Category: The Wolf and His King

Word By Word

I’m currently working on line edits for The Wolf and His King, my ‘Bisclavret’ retelling. Line edits, for me, are a multi-faceted process of nitpicking absolutely everything. This includes the grammar and rhythm of sentences, and I’ll read the whole book aloud to check for accidental rhyme, awkward alliteration, and repetition, because the feel of the words in my mouth is at least as important as their literal meanings. It’s also the part of the process when I research a lot of the fine details. Some people prefer to do their research earlier in the process, but for these kinds of details, I find it’s only worth doing them once I know a scene or line is sticking around, and therefore whether it’s worth going down the rabbithole.

Several rabbits on a hill riddled with their tunnels. A white hunting animal, perhaps a dog, enters one of the tunnels. The two rabbit on top of the hill appear to be having a conversation. Marginal illustration from a psalter.
Medieval rabbitholes:
British Library, Additional MS 42130 (The Lutterell Psalter), folio 176v

But rabbitholes, there are many — and my general interest in medieval literature and the world of its characters means I’m not inclined to read only the bare minimum to grasp a concept, but have a tendency to learn a lot more than is strictly necessary. At one point, I wanted to refine a metaphor but I needed a better understanding of how medieval people understood the universe, so I read an entire book about medieval science for the sake of a handful of words about constellations. Currently, I’m reading a whole book on knightly education and the literate culture of medieval courts to make sure everybody in the book knows the correct amount of Latin for their status and role. You get the idea.

Then there are the briefer queries, like whether a plant is native to the area, which usually prompts a Wikipedia dive. Every time I mention an animal, I check medieval bestiaries to understand better how medieval people would have thought about it, and to give myself the option to include some of those weirder ideas in the book itself. (Weasels can raise the dead? Sure, why not.)

A major part of my nitpicking, however, revolves around language and etymology, and I’ve found myself bookmarking the online OED for faster reference. (The advantage of being both an author and a PhD student is that I get full access via my uni login; truly, the university library has enabled so much of my research.)

I had to set out my own rules before I embarked on this. My characters are not speaking modern English — they live in alternate-universe 12th century Brittany*, and so are probably speaking a mixture of medieval Breton, French, and Latin, depending on the context. As such, there’s no point being too fussy about exactly when a word was first attested in English. But my rule for myself is that I need the concept to exist, and etymology is usually the first step to discovering the answer to that, especially if I can find a solid Latin or Anglo-Norman root for a word or idea.

*It has a king. Brittany was a duchy in this period.

An early casualty of this process was the figurative use of “purgatory” (“the endless purgatory of waiting to be discovered”); turns out even the restricted theological use of purgatory is just ever so slightly too late for me, with our very own Marie de France probably being responsible for its use in Anglo-Norman French, c. 1190. This would probably have been fine, if I meant it in the purely theological sense; I’ve deliberately not pinned this novel to a specific year, even if in my brain it’s somewhere in the 1170s, and I figured a 20-year anachronism was no big deal. The figurative use, though, didn’t seem to enter French until the sixteenth century, and four centuries is an entirely different kettle of fish; after a lot of pondering, I swapped it for the simpler torment, with a flag to come back to the overall sentence to see if I could re-work it.

Then, a more recent challenge: focus. This one tested me. Of course medieval authors and audiences would have had a concept of directing your attention to a specific thing, or concentrating on it, but focus would have meant something quite different to them — its earliest use seems to have been a term for a hearth or fireplace. Its more scientific use as a fixed point at which point light or sound converges is a seventeenth century one, and therefore our modern use of the term was pretty significantly at odds with what it would have meant to a medieval audience.

Did that matter, though, given that the concept of “specific thing you are looking at” must have been around for as long as people were looking at specific things? This was difficult to answer, and it was while I was grumbling about this word and how many times I seemed to have used it (or variants) in one of my writing groups that somebody asked the crucial question, the one that helped me pin down why I was doing this in the first place: “Is there a reason this novel needs to be etymologically accurate?”

Slightly facetiously, I answered, “I want the book to be good and historical detail matters to me.” And this is true. I want it to be good, and historical detail does matter to me. I’m a pedant even when I try not to be, and have been repeatedly jarred out of historical fiction or TV shows by anachronisms.

