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From History

Stranger Than Fiction: Complete Version


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. This is the full-length version of a four-post arc.

My love for the medieval is ever present in the fiction I write. I am compelled by the need to see history unfolding, and to watch its mechanisms. Lacking a time machine, the closest I can get to that is writing these scenes myself.

This is where my novel-in-progress begins, a reflection of a distant century emerging from another Dark Age. Time is cyclical in ways we don’t expect. Whatever the future holds, there will be more than space ships and black holes to give substance to our stories.

Kirkstall Abbey in the Moonlight by Paul Stevenson

Picture a monastery in the most remote corner of human civilization. It is situated in a place that’s cold, that hardly ever sees the sun but is blessed with the breathtaking canopy of stars. Its monks and nuns are healers and herbalists, scribes and gardeners. They have been in this spot for four hundred years and are proud of the legacy of the founders who crossed an impossible distance to establish a mission, a light-house in the middle of the dark: to teach, to heal, to serve those on the fringes. Times are rough; they’ve had their share of recent disasters, both man-made and natural – maybe supernatural. Yet the monks and nuns who are housed together in this mission trust in their God and endure.

This monastery operates in 2570, and orbits a frozen planet more than thirty light-years from their home soil of Earth. They have endured damage from the shock wave of a supernova and have had to defend themselves against attack from human and non-human marauders. They have solved issues with power-loss, radiation and oxygen leaks by the power of creative thinking, the sweat of their brow and naked faith. They value the healing power of writing by hand with ink and pen. They are the place to which thousands of refugees are now travelling for shelter, for healing, for hope, not unlike those medieval folk who might have fled unrest and disaster to sleep on the floor of the closest great hall or cloister. This is a refuge in a deadly time. A garden thrives in its center dome like an oasis in a desert. It shines like its own star, beckoning the weary to come.

The monastery’s structure is an amalgam of other earth-built buildings, pieces of old churches: archways and chapels, intricate stonework with the faces of angels and cherubs that appear to be making faces at each other when the light is just right. They call this the “Salvaged Gothic” style. Trillions of miles from the place these faces were first carved, they represent an enduring legacy. In this place, the monks and nuns who pray and work within these walls and along these cloisters are following in the footsteps of a millennia of brethren.

I have been gleefully drawing parallels between the past and the future. In the fourteenth century it could take up to a full year to journey from London to Rome and back. Incredibly, the length of time scientists estimate a journey to Mars would take the same amount of time: 150 to 300 days. And if, looking way ahead of ourselves, we someday develop the technology to travel beyond the solar system and reach nearby or distant stars within a human lifespan, how far might a year take us? The possibilities and the parallels are endless.

NASA Goddard Space Flight
Comet Siding Spring seen next to Mars by NASA Goddard Space Flight photostream

What language will we speak? What technologies will have become second-nature like the automobile? Think of this: we all drive cars but how many of us actually understand the science and the mechanics of how they work? As a writer, I look to the study of the past not for a list of answers but for a spring board.

From my professors at UNL and my tutors at Oxford, I have learned a deep respect for the people of earlier times. I strive to cast off the lens of my twenty-first century knowledge and immerse myself in their knowledge. In libraries that welcomed me, I’ve met a plethora of lively characters from the annals of history, proof that there are always exceptions to the rules. And from the medieval cities and sites I visited I have learned the value of creating something new with components of the old. I firmly believe that history is speaking to us, and that listening and retelling that story is a life-long privilege. It is, after all, our story.

Photo Attributions:


Catherine, Called Birdy

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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.

13th c. Map of the World with Jerusalem at center, made about thirty years before Catherine would have written 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…


Joan of Arc

A pin once worn by little Adelaide Harlow (Pike).

There is no greater legend than that of Joan of Arc, or in French, Jehanne d’Arc. Six-hundred years after her birth, her story has been retold countless times – on the stage, in films, in masterpieces, in books upon books upon books – from Shakespeare to Mark Twain. She was a symbol of French national pride, sainted in the 20th century. I have a pin my great-grandmother Adelaide wore as a little girl, made from an old commemorative coin. Over a hundred years old, I am quite proud of it.

