22 September 2014

Wonders and Marvels: The Mezquita of Córdoba

By Kathryn A. Kopple

Córdoba is an ancient city in the region of Andalusia, southern Spain; a city that has everything for which a traveler in search of old-world charm could hope:  beautifully symmetrical plazas, exotic flowering gardens, reflecting pools, winding stone streets, beguiling alleyways, white-washed walls, colorful tiled facades, high towers, opulent palaces, sparkling fountains, bustling shops, any number of cafes and restaurants, and elegant hotels.  Córdoba also has the distinction of being one of the few—if only--places in the world where it is possible to say:  Voy a la Mezquita a oír misa.  I’m going to the Mosque to hear Mass.  Mezquita refers to the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the most significant and beautiful Islamic structure in the West.   Although the Mezquita retains important architectural elements of the original mosque, hundreds of years have passed since it was converted into the cathedral named in honor of the Virgin of the Assumption.  And yet, while it is a Catholic church where Christians may gather for worship, the people of Spain still refer to the cathedral as the Mezquita.


Recently, while in Spain, my family and I drove from Madrid to Córdoba en route to Granada and Sevilla.  Spain has always been a place to which I’ve returned.  Spain was where, in my well-spent youth, I went to live and study—and, of course, see as much of Iberia as I could see.  During my years abroad, I ventured as far east as Barcelona, had travelled as far west as Portugal, went as far north as Santander, and wandered as far south as Marrakesh.  I spent a year in Sevilla after graduating from college.  I would return again to Spain to take up residence in Madrid.   I’d seen the sun rise over the Alhambra. There had been a memorable ski trip to the Pyrenees.  I’d scaled the Art Nouveau cathedral  (still under construction) known as the Sagrada Familia.  I’d set out on my own for the historic cities of Toledo and Segovia.  One infernally hot day, I hopped a bus that took me to San Lorenzo to the Escorial (the austere palace built by Philip II).  At the invitation of friends, the pristine beaches of Huelva were all mine for a weekend.  But, for all of this travel, I had never been to Córdoba, and not for lack of trying.  Either I would run out of time or money or both, making it necessary to forfeit any plans I might have to visit the fabled city.  I regretted it, naturally.  Spanish friends would ask:  And Córdoba? Did you go to Córdoba?  Did you visit the Mezquita?  No, no.  I had not been there.  Once, a Spaniard and dear friend said to me: “If I had to choose, I would choose the Mezquita over all else in Spain.” I smiled.  Considering all Spain has to offer, that was saying something.  She went on to explain that palaces, cathedrals, museums—all of these were cultural monuments of which to be proud.  But there was nothing like the Mezquita.  Her enthusiasm, indeed passion, for the great mosque moved me.  I was determined that, on this trip, I would not leave the country until I had could say the same.  Now, having been there, I can.  I have been to the Mezquita and it is every bit as wondrous as its reputation.


 I have been to the Mezquita, and it is wondrous and complex.  The visitor enters a large courtyard enlivened with orange trees.  The size of the courtyard is remarkable, and so is the water system cut into the stone in precise lines that crisscross the patio.  A place of precision and repose; it is a place that invites lingering, reflection.  Then, it is on to the main hall.  It has been described as “a non-hierarchical, almost abstract space with a system of columns and arches extending in all directions in a strict grid… This arcaded hypostyle hall, in its final form, is composed of a ‘forest’ of 856 columns of jasper, onyx, marble, and granite supporting red and white arches… The double arches consist of a lower horseshoe arch and an upper semi-circular arch, a technical solution which allowed higher ceilings that would otherwise be possible only with relatively low columns.”  This forest of elaborate semi-circles is by far the most intriguing aspect of the Mezquita; it elicits a sense of order that does not impede the impression of spaciousness and freedom.  Airy, colorful, and peaceful.   Impressive as it is, the visitor enjoys a sample of the original mosque as “in the 16th century the clergy of Cordoba decided to increase the size of the Cathedral: the new project consisted in the demolition of an important part of the forest of columns and the insertion of a Christian cathedral grandly combining Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles, although altering forever the unity of the Muslim building.”  The effect is not altogether successful—as Charles V lamented—but luckily not all has been lost, and by far, the remains of the original mosque are without a doubt lovely and compelling.


 While there, I was in the company of tourists from all parts, including Muslims.  I couldn’t help but wondering what they felt, thought, as they toured the mosque.  Muslims are not allowed to pray at the Mezquita.  To this day, the debate rages on as to why they should be prohibited from doing so.   In times such as these, lifting the prohibition would be seen as a gesture of reconciliation.  History is not so easily effaced—or forgotten.   To preserve a cultural treasure is one thing, but the Mezquita remains a contested site, and will continue to be so unless those of Islamic faith may find there a place to worship alongside Christians.  

Sources:    http://socks-studio.com/2014/04/11/the-field-and-the-nave-the-mezquita-of-cordoba/

Kathryn A. Kopple is the author of Little Velásquez, a novel set in 15th century Spain.  

