Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades including:
BEST BIOGRAPHY 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
Find out more about her published and future novels, and share insights from her research here.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Physical Factors: Cold

Continuing with my five-part series looking at how objective factors can cause havoc for an unwary writer of historical fiction I look at cold. The problem, as I noted at the beginning, is that even these measurable and seemingly immutable physical factors impacted people differently in the past.

There is an old adage that there's no such thing as bad weather -- just the wrong clothes. The same could be said about housing. Eskimos have developed ways to deal with intense cold, enabling them to live in conditions the rest of us try to avoid. Furthermore, the exact same temperature can seem "chilly" to one person and "toasty" to another. Raised in Michigan and Maine but living many years in Africa, I always found it amusing when Africans would started wearing fur-trimmed parkas and gloves in weather I still found pleasant in a light jacket. When considering the impact of cold in the past, therefore, we need to consider not only the means of heating and dressing for cold, but also the fact that people may simply have been more "hardened" to cold than those of us pampered by central heating all our lives. 

Another factor for novelists to consider when writing about cold in past centuries is that we have lost a great deal of knowledge. With the advent of central heating, we discarded bed-warmers and braziers, nightcaps and long-underwear. While we can rediscover some of these by reading accounts written in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, it is harder for novelists writing about more distant periods to fully understand just what devices people used to keep themselves warm. 

It is, for example, still assumed and alleged that women wore no underpants in the Middle Ages simply because we have no images of women wearing this garment. But then again, why would we? Saints, queens and ladies, obviously, were not going to be shown in their underwear, while pornographic images tended to prefer women completely undressed. The fact that we know about men's underwear is because laborers often stripped down to their braies while working in the summer heat; women didn't do that. That doesn't mean they didn't wear underwear, and recent discoveries in Germany of braies with very pretty embroidery suggest that, indeed, many braies we assumed to be men's wear might have been worn by women instead or as well. In short, there is inevitably much we don't know about what people wore to keep warm.

Note the layers of clothing and hats worn even during a banquet.
Similarly, because most of us encounter medieval life by visiting the ruins of castles, it is easy to forget that castles were not naked walls with the wind blowing through them. There were tapestries and wall hangings, carpets and rugs, and there were, if not glass windows, horn and parchment window coverings and shutters, sometimes inside and out. The equivalent of modern heating? Hardly, anything other than glass over the windows reduced the light, while anything short of double and triple glazing let in more cold than we are used to.  Nevertheless, the temperatures in most castles were probably not as icy as you would think from reading many novels. If nothing else, most castles housed large numbers of people and they create their own heat!

Note the wall hangings and carpets.
For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and characters based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!

Friday, May 11, 2018

Physical Factors: Darkness

Continuing with my five-part series looking at how objective factors can cause havoc for an unwary writer of historical fiction, I look at darkness. The problem, as I noted at the beginning of this series, is that even these measurable and seemingly immutable physical factors impacted people differently in the past.

Modern man is so surrounded by light that even when we seek the darkness it can be hard to find it. Cities have so many lights that they blot out the stars at night -- while revealing human concentration from outer space. Light is also available (most of the time) at the flip of a switch or the push of a button. It is readily available without noise, smell, sound or danger. This was not always the case. 

What this means is that before the advent of electricity, light was much scarcer than it is today. For much of the past -- as is still the case in much of Africa today -- there was very little light after sunset at all. For the poor, activities requiring light -- repairing tools, needlework, reading -- could not be done after dark. Enter the story-teller and singers!

While there were some forms of lighting (to be discussed below) for lighting the interior of houses, workshops and taverns etc., there was no effective way to light up exterior spaces, except in densely populated cities. These, in periods of intensive urban life, possessed "street lighting" based on gas or oil lamps. What this meant is that travel beyond urban limits by night was greatly inhibited. Horses do not have headlights to help them find their way along the (often poorly maintained) roads. A lamp or torch had to be carried by a rider, which meant it did not light the surface of the (probably uneven, rocky or muddy) road on which the horse had to travel -- or by someone walking along beside or in front of the horse, which meant, of course, that the pace of travel was slowed to the pace of that man walking. Galloping across country in the dark of night is for Hollywood (which artificially darkens scenes filmed in broad daylight) not for the real world of the past. (I've tried to ride after dark by the way; it was a terrifying experience.)