But although those anachronisms sometimes relate to words, it’s not usually just about the attestation date: it’s usually about the social ideas and concepts that are being expressed by those words, and whether those existed. I got annoyed at Netflix’s Bodies for using the term “homosexual” in 1890, two years before it was coined in English, not primarily because the word was anachronistic but because the entire concept of homosexuality represented a massive shift in queer history and how what was previously ‘behaviour’ started to be understood as ‘identity’. As such, it wasn’t just a word that wasn’t around in English yet, but an understanding of the world and a specific theory of human nature. (They probably would’ve got away with it, except that I was re-reading Halperin’s 100 Years of Homosexuality the same week that I watched Bodies. Bad timing for them/my enjoyment of that strand of the show.)

And when I’ve grown frustrated with other medieval-set novels, it’s rarely the language that’s the problem, but the mindsets: the modern attitudes towards touch and intimacy; the lack of religion in the background (and foreground) of everyday life; the way ‘good’ characters are ‘progressive’ in ways that align with modern values but rarely make sense for their context; the attitude towards clothing — and by extension often to women’s work of weaving and sewing — that speaks to a modern fast fashion mindset and not a world in which every scrap of fabric represented hours of labour…

So I thought about it a little more, and I realised it wasn’t really historical accuracy in terminology that was important to me. What mattered was that the work of weeding out these linguistic anachronisms also served to weed out lazy cliches in figurative language where I’d fallen back on a set phrase that relied on a modern understanding of the world — an understanding my characters wouldn’t have had. What I actually wanted to do wasn’t to write a linguistically correct pastiche of the twelfth century, but to represent the viewpoint of my characters: their perspective of the world, their understanding of the plot, not a modern understanding of those same events.

I doubt I’ll ever fully succeed in this aim, both because I’m a long way removed from the twelfth century and because I hail from suburban London, which means I’ve spent much of my life somewhat distant from nature and the rhythm of the seasons and the land. Nor do I think a wholly medieval mindset would suit the story I’m trying to tell, which is, after all, intended for a modern audience, and is using medieval literature to think about concepts that trouble me as somebody living in the modern world. If it were purely a medieval text, there would be no point me writing it, because that text already exists, and Marie de France wrote it. The whole point of a retelling is that it’s doing something new with a story, and striking different resonances, some of which its original audience might not have heard.

But every time I find a word that relies too heavily on a modern concept, challenge it, and reword every sentence that it’s in, I think I’m untangling some of the assumptions that my characters will see the world the same way that I do, the same way that my readers do, and express it in ways that are familiar to us. I’m forcing myself to consider how my own mindset as a writer is shaped by modern science, as well as by the specific branch of Christianity that I grew up with — although I didn’t have a secular upbringing, it was a very twenty-first century low-church Protestant environment that would be completely alien to a twelfth century Christian, and as such, I keep accidentally being heretical.

(This will be the next stage of the historical nitpicking: the Heresy Read, in which I will consult my friend who works on medieval hagiography and generally knows more about medieval Christianity than I do, to check that any heresy in this book is there on purpose. Heresy, you see, can be present for valid plot or emotional reasons, but only when it’s done secure in the knowledge that it is heretical, and not just because I have to be periodically reminded that saints are a thing.)

And so every time I spot a word that looks a little too scientific, or relies on a modern understanding of emotions or relationships, or which otherwise rings the little bell in my head labelled “possible anachronism?”, I get out the OED, and I look it up, and I start my research journey: Meanings and uses. Etymology. Anglo-Norman and Latin roots. Alternative words that might be older. New ways in which I might get across this concept that are completely detached from this phrasing.

Just as I occasionally stop myself, think, “Is it feasible that people would go to a specific location to drink and socialise when brewing was, as far as I’m aware, more or less a home industry and ‘taverns’ as a concept aren’t really around yet?”, and then make a note to research history of brewing and social drinking for the sake of ensuring one scene takes place in a historically plausible location. Because I know that’s the exact kind of detail that would bug me if somebody else got it wrong, and therefore, in the interests of not being a hypocrite when I bitch to my friends about something I’m reading, I owe it to myself to do as much research as I can.

I will never catch everything. I am relying on my background as a medievalist to have correctly labelled those possible anachronism? bells, and it’s entirely possible some will not sound when they should. But every word I look up brings me a little closer to understanding how my characters might have experienced and expressed things, and that matters — just as every rabbithole I go down on the larger issues, like education, flags new things to include which I hadn’t even thought to look up. (My marginal notes now include several injunctions to ADD MORE MUSICIANS!)