21 September 2014

Author Interview & Ebook Giveaway: Alison Morton on PERFIDITAS

This week, we're pleased to welcome author Alison Morton with the second in her Roma Nova series, PERFIDITAS. One lucky visitor will get a free copy of Perfiditas. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

Captain Carina Mitela of the Praetorian Guard Special Forces is in trouble – one colleague has tried to kill her and another has set a trap to incriminate her in a conspiracy to topple the government of Roma Nova. Founded sixteen hundred years ago by Roman dissidents and ruled by women, Roma Nova barely survived a devastating coup d’état thirty years ago. Carina swears to prevent a repeat and not merely for love of country.

Seeking help from a not quite legal old friend could wreck her marriage to the enigmatic Conrad. Once she’s proscribed and operating illegally, she risks being terminated by both security services and conspirators. As she struggles to overcome the desperate odds and save her beloved Roma Nova and her own life, she faces the ultimate betrayal…

“Sassy, intriguing, page-turning…  Roma Nova is a fascinating world” - Simon Scarrow

**Q&A with Alison Morton**

September is the month of wonders and marvels here at Unusual Historicals. How does PERFIDITAS fit in?

Well, the whole background to the Roma Nova books is ‘wondrous and marvellous’ as it’s a story of alternate history, where at a point in the past the timeline diverged from the one we know and went in a different direction.

For Roma Nova, that split was in AD 395 as the Roman Empire was fading. The small colony struggled to survive into the 21st century and managed to keep its Roman core values, but with a difference – it became egalitarian and is governed by women. If you would like to know why and how, there’s a potted history of the imaginary Roma Nova on my blog.

What made you bring the Roman theme up to the present day instead of setting your story in ancient Rome?

Although ancient Roman society had evolved significantly by the late fourth century and Roman women owned property, businesses and enjoyed more civil freedoms than several hundred years previously, they were still, to our modern eyes, second or class citizens. It would have been unrealistic for a heroine like Carina to live and work as a Praetorian in ancient Rome.

I wanted to explore the theme of a modern society, but traditionally Roman in style and custom. Alternate history allows you to explore the ‘what if’ questions and the juxtaposition of putting female members of a society we have always thought of as very male dominated onto more than equal terms with men was such a tempting one…

PERFIDITAS is the second book in your Roma Nova series, the sequel to your exciting debut novel INCEPTIO. Please tell us a little bit about the title.

PERFIDITAS means betrayal - our words ‘perfidy’ and ‘perfidious’ are closely related. To the Roma Novans who have invested their whole way of life over many centuries in their core values of rule of law, justice and service to the state, betrayal is deeply repugnant. And in PERFIDITAS the betrayal is political, professional and very personal.

How do you research an alternate history novel?

When you write alternate history, you need imagination as you are writing ‘into the void’; there are no sources.  However, you must be driven by historical logic and integrate your imagined country with the rest of the world. Of course, that rest of the world will probably be different from ours as well.

On a practical level, I have a general grounding in Roman history from reading classical texts, such as Pliny, Suetonius, Caesar’s Gallic Wars and modern history texts, plus my father introduced me to the Roman world at age 11. To me, it seemed perfectly normal to clamber over Roman aqueducts, walk on mosaic pavements, pretend I was a Roman actor in classic theatres all over Europe from Spain to then Yugoslavia, from Hadrian’s Wall to Pompeii. So I have a ‘feel’ for the Roman world. But I keep reading as there are new discoveries and new research appearing all the time.

As for writing the military scenes in PERFIDITAS, I spent six years in the reserve forces, which gave me experience of military life first hand. I know what it was like to crawl around woods, simulate battle, how to endure cold and move silently towards your objective.

The thing that keeps me digging is the determination not to give up even if the result is not what I expected. For instance, my characters catch bad guys in the 21st century, but I wanted to find out if there were special forces and spies during the ancient Roman period so I could bring anything with a Roman flavour into my books. I searched for sources and came across Exploratio by Austin and Rankin about military and political intelligence in the ancient Roman world. Perfect, I thought.

It turned out that there was no centralized intelligence organisation and it was all chaotically arranged on a regional basis with a lot of infighting in Rome itself until the later Roman period. Sixteen hundred years on, I’ve made their descendants a great deal better organised!

How do you portray characters accurately in the alternative world while still captivating readers in the real world?

Ha! That’s the crucial question. There are twin elements: the first is our old friend research. Knowing about food, costume and work, but also attitudes to crime, life, death, servants, masters, marriage, trade, property will give any historical writer a firm knowledge base against which to work.

The second element is plausibility. The writer has to maintain the reader’s trust. One way to do this is to infuse, but not flood, the story with corroborative detail so that it verifies and reinforces the plot and narrative. Even though my books are set in the 21st century, the Roman characters say things like ‘I wouldn’t be in your sandals (not shoes) when he finds out.’ 

