When it comes to writing historical fiction, you can keep your Tudors and your Regencies. Yes, they might be wildly popular but I know of no other time period in history that is as fascinating as the medieval, which in my opinion is sadly neglected. If you’re not yet a fan, let me give you a flavour in my Medieval Medley. You may change your mind!
My hero is Sir Benedict Palmer, a chain mail-wearing knight. There may be some eye-rolling at this as appealing dress from male readers, who are possible envisaging a wimpy Sir Lancelot type. Gentlemen, a suit of chain mail and padded armour weighs in at four stone, or fifty-six pounds. You develop a lot of core strength simply be wearing it. Wimpy? I don’t think so.
There jobs in medieval times that could never be described as pleasant but are a novelist’s gift. Many people will have heard of barber surgeons, the early doctors who consulted with astrological charts and administered leeches to their patients. The job of leech collector is rarely mentioned. These unlucky folk simply waded bare-legged into reed-filled ponds inhabited by the slimy creatures and let the little suckers latch onto their legs. After the initial nipping bite, the leeches would do their work, swelling to five times their size after about twenty minutes. Bearing in mid the barber surgeons required large quantities of leeches, the job of leech collector must have been utterly foul. It would have been day in, day out, with the multiple bites often turning infected.
There’s nothing like a medieval banquet for show-off food. When Catherine de Valois, wife of Henry V, was crowned in 1421, the feast was held during Lent and so could contain no meat. Yes, it had eels, salmon, trout, huge crabs and whelks. I can tell you’re unimpressed. But it also had ‘subtleties’: non-edible dishes that introduced each course. This feast included pelicans, panthers and a man riding on a tiger. Eat your heart out, Gordon Ramsey.
Christianity was of course the religion of Western Europe. It wasn’t just part of society: it was society. The fear of hell and of the Devil was very real. It’s the medieval period where we see the rise of sorcery, with many people genuinely believing in it as the Devil’s works and that people here on earth practised it. There are many accounts, each more colourful than the last.
To give an example. William of Malmesbury (d 1142) wrote of the Sorceress of Berkeley, who had died in 1065. He describes her as ‘a woman addicted to sorcery…skilled in ancient augury, she was excessively gluttonous, perfectly lascivious, setting no bounds to her debaucheries.’ She repented on her death bed and begged for her body to be saved from Satan, with her corpse sewed up in a stag’s skin, placed in a stone coffin and weighted with lead and iron and secured with chains. It was no good. A devil broke into the church and made off with her on the back of a barbed black horse. I did promise colour, did I not?
Every period in history has infamous murders. But the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 has got to be one of the most well-known of all. It is also the most gruesomely shocking. Four knights, acting supposedly on the orders of King Henry II, broke into the cathedral on a late December evening and butchered Becket on the altar. Monks witnessed the crime first hand and produced several blow-by-blow eye-witness accounts. The murder sent shock waves through though the whole of Europe. Becket was believed to be God’s representative on Earth. Miracles began to be attributed to the dead Archbishop immediately after the murder and he was canonized with great speed. Canterbury rapidly became one of the most popular destinations for pilgrims in the known world.
So those are some of the highlights. I think you’ll agree that they give a flavour of why the medieval period is one of the most interesting, exciting and downright bizarre historical periods of all. I’ve been inspired to include chain mail, sumptuous feasts, sorcery and the murder of Thomas Becket in my novels. The leech collectors have yet to put in an appearance but I’m sure they’ll find their role. Watch this space!
E. M. Powell is the author of medieval thriller The Fifth Knight, which was a #1 Amazon Bestseller. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in the northwest of England with her husband and daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society (HNS), International Thriller Writers and Romance Writers of America, as well as a reviewer of fiction and nonfiction for the HNS.
About the Book
England, 1176. King Henry II has imprisoned his rebellious Queen for her failed attempt to overthrow him. But with her conspirators still at large and a failed assassination attempt on his beautiful mistress, Rosamund Clifford, the King must take action to preserve his reign.
Desperate, Henry turns to the only man he trusts: a man whose skills have saved him once before. Sir Benedict Palmer answers the call, mistakenly believing that his family will remain safe while he attends to his King.
As Palmer races to secure his King’s throne, neither man senses the hand of a brilliant schemer, a mystery figure loyal to Henry's traitorous Queen who will stop at nothing to see the King defeated.
The Blood of the Fifth Knight is an intricate medieval murder mystery and worthy sequel to E.M. Powell's acclaimed historical thriller The Fifth Knight.