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Why Nuns Make Great Characters in Historical Fiction

Recently occurred to me that...

A few great things about having nuns as characters in historical fiction is that:

  • It can be assumed that they are better educated than their neighbors and so capable of more. They could be one of the few in the story who could read a manuscript or a secret ledger. They can read edicts for the village, putting them in a position of power, and letters for the individual so they are privy to information that others won't possess.
  • They have been brought up to be leaders. They organize things and investigate/snoop/assist so there's an excuse for them being the center of attention, or one of the key powers in the story.
  • Nuns have more of their own agency and freedom to move about the village and surrounding area which makes it easier for her to move through the story, unencumbered.  They visit the sick and isolated, and so can be a conduit for information or communication from afar.
  • They are also protected by a level of sanctity that can lessen the chance of assault, because no one wants to write about that.
  • Nuns are excused from the typical social or sexual obligations women face with men and so can co-exist with men in a story without coupling up.
  • It is reasonable for a nun to be an orphan or a cast-off from her family, or at the very least 'stationed' away from her family, so you can get away with a truncated backstory. They have fewer resources to call upon (no father/brother/sister to come to the rescue) which can increase tension in the story and keep this character focused on/dependent upon the protagonist.
  • Her room and lodging can also be extremely sparse so there doesn't have to be a lot of description of decoration and dressing.

So, I think nuns are very handy.  However, the downside is that  Read More 

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The Famine History Forgot

At one point reading The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century, by William Rosen, (Viking, 2014) I threw my hands up and asked the ceiling "can't these people ever catch a break?" Famine, flood, villainy, greed, war, pestilence -- in wave after wave -- hit Northern Europe leaving millions dead and half of the arable land of the entire region washed away forever.

 

The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century (in a new edition given a new subtitle A Story of Weather, War, and the Famine History Forgot, with a reference to Game of Thrones) is solid scholarship in lively writing.

 

Here is the tragic chronology:

  • In the 1300s, both the King of England and the rebels of Scotland practiced scorched earth warfare: they marched into an area, took the food they needed, then burned all the farms, barns, mills and pastures behind them.
  • For four centuries previously, the Medieval Warm Period had doubled the population of Europe and turned the people from self-sufficiency to reliance on trade.
  • But in 1315 – 1316 it rained relentlessly, basically two years without sunshine, with terrible flooding and massive soil erosion, followed by bitter winters when even the Baltic Sea froze. Two years of harvests failed, and since 80% of the population (those not in the aristocracy) relied for 80% of their diet on grain, famine swept through northern Europe.
  • A logical alternative would have been to eat fish, but North Sea herring spoils quickly without being salted. The Catholic Church had a near monopoly on the production and transport of salt and had already filled nearly half the calendar with fish-only days. But without sun there was no efficient way to evaporate seawater to create the salt needed, so the price of salt skyrocketed, and the Cistercians (in particular, but most monasteries generally) profited greatly.
  • In 1318 they finally had a good year with a decent harvest, but in 1319 rinderpest swept through the continent killing 65% of all of the cows, sheep, and goats, followed by sheep liver fluke.
  • 1321 was another year of a terrible harvest, this time from drought.
  • Then they were hit with glanders, a disease that kills horses, mules, donkeys, dogs, cats, and, frequently, humans: nearly half the horses in Europe died between 1320-1322.
  • In 1338, major floods destroyed dozens of towns and villages in central Europe, to be followed by a swarm of locusts that devoured crops from Hungary to Austria to Bohemia, after which an early snowfall destroyed fruit trees and vineyards.


As Rosen says, "The Third Horseman, riding the black horse, carries a set of scales ... a reminder that famine is a matter of equilibrium: of the delicate balance between life and death. The seven years of the Great Famine, and the evil times that accompanied them, are powerful evidence of how sensitive the scales had become, after four centuries of growth, to a sudden shift in the weather." Page 259


Additional Gems: [all quotes from book except for author's notes in brackets]

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Babies Buried Under the Threshold

I swear sometimes I can read a 400-page book and discover only one visual or a single trivial oddity that captures my imagination and makes its way into a new novel. I won't tell you which of these fascinating facts is the one but here's what I gleaned from The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages, by Robert Fossier, (Princeton University Press, 2010)

 

Best facts first:

  • The fire or hearth went from outside the house to inside sometime between 900-1100 AD.
  • Last rites could be given by laypeople, even criminals, during the Black Death and early Middle Ages.
  • Children who died without baptism or were stillborn were buried under the threshold of the home to prevent demons from seizing it and turning it into a changeling.
  • Women worked salt marshes and salt pans in fishing villages, hard physical work to produce the salt required to preserve food.
  • Churchman San Bernardino of Sienna maintained that a fetus less than 40 days old could be aborted for reasons of health or poverty. Herbal abortion recipes were well known.
  • Wine was not kept from one season to the next. It was either consumed or destroyed.
  • Houses of prostitution were kept by the Church, noted here and detailed in my first book, A Herstory of Prostitution in Western Europe.  

