The Making of “Cuthwin”—its genesis.
The most dramatic and lasting development in the beginnings of our language was the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, kept concurrently at different monastic locales between 871-1154. It began at the time of Alfred the Great (849-899) who had a great vision to have many documents and books written in the vernacular. In fact, he made some of these translations himself. In Alfred's view, literacy should be spread everywhere; hence, the language of the common people should be the language of the realm. This way, all people would have access, especially to religious works, not the least being the Gospels.
Knowing I was going to write about the common people of this period I had much basic research ahead. I was a long ways from being a specialist or medievalist. For starters, I did not know how to read or write Old English or Latin, a terrible handicap.
In my late sixties at the time I began “Cuthwin” learning languages was slower than pouring molasses at -30. I would need to get all historical information for “Cuthwin” via translations. These must be respectful to their sources; hence, my previous scholarship did come in handy. I had learned some basic ways to discern a lousy translation from a better one, and a better one from an outstanding rendition.
So it began, about seven years of research which took up many handwritten notes, then computer files where I stored notes. In this my objective was single-minded, to not commit anachronisms that would destroy the texture and ambience of the eleventh century Saxon world of my fictional “Cuthwin's”, and indeed he was fictional.
Yet, things and places I wanted to be real, unless I had no other alternative: I could not have doors opening and closing that were not there; people buttoning up clothing when there were no buttons. Nor could I have children of common people going to schools that didn't exist, evil-doers going to jails that were not there. And finally, contrary to many movies, common people sitting down to even the most festive meals with 'boards' festooned with fatted calves, pigs, lambs, poultry and just about fatted everything.
No, in the eleventh century common board, eating fare, was basically vegetable for animals were expensive to eat. In brief—kill an animal and eat it, it's gone! “Poultry were considered a luxury food and it was also recognized as a therapeutic diet for invalids particularly in broth form. (Lacey, Danziger, The Year 1000, p.58).
Oh, yes—boards were boards because there were few if any tables. Boards were kept along the side of the domicile, and moved out and set up during meal times—or, people just sat and ate from plain wooden bowls or trenchers. And, there were no chairs—an occasional stool, and that was it.
Move over to the monastery or church, or into the great hall either 'burh” or not (walled or unwalled) there were some of those human comforts, but not amongst the common folk, unless they were not common or struggling to be not common. I look at it this way about those who worked, and “the others”: The difference in material means between an Archbishop or land owning Lord of a manor was wider than it is today between a C.E.O. and the janitor cleaning out the corporate offices, and today the janitor is free and not a slave or serf.
Making a very general statement about a complicated system, human beings could be slaves, serfs/villains or free. Serfdom was more common in European feudalism, but was present in Saxon and Daneslaw England. Slavery was common in England, “Slavery and the recruitment of slaves was an integral part of Anglo-Saxon society. The institution of slavery was never questioned by contemporary moralists” (Slavery in Early Mediaeval England: From the reign of Alfred until the Twelfth Century, David Pelteret).
Cwenburh, Cuthwin's wife, was a slave; Cuthwin was not, but owed money to (first) the manor he was raised upon, then Peterborough Monastery. Slavery/Serfdom/Free born in my view, was one of the hardest “nuts” to crack in understanding 11th century society. I don't think I'm clear on it now and trying to learn about the topic through readings is like counting eels bare-handed.
The years of the Medieval Period
The medieval or middle ages is defined as: The history of Europe lasting from the 5th to the 15th century. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history itself subdivided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages. The problem for me in researching was many authors just cast categories like the “Early, High and Late” divisions to the winds (I guess) and wrote on about the late Middle Ages as it were all one. This was way far from the facts as they were, and so their work was of little use to me. Seems unimportant here, but it sure wasn't to me.
As an example, take Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society by Bridget Ann Henisch, She chats on for 279 pages about the food of “Medieval Society” and there isn't one bit of information used prior to the England of the late 13th century. This is very frustrating when writing historical fiction set in England mostly before 1066, just past the mid-point of the 11th. And actually it is downright misleading because in 1066 Saxon culture and society ended almost “on a dime”. This means there is only a minimum helpful for background about a historical novel like “Cuthwin” unless the source is richly Saxon.