It’s a slow process, but bit by bit, word by word, concept by concept, I am making something of this book that is more medieval, and by doing that, making it more creative, more challenging, and less reliant on cliches and borrowed turns of phrase. It is forcing me to be deliberate about the language I use, and it’s making me a better writer by doing so.

Or at least, I think it is. Eventually, I suppose, we’ll find out if you agree.

The Wolf and His King will be published by Gollancz in 2025, and is available to pre-order now.

Queer Werewolves, Traumatic Shapeshifting, and Doomed Heroes

I have been waiting a very long time to write this post. Months at the very least, but really it feels like the culmination of several years of work and waiting and more work and more waiting, and now — now at last the news is here:

Gollancz snaps up three-book deal from Finn Longman in six-figure pre-empt
The Bookseller, 29th Feb 2024

That’s right. I’ve got more books coming. Adult books, specifically, and fantasy, which makes a change! Not just one, not even two, but three medieval retellings being published by Gollancz over the next few years, and I am SO EXCITED to be able to tell you about them at last.

First up is The Wolf and His King, coming in 2025. This is a queer retelling of Bisclavret that, yes, is focused on the homoerotic possibilities of the relationship between Bisclavret and the king, but is also about chronic pain and illness, the mortifying ordeal of being known, and being an exile in your own home. There is a lot of yearning, and some of that yearning is romantic, and some of it is about desperately wanting to be something your body seems determined not to let you become.

I’ve talked before on this blog about how this book uses werewolfism as a metaphor to explore chronic pain, and that’s definitely at the heart of the story — but there’s a lot more than just that in there. It’s about love and feudal interdependence and needing to be understood and trying to build peace. It’s partially in second person and partially in verse; it’s the weird medieval book of my heart, and it felt at times like it would never sell, but it did. And next year, you’ll be able to read it. In fact, you can even pre-order it right now… [edit: or imminently, the links don’t seem to be up yet, but REALLY SOON]

In 2026, I’m bringing you The Animals We Became [working title], which is a queertrans retelling of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, looking at gender, compulsory heterosexuality, and trauma, via nonconsensual shapeshifting. The Fourth Branch is not a nice story, nor a kind one, but it’s been one I’ve been wanting to retell since my first unfinished attempts at doing so back in 2012. It’s a tale that I think has a lot to say about our modern anxieties about gender, autonomy, and category crisis — as well as about the difference between justice and punishment, something I keep finding myself coming back to in my writing.

This book is a newer one, because I sort of sold it on proposal, except that I got carried away writing the sample chapters for Gollancz last year and ended up drafting the entire book. I wrote a post last year about how this process helped me develop new academic ideas about the story as well as new ways of understanding it as a narrative. I’m excited to get back to it and turn that first draft into something more polished and nuanced, but if nothing else, I can promise you that my tagline of “t4t shapeshifting and trauma” remains… very accurate.

And finally, in 2027, I get to share with you To Run With The Hound [working title]. Long-term readers will know that I wrote a book with this title way back in 2018. The book I’ve sold isn’t exactly that book — it’s a proposal for how I intend to completely rewrite that book from the ground up. But yes, this is it: my Cú Chulainn novel, which is sort of a Cú Chulainn/Fer Diad novel with vague Song of Achilles vibes, except it’s also so much more than that. I haven’t written the new version yet, but the plan is to use a nonlinear narrative to explore why Táin Bó Cúailnge is actually a tragedy, and what it means to be doomed by the narrative (but not in the way you thought you were). It will feature a great many feelings about Fer Diad, Láeg, and Cú Chulainn himself.

Obviously, all of these books draw very heavily on my academic background as a medievalist, but TRWTH is the most directly related to my PhD research. Which is just as well, because yes, I am juggling writing and editing these books with a full-time PhD, and I’m not entirely sure I’d recommend that as a state of affairs, but at least the overlap means I can research them both simultaneously.

In the spirit of providing as much information about these books as I can at this point of time, I have anticipated some possible FAQs, and will endeavour to answer them:

How long have you been keeping this secret?

FOREVER. Or, more specifically, since May 19th 2023, which has been killing me. I have not been particularly good at it. I think everyone who knows me IRL has heard the news at this point. But they’ve been strictly instructed to pretend they’re surprised on social media.

