Monday, May 31, 2010

Valorous Service

Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr.

Who is this man? Why is he important to us in terms of history, especially on this day of observance of those who have died and served their country?

The man is Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr., a distinguished and loyal United States military man who began his service in the Spanish American War. After serving in both World War I and II, he was tapped as an advisor for the purpose of being a de-segregationist of the U.S. military during World War II in the European arena.

He had a colorful career and was among those referred to as the Buffalo Soldiers (a most notable group of Black military men) and ultimately reached the rank of Brigadier General.

During Black History Month and a few weeks thereafter, it was interesting to not only read but also see dramatic representations of the attitudes toward soldiers of color. Their determination to be among those on the front lines in combat while face the very real danger of being killed in the line of fire was palpable in every line of dialogue among the male characters. In each instance, be they Japanese, Native American, Hispanic, or Black, they were denied the privilege of offering their blood, their limbs, their very lives to demonstrate that they were just as loyal and just as American as their White counterparts. Maybe that was a good thing in light of the fact that it meant they were more likely to go home intact to their wives and families. But staying in the shadows didn't show the world, let alone the White comrades, their willingness to stand and be counted as just as accountable, just as brave, just loyal to their country.

These were the ones who because of their cultural backgrounds were able to develop strategies that confused and confounded the enemy while allowing the U.S. forces to gain the upper hand. They wanted the opportunity to be used to their highest and best in service to their country and to freedom rather than relegated to the status of background players and mere servants. They fought a double battle not only on foreign soils but also an enduring one at home -- to be recognized and allowed. What an irony that their combat was not only for life and freedom of those being persecuted by the enemy but also for the freedom to be, live, and fairly compete for their day in the sun against, of all people, their fellow countrymen of another color.

But let us return to the original question. Who is this man, this Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr.? He is the man who served his country through three wars and over more than 50 years. He is the man who was pivotal in beginning the disintegration of the walls of racial barriers in the U.S. military, making it possible for each man to hold his chest high in presentment of the salute because he was standing in valorous service and full representation of his country. And he is even more.

Yvonne LaRose, CAC

Friday, May 28, 2010

What Was It Like to Live in the Middle Ages in Europe

Jeanne Crain as Guebever in The Sword of Lancelot, clean, warm, dry, elegant, well-nourished, healthy, naturally beautiful, and having all her teeth.  That's what the Middle ages was like.  Not.

You know what it is like to go camping. How would you like to camp from the moment you are born to the moment you die?

1. You spend a lot of time outdoors because indoors there was very little light even at the best of times.

2. You are only warm and dry when the weather outside is warm and dry.

3. If something hurts, it keeps hurting until it heals. The efficacy of herbal medicine that you read of in historical novels is highly optimistic.

4. You break a tooth on the bits of millstone in the bread you eat.

5. You do not change your clothes very often at all.

6. You never go more than several miles from where you were born.

7. You do not hear about important events for weeks, months or even years.

8. If you do travel, you are out in the weather whether walking or on horse, If it rains you get soaked. The roads are narrow and muddy much of the time.

9. If you leave your loved ones or they leave you to live even a matter of leagues away, you hear very little if anything from or about them ever.

10. The food you eat is based on what is in season at the time or what could be preserved or stored. There is little variety.

11. You breathe in smoke from your fire day and night.

12. You probably have to deal with lice and fleas.

13. If you become pregnant you know you have a strong chance of dying in childbirth.

14. Just about everything you have you or someone in your family made by hand.

15. You never have any privacy.

16.  You are more likely not to know how to read or write.

17.  It is unlikely you have ever seen a book outside of a church or monastery and probably fewer than five ever.

18.  Depending on where you live you may or may not bathe regularly, but when you do, it is likely you are in wooden tub with slivers and air in the room is cold.  You would use a lye based soap if any.

19.  You start worrying whether your daughter is ever going to get married when she is fifteen.

20.  If you have any sort of disability, physical , sensory, emotional or mental, you will be lucky if you at least get to live at home and not be forced out to beg on the street.
The point of this list is not to disturb anyone's illusions, but simply to acknowledge differences that are easy to forget. It is likewise easy to forget that these conditions still exist in the world.

