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Medieval Mysteries: author interview

May 2, 2018

London, 1321: In a small stationer’s shop in Paternoster Row, three people are drawn together around the creation of a magnificent book, an illuminated manuscript of prayers, a Book of Hours. Even though the commission seems to answer the aspirations of each one of them, their own desires and ambitions threaten its completion. As each struggles to see the book come into being, it will change everything they have understood about their place in the world.

In many ways, this is a story about power – it is also a novel about the place of women in the roiling and turbulent world of the early fourteenth century; what power they have, how they wield it, and just how temporary and conditional it is.

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1. How did you first get the idea to write a novel about medieval illuminators?

I’ve been studying medieval literature for many years, and I’ve often come across beautifully decorated manuscripts. But it was the surprise of seeing margins filled with beauty, fun and bawd that really made me take notice. I read a little about them, about just what the limners intended when they painted such playful and naughty pictures alongside sacred subjects, but though there are theories, no one seems to know for sure. That gap in our understanding looks to me like a fault line, a mystery ripe for exploration.

Now that’s enticing to a fiction writer.

On a trip to the British Library, I was able to actually hold and leaf through the original books from the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth century. It was such an amazing experience, to think that I was holding a book painted by men, and possibly women, from so long ago, and used for prayer by women every day. What stories each book could tell!

Along with studying the books, I was reading an art historian’s study of three medieval books of hours, and she explained that it was possible to distinguish the different limners from their style of drawing, brush stroke, accuracy and use of colour. And — lucky me! — one of those books was held at the British Library.

So, I sat in the manuscript room with a book more than seven centuries old, and turned the pages, one by one, as the modern scholar explained which page was decorated by limner 1, 2, 3 or 4. One was clearly the most experienced; one was very good at creating the sense of a crowd, but could be a bit hasty in painting other aspects, such as flower decorations in the margins; one was obviously still learning, evidenced by the overly large hands on his figures, and one was very careful, very neat, and always painted inside the outline, though the colour use was limited.

As I read, and looked at the pages, a group of limners began to emerge, aspects of their personality inspired by the way they painted.

That was the beginning of the novel, and as I walked around London and Paternoster Row — even as changed as it is — I imagined the atelier, the shadow of St Paul’s, and in time, the other characters in the novel.

2. In Book of Colours you describe both a tiny shop and its delicate paintings, as well as the busy life of London, English national politics, the circumstances of the Great Famine, estates of the gentry, and even Cambridge makes a cameo appearance. How did you go about researching all these areas?

First of all, I was fortunate to have visited London and Cambridge. London has obviously grown enormously, and most of the original buildings are gone. But with my map of fourteenth-century London in my hand, I walked the streets — Cheapside, the banks of the Thames River, Old Change and Paternoster Row, and tried to imagine what it would have been like.

Cambridge has maintained much of its old shape, and I can picture just where the oak tree and the wrestling fights from the novel would have happened. It’s very helpful to walk the ground of the original place: even when the city has changed, there’s something about the feeling of old streets and lanes, and especially the churches, of course, that gives a sense of age sunken into the stones.

Beyond that, my research was reading, reading, reading. And my imagination. There are lots of books about medieval England, and while I researched the bigger picture — the tumultuous political crisis, the Famine that gripped the country, the lives of the wealthy and powerbrokers, it was the detail that really fascinated me.

To really feel what London was like, I read about drainage, public hygiene, hospitals, health, markets, brothels, prostitution, ale-making, by-laws about privies, court rolls describing crimes, the penalties for fraudulent trading, archaeological research …. on and on. But the details about the book trade are sparse, so I had to infer from the little I did know. I read enough to find my framework, all the while imagining, trying to see place and page in my mind’s eye. In the end, it was me and my imagination. We’ll never know exactly what Paternoster Row looked like, but I know what my Paternoster Row and the Dancaster atelier are like.

For the illuminations themselves, I’ve seen some of the original manuscripts in real life, and that helps so much. I’ve tried my hand at writing with a quill, I’ve dabbled in painting myself, and I’ve watched artists paint delicate and ornate capitals and gild the page.

I’ve read a lot about the program of decoration and the reasons why particular illuminations were included in books for women; medieval guides to painting and pigment. And again, I imagined the relationship each of my limners had with the pigment and brush, page and the paint as they sat at their desk.

3. There are lots of pictures in the novel, both illuminations and illustrations in the margins, and they are always associated with stories. Tell us about the way painting and stories feature as part of the narrative.

I’m particularly interested in the ways that both the paintings in the medieval book of hours, and many of the marginal decorations, would tell stories. To us, many of the illuminations — the pictures of biblical stories — look substantially the same, and they there was really a language of pictures that the women who read them needed to learn. The limners do two main types of painting: illuminations, and the images around the edge of the page.

And like all stories, they are open to interpretation, recasting.

