Year of Reading Buechner: Wrap-up

I know it’s now been a couple months since 2018 wrapped up (how did that happen?) but I have just now realized that I never did a wrap-up post on my reading series from last year, The Year of Reading Buechner.

Last year I took on the challenge of reading one Frederick Buechner book a month. The books I read are as follows (all linked to the posts about them):

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

Year of Reading Buechner: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

Year of Reading Buechner: Godric

Year of Reading Buechner: Telling Secrets: A Memoir

Year of Reading Buechner: A Room Called Remember

Year of Reading Buechner: Lion Country

Year Of Reading Buechner: Eyes of the Heart

Year of Reading Buechner: Crazy, Holy Grace

Highlights and (not really) Lowlights

I am so glad that I spent a year with Frederick Buechner, an author I had heard much about before but had never got around to reading. His books were challenging, beautiful, layered, and impactful. It’s hard to summarize exactly how I feel about his books, but here’s some of the highlights of the year for me, anyway.

  1. Favourite book of the year (nonfiction) – this is tough. But if I have to pick just one as a favourite, it would have to be A Sacred Journey, his first memoir, which I read way back in February 2018. This is an astonishing book. It is short, but packed full of insights and sentences that make you want to stop and ponder your own life. Probably one of the best memoirs I have read. It’s so wonderful how he can take the tale of his life, a very ordinary life in many ways, and make it into a profound meditation on life, death, and faith. I don’t want to give too much away. I want you to read it for yourself and discover its treasures as well.
  2. Favourite book of the year (fiction) – see how clever I am? I can get two favourites this way! But I should really say, look how clever Buechner is, that he can write both nonfiction and fiction with such skill. I will admit that his fiction was harder for me to get through than his nonfiction. But that says more about me than about him. My favourite that I read this year was Brendan, the tale about the Dark Ages monk who set out with some other monks to find the land of the saints. This book featured a saint whom I am particularly fond of, and I loved seeing him brought to life in Buechner’s tale. Buechner is such a clever writer, and he’s not afraid to tackle life as it is in his novels, not life as we wish it would be. So he presents us a very human saint, which is not a bad thing at all. But don’t read this book if you are expecting a sanitized view of life in the Early Middle Ages, or a “typical” Christian fiction book.
  3. Favourite book I didn’t read this year – Son of Laughter. It’s perhaps cheating a bit to include this book on my list of favourites seeing as I didn’t read it this year, but I don’t want you to miss this one. The story of Jacob, the scheming son of Isaac (whose name means “laughter”, as his mother Sarah laughed when the angel of the Lord told Abraham he would have an heir), was my first introduction to Buechner. I read it a few years ago, but it has stayed with me ever since. Jacob is no sanitized saint in Buechner’s hands. But it is in his very real and flawed humanity that the grace of God shines so brightly. A brilliant book, and I loved it very much!

Although I really enjoyed most of the books I read this year, there were a couple that were my least favourites. Which means out of a scale of 1-10, they would get a 6 or 7, instead of the 9-10 the others got. In other words, they are still excellent books.

  1. Least favourite nonfiction – if I had to pick one, I would choose the last one I read, Crazy, Holy, Grace. And that is only because it is a compilation of essays and pieces of some of his other books, some of which I had already read during the year. But for someone who was looking to get an introduction to Buechner’s works, you wouldn’t go too far wrong with this book.

   2. Least favourite fiction – Lion Country. So many people love the tetraology of books    called The Book of Bebb, of which this is the first book, that I hate to put it down as my least favourite. It’s very well written, and I like the way Buechner presents the tensions in the book between doubt and faith, dark and light.. But the whole insinuation of Bebb possibly being a pedophile was just a little too much for me. That being said, I do have the other three books on my Kindle. I will read them, because I love Buechner so much that I am willing to go a little further into the story just to see where he goes with it.

What I learned as a writer. 

I would be foolish not to take some tips from Buechner, the writer, to carry with me from my reading series this year. He is a master of the craft, hailed by many as one of America’s best writers. So, what have I learned from Buechner?

