Limits

Did I unfollow you on Twitter? Don’t take it personally. You didn’t offend me.

Like most of us, after 21 months of pandemic, I’m tired. I don’t need to go into the reasons why: we all know them.

Social media is both a blessing and a curse; a place to connect and relax, and a place to be embroiled in controversy. A place where I find readers, and researchers to connect with, and things about archaeology and late-antiquity/early medieval history I didn’t know, and a place to find authors and books to read.

But there is just too much of it. My Home feed isn’t giving me what I’m on Twitter for, primarily. I have to search for the people I want to interact with, whose tweets I want to read, with whom I want to check in. It’s not that you’re not all valuable members of the Writing Community – it’s that I don’t have enough mental energy left to appreciate you all. I need, for a while at least, to focus on history, archaeology, birding and nature, and the writers who write and/or tweet about these subjects. Mostly.

So I am culling who I follow down to fewer than 2000. How many fewer, I don’t know. Already my Home feed is looking better, frustrating me less, giving me the connections I’m looking for.

I probably – almost certainly – have unfollowed people I didn’t mean to. I hope I’ll figure that out over the next few weeks. If you’re upset by what I’m doing, I apologize for my actions inducing those reactions in you – but not for doing what I need to for myself.

Social media’s not the only place I’m pulling back. I’m not planning on doing any serious work on the WIP for a couple more months. Too many responsibilities, some self-imposed, others not, have come together just now. I’ll be culling those, too, as I can.

Let’s hope 2022 is a better year for us all.

Offerings

Midwinter’s eve, and the fire burned high. Food had been shared, and beer, and for once the sheep were unguarded, the fire and songs thought to be enough to dissuade the wolves. We sat with Fél and Kaisa and Aetyl, and beside me Audo and his three dogs. His brindle bitch, who had taken a liking to me, lay with her head on my feet.

Kaisa had instructed me in the expectations for tonight: come newly washed and in clean clothes, and bring something to give to the fire. The more precious, the better. The sun must be honoured, she said.

I had struggled to find something to bring. Audo sat with an ermine skin on his lap, his gift to the sun. My most precious possession was Colm’s history of the Empire, and I certainly wasn’t sacrificing that. Cillian had devised a solution for himself: a poem, written on a small piece of his carefully rationed paper. In the end, I gave an arrow, one of the small ones from the bird bow that had kept us fed on our journey across the mountains.

One by one, people rose to throw their offering to the fire, the men first. When they were finished, the women gave their gifts, and finally, me. Drumbeats had sounded throughout, and now the men began to sing. Audo, on one side of me, growled the words, not keeping time, but Cillian sang true. When did he learn the words? His singing voice was light, but clearly trained: Dagney’s hand there, I thought.

Aivar rose as the song ended. Everyone quieted. The two boys who became men tonight stepped forward. They both looked tired and a little disoriented: I guessed they had fasted for at least a day. There had been rituals earlier for them, attended only by the village men.

In any other year they would now just be presented to the village as men, but I had something to do, first. Aivar, leaning on his stick, called my name. He and I had spoken a few days earlier about what I should do.

“This village has never had a devanī,” he told me, “but others have. I remember what their vēsturni told me. A blessing from you is all I ask. Will you do that?”

I told him what Cillian and I had discussed. “Very good,” he said.

I rose, the two arrows in my hand, walking to where the two boys waited. At a word from Aivar they both knelt. I kissed each boy on his forehead and placed an arrow in each waiting hand. “The huntress guides your hand,” I told them as I did. Aivar had chosen those words.

The devanī should give her blessing to us all for the new year,” Ivor shouted, as I turned to leave. Other voices joined his. I thought I heard Gret’s among them. Aivar raised his hand.

“We…” He began to cough, a deep, racking cough. He tried again. “We do not ask for what we do not need,” he rasped. “Our men hunt well. If we need the devanī to give luck to a hunt, she will give it at the time. Do not waste the gift.”

