joy & moxie

From History

Stranger than Fiction Pt 2: Catherine, Called Birdy

Author’s Note: I presented a version of this piece at the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Conference at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on October 3, 2015 as part of an alumni panel. I’ve divided it into four parts and edited it for the blogosphere. This is part 2. Enjoy!

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My first guidebook to medieval life was Catherine, Called Birdy, a gem of a middle-reader book by Karen Cushman.

Above is the old, dog-eared copy that has been with me since childhood. Since its publication in 1994, the cover art has changed and Catherine looks more like an ordinary girl. But this is how I always pictured her: plain-faced but intense… and gritting her teeth.

It is England in the year 1290, and Lady Catherine, thirteen and feisty, records the cycle of a year in her father’s manor and village. It is not an account of kings and dynasties, but of simpler, saltier people – the peasants and the lower nobility: what they ate, how they prayed, what they dreamed, how they solved problems, their loves and their fears. I am still drawn to it, because it is both an excellent story and a vivid cross-section of medieval life. It was in this book I first learned about odd concoctions for “alehead” (including the usage of the dung of a white dog), the difficulty of childbirth, the making of soap with goose fat, and the cold, unpleasant draftiness of castles. Written in our modern language, it has the lyrical flavorings of Middle English. Transfixed, I used the antiquated “mayhap” instead of the acceptable “perhaps” for years.

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13th c. Map of the World with Jerusalem at center, made about thirty years before Catherine would have wrote her book. I’d like to think she would have imitated the artists of her time.

After reading Catherine I wanted to…

  • Chronicle my days, even if they were dull.

  • Paint murals on my walls.

  • Illuminate manuscripts and invent colors for paints.

  • Try almond cream.

  • Have birds for pets.

  • Name dogs and cats after herbs and spices.

  • Learn the names of ancient saints.

  • Teach myself Latin.

  • Play in the mud.

Catherine, Called Birdy does not paint over the darker aspects of the medieval world. Catherine meets Jews banished from England by order of Edward I, some who give her valuable advice. Her uncle George returns from the Crusades a disillusioned and haunted man. She witnesses children, not much younger than herself, hung as thieves. Her mother suffers in pregnancy and childbirth, and almost dies. Her abusive beastly father is determined to marry Catherine off to an old, rich and repugnant man. It is not a terribly chivalrous world, but a real world – complete with muck and soiled rushes, as well as singing birds and Christmas ivy. It is all the better for it. I identified deeply with Catherine’s curiosity and wonder about the world beyond her village, shire and country, as in this passage:

 As we roasted apples in the fire, Uncle George told us of the places he has been. I could almost see them as he spoke – the Gravelly Sea, all gravel and sand without a drop of water, which ebbs and flows as other seas do and is full of fishes; the nearby Isle of Giants, home to men thirty feet tall who sleep standing up; and the Isle of Pytar, where the people are tiny as elves and eat nothing, but live by the smell of wild apples. I especially long to see the beasts he described – unicorns, dragons, snails so great men live in their shells, a splendid big beast called an elephant with a tail at each end (this one I think my uncle’s fancy), and the incredible whales, fish as big as houses, who could swallow whole a man or a bear or a horse. (CITATION)

Catherine, Called Birdy gave me my first lesson in good writing: a human story, word choice, drawing out the most important details, and the power of a narrator who takes her own voice and her world seriously, but still manages to laugh at it. As a child I didn’t see that I was learning another lesson: that I was learning about the Middle Ages from a woman who would have otherwise been unlearned and silent. Catherine opened the door to many other unforgettable and inspiring characters, each showing a new facet of medieval life and belief.

  • The Venerable Bede, writing of the first monasteries in England in the 700s in Northumbria. His works preserve a glimpse of Anglo-Saxon history and  culture before the Norman invasion of 1066.

  • Thomas a Becket, who feuded long with Henry II and was murdered savagely at Canterbury while he prayed.  A flame remains lit for him.

  • Christina Mirabilis, a twelfth century Flemish virgin and consummate medieval crazy-person. She died, came back to life “and immediately was raised up like a bird and ascended to the rafters of the church;” (CITATION) She lived like an animal in the woods, and jumped into fiery ovens and boiling cauldrons and emerged unscathed.

  • Hildegard of Bingen, the wise and talented abbess who produced an extensive body of work – plays, treatises, letters, songs – some in her own invented language.

  • Richard III, whose grave was rediscovered not long ago under a parking lot. He shoved his little nephews out of the line of succession in order to take the throne for himself – a ruthless, and perhaps murderous, player in the game of royal politics. Malmsey wine, anyone?

  • Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, who lost her head.

  • Lady Jane Grey, the nine-days’ queen. Who also lost her head.

  • Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, one of the world’s greatest and long-ruling monarchs.

  • AND… Joan of Arc, whose story spoke to me the loudest…

Click here for Stranger than Fiction Pt 3: Joan of Arc.

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