Friday, September 12, 2014

A Researcher's Rant (or: Why won't all those dates hold still?!?)


In my home I currently have 28 books about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi (including four library books and four on my Kindle).  Oh, wait - there's another one in today's mail.  Make that 29.  Many, many more, from the public library as well as the university library, have already been here, stayed a while, and then gone back home, leaving behind copious notes and photocopies.

Most are in English, some in Italian.  In addition, I have lots of books on the history of Assisi, and of Rome, and of the papacy, and of the church in the middle ages.  And there are literally thousands more books out there that deal specifically with Francis's life - page after page after page of them listed in the university's online catalogue, for example. 

Some of the current batch

So you'd think I'd be able to zero in on a few useful dates for my work in progress, wouldn't you?  Especially since Francis is not even my main character?

Nah... no such luck.  I'm pretty sure no two scholars would produce exactly the same timeline for Francis.  I tell you, it's enough to drive a researcher stark raving bonkers.

In the marvelously funny little book 1066 and All That, by W.C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, the authors take on the task of composing "a memorable history of England," meaning only the bits people (mis)remember.  Or, as the blurb says:
Comprising all the parts you can remember, including one hundred and three good things, five bad kings, and two genuine dates.
Two genuine dates is about what I've got to work with.  Sellar & Yeatman had 55 B.C., "in which year Julius Caesar (the memorable Roman Emperor) landed, like all other successful invaders of these islands, at Thanet" and 1066, "the other memorable date in English History," when "William I (1066) conquered England at the Battle of Senlac (Ten Sixty-six)."  That last one must have been very memorable.

13th century depiction of Fourth Lateran Council

And me?  I've got the date of the Fourth Lateran Council (it began in November 1215) and the date of Francis's death (in October 1226).  Pretty much everything else is contested.   

Giotto di Bondone, Death of Francis

What if I want to know when the famous Chapter of Mats, that great gathering of Franciscans, was held?  Was it in 1217, 1219, 1220, 1221?  Was it actually a compendium of several of the above?

According to my sources, yes.  Thanks, guys.

And what if I need to know how long Peter of Cattania was minister general of the order?  Good luck with that.  We know when he died, but not when he took over.  He either did or didn't hold the position long enough to run a chapter meeting.  I can find you people who will swear to both positions.

What about Elias?  When, exactly, did he go to the Middle East?  1216?  1217?  Earlier?  Later?  On a need-to-know basis, I need to know this.

And my own main character, Giacoma dei Settesoli:  when did she meet Francis?  When was she widowed?  Did she move to Assisi immediately after Francis died in 1226, or years later, just prior to her own death in 1239 (unless of course that actually happened in 1273...)?  Was she present at Francis's death, or had she gone home by then? 

Either she's there ...


or she's not there...


Well, that sort of thing may well be important, you may say, but surely you can fudge a few dates.   You don't have to mention an exact date when you're writing fiction.  Just tell the story.  

Okay, but when you can't even get agreement on the sequence in which things happened, it's difficult to keep your causal relationships straight.  If Event A preceded Event B, it is possible to hypothesize that something in Event A may have caused, exacerbated, or paved the way for Event B.  But if it turns out they happened in the opposite order, all bets are off.  And that's a simple one, with only two components.  Usually there are more.  

And of course it's not only the date discrepancies that matter.  I've got about a dozen different lists of Francis's earliest followers, the ones who accompanied him to Rome (in whichever year that was...) to meet with Pope Innocent III.  And did Francis actually meet Dominic, that other great leader of a newly-hatched mendicant order?  Some say yes, some say no.  And if they did meet, was it during the Fourth Lateran, or some other time and place?  I've got plenty of people advocating every possible position on this, including that they never met at all, and that neither one was actually present at the Fourth Lateran.  At least we can find them together in certain works of art:



So what's a fiction writer to do?  

Well, first you can make some distinctions among sources.  Some writers are more reliable than others, based on any number of factors:  what materials they had available at the time they were writing, whether they are specialists or generalists, and (in the case of Francis) whether they are writing under church auspices or not.  (That last one can be a two-edged sword.)  Some may just have a more readable style than others, and may appeal to you more.  

However you do it, it's usually possible to narrow the field down to a handful of sources you feel you can trust to some degree.  My experience is that they will still disagree, but you'll feel somewhat better about any choices you eventually make if one or more of these high-quality sources supports you.

Secondly, you've got to keep your story uppermost in your mind.  If you have to make strategic choices in order to get the story you want, then that's what you're going to do.  Ideally, you'll be able to keep your choices within the realm of plausibility, however.  If you can't, you're not really writing historical fiction any more, and I for one would find it less satisfying.  I wanted Francis present for the Fourth Lateran, so in my book, that's where you'll find him. But if any of my sources had managed to convince me that his presence then and there was not possible, I would not have used it.  

Thirdly, the choices you make will be influenced by your feelings about the characters.  You will not be neutral.  If you are neutral, I submit that this is not your story to write.  In my case, I needed to know not only Francis's history insofar as I could, but I had to evolve my own responses to him and to his message.  I had to know whether I thought Elias was the devil incarnate, as so many have implied, or a well-meaning scapegoat whose talents actually helped keep the Franciscan order alive.  Or, perhaps most likely, something much more complex, more involved, more thoroughly human than either of the extremes.  And whatever choice I made, it influenced how I saw his personal timeline - what he did, what happened to him, what made him who he was, or at least who I think he was:  if this happened, it would have affected him in a particular way, whereas if it hadn't happened yet, perhaps that would be more likely.  Dates are pervasive; they affect everything.

I've made my choices.  It was not an easy process, and nothing in it was a foregone conclusion, but I believe I have honored the demands of plausibility while telling a story that holds meaning for me.  

Maybe next time I'll pick a period where things are better documented.  Maybe there'll be newspapers.  Or detailed public records.  Or something.  But probably not, since I'm inordinately fond of medieval Italy. 

Do you suppose the akashic records have a decent search engine?


Illustrations in this post are all in the public domain.

1 comment:

Melisende d'Outremer said...

A lack of dates / an overabundance of conflicting dates - the dilemma of both the historian and author.