Before we get to the historical fiction you’ve chosen: you’re an expert on late medieval literature, and particularly on Chaucer. What first got you interested in this period?
I think the Middle Ages are quite misunderstood by a lot of people. Once you start reading the literature, finding out about the culture, and thinking about what’s going on, you find it’s such an incredibly rich and interesting period. In the 14th century there is this huge global pandemic, far more dramatic than anything we’ve experienced, and, following that pandemic, there is massive social change: more social mobility, changes in what people ate, how they dressed, lots of literature and art being produced, lots of travel. You also have the Peasants’ Revolt and the usurpation of the throne. There is so much going on.
So that’s all very interesting for me, as a specialist in medieval literature. That also, of course, provides a great background for historical fiction, to be set in such an interesting era.
If I like medieval historical fiction, will I also enjoy the literature?
If you enjoy reading medieval historical fiction, you might well enjoy the literature. There’s so much and it’s so diverse. You might particularly enjoy The Canterbury Tales, the most famous work of medieval literature. It’s so varied that there’s really something for everyone in The Canterbury Tales: there’s quite formal, idealized romance, there are very bawdy, funny stories where all kinds of sexual shenanigans take place. There’s also a female meditation on what it’s like to be excluded from writing, what it’s like to be raped; so very serious topics. There are also parables, myths about death. You can either read it in Middle English or in a modern translation, such as one by David Wright, for example.
Another medieval text which is very accessible and interesting to read in translation is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. There’s a particularly good translation by the poet Simon Armitage and a film of the poem has actually just come out, The Green Knight. It’s an amazing story about a quest and there are all kinds of puzzles and monsters and temptations and lots of things happening. So, I’d really recommend that as well.
It’s so nice to hear that there is still so much interest in these stories that films are being made about them. What makes the literature of the medieval period still of such interest to us in the present day?
There are two different angles to this, I think. On the one hand, there are things that medieval literature deals with, which are very relevant to today’s world. For example, later this year Zadie Smith’s play The Wife of Willesden is coming out, which is based on Chaucer’s ‘The Wife of Bath’ prologue and tale. There are lots of things in that story that speak to our present moment: it’s about men trying to shut women up; it’s about women trying to be heard; there’s a #MeToo element. It talks about domestic abuse, about the importance of listening to lots of different voices. There are lots of things in medieval literature that are relevant either to our particular moment or that are timeless. For example, JK Rowling’s The Deathly Hallows is based on a Canterbury tale, ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’.
“I think the Middle Ages are quite misunderstood by a lot of people”
But I think people also often read literature of the past not just because it’s relevant, but because it’s different. One of the most important things about reading fiction is to plunge into a world that is different from our own, to challenge ourselves, to make leaps of the imagination, to try to think about what it was like to live in a different world with different horizons of expectation. And I think you see that in medieval literature. You also see it in some of the medieval historical fiction that we’re going to talk about today.
Just one more question before we get to that: The Plantagenets were in power for a large part of the period we’re about to discuss: to what extent did medieval monarchs influence the literature?
The monarchs of the day have a certain amount of influence, maybe in particular the fact that England, for the later part of the medieval period, is ruled mainly by French-speaking monarchs. That affects the multilingual nature of English culture at this time. The law courts are working in French, for example, and the Church is working in Latin. The people who are literate tend to be literate in many languages.
But then, as the period goes on, a lot of the literature is not coming directly from the court. In the 13th and 14th centuries, there’s a big rise in bureaucracy and a clerkly, educated class emerges in cities. A lot of the literature written in English is coming out from that kind of background, rather than from a courtly background.
Let’s talk about your first book, which is a fantasy novel called The Buried Giant. It’s by Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017. Why did you choose this book?
I absolutely love this book. It’s extraordinary. It’s quite different from the other books that I’ve chosen today. As you say, it has a fantasy element; all the other books I’ve chosen are more obviously realist. This is a book which is more mythic, more symbolic, and it’s also set in a different era. The medieval period is ridiculously long, about 1,000 years. The other books I’ve chosen are all set in the later part of that period, after the Norman Conquest. This is set after the Romans have left the British Isles, at a time when there are Britons on the island and the Saxon tribes have started to come over from Germanic lands.
