BLOG: Why the 14th Century?

Whenever I hear someone flippantly state that "history is boring", I have to respond. I have to make a statement and defend a subject that I deal with all the time when writing. If I was an American pilot in WWII, my life would have been FAR from dull. Had I been Michelangelo, painting the Sistine Chapel, there wouldn't have been many boring moments... just plenty of aches, pains, and "Eurekas" at discovering genius, while bequeathing to the world one of history's most endearing artistic masterpieces.


History in and of itself deserves study, it's worthy of a microscopic lens, because the way we respond to it, and the way we interpret it can often make a difference in our own history. For author Carolyn Hughes, the Middle Ages has been her inspiration for an entire series of novels. Therefore, I wanted to inquire, "Why the 14th Century?"


Here's her answer!


And read ON, everyone!

Why 14th Century Historical Fiction?


In truth, the answer is I didn’t choose the fourteenth century, so much as stumble across it and thinking, yes, that would be great to write about!


The stumbling happened when I was thinking what to write as the creative piece for my Masters in Creative Writing. I’d been writing contemporary women’s fiction for a few years – and not getting any of it published – so I thought I’d like to write something different. I had been writing on and off all my adult life – short stories, novels, children’s stories, ideas for non-fiction books. And I had a pile of old scribblings in a cupboard… Looking for inspiration for the new novel, I delved into the cupboard, and came up with the handwritten (in pencil) draft of a few chapters of a novel I’d begun writing in my twenties. It was set in fourteenth century rural England, and was about the lives of peasant families. The plot wasn’t up to much, but I was really attracted by the period and setting.


I was already quite intrigued by the medieval period, partly because of its relative remoteness in time and in our understanding of it and, I think, for the very dichotomy between the habitual present-day perception of lives in the Middle Ages as “nasty, brutish and short” and the wonders of the period’s art, architecture and literature. The briefest of investigations quickly proved to me that I wanted to know more about the period, and it came to me that, by writing an historical novel set in the period, I’d have the opportunity both to find out more about the medieval past and to interpret it, which seemed like a thrilling thing to do. A few days later, I had an outline for the novel that became my first Meonbridge Chronicle, Fortune’s Wheel.


Historian Barbara Tuchman (in her book, A Distant Mirror) called the century “calamitous”. Catastrophic events affected every part of its life: overpopulation and severe poverty in the first decade; famines in the second; the start of the Hundred Years War in 1337, which continued on and off for the rest of the century and beyond; the Black Death in 1348-9 and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. So, plenty of background there for interesting storylines…


And it was, in fact, an aspect of fourteenth-century history that proved the inspiration for that first novel, Fortune’s Wheel: the arrival of the plague, the Black Death! I chose to write a story about the aftermath of one of the greatest catastrophes of all time, in terms of the havoc it wrought to populations, and I chose to set it in an area I knew well, the Meon Valley, in southern Hampshire.


Events like plague would have meant huge changes to people’s lives, at all levels of society, whenever they occurred, as we have discovered for ourselves these past two or three years, with COVID-19.


However, I’m particularly interested in how events affected the lives of ordinary people, rather than kings and queens and the movers and shakers of the world. When I started writing Fortune’s Wheel, I realised immediately that I wanted – and I still do – to write about ordinary lives within the context of these big social changes.


Of course, the lives of “ordinary people” aren’t much recorded – well, that’s not entirely true, for you can learn quite a lot about them from entries in, for example, court records. But they are generally just names, without the input of, say, chroniclers and historians about their characters or motivations. Ordinary people of the past are essentially unknown and invisible, with no biographies to draw from, so I’m obliged to invent entirely all the characters who populate my stories. But that’s not to say, of course, that I can also just “make up” everything about the way they lived.


My objective is to bring the fourteenth century to life with a sense of naturalism and authenticity. I want to try and understand (what we know of) the truth about the period, and to portray it as realistically as possible. (This is obviously the objective of all writers of historical fiction…)


For those readers, including me, for whom authenticity is pretty important, using a few aspects of recorded history, even if the story isn’t about those events, sets the fiction against a background of fact.


Clearly, our ancestors’ practical, day-to-day lives were very different from ours, and it’s important to try to portray those everyday practicalities so that readers can, in a sense, see themselves in their antecedents’ shoes, even if only a little bit. I love delving into the minutiae of medieval life and learning something new and then incorporating it into my stories. I’m careful not to load too much information but hope to give a flavour of life so readers can “see” it for themselves.


