Much Medieval Mayhem – how Shakespeare inspired a fascination with all things medieval

It is Tuesday again, and today’s guest is Mercedes Rochelle, a lady with quite the interesting combination of skills. After all, building your own log cabin reasonably requires a lot of skill, as does gardening—especially when you’re aiming for a natural garden, i.e. one that as much as possible resembles the natural habitat. Mercedes has explained that this means one doesn’t weed—because the weeds are natural. Now, weeding is not my favourite task, but if I didn’t weed, my garden would be mostly dandelions and ground alder. To judge from the photo, Mercedes’ attempts flourish prettily despite the weeds. Clearly, I must discuss this in depth with Mercedes to get it right. She does, however, admit that this type of gardening is hard.

I imagine already medieval peeps did their fair share of gardening, so in embracing this pastime Mercedes is very much in sync with those who came before. However, when Mercedes writes about medieval times, gardening doesn’t exactly figure as an activity. Instead, it’s a lot of fighting, of blood spilled, of political wrangling and plays for power. In this aspect, the medieval period is pretty much same-same with modern times—well, bar the fact that these days those vying for power do not charge off to do battle with a sword in hand. Probably a good thing, all in all.

Before I get totally derailed into a philosophical discussion about the similarities between the then and the now, let us get back on track! So, welcome to my blog, Mercedes! How about you tell us what it was about the medieval period that grabbed you?

Mercedes: My introduction to the Middle Ages came about quite by accident, as you’ll see below. I was just out of college with a degree in English Literature and no idea what to do with it. Up until that point, I was not particularly interested in history, though I found myself reading a lot of Sir Walter Scott, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas. D’oh! I can only say I was a late bloomer and didn’t recognize the common thread. If it wasn’t for this particular event, I might never have gone in that direction!

Anna: Now of course, I am dead curious. What was this life-changing event?

Mercedes: One evening, I went to an outdoor Shakespearean Festival and what happened that night changed my life. Really! This was back in the early ’80s, and I still remember like it happened yesterday. It was a lively event, with people playing drums and fiddles and wind instruments, while acting companies took turns performing Shakespeare on the stage. The sun had just gone down and I was wandering through the dwindling crowd when all of a sudden I saw this fellow walking along the top of a rise. The lights from the stage behind him cut a perfect silhouette. He was wearing a tunic, leggings, and a floppy cap, smoking a pipe and carrying a big axe on his shoulder. What was I seeing? At events like this you never know who is the performer and who is the observer, and my curiosity overcame my diffidence. I was drawn like a proverbial moth to a flame, and surprisingly, he approached me as well. In that moment, a great friendship was born.

As it turned out, my new friend was a member of a medieval group called the Society for Creative Anachronism, SCA for short. Through living history, they are “devoted to the research and re-creation of pre-seventeenth century skills, arts, combat, and culture” (taken from their web page). Anyway, the SCA was doing a demo at this fair with the aim to recruit impressionable souls like myself. Intrigued, I followed this intriguing fellow to the rest of the group, who welcomed me with open arms and invited me to the local pub afterwards. I was in!

On returning home that night, my overbearing husband threw a tantrum because I came home late and we had a rip-roaring fight. He made too many jealous and reckless accusations—and threats—and by the next day I threw him out of the house. Just like that. After years of unhappiness I was free! And I had just discovered a new group of peers that would surely fill my lonely days ahead. (Anna: Wow. Talk about life-changing!  Quite the consequences to attending a Shakespeare Festival!)

It’s amazing how suddenly our lives can make an abrupt turnaround. Not only did I start socializing for the first time ever, but these people had a mission. A focus. By watching and participating in their events, I suddenly discovered what history was all about. Living history gave me insight into the everyday lives of real people, not just meaningless dates and names. I learned how it feels to have a sword in my hand, or how difficult it can be to see through the eye slits of a helmet, especially when one is short-sighted! I learned how it feels to shoot an arrow into the air with the intent of sending it 300 yard into the distance (well, I never made it that far) and hitting a target (sometimes). I saw thousands of participants in a field battle (granted, with make-believe deaths), and watched them fight in a shield wall. Without the introduction to the SCA, I probably never would have fallen in love with the medieval period. It gave me a point of reference. After a couple of years, I felt I could write about the period with confidence.

Anna: Ha! You’re like Paula, a reenactor who has used your hobby to hone your research. Your first novels are all set in the eleventh century. Why is that?

Mercedes: Back to Shakespeare, naturally! My favorite play was Macbeth, and I was to learn that he was king in 1040. I had long wondered what happened to Fleance after Banquo was killed, since Shakespeare dropped that subplot. And I was very fuzzy on the future kings the witches were talking about. I didn’t plan to write historical fiction because I hadn’t entirely recognized it as a genre yet. Luckily, I found an early history that gave me a long paragraph about Fleance’s heir (for poor Fleance came to a sudden and unfortunate end). His bastard son Walter went on many adventures before ending up in Scotland as the first Steward of Scotland, ancestor of King James VI (James I of England). Aha! I was beginning to feel a sense of purpose. What started in my mind as an investigation about the Banquo/Fleance subplot ended up as my first historical novel. The only way for me to make sense of his life was to learn the history behind the story. And this was the genesis of my first novel, HEIR TO A PROPHECY. (Anna: I imagine the dear old Bard would have been proud to know his play inspired both research and a book)

This book took us from the killing of Banquo through the end of the century. As the story unfolded, I realized that my protagonist either met, or was related to significant players in the saga of the Norman Conquest, including Harold Godwinson, Duke William, and of course Malcolm III of Scotland. Walter fought at the Battle of Hastings on the Norman side, for his father in-law was the Breton Count Alain Le Rouge, who became one of William’s most rewarded supporters (according to Wikipedia, at the time of his death he was worth around $166.9 billion, the equivalent of 7% of England’s national income. Forbes placed him 9th in the list of most wealthy historical figures. I knew nothing about all this until years later.). By the time Walter made it to Malcolm III’s court, my historical novel had taken on a life of its own. These were real people whose lives influenced the course of events for centuries.

