When I enrolled on the MA Creative Writing at Trinity St David, University of Wales three years ago, the last thing I expected to produce was an historical novel. I imagined I would develop the critical writing on contemporary art that I have published for the last three decades. However, in 2007 I came across the extraordinary story of Almodis de La Marche, 11th century Countess of Toulouse and Barcelona, when I was living in the Tarn Valley near Toulouse and it dominated my imagination. The historical Almodis was married three times, had twelve children, was literate, repudiated, kidnapped, excommunicated and murdered. The Creative Writing MA became a space in which I could give myself permission to become an historical novelist. My first novel, Almodis: The Peaceweaver, will be published in September 2011 by Impress Books.
I’ve just started working on my second novel, which will be told from the perspective of a slave rather than an aristocrat, and is set in 10th century France and Norway.
Most histories focus on male protagonists and many historians still assert that women played an insignificant role in the shaping of medieval history. That view is flatly contradicted by documentary evidence (and common sense). Three important studies emphasising the significance of Occitan women by Frederick Cheyette, Martin Aurell, and Archibald Lewis are listed in my bibliography (on this site). The gender distortion of history was further exacerbated by the blurring of the history of Occitania – which was not part of France in the 11th century. Occitania’s distinct culture has been co-opted into the history of modern France. In the novel my central themes are the role of women in 11th century Europe, development of Occitan literature in the early Middle Ages, and the history of Occitania.
11th century Southern France was a separate country from the territory north of the River Loire. South of the Loire there was a different language, different laws, a different culture. The suppression of Occitan began in the 13th century, continuing into the 19th century vergonha: the shaming. Children were forbidden to use Occitan at school. The language went underground, only spoken in people’s homes. Contemporary Toulouse has bi-lingual signage in Occitan and French and Occitan activists are campaigning for its recognition as the second language of France, so far without success. The appeal of this topic was no doubt influenced by the fact that I was living in Wales when I started writing the novel.
There was no king in Occitania, and Counts such as Almodis’ father were independent rulers. Battles for control were based as much on establishing allegiances and lineage through marriage and heirs, as they were on war. One of the most distinctive features of this southern country was the prevalence of female lords. Joan of Arc was not the only medieval woman to lead an army into battle. Frederic Cheyette describes Ermengard of Narbonne leading an army, for instance. Ermessende of Carcassonne was also reputed to have taken to the battlefield and was such a strong female lord that she undermined the power of her own son, and for a while, her grandson.
The historical Almodis was active in the government of Toulouse, and acknowledged as the co-ruler of Barcelona. My character navigates the treacherous ground of political marriage. It is a proto-feminist story of a woman wielding power, and a complex, protracted love story. There are four contrasting female characters: the Occitan Countess Almodis, her Parisian maid Bernadette, her Andalucian female troubadour Dia, and Almodis’ twin sister Raingarde Countess of Carcassonne.
The 11th century was a time of relative peace in the region after invasions by Muslims, Vikings and Magyars in previous centuries. It was a time of transitions: from the warrior caste of Almodis’ father’s generation, to her own generation’s Peace and Truce of God movement seeking to reduce constant warring; from cognate division, in which all children, including daughters, inherited part of their parents’ rights, to agnate primogeniture which focussed inheritance on the eldest son; from a married to a celibate priesthood; from a Church manipulated by the secular aristocracy, to a Church that sought to control that aristocracy; and the gradual development of the 13th century totalitarian Church with the concomitant erosion of women’s rights and status.
Occitania was wiped out 170 years after Almodis lived, in the Albigensian Crusade, when northern France, supported by the Pope, repeatedly invaded and brutally subdued the South. Propagandised as a religious crusade against the Cathars, it was a subjugation and land-grab perpetrated against Almodis’ and her sister, Raingarde’s descendents who were ruling Toulouse and Carcassonne.
I am not a medievalist with a command of medieval Latin or Occitan, so I relied on sources in English and French, listed in my bibliography. Reading and quoting writers from Almodis’ own time: Adhemar of Chabannes, Dhuoda of Uzes, Gregory of Tours, Trota of Salerno, and William of Malmesbury, helped me evoke an authentic 11th century voice whilst writing in contemporary English. I wanted to get away from clichéd assumptions about the Middle Ages – everybody was unwashed and illiterate, women were always helpless victims. Reading the voice of real women in Meg Bogin’s The Women Troubadours dispensed with some of my own assumptions.
Images and objects were also a significant part of my research: The Creation Tapestry in Girona Cathedral, the Duc de Berry’s Very Rich Hours, objects in The British Museum, Ashmolean Museum, Musée des Augustines in Toulouse, and in Albi, Toulouse, Barcelona and Girona Cathedrals.
I looked at jewellery, beakers, games and artefacts that might have been part of Almodis’ life. I looked at illustrated medieval manuscripts. I undertook genealogical research trying to understand the complexities of Almodis’ family relationships and marriages. I studied maps to consider how geography and terrain impacted on her story.