Human beings of all ages and cultures have similar emotional needs, hurts and joys. Of course, they’re expressed differently, sometimes in an alienating or (to us) peculiar way. But a romantic relationship, for example, whether as instant as Colonel Brandon when he sees Marianne in Sense and Sensibility or the careful but intense relationship of Eve Dallas and Roarke in the Death series, binds us into their stories.

The hardest element is the conflict between projecting standard western sensitivities and viewpoints on to people living in a completely different set of circumstances, whether it’s the past or a different country, or both. And it’s not always true that people today are more liberal and enlightened than those in the past.

Ancient Romans were very open about sexual matters as they regarded sex as allied to fertility and survival rather than embarrassment and guilt. They would have given you a puzzled look if you’d suggested love was they main reason for marriage. My Roma Novans live in the 21st century but retain a similar practical attitude. They often partner or marry to have children to continue their families or consolidate property. Carina and her partner, Conrad are unusual in that they are strongly emotionally bound to each other in mutual love. But it doesn’t guarantee they always will be…

So what’s next in Roma Nova?

Well, book three, SUCCESSIO, which has the twin meanings of ‘what happened next’ and ‘the next generation’, has just come out. The action takes place seven years after the end of PERFIDITAS and deals with a threat from the past which even Carina may not be able to deal with …

Perhaps I’ll come back and tell you about it another time. ;-)

Thank you for joining me today and warm thanks to Unusual Historicals for inviting me.


PERFIDITAS is available through your local bookshop (paperback), Amazon (myBook.to/PERFIDITAS) and other online retailers here http://alison-morton.com/perfiditas/where-to-buy-perfiditas/.
PERFIDITAS will be at a special price of $1.99/£1.29 from 17 September through to 25 September.
About the Author

Alison Morton writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with strong heroines. She holds a bachelor’s degree in French, German, and Economics, a masters’ in history and lives in France with her husband.

A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, she has visited sites throughout Europe including the alma mater, Rome. But it was the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain) that started her wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by women…

INCEPTIO, the first in the Roma Nova series, which was shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award, and PERFIDITAS, the second in series, have been honoured with the B.R.A.G. Medallion®, an award for independent fiction that rejects 90% of its applicants. INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS were shortlisted for Writing Magazine’s 2014 Self-Publishing Book of the Year Award. Alison’s third book SUCCESSIO came out in June 2014 and was selected in August 2014 by the Historical Novel Society as indie Editor’s Choice.

Links

Connect with Alison on her blog http://alison-morton.com/blog/
Twitter https://twitter.com/alison_morton @alison-morton

Buying links (multiple retailers/formats):
SUCCESSIO: http://alison-morton.com/successio/where-to-buy-successio/

18 September 2014

Excerpt Thursday: PERFIDITAS by Alison Morton

This week, we're pleased to welcome author Alison Morton with the second in her Roma Nova series, PERFIDITAS. Join us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. One lucky visitor will get a free copy of Perfiditas. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

Captain Carina Mitela of the Praetorian Guard Special Forces is in trouble – one colleague has tried to kill her and another has set a trap to incriminate her in a conspiracy to topple the government of Roma Nova. Founded sixteen hundred years ago by Roman dissidents and ruled by women, Roma Nova barely survived a devastating coup d’état thirty years ago. Carina swears to prevent a repeat and not merely for love of country.

Seeking help from a not quite legal old friend could wreck her marriage to the enigmatic Conrad. Once she’s proscribed and operating illegally, she risks being terminated by both security services and conspirators. As she struggles to overcome the desperate odds and save her beloved Roma Nova and her own life, she faces the ultimate betrayal…

“Sassy, intriguing, page-turning…  Roma Nova is a fascinating world” - Simon Scarrow

