Researching a New Persona, Part 1

Yes, it’s that time of the decade again: the time where I decide I want a new persona. My original persona, a 12th century minor noble from England, was never particularly fleshed out. My second person, a Norse storyteller from the time of King Cnut, never quite gelled for me. So now I’m on to persona number three, also called Katherine Ashewode, and I think this one’s the winner.

The impetus behind the new persona was my reading of The Golden Legend and picking out fun saint stories that I can use as part of my bardic repertoire. My Norse persona just wouldn’t be able to tell the stories the way I wanted to, so it was time to move on. I decided to stick with the name “Katherine Ashewode,” because I don’t want to go through the hassle of name changing, particularly having so recently gotten my Maunche (East Kingdom AoA-level award for arts and sciences). With a name like that, she’s definitely from England, though she might be called different things if she travels.

Next question: when? Katherine needed to be from no earlier than 1260, when the Golden Legend was published. On the other hand, I wanted her to live early enough that she could still be considered Medieval instead of Renaissance, so before 1485 (the beginning of the reign of Henry Tudor). I wanted her to move forward in time like I do; she lives amidst a backdrop of things happening and reacts to them. For the sake of convenience, and since I didn’t have very strong opinions about England from 1260 to 1485, I decided that “today” for Katherine is exactly 700 years ago from “today” for me. In other words, “today” for Katherine is June 4, 1313. She, like me, is 31 years old, having been born 700 years before I was, i.e. May 18, 1282.

I was looking for important saint lives in May, so that she could say “I was born on St. So-And-So’s Day,” but I didn’t really find any. On the other hand, I did discover that Easter in 1282 was March 29, which meant that May 17 was Pentecost, and thus Katherine was born the day after Pentecost. Now, Pentecost is based on the date of Easter, which is a moveable feast, which means it falls on a different date each year. I still don’t know whether Katherine identifies her birthday as “May 18″ or as “The day after Pentecost.” I’ll have to do a bit more research into contemporary attitudes.

Back to the question of where, exactly, Katherine’s from. Like me, Katherine probably thrives in the city, where there’s lots of interesting things going on and interesting people to meet. And if you’re in England in the early 14th century, the place to be is London. The city had been going through a rapid period of growth, and by the early 14th century the population was about 80,000-100,000. (source) Yes, that population would get decimated in the mid-century Black Plague, but Katherine doesn’t know that. For now, London is huge and bustling. Moreover, while the kings of old used to move their courts around, about 150 years ago Edward the Confessor built a palace at nearby Westminister, setting it up as the seat of government for himself and his successors, and ensuring that London grew even bigger and more prosperous.

Now that I had a firm date in mind, I could start looking into what was going on in the era. I pulled up Wikipedia (not a great primary source, but very good for getting a birds-eye overview) and checked out what was happening in England in the 1290s, 1300s, 1310s, and more generally in the reigns of Edward I (1272-1307) and Edward II (1307-1327). Here’s a few things that Katherine would have been aware of and hearing about for most of her life:

- Welsh Wars: These were mostly over by the time Katherine was born, but in recent enough history that she probably knows about them. She almost certainly remembers Edard Caernarfon (now Edward II) being given the title “Prince of Wales,” which happened in 1301, when she was 19.

- Diplomacy and War in Gascony: Katherine probably heard about this as she was growing up, how Edward Longshanks (Edward I) stayed there fore three years when she was a child (1286-1289), how he tried to gain allies from other Continental powers but how those alliances proved volatile, etc. She definitely remembers the arranged double-marriage of the king to Margaret and his son to Isabella. Edward Longshanks married in 1299, when Katherine was 17 (though she may not have attended herself, as it was in Canterbury). Margaret is only slightly older than Katherine, and currently in retirement at Marlborough Castle. Isabella, quite a bit younger than Katherine, married Edward Caernarfon in 1308 after Edward Longshanks died, though again Katherine may not have attended, as the ceremony was in northern France. Even though Isabella was only about 12 years old when she was married, she was notable both for her beauty and her intelligence, and Katherine probably admires her.

