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History Buff is a site for history lovers everywhere. It is also a site very interested in women of the past. Although I (sadly) no longer have time to continue these interviews, here is an archive of Q&As about women's lives in history. And please feel free to stop by History Buff's sister site for archaeological discoveries making news today. Enjoy!

Michelle Moran
Historical fiction author

As an historical fiction writer I am fascinated by news stories featuring the past as it's unearthed and reimagined and brought to life. I spend a
large quantity of time searching for news in archaeology and history. Once in a great while a new archaeological discovery will act as an inspiration for what I'm currently writing. But most of the time the news stories I read are simply interesting tidbits of history. Unfortunately, I have disallowed comments because I travel so frequently that I can neither monitor nor respond to them. But I would still love to share the history that I find fascinating each day. So welcome! And feel free to visit my website at or contact me at authormichellemoran at hotmail dot com.

Logo designed by Shaun Venish

Blog designed by Mia Pearlman Design


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Guest Post With Historical Fiction Author Jeri Westerson

Elbows Off The Table Or It’s Off With Your Head!

As part of my blog tour to promote my new medieval mystery, SERPENT IN THE THORNS;A Crispin Guest Medieval Noir--I’ve been talking about the various myths about the Middle Ages that I’ve encountered through my research. Today I’d like to talk about medieval table manners.

Now I realize the very term—“medieval table manners”—sounds like an oxymoron. Surely we are talking about a violent exchange of knives, food being tossed about, sleeves wiped across mouths and noses—monkeys in a cage sort of thing.

But really, nothing could be further from the truth. At middle class and upper class tables, there were a host of rules and many rituals to follow. You had to know your place. And one of those places might be to know at which table you belonged and how far you were from the salt.

Obviously, you are seated at a place of honor if you were at the high table with the lord of the manor or at that of a rich merchant. But if you are a minor noble you might be sitting at a table slightly lower than the head table. And if you are merely a courtier or hanger-on, you would be at the farthest table from the high table.

The meal was begun with a prayer and the washing of hands. Two servants would be on hand: one with a bowl and another with a jug of water. Fingers would be cleaned because, after all, these were the tools in which you were mostly to partake of your food. Eating knives were also employed, but a servant might cut your meat for you, offering you the best slices from the platter. Forks were not yet in use on the dining table. A fork was a tool to cook with. It would be gauche to have it on the table to eat with. Napkins, too, were not yet part of the table. But you certainly did not wipe your face or nose on your sleeves. What do you think the table cloths were for, you cretin!

Very often, you were sharing a goblet with your neighbor, so it was considered very bad manners indeed to drink with your mouth full. No one likes backwash. And Seinfeld didn’t have the monopoly on accusations of double-dipping—dipping your food or bread in a sauce, taking a bite, and then dipping that piece of food again. That was considered a no-no. A lot of the plates were communal. Decorum had to be maintained.

So where do we get these notions that medievals were crossing knives and swords at the table or that they were particularly violent? Movies and novels have a lot to do with those notions. After all, it might have been that 1933 Charles Laughton film The Private Life of Henry VIII where we get the idea that medievals tossed their gnawed bones over their shoulders, littering their floors with refuse. But eating halls were general use rooms. They were used for all sorts of gatherings, from court trials, to parties, to religious ceremonies. Tables were portable trestle tables, set up when it was time to dine and stored along the walls to get them out of the way. Often servants slept in the halls when the day was done. They certainly didn’t want to live amongst bones and other detritus from meals. Who wanted maggots in their beds? It was simply not done.

Some of the medieval violence was attributed to lead poisoning garnered from the pewter plates they supposedly ate off of. But pewter didn’t become popular for dining until the fifteenth century, and even then it was only for the rich. Prior to that, the rich might eat off of silver plate, but usually use wood or trenchers, rectangular loaves of bread baked specifically as plates. You’d eat your meal, allowing all the juices to soak into the bread. And when you were done, the loaves would be collected by the almoner who would distribute them to the poor.

And by the way, to get the amount of lead out of a pewter plate that you would need for all that violent behavior would mean you would have to actually eat the plates. Not likely.

I remarked earlier about the salt and where you sat in relation to it. Salt and all spices—which includes peppercorns and sugar—were quite expensive. You were part of the privileged class when you sat above the salt. But if you weren’t so lucky, you were seated below the salt.

Everyone knew their place. So the next time you pass the salt, think about where you might have been sitting...and if you might have been sitting at the feast at all!

Jeri likes to feast with words on her blog of history and mystery at She also has more information about her Crispin Guest novels at And even her character Crispin has his own blog at

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Ruth Rymer

Ruth Rymer, tell us about Susannah, your second release.

Young college graduate Susannah Reed is brutally attacked in 1877 and nearly killed. While recovering, she vows to study law, although The United State Supreme Court has just declared that women are too timid and delicate to be lawyers.