**An Excerpt from PERFIDITAS**

‘Captain Carina Mitela?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Who is this?’
Custodes XI Station. An emergency token with your code has been handed in. We’re holding the presenter.’
Juno.
I dropped everything and headed for the tunnel connecting our headquarters to the police station.  The duty sergeant, with a typical cop’s bland expression but trying to conceal a speculative gleam in her eyes, handed me the token without a word.
As we walked to the interview rooms, I stared at the thirty-nine millimetre diameter disc, made to imitate a casino chip, indigo blue polycarbonate shielding the tiny microprocessor. The last one I’d had in was from an informant handling incoming diplomatic baggage at the airport; her sharp eyes had spotted a very undiplomatic cargo of compact assault rifles. Sure, Roma Nova was a small country, hidden away between New Austria and Italy, but we weren’t stupid or sloppy. Working with the Intelligence section, I’d traced the weapons back to their Balkan Republic origins and led a covert service unit to destroy their warehouse.
The figure I saw today through the smartplex observation window of the public interview room was slumped over, elbows on the table, hands braced her under her chin, her long black hair looking like it hadn’t seen a brush for days. Mossia Antonia. She owned and ran one of the toughest, and most exclusive, training gyms in the country. Right now, she looked like a street vagrant.
I shucked off my uniform of beige shirt and pants and black tee, and pulled on the casuals the custodes duty sergeant had found in lost property for me, ignoring the smell of stale food and cooking fat clinging to them.
Mossia jerked her head up as I entered the room.
Salve, Mossia. What’s the problem?’ I plunked myself down on the other chair, crossed my arms and waited.
‘Bruna?’ She blinked and shook her head like she didn’t believe what she saw.
I opened my hand in a gesture inviting her to talk.
‘Aidan has disappeared,’ she said, looking down and rubbing the table with her index finger. Inlaid with coffee rings from careless mugs, the plastic surface reflected the impacts of hard-tipped pens and handcuff scrapes.
‘Are you sure?’
She nodded.
‘How do you know? Aidan has other clients apart from yours. Maybe he’s gone on vacation, or been called away.’
Her head came up at that. ‘His first duty is to me – I pay him a good retainer to look after my clients.’
‘So what makes you think he’s not coming back?’
‘This.’
She pulled out a folded piece of paper with black, sloping writing. I read it, laid it down on the table, and leaned back in my chair. Then I picked it up and read it again. I couldn’t believe it. He wrote he couldn’t bear it any longer; he’d had enough of her unfair working practices. He resigned with immediate effect and would make sure her clients knew exactly why he’d done it. I pinched the bridge of my nose to make sure I was awake.
‘He took nearly a thousand solidi from the cash drawer and my gold pen.’ Mossia jabbed the air with her finger. ‘Whatever. What really bugs me are those lies.’ Her face was rigid and her eyes blazing. ‘I could kill him for that.’ Her chair crashed backwards to the ground with the force of her jumping up. She started pacing around the room like a lion in the arena.
I wasn’t surprised at her anger. She worked her people hard, but looked after them. I knew her employment packages were first-class; as an anonymous shareholder, I’d seen her accounts.
‘You’ve reported him to the custodes as a missing person?’
‘I’m reporting it to you.’
‘Why? I’m not the custodes.’
‘Well, you’re something like that.’ Ninety-eight per cent of my colleagues in the Praetorian Guard Special Forces would take offence at that, but I let it pass.
She came to rest by the table and looked down at me.
‘What?’ I said.
‘It’s personal.’
‘Were you sleeping with him?’
Her shoulders slumped and she crossed her arms across her chest.
‘Silly sod.’
She pulled a small moue.
I stretched over and touched her forearm in sympathy. I shot a side glance at the watch on my outstretched wrist. Hades!
‘I’ll have the custodes log it,’ I said and stood up. ‘You go home now or, better, back to the gym. The custodes will let you know of any developments.’
She took a full stride toward me, so near that she was all but touching me. ‘What do you mean? Aren’t you going to do anything about it?’
‘Okay, it’s bloody annoying, it’s hurtful, whatever, but it’s hardly a case for an emergency token. Leave it with the custodes.’
I stepped away and pushed my chair under the edge of the table.
‘Come on, Mossia, time to go. Think of the money you’re not making while you’re wasting time here.’
She shot me a vicious look. The anger was rolling off her. She took a deep breath and gazed unseeing at the dirty beige walls for a minute or so.
Had I been too harsh? A stab of guilt prodded me. I’d known Mossia for years, but my schedule was crushing and I was behind already.
I knocked on the door which opened inward revealing a blue-uniformed custos.
‘We’re finished here,’ I told him.
I looked at Mossia’s taut, silent figure. ‘The custos will see you out. I’ll stop by the gym if I hear anything.’
‘Well, screw you!’ She turned her back to me and stalked out without another word.


PERFIDITAS is available through your local bookshop (paperback), Amazon (myBook.to/PERFIDITAS) and other online retailers here http://alison-morton.com/perfiditas/where-to-buy-perfiditas/.
PERFIDITAS will be at a special price of $1.99/£1.29 from 17 September through to 25 September.
About the Author

Alison Morton writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with strong heroines. She holds a bachelor’s degree in French, German, and Economics, a masters’ in history and lives in France with her husband.

A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, she has visited sites throughout Europe including the alma mater, Rome. But it was the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain) that started her wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by women…

INCEPTIO, the first in the Roma Nova series, which was shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award, and PERFIDITAS, the second in series, have been honoured with the B.R.A.G. Medallion®, an award for independent fiction that rejects 90% of its applicants. INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS were shortlisted for Writing Magazine’s 2014 Self-Publishing Book of the Year Award. Alison’s third book SUCCESSIO came out in June 2014 and was selected in August 2014 by the Historical Novel Society as indie Editor’s Choice.

