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Researching Oddball History

One of the things I love most about writing historical fiction is research, and most often the question that comes up when I'm writing is "wait, did they have those back then?" "When was that invented?" Or "can this bird/bear/plant be found in England?" Some of my questions produce really oddball facts, like these:



  • Did medieval kings and queens really send out diplomats to find Prester John, a man who turned out to be fictional? Answer: yes they did. Between the 12th to 17th century (500 years!), they believed him to be a powerful king of a long-lost Christian nation in the East full of riches, marvels, and strange creatures. They sent entire fleets out to find him, and I think it's a great example of how limited information was in the Middle Ages, even at the highest levels. The baker in my new novel loves to tell stories of Prester John.
  • What was the Statute of Laborers? Answer: The plague, called the Great Mortality, first came to England in 1348 and killed nearly half of the population. This caused a tremendous labor shortage and threatened to end feudalism because the gentry relied on profits from agricultural labor for their wealth. After the plague, workers demanded higher wages and the rich pushed back: King Edward III issued the Ordinance of Labourers in 1349 which threatened imprisonment for any peasant who left the property on which they originally worked, and then in 1351, issued the Statute of Labourers which made it illegal to ask for wages that were higher than their pre-plague levels. Enforcement of these laws is a central tension in the new novel.
  • What spices were used in England in the 1300s, which was before the Age of Discovery? Answer: "Charlemagne (742-814 CE) was the first leader to have farmers plant culinary herbs such as anise, fennel, fenugreek, sage, thyme, parsley and coriander." Spices imported from the far east were incredibly expensive: "a pound of saffron cost the same as a horse; a pound of ginger, as much as a sheep; two pounds of mace as much as a cow. A Germanic price table of 1393 CE lists a pound of nutmeg as worth 7 fat oxen," according to the McCormick Science Institute's "History of Spices".
  • When did sugar come to England? Answer: Al-Andalus/Southern Spain was an important center of sugar production beginning in the 10th century and its consumption grew but was still a very rare and expensive import in the 14th century, equivalent to the price of ginger, cloves and pepper. It had an odd texture, though, compared to the honey that people were accustomed to: a Greek physician said sugar was "brittle enough to be broken between the teeth like salt."
  • Does smudging with sage really clean the air? Answer: Yes! Sage has anti-bacterial properties and can cleanse both water and air. Smudging with sage smoke, now thought of as just superstition, killed germs in the air.
  • What happened to corpses on the Medieval battlefield? Answer: Generally, the corpses and supplies of the retreating or vanquished army were plundered, sometimes by the victorious army, and sometimes by local townspeople. Bodies were buried, burned or left to rot. Armor and weapons were 'gathered' from the dead, cleaned and reused. To prevent them from running out of arrows, armies used 'arrow boys' who ran into the field, sometimes during a battle, to collect arrows. Nearly all armies traveled with a fletcher (who made the arrows) and blacksmiths who made the arrow points. A central character in my novel grew up as an arrow boy.
  • Was there satin in the 1300s? What about muslin (since it's made from cotton)? Answer: No, muslin was not the go-to fabric that it became. Cotton was grown in southern Spain, but in northern Europe common cloth was either wool which could be woven to be either warm or cool, or linen made from flax, hemp, or even nettles.
  • How far can a horse see? If I write that the mare is swimming across the valley, can she see the horse at the top of the hill? Answer: Yes, some sources say they can see for miles. My sister, who knows her stuff, says the horse should be closer to the shore, and should be alone because horses are herding animals. Though I needed three horses for the story, a solo horse would seek the companionship of the other and be more likely to trot up the hill.
  • Was there wainscoting in the 1300s? Answer: Yes, in grand buildings like cathedrals, monasteries, palaces and homes of the wealthy. "Wainscoting has been around since at least the 13th century when Henry III imported wood from Norway to line rooms at Windsor Castle. At first, it was primarily used for practical purposes, but it was soon recognized as a decorative technique that added detail and warmth to a room," according to thehandybee.com
  • Did they have crowbars in the 1300s? Answer: yes but they were called "iron crows."
  • What was the average height of an Englishman in the 1300s so I can decide how short to make my protagonist. Answer: 5 feet 6 inches so if my protagonist comes up to his waist, she needs to be just 4 feet tall.
  • We think of rabbit 'farming' as rabbits inside a building. How did they farm rabbits in the Middle Ages? What are the best fruits, vegetables and grains for rabbits? How did you harvest them? How did you prepare their pelts? Answer: stay tuned for an entire blog post on that!
  • When did Marco Polo go to the East? Answer: In 1300, Marco Polo published his book which generally is called The Travels of Marco Polo but at the time was called the Book of the Marvels of the World, which detailed his travels east on the Silk Road between 1271 and 1295. He died in 1324.
  • If a 4-foot woman needed to pull a cart, would it be a dog cart, a goat cart, or a pony cart? Answer: I debated this for a long time. A pony cart seemed too large, but a dog cart was too small and the words 'goat cart' don't roll off the tongue. It also depends on the size of the wheels. I have a picture of a Mormon man walking across America pushing on a crossbar in front of him, flanked by wheels taller than he is.
  • Would there be white ducks in England in the 1300s? Answer: they were not as prevalent, but they were very prolific egg producers. Could they have eaten swan eggs in the 1300s because it is currently against the law? Yes, but swans didn't produce a lot of eggs.
  • Do ducks and chickens get along? Answer: yes, you can keep them together, but swans will bully all the other birds.
  • Who were England's greatest medieval Queens? Answer: Jacob the warrener in the novel honors the ruling Queen Philippa of Hainault who was married to Edward III for 40 years and acted as regent for her husband in 1346. She was very popular for her compassion and kindness. Other noted queens were Ingoberga, mother to Bertha of Kent; Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians; Matilda, queen for moments but still the Lady of the English; and Eleanor of Aquitaine, a queen of great accomplishment.
  • How long would it take to walk from Thetford, England to Wells-Next-The-Sea? Answer: 16 hours but it's reasonable that the characters would break it up into several days, especially since they had to find food and make camp.
  • Who baked bread in the Middle Ages and how? Answer: the quite-surprising answer will be discussed in another blog post!
  • Salt was incredibly valuable in the Middle Ages as a preserving agent. How was salt 'harvested'? Answer: Salt was produced by evaporating sea water in shallow pans or by heating sea water. Both processes were back-breaking labor and almost always done by women.
  • Can you pound flower designs onto fabric without any other technology? I have no idea why I was asking that, but I have a pdf with the answer.


And on and on it goes, hunting verisimilitude, historical accuracy, oddball stories and lively fiction.

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