Posted in Food, Historical fiction, Middle Ages, Writing

How to research and write Medieval historical fiction, Part III (All about food)

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.

19. Common foods differed depending on country. Italy, for example, had access to a wider range of foods due to its convenient coastlines and location along major trade routes. Returning Crusaders brought back exotic food like citron, cinnamon, caraway, ginger, nutmeg, halvah, durum wheat, oranges, and nougat. Also keep in mind that certain foods, like tomatoes, cranberries, corn, and chocolate, were completely unknown to Europeans until the conquest of the Americas.

20. Utensils weren’t commonly provided when eating at someone else’s house. It was the custom to carry them on one’s own belt. Many people also ate directly off of the blade of a knife. Spoons were most frequently made of wood, unless one were wealthy. With the notable exception of Italy, forks were very uncommon in Europe. It wasn’t until the 18th century that forks had become normal, acceptable table utensils.

21. Apéritifs were eaten at the start of every meal to open the stomach, as was the Medieval belief in how digestion worked. Popular solid apéritifs were ginger, anise, fennel, cumin, and caraway coated in sugar or honey. Liquid apéritifs included wine and sweetened milk.

22. After apéritifs came easily digestible foods like fruit. The second course consisted of cabbage, lettuce, herbs, broth, more fruit, and light meats like goat and fowl. Then came heavy food like vegetables, beef, pork, nuts (esp. chestnuts), and pears. The objective was for each course to gradually build up in heartiness instead of immediately eating heavy things that take longer to digest and don’t go so well on an empty stomach.

23. Dragées were eaten at the conclusion of every meal for the opposite reason of apéritifs, to close the stomach. These included lumps of spiced sugar, honey-covered almonds, aged cheese, and hippocrasHippocras, hot wine mixed with spices, cinnamon, and sugar, was also popular at holidays, weddings, and other celebrations as a main drink.

24. Beef and wheat were expensive and largely confined to the wealthy, while game was mostly eaten by nobles. Polenta, made of spelt, millet, chestnut flour, chickpeas, or farro, was associated with the poor and working-class. Tea and coffee were only available in East Asia and the Islamic world.

25. The most common cooking spices were sage, parsley, mint, mustard, caraway, fennel, dill, salt, and anise. Cinnamon, clove, ginger, cumin, nutmeg, and black pepper were more expensive, and saffron and turmeric were the most exclusive.

26. Pizza didn’t exist. Italians had a pizza-like dish in the form of focaccia with various toppings, sometimes drizzled with olive oil.

27. Many modern sweets didn’t exist either. Cakes were much more bread-like than their modern counterparts, and frequently topped by things like eel, chicken, marzipan, custard, and hemp. Forget about frosting! Pies were filled with fruit, meat, eggs, or vegetables. Instead of things like cookies, cupcakes, and candy, most people ate fruit like figs, dates, and raisins.

28. Water wasn’t a common drink. More popular were wine, fruit juice, ale, beer, cider, mulberry gin, and mead. Milk was mostly for the young and elderly, esp. whey and buttermilk.

29. Rich people ate many things which seem abhorrent to the average modern person, like lark and other songbirds, whale, porpoise, peacock, swan, porcupine, stork, hedgehog, crane, and beaver.

30. Breakfast was seen as gluttony and weakness by the Church, and usually only eaten by children, working men, and some ladies. The word “breakfast” also didn’t exist. It was just a light morning meal.

31. The first meal of the day for most people was the mid-day dinner. Supper, the final meal of the day, was typically lighter fare. Ladies frequently ate apart from the rest of the household to uphold the idea of delicacy and neatness. After they were done eating, they joined the menfolk and children.

32. Between each course, shallow handwashing basins and linen towels were brought around in households of means. Also between each course, servants wiped down tables and changed tablecloths.

33. Shared cups were common, and many people used their hands or spoons to put food from stew pots and plates into their own trenchers. Trenchers were flat wooden or pewter plates that evolved from flat, round, stale bread.

Posted in Historical fiction, Middle Ages, Writing

How to research and write Medieval historical fiction, Part II (All about marriage and weddings)

There are many things one has to keep in mind while writing Medieval hist-fic, and many things which need researched before even writing a single word. Since this era lasted about a thousand years, involved so many different countries, and is divided into three major periods, it’s not as fairly simple as researching and writing about, say, the U.S. Civil War or the French Revolution.