First of all, be honest. In both his fiction and non-fiction books, Buechner is not afraid to explore all aspects of what it means to be human. His memoirs are painfully honest at times, and in his his fiction he is not afraid to use a lamp that throws into stark relief both the best and worst of humanity.

This is terribly important for all writers, but especially, I think, for those of us who write either about faith or about people of faith. It’s so tempting to gloss over the character flaws and hard times, and to just show the sunny side of life. Buechner’s writings are a good reminder that as writers we need to show the truth, both good and bad, in order for our readers to come to terms with that truth in their own lives.

Secondly, make your words sing. Buechner is a beautiful writer. I’ve said before that he is probably the most quotable writer I have read (C.S. Lewis and he vie for this honour in my mind). He hones his words well, polishing them until they shine. The quote that I have had as the featured picture for each of the posts of the series is a good example.

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. 

Three phrases, each of them short and to the point. But all together they give us truth and hope in equal measure, stiffening our spine for our forays down the paths life gives us.

And what about another one of his most famous quotes?

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. 

– From

These are words that speak to the hidden springs within us, that make us stop, give us eyes to see things we may not have seen before. It’s not just the thought, which is profound, but the way he expresses it, which brings the thought to life in our minds.

He does this in his fiction, too:

What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup. (from Godric)

“To lend each other a hand when we’re falling,” Brendan said.  “Perhaps that’s the only work that matters in the end.” (from Brendan)

I could go on and on. Pretty much each page I have read has some kind of underlining or note on it. He is just that good.

What I learned about life.

You can’t come away from a year immersed in Frederick Buechner’s words and not learn something. In my case, his words were a reminder of the importance of paying attention, to listen and see all the ways that God speaks to us every day, and to look back and see the ways in which He has been present all along.

Buechner reminded me that everything is important. Even the most mundane encounters or events holds layers of mystery that we would do well to examine.

His flawed characters gave me hope. If God could use them, and He does, then surely He can use me, too. The bumbling steps of faith these characters make, sometimes stubborn, sometimes naive, sometimes clueless, are a picture of all of our journeys. It’s always comforting to know we are not alone, right?

It’s been a marvellous year reading through a few of the works of Frederick Buechner. I heartily recommend him to anyone who loves good writing and is not afraid to slow down a bit to catch a glimpse of the glory of our lives.

 

 

 

Not the Post I Wanted to Write Today

So, it’s February 5th, 2019. The date that I have been advertising for quite some time would be the publication date of my first novel, Wilding

I was expecting to have a post today about the book, and my excitement over publishing, and what’s coming next.

Instead I am writing a post about why it’s not being published today.

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Sigh. I am discouraged, yes, but trying to find some optimism in the midst of it.

Why no publication today? Well, it came down to two factors. First of all, I have to set up a U.S. bank account so that Amazon and other retailers can direct deposit royalty payments there. Because I’m Canadian, that proves to be a bit tricky. I looked into this about a month ago, and although I got the information on what accounts to set up, I didn’t see anywhere detailed info about how long this would take.

I just got back from a two-week winter holiday. I had given myself about a week after getting back to get all the final pre-publication details in place, including the banking. But what I hadn’t thought about was that two of those days were weekend days, and one and a half of the other days were working days. I couldn’t get an appointment in the bank until yesterday, only to find out that I could not get this special U.S. account set up that day, I would have to make another appointment for later in the week. There is an online option to sign up for this account, but that would take about a month for the details to be finalized rather than the couple of days it will take through the bank.

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Yup. Shoulda looked where I was going, right? 

Ack. In order to set up my Amazon publishing account, I have to enter the bank details. So I can’t actually publish until that is sorted out.

Faced with delaying publication in order to get that in place, I thought that I should probably have a think about all this. The other piece, which I’ve known for awhile, is that getting the details ready in terms of having a physical copy of the book available to order was going to take me some time. I knew that I couldn’t have that ready for today, but I was thinking I would go live with the digital copies and add that later, in about a month or whenever I was ready for that part. I know that it’s better, in terms of Amazon’s willingness to promote you, to have as many purchasing options as possible ready to go all at once, but I was willing to make that compromise in order to make my pre-announced publication day.

