Well, the monks were the ones that contacted me in the first place. Literally, I began dreaming about them. I would find them in different places, but invariably, they would speak something to me and I could not remember what they said upon waking. So I chose to believe they were trying to tell me something and I have begun channeling them into my novel.
But those monks might not have appeared in my dreams had I not read Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth about a year ago. It’s a story about the building of an abbey in 12th century England, in the golden age of medieval monasticism. Follett’s sweeping landscape includes a large cast of monks, stone builders and carvers, nobles and common folk. Despite the fact that it was a big, blunt novel, I loved the story and the adventure and was inspired.
But Pillars of the Earth also spoke to my long term fascination with the medieval era. It is often referred to as the Dark Ages, an unflattering title that may have its origin in the fact that the period was followed immediately by the Renaissance, a great period of enlightenment, a flowering of human inventiveness, imagination and spirit. Because the medieval era preceded the Renaissance, and less is known about it, it was easy to refer to it as a dark period of Western history. In fact, medievalism had its own flowering, as it ushered in Gothic architecture, music notation, global exploration, influential philosophy, a variety of literary masterpieces, including the epic poems Beowulf, The Song of Roland, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, not to mention the works of Dante Allighieri and the poet Plutarch.
And medievalism speaks to us still today through the enduring popularity of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and, to a lesser extent The Princess Bride which explores a variety of medieval themes (see the movie and definitely read the book by William Goldman, which has an added dimension that is entirely missed in the movie).
It’s Chaucer, though, that brings the era to life, in his Canterbury Tales. The band of pilgrims on their journey to the shrine of Thomas á Beckett are a fine cast of medieval archetypes, with their ribald stories, enigmatic myths and the author’s biting satire.
The monks of my story, however, are not fond of the name Chaucer because he left the world with an unfavourable view not of only monks, but of the entire Catholic Church in all its decaying glory. Check out ‘The Monk’s Tale‘ or for a quick summary, read Chaucer’s portrait of the monk in the ‘General Prologue‘. But at least one of the monks in my story decides to do something about the sorry state of affairs in the Church, or his own abbey, in particular. Well, at least he tries to do something.