Second Time Round the Book of the New Sun

Sometimes when you come back to a book for a second time it’s not quite as good as you originally thought. Not in the case of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. For me the second time round has been a fantastic experience so far. I’m 115 pages into my reading of the first book in the volume: the Shadow of the Torturer. I think this time I am taking more time to appreciate the fantastic quality of Wolfe’s writing. Whereas the first time round it was perhaps more of a struggle to keep a grasp on what was happening in the strange new world I was reading about, this second time I am slightly familiar and instead deepening my appreciation of it.
After reading The Book of the New Sun the first time I went on to read Peace
and The Fifth Head of Cerberus. I found this more accessible and just as good if not better than the New Sun. I was slightly concerned about returning to the world of Severian again, but I am glad I’m there. The symbolism and the language is more evocative and there are passages that I can’t believe I didn’t gasp in wonder at the first time round – for instance Severian’s visit to the gloomy library, like something straight out of Borges, was quite bizarre.
What’s your favourite Gene Wolfe book?

Jake: Hell has its Demons Character Profile

I worked on the life story of one of my major characters from Hell has its Demons yesterday. The following paragraphs tell the story of Jake before the events of the novel take place:

Jake’s family moved to St Brett’s when he was 11, a year after the Plague first struck in 1348. His young sister died, but otherwise his family was relatively unharmed. The village where they lived all but disappeared though. His father sold the small plot of land they held and left the village before their lord could demand the fine payable for villains leaving his manor. They arrived in St Brett’s and found that they were able to get a burgess plot on the cheap – the abbey desperate for money with half the town’s tenants having died.

As a child Jake was entranced by stories of knights and seeing them go past in their armour, with their fancy ladies – visiting the abbey for instance or coming into town for the fairs that happened three times a year. He was taken in by the romance of these stories and the pageantry of the knights he saw. He would later bitterly resent the wealth of these nobles and his own foolish hope that he might become a knight too.

His father earns a living through a variety of enterprises, becoming most successful at brewing and running a tavern. John is a shrewd businessman and also sees opportunities for speculating on the trade of cloth manufactured in the town. He encourages others to invest capital into ventures, thereby avoiding risk, but takes a good share of the profits. He uses his son, Jake, to ensure the shipments reach their destination safely – Jake is physically intimidating and also John trusts him. Jake is party to occasional deception of John’s business clients. Jake travels to London and ports in East Anglia on business.

From the age of 16 to 17 John is able to send his boy Jake to the grammar school briefly. Jake learns quickly but can’t stand the discipline of study and the hypocrisy of the monks. He is expelled for a prank on the teacher – who will later be an obedientary or abbot?

The Abbey observes the success of the cloth exports from St Brett’s and the lack of income it derives and seeks to impose levies on St Brett’s merchants – whereas previously it could tax merchants coming to fairs at St Brett’s to buy produce.

These taxes affect John and his associates – a group of wealthier burgesses who control the cloth trade and regularly drink in his tavern. In 1361 when the abbey imposes these tolls the burgesses rebel and the abbey’s tax-collector is murdered.

His Mother died during second coming of the Black Death in 1362.

In 1363 when the abbey bring in local gentry to support their collection of the tolls there is street-warfare. The abbey is briefly besieged. The Abbot promises to withdraw the new tolls, but asks instead for increased tolls for use of the Abbey mills. John is happy with that – he has organized house fulling mills in the workshops of his suppliers.

Jake is supportive of all this activity and helps his father – they are always seen together and effectively control what happens in the town.

Jake is a keen sportsman, football, archery and poaching in the Abbey’s forest.

Jake has some of his own money now and plans to set-up on his own. He buys his own tavern.

Jake marries in 1365 a girl called Edith. She died in childbirth as did the child. Jake has given up on being a father now. Is it worth bringing a child into such a world?

Jake’s tavern is struggling to make a profit. He has become more distant from his father. He no longer represents him on business trips – he doesn’t have time – he is running his own business now, but also morning his dead wife and child.

The conflict with the abbey has died down. The abbey still demands its rights and seems to exert more control – but only over the lesser people of the town – John and his cronies have come to an arrangement. In 1367 they form a new fraternity and pay for an endowment to the abbey. Jake has offended his father by going off on his own and rejecting his advice – his father is quietly cutting him out of his dealings and making him suffer for going against him.

Jake finds Margery and her mother camped out on his doorstep one cold morning early in 1369. He is ready to turn away the two beggars who have appeared from nowhere, but something stops him. He lets them in and cooks them some hot food. His housekeeper, who has taken a shine to him which he hasn’t realized, immediately takes a dislike to them – witch she calls the old woman, who mutters superstitiously under her breath. Jake allows them to board at his house. The old woman does not last the winter. Jake and Margery become lovers, the housekeeper is sacked and Margery lives with Jake (in sin). She has a hold over him.

His father is jealous of Jake’s romantic success and plots against him, first having others accuse him in the abbey’s canon court of fornication. Jake promises to marry. John tries something else, pointing out Jake’s poverty to Margery.

Jake leaves St Brett’s in 1369 (when he was 31) after his father marries Margery (when she was 27). Jake tried to kill his father and Margery shortly before he left in an angry confrontation.

