The Middle Ages Unlocked: Finding the Team

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: Once upon a time, a group of writers and historical fiction fans said “We need a book.” They needed to understand the Middle Ages from a slightly different direction to the books on the market. This group of very modern people cared deeply about understanding the people of England in the High Middle Ages and what literature they enjoyed and what languages they spoke and what clothes they wore and how the law affected them and what religion meant to them. They persuaded me to be part of the team working on the book. Time passed and life happened and somehow I ended up with the team cheering me on, and the book (which was by now nicknamed “the Beast”) belonging to me. It’s difficult to write a general book as a specialist. I don’t know how other people do it, but I needed an archaeologist. Because the Beast was looking at lifestyle and culture it required a tremendous range of knowledge and a vast amount of work. Slowly, I pulled it into shape, amidst the novels I was writing and the students who dealt with my appallingly bad jokes. I started sharing the material from the Beast with writers, and that helped their work while it helped me understand what exactly readers needed from a book. There was nothing out there that met this need (there were and are a lot of good books, but nothing for this precise need) and the original team reminded me that the Beast was important, every time I tried to leave it behind. It still needed an archaeologist, but it was growing.

In 2011 the ACT Government gave me funding to go to England. Every year, at Leeds, an enormous number of Medievalists get together and talk about things that matter to us. One of the things I used my government funding for was to go there and deliver a paper. I took my draft with me, and chatted with publishers, and showed a friend at the bar. I may have insisted that my friend look at it, for a publisher had expressed an interest and I wasn’t sure if I could finish it alone. I was after her advice. An archaeologist was standing over my friend’s shoulder, looking at my manuscript with much interest. The archaeologist was Katrin Kania, and we shared the same appalling sense of humour. Less than two hours later, the Beast had a new team.

Katrin Kania
Katrin Kania

I’ve wondered for a while what this looked like from Katrin’s viewpoint.

Katrin: I’d wanted to go to Leeds for a long time – some of my friends at Uni were medievalists and had helped me learn a lot about Middle High German, and they had sometimes told stories of Leeds and of Kalamazoo. So when in 2011 things aligned in a way that allowed me to go to Leeds, I booked a flight and went to experience this huge Medievalist conference. I was a little on the rim of Leeds, as an archaeologist, since most of the papers were more focussed on history and language than on archaeology, but I had the loveliest of times meeting with new people.

Two of those were Shana and Gillian, and one evening we ended up in the conference bar, and Shana was to take a look at the Beast. So, naturally, I took a look at it too (being professionally curious). Gillian talked a bit about how she had trouble with certain sections, such as the textiles and clothing part, and I offered to take a look at it, and then the rest of the evening is sort of a blur in my memory (not because I drank – I don’t drink alcohol; I am just very good at selectively forgetting stuff). So somehow I ended up not just taking a look at the clothes and textiles parts, but writing them and co-authoring the rest.

The Beast in the version that I received from Gillian shortly after Leeds was a huge, huge amount of delightful facts, but it was not in a consistent style. What was even more irksome to me was that it was all in a jumble – I might spread chaos in my wake, but when I write, I like my facts to be lined up in an orderly way…

Gillian Polack
Gillian Polack

So then came the exciting part – getting to know the Beast, and getting to work out with Gillian on how to tackle this project. I remember sending her a chapter or two, with markings and corrections and lots and lots of comments so she’d get an impression of how I saw things, and how I worked, and what I would do to her draft. We agreed on how to work on the different levels, interpersonal (with the promise to be upfront about problems, and always be honest to each other) and regarding software, and the versioning of files, and how we’d discuss things, and when to meet over the internet chat.

Then I started to take apart her work, and delete lots and lots of repetitions, and restructure all the rest. I was ruthless and evil and I pulled the Beast limb from limb to stitch it together again in a totally different way – we called it the FrankenBeast for a while during that process.

That, by the way, is what I’ve wondered about for a while – how much of a shock it was to Gillian to see what I did in that first huge restructure…

It’s interesting that we see the Beast so very differently. It wasn’t such a mess from my end (for I knew it intimately and understood the structure), but there was repetition. Because various publishers had looked at it prior to Katrin joining me, and each one had insisted it be rewritten to meet their house needs, and because it’s very hard to divide any place and time into clear and simple categories without doing it an injustice, the Beast had boundary issues. It also started as cuter and with more jokes. Katrin insisted on us being more serious.

What Katrin brought to the Beast (apart from textiles and clothing) was a rigorous sense of logical development and text flow. Because I’m a novelist (when I’m not being a historian) I enjoy explorations. She was very tough on the number of these that she permitted.

The big restructure was mutual. We tore much hair out in the process. We looked at the various orders the Beast had experienced in its strange pre-Katrin existence and we developed a new order of chapters and sub-chapters that helped us explain as best as we could the complexity of life in the Middle Ages, the importance of religion the nature of the everyday. Katrin would look at text flow within that, and I would look at narrative and the story we were telling (for these are our particular strengths).

We both wanted to share everything with the world, and it wasn’t possible. For each chapter there was a main writer, and then the other pulled their work to pieces. For each of us there was one chapter we had to rethink, for the other had issues with it: Katrin’s was the art and craft one and mine was literature. If I’d had my way, there would have been double the amount on literature. We also wanted to annotate and explain everything. We wanted about twenty footnotes on every page. This just wasn’t practical, though we left it until near the end to get rid of the footnotes, for we loved them a great deal. We also wanted a normal bibliography. I made one, in fact, at one stage, but it was 147 pages long. In both cases we had to choose between explanations of key concepts and critical apparatus. We chose the explanations. I still have that bibliography…

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 and her blog at

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

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

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