Margaret Frazer

Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ category

About Medieval Lighting

December 26th, 2012

The fine historical novelist Elizabeth Chadwick has posted an excellent essay about medieval lighting on her site.

I have very little to add to that except that once upon a time, in the interest of research, I lived by candlelight every evening after supper for quite a few evenings.  I had the advantage of good candles, which many ordinary medieval people did not have, but the experience was still extremely useful.  The room became full of soft shadows beyond the gentle, rich, golden glow of the candles.  As few as three slender candles provided enough light by which to read, and – here is a point I came to cherish – I found myself relaxing in the candlelight, easing out of the day’s tensions far more easily than usual, so that I went to bed much earlier than was my wont and sleeping very well.

Added to that, I am now far more appreciative when I flip a switch and simply get all the electric light I want.  There is nothing like research to help you enjoy the commonplaces of the 21st century.

– Margaret

Happy St. Frideswide’s Day!

October 19th, 2012

Happy St. Frideswide’s Day. We may be the only people remembering it outside of Oxford, England, so we’ll just have to party all the harder on her behalf, right?

For those who have wondered where Frevisse’s unusual name came from, it’s the French version of Frideswide. Frideswide seems to have been effectively unknown outside the English Midlands, except for a single church dedicated to her in France as St. Frevisse. Frevisse’s wandering parents may have been just a touch homesick when their daughter was born in France and gave her a name that reminded them of home. So I am never over-sensitive about how a reader may choose to pronounce Frevisse’s name. There is the French version, the English version, the dialect version from some particular part of England — or of France, come to that — and far be it from me to claim there’s only one true way to say it. Knowing Frevisse, I’m sure she responds to all of them with equal ease.

It’s St. Etheldreda I feel sorry for. An Anglo-Saxon princess (like St. Frideswide), her name degenerated over the centuries to Audrey and then to the adjective tawdry. Frideswide may be pronounced “Fryswyd” today, but at least she hasn’t become an adjective. That I know of, anyway.

– Margaret

The story goes thusly: Margaret of Antioch was a beautiful virgin who became a Christian in the days when persecuting Christians was fashionable among the Romans. For repelling the advances of a Roman official, she was arrested and put to many torments. During this time she was cast into a dungeon where the Devil himself came to persecute her. It is said he appeared as a dragon and finally, annoyed at her refusal to be terrified, he swallowed her whole. Then, either because she was holding a cross or made the sign of the cross, the dragon’s body split open and Margaret emerged unharmed.

Of course she was eventually martyred — by beheading in her case — and became a saint and – of all things — the patron of women in childbirth. (The way that, say, St. Laurence who was martyred on a grill over a fire is the patron saint of cooks; or St. Apollonia who was battered with stones and had her teeth knocked out is the patron saint of dentists.)

St. Margaret often appears in medieval art. If your see a graceful young woman portrayed with a dragon — sometimes emerging from his belly, sometimes leading him by a collar around his neck and a chain – that will probably be St. Margaret.

But I am not sharing her story out of piety. My real purpose is to share this picture:

Margaret of Antioch - Philip the Good's Book of Hours

To share this picture and show the sort of wicked humor medieval people were comfortable with in their religion and because every time I see it — the look on the dragon’s face, with his “victim’s” skirt still trailing out of the his mouth as she rises out of his stomach – I laugh out loud.

But more than just the humor, this illustrates another of the reasons that I can never stop researching. If I hadn’t studied saints as a way to better understand the medieval world view, I wouldn’t know St. Margaret of Antioch’s story, and this picture would be simply something to frown over in blank puzzlement at what it was all about.  The medieval world is not ours, and if we don’t know what we’re looking at in their context, much of the richness of the medieval world escapes us.  Pictures and other artwork were often layered with meanings no longer readily grasped but understood almost automatically in medieval times.

