Fascinating history: were the Dark Ages really so dark? Myths and misconceptions uncovered.

Why do we call this period the ‘dark ages’?

Recently, while I was on holiday in the sun, I read a fascinating book by Professor Susan Oosthuizen (The Emergence of the English 2019) which resonated with me and the ‘thesis’ underpinning my historical (‘dark ages’) time-slip novel A Shape on the Air. The background to my novel rests on my belief that the so-called ‘dark ages’ were not a time of brutal barbaric suppression by the ‘invaders’, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes from the continent of Europe – but instead, that it was a time of more gradual change with a succession of migrations from Europe and a settling and merging of communities: the Britons/Celts with the Romans then with the Angles and Saxons.

http:myBook.to/ASOTA

So we all know the traditional conventional idea of the ‘dark ages’, don’t we? A time when the civilised Romans left and Britain collapsed into chaos, with villas and towns destroyed and warring tribal barbarians raping, plundering and pillaging each other all over the place? And didn’t the invading Saxons add to the mêlée until the great King Arthur came and sorted them all out?

Well, not necessarily so …

Firstly, we have conventionally referred to the ‘dark ages’ as the period between the withdrawal of the Roman occupying forces (commonly dated at 410) and the mid to late 8th century when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were fairly well established. But why ‘dark’? Tradition has it that it was a time of ignorance and barbaric brutal fighting, and that little of the civilisation, culture or administrative organisational efficiency of the Romans remained. Images of marauding ancient Britons and brutal Saxon invaders, with the settlements and the rule of law abandoned, spring to mind.

But academics and archaeologists now prefer to call 400-600 AD  the ‘late antique’ period (‘early medieval’ 600-850AD, ‘pre-conquest 850-1066AD), although some also refer to it as ‘early medieval’. It was only ‘dark’ because we didn’t have the records, documents, artefacts in evidence. Now, in the light of finds (eg in Kent, Essex, Oxfordshire, Yorkshire, Cornwall, etc), that picture is changing.

Some of the myths and misconceptions?

There are many: from the date and ramifications of the Roman withdrawal of troops (sudden departure or gradual?), to the state of Britain in its wake (collapse or continuity?), to the status of King Arthur (literary myth or historical saviour?).

Did the Romans really abandon Britain in 410? That has long been the date we assume the Romans left Britain, summoned back by Honorius  to defend Rome. Traditionalists have believed that the Romans abandoned their villas, their culture, and left en masse, for the ignorant Britons and Celts to allow civilisation to go to rack and ruin.

Now a different view is emerging. It appears (eg from studies of Notitia Dignitatum 4th/5th c AD) that Roman military units were still here much later, suggesting a gradual withdrawal over possibly half a century, and even the ‘Honorius edict’ is in dispute. We only have ‘evidence’ written in the 6th ,7th and 8th centuries either by Byzantine officials or writers such as Gildas, Bede and Nennius, who are now regarded as distant from events, subjective and unreliable.

Domestic archaeology is also beginning to indicate that sites were occupied and developed long after Romans began to leave, and that there was continuity of occupation/population (eg Lyminge, Mucking, Barton Court, Orton Hall, Rinehall, West Heslerton, to name a few). Artefacts and building use suggest that there was a much more gradual change post-Roman occupation and during the migration of new waves of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, rather than sudden brutal invasions. Hence there was a slower cultural shift towards a settled British society. Of course, this is not to say that there weren’t bitter inter-tribal battles going on for land acquisition, nor that there wasn’t deep suspicion of the Saxons.

But the ‘modernist’ view is that there was much more mingling of Romano-British society than previously thought, through inter-marriage with the remaining Romans, and likewise for Britons and Celts and even Saxons.

This view of gradual change and evolution by way of immigration and settlement, rather than sudden brutal change from invasion and suppression by Anglo-Saxon marauders, is one advocated by (among others) Professor Susan Oosthuizen (The Emergence of the English 2019). She offers some fascinating insights into evidence from documentary, archaeological, and landscape studies.

