The Middle Ages Unlocked: Interview with Gillian Polack

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.

When an archaeologist and a historian team up, amazing things can happen. Katrin asks Gillian questions… about The Middle Ages Unlocked.

Katrin: While we were getting the draft of the Middle Ages Unlocked into a new structure, we had to cut out many things – among them a lot of lists. Lists of names, lists of vegetables, lists of goods imported… one of the reasons for this was, obviously, space. A second reason was the fact that there are a lot of good resources on the internet these days, including such lists. (An example would be the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources.)
Which of the many lists we threw out did you love best?

Gillian: I loved the bibliography best. You remember those 147 pages that stared you in the face when we started? I calculated that it would have been about 200 pages after editing by publication time, so it had to go, but I adored that bibliography. I’ve always wanted to know what it felt like to be faced with that many pages of books already read…by someone else.

Katrin: We both regret the bibliography thing… but it was impossible. I meant a list, though. Names, weather events, vegetables, animals, imported goods, these things.

British Library picture (showing an image of a herbarium with vervain): Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts,
British Library picture (showing an image of a herbarium with vervain): Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

Gillian: Oh! Those lists. I was talking about them with a friend just yesterday. I have an astronomer-friend who designed my skies for my time travel novel and we were both mourning the comets, so obviously I’m missing them. The one I miss most is my amazing plant list (I started it using medieval herbals and medicinal manuscripts), but that had to go. It was so much a work in progress.

I still like the idea of a Beast that’s a compendium of knowledge with all those lists, but it was so very long with them, and it didn’t actually help people understand the Middle Ages. Lists do make me happy, however.

Katrin: Those lists were wonderful, that’s true. I also get happy when I can have a good long list of examples – they show us modern people, very nicely, that the Middle Ages were many-faceted and had a lot of things as well. The problem with lists of such things, though, is that they are never complete… and that they take up a lot of space.

Gillian: Those lists were another hundred pages. And the footnotes were also immense. I have this sudden image of the Beast being so very different…

Katrin: Yes, I regret that too. I am still feeling a bit queasy about not doing proper footnotes all throughout the book – but it would have been impossible. It’s a sad thing to cut out, though. But there were so many large and small issues and so many decisions that shaped the Beast. It could have turned out very, very differently in many ways, I think.

Gillian: I miss the lists! I miss the bibliography! But without them, it would have been much less informed. We developed some of our depth of understanding from these things., even as we wrote them out.

Katrin: We also developed more understanding through problems making things clear to each other…

Gillian: It helped that whenever we stopped work, we both lapsed into our own languages. Mine was a variant of English (of course) and yours is an ancestral cousin of English. Remember when we realised this and I asked you about German dialects? You flooded me with the most gorgeous youtube videos showing me Germany’s dialects and regional accents. It was wonderful.

Katrin: And I am now using “arvo” instead of “afternoon”.

Teapot: Photo by Katrin Kania

Gillian: I have australianised you! Although you were already drinking tea, so it wasn’t a large step for you to want arvo tea.

Katrin: You have! Though I have tried hard to germanise you back. With baked goods, and recipes for baked goods. Including gingerbread.

Gillian: Gingerbread… I was so pleased to discover that you come from the gingerbread centre of the world. And so sad when I discovered that it’s not an all-year treat. Medieval English gingerbread has nothing on your local gingerbread. Mind you, it’s not even close to being the same dish. I recommend that anyone who reads this interview conduct their own tests, just to be certain.

Katrin: And do you happen to have a recipe for medieval English gingerbread? For comparison purposes?

Gillian: The easiest one to access is in Pleyn Delit, which is a very straightforward book of medieval recipes for modern cooks. It’s by Sharon Butler, Constance B. Hieatt, and Brenda Hosington and I once ate some elderflower pie made by Sharon Butler, for she catered an event in Toronto when I did my MA. I was part of the entertainment and the less said about my acting, the better.

Katrin, I’m going to turn the tables on the interviewer: I have a question for you.

Katrin: Yes?

Gillian: Today is (by coincidence) the anniversary of the Magna Carta signing. I was 100 yards from an actual Magna Carta this morning (for Canberra has one) and it struck me that I never asked you about it. I’m very curious about the big events of English history and how they are known elsewhere. Canberra still has a section of the Magna Carta in our legal system, so obviously it’s our history as well as England’s, so I can’t see it from outside and I’d like to know.

Katrin: I think the best-known of the big events in England is the invasion of 1066. The Magna Carta is known, but not so widely as the invasion. Otherwise, at least in Germany, there is not so much taught about English history.
One of the things working on the Beast brought home to me, again and again, was how different England and places on the Continent could be. Even down to everyday things, such as heating arrangements for houses.

Gillian: That was a moment of much awe for me. I’m used to the hearthfire. The consequences of having closed heating systems have such ramifications throughout households. We kept on discovering them. Even when we did the pictures…

Katrin: It showed us very clearly how deep down assumptions can run. I think our coming from two very different backgrounds, both academically and culturally, helped identify many of these deep assumptions. These were also moments of awe for me.

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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