Thursday, October 24, 2013

Favorite Author and Guest Today, Denise Domning, Author of Wonderful Medieval Romances!

Welcome to my blog, Denise Domning, award-winning, best-selling author of eleven historical novels and the co-author with Monica Sarli of one gritty, hard-bitten memoir of addiction and recovery.

Of the two genres, Denise says she frankly prefers the rats, grime and fleas of the twelfth century over the ghettos and drug use of modern Kansas City. For Denise, writing means using words as her time machine and painting an accurate portrait of a past.

You can see my review of her novel THE WARRIOR'S GAME just below this post. And, you can stay in touch with Denise via her website, www.denisedomning.com

Today she is sharing with us the sounds of the medieval time period in which her Warrior Series is set. And, Denise has graciously agreed to give her boxed set to one lucky commenter!










Zounds! The Sounds!

It wasn’t until the fateful and awful events of 9/11 that I truly understood how much sound frames our experience of life. For three days after that day, our world fell into an awesome quiet. For most of us it was the first time we had heard nothing in the skies above us except birds. Until then, I hadn’t realized how pervasive the steady thrum of jet engines is in my life, or how completely unaware I was of that sound. It was a pivotal moment in my understanding of how differently we “Moderns” experience the world from those folks living in the late twelfth century.

It was also a potent reminder of how powerful the sense of hearing is when an author wants to evoke a bygone era. Why? Because what cluttered the ears of past generations is vastly different from the roar of cars, rattle of kitchen appliances and gentle whirr of our computer fans that clutters our ears these days.

So what were the folks back in the Middle Ages completely unaware that they were listening to? Let’s start in the countryside, and in the Twelfth Century that means most of the population. During this period London was England’s biggest city, with a little over 30,000 people in residence. By the Fifteenth Century, the second largest city in England was Norwich, weighing in at around 6000 people.
Just like country folk today, the sounds of animals and nature dominates the existence of these small, self-sufficient farming communities. Their days begin with the crowing of someone’s rooster. But along with that comes the honk of domesticated geese, the quack of ducks, the cooing of doves from their dove cote. A truly riotous avian chorus erupts from every tree, thicket and bush. There’s the complex song of a lark, the shrill military chatter of a kingfisher from the stream bank and the mundane twitter of the swallows nesting under the eaves of barns and sheds. In the spring and fall, the skies fill with vast flocks of migrating wild ducks, geese and swans, so many that the almost non-stop honking must have seemed deafening.

Of course, birds aren’t the only animals making noise with the dawn. Sheep and goats bleat, cows low (or moo, depending on which word you like better), all wanting their masters’ attention. In the distance the local water source, be that brook, stream or river, tumbles and dances in the newborn light. Leaves rustle and toss with the breeze. Inside the cottage, the ceramic lid that protects the hot ashes clatters as it’s taken off the fire. Bellows gust as the hot coals are encouraged back into crackling flame. Everyone coughs, because even though the smoke is supposed to wind its way out of the hole in the roof, the smoke is everywhere. And everything–absolutely everything–in the cottage smells like smoke.

After they break their fast (as in breakfast), the day’s chores begin. The ring of blacksmith’s hammer is rhythmic and even as he brings it down again and again on the thick piece of metal he’s turning into a tool. The bellows that keep his fire hot enough to soften iron gust and whoosh. At the mill, the miller snaps the goad over the back of his ox and the big creature begins to walk his endless circle. As he moves, the grinding stone rumbles, turning steadily to grind wheat or rye or oats into flour. The sound is loud enough that the miller has to raise his voice to speak to customers. The knife sharpener’s wheel rumbles as turns, the knives he sharpens ringing and sending off sparks as he hones the blades; the potter’s wheel rumbles as he shapes clay into new pots. The carpenter’s saws rasp with a whee-haw as they’re pulled through lengths of wood. The wheelwright and cooper hammers thud dully as they work narrow strips of metal onto their wheels and barrels.