Decades ago I stood on the green before the west front of Wells Cathedral, able to do little more that say, “Wow.  Look at all those statues.”  A few years ago I stood there again and found myself automatically starting to “read” that west front like some giant book. After all my years of research, trying to learn to “think medievally”, the iconography that went with each statue and even where they were positioned on the cathedral’s front were layered with meanings for me. It was a vastly exciting experience, not least because I hadn’t come there intending to read it. Without thinking about it, I simply, automatically, started to, just as a medieval person would have.

Which I suppose explains a lot about my occasional disorientation with the 21st century?

– Margaret

On the Matter of Cordovan

August 29th, 2012

The Novice's Tale - Margaret Frazer

In men as men of course she took no interest; no heed at all if possible. But today an important man was visiting. Word had run along with the order for the honey cakes that it was Thomas Chaucer who was come to Frideswide’s today, and even Thomasine in her determined unworldliness knew of Thomas Chaucer. Like the weather, he was a common topic of conversation in Oxfordshire, both because of who he was and how he had come to it. His father had been a poet and a customs officer, his mother the daughter of a very minor knight, but Thomas Chaucer, so the rumors insisted, was one of the richest and most powerful commoners in England. So powerful he could resign of his own will from the King’s Council though he had been asked to stay; rich enough, it was said, that his purse-proud, wool-merchanting cousin, the Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, was pleased to ask his advice.

So it was vaguely unsettling to see him sitting at ease in Domina Edith’s familiar parlor, looking hardly different from the way Thomasine remembered her father: A middle-aged gentleman with well-grayed hair and pleasant face, tanned with sun, moderately lined around the eyes and across the forehead; dressed in a green wool houpelande to his knees, split front and back for ease of riding, with lamb’s wool budge at its cuffs and collar, his hood with its trailing liripipe laid to one side out of respect for Domina Edith and the warmth of the day. He wore a large ring on either hand but no gold chains or other jewels, and his high riding boots were only boots so far as Thomasine could tell, knowing nothing of cordovan leather or how much effort it might have taken to fit them so skillfully to the curve of his leg…

Here is an example of how – in my early books – I was still working toward a better grasp of the vocabulary of the time.  As I accurately knew, “cordovan” refers to a high-quality, expensive leather first made in Spain by the Moors of Cordoba and used for particularly fine leather goods.

So far, so good, except at the time I wrote The Novice’s Tale, I had not yet developed a sufficiently questioning “ear”, and so accepted “cordovan” at face value, when I might instead had the fun of tracking down its correct history.

It seems that this fine Spanish leather – made from tanned and dressed goat skins or, later, often of split horsehides, and used for a variety of items but particularly for shoes, “especially by the higher classes during the Middle Ages,” as the Oxford English Dictionary says – would not have been called “cordovan” at all in medieval England, but “cordwain”.  (Hence, the reason shoemakers of the time, and later, were called “cordwainers”.)  The word “cordovan” only came into use in England in the 1500s.

Still, looking back, I suspect that even had I learned that cordwain was correct, I might very possibly have stayed with cordovan.  Fond though I am of using words correct to the period, I do not want to unnecessarily confuse readers simply for the sake of showing off my attempted erudition.  The odds are that the phrase “cordovan leather” sufficiently conveys a sense of richness without a reader having to pause in thought over it.  “Cordwain leather”, on the other hand, would more likely give pause, jarring a reader out of the flow of the story.  If the leather itself had been a major point in the plot, the scrupulously correct word and the accompanying necessary explanation of what it meant would be justified, but in this case I was attempting to convey an impression of wealth, not begin a discussion of international trade and the leather industry.  So, very probably, “cordovan” it would have stayed, even had I known better.

But now that I do know better, there’s no telling what use I may make of cordwain and cordwainers in the future!

– Margaret

Kindle Edition / Paperback
Other Editions

York Mystery Plays 2012

August 23rd, 2012

Thought you might find this of interest: It’s a trailer for the York Mystery Plays that are being performed this year. Rather grander production values than anything Joliffe would have experienced in A Play of Heresy, but if you have the chance to see them I think you should jump at it.

