Heretics, Witches, Homosexuals and Jews: A history, and a present, of persecution

One of the reasons I started writing my Dark Apostle series was the number of times that this list appeared during my research.  It is the historical equivalent of someone saying, “Round up the usual suspects,” whenever anything goes badly wrong.  I wanted to question some of these overlapping categories of persecution.  The research led me to some surprises about the assumptions we make about the Middle Ages, as well as to some surprises about the ways we think now.

An early tag line I considered for the series was:  What do Witches, Jews and Homosexuals have in common?  When the stake goes up, they are the first ones to burn.  Sadly, they still are–although there has been less interest in the persecution of pagan religious practitioners of late, at least in my awareness.

One of the first big reviews I got for Elisha Barber chastised me for making Elisha too modern because he fails to be homophobic, but did not remark upon the fact that he also fails to be anti-Semitic. During the period in which I’m writing, anti-Semitism was much more rampant and virulent than homophobia.  Still, the origin of the slur “faggot” is a reference to firewood originally applied to heretics.

I chose to frame Elisha as centered in his medical knowledge:  that all men are the same beneath the skin, and his task is to heal them as best he can.  He is dismayed to discover the overlapping prejudices of the various groups he encounters. So, when his mentor, Mordecai, a Jewish surgeon, is injured, some of the witches refuse to help, in spite of the fact that they, too, represent a persecuted minority.

This paranoia about groups perceived to be different increases when the dominant culture feels increasingly insecure.  So during the Black Death (referred to prior to the 17th century as The Great Mortality) struck, the rumors flew–mostly about Jews and all of the hideous and horrible things they were said to have done to bring about the disease, none of which were remotely true.

However, they were the primary money-lenders of the time (thanks to that line in the Bible about how Christians shouldn’t make money off loans to other Christians, and to the fact that they were, in most places, so limited in the professions open to them). It’s pretty convenient, when looking for a scapegoat, to point the finger at the people to whom you owe money, thus making your debt vanish.  Phillip the Fair of France did something similar when he accused the Templars of heresy, and thus claimed their lands and property.

Both the Templars, and some leading Jews, when tortured, admitted to all sorts of terrible things to make the pain stop.  These confessions provided “evidence” that the accusations were true.  Even in the Middle Ages, it was widely known that torture rarely produced what we would term actionable intelligence. While torture sometimes does produce bits of truth, they are often mixed with falsehoods and inventions, either deliberately, or in a panic.  People under enough stress will say anything to make it end.

And by now, you will have noted certain similarities to current events, and to events around the time the series began.  Because when I started looking into the history of torture, which many of my characters might have faced, most of the information I found was, in fact, contemporary.  The images from Abu Ghraib were coming out, and later on, the report about possible torture perpetrated by the US government.  At the same time, hate crimes against randomly selected people said to represent some reviled group or another cropped up across the nation, and around the world.  Just today, I saw a news blurb about a Muslim man dragged from his house and beaten to death because his Hindi neighbors had heard a rumor that he had killed and eaten a cow.  Rumors and lies.  Would he have confessed, if he thought it would make them stop?

Just as many of these same prejudices and accusations are being floated in the world today, some people seem determined to add groups to the list, rather than abolishing the list.  Muslims, immigrants, refugees, Sunnis or Shi-ites, African Americans, police officers, Liberals, Republicans. . .

The Nazis placed gypsies and Catholics alongside Jews and homosexuals on their list, and I came across another article about someone casting acid on gypsies in Scandinavia, which is often considered a bastion of rationality and non-violence.

The more I studied history, the more it became clear that the old saw about history repeating itself is true.  Humanity rumbles on toward the future, clinging desperately to the reactions of the past, the biological distrust of the other which is ready at any time to burst into flame.

One reason I write fiction is to imagine a world where we could do better than this, where hatred would be of an individual who had wronged you, rather than a category of people who have done, and mean, no harm.  Where accusation, arrest, interrogation and prosecution would be based upon an examination of the facts–and the process would be halted and abandoned if the facts did not support conviction.  I would like to imagine it could be this world.

A curious ray of hope, then and now, comes from an unexpected direction:  a pope, the leader of the Catholic Church, speaking out for tolerance.  Will Pope Francis make a difference?  It’s hard to say.  During the time of the Templars, Pope Clement V tried to resist the persecution, but eventually surrendered to the will of the king.  During the Black Death, Pope Clement VI wrote a bull demanding that his followers stop persecuting the Jews, and he allowed Jews to settle safely in Avignon.  So the track record of papal tolerance is rough, but could lead somewhere. (more about the Inquisition on another day. . .)

Perhaps my work is, after all, escapist.  I frame a narrative of humanity striving for dignity in a setting of darkness, despair and danger.  Because, all too often, the Middle Ages seem much more inviting than today.




