Monday, July 15, 2013

Guest Post: Losing Her Religion by Nicole Galland

One of my favorite scenes in Godiva was not in my original outline. In fact, if someone had described it to me before I did my research, I would have scoffed at their nonsense.

But then I did my research.

It’s common among historical novelists, when stumbling across a startling unexpected detail, to slip it into the text, even if it’s not required for telling the story or setting the scene. I was delighted by certain morsels from the writings of Giraldus Cambrensis, which I snuck into The Fool’s Tale, and there were fantastic little details from Nicetas Choniates’s description of the 1204 siege of Constantinople that I’d put into Crossed.

Such goodies are usually enjoyed in passing: the use of hazel twigs for dental care in medieval Wales, for example, does not warrant its own chapter.
So I never expected to come across something so startling that it made me restructure my plot to include it. I was reading a book by Bill Griffiths called Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, perusing it for “medicinal magic” such as herbal tinctures (my secondary character is a healer). Quite by accident, the book flipped opened to a section called “The Land Ceremonies Charm” and my eyes automatically started to read. I was amazed to learn that 500 years after Christianity staked a claim in England, the Church actively employed elements of pagan magic. Not regularly, of course, but for something of primary significance to every living soul in England: the land’s fertility.

This was not the impression that I’d had of Christianity in England at that time. I confess it was the impression I wanted to have, but did not think I should. I loved the notion of paganism and Christianity existing in peaceful harmony together. All the early English myths and fairy tales, the Arthurian legends and the ancient Celtic myths… it made all of them equally valued and plausible.

But I was sadly aware that was not the truth of it. Knowing what I already did (from previous research for earlier novels) about the medieval church, I’d have been extremely skeptical if anyone suggested the Church smiled upon paganism in any form.

Of course, to be a Christian in this era did not necessarily mean you believed in the precepts of the Church – for many, it simply meant you learned how to make it appear so. If you were perceived to be practicing paganism (which meant anything non-Christian), the Church would sock you with excommunication or censure. Whether you actually cleaved to Christianity or not, you surely cleaved to your community, but the “bell, book and candle” of excommunication warned all your family and friends to shun you. Until, of course, you had demonstrated to the Church what a good Christian you could be. There was no way to game the system: if you wanted to function in society, you toed the Christian line.

So I’d gone into my research with a pretty grim sense of the religious atmosphere in Britain when Godiva was alive.

That’s why I was delighted to encounter the Land Ceremonies Charm. It was intended to ensure the fertility of the land with a robust combination of Christian and pagan elements. The ritual travels – literally – between church and field, altar and furrow, priest and farmer. Far more pagan than the annual Rogationtide (for those familiar with Catholicism or English folk customs), the Land Ceremonies Charm was not a part of any church calendar. It was performed when the farmers, their lords or their priests felt that magic (yes, magic) was required to protect their crops and flocks. It summoned the powers of Valhalla as well as the powers of the Christ. And written evidence – written by churchmen, mind you – shows it was still practiced at least into the 11th century.

The Charm, well, charmed me. I briefly changed my attitude about the Church in Anglo-Saxon Britain – clearly, it understood what the people really needed, and made sure the people got it.

I decided to put the Charm into the story. Remarkably, once it was included, I could not imagine how I could have told the story without it, for it sets up a key tension:

Despite the warm, fuzzy feeling induced by the Land Ceremonies Charms, the Catholic Church was learning how to flex its might in England. Church-sponsored paganism aside, things still were not as ducky as my inner romantic wished they were. Censure and excommunication were powerful tools that the religious authorities used to demand obedience; increasingly, this obedience was sought for the sake of political power and not just to ensure religious purity. It was fine to toss a few pagan bones to peasants, but for folks higher up the pecking order, strict observation of Christian doctrine was non-negotiable.
However, Christian doctrine was evolving all the time, and the significance of Rome in the English Church was changing, too. Which sometimes meant that people were expected to follow precisely something that was not precise at all. The Land Ceremony Charm, far from making the pagan/Christian relationship friendlier, actually made it murkier, and therefore, in the bigger picture, dangerous.

This worked for me. And for Godiva. By making her famous ride, the countess of Mercia was almost literally straddling the divide between Christianity and paganism. Her motivation and purpose was purely political, and yet her actions could be interpreted either as penitential (and thus Christian) or as… something else (and therefore pagan). Only Christian clergy had the power to declare which, and she could not confidently anticipate which way they’d swing. Her simple ride required her to navigate between pagan magic and strict Roman Catholicism without succumbing to the power of either. That’s a tricky balance to maintain… especially naked on a bareback horse. Tricky balances are rife with dramatic potential. So I thank Godiva, profusely, for taking on the challenge.

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