Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

Most people have been in this place before: You obsess over some particular subject/object/person and they keep appearing before your eyes. Only, typically, what you think you see is not what is actually before you.

In a twist on this, I have discovered that Godfrey is everywhere. To refresh the memories of those whom I have not dulled into a stupor with endless yammering, Godfrey of Bouillon is the subject of the book that I am writing. It is a novel, but based on the lives a several real people, including Godfrey himself. Although work proceeds slowly, I do think about it a lot. When I am not actually writing or reading through medieval history, in my head I replay scenes, untangle unnecessarily complicated sections and develop dialogue.

In the last few weeks, however, I have become eerily aware that my characters keep getting up and walking out of my head and onto the street in front of me. Here in Belgium, a Godfrey statue in Brussels or certainly Bouillon is expected. But he keeps showing up elsewhere as well.

In Rome, at the Vatican Museum, I was diligently reading through the Blue Guide descriptions of the Raphael Stanze and Loggia when Godfrey waved hello, sitting beside Ethelwulf of England — as well as a few tourists.

But it is not just Godfrey who keeps popping into my life; other characters are making unexpected appearances.

In the ruins of the Orval Abbey, I stepped up to one of the explanatory tables to read about the abbey myth of the lady, her ring and a fish. The story I knew already from the logo on the Orval beer bottle: a fish with a ring in its mouth. Evidently this unnaturally thoughtful trout delivered the ring back to the lady after she dropped it in the spring. There before me was the so-called spring (still used to feed the revered brown bottles of Orval brew) and the place where, upon receiving her ring back, Mathilda, declared that the waters must be sacred indeed and . . . Wait. That Mathilda? As in the daughter of the evil stepmother to Godfrey and the one who is married off to his hunchback uncle? Yes, indeed. And Mathilda waves hello.

Then, last night, we were watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, so that I could point out to a certain non-aficionado where the Venice square in which we sipped cappuccino appears in the film. The Jones boys have escaped Brunwald Castle when Dr. Jones, Sr. explains the threat of holy grail booby traps.

But I found the clues that will safely take us through, in the Chronicles of St. Anselm.

I am pretty sure Anselm was not writing choose-your-own-adventure material back in the Middle Ages. He was, however, corresponding with a certain Ida, Countess of Boulogne, also known as the mother of Godfrey of Bouillon. In my own novelization of his achievements I have him gliding in at the right moment to help save the day, not that far off from writing clues to hidden treasures.

“Hello!” Anselm hails me from the screen.


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March has roared in with bitter cold weather that shows not the slightest inclination of loosening its grip of winter to let spring pass. The disadvantages are obvious; the advantage has been a series of sunny, blue-sky days.

On one such day I caught Monsieur Godfrey atop his horse standing in the Royal Square of Brussels. He cut quite a figure.

So inspired, my book research continued from A History of Private Life, Revelations of the Medieval World. Some nuggets for your curiosity:

  • Just before dying noble men made a habit of lavishing their adoration upon their wives, followed up with a quick lecture on the chastity of widowhood and a request for a quickie divorce. Seeing as knightly duties were often in conflict with one’s likelihood to ascend to that higher place after death, these fellows would don the habit of St. Benedict at the last minute, along with offering a sizable donation to the monastery to pray for their souls.
  • Women were not thought of kindly by the era, particularly the clergy who did most of the writing. In their minds, ladies were infamous for their supposed poisonings, casting of spells, sowing of discord and ability to induce weakness, disease and death. Of course, some of this was justified. Conflicts with stepmothers and the “oppressive eye of the matriarchal mother-in-law” abound in the histories written at the time. And ladies were known to tip a drop of arsenic into the wine glass on occasion. Poor Robert Giroie ate a poisoned apple his wife Adelaide had meant for another. Mabille of Belleme, however, fully intended to poison Ernaud d’Echauffour. But if you had to hold on to a burning iron bar to prove your fidelity, you might get a little pissed at the male species too.
  • There were alternatives for ladies unhappy with their situations. You did not have to marry the man to whom you had been espoused, for example. Unfortunately, to avoid this you either had to throw yourself into the sea (while on route to said future husband), disfigure yourself so that no one would want to marry you or, seemingly the best option, arrange for an “abduction,” preferably to some strapping and brave knight. Of course, in this case, you might end up with the original fellow in the end anyway, as the daughter a castellan of Coucy discovered, when her “famous knight” was soon killed, as is wont to happen to a man of that profession. But if stuck in a marriage torn by family politics and war, you could always take your vows at the Order of Fontevraud, a refuge specifically for such situations.