Research being what it is, I kept going back to Harold Godwinson. Where did he come from? How did he get to be king? Why did his family conflict with Edward the Confessor? My fascination with Earl Godwin and his clan prompted me to write my trilogy, THE LAST GREAT SAXON EARLS, which tells about the rise and fall of this powerful family. (Anna: most readable, that trilogy. I especially liked what Mercedes did for Tostig, Harold’s treacherous brother who probably deserves his bad rep, but who reasonably was more than that)

Anna: Are you planning on revisiting this time period? If yes, tell us more!

Mercedes: After four novels, I had said all I wanted to say about eleventh century England and I jumped forward three hundred years to my next Shakespearean favorite, Richard II. I have already written two books about the troubled reign of this doomed king, and I call this series THE PLANTAGENET LEGACY. Book one, A KING UNDER SIEGE takes us through the minority of Kind Richard II. Not only must he face the Peasants’ Revolt, but his rebellious barons destroy his closest followers during the Merciless Parliament. Book Two, THE KING’S RETRIBUTION takes us through Richard’s long-awaited revenge, but he goes too far, causing his own downfall. My current work in progress is about his successor, THE USURPER KING. Henry IV, of course! (Anna: Oooo! I have a major soft spot for Henry IV. Not so much for Richard II, though…)

Anna: Mercedes not only writes books. Like many writers who discover the joys (and pitfalls) of research, she also maintains a blog. Here are a couple of her posts:

In which Mercedes shares the truth behind Macbeth’s purported murder of King Duncan: https://mercedesrochelle.com/wordpress/?p=267

In which she describes the death of Alfred the Aetheling: https://mercedesrochelle.com/wordpress/?p=304

And, my favourite, a post about Tostig, forever labelled a traitor. Unjustly? Read and draw your own conclusions! https://mercedesrochelle.com/wordpress/?p=2145

Mercedes has chosen to share an excerpt from HEIR TO A PROPHECY with us:

It is of legends that I write in this story, rather than facts; for after almost a thousand years of history, what can we call truth out of the tiny scraps that survived? When men claimed descent from a bear, and people believed that dragons roamed the earth, who is to say what is fact and what is fancy? Hence, with this thought in mind, I give you the origin of the royal Stewarts, as it was handed down to Shakespeare.

It all began with the witches’ prophecy.

Macbeth’s friend Banquo was with him when the three witches appeared on the heath: strange, weird creatures with seductive words.

“All hail, Macbeth!” the first had said, “Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!”—calling him by his true title.

“All hail, Macbeth!” quoth the second, “Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!”—giving him a title belonging to another.

“All hail, Macbeth,” cried the third, “that shalt be King hereafter!”—giving voice to his secret desire.

Macbeth did not know it yet, but the second witch had spoken the truth; already King Duncan had declared the Thane of Cawdor traitor, and awarded the title to Macbeth for his courage in battle.

Then the witches spoke their prophecy to Banquo. They said:

“Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.”

“Not so happy, yet much happier.”

“Thou shalt ‘get kings, though thou be none.”

The witches vanished, leaving the pair with gladsome prospects.

All might have gone well, but Macbeth’s ambitions were too strong to wait for chance to bring them about. King Duncan’s life stood in his way; before long, King Duncan was murdered. The true heirs, Malcolm and Donald Bain, fled the country, thus leaving the throne empty for Macbeth to mount.

Only Banquo had reason to suspect that Macbeth was the murderer.

As of yet, however, good Banquo showed no signs of betraying his friend’s secret. But as time went on, the king brooded—hating him—begrudging Banquo’s every breath.

It really wasn’t treachery Macbeth suspected; rather, his anger had sprung from the futility of his own position. Although he was king, he had thrown away his peace of mind, jeopardized his very soul, so that Banquo’s heirs would sit on the throne he had bought so dearly.

Having gone so far, there was only one thing to do. Banquo had to be dealt with…and his son, Fleance. To that end, Macbeth ordered a great feast to be prepared, and commanded their presence as guests of honor…

Author bio

Born in St. Louis, MO, Mercedes received a BA in Literature at the Univ. of Missouri St.Louis in 1979 then moved to New York in 1982 while in her mid-20s to “see the world”. The search hasn’t ended! Today she lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they have built themselves. She also writes a blog: HistoricalBritainBlog.com to explore the history behind the story.

Contact Links:

Website:  http://www.MercedesRochelle.com

Blog:         http://www.HistoricalBritainBlog.com

Facebook: http://www.MercedesRochelle.net

Twitter:     http://www.Twitter.com/authorRochelle

Well, that was all for today, dear peeps. Check out Nicky’s post if you missed it last week and keep an eye out for my next guest, Helen Hollick

5 thoughts on “Much Medieval Mayhem – how Shakespeare inspired a fascination with all things medieval”

  1. Hello Mercedes and Anna
    As a fellow 11thc lady I can totally compute Mercedes interest in the story of the Godwinsons and others. And interesting how she used the same analogy of being drawn like a moth to a flame! Who knew we had so much in common! Good luck with the hop!
    Spreading the word!

  2. Mercedes Rochelle

    Gosh, I should have been more specific about naturalizing a garden. Mulch is right out! And what does that mean? MORE weeding, rather than less. By the beginning of August the weeds usually get away from me; they grow faster than I can pull them. But I do leave the ones that flower. In the picture, the day lilies are planted but the yellow daisies grew on their own accord. I love the way nature’s colors never seem to clash.

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