Writing styles have also changed a great deal. Commercial fiction is riding high and while I respect the entertainment value of these titles, I can’t help missing the artistry of prose in the more literary offerings that used to dominate the market.

If you could wave your magic wand, what would you change about the book industry?

If anything, I’d like to see mainstream publishers invest in more diverse and inclusive narratives more regularly.

As a genre, I feel historical fiction overwhelming anglocentric with a heavy emphasis on only a handful of specific people, places, and events. I think this a disservice to readers and writers alike as it restricts opportunities, stifles talent, and represses artistic expression while growing a decidedly monochromatic collection of titles with all too similar content.

Many thanks for sharing your perspective, Erin. As someone who writes historical fiction, I truly appreciate the support you give to the genre.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (see left hand sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. 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 or on her website www.mktod.com.