Edward of Woodstock's tower in Geronde estuary

Serendipity–I am working on Joan of Kent, married at one point in her life, and most famously, to Edward of Woodstock, in modern times known as the Black Prince (NOT in the 14th century). Yesterday I was doing my usual dawdle around the web before getting down to work when I happened on this story. Fascinating! I’ve highlighted in boldface the paragraph that explains the connection.

A new island in the Gironde estuary waters between Royan and the lighthouse of Cordouan
The ‘mystery island’ created by cyclone Klaus in the mouth of the Gironde estuary. Photograph: Couillaud Pascal/Sud-Ouest/Maxppp

In the early morning of 23 January 2009, the most powerful hurricane-force storm to hit France in a decade came howling in from the Bay of Biscay.

With wind speeds of up to 125mph, cyclone Klaus struck land at the point of the estuary of the river Gironde, near Bordeaux, then charged south-east to Spain and across the Mediterranean to Italy. It left 26 people dead, flattened forests and power lines and caused massive destruction of buildings and roads.

But it also left behind an extraordinary creation at the very point where its devastation began, causing the townsfolk of Royan, a fishing port situated at the mouth of the Gironde, to rub their eyes in disbelief.

Seven miles out to sea, along the frontier between the Atlantic Ocean and the estuary, an island had risen out of the boiling waters. It had a surface area of 11 acres above the highest sea level, and a base of some 250 acres at low tide. Locals soon called it “l’île mystérieuse” – the mysterious island – after the novel by Jules Verne.

“What is so remarkable about this new island, apart from its sudden apparition, is that it has since remained intact in what is often a very violent, hostile sea environment,” said Guy Estève, a retired local geomorphologist. “It could well become a permanent feature.”

The nature of its apparition was all the more fantastic given that it emerged close to the location of the lost island of Cordouan, once home to the Tower of the Black Prince, a legacy of English occupation during the 100 Years’ war. Inhabited from Roman times until the late Middle Ages, Corduan disappeared below the waves after the erosion of its limestone rock. France’s oldest lighthouse, completed in 1611 to replace Edward of Woodstock’s tower, now stands at the site.

Situated one mile east of the lighthouse, created amid Klaus’s fury from submerged sand and sediment, the new island quickly attracted scientific interest, offering a unique opportunity to study the creation and development of its ecosystem.

See the entire article here:


An Upbeat Article about Books

Just wanted to point you toward this refreshingly upbeat article about books.

A Making Visible: the gift of fiction

I’ve been slowly digesting an article by Wyatt Mason, “Smarter than You Think,” in the NYRB (15 July). Ostensibly a review of David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, it’s much more than that, as NYRB reviews usually are (and why I subscribe to it).

Mason suggests that readers prefer novels with narratives that move along in straight chronology to ones that jump about because the former “provides a serious, sophisticated illusion of a comprehensible world in which causation and moral consequence both obtain and are discernible.” It reminded me of a discussion over lunch several years ago with my publisher and my editor at 51NKukcYzzL._SL500_AA300_Century. I’d proposed what I thought was a compelling narrative structure for The King’s Mistress, beginning with Alice awaiting her summons to parliament and gradually revealing the story of how she arrived at such a crisis via thematic flashbacks. Both my publisher and editor felt strongly that in order to make Alice Perrers sympathetic she needed to be met in childhood, before her notoriety, and then the reader should experience Alice’s life alongside her, how she came to be who she was. As we talked I could see how satisfying this might be to a reader. (Perhaps they also dreaded the prospect of editing a book with such a complex structure?)

All the above is a prelude to presenting the idea that caught my attention this morning. Mason continues, “In the original Greek sense of the word, they [novels] are fantasies—‘a making visible.’ They put before us things that cannot be seen in life: other hearts, other minds. Their endurance is the proof of their value and the confirmation of our need for such shows of rationality.” This is what intrigues me about setting real historical figures in motion—fathoming their hearts and minds. What did they yearn for? What moved them to act? How did they feel about those around them? Whom did they trust? Whom did they fear? With Alice Perrers, I wound up writing the story solely from her point of view (see my earlier blog post about this), and though I found it wonderfully absorbing to remain in her consciousness I did yearn to reveal more of what others were thinking. I found it too close to real life! Now, with Joan of Kent (A Triple Knot), I’m writing in my preferred style, using multiple points of view, playing with what I think of as the counterbalance, seeing events from several perspectives.