And more of you may have that chance than you may think. A few days ago the plays were streamed live on The Space. Although I found about it too late to enjoy the streaming myself, they’re promising that in the very near future you’ll be able to watch the recorded performance and even create bespoke versions (mixing different camera angles and audio streams).

More info here. And the home page for the project on The Space is here.

– Margaret

The Novice's Tale - Margaret Frazer

On the Matter of Weather

August 20th, 2012

The Prioress' Tale - Margaret Frazer

The day had moved into the drowsy warmth of afternoon when Frevisse went out to the guest halls again, to see how things went and if all was well in hand for supper. As she crossed the yard she had the regretful thought that it was a pity these bright, dry days had waited for October instead of blessing them at harvest. They would have made a difference then. Now they were hardly better than illusion, their brief warmth gone as soon as the day began to fade, the cold returning with the sunset shadows that in these shortening days came ever earlier…

Whenever possible, the weather described in my stories is accurate to the time the stories are set.  Unfortunately, the 1400s lacked such fulsome reporting as the Weather Channel and local news stations give us today, but careful searching of contemporary chronicles and documents and other sources provides far more detail than might be expected.  Often the descriptions can be very evocative, such as the Great Chronicle of London recording for the year 1434-5 “… and in this yere was a passing grete wynter and a colde frost …  It was so strong that no ship myght saile…”

For that same winter, Richard Vaughan, drawing on continental sources for his biography Philip the Good, noted that the winter “was long remembered as a particularly cold one, at a time when the winter climate of north-west Europe was much colder than it is now.  Not only the Thames itself froze, but most of the Thames estuary also… At Arras, the civic authorities drafted a special memoir to record the numerous snowmen which were set up in the streets and squares.  They included the figure of Danger, the Grand Veneur with his dogs, the Seven Sleepers, the Danse Macabre, and Joan of Arc at the head of her men.”

In the year 1438-9 Gregory’s Chronicle noted there “was great dyrthe of corne, for a bushelle of whete was worth 2/6.  And that yere was grete pestylaunce, and namely in the northe contraye” while the Brut recorded “And in thys yere all greynes of corne were at an high price: for whete was at xxxijd, barly at xvjd, and rye at iis…”, adding sharp detail to the reality of another period of bad weather and failed crops.

Other times, it’s governmental records that give an idea of what the weather was, as in royal letters patent ordered on October 7, 1437, for a commission to deal with the forestalling or regrating of wheat or other grain in certain areas because of scarcity recently arisen in parts of the country due to unseasonable weather and other causes.  Supporting other reports of bad weather over these years is another order out of Westminster in December 1438 commissioning men to inquire in Kent concerning persons who had bought up and accumulated large quantities of wheat and other grain, despite the scarcity “for no small time in the realm owing to the bad weather, in their desire for unjust gain, without bowels of pity”’ though they have nothing to justify such large supplies.  They were to be punished according to the statute and watched hereafter.

Good weather is noted, too.  For Henry VI’s return to London in February, 1432, the poet John Lydgate wrote that the weather had been gloomy with mist and rain, but for his reception turned bright, while later in that year, on St. Lawrence day, in France, the French chronicler Monstrelet recorded that at the siege of Lagny there was skirmishing between besiegers and relief force going on until almost Vespers in very hot weather.  Unfortunately, good weather can be over-done, too, as in another summer when Burgundian troops were mustered in weather so hot that two of the army’s captains died of the heat, along with some of lower rank, Monstrelet reports.

Sometimes in my stories, as with the opening description in The Novice’s Tale, the good weather is based on the absence of report to the contrary, because – just as now – it’s the bad news that tends to be most noted in the sources, and so if there is no report on the weather, then I feel free to assume that things were normal.  But when the weather is known, I use it, which meant that after The Novice’s Tale’s fair days, I wrote three books in which the weather was cold and wet and sometimes freezing, because that’s what the records show it was.  Then – thoroughly tired of bad weather – I very deliberately set the next book in the series in a bright, warm June.