Even inside, before the age of electricity, light was either natural light (from the sun) or it was produced by some sort of flame. Flame/fire, by its nature, brings a variety of risks with it. Fire/flames are hot and they can burn -- or set fire to other materials. Just as a reminder. A candle that simply falls -- or is knocked over -- can set an entire barn on fire, the straw easily igniting if dry. Hot wax burns. It can be a weapon. Things for a novelist to think about....

There were a variety of materials used to produce flame over time -- e.g. wood, reeds, wax, tallow, and different kinds of oil from blubber (whale fat) to olive oil. They have various properties, were more or less readily available depending on location, and more or less expensive.  Tallow, for example, smokes and smells; bees wax, olive oil and blubber are comparatively clean flames -- and correspondingly  more expensive. In short, a novelist needs to keep in mind a character's means and his/her ability to buy candles before describing their profuse use.  Likewise, the number and kind of lighting can be used to hint at the economic status of a character.

Because candles are still in use today, we are generally familiar with the kinds of candle-holders that can be used. We are less familiar with candles marked with lines at intervals so that time could be measured by how far down they burned. Candelabra and chandeliers were also available to the wealthy in most past centuries, but the larger they were the more candles the consumed and so the more expensive they were to light. In most societies it was a sign of wealth to be able to burn chandeliers and candelabra. They were more likely to be used only on special occasions even by the rich. 

Less common today, but very popular in ages past, particularly the ancient world, were oil lamps. These could be very cheap and simple pottery lamps, or more expensive and elegant lamps of bronze or glass. Below some examples from Roman times.


Note that two of these have handles so they could be carried around. As with torches and candles, the mobility of light was important because it was expensive and dangerous to leave flames, whatever their source, burning unattended. So rather than leaving lamps, lanterns, candles or torches burning everywhere, they were lit where people were collected and taken with people when they moved. 

While candle and oil light, not to mention flames from a fireplace are less intense than modern electric lighting, it also has it's appeal. It is less harsh, less revealing, and less steady. It flickers and wavers. There are reasons why the classic "romantic dinner" is by candle-light. And anyone who has experienced the splendor of a candlelight mass will understand the spiritual strength of a candlelit cathedral or crypt.

(I know, not candle light, but lighting designed to imitate it.)
For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and characters based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!

Friday, May 4, 2018

Physical Factors: Distance by Sea

Continuing with a look at the physical factors that, despite being objectively identical, impacted people in the past differently than today, I look at covering distance over water rather than land, i.e. sea travel in the past.

Before the invention of the steam engine, travel over the water depended either on manpower (oars or paddles) or the wind. The forms these means of propulsion took varied enormously across time and space. An American Indian canoe does not have much resemblance to a Greek trireme!  Likewise, the advanced sailing machines of the 19th century, whether a great Man o' War of the Napoleonic Wars or the graceful clipper ships of the tea and gold trade, had sailing characteristics unknown to earlier centuries of sailing. In short, as with forms of land transportation, a novelist needs to do detailed research into the type of ships used in the era and setting of a particular novel. 

The ships of the 19th century were the very pinnacle of evolution for fighting and commercial sail respectively, and they required large and highly trained crews -- factors that impacted both life on board, and the speed and cost of transportation by sea. 

Unfortunately, the further back we go in time, the less we know about the ships in use.  Paintings of ships from the Middle Ages, for example, are not intended to be perfect representations of nautical technology but rather symbolic. Here are a couple of examples:

Note, this last image actually has considerable detail on the hull, but provides no useful information about how the boat (or ship?) was propelled, what the accommodation was like, or the speed at which she could travel.  Fortunately, modern marine archaeologists have been able to envisage a great deal more based on the wrecks of vessels that have been discovered and investigated.

You will note that the second of these vessels is a galley, which means she could be propelled by oars as well as sails. This in turn meant she had a comparatively low free-board, sitting much closer to the surface than the larger cog-like vessel above her. She also has lateen sails rather than square sails, another feature that would make her sail very differently from the square-rigged cog. A novelist interested in authenticity needs to consider both what kind of vessel was likely to be used at a specific time and place for a specific purpose -- and then look into the sailing characteristics and accommodations available on such ships.

Another important factor to consider when looking at travel by sea was who controlled maritime transportation and the nature of the crews. Growing up with images from the film "Ben Hur" in my head, I was astonished to learn that the Greek triremes (those magnificent vessels that defeated the Persians in 479) were manned not by slaves but by citizen crews. That fact alone, perhaps even more than the design and maneuverability of the ships themselves, my explain the Greek victory at Salamis!