When do these books come out?

The Wolf and His King is scheduled for “Spring 2025”, with a holding date of March on the pre-order pages. As soon as that’s actually pinned down, I’ll let you know. The others should follow in 2026 and 2027, as long as there are no hurdles along the way, but I can’t promise there will be no PhD-related delays 🙈

Are these adult books or YA?

Adult. Definitely. I feel this is worth emphasising, especially when we come to Animals, because honestly, Gwydion is awful. I mean, he is the ultimate poor little meow meow, and he is terrible. The Wolf and His King would probably be fine for most teenage readers, but since it’s not aimed at teens, they might not vibe with it so much. The others (especially Animals) are heavier, and deal with darker themes in ways that aren’t particularly suitable for younger readers. (Full content warnings closer to the time, although I recommend googling the Fourth Branch for the general vibes…!) But, you know, I’m not the book police, so use your own discretion.

What genre label would you put on these books?

I think I would describe them as literary fantasy. I don’t know if this is how they would be “officially” labelled. Their fantastical elements — werewolves and shapeshifting and whatever is going on with Cú Chulainn — are crucial parts of the story, but I’m not interested in explaining them, or particularly in developing a magic system for them to exist within. The focus is on the themes and the ways that the stories are told, often with experimental POVs and stylistic choices. Hence the literary part, I guess. But some would probably describe them just as fantasy. That makes sense, too. Historical fantasy almost fits, except that the history we’re dealing with is pseudohistory, and deliberately ambiguous in its exact dates.

Does this mean you’re only going to write adult books now, or will you write more YA?

I don’t have any more YA books contracted once Moth to a Flame comes out in May. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to write any more. I think I’m probably going to take a little break from it, though (juggling these + the full-time PhD is more than enough, honestly), so it might be a couple of years before I have something else lined up on that side of things. I’ve got a couple of ideas I might pursue: a contemporary novel set in a secondary school orchestra, featuring the world’s most codependent string quartet, or a queer pacifist sci-fi Robin Hood retelling that might well be summed up as ‘be gay, do crimes’. Or I might write something else entirely. But we’ll see.

What formats will they be published in?

I believe it’s hardback first, with simultaneous e- and audiobook, and then paperback later. I’ve never had a hardback before, so that will be a novelty.

Will they be available in [x] language?

I have no say over translation rights but I very much hope these books will be picked up and translated into as many languages as possible! If you are a publisher and you want foreign rights, I guess now is the time to talk to Gollancz — hit them up at London Book Fair or something. Especially if you want to translate them into Celtic languages. I would absolutely love to see Animals in Welsh or TRWTH in Irish… listen, I know the market’s small, but it’s worth it. Let’s do it. I believe in us.

How much romance/sex is there in these books?

[ETA: A brief explanatory note, because the response to this book announcement has been fabulous and this post has spread much further than I expected, and therefore beyond my usual readers — The Butterfly Assassin trilogy contains zero romance, and this has been something I’ve been keen to emphasise in my publicity, not least because it’s unusual in YA. So existing readers might be curious whether I’m continuing in the same direction on that front, and that’s why I picked out this question to answer. (Not because I think it is the most important piece of information about any book in general, or anything like that!)]

The Wolf and His King is significantly focused on yearning, although mostly of the unfulfilled variety for the majority of the book. There are some sex scenes, largely poetic rather than explicit. I have told my mum that she’s allowed to read this book, if that helps. I don’t think you could describe it as capital R Romance, or really as romantasy, but it does technically have a HEA, so I guess if you really wanted to stretch your definitions, you could.

The Animals We Became has some sex, and very little romance. It’s a bit more explicit than The Wolf and His King, and I haven’t decided if my mum’s allowed to read it yet. Given the plot of the Fourth Branch, issues surrounding assault, consent, and bodily autonomy are quite central. It’s not what I would call a romantic book.

I really can’t tell you much about To Run With The Hound at this point, because I haven’t written it. I think it will deal a lot with the blurred boundaries of friendship/sworn brotherhood/attraction/enmity. I don’t think romance in the modern sense will be a focus, but it is substantially about complicated relationships between people, and, yeah, also about heroic masculinity and combat/war as a form of intricate ritual.

How much murder is in these books?

Substantially less than is in The Butterfly Assassin trilogy, with the possible exception of To Run With The Hound.

How much am I going to suffer as a reader?