The illuminations usually depicted Christ or the Virgin and Child, saints or biblical figures. These were conventional, following traditional lines of symbolism, and the women who read them were trained to understand their language. In my novel, Southflete, who functions as the head of the fraternity of bookmakers, insists that the limners must not change these traditional ways of presenting the holy figures, but two of the illuminators in the shop, Will and Gemma, push back against this idea.

Will has seen the changes in style being introduced in France at the time and is beginning to incorporate some of that in his own work, and Gemma sees the need to move beyond slavish copying in order for the illuminations to have life. Further to this, both Will and Gemma discover that, as they paint, the pictures stir up concerns and memories from their own life. For them, painting becomes a two-way process in which the biblical story and their own stories interact, each impacting on the other.

Mathilda, the patron of the book, studies the pictures and discovers that the decorations in the book speak to her situation in ways she had never imagined. Instead of reminding her how she should behave, they offer consolation and understanding, shifting with her situation.

Around the edges of the illuminations there are decorations: vines, birds, flowers, animals, dragons, weird hybrid creatures and people. Sometimes the people act out familiar stories; sometimes they are people the limners might see outside in the streets of London; sometimes they are playing the fool, defecating gold coins into a bowl, for example; sometimes they are people transgressing, nuns and monks having sex, for example. These pictures are such a surprise! Why are they decorating a woman’s prayer book?

Each one is a story. Often they reflect the limners’ state of mind or what they have recently seen. Sometimes they provide a sense of fun or beauty. Sometimes they comment on the illumination in the centre, questioning its authority. Most of all, they show that the medieval world, for all the ubiquity of the church and its strictures, understood that all of life, sinful and pure, mundane and fantastical, beautiful and ugly, is lived within God’s view.

4. There are a number of women in the story, but they all seem to be constrained in some way. Tell us more about them.

One of my favourite women in the novel is a minor character, Sabine the alewife. She cleans for a member of the nobility, but she also makes ale and puts out her broom, as they did, when she has made a brew. Will really likes Sabine and visits her house often. She obviously works hard, loves political gossip, and keeps strong control of her house. When she tells her customers to leave, the men know it’s time to leave. I particularly like Sabine because she seems to me like so many of the women at the time —intelligent, hard working, getting on with what had to be done to survive, but still with humanity and humour.

Gemma, married to the master limner, is just getting on as well, making ends meet in the house, though she has a lot more longing and frustration than Sabine. We come to see the pain her husband John has to bear, but for Gemma, there is also a real cost to her love of painting.

Her father has taught her how to read and write, to paint and gild, and she has real talent — more than most people recognise — but because of the structure of crafts and trades at the time, she cannot be recognised alongside the men as a ‘limner’.

She really wants her daughter, Alice, to be taken on as an apprentice in the shop, hoping that they might force the bookmakers trade to begin to recognise women. But Alice doesn’t seem interested, and as the story unfolds, it seems that Gemma is after more than recognition for Alice.

Gemma is also writing, in secret, a kind of handbook for limners. Originally intended for Alice, it will now be for Gemma’s son, Nick. That book, small though it is, is significant in two ways. Firstly, the simple act of writing.

Women of the merchant class at the time had limited access to learning to read, and Gemma’s ability to both read and write, thanks to her father, gives her a special access that most other women outside the convent did not have. Secondly, it is audacious for a woman — not even able to be named limner — to be giving advice about not only the skills and recipes of the trade, but also about deeper issues, such as the purpose and meaning of illumination.

In one way Gemma is fortunate to have access to the work she loves, but with her advantages, the constraints of her gender make her even more frustrated. I like the way she tussles with her sense of duty to her husband and to the book, but strains against it at the same time. It’s a familiar tension for women today, I think.

Mathilda, the book’s patron, is the woman that would seem to have the most advantages: money, position, the opportunity to commission a beautiful book. But women of the nobility were constrained in their own way: they had to marry whoever was a suitable alliance; they had title and some access to money, but that was almost always via a man — husband or father. When Mathilda’s husband dies in battle with the king, she is branded a traitor’s wife, her inheritance attainted, and even her safety threatened.

Mathilda’s motivation for ordering the book of hours is complex: she wants it as part of her duty to help her pray and teach her children; she wants the status it will bring when she shows it off to others; she wants the strategic advantages it will bring. The book will give her a way to participate in the very masculine world of power and strategy. And, though she doesn’t admit it to her husband, she wants a beautiful object to admire.

 5. When Will first arrives in London, he sees a gargoyle on St Paul’s Cathedral that winks at him and then seems to follow him. What is this about?

I’m fascinated by gargoyles on churches. In one sense, true gargoyles are purely functional, there to carry away water from the gutters of the building, but their grotesque shape is believed to ward away evil spirits and thereby protect the church. When I wrote the very first scene where Will sees the gargoyles on St Paul’s, I had no plans for it, but as Will looked and I wrote, the gargoyle just seemed to want to wink at him. And then it kept popping up.

The gargoyle is liminal, a creature of the margins. Its purpose in his life emerges only gradually, reflecting his own feelings, but always pushing him to understand more.


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