24 March 2017

Herstory: Beyond Baby-Making - The Role of Carolingian Queens

Although seldom mentioned in annals, queens in Carolingian era (eighth and ninth century Francia) had a much more important role than a casual 21st-century observer might think.

If the king did not already have heirs, the queen’s primary role was to produce healthy sons to inherit the realm, and some kings tried to divorce wives unable to bear children. My main characters’ inability to conceive becomes a point of contention in my first novel, The Cross and the Dragon(Paradoxically, a Carolingian king would not want too many sons born in wedlock because each one of them would expect kingdom when his father died, and the realm would not pass to the next generation intact.)

Yet a queen’s responsibilities went beyond baby-making, and if the question of heirs was already settled, she could have tremendous influence.

The ninth-century treatise The Government of the Palace says the queen’s role is “to release the king from all domestic and palace cares, leaving him free to turn his mind to the state of his realm.”

This does not mean the queen is relegated to the role of housewife. In the Middle Ages, the personal and political were intertwined. The queen was the guardian of the treasury, and she controlled access to her husband. The courtier and scholar Alcuin wrote to the queen to find out where Charlemagne was spending the winter.

When houseguests were foreign dignitaries, royal hospitality was key to international relations. Hospitality was more than just showing good manners. Frankish royalty would want their guests to report to their own rulers that the palace was beautiful and sturdy, the baths were hot, the table was laden, the host well dressed, and the guards and servants well cared for. All signs of power, important to project even to one’s own allies whose support could shift.

Of course, this time period was hardly ideal for women. Girls as young as 12 or 13 were considered marriageable and their families chose their husbands. Among aristocrats, marriage was most often for political reasons. Canon law gave women the right to consent to a marriage at age 15 or 16, but that could be beaten or starved out of them.

However, the reason for Women’s History Month and for posts like these is that too often women are portrayed only as victims and not as full human beings who could influence events around them and contribute to their societies. Carolingian queens certainly did both.

Illustrations are from Costumes of All Nations (1882).


Women at the Court of Charlemagne, Janet Nelson

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Pierre Riché (translated by Jo Ann McNamara)

 Kim Rendfeld is the author of two novels set in 8th century Francia: The Cross and the Dragon, a tale of love set amid wars and blood feuds, and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, about a peasant going to great lengths to protect her children. Her work in progress, Queen of the Darkest Hour, features Fastrada, Charlemagne’s influential fourth wife. Connect with Kim on her website (kimrendfeld.com), her blog (kimrendfeld.wordpress.com), Facebook (facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld), and Twitter (@kimrendfeld).

23 March 2017


This week, we're pleased to welcome author P.L PARKER with her three-part historical time-travel series, the Riley’s Journey Trilogy: Riley’s Journey, Into the Savage Dawn and Beyond Tomorrow. One lucky winner will receive the novels in the series, format to be determined by the author. Join us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the series. Here's the blurb about the series.

The research project was only supposed to be for an "extended period." No one said anything about forever! Sent back 40,000 years to the ends of the last great Ice Age, the time travelers embark on a journey of survival and discovery. The brutal and cannibalistic Cro-Magnons discover the small band and attack. Forced to flee from their high mountain encampment, the tribe heads into the dawn, towards the Pacific Ocean and their dream of ultimately reaching North America. Survival of the fittest - that is the law of primordial earth.

