Gillian Polack & Katrin Kania - How they got interested in the Middle Ages
Here the authors talk about what got them interested in the Middle Ages.
I often tell people that I fell into the Middle Ages almost by mistake. I had a question I wanted to answer and the Middle Ages held that answer. Sounds good, doesn’t it? The sad truth is that life is more complicated than that.
Here’s what really happened.
When I was in primary school, I knew I wanted to study history. I also knew I wanted to write fiction. How I became a fiction writer is another story, for another time. The important thing is that I knew - when my age could still be measured in one digit - that history was one of the keys to my existence. When I was nine I started scrolling through all the possible history professions one by one and I flirted with them all. It annoyed me when adults teased me “Oh, so you want to be a museum curator” or “Have you given up on old bones yet?” because none of them thought that a child could actually know what they wanted to do as an adult and all they saw was the job I was thinking about at that moment. None of them seemed to see that I was thinking about those jobs because they would enable me to do what I dreamed of. I didn’t want a particular job: I wanted a career that gave me time and space to understand human beings both past and present. I have part of that job now, but I’m still trying to turn it into a life package. I love writing and teaching and researching history. I love learning and understand and sharing. When I looked back, I realised that this was always the case.
Every year my family travelled around south-eastern Australia, a caravan in tow. We were looking for rocks. My mother taught geology at high school and our brains were so filled with rocks that we joked that there was no room for anything else.
One year we went to Naracoorte, on the Victorian/South Australian border. It’s a somewhat red part of Australia. Big and burnt-red and a long way from the Melbourne suburbs where I grew up and the murky Yarra River and its green banks. Visiting Naracoorte was wildly exciting for a young child in a big family car with a caravan drifting behind.
The scientists there had just discovered megafauna in the limestone caves near the town. My sisters and I saw bones of ancient giant animals, and we walked through the same limestone caves they had walked. When we emerged above ground again, our eyes were wide and staring. My parents wanted us to be scientists, and at that moment, it looked as if that is what we would all become.
Naracoorte itself had a museum. We had just an hour and a half before it closed and I begged and begged to visit and finally, my father said “Yes, Gillian, you can.” At dinner the others were still full of megafaunal wonder. Me, I was trying to explain an exhibit of old irons and how they’d changed over time and what clothes toddlers wore in the 1890s. I still become wide-eyed about megafauna (and even own a piece of one) but how people lived their lives and what their lives have done to shape ours is what I love and will love forever. I have two doctorates, and neither of them is in geology.
That’s how I came to be a historian. I’m a historian for the same reason that I’m a fiction writer: because they’re the right things for me to be.
How I came to be a Medievalist is different.
I studied historiography. All the different ways people write about history fascinated me. I studied Old French because I wanted to be able to read literature in that language. Then, in my Honours year, I realised that my perfect thesis topic was about the Middle Ages. I went to the Departmental chair to have it approved.
Geoffrey Blainey (a famous Australian historian) sat me on the rug on the middle of his floor because all the chairs were full of paper and we talked my topic through. He decided that it was a daring thing that ought to be done, and he found me excellent supervisors and I won the thesis prize for it. This got me scholarships to the University of Toronto’s Centre for Medieval Studies and the University of Sydney, and it was at these universities that I really discovered the Middle Ages.
After all this study, something funny happened. I love teaching and I am a fiction writer. Friends who were also writers started asking me questions about the Middle Ages.
I became an expert in things writers needed to know. I totally recommend this as a way for historians to rethink what they know, where they know it from and how to explain it. Since I’ve worked with other writers, I’ve seen a much more complex and broader Middle Ages. I still have my special areas (all historians do) and I’m very popular at science fiction conventions when food or literature or popular insults come up as topics, but I now see how legal systems work and how landscape changes over time, and how the work of archaeologists is absolutely crucial to the work of historians.
All of this led to The Middle Ages Unlocked, as night follows day. When I was at primary school, however, I had no idea that I had this book in my future. All I knew then was that I wanted to understand humans through time. I wanted to know what it felt like to use those old irons and walk in those streets holding the hand of that 1890s toddler.
It all started with a little old castle, about 15 kilometres from where I grew up. There, every year, a group of people got together to have a "Ritterfest" - a little medieval-ish festivity with some music, some food, and some fighting. I was sixteen or seventeen when I went there, dressed up in what I now know was about as medieval as a bicycle helmet, and met a friend from school who was demonstrating how to felt. I joined her, doing some felting myself, and wandered around and talked and sang and had a wonderful time. I stayed until late in the night, sitting around a fire with all the others, and some of my new friends asked me if I would like to go to another festival with them...
This was the start of my fascination with the Middle Ages. Obviously, I needed something to wear, and that is how I started to get involved with medieval textiles. I made all the beginner's mistakes, such as using the wrong fabrics, trying to use modern patterns, and happily using fantasy elements in the clothing or mixing several time spans into one outfit. I was hooked, though, and when the time came to choose something to study, I found that it was possible to study medieval archaeology. That, the books told me, was a mix of reading and researching plus going outside and getting dirty digging things. It sounded perfect - and for me, it was. I went on to study at Bamberg, one of the few places in Germany where medieval archaeology is a focus topic. I still went to Living History events; I got involved with experimental archaeology; and my interest in textiles and clothing grew ever stronger. In the end, I wrote my PhD thesis about medieval tailoring and surviving medieval garments. Today, I have exchanged the shovel and trowel for needles and scissors, concentrating on historical textile techniques. I do reconstructions, workshops and courses, plus some experimental archaeology, all with a strong focus on textiles. The combination of theroretical knowledge and practical crafts experience that my work developed has also strongly influenced parts of "The Middle Ages Unlocked" that have nothing to do with textiles, such as the chapter about crafts.
‘Wise, entertaining and crammed with historical knowledge. This one’s a keeper.’ Elizabeth Chadwick
‘Factual, fascinating, educational and entertaining.’ Helen Hollick
‘A fascinating insight into all things medieval.’ Felicity Pulman
‘Listen up, writers! The Middle Ages Unlocked is the go-to book for information on the Middle Ages.’ Jack Dann
‘This well-researched, accessible and absorbing compendium provides rich, precise and often surprising information for anyone wanting to know more about this period of history.’ Sophie Masson