Charters and Leofwine, Ealdorman of the Hwicce

I always think that the characters of Anglo-Saxon England are a little too ethereal for people to really connect with. As I’ve said before, I think it’s difficult to visualise life before the Norman Conquest, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

My current obsession, and victim of my historical fiction endeavours is Leofwine, Ealdorman of the Hwicce during the reign of Aethelred, who I refuse to call ‘Unready’ because I just don’t think he was. I think, as many might say about todays economic situation, that he was a victim of his times, treated harshly by historians. (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/344194)

My research is going deeper, examining the evidence of the charter attestations that Leofwine made (where he signs, and therefore, it must be assumes, agrees to whatever the charter is concerned with). Charters from before the Norman Conquest are rare, and have only survived in copies because they benefitted someone in some way, normally the monastery or Church that the copy of the original charter has survived in.

This effectively means that in determining the validity of the Charter, historians need to know about what was happening in the world at large, when the COPY of the charter was made. Effectively, to study Anglo-Saxon history, you have to also study early Anglo-Norman history to work out just what’s going on and why the Charter is so important.

In the records of Sherborne, Leofwine’s name can be found attesting two charters. No original copies of the charters survive, and the record as we have it, is in a twelfth century hand. So, should it be trusted? Should it be used as an historical source? Or as with so much history, can it really only be used as a historical record of the time period that produced it? After all, at least a hundred years and probably more like 150 years, separate the copy of the charter and the date of its drafting and attestation.

It’s an interesting dilemma and one I don’t plan on solving today. Would I use it? Yes, I would but I’d be standing on the shoulders of those giants of academic history who have studied far more charters than me and who have decided that the copies are ‘probably’ genuine as they stand. 

And how relevant are they to Leofwine? I think very, because they appear to show his standing at the Royal Court. In S933 (AD1015) he signs as the third ‘dux’ (ealdorman) and on S910 from AD1005 he also signs as the third ‘dux’. So what does it all mean? Well, as with everything the picture is wider than just Sherborne. In total Leofwine attests 41 charters whilst an Ealdorman. So although I think its important to examine the validity of the Cartularies that the charters survive in, it’s a bit of a painstaking and picky business. But one I’m enjoying. For anyone really keen to look at Leofwine’s charters in more detail, you can start by having a look at http://www.kemble.asnc.cam.ac.uk.

Enjoy.

The Liberties of Historical Fiction and What makes a perfect work of historical fiction

Non-fiction is a wonderful genre when the author has an engaging writing style; but historical fiction can really bring an historical event to life – so that we can visualise it and, if we’re really lucky, put ourselves in that time and place with the characters.

But with that said, historical fiction is responsible for reenforcing outdated ideas about the past, and when it becomes popular (or rather if) does it do more harm than good?

As a self-confessed history nerd, I know that if a work of fiction captures my imagination, I will nine times out of ten, research the time period myself and see how realistic the portrayal was. It doesn’t spoil my enjoyment of the fiction if I find huge errors, but it might make me a little wary when reading future books by the same author. 

Often the worse thing, in my opinion, that an historical fiction author can do is weave a fictional character into a sea of ‘real’ historical characters and present them as just as real. Not that I don’t appreciate that many ‘bit parts’ will be fictional, but surely, not the main character in a story of King’s and Princes. (I was once traumatised after reading a trilogy of books of over 500 pages each when this first happened to me – and I’m naming no names!)

But there are also far worse things – they can use glaringly modern terms, or misinterpret the events, or put a rosy ‘romantic’ glow over it all (as happens in much historical fiction about women!) or present their heroine as rising about the societal norms whilst inflicting those norms on other characters.

Don’t get me wrong here, I strongly believe that humankind has not suddenly undergone some strange enlightenment in the past century. I believe romantic love must have existed for far longer than some historians would have us believe. Today’s population can’t wholly be the result of non-consensual sex and rape, for if it us, what does that really say about men and women as two separate genders. I think some commons sense must be applied. Men and women have been in relationships since they first walked on Earth. And in Anglo-Saxon and Viking times (before the Christianisation took place) men relied on their wives or common law wives to run their homes in their absence. If not love, then at least trust must have existed.

