Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Over 5000 medieval historical novels, scholar finds

An extensive research project into historical fiction has turned up 5092 medieval historical novels in the English language, dwarfing previous estimates in this genre. The findings were presented by Shuan Tyas, in his article, "Historical Novels and Medieval Lives," which was published in Recording Medieval Lives: Proceedings of the 2005 Harlaxton Symposium

Tyas, who runs an independent publishing house, writes "My project began with a personal interest in the early medieval period, and collecting interest in the historiography of Anglo-Saxon England. It became apparent from this collecting that that the sheer number of historical novels indicates that they have an important role in the popular reception of history, and even an influence on scholarly studies, not the least because all historians have read some."

Tyas' article develops a definition of medieval historical novels, and analyses his database by date and sub-genre. The earliest medieval historical novel he has uncovered is Amours of Edward IV: An Historical Novel,which was published as early as 1700. This more than a century earlier than the works of Walter Scott, who has traditionally been ascribed to be the first writer to publish historical novels. Tyas found several other early examples of medieval historical novels, including Elizabeth Helme's St. Clair of the Isles (1804), set in the fifteenth-century Hebrides, and The Scottish Chiefs (1810), by Jane Porter, which is set in Scotland around 1300, involving William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.

Tyas finds that the production of medieval historical novels have gone through three different phases. "The first might be called the classical period," Tyas write, "before 1850, when few were published, virtually all of them for adults, but most enjoyed widespread readership and cultural influence."

The second half of the nineteenth century saw a "golden age" for this genre, as children's books gained in popularity, becoming more numerous than adult books. The First World War saw the beginning of a decline for medieval historical novels, but by the 1950s interest in this literature returned, and has grown markedly.

Of the 5092 novels in Shuan Tyas' database, 68% are aimed at adults and 32% children. More often, novels are set in the later Middle Ages, with the most popular being the fifteenth-century, which had just over 23% of the novels. Several key figures from the Middle Ages often found themselves in these historical novels, including Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror and Robin Hood.

Tyas also sets out various categories for these medieval historical novels, including:

Science Fiction - novels that involve time travel, or similar sci-fi element. For example, The High Crusade, by Poul Anderson, has an alien spacecraft landing in the Lincolnshire village of Ansby in 1345.

Fantasy Novels - while most fantasy literature does not have a real historical setting, Tyas finds over 600 books which do qualify, including The Court of the Midnight King, by Freda Warrington, which is about Richard III.

Detective Novels - According to Tyas, this "is a huge body of historical literature...and they are growing so quickly they threaten to dominate the twenty-first century historical novel." The earliest medieval whodunnit is The Murders of Crossby, by Edward Frankland, which is set in the tenth-century Lake District. Others include The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and the Brother Cadlfael series, which Ellis Peters started with A Morbid Taste for Bones in 1977.

Women's Romantic Fiction - a somewhat vague genre, it is also quite popular in recent years. Tyas lists among his examples, Proxy Wedding, by Belinda Grey, where the heroine attends the coronation of Richard III. Tyas remarks, "I laughed out loud when the heroine visits the Tower of London as a tourist and she has to queue for a ticket."