But seeing as I am going to have to delay because of the banking issues, I thought I may as well delay further in order to get the physical copy details sorted out as well. I’ve never done this before, so in a lot of ways I’m flying blind, researching things online and trying to wade through the weeds. But as far as I could tell it would probably take me at least a month for that, as I have to get the cover designed to add back cover copy, get the MS formatted for print, upload it to the site, and then order an author copy to make sure it all looks right. Plus make changes afterwards if I see things that need fixing. I don’t know how long it will take to get my author copy, because it seems that it might take longer (1-3 weeks?) for them to get it to me because again, I am in Canada.

That takes us to March sometime. Which causes another issue. I have something happening in my non-writing life in March (I think! Not guaranteed….life is so complicated, right?) that will make it impossible for me to work on book-related things. There’s lots of advice out there to take the month after launch and do a bunch of promo things – social media related mainly – and I won’t be able to do that if I’m in the midst of this other issue.

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Argh. So, in order to give myself lots of time, and avoid having to announce a date and then not be ready once more, I’m pushing the launch out until May. Right now I’m looking at May 9th, but I don’t want to give a hard date until I know for certain how all this will play out. Some of it will depend on the timing of the other issue I’m having to work around, and I won’t know that for a month or so.

I’m sorry if I have disappointed you. I know there are some who are really looking forward to the book. Believe me when I say I’m disappointed, too!

Because this is the first time I’ve ever done this, I’m not doing it perfectly, that’s for sure! It’s a huge learning curve. The next time around, it will be much easier.

I will work hard to get everything in place for the launch, so that I don’t have any last-minute surprises. Once that is ready, I can turn my attention to Book 2, which is waiting in the wings. I’m looking forward to that.

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I also hope to work on something special for my newsletter subscribers, as a little “thank you” for putting up with the delays. If you want to get in on that, sign up for my newsletter! You will also get the first chapter of Wilding as a thank you, to wet your whistle, so to speak! Generally you will get something from me once a month, with the occasional special edition. As publication looms you may get more frequent editions. But I won’t spam you, I promise! And I won’t share your email address with any one else.

Thank you again for all your patience, and for your interest in the work I do. I am so grateful. Hopefully the wait will all be worth it for you, once May comes along!

 

Society News: Slavery in Anglo-Saxon England

In this series of posts about what Anglo-Saxon society was like in 7th century England, I have been covering the various classes and people groups including Kings and Queens, the upper class, the church, coerls, and others. 

Finally we have reached the bottom of the rung, that being the class of slaves.

Slavery is common to all societies throughout history, and it was no different in 7th century England. People could be bought and sold as slaves at that time, and in some cases they even sold themselves into slavery.

So, it was not an usual thing. Perhaps the most famous slave of the Early Medieval period in England was St. Patrick. HIs Confessions detail his early life. Born as the son of a wealthy Christian Romano-British family, while he was a young boy Patrick was captured by Irish raiders who carried him back to their island home where he worked as a slave. It was while shepherding his master’s sheep that he had the vision from God that propelled him to escape and make the dangerous journey back home to England. Eventually he came back to Ireland as a missionary and became Ireland’s most famous saint.

Patrick’s story illustrates just one of the many ways you could find yourself sold into slavery. Raids between warring kingdoms were common, and along with the cattle or sheep that might be taken, sometimes people were taken, too. Another way to become a slave would be to be part of a losing group of fighting men in a battle. Those who weren’t killed would either be taken as slaves and sold for profit, or kept as hostages, if they were part of a noble family who could afford to pay for their release. However many of the warriors would generally be killed in battle, as it was shameful to survive if your lord was killed. This meant it would be the surviving women and children who would then be taken off as part of the battle booty and sold as slaves.

A person could also be born into slavery, if their parents were slaves. There was also penal slavery, in which a person could be made a slave as a punishment for a crime committed.

Finally, you could sell yourself into slavery, as mentioned above. This might sound like an odd thing to do, but actually it was a way to survive in times of famine or other difficulty.   By selling yourself and your children into slavery you were ensured of a roof over your head and a food to eat. Keeping in mind that everyone in this society worked hard, from the kings and nobles down to the lowly slave, it meant that often the amount of work you would have to do did not differ much between slaves and freemen and women. The idle upper class did not come along until centuries later.

