We have an interview today with historical author Katherine Ashe. I included Simon de Montfort in the title because I didn't want readers to confuse this author with another of bodice rippers. Not that Simon de Montfort didn't rip...er...a bodice or two. But our Katherine is the author of the Montfort series, historical novels on the life of the man who founded England's Parliament in 1258 and created modern democracy. She's also a playwright and producer of the Jefferson Radio Theater.
Jeri: Your write about the 13th century, I about the 14th, what attracted you about the Middle Ages?
Kathernie: I write about the time before the plagues, when there was a large population living on the land, with a relatively small migration to the cities. Life had a stability built on the seasonal cycle and the class structure.
We cringe at the idea of such a structured society, but in Christian countries there was no shame in being a ploughman, a servant, a butcher. The fief, and God’s universe, had a place for everyone that was honorable for each kind. There was some social mobility, but chiefly through the Church. A merchant’s son like Thomas Becket could rise to be Chancellor of England, and from there to Archbishop, able to challenge the power of the king. But normal expectation was that you would do what your father or mother did, and that constituted a blessed life.
The promise of wide open opportunity that we live with now carries with it an element of judgment: if you haven’t accomplished great things you are a lesser person than those who have. We worship celebrity – those who have fulfilled the “promise.” But the strain of modern life’s demands is great. I think in many people there is a yearning toward a less challenging time, not a golden age, but an age of a quieter order and simplicity that the Middle Ages seems to represent.
J: What do you feel the 13th century has to say to the 21st century reader?
K: As I said, it suggests a less challenging social order. But you and I both write about the code of chivalry – the imperative of personal honor regardless of social pressure. Mark Twain thought Walter Scott so glorified chivalric honor that he entranced the American South with notions that were socially suicidal. And that may be true. Mary Doria Russell deals with this in her book about Doc Holliday, who seems to have been afflicted with a sense of honor that was self destructive in the extreme. Your hero, Crispin Guest, behaves according to his sense of honor, even while living in a state of deep dishonor.
A rather simplified view of Simon de Montfort, the man I write about, accords him the position of a model of chivalric honor because he would not retreat from his sworn commitment to uphold the principals that created Parliament. I believe there were more aspects to his persistent support of the Parliament, and such simplifications created the idea of a rigid chivalric code that much later generations regarded as the essence of honor – to their own undoing.
Nevertheless, I think your writing and mine hold up the value of personal integrity, regardless of external pressures. Such integrity is a virtue in short supply in our time and needs every encouragement. The holding of individual moral integrity as of prime importance -- despite risks of wealth, security, public opinion, status – is a message from the values of 13th and 14th centuries that needs to be heard by the modern reader. Not to deny that such integrity might have been honored more in theory than in practice in the Middle Ages – but it was present in even the worst criminal’s mind.
K: I was writing a book, a fantasy about fairies actually, that kept gravitating to the year 1258 in England. My Britannica’s article on England in 1258 briefly described The Barons War, led by Simon de Montfort. Looking up the article on Montfort, I found a peculiarly critical tone, I thought. A couple of weeks later when I accidentally came across a description of Simon’s death, and the writer was favorable to him, I decided to research just what was going on here. The more I learned, the more I felt compelled to write about this much maligned man as he might want to have his life described—if he were in a particularly confiding mood.
Quite simply, I find it mind-boggling that a person so pivotal in the development of modern democracy is so little known on the one hand, and so blaggardized on the other. It is as if hardly anyone had ever heard of George Washington, and those who had, knew only that he didn’t free his slaves and that he was perpetually short of funds and complaining about it (which is true.)
J: How did you approach your research?
K: The primary source of information on Simon is the Chronica Majora, a history from the first day of Creation to -- today (whatever that day was.) It was written nearly daily by the monk Matthew Paris at Saint Albans. The particular virtue of the Chronica is that, while it was regarded as the principal daily record in its own time (early to mid-13th century), it was closed off from view. Brother Matthew could write whatever he wanted without fear the King would see it and punish him.
