Orphan Century: that salutary neglect of the 1300s in historical fiction

Evan Ostryzniuk

Evan Ostryzniuk

Evan Ostryzniuk

I have a confession to make: I write about an era that has been poorly served by the Historical Fiction Industry – the 14th century. With a few notable exceptions, writers of historical fiction have preferred to cast their imaginations back to just about any period but the High Middle Ages (12th-14th centuries). A recent article by Sarah Johnson (historicalnovelsociety.org/hf-by-century) on these very webpages revealed an extreme prevalence for works set in the 19th and 20th centuries, followed by the Tudor-Stuart period in England, the 18th century, and finally the most famous years of ancient Rome. Medieval Europe gets short shrift. In this article I examine some of the reasons behind the neglect and what it is about the 14th century that has me beating against the current.

A distant Siren’s call

Every era has its attractions, and this is no less so with the 14th century, or more so, I would argue. One just has to look. These years are so packed full of incredible and diverse characters, events and intrigue that I would be hard pressed to let it alone. That said, the question remains as to why so few authors approach the High Middle Ages for historical fiction, with a few remarkable exceptions (myself excluded, of course). The answer, I believe, can be found in the prevailing attitudes in the industry, poor awareness of the period and concomitant difficulties in research, absence of ‘household names’, and pedigree. In the current issue of The Historian Richard Lee argues that the causes of this imbalance range from the commercial presumptions of publishers to the personal connections of readers and authors alike (“Historical Fiction: warts and all”, The Historian, Spring 2013).

Of Faith and Fidelity: Geoffrey Hotspur and the War for St. Peter's Throne by Evan OstryzniukCommercial interests dominate the historical fiction industry, of course, and these interests are conservative by nature. They place their bets on make their investments in periods with an established audience, and so instead of laying foundations for a new or expanded readership by cultivating novelty, they prefer to build on a few old digs. There have been a few exceptions regarding the 14th century, but that mostly has to do with factors unrelated to the period, i.e. the authors are well-established (Bernard Cornwell, Tracy Chevalier, Peter Ackroyd, Umberto Eco) or work cross-genre (horror by Andrew Davidson, spiritual by Lisa T. Bergren, mystery by Cassandra Clark). Nevertheless, writing fiction about the 14th century for the sake of it is a fairly open field, and so it should be able to find its readership under the right circumstances. After all, the success of several film and television projects relating to ancient Rome spurred growth in that period for historical fiction. [Browse HNS 14th Century fiction reviews here]

From the side of authors, I believe, the great amount of research that must go into every aspect of the writing about the Middle Ages as opposed to the modern period puts some people off. The challenge lies not just in the details of the narrative, but also in the collection of materials itself, since those centuries are far less documented and rely on more varied and fragmentary evidence than either recent or Roman centuries. Even as a professional historian, I have had to cast my research net far and wide to gather enough historical fodder to make every my tales fully convincing. This is not to disparage my fellow authors and their determined efforts to sift through as many sources as possible, but I would argue that the above-average barriers to entry for researching these centuries do give pause to some writers before approaching these centuries.

The absence of many ‘household’ names from the Middle Ages deprives authors and readers of an ‘anchor’ for their novels or series. The Roman period has its Julius Caesar and Augustus; the Tudors have Elizabeth and Henry VIII; the 20th century has too many famous figures to count. I was surprised to discover that even Richard the Lionheart, who sits high in the Pantheon of great medieval personages, has received little attention from writers of historical fiction (Sharon Kay Penman aside). For me, however, this serves as advantage, since my thematic focus is on key historical events rather than famous people. I find the dominance of one or another larger-than-life historical figure distracting, since I prefer to embed my story and characters in the zeitgeist, particularly as the 14th century was very much a time of great change. Therefore, my readership is not expecting me to reference King Charles of France or Pedro the Cruel of Castile because they are not especially meaningful to most people, whereas if an author writing about 1st century Rome fails to mention Augustus, his readers are sure to feel that something is missing. This uniqueness of the century is a double-edged sword, however. On the one hand, this gives me greater flexibility in developing my narrative; on the other hand, some potential readers might be more comfortable with familiar figures.

Unknown-77The heritage of historical fiction set in the High Middle Ages is not very deep, and so this lack of pedigree can be a bit of an obstacle for attracting publishers and readers to the period. The commercial challenges have already been touched upon, but as far as readers go, many bibliophiles like to immerse themselves in a narrow time frame by consuming a wide range of titles and authors. Tudor women are in vogue at the moment; regency romances require their own shelves in bookshops; WWII can probably count more historical fiction pages than period documents. But again, this offers the opportunity to cultivate the High Middle Ages for the moment when the fashion currents shift.

Creativity from calamity

What makes the 14th century especially fecund ground for my novels is the great number of diverse events packed into a strikingly short amount of time. This means that each novel can be wholly unlike the others yet retain a cadre of recurring characters. And their participation in these myriad events can be logical too – no need for (too many) literary contrivances or doubtful coincidences. In addition, the period is relatable to the modern reader because it was a time of great uncertainty and steady social and technological change.