But I digress, so far my pet hates are too much romance, too much ‘bad’ history, and too much ‘one rule for everyone else and a different one for the authors hero or heroine’. To that I must add historical fiction that’s exclusively ‘man’ orientated – battles, blood and gore (yawn!).

So what makes my perfect word of historical fiction;

1) a good storyline that’s more truth than fantasy

2) a firm grounding in the time period

3) characters who are people

4) to be taught something

5) a series of books – I don’t like stand alone novels as a reader, I’ve not yet decided as an author.

6) something different – not the same people told from a different point of view i.e. the Tudor women.

If I think of anything else, I’ll add it on. Let me know what you think.

 

Nationality before 1066

At the moment I’m writing about the battle of Brunanburh in 937, a battle between the English King, the Scottish King, the King of Strathclyde and the Dublin Vikings. It’s a great project and I’m really enjoying it, but it’s made me consider how I should be using my characters nationality, and more importantly, how I should be describing them.

http://www.wattpad.com/story/15294409-brunanburh

It all seems simple enough to use English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh but really, is that correct? The Welsh are perhaps giving me the most trouble because back in 937 the kingdoms weren’t amalgamated, instead being very much like the earlier Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the Mercians and the Northumbrians. And even the term Welsh, which I seem to think is Anglo-Saxon for foreigner, may not be how these people thought of themselves.

In the end, I’ve chosen to call those living in what is now Wales the British because the thinking is that the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons pushed the native Britons into the extremities of the UK, into Wales, Cornwall and Scotland. I know it’s a slightly picky point, but when dealing with the time period in question, it’s important to get the little details correct.

More than anything I want to portray the men I’m writing about in a way that readers today can relate to them. Yes, they might have been a little more violent, but overall, they really can’t have been that different to us.

So, have a read of Brunanburh over on Wattpad and let me know how you think I’m doing!

Transitions – the whimsical words of Gildas

A piece of fiction about Gildas, the alleged author of ‘On the Ruin of Britain’ in sixth century Britain

 

When my Lord calls me to him, to read to him from my youthful work, I rush, as much as an old man can, to do his bidding. His fire is always high and warms me for the first time all day. Sometimes the wood is wet and the fire smokes, or the wind blows down the small chimney and forces the smoke to spread throughout the cold and drafty woody hall. It can make it hard to breathe and speak the words my Lord wants to hear.

I used to fear that my Lord would grow tired of his game and banish me from the great hall, forcing me to shiver in my room, no more than a damp cell in the cellars. I know better now.

He feeds me, clothes me and keeps me warm. Few would think to keep an old, nearly blind man from his death. Quite often I fall asleep before the fire so that I can stay warm all night long, only stumbling back to my cell by the grey light of dawn.

My lord is a hard man and yet he seems to understand his role and perform it well. I’m no longer surprised by this. He’s a great man and can speak the Latin of my youth even if no one else in the hall can.

He’s much less a barbarian than I expected. He’s clever enough to know who I once was and to have read my work and understood its significance. Whilst I didn’t write under my own name, my friends and colleagues knew that it was I who’d written the words and that it was I who lambasted all the tyrants in my land. Worse, they knew that it was I who criticized the vilest of them all by failing to mention him at all, damning him more with my silence than with my words.

In my youth I rebelled against the changes that were infecting my land and I wrote a sermon. I feared for my people and called for them to redeem their ways: to let God back into their lives so that the Saxon raiders could be defeated with God’s help. I meticulously researched my sermon, writing it in my God’s Latin.

Every night my Lord makes me read the miswritten words of my youth. I start at the beginning of my sermon and by the end of a few weeks I’m finished and must start again.

Sometimes my lord doesn’t really listen to my words. He’s too busy drinking and laughing with his friends and underlings. Yet, whenever I reach my descriptions of the weak and twisted former tyrants of my land, I know that he’s quiet and listening to my words, his intelligent eyes, laser like and penetrating. I once puzzled over this but now I understand why he listens so intently.

