Patricia Bernstein

Writing About the Mysterious World of the 12th Century

Patricia Bernstein Historical Novel Society of North America Guest Post
“Writing About the Mysterious World of the 12th Century”

In the 12th century in England, there were no carriages, no fireplaces, very few actual chairs, no beer, and possibly no underwear for women!  These are just some of the surprises I encountered when I switched from researching the early 18th century, the setting for my debut novel, to exploring the late 12th century, the setting for my current project.

I was also surprised by what I did find in the 12th century. 

Research Intrigue

In the 1100s, sophisticated bills of exchange were already being developed to support a thriving international trade. These bills of exchange permitted merchants to travel and trade in a dangerous time without carrying large sums of cash. Here’s an article about the practice. 

I also learned that, as early as the late 12th century, “fast food” was available in medieval English towns, from alewives and commercial bakers who produced ale and daily bread, and from sellers of meat pies and pasties, hot cakes, pancakes and wafers. Purveyors of “fast food” were often open all hours, serving townspeople who either had no room or implements for cooking in their lodgings or were exhausted at the end of a workday and had no energy to prepare a meal. See this article for more information.

Peasant meal. Aristotle, ”Politiques et économiques”, France, 15th century. Paris, Biblioteque nationale.

One of the most interesting and unexpected surprises I found was the possibility that a kind of anesthesia called “dwale” was used by healers during the Middle Ages. According to one recipe, dwale involved a mixture of bile, opium, lettuce, bryony, henbane, hemlock and vinegar. A sponge soaked in this or a similar mixture would be held under the patient’s nose during a procedure. Afterwards, the patient would be awakened by rubbing his or her cheeks with salt and vinegar. Click here for more information.

Unknown Danger

Some of the ingredients mentioned above can be extremely dangerous. Who knows how many patients treated with dwale never awoke? Over the centuries, it seems, the details of the process were forgotten. What an intriguing notion—that anesthesia was used to ease the sufferings of the ailing back in the Middle Ages but was not available, for instance, to soldiers wounded in our Civil War in the 19th century.

But even the aspects of medieval society briefly referenced here make it very clear that we cannot think of the 12th century in terms of a primitive people living heedlessly and chaotically amid the utmost squalor, although they may have lacked what we consider basic amenities. The medieval world in England in the 1100s was a complex society, intricately ordered in its own way. The challenge is to understand as much of it as we can from such a distance of time without excessive condescension from our exalted, modern position.

Codex Manesse Süßkind von Trimberg
Created: between 1305 and 1340

When we writers of historical fiction research medieval life, we lack entirely many of the sources that are available for later periods. Unlike professional historians of the Middle Ages in England, we are probably not going to spend months delving into the minutiae of the administrative records of the English monarchy (close rolls, patent rolls, pipe rolls, fine rolls, and the like). We are trying to tell a story, not settle some argument between academics over the taxes collected on a certain day in a certain city in 1157. But thank goodness for the fine efforts of those same academics in the many papers and books they write that summarize their more interesting findings. These are wonderful sources for novelists.

The churchmen who wrote the great chronicles of the Middle Ages don’t always agree on exactly what happened, much less on how to interpret or understand what happened. In any case, they are concerned almost entirely with the doings of the very great. Novelists are concerned with the great, but also the less great and even the peasants and merchants and common folk whom the chroniclers would have regarded as insignificant.

We also lack the rich trove of secular art from later periods that tell us so much about the details of daily living in those times. In studying the 12th century, we must glean what we can from such sources as manuscript illuminations and the intricate sculptures that adorn medieval churches and cathedrals.

Woman wearing a one-piece bliaut and cloak or mantle, c. 1200, west door of Angers Cathedral.

For instance, the wearing of the bliaut in the late 12th century–a long formfitting gown with full skirts and long, hanging sleeves, laced on the side and loosely cinched by a low-slung girdle–is depicted both in manuscript illuminations and in figures sculpted on certain churches. If we can date the creation of the manuscript or the time period when a certain part of a church was being built or sculptures added, perhaps we can identify when a particular fashion was popular.

Jews in England…
     Bernstein’s story continues at the Historical Novel Society North America.





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