“The past is a foreign country”, we all know, “they do things differently there.” The mark of a great historical novelist is her or his ability to imagine that other country and bring it to life for us to such an extent that for a time we feel actually located there. In the English language, those greats include Hilary Mantel, Patrick O’Brian, Prudence Andrew, Mary Renault and Diana Norman, who died last month.Back in time
Ms Norman’s works included the novel Fitzempress’ Law, in which three present-day young losers are unwillingly transported back to the 12th century and made to inhabit three people for a year in that era, the reign of England’s greatest monarch, Henry II Fitzempress. They have many adventures, achieve good things for their avatars and return to their own century chastened and transformed. I own a copy of this enthralling novel but for the reasons given in the article I have just cited, I am keeping it under lock and key.
In tribute to Diana Norman, I have tried to imagine for myself what it would be like if one were transported back to the England of 1170 CE. What would you feel if you woke up to find yourself in a village there, strangely dressed, mounted on a horse and accompanied by a monosyllabic servant whose name you do not know?
Let’s be even more specific. Let’s assume that you clearly looked to be male, could understand some Middle English, could get by in medieval French and could follow the sense of debased Latin. If you could explain away your strange appearance by claiming to be an envoy from Prester John, what would the whole experience be like? What, to start at the most immediate, would your senses tell you?
The first impressions would be through the sense of smell. You would immediately feel the absence of exhaust fumes, and everything would seem richer and more natural in 1170 because of it; but it’s also fair to say that the stink of human and animal waste, overlaid by woodsmoke, would be overwhelming.
The sounds of silence
The next sense to alert you would be your hearing. Everything around you would seem to exist in a great silence – no traffic hum, no sounds of on-demand systems like the central heating, no communications chatter – but it would be a silence punctuated by sudden animal cries, and distant voices, as well as a lot more birdsong than you would be accustomed to.
Then there is sense through sight. What would you see? Without roads, power cables, streetlights, road signs, long straight walls or buildings of two stories or more, you would think you were in the backwoods of a national park, complete with a little river. And all those trees!
Meet your ancestors
At this point you lift your gaze and for the first time notice local people. They will seem shorter, thinner and, well, uglier than anybody you know and much more badly dressed in what appears to be sacking. Several men and women will show signs of suffering significant disabilities and other ailments, and all the children will seem wan and undernourished. Now you will see what rickets and untreated glaucoma look like. The dwellings from which they all emerge to stare at you will look like squat, dun-coloured bothies covered in untidy thatch. To your eyes, everything will seem smaller and sparser, but for the endless woodland stretching into the distance.
Then you lift your gaze and notice for the first time a rough tower attached to a low, stone building. That is the church, and its tower was built two hundred years ago to provide the village with a lookout as a first line of defence against Viking warbands. Over there, in the distance, you can see a taller tower surrounded by a huddle of buildings, some of them built in stone. Evidently a monastery or abbey of some kind, it draws your attention so completely that it is some time before you notice the squat shape of a fort on another hill further away on the other side of the river. On its walls can be seen two or three tiny figures moving about.
For now, it seems best to turn the horse and ride up a rough, narrow track towards the monastery. As you do so, a bell begins to ring and its sound echoes round the valley, punctuating the great silence of its surrounding hills and woods. You reach the monastery and pass through its gate. Someone holds the horse’s head whilst you dismount and stride into the yard. Two monks approach you. The elder of the two (the Guestmaster?) is obviously astonished at what he sees, but it seems that he is welcoming you to whatever accommodation the abbey can offer, and at last you feel that something positive is happening in this strange adventure.
You are shown into a sparse, clean cell in which someone has placed a large bowl of tepid water. Before cleaning up, you exit the cell and wander around looking for somewhere to pee. A powerful excremental smell leads you to a latrine area from where, having relieved yourself as quickly as possible, you return to your cell and wash. Then you sit on the small wooden bed with its thin straw palliase and brood on everything you have encountered so far.
Touch and taste
The feel of things, for example: it will suddenly occur to you that everything you have touched or seen up close is noticeably rougher and in a sense much more tactile than anything else you are accustomed to in your world. It will strike you that, apart from the people and their animals and their natural surroundings, everything is handmade. The age of the machine has not yet dawned here. Its precursors the loom and the mill have arrived, it is true, but that is all.
You have not yet tasted anything, and you are growing hungry, especially as you can now smell the aroma of baking bread wafting through the cloister. This is the first pleasant smell you have experienced since your arrival. It’s also apparent that, in the same way, the monastery is the first feature you have come across which can be said to bear some relationship,however meagre, to western civilisation as you know it.
Soon comes a monk and leads you into the abbey church where you are greeted by another pleasant smell: that of incense. Two dozen or so drably robed brethren have gathered to sing the regular service. Their chanting is an unskilful, monotonous drone and your attention begins to wander. You look around.
You will notice for example that at the western end of the building the nave is a bare open space. There are a few people standing or kneeling on the ground; there are no seats anyway. There is very little light in the building but you can see that, for example, all the arches are round, not pointed. More jarring is the fact that almost all the stone surfaces are painted in crude, discordant colours in various stages of brightness or fading. The effect is to make the church something more like a Hindu temple than a Christian building.
Eventually the droning dies away, the service end and the monks file out of the church. You are invited to follow them to a large chamber with long oak end to end tables set with a bowl and a beaker at each place: this is evidently the refectory. In the middle of it stands a lectern. The monks take their places and bow their heads in prayer; one goes to the lectren and begins to read aloud. Otherwise there is complete silence whilst tureens of soup are brought in and their contents ladled out to each monk. Each has a fistful of black bread to supplement his serving and there are wheat-coloured ceramic jugs of water on each table. The atmosphere is one of peace in seclusion. The crude ugliness of the village down the hill seems very far away.
The soup is a thin vegetable concoction, fairly tasty. You suspect that meat is served only rarely. As your first experience of the way things taste in the ‘foreign country’, it’s acceptable. As the meal finishes a monk comes up to you and leads you away.
Here we must leave you to have a good night’s rest, ready for new sensory data and how you are reacting to it in this strange place tomorrow. Continued.