One of the best parts about writing historical fiction is reading about historical events and weaving them into the story. One of the worst things about writing historical events is having to adhere to what happened in history, especially when a beloved character dies. I had to include the death of a prince of Gwynedd, Rhun, in The Lost Brother, the prior book in the Gareth and Gwen Medieval Mystery series, and the death was as traumatic for me as for my readers.
In the end of that year died Rhun, son of Owain, being the most praiseworthy young man of the British nation, whom his noble parents had honourably reared. For he was fair of form and aspect, kind in conversation, and affable to all; seen foremost in gifts; courteous among his family; high bearing among strangers, and fierce towards his enemies; entertaining to his friends; tall of stature, and fair of complexion, with curly yellow hair, long countenance; with eyes somewhat blue, full and playful; he had a long and thick neck, broad breast, long waist, large thighs, long legs, which were slender above his feet; his feet were long, and his toes were straight. When the report of his lamentable death came to his father Owain, he was afflicted and dejected so much, that, nothing could cheer him, neither the splendour of a kingdom, nor amusement, nor the sprightly converse of good men, nor the exhibition of valuable things; but God, Who foreseeth all things in His accustomed manner, commiserated the British nation, lest it should perish like a ship without a pilot, and preserved Owain as a prince over it. For before insufferable sorrow had affected the mind of the prince, he was restored to sudden joy, through the providence of God.
There was a certain castle called Gwyddgrug (Mold), which had been frequently attacked, without its falling; and when the liege men of Owain and his family came to fight against it, neither the nature of the place nor its strength could resist them, till the castle was burned and destroyed, after killing some of the garrison, and taking others, and putting them in prison. And when Owain, our prince, heard of that, he became relieved from all pain, and from every sorrowing thought, and recovered his accustomed energy.
— Brut y Tywysogion
(The Chronicle of the Princes of Wales)
The Renegade Merchant was fun to research because the book is full of bits of historical information I didn’t know anything about before a few years ago when I started writing the Gareth & Gwen Medieval Mysteries. For example, I didn’t know that the Danes ruled Dublin for hundreds of years, and I especially did not know that they ran an extensive slave trade out of the Dublin slave markets. Fun tidbit: the phrase beyond the pale refers to the region of land immediately beyond the confines of Dublin, once it was conquered by the English in the twelfth century. It was a safe zone between Dublin and Ireland proper. Thus, to be beyond the pale was to be outside the safety of English law.
Slavery predated the Danes, of course. Slaves were taken in raids through history, and the Romans were huge practitioners of slavery. Before the Danes took Dublin, the Irish raided their neighbors and the Welsh coast for slaves as a means of subduing their enemy. Often these slaves would be ransomed for gold or land. The Danes transformed slavery into an actual trade after they established Dublin. Essentially, the framework of slavery and slave-taking changed from having mostly to do with power relations between lords to being about money.
In The Renegade Merchant, I mention that King Owain’s father, Gruffydd, in the late eleventh century, partially paid for the retaking of Wales with slaves, and he was hardly the only one. But by the twelfth century, slavery was on the wane. Slave-taking became far less common, and since the Normans had made slavery illegal—in large part thanks to the influence of the Church—the Dublin slave market went into decline and then closed altogether.
Slaves and villeins are closely related in the modern mind, and nobody was more surprised than I to discover that while the word villain predates villein. Villain has its origin in villainy from Anglo-French vilanie and Old French vilenie, meaning to be of low character, unworthy act, disgrace, or degradation. This definition dates to a hundred years before its use as villein, meaning a feudal class of half-free peasants (c. 1200 v. c. 1300). I’d always thought the origin was the other way around.
Another subject about which I knew nothing before delving heavily into the twelfth century was the history of prostitution. It is, of course, said to be the oldest profession, and has taken many forms over the millennia. Again, the Romans were proud proponents of it, and the existence of brothels was legal in England (albeit frowned upon by the Church), even to the point that the Bishop of Winchester in 1162 was granted the right to license prostitutes and brothels in London.
Finally, I loved learning about Shrewsbury, a border town in the March of Wales. Much of what I knew about Shrewsbury before starting to do my own research came from Ellis Peters and her wonderful and beautifully written Brother Cadfael books. The Gareth & Gwen Medieval Mysteries have now moved beyond the time in which her books are set, but many elements remain the same, including the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul and its Abbot Radulfus, and the town of Shrewsbury itself.
I would like to take particular note of the wall which surrounds the town in the Brother Cadfael books and in The Renegade Merchant. My research indicates that the town wasn’t given a right to murage (which means to charge a tax to build a town wall) until 1218 when King Henry ordered the town to make itself defensible. That isn’t to say that it didn’t have a town wall earlier—just that there is no mention of it. I chose to harmonize the specifics of the town of Shrewsbury in my book with what Ellis Peter’s described in hers.
The Renegade Merchant released on September 15, 2015 and is available wherever books are sold.
Sarah Woodbury, September 21, 2015