**An Excerpt from Riley’s Journey – Book 1**

The nightmare began in earnest at midnight. Screams echoed through the campsite. Confused team members ran wildly in every direction, attempting to locate the source of the attack. Firelight flickered across faces distorted by fear. Only the Black Ops members retained their composure, hurriedly forming a semi-circle near Jonas and bracing for battle. Another scream rent the air!
Frozen for a moment, the team gaped in horror as an unidentified woman staggered into view, blood dripping from a scalp torn halfway off and partially obscuring her ravaged face.
“There! Over there!” Jonas whirled in response, his bowels contracting at the sheer size of the massive bear stalking the mutilated woman, his hate-filled yellow eyes gleaming wickedly in the light of the campfire.
Jesus H. Christ!” Geena gasped, backpedaling in an effort to gain some maneuverability.
The woman, weak from loss of blood, stumbled and fell as the great beast raked her with a giant claw. Steel jaws seized the woman’s nape, bones cracking audibly as the behemoth ground the neck bones to mush, mercifully ending her suffering. Roaring in rage, the bear began pulling the decimated woman from the campsite, aggressively defending his kill as the team rushed in. Spears shoved deep into the animal’s sides only served to further enrage the beast. Dropping his prize, the bear advanced on his attackers, his elongated canines dripping blood from jaws forged in the fires of hell. Bellowing his defiance, the rotten-flesh stench of his hot breath permeating the pristine air, vicious claws raking and lashing out, he was a creature from some demented fantasy.
Micah wrenched a burning brand from the fire pit, shoving it hard into the monster’s face, singeing fur and charring the fiend’s tender snout. Howling in pain and fury, the bear gave ground, backing off and retreating to the edge of the clearing.
“Behind us! There’s another one!” Allie’s shrill voice pierced the turmoil. From the corner of his eye, Jonas perceived movement. Another bear lumbered into view, fully as huge and terrifying as the first!
“And another one!” The team now faced not one, but three of the ferocious carnivores! Unless they did something quick, there would be no escape!
“Into the trees!” Jonas screamed. “Into the trees!” 

About the Author

Learn more about P.L. Parker:
Romantic Adventure at its Best


22 March 2017

Herstory: An Ancient Cold War Resolved by a Marriage

By Judith Starkston

Toward the end of the Late Bronze Age, in the decade after their colossal confrontation at Kadesh in
Ramses II,  Temple at Abu Simbel
1274 BCE, the two major world powers, Egypt and the Hittite Empire, eyed each other with hostility. Rather like the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War, neither could afford to restart open warfare, but the treaty they had signed formed an uneasy peace.

(If you are caught by surprise at the mention of the Hittites as a major world power at any period, you are merely a victim of what we might call the Forgotten Empire Syndrome. The Hittites got buried and lost to memory until not so long ago when modern archaeology dug them up.)

Rock carving of Queen Puduhepa (far right) making an offering
Into this diplomatic breach stepped Great Queen Puduhepa, the indomitable leader of the Hittites, who frequently took state and judicial affairs into her own hands on behalf of her husband Great King Hattusili III. Theirs was a genuine partnership of equals. Hittite law and custom allowed queens plenty of latitude but few took every inch of that power the way Puduhepa did. She reigned until she was at least 80 and probably started before she passed 20. An impressive run, with many impressive accomplishments.

We often think of the power of women through much of history as arising from their use as brides to kings, sealers of bonds between two dominant men. This reeks more than a bit of chattel. Certainly it isn’t the role we most admire and celebrate when we study women’s history.

But in Puduhepa’s case we get the bizarre mixture of a powerful woman using a lot of mostly anonymous young women as guarantors of her country’s peace and power. She arranged politically adept marriages for her husband’s many daughters and sons, both sending out Hattusili’s girls and bringing in foreign potentates’ daughters for his sons. (Only some of these children were literally Puduhepa’s. Concubines were the norm, but only for the royal family. Before Puduhepa arrived in the palace, there was already a good stock of future political brides and loyal generals. The loins of the king were the supplier of the state department staff and military leadership, so to speak…)

Of all the marriages Puduhepa arranged, the most complicated and tricky was between Pharaoh Ramses II and one of Puduhepa’s own daughters. She had to negotiate for months—years—the appropriate size of dowry, the travel arrangements, the status once of this wife within Pharaoh’s court, and most challenging, she had to first convince Pharaoh that he wanted a new wife.

This marriage was the crowning achievement of her peacemaking. The Hittite Empire needed this surety that Pharaoh would not back Hattusili’s challengers far more than Pharaoh needed anything from the Hittites. Hattusili and Puduhepa had usurped the throne from a secondary son of a concubine who as near as history can tell us was singularly untalented at ruling judiciously. They may have been right to take the throne, but that didn’t eliminate all the challenges of establishing a legitimate claim. Marriage with Pharaoh settled the question.