Bede tells us that the Augustinain mission to England came about because Pope Gregory saw some fair-haired children in the slave market in Rome. Taken by their fair hair and curls, he inquired where they were from. Hearing they were Angles, he declared, “Not Angles, but angels!” and resolved to send missionaries to their land to teach them the Gospel of Christ. Image from Lawrence OP, on Flickr

Slaves were the one class of people who had no weregild, but that didn’t necessarily mean they were unprotected by law. In fact, slave-owners had a duty to feed and care for their slaves, which is why selling yourself into slavery was a viable option for those who faced starvation otherwise. Slave-owners were also legally responsible for the actions of their slaves, so owning slaves came with some heavy responsibilities.

Although they had no weregild, slaves were valuable as property, and so if someone killed or injured a slave, recompense would be made to the owner. However, killing your own slave had no legal ramifications, but it was still seem as murder under church laws and therefore if the owners were Christian, they would face the sanction of the church. The Church also frowned upon selling slaves outside of England, as they would be exposed to heathen religions and ways, and so as Christianity flourished the selling of slaves overseas lessened, but of course never stopped completely.

The Church also often would buy slaves on the market and free them as an act of charity. Often these slaves would then enter a monastery or convent, which would make sense, as they could be far from home and family who could shelter them.

The laws of Alfred the Great in the 9th century shows us that slaves were allowed some time off on certain feast days, and that slaves were encouraged to better their lot by selling gifts they may have recieved in order to eventually buy themselves out of slavery. We don’t know for certain, but I would suspect that customs were not much different in the 7th century, even though they had not been codified by law.

Slaves were also freed as acts of compassion and religious observance by thier owners on special feast days, or as part of the owner’s will. The ceremony to free someone was a solemn affair, with witnesses and legal documentation.

The amount of slaves during the Early Medieval period in England was considerable. By the time of the Norman conquest and the Domeday Book was compilied, around 10% of the population were slaves. However, the Viking occupation perhaps increased that number over what it had been in Anglo-Saxon times, but we can’t say for sure.

Life was hard in the 7th century, and slaves had it harder than most. But they had food, shelter, some protection by law and the Church and the opportunity to better their lot, and so I suppose one could say they had it better than other people who became slaves in other times and places. 

Still, I suspect they would rather be at the top of the ladder than at the bottom, if they had the choice. 
 

 

2019: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Happy New Year, dear readers!

I’ve had a wonderful break over Christmas. I hope that you had the same. I return to this space refreshed and eager for all that 2019 brings.

But before I look to the future, it’s good to pause for a moment to review this last year. It’s interesting (to me, at least!) to see if I can spot any trends, or determine if there’s anything that I’m doing that people particularly like.

So, here goes.

