Writing the Middle Ages: a re-evaluation of the fantastical in historical fiction
Fantastical phenomena – visions, apparitions, spirits, monsters, elves and other marvels – formed an intrinsic part of life in the Middle Ages, and yet are not usually afforded serious treatment by historical novelists. My project will examine whether it is possible to reconcile the fantastical with the historical in modern fiction about the period, and how such an integration might be achieved.
The creative component of my thesis will be a historical novel with magic realist elements, set in post-1066 England. Drawing upon concepts of the otherworldly and the monstrous from Anglo-Saxon and Norse traditions, it will explore the trauma of conquest and the imposition of colonial rule.
The accompanying contextual analysis will examine how the fantastical and the historical intersect in a variety of medieval texts, from Beowulf to Eyrbyggja saga, as well as in recent historical novels by writers including Umberto Eco and Kazuo Ishiguro.
My research will ask:
- In what ways are these novels enhanced by their inclusion of fantastical elements? How well do they reflect the medieval experience?
- Is it necessary for historical fiction to embrace the thought-world of the Middle Ages as closely as possible if it is to have any value as a tool for interrogating the period?
- How might the subversive qualities of magic realism be used to approach historical events from alternative angles, and to deliver new insights and understanding?
Aitcheson, James. Sworn Sword. London: Preface, 2011.
Aitcheson, James. The Splintered Kingdom. London: Preface, 2012.
Aitcheson, James. Knights of the Hawk. London: Preface, 2013.
Aitcheson, James. The Harrowing. London: Heron, 2016.
I have delivered the following papers:
- ‘Historical fiction as virtual reality’, Other Voices, Other Times (Bath Spa University, 2012);
- ‘Representing the Middle Ages in fiction’, The Middle Ages in the Modern World (University of St Andrews, 2013);
- 'Dreams come true: predicting the future in late Anglo-Saxon England', Medieval Midlands (University of Nottingham, 2018);
- 'Space, place and identity in historical fiction', Orientations: A Conference of Narrative and Place (University of Nottingham, 2018);
- 'Writing the Middle Ages: new approaches to historical fiction', EMREM Annual Symposium (University of Birmingham, 2018);
- 'Writing the Middle Ages: new approaches to historical fiction', The Middle Ages in the Modern World (John Cabot University, 2018);
- 'Writing the Middle Ages: testing the boundaries of historical fiction', School of English PGR Symposium (University of Nottingham, 2019).
- 'Comets, eclipses and other celestial phenomena in late Anglo-Saxon England', 19th Biennial Meeting of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (University of New Mexico, 2019).
I have participated in the following round table sessions:
- ‘Viking facts in fiction: how much research does a historical novel need?’, The Viking World: Diversity and Change (University of Nottingham, 2016);
- ‘Imagining the medieval world: popular medievalism and historical fiction’, International Medieval Congress (University of Leeds, 2017);
- 'Communicating the Vikings', Midlands Viking Symposium (University of Leicester, 2019).
Public Engagement & Impact
Creative writing workshops chaired or co-chaired:
- 'Migration stories', Being Human Festival (Nottingham Central Library, 2017);
- 'Writing the Vikings', Viking Society Student Conference (University of Nottingham, 2018);
- 'Writing the Vikings', Midlands Viking Symposium (University of Nottingham, 2018).
Public talks/lectures delivered:
- 'Creativity and the historical novel', Hampshire Writers' Society (University of Winchester, 2018);
- 'Making the past present', New Perspectives (Lakeside Arts, 2018);
- 'Writing the past: the role of historical fiction', Winchester Writers' Festival (University of Winchester, 2018).
Other Research Interests
Medievalism, early medieval England, the Norman Conquest, history and fiction, cross-genre fiction, public understanding of the past.
Society of Authors; Royal Historical Society; Historical Writers' Association; International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England.
Historical novelist specialising in late Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest. Author of four novels, published in the UK by Random House and Quercus, and also in the US, Germany and the Czech Republic. My latest novel, The Harrowing, was published in July 2016 and named by The Times as a Book of the Month.
I studied History at Emmanuel College, Cambridge (2003–6), where I specialised in the Middle Ages; I then undertook my MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University (2007-8), where I developed the concept for what, in 2011, became my first published novel, Sworn Sword.