Rameses smiting the Hittites
A really BIG Pharaoh
in Egyptian iconography
Puduhepa’s other difficulty in making this peace-sealing marriage happen lay in Ramses’s personality. He shows clear signs of an ego even bigger than the one of a certain recently elected U.S. president. Not an easy guy to talk into doing something that might imply that he is equal to, not greater than, his least favorite “Brother” king. (If you were important enough, you got to address your fellow king as brother. Most kings didn’t qualify.)

In defense of Puduhepa’s chattel-like use of her daughter, other than that it was the norm and the best expected outcome for said daughter, the queen took extreme precautions to assure her daughter’s status as Ramses’ “first wife.” He was an old man with a large harem and women tended to disappear into oblivion at his court. They probably led comfortable lives, but who knew for sure? None of the ambassadors Puduhepa sent could reassure her on this point. The Babylonian princess had been denied access to her family’s messengers once the marriage was consummated. Sadly, Ramses went back on his promise to keep this newest wife as the top lady. But Puduhepa tried. If he hadn’t lied, she’d have won that one, too. Along with world peace and economic well being for her country. Not too bad with one marriage deal.

Here are some trimmed excerpts from her most famous letter to Ramses, giving him a hard time
A cuneiform letter similar to Puduhepa's
next to its clay envelope
Istanbul Archaeological Museum
about his complaints. He has accused her of stalling, but she points out putting a dowry together is tricky because the king before Hattusili (whom Hattusili usurped and who is now living in exile with Ramses) stole most of the state treasury (or something like that, the words aren’t totally clear, as is true with pretty much every word in every Hittite document for reasons I won’t go into, but that are fascinating.)

After her dig about the missing treasury, which she tells Ramses to ask his pal the ex-king about, she carries on with some salesmanship:
“To whom shall I compare the daughter of heaven and earth whom I will give to my brother: Should I compare her to the daughter of Babylonia, of Zulabi, or of Assyria? [absolutely not, she’s way better]

[Then back to the dowry quarrels, Ramses wants a lot] Does my brother have nothing at all? Only if the Son of the Sun God, The Son of the Storm God, and the Sea have nothing, do you have nothing! Yet, my brother, you want to enrich yourself at my expense! It (i.e., such behavior) is unworthy of name and lordly status.”

A later bit of salesmanship about the daughter Puduhepa has chosen for Ramses comes in this sentence: “And may the gods likewise endow the daughter whom I will give to my brother with the Queen’s experience and capacity for nurture.”

As she hints in the letter, Puduhepa counted as one of her greatest accomplishments her mothering and loving raising of her children and, quite inclusively, Hattusili’s children by his concubines. Sometimes that poses challenges for the modern mind to get around—just what was this equal partnership really like?

About the author

Judith Starkston is the author of Hand of Fire: A Novel of Briseis and the Trojan War

Her website is a great place to subscribe to if you enjoy engaging windows into ancient history and archaeology. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter

17 March 2017

New & Noteworthy: March 17

Happy St. Patrick's Day from Unusual Historicals!

J. K. Knauss had a great time sharing pertinent medieval Spanish tidbits and dissecting SEVEN NOBLE NIGHTS character psychology with Ed Goldberg at Portland's All Classical radio station. You can listen to or download the interview free at the station's website or at iTunes (March 1 track). 

J.K. will also have a new short story, set during Edgar Allan Poe's youth, in the April issue of Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine. 

