Digging into the Details

You just might be a medievalist if...stumbling on a medieval map excites you!

The map given here is an enlargement from Mad-Irishman Productions.  In researching the area where a certain event will take place, I needed to know the landscape.  Google maps is one way to go, but, while it can tell us something about whether the land itself is flat or hilly, (the Pennines begin approximately ten miles from Carlisle), it can't tell us how forested the area might have been in medieval times.

Mad Irishman's map was the first I found in my search that gave an idea of what areas might have been forested vs. what was fields.  Of course, since he designs maps for role-playing games, the next question was how historically accurate it is.  Cross-checking with today's maps tells me towns and hills and rivers are indeed where they belong.  But it's always good to check multiple sources.

What I found was that searching for landscape Cumbria leads me to multiple offers to take care of my yard.  A new search term, however, lands me on a page that says de-forestation was taking place around the 6th century--as evidenced by pollen records.  It does not, however, specify what parts of Cumbria, never mind a detail like whether the land to the north or south of Carlisle was forested or farmland.

The fun--and frustration--of research is the many rabbit holes waiting to snare us and whisk away the whole day we thought we had!  In searching for an answer as to where Niall lays his trap, I find that silver was discovered near Carlisle in 1133, resulting in silver mines stretching across Cumberland, Durham, and Northumberland.  It doesn't say, however, how long the mining lasted, or what the lasting results to the landscape were.

The map below comes from Free Pages Genealogy, and is a reprint of a1610 map.  It's harder to read, but does seem to suggest, like Patrick's map, that the forestation was south of Carlisle.  It doesn't answer the question of what was there in January of 1319--but it's much closer to the time than looking at Google Maps.

Written sources tell us something of the waxing and waning of the forests in England.  They grew throughout the 12th century.  They grew, especially in Yorkshire, under Henry I and that expansion grew under Henry II until the forests covered 20% of England.  One source says that all of Essex was forestland. 

However, by Niall's birth--the late 13th century--the forests had begun to wane.  1300 was the time of 'The Great Perambulation,' the culmination of pressure on the king to reduce the size of the forests.  They continued to shrink throughout the 14th century.

None of this tells me whether there were forests both to the north and the south of Carlisle, but one interesting story keeps popping up in any search regarding the forests of medieval Cumbria: It is closely associated with Arthurian Legend.  In fact, some suggest that the poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the late 14th century, is set in Inglewood Forest, which our maps show just south of Carlisle.  It has also been suggested that the black horses Arthur and his knights often rode might be the Fell Ponies.  To read more about this, click here.

Another question for the historical novelist becomes: How much does it matter whether I claim Niall laid his trap in a forest to the north or to the south of Carlisle?  Or can I just cleverly avoid saying whether it was north or south?  It doesn't really change the story, the plot, the outcome of the scene, or anything about Niall's or anyone else's character, which direction the forest lies from Carlisle.  So why all this work?

I can only answer: There were no potatoes in Sherwood. 

Years ago, someone I knew was reading a novel (yet another novel) about Robin Hood.  He reached the part where Robin Hood and his men were happily munching potatoes.  In medieval Sherwood.  Potatoes did not exist in that time and place.  The suspension of disbelief had been broken.  He could no longer believe he was in the world the novelist had worked so hard to create, because of this slip.

The difficulty, of course, is that there can be thousands of details in a single novel.  And to someone who actually knows about the landscape and forests of Cumbria in the early 1300s, such a detail may become glaring.

However, I see reasons other than that to seek the answers to such details.  I invariably learn more about the world Niall lived in, its culture, its background.  Over the past few days, I've posted about Bishop Irton, who died around the time of Niall's birth and was likely busy (at least on the anniversary of his death) haunting Linstock Castle by the time Niall arrives there.  I now know that Niall may well have been familiar with the legends of Arthur and known he was in the forest--Inglewood--where perhaps the story of Gawain and the Green Knight took place.

Knowing these details of a person's life deepens our understanding of them and allows us to paint them more vividly.  Maybe Niall will never announce out loud, "Hey, isn't this where Sir Gawain met the Green Knight?" but just as an author doesn't tell every bit of background they know, for a setting, just knowing it helps us present it vividly.  So too with personal background and cultural background.

There's another reason for all this research.  It's fun!

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  • Last Sunday in May, 10 am: Books and Brews with Lorrie Holmgren, mystery author
  • June 24, 2017, 3 to 5 pm: Reading at Eat My Words Books with Michael Agnew
  • October 2017: Author Talk and Book Festival in Appleton, Wisconsin
  • January 9, 2018: Talk with the Edinburgh Book Club
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