The Wolf and His King is the least angsty, and has a happy ending. The Animals We Became is somewhat more angsty; it has a hopeful but complicated ending. To Run With The Hound is a tragedy, and you’re going to suffer. In other words, it’s a steady run downhill from here to 2027.

How do I get an ARC?

Absolutely no idea, it’s still early days, more edits to do before that’s on the cards, but I imagine you go and ask Gollancz very nicely. When I know more, you will know more.

Do I need to know the original stories to enjoy these books?

No, I have been meticulously testing them on beta readers who are unfamiliar with the original stories, mostly to watch them yell at me when something terrible happens that was absolutely not my idea. However, if you want to do background reading, I’m happy to provide a bibliography.

The Bookseller says it was a 6-figure deal. Does that mean you’re rich now?

Tragically not. There are a lot of misconceptions about how much money authors make, and a lot of assumptions get made based on flashy headlines. Turns out when you spread low six figures over around five years, and pay taxes and agent commissions and things like that, you still end up earning less than minimum wage. On the flip side, though, it’s a very nice supplement to my PhD stipend, and the combination of the two means I can almost afford to have the heating on for more than five hours per day in winter. Almost.

For real, I am extremely grateful for this opportunity and it’s more than I’ve ever earned for my writing before. I don’t want to belittle that fact: I know how it feels to be the writer with a substantially-less-than-six-figure deal watching more financially successful authors complain about how it’s hardly anything and wishing they’d catch themselves on, lol. But writing is still definitely not the business to go into if you want a living wage, so unfortunately I won’t be buying a house any time soon, and I will continue to wince whenever my bike needs yet another pricey repair.

How’s it going, balancing this with the PhD?

It’s going. Sometimes it’s fine. Sometimes I’m very stressed. I think balancing these and also Moth to a Flame was not ideal, but that will all be wrapped up soon, so then I’ll only have two jobs. It helps that these books overlap so much (in content and also thematically) with my PhD research, so everything I learn as part of the PhD helps add depth and colour to the books themselves. The hard part will be holding myself back from adding a bibliography at the back of each book…

Can you tell me more about medieval werewolves?

Yes. Start here.

But what about the accidental vampire novel you were talking about?

The accidental vampire novel is not contracted. Yet. Paranormal romance publishers, hit me up if you’re into incredibly niche romance novels about desperate postgrads and the things they’ll do to a) get PhD funding and b) convince their vampire housemate to suck their blood.

When can I preorder?

For The Wolf and His King: right now! At least in the UK! Still waiting on more retailers, including more who ship internationally, but I highly recommend you go bug them to make it available because I think theoretically they can do that. All the links I’ve got so far are on this page.

For the others, ask me again in a year or so. If that’s too long to wait, remember that Moth to a Flame comes out this May, so you should go grab that in the meantime, and the first two if you haven’t already read them.

I think that is everything, but if I have not answered your question, then please ask it in the comments and I will endeavour to do so!

In general I am just really excited to share this news with you, extremely grateful to my agent Jessica Hare for being willing to take on my weird queer literary adult fantasy novels even though she signed me for The Butterfly Assassin which is really not that, and very glad to have found an editor like Bethan Morgan who is willing to spend three days going back and forth with me about the nuances of words like ‘myth’ and ‘folklore’ when dealing with medieval literature. The future is ahead of us and it is a queer medieval future — and isn’t that glorious?

Stitching The Details

There’s a phenomenon — I’m sure you’ve experienced it — where you’ll learn a word that you’re sure you’ve never heard before and will probably never hear again, and then almost as soon as you’ve learned it, you start seeing it everywhere. It’s like a conspiracy: the world knows you just learned that word, and now it’s in every newspaper article, every blog post, every conversation with friends, and you find yourself wondering how it is that it took you so long to learn it, when clearly it’s everywhere.

I would like to propose that a version of this phenomenon exists for research. You’ll embark on learning about a topic you knew nothing about before, and as soon as you’ve got a little bit of information about it, suddenly you’re noticing that information everywhere, and wondering how it is that you never paid attention to it before.

In my case, the topic is medieval fashion, and specifically, twelfth-century clothing. This is a period I work on as both an author and an academic, but as a literature-focused researcher rather than a historian, I rarely find myself worrying too much about concrete, material details. This is a weakness when I have my author hat on, though, and I suddenly find that material culture matters a lot and need to go figure out the architecture and what any of my characters are wearing before I can proceed.