07 March 2017

Herstory: Writing from the female gaze

Boadicea, John Opie 1807 (Public domain)
History is full of remarkable women:
  • Boudica, queen of the British Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire
  • Livia, whose background, strength of will and character made her the perfect partner for Augustus the first Roman emperor
  • Violette Szabo, Resistance operative in German occupied France a true story immortalised in Carve her Name with Pride – courageous, understated, self-sacrificing
  • Elizabeth I, who refused every marriage alliance as she declared herself married to her kingdom and ‘makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all.’ (Pope Sixtus V).
  • Mary Wollstoncraft who against all convention called for the equality of men and women in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
But these women shouldn’t be called remarkable; they should be noted as exceptional human beings, their gender ignored. But without doubt, they had to be tough, persistent and gifted. But for the average woman, her actions were often jotted down as a footnote, noted as unimportant or even omitted from the historical record by official sources. Their lives, the information that has come down to us, and much of the interpretation of them and their times has been through the eyes and work of mostly male historians. This has changed in recent years and is still changing as old sources are re-interpreted, new information is discovered and new, more ‘herstory’ approaches are used.

So how do you write a strong historical heroine today?
Readers need to see where a heroine came from, what turned her from an ordinary girl into the book’s heroine. Often she passes through a formative traumatic event but writers need to give hints about resilience, integrity and an ability to develop confidence as well as physical abilities. Undoubtedly, a strong female character has to have an equally strong will and a passion to drive through what she believes in.

In my first alternate history thriller, INCEPTIO, Carina starts off as an office worker, but we see from the first page that she’s prepared to stand her ground against people doing wrong. Within the first chapters we know she goes to the gym, we’re with her when she jogs in the park; she’s outdoorsy and sporty. Her disrupted childhood with a barren and loveless adolescence has made her learn to protect herself emotionally, and question everything. She demonstrates signs of mental and physical toughness and resilience, even when living in a ‘normal’ existence, to the level of not feeling completely at ease in her own skin. So when she becomes an undercover operative in a tough Roman society, she already has many of the latent characteristics required.

Beware of bunny rabbits and kittens…
The second challenge is not falling into the trap of making a strong character have moments of unbelievable weakness. Doubt, a temper, love for music, joking with other characters, buying gifts for friends round out a character, but writers must not go too far into fluffy-bunny-land and over-compensate for the toughness. That risks slotting her back into the ‘caring soft female’ stereotype.

Under pressure, a strong heroine often feels aggressive towards people who wish to hurt her family, friends or peers, but it’s her way of showing she cares. Other times she finds everything too much and we see tears and fears. But a habit of picking herself up and facing up to what has to be done is often not depicted as a normal female attribute in stories.

Courage doesn’t come from ‘boldly going’, but from ‘boldly going’ when you are half scared to death and not at all sure you’re going to get out of the situation without being injured or killed.

The Bechdel test
Now, the cliché of tough male hero leading the action and loyal, supportive heroine tagging along or carrying out secondary tasks is being challenged, albeit slowly. The Bechdel test, developed further since its origin in 1985, asks whether a work of fiction features at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Although there are excellent examples such as Elizabeth Chadwick’s Lady of the English, many contemporary works fail this basic test of gender bias.

So in an age still stumbling towards equality, it’s a good test to apply to one’s own writing and reading. Are the women instrumental in pushing the story forward? Do they make decisions at the critical points in a novel? But historical writing should always be in context; societal dynamics of history cannot be altered by parachuting in a 21st century feisty young miss against the norms of the period and locality even when writing in subgenres such as historical fantasy or alternative history.

Writing then and now
Writers write in the context of their own societal mores; we can’t help it, that’s what we are immersed
Livia Drusilla (Author photo)
in from babyhood. I remember the rather twee Ladybird history books of the 1960s; by today’s standards condescending, sexist and paternalistic, but at the time perfectly normal. Writing the same children’s history books now a historian would, I hope, take a startlingly different point of view. Today we still can’t have feisty Roman empresses ruling openly, but we can explore the sources containing information about them and their influences with a more open mind-set. Berenice, the queen of Judea and Livia Drusilla, the wife of Augustus, would be splendid examples of women of power to investigate.

In our modern historic fiction, we can transfer this openness into our stories and make connections between women characters unknown from the sources. Women acting together can become agents in the plot rather than the token ‘love interest’ or mother/daughter/sister of the male protagonist.