  1. Followers – the number of followers of the blog (people who click that magical “follow” button) has risen slightly over 2018. As of today I have 199 followers. So close to 200! It’s good that this number has gone up and not down, but it still would be nice to have that number be bigger. Oh well. However, I am very thankful to each and every one of you who have either just visited the blog and read a post here and there, or who faithfully follow and read every week’s offering. It’s very gratifying to know there are people out there who get some enjoyment out of this space. It’s interesting to look through the list of followers. I see other writers, book reviewers, artists, a gardener, an adventure traveller, a scientist, historians, editors, and many other fascinating people from all over the world. Thank you! And a special shout-out to my newest follower, The Hannie Corner, who joined up on December 30th. She obviously loves to read, as she reviews books on her blog, and seeing as I have some Hannies in my family tree we might even share more than a love of books.
  2. Changes I made last year – in 2018 I tried posting more at the beginning of the week (ideally Monday) instead of at the end. To be honest I wasn’t very successful at that. Somehow having the weekend before a post was due gave me a false sense of security that I had time to get a post written, but I would almost inevitably wake up on Monday realizing I had not got anything ready. Also my work schedule changed a bit, with the addition of working Monday morning. By the time I went to work, came home to have lunch and then walked the dog, it felt like the afternoon was half over and barely had time to start the initial research on a post, never mind writing it.   All of this meant I felt behind the eight ball all year. As a result, In 2019 I’m moving my posting day back to Friday. It just feels more doable to me. In 2018 I also tried to be more disciplined in setting out a schedule ahead of topics to write about. This was a success for me. Even if I didn’t always follow it exactly, it really helped with the dreaded blank page when I sat down to write on the blog. I will continue this in 2019.
  3. Most popular post on the blog – this is the same as last year. It’s my review of the Netflix series, “The Last Kingdom.” It has had 343 views in 2018, even though that post was from 2016.  Wordpress tells me that some of the searches that brought readers to that post included phrases like “why is Skorpa’s teeth red?” I guess having the answer to that question in the post brought people there! At any rate, I’m happy to solve that little mystery for people. And yes, I’m still enjoying that series, although I will admit I like Uthred more as a Saxon than a Dane…
  4. Other popular postssecond most popular post was The Wanderer, which was a repost in August of a post from a couple of years ago. I suspect this is because of the tie-in to the Lord of the Rings, as I comment on how portions of this Anglo-Saxon poem was quoted in the book and movie. Maybe I should do more reviews and mentions of TV shows and movies? Heh. The third most popular was the post on the Franks Casket, which came from October. I’m glad one of my Anglo-Saxon posts reached the top three, at any rate.
  5. Least popular post – the dubious honour of the least popular post of the top ten in 2018 was the introduction to last year’s reading series, 2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner. It’s possibly because that came up early in January, and people hadn’t quite got into the routine of catching up on their blog reading. Also possible that it just wasn’t that interesting to people. My other reviews of Buechner books this year all fell below that in rankings, so I suppose I could see it as being the most popular of my reading series posts this year, instead of the least popular of my top ten posts.

Looking ahead: 

Wilding_cover32019 is going to be a big year on The Traveller’s Path. On February 5th I will be self-publishing my first novel, Wilding, on all the major e-retailers such as Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, etc. I”ve got the MS back from the proofreader now, and am making the final changes so that it’s ready to go. I’m also figuring out how to provide for paperback copies as well.

I’ve been having a think about this and decided that I’m going to have to make some changes here on the blog in order to make sure I’m making the best use of my time. For better or worse, here’s what I’ve decided.

  1. Less frequent posting schedule. There’s a big chunk of time I spend each week getting the posts ready. And while I enjoy it and am proud of the pieces I put up here, I find that the time spent has eaten into my other writing time. I have a hard time writing short stories, for example. And what with publication looming and then the preparation for Book 2 after that, I feel like I should cut back here in order to concentrate more on that. So, you will see posts here twice a month, generally, instead of once a week. I hope that will give me more time to concentrate on the books and the business end of publishing and marketing. I’ve spent a lot of time on my novel writing, I need to concentrate on giving it the best start possible. However, you might find that I will post more often, occasionally, when I have more time or when I need to inform you of book news. Stay tuned!
  2. No reading series this year. This was a tough decision. I loved my Year Of Reading… series, and it has opened me up to books and authors I probably wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t disciplined myself to a reading schedule of books. But, again, it comes down to time. Having to read one of the books in the schedule each month ate into time I could have spent writing or planning ahead on the books. I also wonder if my reading series was not of interest to my blog readers, who maybe are coming here for posts on Anglo-Saxon history, or news on my book or fantasy books in general. So for this year, I am putting my reading series on hiatus.  I will continue to post on my various series on Anglo-Saxon England, looking at the customs, society, and anything else to do with that fascinating time.
  3. New website? I am seriously considering  making this blog part of a bigger website, which I can use to showcase my books. It seems a logical step that once you have published a book, you should have a dedicated website to promote them. This blog will be one of the pages on that site. This will likely happen in the next six months.

Onwards and upwards! Thank you for joining me on the journey so far, and I look forward to new adventures ahead in 2019!

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For news on my historical novel, Wilding, and other tidbits such as contests, giveaways, bonus material, etc, sign up to my newsletter. As a special thank you, I will send you Chapter One of Wilding. 

