Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Stepping into Early Medieval Worlds

By Tracey Warr

When I first set out to write early medieval fiction one of my motivations was to dispel some of the myths about those times, myths which I had believed myself until I started doing some serious research, such as: all medieval people did not wash and were illiterate and women had no power or rights. My historical novels are set across Europe in the 10th-12th centuries and their protagonists are always women: countesses, servants, slaves and female troubadours. Yes, there were real female troubadours in the early Middle Ages. They were called trobairitz and wrote racy, sensual and profoundly moving poetry (see Peter Dronke’s Women Writers of the Middle Ages and Meg Bogin’s The Women Troubadours). There were also female poets, known as skalds, amongst the Vikings. As well as appearing as characters in my novels, the words written by these women are invaluable sources for creating credible, sensory worlds for my readers to step into.

Many of my characters are based on real historical people, including the male characters, some of whom, such as Audebert Count of La Marche, emerge even from dusty, centuries-old chronicles, as rather hot! Just as we know more from the historical evidence about the experiences of noblemen and women than we do about the lives of the peasants and lesser people, we also know much more about the men than about the women. So I am faced with the challenge of how to create a fully sensory world from a range of female perspectives.

For the servants and slaves, the labour involved in day to day life in a pre-industrial society is always a significant factor to consider. Whenever I visit one of the glorious medieval bastide towns in France such as Cordes-sur-Ciel or Najac, built atop very steep mounds to give strong defensive positions and views of approaching enemies, I always think about the servants plodding up and down those steep inclines with mules loaded down with wine skins, parchment, spices, whatever the lords and ladies of the castle required. All medieval people were living much more closely with the rhythms of day and night and of the seasons, since they had no electric light and many of the other things we take for granted in modern life. They did not travel or go to war in the winter when seas and rivers were turbulent and roads were muddy morasses. Their day began with sunrise and they ate earlier, went to bed earlier. They grew, hunted and cooked their own food and made their own clothes. We imagine medieval people living narrow existences in one place but some of them were great travellers: pilgrims, traders, vikings of course, and some noble brides went far from the places of their birth for their marriages. Travel was possible, it just took a lot longer.

I use original sources such as The Trotula, a compendium of women’s medicines written in Italy in the 12th century, or Dhoda’s marvellous 9th century handbook written to advise her son, along with medieval handbooks on cooking, hunting, hawking, bee-keeping, and the writings of medieval chroniclers including Ademar de Chabannes, William of Malmesbury and Orderic Vitalis, to help give the world I am creating veracity and bring it to life. A museum in Toulouse gave me a reproduction of an 11th century map of the city to help me recreate that, since modern Toulouse bears little resemblance to the city my 11th century countess rode through.

The protagonist of my first novel, Almodis the Peaceweaver, was the real Countess of Toulouse and Barcelona, my second novel incorporates real historical characters such as the Norse Viking Olafr Tryggvason and the Viscountess of Limoges who was kidnapped by Vikings and held hostage for three years. My new novel published later this year, focusses on the experiences of the real Welsh princess, Nest ferch Rhys, who was held hostage by Norman invaders from a young age. I undertake historical research finding out what happened, when, where, to whom. What did the people wear and eat, what were the places they lived in like, how did they travel, how long did it take to get from one place to another on horseback or on a river boat. I use lots of sources to inspire me aside from literature and historical documentation, including objects in museums that my characters might have handled and owned, my visits to intact medieval sites and Romanesque churches, looking at paintings and manuscript illustrations. The appearance of my character Almodis is based on a beautiful statue of the Virgin in Albi Cathedral in France, but my character Nest ferch Rhys is modelled on a striking black-haired, blue-eyed Welsh girl I saw on a train between Swansea and Carmarthen. Several objects from the British Museum feature in my first novel including the Dunstable Swan Jewel and a delicate pink glass palm cup. A Viking serpent brooch and an exquisite decorated Viking swordhilt found in the sea between Pembrokeshire and Ireland were inspirations for my second novel, as were the Welsh islands of Caldey and Skomer which were occupied and named by Vikings. For my new novel I spent time walking along the cliffs and estuaries of Carmarthen Bay in Wales where a significant part of the story is set. 

The French historian Georges Duby wrote ‘I must never forget the differences, the hundreds of years that separate me from my subject, the great stretch of time that hides almost all I am endeavouring to see behind a veil I cannot pierce.’ Similarly the historian Thomas Asbridge says that ‘The emotional landscape of this era will never be fully recovered’. Some things have not changed much despite the years: landscapes, weather, love, whilst other things do feel significantly alien to us, such as slavery, youthful betrothals and brides and constant childbearing. People lived much shorter lives and had to get on fast with the business of living. From our 21st century perspective it is a stretch to imagine how medieval women really perceived their relationships with men, God, power, and their children. I feel I have a certain freedom to imagine and fictionalise my characters’ experiences as long as I can sustain credibility for my readers – well that is the difference between writing history and writing historical fiction.

About Tracy:
Tracey Warr’s novels Almodis the Peaceweaver and The Viking Hostage are published by Impress Books. Her new novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, will be published in the autumn. You can find out more about her writing at

In June and July Tracey Warr is one of the award-winning authors who are tutoring week-long residential writing courses in south-west France organised by A Chapter Away

Image Captions & Credits

1 The Dunstable Swan Jewel from the British Museum, used in Tracey’s first novel, Almodis the Peaceweaver. Wikimedia photo by Ealdgyth.

2 Print from a Viking serpent brooch in the British Museum. The brooch features in Tracey’s second novel, The Viking Hostage. Print and photo by Tracey Warr.

3 View of the sea and estuary through Llansteffan Castle window, Wales. The castle features in Tracey’s new novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King. Wikimedia photo by dwtheprof.


  1. I must say I'm looking forward to Tracy's book about Princess Nesta. At least 17 of her sons and grandsons took part in the Norman invasion of Ireland which I wrote about in Strongbow's Wife".

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