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Skulls and Cross Bones: the Medieval Ossuary at Hythe

I’d like to introduce you to the beautiful Norman-era church of Saint Leonard’s at Hythe.  This small, seaside town is about midway between Hastings and Dover, just enough off the beaten track to get few visitors.  The church is also the reason I selected this particular location for certain events in Elisha Rex.    For one thing, Saint Leonard is a patron saint of prisoners, a key theme in the book.  And for another thing. . . there is the crypt.

St. Leonard's at Hythe, exterior

St. Leonard’s at Hythe, exterior

The church is not especially well marked, but we found it along the winding streets, and were able to go inside. It turns out that the crypt is only open certain times during the off-season (we were there in November), and the rector did not answer his doorbell. However, we heard sounds from above, and waited by the tower door until two bell-ringers emerged from setting up for the Remembrance Day service.  One of them, the friendly and fascinating Nigel, offered to let us in, then go find one of the trustees, and so I found myself in the basement of the church with its many inhabitants.

to Canterbury 271to Canterbury 276

England, unlike some other parts of Europe, is not known for its ossuaries.  Most bones are either buried in graveyards, or in barrows during earlier times, and no one is quite sure how the ossuary at Hythe developed.  It seems that the bones had been exhumed from earlier graves during expansion, and stored.  This storage may have been intended as temporary when it first began, but by the 14th century, the bones had been ensconced in their place, in stacks by type, but with the occasional, dare I say decorative? flourish, like the skull tucked in among the humerus bones above.  The collection includes about 1000 skulls, and probably represents between 1500 and 2000 individuals.

some of the many skulls, neatly arranged

some of the many skulls, neatly arranged

While the bones are rumored to have been those of slain pirates or other invaders, a large number of them belong to women and children.  They were probably Hythe residents exhumed when the church was extended in the 13th century.  Nowadays, the collection has been examined to reveal signs of disease, tooth-decay and aging, and various other osteological studies.

The ossuary is a valuable resource for historical study–and a fantastic setting for my barber-surgeon who may be drifting too close to necromancy.


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Reading like a Writer

One of the dangers of crossing the line from reader to writer is that it changes the way you read. For me, it makes me impatient with bad style, slow starters, lack of tension and plot holes. I am much more likely to drop a book than to keep reading if it’s not grabbing me.  There’s just not enough time to read bad books–or even mediocre books you’re not enjoying.  But I am also much more likely to delve into the question of *why* it’s not working.  What has the author done or failed to do that is causing my departure?

But reading as a writer is also a great asset in considering how to improve my own work, or learn a new technique.  In this case, I turn to a book or an author who’s doing a good job.  When I want to learn more about the writing craft, or to study the work of someone I admire, then I approach it as a research project.  What can I learn about the people who are doing it well?

Right now, I’m working on a thriller novel, my first entry into that genre, so I’m reading and listening to more thrillers, thinking about how they are constructed, what makes a good one, what I enjoy and what I hope to do for my readers.  At the moment, I want to know how authors introduce their series characters.  How do you make a character who will capture the reader’s imagination, and keep it for a series of books?  To that end, I purchased copies of the first volumes of several series I admire, and I am examining their openings one by one.  In order to analyze them rather than get carried away by them, I start by re-typing the first few pages. This makes me pay attention to the word choices, verbs, descriptors, sentence construction and order of details.

I started with Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, which introduces Chief Investigator Arkady Renko.

a screen shot of Gorky Park's first page, with my commentary

a screen shot of Gorky Park’s first page, with my commentary

Before we even learn his name, we are given an image of Renko as set apart from his companions (lone wolf–already intriguing).  He is described as “sympathetically listening” to another officer, an appealing trait.  As we sink into his point of view, we find a cynical sense of humor.  The KGB appears next–and because we are (mostly) Americans, we are instantly on the alert.  The lead KGB officer comes across as too jovial, and it is this character of whom we are already suspicious who introduces the protagonist, by losing his smile and shouting his name.  A sympathetic lone wolf strong enough to have enemies in the KGB?  I’m hooked.

Interestingly, Smith starts to lose the bond he’s established between the reader and the protagonist a few pages later, when less appealing traits seem to be emphasized, and the characterization feels inconsistent (We are told he smokes cheap cigarettes when faced with the dead–another point in his favor, this small flaw, but soon he is chain-smoking all the time, which makes me doubt the author.  While he is initially shown as sympathetically listening to a subordinate, he becomes abrupt, and at one point abusive to a degree that seems unnecessary).  Later books in the series maintain a more clear image of Renko as a man of action, perhaps fatally flawed by his refusal to abandon even the most difficult and personally challenging case.  But that initial grab is what I’m looking for–a character the reader admires and wonders about, one with a balance of clear action, attractive traits, and humanizing flaws.