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Year of Reading Buechner: Crazy, Holy Grace

Near the beginning of the year, just as I was starting this year’s reading series, I picked up a few of Buechner’s books to have on hand as the year progressed. As Crazy, Holy Grace (published in 2017) was one of his newer books, it was readily available, unlike some of the older volumes. I started to read it as the second book of the series, back in February. But I quickly realized that this was not new material, but a compilation of  sections of other works. As some of the books included were ones that I had been planning to read this year, I set this one aside to read as my final Buechner book of the year, to serve as a bit of a summary and reminder of what I had been reading all year.

And here we are, December already! This is my last month in my Year of Reading Buechner series, and I will be sad to see it go. I will write a little more about the year’s books in a final summary of the series in January, but for now I will say that I have enjoyed his books very much, on many different levels.

This book is subtitled, The Healing Power of Pain and Memory, and the excerpts from various of his works all touch in some way on those topics. However, they are pretty loosely related, in some cases, and because this book is a compilation, it doesn’t have the same flow that his other books do.

Which I missed. Buechner is a careful and precise writer, at his best, and although his books are short, they pack a lot of punch because of the thought he puts into not only the words he uses but the structure of the book. Crazy, Holy Grace feels like a bit of a hodgepodge in comparison.

God+Can+Turn+It+To+Good.jpgThat’s not to say that the book has no value. The book is divided into three sections. Part I is Pain and God’s Crazy, Holy Grace, and it consists of just two chapters, a new essay, “The Gates of Pain”,  and a chapter from his first memoir, A Sacred Journey.  The first chapter  is a wise reflection on the different ways we deal with pain in our lives, and how facing it instead of burying it is the way out of the pain into healing and joy. He uses the Parable of the Talents, found in Matthew 25:14-30, to show us why it is important to be good stewards of our pain, not to ignore it or bury it. In the parables the man who is given the one talent (unit of money) and ends up burying it, is condemned as being a “wicked and slothful servant”. As  Buechner reflects on this, he writes,

…sloth is what this man is condemned for. Sloth is getting through life on automatic pilot. Not really being alive. Not really making use of what happens to you. Burying what you might have made something out of. Playing it safe with your life. To bury your life, bury your pain, to bury your joy. To bury whatever it is that the world gives you, and then live as carefully as you can without really living at all.

It’s a good reminder to try not to miss all that we can learn from the events in our lives, and to not neglect share what we have learned with others.

Part II, The Magic of Memory, consists of four chapters, one from A Room Called Remember, and the rest from his second memoir, The Eyes of the Heart. These all touch on memory and the power of remembering your life and trying to see beyond the simple events that happen down to the deeper meaning, to where God has met you even when you may not have noticed.

Part III, Reflections on Secrets, Grace, and How God Speaks, consists of little snippets of his writings from various books on those topics.

This book touches on many of the themes that resonate through Buechner’s writings: pain, memory, loss, faith, meaning, And in that way it could serve as a good introduction to his writing. But because we only get bits and pieces of his works, a reader new to Buechner’s works would miss the real depth and breadth of his skill as an author.

But even bits and pieces of Buechner are better than nothing! Crazy, Holy Grace was a good reminder of the power of his words, and a fitting end to my reading series this year.

 

 

 

Letters from the Dark Ages: Berhtgyth

It’s that time of year when letters and cards might actually arrive in your mailbox. Real letter, hand-written by a friend or loved one who lives far away. Isn’t it wonderful? One of the sad things about this modern age is the pen-and-paper letter has gone the way of the dodo, for the most part.

Of course, this is a relatively new phenomenon. Up until even thirty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to get a letter from someone far away. And even in Anglo-Saxon England, in the midst of the so-called Dark Ages, there were people who communicated to one another via letters.

This was not an easy task, and, just like today, not exactly a common one. There wasn’t the convenience of a centralized postal system which would handily take care of getting your letter to its destination. You had to find someone who was going to the letter’s intended destination, and then someone at that destination had to get that letter to the recipient.