Hollywood's Depiction of a Greek fighting ship from the film "Troy" -- not a trireme as it only has one oar-deck, a trireme had three but I have found no good images copyright free.
Last but not least, when describing travel by sea in the age of sail, novelists need to understand a number of fundamentals about sailing. First and foremost, a sailing ship cannot sail into the wind. A sailing ship had to tack, slicing through the wind and clawing its way to windward to make progress in the direction from which the wind blew. Depending on the rig and sailing qualities of the ship, this could be very time consuming and hard on a ship and crew. Tacking has to do with the wind direction not the rig of the ship; square-riggers tack too.

Another simple fact: a sailing ship sails most comfortably with a following wind and sea. When sailing before the wind, a vessel is comparatively steady, the sensation of wind (and speed incidentally) is reduced, and the decks are most likely to be dry. It is when tacking that a ship is slicing into the wind and sea, which means it breaks the waves with the bow and sends spray back over the railing onto the deck.  A quartering sea on the other hand is one that is most likely to make passengers queasy and sea-sick.  Sea-sickness, however, is mitigated by the heel of the ship that keeps it from rolling as much as ships without sails. "Heeling" is that act of leaning away from the wind. For a writer it is important to remember that this means a deck is rarely level on a sailing ship -- and nor are tables or bunks. Every time a ship changes tack, the ship rights itself and then leans over in the other direction. 

Finally, sailing ships could be completely becalmed and end up drifting on currents and tides. There are places notorious for light winds (the doldrums, for example), just as there are places notorious for heavy winds (the Straits of Maleas,  Cape Horn etc.) Captains knew the wind patterns and the currents of the waters in which they sailed and tried to use these to their advantage as much as possible.  Which reminds me that just like riding horses, learning to sail is a long and difficult process. The inexperienced could not simply climb aboard a boat and set off on a long journey. It took years to make a man a master mariner, and this was why they were so highly respected in all cultures.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and characters based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!

Friday, April 27, 2018

Physical Factors in Historical Fiction: Distance by Land

 When writing historical fiction, one of the challenges is recognizing (and remembering) that even objective and measurable physical factors such as distance, heat or light, impacted people differently in different historical periods. Today I start a five part series looking at such factors.

Today I look at distance, specifically distance over land.

Since the introduction of telecommunications, the internet and social media, people have obtained the means to communicate directly and instantly with complete strangers located almost anywhere on the globe. Indeed, we can communicate with people who do not even share a common language by means of translation programs. This is an incredible and marvelous development ― and a very recent one.

For all books which carry the rubric “historical fiction” ― i.e. books set in ages beyond the range of living memory ― interaction between humans was limited and defined by the physical distance between them. For books set before the invention of the telephone and telegraph, this meant that all communication was either direct ― within the range of the human voice and eye ― or dependent on means of transport by which letters or oral messages could be delivered to someone not within hearing/sight.

Because direct communication by voice and sign language is still part of our repertoire (at least for now, although some would argue the art of direct conversation is dying out in favor of everyone typing on their iPhones), it poses little challenge. Indirect communication, on the other hand, is often a challenge for a historical novelist.

How does a character living in, say, the 12th century get a message to his brother (lover, lord, servant, business partner etc.) who happens to be in a different city, country, or continent? No telephone, no telegraph, no email, no Facebook. Back to written letters ― assuming the sender and recipient are both literate, which in the 12th century might, or might not, be probable depending on class and location.

Assuming the characters can write, then a letter could be sent, but not by mail. It would have to be entrusted to someone. Depending on how private, sensitive or urgent the message is, the sender would have to select a messenger. Handing a routine letter to a passing peddler might work for some kinds of messages, but hardly a missive to an illicit lover or a warning of a possible arrest to a co-conspirator in treason. Depending on the importance and intimacy of the message then, a messenger might need to be paid and trusted highly, with all the complications this entails.

Assuming the characters cannot write, the situation is even more complicated because they would have to share their message ― no matter how delicate, private or potentially incriminating ― with someone else: either a scribe who could write the letter or a person, who would deliver it verbally for them.

In short, something very simple today (make a call, send an email) can become very complicated in a different time period ― and that even without considering the distance involved. Sending a message to the next village is one thing, from London to York another, or sending it from England to France something else again, while sending it from Norway to Constantinople or from Sicily to Alexandria etc. etc. etc. entails difficulties on a totally different scale altogether.