Links

Connect with Alison on her blog http://alison-morton.com/blog/
Twitter https://twitter.com/alison_morton @alison-morton

Buying links (multiple retailers/formats):
SUCCESSIO: http://alison-morton.com/successio/where-to-buy-successio/

16 September 2014

Wonders and Marvels: Tiny Orkney Yields Its Big Secret


Theories change over time in archaeology as with other disciplines. The 19th century emphasis on the Mediterranean and Egypt as the cradle-of-everything, given that was the region where most early digs occurred, is shifting as more digs are conducted in northern Europe relative to exploration in the 18th and 19th century. Sometimes it is easier to dig in your own back yard, for various reasons beyond the scope of this piece.

A remote corner of Scotland provides the latest major discovery.  First, some background. In the Isles, experts like Cunliffe at Oxford had already emphasized the importance of pre-Roman culture. For example, the Isles' natives knew how to survey and build straight roads between two points, and they had organized settlements with defensive walls, and all happened well before the southern area of Prydain (Britain) was forcefully annexed to Rome's Iron Age empire. It is also accepted that the Newgrange or Bru na Boinne complex in Ireland predates the Pyramids (and Stonehenge).

The Isles were not a cultural backwater waiting for rescue by Rome or anyone. The Neolithic cultures who built great passage tombs had connected very early (well prior to 3000 BCE) by marine trade to many areas of the Continent. Irish gold jewelry set the fashion from ca. 2500 BCE onward as attested by pieces found all over northern Europe. The Isles' early smelting of copper in southwest Ireland radically changed the megalithic culture along the Atlantic coasts. This change is portrayed in Bending The Boyne. With bronze smelting (1 part tin, 9 parts copper) from tin in Wales and Cornwall, the Isles became the innovators in weapons and bronze metallurgy for over a thousand years, roughly 2000 BCE to 600 BCE when iron weapons and tools took over. During this time frame and up to what is considered recorded history* the Isles supplied tin for bronze to the Continent and made superior finished metal goods. Cornish tin may have equipped warriors at Troy with bronze spearhead and helmets, and formed Achilles' famed shield.

Now comes a further, major shift from a massive new dig on Orkney off the northeast corner of Scotland.  Over prior decades, Orkney had yielded the remarkable stone dwellings clustered at Skara Brae, the massive passage tomb of Maes Howe roughly contemporaneous with Bru na Boinne in Ireland, and the Eagles' Tomb burial site along with stone circles like Stennes. All this could be seen, touched, evaluated. Much has been dated to the Neolithic. But the biggest discovery lay buried underneath a long hill, a ceremonial complex that archaeologists literally drove past without giving it a second thought. Then one professional living on Orkney decided to dig at the Ness of Brodgar, a finger of land holding the hill barrow. The size of the complex, the skilled masonry of its walls and flagged paths, and varied artifacts coming to light, are all supporting Orkney as a major cultural center. Bits of painted wall and rock, and a small anthropomorphic statue, are a first in the Isles' Neolithic. The cultural center for Prydain was at Orkney, not Wessex, and lasted around a thousand years.  Its demise is thought to have happened around 2300 BCE ( see Bending The Boyne).  http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/oct/06/orkney-temple-centre-ancient-britainalso http://archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com/2012/01/orkney-temple-predates-stonehenge-by.html#.U_YsMvldWAk

What has been found overturns the view that Stonehenge represents the cultural apogee for ancient Prydain. A corollary is that the meaning of Orkney's huge sacral landscape must be newly evaluated by archaeologists, then translated for the public in various media of film and books. Must we then endure more recycled, mumbling Druids?  Will Merlin and Arthur be dragged to Orkney? More damsels in distress defying the laws of physics to time travel? This might seem a rant, but not without justification.

Archaeology's theoretical shift over the past decade has yet to be fully explored in historical fiction. Native Gaelic-speaking clans in the Isles, Iberia, and Gaul, are still portrayed in fiction as having less sophistication or intelligence than the militaristic Romans who arrived fairly late on the scene and wearing sandals despite the climate! Any skills the Gaels do exhibit in certain fiction tend unfortunately to be vague or based on occult practices by mythical “Druids” hunting mistletoe who rule over an unskilled, unwashed populace.  This is like using the imagery of Grimm's fairy tales to portray medieval Europe's culture. This is as offensive as calling native Americans Indians.

There's plenty of room for different styles in fiction, yes. But less fantasy, and a lot more accuracy, would greatly benefit readers seeking historical fiction about the ancient Gaels. This is an instance of truth being stranger than fiction, that little Orkney holds the remains of the largest ceremonial center found to date in northern Europe. See also :  http://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/news/neolithic-temples-of-the-northern-isles.htm

*Linguist John Koch's work on Tartessian script in southwest Iberia is pushing back the time frame for written Gaelic. See Celtic From The West, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Oxbow Books (2012 and 2014).
  
About The Author

J.S. Dunn lived in Ireland during the past decade, on 12 lovely acres fronting a salmon river. The author continues to research and travel the Atlantic coasts and is helping to shift the old paradigm of “Celts” with a second novel set at 1600 BCE.