– Margaret

Kindle Edition / Nook Edition
Other Editions

Ambling Horses

June 13th, 2012

While working on the forthcoming Guided Tour of St. Frideswide’s – treating not only the cloister and nuns but the extensive agricultural and system of varied properties that economically supported them – I needed to say something about the priory’s horses. Most would be of the workaday sort, but the priory’s steward, Master Naylor, needed a good riding horse for all the travel his job entailed. I thought I knew what sort of horse that would be, but did not mind the chance to raid my shelves to find confirmation in the lovely book, The Medieval Horse and Its Equipment. Edited by John Clark, it is a publication of the Museum of London, with scholarly articles based on information from archaeological excavations and generously full of illustrations. It had a handy list of the different sorts of horses available, not delineated by breed but rather by what type of work they would do. The one I wanted for Master Naylor was an ambler, a horse with a gait that gives a particularly comfortable ride by both legs on one side moving together, then both legs on the other side, creating a smooth rocking motion, unlike the more choppy ride made by the diagonal leg movement of other horses.

This smooth gait is especially welcomed if hours are to be spent in the saddle. Most famously, the Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales is noted as sitting “upon an amblere esily”, and accordingly on page 7 of The Medieval Horse is the well-known illustration of her from the 15th century Ellesmere manuscript where very clearly her horse is shown striding forward with both right legs at once:

Wife of Bath - The Canterbury Tales - Geoffrey Chaucer

For good measure, the same page has another illustration, this one from the 14th century (Queen Mary’s Psalter), showing a huntsman on an ambling horse, both its left legs moving forward:

Huntsman on Horseback - Queen Mary's Psalter

What struck me immediately was the complete match between the ambling walk shown there and that of the modern Tennessee Walking Horse.

Today if you should google for “ambling horse” a variety of sites come up about gaited horses. There are a large number of modern breeds noted for specialized gaits, but not all of these gaits are “ambling” as understood medievally, and many are deliberately showy rather than simply practical, as a medieval ambler was intended to be. But I was briefly acquainted with a Tennessee Walking Horse once, with even the pleasure of riding him, and that breed’s gait is definitely the same as the Ellesmere’s ambler – an alternating sides stride that sets up a fast, smooth pace designed to cover miles with ease for both horse and rider. Moreover, to my great amusement, the description of the Tennessee Walking Horse referenced a straight face and small ears, with a photo of a modern horse whose head exactly matched the Ellesmere ambler’s.

The breed is supposed to have been developed around 1800 from several breeds – different ones are named in different sources, so apparently there’s some uncertainty regarding exactly which it is supposed to be developed from – for the use of southern plantation owners needing to ride their acres. That’s likely true, but on the visual evidence it can be guessed that some part of the line goes back one way or another a good way farther.

For good measure of delight, if you search out the right Youtube videos, you can watch the medieval ambling of Tennessee Walking Horses to gain a clearer idea of what a medieval rider could experience. When trying to recreate a long-gone world, every such scrap of experience is to be treasured. And isn’t it fun what sideways paths research can lead one? All I wanted was to verify what sort of horse Master Naylor would be riding and ended up watching videos of modern horses and riders.

And people wonder why it can take so long to write a book. It’s the research – it leads the innocent writer astray!

– Margaret

I’m among those readers who need to know how a name is said when I am reading a book.  Since I’m often asked about how to say Frevisse’s name, and sometimes about Joliffe, I thought a small note here may be welcome.

The trick with “Frevisse” is that it is the French version of “Frideswide”.  Being French, it should probably be pronounced “fray-VEES”.  But since she is in England and the English are infamous for what they do to French names, I say it as “FRAY-viss”.

