Below is a video of Dragon Fire, one of the choruses to Clive Nolan's medieval-themed album, Song of the Wildlands, for which Dr Monk wrote the choral lyrics in Old English.
For a little more information, you can read my Facebook post: click on the link below.
I will be hopefully writing more about this collaboration here on my blog, but until then, please keep well. And kindly accept my godly lessings.
The Medieval Monk interviews Matthew Harffy about the plan to bring his 7th-century hero to the small screen
The Medieval Monk (MM): Blessed one! How be you since we last spoke, oh how many years ago now? Three?
Matthew: Actually it was four years ago, I believe!
MM: Well, I understand a great deal has happened since our interview. If I remember rightly, at the time you had successfully self-published two novels, set in the seventh century, but also had just been signed by a publishing house, and apparently you have hardly had time to draw breath since then. Is that so?
Matthew: That’s right. I’ve done quite a bit of writing since then. Book seven of the Bernicia Chronicles, Fortress of Fury, will be published in July this year and I am currently working on the edits of the first book of a new series, A Time for Swords, that will be out at the end of the year. In addition to the six currently published novels in the Bernicia Chronicles, I have also written a stand-alone novel set at the beginning of the ninth century called Wolf of Wessex. So yes, I have been busy!
MM: Oh, the heavens above! At this rate I feel I may need to adopt the blessed Alcuin’s position: Quid enim Beobrandus cum Christo? [‘What has Beobrand to do with Christ?’], but then again, we all need a little light relief in our troubled times, do we not?
Matthew: Indeed we do.
MM: Now, I understand you are hoping to bring your very first novel, The Serpent Sword, into moving-picture form, via an apparatus known in your timeline as the tele-vision, which, if my understanding of Greek and Latin etymologies serves me right, means something like ‘seeing from a distance’.
Of course, we don’t yet have one of these wizardrous machines in my monastery, but nevertheless please enlighten me and my brethren, and of course my blessed readers, about your project.
Matthew: Yes, it is all very exciting! We have been working on the project for about a year now and have only recently told the public what we are doing. The plan is to put together a proof-of-concept trailer that will show off the story and the filmmakers’ abilities in order to secure funding for the full series.
We have so far worked with no budget whatsoever, and none of the professionals involved have been paid, so we really hope the passion, talent, creativity and skill that has been poured into this project will pay off.
For anyone who would like a taste of things to come, there is a teaser of the trailer:
MM: So your desire is to bring to the world a living, breathing Beobrand – and let us not forget that young monk Coenred, too? What gave you the drive or impetus to want to do this?
Matthew: Well, I think it’s a dream of most writers to see their work made into film or TV, but until last year, that is all it was: a dream. I was approached at first by a fan of the books, James Faulkner, who asked me about the rights of the books and whether there were any plans to make them into a TV series or film. Initially, I was quite dismissive, but after a few chats it became clear that James was not only enthusiastic, but had contacts in the industry who, after a few discussions, jumped on board.
I have a new respect for television and film producers now, as I have been involved in every stage of the process up to now, from finding a scriptwriter, a wonderful writer called Greg Stewart; sourcing original music, from the talented Josh Evans; to casting some amazingly talented actors; not to mention all of the work involved in actually getting the material filmed and then promoting it via social media and the website and all the rest of it.
There are so many moving parts that it is very challenging to get anything done, especially when you are working with zero budget, but I cannot stress enough how amazing everybody in the team has been in pulling together to get this passion project off the ground. And even though I am biased, I really think the results are going to be incredible.
MM: Well, I do believe I am drooling with anticipation at the thought of all this wonder. Please forgive me.
Matthew: Do you have a handkerchief or some kind of cloth? I have to keep my two-metre social distancing from you, otherwise I would pass you a tissue. Ah, you anticipated me: your sleeve!
MM: Now, there are all sorts of twenty-first-century notions about early medieval life in England, some very well considered, some rather fanciful or misinformed. What’s your take on this, and how far do you want your story on screen to be authentic, shall we say?
Matthew: Our aim is to produce epic, exciting, gripping drama, without losing touch with the actual history we are depicting. We see absolutely no reason why characters cannot wear period-correct costumes, use the right weapons and even fight with the correct fighting styles, while still telling a spellbinding tale.
Given our non-existent budget for the proof of concept trailer, we have had to rely on reenactors – organised by the incredibly generous Matt Bickenson – for some of the fight scenes and weapons, which meant we could not be too picky if their swords were not perfect for the seventh century and were instead based on eighth or ninth century weapons, but where at all possible, we have striven for absolute accuracy.