It’s a book that I find powerful in so many ways. It’s essentially about memory and forgetting. It’s about terrible atrocities that have happened between different groups of people and how they can then manage to live together, and how they can break out of cycles of revenge and trauma. It’s very obviously relevant to all kinds of conflicts—to things that have happened in Northern Ireland, or Israel and Palestine, for example. It’s a book that speaks to experiences that cut across time and space.
It also reminds us that the history of this country has always been a history of immigration, of lots of different kinds of people coming here. Immigration is not a recent, 20th century phenomenon. We’ve always been a place that has a mix of different peoples and that’s been a great strength.
The book also makes us think about historical fiction itself, about why we want to remember our own past. Why does it matter to us? It kind of thematises the reading experience, if that makes sense, because it is so profoundly about this issue of memory.
Ishiguro deliberately chooses to set this book in the Dark Ages, as he calls it, because “Nobody knows what the hell was going on … It’s a blank period of British history”. Is that a fair thing to say about the Dark Ages? Also, do you think we have to be cautious about treating historical fiction as a history lesson, especially when we’re talking about a period so far back?
‘The Dark Ages’ is a bit of a contentious term because it implies not only that we know nothing about it, but also that the things going on were inherently dark. In fact, we do know some things about this period and what was going on: we have chronicles and poems, particularly as the period goes on. There’s always been some reasonable bureaucracy in this country that has left records, so we do have written artefacts. We also have archaeological evidence.
And yet, at the same time, I think that Ishiguro is right that we really don’t know much about what happened to the people that were here before the tribes of Angles and Saxons came. There is debate about to what extent they were wiped out, or intermarried, or were driven out. There is certainly a space there for being very imaginative about what happened. I really love the way that he does that, the way that he imagines how the Britons were living, the way that he thinks about the relationship between the people that were here before and the people that came later.
It’s a mistake to read historical fiction as a history lesson and I think Ishiguro absolutely does not want us to do that. His book features Gawain as a character, for instance, a mythic character. It also features a dragon, who symbolizes important themes in the book. The country is covered with a mist, which is making people forget. He is not trying to write a book that teaches us about what the period was like. He’s very explicitly saying that in the quote that you gave because he’s saying, ‘this is a place where I felt I could be imaginative.’ He uses symbols and so on, to try to imagine us into the time.
That’s hugely effective in helping us to try to get inside the mindset of people who are struggling with change, with what’s changed in their country, with what they need to remember in order to move on, and the way in which dealing with that memory might cause real problems. It makes you think about issues to do with truth and reconciliation, how different countries or systems have dealt with the trauma of the past. The kinds of things that this book is doing are very consciously not just about that particular historical moment.
Let’s move on to your second medieval historical fiction recommendation, which is Pilgrims by Matthew Kneale. This book is described in the Guardian as being about “both the stranglehold of religious law on daily life and thought and the endlessly inventive individual efforts to exploit and interpret it”. Can you tell us about the book and, also, can you shed some light—for those of us living in this much more secular time—on what religion meant to your average man or woman in the street, or in the field, in medieval times?
This book is set in the 13th century. It’s called Pilgrims, so we immediately think of Christianity and a Christian pilgrimage, which is indeed crucial to the structure of the book. But the religion that matters at least as much, and possibly more, in this book is Judaism. It focuses on the persecution and expulsion of the Jewish community from England in the 13th century. I found that particularly powerful and important.
We were just talking about something similar with Ishiguro. Matthew Kneale also moves us away from the idea of a monolithic sense of medieval English or British culture. Instead, he shows us all kinds of issues relating to what we would think of as colonialism, invasion, different kinds of immigrants and takeovers. Another part of the book is fundamentally rooted in what’s going on in Wales. It’s about the English incursion into Wales, and the different atrocities and accommodations that are going on between England and Wales at this time.
But the Jewish experience is really at the heart of this book, because in the late 13th century very important Jewish communities were expelled from England, not to return for hundreds of years. That’s one of the most crucial aspects of this book.
