Sunday, 22 August 2010

Romance in History

When we think of romance, what automatically comes to mind are romance novels or possibly romantic movies or music, or even wooing a sweetheart. Romance has a modern tradition of pulling at the heartstrings and inspiring loving feelings toward another. But where does the term romance actually come from? To know what romance is, we must first consider how romance and chivalry walk hand-in-hand.

The term chivalry originates from the 10th century French word cheval, which means horse. A chevalier was one who rides a horse, such as knights. By the 12th century, early medieval times, the term chivalry was in common use in chronicles, vernacular literature and other written records, but with varied meanings. It can refer to a company of mounted knights. Or it can mean the status of being a knight, either as an occupation or as a social class.

The 12th century seems to be the demarcation line when chivalry became synonymous with moral, religious and social codes of conduct. While those codes varied, chivalrous virtues focused on courage, honor and service. It was an idealization of the life and manners of the knight at home in his castle and with his court. Medieval knights also glorified and identified with the valor, tactics and ideals of ancient Romans and strove to emulate them on the battlefield.

By the 13th century, texts on chivalrous warfare were being published. What had been long-accepted behavior on the battlefield was now deemed inappropriate. In a way, a certain respect for ones opponent was demanded. And it was this respect that followed into the household.

What also followed into the household were traveling bards, storytellers and minstrels who swapped glorious romances for food and lodging. Romance was a term meaning adventure stories. Bards shared a similar status as visiting nobles and given the best food and drink the household had to offer in exchange for these tales. Quite often, a bard could spend months or even years within a single keep, as long as his tales were fresh, captivating, and most especially, honored the master of the house. Romances featured kings, brave knights and mighty warriors who emulated chivalrous behavior—pretty much what we read in today's historical romance novels. Romantic tales helped evolve boorish manly behavior into gentlemanly or courtly behavior—those who enjoyed such romantic tales were inspired to emulate heroes in the stories.

According to Wikipedia on Chivalry

When examining medieval literature, chivalry can be classified into three basic but overlapping areas:

1. Duties to countrymen and fellow Christians: this contains virtues such as mercy, courage, valor, fairness, protection of the weak and the poor, and in the servant-hood of the knight to his lord. This also brings with it the idea of being willing to give one’s life for another’s; whether he would be giving his life for a poor man or his lord.
2. Duties to God: This would contain being faithful to God, protecting the innocent, being faithful to the church, being the champion of good against evil, being generous and obeying God above the feudal lord.
3. Duties to women: this is probably the most familiar aspect of chivalry. This would contain what is often called courtly love, the idea that the knight is to serve a lady, and after her all other ladies. Most especially in this category is a general gentleness and graciousness to all women.

These three areas obviously overlap quite frequently in chivalry, and are often indistinguishable.

When we think of these chivalric classes, one can't not think about the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. These tales are the quintessential archetype of chivalrous behavior. Because of this, we're also given three similar but different areas to consider:

1. Warrior chivalry: A knight's chief duty was to his lord, as exemplified by Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Green Knight (a knight not only dressed in green, but also is green himself) offers to allow anyone to strike him with his axe if the challenger will take a return blow in a year and a day. Gawain accepts, and beheads him in one blow. Then the Green Knight stand up, picks up his head, and reminds Gawain to meet him at the appointed time. This is an important poem in the romance genre, which typically involves a hero who goes on a quest that tests his ability, as Gawain struggles to meet the appointment and his adventures along the way and demonstrating the spirit of chivalry and loyalty.
2. Religious chivalry: A knight's chief duty is to protect the innocent and serve God, as exemplified by Sir Galahad. Sir Galahad is renowned for his gallantry and purity. He is perhaps the knightly embodiment of Jesus in the Arthurian legends.
3. Courtly love: A knight's chief duty is to his own lady, and after her, all other ladies, as exemplified by Sir Lancelot in his love for Queen Guinevere. Enough said there, I'm sure!

One particular similarity between all three of these categories is honor. Honor is the foundational and guiding principle of chivalry. Thus, for the knight, honor would be one of the guides of action.

However you look at chivalry and tales, it's all very romantic.

Perhaps ironically, the word for romance (remembering the origin in adventure tales) in many languages translates to novel, novela and novele. Think about it. When you go into the bookstore and look for a novel to read, you'd probably gravitate to the romance section, or even westerns, science fiction and thrillers, as long as it was a tale of adventure. When I first started reading romance books I called them adventure stories. I preferred stories set on the high seas or the American west. Rogues and warriors, danger and adventure, and of course the love story. It was all intriguing. How was I to know at that age that the real meaning of a romance was adventure and not sex as so many romance stories have become?