I’m currently editing The Wolf and His King, a queer Bisclavret retelling I originally drafted in 2019. It’s quite literary in style (partially in second person and partially in verse, for starters), and focused a lot more on the metaphorical resonances of werewolfism (which I’m using partly to explore ideas about chronic pain/illness) than on the exact practicalities. Still, those who know ‘Bisclavret’, one of the lais of Marie de France, will know that clothing is a crucial part of the story: Bisclavret needs his clothes to transform back into a human, and when they’re stolen, he’s trapped in wolf form until they’re restored to him.

The centrality of clothing in the story meant I couldn’t brush over it as an inconsequential detail in my novel, though of course I did in the early drafts, because I never layer in the important details until way too late in the process. Clothes are not incidental: they are fundamental to the plot. And although Bisclavret, and by extension this novel, is not set in a very specific identifiable year — it seems to be set in a version of Brittany onto which Marie is projecting a lot of Anglo-Norman cultural details; for starters, it has a king — I wanted that clothing to be historically plausible, even if accurate is a rung further up the ladder that I’m not exactly on right now.

A manuscript image of a woman writing at a sloped desk. She holds a pen in one hand and a knife in the other (for erasing mistakes). She's wearing a simple veil to cover her hair, and a loose overtunic without sleeves, revealing the dark blue sleeves of her undertunic.
Marie de France, as pictured in BnF Ms. 3142 (late 13th century)

I started with YouTube videos by reenactors. While I don’t find videos a particularly useful way to learn most of the time, this is one area where they really shine. “Get ready with me, twelfth century edition!” will demonstrate far more clearly how many layers people are wearing, how they’re put on, how they’re fastened, and which parts of the clothing need a second person to help with them, than any lengthy treatise in text will do. As well as reenactors demonstrating their twelfth-century fashion, there were others digging into the manuscript images and sculptures to provide visual references to other reenactors to help them understand the styles of the time — references that any passing author might also find beneficial.

I knew, theoretically, that I would need manuscript images and other visual evidence, but I didn’t have the foggiest idea what manuscripts to look at, and with the loss of the British Library’s digitised collection, I wasn’t even sure where to start with looking for digital images, since I’m not very familiar with other libraries’ interfaces. So these videos were a great shortcut to understanding the resources I would need to work with, and giving me the basic information. From there, I was able to progress to books and other written descriptions — now that I had a picture in my head of what the terminology referred to, I could follow the descriptions in a way that I hadn’t been able to when they were all very abstract to me.

Since then, though, I’ve been seeing clothes everywhere. Every time I see a manuscript image, I find myself looking at the sleeves and the headgear, trying to guess what century it’s from before I read the caption. Scrolling on Tumblr, I ran across pictures of a reenactor showing off her latest outfit, and found myself going, “Ooh, those buttons look quite fourteenth century,” before checking the tags and determining that they were supposed to. And when reading a book that lavished descriptions on the character’s newfangled dress and its buttoned sleeves, I was able to side-eye it for being about a century early with those. Six weeks ago, I would not have noticed that, and I would not have cared.

14th Century buttoned sleeves on a men’s cotehardie, via Project Broad Axe

Or, most obviously, I was at the Fitzwilliam Museum with my mum earlier this week, and we were in the medieval art gallery. “Look,” I’d say, pointing to a manuscript image, “that looks a bit like the clothing I’ve been looking at, except slightly different hair and headgear.” Lo and behold, very early thirteenth century.

I suspect this newfound knowledge will make me very boring when reading historical fiction and watching TV/films — now I have a whole new thing to be annoyed about! As though grumbling about a TV show being two years early with the term homosexual in English wasn’t pedantic enough!* — but it’s also given me access to a whole new world of art history. While I’ll probably never be super invested in modern art history, as a non-visual person, I understand much better now what we can learn from pictures and sculptures, and I have something to look for when examining those artworks that allows me to understand them in more depth than just a casual “hehe funny medieval image”, or whatever I was doing before.

In fact, I so much can’t stop noticing the clothing on every medieval image I look at that I’m starting to wonder how on earth I managed to know nothing about medieval clothing until now — and how my vague guesswork when writing the early drafts of this book managed to be so far off the historical reality. (In my defence, though, I usually work on Ireland, and stories set in the very distant past, and in any case, trying to use Táin Bó Cúailnge to understand Irish clothing would have you thinking people often wore 27 shirts simultaneously.)

