Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Or rather, Domesday.

Credit: Prof. J.J.N. Palmer & George Slater.
A couple of readers have asked me how I got the medieval stuff so convincing in TWS. First of all, thank you.

Second of all, believe me, a lot of it is WILDLY inaccurate, and the sad part is, I'm not even sure which bits. But if I get it right, if I hit a good detail, it's because of this - PRIMARY TEXTS.

Here. I'll say it again, with the echo chamber sound effect:


Primary texts: those documents produced by people during the period in question. The Declaration of Independence is a primary text. So is the Stamp Act. So, for that matter, are the epitaphs on the tombstones in the Old Granary Burying Ground in Boston.

Why am I giving you all this blah-di-blah? Because the Domesday Book, one of the great primary texts of all-frikkin'-time, is available free online in a fully hyperlinked format.

In 1066, William the Conqueror (also known to his Saxon subjects as William the Utter Bastard) won the Battle of Hastings and became King of England. Twenty years later, he got around to actually scoping out his new ranch and finding out who owned what, who owned whom (this was feudalism, after all) and what it was all worth. He sent out teams of assessors, who compiled their findings in a book that was as "final as the Day of Judgment" and was therefore known as the Domesday Book.

On one level, Domesday is nothing more than a giant real estate assessment. And to a historian, its principal value is how it delineates Eleventh Century British society. But to a writer, it contains little details that are pure gold.

Take names, for instance. Just about every medievalish writer uses different variations of William, Henry, etc. But how Svavi of Bosworth? Aelric son of Mergeat? Leofric of Willoughby? Weird (by modern standards), memorable - and utterly authentic. I'd spend hours trying to come up with names like that, and I'd fail every time.

Or the fact that there are out-and-out slaves in Merry Olde Englande? We're all accustomed to the misery of the serfs who were tied to the land and their lord, but for some reason slaves don't appear that much in High Medieval fantasy and fiction. And yet there they are, listed in black and white in the DB.

Look at it long enough, and how it classifies people (smallholder, slave, priest, villager, etc.) and property ("Woodland 80 swine render. 2 mills, value 1.2. 1 church") and you begin to see how the king's clerks saw the world back then.

If you want flavor in your fiction, nothing beats a primary text.

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