But it's not all about chivalry. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is true on two counts:

The quintessential bad guy: If it weren't for the villain, there would be nothing in which to compare to virtue. White must face black. Right must face wrong. And good must face evil. Without disappointment and failure, we cannot appreciate success and fulfillment. Even still, remember the saying—there is honor among thieves. Even bad guys have rules to live by. Why? Because all great undertakings involve groups of people who work together to the same end. Groups of people can accomplish more than individuals. A group of thieves must be just as organized as a team of do-gooders, if not more so. A command structure makes coordination flow more smoothly. Thieves steal. It is good to steal if you are a thief. It is not good to disrupt the group by stealing from each other. "We must be able to trust each other in order to be maximally effective."

And the quest for love: Even as a chivalrous hero can coerce his woman to part with her most precious possession—her virginity—by wooing her with treats, gems and words of love. There's something attractive about a man who wears his honor as his shield of pride. Women have always favored men with honor, integrity, and a love of God and country. Women have always gravitated to a man in uniform. The uniform represents an honorable mission, a job that demands integrity, and a certain sense of protection and safety. Who wouldn't love a man like that?

Here are a few old time courtship customs and love tokens from around the world:

All the Nordic countries have courtship customs involving knives. For example, in Norway when a girl came of age, her father announced that she was available for marriage. The girl would wear an empty sheath on her belt. If a suitor liked the girl, he would put a knife in the sheath, which the girl now wore as a sign that she was betrothed.
Bundling was popular in parts of Europe and American in the 16th and 17th centuries. Couples were allowed to share a bed, fully clothed, with a bundling board between them. Sometimes a bolster was tied to the girl's legs to bind her knees together. The idea was to allow the couple to talk and get to know each other in the safety of the girl's house.

In 17th century Wales, love spoons were ornately carved from a single piece of wood. These were made by the suitor and given to his beloved. The decorative carvings held meanings, such as and anchor meant "I desire to settle with you" and an intricate vine meant "love grows." These spoons are still common, but rather than the man making one himself, these are available for purchase to give a lady love.

Gentlemen in England often sent a pair of gloves to their true loves. If the woman wore the gloves to church on Sunday it signaled her acceptance of his proposal.

Probably the most popular tradition is the giving of a betrothal ring. This custom dates back to time of ancient Romans who called them truth rings. Fede rings were also popular, the name coming from an Italian phrase, mani in fede, "hands in trust/faith." The name was derived by a pair of clasped hands on the front of the ring. Fede rings were popular in many countries, as the Romans made their conquests around Europe.

Romans were also the first to wear rings on their third finger on the left hand, today commonly known as the ring finger. This is because Egyptians believed that the ring finger has the "vein amoris", the vein of love, which runs straight to the heart.

In medieval times, a betrothal ring was also called a bond ring. As well, Gimmel rings were popular, a pair of loops that fitted together to form one ring. Wealthy suitors would have added gems to their rings.

Inarguably, the most famous Fede ring is Ireland's Claddagh ring, which is represented by a heart (love) clasped by a pair of hands (friendship) and crowned (loyalty). The first of these rings was designed in the 1690s by Richard Joyce of Galway who was captured by Algerian pirates while on a ship for the West Indies. He was sold into slavery to a goldsmith who trained him in the art of metalworking. Released or escaping around 1690, he returned to his native Galway where he was soon betrothed, creating a special ring for his lady love. The name Claddagh is derived from the Claddagh region of Galway City. Three examples of Joyce's rings exist today: two in a ring museum in Dublin City and one in Claddagh Jewelers in Galway City.

The first diamond ring to signify engagement was given by the Archduke Maximilian of Austria to Mary of Burgundy in 1477. Engagement rings weren't the standard engagement ring until the end of the 19th century, and diamonds rings weren't common until the 1930s. Now, 80% of American women receive diamond rings to signify their engagement.

In the 19th century, brides-to-be often received sewing thimbles instead of rings. This was popular with religious group who shun jewelry.

The topic of romance is much longer and more involved that I've explained here, but you get the gist of it. Our common use of the word romance has a very long and rich history. It's not something easily explained, and when attempted can branch off in dozens of directions. I've just chosen this one as it relates to what many of us write today—love stories.

To further my musings, you might enjoy watching this Time Team Special about how the King Arthur legend influenced Edward III's role as King of England (not available in all regions) --

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Shaking Your Tree

So far, we’ve been discussing developing your story. It may not seem like it right off, but think about it. We talked about researching your setting. Then we talked about the importance of using your character’s senses. Then there was the formula for plot development. And the last post was how much intimacy should we include in our story. But we haven’t actually talked about developing your characters. Today we’ll talk about that, and how shaking your tree can distinguish your characters and make or break your story. Even how even a name can define an era.

