A headlong journey through the physical and spiritual dangers of Plantagenet Britain, in all its savage pageantry. Welsh Marches, July 1284 - the uprising in Wales is over, the leader gruesomely executed, the dead are buried. But for Illesa Arrowsmith, the war’s aftermath is just as brutal. When her brother is thrown into the Forester’s prison on false charges, she is left impoverished and alone. All Illesa has left is the secret manuscript entrusted to her – a book so powerful it can save lives, a book so valuable that its discovery could lead to her death.
My working life started in archaeology. Trowel in hand, I laboured on various sites around Britain and Europe, mainly as a volunteer, living in tents or squats with similarly crazy people. I went on to study Archaeology at University, but soon decided that I wasn’t tough enough to spend most of my life exposed to an unreliable climate.
I became a secondary school teacher, then a Museum Education Officer and finally a mother of three. But when I came to write my first novel, the influence of my early love of archaeology was still strong. Archaeology, in the main, looks at the discarded and unwanted remains of daily life, the broken things most people do not consider important.
In my novel, The Errant Hours, I wanted to uncover what life was like for the people who did not make it into the history books, to research the daily lives of people who lived in the distant past, and to understand how their circumstances affected their fears, hopes and beliefs.
Having worked in museums of historic buildings, I was able to pull myself into previous time and furnish it with the commonplace and extraordinary objects that made Plantagenet Britain so severe and exuberant. I found this aspect of writing very satisfying. It was like Frankenstein running electricity through his monster: what was dead and in pieces I could bring to life, renewing the ruined sites, such as Acton Burnell Castle and Wenlock Priory, in my mind and on the page.
|Acton Burnell Castle - Shropshire|
Another starting point for my book was a fascination with medieval manuscripts. These exquisitely painted unique books were illustrated with subversive, ridiculous and beautiful imagery, showing the natural, the supernatural, and everything in between. They give a visceral sense of what stoked the medieval imagination.
|(The Alphonso Psalter, BL Add MS 24686 13th century)|
But the manuscripts were not just appreciated for their aesthetic qualities. Many were considered to be able to bring the reader into direct communion with the Divine.
I was researching medieval childbirth on-line, when I came across a very particular manuscript. British Library MS Egerton 877 – The Passio of St Margaret. I read the translation of the text and the fascinating explanation of the manuscript, and I knew straight away: this would be the touchstone of my story. https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/TourKnownB.asp
According to the legend of her martyrdom, Margaret of Antioch was virgin convert to Christianity in the early 4th Century AD. She was abducted by the Roman Governor who wished to ‘marry’ her. When she refused, he had her tortured in numerous gruesome ways. While this was going on, she was attacked by the devil in the form of a dragon. The dragon swallowed her, but when she made the sign of the cross it burst open and she came out ‘unharmed and without any pain.’ It was this line in the manuscript that immediately struck me: ‘illesa sine dolore’.
The word ‘illesa’ is medieval Latin meaning ‘unharmed’, and it became the name of the heroine of my book.
The legend says that, before she was beheaded, St Margaret promised safe childbirth to those who read the story of her martyrdom. And so, in accordance with medieval logic, books telling of the horrific torture of a virgin became a birthing aid, and St Margaret became the patron saint of childbirth.
The illustration on the final page of this manuscript had a profound affect on me.
|British Library MS Egerton 877 folio 12|
The image of the saint in the birth chamber is smeared and distorted because medieval women, in their time of great pain, kissed the picture and sent up prayers to St Margaret to save them and their babies. Through this poignant trace of real belief and desperation, I could imagine these women, and the plot of the book began to take shape before my eyes.
The Errant Hours is a fast-paced adventure, following Illesa as she struggles to save the life of her brother, and herself, in the face of poverty, violence and corruption. But it is also the story of a mother who loses and finds a daughter, and the story of a sacred book, believed to have the power of life and death.
The two stories intertwine, bind, resist and console each other, as all our stories do.
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About the Author
Kate Innes is a former museum education officer, now writing fiction and poetry in Shropshire. Kate’s novel The Errant Hours is widely available from bookshops or from her website www.kateinneswriter.com She also writes blogs, mainly about animals, art and history. Kate runs writing workshops and undertakes commissions and residencies. She can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @kateinnes2