Feel free to add to this list.

Reprinted from Nan Hawthorne's Booking History.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Vestal Virgins

Reprinted from History and Women Blog.

In Ancient Rome, the vestal virgins were virgin female priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. It was their job to maintain the sacred fire of Vesta. 

This duty was a great great honor and granted the women many privileges and honors.  They were the only female priests within the Roman religious system.

The discovery of a "House of the Vestals" in Pompeii made the vestal virgins a popular subject in the 18th century and the 19th century.  The objects of the cult were essentially the hearth fire and pure water drawn into a clay vase.

A Roman man by the name of Numa Pompilius introduced the vestal virgins and assigned them salaries from the public treasury.

He stole the first vestal virgin from her parents.  More vestal virgins were added later.  The women became a powerful and influential force in the Roman state.  

Numa Pompillius

The chief vestal oversaw the efforts of the vestals.  The last known chief vestal was Coelia Concordia in 380. The College of Vestal Virgins ended in 394, when the fire was extinguished and the vestal virgins disbanded by order of Theodosius I.

The vestal virgins were committed to the priesthood at a young age (before puberty) and were sworn to celibacy for a period of 30 years.  These 30 years were, in turn, divided into three periods of a decade each: ten as students, ten in service, and ten as teachers.  Afterwards, they could marry if they chose to do so.

However, few took the opportunity to leave their respected role cause they lived luxuriously and marriage would have required them to submit to the authority of a man, with all the restrictions placed on women by Roman law.  On the other hand, a marriage to a former vestal virgin was highly honoured.

A vestal was chosen by the high priest from young girl candidates between their sixth and tenth year.  To obtain entry into the order they were required to be free of physical and mental defects, have two living parents and to be a daughter of a free born resident in Italy.

To replace a vestal who had died, candidates would be presented in the quarters of the chief vestal for the selection of the most virtuous.   Once chosen they left the house of their father, were inducted by the pontifex maximus, and their hair was shorn.  The high priest pointed to his choice with the words, "I take you to be a vestal priestess, who will carry out sacred rites which it is the law for a vestal priestess to perform on behalf of the Roman people, on the same terms as her who was a vestal on the best terms".

Their tasks included the maintenance of the fire sacred to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home, collecting water from a sacred spring, preparation of food used in rituals and caring for sacred objects in the temple's sanctuary.  By maintaining Vesta's sacred fire, from which anyone could receive fire for household use, they functioned as "surrogate housekeepers", in a religious sense, for all of Rome. Their sacred fire was treated, in Imperial times, as the emperor's household fire.

The vestals were put in charge of keeping safe the wills and testaments of various people such as Caesar and Mark Antony.  In addition, the vestals also guarded some sacred objects, including the Palladium, and made a special kind of flour called mola salsa which was sprinkled on all public offerings to a god.

The dignities accorded to the vestals were significant.  In an era when religion was rich in pageantry, the presence of the Vestal Virgins was required in numerous public ceremonies. 

They travelled in a carpentum, a covered two-wheeled carriage, preceded by a lictor, and had the right-of-way.  At public games and performances they had a reserved place of honor.  Unlike most Roman women, they were free to own property, make a will, and vote.  They gave evidence without the customary oath.  They were, on account of their incorruptible character, entrusted with important wills and state documents, like public treaties.  Their person was sacrosanct.  Death was the penalty for injuring their person and their escorts protected anyone from assault.  They could free condemned prisoners and slaves by touching them - if a person who was sentenced to death saw a vestal virgin on his way to the execution, he was automatically pardoned.   They were allowed to throw ritual straw figurines called Argei, into the Tiber on May 15 celebrations.

Site of the House of Vestal Virgins in Rome

Allowing the sacred fire of Vesta to die out, suggesting that the goddess had withdrawn her protection from the city, was a serious offense and was punishable by scourging.

The chastity of the vestal virgins was considered to have a direct bearing on the health of the Roman state. When they became vestal virgins they left behind the authority of their fathers and became daughters of the state. Any sexual relationship with a citizen was therefore considered to be incest and an act of treason. The punishment for violating the oath of celibacy was to be buried alive in the Campus Sceleratus or "Evil Fields" (an underground chamber near the Colline gate) with a few days of food and water.