Here are other gems:

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Fascinating New Look at Our Kindred Neanderthals

I'm heartened by the fact that we have been Homo sapiens for 200,000 years and that new evidence suggests that for 190,000 of those years we lived in communal, cooperative and egalitarian groups. No rulers, no class structure or private property, no gender disparities.

 

And I've mentioned before that there's great work being done to unravel the bias against/invisibility of women in the archaeological and anthropological records. 

 

Now there's fresh, startling evidence that Neanderthal culture was far more advanced that previously thought.

 

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020)

 

This book is written in a lively and entertaining style, is very serious about its scholarship while being entirely assessable and, as it was just released, contains all the very latest discoveries and some musings about Covid-19. (Also, thank you Ms. Sykes for including female scientists among your sources.)

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The Last Pandemic was Deadly Because of Press Censorship

The Chinese doctor who first identified the coronavirus was arrested for speaking out, eventually dying of the disease. And just in case you're still not a huge champion of a free press in America, here's an incredible example of what happened when the U.S. dabbled in its own version of 'just print good news': it contributed to the death of 50 million people in what was called The Spanish Flu.

 

Though the Spanish Flu started in Haskell, Kansas on an Army base, it was named after Spain because Spanish journalists "had more freedom and more courage to report the truth, and they were neutral during World War I." They were the first to report on the rapidly rising death rate, according to Jennifer Wright, in her breezy but graphic book on global pandemics, Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them. "A morale law had been passed in 1917 after the United States entered World War I. It stated you could receive 20 years in jail if you chose to 'utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the government of the United States.' This law seems unconstitutional,  Read More 

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Mystery of the Venus de Milo: She was Spinning

History books often described women as being "relegated" to spinning or embroidery, and one thinks of a woman in a fussy dress wasting time with an embroidery hoop. Elizabeth Wayland Barber in her book Women's Work: the First 20,000 Years, however, describes in great detail a world where the work of women – and trading skills of women -- ran the world economy, producing the world's most coveted, sold, and plundered product.

 

Cloth Drove the Global Economy

You have to remember that until recently, with the invention of plastic and the availability of metals, everything was made of either fabric or wood. Objects were wrapped in cloth, carried in a sack, and even wooden boxes were frequently lined with fabric.  Read More 

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Gems from Ulrich's Not-Well-Behaved Women

Self-Portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi

The phrase "well-behaved women never make history" was actually coined (as 'seldom make history') by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich  and can now be seen on T-shirts, bumper stickers and buttons all over the world. Here are some of the gems on unwed mothers, fighting women, unsung authors of the 1600s and other women you'll want to know from her book Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (Alfred Knopf, 2007). 

 

Unwed Mothers and Women in Court

"Although a quarter of English brides were pregnant at marriage, very few babies – roughly 2 – 3% – were born to unwed mothers. In most cases, a combination of social pressure and the threat of legal action forced people to marry. When they didn't, the law insisted  Read More 

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Christine de Pizan Honored by GCP

I'm always very excited to find in history courses references to Christine de Pizan, a woman in the 1300s who was the world's first feminist and first professional writer. IMHO, she is under-heralded and too frequently overlooked. My novel A Slender Tether (Fireship Press, 2013), dramatizes her difficult early years that were filled with grief, poverty, and thwarted ambition.

 

I'm drawn to her because of her hunger to write (which I feel in my gut), her struggle with ambition (a love-hate relationship I know well) and her feeling that she is a "raptor among bluebirds", socially unacceptable for her ferocity (a more autobiographical idea than anything I've ever written before.)

 

So when The Great Courses Plus included her in their (excellent) course  Read More 

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Female Agency and a Diversified Sperm Pool

While I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality as it wends its way through the libraries in San Francisco, I wanted to get down what I know and think about this topic before I read the book, then follow up with new findings.

 

While streaming The Great Courses Plus lecture series on "What Darwin Knew and Why it Still Matters" the lecturer suggested that Darwin's book on sexual selection had far more difficulties being taken seriously or adopted in any way because the Victorians were unwilling to acknowledge the extent of female agency (or the ability of women to make and carry out important decisions on their own).  ("Wait, it's all the choice of a ...female?? Preposterous! Women are too fickle!")  Read More 

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Why Is It Called Devil's Food?

Milestones in the 17th, 18th and 19th century of chocolate, taken from a fascinating book, The Essence of Chocolate: Recipes for Baking and Cooking with Fine Chocolate, that is part history, part recipe book, part engaging stories. 

 

Why Is It Called Devil's Food?

"By the end of the 17th century, chocolate houses had spread from France and England to the Netherlands. By coincidence, the group of Pilgrims that would later sail to Plymouth Rock took up residence next door to one of Amsterdam's biggest chocolate houses in 1690. The Pilgrims, who stoned people for adultery and basically repudiated anything that looked enjoyable, watched as the chocolate-house patrons cavorted next door. A few nights was all it took to convince the Pilgrims the chocolate was the devil's work.  Read More 

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