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The Middle Ages Unlocked: Developing the Book

Middle Ages Unlocked

The Middle Ages Unlocked: A Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050-1300, is a new book by Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania. Now available from Amberley Publishing, the book explores a wide range of topics from law, religion and education to landscape, art and magic, between the eleventh and early fourteenth centuries, the structures, institutions and circumstances that formed the basis for daily life and society are revealed. In this series of posts, Gillian and Katrin write about how this book was created.

Gillian Pollock: There’s a story behind everything. My personal story for The Middle Ages Unlocked goes back to the days before Twitter and Facebook.

A group of friends were chatting on an email list. Some of us were writers, some were re-enactors, some were readers: all of us cared deeply about understanding history. We were talking about the Middle Ages. Tamara Mazzei said “We need a book.”

We weren’t talking about just any book. We were all well-read and knew a fair amount about the period. There was nothing on the market that met our needs. Everything was either too general or far too specific. This was long before Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide was published.

Why did we think the world needed this book?

Firstly, popular knowledge about the Middle Ages is coloured by furphies. A furphy is popular gossip of the sort you get around a water cooler. Some medieval furphies have a basis in fact, but most are fascinating, coloured and have very little to do with the Middle Ages as we know it. They’re later inventions to explain our fascination with the period, to demonstrate how wonderful life has become since then, to serve as a base for tales, to help us tell fun fiction and more. I love furphies. They’re a wonderful cultural phenomenon and are deserving of much study and even more novels. Modern furphies are not, however, useful for anyone who actually wants to understand the Middle Ages.

Reason #1 for the book, therefore, was to show how current research describes England in the Middle Ages. This meant being honest about what we know and what we don’t know. It also meant challenging popular assumptions, such as the nature of feudalism and the notion that Christianity was the only religion.

Elizabeth Chadwick's novel The Winter Crown
Elizabeth Chadwick’s novel The Winter Crown

Reason #2 was to move beyond “King John was not a nice man.” In this Year of the Magna Carta, so many people know that. People tend to know about the sons of Henry II and their various major life events, but they’re shaky on what people ate around that time, their education, the stories they might have heard.

By this stage in the discussion the tentative plans for a book I quietly called it “Beyond chastity belts” for chastity belts are a particularly irritating furphy. The Middle Ages Unlocked has had so many titles: its current and final title (which is the best of them all, for which I am profoundly grateful) was suggested by our editor at Amberley.

Reason #3 is related to the first two reasons. There were writers in our little group. One of those writers was the wonderful Elizabeth Chadwick, who has supported this project since the beginning. (This was before my novels were published, so I didn’t count myself as a writer: I was the person who had a PhD in medieval history, which is how ended up being the main writer for the project.) She, Tamara and several others pointed out that there really wasn’t a good starting place for writers. It was very easy to go wrong with research and very hard to find out things that Medievalists in their own field took for granted.

The Middle Ages Unlocked, therefore, began its life as a volume fiction writers using the Middle Ages could consult. It’s more than that now, but writers helped in its development at more than one stage.

Let me give an example. Because The Middle Ages Unlocked follows scholarly history rather than popular assumptions, we made a particular effort to write lucid explanations of complex ideas. In the final three years, Katrin and I checked each other’s explanations, but until then, I used the drafts when I taught, and tested them that way.

NSW Writers’ Centre in Sydney
NSW Writers’ Centre in Sydney

This testing process worked very nicely as a teaching process, and we all learned a great deal. I learned most when I taught writers, however. A case in point is an intensive weekend at the NSW Writers’ Centre in Sydney, where writers refused to take breaks and we ran late because they just wanted more. Margo Lanagan was one of the writers, and her eyes were wide and round and it was as if what she learned went straight to her soul. I learned what explanations worked and what people mostly knew about the period. I also learned that the need for the book had not gone away: that first group that wanted the book was still right.

Just as Katrin was our interface with the world of archaeology, I was our interface with the world of fiction. Most of this testing happened before she came on board, and we had many interesting discussions about it. She’d point out that something was not a good reflection of current scholarship, and I’d point out that this was part of the writer interface. We’d sit down (during my evenings and her mornings) and nut out an approach that worked for both. Working with professional writers was invaluable. What a fiction writer cannot understand or misinterprets is going to be a sticking point for everyone, for the writers I know are all sophisticated readers. This meant that when the book moved beyond being a manual for writers, it was far better for having been that manual.

All these checks added five years to the book’s development, but they had results. We dropped the political timeline, for instance. Timelines are easy to find elsewhere, and there were not enough words to give a timeline and to meet readers’ needs for strong and solid explanations of basics such as religion and economics and law and literature. Readers needed to understand how houses were lit and how people communicated rather than when Richard I died.

The Middle Ages Unlocked became a bridge. It’s a way into the Middle Ages for people who are interested in getting past furphies and beyond Hollywood. Without that group on that email list, it would never have happened. Without writers being so very enthusiastic and testing ideas, it would have been far less sound. Thank you, all.

Dr Katrin Kania is a freelance textile archaeologist and teacher as well as a published academic who writes in both German and English. She specialises in reconstructing historical garments and offering tools, materials and instructions for historical textile techniques. Find her website at www.pallia.net and her blog at togs-from-bogs.blogspot.com.

Dr Gillian Polack is a novelist, editor and medieval historian as well as a lecturer. She has been published in both the academic world and the world of historical fiction. Her most recent novels are Langue[dot]doc 1305 and The Art of Effective Dreaming (both Satalyte publishing). Find her webpage at www.gillianpolack.com.

Click here to learn more about The Middle Ages Unlocked from Amberley Publishing

Click here to buy this book on Amazon.com

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