Meanwhile, everyone sings. At the fuller’s cottage newly woven cloth is being fulled or waulked–the process of felting or tightening the weave so the fabric won’t unravel–to the cadence of a specific set of songs, each set providing the right rhythm to a different part of the fulling process. (You can hear this song HERE.) Yet more songs rings out from the fields where the men swing their scythes. This keeps their movements in sync and prevents accidental injury. And down at the stream, the women sing as they rub their clothing clean while their youngest children chatter and play.

At day’s end, the fire cover clatters back into place on the hot ashes and everyone makes their crunchy way onto their straw-filled mattresses. Outside, owls hoot and shriek, and the robin sings if there’s even the least little light to keep him awake. In the barn, and most often in the house as well, rats and mice skitter and rustle. So does the occasional hedgehog, come in to enjoy the relative warmth of a cottage. In those areas kept wild for the pleasure of noblemen, stags trumpet to attract mates, the rare wolf howls and boar offer up blood-curdling grunts.

It isn’t as pleasant for those who live in the burgeoning towns of this era. Here, the rooster still wakes the household, since just about everyone who can afford to keeps their own chickens. There might also be the grunt of a sow and the squeal of her piglets from the shed outside the back of the house.

Householders might also be able to hear the tumble of water, because every town and city has a reliable water source. But chances are that in the city the water is foul with human and animal wastes, as well as polluted by industrial wastes. And you thought it was just our era that was polluted? Nope, humans were hard at destroying their environment, even a thousand years ago. But that’s another article.


Here in the medieval city, folk tell time by the bell. Trade means money and money means charitable donations to your parish church, and that means a church bell. The size of a bell determines its voice, the bigger the bell the deeper the tone, and, of course, the more expensive the bell. Since all churches are Roman Catholic in Europe at this time, the bells all ring out about fifteen minutes before each of the day’s services. In London at this time there are thirteen monastic houses as well as one hundred parish churches. Imagine the cacophony, all the bells ringing every three hours during the day, and of course for every funeral or event that might need to be announced to the public.

Add to that the same noises described for country life, but multiply it by a deafening factor. In the “shambles,’ another name for where the butchers ply their trade, animals bleat and bellow their last as they’re slaughtered for meat (and let’s not even talk about the stink). In towns, the need for smiths, whether ironmongers or those who work more precious metals, is much greater than in the country but here new technology is changing the way this work is done. Water power is being used to full cloth, temper metal as well as grind flour. The water turns the wheel that turns the gears that drops hammers on the metal or cloth. The never-ending thumping and clanging is so overwhelming that town councils are passing new ordinances limiting when these mills can run.


Where there are merchants, there must be customers. Very few homes in the towns and cities are simply a place to live. Instead, most of these houses are also the homeowner’s business establishment, with his shop located on the ground floor. Every day, our merchant throws open the shutters of his shop and is off and running, or rather shouting as he pitches his goods to all passersby. The shouting isn’t limited to just storefronts. Regraters, think of them as the mobile food trucks of today, walked the streets. With their handcarts or wheelbarrows filled with something to sell, be that old clothing or fresh fruit or cheese, they shouted for folk to come buy their excellent wares.

Where there’s trade, there’s wagon traffic to move goods from one place to another. Bellowing oxen, their owners shouting and snapping goads at them, drag wagons along mucky lanes. Mounted merchants lead long trains of pack animals through the city. Priests and monks ride past stuck carts on braying donkeys. Cats yowl, dogs bark, pigs grunt, chickens squawk and sweetly cooing doves rain you-know-what down from above.

Like today, day laborers stand on corners and call out in the hopes of being hired. At night, they’ll be replaced by the women who sell themselves to earn their daily bread. And then there are the ale houses. These are the pubs of their day. Every alewife has her own recipe and serves food as well as her drink. The folk who frequent her establishment are generally travelers or people without the ability to cook their own meals, people sleeping in corners of sheds or in warehouses. Often the alehouse is their only chance to enjoy the warmth of a fire and of community, so the singing commences, twining with the other noises of the night.

