I read Tim Severin’s The Brendan Voyage over the last few days – a wonderful adventure story and a stirring depiction of how medieval technology was adapted to the conditions it faced. Severin describes how modern equipment they carried initially worked well but quickly lost its functional, whereas the medieval methods lasted. Reading this brought me back to thinking about Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change , referenced in the review below.
Mark Lord’s new short story collection comprises features five Medieval tales. This is neither a romanticised pre-modern idyll, or a brutish world of superstition; Lord’s characters are by turns befuddled, reflective, lusty, pious, cynical, brave — in short, very like our own age. Four of the stories feature supernatural/horror elements, to slightly varying extents. Only the first, “Stand and Fight,” is pure historical fiction.
Historical fiction often oscillates between two poles; one being an approach from the perspective of those at the centre of Great Events, the traditional schoolbook history of “maps and chaps.” The other reflects contemporary historiography’s concern with “history from below,” with ordinary quotidian experience and with those marginalised or written out of history.
Of course, as the great historian of technology Lynn White noted in the opening lines of his Medieval Technology and Social Change, emphasis on literary sources means that those written out of history may include the once-powerful and influential; ecclesiastical dominance of European literacy for several hundred years meant mercantile and military actors, who could hardly be considered marginalised, are often voiceless in documentary records.
The English novelist Alfred Duggan approached historical fiction somewhere between the two poles; his protagonists tend to be near Great Events, but in a supporting, subsidiary role. The modern reader, often baffled by the strangeness of a medieval world and worldview which is much richer than the various caricatures often offered up, can identify with the oft-baffled heroes as they struggle with daily life amidst epochal events.
The first three stories all take this approach. The aforementioned “Stand and Fight,” set in English-held Aquitane in 1374 during the Hundred Years War, features Richard Stone, representative of the English forces desperately trying to shore up the resistance of his truculent local allies during a siege. Stone’s sense of personal honour is not quite shared by the Gascon commander, Bertrand, and yet Stone manages to shape events — but only up to a certain point. There is a grittiness and mordant irony that reminded me greatly of Duggan’s Knight With Armour.
Jake Savage, an English Archer in “Chivalry,” is waging a war that, in Lord’s telling, resembles some very contemporary quagmires in the apparent senseless, pointless nature of it all to the men on the ground. A strange encounter with an apparently enchanted knight and dame exemplifies the rampant absurdity and savagery of war. The central encounter has something of the quality of a tableau; one can imagine it depicted in tapestry form.
“Bird Talk” is the most earthy and bawdy of these stories, with a young priest discovering his efforts at tracking down a necromancer instead seem to entangle the woman he lusts after. A supernatural element is hinted at, all the more spookily for that.
The last two stories, “Stupor Mundi” and “Bisclavret,” are somewhat different from others. Here the protagonists are members of the elite; the Chancellor of Frederick II (the eponymous “World’s Wonder”) and a young yet not innocent French noblewoman. The supernatural element, of a Classical-style vengeful shade and a lycanthrope respectively, is more explicit and front-of-centre. I found the slight change in authorial style and narrative tone refreshing; five stories of history-from-the-middle-somewhere might have been a little repetitive.
Lord’s stories are engaging and possess the page-turn factor. There is a fleshy realism to his Medieval World, and yet there is no condescension either to a worldview different from ours. The supernatural element is lightly worn; those who prefer more straightforwardly “historical” fiction will still have much to enjoy, those whose preferences are with the otherworldly will find well-realised, subtle thrills in store.