And so ends our cheery discussion in celebration of this week’s International Women’s Day.

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Actually, it amounted to only four books:

Life in the Middle Ages, by Martyn Whittock

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell

In Search of the Dark Ages, by Michael Wood

The Discarded Image, by C.S. Lewis (Yes, as I said to the bookstore clerk, the Narnia guy.)

With many thanks for the recommendations, I was even able to help support the British Library by purchasing two of the titles at its lovely shop. And I shall enjoy gathering up the gems they offer.

Elsewhere in London, throughout the city’s magnificent museum collections — all free to enjoy — I gathered up a marvelous collection of priceless objects in images and descriptions, many of which I hope will find their way in some form onto the presently blank pages that lie before me to be filled.

These amber and glass beads were made for the neck of a lucky Viking lady.

“I am called ring,” the inscription says.

Look for the carefully chiseled image in the amethyst.

To be sure all your jewelry is straight on the go, this silver compact mirror slips into the smallest traveling bags.

On the road, you need to be especially careful of a bad exchange rate; with your portable scale and carrying case, money measurement is always accurate.

You would never show up at someone’s house for dinner without your own spoon, and this folding one really impresses hosts and fellow guests alike.

Travel means camping out in dark, unknown places, so keep this folding candlestick in your luggage and you can always see the contents of your al fresco meals.

Of course, at home something a little more showy is called for, such as this 3-foot gold candlestick with intricate if creepy carvings.

And it might be from the middle ages, or it might be from that super funky Scandinavian design shop in SoHo: the most awesome walrus tusk chess piece ever.

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Name that Name

In a day that swung from frustration to disbelief, it was a relieving escape to sink my head into naming the last of my characters, era-specific to the early middle ages. (Although they are all subject to change, it was a much-needed distraction to come up with the full cast.)

And so I present to you a mix of historical figures and the made-up people I have waltzing into their lives  . . .


Godfrey the Bearded (grandfather)

Beatrice of Bar, Marchioness of Tuscany (step-grandmother)

Ida of Lorraine (mom)

Baldwin (younger brother)

Anselm (monk friend of mom)

Godfrey the Hunchback (uncle — I didn’t make this one up.)

Sinopus (steward at Bouillon)

Dagena (cook at Bouillon)

Prior Marellus (Evil Cleric)

Ragno (Marellus’ goon)

Abbot Trutguard (abbot of the monastery)

Brother Bernardis (brewer of the monastery — you know I had to)

Brother Walwin (lead scribe of the manuscripts of the monastery)

Frobert (traveling merchant)

Eustace II (dad)

Eustace III (older brother)

I will have to gather together some Italian ladies for the marchioness, some more household servants at Bouillon and Boulogne, along with the monks and a few scattered free townsmen, but so far I’m rather liking the imaginary company I keep these days.

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Meet the Staff

Lest it be thought that my life presently consists entirely of flitting about from one spectacular sight to another, there is real work being done during those flits. While fulfilling wanderlust is a highly sought-after resolution for the New Year, so is accomplishing a very serious amount of work, even if it is not of a particularly serious nature.

This leads me to seek out medieval artifacts wherever I might find them. Conveniently enough, a European location does tend to make those opportunities come about often enough. (Though the 11th century was unfortunately, for both me and those who lived it, not a very notable or accomplished hundred years given to lasting reminders or histories.)

But on my journey a millennium back, I have met some fabulous characters that might inspire my next project, should it lean toward a more fantastical nature. I’ve met them on bindings for religious texts, ivory plaques, backgammon chips, chess pieces, door knockers and stone capitals.

Sources: Musee du Louvre and Musee de Cluny

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