Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Royalists, Democracy, and the Sword of the Apocalypse: an interview with historical fiction author Katherine Ashe

Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with historical fiction Katherine Ashe. She's spent over thirty years researching Simon de Montford, a man who played an important, but little known, role in the history of Western democracy.


1) Please tell us about your book.

The Montfort series is the four-volume product of my 34 years of research (some might call that obsessive) into the life of the little known, maligned man who established modern democracy.

2) You've been researching Simon de Monfort for decades. What is it about this man and the period around his life that has inspired such interest?

Principally it was dismay at the lack of knowledge about him, and the astonishingly negative attitude of what little there was.

3) Given that your primary subject lived over 750 years ago, there are obviously going to be a lot more historical holes for you to take advantage of than for someone writing a book on someone from a more recent period. Did you view these holes as an opportunity or were they more a challenge?

There are a lot of holes indeed, but, worse, the material that survives is written from two points of view: that Simon was the Angel of the Apocalypse and that Simon was the agent of Satan. Actually, the chronicler Matthew Paris, who is the finest general source of information during most of Simon’s lifetime, begins merely disliking Simon as a foreign interloper, but he becomes Simon’s friend and supporter as the years go on.

I wrote Montfort in novel form because of the necessity to use extensive speculation to bridge from one recorded event to the next with a reasonable thread of causality. Events often were mutually contradictory: in a surviving letter, the Christian lords of Palestine are begging the Emperor Frederic to name Simon their viceroy; then, according to the chronicles, Simon has joined King Louis’s army in France to fight King Henry of England; then he's leading 100 English knights against Louis’ 30,000. These are chronically successive events! You get the picture.

What happened during those “holes”? Certainly they provide a challenge requiring a broad knowledge of the period, the mindset of the time and the background of each of the major participants in each event. What has “seen print” in “Montfort” is the tip of the iceberg. Discussions in the Historical Context at the end of each volume can only give a sketched explanation of the sources and the reasons for my interpretations, or the work would be considerably more than its 1585 pages.

4) Related to the above, the mere existence of historical holes and interpretation by authors can potentially be a source of controversy. Is this anything you've had to deal with?

Oh, yes. Montfort The Early Years, or rather a blurb that mentioned my view that Simon was the natural father of Edward I, has raised a lot of controversy, some of it quite nasty. However, no one who has actually read Montfort has any problem with my research and interpretation of the material, though they may differ from my conclusions – fair enough. Many scholars think very highly of my work and find in it justification of Henry IV’s seizure of the throne – a return to the legitimate line. But some readers of historical novels have been deeply offended by the blurb because I obviously differ from another novelist who has written about Simon.

5) What has been the most interesting aspect of developing this series of novels?

Exploring the reasons for the advent of elective government so early. And its failure to stick. As well, of course, as the astonishing life of the man who made the first modern democracy a reality.

6) What has been the most challenging aspect of developing this series of novel? One of the things I've mentioned above or something else entirely?

I suppose the greatest challenge has been grasping the 13the century mindset of Simon de Montfort and the other people I write about, and conveying it to the modern reader. One must not only make the physical world of a time long past seem immediate and familiar, but must also make the mental world of these people in their time a part of the reader’s equipment in understanding the characters’ motivations. Too often I find novelists, and even historians, neglect this or feel it necessary to interpret the past according to modern habits of thinking. This modernizing, I believe, makes it impossible to validly explore the motivations of actual people in the past.

7) Francis Fukuyama's pronouncements about liberal democracy being the "end of history" may have been a bit premature, but it's hard to deny that around the world, democratic government is seen as the most desirable form of rule. Thus you'd figure a man involved in the creation of the first directly elected parliament would be better known, but, arguably, he's become somewhat obscure. Do you agree that Simon de Montfort doesn't quite have the historical profile that might be warranted? If so, why do you think that is?

What an excellent question! Simon de Montfort is indeed unconsciounably obscure and was made so deliberately.

During his last years, Simon was thought by many to be the Angel with the Sword of the Apocalypse, bringing in a New Millennium in which kingship and the Church would collapse and a world-wide government would gradually take form, guided by general, free elections. The thousand years since 1258 are not yet completed. We may be in a fair way to fulfilling those expectations, despite a 500 year hiatus caused by the rise of Thomas Aquinas’ theology of immutable hierarchy and divinely granted dominance by kings. Aquinas was deliberately embraced by Pope and kings in the 1260’s in a specific effort to counter the rising democratic/millennial theology of which Montfort was considered the earthly champion.

Apart from religious issues, Simon was guilty of lese majeste, seizing his king and establishing a government in despite of the king’s wishes. An added fillip is that Simon not only established elective government, but attempted to extend full suffrage to the commons. And he appears to have toyed with the idea of the redistribution of wealth and the instituting of a proto-socialism that was being promoted by the Franciscans.

Apparently most English historians of the Middle Ages are staunch royalists. Even to this day most of the few works about Montfort published in England are based on the writings of his enemies and are very critical of him. It was Queen Elizabeth II who signaled an acceptable change in attitude by mounting a celebration of Simon on the 1965 centennial of the battle of Evesham. Yet the latest scholarly work, from Cambridge University, portrays Simon as a Yuppie who accomplished nothing!

Why the silence, relieved by occasional attacks? The 13th century Chronicle of William Rishanger is devoted solely to enumerating the miracles that Simon accomplished AFTER his death. Fearing the rapidly spreading millennial religious movement that centered upon him, and its consequences, King Henry III declared it a capital crime to so much as speak the name Simon de Montfort.

Apart from the Chronicles and surviving documents of the period, the tales of Robin Hood are thought to be a means by which memory of Simon was kept alive among his followers (who did hold out in Sherwood Forest for two years after his death.) But printed versions replace the name Montfort with Richard the Lion Hearted – whose return was definitely not longed for by his over-taxed subjects in England. Even the statue to commemorate Simon, erected in front of the Houses of Parliament, still bears the bogus identity: Richard Coeur de Lion.

This sort of obliteration is a large part of what's driven me. It's unacceptable that most people know nothing of the man who did more than anyone else to give modern government its  form world-wide: Simon de Montfort.


Thanks, Katherine.

If you'd like to read more from Katherine, please check out her Montford blog at  http://simon-de-montfort.com/ or her personal blog at http://www.katherineashe.com/.

Montfort: The Founder of Parliament: The Early Years, can be purchased in physical or ebook format at Amazon, along with the other volumes of the series.

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