Historical Crime Week: The Story Behind Plague Land by S D Sykes

0303_PlagueLand_Bpb (3)“If I could trace my novel Plague Land back to one point in time, it would be watching a television programme back in 2008, presented by Professor Robert Bartlett. The series was entitled ‘Inside the Medieval Mind’ and provided a fascinating insight into the ways that our predecessors made sense of their world – in an age before widespread literacy, printing, and where science and medicine were still dominated by the teachings of antiquity.

As part of the programme, Professor looked at the Mappa Mundi in Hereford cathedral – a medieval treasure that perfectly illustrates their interpretation of the world. There are countries that can easily be identified – but as the cartographers moved towards the edges of the map, rather than leave a blank to indicate the unknown, they invented bizarre creatures. There are all types of strange beasties on show, from the Blemmyes – a warlike creature with no head, to the Sciapods – who used their one enormous foot to shield themselves from the sun. But, for me it was the Cyncocephali who stuck in my mind. Strange and violent men with the heads of dogs. As is the case with many writers, I stored this image away… to be used at a later date.

The next part of the story is my love of the macabre. My inability not to look at something distasteful or repugnant. I can’t explain it really. I’m a fairly normal, balanced and rational person otherwise – but there is just something so gripping about the gruesome. (I know I’m not alone in this. If I could attempt to explain it, then perhaps it’s a comfort that the grisly event is somehow not happening to me. A kind of muted, sigh-of-relief-style schadenfreude?) So, if you read Plague Land, I can guarantee boils, filth, pestilence and plague pits. But, I should also say, it’s not just the macabre that informed my decision to write in this period. I was also drawn to the 1350s because of the dramatic effect that the Black Death had upon the history of our country. Namely the fact that roughly half the population died in the years of 1348-50.

In some ways it is surprising that civilization didn’t break down during this time. There were a few months of chaos, it’s true, but then the world limped back to a faded-out version of its former self. The long-lasting effects of the Black Death were more subtle, characterized by a shift in the balance of power from the nobility to the poorest people in society – the labourers and artisans. At last there was a chance for social mobility and even freedom from the constraints of feudalism. People could insist upon higher wages, and the lords, now chronically short of labour, were suddenly forced to meet these demands. There was an empowerment and new confidence to the poorer classes, which alongside the rise of the Lollards (a radical group, committed to reform of the Catholic church and equality for all men) gave rise to the Peasants Revolt of 1381. This was just thirty years after the Black Death.

I hope you can see why this was such an intriguing period in which to set a novel. And, of course, in the aftermath of such a plague, the medieval mindset was working overtime. What had caused such an apocalypse? Was it sin? A bad planetary alignment? Even immigrants, and especially the Jews? The Black Death gave rise to rampant fear and superstition, and suddenly I saw an opportunity for my dog-headed Cynocephali to come to life.

The last element in the story behind Plague Land was my interest in how people cope in dramatically changed circumstances. In many novels, these are changes for the worse. A disaster. A death. A loss of status and wealth. However, on the face of it, my protagonist Oswald, prospers from the Black Death. As the third son of the de Lacy family, he had always expected to become a monk. He was the ‘spare’ – not really needed by his family until there was a disaster. The disaster duly appears in the form of the Black Death. Oswald’s two older brothers die and suddenly he is called back to his family’s manor and expected to become the new lord.

It should have been an opportunity, but at eighteen, Oswald is not prepared for his new role. He’s not a natural leader. Instead, he’s a shy and studious introvert who struggles with the management of the estate and its workforce. This change of role must have been a very common experience in the 1350s, when the survivors of the Plague suddenly found they had an unexpected inheritance, or were thrown into positions for which they had no training or experience. This would have happened right across society.

To heap trouble on top of troubles for Oswald, there are soon two murders on his estate – crimes that he is expected to investigate. This investigation would once have been the role of the Constable, but the man is dead. Oswald goes about his task with rational diligence, but is soon thwarted by the villagers, who believe that Cynocephali are to blame. Empowered by a new, post-Plague confidence, the villagers are not easily quelled by Oswald’s weak authority.

However, this doesn’t stop Oswald trying – standing up for logic and reason in the face of ignorance. I wanted to put a voice into the novel that would question and counterpoint the superstitious attitudes of the time. In some respects, Oswald has quite modern sensibilities. But I did this deliberately. He is our voice in this story. Asking the questions that we would ask. Refusing to believe the rumours that we would also refuse to believe.

So these are the three stories behind the story of Plague Land. The medieval mind and its fearful and imaginative excesses. The decimation caused by the Black Death and its longer-lasting effects upon society. And finally, a coming-of-age story, about a young man who overcomes his own shortcomings to solve a murder. I hope it is for you.”

S D Sykes’s debut novel Plague Land, the first in the Oswald de Lacey series, will be published by Hodder in paperback on 21st May 2015. Follow S D Sykes on Twitter at @SD_Sykes and find out more about Plague Land and the Oswald de Lacey series at sdsykes.co.uk.

For your chance to win one of five signed copies of the book, visit @CBBookGroup on Twitter between 18th and 22nd May and look out for one of our competition tweets.

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