“The medieval period is ridiculously long, about 1,000 years”
In terms of religion more broadly, there are many different aspects. You’ve got the doctrine, which most ordinary people wouldn’t have thought very much about, or not in detail. You’ve got popular piety, which might be more about feast days and going on pilgrimages. Pilgrimage was a very important part of medieval Christianity, little local trips—not going all way to Rome, which is what this book is about.
Today we know lots of people who are atheist and agnostic: that wasn’t really an option in the medieval period. For European Christians at this time, being religious wasn’t a choice. Religion was a constant part of life and the church was crucial. From almost the day of your birth—you might well be baptized on the day of your birth or the next—you were part of a parish, part of a community. People heard church bells ringing to structure their day. There were lots of monks and friars. There were periodic heresies, people challenging the church. There are also lots of moments when you see people have more individual relationships with God, trying to think about God for themselves. And, of course, at the end of the medieval period, we get the Reformation. But before that, there were other movements that tried to reform the church in various ways. So the church is different at different times across this long period.
I was curious to read that the wife of one of the pilgrims wants pilgrim badges to sew onto her hat to show off at church, and I’ve read (in other historical fiction) that sometimes leading members of a village or town would go to church only because people would notice if they weren’t there. How widespread do you think it was for religious piety to be a performance for others rather than a truly held belief—were people in the Middle Ages actually less religious than we tend to believe?
I think I would say there wasn’t a choice between either doing it as a performance or believing it. It’s fairly indisputable that everyone did basically believe in their religion at this time. There was a general level of belief.
That isn’t to say that people wanted to go to church all the time. A lot of people would go on pilgrimages in order to have fun. Some of them were going because they believed, because they wanted to get a cure for an illness. But other people went for a bit of a change, a bit of a holiday. There was a lot of criticism of pilgrimage because people were doing it as a way to travel and do something different. So yes, people would buy badges displaying where they’d been to show other people back home.
One of the other things that I really liked about Matthew Kneale’s book, Pilgrims, is that he does have quite a few really interesting female characters. His characters are very varied and one thing he’s very good at is different voices. He did this in his earlier book, English Passengers, as well, he told it through lots of different voices. Here again we have different characters, different stories feeding in, that are in some ways based on The Canterbury Tales, though it’s a very different kind of text. He’s not just interested in the experiences of Christian English men, but also in the experiences of different kinds of women and, as I’ve already mentioned, of Jewish characters and of Welsh characters, too. He really gives us this texture of medieval English life as something which is diverse in lots of ways.
You’re the author of Chaucer: A European Life (and the first female biographer of Chaucer, I might add). In your book, you revealed Chaucer as a great European thinker and traveller. How common was it for people at this time to travel to Europe as Chaucer and the pilgrims in Kneale’s novel do?
Certainly, the ordinary plowman at this time was not likely to travel far beyond their own immediate vicinity, but people of slightly higher classes might well have opportunities to travel. When you get into the educated classes, lots of those people travelled. There was a huge amount of traffic between France or the so-called Low Countries (what we would think of as the Netherlands and Belgium) and England at this time. Also, people such as Chaucer, who was not a hugely important person (although he was a diplomat and went on royal trade missions) would indeed go further afield, to places such as Italy and Spain. Kneale’s book is about a pilgrimage to Rome. There are records of lots and lots of English people in Rome. There was an English hospice there, where English people would go and stay and lots of interesting examples of English people who went there. Some English people went all the way to Jerusalem. They got boats to the Holy Land, whether on pilgrimages or, at other times, to fight on crusades.
So there was a lot more travel at this time than people often imagine. People think that everyone just stayed at home in the medieval era and are often surprised when they hear that someone like Chaucer was riding to Italy and Spain and very frequently crossing the channel, and that products were coming to England from as far away as Indonesia.
Let’s move on to your third book, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. This is surely the best known of your book choices, having sold over 50 million copies worldwide. What do you think gives this book its enduring appeal and makes it one of the bestselling books ever written?
