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May Newsletter

 


In the past, I have written a blog post about once every three months, and no one has contacted me begging for more. Well, how considerate of you all!


However, people who think of themselves as writers (most of them anyway) write a lot and often, whether it’s making them rich or not (most likely not). While the goal may be to write the great American novel someday, all writing is practice, even if none of it sees the light of day.

Over the past five years—since receiving a book contract from Blackstone Publishing for The Rebel Nun—I have written a few more novels. They have stacked up in the drawer (not literally, of course; they’re in the “cloud”) as I tried to repeat the success of finding an agent and a publisher. For five years, I’ve been unwilling to self-publish them after one agent told me that doing so would “be a shame.”


You know what’s worse than shame? Having so many novels backed up in the proverbial drawer that you quit writing out of frustration.


This year, as my husband and I find ourselves facing myriad health issues, we’ve come to a new view on life: there’s no time to waste. We have to do NOW all those things we’ve put off when we were thinking there was always many tomorrows. I can’t wait for that elusive agent and publisher anymore, and my husband and I can’t wait to make that bucket-list road trip or put off a chance to see Hawaii one more time.


So, we’re taking that trip to Wisconsin and back this fall. Later, we’re going to Hawaii for a writers conference and golf. And I’m publishing those damn novels myself, totally unconcerned about shame.

And, as I do all of this, I must put off writing my next novel for a while. Formatting, designing, finding editors, and then doing all the necessary marketing takes too much time. Instead, I’m going to spend more time writing this blog, which I will now call a newsletter. It will be like practice. Writing. And because it’s a newsletter, I can cover more than one subject at a time, if I feel like it.


Like now.

 

Slavery in the Middle Ages

 

People often ask me how I do my historical research. I plan to answer that question in another newsletter. But for now, I’ll tell you that what’s fun about researching ancient (or medieval) history: the surprises. And sometimes those surprises become the entire reason to write the novel.


My latest novel, The Candlemaker’s Woman, is a story about a young woman caught up in one of the

most notorious events in European history (back cover on the right). I write it from her point of view, which I believe will make it interesting and compelling even for those who have not thought about the “barbarian invasions” and the fall of Rome since their high school history class. History classes could be pretty boring, and they were especially forgettable when they were taught as lists of names of kings and dates of battles.


In researching the novel, I was surprised by what I found out about two things. One: that the barbarian invaders were not just masses of angry warriors, intent on taking over the Roman Empire. They were families fleeing war and devastation at home. And two: that slavery is a much older phenomenon, more broadly experienced than I had known.


In early Europe—back before there was a Europe—slavery was commonplace. Early in the Middle Ages, it’s estimated that one out of every three persons might have been enslaved at any time. Slaves were either born into slavery, turned from freemen into slaves in wartime conquests, or traded into slavery as payment of debt or in barter.


We rarely hear their stories, though. Most novels about the medieval period feature queens, kings, popes, bishops, warriors and magicians. How did one-third of the population disappear from history? 


My guess: While slavery was common in early medieval times, illiteracy was even more common. Less than 1% of the population of the Roman provinces was literate. Lower class people, in particular, including peasants, slaves, prisoners, even monks and nuns, didn’t read or write and couldn’t record their stories. And there wasn’t a lot of interest on the part of the literati to write about the hoi polloi. Bishops, kings, and government officials gained nothing by showcasing the little people whose hard work and abject poverty made it possible for their tiny minority at the top to live comfortably. Narratives about slaves were—and still are—rare, despite the underclass’s overwhelming majority and slaves’ prevalence. (One rare example: Sparrow by James Hynes, a very gritty narrative about a slave boy forced into prostitution in a brothel.) You’ll read more about slavery in imperial Rome and classical Greece in history books than you’ll find about medieval slavery.


Over the past 10 centuries, slavery in Europe morphed into serfdom and eventually into indentured servitude, not so much due to humanist enlightenment as the rapid increase during the Middle Ages in the number of “needy free,” whose labor and servitude became more economical than slave ownership. Slaves had to be fed and sheltered, and a slaveowner could be held responsible for the slave’s infractions.


The Candlemaker’s Woman’s titular protagonist is a fictional young woman sold into slavery by her tribe trying to bribe their way from Hun-infested Germania into the Roman Empire. A real-life slave like Melia would have had no personal rights, and her master had the right to kill, torture, rape or sell her per the laws at the time. But like many once-free persons sold into slavery or won as property in war or in exchange for debt, she would not have been considered “insentient,” as people who were born into slavery often were. As a once-free woman  Melia traversed the community as a worthy craftswoman and make friends with other slaves, even though most of her day and night was highly circumscribed by the evil tyrant, the candlemaker.


In Melia’s time, the status of “slave” wasn’t necessarily permanent. If a person was enslaved to pay off debts, they might earn their way to freedom through their labors. They could make and save money and own property. They could also be freed by the church or by the king.


If Melia had been able to keep some of her earnings, she eventually might have been able to buy her manumission—or freedom. But Melia wasn’t allowed to keep any of the income from her candles because of the greed and lassitude of her owner. Instead, she resorted to skimming a few coins over time, something she was able to do due to his near-constant drunken state. 


In the end, rather than manumission, her provisional freedom comes as a result of the barbarian invasions. I hope this ignites your curiosity, and you decide to check out the story. If you’d like to read more about medieval slavery, I’d recommend Slavery in Germanic Society During the Middle Ages, by Agnes Mathilde Wergeland. Although it was published in 1916, it is available as a reprint from Forgotten Books (www.forgottenbooks.com).


In my next blog, I’m going to write about the interesting things I learned about the barbarian invasions, which became a subtext to Melia’s story. 

 

My latest favorite book:

 

I hate to admit this, but it wasn’t until recently that I read Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell’s fictional history about the death of Shakespeare’s son. I believe I used up an entire box of Kleenex, not only because of the death of the young boy, but also because of O’Farrell’s moving description of the passionate love between Will (the “tutor”) and Anne (Agnes in the book). The publisher oddly subtitled the book “A Novel of the Plague,” which I think does the book a disservice. Perhaps the company was attempting to take advantage of the relevance of the plague to the rise of Covid at the time of the book’s publication. But that description was not only wildly inaccurate, it had turned me away, even though I loved The Marriage Portrait and was eager for another O’Farrell read.


I’m not sure why I changed my mind, but the book gave me a new admiration for Shakespeare, the man, even though much of the character in the novel is a product of O’Farrell’s imagination. Suddenly, surprisingly, I own a new collection of Shakespeare plays, and a dictionary of Shakespearean terms to help me finally tackle that gaping hole in my literary education.

It may take a while to read all those plays, of course. There’s so much to do, and so little time.


“See” you in a couple of weeks.

 

 

 

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3 Comments


mcharlier1953
6 days ago

Your comment is appreciated! I remember a great history course in high school: it was taught "backwards." We started with WWII, and were asked to figure out why it happened, and then why what caused it happened, etc., until we got back to the French Revolution. I found it very rewarding.

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Marilyn Joy
Marilyn Joy
6 days ago

Interesting. Thanks for the deeper look at the history of slavery. Look forward to more.

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GHBullen1738
6 days ago

This is is very entertaining. I have served as a history teacher, having gotten a degree from Clemson University. People who tell me they hate history had a bad teacher: how can history be boring (it's stories about real people) unless the "history teacher" is the football coach with no interest in the field. When I started at a private school, I told my high school students that my deep fear, from now until June, is that you will ever be bored in my classes. I have studied church history and did my thesis on Italy post-WWII. Good teaching is like good writing: being interesting should be a given.


I think one of the reasons that we in America don't…


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