This won’t mean a big deal to most viewers, but believe me, if we have had to use something anachronistic, we know about it and we have done so because of necessity due to our limited funds.
MM: May the Lord forgive you all.
Matthew: Thank you. I think.
MM: Pray, continue.
Matthew: The interiors for the proof-of-concept were filmed in the House of Wessex in Oxfordshire, a reconstructed seventh-century hall, and much of the decoration was lent to us by Matt Bunker of the group Wulfheodenas, who are specialists in the period.
We realise that when making television there will be limitations to what we can do. For example, it is most likely that if we get full funding and are able to feature horses in the series, the riders would use stirrups, despite there being no evidence for such in seventh century Britain.
This would merely be down to the fact that the vast majority of riders, and almost all actors, I would imagine, would be trained to ride with modern saddles and stirrups and it would be safer to use them. But where we can, we will endeavour to be true to the time period depicted in the books.
MM: So, Matthew, what is the expectation, or hope, you entertain with regard to this project? What happens next? And what would you really like to happen in the future?
Matthew: We have a pilot script written and a breakdown of the whole first season of the series. The season is basically the plot of The Serpent Sword novel, with some changes to make it work on the screen.
Along with the script and the breakdown, we are putting together the series treatment, concept art, storyboards, original music, and what is known as a series Bible, which we will use to pitch the project to distributors and production companies.
The next phase of the project is to complete filming for the proof-of-concept trailer, edit it, add post-production effects, professional sound mixing and original music, and then to launch the trailer on YouTube and other social media platforms.
MM: Ooh! Sounds like wonder and magic to me.
Matthew: Well, yes. And we really want the trailer to be shared and viewed as many times as possible and to build up a real buzz around the project. The teaser has been seen by about 25,000 people in the last month, so we have big expectations of the full trailer, which is going to look amazing. The plan is then to use the data of the number of views and people interested in the project to help us to get investors involved.
MM: So what kind of support can my blessed readers offer you? All sorts of folk read my blog posts, some a little strange, admittedly, but there are others who may have connections or can cheer you all on in some way.
Matthew: As mentioned, we really want to build up as much interest online as possible, so the more people that like our Facebook page, retweet out tweets, share and like our Instagram posts, and subscribe to our YouTube channel, the better.
I also have a Patreon page where people can subscribe to receive advance and exclusive information about my writing and the TV project. By joining as a patron, subscribers will help the project financially, too, as even without paying everyone, the costs rack up!
MM: I wonder if medieval monasteries are accepted on Patreon. Anyway, I have heard whispers in quiet corners that in preparation for your tele-vision project you have already donned your best fighting tunic, availed yourself of a shield – and, who knows, gripped your famous, spectacular seax, too. Can this be true?
Matthew: There was a photo circulating on Facebook of me with a shield and spear looking slightly moon-touched! People will have to go and look for it on The Serpent Sword Page. That picture was actually taken at the end of the day, but if I don’t end up on the cutting room floor, eagle-eyed viewers of the proof of concept trailer might see me in the shieldwall, or maybe even as a corpse on the battlefield!
MM: Oh, Lord help you! And may he also hand you and your tream many rich blessings on this wondrous project to bring Beobrand and your other characters to life on the tele-vision machine thing. Thank you, Matthew Harffy, for being interviewed by the Medieval Monk.
Matthew: Thank you, blessed and holy monk for inviting this lowly scribe into your inner sanctum. Your questions have been as insightful as I would have expected from such an august and intellectual host.
MM: Ah, you can come and be interviewed again, I think.
The Medieval Monk looks at some further images from Mia Hansson's replica of the Bayeux Tapestry
In my blog interview with Mia Hansson last week, we discussed, amongst other things, the 'drama' between round-shaped and square-shaped armour scales, and the naughty bits in the borders of the Bayeux Tapestry.
So, very kindly, Mia has provided me with her own photographs which illustrate these two subjects, both in a way linked to the idea of medieval machismo.
Oh, and I asked the other Monk of this website to comment on the naughty bits.
The lady stitching from the upper side of the tapestry used roundish rings while the woman working from the lower side made her armour square. Imagine when they met in the middle! (Mia Hansson)
The naked woman on the right is very similar to representations of Eve after the Fall, found in the Canterbury manuscript known today as Junius 11, located in the Oxford Bodleian Library.
The naked fellow in the lower border is a labouring woodworker; he's shown with his broadaxe. His rather sizeable genitals fit into a repeating theme in the Tapestry narrative about excessive masculinity, or machismo.