Saint Albans was one day’s ride north of London, and Simon passed there every time he came or went from his home at Kenilworth. At first Matthew was very critical of the foreigner Lord Montfort, but he came to be an intense partisan of Simon and his populist movement. That they were in direct communication is evidenced by a letter sent to Simon by his nephew in Germany describing “the Golden Horde” of Genghis Khan. The letter is bound into Matthew’s book and it is from it that we get the term “the Golden Horde.” Even more telling of the closeness between Simon and Matthew is the description of King Henry’s inadvertent visit to Simon’s garden tent during a rainstorm in 1258. Such scenes, where there were few witnesses present other than Simon and the King, turn up in the Chronica with some frequency.
The biography of Simon de Montfort by Charles Bemont is excellent, particularly for Simon’s years as viceroy in Gascony. And there are of course official sources: the records of royal charters which show who was present at Court on any given day, as well as what royal actions were taken; the Great Roll of the Pipe that records the king’s expenses.
Along those lines, amazingly enough, Simon’s wife’s rolled up expense list from the months just before and after Simon’s death survived because it fell into a crevice of the wall of the monastery where she had retreated. When the monastery was destroyed during the French Revolution, out tumbled the account roll, filled with minute details of the Montfort household down to the leather riding chaps the Countess ordered (would you have guessed such a garment was under a lady’s skirts?) and the names of her footman, Gobehasty, and the kitchen boys, Garbage and Slingaway.
In Paris, the Bibliotheque Nationale houses the Montfort Archive. Back when I was doing my basic research, I sent in my request slip, as in any library, and out came a massive boxed book. Inside, the original vellum pages -- complete with their big wax seals -- were pasted onto strips of vellum that were then sewn into the book’s binding. There I found an autobiography in Simon’s own hand, written to describe decades of his experiences in England, for written testimony as he faced trial for treason against King Henry. (The trial was heard by Queen Margaret and the Peers of France.) And there were the actual trial notes as well. The experience of handling and reading these original documents was like reaching through time and touching the hand, the eyes, the mind...
I post copies of Simon’s documents, in their original old French and Latin, on the Simon de Montfort Facebook page. Amazingly, the site has some followers – people like myself I suppose who find the actual words thrilling.
J: I always feel that there is a contract between author and reader that an historical will remain true to the time period. What do you feel about the balance of fiction and actual history in historical novels?
K: I happen to write as close to history as massive research can take me. If my findings differ from other historians, so be it, I stick with the early sources in preference over later histories. This happens to be the sort of book I’m writing. In the Historical Context section of each volume of Montfort I supply the reader with my sources and interpretations of those sources in light of supportive evidences. But that’s unique to what I feel are the needs of my writing about Simon de Montfort.
Most historical novel writing leans toward a mix, to greater or lesser degrees, of history and fiction. I personally don’t care for books that use a past period merely for color, while the characters are really modern people moved by modern ideas and attitudes. Much of late 20th-21st century publishing I think has gone in this direction in an attempt to create a women’s history, to counter-balance the mass of books, written over millennia, that have male heroes and nearly exclude women as active figures. While I can sympathize with the effort at social engineering these books represent, I feel they do no service in educating women in what the past was really like – and the stupendous achievement modern women have made in freeing themselves for a more active role in history.
Understood as fantasy, perhaps such books do no harm, but I often encounter readers who believe they know history from having read these popular novels.
One of the more harmful popular fictions, to my mind, is the stance that life in the past was brutal, miserable and short. Records prior to the plague years, and the crowding of work-bereft excess populations into cities, do not support that. The horrors of our own times: child pornography, the rape and murder rate, the fear of child abduction – these things we’ve grown to live with as common in the evening news would leave a 13th century person unspeakably shocked.
The depiction of “the bad old times” leads us to be complacent, imagining that life has always been this bad. Your depiction of the back alleys of London in the 14th century are probably quite accurate regarding urban life, but the homeless I’ve seen in New York City seem no better off, and possibly worse, as the virtue of personal charity operates far less now toward alleviating their suffering.
We prefer institutional assistance for the poor. Well, there was institutional help in the 13th century also – and not the horrors of the 19th century’s workhouses. King Henry III built a remarkable set of attached urban housing for nine homeless old men (there were only nine in that city at the time.) The building still stands and its nine apartments now are considered quite desirable. Assertions of “the bad old days: may feed our arrogance, but a truer view of the past as doing better in some ways than we do now might shame us into making more, and more humane, improvements.