Alongside the physical details, depicting a reasonably convincing historical “thought-world” can give the picture depth. And this is, I feel, the most difficult. For, although people who lived 700 years ago were undoubtedly like us in many ways – they fell in love, adored their children, had aspirations and ambitions, enjoyed a joke and suffered the pain of loss, to name just a very few of the many similarities – they were surely also unlike us, also in many ways… Largely perhaps because of their limited knowledge and understanding of the way the world worked, and because of their belief in superstition and magic, as well as what the Church told them… Medieval people were “fatalists”, ascribing every disaster, be it the loss of a child, dead cows, a bad harvest, or the failure of the butter to churn, either to God’s will or the Devil’s work.


It was the similarities between their lives and ours that were brought into particular focus when I wrote Book 4, Children’s Fate. For plague returned to Meonbridge (and England) in 1361, and I found myself writing about it again at the very time when “plague” had come to our modern world. Not actually “plague”, of course, but COVID. It was a very peculiar thing to be doing, yet looking into fourteenth-century responses to the disease threw up a number of familiar tropes that I found rather fascinating.


Isolation, for example, keeping oneself to oneself generally, was certainly understood. A 14th century physician wrote in a treatise on the plague: “In pestilence time nobody should stand in a great press of people because some man among them may be infected”. Or “social distancing”, as we now call it… And the good doctor had some other familiar-sounding advice: he recommended hand-washing “oft times in the day”, though with water and vinegar, rather than soap. Obviously, close contact with a victim was generally to be avoided. And what about masks? Well, the “plague doctor” bird beak masks of later centuries hadn’t yet been invented, but I can imagine that those who attended victims might well have covered their nose and mouth.


Reading about those familiar responses brought the Meonbridge folk strangely close. I felt empathy with their situation even though I couldn’t possibly really understand exactly what they went through.


All about Carolyn's newest book: Squire's Hazard


How do you overcome the loathing, lust and bitterness threatening you and your family’s honour?


It’s 1363, and in Steyning Castle, Sussex, Dickon de Bohun is enjoying life as a squire in the household of Earl Raoul de Fougère. Or he would be, if it weren’t for Edwin de Courtenay, who’s making his life a misery with his bullying, threatening to expose the truth about Dickon’s birth.


At home in Meonbridge for Christmas, Dickon notices how grown-up his childhood playmate, Libby Fletcher, has become since he last saw her and feels the stirrings of desire. Libby, seeing how different he is too, falls instantly in love. But as a servant to Dickon’s grandmother, Lady Margaret de Bohun, she could never be his wife.


Margery Tyler, Libby’s aunt, meeting her niece by chance, learns of her passion for young Dickon. Their conversation rekindles Margery’s long-held rancour against the de Bohuns, whom she blames for all the ills that befell her family, including her own servitude. For years she’s hidden her hunger for retribution, but she can no longer keep her hostility in check.


As the future Lord of Meonbridge, Dickon knows he must rise above de Courtenay’s loathing and intimidation, and get the better of him. And, surely, he must master his lust for Libby, so his own mother’s shocking history is not repeated? Of Margery’s bitterness, however, he has yet to learn…


Beset by the hazards these powerful and dangerous emotions bring, can young Dickon summon up the courage and resolve to overcome them?


Secrets, hatred and betrayal, but also love and courage – Squire’s Hazard, the fifth MEONBRIDGE CHRONICLE.



All About Carolyn Hughes


CAROLYN HUGHES has lived much of her life in Hampshire. With a first degree in Classics and English, she started working life as a computer programmer, then a very new profession. But it was technical authoring that later proved her vocation, as she wrote and edited material, some fascinating, some dull, for an array of different clients, including banks, an international hotel group and medical instruments manufacturers.


Having written creatively for most of her adult life, it was not until her children flew the nest several years ago that writing historical fiction took centre stage, alongside gaining a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Portsmouth University and a PhD from the University of Southampton.


Squire’s Hazard is the fifth MEONBRIDGE CHRONICLE, and more stories about the folk of Meonbridge will follow.


You can connect with Carolyn through her website www.carolynhughesauthor.com and on social media.


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