Ancient tradition required that a disobedient vestal virgin be buried within the city, that being the only way to kill her without spilling her blood, which was forbidden. However, this practice contradicted the Roman law, that no person may be buried within the city. To solve this problem, the Romans buried the offending priestess with a nominal quantity of food and other provisions, not to prolong her punishment, but so that the vestal would not technically die in the city, but instead descend into a "habitable room". Moreover, she would die willingly. Cases of unchastity and its punishment were rare. The vestal Tuccia was accused of fornication, but she carried water in a sieve to prove her chastity.

Vestal sentenced to die

Because a vestal's virginity was thought to be directly correlated to the sacred burning of the fire, if the fire were extinguished it might be assumed that either the vestal had acted wrongly or that the vestal had simply neglected her duties. The final decision was the responsibility of the pontifex maximus, or the head of the pontifical college, as opposed to a judicial body.

While the order of the vestal virgins was in existence for over one thousand years there are only ten recorded convictions for unchastity. The earliest vestals were said to have been whipped to death for having sex.

The paramour of a guilty vestal was whipped to death in the Forum Boarium or on the Comitium.

The chief festivals of Vesta were the Vestalia celebrated June 7 until June 15. On June 7 only, her sanctuary (which normally no one except her priestesses, the vestal virgins, entered) was accessible to mothers of families who brought plates of food. The simple ceremonies were officiated by the vestals and they gathered grain and fashioned salty cakes for the festival. This was the only time when they themselves made the mola salsa, for this was the holiest time for Vesta, and it had to be made perfectly and correctly, as it was used in all public sacrifices.

Vestals wore an infula, a suffibulum and a palla. The infula was a long headdress that draped over the shoulders. Usually found underneath were red and white woolen ribbons. The suffibulum was the brooch that clipped the palla together. The palla was a simple mantle, wrapped around the vestal virgin. The brooch and mantle were draped over the left shoulder.

Learn more about women and their fascinating bios and histories at History and Women

Friday, May 21, 2010

Historical Figures in Historical Fiction


There’s a post over at Reading the Past which discusses the presence or absence of actual historical characters and events in historical fiction and whether the absence of them in books defines historical fiction or not.

I’m rather of the opinion that—going by the HNS definition—that it doesn’t make any difference whether there are any actual historical figures or notable events in the book or not. In fact—for every single historical book to have real life historical figures in it would actually be ludicrous, for it would mean if you were writing about ordinary people living their ordinary lives—say slaving away in the cane fields of America or grubbing a living in the sordid streets of the Potteries—to suddenly introduce a real historical person would be a huge jolt. I mean, look at even everyday lives today, how many people can say that they’ve met someone of note? (And I don’t mean a Big Brother third rate celebrity, but someone that history will remember, such as Nelson Mandela or Mother Theresa?

Granted there is a real life person in my second novel, Transgressions, the clever and charismatic Matthew Hopkins of Witchfinder fame. (Ignore the Vincent Price version puhleeze, that’s soft porn, just about).

But that wasn’t exactly a conscious decision to include him, image Jonathan just happened to be in the right place at the right time. And as for historical events, it would have been a little difficult to have two young men in 1642 NOT aware of the impending war. That being said, there is a true story which involves a farmer being asked if his land can be used for one of the battles and he said “Who’s fighting who, then?” (Communication not being a key aspect of the 17th century, and obviously not everyone knew about the war!)

But I don’t think it’s necessary at all to base your historical around real life events, or real life characters, and in fact its the stories that aren’t that I find most interesting. If anyone has read “The Boy I Love” by Marion Husband you’ll see that it’s just a story about people, living their lives. In the same gentle manner that many of A J Cronin’s books are written, or Cookson’s. image

To expect every book to be set around a historical event is also ludicrous. People always pick the same events too. I’d like someone to make a study of books written about the Titanic and add up how many people to date have sailed on the ill-fated ship. I would bet that her complement of passengers has increased by at least three-fold. I’m surprised she managed to get out of the harbour without sinking!

