St Andrews Cathedral

The ruins of St Andrews cathedral. At 119 metres (391 feet) in length, it’s the largest church ever to have been built in Scotland.

It’s that strange part of the year, the in-between time that exists after the completion of one novel and before the beginning of the next. With the draft manuscript of Knights of the Hawk, the third book in the Conquest Series, now finished and on track for publication this October, I’m starting to look to my next project, using the opportunity to read as widely as I can and absorb ideas from as many sources as possible. The perfect time, then, to attend – as I did last week – a four-day conference on the subject of The Middle Ages in the Modern World, part of the 600th anniversary celebrations of the University of St Andrews.

Being a historical novelist is all about bringing the past to life for a modern audience, so this conference seemed like the ideal chance to meet and share ideas with like-minded people from across the academic community who also happen to have the same love of the Middle Ages. And so I found myself in the company of 175 other delegates from 15 countries – some having travelled from as far afield as Australia, Korea and Canada – discussing how various aspects of the Middle Ages are represented today in literature, music, film, TV, climate change science and almost every other field imaginable.

I was there to deliver a paper entitled Representing the Middle Ages in Fiction, drawing upon my own experiences to discuss ways in which novelists might go about presenting their subjects in a historically responsible way. How rigorous should novelists be in their research? Can and should we hold them up to the same standards as professional historians? Accepting that a certain amount of invention and distortion is unavoidable in writing historical fiction, is there a certain point at which too much becomes unacceptable, and it descends into fantasy? What can historical fiction offer that non-fiction histories alone might ordinarily struggle to do?

The town of St Andrews, as seen from the top of the 12-century St Regulus' Tower, which stands amidst the cathedral ruins.

The town of St Andrews, as seen from the top of the 12-century St Regulus’ Tower, which stands amidst the cathedral ruins.

Lots of ground to cover, and lots of questions to try to answer, then, and all in a 20-minute paper! Needless to say it was a whistlestop tour through the world of the historical novelist. Also on the panel were Virginia Jenner from King’s College London with a paper on the various ways in which Isabel de Clare, the wife of the famous twelfth-century noble William Marshal, has been represented in fiction; and fellow author Christian Livermore from the University of St Andrews discussing the medieval tale of “The Three Living and the Three Dead”, and how she has used it to inform her latest work-in-progress, which updates the legend. As fun as it was to present my own paper, I was just as interested to hear theirs, and find out how other novelists have tackled similar issues in their work.

I also had the good fortune to meet and discuss writing with Felicitas Hoppe, a German novelist and recent winner of the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize – one of the most prestigious German-language literary awards – who gave a plenary lecture about the challenges of adapting medieval romances into fiction. Other brilliant lectures included James Robinson from the National Museum of Scotland speaking about the similarities between the cults of medieval saints and those of modern celebrities; Bruce Holsinger from the University of Virginia talking about how an extract from the Icelandic sagas has found its way into debates about global warming; and Patrick Geary from the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, examining how medieval ideas of European ethnicity still have political currency today.

Those were just a few of the highlights from the conference. More on those, and on the rest of my findings from my time in St Andrews, in Part Two of my report, coming soon!

Comments are closed.