One can even find Joan’s image in Winchester Cathedral in England, the land of her enemies, she is immortalized in stone.

Joan of Arc at Winchester Cathedral

If Catherine, Called Birdy’s world was imperfect, Joan’s was a tinderbox. In 1429, France had already been torn apart in skirmishes between the English and French, each with complicated claims to French territory. Joan grew up in Domremy, a village on the tempestuous border between English-allied Burgundy and France. England had dominated the field of battle for a decade, and France was slowly  succumbing. This is a side of the Middle Ages we don’t like to see: the utter waste, the burning fields, violent sieges of entire cities, and an uncrowned king hiding in the last safe corner of his realm.

It might as well have been the end of the world.

Joan of Arc entered my life about the same time as Star Wars. (I am a child of the 1997 revival.) I was instantly taken with the idea of the Jedi Knights fighting a noble war against a deep-rooted evil. It might as well have been Joan’s war: in a time of hopelessness, the most unlikely hero – or heroine – brings about a massive change in the hearts of a people.

At left is Joan’s only contemporary portrait, a sketch in the margin of the register of one Clément de Fauquembergue in Paris. He must have just heard of Joan’s victory at Orleans in the spring of 1429, stopped what he was doing and took the time to imagine her.

There isn’t time in this piece to carefully sift through every facet of her story, but I will say this: the most important thing about Joan of Arc is that she battled for control of her own narrative in a time when women were primarily silent and submissive. It was a battle to the death.


Joan’s chosen counsel were her Voices. The Archangel Michael and Saints Catherine and Margaret were a direct, irresistible link to God’s will. Whatever our speculations on what those voices might have been, Joan fully believed in them, and her belief gave her power. She answered to an authority higher than any warring king, higher even than the Church itself, which would later prove dangerous. It was the Voices who propelled her on her journey in the first place, advising her to be good, go to Mass often and remain a virgin. Their influence was strong enough to convince an otherwise obedient daughter to abandon her family, dissolve a pre-marriage contract (no small feat for a young woman in that age), and to make her way across France to see Charles, the king.  Her mission sounds impossible: she didn’t know how to ride a horse, much less lead an army of men. How could she? She was a girl who spun with her mother and herded cattle. But she went, the king saw hope, and the rest is history.

She was the spokeswoman of God, of France, and France’s king. She called herself The Maid, and made a lasting impression through the letters she dictated, such as this one:

King of England, and you, Duke of Bedford, who call yourself regent of the Kingdom of France… acknowledge the summons of the King of Heaven. Render to the Maid here sent by God the king of Heaven, the keys of all the good towns which you have taken and violated in France. She is here by God’s will to reclaim the blood-royal. She is ready to make peace if you will acknowledge her to be right, provided that France you render, and pay for having held it. And you archers, champions of war, men-at-arms and others who are before the town of Orleans, go away into your country, by God! And if so be not done, expect news of the Maid who will come to see you shortly, to your very great injury. King of England, if (you) do not so, I am chief-of-war and in whatever place I meet your people in France, I will make them quit it, will or nil. And if they will not obey, I will have them all slain. I am sent here by God, the King of Heaven, to drive you, body for body, out of France. And if they will obey I will be merciful to them… If you will not believe the news conveyed by God and the Maid, in that place soever we find you, we shall strike into it and there make such great hahay that none so great has been heard in France for a thousand years, if you yield not to right…

This was no shrinking violet. (“Hahay” indicates a great clamor. The bold & red emphasis is mine.)

No shrinking violet. “Jeanne chasse les prostituées de l’armée”

This is one of my favorite illustrations of Joan: the Maid chasing prostitutes out of camp and away from her soldiers. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I once read that she broke a sword doing so. She was adamant that her soldiers not sully themselves, attend Mass and refrain from swearing. This is part of a series of miniatures in the “Vigils du roi Charles VII”, created in the 15th c. and probably within decades of her death.

