As far as nouns go, I’m not certain of the definition of mush, but it sounds noxious and unappealing. Mash, in the same form, makes me think of whiskey, (sour), or the leftover scraps of food used to swill pigs. So I’m using the word hash in my title, as I certainly don’t mean to imply repugnancy, only something mixed together, unordered, messy.
My mystery/history hash began in the Newport News, VA airport. I usually can’t read books in crowded planes or noisy airports, but I knew I might have to wait an hour or so to be picked up on the Memphis end of my trip, and trust me on this, the Memphis airport at 9:00 pm is as deserted as they come. So I picked up a book. Agincourt, by Bernard Cornwall. I love his Sharpe books, love history, and knew nothing about Agincourt. (I’ve never even read Henry V.) I thought it was a no brainer. It turned out to be quite the opposite.
Agincourt revolves around Nicholas Hook, an archer of exceptional skill. It seems that archers were the deciding factor in the small English army’s victory against a much larger French force in that battle in 1415 France. Those archers didn’t use just any bow, but the famous war bow, known today as the longbow. That rang a bell. I remember the longbow because my Granddad Richards was from Wales, and the Welsh were known to be the best longbow archers in the British Isles. (I read this somewhere, so it must be true.) According to Cornwall, the longbow was widely used in the 1300-1400s in certain parts of Britain. What we commonly call medieval times.
Agincourt reminded me of another book I’d been wanting to re-read, set in the same time period, The Apothecary Rose by Candace Robb. It’s the first in a series of mysteries about Owen Archer, a Welsh bowman turned spy. He too shot the longbow. It turns out, these books are set in the 1360’s, about 50 years before Agincourt. I decided to check if Brother Cadfael, a Welsh soldier turned monk, was solving his cases at the same time. But, no. Ellis Peters set her books over two hundred years earlier. That surprised me, because I'd always imagined that when Owen Archer was out of York, unable to consult apothecary Lucy Wilton or Brother Wulfstan for a salve to soothe his disfiguring scar, he might turn to Brother Cadfael instead. That idea was blown, since neither of these novels include time travel.
I realized I had made hash, Medieval History/Mystery Hash -- a confused, messed up understanding of British history gained from assuming all medieval mysteries covered basically the same time period. I did study British history in college about uh-hum decades ago, but obviously things have gotten murky since then. This was driven home when I compared dates from other books on my shelf. Sister Fidelma -- mid 600s. Ursula Blanchard -- 1560. Brother Athelstan -- 1360s. Robin Hood I knew was earlier -- last half of the 1150s, Sister Frevisse -- 1430s. Robin Hood and Cadfael reference the Crusades, others allude to various kings, queens, and factions. But besides knowing Edward III had to have been born sometime after Edward II, that didn’t help me much. And, oh yes, where does Braveheart fit in? It includes a King Edward, as do the Owen Archer books. The same one, perhaps?
Now I’ve made hash a couple of times. I don’t care for finely dicing all the roast beef and veggies to get what is basically a pot roast with fixings. But sometimes I just crave an excuse to pour ketchup over everything and be done with it. So I have made it. On purpose. This most recent hash I had made inadvertently and it didn’t please me at all. When was the medieval period, anyway? And what about the so-called Dark Ages? Where in the world do my mysteries fit in?????
It didn’t surprise me that there are no hard and fast rules for when those historical time periods are considered to begin and end. History is fluid and rarely fits into neat boxes. It turns out medieval and Middle Ages are the same; the Dark Ages may or may not be included. (Merriam-Webster doesn't capitalize medieval, BTW.) In Britain the Dark Ages generally run from about 476 to 1066. The 1066 is obvious -- William the Conqueror and the Norman invasion of England, against which all British history may be measured. England’s 1776, if you will. But 476? Of course, my daughter said, wasn’t that the fall of the Roman empire? She was right. Show-off. So that means the Middle Ages begin roughly at 1066, but when do they end and the Renaissance begin? That depends. It depends on what country you’re looking at, for one thing. After that, take your pick. Perhaps it ends with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, or the end of the Hundred Years’ War, both 1453. You might prefer citing Gutenberg’s movable type, 1455, Columbus and 1492 or the beginning of the Reformation in 1517. To name a few. Oddly, the end of the Middle Ages in England is often cited quite specifically, August 22, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth. Richard III is killed and the Tudors take control of the throne. Cool. Now I know exactly where Richard III fits, at least.
So how was Cadfael’s England different from Brother Athelstan’s or Nicholas Hook’s? I’ve decided to make a timeline using each historical mystery series I read to help me get a clearer picture of what happened when. I expect that to take me a while, so I’ll have to get back to you on that one.
Read Well, Friend
Main Character and Author --
Sister Fidelma, Peter Tremayne
Robin Hood, Howard Pyle first and foremost
Brother Cadfael, Ellis Peters
Brother Athelstan, Paul Harding
Owen Archer, Candace Robb
Nicholas Hook, Bernard Carnwall
Sister Frevisse, Margaret Frazer
Richard III in Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey
Ursula Blanchard, Fiona Buckley
(Anyone know where I can find a good book about the Battle of Bosworth? I don’t know anything about it, either.)