24 February 2018

Historical Research: Glazing Without Glass

Glazing with horn rectangles
During my recent trip to York for the Jorvik Viking Festival, I also made a visit to Barley Hall, a medieval townhouse down an alley off Stonegate – all this well within the walls that would have surrounded the Roman fortress.

The oldest parts of the building date from 1360 when it was built as the city’s townhouse for Nostel Priory, a monastery near Wakefield 35 miles distant by modern roads. The building gained a second wing around 1430 and became the home of one William Snawsell, goldsmith, alderman and Lord Mayor of York.

How it looks today was not how it looked down the later centuries. Like many a medieval building in the UK it was hacked about, re-roofed in tile or slate, covered in brick and/or its exterior replastered. The York Archaeological Trust gained possession of the then decrepit building in 1987 and, after remedial and replacement work using techniques from the period, it was opened to the public in 1993.
Horn rectangles overlapping like roof tiles

I was particularly interested in the size of the windows, considering glazing with glass was appallingly expensive until relatively late (17th century). At Barley Hall residents overcame this by two methods: oiled linen and horn. Neither would allow the viewer to look out, only for light to enter. But how much light?

Horn was quite plentiful: The Shambles (butchers’ row) is only a few streets away, and all cattle of the period would bear horns. These would be boiled to soften, slit open and flattened. Depending on the age and thickness of the horn, layers could be split away, and a usable rectangle cut. These would be fitted in a frame to overlap slightly so that rain would run down the outer side. 

It looked extremely durable, and one window is said to be the oldest in England.

Oiled linen stretched on a frame

Fine linen, perhaps a textile such as would be used for an ordinary person’s chemise/under-shirt, would again be fitted into a frame and oiled using linseed. 

How many coats, and how often the material would need re-coating wasn’t obvious, but it is certainly a far quicker method. Both allowed a surprising amount of light in, even on the light-cloud day when I visited.

Oiled linen top / horn bottom

Perhaps even ordinary medieval homes, never mind the halls of the wealthy, weren’t quite the dark and dingy hovels we imagine.

See also my post on medieval Gainsborough Old Hall in Lincolnshire.

17 February 2018

Hand-Held Historical Research: #Viking Jorvik

Spear, long axe and seax (long knife), with shield behind.
Spring might not quite be with us here in the northern hemisphere, but in the Acaster household mid February starts the annual series of historical research field trips, not so much in a field – I could have done if I’d wanted – but in York’s city centre streets. Welcome to the trading empire of Viking Jorvik.

A little background: York began life in AD71 as a fortress built by invading Romans, and the rectangle of medieval walls still standing used the fortress walls as foundations, which gives a somewhat breath-taking notion of how large the fortress was. A civil settlement sprung up facing it across the river, to be known as Eboracum. I used this research and more for The Bull At The Gate, Book 2 of the Torc of Moonlight trilogy.

As the Roman legions left early in the 5th century the Saxons were arriving on British shores, and to a far lesser extent took over the fortress area and settlement, calling it Eoforwic. By the late 8th century “Northmen” were raiding the land using their state-of-the-art transports, langskips, and by 866/7 what became known as The Great Heathen Army had taken the settlement by sword-storm as it annexed the northern portion of the country. Ideally sited on a set of navigable rivers emptying into the North Sea for a crossing to Scandinavian lands, Jórvik, as the settlement was renamed, became the capital of the Dane Law. It remained under Norse rule for 100 years, re-blossoming into a trading hub as it had under the Saxons, this time stretching from Iceland to Russia to Byzantium and Ireland.

More weaponry for sale than can be imagined.
Getting the forge up to temperature to make arrowheads
All this was mere dry academic history until in the 1970s a major redevelopment of Coppergate, an area close to the river, re-wrote it. Viking Age streets full of houses were discovered in the silt, and 40,000 artefacts were lifted from the ground. The shopping centre redevelopment went ahead, leaving a somewhat unassuming small shopfront to announce The Jorvik Centre and act as a portal to an animated reconstruction of the old Norse dwellings in situ, complete with sounds and smells, deep below modern footfall. Since it opened in 1984 it has welcomed over 20 million visitors.

Along with the opening of the Centre came the Jorvik Festival, relying heavily on the participation of re-enactors. This has grown substantially over the years, now covering a week of events, with traders and participants coming from across Scandinavia and Europe, and North America by the sound of accents overheard, as well as talks, lectures, feasting and a battle. There’s always a battle; we are talking Vikings.

