On Silencing

I was looking for a way of explaining why I wrote one of the characters in Langue[dot]doc 1305 the way I did and I found an article that never quite reached print. The editor asked me to change so many things that it would have made the article disprove what I was arguing. I couldn’t do that. So the article sat on my machine,  lurking. I thought it might be an idea to de-lurk it. While Langue[dot]doc 1305 is one one level a straightforward novel, on other levels it does other things. In fact, all my fiction does this. This piece explains one of the reasons why.

This article is unedited. It’s quite possibly not very good. And I’ve only given you the first section. But it does say something important about my writing.

It also contains mild spoilers.


I am a Medievalist. I am also a novelist. Sometimes, one takes responsibilities that the other cannot bear. My recent novels, Langue[dot]doc 1305, The Wizardry of Jewish Women, and The Time of the Ghosts help explain how this operates.

When I was working with Katrina Kania on an introductory book to medieval England (The Middle Ages Unlocked), we divided our responsibilities up according to our background. Since I am, by training, an historiographer, I scored all the literary elements and also much of the religion and cultural practice. These include magic. Keep magic in mind, for I will return to it. The Middle Ages Unlocked was (mostly) not original research. My research started off as mostly Medieval and is now really about narratives and culture. Not irrelevant to this post, but if I go in that direction everything will be instantly that much harder to understand. So I won’t. I’ll stick to magic.

While working on The Middle Ages Unlocked I ran into some significant problems with the way we (modern historians) see Judaism in England in the Middle Ages. The historian’s vision of Christianity is delightfully complex. There are so many studies that go into regional differences and leadership and politics and forms of worship and the influence of popular belief and local practice and much more. Katrin and I didn’t have the words available to break everything down at this level, but knowing it was possible and that the studies had been done and reading so many of the studies made it much easier to develop a useful overview of Christianity in England at that time. Since The Middle Ages Unlocked introduces matters to non-specialists, that overview is not a piece of writing that I can dine out on and say “Look, I know stuff” but I can say, at least, that from reading across such a nice lot of modern literature I understand more about what we think of Christianity in that time at that place and to communicate this.

The same does not apply to Judaism. We think we know as much about Judaism as about Christianity, but the sheer range and depth of studies that English Christianity has is almost entirely absent for Judaism. I had to make active choices between sticking to overviews and following new research, and those choices weren’t as well informed. They were not even close to as well informed. The sections on Judaism in The Middle Ages Unlocked are less scholarly and less clever and lack that sense of us reinterpreting history to meet current needs. It’s as if Judaism is a static point in our historical landscape.

This left me puzzled. I compared the overviews and the substance I’d read about with Jewish history of other periods (again for England) and found that there are some very interesting lacks. We love to study Jewish history for some countries, but Jewish history for others is cocooned and closeted and kept artificially stable. I had a limited number of choices rather than enough material to allow a deep understanding. There was the very dated Cecil Roth approach and a couple of approaches that challenge Roth there was lachrymosity, and there was also silence. Most historians looking at English history overall appear to choose silence with an occasional touch of lachrymosity.

I really needed five more years at that point to do some archival research and to talk to the half dozen historians breaking new ground.

What I had was a few months. And I was in Australia. And I had other writing deadlines.

The Jewish sections of the book have been reviewed as tolerable, and that’s as good as it gets when one is faced with such restrictions. Quite a few reviews expressed a simple pleasure that there was a Jewish component to The Middle Ages Unlocked. This leaves me unhappy. I was faced with some issues that needed to be dealt with.

The first was the silencing. I’m still working on this but my immediate response was to place a character in Langue[dot]doc 1305 who was Jewish and self-silencing about his background. He was the beautiful young man who normally saves the day, and the question for him became how did he marry his need to help others with his need to hide his worrying past.

My focus was not on Jewish history, but on some of the complexities involved in silencing. It was an emotional exploration and didn’t push my scholarship. This was my note to myself that this issue needs to be dealt with. I do that a lot. A character’s experience indicates an intellectual problem I need to address. After that I work on vectors where I can address these issues or related issues through fiction.

In my development of this character, I admitted to myself that the problem was mainly to do with everyday life. I was very short of methods of building the sort of interesting complexity we assume for culturally dominant groups. When I translated that into the work I’d done for The Middle Ages Unlocked, I was able to state, clearly, that I didn’t know enough about how English Jews brought the everyday into their lives. How they treated the supernatural. How they inhabited their world. Work taking from Continental sources helped, for they have me at least an idea of the directions that intellectual guidance were coming from. Helping isn’t the same as understanding first hand.

The magic aspect was particularly interesting. Historians of magic do not look at England from the direction I was using. Joshua Trachtenberg (author of an older but critical work on Jewish magic and related folklore) uses the long Middle Ages and a lot of his evidence comes from far too late – when the Jewish population was not recognised in England or even later, when a whole new culture was operating in England for a newly-acknowledged community. The long Middle Ages does not work for Jewish England.

When I teach medieval magic to people who have never encountered it, I use Richard Kieckhefer’s textbook. This is problematic for understanding Jewish magic. Why? Because it assumes that all magic is Christian. The Jewish world is silenced.

