I have been offered the opportunity by Amberley Publishing to open up my blog to Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania, authors of the book “The Middle Ages Unlocked” and their ungoing promotion blog tour. Due to this you find a guest post below on the topic of folklore written by Dr Gillian Pollack.
Further down you will find more information on the two authors, the book and a link to where you can find even more information. Enjoy!
Folklife in the Middle Ages was rich and varied. It peeks its head up from time to time in literature, in archive documents, in archaeology. We don’t have a complete picture, but we have fascinating tidbits that give us an inkling of how people saw the world around them.
When scholars write about folklife, they often tell the stories that appear in literature and chronicles. There were two green children who came out of the ground, for example. The boy died, but the girl lived and lost her green colour. King Harold didn’t die at Hastings but lived a holy life for many years after the battle in 1066. Tiny devils sat on a lady’s long train because she went into church wearing the dress with that train, full of pride and vanity. The ghost of someone’s nephew told them where treasure was hidden.
There are so many stories. Some are anecdotes and enter medieval literature in passing. Some are greater and longer and become whole tales.
One of my favourite stories in the long tale department is the story of Melusine.
I mention this a lot at the moment, because I used it for my most recent novel. It was
first put into a full length tale by Jean d’Arras. Long before Jean d’Arras, famous people explained that they had demon ancestry (Richard I is famous for this claim) and that it explained why they were special. Melusine was the ancestress of the Lusignan family, and was a guivre. In Christian mythology this probably means she was classified as a demon. In folk mythology, however, she was an otherworldly being.
It’s very easy to look at these tales, both long and short and say “This is medieval folklife.” It’s only a small part of it. It’s very easily accessible to us, because it’s written down. We’re more likely to be able to interpret it and to understand it, but it’s only a part of the whole.
We can reconstruct burial practices and popular piety from a combinations of sources and archaeological finds. We can read what the theologians say about how people should be buried and then compare them to actual graves. This gives us an idea about what people thought about death and the afterlife. When bishops were buried, the question of their rings, for example, is important. Whether they were buried with their very expensive rings or with cheap replicas tells us how far those rings were expected to be considered as literal objects to be carried into the afterlife, or whether they were considered symbolic.
Most folklife perished with the people who practised it. It wasn’t buried with them: it just disappeared. Most medieval people weren’t literate and they really didn’t care if we (in their distant future) knew whether they put milk out for spirits or buried a shoe or witch bottle in a wall. Witchbottles come after the Middle Ages, but because we really don’t know what peasants in the Middle Ages did everyday, in terms of folk belief, evidence from as late as the nineteenth century has been used to argue “They did this.”
Many modern discussions about medieval folklife muddle things. The wish to understand pushes us beyond what we actually know and so we invent a set of beliefs and practices that belong to a mythical Middle Ages. I’m always amused by this, for I am a historian (and co-writer of The Middle Ages Unlocked), but also a writer of science fiction and fantasy. I keep those two sides of me distinct and keep the timelines for evidence very clear. I want to know what we actually know. If I want to invent a whole new folklore (as I did with Melusine) I write it into fiction.
I wish we knew more. I wish we knew whether the people of England knew about
Melusine or if they believed in guivres. I wish we knew if a London housewife did something odd and furtive to express her superstition as she left her house. I wish we knew if London housewives even had superstitions!
What this means is that we don’t really know tidbits about medieval folklife: we know tidbits about the folklife of educated people in the Middle Ages and just a few stray pieces of information about everyone else. It’s a fabulously rich treasure… and there is so much still to know.
Dr Gillian Polack is a novelist, editor and medieval historian as well as a lecturer. She has been published in both the academic world and the world of historical fiction. Her most recent novels include Langue[dot]doc 1305 and The Time of the Ghosts (both Satalyte publishing). Find her webpage at http://www.gillianpolack.com and her tweets under @GillianPolack.
Dr Katrin Kania is a freelance textile archaeologist and teacher as well as a published academic who writes in both German and English. She specialises in reconstructing historical garments and offering tools, materials and instructions for historical textile techniques. Find her website at http://www.pallia.net and her blog at togs-from-bogs.blogspot.com. She also tweets under @katrinkania.
To our modern minds, the Middle Ages seem to mix the well-known and familiar with wildly alien concepts and circumstances. The Middle Ages Unlocked provides an invaluable introduction to this complex and dynamic period in England. Exploring a wide range of topics from law, religion and education to landscape, art and magic, between the eleventh and early fourteenth centuries, the structures, institutions and circumstances that formed the basis for daily life and society are revealed.
Drawing on their expertise in history and archaeology, Dr Gillian Polack and Dr Katrin Kania look at the tangible aspects of daily life – ranging from the raw materials used for crafts, clothing and jewellery to housing and food – in order to bring the Middle Ages to life. The Middle Ages Unlocked dispels modern assumptions about this period to uncover the complex tapestry of medieval England and the people who lived there.