Aivar’s edicts could not be disputed. Ivor and his friends quieted. The drumbeats began again, and this time women began to sing, and a few to dance. More beer made the rounds, Cillian, as usual, refusing. In the northern sky, green lights flickered; shadows rose and fell in the firelight. Fél wrapped a fur around himself and Kaisa, holding her against him. “Keep Lena warm,” he told Cillian, “or she’ll have to cuddle Audo, or his dog.” I glanced at Cillian. We had never touched in public.

“Then I better,” he said. I moved close, tucking the fur around us, leaning into him. We listened to the drums.

Ivor walked by, dressed only in a light tunic, spurning the cold. The empty mug in his hand told me what he searched for. He gave us a scornful look. “Devanī,” he said. “Why waste yourself on this man?” One of Audo’s dogs snarled. “Incapable vēsturni and idiots,” Ivor spat. “I will show you what a real man is one day.” He kept walking.

“Be careful of him, Lena,” Fél warned.

“I am,” I assured him. The drumbeats continued, faster; the dancing grew wilder. Under the fur, Cillian’s hand began a gentle caress.

“Shall we go to our bed?” he murmured.

We rose. Fél looked up. “Sleep well,” he said, “when you finally remember to sleep, that is.” Kaisa laughed. “Can we send Aetyl to sleep with her cousins?” I heard him say to her, as we left.

In our hut the fire had burned to coals. Cillian added wood. “Do you need to make tea?”

“I did, earlier.” My mouth was dry. I dropped the fur on the bed. We regarded each other across the space, in the light of the newly blazing fire. “It is a new year,” I said softly. “Don’t you have a fancy to fulfill?”

He crossed the room to me, beginning to smile; not his usual, quickly-gone smile, but one slow and genuine, lighting his whole face. My breath caught. He looks so much younger, I thought, and so beautiful. I saw tenderness in this smile, and vulnerability. He took me in his arms. I raised a hand to his face.

“This is something I haven’t seen before,” I murmured. “Why have you kept such a beautiful smile hidden?”

He turned his head to kiss my fingers. “My one legacy from my mother, I am told,” he said. “As to why, it is just reticence, Lena, like much else about me, long habit.” He bent to kiss me, a long, exploratory kiss. “Perhaps I will have more reason to let it show after tonight.”

I didn’t need to damp down desire now. My hands, low on his back, found his skin. I pulled him closer. Part of my mind noted the ridges of a scar under my fingers, but it wasn’t important. Nothing was, except his lips on mine and his hands, under my tunic now, making me gasp.

“You are very sure?” he asked, his voice low and barely controlled. “Tell me now, if you are not.”

“Yes.” I fought to speak. “Are you?”

“I am.” His mouth came down again, demanding now, insistent. How long has it been for him? I wondered, before I gave myself up to my need, and his. He hesitated once, just for a moment, and then there were only lips and hands and cresting pleasure, and unexpectedly, tears that were not mine.

(c) 2018 Marian L Thorpe

Image: geralt / 23743 images

How Accurate is that Historical Drama?

The Lost Prince
2003
BBC/WGBH biopic of Prince John.

Even for those people with an interest in the British royal family, Prince John is a shadowy figure. Not the ‘evil’ brother of Richard the Lionheart, whose barons made him sign the Magna Carta in 1215, but the youngest child of King George V and Queen Mary.

John was born in 1905 at York Cottage on the royal family’s private Sandringham estate, in west Norfolk, and here too he spent much of his early childhood, until his father succeeded to the throne in 1910. His early childhood was uneventful, but by age four he was described as ‘painfully slow’ by Queen Mary’s biographer Anne Edwards. Later, Queen Mary would write to a friend, saying John ‘a great anxiety to us for many years, ever since he was four years old.’

A seizure some point in his fifth year led to a diagnosis of epilepsy, but other behaviours, especially a repetition of actions and an inability to learn from consequences have led to a posthumous diagnosis of autism. As a result, and typical of the times and social class, John was removed from the public eye, to live quietly with his governess Lalla at Wood Farm (then Marsh Farm), one of the farms on the Sandringham estate.

