Monday, March 14, 2011

Five Different Ways of Viewing the World

Would someone unfamiliar with the MA [Middle Ages] be repulsed by the description of a medieval execution, with its throngs of avid spectators and its raucous fair-like atmosphere? Shocked that Henry and Eleanor married their daughters off before they reached puberty? How far do you think historical novelists should go to make their books palatable to modern readers? Is it necessary to make the characters in a novel about the ante-Bellum South all secret abolitionists at heart in order to win reader sympathy? What of a family living in Nazi Germany?
Historical novelist Sharon Kay Penman asks these questions at the conclusion of a recent article entitled History vs. Fiction. Ms. Penman's stated goal for her fiction is "to make the MA [Middle Ages] come alive to readers in a way that makes them want to keep turning the pages." At the same time, she is a self-proclaimed fanatic about historical accuracy. So what does she do when her MA characters view the world in a way that she (and her audience) disagrees with?

Ms. Penman identifies five ways in which the modern mindset differs significantly from the medieval mindset: "the concept of religious tolerance, anti-Semitism, the conduct of war, the status of women, and the treatment of animals." She gives examples from her novels to show how she deals with these difficult issues, trying to fairly represent the medieval characters without anachronism, but striving not to alienate her readers who come from a world wholly different. One great annoyance to me is when historical fiction authors turn their protagonist into a mouthpiece for twenty-first century propaganda, and this article is a refreshing reminder to me to be careful how I craft my characters.

"Religious tolerance," according to Ms. Penman, "was as rare in the MA as the unicorn. All men--be they Christian, Jew, or Muslim--were convinced that theirs was the True Faith.... They can respect one another's courage, but neither side doubts that damnation awaits their foes." Instead of making her characters agnostic or doubters of their own religion (as Ken Follett repeatedly did in World Without End), Penman tries to make them true to life. "I have to care in my novels to acknowledge this bedrock belief, so alien to most of us today." 

As I evaluate my own writing, I can say that describing religious "intolerance" in my writing isn't really a problem. I share the bedrock belief with the denizens of the Middle Ages that there is only one way to heaven, that not all faiths are equal. In Road from the West, all of my characters (Muslim, Jew, Christian, and even the various sects within Christianity) are inflexibly sure of the truth of their own religion.

Ms. Penman's second point is that, "Anti-Semitism is the ugly underside of medieval life." Even though it still exists to this day, "the difference is that in the MA, the Church gave official sanction to it." How does she portray this in her novels? 
I try to stay true to the tenor of the times, so virtually all of my characters are infected to some degree. When I needed a character to voice doubts, I had to choose an outsider to make it believable, a character who was a natural rebel and therefore more likely to question even the teachings of the Church....
I have thought about the subject of Anti-Semitism a lot in my own research and writing. Ms. Penman's claim that "in the MA, the Church gave official sanction to it," is a prevalent notion, and is based on the previous concept of religious intolerance. The Church taught that the Jews were going to hell, therefore, the Church taught people to be Anti-Semitic.

But at the same time, when looking at the primary sources it is interesting to note that it is the laity, and particularly the money-hungry monarchs who take anti-Semitism to the extremes of torture and murder. It was King John who pulled out a Jew's teeth to force him to reveal where his fortune was hidden, not the Church. It was Edward I who issued the edict expelling all the Jews from England. During the First Crusade, when German adventurers decide that the "will of God" is to murder all the Jews in the Rhineland, it is the Christian bishops who hide the Jews in their churches and denounce the actions of these "Crusaders" as evil. This is an often forgotten episode in history that I plan to describe in Road from the West.

The third area where Ms. Penman sees radical difference is in the medieval attitude toward war.