Messages at least were light weight (or weightless if oral), but travel entailed moving a body and usually some amount of luggage over distances. We all know what a hassle travel is: packing suitcases, manhandling them in and out of cars, or worse lugging them to check-in counters for buses, trains and planes, and then being packed in like sardines…. But nowadays we can travel to the other side of the world in 48 hours, even allowing for changing planes and transit stops. We can travel across continents even by ground transportation in four or five days. But any book set in a period more than 200 years ago entails returning to an age where the speed of ground transportation was limited by the speed one could travel by foot or horse.

Furthermore, this is not a simple matter of multiplying the pace a man can walk in an hour by the number of miles the character wishes to travel because roads were not consistently good and terrain impacts the average speed of both man or horse. We are too used to simply pressing harder on the accelerator when going uphill to fully appreciate the impact of terrain. Hiking cross-country in rugged countryside is extremely educational for a historical novelist!

Given the fact that horses were the principle form of transportation for those who could afford them even back in the age of Greece and Rome, understanding about horses, their needs, weaknesses and limitations is also useful for a novelist whose books are set before the age of the internal combustion engine. (Horses remained the primarily means of transport long after the invention of the steam engine.) Horses, contrary to the descriptions of many writers of historical fiction, vary greatly in terms of temperament, capability and character. They are not like cars. They do not just start and go at the turn of a key. They can be ornery, dangerous, lazy, loyal, vicious, nervy, etc. etc. I wish I had a dollar for every reference to horses in fiction that is utterly implausible.

Equally important: not everyone can get on a horse and ride it. There are some horses that anyone can ride ― but they are rarely fast, willing or intelligent. There are also skilled riders who can ride any horse. But the vast majority of people require some training and practice before they can do more than sit on a quiet, biddable horse at a walk. If a character is going to be riding even at a trot, much less a canter or gallop, or be fighting on horseback, then the character needs to have had corresponding amounts of time to learn how to control a horse during those various activities. 

Please note: the 13th century historian and legal counsellor Philip de Novare claimed that “... he will never ride well who did not learn it when young.”[i] Again, a dollar for all the implausible scenes involving horses and riders would make me a wealthy woman!

And then there are vehicles drawn by draught animals. In ancient times there were chariots with two, three or four horses side-by-side but only a platform balanced between two wheels for humans ― not a form of transport for long distances, women and children. By the 19th century there were, of course, a whole range of vehicles from carts to carriages (and all the variations in between that readers of Jane Austin will know.) These included two and four wheel vehicles drawn by anything from one to eight horses.

The problem is that countless authors of historical fiction don’t bother to do even cursory research about these vehicles and blithely assume that “carriages” existed forever. No. Carriages didn’t evolve from more primitive carts and wagons until the 16th century ― and then only in an early form. It was not until the 17th century that covered vehicles for passengers pulled by teams of horses came into use. Furthermore, the development of wagon brakes, swivel axles, and harness for the drought horses was likewise slow and incremental, meaning that depending upon what period one is writing about the level of development in wheeled transport could have been very different ― with dramatic impact on the speed at which these vehicles could travel, the type of cargoes they could carry, the level of comfort for passengers, and the kind of terrain they could cover. A novelist should not assume that a 12th century cart, for example, could cross a swamp or go through snow or navigate in narrow medieval streets.

Join me next week when I look at travel by sea.  

Meanwhile, for readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and characters based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!

[i] Prawer, Joshua. “Social Classes in the Latin Kingdom: the Franks,” Zacour, Norman P. and Harry Hazard, A History of the Crusades Volume Five: The Impact of the Crusades on the Near East. University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, pp. 124-125

Friday, April 20, 2018

Women in the Middle Ages 4: Women and Love

Today I  conclude my mini-series on women in the Middle Ages with a look at cult of courtly love and the controversial topic of how it impacted the status of women.

The “Middle Ages” ought to be called either the “Feudal Ages” or the “Age of Chivalry” since the term “middle" (suggesting something interim or transitory) is an odd designation for more than a thousand years of history.  Feudalism, on the other hand, was a defining characteristic of the Middle Ages, and Chivalry was the secular ethos of that age. It was chivalry that gave birth to a radical transformation of man’s understanding of “love” and with it to a revolution in sexual relations.