The Maid was armored like a knight and had a sword (several, actually), and she rode into battle, seated on a white horse, in unadorned armor. Her primary function was not to kill but to lead, shout encouragement, to propel the men forward, holding high her pure white standard. She was an honorary chief de guerre, but unmistakably a force of sheer nerve at the center of the action, taking her share of arrows. She had a natural gift for positioning artillery and for contending with her generals. She was not merely a mascot or a lunatic in armor.

Her days on the battlefield numbered little more than a year when she was captured by Burgundian soldiers in 1430. When she learned that Burgundy was selling her to the English, she climbed the tower of her castle prison at Beaurevoir and fell seventy feet to the ground below. She survived the fall unscathed.

The English tried her for heresy and sundry evil deeds – primarily the wearing of men’s clothing. The trial was grueling. She was beaten, enchained, and interrogated for hours on end. She was bombarded with difficult and contradictory questions, and harassed if her answers were unsatisfactory. A lesser person might have imploded, blamed others for her fate, or submitted, but she endured the testing of her character for four months. She would not swear the oaths asked of her. She cleverly and cynically evaded questions she could not answer. They denied her the Eucharist. They tied her to a wooden stake. They threatened her with torture. She held firm. The records, even biased against her, cannot hide the fact that she was mistress of her own story. In her eyes and by the strength of her statements, she was not a heretic but a messenger.

She never strayed from her conscience.

It was only “for fear of fire” that she signed an abjuration (a formal statement of rejection), which she could not read, to relinquish male clothing and to submit to the authority of the church. Days later, she recanted, and was condemned to burn. In burning Joan, the English-allied church hoped to weaken the resolve of France’s newly resurrected spirit and delegitimize Charles VII’s claims to power. It didn’t matter that they’d fixed the trial against an innocent person. It was politics, it was hate, and they had the power.

Joan of Arc’s Execution, Jules Janin illustration. Under public domain.

Though rushed into the fire without an official execution order and made to suffer long, Joan was in control of her story in her last moments. She asked to see a crucifix. She prayed to God, to the saints who had guided her, to Jesus Christ. She screamed for them and fell silent. A witness said “We have burnt a saint.” The injustice horrified both the French and English present.

A heretic, an apostate, a vile idolatress would not have called for her God with her dying breath.

Her story is so complicated, so nuanced, so mysterious, because it is a story that results from the great stew of many stories – some that celebrate her, some that vilify her and some that seek to understand her. In navigating through this briar patch, a writer must tread carefully and with the utmost respect for the silences of the past. I will never know the whole truth about Joan. The mysteries she took with her – her Voices, her miraculous signs, her feelings – cannot be recovered. But they don’t have to be.

I don’t want to fill in every gap. I want to learn what I can from the silence, and what it says about her courage, her dignity and her faith. It is only natural, then, that Joan of Arc lives on in my characters – those who muster their courage in dark, starless worlds.

Don’t be surprised if she appears in further posts!

Oxford & Elsewhere

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When I first saw the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, I was struck by the sad beauty of stone pillars, crumbling walls and abandoned staircases.

Its tranquil, green ruin was breathtaking and emotional – I wanted to see it in its active glory before Henry VIII began the dissolution of English monasteries.  It was the autumn of 2006. At the time I studying abroad in Oxford, surrounded on all sides by the remnants of the medieval. My roommates and I lived in a flat on Osney Lane, not far from the site of the ancient Osney abbey and within earshot of the bells of St. Thomas the Martyr. Those bells would ring as I was writing my essays, conveying the spine-chilling sense that Osney Abbey was just beyond the window.

If it wasn’t for history and my love of the medieval mystery, I might never have crossed an ocean on my own to see and be a participant in the living legend that is Oxford or had the courage to explore Stonehenge or ride to Yorkshire on a whim to see the moors. That autumn I became accustomed to the cobblestones, the twists of the old city walls and the tiny ancient cemeteries.

(image: St. Aebbe’s)

We walked often in Christ Church Meadow along the river Cherwell up which legendary Friðeswiðe had escaped the attentions of a suitor for the haven of a nunnery. I worshipped at St. Æbbe’s, an Anglo-Saxon church – still standing the test of time. We’d walk passed a particular fourteenth century building on Cornmarket Street, leaning slightly forward, ancient wooden moldings and mullioned windows proudly displayed. It is now a Pret, a U.K. cafe franchise. Sipping a cappuccino in the upper floors, I enjoyed how the ancient wood work has been lovingly exposed – the ghosts of old door frames, windows and passages. There are countless examples of the medieval appearing and reappearing throughout the architecture of the city, the strange – somehow very English – juxtaposition of the modern alongside the ancient.