- The “Scottish Problem”: This has been going on since Katherine was 14 (1296) and continues to this day. Quite a number of battles have been fought, first against Andrew Moray and William Wallace and now against Robert the Bruce. Little does Katherine know that in just under a year, Edward Caernarfon is going to blunder into the biggest English defeat of the war and give Scotland their de facto independence.

- The King’s Favorites vs. The Barons: Things have been very interesting indeed with the new king and his favorite, Piers Gaveston. There have been rumors for years that the king and Gaveston, given the title of Earl of Cornwall, had more than a platonic relationship. However, the barons and Queen Margaret hated him, and he was exiled twice. He returned only about a year and a half ago (Christmas 1311), which caused the barons under the leadership of the Earl of Lancaster, to prepare to go to war. Gaveston was captured and ultimately beheaded last year (1312) on June 19. However, it looks like the king is already starting to lavish his favor on Hugh Despenser the Younger, his nephew by marriage, proving that he doesn’t really learn his lessons.

So that’s some stuff that’s happening that Katherine is aware of. No doubt I’ll find out more as I keep researching.

Next question, still unanswered: Who is Katherine amidst the politics and business of London? Honestly, I don’t know. I know I want her to be someone who could plausibly tell funny saint stories, but I don’t know who that would be. The 14th century has quite a lot of constraints when it comes to what women were allowed to do, unlike the modern SCA, and I want to keep true to that. A few ideas I’ve had include:

- A professional entertainer: Minstrels existed in the 14th century, but I’m not sure if they were women. Moreover, I’m not sure if storytellers counted as minstrels, and I don’t play an instrument.

- A nun: By mid-century, the trope of “naughty nuns” was well established (see: The Canterbury tales and The Decameron for some hilarious examples). I’m not sure if it existed in the early 14th century, though. Moreover, I’m not sure I actually want Katherine living by a rule as opposed to out in the general population.

- A pious noblewoman: This would put her with the court, which would be interesting and give me a rich background of politics to play off of, but I’d have to do quite a bit more research before going down this path. Moreover, I don’t necessarily want to do the costuming involved in having Katherine be a noble.

- Living in or near the Inner Temple: One of the joys of doing this kind of “click on the links until you find something interesting” research is that occasionally you find stuff that’s really cool. You might find out, for example, that an upheaval of sorts is going on just outside the west gate of the City of London. See, since 1185, the Temple had been held by the Knights Templar, who became very powerful and rich, and employed quite a number of lawyers as in-house advisors. However, since the 1290s, the Templars have been in decline, and just last year (1312), they were dissolved entirely, and King Edward seized their land. The New Temple was given to the Knights Hospitaller, and now all the lawyers who were helping the Templars had the conundrum of what to do with themselves. There were already quite a number of them living in the Temple (the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple, as well as some surrounding inns). Many decided to go serve the crown at Westminister instead, which was only a mile and a half away. And while they wouldn’t be called the “Inns of Court” for another 30 years or so, Katherine may very well have enjoyed being around smart, ambitious lawyers and their apprentices, and they may have enjoyed her company in return. It definitely bears thinking about.

So that’s where things stand right now: A year, a city, a rich backdrop of politics, and a yet-uncertain character to be tossed into the middle of everything. I’m having a wonderful time doing research, and hopefully one day it’ll all start coming through in my storytelling.

1 Comment

  1. Jester Benvolio said,

    October 27, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    I invite your attention to Pancho Barnes, aviatrix and Bon Vivant innkeeper (by what is now Area 51) to the top pilots of the day. She had no official capacity, yet was privy to top secret technology. Her character might manifest in your target time as a Salon host; a place where ideas are exchanged among intellectuals of the court and debated before they come to court formally. A saloon in the finest sense, and an anchor for tales “as I heard from Sir Gaston at Salon”


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