How about you?  What attracts you to a character?  What would you like to see on page one that will make you want to know more?

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Sasquan World Science Fiction Convention report

Yes, I am back from Spokane, glad to escape the land of the red sun, to rainy New Hampshire.

Smoke from nearby wild fires gave the city an apocalyptic feel.

Smoke from nearby wild fires gave the city an apocalyptic feel.

At the con, I enjoyed talks by Ken Liu and Kate Elliot about world-building, sparking some new ideas for my next project:  epic, historical, Asian–all the good stuff.    I also attended the conversation between George R. R. Martin and Robert Silverberg, where they talked about the history and future of the genres and of Worldcon itself.  Steven Barnes led two sessions of Tai Chi, which, with him, is part inspirational gathering and part exercise, and always worth the visit.  I attended a talk by James C. Glass about Australian Aborigines as the first astronomers, which was fascinating, and went to one on Imposter Syndrome run by Crystal Huff (highly recommended if you suffer from this).

Here are some favorite quotes:

“Growing old is like making ice sculpture in the desert.  There is less ice every day, but if you get a little bit better at sculpting every day, you can still make something great.”  Steven Barnes

“The internet makes it too easy to say stupid things and multiply them indefinitely before you can call them back.”  Robert Silverberg

“The idea of the nation-state was created out of iron and blood.”  Ken Liu

This year’s much-anticipated Hugo Award Ceremony was very enjoyable, with both hosts and recipients keeping the mood light and focusing on the community of science fiction.  Wired magazine had a great article about the event and the results.  I like to attend the ceremony in part because (like GRRM and Robert Silverberg) I can imagine myself up there some day, and in part because of that sense of community–the anticipation of a few thousand fans sharing the excitement of what is to come.

My own events were a lot of fun, especially the panel on Learning to Love Your Deadline, wherein I tried to remember if I had ever missed a deadline in my publishing career (causing Patricia Briggs to look for a heavy object with which to bludgeon me–thankfully, nobody had a hardcover handy).  It was great to see some new faces at my reading as well, and I think I gave some useful feedback to three new writers at the Writers’ Workshop.

Outside the con, a group of artists worked feverishly to repair and refresh these amazing lanterns for the Chinese Lantern Festival–wire frame creatures with lights inside and brightly colored fabric outside, an intriguing process to watch.  And where else but Spokane can you feed raw meat to tigers?

A tiger gets a treat at the Cat Tales tiger rescue center.

A tiger gets a treat from a guest at the Cat Tales tiger rescue center.

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Goodreads review: Medieval Ghost Stories by Andrew Joynes

I discovered this book on the recommendation of a scholar who presented a paper about revenants (roaming dead) in Medieval England at this year’s Kalamazoo Medieval Congress. Since this is a topic near to my heart, in more ways than one :-) I picked up a copy at the publisher’s booth.

This book gives some great insight into the role of the supernatural in the lives of people around the turn of the first millennium, up to the 1300’s. It is well-organized by topics including: Ghosts and Monks, Ghosts and the Court, The Restless Dead, and Ghosts in Medieval Literature. Each of these sections includes a general introduction, placing the manifestation in context, then a series of excerpts from period works–chronicles, sagas and stories–that describe what happened and to whom.

As a fantasy author, and also as the leader of teen camps where I am frequently called upon to tell horror stories, this is just the kind of material I keep an eye out for. It includes some more familiar pieces, like the werewolf Bisclavret from Marie de France or a tale from Boccaccio’s Decameron, but also many other works from less known sources–local chronicles and the like.

Most of these stories take place on the cusp of the Christian emergence, as local populations settle into the expanding religion, and are given a theological spin by their authors (frequently priests and monks–the most educated people of their day). So we hear souls tell of the torment they suffer because of their sins, and we see Guinevere offer to have masses sung for the restless spirit of her mother. These spirits are often laid to rest at last by the intervention of priests or of proper Christian burial.

To me, the most interesting narratives here are those from the Scandinavian sagas, where Christian motifs overlay a local aesthetic. Hence a woman wronged in life whose corpse is being brought to a monastery for burial to atone for the wrongs done her rises up in the night to make a meal for her funeral party because the miserly host has not done so–thus chiding the host for his failure to provide hospitality due to guests.

Although eager to find Christian meaning in stories of ghosts or the walking dead, Christianity in general had an uneasy relationship with the entire concept. The dead, according to doctrine, lay quietly to wait for judgment, if they were not already taken up, or sent down. The body was not animate of itself, and the soul had already been accounted for–so Church fathers are often at pains during this period to insist that ghosts and revenants simply didn’t exist, even as many laypeople accepted the stories as the proof of Heaven or Hell–because these spirits desired to reach the one, or to speak out in warning about the other.

