The novelist Persia Wooley offers very sound advice when she suggests that a historical novelist should, whenever possible, visit the places she is writing about. Not only is there a good chance that this will provide additional material and inspiration, but also actually experiencing the terrain (one thing that time has probably not changed that much) can save the writer from a number of unfortunate mistakes that anyone who knows the area would pick up on immediately!
The ancient hilltop village of Vézelay has been a gathering place for Pilgrims since about 1040 C.E. when an enterprising Abbot declared that their Basilica possessed the body of Mary Magdalene – a great holy relic. Henceforth and until its decline two centuries later, Vézelay was not only a destination in its own right but also an important milestone on the road to Compostela and the shrine of Saint James in Galicia, which, after Rome, was perhaps the most celebrated pilgrimage destination in Europe – at the height of its popularity in the late 11th and 12th centuries, an estimated half a million pilgrims a year made the arduous trek across the Pyrenees to this holy site. Continue reading Travels in Burgundy: Vézelay October 1 2013→
The whole reason for this trip to Belgium and France was to trace the route my hero, Rohan de Brancion, would have followed in 1146 when he left his home in the hillside village of Brancion in central Burgundy and headed north for Ghent. After facing initial opposition, he (or rather others more persuasive than he) convinced his robber baron father, Lord Bernard de Brancion, to allow him, an illegitimate son, to undergo training to become a knight at the court of Lord Bernard’s powerful brother-in-law, Thierry, Count of Flanders. This in itself was unusual given Rohan’s base birth, but it was not unheard of – there were many famous early medieval bastards who rose to high positions – Duke William of Normandy, better known as William the Conqueror, was a bastard. Rules about these matters became more rigid in the 14th century, but still this was a pretty big deal for Rohan and would have put considerable pressure on him to prove himself worthy. Continue reading Travels through Champagne & Burgundy – September 30 to October 5 2013→
Most travelers (and movie goers) seem more familiar with Bruges than Ghent. For those of you who didn’t see the recent quirky movie with Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges, it gives you a pretty good idea of the place, although I offer this recommendation with a “violence and explicit language” warning (can’t remember if there was much explicit sex). Anyway since Bruges does not feature in the novel (at least so far), I will make this brief.
Looking for a good medieval battle site amidst 21st century suburbs is no easy matter I discovered – well, looking for anything medieval in this context. A general rule of thumb, in Europe at least, is to start by identifying the oldest church in the neighborhood, especially if the name of that church corresponds to the oldest known name of the village or district. Even if the church itself is relatively new, chances are, it sits on a medieval foundation and at one point in time was the center of life in a medieval village.
St. Peter’s Abbey stands on one of the highest points of the city in what used to be the village of Saint Peters (in the 12th century). Today, it lies in the heart of the student district of Ghent about a 15-minute walk from the center of town. Not much remains of the original Abbey founded in the 7th century by Amandus, a missionary sent from Aquitaine to Christianize the region, but it is still an impressive building consisting now mostly of an 18th century architectural superstructure with much earlier foundations and even earlier ruins – all well worth the visit (as always do not miss the crypt which is where you get the real sense of what an abbey, ancient church or cathedral was originally like). Continue reading St. Peter’s Abbey – September 26 2013→
Amazing – from my hotel window I can see five ancient churches and the famous Belfry tower of Ghent (Belfort) built in the 14th century to house a host of massive cast iron bells that would ring out a warning to the citizens of an impending attack or a fire blazing away in one of the districts (actually a far more frequent occurrence in the Middle Ages than attacks from enemies!). These bells continue to ring out across the city today every hour – charming when one is awake: not so much at midnight. Last night for example, Continue reading Ghent – September 26 2013 Part 2→
I must be still thinking of Canterbury and those intrepid Pilgrims because I can’t think of Ghent without recalling the Wife of Bath who, in addition to having outlived five husband, was also a smart business woman who, when it came to cloth-making “Had switch an haunt she passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt”. “Gaunt” was the way the English pronounced Ghent in the Middle Ages – hence John of Gaunt, third son of King Edward 111, so-called not because he was emaciated but rather Continue reading Ghent – September 26 2013→
With only a few hours left of my time in London, I was determined to visit the elusive Church of the Knights Templar before leaving for Belgium. This time I decided to take the District line tube to Temple station rather than the Piccadilly line to Holborn, as in my previous foray. This proved to be a better decision, although it is no wonder that few people have even heard of this hidden gem of a church*, let alone know how to find it – save of course for those bewigged denizens of the legal profession who inhabit the historic buildings that surround it. With names such as Lincoln’s Inn, Kings Bench, Middle and Inner Temple, these so-called Inns of Court go back to the Middle Ages, and occupy a small patch of the City of London between Fleet Street and the river Thames. Today, as in former times, the top brains of the legal profession hang their gowns in these chambers (the great Thomas More, Chancellor of England under Henry VIII – and famously martyred by him during the Reformation – was a member of Lincoln’s Inn in the early 16th century).
Today I was what the Brits call a “day tripper” (remember that old Beatles song? Although, upon reflection, that might have been about some other sort of “tripper”). Anyway, my own trip to Canterbury today could not have been more innocent. I was, in time-honored manner, making a pilgrimage to the great cathedral and shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, that holy blissful martyr I spoke of in yesterday’s post, murdered in his own cathedral by a bunch of knightly thugs in 1170.
Thanks to a total upgrade in what used to be British Rail,