Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Michelle Styles: When history becomes fiction

When I first started studying history, one of the things I loved about it was that it was known. The past is unchangeable, written in stone. Sure different historians could highlight different things but the facts were the facts. Uh, no. Not when you go back to the early Middle Ages.
The history of the early Middle Ages is like doing a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing, and those which remain are mainly sky, sea and grass. To add to the complications, other people in earlier times might have invented their own jigsaw pieces and crammed them in. Disentangling those pieces can be an impossible task. For example, Sir Walter Scott romanticised the legend of Rob Roy. He did do some research and spoke to various people. Scott also didn’t get Gaelic humour. When he was told that Rob Roy’s arms were so long that he didn’t have to bend to put on his stockings, he duly reported it, rather than asking if it was a tall tale or exaggeration. Or Rosemary Sutcliffe wrote her Eagle of the Ninth about a missing British legion (wonderful book btw). The only trouble is that the so-called missing legion turned up in Germany afew years later when other excavations took places.
Sometimes we genuinely do not know. Take for example 7th century Northumbria and its first Bretwalda or over king of Britain Aethelfirth. How many times was he married? Bede mentions him. He mentioned that he was married to a Picticsh princess and then a Deirain  princess called Acha. He takes over Deira and rules  fothere for 12 years. All well and good except towards the end of his reign, a major fort gets renamed after his queen Bebba. Who is Bebba (the modern day Bamburgh)? Is she the Pictish princess who bore him his eldest child? A third wife? Was he married to both at once? Bede doesn't mention two concurrent wives but Aethelfirth was pagan and so there is no reason why he shouldn't have had two wives. There again that sort of gossip about pagans is exactly the sort of thing Bede would have passed on. The answer is we just don’t know.
Also why did Bamburgh stay as Bamburgh or Bebba’s fort. It becomes the royal residence so why take the name of this queen. Amd it should be a great queen or at least the mother of a great king. The most influential king of the period was Oswui. He reigned for 40 years and was the only one to die in his bed.
Acha’s son Oswald wins a victory over the pagans, restores his kingdom and brings Christianity to Northumbria. His brother Oswui secures the throne after Oswald’s death in battle. Oswui then marries the daughter of the former King Edwin who also happened to be Acha’s brother who disposed his father. If you think Oswui is Oswald’s full brother, then he and his wife are first cousins and the Church at the time was generally against consanguinity. Oswui like his brother had become a Christian on Iona.   If Oswui had another mother (perhaps Bebba) then it explains in part why he might have married Eanfled. Except  Eanfled does a memorial to Acha at Whitby Abbey, not to Bebba. 
Does anyone have any suggestions? Because apparently nobody genuinely knows, people are just making best guesses.
The only answer is to write fiction because the facts do not give us a definitive answer. It is part of the fun of studying history.
In other news:

My trio of Victorians are released today as e-books in the North American Market. Victorian history is slightly easier than the 7th century but no less fun.
Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romances in a wide range of time periods. You can find out more about Michelle and her books on 


Mary Preston said...

Unless the past has been meticulously documented, personal journals included, a lot of what we believe we know is educated guesses. I do love my history wrapped up in a great story.

Michelle Styles said...

Yes I agree and even then some of it is guesswork. Because I am actively researching the 7th century and statements were made -- such as I am an archaeologist and not a swords and sex author, I have to concern myself with the facts. So I contacted the author of the book and it turns out he had never even considered the whole question of consanguinity (blood relations marrying) but did agree that Oswui had married Eanfled for her political connections, rather than it being a great love match. The question is why did he need to marry her at all (he had his second wife enter a convent so he could marry her) as his brother had been able to rule without needing to strengthen his alliance. I am enjoying doing the research but at times I would wish things were more solid and of course they won't be.

girlygirlhoosier52 said...

I wonder if there were common names like Elizabeth, Pamela, etc. And if the use of 'last' names had started... And then there's the assumption that family titles like sister, brother, etc. mean what they now mean in today's usage. Words are always changing and evolving both in spelling, usage, etc. Just look in a dictionary and one word will have several meanings.

Michelle Styles said...

The use of suranmes had not started then. It makes things more complicated. Lots of people were son of. which could expressed as Ap (Welsh) Mac (Scots Gaellic) Fitz (Norman) O (another part of Ireland). Familial relations had pretty much the same sense as they do today, but some notions like the sister's son being a stronger bond is a bit different. Some of iit is just lost in time and we can't know and that is where the skill of the novelist (or indeed the historian) comes in -- she has to create a world which seems believable and one where the 21st reader can inhabit. It is about making logical choices.