Couple these difficulties with the fact that most people could not read and write, and you can easily see that for the general population, this means of communication was not possible. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but for most of human history, when people left their homes to go to faraway places (in those days, that could even be relatively close by, to our minds), it was likely that they would never be heard from or seen again by their loved ones.

Having said all that, it’s amazing that some letters from the 7th century survived through the centuries. They are  fascinating, as they give us a first hand view of one person’s life at the time. Since these close and personal glimpses of life in the Early Middle Ages are few and far between, these letters are very instructive to us today.

The one group of people who could easily write and send letters were those in religious life, as they learned to read and write as part of their vocations. And because there were often travellers between the various monasteries, they had a way for letters to be carried back and forth. So, it’s not surprising that the letters we have are mainly from Church men and women.

And seeing as the Church was engaging in missionary work at this time, establishing monasteries on the Continent, there were even opportunities to send letters back and forth across the ocean.

Today I want to introduce you to Berhtgyth, a Anglo-Saxon nun who grew up in Wessex. She eventually went overseas to Germany as part of a mission to that country, likely with her mother, Cynehild, and taught in the region of Thuringia, Germany. She likely worked under the leadership of the Abbess Leoba. At the end of the 8th century* she  wrote some letters to her brother, a monk named Balthard, who at the time of receiving the letters could have been Abbot of the monastery at Bad Hersfeld, in central Germany. The letters themselves aren’t clear exactly where Balthard was, but it is evident he was some distance away, either in Germany, or perhaps even back in England.

We don’t have Balthard’s side of the correspondence; just three letters that Berhtgyth wrote to him have survived. You might wonder why. Although it seems she was a learned woman and accomplished teacher, Berhtgyth was, by all accounts, an ordinary nun, doing the work set out for her as part of an English missionary circle which included the much more famous Boniface, the celebrated English missionary to Germany.

According to a later, 11th century Life of St. Boniface, Berhtgyth’s mother Cynehild was a maternal aunt of Lull. Lull (or Lullus) was the eventual successor of Boniface as Archbishop of Mainz. Because Boniface and Lull were both important figures, the correspondence between the two of them, as well as letters to and about Boniface, were saved for posterity. In the midst of that bundle of letters that have been saved (probably compiled by Lull), you will find these three letters from Berhtgyth to her brother Balthard. I will touch on why this might be so later.

500px-Lullus_statue_hersfeld.jpg

Statue of St. Lullus, in Bad Hersfeld. Image from Wikipedia

The letters are short, but remarkable. To give you a taste, here is the opening of the second letter:

Most beloved brother in God and dearest in the flesh, Berhtgyth salutes Balthard in the name of Christ. 

My soul is weary of my life because of our fraternal love, for I am alone, left behind and without help of kin. For my father and my mother abandoned me, but the Lord has taken me up. Many are the congregations of water between me and you, yet let us be joined in love because true love is never divided by the borders between places. But still I say that sadness never recedes from my soul, nor can I rest my mind in sleep, because love is as strong as death. I therefore ask you now, most beloved brothers to come to me or have me come to you, so that I might see you before I die, because your love never leaves my soul. Brother, your only sister salutes you in Christ. 

All three letters follow this theme. In them, Berhtgyth begs her brother to come and visit her, and expresses her loneliness and sadness at being abandoned by her parents (by their death). In fact, as you can tell from this excerpt, she does lay it on rather thick. However, we have to keep in mind that this type of overblown rhetoric only seems that way to our  modern eyes. In some of the other literature we have looked at, such as The Wife’s Lament, you can see hints of this same style, so it’s not like this was unusual for the times.

In the third letter, we get a glimpse of some of the ways letters travelled from one person to another, as we see that Balthard has obviously replied to Berhtgyth’s letter.

It may be known to you that your missionary words came to me through a faithful messenger named Aldraed,  together with gifts that are embraced with intimate love. And now I confess to you that with the help of God I long to fulfill all that you instructed me, if your will might deem it worthy to come to me, because I cannot in any other way suppress my fountain of tears.