Wood Farm (the red arrow in the map below) is isolated, even by Norfolk standards. At the end of a long private track which itself runs off the public lane that circles the hamlet of Wolferton, it is five kilometers away from Sandringham House itself. Overlooking flat farmland out to The Wash, and on private land without footpaths, it would have been indeed a quiet, private life. Although, in the years John lived there, the train from King’s Lynn to Hunstanton ran very close to Wood Farm, with a station at Wolferton for the royal family. Perhaps it provided some excitement.

But quiet and private did not mean neglected or forgotten, even as his seizures worsened. Along with his nanny, local children were chosen to play with John, and among those children was my father’s first cousin Mary. Her father was an estate employee, as was his father (my great-grandfather). Two years younger than John, she remembered this vividly in the last years of her life; it was one of the stories she loved to tell us when we visited her in the 1990s. I spoke to the last surviving member of that generation of cousins, Anne, last week; she’s in her 101st year, with a memory clearer than mine. I had been under the impression that the estate children were taken out to Wood Farm for their ‘playdates’ with the prince, but that wasn’t the whole story. John was also brought to the village, and Anne told me of her grandmother’s exasperation after Mary and the prince had made themselves horribly muddy jumping in the stream of water that ran down the side of the lane my great-grandparents’ house stands on.

John died in 1919 at Wood Farm. My cousin Mary died in 2001, before The Lost Prince was made. I would have loved to have known her reaction to it. Like me, she would have to have first get past the landscape: it was filmed in Buckinghamshire, which does NOT look like the flat coastal landscape of west Norfolk; nor did the house they used bear much resemblance to Wood Farm. But those details aside, and allowing for dramatic flourishes and emphases, my overall reaction was one of a reasonably fair portrayal of a child whose neurology did not allow him to adapt to the demands and changes of the early twentieth century, ones that also nearly destroyed the royal family. An allegory as much as a biography, perhaps.

Empire’s Heir by Marian L. Thorpe – a young woman must make decisions that will affect an Empire on the edge of history.

A beautiful review from Northern Reader.

Northern Reader

Empire's Heir (Empire's Legacy Book 6) by [Marian L Thorpe]

Empire’s Heir by Marian L Thorpe

Intense, moving and deeply personal, this novel set on the edge of history is a picture of an unconventional family under various threats is an engaging read. A political thriller of sorts, this is a novel which features a subtle and intelligent story of a group of people who are playing for high stakes – their lives and the survival of their country in the face of a powerful ruling Empire. The talented author continues a saga in a created world which draws inspiration and historical veracity from Roman history with other elements added. This book is the second in a second trilogy of an Empire where women are frequently warriors, politicians and in the case of one of the main characters here, diplomats. Gwenna is a young woman who is the acknowledged heir to the land of Esperias, and it is largely her…

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Striking Fear

A Random Research Note

File:Slingers on Trajan's Column.JPG
Slingers portrayed on Trajan’s Column.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Smooth stones shot with a sling…are more dangerous than any arrows, since while leaving the limb intact they inflict a wound that is still lethal, and the enemy dies from the blow of the stone without loss of blood…This weapon should be learned by all recruits with frequent exercise, because it is no effort to carry a sling. It often happens too that warfare is carried on in stony places, that some mountain or hill has to be defended…

Vegetius: De Re Militari

Druisius, one of the main characters in my work-in-progress, Empress & Soldier, is a new recruit facing his first battle, defending a mountain pass. In the vanguard of the troops facing the enemy are the slingers. (No, this isn’t historically correct: what I write isn’t. It’s a created world that looks a lot like ours, but I’m not bound by absolute accuracy.)

Slings are an ancient weapon, most likely in use long before any written record. The first written record in the western world is the story of David and Goliath in the Old Testament of the Bible (1st Samuel), thought to have been written about the 6th century BCE. Used across the world, the oldest-known slings are from coastal Peru, radio-carbon dated to c. 2500 BCE.