For Cuthwin was Saxon, and resented Normans, to put a weak term on it. I have his lifespan through much of the 11th century, beginning in 1016 and extending on about 85-90 years. So, he lived a half-century prior to the calamity in Saxon world brought about by King Harold's defeat to William at Hastings, 1066 .
Cuthwin is a “recollected” journal, i.e. an elderly person writing back through memory. In such a work, you really get an autobiography, which in the case of Cuthwin is dictated to others late in life. In the case of a novel such as mine, we don't have to worry about if the events are real or not, for they are not; however, we (and “I” as an author) must make sure the entire human and physical surroundings of the novel/journal is spot on, or the result is genre fiction or a comic book.
Then there is the chronic problem in historical fiction. Just how much can we forgive a writer regards historical “warping” or outright omissions; or worse than all, historical facts and activities made up. So, if in our readings we run into a gay Henry VIIIth, Earl Marble at the Battle of Frostingbridge or Queen Carmen of Finland, as a reader how must we feel?!
If the writer is doing something humorous/comedic, that is, kicking history in the tail feathers, it works beautifully.
However, if you are writing a serious literary work and pull a fictional “who-haw” out of your pocket, then you –as an author—must deal with your audience's ability to suspend their belief for a bit. Now, with full disclosure, I have orphanages present in pre-Hastings England, but they were not. I just needed them to sufficiently bring out Cwenburh's nature, and the predicament it lands them both in. Well, I just put orphanages in. An author just must deal with their audience's suspension of belief—a little.
BUT: If you have somebody involved in the siege of a castle in ninth century England (castles basically not there yet, except tower of London) or have Mary, Queen of Scots meeting with her 'beloved' Cousin Queen Elizabeth I (they never met)and having a dramatic scene about their differences? Are you going to “go” for this or not? For me I always apply it case by case, much of it depending on the strength of the story and characters. In truth, I don't bend too far.
[Queen Liz just did not meet with Mary Queen of Scots, because it was the absolute worst thing that might have happened at court. “Court” wanted Mary gone. I don't “go” for it. ]
My use of Language
The main reason I have included a fictional “Introduction” by the rather waspish “R. Aubrey Richards” was to establish the correct “voice” for Cuthwin: To establish in my mind that his journal did not go through two translations but only one, i.e., Anglo-Saxon directly into modern English. You see, in my view, writers must believe what they write; otherwise, they don't write at top form. When something devastating happens to one of my main characters, it is almost akin to having it happen to a living person in my life.
Weird? This is one of my quirky beliefs about writing. But, there it is.
I knew I would not put any barriers in my use of obscenities and profanities save for those aesthetic. So, in 1910 Edwardian England would not publish the translation, but in modern America and England of today, they would. Also, I would have to “mock” Edwardian English that was used in 1910, yet do it in a modern way to avoid the wordiness of that time. Wordiness in 1910 fiction, was not yet the blunder of craftsmanship it is today.
What was the inspiration for writing a medieval tale?
I have been an ancient literature zealot since late 1960s at University of Alaska. This diverged into Ancient History, and I have been going at it ever since, albeit without formal discipline. The 11th century was so central to the changes / impact on our language.
I submitted 'Cuthwin'—which took me six years to write—to agents and publishers. None were interested. This is common for me. So, I stopped submitting it and revised it again, taking the world count down from 166 K to 125 K or thereabouts. That was a long, and very arduous revision. Jack Estes, the prior Pleasure Boat Studio publisher for my five prior works, encouraged me, but he always does that. I had no idea how I’d done quality wise.
The first time I’d written from a woman’s point of view was in the long short story, “The Grey Owl,” then entirely in “The War Journal of Lila Ann Smith.” These prepared me spiritually and artistically for “Cuthwin…” So, when Cwenburh entered the story so strongly, I went ahead, not afraid of taking on a lead woman's point of view.