An egalitarian example
In my alternate history thrillers, I’ve taken this much further and developed a society descended from fourth century Roman dissidents where women rule, but men are not disadvantaged. You can read the whole story here, but Roma Nova’s first few hundred years were unstable and dangerous so daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life. Fighting danger side-by-side with brothers and fathers reinforced women’s status and roles. And they never allowed the incursion of monotheistic paternalistic religions. So it’s reasonably logical that in this context women developed leadership roles in all parts of Roma Novan life over the following centuries.

In the present day, my female protagonist’s story in INCEPTIO begins in a standard Western society. When she is compelled to flee to her dead mother’s homeland in Europe, Roma Nova, she finds the Roman-infused culture unnerving, but in a strange way liberating. Other strong female characters surround her; her grandmother, cousin, female colleagues and friends all drive the action. The ‘love interest’ is male and an integral part of the story, unlike many female love interests in standard historical thrillers. And I pursue this female hero/male love interest through the second trilogy starting in the 1960s.

Holding an alternate historical mirror up to the standard timeline produces very interesting reflections. As I write, I try to ensure that my heroine and other ‘active women’ are driving the story, but sometimes when I read through what I’ve written I see I may have fallen into the cliché hero/heroine placements.  I then switch the gender of the speakers in the dialogue and/or the actors in the scene. I give this the rather grand name of ‘gender mirroring’; this technique clarifies the roles wonderfully.

The natural view of women’s and men’s status and roles in my imaginary Roma Nova is not oriented around how people see things in most of the rest of the world – the often unconscious ‘male gaze’. In Roma Nova, men are not disadvantaged – they are just equal. Not only does this make throw up delicious conflict when my characters interact with nationals from other countries, it piques the reader’s interest and starts them thinking about the gender roles in our real timeline. Of course, it’s an optimistic view, but as we see in Roma Nova, perfectly possible.

And historical fiction now?
When we read older historical fiction, it can seem very outdated in its gender attitudes, even our very favourite titles from childhood and early adulthood. Today, fiction explores a wider variety of possibilities and points of view. With writers like Philippa Gregory, Elizabeth Chadwick, Diana Gabaldon and Tracy Chevalier (and the writers contributing to this blog!) we see women portrayed as agents and influencers and their impact on lives and events in the past.

Making women as present as men in historical events and stories should be the norm whether the writer is female or male. But even now, the idea of women writing fiction in niche historical fiction areas or areas that have been seen as traditionally male still persists.  Last year a prominent book programme presenter stated on air that there were no women writing alternative history fiction. She was quickly disabused as was the featured academic. After we discussed it, my writing friend Shannon Selin blogged about it in no uncertain terms.

While it isn’t possible for every female historical protagonist to be a tough heroine, writers are bringing forward more positive and active representations of women as courageous, decision-making and resilient. And stories of known events, but from a female point of view, the "female gaze", are filling the real and virtual bookshelves.


Alison's latest Roma Nova thriller
‘The second fall of Rome?’
Aurelia Mitela, ex-Praetorian and imperial councillor in early 1980s Roma Nova, scoffs at her intelligence chief when he throws a red file on her desk. But it may be too late to save Roma Nova from meltdown and herself from destruction by her lifelong enemy.…

Early 1980s Roma Nova, the last province of the Roman Empire that has survived into the twentieth century, has problems – a ruler frightened of governing, a centuries-old bureaucracy creaking for reform and, worst of all, a rising nationalist movement with a charismatic leader who wants to destroy Aurelia.

Horrified when her daughter is brutally attacked in a demonstration turned riot, Aurelia tries to rally resistance to the growing fear and instability. But it may already be too late to save Roma Nova from meltdown and herself from entrapment and destruction by her lifelong enemy.…

Available as
- eBook from Amazon,  iBooks,  Kobo,  B&N Nook
- paperback, author signed paperback and from other retailers


Alison Morton is the author of the acclaimed Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and INSURRECTIO.

Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site: http://alison-morton.com
Facebook author page  https://www.facebook.com/AlisonMortonAuthor
Twitter https://twitter.com/alison_morton @alison-morton
Goodreads  https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5783095.Alison_Morton