But it’s not just the visual depictions of clothing that I’ve found myself paying attention to — it’s also the descriptions in romances and stories. I was recently rereading Yvain, as you do, because Yvain is my favourite cat person, and I came across a scene in which he is dressed in fine clothes by a maiden, who fetches a needle and thread and sews his ‘shirt’.

Many of the terms I’d come to recognise from my clothing research were absent from the translation, which referred to a ‘shirt’ and ‘pants’. Fortunately, I happen to own a copy of Yvain in Old French (who doesn’t, amirite), so I could check the terms used in the original: chemise and braies. Ah, I thought. This was why I had mistakenly assumed everyone was wearing trousers and had forgotten we were in a tunic-dominated world. There’s nothing wrong with the translation of ‘braies’ as ‘pants’ — actually, I think it’s rather good, since it kind of works in both UK and US English, with braies in this period being somewhere between underpants and trousers. But the image that ‘shirt and pants’ created in my head was not one that resembled any of the manuscript images from this period.

A medieval manuscript image showing three men. The man on the left is wearing an orange tunic which has been tucked up into his belt, revealing light-coloured underwear tucked into green legwear that has been laced to the top of the underwear (fastenings not visible). He wears a light-coloured cap to cover his hair. In the middle is a man wearing a blue tunic, a light-coloured cap, and seemingly nothing on his legs. On the right is a man stripped only to his braies -- loose underwear rolled at the waist, falling to mid-calf, with the bottom hoiked up and attached to the waist. He is also wearing a cap, despite being shirtless and bare-legged.
Braies in the Morgan Bible (13th Century)

And as for the sewing…

I had never understood the sewing. I had skimmed straight past the reference to sewing, assuming vaguely that maybe there were some repairs or tailoring needed before he could wear this ‘shirt’. It didn’t occur to me that this could be part of putting the shirt on. But one of the things I learned during my research was that the tight sleeves of the nobility, in this world before buttons as fastenings or elasticated fabric, would be sewn every time they were worn. What I was seeing in this text, suddenly, was the material culture casually referenced in the literature in a way that I hadn’t previously had the knowledge to perceive.

Chrétien, of course, sees no reason to explain what this means. He’s not writing for an audience 900 years in the future; unlike a fantasy author trying to make sure their readers can follow the worldbuilding, he doesn’t need to say, “And then she sewed his sleeves in the tight fashion favoured by the nobility, demonstrating his high class and the regard in which she holds him,” or whatever, because he doesn’t need to. His audience would have understood that. I, until very recently, didn’t, and as such, the literary texts alone couldn’t teach me how clothing worked.

Back, then, to Bisclavret, and to The Wolf and His King. It became apparent that I would need to rewrite all of my clothing descriptions, but that should have been a simple edit, a mechanical change. Except, of course, that some of the clothing I was now looking at would have required a second person to help with it, and in several of these scenes, Bisclavret got dressed alone. Some would be easier to resolve than others, but it wasn’t the logistics that caught my attention about that — it was the symbolism.

In ‘Bisclavret’, as in some other French tales like Guillaume de Palerne, clothing is significant as the mechanism by which humanity — and sanity, with which it’s often conflated — is bestowed. Bisclavret is able to be human when his clothes are restored to him. Yvain, recovering from a period of madness in the woods, becomes conscious of his nakedness and clothing is needed to fully restore him to society. Guillaume and his beloved (I’m sorry, I don’t know her name in French, I only know her from the Irish Eachtra Uilliam, where she’s Melior — I assume it’s something similar) can be sewn into the skins of animals as a disguise (sewing again!) and therefore functionally become animals, temporarily, but their humanity is eventually perceived not because their skin becomes visible through gaps in the stitching, but because their human clothes are visible through the gaps.

A marginal illustration from a medieval manuscript, showing a deer with a person's face visible in its stomach and their human feet replacing the deer's back legs.
A person dressed as a deer. Roman d’Alexandre,
Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 70r (14th Century)

I knew this, which is why I knew that clothing was too significant in this story to be treated carelessly in my retelling of it. But I hadn’t thought about the implications of needing those clothes to be sewn by somebody else, or at least laced (potentially possible to do alone, but extremely difficult, especially if you’re not hypermobile like me and can’t bend your arms in weird directions). How this ensures that humanity and identity must always be granted by somebody else: created and validated by the observer. If humanity requires being dressed, and being dressed (for a high-class character) requires somebody else’s help, then humanity is also dependent on that other person to deem you worthy of it and participate in that act of recreation.