The late author of popular histories Barbara Tuchman famously described the 14th century in Europe as ‘calamitous’ (A Distant Mirror, 1978) in the sense that they shook medieval society to its core, yet – however terrible – these calamities cleared the way for a fundamental re-evaluation of accepted wisdom and consideration of new ways of thinking, such as Humanism and commercialization. Certainly all times and all places are laden with tensions and contradictions, but because those one hundred years offered such extremes of the medieval experience, the calamities put enough pressure on these tensions and contradictions that medieval society was forced into an accelerated pace of development.

In short, the modern European world was born out of the calamitous 14th century. The power of the Church was greatly undermined by corruption, schism and malaise; feudal bonds were undone by mass rebellion, Black Death, rapid urban growth, and money; recovery of a classical heritage undermined scholastic and religious thought; warfare was revolutionized by professional organization, money and competition between cities. Old ways competed with nascent innovations, and it is in these closely spaced transitional fissures that I find my stories.

A good specific example of this is the changing face of armies. The English Free Company series is grounded in the military revolution that took place in Italy in the second half of the 14th century, when increased demand for independent soldiers by the free cities of northern Italy helped foster the rise of professional armies that operated outside the feudal system and created their own commercial system of warfare. The condottieri, or contract captains, emerged at that time to become the dominant military class in Italy, replacing feudal princes and vassal knights. In this new way of making war, the nature of military service was determined exclusively via the cash nexus and notarized document rather than by oaths of fealty through a social hierarchy. The condottieri might have been professional mercenaries, simply speaking, but they were also agents of modernization, whether in military technology, strategic planning or finance.

Every era has its enthusiasts. My championing of the 14th century is an attempt to expose to a wary and weary audience a most deserving period in European history, which has been neglected for no other reason than it does not fit easily to well-worn moulds. Geoffrey Hotspur and his English Free Company are campaigning to overturn this regretful state of affairs.


Some of the better works set in the 14th century or High Middle Ages

The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco, 1980) is a literary murder mystery set in a monastery in 14th century Italy during the time of the Inquisition. Eco does a superb job embedding the era’s intellectual controversy and struggle for control of knowledge into a tale of crime, political intrigue and coming of age. Historical fiction par excellence.

Epitaph for Three Women (Jean Plaidy, 1981, Plantagenet series) is about three notable women in 15th century England and France that culminates in portrait of the troubled Joan of Arc. Straight up historical fiction from one of the masters, the novel employs genuine period personages to explore the meanings of sacrifice, dedication and courage.

The Lady and the Unicorn (Tracy Chevalier, 2004) imagines in lavish prose how the 15th century “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries were created in medieval France. The story has a bit of the upstairs-downstairs feel to it, complete with family intrigue, and the narrative deftly weaves the imagined lives of great artists into a convincing period setting. As expected, art itself plays an almost mystic and transformative role in the lives of the characters.

The Clerkenwell Tales (Peter Ackroyd, 2005) draws on Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales to recreate the city’s 14th century religious and political intrigues, as a young nun suffers from the ability to predict a series of explosions in 1399 during the conflict between Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke. This ingenious mix of genuine and literary characters from the period offers a critical insight into popular uncertainty during political turmoil using a wide range of historical sources.

The Blessed (Lisa T. Bergren, 2008, #3 in the Gifted trilogy) is a fantasy thriller set in 14th century Italy about a lost letter of St. Paul and a group of Christians with unusual spiritual gifts, who come together to fight Satan’s power during the Inquisition. Most of the characters are fictional, but the story does capture an understanding about the nature of religious belief in the Middle Ages.

The Gargoyle (Andrew Davidson, 2008) is more of a horror story and a cut-from-the-mould historical novel, as its setting shifts from the present to the medieval past, yet it approaches the subject of medieval mysticism and religiosity with depth and sincerity. The story shows how echoes from a distant past can wreak havoc on the present. A troubled man, severely injured in a car wreck, is visited in the hospital by a mysterious woman claiming to have healed him once when she was a nun in 14th century Germany. She then goes into a series of related stories about deathless love in Japan, Iceland, Italy, and England until the man finds himself drawn back to life.

1356 (Bernard Cornwell, 2012, #5 in the Grail Quest series) is about an English soldier who fights in the Battle of Poitiers on September 19, 1356. By creating the wholly fictional character of Thomas of Hookton, Cornwell draws the reader into the life of the common soldier of the Middle Ages, mixed with intrigue about the Holy Grail and secret orders. An outstanding representative of contemporary historical fiction that focuses on the lower as well as the upper classes, the novel offers a brutally honest no-holds-barred account of daily life and warfare of the times while keeping the reader aware of the eternal themes of courage, pride and destiny.

[Browse HNS 14th Century fiction reviews here]


About the author:

Evan Ostryzniuk was born and raised in Canada. After graduating from the University of Saskatchewan with a B.A. in History and Modern Languages and an M.A. in History, Evan crossed the ocean to do post-graduate work at the University of Cambridge, concluding four years of research with a doctoral thesis on the Russian Revolution. He then found his way to Eastern Europe, where he took up positions as a magazine editor, university lecturer and analyst in the financial services sector before rising in the ranks of the publishing industry to become Editor-in-Chief of a popular weekly. Evan currently resides in Kyiv, Ukraine near a large candy factory. www.evanostryzniuk.com


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