Roman slingers, which I am using as my model, used lead sling-bullets: the density of lead means that the mass of a sling-bullet made from the metal is much greater than one of stone. Lead sling-bullets could therefore be small, able to travel further than a stone of the same mass due to less resistance in the air, and difficult to see in flight. A painful projectile, with larger ones capable of speeds up to 160 kph.  As archaeologist John Reid of the Trimontium Trust told Scientific American, it could take the top of a head off. Romans (and Greeks) literally added insult to injury: bullets were sometimes inscribed with images of snakes or scorpions, or inscriptions such as ‘catch!’.

File:Romans used also small sling bullets of lead.jpg
Peter van der Sluijs, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most interesting of all the sling bullets found from the Roman period are those from Burnswark, or Birrenswark, Hill in southwestern Scotland. In the second century CE, troops under the command of Quintus Lollius Urbicus, the Roman governor of Britannia (himself following orders from Antonius Pius, the Roman Emperor) attacked the hillfort of the Caledonian people here. Archaeological investigations at the site discovered about twenty percent of the sling bullets were smaller than average, and had holes drilled into them. These bullets whistle as they fly. Their assumed purpose is to terrify the enemy: small, stinging, whistling projectiles, almost like a swarm of biting insects.

Druisius isn’t a slinger; he’s infantry, a foot soldier using shield and sword. But he sees the value of the sling in his first battle.  Will he ever use it?  You may have to read Empress & Soldier to find out!

References:

Translated Texts for Historians Volume 16: Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science. N.P. Milner, Translator. Liverpool University Press, 1996. pp 16-17  

Whistling Sling Bullets Were Roman Troops’ Secret Weapon. Tom Metcalfe, LiveScience on June 14, 2016: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/whistling-sling-bullets-were-roman-troops-secret-weapon/

Burnswark Hill: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burnswark_Hill#Battle_details

New and Notable August Releases

OUT NOW  Kidnapped in 7th century England and sold as a slave to a powerful mayor in France, Bathilde needs to adapt to survive. When the mayor’s beloved wife passes away, he looks to Bathilde for comfort. Fleeing his attentions, she is forced to live on the streets until she catches the king’s eye and everything changes.

How did a slave navigate the treacherous Merovingian courts and rise to rule an empire? And why have so few people heard of her?  https://amzn.to/2VPPUIE

 

Paperback OUT NOW; e-book AUGUST 18:
In the beginning there was confusion.

Ever woken up being a God, but not knowing how to God properly? Your brothers keep creating mosquitoes and celery and other, more threatening weapons. What can your ultimate answer be – the one that will make you THE All-Father and them, at best, the All-Those-Uncles-We-All-Have-But-Don’t-Talk-About?  “FML! The answer’s why I drink!” – Odin

https://amzn.to/2Xh5Wfh

OUT NOW: GRACE ON THE HORIZON is the second full-length novel in The White Sails Series. Grace and Seamus, united by their past experiences, are adrift on a raft of shame in the sea of 1830s London society. After a personal tragedy, Grace’s desperation to leave London forces Seamus to accept a dubious commission on the private explorer, Clover.
GRACE ON THE HORIZON promises another adventure on the high seas, bursting with action and suspense. 
https://amzn.to/2Ulhopg

AUGUST 18: A space opera heist brimming with action, twists, and turns that doubles as a story of personal growth, mentorship, and sacrifice.

Ailo is a streetwise teen surviving alone on the remote moonbase, Tarkassi 9. She wants nothing more than to flee into the wider world of the Arm. When her chance arrives, she makes it no farther than the first ship out of the system. That’s where Jati, the Patent War veteran and general fighting the Monopolies gives her a second chance.   https://amzn.to/3iIftUW

AUGUST 25
When a young man is found dead, killed in the exact manner as a martyr slain on the fields of Karbala some two hundred years before, there is no mistaking it as anything other than an attack on the Shia community of Baghdad. The city is on edge as religious and political factions are exposed sending the caliph’s army into the streets. Ammar and Tein have to clear the case, one way or another, before violence erupts. But Zaytuna has had a visionary dream of the murder that holds the key to solving the case. Can she can read its signs? And will Tein and Ammar listen?  https://www.llsilvers.com/purchase

Just How Accurate is that Historical Drama? Wolf Hall

In today’s guest post, Karen Heenan, author of The Tudor Court books (Songbird and A Wider World) looks at the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s series focused on Thomas Cromwell.  