It’s so interesting that it did so well, isn’t it? It’s set in Italy in a monastery. Eco makes interesting demands on his reader. There’s a lot of philosophy, theories of knowledge. I find it very, very heartening that so many people have taken the time to read this complicated book. And I think the reason it’s been so popular is that he did this really genius thing of putting together a very complex field—semiotics or sign theory—with detective fiction, because those two things are essentially the same thing. What do clues tell you? When you have a sign, which could be a footprint, what does that footprint tell you? What can you deduce from it? What assumptions are you making that don’t quite work? It’s a real page-turner. There are red herrings, different suspects, false leads. You’re very excited and interested to find out what’s happening. That is set against lots of discussions about how we can read signs, how we can we think about knowledge, about different kinds of heresy, different modes of belief. He puts quite complicated philosophical, religious and theological thought into his book, almost by sleight of hand. It’s so clever.
The other thing that makes the book so appealing is the way that he describes setting. You get so rooted in the world of the monastery, the world of the library where there’s this secret book. It’s immersive. You really feel like you’re in those shadowy corridors, you want to get into these secret spaces, and he holds you back. You really are with the characters because his descriptions are so powerful.
Right at the beginning of the book, there’s a prologue about Adso of Melk and a book that resurfaced in the Victorian era that Umberto Eco comes across. I was a bit confused about that: was it real or part of the fiction?
It’s fiction, so it’s making us question the status of this text. It’s actually a very medieval thing to do, giving a fake authority, pretending that you’ve got this source from somewhere when really it’s from somewhere else. He’s not trying to trick us. He’s trying to set up an ambiguity around the text, to say, ‘Does anything really have an origin? Can we believe signs? What do they really refer to? Is everything a copy, a version of something? Can we ever actually get to the thing itself?’ He’s making that same point about sign theory over and over again.
A lot of your book choices centre around religion. Do you think medieval historical fiction can reflect the Middle Ages without involving religion in some way or other?
I think it’d be very hard not to involve it in some way, just because it’s part of the fabric of people’s lives. The Name of the Rose is set in a monastery. Pilgrims is set on a pilgrimage. You can have books about the Middle Ages which aren’t so profoundly set in a religious context, but you can’t really ignore it. Say, The Invention of Fire, which we haven’t talked about yet: although religion is there in the background, it’s not really about religion. I suppose there are still references to religious characters, so religion is involved, but it is not central.
Your next book is The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey. The Financial Times review of this book says, “Harvey creates an inner life so rich and detailed that at times the experience her book engenders is less like reading a novel and more akin to time travel, something I’ve only previously accounted in the work of Hilary Mantel.” Do you think a yearning for time travel, to be able to go back and immerse oneself in a certain era and see how people lived, is what draws most people to historical fiction?
I think it probably is what draws a lot of people to historical fiction. It’s not the only thing. Of my book choices today, I think The Buried Giant is perhaps doing something a bit different because of its less realist nature. But I think most of the other books are aiming to produce a realist, immersive experience where you can feel that that you’re there. The Western Wind gives us an in-depth immersion into this small, rural village. It’s the only one of the books that I chose that is set in a village. It’s an exceptionally powerful description of a locale.
I noticed that of the five novelists you’ve picked, Samantha Harvey is the only female author. Is the study of medieval history quite male-dominated?
It was something that I was a bit worried about when I was putting my list together. I think it would be quite interesting to know, in publishing terms, whether there are fewer women writing historical fiction about this era. Or whether they are they writing it, but it’s not getting picked up by publishers.
I was thinking about what other medieval historical fiction I’ve read, by women. There is a very famous book called Katherine by Anya Seton, which is about Katherine Swynford, the mistress of John of Gaunt. That book gets a lot of people into the world of historical fiction. It’s not one of my personal top five, so I didn’t pick it for this interview but it is certainly an influential book. But overall I do think there is less medieval historical fiction written by women, which is a shame.