14 September 2014

Author Interview & Ebook Giveaway: Kim Rendfeld on THE ASHES OF HEAVEN’S PILLAR

This week, we're pleased to welcome author and Unusual Historicals contributor Kim Rendfeld with her newest release THE ASHES OF HEAVEN’S PILLAR. One lucky blog visitor will receive an ebook. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

Can love triumph over war?

772 AD: Charlemagne’s battles in Saxony have left Leova with nothing but her two children, Deorlaf and Sunwynn. Her beloved husband died in combat. Her faith lies shattered in the ashes of the Irminsul, the Pillar of Heaven. The relatives obligated to defend her and her family instead sell them into slavery.

In Francia, Leova is resolved to protect her son and daughter, even if it means sacrificing her own honor. Her determination only grows stronger as Sunwynn blossoms into a beautiful young woman attracting the lust of a cruel master and Deorlaf becomes a headstrong man willing to brave starvation and demons to free his family. Yet Leova’s most difficult dilemma comes in the form of a Frankish friend, Hugh. He saves Deorlaf from a fanatical Saxon and is Sunwynn’s champion - but he is the warrior who slew Leova’s husband.

Set against a backdrop of historic events, including the destruction of the Irminsul, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar explores faith, friendship, and justice. This companion to Kim Rendfeld’s acclaimed The Cross and the Dragon tells the story of an ordinary family in extraordinary circumstances.

**Q&A with Kim Rendfeld, author of The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar**

Your first book, The Cross and the Dragon, was also set in eighth century Europe. Why write in this time period again?

After I finished writing The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press), a tale of love amid wars and blood feuds, I went through an odd form of grief. I missed my characters, and the only way to deal with that feeling of loss was to write another book. I chose this era again because it fascinates me. It’s a society where the king’s decision on whom to wed can mean the difference between peace and war, where medicine, magic, and religion intersect, and where real-life gutsy women tried to shape the events around them. I simply couldn’t fit them all in one book.

In particular, two pieces of information rattled in my mind:
·         In 772, Frankish King Charles destroyed the Irminsul, a pillar holy to the pagan Saxon peoples.
·         Slavery was alive and well in this era, and war captives often ended up in servitude.

I wondered what it would be like to have your faith literally go up in smoke and what it would be like to be a freewoman one moment and a slave the next.

Why did you make a pagan, peasant woman your heroine?

At first, I was going to feature a couple of nuns I met in The Cross and the Dragon, but I couldn’t quite get a plot together, and the Saxon family with their back story of loss and betrayal captivated me. I surrendered to them and made that back story the main story.

My interest in featuring a common woman also stems from spending almost two decades in Indiana newsrooms. When I was a journalist, I believed one of my duties was to give a voice to people who did not have a lot of influence otherwise, and that instinct has followed me as I write historical fiction.

Early medieval sources, written when few people could read and even fewer could write, mainly concern themselves with the wars (of which there were many), affairs of royalty, and the lives of saints. They are not objective accounts – there simply was no such thing. To them, pagans are oath-breakers and brutes, and captives, if mentioned at all, are spoils of war. So medieval peasants and slaves rarely have a voice in history. With the pagan Continental Saxons, it gets even more complicated. They had no written language as we know it.

Fiction is one avenue to show what their lives might have been like.

What was the most surprising or fun fact you found in your research for this book?

Cabbage was not the same 1,200 years ago - it did not form heads. When I started writing fiction, I knew not to include New World foods such as potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers, but I took for granted that vegetables stayed the same over the centuries. Was I wrong on that! I was surprised to learn that heading cabbages are not mentioned until the 13th century. If you are researching food history, check out foodtimeline.org.

Many of the historical events in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar are the same as The Cross and the Dragon. Did that make it easier to write?

Surprisingly, no. The basic facts remain, but the characters’ perceptions yield a very different story.

King Charles is a hero to Alda, the protagonist of The Cross and the Dragon, but a monster to Leova and her children.

Another example comes from three emirs’ visiting the Frankish assembly in Paderborn in 777 to secure an alliance with Charles to conquer territories in Hispania. Alda has a premonition of disaster. But Leova’s son, Deorlaf, sees an opportunity for his people to retake Saxony, and he ponders that if he had even a fraction of the emirs’ riches he could buy his family’s freedom.

Same historical event, but vastly different reactions.

Kim Rendfeld is the author of The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (August 28, 2014, Fireship Press). To read the first chapters of either novel or learn more about Kim, visit kimrendfeld.com. You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, connect with her on Goodreads at www.goodreads.com/Kim_Rendfeld, check out her Amazon page at www.amazon.com/author/kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.




