Wednesday, 1 February 2017

‘The Errant Hours’ - a medieval adventure: guest post by Kate Innes

My working life started in archaeology.  Trowel in hand, I laboured on sites around Britain and Europe, mainly as a volunteer, living in tents with similarly crazy people.  I went on to become a secondary school teacher, then a Museum Education Officer and finally a mother of three. 

But when I came to write my first novel, the influence of my early passion was still strong.  Archaeology, in the main, looks at the discarded and unwanted remains of daily life, the broken things most people do not consider important.

In The Errant Hours, I wanted to uncover what life was like for the people who did not make it into the history books.  To present the daily lives of people who lived in the distant past - their fears, hopes and beliefs.

I enjoyed furnishing the medieval past with the commonplace and extraordinary objects that made Plantagenet Britain so severe and exuberant.  It was like Frankenstein running electricity through his monster: what was dead and in pieces I could bring to life, renewing the ruined sites, such as Acton Burnell Castle, in my mind and on the page.

Acton Burnell Castle - Shropshire

Medieval Illuminated manuscripts were another important source of inspiration. These exquisitely painted unique books were illustrated with subversive, ridiculous and beautiful imagery, showing the natural, the supernatural, and everything in between. They give a visceral sense of what stoked the medieval imagination.

(The Alphonso Psalter, BL Add MS 24686 13th century)

But the manuscripts were not just appreciated for their aesthetic qualities. Many were considered to be able to bring the reader into direct communion with the Divine.

I was researching on the British Library website, when I came across a very special but neglected manuscript, detailing the torture and death of St Margaret. I read the translation and I knew straight away: this manuscript would be the touchstone of my story.

Margaret of Antioch was a virgin who converted to Christianity in the early 4th Century AD.  According to the legend of her martyrdom, before she was beheaded she promised safe childbirth to those who read about her death.  And so, in accordance with medieval logic, books telling of the horrific torture of a virgin became a birthing aid, and St Margaret became the patron saint of childbirth.

So far, so strange.  But it was the illustration on the final page of this manuscript that gave me a profound sense of connection with the past.

British Library MS Egerton 877 folio 12

The image of the saint in the birth chamber is smeared and distorted because medieval women in labour kissed the picture and sent up prayers to St Margaret to save them and their babies.  Through this poignant trace of real belief and desperation, the plot of the book began to take shape before my eyes.

The Errant Hours is a fast-paced adventure, following the heroine as she struggles to save the life of her brother, and herself, in the face of poverty, violence and corruption.  But it is also the story of a mother who loses and finds a daughter, and the story of a powerful and sacred book that unites a knight and a lady.

The two stories intertwine, bind, resist and console each other, as all our stories do.

Kate Innes writes fiction and poetry in Shropshire. Kate’s novel The Errant Hours is available from Amazon, many bookshops and her website

Twitter: @kateinnes2

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