That being said – It always surprises me, with the enormous wealth of GLBT characters in history, that there aren’t more gay historical books about real GLBT characters.

So what do you think? Should historical novels all include famous people? Famous events? Or do you think that the little stories are just as important as the big ones?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Review: Duane Roller's Cleopatra Biography

Just when you thought everything that could possibly be written about the Queen of the Nile already had been, Duane Roller brings us a fresh new take. This scholarly work reads with the ease of a novel and even veteran students of Cleopatra will learn something new about history's most fascinating woman.

Cutting through the Augustan propaganda that has largely defined our contemporary view of Cleopatra as the wanton seductress and plaything of Roman generals, the book examines her skills as a linguist, diplomat, author, and naval commander. Roller does not portray her as a superwoman--after all, the Egyptian queen's plans did ultimately fail. But neither does he minimize her talents and accomplishments.

What emerges from the impeccably researched pages is a complex portrait of a woman who very nearly ruled the world. But lest we think she was all ambition, the book explains in detail that her first concern was always Egypt. Indeed, Professor Roller observes, "a failure to understand her essential needs was a constant misjudgment by the Romans."

In this book, we learn about Cleopatra in the context of the revolutionary times in which she lived as well as in the context of the legacy she inherited from her ancestors. But amongst the most enlightening revelations is a reference to Cleopatra's possible Egyptian blood and her relation to the priestly family of the god Ptah. It's become fashionable to dismiss Cleopatra's self-styled title of Philopatris and her learning of the Egyptian language as some sort of Egyptomania peculiar in a Greek queen. But if Roller's hypothesis is correct, then Cleopatra represented in her very person the merger of the Macedonian ruling class of Ptolemaic Egypt with the native people they ruled.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Mary Barrett Dyer (1611 - 1660)

Reprinted from History and Women Blog.

Mary was married at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on 27 October 1633. In 1637 she supported Anne Hutchinson, who preached that God "spoke directly to individuals" rather than only through the clergy. She joined with her and became involved in what was called the "Antinomian heresy," where they organized groups of women and men to study the Bible in contravention of the theocratic law of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

On October 17, 1637, after nearly four years of marriage, she gave birth to a deformed stillborn baby, whom she buried privately.

Because she had sided with Anne Hutchinson in the Antinomian heresy, she and her husband were banished. They moved to Providence, Rhode Island.

Shortly thereafter, the authorities learned of the “monstrous birth,” and Governor Winthrop had it exhumed in March 1638, before a large crowd. He described it thus:

“It was of ordinary bigness; it had a face, but no head, and the ears stood upon the shoulders and were like an ape’s; it had no forehead, but over the eyes four horns, hard and sharp; two of them were above one inch long, the other two shorter; the eyes standing out, and the mouth also; the nose hooked upward; all over the breast and back full of sharp pricks and scales, like a thornback [i.e., a skate or ray], the navel and all the belly, with the distinction of the sex, were where the back should be, and the back and hips before, where the belly should have been; behind, between the shoulders, it had two mouths, and in each of them a piece of red flesh sticking out; it had arms and legs as other children; but, instead of toes, it had on each foot three claws, like a young fowl, with sharp talons.”

Winthrop sent descriptions to numerous correspondents, and accounts were published in England in 1642 and 1644. The deformed birth was considered evidence of the heresies and errors of Antinomianism.

In 1652, they travelled to England, where Mary joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) after hearing the preaching of its founder and feeling that it was in agreement with the ideas that she and Anne Hutchinson held years earlier. She eventually became a Quaker preacher in her own right.

Her husband returned to Rhode Island in 1652. Mary remained in England until 1657. The next year she travelled to Boston to protest the new law banning Quakers, and was arrested and expelled from the colony. Her husband, who had not become a Quaker, was not arrested.

Mary continued to travel in New England to preach Quakerism, and was arrested in 1658 in New Haven, Connecticut. After her release she returned to Massachusetts to visit two English Quakers who had been arrested. She was also arrested and then permanently banished from the colony.

