Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Gates of Nottingham, A Bit of History

I never claim that my novels are 100% historically accurate. I research for months before I start writing and often during the writing process as well. That said, some things are left anachronistic for the sake of the story. I am sure that some things are wrong because I did not catch them. I am not a professor of medieval history. That said, I want to talk about a few of the choices I made and the facts that accompany them.
The Gates of Nottingham is not written in any sort of old English, in the dialogue or prose. The novel is set in 1197. At this time, Saxon German and Norman French were just beginning to be combined into a language that both nobles and peasants could understand. You could compare this early form of the English language to modern Spanglish, an amalgam of languages full of inside knowledge, mixed pronunciation, and incorrect form in either language. Most English aristocrats and landholders were still very closely tied to their Norman roots and still speaking the court's French as their first language, whereas most peasants still spoke the mixed Germanic language that came into use after the Viking conquests. The mix of the two is unintelligible to modern English speakers. You could call the early form a dead language. So, I did not make any attempt to bring this form of speaking into the novel. It was suggested to me that I bring in some Shakespearean type words and phrases to better keep the placement of the novel in the past. I, however, always find it rather sloppy when early English is thrown into modern prose willy nilly. It is just my opinion that it can be rather distracting to read. For this reason, the novel was kept in a neutral form of English. Slang was, of course, excluded and the grammar, even in speach is generally more correct than our own day to day English.

The arts of weaponry and battle were a huge part of my research. There are so many myths on both of these subjects which have been perpetuated for so many years that they have almost been accepted as truth. There is a great deal of debate on how much a medieval sword weighed. Many modern craftsmen insist that they were much lighter than we think and that the majority found in ancient grave sights were constructed for tournament, and were therefore heavier than war blades. However, it is well documented that sword fighting was done with both hands, as the weapon was too heavy for one. Archaeologists have also noted in the skeletons of soldiers very englarged bones in the right arm. It was a common practice in training children to force them to carry heavy bags of rocks with their dominant arm to build it up for later sword training. Up until the body of King Richard the third was found just a few months ago, the generally accepted theory was that he was not a hunch-back, just a swordsman, and that the former idea was added for dramatic purposes. For this reason, I decided to go with the theory that the triple layer bonded broadswords of the era were as heavy as some sources claim them to be, which can range anywhere from 20 to 50 pounds. An internet search provides you with answers as little as 2 lbs, whereas textbooks estimate much higher. This is why the weight of the swords in the novel is never specified, though it is mentioned that Marion has a difficult time moving Sir Guy's sword. Sir Guy is, in my novel, an enormous man and it can be assumed, whichever theory you chose to believe on swords, that his would be heavier than most.

As to the longbow, there is much less debate on its specifications. Most English longbows of this period would have been about six foot long with a weight pull back of 120 lbs. Severe scoliosis is found in the skeletons of archers from this time. Their spinal columns were actually bent toward their pulling arm.  Longbowsmen were trained to shoot ten arrows per minute with accuracy up to 168 yards. If only a general direction were desired for the shots, most could shoot twenty arrows per minute up to 300 yards. The longbow may not have had the flash of a sword, but it was not a weapon to be discounted. In fact, it is often credited for changing the course of history at the battle of Agincourt.

There are few clothing remnants from this period in history and what have been found are mostly peasant's clothes, made at home, and often boasting rather strange cuts and stitching. Most of what is assumed from the clothing of this era is what is seen in the artwork. The general idea is pretty close to what you find in Hollywood movies, so I did not spend much time in description. The only thing that stands out in the novel is mentions of color codes in clothing. Color coding started in medieval courts and even at the time, there was no concensus of the meaning of different colors. I mentioned that green was the color for love. Some sources claim this as fact, others dispute it.

Lastly, there is the attack of the castle. The weak point in a castle of this era (which was very early --there would be no spirals, no round towers, nothing of the disney picture just yet) was the corner. I was shocked to learn this and figured that if I incorporated that into the raid, I would not be believed and would be instantly discredited by readers. This is why the attack focuses on the penetrating the castle through the gates. Men with crossbows are stationed on the walls. Crossbows were actually illegal at this time, though the law was hardly enforced. They were not an accurate weapon, but could easily be given to untrained men, and for them it was probably their best bet out of the choices given. The battering ram is described as splintering into nothing. This is commonly noted in the ballads of the era, though I have never seen it portrayed in fiction.

So many people have asked me which version of Robin Hood this novel is meant to resemble most. The answer is none of them. Guy and Marion's relationship is generally thought to come from the most recent BBC series, but I actually started writing this novel before that series was released and as you can see, the relationship appears very early in the book. Forest scenes have been compared to the Kevin Costner movie and I suppose they do bare a resemblence. Quite a few people have said that this novel is not an accurate reflection of the most popular written version, Howard Pyle's masterpiece. It was not meant to be. In fact, I have never read his version. The controversial, darker portrayal of Robin Hood was inspired by the oldest of the original ballads. Originally, he was simply a thug and even when the "steal from the rich to give to the poor" motif comes into play, he is still much more brutal than the commonly accepted narrative. In the first ballad where Sir Guy makes an appearance, he is an innocent, traveling nobleman. Robin Hood needs to get into the castle at Nottingham, so he kills Sir Guy, steals his clothes, redresses the corpse, then completely mutilates Sir Guy's face with a knife. Robin leaves the body by the road and people assume that Robin is dead. I did not want to push the envelope so far, obviously. I can't have my hero mutilating the corpses of people who have commited no crime but to be born an aristocrat. However, you can see where Robin Hood was not always portrayed as the gallant, Errol Flynn in tights, perfect character recognizable to most of us.

All of this is to say, that my novel, like most, has its accurate points and its inaccurate points, led by history which is sometimes known to be fact and is sometimes guessed by historians. I am sure that even since I wrote it, accepted theories about this period have changed. I hope however, that the entertainment shines through in spite of any flaws in its history.

1 comment:

  1. you are an amazing author, keep writing such brilliant post