One of the things I have to keep reminding myself when I’m writing a novel set in the fourteenth century is how very different things were then. Not just in what people wore, or ate, or how they travelled, but in how they thought and felt. People did not perceive the world around them in the same way that we do.
I’m always reading books about life in the Middle Ages and very frequently I read something that makes me reassess my view of the fourteenth-century man or woman completely. One of those books is The Senses in Late Medieval England by C.M. Woolgar, which I’m reading at the moment. Essentially it does what it says on the tin and the book concerns itself with ideas about touch, sound and hearing, speech, taste, smell and vision in the Middle Ages. Even the senses they recognised in the fourteenth century were different.
The chapter which has struck me the most (so far) is about sound and hearing. Professor Woolgar points out how very few loud noises there were in the medieval world and how quiet even they were compared to what we hear today.
I was thinking about this as I went for a walk recently. I had my earphones in and was listening to a podcast. It was during the Easter holidays, so there was a fair near part of my walk where loudspeakers were amplifying music and voices. A plane flew overhead. Since I live in a city, my walk included roads, which meant cars were driving past. A neighbour had a window open as I returned home and I could hear the music they were listening to. When I sat down to write this I put an electric kettle on to make a pot of tea.
None of these noises existed in the fourteenth century and most of them are louder than anything someone living then would have heard. The loudest noise a fourteenth-century person might hear was a clap of thunder or a church bell or a waterfall. A small number of men would have heard a cannon, but the cannons used in the first half of the Hundred Years’ War were very small and would not have made much noise. Such noise as they did make, however, would have been disconcerting.
Like most people I’ve been to places where it’s quiet. I’ve walked up mountains and been on long distance footpaths, but I always have to return to the world of noise again. Imagine a world where it’s always that quiet. If you lived in such a world, would you be disturbed or scared if you heard thunder? If you were in a battle, would the screams of men and horses as well as the clash of weapons sound otherworldly and terrifying?
In daily life, even the noises that we think would be loud would not have been terribly loud. A raucous party would be nothing more than people shouting and singing. If someone was performing a song, his listeners would have to be fairly close to hear any musical accompaniment. A preacher, either in the open air or in church, had nothing more than his own voice with which to gain attention.
The challenge for me now is how to convey the silence of the medieval world in a novel.