Posted in Historical fiction, Middle Ages, Writing

How to research and write Medieval historical fiction, Part IV (All about language, literature, and writing)

There are so many aspects of the Medieval era one needs to research and keep in mind while writing hist-fic set during this wide-ranging era. It’s so important to pin down specifics for a particular country, century, and decade. The way people lived in Italy, France, England, Germany, Russia, Sweden, and Hungary was radically different. The Middle Ages never had a one size fits all culture.

But when it comes to language, writing, and reading, things were quite a bit more straightforward than wedding customs and types of food.

34. Latin was Europe’s lingua franca until it was replaced by French in the 18th century. Even into the early 19th century, Latin remained the universal language of science, academia, music, and the liberal arts. People didn’t necessarily speak Latin to one another, but they used it for writing books and letters.

Many schools also used Latin as the language of instruction, both universities and secondary schools. Even if students were taught in the vernacular, they were still expected to learn Latin to fluency. That was part of a standard classical education until the mid-20th century.

35. There weren’t a whole lot of books written in vernacular languages until the 12th century. Writers who wanted their work to be read outside of their own land and have a wider audience had to use Latin. When vernacular was used, it was typically for subjects like parenting advice, instructions for using and making farming equipment, and etiquette.

People like Dante and Chaucer chose to write in the vernacular because they wanted as many people as possible to understand their work. They knew not everyone was an educated élite, and even illiterate people could access the oral tradition.

36. The majority of vernacular literature in the beginning was poetry. Novels and collections of connected stories existed, but they weren’t common until the 13th century. Even then, it took awhile for prose to surpass poetry in popularity. Long-form poetry was the familiar, preferred method of telling stories.

37. If a book wasn’t translated into Latin, and you didn’t know the original language, you couldn’t read it. You need to look up when a certain book became available in Latin before you show your characters reading or referencing it!

38. The 12th and 13th centuries saw a huge windfall of Latin translation of hundreds of works written in Greek and Arabic. This was instrumental in introducing Europeans to the great philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians of the Golden Age of Islam, as well as great Greek philosophers like Aristotle.

39. Speaking of Greek, that was not a language commonly studied outside of the Byzantine Empire. The vast majority of Medieval Europeans never read The Iliad and The Odyssey, since they just weren’t available in translation. What little they knew came from very bad and fragmentary translations. Only during the Renaissance did Greek return to prominence.

40. All languages went through an evolution before reaching their modern form. Many also evolved from a collection of dialects spoken in a region. If your characters speak a language other than English and you want to include some foreign words for flavor, double-check you’re using, e.g., Middle French, Florentine Tuscan, or Middle High German instead of modern language.

41. Many people named languages by their word for yes. So, e.g., Italian was a  language, the languages of Southern France were oc, and Northern French languages were oïl.

42. Not only were many books unavailable in Latin translation, they were unavailable period, even ones written in Latin. E.g., Quintilian’s famous 12-volume Institutio Oratoria was lost for centuries. Only quotes in other works and small fragments were known. Then, in 1416, a complete copy was discovered in a German monastery. Many other treasures of Antiquity were rediscovered during the Renaissance.

43. Before the printing press, all books were handwritten. Much of this work was done by monks. An illuminated manuscript filled with full-page illustrations, fine calligraphy, decorative letters, and little drawings in the margins could take months, even over a year, to complete.

The abovementioned Quintilian book had to be copied out by hand because the monks refused to part with such a valuable book. It was common for people to make their own copies of books.

44. Books were written with quill pens, which had to be sharpened often to keep a point. Since their ink reservoir was so small, they also needed frequent dipping. They wore down quickly, and might last a week if one were lucky. Goose feathers were most common, while expensive swan feathers were favored for larger lettering.

45. Writing was done on vellum and parchment. Vellum was a cheaper material.

46. Gum sandarac, a type of crystallised resin, was shaken over wet ink to make it dry faster. Sand was NOT used for blotting!