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. Photo: BBC
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. Photo: BBC


 I’ve been a fan of Tudor-related TV since I first saw the BBC’s Six Wives of Henry VIII in the early 1970s, when I was just 6 or 7 years old, and I will watch anything about the period, even if it makes me cringe. As a writer of Tudor-era novels, my excuse is that even badly done stories can have redeeming qualities, though some programs have come very close to disproving my theory.

Not Wolf Hall, though. Based on the first two novels of Hilary Mantel’s excellent series, much care was taken with the production – from costumes to exterior locations to the marvelous interiors. So many candles! I found myself squinting in sympathy with people who had to live in half-dusk during the day. The costuming, particularly of the less-exalted characters (Cromwell himself, his wife and sister-in-law, the young men of his entourage) is wonderfully accurate, with head coverings abounding and care shown to small details. The courtiers’ costumes are also well done, though I had a few issues with Claire Foy’s gowns – something that tightly laced shouldn’t have those unfortunate wrinkles across the front! But her portrayal of Anne Boleyn made up for any costuming quibbles.

Speaking of performances, Mark Rylance’s Cromwell, is as close to perfect as they come. He’s an actor whose face, while seeming expressionless, can portray a myriad of thoughts – and Cromwell had a myriad of thoughts. Whatever your feelings are about the historical figure of Cromwell, this was a masterful portrayal. Damian Lewis would not have been my first choice for Henry, but while his physical appearance wasn’t quite ideal, he embodied the king’s dangerous volatility to a point where it was almost uncomfortable to watch him.

Mantel published the third and final volume of the series last year; there is another BBC series in the works, though they haven’t confirmed the casting yet. I hope they convince Mark Rylance take up Cromwell once again; I’ll watch it regardless, but no one else will ever quite be Cromwell to me after this.

All this to say that Wolf Hall is an accurate portrayal of the period, especially since Tudor dramas have been known to go quite over-the-top (Showtime’s Tudors, anyone? I think Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is as pretty as they come, but he’s no Henry Tudor. And don’t get me started on the costumes!)

The main point of contention regarding Wolf Hall (books or series) is whether or not you agree with Hilary Mantel’s version of Cromwell. He’s been the villain of this period of history for so long that it’s unnerving to see him humanized, even if he is still doing the occasional villainous deed. If he didn’t, someone else would – Henry would have his way, come hell or high water, and we all know that to be the one true fact of any stretch of Tudor history.

Image



Find Karen’s books here.

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Fantasy and Me: From Puck to Aslan

In the previous installment of this occasional series, I wrote about Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, and mentioned the influence I perceived it had on later works. Today, I’m going to focus on its influence on one series: C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books.

‘Ah, but you’re a fairy,’ said Dan.

‘Have you ever heard me use that word yet?’ said Puck, quickly.

‘No. You talk about “the People of the Hills,” but you never say “fairies,”’ said Una. ‘I was wondering at that. Don’t you like it?’

‘How would you like to be called “mortal” or “human being” all the time?’ said Puck; ‘or “son of Adam” or “daughter of Eve”?’

‘I shouldn’t like it at all,’ said Dan.

Puck of Pook’s Hill, Rudyard Kipling

“Sons of Adam” and “Daughters of Eve”, of course, is how Aslan, the Christ-figure lion in the Narnia series, refers to the children Peter and Edmund,  Susan and Lucy. 

“Down at Cair Paravel there are four thrones, and it’s a saying in Narnia time out of mind that when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit in those four thrones, then it will be the end not only of the White Witch’s reign but of her life.”

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

Yes, but, you may be saying – it’s coincidence. It could be, except for something else:  the Narnia’s children’s last name is Pevensie.  In Puck of Pook’s Hill, Pevensey – the Pevensey Levels (which is a real place, and Pevensey a real town), the Manor of Pevensey, and the Lord of Pevensey – are an important part of the story.

