Friday, May 15, 2015

Vessels Large and Small

I haven’t written a history post in a while, mostly because I haven’t had time to research much, although I did spend months last summer and early fall trying to figure out exactly what a bright, literate, interested, but professionally untrained sixteenth-century teenager would know about medicine, especially if she came from the upper strata of society. More specifically, what would she know about heart disease? How would she imagine it? How would she cure it?

Finding out the answers to these questions proved to be more difficult than I expected, but I did eventually learn enough about Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine (known throughout the medieval and early modern world) to get a sense of medical theory in 1530s Tataria. Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica was immensely helpful as evidence of herbal remedies in use in Europe at that time. Although the book itself was not well known then, it attests to a kind of on-the-ground practicality that Natalya Kolycheva, the senior female in my imaginary household, might have exhibited. I’m sure many more questions will arise as The Swan Princess progresses, but for the moment I’m in reasonable shape so far as medieval medicine is concerned. I can also look forward to the imminent publication of Toni Mount’s Dragon’s Blood and Willow Bark: The Mysteries of Medieval Medicine. With a title like that, the book’s got to contain a potion or two worth assigning to my heroine and those around her.

But if it’s not one thing, it’s another. Given that Natalya, bless her, is bent on traveling 400 miles despite being at death’s door, it seemed logical to me that she would go by water. I doubt it will surprise anyone to learn that in winter central and northern Russia is covered by snow and ice, and sledges drawn by sturdy horses have long provided swift and reliable transportation. But in spring and summer, the marshy ground turns to mud, then dries in unaccommodating ruts guaranteed to jolt a sick patient into agony, if not the next world, in no time flat. Since time immemorial, people have traveled along the rivers, which flow mostly north–south with tributaries flowing east–west and—in the case of the Dnieper, the Dvina, and the Volga—have their source in the Valdai Hills west of Moscow. The whole setup makes for an unparalleled transportation system that permits travel over thousands of miles with the occasional portage from one tributary to another.

So we are told in college. But just try to find out exactly what the boats looked like or how the rivers flowed in 1535. The Soviet state built a large reservoir in the middle of the Valdai Hills, so just determining what went where six centuries ago requires digging up old maps and balancing closeness to the time in question against the artistic license that mapmakers once permitted themselves. Anthony Jenkinson’s camels and bears and cormorants enliven his 1593 map no end, but it would be a mistake to take his delightful drawings as indicating the precision of a modern cartographer. And even when the maps seem good (I found an 18th-century specimen that looked pretty reliable), they may not include the exact tributaries I as a novelist need.

An article by the historian David Ransel—to whom I am now deeply indebted—alerted me to the detail that Dmitrov, a small principality about 45 miles northwest of Moscow that I had picked as my traveling party’s first stopping point, actually connects via a series of marshes and small rivers to the Volga, whence Natalya and her family can reach the White Lake with relative ease. A website listing all the routes that Vikings used to loot, pillage, and trade from Scandinavia to Constantinople and points east revealed several means by which my Russians could get from A to B seven hundred years later. Ransel again, in his book based on the diary of an 18th-century Dmitrov merchant, mentioned that the Valdai Hills were once the site of serious white water, endangering not only the inflexibly built merchant ships of the day but my novel’s plot. A heart patient shooting the rapids? Oops, back to the drawing board.

Then, as if that were not enough for one research adventure, I discovered that Russia in Muscovite times had almost no inns (a detail I had already suspected, but I had not realized the consequences). As a result, people either did not stop except to change horses (on land) or camped outdoors despite the swarms of gnats and black flies that rose from the marshes to torment everything that moved. Depending on the travelers’ social estate, they could stay with a fellow noble or in a handy peasant cottage or (especially if male) in a monastery. But foreign visitors often commented on the inadequate facilities for travelers and the consequent tendency to keep moving. Except for the rapids, which were a problem no matter what, floating along on a boat made reasonable sense. But the idea that a strict mother-in-law would casually wave her eighteen-year-old charge off to ride 400 miles with no supervision except that provided by a bunch of rough warriors defied belief. Back to the drawing board again.

In the end, none of these setbacks matter, of course. Research is fun; plot threads are always, to some extent, contrivances that can be overhauled; character triumphs, no matter what. But if there’s a moral to this story, it’s that no matter how long one studies a place and a time, there remains far more to be discovered. And despite the glorious riches of the Internet, finding the specifics in question can prove, at times, surprisingly difficult.

1 comment:

  1. Tweeted and shared - excellent article - resonates with me just now as I've just spent a month fact checking - some of which I found, some I didn't and doing some rewriting as a consequence of what I did find. And yes, even when it's a negative research is fun.


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