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.
Katrin Kania: Working together with Gillian on The Middle Ages Unlocked was a cross-border experience in many ways: an Australian and a German (which meant working across a significant time difference and across cultural differences), a historian and an archaeologist, and a professional writer with a professional crafter.
Many of these could pose a challenge at times. Time differences usually were no great problem – we worked in my morning and Gillian’s evening, scheduling our meetings around teaching activities and other appointments, and sending emails back and forth outside our time window for working together. (My email folder for the book-related things contains more than eight hundred emails!)
Most of the challenging bits, though, were directly related to the way we like to write things. Gillian was trying for a gripping narrative that would pull our readers in and show them the Middle Ages in all their many aspects, and I was trying to explain things logically, building one block of understanding on top of the next. Obviously, that can shred a brilliant narrative.
We also had disputes about words. Some of them were due to our differences in native language and background, which in the end often meant finding a wording or an explanation that would also work for a non-native English speaker or somebody without a Great Britain influenced cultural background.
Some of them were also due to our being a historian and an archaeologist. One word we had long and heated discussions about was the use of “settlements” – the standard term that archaeologists will use when referring to a, well, settlement that is not clearly defined as a hamlet, village, city, town, farm or homestead. I have since learned that this is not a standard term outside archaeology, and Gillian graciously faced her dislike of the term for the instances where we really needed the generic description.
Another area where our different styles really showed was explanations. I am used to teaching crafts, which brings with it a certain style of explaining things – starting with the tools and materials, moving on to the procedures, then moving on to specific problems and technical details. I like to teach crafts procedures with a thorough, deep understanding of physical influences, such as surface structures of fibres and their connection to the amount of twist needed when spinning, or the connection between biomechanics of the human hand and the shape of spindle sticks.
Gillian, on the other hand, is a writer, and used to teaching writing. My technical explanations, I can tell you, are not what she considers a gripping narrative. So we’d sit down together, virtually, with a cup of some caffeinated motivational hot drink and conciliatory chocolate, and we’d go over the passages in question to turn the technical explanation into something that was easy to read but would still give an understanding of the technical aspects and their importance.
So, when you are reading The Middle Ages Unlocked, you should find enough explanations of the basics to help you move on to specialist literature, be it from archaeology or history – but Gillian, professional writer and teacher of writers, made sure that these explanations are served to you in a narrative that is easy and pleasant to read.
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.