The Western Wind is a really great book. I was very keen to put it on my list. What Harvey does is very clever: she tells the story backwards. It starts with a certain day and then it goes back in time through different days. It was billed as a whodunnit, though I actually don’t think that’s the best way of describing this book. It is much more about atmosphere and a particular world and uncovering the details of different characters’ motivations and ideas rather than solving what happened. If you were reading it as a mystery, it might not be satisfying because it leaves some things quite open, in ways that I think are quite brave for a writer to do. She writes absolutely beautifully. Some of her sentences are just so wonderfully crafted. She’s a very skilful writer.
Several of the books you’ve chosen have been published relatively recently. Do you think there is something about the medieval world in particular that still captivates us in the 21st century?
I think people like reading historical fiction from lots of different eras. It’d be interesting to know if there are particular eras that are more popular than others. With Hilary Mantel, and also the Shardlake books, there’s been lots of good early modern historical fiction, so slightly later than these books. I suppose people are often fascinated by books that are set at quite a temporal remove from our own time because it does offer that experience of making those imaginative leaps into a different kind of world. I think that’s very appealing. As I said earlier, people also often read books set in different periods in order to make connections with the present day as well, which I think all these books encourage us to do in many ways. There is this interesting tension, where you’re in this different world, but you see lots of things that are familiar as well. That combination is very powerful.
Let’s move on to the last book you’re recommending today, The Invention of Fire by Bruce Holsinger. Depending on whether or not you include The Western Wind, it’s the second or third whodunnit on your list. Is this a modern genre that contemporary authors are applying to a medieval setting or are there examples of mystery writing from the medieval period as well?
That’s a really interesting question. Detective fiction, as we know it, really gets going in the 19th century, and then develops a lot in the 20th century. I would be making a big stretch if I tried to push earlier texts into that model, but there are medieval texts where there are mysteries. I think Gawain and the Green Knight, which I mentioned earlier, is a good example of a text where there’s suspense and there are puzzles. I wouldn’t call it detective fiction, but it appeals to some of the same things that detective fiction appeals to for us.
The Invention of Fire is a very clever work of detective fiction. Bruce Holsinger is himself an academic, and really knows this 14th century world. For someone like me, who also really knows this world, it’s quite satisfying to read because he gets it so right. The book really is rooted in the medieval period. There are lots of references to legal cases, which if you’re a non-specialist reader, you wouldn’t know were based on real cases. For example, one part of the book talks about a cross-dressing prostitute in medieval London. This was a real person, John Rykener, known as Eleanor Rykener. Lots of people would think that we don’t have records like that from the 14th century, but we do. Holsinger then adds some fictionalized elements. He does so many interesting things like that in this book and it is extremely effective.
Speaking of rooting fiction in real life, Geoffrey Chaucer makes an appearance in this novel, as he does in some other medieval historical fiction I’ve read. Does Chaucer’s shadow loom large over the genre?
I don’t think he does over the genre as a whole because the medieval period is so long. If you think about the books that I’ve talked about today they’re set in quite a few different periods. Also, probably quite a lot of writers might be reluctant to put real people into their fictions because it can be a real risk. You do get Holsinger’s books where Chaucer is a real character, and he completely pulls it off; and in Pilgrims there’s a kind of Canterbury Tales riff going on. But medieval historical fiction is a very varied genre; there are a lot of different things going on so I don’t think it is particularly Chaucerian overall.
The Invention of Fire, though, is set in Chaucer’s lifetime. Chaucer is a character, and one of Chaucer’s contemporaries, John Gower, is the main detective figure. Lots and lots of the characters are real people whom Holsinger has then fictionalized in various ways.
One of the things that I really like is that Holsinger upsets people’s expectations about what’s going on in this world. So the plot is partly based around the fact that handguns are being invented at this time. Gower also has spectacles, which are a new thing at that moment (Eco in fact, also uses spectacles in The Name of the Rose). I like it when authors of medieval historical fiction remind us of scientific or technological advances. At the beginning, we were talking about the ‘Dark Ages’ idea. A lot of people do think that it was like Monty Python and the Holy Grail: ‘How do you know he’s the king?’ ‘He hasn’t got shit all over him.’ There’s this idea that people in the Middle Ages are all going around mucking out pigs and grubbing food out of the ground and that’s it. In fact, this was a very sophisticated era when people were travelling, thinking, writing—and there were all kinds of technological inventions.