I think I’ve drifted from the point. A book may be historical fiction and travel far from history while still being a fine work. Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is total time travel fiction, but brilliant writing – and it supplied Franklin Roosevelt with the phrase “The New Deal.” The card sharpie Yankee, observing that 90% of the wealth is in the hands of 1% of the population, says, “What these people need is a new deal.”
J: What do you like/ not like in historical novel writing these days?
K: Hmm. I think I’ve anticipated the question again. What I like is the vast array of books and research materials coming to be available as e-books or on line. In the not too distant future ominscience, at least of the written word, will be available to anyone with a computer.
What I don’t like: the limited categories of historical fiction. You can count them on the fingers of a maimed hand: historical romance, historical mystery, military/war time. This may be for ease in shelving in bookstores, but one would think a shelf could simply be labeled historical fiction: Ancient/ Medieval/Renaissance... etc.
I also don’t like the covers on most historical novels: women, and occasionally men, with part of their heads – or their whole heads, off the top of the cover.
Surrounded by such book covers in the ad hoc book shop set up for the Historical Novel Society conference in San Diego last spring, I asked the authors of these books (who were standing in line with me at the very slow check out) what they thought of these covers. There was a shout of helpless outrage. They hated them – but their publishers made the decisions and they had no say. One author observed that, while annihilating any look of intelligence that might be conveyed by the eyes, a nearly bare bosom was featured. Another called our attention to what actually was at the center of covers – though voluminously skirted, it was undoubtedly the crotch. I recalled my grandmother saying, “What she doesn’t show she points to.” Apparently these copycat covers had all been generated by the success of the cover of “The Other Boleyn Girl.”
What don’t I like in the writing of historical novels”? Blatant anachronism of language, or of elements of detail or behavior. “Firing” arrows for instance. Unless the arrow is tied with a rag that is dipped in some nicely flammable stuff that will keep it burning despite the breeze, and then is set alight, an arrow is not “fired,” it is “shot.” Guns are “fired.” That’s an anachronism that turns up frequently from hurried writing.
The worst case of anachronism, in my own experience, was when I was working with a screenwriter, early on, for an adaptation of Montfort for film. She had King Henry III traveling through London in a coach and leaving calling cards. The scenario was riddled with such stuff. Our collaboration was short-lived.
J: What writers have most influenced you?
K: I love the Lymond series by Dorothy Dunnett. I re-read the first book, The Game of Kings, whenever I’m editing. Not that I want to write like Dunnett. No one but she would dare have her hero’s first utterance (he happens to be soaking wet after smuggling himself into Edinburgh by swimming the Loch Nor, “I’m a narwhale searching for my virgin.” Nor would anyone else dare to write in nine languages, including old Provencal and medieval Persian, without offering a hint of translation. But it’s precisely her spirit of daring that leads her to never use a common phrase, but always to find new, more vivid and exact words to arrest the reader’s eye and heart.
T.E. Lawrence writes with Arabic ringing in his ears, and his choice of words is breath-stopping. And there is Archibald Colquhoun’s translation of Lampedusa’s The Leopard. The chapter of the central figure’s gradual dying is perhaps the most exquisite prose I’ve read. I’m left to wonder what it must be in Italian.
These are the writers I would like to claim as influences. The complexity of the actual, historical story I have to tell in Montfort requires clarity above all; a simplicity and directness that needs to seem artless. In my plays I’ve been able to play with language and color more freely.
J: You call it a series. Most historicals that aren't mysteries are standalones. How will this work as a series of books?
K:I call it a series, but actually it's a very big book in four volumes. The Montfort books are all in print. How it seems to be working is that people buy volume one, The Early Years, and go on to buy the rest. However, I've edited the books so that each can stand alone. Or a reader can pick up the series at any point -- though preferably not the last volume first, but that's a possibility, too.
Thanks for visiting today, Katherine. Your books sound most intriguing. You can read more about Simon de Montfort on Katherine's blog http://simon-de-montfort.com/