Whilst he may not be the sort of leader I demanded in my youth, I think that he does his best to live up to the ideals that I described. He doesn’t debauch himself or look for an easy way out of the difficult situations he finds himself in. I think that he’s listening to me because he wants to ensure he doesn’t become one of those tyrant’s I speak of.

Whilst everyone else thinks I was a youthful fool and an idiot, he hopes to live up to my archetype. He wants to be the person I called for and asked my God for. He wants to be better than all who’ve gone before.

I’m not one of my lord’s advisers and I’m never called upon to give my counsel. I’m old and shabby and though loath to say it, smelly. Yet in my own way I think I counsel my lord every night. It’s better than being one of his advisers. I’m safe in the knowledge that he listens to me and heeds my warnings, unlike his warriors who shout in vain to be heard.

The land of my birth is changed. The Saxon raiders wanted our wealth but took our land. They robbed the native British people of the lives they thought they’d have. There are no longer flourishing towns where the wealthy and well educated converse in Latin amongst elaborate stone buildings.

Instead there’s a new language and Latin is only preserved amongst a few wondering priests. The towns are busy and bustling but lacking in stone buildings. There are no longer any lawgivers who need to speak the language of the Empire of the Caesars.

There’s a new world and nothing is as it was meant to be when I was a child, when I watched the soldiers with their head gear and hooded visors march smartly throughout the land.

It‘s taken me many years but now I see things so much more clearly than when I was first brought here, against my will and screaming my innocence. I see that my Lord is right to do what he does and to rule the way he does.

I’m honest enough to admit that in the grand scheme of things nothing fundamental has actually changed under the Saxon overlords.

My lord’s father, the man I besmirched by not writing about him so long ago, was little different to the men in Rome who used to send their written orders. He had the same needs and wants. On balance, he was a better man for his ambition was smaller and easier to achieve.

I realise that I’m honoured. I may live in the cold and the dirt and be filthy and smelly, but I’m witnessing the beginnings of something good and new.

My Lord understands this and I hope that when my body is too tired to go on, he’ll remember the passages I read to him and continue to be a good and just lord as the Roman England of my youth becomes the Saxon England of the future.

Anglo Saxon or more correctly, Anglo-Danish England and the Norman Conquest

I’m an Anglo-Saxonist at heart (or indeed any ‘British’ kingdom from about the year 500-1000). I don’t know why, but I love everything about this time period. Although my first passion was Elizabeth I and some of the Tudors, II read mostly about the years 500 until the Stuarts but get a little ‘bored’ when it becomes more modern (I know why but I’m not confessing to that here). 

Yet, many people seem to think that British history starts with ‘1066 and all that’ and having been doing some research of late, I think I just might have devised a reason for this.

The Anglo-Saxons, or the Anglo-Danish, or the early ‘English’ kingdom(s) if you prefer, arise out of the mists of the past (don’t use that naughty phrase about the transition from Roman to Anglo-Saxon England) as shadowy characters that can never be quite fully glimpsed. They didn’t live in ‘castles’ as we know them, they didn’t fight on horseback with shiny armour and swords and triangular shields, they actually liked their women (go Anglo-Saxons) and they seemed to be, for all intents and purposes, quite welcoming to any who came to their shores (in general), or maybe I should say that they were quite good at co-habiting with different nationalities. They used funny words, like witan and aetheling. They had funny names like Aethelred and Aethelflaed and their houses were built from wood.

Now the Normans, they’re a whole different society. They just about did all those things above, and had good proper names like William and Henry and Matilda. They’re familiar to us and even though they changed the national language from Old English with a bit of Latin, to mostly French and a bit more Latin, those words became a part of our society and we accept them as normal. The Norman Conquest was no steady infiltration, as it appears the original Anglo-Saxon settlers initiated, and then the Vikings, and then the Danish. No, the Norman Conquest swept the board clean, and into the void, they poured all aspects of their society and it was very different to anything that had gone before.

