Crossing the Medieval and Modern

The risk of reading historical novels is that sometimes, instead of meeting people from the past we run into modern characters dressed in funny clothes play-acting medieval (or Renaissance, or Roman, or whenever.) That’s the problem I recently had with Crossed, the tale of the Fourth Crusade written by Nicole Galland. While I enjoyed the book – it is well written with an engaging, somewhat comic tone while still illuminating a fascinating and tragic episode of history – I never felt transported back to the world of the early thirteenth century. And the problem, ultimately, lay with modern-day characters dressed up medieval.

The Fourth Crusade, 1202-1204, started out as effort to support the failing crusader kingdoms in the Holy Land/Mid-east with a goal of freeing Jerusalem from the control of the Muslims (or at least guaranteeing access to the city for Christian pilgrims), yet it somehow morphed into an attack on the Christian city of Constantinople with a goal of installing a German prince on the throne of the Byzantine Empire. To explore this quixotic episode, Galland creates a group of fictitious characters who can be plausibly placed as witnesses, and often instigators, of every key event of that crusade.

Some of the difficulty in slipping back into the thirteenth century comes from Galland’s world-building. While she has obviously researched the events of the Fourth Crusade in depth, she keeps getting minor details of the everyday world wrong. The characters of the novel celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1, which was not the first day of the year for medieval Europeans. The crusaders marvel at the fact that the Orthodox Christians of Constantinople partake of holy communion rarely, when the same is true of western Christians of the era (mostly they watched as the priest consumed the bread and wine on  their behalf). The novel’s main character comes from a pagan kingdom in Wales, despite the fact that the Welsh had all converted to Christianity centuries before. These, of course, are but little things, but, as regular readers of this blog have heard many times, it is the little things that create a world. Get enough little things wrong and the world starts to feel wrong.

Galland gets enough right that the novel could withstand those everyday issues if the characters, especially the narrator, felt authentic. They do not. The main character, who is simply called the Briton, is skeptical, ironic, always ready to buck authority, not quite certain how the rules of society and rank and position actually work, yet always confident of his ability to accomplish any hair-brained idea that occurs to him. He feels so completely modern that at one point I suspected I was actually reading a SF novel about a  time traveller trapped in the thirteenth century. (Which would explain his implausible back story about a pagan Welsh kingdom as beign a poorly researched cover story.) While this makes the Briton an easy character to relate to, it also undermines the sense that this is a story about the medieval world. This is the modern world dressed up in funny clothes.

In the end, my enjoyment of the novel was interwoven with disappointment. Galland’s mixing of modern sensibility with historical narrative does not work. The one undermines the other. If you are going to write about some other time and place, you need to leave the modern world out it, was my conclusion. That was going to be the point of this post.

And then…

I immediately thought back to another story that mixes modern sensibility with history, and does it quite well. A story that is, in fact, one of my all time favorite movies: Shakespeare in Love.

In that story, writers Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard and director John Madden, spin the tale of young playwright Will Shakespeare’s affair with Lady Viola de Lesseps, a soon-to-be-married gentlewoman, and how their affair ends up inspiring and even shaping his new play Romeo and Juliet. While the movie sets us firmly in Shakespeare’s London, it is also filled with modern quips and observations. Much of the comedy of the movie is in these lines, and yet they never undercut the world of 1594 the way Galland’s modernisms take us out of 1203.

For one thing, the creators of Shakespeare in Love pay close attention to their world. The world of the story feels authentic, not just in the general outlines of the tale of the writing of the play, but in the the buildings, the costumes, the feel of the streets and people. While Crossed sometimes falls down under scrutiny, Shakespeare in Love actually improves the more the viewer knows about the period. Even tiny details are correct. For example, a minor character, a street urchin who likes the plays with murders in them, is named John Webster, an actual playwright of the generation after Shakespeare famous for plays filled with gruesome murders. Because the world of the film is so fully realized, we viewers can trust that the filmmakers really do understand their world, so the modernisms don’t undercut our trust in the world. The modernisms are clearly meant to be anachronisms.

More importantly, the characters are clearly rooted in their time. Though they may talk and joke in a modern style, at the core, they accept, and are shaped by, the world of history. They accept that women should not be on stage, and so, when Viola dreams of being an actor, she knows she must disguise herself, and she knows this is a lark, not a career choice. And when her disguise is torn away, even her fellow actors are appropriately shocked, as men of that era would be. Will and Viola know that commoners and upper class do not live happily ever-after together, that daughters of wealthy merchants wed noblemen in marriages of convenience, and that while married playwrights may have affairs, they do not divorce their wives. Indeed, it is all these social constraints that give their affair the intensity and passion that Will ultimately channels into writing Romeo and Juliet.

The modernisms in Crossed feel like they are part of Galland’s writing style – she writes about modern characters somehow transported back to olden times. (In her own words, “I don’t write about history; I write about characters who happen to be trapped somewhere in history.”) On the other hand, Shakespeare in Love  is about a particular moment in history, and how that moment shapes a great artist. The modernisms, of which there are many, are deliberately inserted for effect. They allow us modern people to connect to the Renaissance people in their time.

And so, I have to change my conclusion. The problem is not that one should not mix modern and historical. Rather the issue is how, and especially, why an author does so. In Crossed, the mix does not work because it is accidental. Shakespeare in Love, however, works precisely because the modern and historical play against each other in a deliberate and planned fashion so that each highlights the other.

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