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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

04 December 2008

Adelard of Bath

Carrie Lofty is back with us today to talk about the heroine of her debut novel, What a Scoundrel Wants.

When I began the manuscript that would become What a Scoundrel Wants, I had big plans for my blind heroine, Meg, and her mile-wide dangerous streak. I'd read too many medieval romances that blended paranormal elements into their history, particularly the real-life existence of magic, so I knew from the start I wouldn't make her a witch. I wanted to stay strictly historical. Yet I felt equally compelled to find a legitimate way for my late twelfth century Englishwoman to understand the secrets of chemistry.

The key to this legitimacy came by way of Adelard of Bath (c. 1080-c. 1152). Adelard was an explorer and philosopher who traveled extensively in his youth, learning Arabic at a university in Toledo (modern-day Spain). He also studied in France, Italy, and Turkey, before settling in Bath around 1122.

After chancing upon an Arabic version of Euclid's Elements of Geometry, which had been translated from the original Greek, he created the Latin version that would become the basis of mathematics until the 16th century. He also studied astronomy, positing that the earth was round, and he formulated what would one day be known as the law of the conservation of matter. Fluent in multiple languages, he went to London and tutored King Henry II, helping include England in Europe's escape from the Dark Ages.

But what does this have to do with my heroine?

Turns out Adelard carried on a years-long conversation with his English nephew. They discussed the unknowns of the day, including the tides, Earth's position in space, and animal physiology. They also catalogued a pharmacopeia of herbs and remedies and, of most importance to my story, they discussed alchemy. Greek fire, gunpowder, acids--Adelard gave his nephew the keys to the whole of Arab scientific learning.

And I imagined Adelard's nephew to be Meg's grandfather.

Meg found her father's fat, tattered book and opened its warped pages. Dozens of letters from his great-uncle Adelard of Bath, the famous tutor to King Richard’s late father, Henry II, stuck out in disarray. She knew the feel of each one. She could no longer see the ornate scrawls of the famous scholar's handwriting, but she knew what they contained: observations, translations, theories about the natural world, and tales of Adelard's far travels. Fingering the pages, she imagined the wonder of that distant relative, his travels and his marvelous ideas. Her father had read the letters to her and Ada like a balladeer, sparking curiosities and questions. They added to the undertaking with their own observations, ever expanding the scope of their family heritage.

Thus her scientific learning and her sister's understanding of foreign languages comes with a basis in legitimacy. It's still pretend, of course, but it made me feel better knowing the possibility was there--a tiny window in history where an isolated Englishwoman might have access to the wonders of medieval science.

Of course, she suffers for it. That sort of knowledge looks a lot like, well...witchcraft!

6 Comments:

Blogger Linda Banche said...

I'm glad you went the historical route for your heroine. I, for one, am pretty tired of witches. Too often, the only powerful heroines I see are ones who have supernatural powers, which are fantasy. I would rather see real heroines who have power because of their own grit, intelligence and hard work.

I don't usually read medievals, but I'll be reading your book.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I love this window on the best of medieval science -- which seems to me far more exciting and even miraculous than witchcraft. Fascinating stuff, Carrie.

2:53 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

Oh, how fun!!! Much more creative than witchcraft!

5:19 PM  
Blogger Carrie Lofty said...

Thanks everyone. I hope I pulled it off :)

5:35 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Very cool. I love when the "magic" is real (like the way Kathrynn used a real medical issue with her horse that would have seemed magical to them at the time). Kudos!

7:43 AM  
Anonymous Catherine said...

I am responding to your "happy ending" posting. I really think that a happy ending is the one that sticks to the story. I have also seen "Rent", granted I saw the screen version, but I don't like the ending, it leaves the viewer in somewhat of a screwy state, because following the story, a happy ending isn't supposed to happen. Simles aren't always what is needed. I do however love a happy ending, they give a reader a feeling that even though two characters aren't real, reality could never be so cruel to take what is meant to be away. I never like reading stories that when I am finished I feel empty, the story took that much out of me, for what? I so-so ending with the characters still walking around no better than they were on page one. I feel that in order for a story to truly give something to a reader they must fill the void that a story will bring, or allow imagination to reign, and readers wonder what the rest of life is to bring to people that never lived except for on four hundred pages. That is a happy ending, the wanting for more, beyond "The End".

2:33 PM  

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