Sunday, August 19, 2012

Why I Love the 12th Century by Angus Donald

There is such an expanse of history, and much of it is so compelling, that it can be difficult for a novelist to pick an era in which to set his stories – not so for me. For me, the 12th century, stands apart any other epoch. It was a time of dynamism, optimism, heroism and change. It is a violent, cruel, rambunctious, pre-national age, in which the lives of most people were short and full of suffering – yet it was a deeply religious age, a joyful age, an age that saw the flowering of sophisticated new art forms, and which contained the seeds of our present comfortable, law-abiding society. It is the time of Henry II’s great legal reforms and the shift in political ideas that would lead to Magna Carta; it is the time when magnificent, soaring cathedrals were being built across Europe; a time when the concept of chivalry was born, and women, for the first time, were viewed as objects of veneration in the erotic poetry of the age. It was the golden age of the troubadour.

My hero, Alan Dale, is a trouvere (grave accent on the first e), which is what the northern Europeans called troubadours. He is a renowned warrior and right-hand-man to Robin Hood, but also a poet and a musician and, when he is not confronting his enemies on the bloody battlefields of Europe, he composes or “finds” inside himself (trouvere roughly means finder) poetical love songs which he sings in smoky castle halls, accompanied by his vielle – a kind of five-stringed violin. Alan, like the troubadours, who flourished at this time from Bordeaux to Barcelona, is at the heart of a cultural revolution known as the 12th-century Renaissance.

Since the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the music that had been heard in Europe was largely of two kinds: Church music, or the fierce lays of a warrior society – manly tales of blood and battle and revenge. The troubadours changed all that: for the first time in hundreds of years they sang about love – an unorthodox, potentially adulterous love between a young knight and the wife of his lord. In a nutshell, the tragic story of the love triangle between King Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere. The troubadours and the society they lived in gave rise to new concepts about how women should be treated: not just as chattels or political pawns to be married off for diplomatic gain (although, of course, they still were) but as objects of adoration – precious, untouchable, gorgeous representations of sacred feminitity. It’s a very long way from sexual equality, but it is a start. And you can trace the origin of all romantic novels as we know them today – from Pride and Prejudice to Fifty Shades of Grey – to the works of these troubadours and trouveres.

These love stories – tales of illicit, doomed, thrilling love – were enormously popular all across the courts of Europe in the second half of the 12th century, and they gave rise to a new code of behaviour. The poems described something called “courtly love” and encouraged men and women to behave in a courtly, civilised fashion, and this was the beginning of the code of chivalry, a set of rules governing aristocratic behaviour from the battlefield to the bedchamber. But it was not only music and poetry that underwent a revolution in the 12th century. The great universities of Oxford, Paris, Bologna and Moderna were set up at this time. Scholars sought out and translated works by Muslim and Ancient Greek thinkers – and the works of Aristotle were rediscovered in this way. There were great strides taken in medicine, technology and trade – the windmill was invented, paper manufacture began, and the great Baltic trading cartel, the Hanseatic League, was founded.

But, above all, I find the people of the 12th century to be fascinating. For me, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine is the woman who shines most brightly during this age. A generous patron of the troubadours and a powerful noblewoman in her own right, she married the King of France (Louis VII), and then had that marriage annulled and snapped up the young man who would be King of England (Henry II); she gave birth to two more kings of England – Richard and John – and outlived them all, dying at the grand old age of 82. I am also fascinated by her son Richard the Lionheart – a mighty warrior, a pious crusader, a man who loved the thrill of battle and yet who was a sensitive poet whose work on his lonely imprisonment is still moving to read today.

When I was researching Robin Hood, one of the central characters in my books, I discovered that the scholarly verdict on him was rather vague: it seems that he may have operated in the 12th or 13th or even 14th centuries. For me there was no choice to be made: my Robin Hood has his adventures in the last quarter of 12th century – the century of Richard the Lionheart, of Eleanor of Aquitaine; the century of crusades and courtly love: the century of the troubadours.

Angus Donald is the author of the bestselling Outlaw Chronicles. His latest book, Warlord, is available from bookshops and online. For more information about Angus Donald and his books go to

1 comment:

  1. I am a bit partial to the 12th century thanks to those Plantagenets! Thanks for an interesting guest post.