The Medieval Monk meets historical novelist Janis Lyle, whose rich storyteling brings life to the early years of William the Conqueror.
I thought it was high time I made contact again with my beloved, patient readers. Your perseverance almost brings a tear to my eye.
To reward you for your fealty, I hereby present writer Janis Lyle, who over the coming weeks and months will be guest blogging about... oh no, I can't bring myself to mention his name.
Well, anyhow, the thing is this wonderful lady is a marvellous storyteller and a top-notch researcher. So, I am sure you will enjoy getting to know her by means of my interview with her, below.
Oh, and she's a trucker!
The Medieval Monk (MM): Blessings, Janis. And welcome to The Medieval Monk blog space!
Janis: Humble thanks, Frater. One can only hope to be worthy.
MM: Now, medieval monks are well known for their discretion and wisdom, amongst many other godly qualities, so it would be amiss of me were I not to find out a little more about you before, how shall I put it, releasing you to the public on my beloved blog. So, please, Janis, tell us something about yourself.
Janis: Like many Americans, I’ve moved around the country. Grew up in Alabama, was a Wall Street lawyer in New York, lived in Arizona, then in Colorado, now in New Jersey and South Carolina. After a bereavement, wanting to get away from where things had been so sad, I went to truck/lorry-driving school in Tennessee and drove all over the U.S. for a large transport company. That was an adventure! A “big truck,” as truckers refer to them, is about 75 feet long and weighs 80 tons fully loaded. I’ll tell you another time about driving one downhill on an icy mountain road in a snowstorm.
MM: Oh! Well, maybe I could tell you about my accident with a dung cart just a few months ago. Not quite as dramatic, but... Oh well, never mind, forgive me; to the matter at hand.
Now, this is a little difficult for me to say, being an English monk from the eleventh century, but I understand you’re writing a novel about... William the Conqueror. May I ask what possessed you? I mean, rather, what inspired this particular choice of subject?
Janis: I have always been a history buff, and William, with his outsized will and determination, caught my imagination.
My novel's working title is The Comet, and you will recall that Halley’s Comet appeared over England in the spring before William invaded, and was widely seen as an omen of impending disaster. On the Bayeux Tapestry, a crowd of Englishmen gaze and point in awe as the comet burns through the sky.
William was about 39 years old when he invaded England. What came before that, and what could I make of it?
He lost his father and became Duke of Normandy at age eight. From then on, he was threatened, controlled or attacked; his guardians were picked off, one by one – by, in a number of cases, kinsmen and others from whom he should have been able to expect loyalty.
MM: Well, I'm not entirely surprised, but please continue.
Janis: I think William’s perilous youth gave rise in him to a furious resolve that those who made promises to him should keep them. And at the same time as he became a formidable and fearless warrior and leader, he surrounded himself with every shield; for example, gold.
MM: A pecuniary-minded fellow, for sure.
Janis: Perhaps. And I thought that what I saw of the exercise of power in the big-money world of Wall Street would help me understand William’s career. Although New York corporate attorneys and investment bankers of the mover-and-shaker class do try to refrain from whacking off anyone’s head with a broadsword, if they can possibly help it, power is power.
MM: Oh, perhaps they use axes instead in this New York of yours. But I interrupt, pray continue.
Janis: En route to his powerful manhood, William passed, of course, through his teens, which I assume were as hormonal as everyone else’s. Thereby hangs what I think could have been a piquant tale. Accounts from his time describe his courtship of Matilda of Flanders in shocking terms. One version is that he rode his horse into her father’s palace and seized her by her braids.
MM: Ghastly manners!
Janis: In The Comet I tell it the way I think it might really have happened. This would have involved his great strength, already well-developed by his training to arms from age seven. The chronicles say that the highborn Matilda, niece of the King of France, had declared at first that she would “never wed a bastard!”. After the encounter that I describe, she said she would wed no one else.
MM: I don't think I should enquire further as to the meaning of her words. I have the sensibilities of my readers to consider, Janis.
Janis: Let me add, though, that William was apparently so faithful in marriage to Matilda that it puzzled his contemporaries. But we don’t necessarily know every sexual move he ever made, do we?
Janis: The records were written by monks, after all.
MM: And so would avoid such earthly considerations.
Janis: Surely, any woman to whom William might have said “Don’t breathe a word” would not, if she were at all acquainted with him, have breathed a word.
MM: Well, this makes sense. Only from a licentious perspective, mind you.
Janis: He was a stickler, though, for what he regarded as proper behavior in many areas. Remarkable as it may have seemed at the time and perhaps seems even more so in our time, he may actually, mirabile dictu, have been faithful to his wife.
MM: Well, mirabile dictu, indeed!