The onset of feudalism, the highly stratified society that formed all combined with the other changes to make what had gone before even more alien. And of course, the chroniclers of that period helped to disperse those ideas down to today’s historians.

Effectively, some sort of jarring rift occurred with the Norman Conquest. 1065 became the last year of one ideal that had governed Anglo-Saxon England for nearly 600 years, and 1067 became the first year of an ideal that would govern from then on, and in doing so, made everything that had gone on before seem too strange for modern audiences to even comprehend, or want to comprehend. And it’s a shame because the Anglo-Saxons had a rich culture and a fascinating history, that was so much more than having a fight with France, or trying to ‘nick’ the throne from your father, or your brother, or your uncle, or trying to take over the Welsh, the Scottish or the Irish.

The entire outlook of Anglo-Saxon England was different to the Normans and that’s why I think many people don’t bond with the Anglo-Saxon age. The lack of familiarity makes it too hard, too uncomfortable and maybe, too much work! So, hats off to all my fellow Anglo-Saxonists. Enjoy untangling the web of unfamiliarity and remember, when it all gets a bit too much, you can always take a ‘breather’ in the post Conquest period!

 

Academic or ‘commercial’ history?

I’ve been reading a number of books of late, and the dazzling difference between academic and commercial history has made itself frightfully clear on a number of occasions. I’m not going to name any names but in the last week alone, I’ve read an account of the fifteen year run up to the Norman Conquest that shocked me (in fact I’ve read two), and likewise, I’ve read about four different interpretations of events at Eamont in 927 (I’m working on a novel about the battle of Brunanburh in 937 which can be found on wattpad).

There seem to be a number of reasons for such vast differences of opinion and I think much of it has to come down to the ‘sources’ that historians use, and how sceptical they are, or not, about those sources. In recent years (to clarify, in academia recent years i.e. the last fifty), there have been many new critical interpretations of the early sources available for the pre Norman Conquest period, and clearly, this has a ‘knock-on’ effect to any past interpretations. Those who work in academia work to the latest interpretations, but the more general readership doesn’t move with any changes to academia and that means that outdated ideas are still current and accepted by many.

Of course, another problem for commercial history is that it needs a tag-line to sell. And these claims are often a little outrageous and wholly incorrect. I doubt it’s the author’s fault although maybe it is. If they’ve managed to ‘hook’ an agent and a publisher they’ve made their way through a huge slush pile of query letters and opening chapters. And that can only be because someone thinks it’ll sell. Maybe there’s an anniversary coming up, or a resurgence in interest in that time period (need I say the Tudors!) or a TV and film that touches on the issue. For whatever reason, the author has managed to get their work published, and then the publisher needs to sell it. But, can it really be classified as ‘history’ when it’s riddled with mistakes and errors? Who checks all the facts and makes sure that they’re credible? I haven’t yet found the answer to that.

In the meantime, I’ll have to retreat to the word of academia and the Library, because academic history books are somewhat on the expensive side. (I suppose it’s similar to my aversion to ‘history’ documentaries on the TV. I don’t watch them. They make me cross!)

I admit it, I’m a history nerd!

There seems little point in denying it any longer, and so, I confess to being a history nerd. Although, perhaps not in the way you might think.

I’m not a date person or a ‘fact’ person. My main issue is indeed with supposed ‘facts’ handed down to us by ‘history’ books. How do we know these are ‘facts’? What are the ‘facts’ based on? I find this especially true when historians or authors are trying to present a comprehensive account of the past.

My research for the Earls of Mercia series has highlighted the problem to me time and time again, and so whilst I do more research, I plan on blogging a bit about what I discover and sharing my thoughts on how historical events could be better portrayed. I have the first faint stirrings of an idea of how this could be accomplished, but I’ll hold fire on speaking about it now.

So, if any of you are still awake (this is why I’m saying I’m a nerd!) I plan on blogging about once a week about the Earls of Mercia, well about Leofwine for the time being, and how we ‘know’ what we ‘know’.

For Earls of Mercia fans, you can find some more details on my website.

http://www.earlofmercia/moonfruit.com