Undaunted, Susannah reads law at a firm in Chicago as she struggles unsuccessfully to combine her career with a future marriage to a man who will not allow her to become an attorney. She passes the bar and is hired by the firm where she studied. Susannah’s handling of her cases brings her immediate success, but she must face the hostility and jealousy of male lawyers and threats on her life from a resistant public.

When did you first realize you wanted to write?

I've been writing since I was eight years old. As an outgrowth of my diary, I became a character, and everything I wanted happened to that character.

Where do you get your information or ideas for your stories?

With Susannah I read extensively about Chicago between 1870 and 1900, mostly books published by University of Chicago Press. I also read novels written during the period, and both the news section and the classifieds in the Chicago Tribune. I visited upstate New York north of Albany so that I could create the fictional town of Green Valley. It's very important, in writing historical novels to be as familiar with the period and its society as possible. In my mind, I lived in 1877-80 while I was writing Susannah.

What is your favorite writing devise?

I really like alliteration--using many words beginning with the same letter. For example: "Ethical edges easily erase in this effervescent and egomaniacal Eden.”

What was one of the most surprising things you learned while creating your book?

I learned about America in the nineteenth century to a depth I didn't know possible. I'd love to take a time machine there, but I would want to go as a man. Life was very difficult for women during that time.

What does your family think about your career as a published author?

They are all quite surprised!

What is coming up next for you writing-wise?

Maybe a sequel. Perhaps some short stories.

Thank you, Ruth! And please feel free to visit Ruth online for more information about her novel.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Sandra Worth
King's Daughter book cover

In your latest novel, THE KING'S DAUGHTER, you tell the dramatic story of Elizabeth of York. What was it about Elizabeth that compelled you to tell her story?

Thanks so much for having me. Michelle! It’s always a pleasure and a privilege to do an interview with you!

Elizabeth of York was the daughter of a king, sister of a king, niece of a king, and mother of Henry VIII and grandmother of Elizabeth I – quite a pedigree. But oh so strangely, nothing much is known about her and she drops off the map once she marries Henry Tudor! Why is that? We certainly know more than we need about her husband Henry VII, her son Henry VIII and her mother Elizabeth Woodville, and even her mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort. But Elizabeth of York is shrouded in mystery. When Elizabeth died, a nation mourned and her husband locked himself into his room to weep the heart out that no one ever knew he had and Elizabeth was given the appellation “Elizabeth the Good” by her people. This mysterious and forgotten queen intrigued me.

I wanted to know why we know nothing about her, and I came to believe that it’s because the Tudors kept her captive. That led to more questions—like, why did they do that? And what kind of a threat did she pose to them? Did she believe her uncle, Richard III, murdered her brothers, the princes in the Tower, or – since there’s evidence she loved her uncle – did she believe he didn’t murder them? In that case, one of the princes may well have survived, and the Pretender, Perkin Warbeck, may well have been her lost brother, Richard, Duke of York.

What drama here; what mystery; what heartbreak! Who can resist?

*Tell us something surprising about life as a woman in Henry VII's England.

You would think that no woman stood a chance of wielding power in this kind of a man’s world. But you’d wrong. Margaret Beaufort, the king’s mother, was more ruthless, ambitious and hindered by fewer scruples than her son Henry VII. Only her grandson, Henry VIII, whom she raised, can lift a candle to her.

* THE KING'S DAUGHTER recently won Romantic Times's Best Historical Biography of the Year Award. What does this award mean to you?

Of course, I’m thrilled to bits, and very, very grateful! It’s such an honor. Philippa Gregory was one of the four nominees, along with Susan Holloway Scott and Jane Candia Coleman. I’m still pinching myself!

* How much of the novel is based on fact and how much is fiction? Was Elizabeth's mother really such a shrew?

I make it my policy never to stray from the historical record when information is available, and I only use my imagination to fill in the blanks. As far as Elizabeth’s mother is concerned, her actions speak for themselves—and yes, she was an incredible shrew! She seems to have been a possessive, overly ambitious, avaricious and destructive woman who wreaked terrible vengeance for every perceived slight. For this reason, history records her well. But in the end, some things have to be speculation because not everything survives five hundred years. For this reason, I cherish my review from Publishers Weekly: “Worth examines Elizabeth's life with a journalist's eye, an impressive feat given that her subject left little behind for study.” I do my best given the information available, but sometimes, it’s just not available.

*What are you working on next?
My next novel is on Lady Catherine Gordon and her husband, the so-called “Perkin Warbeck.”
With four marriages made for love at a time when men controlled the destiny of women, Catherine not only survived in the deadly Tudor court but managed to carve out happiness for herself. Her fourth husband was twenty-five years younger than her—and it was a love match! A happy ending is hard to find in this period of history, and I’m delighted to have one for my next book.

photograph of author Sandra Worth
Thank you, Sandra! And feel free to visit Sandra Worth online for more information about her new novel!