Like the 'clericus' (cleric) in the upper scene, our naked squatting man, with his genitals proudly on display, holds his hand to his hip in a gesture of excessive pride (the same gesture is used by Guy of Pontieu in an earlier scene when he is confronted by William's messengers).
*Dr Monk discusses these and several other naked Tapestry figures in his study, 'Figuring out nakedness in the borders of the Bayeux Tapestry', in Making Sense of the Bayeux Tapestry: Readings and Reworkings, edited by Anna C. Henderson with Gale R. Owen-Crocker (Manchester University Press), pp. 54-74.
The Medieval Monk meets a twenty-first-century embroiderer making a full-scale replica of the Bayeux Tapestry
For my first blog post of 2020, I'm going back to the eleventh century. Well, sort of.
Below you will find my interview with the wonderful Mia Hansson, the creator and labourer behind a ten-year project to reproduce a full-scale copy of the world famous Bayeux Tapestry, which was originally embroidered in England sometime in the last quarter of the eleventh century, after the Norman Conquest (1066).
First, though, let me introduce Mia:
Mia Hansson, 45, was born and raised in Sweden, where she was a primary school teacher. In early 2003, she moved to London where she worked in dementia care. In London she also “met a man” and decided to stay in England.
“Here I still am, 17 years later,” she says. “I’ve since left the job in London and moved to Wisbech [Cambridgeshire] with my family. Nowadays, I spend my days looking after my disabled stepson, sewing and writing. What’s not to love?”
Mia is certainly “keeping the needle warm”. Her Nan taught her how to embroider when she was just 4 or 5 years old. “Being a fourth-generation needle worker, I believe it’s in my blood. I do not, however, think I’m a reincarnated Bayeux tapestry seamstress!” – more on that in the interview below.
With a background in Viking age re-enactment, she taught herself how to hand stitch period clothing. As well as making outfits for friends and family, she has also dressed strangers and sent commissioned pieces to both schools and museums in the UK. Some of her work has even crossed the Atlantic to the USA and Canada.
“I’ve come a very long way from when I made my first garment,” she observes, “not trusting a measuring tape and rolling myself onto the fabric and pinning around my body to get the measurements for cutting.” Nowadays, she uses more conventional methods for measuring, although rarely a pattern.
One surprising fact about Mia is that she is “unable to use a sewing machine”, but then that adds to the authenticity of her reproduction work; for, as she says, “everything I make is 100% hand-stitched.”
It is clear that Mia would have it no other way: “I live, therefore I sew. And vice versa.”
The Medieval Monk (MM): A very warm welcome to you, Mia Hansson. I am greatly blessed by you taking time from your labours to talk to me about your remarkable work of embroidery.
Mia: Thank you kindly for considering me for your splendid blog. I’m deeply honoured to be asked and have, of course, set plenty of time aside to answer whatever questions you may have prepared for me. Conversing with you, dear Monk, will give my hard-working fingers a well needed rest.
MM: Bless you! Now, I understand you have been working on a full-size replica of the Bayeux Tapestry. Please tell my beloved readers about your progress to date.
Mia: I set upon this challenge in July, three and a half years ago, simply because I had nothing else to do and desired a project that I couldn’t finish in a hurry. I think I succeeded in finding such a task.
MM: Indeed! It will take many of my pious, contemplative steps to traverse the length of your work when completed.
Mia: Yes! The original tapestry is approximately 68.4 metres long [over 224 feet], and as I’m embroidering a full-scale replica, that’s what I’m aiming for. In December I crossed the 22 metre mark, leaving 46.4 metres to complete. I’ve allowed myself a total of ten years for the project, which means I’ve six and a half years left to devote to the embroidery. All being well, I should be able to manage, but it doesn’t really matter if I don’t. It will still get done eventually. Being rather competitive, I would like to hit my target on time though.
MM: Now, I have to ask – being an eleventh-century English monk, and somewhat averse to anything that might be construed as a celebration of the conquering of my beloved kingdom – but, really, what made you decide on the Bayeux Tapestry of all things?
Mia: Well, years ago, my embroidery skills were noted by an American friend with a great interest in English history, and he commissioned me to make a small section of the Bayeux tapestry. The aim was to make it the way the original may have looked when it was brand new, before any damage or repairs were made.
To aid my work, he gifted me an excellent book, David Wilson’s The Bayeux Tapestry, in which every stitch is clearly visible.
MM: Ah, yes, an excellent substitute if you cannot see the real thing.
