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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. Read More 
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Visiting the "Millstone Rebellion" Manor House

I'm diving into another draft of my novel set in 1351 and I thought I would share with you the building that I'm using as a model. This is a schematic entitled Michaelhouse circuit 1348[i] , "a college for scholars in Holy Orders" that existed between 1323 and 1546 and has now been incorporated into the College at Cambridge. Despite it being a college, it has features that can be found in many medieval manors.


  • First, note that this manor is nearly self-sufficient. It has a fruit orchard, kitchen gardens, and a fishpond for food, with a brewery and bakery for bread and ale. Read More 
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