But there is another category of stories, warning the living to make much of life–and especially of love, in which groups of wandering spirits are show as joyous or as despairing in proportion to their willingness to share love while they were alive, bringing to mind later works, like Andrew Marvell’s “To his Coy Mistress.” Suggesting that man’s fascination with the dead, and his willingness to use them as examples to the living, whether for instruction or seduction, goes on.

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Sasquan is coming! See you at Worldcon?

In a little over a week, I’ll be in Spokane, Washington for the annual World Science Fiction Convention, this year entitled Sasquan.

I’m a bit of a convention junkie. I enjoy meeting and mingling with other writers as well as meeting fans and readers–ideally introducing new readers to my work.  I always come back feeling fired up about writing, and about the science fiction and fantasy genres.  This year’s worldcon promises to be especially stimulating for a variety of reasons.

I’ll be mentoring as part of the writer’s workshop (for which registration is closed–sorry–but look for it next year!).  You can also find me at these events:

Kaffee Klatche – E. C. Ambrose

Thursday 13:00 – 13:45, 202B-KK3 (CC)

Join a panelist and up to 9 other fans for a small discussion.  Coffee and snacks available for sale on the 2nd floor.

Requires advance sign-up–please join me!

Learning to Love the Deadline

Thursday 15:00 – 15:45, Bays 111B (CC)

Deadlines – love ’em or hate ’em?  Are they different depending on the length of your project?  Are they different depending on whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction?  Can the deadline make you a more disciplined writer?

Reading – E. C. Ambrose

Friday 16:00 – 16:30, 303B (CC)

And I will be minding the Science Fiction Writers of America table for a bit, probably on Wednesday, as well as autographing there on Sunday.  Times TBA


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The Faithful Hound

This week, I had to say goodbye to a dear companion, but this isn’t really a personal blog, so rather than eulogize Jordi directly, I thought I would talk about just a little of the history of the faithful hound in the Middle Ages.

Jordi in happier times--he was always happiest in winter.

Jordi in happier times–he was always happiest in winter.

Dogs are often viewed as symbolic of loyalty, which is why they appear at the feet of knights on their tomb effigies.    There have long been stories of dogs who linger on their master’s graves, or, nowadays, who wait fruitlessly at the train station for masters who do not come home.  Hereward the Wake, the famous hero of Ely who fought against the soldiers of William the Conqueror, until he drained the fens so the Wake could no longer escape, was said to have had such a hound.

This kind of loyalty can also be turned against the hero.  According to some sources, Scotland’s King Robert the Bruce possessed a devoted mastiff who had to be left behind at the manor when Bruce was on the run from the English in the highlands.  Some clever Englishman got the idea of taking the dog with them, and using it to track him down, knowing that the dog would pursue its master with great delight until they could be reunited, but a Scottish sympathizer let the dog go rather than see this love subverted.

In France during the 13th century, a cult rose up around the grave of a greyhound venerated as Saint Guinefort when certain miracles were said to occur at the site. The dog had been martyred by its own master when it defended a child from a wolf, only to be taken by its bloody mouth for the aggressor.  The knight who owned and slew the dog grieved mightily over his error, and buried the dog with great solemnity.  Naturally, the Catholic Church did not approve of a canine saint (no matter how many people then and now believe in the divine nature of the dog), and repeatedly tried to discourage its veneration.

The fact that a character even owns a dog, or that dogs love him, is often used by contemporary authors to show that someone is worthy. If such a creature loves, it is thought, then the master must be worthy.  I suppose I am guilty of this myself, with the relationship between the exiled Prince Thomas and his deerhound Cerberus in Elisha Magus When the dog accepts Elisha, too, he uses this as evidence that he is worthy of trust.

Elisha held out his hand to be sniffed. Gravely, Cerberus pushed his wet nose against Elisha’s fingers, then gave him a single, long slurp, and lay down at his master’s side.

Casting a quick look at the dog, the prisoner turned as quickly away, his eyes shining. “What have you done to my dog?” he whispered, his voice cracking. “You’ve cast some accursed spell on him.”

At that, Elisha laughed, shaking his head. He had gotten a fright from that knife brandished against him, but, try as he might, he couldn’t see the danger now. Here was a man loyal to his king, seeking justice as he saw it, heartsick because his dog seemed to have deserted him. Letting go his irritation, Elisha said, “It’s nearly impossible to cast a spell on a being with willpower of its own. All I did was try to help him, to make him comfortable, nothing more. If that’s a spell, I believe it’s commonly known as kindness.”

Cerberus returns in Elisha Rex, as, alas, my own dog cannot.  But his spirit is echoed there, one of a long line of faithful hounds.

a knight's tomb in Ely Cathedral shows him reclining, with a small dog at his feet.

A knight at rest in Ely Cathedral, with a small dog as his companion.

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