And when I put it like that it seems… well, obvious. In my own work on gender, I’ve explored how this is culturally contingent and dependent on external observers to recognise and validate behaviour and belonging. I think this is one of the reasons that the Cú Chulainn of Táin Bó Cúailnge has such a complicated and embattled masculinity: he’s alone (except for Láeg) for most of the text, defined by opposition rather than by community or society. In his case, this overlaps significantly with his humanity and the way he walks the boundaries of the monstrous. (If this interests you, I have an open-access article on the subject.)

So of course Bisclavret can’t be officially and fully human until he’s seen and recognised as human by others. I just hadn’t realised how much the act of getting dressed — not merely the act of being dressed — was a part of that.

As well as providing me with some potent fodder for angst, metaphors, and symbolism in my creative work on this story, it raises questions about the lai itself. In the early part of the tale, Bisclavret transforms in secret. How, then, is he getting dressed? Is he wearing lower-class clothing with loose sleeves and simple lacing, and therefore sacrificing some of his noble status to maintain secrecy in the act of becoming human? Is there an unnamed and unremarked servant who knows his secret, and helps him? (That could be a story in its own right.) Is his clothing, and therefore his humanity, always partial — does he return dishevelled with unsewn sleeves and wonky laces and need to have them discreetly fixed before he’s seen by anyone who matters? (Again, the unremarked servants come into play…) Is he, in fact, hypermobile and capable of managing his own fastenings, even the most awkwardly positioned ones? (I am in your medieval texts, diagnosing everyone with hEDS, muah ha ha ha.)** Or is Marie’s imagined Brittany and vague fantasy past an area in which everyday clothing logistics aren’t applicable?

I don’t have answers, and I also wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to assume I’m the first person to have thought of this. Unlike medieval Irish literature, where any deviation from a small list of well-covered topics will mean you can rapidly find yourself plumbing the bibliographic depths and emerging only with an obscure reference in a racist book from the 1880s, if you find anything at all, medieval French literature is abundant with scholars and readings of these tales from all sorts of directions. Quite possibly somebody has examined the lais from a ‘fashion history’ perspective, and drawn conclusions about what the characters must be wearing to make the story viable.

Even if they haven’t, having seen those references in Yvain to a maiden sewing Yvain’s clothing for him, references I skimmed straight past until I understood what was being described, it’s clear to me that these stories are describing, using, engaging with the material culture of their day and assuming that their readers know what they mean. Perhaps we were always supposed to assume that Bisclavret had somebody in his confidences who was helping him obtain his humanity — in which case his wife’s fear of him may also be betrayal, because he trusted somebody else with that knowledge and not her. Or perhaps we were always supposed to read into the types of clothing he might have been wearing to be able to manage alone, and how this in itself represents a subversion of the natural order because it isn’t what a baron and knight should have been wearing.

What I know for sure is that learning about medieval clothing for the purposes of writing fiction has revealed something about the stories themselves that enhances my academic understanding of them — once again, storytelling and scholarship work together. When I get inside the story and try to tell it from the inside, I understand better why it looks the way it does on the outside. I begin, temporarily, to wear the clothes of its authors, and to understand how the seams were sewn.

And I will be forevermore irritated by the anachronistic use of buttons in fiction. That too.

*Although in defence of my pedantry, the coining of the term homosexual and the shift to thinking of sexuality as an identity rather than a behaviour was actually pretty significant in the development of queer history, so having a character be accused of ‘homosexual’ activities in 1890 felt like a glaring anachronism. Bodies would probably have got away with it if I hadn’t been rereading Halperin’s 100 Years of Homosexuality that same week, though. [back]

**I don’t really believe in diagnosing fictional and historical figures with things but if I were going to, the fact that Cú Chulainn is notable for the way his knees bend backwards, he wakes up too quickly from sedation, and he needs a special hard bed or he can’t sleep… yeah that boy is hypermobile for sure. [back]

NB: Medieval clothing is, as we can see, a topic I’m new to. If there are any errors in this post, or you have any suggestions for further reading on the topic of how clothes are used in romances and lais, please let me know in the comments.