Antique Prints of Pevensey Sussex
Pevensey Castle, Sussex. Engraver & Publisher:
G. Rowe, & G. Wooll, High Street, Hastings

Why?  Pevensey is referred to as ‘England’s gate’ in Kipling’s story (it’s where William the Conqueror landed in 1066), and perhaps it was nothing more than the idea of the wardrobe in Narnia also being a gate between countries (or worlds.) You could perhaps argue that Lewis was attempting to replace Kipling’s ‘People of the Hills’ as the oldest, lost mythology of England with Christianity. Or maybe it was completely unconscious. Writers borrow, often without knowing they are.

I was – full disclosure here – never a fan of the Narnia books. I was not fond of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, or the child’s version of A Pilgrim’s Progress I had, either. I didn’t like being preached at as a child (or adult), even subtly. What I did – and do – like is the continuity, the fantasy stories of one generation influencing the next, and the next.

Next time, a look at Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, which I still re-read every few years.

My Favourite Fantasy Books: Hollo, by Devon Michael

I should be editing. Or researching. But I’m not (this is called procrastination). I was thinking about the entire genre called fantasy, for reasons – well, maybe I’ll say at the end. Thinking of all the books I’ve loved over the years, some well known, some not. So over a series of blog posts, I’m going to talk about some of those books and authors, indie and traditionally published. In no order, except that in which they appear in my head.

Hollo, by indie author Devon Michael, was the first one to come to mind. I read it several years ago, in 2016, but it’s stuck in my head, both for the premise and the quality of the writing.

“There was a pool of darkness in the midst of the light, where the wind had come in accompanied by a shadow, a shadow with shoulders and a head that stretched into the lighted space on the floor at the bottom of the stairs.”

Hollo The Gatecaster's Apprentice full

Here’s what I said in my review:

Reminiscent of Neil Gaiman, of the darkest episodes of Doctor Who, of some of the madness of Tim Burton, Devon Michael’s Hollo: The Gatecaster’s Apprentice is an artfully told, dark, and frightening coming-of-age tale with a twist. Hollo, the title character and protagonist, is a puppet made of wood, but one that can think and feel and move autonomously, created by her ‘father’ Fredric. (This might remind you of Pinocchio, but it shouldn’t.)

When Hollo reaches her twelfth birthday, Fredric takes her out into the world, a place far more complex and menacing than her sheltered world of Fredric’s house and the metal-casters workshop next door. Here she first hears the name Bander-Clou, and the words ‘Zygotic Pneuma’. Just what is she? And who is her father, really?

Clock-work soldiers of metal and wood pursue her. Hollo befriends a human girl; statues come to life; elemental forces protect her. Hollo’s world is under siege, and she is caught in a larger story, one older than she but one to which she belongs, and one in which she has an integral part to play. Michaels writes fluidly and effectively, his words invoking horror, happiness, fear and joy, the pacing moving the plot along quickly, but not so quickly the world-building is overlooked. This is a well-realized and developed world, one that the author leads the reader into by hints and clues: the reader learns the world along with Hollo.

Characters are well-developed, especially Hollo, whose innocence at the beginning is lightly but effectively shown, but also the supporting cast, from the malapropistic statue ‘The Countess’ to the marvellously conceived Lightening Man. And they all have a role to play; none of these characters, some of whom would not be out of place in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, are superfluous to the story.’

There was both an intimacy and a universality to this tale: no huge world-changing events, except for Hollo herself. Maybe that’s why I remember it, because it was so personal, and yet more.

I understand there’s a second edition of Hollo available soon. I’d recommend it.

P.S: As to why I was thinking about fantasy? I had my participation in two local events turned down, one because my books are fantasy, and one because they’re not. (Same books.) So it got me thinking about all the books I’ve read over the years that are classified as fantasy, and what that term does and doesn’t mean to various people. The upshot is I get to revisit my favourites, so that’s a bonus.

IImage by Comfreak from Pixabay 

Worldbuilding: Agriculture in an Early-Medieval World

The scenery, the customs and traditions, the way of life – all were portrayed so well that it felt like reading about a real time and place.” 