47. You can get a feel for how people like your characters would’ve spoken by reading Medieval literature. Don’t just assume everyone spoke super-formally all the time or that there were no filters on vulgarity and insults.

48. Different styles of calligraphy predominated by era and region. While there were a few popular styles most commonly seen, this wasn’t an era of the Palmer Method either.

49. Watch out for anachronisms. When in doubt, check to see when a word or phrase first appeared. E.g., Medieval people used the word “rosy” or “rose” instead of “pink,” and “hello” only arose in the 19th century. Prior, people said “Good day.” If your characters speak a language other than English, perhaps they used an equivalent expression. That said, you don’t need to drive yourself crazy by looking up the origin of every single word you use!

50. Medieval people didn’t use the word “oh.”  Until the 19th century, it was always O, and it was always capitalized.

Posted in 1280s, alternative history, Beatrice Portinari, Couples, Dante, Middle Ages, Writing

WeWriWa—The midwives arrive


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m currently sharing snippets from my alternative history about Dante and Beatrice. It’s now June 1288, and Beatrice seems to finally have recovered from a very serious illness she contracted in December and a terrible beating her husband gave her before sailing to Cyprus on business.

Her healing was significantly complicated by pregnancy, which went unconfirmed until about the fifth month. Now Dr. Salvetti has given permission for the lengthy quarantine to end, which means midwives and Beatrice’s mother and sisters are able to help with the birth.

I couldn’t help myself when I heard my lady howling. I dashed upstairs and ran right into her room, where she was curled up on the bed, looking more fragile than I’d ever seen her. Beatrice’s small, delicate stature was even more pronounced on account of the child within her, de ’Bardi’s undeserved child. Her face was a sickly white, and her skin was so clammy.

“Some very good midwives, your mother, and your sisters are on their way,” I said as I took her hands. “They’ll be here very soon.”

“I’m sorry I let this happen. I was always so careful about using the herbs, and the women who told me about how to mix them said I’d never conceive so long as I used them religiously. You must believe me that this was an accident and I never wanted to have Mone’s child. My first child should’ve been yours, not the child of a brute I never loved.”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

I let go of her right hand and stroked her sweaty hair. “Sometimes these things happen. For reasons we can’t understand, God wanted you to have your first child in this way. My own first child was also by someone I never loved, and I mourned for his death as much as I would’ve mourned for a child we lost. How could we have gone against our parents’ wishes as to whom we married? I always had complete faith we’d someday be at liberty to remarry each other, no matter how long it took.”

Not knowing what else to say, I just stood there holding her hands and gazing into her lovely emeralds until many pairs of footsteps began coming up the stairs. I recognized the voices of Monna Cilia, Ravignana, Vanna, Fia, Margherita, and Castoria. Alongside their familiar voices were voices I guessed had to belong to the midwives.

“You’re mighty brave to venture into a birthing room,” Ravignana said. “My husband left the house when I went into labor and didn’t return until three days later.”

“We’ll take over from here,” a midwife dressed in scarlet said. “I’m Sapienza, and that’s my sister Altaluna in green. The lady in blue is Gherardesca. Your manservant told us your wife died in childbirth last year, and that your baby died in the womb. Trust us, we’ll do everything within our power to make sure nothing like that befalls your friend. We’ve only lost five mothers in all the years we’ve been working, and we don’t intend to make your friend the sixth. You may stand outside the door or in the hallway if you’d like.”

Posted in Iranian/Persian culture, Iranian/Persian history

Zan, Zendegi, Azadi! زن ز​ن​د​گ​ی آ​ز​ا​د​ی! Women, life, freedom!

Once upon a time, about 800,000 years ago, some of our Homo erectus ancestors migrated from Africa into a beautiful, fertile land full of mountains, caves, rivers, rocks for making tools, and plenty of food. Many millennia passed, and eventually our Neanderthal cousins developed numerous thriving communities.

As time marched on, permanent settlements began appearing, based around agriculture like all early human civilisations. Since this land included the Fertile Crescent, it was a very desirable location.