As to King Arthur, much as I’d love to believe in a brave 5th/6th century Celtic/Briton saviour who defended Britain against the Saxon invaders, I’m afraid that it’s unlikely that this is entirely historic truth. Our image of Arthur and his Round Table knights is largely from Mallory’s 15th century work ‘Morte d’Arthur’. It’s now suggested (eg Nicholas Higham 2018) that the myth originates from the 12th century Benedictine monks of Glastonbury Abbey who made a ‘miraculous’ discovery of the bodies of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere in the grounds as a cunning ploy to raise funds to rebuild the abbey. An elaborate wheeze? Such cynicism: they must have read Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tales of Arthur’s chivalric deeds of a few decades earlier!

However … recent archaeological finds at Tintagel, Cornwall (2016), have revealed a high status 5th/6th century palace, probably the main residence of the kings of Dumnonia, with evidence of global trade and fine cultured living. It’s even mooted that this was a ‘client state’ of the Roman Empire from 5th to 7th century. Was this the home of some kind of real King Arthur? The jury’s still out.

How have I brought my research in to my novels?

In my last novel, the early medieval (so-called ‘dark ages’) time-slip A Shape on the Air, the world of the late 5th century is depicted as rich with cultural and religious artefacts, and intermarriage between Romans, Britons, Celts and Saxons, although at times fraught with dispute. Their world, in the midlands of England, is more concerned with Picts raiding from the north than internal fighting as such. The main conflict is between Sir Pelleas (a Saxon pagan), who is adopted by Sir Tristram (a Romano-Briton), succeeding him as chief of the settlement, and Tristram’s daughter Lady Vivianne, a Christian.  In my story, the inter-marriage of Lady Vivianne’s parents (her mother is also a pagan but Celtic-Briton) intermingled Christian values and rites with more magical ancient deism. Bringing in to my tale the magical ‘king’ Arthur (Arturius), as a mystical Celtic leader of this time with Roman connections, as well as a legendary figure of literature, also signifies the mingling of cultures and beliefs. And adds a bit of magic (and why not? Even historic novelists are entitled to creative imagination)!

Personally, I do believe in the logic of unbroken continuation and developing richness of the world of the Romans, Celts, Britons, and Anglo-Saxons and that the ‘dark ages’ are only so-called because we haven’t found definitive answers yet. Now, that picture’s changing, so perhaps we should delete the term ‘dark ages’ and instead use a more positive term to reflect a period that is intriguing and emerging. Some academics use ‘early medieval’. Oosthuizen uses the term ‘late antique’ for the period 400-600AD (with ‘early medieval’ for 600-850AD). What do you think?

© Dr Julia Ibbotson (2019)

Lives intertwine across time and space

Can an ancient key unlock the secrets of past and present? Two women reach out to each other across the centuries in A Shape on the Air. It’s a medieval timeslip mystery with more than a little romance. To celebrate my upcoming Bookbub deal on April 16th when it will be on offer in the UK, US, Canada and Australia, my publisher Has reduced the price to 99p/99c for a couple of weeks. So I’m tempting you with a free preview of the first chapter. Just click below. I hope it’ll be a treat in time for Easter. Get it soon and enjoy! Along with the chocolate and hot cross buns of course!

And thank you so much for your interest. If you enjoy the book and have a moment, please do post a short comment up on Amazon and/or Goodreads. Authors really do appreciate reviews, however short.

With best wishes, and love,

Julia

How to write 14 books in one year?

[‘Finding Jess’ launch day 10th July!]

Let me start by saying: I have no idea! I just read an amazing piece about a woman who has written over 40 books in less than 7 years; she likes to write a book every 6 weeks, and 14 in one year alone. I can only think that they are very short … and yes, judging by her Amazon profile they are what we call ‘novellas’ – or even ‘short novellas’. But good for her, she’s managed to buy a house and a farm with her royalties (no, I’m not jealous at all! Honest!).

I had this very conversation at a recent RNA chapter lunch where I was talking to some friends about whether to sign a contract with a publisher who wanted a commitment to two books a year, and most of us said no, we wouldn’t. But some of my friends do. Not perhaps 14, though! For me it would feel like too much stress and pressure just to commit to two a year. My novels are ones I need to research for weeks, if not months, before putting ‘pen to paper’ (or fingers to keyboard). I need to have a strong knowledge of the time and place: be it the early anglo-saxon period in England, the 1960s, Ghana, the Victorian kitchen, and so on. Additionally, my books are full novel length: 75 – 80k.