8. Marriage didn’t have to be witnessed to be valid, as much as that annoyed the Church. A man could give a woman a ring made of a twisted twig and declare his intentions, or a couple could profess their love and then have sex. Some daring couples did this to save themselves from an unwanted marriage to someone else or before their fathers or masters could start the spouse search.

In more formal circumstances, once a couple appeared before a notary or judge to answer a few questions and make their betrothal legally binding, they were married. It wasn’t uncommon for couples to begin living together immediately, if they weren’t already, and having kids. More than a few couples had several kids by the time they finally got around to formalizing their marriage at church. At that time, the priest would bless the children and officially legitimize them.

Marriage wasn’t even a sacrament till 1215.

9. Formal weddings began outside the church door, and vows weren’t standardized. In many cases, the bride said not a single word. On the way to the church, a friend or relative of the groom walked or rode ahead of the couple with a sword. He was chosen for this role of protector for his expert swordsman skills, in case anyone tried to stop the wedding or kidnap the bride. The role of best man originated here.

A wedding canopy was held over the couple once they got inside the church and were kneeling in front of the priest. Officially, this was only done for first marriages, since the Church frowned on remarriage. However, some sympathetic priests may have permitted it on a case-by-case basis, like if the couple were very young and their first marriages were very short-lived.

As for the Jewish wedding canopy, the chupah, its form varied by region and era, and it was never confined to first marriages only.

After the ceremony, the groom gave the bride a little bag of coins to be distributed to the poor. This showed he trusted her to manage the family finances and to be responsible with his money.

10. Every bride had a dowry, and some fathers sought to marry their sons to girls who could bring a hefty dowry to the marriage. The dowry was often the subject of much negotiation and debate, and wasn’t limited to just money. It could include things like linens, furniture, servants, horses, land, objects of silver and gold, jewelry, and houses. A servant’s dowry was provided by her master or a charity fund run by wealthy people.

Upon marriage, the dowry became part of the husband’s bank account and property. If a woman died before her husband, her dowry reverted back to her family, and her widower was required to repay it in full. If the husband died first, the widow sometimes got one-third or one-half of the husband’s property and money, and could collect any interest earned on his lands.

If the marriage produced no children, the dowry was often returned to the wife’s family upon death.

Some places, like Fiorenza (Florence), had a minimum dowry amount. Dante’s father must have been very excited Manetto Donati provided Gemma with a dowry of 200 florins, twice the minimum amount. In contrast, Beatrice’s dowry was 800 florins.

11. Wedding rings weren’t plain gold bands, but often set with precious gems and made of finely engraved or twisted gold. It wasn’t uncommon for a groom to give the bride a ring at the betrothal, but this wasn’t considered an engagement ring, since that concept didn’t really exist.

Double ring ceremonies also didn’t exist, in either Christianity or Judaism. If the bride did give the groom a ring, it wasn’t done during the wedding or officially seen as a wedding ring.

12. After the newlywed couple arrived at the husband’s house following the reception, there was a bedding ceremony. The ladies would prepare the bride for bed, and the gentlemen would prepare the groom. They were then helped into bed by their friends and relatives, and a priest would bless the bed. Like wedding vows, there also were no standardized prayers for this ceremony. It differed by era, country, and priest.

After the priest left, the couple’s friends and family would have fun teasing them about how they were about to (presumably) have sex for the first time, with lots of bawdy songs, dirty jokes, and ribald advice. Contrary to urban legend, most couples were left alone to consummate the marriage. That was only done for some royals and nobles.

13. Droit du seigneur (right of the lord), or ius primae noctis (right of the first night), a supposed legal right that let a feudal lord, prince, or king sleep with brides on their wedding night, is considered a total urban legend by most historians. While many such men, like slavemasters in the U.S. South, raped girls and women under their power, it was never an actual legal right.

14. Not all countries had the custom of guests ripping pieces off of the bride’s dress as souvenirs and groomsmen rushing to take her garters. Italy never did that. It’s so important to look for geographical details while researching. You’ll look and feel foolish if you depict, e.g., uniquely English or French customs in a story set in Germany or Hungary.