More millennia came and went, and with them many different villages, tribes, cultures, and civilisations. All these inhabitants left behind a wealth of archaeological evidence of how they lived, as well as a permanent mark on the area.

Copyright Hansueli Krapf

Because of the wide diversity of peoples who have lived here for almost a million years, this place is renowned for having one of the oldest, richest cultures and histories on the planet. Five of its cities are also among the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, and the land overflows with UNESCO World Heritage Sites and other important landmarks.

Many people from this proud land have made lasting marks in history, religion, medicine, science, philosophy, music, fine arts, fabric arts, writing, academia, politics, and architecture.

Copyright Amir Pashaei

Though the 19th and 20th centuries brought with them the difficulties of wars, foreign occupations, invasions, ethnic cleansing, famine, political upheavals, and authoritarian rulers, the country and her people survived every difficulty.

Starting in the 1920s, the country also began fully coming into the modern era with a national railroad, telephone service, public transportation, radio transmission, improved schools, movie theatres, fashionable clothing, a significant relaxing of religious restrictions, and women’s full participation in public life.

Despite autocratic rule, a modern quality of life continued well into the 20th century, and many people from around the world came to study in this country’s schools and tour its beautiful land.

Then night descended in 1979, and religious fanatics seized control. Many people with the ability to do so fled the country, but many others were trapped under a violent, theocratic régime. Decades of progress were erased overnight, and it kept getting worse.

But the desire for freedom was never entirely quenched, and the people of this proud land have finally begun throwing off their chains and raising their voices.

For the third time, my A to Z themes on both of my blogs are paired. My main blog will be devoted to Iranian history and culture, while my names blog will be all about Persian names. As most people can probably guess, this was inspired by the ongoing uprisings in Iran.

After over forty years of living under a brutal theocracy repressing basic human rights and making women second-class citizens, the Iranian people are standing up en masse and fighting to return to the modern, free society they enjoyed until 1979, and women are going out in public unveiled. Many people have been beaten, arrested, tortured, and murdered by the thuggish mullahs, but their bravery continues despite everything.

Freedom is never free, and change never happened because people just obediently sat down and unquestioningly accepted the status quo.

You’ll learn about people, places, and things including:

Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, which I have very happy memories of celebrating with family friends in the Eighties and early Nineties

Vank Cathedral, an old Armenian church filled with gorgeous frescoes and carvings, and containing an extensive library of rare, handwritten, priceless manuscripts

Persian cuisine, which boasts many delicious dishes everyone ought to try

Qazvin, a city full of major historical landmarks, and famous for its sweets and carpets

Yazd, a city replete with beautiful architecture, handicrafts like carpets and handwoven cloth, and sweets, and nicknamed the City of Bicycles for its long history with bicycle transportation

Simin Daneshvar, the first major Iranian female novelist

Dr. Farrokhroo Parsa, a pioneering doctor, politician, and women’s rights activist who was murdered by the state in 1980

Parvin E’tesami, a great poet who used her poetry to speak out for women’s rights and supported the reform campaign against compulsory hijab

Hamadan, one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, full of hundreds of historical and cultural landmarks

Chaharshanbe Suri, a fire dance festival which kicks off Nowruz, with ancient Zoroastrian origins

If you’d like to help the Iranian people in their brave struggle, I urge you to do at least a few of the things discussed here. Call your representatives, follow Iranian activists online, speak out for the Iranian people, tell the stories of those unjustly arrested and killed, donate to organisations like the Center for Human Rights in Iran and the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center, attend solidarity protests.

May this reign of terror be brought to an end speedily within our days.

Posted in 1920s, Movies, Silent film

A funny, ferocious feud of the 1830s, Buster-style

For the ninth year, Lea at Silent-ology is hosting the Buster Keaton Blogathon. You can click the image above to go to the full list of participants. I didn’t participate for the last two years, owing to how lockdown wrecked my mental health, so I’m very glad to finally start doing it again. This year, my subject is Buster’s brilliant 1923 film Our Hospitality.