Walled cities mean limited space for houses, so dwellings are crammed helter-skelter, taking advantage of every free space. With neighbors so close, there’s no privacy. Every marital spat, every man practicing his sackbut, every family celebrating some milestone can be overheard, whether by folks on the streets or the family next door. If things get a little rowdy, the watch will be called and the offenders asked to hold it down. And so they would until the first bell of the morning stirred the roosters to start crowing at dawn the next day.

I suppose like those people who live in New York City today, the denizens of London in the Twelfth Century took the noise in stride, the same way I heard but no longer listened to the sound of jet engines in the sky above. But one thing’s for certain. Ancient Londoners looked down their noses at the rubes from the countryside who found the bustle and bellow of their beloved city than they could take.

What surprises you most about the sounds of medieval life?

17 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for inviting me to participate on your blog. I'm thrilled to be here today!

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  2. What an interesting article. You've certainly covered all the bases, Denise. I "hear" many of the same sounds today (I live in a remote area), and I appreciate the reminder to use them in my own writing about the American West. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Hi Kaki, I live in the American West (westerner born and raised) and in a rural area as well. I love being able to step outside and hear the sounds that have graced the ears of so many before me. :-D

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  3. i write medieval fantasy. i'll have to really dig into this when i have a lot of time. thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks, Michelle! I think sound is the most overlooked sense in most novels. Too bad, because it's probably the most evocative.

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  4. Thank you Denise and Regan. This was wonderful. You had me with the opening about the birdsong - my husband and I love to wake on temperate Atlanta mornings and listen to the various birds awaken, too. Of course, road traffic is the background noise, but we pretend it's a river. You definitely have a new fan!

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    1. Thanks Barbara, there's something very grounding about listening to birds. The beauty of it makes things seem right with the world. Of course, if we translated the songs they're singing it would work out to be "This is my property, my nest, my female. If you trespass, you will die." :-/
      Denise

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    2. Barbara, thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment!

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  5. Thank you, Regan, for bringing Denise to us.

    Denise,

    Someday, if I'm lucky, I'll write a medieval historical romance of my own. I have it in my head, but I'm reluctant to devote as much time as you have to such a pursuit. So I write about romance in scientific history, but make it paranormal for fewer constraints.

    But with your posting on sounds, I almost feel as if I've channeled into my characters past lives and experienced their life as they lived it.

    You only mentioned smell once or twice, but the sounds, if we recognize them, bring with them the odors of the cacophonous life all around.

    I was especially floored by the singing that accompanied work and the birds chattering nonstop in the trees. How different from the beeps and burps of our isolation in electronic technology.

    Perhaps I was born in the wrong era.

    Thank you for opening my ears to a wonderland of medieval sounds.

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    1. So glad you enjoyed the article! Btw, I love scientific history. Have you read Pythagoras's Trousers? What a great book about the historical women in science. I'm with you about being born in the wrong era. I do love living out here in the boonies, where the sounds of modernity are limited.
      Denise

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    2. Susan, thanks for dropping by!

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  6. I really enjoyed your article, which included a lot of things I hadn't thought about before. These are the kind of details that will draw a reader into the world you've created. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Alexis, so glad you enjoyed Denise's post--I thought it was amazing.

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    2. Hi Alexis, I'm so glad you enjoyed the article. You're right! Sounds really help bring a world to life. I think we don't "hear" much any more in our world even though we are inundated with sounds.
      Thanks again,
      Denise

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  7. I loved the singing and the women working rhythm.

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    1. :-D That's not something you can do these days, not with everyone plugged into their phones and ipods. We've forgotten that before we got so caught up with something else making noise for us that we--as a species--entertained ourselves by making noise: singing, chanting, sing-song story telling. For a really interesting view in old entertainment made by mouth alone, look into "mouth music" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YKWXJyrZGg)
      It was meant to test your ability to keep the words flowing along to the music.

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    2. Thanks Jackie for joining us!

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