From there, she traveled to Massachusetts a third time with a group of Quakers to publicly defy the law, and was again arrested, but this time, she was sentenced to death.

After a short trial, two other Quakers were hanged, but because her husband was a friend of the Governor, he secured a last-minute reprieve, against Mary's wishes, for she had refused to repent and disavow her Quaker faith.

Mary was forced to return to Rhode Island, then traveled to Long Island, New York to preach, but her conscience led her to return to Massachusetts in 1660 to defy the anti-Quaker law. Despite the pleas of her husband and family, she again refused to repent, and was again convicted and sentenced to death on May 31. The next day, she was hanged on Boston Common for the crime of being a Quaker in Massachusetts. She died a martyr.

Her execution is described by Edward Burrough in A Declaration of the Sad and Great Persecution and Martyrdom of the People of God, called Quakers, in New-England, for the Worshipping of God (1661).

Her last words before she died were: “Nay, I came to keep bloodguiltiness from you, desireing you to repeal the unrighteous and unjust law made against the innocent servants of the Lord. Nay, man, I am not now to repent. ”

After her death a member of the General Court uttered one of those bitter scoffs which prove the truest of all epitaphs, "She did hang as a flag for others to take example by."

A bronze statue of Mary, created by a Quaker sculptor, now stands in front of the Massachusetts state capitol in Boston; a copy stands in front of the Friends Center in downtown Philadelphia, and another in front of Stout Meetinghouse at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana.

Mary Barrett Dyer

1611 – June 1, 1660

Visit History and Women for more historical women's biographies

Monday, May 17, 2010

Ideas are Everywhere

I've been doing some thinking about how writers of historical fiction come up with ideas for plots. Often, the solution is as simple as opening the front page of the newspaper and scanning through the local stories. There's a great deal of stuff going on in the heartland of America.

It's a diminishing resource, too, as newspapers seem to be going the way of button hooks and the dodo. However, I've found some gems in the Classifieds. For example, here's one from the New Haven Register some months back: "For Sale. Wedding dress. Size 10. Never worn. Best offer."

What a writer could do with that.

Pick your time period. I'm partial to the WWII era, but it could work in a multitude of times and cultures. People that setting and you've got an angry father, perhaps a murdered finance or a jilted bride. A wartime romance that didn't come to fruition? The possibilities are endless.

Toss in a murder, some crime of various sorts, troubled family relationships, and you can have a historical worth reading.

How do you find your ideas?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Was Shakespeare a time-travelling computer?

This question is not as absurd as it may at first appear. For centuries, scholars have wrestled with the Shakespeare authorship question. How ever did the son of a Stratford glover, with limited education, emerge as England's premier wordsmith?
Attempts to uncover his identity as Bacon, Marlowe or Oxford have foundered because they rest upon implausibilities even more absurd than those which suppose Shakespeare to have been a polymath (with no evidence of a library) having unprecedented verbal skills. Indeed, they defy the 'coherence of probabilities'.

First, Bacon was far too busy with civic affairs to churn out - in his spare time - as many as four plays in a year, as Shakespeare attestedly did in 1593-4 and 1599-1600. 'Proofs' of Bacon's signature encoded throughout the works in anagrams are risible. The scripts never stayed the same from one play night to the next, as the many variorium editions of the Folios suggest. For an anagram to be decryptable, it must be encoded in a durable and published text. Shakespeare (or whoever wrote his plays) never showed the slightest personal interest in publishing his evanescent scripts.

Moreover, the modern Dan Brown craze for finding expedient cryptograms in everything - famously exemplified by Drosnin's lucrative The Bible Code - was laughed to scorn even in the sixteenth century (see Montaigne's Essais, 1580).

Kit Marlowe is a candidate even less plausible. He died on 30th May 1593 yet many of Shakespeare's most famous plays were not only produced up to nine years later but also some, like Macbeth and The Tempest, are indisputably grounded upon contemporary events unknowable to the 16th century Marlowe.

Only Oxford remains a feasible candidate, but he exhibited little wit or genius in those writings attributed to him. Nor have recent experiments in corpus linguistics managed to trace any similarity between Oxford’s writings and Shakespeare’s.