Firstly, let’s talk names. What resources are available for choosing the right name for your characters? It’s easier than you might think. There are dozens of baby name books on the market, and devoted websites are full of names by ethnicity. You can also look in regional historical texts where your story is set and look for names that were popular in the time you’re writing. Celebrities can often have interesting names, though you don’t want to use their full name; perhaps just their first or last name paired with another. I’ve also seen some really interesting names come through on spam emails. But my personal favorite resource is my own family tree. Family trees can be a wealth of information for fiction writers. I’ll use my own family tree as case in point.

One of my lines follows the Wright family, going back more than ten generations. While Wright may be a common name through time (it was given to craftsmen and builders), one of the first in my line is a man called Gabriel, born 1745. His children were Jonathan, David, Joeb (spelled correctly), John, Hosea, Caleb, Sarah, Anna, Rhody, and Charity, not necessarily in that order. Sarah was the eldest daughter and married Nathan Cory. Their children were David, Joseph, Abraham, Noah, Israel, Daniel and Soloman.

The Wrights and Corys were also instrumental in navigating the Ohio River. They traveled in a group of nearly thirty people, which included the Heath family. They navigated the Ohio River in the 1790s in 60-foot hollowed out trees, the resulting boat called a pirogue. The technology for this boat most likely brought over by slaves from Africa and used by Cajuns to travel the Mississippi. Little is known about the Heaths, but the Corys are descended from Scottish Royalty, going back as far as the 12th century and Robert the Bruce.

So, what does this peak into this line of my family tree tell us?

  • First, these were religious people. Just look at the children’s names. My documents say they were Presbyterian, but I also show that later some became Baptists and Methodists. It was common at the time to name your children for people in the Bible.
  • Also, abstinence was the only birth control, so big families were the norm. Many hands make light work, or so they say! And these children would have been born at home. Hospitals were for the big cities, and doctors were in towns and villages. Medical aid was next to impossible to find on the frontier, so one learned on the go. Including birthing children. Midwives would have been common.
  • They were also adventurers. Nearly thirty people set out on the Ohio River to make a better life in a place they’d never been to before. That shows a sense of adventure, trust in their future, and that they had the guts to take a chance.
  • They were hardworking, strong and resourceful people who lived off the land and river until they settled at their destination in Ohio. They forged a whole new life as pioneers and discoverers.
  • Finally, even a strong bloodline thins over the centuries, as with the Corys. They were descendents of royalty who went to the New World and scraped an existence off the land, living as poor farmers. Yet they still managed to get their names in the history books. The history of the Cory’s was published in a book called The Cory Family buy Harry Harmon Cory, c1951.

I was fortunate enough to know one of the strongest women in my family, my great aunt, Tropha Pfaadt. How’s that for a name? She was born Tropha Johnson and married Charles Pfaadt (pronounced Fad). She was born in 1892 and was 88 when I met her. While she taught me to crochet, she told me stories of how she and her family traveled west in a covered wagon, living in sod houses, gleaning the prairie for cowpats (buffalo pats most likely) for the evening fire (similar to peat fires from Ireland), and losing an eye at the age of three. Trust me. You don’t want to hear that story!

At the time, I thought Aunt Tropha was spinning a yarn, and not the one with which we were crocheting! But I learned that in the 1890s, life for pioneers and settlers was pretty much like she described. And I got to hear some of the history of a woman who’d lived through it. She had a memory as clear as crystal and a mind just as sharp.

She told me all kinds of stories, one about her sister, Princess. Yep, Princess Johnson. She married a man called Robert Stickney. While I was growing up, I’d always heard about a woman called Princess Stickney and thought we had royalty in the family.

So, how can we use family history in our stories? Imagine, being one of the people in the river party. What did you wear? What did you eat; how did you capture and kill it, and what could you forage? Did you come across any indigenous people, and if so, did they teach you how to live off the land? And if so, what did you teach them in return?

All of these things, and more, will help you develop your characters into full, well-rounded, and believable people that will remain in the hearts of your readers. With a great story, your book could end up on someone’s keeper shelf to be read time and again. And as you’ve seen, just looking into your own family tree can be the best way to find names for people who lived in the time in which you’re writing.

Finally, keep your story authentic by naming your characters appropriately. While Vin Diesel is a really cool name, it won’t necessarily go down well in a historical. Unless that historical is a time travel and a muscle bound, baldy headed, stud muffin finds a time portal, then all bets are off! But if you happen to be writing about explorers on the frontier, or even explorers in another time and dimension, keep your characters names current to the times and you’ll strengthen your characters and your story.

Rattle the branches of your family tree and see what shakes out!