Premièring 9 November 1923 and going into general release on 19 November 1923, Our Hospitality (originally titled just Hospitality) was Buster’s second feature-length film. It was a huge financial success, selling out at many theatres and earning $537,844 ($9,409,753 in 2023). Most critics absolutely loved it, an appraisal which continues to this day.

Our Hospitality has been remade many times in 21st century India.

Though the story is rather obviously based on the real-life Hatfield and McCoy feud, which began in 1863–64 and picked back up from 1878–91, Our Hospitality begins in 1810 and is set primarily in 1830. Buster changed the historical era because he loved trains so much and wanted to feature this mode of transportation in its very infancy.

Artistic director Fred Grabourne built full-sized, fully-functional train replicas that were accurate down to the very last minuscule detail. Buster decided to use the 1829 Stephenson’s Rocket because he thought it was funnier-looking than the 1831 DeWitt Clinton engine.

Some of the train scenes were filmed in Truckee, California and Cottage Grove, Oregon. Cottage Grove was later to become one of the primary filming locations for The General. Truckee was given a makeover to look like Shenandoah Valley in the 1830s. During filming breaks, Buster and his co-workers (both cast and crew) frequently went fishing in the Truckee River.

Replica of the DeWitt Clinton built for the 1893 Columbian Exposition

Contemporary drawing of Stephenson’s Rocket

In addition to the authentic antique train, Buster also made use of a dandy horse, a bicycle precursor which was most popular in 1816. By the 1830s, it had long since fallen out of fashion.

Joe Roberts, who plays Joseph Canfield, had an on-set stroke during filming. Though he soon returned from a Reno hospital to finish the job, he sadly died of a second stroke a few months later.

Another near-disaster happened when Buster, who refused to use stunt doubles, almost drownt in the Truckee River when his restraining wire snapped and he was swept into the rocky rapids. Ten minutes later, he was finally found face-down and immobile on a riverbank. After he recovered, he decided to film the rest of that scene on a movie set in L.A. instead of a real river.

Buster used miniature scenery for another dangerous stunt where he swings from a rope into a waterfall, also done on a movie set.

Three generations of Keatons appear together in Our Hospitality. Besides Buster, we also see his father, Joseph Keaton, who appeared in many of his films, as a grumpy train engineer. Buster’s 14-month-old son Joseph plays Willie McKay in the 1810 prologue, though he had to be taken off the set when the bright filming lights irritated his eyes.

Last but not least, Buster’s first wife, Natalie Talmadge, plays Virginia Canfield, the leading lady. Since she was pregnant with their second child, Robert, at the time, she had to be filmed in such a way as to conceal her condition as it became more prominent.

Sorry about the obnoxious watermark on a public domain image!

In 1810, John McKay is the last of his line. The last, that is, except his baby boy. He’s terrified because he heard Jim Canfield is in town, and their families have been feuding for generations.

In the Canfield home, Joseph tries to convince his fiery brother Jim to drop the feud already, but Jim says he came a long way to kill John McKay, and he’s bound and determined to do it tonight.

After the unthinkable happens, the Canfields vow to continue the feud, and Mrs. McKay sends her son Willie to her sister’s family in NYC.

Twenty years later, Willie has grown up to be quite the dandy, in a city far more rural and sparsely-populated than we think of it as. His familiar life is disrupted when he gets a letter asking him to come to Rockville to claim his late father’s property.

Before he leaves, his aunt tells him the story of the feud and makes him promise not to go near the Canfields.

But as it would so happen, also en route to Rockville is Virginia, whom Willie doesn’t yet know is a Canfield. While riding together in one of the bumpy carriages attached to the train, they start getting friendlier and friendlier.

Troubles encountered along the way include a donkey and cows wandering onto the tracks, wheels coming uncoupled, running over a big log, coke soot getting on everyone’s faces in a tunnel, and getting on the wrong track.

When they arrive after this very eventful journey, Willie makes the mistake of asking one of Virginia’s brothers where the McKay estate is. When asked why he wants to go there, Willie identifies himself as John McKay’s son. The brother then goes to buy a pistol.