Aldread has brought a letter back to her from Balthard, along with some gifts. It almost seems like the package of a letter and the gift maybe passed through more than one hand, finally getting to Aldread and thus to Berhtgyth. And at the end of the letter, she reciprocates:

A little present, although small, still loaded with great love, which we send to you by the faithful messenger named Alfred; that is a ribbon.

Try to look past the “fountain of tears” to see the woman who wrote the words, who has given up husband and family to serve Christ as a nun, and who is missing her only kin, her brother, longing for a glimpse of home in a foreign land. They write back and forth, sending gifts via a messenger or messengers they can only hope and pray will reach their destination. It’s really rather touching, don’t you think?

There is some speculation that these letters were included with the bundle of Boniface correspondence as a type of “form letter” that others could use in their own correspondences to use in similar circumstances. If you were missing your brother/sister/aunt/uncle/mother/father, etc, you could pull out these letters, personalize it with the appropriate names, and you would have a letter already done for you. Keep in mind that letter writing was an important skill that was taught in Classical times, and although we don’t know for sure, there are hints that it could have been taught throughout the Early Medieval period in England as well at the monastery schools. It was expected that letters would follow certain forms and include specific parts. It would have been handy to have examples of a “good” letter to work from for busy church men and women.

At any rate, no matter why there are there, I’m really glad these letters still survive. We get a small glimpse of an ordinary person of the times, in her own words. That it is a woman’s voice we are hearing is even more remarkable. These letters are a small window into this long-ago time, one far removed from the battles, warriors, and saints we usually see.

But I wish we knew whether Balthard finally visited Berhtgyth or not, don’t you? I really hope so!


Featured image from medievalists.net

If you want more in-depth info on Berhtgyth’s letters, have a look at Berhtgyth’s Letters to Balthard, a scholarly paper from the University of Iowa by Kathryn Maude.

 

Cover Reveal! 

This is it! If you are one of my newsletter subscribers, you got a sneak peek at this last week, but today I’m releasing to the wider world the cover of my first book, Wilding: Book One of the Traveller’s Path.

I think it looks awesome, how about you? The designers at Ebooklaunch did a fabulous job, and I am very pleased. I would recommend them if you are in the market for a cover. And bonus: they are Canadian, to boot!

Someone asked me, “What are the significance of the elements of the cover?” I wasn’t able to give a very coherent answer, mainly because we were sitting at a table at a social event with loud music and lots of conversation in the background, so it was difficult to explain anything in-depth. But it was a good question, and I thought I could answer it properly here.

1. The Celtic Cross – the main bulk of the story action takes place in 7th century Northumbria. The cross represents this time and place because it was a time when the Christian faith was beginning to become the dominant faith, and in particular, the variety of Christianity that we now call Celtic Christianity was the one the people there adhered to. This Celtic Cross could be found dotted across the Northumbrian landscape, at various monasteries and as well as at places where they would be known as “teaching crosses”, places where travelling monks would stop and preach the Gospel on their rounds throughout the kingdom. The cross on the cover also represents the monastery at Lindisfarne, where Thomas, my main character, finds refuge. And finally, it symbolizes the spiritual journey Thomas undergoes as he is swept away from everything familiar, and his already struggling faith is challenged in new and unexpected ways.

2. The crows – I don’t want to give too much away, here, but I can just say that the crows represent Thomas’ main adversary in the Travelling Path series (which will likely be three books, but I’m not exactly sure yet).

3. The mist – Thomas, and others, have a recurring dream, of him walking through the mist, heading towards an unspecified, but earth-shattering, threat. So I thought it would be good to include this on the cover.

I wanted a cover that was not too cluttered but gave readers a sense of the book’s content and genre. One thing that was tricky was to impart the sense that this is not just a historical book, but a historical fantasy. In the end, we decided to do that by making the font stylized and artistic, rather than just block letters. Barring dragons and wizards on the cover (neither of which appear in my book) I think it helps to give the cover a fantasy feel.

It was an interesting process to get this designed, and a fun one. And to see my name on the cover…whoo.

My final bit of news is that I have firmed up my publication date. Wilding will be available on Amazon and all the other e-book retailers on February 5, 2019. 

Lots to do until then….stay tuned!


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