During the MA, the Church attempted to shield noncombatants, too--women, children, priests, pilgrims, etc. But the nature of medieval warfare--laying waste the lands of one's enemies--all but guaranteed there would be civilian casualties. And kings, knights, and soldiers accepted this as inevitable.... There was a strain of pacifism in the MA; there were even a few to criticize the crusades. But we're talking of a small minority and their views never wielded any influence.... So to be true to the times, I cannot have my characters reacting to the destruction of a town or the raping of its women as if it were a war crime, the way we would characterize it today.
I am pleased to see that Ms. Penman acknowledges that there was a pacifistic strain in the MA. I think she marginalizes the pacifist segment a little too much, however. There were many times throughout the centuries when the Church tried to impose the "Truce of God" on bickering barons, forbidding them to fight except between Monday and Wednesday, and not at all on Church holy days. The Church was not exactly a "minority" in society.

Did all kings, knights, and soldiers accept the carnage as "inevitable"? Were they all murderous brutes like the characters in Michael Crichton's Timeline? In my research on Tancred for Road from the West, the primary sources display pieces of his character that seem bipolar in our modern age. Ralph of Caen writes about Tancred:

Over time, however, his prudent soul raised concerns that caused him anxiety. It seemed that his military life contradicted the Lord's command. The Lord had commanded that after one cheek had been struck the other was to be offered as well. But a secular military life did not even permit the sparing of a relative's blood. The Lord admonished that it is necessary to give over one's cloak, as well, to the one asking for a tunic. By contrast, the necessity of military life urges that once these two garments have been seized, the rest are to be taken as well. These two principles opposed one another and undermined the bravery of a man full of wisdom [Tancred], if, indeed, they ever permitted him to sleep. But when Pope Urban's decision granted a remission of all sins to all of the Christians setting forth to fight against the pagans, then finally it was as if the vitality of the previously sleeping man was revived, his powers were roused, his eyes were opened and his boldness set in motion.

At first, it seems that Tancred has a "pacifist streak" to him, but at the end of the paragraph we see that the way he intends to atone for his sins of warfare is by entering into more warfare against the pagans. Later on, we learn that Tancred has no such scruples about the warfare in the East; after killing 700 Turks in battle, Tancred sends Bishop Adhemar 70 heads as a "tithe" of his prowess. This seeming contradiction relates to the first concept of "religious intolerance," and adds a little more dimension to the kings, knights, and soldiers of this age. For many, killing Christians was unacceptable while killing infidels was praiseworthy.

The fourth subject Ms. Penman addresses is the status of women in the MA. A current trend in historical fiction is to have "strong women" be the protagonists, women who exemplify the twenty-first century feminist ideal. Ms. Penman denounces these sort of characters as unhistorical:
Yes, there were those rare rebels like Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Empress Maude, but they paid a great price for their independent spirits. It is obvious that both Eleanor and Maude chafed under their matrimonial bonds, wanting more freedom than their world was willing to allow. But there is no evidence that they viewed themselves as part of an oppressed sisterhood; they wanted power and autonomy for themselves, not for all members of their sex. So it would be unrealistic if I were to write of a female character resentful of male dominance, one eager to prove herself as capable as any man.

This point is one I especially appreciated. I have recently read three different novels by three different authors all of which featured the character Eleanor of Aquitaine. Two of the three tried to do the very thing that Ms. Penman deplores, making Eleanor the champion for the rights of womankind against a male-dominated society.

Ms. Penman's last point is about the treatment of animals in the MA. She acknowledges that while a few rich people did have pets, "when daily life is so hard, few can spare sympathy for hungry dogs. This is especially true in a world in which people believe that God has given them dominion over the earth and all in it." It is interesting to note that she traces harsh treatment of animals back to Church. If it is a result of Christianity, then it is a misapplication of it somehow since Proverbs teaches that "the righteous man regards the life of his animal."

I would contest that the medieval view toward animals is more derived from being an agricultural society. When you live on a farm, you don't cry if a sheep gets slaughtered. Your dog is there to hunt and protect the house, and while you may feel some affection for him, the reality of frequent mortality makes you less sentimental.

Sharon Kay Penman's post is an excellent reminder to historical fiction authors to consider well what ideas we are carrying in our pockets when we time travel. She clearly identifies the five different ways of viewing the world between our era and the Middle Ages and provides so much food for thought that I'll be munching on it for some time to come.

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