It is an opportunity to lift historically accurate weaponry and clothing for weight, try out skills, and discuss manufacturing techniques with people who actually make these items. So I could be found discussing the relative merits of various types of arrowheads, who in their society would be able to afford seal-skin ropes and whether ropes made from lime-bast would be as good aboard a longship – sorry, langskip – trying out a hand-quern, watching craftsman work with wood and iron, spinning with a distaff, and taking a lesson in nålebinding which looks halfway between crocheting and knitting. 
Have hand-axe, can split & plane wood
A writer never knows when these things might come in handy.

10 February 2018

How Historical Should Be Your Historical?

I have been following an earnest debate in a Facebook group regarding how close to factual history Historical novels should stay.

On the one side there’s the fiction is never fact and shouldn’t be taken as such. On the other there’s the fiction should stick to the fact until the fact gets in the way of the fiction. And a lot of differing views threading in, around and between.

My stance is that authors have to be true to themselves and their prospective readers, as far as their publishers will allow.

I’ve never wanted to write about historical figures, or even historical events. I’m much more interested in how ordinary people lived their lives in what we might call a historical era, but that certainly doesn’t mean that I can make it up as I go. Just as modern London can’t be set in modern Poland for the sake of a fictional story, named places that existed as historical fact both have to be set in their true place and have an authenticity to them corresponding to the stated date. And not just in looks or smell.

I remember being in a cinema watching Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. RH (Kevin Costner) had just landed on English sands below the unmistakeable white cliffs of the country's southern shore when he uttered words to the effect of: Tonight I will dine at my father’s table – ie in Nottingham. The  cinema erupted in gales of laughter, with someone behind me quipping, ‘Got a helicopter waiting on the cliff-top, has he?’ And that was it for the film. The suspension of disbelief had been well and truly trashed, the audience more intent on chortling over the succession of gaffes than concentrating on the story.

Cinema-goers do that. Readers don’t. They throw the offending novel at a wall, give it a one-star review for wasting their time, and never read that author again. So novelists play fast and loose with history at their peril, while Hollywood adds the euphemism Based on... and runs all the way to the bank, massacring History as it goes.

Yet every Historical novel is also based on… people, events, places, eras, that once existed. History – the factual History we novelists take as primary or secondary source material – is based on… documents that are based on… hearsay or, if we’re lucky, eye-witness accounts, transcribed bytranslated from… and we would be foolish not to accept that everyone along that line is relating facts as they saw them, or was instructed to see them. Truth, after all, is a many-faceted light in the darkness.

This is one of the reasons historical novelists add a Historical Note to the back of their  books, gently separating the history from the fiction for interested readers. You’ll find one in each of the Torc of Moonlight trilogy, to both separate and dovetail the past and the present storylines.

But there’s not one added to Beneath The Shining Mountains, a true based on… the remembrance of a then old woman, translated to an American ethnographer to be set down in a foreign tongue, doubtless edited for understanding, and doubtless edited again two generations later for a thin volume of “tales” from a people who lived yet whose life had perished, her story re-envisioned by me with the help of a wide range of secondary sources that might, or might not, have been as historically accurate as maintained.

How historical is your Historical?

Mine? I do my best. In the end its all any novelist can do. We’ve just got to ensure that we do it.

3 February 2018

Voice Recognition – Worth It?

Earlier this week planets aligned: a lengthy copy-typing task, and I attempted to add the end of one finger to a pile of carrots I was dicing – new knives tend to be sharp.

As luck would have it I’d been reading a blogpost from Joanna Penn (‘The Creative Penn’) on using voice recognition software. And what did I have lurking in a cupboard but Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.5 which I’d had for years (2011) but never got on with. 

Taking advice from her interview with Scott Baker regarding a healthier writing life, I dropped my old headset mike, ordered a USB desk mike, and began training myself to enunciate properly – fun with my accent. To my surprise it didn’t take long to show decent results, even when I tried it with just the laptop’s internal microphone.

More than that, the constant ache at the bottom of my back and across my shoulders eased substantially. I know I hunch over the keyboard, but I didn’t realise how tense I held myself.

Have I tried creating fiction via dictating? Not yet, but I intend to. My biggest hurdle will be thinking in long enough phrases. Dragon doesn’t understand individual words but context, and the more context the less likely it is to mis-recognise individual words.

Did I use it for this blog post? Yes – with additional editing input from my fingers – LOL! Part of the reason is that I've set up two profiles: one for the copy-typing task and one for my chat, and the former has had a more intense learning curve.

For those who wish to know such things (I usually do) the USB desk microphone is an entry-level (FiFine) on a six-year-old laptop using Windows 7. Dragon NaturallySpeaking Home editions have now reached #13 but looking at some current reviews not everyone is happy. I shall be sticking with my #11.5.