In order to give substance and depth to her world I needed to imagine every detail of her life so site-based research in France and Spain was also crucial. I went to Najac Castle in the Aveyron, built by Almodis’ grandson, to experience moving around stone passageways and staircases, being in a bastide – a walled settlement on a very steep hill. There are still donkeys today lugging heavy bags up the near-vertical inclines. I visited Spanish and French medieval sites such as Girona, Castelnau de Peygarolles, Cordes sur Ciel and Castres. The castle where Almodis lived in Toulouse, Chateau Narbonnais, has recently been uncovered in an archaeological dig. In Wales I visited early medieval castles, including Manorbier.
I like the way that encounters and observations in life can be woven into fiction: talking with an identical twin in Girona informed my portrait of Almodis. I used things that touched me in life: my uncle writing birthday cards for years to his estranged children and never sending them; a couple I saw separating at a bus stop who influenced a scene where Ramon leaves Almodis at Narbonne Harbour.
Creating an authentic psychological portrait of a noble woman living in the 11th century was challenging, especially the role religion played in her consciousness. I had to avoid creating an anachronistic feminist consciousness. Writing the novel gave me the insight that the concept of woman that 19th and 20th century feminists dismantled, had not even been constructed when Almodis lived. Georges Duby writes:
‘I must never forget the differences, the hundreds of years that separate me from my subject, the great stretch of time that hides almost all I am endeavouring to see behind a veil I cannot pierce.’
I decided on a three-part structure based on Almodis’ three marriages, each with different geographical contexts: Aquitaine, Toulouse, Barcelona. I plotted key scenes and turning points, and paced these action and resolution points with descriptive passages of everyday life. Finding the narrative voice was a significant decision. I tried third-person subjective but it began to feel prurient. My writing in the first person, present tense was more lively, but there was a risk of becoming irritating or too one-sided. I decided to use two main voices: Almodis’ and her maid Bernadette’s. I used the voice for characterisation and counterpoint perspectives.
The novel features a map to help readers trace Almodis’ journeys and the geo-politics she tangles with. I used mainly seasonal chapter titles to create a sense of the rhythm of the year, the passing of time, in an epic story that spans 45 years. I decided that Almodis would meet her second and third future husbands early on, at the Toulouse Easter Assembly, before she marries her first husband, so that the three parts of the novel are knit together and the love story with Ramon, Count of Barcelona, is an undercurrent throughout.
With a character three times married with twelve children, I couldn’t avoid the topic of sex and love. I ran a workshop on sex in the historical novel at the Fishguard Arts Festival partly to help myself with this question. I didn’t want to write a bodice-ripper or to write a story with a 19th century focus on romantic resolution (‘Reader I married him’). I’ve tried to put emphasis on how my central character lives her life. Her children and her female friendships are at least as significant as her marriages. Her life is a tapestry of political marriage, geo-politics, children, reading, engaging with her environment, rather than simply a plot about getting her man. The core of the novel is one woman’s role in the struggle for kingship and dynasty.
In the final edit, I fleshed out the male characters and the action scenes. I added a hunting scene, rewrote a battle scene, added more scenes with her stepson.
There is potential for Almodis to be translated into French and Catalan, and perhaps even into Occitan.
Why write historical fiction? I like reading it, stepping into a recreated world for the duration of a novel. Writing historical fiction has to be approached through research which is one of my pleasures and skills. However, historical fiction has suffered a low reputation as literature for some time. Allan Massie writes that ‘Scott failed to solve the problem of finding the right language for his characters to speak, so that they express themselves sometimes in what one might call ersatz medieval — “zounds” and “gramercy”. Sarah Dunant outlines another criticism:
‘The last great flowering of historical fiction was in the Fifties and Sixties, and it’s here, perhaps, that it got itself a bad name. Jean Plaidy, Margaret Irwin, Georgette Heyer, Anne Seton … the list is long and their output was prodigious. The austerity of postwar Britain demanded a fiction of escapism, royal romance and adventure as colourful in its creation of national identity as the cut of women’s bodices, styled for instant ripping.’
The reputation of historical fiction has improved with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall winning the 2009 Man Booker Prize and the emergence of feminist historical fiction writers such as Dunant herself, Kate Mosse and Sarah Waters. ‘Historical fiction explores the constants of human experience in history… the tragic limits and comic possibilities of man’s historical life.’ The historical novel allows a glimpse of human nature as much as any other type of novel. I wanted to convey my characters’ sense of being alive, so that they leap out of the depths and differences of history and seem to be people we could hold a conversation with.
 Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2001), p.251.
 Meg Bogin, The Women Troubadours (New York: W.W. Norton, 1980).
 Georges Duby, The Knight, The Lady and The Priest: The Making of Modern Marriage in Medieval France, trans. Barbara Bray (New York: Pantheon, 1983), p. 21.
 Avrom Fleishmann, The English Historical Novel (London: John Hopkins University Press, 1971), p. 5.