Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"Being There" in the Middle Ages

I have often said, undoubtedly even on ICFW before, that one of my goals as a writer is to give my readers a "you are there" experience, but that in order to do that I need to be there myself first. Not always so easy when one lives in 21st century Idaho and is writing about 14th century England.  This summer, however, offered me two exceptional opportunities for a hands-on Medieval experience.

First, in June, I was invited to speak at two conferences in England— which left a perfect chance to research the sites of my next book in the Monastery Murders series on the spot. For this series my amateur sleuths are required to find clues buried deep in the middle ages to solve contemporary murders. My next book  An All-Consuming Fire  focuses on the English Mystics Richard Rolle and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, so my husband and I spent a week in Yorkshire visiting places associated with these devout men:

The Beck near Pickering where Richard Rolle first took up the ermitical life:

Pickering church with its marvelous medieval frescoes, "the poor man's Bible" where Rolle encountered his first patron:

Rievaulx Abbey, one of the great monastic centers of the Middle Ages:

Mount Grace, the Carthusian priory where a monk produced a glossed translation of  The Cloud of Unknowing in the 15th century:

And Ampleforth Abbey where I was allowed access to two early manuscripts of The Cloud of Unknowing:

I'm still trying to decipher what clues might be hidden in the doodles on the second volume.

All wonderful experiences to be on the spot where these things happened. But still, I was in the 21st century, not the 14th.  And then, since our son couldn't get off work, I was invited to join the Society for Creative Anachronism's annual experience of living in the Middle Ages as nanny to our almost-five-year-old grandson so our daughter-in-law could participate with her drama group.

In the persona of Sister Elswyth, a medieval nun, I cooked over an open fire with hand-forged utensils:

Walked the muddy roads to market, observing warriors off to battle:

And seeing how natural fabrics serve as wicks to mud after a rain (surely a nightmare for monks in white Cistercian robes):

Watched archers practice:

Joined in a Fool's Parade:

And experienced being there:

And now I get to have the fun of reliving it all as I translate my experiences through Felicity and Antony as they struggle to catch a murderer before their Christmastide wedding.

Donna Fletcher Crow is the author of 45 books, primarily historical novels and mysteries dealing with the history of British Christianity. Her most recent release in the Monastery Murders is A Newly Crimsoned Reliquary, set in Oxford with the Oxford Martyrs, John Wesley's Holy Club and the Oxford Movement as background of Felicity and Antony's adventures. To see all of Donna's books and photos from her research trips go to her website.


  1. Society for Creative Anachronisms? What a marvelous name, and what a effective setting for you characters. Don't I recall a Victorian reenactment in one of your literary mysteries? So much fun.

  2. What a fun experience! Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. Wow, what fabulous research trips you have! Love the photos.

  4. Thank you LeAnne, Lisa and Sandra! I was, indeed, very fortunate to get to experience all this--now if I can just communicate it to my readers.

    LeAnne, I thought of you whe I wrote this post. You would have fit right in!

  5. I went to many similar festivals when I was young. My mother is a fiddler in a folk band. I enjoy all the historical fairs. Thanks for sharing. :)

  6. Yep this society is one my husband and sons are part of, they have different personas, names, clothing styles, etc. They are archers, axe throwers, Cleve makes arrows from scratch according to time period, and they camp! So when they are away, mom gets to play!

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Lisa. We were very fortunate in our camp beause they were all musicians, actors and archers--with one fencer--so all very civilized and likely to break into song at any moment. Most of the musicians worked in their church choirs in real life so a high percentage of Christians, too.

  7. Donna, that sounds wonderful! I can't wait to see how that research translates into the book!

  8. Recently, there was a Mediaeval Fair held in the suburb where our daughter lives here in Sydney, Australia! But it was nothing as extensive as you experienced with your Society for Creative Anachronisms, Donna. Thanks for such great photos too.

  9. Hi, just a reader from England who would love to write Medieval fiction, sent here via an author acquaintance. I can attest that although archery looks cool and fun, after a while it starts to hurt- maybe I'm just unfit, but last time I tried, my arm and side where aching.

    Good to find this website, are there any British authors on here, or just those who set their books there?

    1. Medieval Girl, I'm delighted that you found our website and my blog! Yes, Archery does take a lot of strength. My daughter-in-law is good about keeping up with her workouts. 5 year old grandson just started.
      There are some novelists living in England in this group--actually, we are from all round the world. I would like to put you in touch with the Association of Christian Writers in England--they are a wonderful group. You can write to me at or see ACW here: Blessings on your writing!