Thursday, March 12, 2009

PET PEEVE THURSDAY--The past is prologue

Today my guest is Jeri Westerson, author of VEIL OF LIES, a medieval noir mystery.

When Lorna asked me to be a guest blogger for her Pet Peeve Thursday (which is a brilliant idea, by the way), my biggest problem was narrowing down my list. But since I’m trying to keep on point with promoting my medieval mystery VEIL OF LIES, I suppose one of my big pet peeves is our lack of knowledge of history. Now I know it’s not your fault. Somewhere back in grade school you had a lousy history teacher who thought memorizing dates was more important than bringing history alive. I was one of the lucky ones. Not only was I blessed with interesting history teachers, but I was also surrounded by it at home, and to me, history was always something vibrant and exciting.

AztecMost of us have so many erroneous ideas about certain time periods and find it hard to even place events on a timeline (for instance, in the 1200’s, the Inca empire in Peru was growing by leaps and bounds as was the Aztec empire in Mexico. In Europe, knights were heading off for the 4th crusade, and in China, the empire was ruled by the Sung Dynasty. Not only were we taught boring history, but Eurocentric history). There is the old saying by early 20th century philosopher George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." If one looks back at history, we see that this is true, from great battles to determine borders, from simple acts between peoples that grow into great tragedies.

But that is more about deep thinking and philosophies and big stuff like that. Today, I’m just talking about simple things like: People didn’t bathe in the Middle Ages. Sure because everyone had a higher tolerance for stink back then.

Wash bucket
Are you kidding me? Of course they bathed! Not in steamy tubs of hot water. Not the majority of people, anyway. Spit baths from buckets of water, rivers, even bath houses (men and women together!) The city of Bath in England is, after all, a natural hot springs and people have been bathing there since pre-historical times. It was considered a holy place by the early Celtic peoples. Think about it. It’s England, it’s cold and rainy, and hot water is coming out of the ground! Hallelujah! If you were wealthy, you could afford your slew of servants to heat water and fill a tub, but even that wasn’t done too often. I believe there are people within living memory who recall the Saturday Night Bath, that is, a bath taken once a week: hot water in a tub that each successive person in the household would partake of, the last little kid getting the unfortunate lukewarm and decidedly murkiest of bathes.

And then there is the vision of eating at a feast and tossing the bones over the shoulder for the hounds to fight over (it’s Charles Laughton’s fault when he made “The Private Life of Henry VIII” in 1933. Everyone remembers that scene for some reason).

Bg-logoThe Middle Ages was a very formal time. There were rules by which everyone lived. How would you treat someone of a higher rank than you; how did the noble treat the lower classes, the middle classes; rules of etiquette at table. True, the fork was not yet part of the table setting. Its use later was much resisted, in fact, as gauche. You cooked with a fork, after all. You didn’t eat with it! You washed your hands before you ate. You were to make sure you swallowed all your food first before partaking of your shared goblet of wine. Nobody likes backwash. Don’t wipe your mouth on your sleeve. What do you think the tablecloth is for, cretin! And you definitely did not throw bones on the floor. You could feed the dogs scraps if you will, but everyone knew what maggots were and nobody wanted them crawling around, especially the servants who more than likely slept in that very same great hall once the feasting was done and the tables were put away.

Yes, history is an interesting animal. I like to serve up a little mystery with my history. I take what I Monklearn of the past and weave it into tales. When I was a reporter, I dabbled with the idea of writing nonfiction books, but I was once told by a wise monk (no, really) that I should stick to writing fiction. “There is much truth in mythology,” he said. “The truth reaches more people that way.” Though I would ad a caveat to that: Don’t get your history from novels, movies, or—God help us—the History Channel. Get a flavor for it in those venues, certainly. But if it’s history you crave, real history, go to history books. But if you’d just like to play for a while in, say, 14th century London with a dark and brooding protagonist, then by all means stop by VEIL OF LIES.

And what's bugging YOU today?
Veil of lies coverJeri's spine-tingling debut novel is VEIL OF LIES. Be sure to visit Jeri's web site or check out her blog Getting Medieval or visit my character’s blog (everyone has one these days) Crispin Guest.