All textual quibbles aside, the clearest impartial evidence that Shakespeare was, well, Shakespeare comes from his close friend Ben Jonson. If someone other than Shakespeare had written the plays (perhaps a Marlowe recidivus lurking in the closet?), Jonson would have known it. So would Shakespeare's early paymaster, Burbage, and all the other major actors like Kemp. (Who fell out with Shakespeare and was not noted for his discretion.)

This hints at a massive conspiracy. Yet Jonson gives no hint of it in his candid memoires Discoveries, published 1640 and written in the 1630s, nearly twenty years after Shakespeare's death.

True, Jonson was a great trickster and he may well have felt some obligation to Burbage in the early 1600s to maintain the hoax. But it seems unlikely that he would have taken it to his deathbed, when most of its participants had passed on.

No. Shakespeare was Shakespeare. So how was he able to write so well?

BRUTUS is a software programme developed at MIT that already composes convincing short stories indistinguishable from those written by a human author, but without human mediation. It is not impossible that the recuperation of Love’s Labours Won is next on its agenda.


Just suppose some futuristic university English dept had encrypted BRUTUS into algorithms as small as a virus, and time-flown them back to 1585, and implanted them in Shakespeare when he first left Stratford to make his fortune in London? Time travel? I am not privy to the technologies of future English depts. Unethical? Not for English depts. Trust me. I know these guys.

Suffice to say, this simple explanation entirely clears up the authorship question. In fact, MIT patently acknowledges that its program wrote Shakespeare. Why else would the program have embedded in Julus Caesar the explicit clue: 'Et tu, Brute?'.

(When this article first appeared in, it provoked a flame war with The Shakespeare Fellowship, a tribe of fideistic scholars who profoundly believe in the divinity of Oxford. My apologies for cross-posting it here.)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

SPQR and The Sweet Spot of Historical Fiction

Roman era fiction is the special needs child of the historical fiction world. As Steve Donoghue so aptly explained in his literary review of the genre entitled Supping with Glaucus: A Tour of Roman Historical Fiction:

The stakes are slightly different when it comes to fiction set in ancient Rome, since so many of its readers have been encouraged by Rome’s very ubiquity to consider themselves homemade experts...authors of such fiction can be keenly aware of this, which is why so many of them over-load their books with carefully-researched facts. You’ll never read a Regency romance that has footnotes, but you can hardly read three Roman historical novels in a row without finding them, often massed in great ant-armies as though documentation were a novelist’s first duty – or proof against graver defects.

The novelist's first duty is to write a fantastic story. The historical novelist has to do that and educate at the same time. But there must be a sweet spot between commercial appeal and the inclusion of historical trivia.

When it comes to Roman era fiction, nobody does it better than John Maddox Roberts. He isn't the only author writing ancient Roman detective stories--but he's probably the best. I say this not to denigrate the fantastic books of Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor, but to praise Roberts for finding that elusive sweet spot.

Books in the long-running SPQR series all have a few things in common. They're all so short, funny, and heart-warming that you don't even notice how much you're learning about the Late Republic. Sure, these books are meticulously researched and there's a glossary of Latin terms in the back, but you won't find any footnotes and explanations about history shine forth from a brilliant narrative voice.

Our protagonist, Decius Metellus, is a fun character who is at once quintessentially Roman and utterly relatable to the modern reader. Every time you open up an SPQR book, it's like visiting with an old friend. You don't want to finish, because you know it will be another year before you'll get to visit with Decius again. And that--that compelling sense of character--is something that the novelist can capture in a way that the historian cannot.

It may be the secret to the sweet spot. What do you think?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Gay As a Lord... or Lady: Why Wouldn't There Be Gay People in the Middle Ages

Reprinted from Nan Hawthorne's Booking History.