Helen Hollick, Discovering Diamonds review of Empire’s Daughter

This, in some version, is one of the most frequent comments – or compliments – about my books. How did you build such a real world? people ask.  There are a lot of facets to this, but the one I’ll look at today is the role of agriculture in creating an early-medieval setting.

I have an advantage over many writers: I grew up in a rural setting, did agricultural work from the time I was thirteen, come from a long line of agricultural workers, and have two degrees in the subject. And landscape history – which is inextricably tied into land use and agriculture – is a major hobby of mine. Nonetheless, it’s not what you know as much as how you use it, really.

Let’s look at animal agriculture first. Early medieval Europe, which my world parallels, had horses and cows, sheep and goats, and pigs*. Empire’s Daughter opens in a fishing village, but one that also farms. Geographically, it’s set somewhere equivalent to perhaps northern Wales – in my mind, it’s the landscape of Anglesey. Thin soils, rocky heathland in places; deeper soils in others. So it can support some grain crops, and some animal agriculture.

Lives revolve around animals: lambing, shearing, slaughter, as well as the cycle of planting and harvest. Fences are important, tough wattle fencing to keep animals out of gardens. Children are employed to scare birds, watch sheep, keep the goats away from crops.

One of the reasons I think my world feels rich is this is present as part of the background of life. For example, in a scene where a council of landholders have met for political reasons, other conversations still happen. The country’s been raided badly by a Viking-like people, and it’s just beginning to recover. Political decisions about leadership need to be made, but so do more mundane choices – and this young landholder, his father dead in the battles – turns to an older man for advice:

“Sorley,” he said when I sat down. “Should I put the meadows along the water to the plough, if I can find seed? They’ve been grazed, but we’ll not have sheep in numbers for a few years yet.”

“If those meadows are like the Ti’ach’s, they’re wet,” I said. “Better leave them to the sheep, and plough better drained land, if you can.” He’d be late getting the barley in, but it needed only three months to be ready to harvest.

Empire’s Reckoning

It’s two short paragraphs – but it brings the real, daily concerns of people to life.

Knowing how people and animals lived together also adds authenticity to a story. In many cases, it was in one building, either separated by a rough wall, or with the animals on ground level and people living above them. Cattle produce an enormous amount of heat, and this arrangement allowed for the animal’s heat to benefit people – and it also meant the people were right there in case of a predator attack. In this scene the character has begged shelter at a peasant cottage: 

She led me to the half of the bothy the animals occupied, the milk cow and the pigs, if they had them. Although this should be slaughter month, so the pigs might already be ham and bacon, hanging in flitches above the hearth. The byre was empty, as I had expected; what animals they had would be out foraging, but it was dry, and the reed bedding tolerably clean.

I settled into a corner, spreading my tattered blanket, which served as my cloak, out flat. I wished the cow had been indoors; her warmth would have been welcome.

Empire’s Reckoning

Here the rhythms of the agricultural year are shown to be important without bringing undue emphasis to them, and the living conditions of the people.

I could find other examples: how sheep are hefted to a hillside (hefting is a learned behaviour passed from ewe to lamb that limits where sheep will wander); how sheep and cattle were moved to market; the low value of the coarse wool of the upland sheep.  None of these get more than a mention here and there, or at most a couple of paragraphs, but they serve to create a solid agricultural basis to a world that depended on it. (Which, of course, we still all do, but most of us are so distanced from it, we forget.) In many ways, this is the equivalent of, in a contemporary urban novel, of stopping at Starbucks, or debating sushi or pizza for dinner: the details that reinforce the common rituals and experiences of our lives. In another post, I’ll look at the crops of medieval Europe and how they too influenced both daily life, and my books.

Featured image: Limbourg brothers/Public domain

* The sheep are coarse-wooled, darker than you might expect. The pigs aren’t likely pink, and they’re running loose, foraging; taller, razor-backed, bristly and dangerous. The cattle might be white, and fierce; castrated males are used as draught animals. You plough with oxen, not horses, in most cases. And the horses are ponies, shaggy and tough.