Mia: The commission piece provided me with much joy and it was greatly appreciated upon completion. When I, after a number of years, ran out of Viking period clothing to stitch for customers, and I required something to occupy my restless fingers, I recalled the small tapestry piece I had made. When I say small, I mean a 1.5 metre length. If that short section had given me plenty of pleasure, imagine what the full length would do for my mental well-being.
MM: Well, yes. I tell myself something similar when reciting all 150 Psalms every week: the more psalms the merrier – godly merriment, of course.
Mia: On top of this, I heard of someone else who had made a half-size version of the original and, as I said, I’m rather competitive. Why do it half-size when it can be done full-scale, and why take fifteen years when it can be done in ten?
MM: Why indeed? Now, over the last few centuries, various folk have put forward ideas about who actually produced the original embroidery work – no, blessed ones, it was not Queen Matilda – but I’m not interested in that debate today. However, I really would like to know if your own labours have given you any insight into the original process.
Mia: I actually have some inside information on this matter –
MM: Ooh, do tell.
Mia: – being in touch, as I am, with someone who believes herself to be one of the original seamstresses, reborn over and over again. Please trust me when I say that I’ve done my very best to disprove her claim, but failed.
MM: Well, I think I may actually be lost for words. So, pray continue.
Mia: Details she has told me seem to be perfectly sound and not of the kind to be easily made up, although the part about her being reincarnated may be hard to digest, depending on your personal belief.
MM: Well, even though I am myself a devout Christian monk of the eleventh century, I will refrain from judgement. Just this once, mind you.
Mia: Having no issues with that myself, I have chosen to believe her and that has taught me the following: the tapestry was made by women of various ages, not nuns; they were all from England, apart from this particular lady, who came over on a ship with Queen Matilda and was sent to work on the tapestry, never to see the Queen again; and they worked under Odo’s instructions in the crypt below St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury.
Due to the tapestry not being mentioned in any document for 400 years after it was believed to have been created, nobody knows for sure who made it and where. I may as well believe this lady, who claims to have first-hand information. That is more than any historian has.
MM: I’m thinking that embroidering in a crypt might prove to be rather a gloomy experience, but I will leave my doubts aside for now. So, Mia, have you found certain parts of your embroidery particularly challenging?
Mia: Oh, absolutely! I’m a perfectionist and I don’t take kindly to mistakes, not even ancient ones. Because I aim to create a replica true to the original embroideresses’ work, prior to any damage and repair, I scrutinise every detail and in doing so, discover a vast amount of human errors, even a spelling mistake.
Bear in mind that I’ve only completed one third of the length so far, which means there is much more to come. Being of a certain disposition, my natural instinct it to correct the obvious mistakes, but my pledge is to honour the creators of the masterpiece, so I can’t do that. I’m finding this incredibly difficult.
MM: And do you have a favourite section?
Mia: I do, although, to be more accurate, I really mean a motif. There is no point in having a favourite section, because I would only stitch it once and then move on. Instead, I love the ships and the horses, because they make such a great impact with their large areas of colour. A horse’s rump and the hull of a ship are my absolute favourites.
MM: Whatever floats your boat, to use one of your twenty-first century idioms.
Mia: Ah, a monkish pun!
MM: I have plenty of those.
Mia: Saying all that, horses and ships are also laborious to stitch. So, when I stitch a fleet of ships, I prefer the horses; and when, on the other hand, I stitch a team of horses, I long for a ship dipping in and out of the waves.
Beautiful, ornate trees are right below the ships and horses on the list, while houses with spindly walls and tiled roofs are at the very bottom. I loathe tiles.
MM: Oh yes, there’s little aesthetically pleasing about a roof tile. I’m with you, there.
Mia: Chain armour is no favourite of mine either, although it can be very interesting.
MM: In what way?
Mia: Well, lately I’ve noted serious eleventh-century drama when stitching this kind of armour.
MM: Ooh! I’m all for a bit of eleventh-century drama. Pray, continue.
Mia: The lady stitching from the upper side of the tapestry used roundish rings while the woman working from the lower side made her armour square. Imagine when they met in the middle!
MM: Oh dear! I dare not think what might have happened between quarrelling, needle-wielding embroiderers!
Mia: Well, I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when they clashed, because I’m absolutely certain that they did. Nobody in their right mind would accept incorrect work from someone else, especially not when the item is a joint effort.
MM: Quite right! Now, I’m sorry to have to ask you the next question, but I’ve come under pressure from the other Monk of this website, who tells me it’s relevant to his research. So: have you kept/are you keeping in your replica all the original Bayeux Tapestry’s naughty bits?