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This is the medieval shop on the corner of Ship & Cornmarket Streets in Oxford. In 2006 it was divided into two shops – one half sold Nokia phones, the other sold shoes. In late 2013, it had become a Pret café. And, yes, it is next door to a Burger King.

Since those days I have greatly valued the idea of finding something new and fresh in using what is time-tested and old. Not simply for aesthetics, although that helps, but it goes back to respecting what has gone before. It is a concept I have always been hungry for, growing up in a relatively young state in a relatively young country. The opportunities I’ve had to visit ancient and renowned places from the pillars of Stonehenge to the beauty of St. Paul’s Cathedral to the scenes of my patriot ancestors’ lives along the Freedom Trail in Boston have been priceless. They are solemn journeys to respect, to preserve the good, the honest traditions of those who’ve gone before, to walk in their shoes, to remember them at their graveside.

I’ll leave you with a final image. There is a castle by the sea in Gloucester, Massachusetts, built by John Hammond Jr, a radio scientist who worked under Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. Hammond Castle is a proud structure of buttresses and Gothic towers looking out to sea.  Born an heir to enormous fortune, Hammond spent a great deal of time travelling Europe and was inspired by what he saw there. It was only natural that he’d build his home as an homage to ages past. There is something entirely genuine about standing in Hammond’s great hall, smelling the damp and feeling as though you’ve stepped back in time. Hammond brought abandoned pieces of door posts and windows, found furniture and tapestries, stained-glass windows, the obligatory suits of armor, the front of a fourteenth-century butcher shop and parts of chapels and gave them new life across the sea in an unlikely place.


He wrote in 1929:

For the last three years I motored many miles through Europe. After traveling all day, I would arrive at my destination to see a church, a cathedral, a town hall, a scrap of Roman wall or viaduct, a colosseum or an ancient theatre. It was always a piece of architecture that suddenly dissipated the obscurity of time and brought the living presence back of all ages. It is in the stones and wood that the personal record of man comes down to us. We call it atmosphere, this indescribable something that still haunts old monuments. You can read history, you can visit a hundred museums containing their handiwork, but nothing can reincarnate their spirit except to walk through rooms in which they have lived and through the scenes that were the background of their lives. It is a marvelous thing, this expression of human ideals in walls and windows.” (citation or just paraphrase?)

In writing, I strive to do much the same thing Hammond did: listen to the stories buried in the earth, let the characters tell their story, and create something new. Like a phoenix from the ashes, there is no such thing as a dead story.

4 Comment

  1. Hello Jillian, I am better late than never I think on reading your medieval essay, I really enjoyed it.
    You mayhaps be interested to know that I am aware of some of your ancestors who lived in these uncertain times. I do not know how to research them more fully, nor do I know if any information is actually available, but you never know.
    Sir Richard Peck (or Pike or Pyke), knight, born in 1331 in Bolton, Skipton West Riding, Yorkshire , England and died in 1412 in Belton, Lancashire England.
    His son Sir Richard James Pyke (or Pike), also a knight was born in 1360 Pikes Ash, Moorlinck (Moorlinch) Parish, West Bridgewater, Somerset England.
    Subsequent generations lived in the same Somerset Area. It is no longer known as Pikes Ash today, I will need to locate the document that says what the location is (it is a botanical garden in Somerset somewhere).
    Regardless, it would be interesting to know more about these ancestors and what they did, what their politics were and more about the life in general.
    thanks for sharing this!
    Gail Boston

    1. Thanks for this! Oddly, Skipton is the ONE PLACE I’ve been to in North Yorkshire. (Assuming “Bolton Skipton West Riding indicates wider area than just SKipton). So now I’ve unconsciously visited two places my ancestors roamed: Nantasket, Mass and Skipton, North Yorkshire. Wow!

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