11 September 2014

Excerpt Thursday: THE ASHES OF HEAVEN’S PILLAR by Kim Rendfeld

This week, we're pleased to welcome author and Unusual Historicals contributor Kim Rendfeld with her latest release, THE ASHES OF HEAVEN’S PILLAR. Join us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. One lucky visitor will get a free e-copy of The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

Can love triumph over war?

772 AD: Charlemagne’s battles in Saxony have left Leova with nothing but her two children, Deorlaf and Sunwynn. Her beloved husband died in combat. Her faith lies shattered in the ashes of the Irminsul, the Pillar of Heaven. The relatives obligated to defend her and her family instead sell them into slavery.

In Francia, Leova is resolved to protect her son and daughter, even if it means sacrificing her own honor. Her determination only grows stronger as Sunwynn blossoms into a beautiful young woman attracting the lust of a cruel master and Deorlaf becomes a headstrong man willing to brave starvation and demons to free his family. Yet Leova’s most difficult dilemma comes in the form of a Frankish friend, Hugh. He saves Deorlaf from a fanatical Saxon and is Sunwynn’s champion - but he is the warrior who slew Leova’s husband.

Set against a backdrop of historic events, including the destruction of the Irminsul, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar explores faith, friendship, and justice. This companion to Kim Rendfeld’s acclaimed The Cross and the Dragon tells the story of an ordinary family in extraordinary circumstances.

**An Excerpt from The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar**

Author’s note: I was thinking of September 11, 2001, when I wrote this scene, which takes place after Eresburg is conquered. Leova and other Saxons agree to a bargain with the Christian priests: safe conduct to the village for anyone who accepts baptism.

When the group reached their village at the hilltop, cries shuddered through the crowd. 
Longhouses were nothing more than scorched beams, and the earth on the farms was torn. The fortress’s great wooden gate looked as if a giant had ripped it asunder.

What they didn’t steal, they burned, Leova thought, stiff with fury, afraid to look to her right where the Irminsul had once stood near the river.

But she could not ignore the keening of the other Saxons. She turned, beholding the chunks of charred wood and the huge black splotch. She crossed her arms and rocked back and forth, sobbing, “All for naught, all for naught.”

“May the Earth Mother curse the Franks,” Deorlaf said through clenched teeth.

Shaken from her sadness, Leova looked up toward the Christian priests. Father Osbald’s lips were thinned and pressed together as if he was stopping himself from saying something. 

Some priests were leaning toward their fellows, gossiping perhaps, while other tapped their hands against their thighs. Apparently waiting for the Saxons to expend their grief, none had heard her son.

Leaning down toward Deorlaf, she said in his ear, “I hate them as much as you do, but do not say such things until after those priests leave. I do not want them to keep us from your father.”

Deorlaf glowered but nodded his assent.

After the laments quieted to moans and sighs, the Christian priests led the group past the ruined homes, which smelled of stale smoke. When the first Saxons entered the fortress, a raucous murder of crows flew over the stone walls. Leova hesitated at the broken gate, grimacing at the stench. She glanced at the bowl in Ealdgyth’s hands. She should be with Leodwulf when Ealdgyth placed his ashes in the barrow, but to have Derwine unattended another moment sickened her.

“Leova,” Ealdgyth said, “go look for Derwine. That’s what Leodwulf would want.”

Astounded by Ealdgyth’s kindness, Leova nodded as her sister-by-marriage and her nephews headed toward the barrows. She did not want to enter the fortress. She did not want to see Derwine’s body.

Kim Rendfeld is the author of The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (August 28, 2014, Fireship Press). To read the first chapters of either novel or learn more about Kim, visit kimrendfeld.com. You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, connect with her on Goodreads at www.goodreads.com/Kim_Rendfeld, check out her Amazon page at www.amazon.com/author/kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

03 September 2014

Wonders and Marvels: The Cantigas de Santa Maria

By Jessica Knauss

King Alfonso directs his subjects to worship Jesus through the Virgin Mary
and the angel Gabriel in the F manuscript of the Cantigas de Santa Maria
A poor woman takes her baby with her to the wheat fields — she has no alternative. While his mother works, the boy swallows a head of wheat and his belly swells to alarming proportions. His mother, believing he’s been poisoned or bitten by a spider, frets over him for several days. When she despairs for his life, there’s only one person — or supernatural being — she can turn to. She lays him before the altar of Our Lady of Atocha. The boy’s clothes are removed, and no one can find a spider bite, but they do find an intact head of wheat coming out the boy’s side. The boy recovers immediately. Everyone gives praise to the Virgin Mary for such a beautiful miracle.


The Cantigas de Santa Maria tell of the wonders of the Virgin Mary in a way that still makes people marvel.

Alfonso X of Castile and León is called el Sabio because he loved learning. He made it possible for a team of scholars to record the latest scientific advances for future generations. He carried this compulsion for compilation through to the Cantigas, which are a collection of nearly 400 songs with words, music, and illustrations.