Jake joins a retinue being assembled to support the Black Prince’s forces in Aquitaine. From 1370 to 1374 involved in chevauchées, sieges and skirmishes in various parts of Western France. Involved in war crimes – but this is part and parcel of being a soldier? Jake has become cynical – life has dealt him a cruel hand so he feels it is alright for him to take it out on others. He has realised that only get what you can take in this world.

In 1374 effectively becomes an outlaw in France with a gang of other unpaid soldiers. They capture Roger and some other clerks on their return from Avignon. They plan to ransom the priests for money. But for Roger their plan fails, the other priests are worth something, but not Roger. The other soldiers plan to kill Roger and take his stuff. Jake protects him and saves him. They part. Jake returns to England, but ends up in gaol. Roger hears that he is in gaol and helps secure his release if he will become his servant. Roger is on his way to Oxford to take up a post as Master of Astronomy at the University.

Research for Writers

Where do you go to do research? Public Libraries can unfortunately be under-resourced and are rarely as well equipped as academic libraries. Some academic libraries and research institutes allow you to become a member of a fee, but this can be quite a commitment if you are not sure the academic tome they have is going to be useful to you or not. Or if you just need a small amount of extra information.

There are some good resources on the web, specialist websites and the like – for instance for me I look at the following:
De Re Militari – Medieval Military History website
But often solid researched academic books are the best source of information. But are much too expensive for the individual researcher to acquire. Here are some options I have come across as alternative:
Scribd – individual users can upload texts. Not sure how legal these are always, but seem to be mostly out of copyright material. – does what Google Books should do!
Ebrary – offer an option to access their academic e-book library for individuals. You need to pay $5 as a deposit if you want to copy or print anything, but otherwise it is a fairly good way to get content for the individual researcher.

Best Recent Blog posts and Links

Some cool blog posts and news stories from around the web:
Bernard Cornwell’s Agincourt to be adapted for the screen – it always scares me when things get transferred to film, I just anticipate any historical veracity going right out of the window. Thanks to Steven Till for posting this link.

Bad news – authors are getting paid less, and academics turn to historical fiction??!! – but who? Wish they had given some examples and sources for this story.

Cocaine Mummies – ‘nuf said.

Jack Vance profile at NY Times – everyone is linking to this, but he is one of my favourite authors so that’s my justification OK!

10 Rules for writers – basically it’s one tip – if you don’t send it, you won’t sell it.

Greatest Hits

I thought it would be interesting to see what were the most popular post topics on my blog. After looking at Google Analytics I have been able to put together a top five:

1. Snowflake method – stumbling across the snowflake method!
3. Medieval Men-at-Arms vs Archers at Agincourt – why maybe class snobbery prevented the French from destroying the English archers at Agincourt
4. Novel Writing software – does specialised novel writing software help writers?
5. Chivalry, prisoners and the code of medieval warfare – how the chivalric code might once have existed but became diluted as armies became more professional

It’s quite interesting for me to see what people are reading. It’s fairly clear that readers of my blog are interested either in the content about writing techniques or the content I wrote when investigating the Battle of Agincourt.

Medieval Myths about Witchcraft and Sorcery

The Middle Ages was a time when witches were burnt at the stake or drowned in ponds to prove whether they were really witches or not.
Again another myth about the Middle Ages.
The persecution of witchcraft really didn’t get going until what is called the Early Modern period – late 15th century to 17th century. In fact until the 15th century sorcery itself although acknowledged to be evil and to exist was not actively pursued or persecuted.
Sorcerers could be burnt for their crimes and occasionally were, but really the accusation of sorcery tended to be tacked onto accusations of heresy, or to be used as a means of defaming opponents – such as the Templars for example.
Things started to change somewhat in the early fourteenth century, a time of rising pressures in society in general. From about 1320 onwards the Inquisition in Europe started to take a more serious role in tackling accusations of sorcery. The cases of sorcery actually seem to have increased as the authorities pronounced against it – for instance Pope John XXII actually made accusations that certain sorcerers had attempted to kill him. High profile cases such as this only served to increase the interest in sorcery, and thus the persecution of it. This culminated in the mid-15th century with the infamous Gilles de Rais.

With the increase in publicity sorcery and witchcraft were becoming increasingly trendy, and by the Early Modern period both had captured the imagination as something to be feared or to experiment with.

It’s ironic that the era of the Renaissance was the time when the particularly brutal repression of witchcraft really began.
Henry Charles Lea’s A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages: Volume 3 is a great source for more information on the subject.

Medieval Myths about Peasant Hovels

This is the first in an occasional series of posts looking at commonly believed ‘myths’ about Medieval times. For instance many people, including some writers of popular history, often picture the medieval peasant as living in fairly primitive housing – perhaps basic wattle and daub or wooden structures.

However, evidence from archaeology shows that is not always the case. In fact where excavations have been made stone buildings are not uncommon. It might have been the case perhaps that these were owned by the wealthier peasants in the village – the free farmers who had managed to achieve a surplus after paying their rents. But sometimes it’s not just one or two houses in a village that are made of stone, but a whole cluster of them.
Colin Platt’s book Medieval England is a great book for demonstrating how archaeology can inform our historical understanding of the Middle Ages – and for debunking those medieval myths that we still have!