One result of the publication of Brandy PPurdy's two excellent books, The Confession of Piers Gaveston and Vengeance Is Mine*, is what I felt was a lot of undeseserved vitriol at the portrayal of gay characters in the novels. For instance, this customer rev iew of "Vengeance" from "Brittany":

"The entire court seems to be made up of bisexuals, which would be highly unlikely since if this were the case there would be no court since the people making up the court would all be executed for their bisexuality. I complain about this on the grounds of historical accuracy and my own personal moral beliefs. "

Not sure what Brittany's personal moral beliefs have to do with historical accuracy, but for the record I take issue with the assertion that there would not be bisexual people in the Tudor court. Let me explain.

A number of surveys have estimated that five percent of the human population is gay, lesbian or bisexual and likely has stayed around this prportion throughout history. I am inclined to support that. Why that is is irrelevant. My own opinion, which I suppose is just as valid or invalid as said Brittany's, is that the expression of human diversity is broad and beautiful, that love is love and love-making is love-making, and the more the merrier. (I actually believe that 100% of himans are born bisexual, but that unlikely to be a poopular opinion with the Brittany's of the world.)

The particular point I want to address in Brittany's remarks is her assertion that in the Middle Ages bisexuals "would all be executed for their bisexuality." It is true that conviction for homosexuality was punishable by being burned at the stake or other equally grisly punishment, but I just don't believe this was universally applied. There is a wonderful conceit that if all gay people woke up tomorrow morning with purple skin, we would be amazed at how many and who they were. I expect the same could be true in 908, 1208, and 1508 as well.

An act being against the law does not mean all who committ it are punished. In general I believe people are punished when they piss someone off who is in power or has influence. Certainly people in the upper castes of society, as are most of the bisexuals in Purdy's books, will have far more liberty and relative immunity for "deviant" behavior. We tend to overlook class issues when we talk about historical fiction, but that's a topic for a future essay. The average person tends to have to hide more since they don't have the money or connections to fall back on, but nevertheless a discrete person would probably be able to go through life without being chained to a stake and burned. Then there was this whole career path where heterosixual practice was not only not required but actually frowned upon, that being the clergy. Not that heterosexuality was punished either depending on how high up you rose in the Church.

The people likely to be most at risk would be in three camps: male prostitutes or others who were indiscrete, people who victimized children, and people who got on the wrong side of someone with their own reasons to want to see them out of the way. My belief is that male prostitutes would have some protection from those who frequented them, at least in terms of whether they were out-ted and punished. Victimizers of young people, gay or straight, are another matter than simply gay people exercising their predilection to love adults of their own gender. As with tagging unmpopular women as witches, denouncing someone as homosexual was a handy way to blow off frustrations of your own or to gain from their disenfranchisement.

Specific to Purdy's books, the men and women who are gay or bisexual are for the most part the elite, with their own society and rules and immunity from most of the pettiness of their society. In the case of women, it is likely no one even credited them with sexuality or at least regarded it as a threat worth addressing. Remember that noblewomen in jpart of the Middle Ages lived in the women's quarters, sleeping apaart from their mengolk unless required. And they tended to share beds. Are you thinking what I am thinking?

In short, I believe there have alw2ays been gay people, throughout history, most of whom could fall in love or just have sex without anyone either being the wiser or taking any action about it. My own favorite pair of gay lovers in historical fiction are martin Werther and Ambrose the rebex playe3r in Candace Robb's Owen Archer mysteries. I can't decide if I am more skeptical of their wholehearted acceptance by Owen and Lucy or impressed with Owen and Lucy's socially enlightened attitudes.. but who knows. Infinite variety. All things are possible.

Nan Hawthorne

See gay historical fiction at Speak Its Name.
Image: Sir Francis Weston

* This novvel was republished as "The Boleyn Wife" in 2010 buy kensington, and there is a British edition, "The Tudor Wife".  See more at Brandy Purdy's web site.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Characters live in buildings. So?

A house, building, edifice etc.

I'll be the first to admit I am one of the most irritating people where buildings in books are concerned. I notice if the sun is coming up on the wrong side, I notice if the construction method is wrong, I notice if someone puts up a cathedral in a year, or if there are no mentions of hoists or pulleys. Or even (and yes, once this DID happen) if there was a crane (with an engine! with fumes! and people talking about pollution!) back in medieval England.
So yes, I'm not the most ideal audience for building faux pas. After the third book was hurled across the room in disgust -- I think that one was 5 storey concrete buildings in the 1200's -- I thought I'd better calm down a bit and think about why I got so damn irked by this sort of mistake.

