I’ve known E. C. for several years through conventions, Broad Universe, and online chatting–and she’s an amazing resource on medieval history–which she beautifully works into her novel. Because I am such a history buff, I was thrilled at the chance to pick her brain at all this cool info!
Let’s start with a little blurb about the book, Elisha Barber.
England in the fourteenth century: a land of poverty and opulence, prayer and plague, witchcraft and necromancy. Where the medieval barber-surgeon Elisha seeks redemption as a medic on the front lines of an unjust war, and is drawn into the perilous world of sorcery by a beautiful young witch. In the crucible of combat, at the mercy of his capricious superiors, Elisha must unravel conspiracies both magical and mundane, as well as come to terms with his own disturbing new abilities. But the only things more dangerous than the questions he’s asking are the answers he may reveal…
I’d really love to hear about the research you did to make Elisha’s knowledge as a barber surgeon real. What drew you to this profession?
When I started out, I only need to know a little more about medieval medicine for a scene in another novel, but what I found was fascinating to me. It was another way of viewing the European Middle Ages, a popular setting for fantasy, that would allow me access to all levels of society, and also engage with characters in a more intimate way. Medical treatment and the need for it create great vulnerabilities, openings into the spirit as well as the body. Medieval medicine was fragmented by philosophies handed down from Greek and Roman sources, by the demands of religion, and by social class—it’s rich territory for fiction.
I wanted to write about a less traditional fantasy hero. We’re used to reading about knights, princesses, remarkable children—Elisha is a mid-career adult, respected in his sphere of influence. He works among the poor and desperate of London’s lesser neighborhoods: prostitutes, carters, laborers, for whom he’s the best medical care they can afford. When he’s forced to the front, he finds himself serving beneath the full weight of the medieval hierarchy: a surgeon who manages the hospital and works with knights and lesser nobility, a physician who advises only at the highest level, yet insists on supervising Elisha’s work, and all of the political layers outside of medicine—the warriors, royalty, lords and ladies who are the more usual denizens of the fantasy novel, and to whom the barber surgeon is beneath contempt.
Where did you go for this level of research?
I started with some general resources, like Medicine: an Illustrated History, which grounded me in a broad understanding of the period. I moved down through the books that would take me closer to the source, specialized compendia of knowledge like The History of Magic and Experimental Science. From there, I took note especially of any primary sources I could study. That lead me to Galen, the first-century physician who developed the hugely influential theory of the four humors, and to medieval practitioners like Ambroise Pare, a French barber-surgeon, or Guy de Chauliac, surgeon and personal physician to Pope Clement VI. Any time I could, I read works written by the practitioners, or by their contemporaries and patients. I was a bit stymied in this area because I never learned to read Latin!
I also had the chance to visit some specialty museums of medicine, or to locate exhibits about medicine within larger collections in places like the Museum of The City of London. Lately, I’ve been accumulating a collection of period-style surgical tools I can bring to signings and readings to illustrate the research.
What were some of the more amazing, gross, crazy things you found out?
One of the popes died of a surfeit of emeralds, which he was eating at the recommendation of his physician in order to cure a humoral imbalance. That’s pretty crazy! They believed that all material things had properties—hot, cold, wet, and dry—which related to the humors, so when a cure could not be effected by bleeding the patient, say, because the wrong astrological sign was ascendant at that time, the patient could also be fed a diet meant to balance these properties.
What are some interesting facts you learned but that didn’t make it into this book…or the series? 🙂
I haven’t written much about disease as opposed to wound healing or individual ailments—as of yet. But in the 14th century there were three modes by which disease was believed to be transmitted: breath, skin (touching) and gaze. This includes the notion that a young woman without a husband or a calling to God might emit a certain poison affecting those around her. The so-called “maleficent gaze of the venomous virgin.” Still want to use that. . . but I haven’t quite found the place for it!
Where should readers go to learn more about the book?
E. C. Ambrose wrote Elisha Barber and the rest of “The Dark Apostle” historical fantasy series from DAW books. Published works include “The Romance of Ruins” in Clarkesworld, and “Custom of the Sea,” winner of the Tenebris Press Flash Fiction Contest 2012. In addition to writing, the author works as an adventure guide. Past occupations include founding a wholesale business, selecting stamps for a philatelic company, selling equestrian equipment, and portraying the Easter Bunny on weekends.