I hasten to add that I have absolutely no objection to a reader pronouncing it the way they prefer.  After all, England is a place of many dialects (and was in the 1400s, too), and there’s no reason you can’t claim “local usage” if your pronunciation differs from mine!

As for “Frideswide”, it is now pronounced “Fryswide” (with a long i in “wide”), but the spelling suggests that at some point the pronunciation was markedly different.  (I say that any language that takes “Belvoir” and pronounces it “Beaver” can’t be trusted in any of its pronunciations.)  So I pronounce it “Frid-es-wid” (with short i’s ), but equally possible in a medieval context it could be “Frid-es-WEEdah”.  I suppose it depends on which side of the Great Vowel Shift you want to be on?

Then there’s Joliffe.  For once, he is less trouble than usual.  I pronounce his name with a short o and no final e.  But if you prefer, it can be said with a long o.  And even with the final e, I suppose.

As you can see, I am not strict about any of this.  I suspect it’s all the reading I do in Middle English that has made my attitude toward pronunciation far more free-form than it once was.  (Not to mention what havoc medieval spelling has made to my spelling.)  So feel free to choose whatever slides easiest through your mind while you are reading and enjoy!

– Margaret

Once Upon a Crime - Mystery Bookstore

A good article about the local mystery bookstore Once Upon a Crime, with a long quotation from me, was recently published in the Twin Cities Daily Planet.

Check it out.

Once Upon a Crime really is a marvelous little store. I’ve often remarked how blessed my hometown is to have two truly wonderful independent mystery bookstores (Once Upon a Crime and Uncle Edgar’s).

– Margaret


A Play of Heresy: Early Reviews

December 9th, 2011

A Play of Heresy - Margaret FrazerThe virtual bookclub for A Play of Heresy is starting tomorrow. You’ll want to check in here for my first behind-the-scenes essaylet and then join the discussion at Facebook and Twitter.

In the mean time, here are some early reviews for the book:

Nobody does the Middle Ages better than Margaret Frazer…

There are a number of plot threads here, all intriguing in their own right: the goings-on within Joliffe’s regular troupe; the creation of a remarkable dramatic production by an experienced director, whose mostly amateur cast is endowed with wildly divergent skills; the amorous pursuit of a young widow by two men; and Joliffe’s relationship with the secretive and obsessive Sebastian, who’s also part of the spy network.

One of Frazer’s talents is making even her minor characters distinct and well-rounded. There are no cardboard stereotypes here! These people live and breathe and stride right off the page, which makes them remarkably appealing despite the hundreds of years between their world and ours.

Roberta Alexander – January Magazine

Margaret Frazer takes readers back to the fifteenth century in her latest book, A Play of Heresy, the seventh book in the Joliffe the Player series. This is an English historical cozy that will have fans of both genres enthralled. Joliffe first appeared in Frazer’s Dame Frevisse series and has gone on to become quite the crime solver himself. Joliffe, a stage performer makes a wonderful sleuth and spy taking Coventry by storm in this latest installment to the series.

This is my first experience with Joliffe the Player and Margaret Frazer, but it won’t be my last…

The mystery aspect of the novel was well written and very tightly plotted. Everything had to fall into place just right. The clues were well drawn and hard to figure out, a hallmark of a good mystery writer. I didn’t nail this one down until very close to the reveal. Frazer throws in many twists and turns and her work is full of historical referencing and side stories that will interest the mystery reader with a penchant for history.

Debbie’s Book Bag

The rich historical detail brought the story alive in my imagination and included how plays were run, how official murder investigations were done, and information about the Lollard’s beliefs…

It’s more like how a real murder would be solved than a clever puzzle-mystery. The characters were varied… The suspense was created by the mystery of whodunit and wondering if they’d be able to pull off a play that was poorly written and had few good or experienced players in it.


If you’ve written a review (or just spot one out in the wild), please link it in the comments!

I’ll see you all tomorrow at our virtual bookclub!

– Margaret


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