The Jewish world was silenced in so many fields. I could do a certain amount to make sure that it was not left out of The Middle Ages Unlocked, but the silencing is so profound that I can see the gaps, the way I’ve been taught to see the emu in the night sky by reading darkness as well as light.

Knowing where the gaps probably are is a beginning. If I were teaching university history I could push students towards all sorts of truly exciting essay topics. Except I’m not: I’m writing novels.

It’s the writing of novels that persuaded me to use magic as my example for this essay. I could have chosen politics, for we know more about politics, or food. Magic is something I could address through writing fantasy fiction. It was a direct route towards a possible emotional understanding of this aspect of the Middle Ages.

The sad side of working in historiography is that I have to understand everything both emotionally and intellectually. I can’t just say “This hasn’t been dealt with.” I have to look at the cultural restrictions we put on subjects and push to understand the limitations and restrictions we use every day in our work. Quite obviously, for The Middle Ages Unlocked, I couldn’t do that for any subject area that wasn’t handled well by modern scholars.

In two of my novels, I could at least explore the subject matter and find out what sort of questions I could have asked if the sources had existed. I could put up a nice theory and test it to breaking point.

I need to point out at this point that not all novelists do this. All my novels include intellectual experiments, however. The experiments work alongside my research and help me obtain at least some sort of understanding of the subjects that I can’t explore further as my more scholarly self. I also use my fiction to explore key areas in my own original research, but that’s another subject entirely.

Because I hit this brick wall for Jewish magic and folklore in The Middle Ages Unlocked, I couldn’t explore how much I understood how it could operate. How lore fitted in with law.

I had information about Jewish magicians. They appear in a bunch of sources. This gave me some of the ways in which Jews may have processed magic, but the overall shape of how everything fitted together culturally was woefully lacking in deep understanding from my end.

What I do when I reach this position with any research subject is to deduce what kinds of assumptions I carry that relate to the topic. I then try to address them. Normally, as an historian, I’d do this by looking at studies of a place and time and analysing the sources (primary and secondary) to pieces and putting everything into different place and thinking about them from all directions and then realising “This is it – I think I understand it now” then explaining it for everyone else. With footnotes.

One of the things I pull to pieces is my own knowledge and my own interpretations of that knowledge. I’d be shaping my own views as part of the scholarly process. This self-questioning can be carried over into fiction. I could use this and some of the information about the time and place to find out just why I and others were not looking at these subjects: I could profile the silencing.

Because the profiling is in my fiction, most people won’t look for it, but it’s still there and doing that job. In my perfect world it gets analysed by others and any new ground I’ve broken gets brought back into academic discussion, but that’s mostly wishful thinking, because there are certain types of analysis of fiction that are not done with most female character-based novels. It’s ironic that I’m thinking about a kind of intellectual silencing (mostly unintentional) while facing another sort (also mostly unintentional).

Silencing is something I actively try to understand. The first novel I wrote addressing this was Ms Cellophane. It’s come up in every single novel of mine ever since. It will probably continue to appear in my fiction until I stop exploring subjects where it’s critical. Jewish history, women’s history, magic/folklore history are all areas that are vulnerable to silencing.

My historian’s nightmare is my novelist’s dream. Strong subjects, deep subjects, emotional subjects that matter.


About Gillian Polack

Gillian Polack is a historian as well as a fiction writer, which means that history is likely to creep into her blogposts. She is also Australian, a foodie, and has a strong love of things ranging from chocolate to folk dance. All her jokes are good jokes, even the ones that aren't funny at all.


On Silencing — 6 Comments

  1. This is fascinating. I have been drifting into medievalism in my studies of late (Arthuriana this year, Chaucer next) and this aspect really never occurred to me. Really, the only consideration of Jewish and/or non-Christianity as a whole is framed in terms of the Crusades—but surely there is more to people’s lived experience in those times than that.

    Thank you for this. So many avenues of learning to wander down in this life—now if someone would just hurry up and invent that anti-ageing serum already!

  2. Nice analysis. I know too many people in the history field who gloss over the silenced subjects as unimportant. That makes them lazier than I am, IMO. I too have dug into the silence and found places for it in fiction. I may have done it wrong, but I sure found some interesting “What ifs”.

  3. Gillian, are you a member of the Societas Magica? They give papers at Kalamazoo every May, and, increasingly, at academic conferences about the scholarly study of the history of magic around the world. http://www.societasmagica.org/ I was their first secretary-treasurer (hm, maybe their second) back when they founded. They’ve come a LONG way since then–nobody was gathering, sharing, publishing together.

    • I’m not. It would be magic… but academic research is a wonderful thing, but a timesink. I wish I had more hours in the day. About 60 more hours is a day … I keep up with my own specialist area, but catch up on secondary areas when I need to (for writing a novel, or for research). It’s the only way I can find to handle it. The Middle Ages Unlocked was a wonderful opportunity to catch up, and so my baseline of scholarly knowledge is a few years ago for much of the Middle Ages.