Mia: Naturally! If a task is worth doing at all, it is worth doing correctly. I mentioned earlier that I painstakingly replicate the seamstresses’ errors, so of course I also stitch what they have done right. The naughty bits are part of the Bayeux Tapestry and they are very much part of my replica. In this sense, my work is more accurate than the Reading piece.
MM: Oh yes, the Victorian replica at Reading Museum! Those sensitive nineteenth-century ladies couldn’t quite bring themselves to reproduce the unmentionables in the borders. I think Dr Monk will be relieved you are being so authentic, Mia.
Now, I understand you take your Bayeux Tapestry to educational events. Would you tell us a little more about this?
Mia: I was six months into my tapestry when I was invited to be the backdrop, so to speak, during a historian’s talk about his own project set in the same time period. I was allocated five to ten minutes to present my work and the audience could view the embroidery during the break.
A year later, I was asked by the Women’s Institute to do an hour-long presentation on my own, from a handcraft point of view. Since then, I’ve accepted private bookings fairly local to my home town, for a smallish fee of £60 plus mileage.
MM: More than reasonable.
Mia: The latest one was in Great Hockham, in Norfolk, on the 19th January; and although the village is small, the audience was large. I spoke to eighty enthusiasts and received lovely reviews afterwards. I have been told that I can be rather entertaining when talking about the dos and don’ts of a replica project.
MM: Ah, wonderful! I will post your contact details for booking enquiries at the end of the blog post.
Mia: Thank you.
MM: My final question, in two, well, maybe three parts – oh, and you have perhaps already told me some of this – oh dear, I’m rambling. Anyway, when do you think you will complete your copy of the world-famous Bayeux Tapestry, and ultimately where are you going to put it when you’ve finished? Do you have a large dining hall it could occupy? It would make for such an interesting topic of conversation – though, of course, we pious eleventh-century English monks don’t talk at the table.
Mia: As I said earlier, the project began in July 2016 and, providing I hit my target of ten years, it will be completed during the summer months of 2026. But I’m very aware of life happening around me, throwing the occasional spanner in the works.
MM: Or broad axe?
Mia: Perhaps! But also, because I accept commissions, both for tapestry work and for hand stitching of period clothing, depending on how time consuming these are, it may well have an impact on the embroidery project.
MM: And what about displaying it in your dining hall?
Mia: Living in a regularly sized, three-bedroom house, sadly no, I have no large dining room in which to display the tapestry.
Mia: Ask yourself though, would you necessarily want to dine while watching warriors losing their heads and limbs?
MM: Well, perhaps not, but life is tough in the eleventh-century. And we have strong stomachs, you know.
Mia: Ha, ha! I should add, perhaps, that though the violent battle – the Battle of Hastings – is a large part of the Tapestry, it lays many years ahead of me right now.
MM: Or many feet – or metres – ahead of you.
Mia: Ah, yes! I do though hope to place my work in a museum or in a wealthy person’s private collection and walk away empty handed, but with my pockets full of gold.
MM: The labourer is worthy of his hire, the Lord said. I have no quibble, there.
Mia: Perhaps Bill Gates will get in touch –
MM: Does he have a large dining hall?
MM: My apologies, I interrupted you. Pray continue.
Mia: I was going to say that the Bayeux Museum, in France, follows my work via my Facebook Group, Mia’s Bayeux Tapestry Story [details below]. As an eleventh-century monk, you may not be aware of this world-encompassing, virtual reality –
MM: Well, it’s all magic to me.
Mia: – but the group has connected over 1300 tapestry lovers from around the globe, several members of the museum staff among them.
MM: Remarkable indeed! But fully understandable, in view of your talent.
Mia: As yet, there are no offers, but I’m not in a hurry. Alongside the embroidery, I’m writing a book in which I am documenting all my experiences along the way, and I hope to publish it when the tapestry is ready to be sold. Should my replica fail to sell, the linen and wool combo will live out its days in my hobby room.
MM: Well, I am quite sure the Lord will bless you. And I am even more certain that my blessed readers would very much like to thank you for taking time out of your busy life to talk to us about this wonderful project. And, of course, I add my own gracious thanks to theirs.
Mia: Again, thank you from the depths of my heart for your kind interest in my work. It’s been my pleasure to share my passion with you and your blog readers.
If you wish to contact Mia Hansson regarding booking queries, you can do so via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mia’s Facebook group page can be found here.
Update: Bonus pics available
You can now see four more photos of Mia Hansson's replica related to this interview. And an explanation of the 'naughty bits' by Dr Monk. Click here.
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.