Hello everyone,

Research is a constant, ongoing process while writing historical fiction. Sometimes a fascinating tidbit surfaces that might be of particular interest beyond its use in a novel. As I continue to work in the historical fiction field, I will post those occasional points of interest here. Occasionally I muse on the writing process as well along with news to keep readers informed of what's going on with my books and other writings.

Please feel free to post comments--I'd love to hear from you.

The photo above is of Snowdonia in North Wales, which plays a large part in the setting of the Macsen's Treasure Series.


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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Arthur's Battle List-Part 2

The sixth of Arthur's famed twelve battles, according to Nennius in the Historia Brittonum, took place on the River Bassas. As with most of the battles, the location has never been identified. It's not even sure that there were twelve battles—the possibility looms that perhaps the number may have been expanded to twelve in order to neatly coincide with other commonly known twelves: twelve apostles, twelve months in the year and so on.

But in needing to name a logical location for the battle in the setting of a novel, what to do? Currently no rivers in the UK are called Bassas or any similar name. Historians have gone over numerous possibilities and come to no conclusion. To name a location but give no hint of where it is will unfairly confuse readers. Even if the location is ultimately proven to be elsewhere or never discovered at all, a novelist should at least attempt to give the reader some sense of where the place lies.

So, in search of Bassas, I turned to my guidebook of place names (Place Names of England Wales, by James Johnson, 1994, Bracken Books) and found a number of places that begin with bas- or bass-. In considering possibilities, I weighed them against the following points:

1. The frontier of Saxon encroachment at the time of the battles likely would have been drawn generally along a north-south line between what is now Wales and the west midlands (See Arthur’s Battle List—Part 1).

2. The time would likely have been within the last ten to fifteen years of the 5th century CE.

3. The meanings of the place names, if known, must fit within the timeframe of point #2.

The first possibility I found is Baschurch, located near Shrewsbury. The location is definitely appropriate. The name means ‘church of Bassa.’ Bassa or Bassus was a valiant soldier of King Edwin of Northumbria and is mentioned in Bede’s 8th century writings. Unfortunately, the soldier’s lifetime falls in a later period than the late fifth century. Scratch that one.

A second selection is Bassenthwaite, near Keswick. Keswick is in the lake district of Cumbria, much too far north to be in the midst of the Saxon encroachment. Doesn’t look good already. The name means ‘place of Bassa.’ Is this the same Bassa/Bassus of Baschurch? If so, again the period is too late.A third choice is Bassaleg, near Newport in Monmouthshire, southeast Wales. The guidebook’s entry reads:

“Thought to be c. 800 Nennius . . . and so = the modern Welsh name Maesaleg, ‘plain of Ælloc or Aloc’. . . Close by is maes Arthur, ‘plain of Arthur’.”

The reference to ‘Nennius, c. 800’ is the citation of the entry’s source—the Historia Brittonum, attributed to Nennius, around 800 CE. This is also the source of the battle-list. Right off, the source makes this choice striking enough to start ringing bells. The reference to Arthur is more than intriguing as well. And on top of that, the location is in southeast Wales—a very plausible site for one of Arthur’s battles.

Coincidence? Maybe. Many places have Arthur’s name attached to them simply for the sake of fame or sentimentality. But gosh, a plain close by with Arthur’s name on it? That could certainly have been a battlefield. And in the Welsh language, certain consonants mutate between b’s and m’s—Bassalag, Maesaleg. And several rivers flow through the area.

Hard to ignore, isn’t it?

Who knows? My simplistic reasoning may be a shaky stretch at best in proposing that Bassaleg and its environs could be the location of the battle on the River Bassas—as with anything from the Dark Age era. Perhaps it could be suggested to professional scholars to explore this notion. Even if it were soundly dismissed in the end, it’s still a place to start. And for a piece of fiction, there’s nothing wrong with using it as a location—as long as the author’s notes explain the theory behind the placement. Best, the reader will have a spot on a map to look at.

One more note on this particular bit of research: originally I believed the battle on the River Bassas would be included in A Land Beyond Ravens—that’s why I pursued the evidence. Plus it’s just plain fun to exercise research skills and see if the Arthurian scholars can be outwitted. Alas, as it turns out, I didn’t use this tidbit for the book, but perhaps in the future it may end up in another story. Never throw away any research! Someday it may prove useful. And someday, perhaps the historians might even agree with the theory…?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Knights by any other name

King Arthur, if he existed, would have lived in the latter part of the 5th century and the early part of the 6th century, with his height of power around the year AD 500. The word 'knight' is a Norman invention, brought to England with the invasion of William the Conquerer in 1066, more than 500 years after Arthur's time. That means Arthur's Knights of the Round Table would not have been called 'knights.' Then what were they?

Novelists who have set Arthur in the high middle ages of the 12th century use the term 'knight' to comply with the later setting. Others use the term regardless of historical inaccuracy. I've seen combrogi used--an adaptation of an old Welsh name akin to brotherhood--or equites, playing on the lingering Latin/Roman influence. And then there is the ever popular 'warrior' as well!

In my research I came across another possibility. Since the stories of Arthur emerged from old Welsh tales, what were they called in Welsh? Knights were supposedly mounted--they were horsemen as opposed to foot soldiers. So, looking in my Welsh dictionary I find the word marchog for horseman, the plural marchogion for horsemen. And when you look in the Welsh to English section, marchog means horseman and...a meaning that become attached the word...knight! For a warlord or king who rose to power in the time when Britain was mostly populated by a Celtic-based culture, marchogion seems to make a lot of sense. Celtic people revered horses (and still do!) very highly and associated them with royalty and kingship, an aspect of their culture descended from their nomadic continental ancestors.