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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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Give that bishop a name!

Sometimes, when writing a minor character into a historical novel, it’s not necessary to name the character if he or she isn’t terribly significant or doesn’t recur. Their purpose can be achieved through action alone. However, once in a while, research will offer an unexpected treat.

While writing A LAND BEYOND RAVENS, I needed to know if the title and function of bishop in the Christian church had come into existence by the fifth century in Britain. Specifically, I wanted to know about the area in what is now called Rhôs in North Wales. I often use the Catholic Encyclopedia for facts on early church history, although to pinpoint something in such a particular location and in so early a time is difficult, if not impossible. Eventually I determined that bishops were indeed in office then but ruled with much less authority than in later times.

Then I came across an official website from the Diocese of Bangor, North Wales, which includes Rhôs. In an article by Dr. Enid Pierce Roberts, I learned that Bangor is the oldest of the Welsh dioceses. Its origins stem from the arrival of St. Deiniol and a group of monks, who built the first church there and enclosed it and its surroundings in a wattle fence—a “bangor.” The community that lived within the enclosure included the monks, married secular clergy and lay people.

Deiniol’s arrival in Bangor is dated as AD 525—much too early for the book’s setting in the 480’s. It is also known that Christianity, especially in remote places in the kingdoms of what is now Wales, was slow to take root. However, in the Bangor area, a number of inscribed stones remain to this day that date to the late fifth or early sixth century, attesting that Christians did live in Rhôs earlier than Deiniol’s arrival.

Dr. Roberts notes that on one stone at Eglwys Rhôs (Rhôs Church), the name Sanctinus is inscribed. And…he is commemorated as sacerdos—which translates from Latin as a priest or even a bishop! A second stone mentions Bivatigirnus, also called sacerdos, and is located at Trescawen (Llangwyllog) on the island of Anglesey. On further investigation, my search was rewarded with the information that Sanctinus also had a less stuffy sounding name: Seithin. Perhaps he took the Latinized name during his rise within the church’s hierarchy. We don’t have exact dates for the two men, but that their stones pre-date the official establishment of the first church in Rhôs is significant enough that they could fit into the 480’s or thereabouts. The dates given in my books are there mostly as guideposts for the passage of time. I’d never claim that they should be taken as absolute concrete. As historian Geoffrey Ashe says: “…it would usually be pretentious to give even a ‘circa’ date…” when dealing with Dark Age Britain.

I never expected to find a name, let alone two, plus locations attached to each. What a reward! And it was especially so because one of the antagonists in the story is Cadwallon, king of Gwynedd, who had his home at Bod-ys-gollen, Rhôs, and was going to build a new capital at Aberffraw on the island of Anglesey (Ynys Môn), not so far from Trescawen! Perfect set up for conflict!

Perhaps it’s a bit pretentious on my part to have attached these two historical names to a pair of minor characters, but it’s hard to ignore that these folks existed around the right time and served in a function fitting to the story. Perhaps fictionalizing them gives them actions they never would have performed. But nailing down names and places gives the reader something more to latch on to than some generic fellow simply referred to as “the bishop.” As it’s been said, the devil is in the details. Maybe in this case the details are in the bishops.


robertsloan2art said...

This is exactly why I have yet to do any historical novels! Not that I wouldn't enjoy it, I just need a rather larger library of reference books than I could afford and a genuine interest in one specific period long enough to get ready for it. Of course then I'd have to do a series.

I generally do fantasy, SF, comedy and nonfiction (most of it art lessons). I'm in awe of what you do and this kind of research.

I didn't say I don't read good historical novels. I love them. Yours sounds better at every post, btw.

Kathleen Guler said...

Thank you so much for the kind words--they are much appreciated. I've built quite a good sized library over the years: been collecting information since the 1970's (dating myself now...). While the library where I live is great, it is small and therefore limited, being in a small town. The large libraries are 160+ miles away. Hooray for interlibrary loan systems! Fortunately, many of the books I have cover more than just the Dark Ages and may help with other periods should I go on to them (which I probably will...)