Is historical accuracy important in historical fiction?
It depends what the author is trying to do. If the author is trying to be historically accurate, then it matters that they get it right. In most of these books, the authors are trying to be historically accurate, and they really nail it. With Ishiguro’s book, that’s not what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to be imaginative and mythic. And I think that’s great as well. So, no, I don’t think that books have to do that, but if they are writing in a realist genre, it’s annoying if there are anachronisms, for example.
The Black Death was a huge problem and danger after it reached Europe in the mid-1300s. How is the plague reflected in writing of the period and in medieval historical fiction?
From the 14th century onwards, there’s some very dramatic writing about the plague. There is the Italian writer Bocaccio’s Decameron, which is written immediately after the plague hits, and it’s about people fleeing Florence, going to a country house, and staying there and telling stories to keep away from the plague. So there are some texts like that, directly responding to the plague.
We then see it dripping into other texts. Chaucer mentions the plague. He has a story about people who, when they find out the plague is killing everyone, want to go and kill death. There is this symbolic death figure who also represents the plague in all kinds of ways. In medieval art, a focus on decaying bodies develops at around this time. There’s also a broader sense in which the plague, because it caused a lot of social change, affected the fabric of medieval life.
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In terms of medieval historical fiction, it varies a lot, because it’s such a rich genre, and there are so many different things happening. So it depends on precisely when the book is set. Only two out of my five books are set after the Black Death hits. I read another book recently, James Meek’s To Calais, In Ordinary Time, which is set in the period when the plague is coming. If you’re writing a book that’s set after 1348-9, and particularly in the half century after that, it’s probably quite hard not to talk about the plague and have it in there because it caused such massive social upheaval.
Do you think there’s going to be a resurgence of reading medieval historical fiction set after 1348 as a result of what we’ve been through in the last 18 months?
There are obvious parallels to draw, but one thing to say is that the Black Death was so much worse than what we’ve experienced. We’re talking about perhaps one third, maybe a half of the population dying of a disease that hit people of all ages indiscriminately. One thing that we have been spared in this pandemic is the sight of many children dying. Though in this pandemic there’s been terrible individual trauma, the mass trauma was on a different scale in the 14th century. So I think that the way people responded was different in all kinds of ways as well.
Still, in my lifetime, I hadn’t experienced this kind of global catastrophe, something that is so collective. I suppose it happens with big, world wars but, luckily, many of us alive today have not lived through that. That sense of, ‘how do we respond collectively?’ is a really interesting parallel.
“It’s a mistake to read historical fiction as a history lesson”
Also, one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is how you build back. Are we going to be able to build back better? Because after the plague, a lot of things did improve for the people who survived. They were horrifically traumatized, but wages went up for the poor because there were fewer people to do the jobs. Things improved for women in lots of ways, they moved to town, got jobs, delayed their marriages, had more options. That all happened organically and not because of government policy. But in our current situation, things at the moment are worse for women and worse for the poor than they were before Covid.
The question then is, how much do people see the parallels or how much do people want to try to learn from an experience which, while not the same, has comparatives? Not only is the experience different, but the way we can respond is different because, with our relatively interventionist government, there are many more ways in which our responses as a society can be controlled and can help restructure society. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. Also, if people do indeed want to think about this or if it’s also just a bit too depressing to think about the medieval plagues.
Last question, in Desert Island Discs-style: which book would you pick if you could only read one again?
I really do think that all of these are fantastic books that aren’t just good within the genre of medieval historical fiction, but good in all kinds of ways. I think even people that don’t necessarily love that genre might enjoy all of these books.
I think if I were going to pick one, I would pick The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. The reason I would pick it is, in a way, precisely because of its mythic qualities. There is something about it that aims to be timeless in all kinds of ways, in the themes about memory and reconciliation that that we talked about before. There’s a lot about that book that I haven’t really plumbed or got to grips with yet because there’s so much going on in the images that he uses, and in the characters that he reinvigorates. So I feel like I’ve got more work to do with that book.
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