Many of the miracles involve a dramatic recovery, as in Cantiga 315 above, or theatrical leaps of faith, as in the story about the good wife whose husband was so jealous of her that he mistreated her terribly. She asks him if he would believe she’s faithful to him if she underwent a trial by fire. He responds that he doesn’t think that’s necessary, but she can jump off a cliff! If she comes out alive, that will be proof of her fidelity. The woman comes to the edge of the highest, scariest cliff for miles around.


She commends herself to the Virgin Mary and throws herself over. With the entire town as witness, she lands feet first on ground that seems soft and smooth to her, although for non-believers, it would have been rocky — and deadly.

In the style of a rosary, the Cantigas punctuate the miracle stories with songs in praise of the Virgin Mary’s own wondrous nature at every tenth cantiga.


Even these most spiritual of the Cantigas display a down-to-earth quality. One of Alfonso’s main objectives with these songs was to show how wonder could reach absolutely everyone in his realm through Mary, from the poor lady in the wheat field, through nobles, sheriffs, monks, nuns, and warriors, to the king himself. Because they so accurately portray real life, the Cantigas don’t limit Alfonso’s realm to people, but also include the animals that cohabited with his subjects, such as horses, cattle, sheep, dogs, ermines, and silk worms!

A woman who makes her living with silk has trouble: her silk worms are dying. She goes to the Virgin Mary’s altar and promises that if Mary revives her silk worms, she will make an altar cloth to honor the Queen of Heaven. Soon enough, the silk worms are hard at work again, but the woman forgets her promise — until, one day, she comes home to find that the worms have taken her promise upon themselves. They make not one, but two altar cloths, and in the illustrations we see the added miracle that they already have a beautiful lacy design. The fame of the miracle spreads, and since there are two of them, King Alfonso takes one for his own altar to the Virgin Mary.


Most of the lower-numbered cantigas take stories from all over Europe’s Marian repertoire, but as the king’s demand for more and more miracles increased (the goal may have been 500), the poets searched closer to home and in more recent history. As Cantiga 18 shows, some feature Alfonso himself, and 22 take place during the reconstruction of El Puerto de Santa María in the south, one of the king’s pet projects.

Cantiga 371 tells how a large ship headed for El Puerto was laden with flour and people. Some of them were coming for the land grants, some to work as masons, some to form part of the new religious community. El Puerto’s fame was already widespread, as the refrain reports: “Holy Mary performs so many miracles in her Port that we poets can’t describe the least part of them.”


Unfortunately, the ship in this cantiga hits a rock and sinks, killing everyone on board except one woman. She cries out to the Virgin, “I’m coming to you, so save my life with your great power.” In that instant, one of the sacks of flour emerges from the ship, and even though it’s heavy, it floats as if it were very light. The woman floats along atop it, calling, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, Emmanuel,” until she arrives at El Puerto to be welcomed by the residents.

Not all the miracles are so outwardly spectacular. In one of my favorites, the miracle consists of a violent, lustful knight deciding to change his ways.


As you can see in the illustrations, he’s already got an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The Virgin Mary appears to him with a beautiful silver platter filled with rotten food — a metaphor for the knight’s outward loveliness and evil interior. He gets the message loud and clear. Even though the knight’s life is never threatened in this cantiga, his soul is in danger of eternal damnation, which, to medieval thinking, is the most dramatic story of all.

It’s said that the Cantigas were the king’s favorite project, as they incurred the most labor, expense, and time. The compilation may have begun before Alfonso ascended to the throne in 1252 and ended only upon his death in 1284. In his will, Alfonso instructed that the Cantigas manuscripts should be kept in the chapel where he was buried (in the cathedral in Sevilla) and sung on high feast days. None of the four extant manuscripts reside there now: an early draft without illustrations known as To is in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid; King Felipe II had three deluxe manuscripts (including E and T) removed to the Escorial in the sixteenth century; and somehow one of those deluxe manuscripts (F) came to be at the Italian National Library in Florence today.

The Cantigas de Santa Maria deal with people’s interior lives as well as the most unexpected details of their exterior lives, and include everyone from every social class, from Spain to Europe to Northern Africa and the Middle East. Some of these songs are masterpieces of lyricism, others are solid narratives from a time before short stories existed, and still others take humor to new heights. Each of the thousands of illustrations offers delights to appreciate from any point of view. They constitute the largest collection of medieval music ever amassed and contain every imaginable Western musical style.

In their time, the Cantigas celebrated marvels and wonders, and today they have become a marvel in themselves because of the sense of wonder they convey in greater measure as time goes on.

Jessica Knauss earned her PhD in Medieval Spanish with a dissertation on the portrayal of Alfonso X’s laws in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, which has been published as the five-star-rated Law and Order in Medieval Spain. A driven fiction writer, Jessica Knauss has edited many fine historical novels and is currently a bilingual copyeditor at an educational publisher. Find out more about her historical novel, Seven Noble Knightshere, and her other writing and bookish activities here. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, too!