I came to the conclusion that buildings are not just staging for a story, to me they are an integral part of describing the people and places, characters in their own rights. The state of a building, its position, the city structure, the infrastructure, the decoration etc all tie into the universe and of my personal understand of the characters involved.

So what do buildings tell us that is so important?

Period: If the building is contemporary to the novel (and I’m seriously fascinated as to why people don’t set regency novels inside Tudor houses, the blessed things still exist today!) it gives an idea of the technological advancement and priorities of contemporary life.

Area/Culture: Up until recently (by recently we mean the advent of the British Empire and their disturbing penchant for terraced housing and typical Victorian edifices regardless of the climate), the type of building was extremely dependant upon the climate in which you lived. Courtyard buildings with massive walls and an internal fountain were found in hot climates because the fountain and walls aid in cooling the building, while closed buildings with internal fireplaces were (self evidently) found in warmer climates. Even the aspect of the windows tells you a lot – in the UK, you’d kill for a south facing garden window, in South-Africa, you’d run a mile! (kudos to the first person who can tell me why this is)

Social Context: Going back to period – if you lived in an un-renovated Tudor cottage in the 1800’s, it would not have been considered charming or cute, it would have been considered a hovel. As with everything, the fashions in building reflect the philosophy and sociology of a country/culture, and strangely enough there are piles and piles of books on architectural philosophy which explain WHAT people were trying to do over the years. (yes, even Milton Keynes has an impressive architectural philosophy behind it. Seriously.)

Priorities: If your characters live in a beautiful but sparsely furnished townhouse in Regency times, I would presume that they are either quite frugal, not particularly well off, or trying to live within limited means. If they have peeling wallpaper, or cracked coving, or poorly rendered walls, I’ll presume they’re poor or slovenly. If they have the right type of wallpaper, or fresco, or rococo mouldings, or stained glass, or window style, I will presume they’re both rich and up to the latest fashions.

Character: If your characters live in a windowless house, with a tiny staircase, and fireplaces in every room, I’ll presume they are stifling people. (I know this is not strictly logical). Conversely, if they live in a country house with huge French windows and a massive double staircase, I’ll presume they are open and welcoming. (Note to self, the dichotomy here should be explored).

To me, any building is a character in a story. This first blog post is just an overview of what buildings can mean to the reader. In my following posts I will take each of the above topics in turn and explain what it is about buildings that can be pulled out and used to influence the reader’s perspective of history, without being horrible anachronistic, or bludgeoning them over the head with dry facts.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and see you in a month!

All the best,

Chris Smith

Monday, May 3, 2010

Getting It Right

I was watching a movie the other night and noticed one of the minor characters dressed for battle at Gettysburg. He was resplendent in his Union Army uniform, right down to the wristwatch that clashed a bit with his saber. It's the little details, like this anachronism, that jerk one out of the moment and start a whole new conversation going: "What were they thinking? Didn't they do their research?"

Granted, this kind of rant is more likely found among the dedicated researchers, writers, and other sticklers for accuracy. The question then, "How do you check for those details?" Sometimes an ort of interesting fact comes to light while you're in the process of looking for something else. It's rather like finding a new flavor of ice cream while you're considering what kind of frozen pizza to buy.

On the plane yesterday, I was skimming through the airline's magazine and picked up a few interesting tidbits. Did you know that stainless steel chopsticks are what many Koreans use for eating? Or that sushi should be eaten with the hands and the chopsticks reserved for the ginger? Or that Emperor Joseon had a standard-sized door for himself but all his minions had shorter entryways so they would have to bow into his presence.

I'm not sure if I'll ever use any of these morsels of knowledge, but they're there if I need them. Of course, I'd need to research them more deeply before they were ready to use. When did stainless steel come to Korea? When did Joseon rule? And so forth.

One piece of information I picked up is something I will use. Himmler used a green pencil. If I hadn't stumbled across that, how on earth would I ever have learned it? The serendipity of the casual observer.

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