The Plague Charmer is set during the second visitation of plague to England, in 1361. What drew you to this period?
The first wave of plague struck England in 1348, but by 1361 communities had stabilised again and had come to believe that the dreadful events were safely behind them. But in that year they were hit by a devastating drought which coincided with some strange and unnerving phenomena, such as burning lights in the sky and packs of foxes entering towns and attacking people. Then came the news they had prayed never to hear again – plague had broken out in London. This was the full-blown bubonic version, whereas in England the first plague had largely been pneumonic, and this time it had returned with a new and cruel twist.
This second wave of the plague to attack England has never been as widely studied by historians as the first, nor has it been the focus of much fiction. And yet, the more I researched it, the more I began to realise it was far more strange and terrifying than the first outbreak. It had all the ingredients for a dark historical thriller.
The progression of the disease through the village of Porlock Weir is horrifying and tragic; does this mirror the actual course of plague the second time around?
Yes, the terrible twist in this second plague was that it seemed to attack and kill mainly the fit and the healthy, particularly teenagers and men of working age. So that in some villages, almost the entire working male population was wiped out, leaving women to take care of young children, the elderly and the sick, do their own farm work and struggle to carry out the work which the men had done, such as ploughing and fishing. They had to rapidly learn crafts and skills such as blacksmithing, for unless iron tools could be mended or made, virtually everything a community needed to grow food or make other products would collapse.
What was fascinating to me was the conflicting eyewitness accounts of how these women reacted to life with so few men. Some said they learned to survive, while others declared that the women had run mad. What was terrifying was the speed with which the plague could strike and kill, and how desperately men and women must have tried anything and everything to find a way to stop it before it reached their homes.
Is the village and its community based on a real place?
Porlock Weir is a real place and if you get a chance to visit it you will see some of landmarks which feature in the novel. It is a beautiful little coastal village in Somerset, which sits right at the base of the steep hills of Exmoor. At low tide, you can still see the remains of medieval stone fish-weirs and along this coastline, a few families still harvest fish from nets out in the bays at low tide, crossing the wet sand on sledges known as a mud-horses, which have been used here since Roman times.
The other place featured in the novel is a hidden village whose old name was Kitnor, but which today is known as Culbone. It has a fascinating history. It was first settled by monks from Wales around AD 430. They lived in a cluster of bee hive-shaped stone huts, but they were probably attracted to Kitnor, because it was an ancient sacred site. During the thirteenth century Kitnor was so cut off by hills, forest and sea that the mad, the heretics and those suspected of practising sorcery were banished there from all over England. You can walk through the forest to the village from Porlock Weir. It's a place of great intrigue and mystery, a perfect setting for the medieval thriller.
I enjoyed the different narrators of the book, and was very intrigued by Will. He is a false dwarf, in that he has been deliberately maimed as a child to prevent his growth. Was that an actual practice in the medieval period?
We know it was certainly attempted. Babies were fed herbs that were thought to help in the ‘dwarfing’ process. In fact, Shakespeare is thought to be alluding to this practise in Midsummer Night’s Dream when Lysander insults Hermia by saying, ‘Get you gone you dwarf, you minimus of hindering knot-grass made …’
A common method of creating a fake dwarf was to break the limbs and dislocate the joints of babies and young children to make them small and very loose jointed so that they could become dwarf acrobats. But, of course, this practise and the other methods used, which are described in the novel, were carried out by child-traffickers who would not have kept records, and since the trade in ‘real’ dwarfs was legal and no one worried much about the fate of foundling children, we will never really know how frequently it was attempted and how many children died or survived the process.
Each chapter is headed by a proverb or a riddle. Are they all from historic sources, and have you been collecting them for long?
They were all taken from historic records and I’ve been collecting them for years, because they help me to get into the mindset of the period. A typical medieval riddle that illustrates not only the social history of the period but also their earthy humour, goes:
‘Which tree is the noblest king of all the forest?’
Answer – ‘The holly because no man wipes his behind on it.’
Proverbs are a great key to culture and life too. I love the medieval proverb, Poor men suffer lice; rich men suffer guests. I imagine many noblemen had cause to mutter that proverb under their breath whenever the king and all his retinue decided to visit them and would stay for weeks at their expense. One medieval proverb I found became the inspiration for one of the main characters in The Plague Charmer – The sea is a woman and her other name is fate. That captures so well the medieval belief that if the sea claimed you, there was no escaping her.
All of your books are packed full of historical atmosphere. Can you tell us a little about your research and the types of sources you use?
Visiting the setting of the novel is always important. Spending time in and around Culbone church, the smallest parish church in England helped me to imagine one of the key scenes in the novel. I also visit buildings of the period in other parts of the country, such as medieval manors, which help me to picture details such as what a character could see from a slit window or how long it would have taken to carry food from the kitchens to the great hall.
My written sources are drawn from many different kinds of books, including medieval cookbooks and herbals that often also give recipes for household products, such as ink or leather polish. Many herbals contained healing charms, and clergy too left detailed records of how spells were performed or spirits were to be summoned. Monks recorded their impressions of the plague and how people reacted, as well as accounts of the strange omens they heard about from pilgrims and travellers. Manorial records also give vital information not only about weather conditions and crops, but how people were affected. For example, when the grain ran out and people were forced in coastal communities to live on nothing but fish, the scribe noted that it gave them continuous bouts of the ‘flux’ and left them exhausted.
Magic always plays a big part in your stories too. In The Plague Charmer, there is a tension between old and new ways, religion and magic. Do you think people tend to move toward extremes when faced with overwhelming disaster?
Faced with terrifying situations they can’t control and which make them feel powerless, people desperately search for anything that gives them the illusion of power and control. In the novel we see one group of people who believe they are living through the end times when God will save the true believers and destroy everyone else. That kind of cult has arisen in every century, including our own, whenever people are faced with desperate situations. Equally in the novel there are characters who retreat into magic and superstition to try to ward off disaster. I don’t think we behave any differently today. We tend to retreat to the extremes of religion, superstition and politics when we feel helpless, and start to draw the demarcation lines between ‘us and them’. Part of what gives us a feeling of control is to create an enemy to blame, whether it is another religious group, witches, or outsiders. The enemy then becomes something tangible we can fight against, as opposed to a plague or natural disaster which we can’t.
And where would you put your faith: magic, religion, or somewhere else?
Researching the past always gives me great faith and hope in the ability of the human race and individuals to survive. When you look back at the time of the plague, which was accompanied by famine, war and, at times, economic collapse, they must have believed it was the end of the world. Yet, the human race survived that and the even-more-terrible events which were to come in the centuries after. So, I put my faith in the human spirit and I believe the human race will survive whatever this century throws at it.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Plague Charmer so would love to know what you’re working on next..
Thank you! The next novel is set in the swirling mists and sucking mires of Dartmoor in 1316, during the great famine caused by a succession of wet, cold years which might have been triggered by volcanic dust in the atmosphere. It is said that even Edward II travelling through St Albans went hungry because his steward couldn't buy bread for the king and retinue. Many people died during those years and there are tales of blood-curdling crimes people committed because they were starving and desperate. Dartmoor is steeped in myths and legends, one of which, of course, Sir Arthur Conon Doyle drew upon in his The Hound of the Baskervilles. But there are other equally chilling tales of the tors and moors which I’m really enjoying weaving through the plot.