Other hearts, other minds. For my own recreational reading I certainly gravitate toward writers who focus on character. My current crime favorites are Henning Mankell and Donna Leon, both with deeply realized protagonists, quite philosophical. I enjoyed Hilary Mantel’s depiction of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall—how refreshing that she rejected the standard issue Thomas we love to hate. She set out to do for Thomas what I set out to do for Alice, reveal the human being behind the pantomime villain.

A making visible. Revealing the hearts and minds of the characters. Is this what you enjoy about reading novels? Let me know!


Lincoln green and Robin Hood

I’m delighted to host a brief conversation between two good friends who cc’d me in an email exchange. The question was posed by Lorraine K. Stock, who has a doctorate in medieval studies from Cornell University and teaches medieval literature, women’s studies and film studies in the English Department, University of Houston. Responding is my costume muse, Laura F. Hodges, whose doctorate is from Rice University in medieval literature–she is the author of Chaucer and Costume: the Secular Pilgrims in the General Prologue (Boydell and Brewer 2000) and Chaucer and Clothing: Clerical and Academic Costume in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (Boydell and Brewer 2005).

Lorraine: Do you know what shade of green Lincoln green would correspond to in today’s color palate?  I’ve just watched a Robin Hood movie (1967 A Challenge for Robin Hood) in which a big point is made over the merry men adopting Lincoln green costumes as forest disguise.  They buy cloth from a cloth merchant at a fair and the color of their costumes in the movie is a dark bluish green— kind of a very dark teal, not a bright green or a dull leafy green— and this green is not the color of deciduous tree leaves—more like the color of blue spruce or pine trees. Does that sound authentic to you?

Laura: I have a whole book on Lincoln (bought there in a museum gift shop) and read it hoping to pin down Lincoln green.  My impression was that it was a stable color and quality, relatively speaking, in comparison to Kendal green that was just any old shade, more or less, and of much lower quality in terms of fabric itself.  I was unable to pin down the proper shade of green that Lincoln green was supposed to be.  Here’s what my book, p. 236, says:

“certain areas were best known for the colour in which natural dyes were grown.  The term Lincoln green acquired its name by devious means, and was not in fact a colour but a quality of cloth.

“The fine cloths of Lincolnshire were dyed in scarlet and green.  The first or highest grade of cloth was dyed crimson from the abdomens of a small dried female beetle found in Persia (Iran) the Kermes (Arabic for ‘crimson’), which resembled grains of wheat.  This very ancient dye, (later superseded by that of the cochineal beetle), became known as ‘Lincoln(e) Graine’ (or Greyne), and because its dye was expensive to produce was used mainly by the wealthy or important people.  In 1182 the Sheriff of Lincoln bought …

‘Scarlet’ fine cloth   at 6/8d (37p) an ‘ell’ …

‘Green’ fine cloth     at 3/- (15p) an ‘ell’

‘Gray’ cloth               at 1/8d (5 1/2p) an ‘ell’

The second colour, the green of Lincoln quality cloth was made from dyeing it blue from the locally grown ‘woad’, produced in the fens of Lincolnshire for hundreds of years, and overdyed from ‘weld’, (also known as Dyers’ weed, or Yellow Rocket) and was used mostly for mens jackets and womens dresses.”

Then there’s a bit about ‘gray’ worn by shepherds etc.  It was undyed.

Since woad produces blue, when a blue cloth was overdyed with weld (produces yellow), one might get any possible shade of green, depending on how deeply blue the original blue cloth was and how much yellow it was dipped in.  The chief thing was —  in Lincoln, a quality cloth was used to begin with.  But the shade of green must have varied, although info re dyestuffs in the MA have recipes which various guilds kept highly secret, but one of the common ingredients was urine.   Somewhere I’ve read that the guildsmen and apprentices would urinate in a special pot that would be kept within the dyehouse and used for their dye recipes.  Since diet influences the content of urine, perhaps the greens of one guild or one locale might be fairly “stable”???  But no one addresses this so far as I know.

You can see that the quality of green cloth purchased by the Lincoln sheriff was half as good as the red cloth above it, if price is any indicator.

And that’s all I know.  Your ‘teal’ might be possible, but I’d posit a darker version of Kelly green if I was making that movie—something that would blend into the forest better.  But I’d only be guessing.