While the Canfield men are busy at their pistol cabinet at home, Virginia invites Willie to supper.

Willie is very disappointed and stunned to discover the McKay estate is nothing more than a falling-apart shack.

Unfortunately, one of the running gags is more than just dated. Willie twice encounters a man choking and beating his wife, and he naturally intervenes. The wife gets really angry at him for interfering in their business. It makes me so uncomfortable to see domestic violence depicted like this, though I know Buster was only trying to be funny in the context of that era. Today we understand so much more about domestic violence.

The Canfields constantly try and fail to shoot Willie, though only outside. Mr. Canfield forbids his sons to commit any murders in the house, since it’s against the Southern code of hospitality. As long as Willie’s inside, he’s safe, but all bets are off the second he steps out the door.

Willie is on-edge the entire supper, and prolongs leaving as long as possible by shaking everyone’s hand multiple times, pretending his hat is missing, and playing with the dog.

He gets a reprieve when a parson who was also a guest opens the door to a huge rainstorm. Since it’s too dangerous for anyone to go outside, Willie quickly reaches outside for his suitcase and decides to spend the night.

The next day, Willie again prolongs his departure as long as possible, and finally escapes by cross-dressing. The Canfields, though, know it’s really him, and go on a murderous search for him at the train station and through the fields and woods.

The chase leads to a steep, dangerous cliff which Willie can’t find a way off of until one of the brothers throws down a rope to get a better shot. They both fall into the river below, and thus begins another desperate escape.

Willie thinks he’s finally safe when he commanders a train, but all bets are off when his car derails and sends him back into the perilous river. Now he has the difficult task of finding a way to safety, rescuing Virginia when she goes to look for him, and escaping the Canfields alive.

Posted in 1280s, alternative history, Dante, Middle Ages, Writing

WeWriWa—Time to summon the midwives


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m currently sharing snippets from my alternative history about Dante and Beatrice. It’s now June 1288, and Beatrice was stricken with a very serious illness in December. She’s also recovering from a terrible beating her husband gave her before sailing to Cyprus on business.

This snippet comes a bit after last week’s, when Dante and his stepmother got into a very heated argument in the wake of family physician Dr. Salvetti announcing Beatrice seems to be about five months pregnant.

I was teaching Francesco and Tana about the history of Baghdad in mid-June when Dr. Salvetti came running into the library. Fearing the worst, I shut Benjamin of Tudela’s Travels of Benjamin and stood up.

“It has become necessary to summon the midwives,” Dr. Salvetti said. “The lady shows all the signs of childbirth, and it’s no longer decent for me to minister to her.”

“How are we supposed to summon any midwife when we can’t leave the house?” Francesco asked. “Shout from the windows and hope someone obeys us?”

“By this point, I don’t imagine there’s much of any poison miasma or infectious spores left lurking about. The only reason I insisted on such a long period of confinement was because the lady was so most grievously ill, and I didn’t want to take any chances. I’d rather be considered a radical who’s too influenced by Saracen medicine and science than lose more patients than I have to, or worsen their conditions, due to following superstitions and not being careful enough.” Dr. Salvetti adjusted his belt.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

“Durante, do you remember the names of the midwives who delivered your wife?”

“I’m not hiring them again,” I announced decisively. “They killed Gemma and our baby with their gross negligence and incompetence. This time, only the most expensive and highly-trained midwives will suffice.”

“In that case, allow me to recommend Sapienza and Altaluna Petrocelli and Gherardesca Cimorelli. They live on Via Santa Elisabetta, and they’re familiar with all the great Saracen scientists and doctors, as well as the writings of Trota of Salerno.”

“If we’re allowed to leave the house again, this means we can invite Bice’s mother and sisters,” Tana said. “They’ll be so happy to see her and help her. Can I go to their house to summon them?”

Dr. Salvetti smiled. “My only role in this birth is recommending good midwives. Everything else is an entirely female domain.”