15. It was a custom for the groom to give his bride at least one additional gift the morning after, to compensate her for the loss of her virginity. A bride could also give her husband morning gifts, but it wasn’t as common.

It was also a custom for a husband of means to give his wife an illuminated book of hours, Bible, and/or Psalter for a first anniversary gift, after commissioning them around the time of the betrothal or wedding.

16. Brides wore dresses made of the best materials they could afford, with rich colours, but white wasn’t common at all until Queen Victoria started the trend.

17. People frequently had no say in whom they married, and marriages were often arranged in childhood. A man’s word was believed and honoured over that of a woman if she tried to escape an abusive or unwanted marriage. Wife-beating was legal and socially-acceptable, and divorce was almost impossible to get.

18. Though it was quite common for Italian and Eastern European girls to marry in their early teens, that wasn’t the norm across Europe. Most poor and lower-middle-status women married between 18–22, while in some regions, women married in their early to mid-twenties. Even royal and noble families didn’t typically marry their daughters off as soon as they became fertile.

Most couples were also about 1–6 years apart instead of a decade or more apart as was common in Italy. Dante married his wife when he was about 20, and she couldn’t have been more than a few years younger.

Posted in Historical fiction, Middle Ages, Writing

How to research and write Medieval historical fiction, Part I

Before I began writing my alternative history about Dante and Beatrice in June 2021, I started researching the Middle Ages. I’ve loved this wide-ranging era of history since I first read The Decameron in late 2002, but it never became an era I know like the back of my hand. Thus, I needed to research as much as I could about so many different aspects of the 13th and 14th centuries in Italy.

First things first: The Middle Ages specifically refers to Europe from the fall of Rome in  476 until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. These dates are the subject of much scholarly debate, but they’re a good general ballpark. The era is additionally divided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages.

If you’re writing about other parts of the world within this timeframe, you’re not writing about the Middle Ages. In China and many parts of Africa, for example, history is classified according to ruling dynasty. Japan had the Kofun, Asuka, Nara, Heian, Kamakura, and Muromachi periods.

Some things to keep in mind while researching and writing:

1. The Julian calendar was used until the 16th century. Catholic countries switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1582, while many Protestant countries waited till the 17th and 18th centuries. The Ottoman Empire and Eastern Orthodox countries held out till WWI. This means that if you’re using a perpetual calendar and like to include exact dates with days of the week, you want to double-check if it factors in the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. If not, you can convert the dates here.

2. This was not a world of Kumbaya and Rainbow Tribes. Even people who lived in huge, multicultural cities like London and Paris or along major trade routes tended to stick with their own kind. I shouldn’t even have to explain what interfaith relations were like until about 1950! Yes, it’s a total myth to claim there was barely any diversity in the Middle Ages, and there was lots of cultural osmosis through trade and travel, but most people also weren’t mixing and mingling with abandon on a personal level.

3. Medieval England doesn’t represent the entire era! Customs, clothing, foods, etc., were much different in places like Russia, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Greece, and Norway.

4. School didn’t have grade levels. There was trivium for younger students (grammar, logic, rhetoric), and quadrivium for older pupils (math, music, astronomy, geometry). Also included in quadrivium were Latin, theology, science, philosophy, debate, and poetry. Children of means were tutored at home, while those of lesser income went to church-run schools. Public schools didn’t exist.

Most girls weren’t taught as many subjects as boys unless they entered a convent. Since nuns were expected to understand the Bible and important theological teachings, they had access to much more advanced studies than women restricted to housekeeping and childrearing. Many Medieval nuns were brilliant intellectuals equal or superior to any men.

Because education was structured so differently, it was common for boys to start university at only fourteen. Some were as young as twelve. Traditional subjects included law, theology, philosophy, and medicine. A course of studies took six years. Only a rare few women, like Bettisia Gozzadini, were granted entrance to university.

5. Birthdates often weren’t recorded. At most, we might have baptismal dates or a general idea. E.g., we know Dante was born in late May of 1265, but not which day exactly. I gave him the birthday of 27 May, since 2+7=9, his lucky number.