Janis: One of your brother English monks wrote about William in the Peterborough Chronicle:
If anyone would know what manner of man King William was [...] then will we describe him as we have known him, we who had looked upon him and who once lived at his court. [He] was a very wise and great man [...] mild to those good men who loved God, but severe beyond measure to those who withstood his will [...].
MM: Well, I will not gainsay the good monks of Peterborough Abbey, and it does seem they captured that temper of his rather nicely.
Now, moving on, dear Janis. I’ve been reliably informed by the other Monk of this website that you are very good at characterisation, creating believable and engaging dramatis personae, shall we say? Since you focus a great deal on the childhood of William, how have you approached his early years in terms of building his character? What challenges have you faced in dealing with this period of his life?
Janis: William seems to have taken part in his first battle at age thirteen. In attempting to describe that battle, I found myself unexpectedly squeamish about the hand-to-hand combat of the time.
To deal with that, I investigated means of inducing self-hypnosis, hoping that in a trance state I could visualize the scene. The literature, I found, provides a standard script, or protocol, for going about this.
MM: Trance! I am alarmed. Are you some kind of wizardess?
Janis: The trance that can be achieved is quite safe, being little if at all different from the state we can all get into when, for example, we are driving somewhere while so absorbed in our thoughts that we miss our turn.
MM: Oh, we're back to my incident with the dung cart, I think. Sorry, pray continue.
Janis: I went to some trouble in carrying out this experiment: made a tape [readers: a magical device that records sounds] with authentic chant, sung by monks, –
MM: Oh, monks who diversify! Very good, please go on.
Janis: – plus the sound of rainfall, playing in the background as my recorded voice guided me through the script.
At the point where I should have entered the desired trance state, my voice told me to see myself riding into battle with William, observing everything he did. It worked, and I think that my chapters about this and other battles are among my best. Of course I had also done all the necessary reading, both the particular and the general references on medieval combat.
MM: Etenim mirabile!
Now, would you explain how you structure your writing and research? For example, do you research everything before you begin writing or does writing prompt further research? Do you suddenly find yourself in the middle of writing a domestic scene, for example, and wonder about William’s table manners?
Janis: The simple answer is I researched absolutely everything. In witness thereof, I quote herewith the preeminent scholar on William, Professor David Bates, emeritus professor in medieval history at the University of East Anglia, whose William the Conqueror, Yale English Monarchs series, was published in 2016:
I have found it very rewarding to read your novel. For a historian to face up to persuasive re-creations of the people he can only write about in a less imaginative way, the experience is stimulating and sometimes surprising [...]. I am profoundly impressed by your historical knowledge. Your research is exceedingly thorough.
As you surmised, I began with some understandings about William, his contemporaries and his times, and went sideways into further research as specific questions came to mind.
The overall impression gained of the Normans was much the same as the impression we Americans have of you English to this day: ferocious in battle, but punctilious in formal settings.
MM: I will not gainsay those English attributes, though as a monk, my warfare is purely spiritual.
A most important question next, and one I need to ask before my readers find out just what it is you’re going to be writing about on this blog over the forthcoming months:
Are you aware of the full array of blessings from being in contact with a real, time-traveling, eleventh-century English monk? My consultant rates are very favourable, and all proceeds go directly to my monastery and/or my mode of trans-historical transportation.
Janis: As I look forward to writing for this unique blog about significant persons of William’s time, I do offer unending thanks for the distinction of being allowed to do so. Filled with enthusiasm for this undertaking, I shall earnestly endeavor to rise to the occasion. Few in the history of the universe can have been granted such a forum.
MM: I see we are going to be best friends.
So, finally, as you are being blessed with the privileged position of guest blogger, what wonderful contributions to this world-famous blog can we expect to see over the next few months?
Janis: With your blessing, I plan to begin with a piece about Harald Hardrada – whose name, as you know, means essentially what it sounds like: hard guy. His reputed height of seven feet is too much a part of legend to be left out. The record clearly shows that he was impressive. The Empress Zoë certainly seems to have thought so, when he served as the captain of the Byzantine Emperor’s Varangian Guard of Scandinavians.
MM: Well, despite my initial hesitancy over the subject matter, I think it’s safe to say I now believe my blessed readers are in for a series of delightful treats. These treats won’t be as spiritually refreshing as they are used to, but enlivening nonetheless. So, Janis, blessed one, a hearty welcome and thank you for being interviewed today.
Janis: It has been my distinct pleasure, with thanks for your indulging my American lingo and spellings. [Readers, please note, on this occasion I deemed it godly to ignore any aberrant foibles of language.]
Janis Lyle will be keeping us up to date with the progress of her novel, The Comet. We look forward to seeing it published in due course.