People ask me about my writing patterns. Well, I try to do my research during the summer, so that I can read and make notes in the fresh air and sunshine (if we have any in the UK!), and in Madeira. And then I write during the cold dark winter days.

But, to be fair, I don’t have to write for a living, and that makes a difference. Although since I retired from my post as senior lecturer at the university, it’s my ‘full time’ occupation, it isn’t my bread and butter, my sole income. So I can enjoy it, the research and the process of writing. And I’m so glad I don’t have to churn out 14 books in a year!

‘Finding Jess’, the last of the Drumbeats trilogy is being published on 10th July by my publisher, Endeavour. They will then be releasing an Omnibus edition (box set) of the three, although all will be available separately too. I hope you enjoy discovering what happens to Jess in the final part of her saga.

So,this summer I’ll be researching for my next novel (working title Azulejo) which is set in two or even three different time zones mainly in Madeira, each linked by a shard of volcanic rock and a mysterious document! The book opens with the volcanic eruption that created the island of Madeira millions of years ago with a huge explosion of basaltic lava fountains, rock and fire, the seas boiling and waves crashing … can’t wait to start writing it!

 

Look out Great British Bake Off – TOR rising up the book charts on Amazon!

I’m thrilled that today I discovered that The Old Rectory is at #2 in the entire paid-for kindle sales in Canada and at #24 in the entire paid-for kindle sales in Australia! In the UK it’s #1 in the Food & Drink UK category, beating the Great British Bake Off, Mary Berry and Nadiya Hussain.

The Old Rectory: escape to a country kitchen has officially been awarded the ‘Best Seller’ badge!

http://myBook.to/TheOldRectory

A Shape on the Air has also reached #5 on Amazon so I’m pretty delighted!

http://myBook.to/ASOTA

Writing a time-slip novel: how hard can it be?

This week A Shape on the Air is on a book blog tour of the UK. I’ve had some lovely reviews so far on the tour, and here are just a few of them:

“I found this period in history quite fascinating”,

“a super read and a treasure hunt all rolled into one”,

“lovely details of the medieval period which really capture the essence of the place and the people living then”,

“in A Shape on the Air the (time-slip) switches feel natural and not contrived”. Thank you all for reading my book and taking the time to review it!

Today, I had a guest post published about writing a time-slip, and  I found a wonderful comment: “Great guest post” ! Aaagh! Made my day. So here is the post:

Writing a time-slip novel? Well, all you have to do is tell the story of someone from the present day finding herself in a different time, easy, right? Wrong! In fact it’s very difficult. There are all sorts of issues you have to work out. Why would this person suddenly fall into another period? How would she do it? What would be the trigger? If she could do it, why couldn’t everyone else? What makes her have this unique ability?

I love reading time-slip; I’m especially keen on Pamela Hartshorne’s novels of time-slip into the Tudor age in York (Time’s Echo, House of Shadows). They’re intriguing and exciting. I’m fascinated by theories of time and the whole concept of what time actually means? All these weird and wonderful theories: quantum mechanics, the Einstein-Bridge theory of portals and worm-holes!

I’ve wanted to write a time-slip story of my own for a long time, but in my case one set in the early medieval times because that’s the period I know best and am most interested in. But working it all out resulted in many a restless night, loss of hair and bitten fingernails! I wanted the tone and atmosphere to be a little spooky but still feel realistic and convincing (which isn’t easy if you’re writing about what we normally think of as ghosts). In the end I found writing the ghostly parts the easiest and the mechanics of the time-slip the most difficult.

It seemed to me that my main character, Viv, needed to be someone that anybody could identify with, someone pretty ‘normal’, but make her have a traumatic event in her life which might make her vulnerable and more susceptible to the paranormal. I made her an academic who deals with facts not fantasies, and gave her an awful partner in Pete who announces that he’s leaving her for her best friend – goodness, that would send anyone off balance! – and made her lovely home and the life she knew be at risk. I also made her drink rather a lot of red wine (understandable in the circumstances!) and go for a walk beside a lake!

