Thursday, September 30, 2010

Katharine Ashe on Knights and Rogues

History's Lures

I am an author of historical romance. My debut Regency-era romance, SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS, features a scandalous beauty who finds herself imprisoned aboard a pirate ship with a dashing lord in disguise to fulfill a dangerous mission.

But, like my hero in SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS, I have two identities. Several times a week I don cap and gown (figuratively speaking) as a professor of medieval history.

These identities rarely mingle. My colleagues at the university don’t know I write romance, and most of my writer friends don’t much care that I’m a professor. But in my heart and soul they are inextricable. Because, like you, I simply adore history.

Allow me, if you will, to show you why.

In one 13th-century tale, a peasant’s wife prepares for a visit from her lover, the local chaplain. But, oh no! Home comes her oafish husband from work in the middle of the day. He feels wretched, so she nurses him, eventually exclaiming that he must be dying. Settling him in bed, she hurries off to fetch the chaplain to give her poor husband his Last Rites. The chaplain arrives and blesses the peasant (but being a man of at least some scruples, he forebears saying the actual prayer for the dying). Soon enough wife and chaplain convince the gullible husband he’s dead, and begin going at it in the straw nearby. The peasant hears noises, opens his eyes, sees the chaplain enjoying his wife, and shouts to the chaplain, “If I weren’t dead, you certainly would catch hell.” The chaplain assures him that if he weren’t dead he wouldn’t be there cuckolding him, and the peasant relapses into contented idiocy.

Then of course there are other sorts of stories of misbegotten lust. True stories.

Take the tale of Peter Abelard, the greatest scholar of the twelfth century who fell into a tangle of lust and love with the brilliant young woman he tutored. Theirs was a torrid affair, furtive between books and lessons, all in secret because Abelard could not marry; it would have ruined his career. Nevertheless, when Heloise became pregnant, he wed her. Discovering it, her guardian feared Abelard meant to hide her away in a convent, and hired a pair of thugs to visit the scholar. In the dark of night, they castrated him. Abelard and Heloise fled to monasteries, but her love never died, her passion remaining undimmed over the years for the man she could no longer have.

Not all medieval lust and love was bawdy or tragic, though. One story tells of a king who swore to his wife that if she bore a girl-child he would see it slain. Alas, the queen gave birth to a girl. So she dressed her daughter in boy’s clothes and raised her as a prince. Then came the day her father betrothed her to a princess. As youth are wont to do, they fell in love. Moved by their attachment, Cupid intervened. Lo and behold, with a kiss the girl-prince became a man.

But I mustn’t leave out a huge part of history’s lure to me: the heroes.

One vastly popular story tells of the knight Owein’s greatest adventure. Realizing he’s spent his warrior’s life sinning left and right, the valiant Owein seeks the entrance to Purgatory on earth. Finding it, he plunges in, taking only courage and unwavering faith with him. None of the fiery, vicious torments of the torture chambers can touch him, though. Confident, he walks out a stronger, more valiant knight for the purifying trials he has endured.

Finally, one of my favorites, a true story from a Muslim memoire. We all know of the Templars as mighty warriors. They fought for medieval Christendom like Green Berets today fight for America. And just as Green Berets, many Templars were men of great compassion and understanding too. During the crusades in a city occupied by Christian forces, one day a Muslim warrior entered a former mosque—converted to a church—to say his prayers. A French knight who’d just arrived in the East, full of the conceit of a foreigner, grabbed up the Muslim to throw him out. Five Templars drew swords and came to the Muslim’s defense. They claimed the house of prayer must be for all.

Why do I love history? For its laughter, its passion, its stories of love and pure, unadulterated lust for life. For how it shows us bravery, courage and compassion are human traits, not confined to one era or one culture. For all its marvelous lures.

Why do you love history?                                                                                                               

Katharine Ashe lives in the wonderfully warm Southeast with her husband, son, two dogs, and a garden she likes to call romantic rather than unkempt. A professor of European history, she has made her home in California, Italy, France, and the northern US. Booklist named Ashe one of the “New Stars of Historical Romance” and RT Book Reviews awarded her debut, Swept Away By A Kiss, a “TOP PICK!”, calling it “a page-turner and a keeper.” Please visit her at , where she has a free Regency ghost novel for those of you who like a touch of haunting with your history.


Joyce Elson Moore said...

Katharine: I love the cover of Swept Away by a Kiss. Wow, after that Booklist review, i've got to get this book. Great insight, too, to medieval characters.

Jannine Gallant said...

Great post, Katharine! I enjoyed the historical tales. I, too, am a history lover. I love the continuity of past to present and the lessons to be learned. I majored in early American history and wrote 3 historical romances (currently gathering dust under my desk) before finally getting my very first romantic suspense story published. Go figure! Maybe I should stick to reading about the past. Good luck with your new release. It sounds terrific.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I very much enjoyed your post. I am also a history lover. Congrats on your new novel and your excellent reviews!

Jacqueline Seewald
TEA LEAVES AND TAROT CARDS, Regency romance from Five Star/Gale

Katharine Ashe said...

Joyce, Thank you for inviting me to visit your blog today!

Jannine and Jacqueline, many thanks for your comments and kind words. I chose these stories because of their popularity to medieval folks. They reveal so wonderfully the many ways medieval people enjoyed life, what they believed about the body and soul, and how they behaved with one another. Mostly I chose them because they're all about deep feeling, all the emotions that come with laughter, love, heartbreak, and triumph.

Btw, I especially like the first story (a representative of the French fabliaux style of bawdy romp) because of how it so shamelessly pokes fun at all three characters. No one comes off looking good! Interestingly, the laughing moral at the end of the tale is that a man should never follow his wife's advice about anything. :)