Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Guest post from Jeri Westerson, author of VEIL OF LIES

I'm delighted to present this guest post from author Jeri Westerson, author of the Medieval Noir debut, VEIL OF LIES. Her novel will be released by St. Martin's Minotaur in November 2008, and features a delightful tale of intrigue, murder and mayhem. (Click on the cover image to learn more )
Here is a description:
In London of 1384, Crispin Guest is a man adrift in a rigidly defined society. Left with only his life, he’s a disgraced knight, convicted of treason, stripped of his rank and his honor for plotting against Richard II. Having lost his patron and his friends, with no trade to support him, Crispin has turned to the one thing he still has--his wits--to scrape a living on the mean streets of London.

Crispin is called to the compound of a reclusive merchant who suspects his wife of infidelity and wants Crispin to look into the matter. In dire need of money, he discovers that the wife is indeed up to something, but when Crispin comes to inform his client, he is found dead--murdered in a sealed room, locked from the inside. Now Crispin finds himself in the middle of a complex plot involving dark secrets, international plots, and a missing religious relic--one that lies at the heart of this impossible crime.

To learn more about Jeri and her work, please visit her website at:

Medieval Swearing

Blasphemy itself could not survive religion; if anyone doubts that let him try to blaspheme Odin.--G.K. Chesteron

What was swearing like in the middle ages? It's not what you think.

We use a lot of colorful language in our mystery novels. The darker the stories get, the darker the language becomes. Though we use an overabundance of Anglo Saxon nouns and verbs to describe the ire of our characters, the speech we use today would be quite foreign to the medieval person. At least as a swear word.

Oh yes. Those colorful Anglo Saxon words for body parts and functions were used without fear of vulgarity. It was part and parcel in the day before Victorian mores scrubbed our mouths out with soap and trussed us up into corsets. I suppose most of us are familiar enough with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and in particular the Miller's Tale where flatulance and arse-kissing play an amusing role. But these words and phrases weren't used to denigrate another.

In many instances, it was one's character that is impugned along with one's parentage. To call someone a "churl" or "dog" was fightin' words, to be sure. "Villein" or "scullion" toward a person with means was quite the insult, for you have called them the lowest of the low, a menial, as if you called a CEO a trash collector. Not the same sting today, is it? One was more likely to come up with a religious oath: "by Christ's blood, toes, bones" and any number of bodily parts. Or by the Virgin...and her blood, bones, virginity, and intimate anatomy. A pantheon of saints were at their disposal by which to swear. The Prioress in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales does her swearing by "Saint Loy!" better known as Saint Eligius. Truly, the medieval man would be perplexed at our concern with defecation or fornication when it comes to swearing. In fact, many of the oaths sworn in the middle ages might be something your grandmother would say. It's certainly hard to picture a knight in full dress telling someone in no uncertain terms that he is a "lousy swine" ("lousy" in this sense meaning full of louse). Or use those seven deadly sins as an insult. Call someone a glutton and you might find a gauntlet in your face.

Let us not forget the gestures. The "one-fingered salute" so familiar to Americans was in England (and I believe still is) a two-fingered variety, this stemming from archers taunting their enemies, proving they still had their two fingers in which to pull the string of a bow (the index and middle finger) given with the back of the hand outward. If you were an archer and captured by one's enemies it was likely they would hew off said fingers so you couldn't use a bow against them again. Not very cricket, what?

"Fie!" is one of those words that is often mistaken for a harsher term or as a precursor for that most menacing of Anglo Saxon words, beginning with an "f". But it's not. It merely means "Faith!" of "by my faith!", from the Latin fidus, meaning faithful. Swearing by one's faith is certainly blasphemous enough, if you think about it. And it didn't go unpunished. Habitual blaspheming is "holding God in contempt" and was not to be borne. As punishment, the 13th century King Louis (and later St. Louis of France) suggested that swearers be branded on the face with a hot poker and then put in stocks for further public humiliation. And Henry I of England, son of William the Conqueror, kept a whole list of different fines for different levels of society when caught swearing within the royal earshot: a duke, 40 shillings; a lord, 20 shillings; a squire, 10 shillings; a yeoman, 3 shillings and 4 pence; a page, a whipping.

So then perhaps the next time someone cuts you off in traffic, don't degenerate into the typical bodily function or kama sutra-like gyration you might have suggested. Get medieval on him instead and call him a "loathsome paynim (pagan)!" That will keep him guessing all day.
(And I swear, you can find other good stuff on my website or my blog "Getting Medieval.")

For more about swearing, check out Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English by Geoffrey Hughes, The Anatomy of Swearing by Ashley Montague, and Wicked Words: A Treasury of Curses, Insults, Put-Downs, and Other Formerly Unprintable Terms From Anglo-Saxon Times to the Present by Hugh Rawson.


J.M. Aucoin said...

Ha. This might be one of my favorite blog entries. Ever. :-)

And Jeri's book sounds great. I'll have to add it to the Amazon Wishlist.

Anne Gilbert said...

This is quite an article, and I'm glad you've posted it. Thanks, Jeri. I'll be posting some comments of my own, on my blog The Writer's Daily Grind a bit later on.

Thanks again,

Sandra Parshall said...

Great stuff, Jeri. You are one of the few people who won't think I'm nuts when I say that I *love* the Middle Ages. What a dark, complex, amazing time! I've always enjoyed nonfiction history more than historical fiction, but your book is an exception. It's a pleasure to come across a writer of historical fiction who tries to really get it right.

Becky said...

"Veil of Lies" sounds like a great book. I just finished reading "Bedlam South," by David Donaldson and Mark Grisham, not scheduled to come out until October 7th (I had the opportunity to pre-read this book before its release date). I have been surfing the net trying to put together a list of great books to read and "VEIL OF LIES" will definitely be on my list- thanks for the great tip.

C.W. Gortner said...

Yes, it sounds like a terrific book and I had the good luck to personally meet Jeri this weekend at the Wesat Hollywood Book Fair. I got an ARC of the novel and will blog about it as soon as I read it.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Excellent Article Jeri. Have you seen the article about Medieval swear words on the Trivium Publishing site by Dr Gillian Pollack - Them's Fighting Words?' I found that one very interesting and enlightening some time ago!

Unknown said...

I have, Elizabeth. Gillian has been very helpful to me in other aspects of research as well. She sent me that article a long time ago and that certainly inspired this post.

Unknown said...

I have, Elizabeth. Gillian has been very helpful to me in other aspects of research as well. She sent me that article a long time ago and that certainly inspired this post.