If anyone has further information/thoughts, we welcome discussion!  Emma

Background on The King's Mistress

Until very recently, the accepted version of Alice’s story was thus: Alice Perrers was the “notorious” mistress of King Edward III, mother of his son John de Southery and his daughters Joan and Jane, and condemned by two sequential Parliaments in 1376–1377 for her influence over the king. Through remarkable business acumen she accrued a fortune in land worthy of a duke and earned the animosity of the commons. She was married twice, to Janyn Perrers sometime before 1360 and to William Wyndsor after the king’s death. She died circa 1400. Historians accepted her reputation as a gold digger, basing their opinions on the monk Thomas Walsingham’s venomous portrait of her: “There was a woman in England called Alice Perrers. She was a shameless, impudent harlot, and of low birth…. She was not attractive or beautiful, but knew how to compensate for these defects by her seductive voice. Blind fortune elevated this woman to such heights and promoted her to a greater intimacy with the king than was proper, since she had been the maidservant and mistress of a man of Lombardy…. Even while the queen was still alive, the king loved this woman more than he loved the queen.”

As so many generations of historians before me, I’d used this version of Alice in some early projects. But once I’d gone into enough depth in researching women in 14th century England I doubted the essentials of the story. A commoner gaining control of such a powerful and popular king?

The more I delved into Edward III’s court the more preposterous the story seemed. How could an orphan with no powerful patrons take over the reins of government and even go so far as to succeed in controlling access to the king himself despite his living heir being the immensely popular war hero Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince? Not to mention the wealthy, ambitious, powerful younger son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who many believed manipulated his father behind the scenes. This fit neither the political reality nor human nature. But bits of the story did suggest that Alice Perrers was someone the prince and the duke found useful.

I am fortunate to be a part of a lively community of scholars in late medieval studies—history, literature, and culture—and even more fortunate to have earned their respect. So although I’ve chosen to use my background to write novels, I’m invited to present papers on my ongoing research as well as to contact them with questions or to get feedback on my ideas. They also share their research with me. What I heard when I began to poke around about Alice’s story was that even the most respected archivists could find little to support the stories about her other than the facts recorded regarding parliament’s accusations and an inventory of her properties, some gifts from the royal family, and her jewels. They agreed with me that the trail of attempts to pin down what branch of Perrers claimed her was a study in desperation.

And then….  One sunny afternoon during an academic conference I was headed to the book exhibit and then a long walk, but changed my mind at the last minute and slipped into a session about advances in archival research. The historian Chris Given-Wilson, who had shared with me his extensive research on Alice, had suggested I also talk to W.M (Mark) Ormrod, and I’d just noticed he was the first presenter. I still get chills up my spine about that sudden about face. What if I’d missed the session and no one had thought to fill me in about it until I was too far along in the manuscript to change course?

Mark, then director of the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York, was demonstrating the benefits we’d all reap from the ambitious digitizing project he was managing at the National Archives in London. The example he projected onto the wall was one of a series of  court petitions that had neither been transcribed nor indexed in all the centuries they had sat, small strips of parchment tied in bundles, in the Public Records Office in London. This particular petition turned my research upside down and inside out. Dated 1377,  a John “Kendale requests payment of £4 15s 7d owed to him by Alice Perers for various parcels of cloth sold to Janyn Perers, Alice’s former husband, in 34 Edward III (1360-1).”

Perrers was her married name. Friends in the room turned to see my reaction, and by their expressions I realized I must have been a stunning shade of crimson. It was a game changer.

I talked to Mark at length afterward. He, too, was excited about this new angle on Alice’s origins, and began to dig and to publish his findings in scholarly journals, discussing his research with me as he went along. Alice’s early life shifted into a more feasible shape than the previous theories—she was the widow of a wealthy London merchant. It fit with records I’d found of her own land transactions before she went to court, and of a John Perrers likely to have been her father-in-law who’d provided costly cloth for King Edward III’s coronation. A court connection.

Colleagues more familiar with parliament records suggested that the commons’ attack on her was extreme. I began to read about scapegoats. Someone mentioned a paper they’d once heard in which it was pointed out how careful Edward III’s household must have been to hide from the public and most of the court the king’s increasing debility from what appeared to be a series of strokes. I began to see the shape of a more plausible story. How useful she might be to Edward’s busy sons. I kept returning to her loyalty. She stayed with Edward to the bitter end. I just could not imagine a woman as wily and greedy as Alice had been depicted staying by Edward’s side when it was clear that he was dying and there appeared to be no one stepping up to protect her. At one time I’d thought that person was William Wyndsor, but the records clearly pointed to that being a romantic fantasy. Alice was a woman alone when the king grew close to death. And yet she stayed by his side.

By the time I focused on writing The King’s Mistress I had a quite different vision of Alice than I’d had when I’d begun. What a thrill to have discovered all this while I was working on the book!