6. People were generally much more conservative about names. The same fairly small pool of names were used over and over again, even within the same families in the same generation. People were expected to name their kids after relatives. It was very unusual how Dante didn’t name any of his sons after his father, one of several pieces of circumstantial evidence suggesting a less than harmonious relationship.

Behind the Name has a treasure trove of Medieval names in many languages, in both the main database and the submitted names section. Many of these names have been replaced by more modern forms, or fallen out of use entirely. Also keep in mind that some of these names were exclusively used for characters in literature and mythology, not real people.

7. Pet names differed from modern names too!

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

WeWriWa—Stepmother’s furor


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 now sharing snippets from my alternative history about Dante and Beatrice. It’s now March 1288, and Beatrice has been stricken with a very serious illness since December. She’s also still recovering from a terrible beating her husband gave her before sailing to Cyprus on business.

Family physician Dr. Salvetti has had the house under quarantine almost the entire time, and he’s now positive Beatrice is about five months pregnant. If all that weren’t bad enough, Dante’s stepmother isn’t happy about any of this, and she’s about to cross the line in expressing her displeasure.

Monna Lapa stormed into the library, her face red. “I cannot believe what I just walked in on! Our loyal Galfrido sporting with the maid, as though they were young people! The only reason I didn’t immediately dismiss both of them is because no one can leave this infernal house! But as soon as we receive clearance to resume our normal lives, I’m discharging them and looking for replacements.”

“I’ve known about their flirtation almost since it started,” I told her. “Why would you dismiss them for falling in love? That doesn’t impact how well they perform their duties. In fact, I’d be more than happy to bless their marriage and pray for them to be blessed with children.”

“Speaking of children, Monna Lapa, you should be aware that our stricken guest is expecting,” Dr. Salvetti said.

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

My stepmother turned white, and her eyes widened so much they became almost entirely pupils. For a moment, I thought she was about to faint.

“Don’t you dare expect me to bring that wicked woman to bed when her time comes. She can labor all by herself for all I care, without a midwife. I hope she dies in childbirth so she can finally leave this house.”

Boiling with fury, I raised my hand and slapped her as hard as I could. Monna Lapa gasped, stepped back, and rubbed the deep red mark on her face.

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

WeWriWa—Confiding in Dr. Salvetti


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 now sharing snippets from my alternative history about Dante and Beatrice. It’s now March 1288, and Beatrice has been stricken with a very serious illness since December. She’s also still recovering from a terrible beating her husband gave her before sailing to Cyprus on business.

Family physician Dr. Salvetti has had the house under quarantine almost the entire time. Now the situation has become even more complicated, since Dr. Salvetti is positive Beatrice is about five months pregnant. He’s about to learn just what kind of herbs Dante just mentioned, herbs which were destroyed by the angry husband and used as a pretext for domestic violence.

Image courtesy Wellcome Collection

I avoided looking at Dr. Salvetti. “Ever since she was married, Bice used herbal concoctions of various types to avoid conception. She wants children very much, but didn’t want to have them with a man she never loved. Everyone believed God had closed her womb, not that she was deliberately avoiding pregnancy. As soon as she became a widow and married a man of her own choosing, she planned to discontinue using the herbs. Bice knows the Church strongly disapproves of contraception, and only did it out of desperation. Not that we actively wished for his death, but we knew there was a very high likelihood of de ’Bardi dying sooner rather than later. He’s twenty-five years older than Bice.”

“Would I be mistaken if I guessed you’re that man of her own choosing she wanted to marry after being widowed?”

I nodded, still not looking at him.

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

“I suspected that for quite some time. It’s impossible not to see the lovelorn way you look at her. What a pity your fathers didn’t recognize the signs and betroth you to each other.”

I buried my head in my hands. “Even if de ’Bardi dies or an annulment is granted, I could never raise that child as my own. That family would take the baby from Bice. My friend Forese’s sister Ravenna was forced to leave her little children to her husband’s family the first time she was widowed. Some laws are so unjust.”

Dr. Salvetti shook his head. “After the bestial way de ’Bardi behaved, I have no doubt your predictions would come to pass. But perhaps you can hide the lady in another town until she becomes a widow. I hope for both of your sakes that’s not very long in coming.”

“From your mouth to God’s ear.”