History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

29 May 2008

Life in a Medieval City

The words “medieval romance” conjure up notions of courts and castles, knights and horses. The truth is, by the late Middle Ages, there were thriving urban areas full of people who never lived in a castle nor galloped into battle.

My June release, INNOCENCE UNVEILED, takes place in such a city, Ghent, then in the duchy of Flanders, now located in Belgium. Although the city surrounded the Count’s castle, it had urban problems we recognize: crime, overcrowding, and dirty streets among them.

In the 14th century, Flanders was the cloth-making powerhouse of the continent. Responsible for the second of the basic necessities (food, clothing, and shelter), the city imported the wool grown on the backs of English sheep by the ton. The export of this wool was so important to England (and the tax on it so important to the government) that the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords sat on a “Woolsack,” actually a sort of ottoman stuffed with wool, until just two years ago.

When they got this wondrous wool, the cloth makers of Ghent went to work spinning it into gold for their coffers. There was a guild for each part of the process: weaving, dying, and so on. The spinners (or spinsters) were the most poorly paid of the workers. (Need I add they were all women?)

The drapers were the hub of this activity. Like the “piecework” of the early days of the textile trade in this country, they sold and bought each segment of the process. For example, the draper would sell wool to the spinsters and buy back the yarn they spun at a higher price.

The work rules of the guilds were as strict as our present day unions, designed to preserve quality of the goods as well as working conditions. Cloth with a particular “trade mark” (the origin of our modern word) developed a reputation for quality that kept the price high.

Technology continued to advance during this time. The spinning wheel was invented at the end of the century before my story. Though it was faster and more efficient (it cut the number of spinners needed to supply a weaver by half), it also created complaints about weak, lumpy thread, initially, too.

Because of the close economic ties between England and the Flemish cloth makers, the burghers, or the middle class, in Flanders found their economic and political interests tied to England’s, while the Count of Flanders was tied to the Court of Paris and the French king. Even language divided them, with the burghers speaking Flemish and the nobles speaking French.

But the economic power of the guilds had been turned into political power as well, and they had rights unheard of in other duchies. In fact, so important were the weavers, that the Encyclopedia Britannica states: “By the 14th century, however, the democratic craft gilds, notably that of the weavers, had asserted themselves; the citizens were divided for civic and military purposes into three classes; the rich (i.e. those living on capital), the weavers and the members of the 52 other gilds.”

It is this powerful faction the hero of my book must woo to support King Edward’s claim to the throne of France. And what happened as a result of this tug of war changed not only the history of England, but the history of France and Flanders as well.


Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I love Ghent, Blythe! My best friend from college and I made the "grand tour" and included a visit there, where we went to the Castle of the Counts. We also had the best pizza I've ever tasted at a cafe in Ghent, of all places -- and I'm a NYer and very picky about a proper pizza!

Everything you've written about the guilds is fascinating!

10:26 AM  
Blogger Blythe Gifford said...

Amanda - I'm envious! I wrote the book without ever visiting there, but I had GREAT sources. In fact, given what I learned, it might be better that I didn't see today's city. Even the course of the river/canal has been shifted, from what I understand. I would love to see it, though.
Of course, NYers can't hold a candle to Chicago natives as pizza lovers. (Chuckle.)
Glad you found the guilds as interesting as I did. Of course, I had to leave huge chunks out of history out of the book. It is a romance, after all, not narrative non-fiction!

11:32 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Are you a Chicago native, Blythe? My husband and I are going there in 2 weeks for a longish weekend. So ... where should we eat? What are the must-sees that can be covered in only 48 hours? :)

I'm a thin-crust pizza gal myself, but when in Rome ... or Chicago...

P.S. I confess I was in Ghent in 1983, so maybe there wasn't so much shifting of the river and canal. The Castle of the Counts is known (at present) for its museum of instruments of torture. Frankly, there are only so many sets of thumbscrews one can take before craving a bite of lunch. :)

11:54 AM  
Blogger Blythe Gifford said...

My top recommendations for Chicago: The Art Institute, the lakefront, and Millenium Park. (And yes, Chicago is a deep dish town.)

No torture for my hero! He had enough emotional torture. I couldn't subject him to the physical kind.

2:45 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Blythe, I just finished Innocence Unveiled and I loved it! What a great romance and a fascinating story too. And your hero was tortured to perfection. I really enjoyed it! Thank you!

5:40 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

And by the way, ladies, Lost in Love got a request for the full from one of the Golden Heart judges!! I am dancing on air and terrified!

5:42 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Fabulous post Blythe, I can't wait to read the book! Chicago is one of my favorite cities. The Art Institute is a fabulous museum. I also got to see the botanical gardens (a friend had her wedding reception there), and the chicago history museum which I hate to admit it put our historical society and the museum of the city of new york to shame. The architectural boat tour is great as are the art deco walking tours.

Congratulations doglady on getting a full request!

5:20 AM  

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