I then had to make someone in a responsible job commanding authority and respect, empathise and become involved with her strange experience. Who might believe her? Someone whose job is connected with other-worldly things but could be a ‘pillar of society’? It had to be a vicar. So Rev Rory was born. And so was the love interest.

Although it would have been easier for the time-slip trigger to be the lake that started it all off, I didn’t want it to be that obvious, so I had to create a whole back-history for Viv, involving her parents, especially her mother, and their untimely death. Gradually it was coming together like a jigsaw. I can’t explain any more because it would give away the secrets of the book. You’ll just have to read it and find out! I hope you feel intrigued enough to do that, and I hope you enjoy the story. I certainly enjoyed writing it – and guess what? I’m writing another time-slip …

A Shape on the Air is available at all Amazon sites at http://myBook.to/ASOTA

Deja Vu – ghosts, imprints on walls, shapes on the air?

Why do we experience that feeling of ‘deja vu’? How come we sometimes feel that an old house still bears the imprints of past inhabitants? I’m not talking about ‘ghosts’ or anything specific or corporeal, but what I have called in my latest novel  ‘shapes on the air’.

The idea for A Shape on the Air had been brewing in my mind for a long time. I had been reading about, and mulling over,  the notion of time slip and especially the concept of ‘worm-holes’ and the Einstein-Bridge theory of portals into other dimensions of time and space, in effect quantum mechanics. It sounds fanciful and Dr Who-ish, and oddly I’m not a great fan of fantasy, but I felt that this was in fact a more ‘logical’ (in some ways!) and scientific explanation of those everyday glimmers of ‘déjà vu’ and perceptions of the past that many of us experience, those intimations that maybe the spirits of history are embedded in the fabric of old houses and ancient geology. So, what if we could take it further and, somehow, actually slip into the world of the past, another world but one to which we might have a personal connection, through our own family links perhaps, which still reverberate through us; some kind of glimpse of shapes on the air.

Could, perhaps, our ancestors somehow reach out across time to ‘touch’ us in this world, not physically but spiritually or emotionally? Watching programmes like ‘Who do you think you are’ where the subjects research their ancestral history, I feel that there is a lot more in their discoveries than merely drawing up a family tree and timeline. They often find a rather eerie connection with their family members, in terms of character, situation, talents, life-views and professions. Of course, many of us, myself included, have looked into our family histories and see nothing at all in common with our ancestors, indeed sometimes they seem totally remote!

 

The theory of worm-holes and portals through which we could slip across the time-space continuum into other historic periods and places is really only that – a theory. It’s unproven – how could it be otherwise? But it does raise some wonderfully intriguing ideas. Such a gift for a creative writer. And since it is presented by great scientific minds such as Einstein’s, it lends itself to some serious thought.

As Rory says in A Shape on the Air, “Just think of the universe. Black holes. Even birth and death. What are they? How come you can suddenly become a thinking person, at birth, and nothing at death.” Dr Viv thinks she may be suffering some kind of temporary insanity after her traumatic experience with her partner and that has triggered the feelings of crossing the time dimension and merging with Lady Vivianne, but as the story progresses it seems that there is more to it than that …

Link:  myBook.to/ASOTA

 

Celebrations! It’s Publication Day!

If you’re out of the UK, it’s available at myBook.to/ASOTA which will take you to your local Amazon site.

Unlocking a love that lasts for lifetimes … and beyond? When Viv, a medievalist and lecturer slips into 499 AD and into the body of Lady Vivianne, little does she realise that both their lives will become intertwined as they fight for their dreams … and their lives. Can the key which Viv brings back with her to the present unlock the loves they both crave, and help them through the dangers they both face? And can they help each other across the centuries?

I’ve loved writing this novel and so much of my understanding of and my delight in the early medieval world has gone into it. I first learned about medieval language, literature and history at university where we learned Anglo-Saxon in the language lab as though it was a living language like French, German or Spanish. This book is set partially in 499 AD, so at the end of the Dark Ages following the Roman withdrawal from England, and at the cusp of the Anglo-Saxon emergence. It’s a time that we still know little about, but new excavations and artifacts are allowing us a bit more of an insight into the times.

I do hope that you enjoy it. Let me know – here, on Amazon and/or on Goodreads! All the best.

Julia