To understand the latter, it is necessary to briefly reiterate the importance of Christian beliefs, and then to look more closely at chivalry itself. Christianity impacted the concept of love in two ways: 1) God is defined as Love with Christ as Love incarnate, and 2) it elevated women into souls, making them spiritual beings, equal to men in the eyes of God. Thus Christianity values love, including love for women, while making a clear distinction between love (which is divine) and lust (which is a mortal sin.) Love for the Virgin was an expression of the former, and extremely important in the history of the Medieval Church.  Yet chaste love for a living woman was also valued and cherished. Such feelings are well-illustrated by a letter from the 6th Century poet and priest Venantius Fortunatus to the fifty-year-old Queen Radegund, then living as a nun in the convent of the Holy Cross at Poitiers. Fortunatus writes:

Honored mother, sweet sister

Whom I revere with a faithful and pious heart,

With heavely affection, without bodily touch,

It is not the flesh in me that loves
But rather the desire of the spirit… (Pernoud, p.35.)

Chivalry, on the other hand, introduced for the first time the notion that a man could become more worthy, more “noble,” through love for a lady. Love for a lady became a central – if not the central – concept of chivalry, particularly in literature. Other characteristics of chivalry, as defined in handbooks on chivalry such as that written by the Spanish nobleman Ramon Lull, were nobility [of spirit not birth], loyalty, honor, righteousness, prowess (courage), courtesy, diligence, cleanliness, generosity, sobriety, and perseverance. Wolfram von Eschenbach in Parzifal stresses a strong sense of right and wrong, compassion for the unfortunate, generosity, kindness, humility, mercy, courtesy (particularly to ladies), and cleanliness. Simplified, chivalry entailed upholding justice by protecting the weak, particularly widows, orphans, and the Church. Yet regardless of the exact definition, the inspiration for knights striving to fulfill the ideal of chivalry was love for a lady.

Critically, the chivalric notion of love was that it must be mutual, voluntary, and exclusive – on both sides. It could occur between husband and wife – and many of the romances such as Erec et Enide or my favorite Yvain, Or the Knight with the Lion (both by Chrétien de Troyes) or Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, revolve in part or in whole around the love of a married couple. The notion repeated so often nowadays that courtly love or the love of the troubadors was always about adulterous love is nonsense.  Nevertheless, the tradition of the troubadours did put love for another man’s wife on an equal footing with love for one’s own – provided the lady returned the sentiment. The most famous of all adulterous lovers in the age of chivalry were, of course, Lancelot and Guinevere, closely followed by Tristan and Iseult.

Likewise noteworthy in a feudal world was the fact that the lover and the beloved were supposed to be valued not for their social status or their wealth, but for their personal virtues.  A lady was to be loved and respected for her beauty, her graces, her kindness, and her wisdom regardless of her status, and a knight was to be loved for his manly virtues, not his lands or titles. 

Even more important, however, is the fact that regardless of which of the partners was the social superior, the lady always took on the role and status of “lord” to her lover. The term of address that a lover used in addressing his lady was “mi dons” ― literally “my lord.” The term denoted the knight’s subservience to his lady, his position as her “man” ― her vassal, her servant, her subject. In art, knights are shown kneeling before their lady and placing their hands in hers ― the gesture of a vassal taking the feudal oath to his lord. (I couldn't find an example of this exact gesture on the internet, but here are two images of knights keeling with folded hands before their ladies.

Last but not least, courtly or chivalric love was not a means to sexual conquest. For lovers who had the luck to be married, it certainly included physical love, and in many of the adulterous romances consummation was also achieved. Yet physical love was not the objective of courtly love. The objective of love was to become greater ― more courageous, more courteous, more generous, more noble, in short, more chivalrous than before. In this sense, courtly love reflected religious love because it was first and foremost love of the spirit and character rather than the body. 

All of these features set courtly or chivalric love apart from the erotic love of the ancients, the Arabs or the modern age.  Sadly, people still confuse “chivalry” with superficial gestures of courtesy (such as opening doors) and women in the name of “liberation” reject the concepts that first truly liberated them.

For more on this fascinating, complex and hotly debated subject, I recommend:

Barber, Richard W. The Knight and Chivalry. The Boydell Press, 1995.
Hopkins, Andrea. Knights: The Complete Story of the Age of Chivalry, from Historical Fact to Tales of Romance and Poetry. Quarto Publishing, 1990.
·                 Pernoud, Regine. Women in the Days of the Cathedrals. Ignatius, 1989.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!