Medieval Politics, Research, and Literary Discipline: An Interview With Lucy Pick, Author of “Pilgrimage”


Lucy Pick is a historian who runs the Religious Studies major at University of Chicago. Her first novel, Pilgrimage, was published just this summer by the Brooklyn-based publishing company Cuidono PressPilgrimage follows Gebirga, the blind daughter of Saint Godelieve, as she travels the Camino de Santiago during the Middle Ages. The novel explores the politics behind the Catholic Church and court, as well as the struggles for those suffering with illnesses at that time. We sat down with Lucy to learn what it was like writing a novel set at a different period of the world, and what advice she had for people looking to do the same.

What was the biggest struggle you encountered writing this novel?
I think the biggest struggle I encountered was one a lot of people who write fiction face–simply allowing myself to take the time from other things to write the book. It is hard to permit yourself to write fiction when you don’t know if anyone will ever read it, and as an academic historian of the Middle Ages by trade, there were so many other things I was “supposed” to be writing while I was working on my novel. But I was part of an amazing writing group at the University where I teach. We read each other’s academic work, and they allowed me to share the first half of my novel with them. When they liked it and wanted to know what happened next, I could justify finishing it by telling myself at least someone was going to read it!

Pilgrimage tells a story that includes the perspectives of a blind woman, a woman with a mental illness, people who were discriminated against for their religion and more. How were you able to dissect and understand the motives of so many different people in a different place and time?
My earliest academic work was about Christians, Muslims and Jews in medieval Spain, so the richly textured and complicated pattern of how those groups interacted with each other was something I wanted to explore from the moment I decided to write a historical novel set in Spain. Talking about illness–both mental and physical–was also an important early theme. Often in the Middle Ages, and too often still today, illness, especially what we would describe as mental illness, was seen as a product of some personal fault, as punishment for sin, yours or that of someone close to you. We use our own set of language with all of its metaphors to try to make sense of mental illness now. I wanted to explore how people who lived in a time when they didn’t have those metaphors would explain what was happening. Many saints’ lives discuss miracles of healing, and so that is where those who were ill in body and spirit would turn up in my sources. I could use them to understand how contemporaries thought of and dealt with illness. But in order to imagine how the sick moved through their own world, and how they saw their lives, I had mostly to use my imagination. Writing a blind main character was a great discipline as a novelist, because it I was forced to use all of my character’s senses other than sight to disclose her world to readers.

How did you choose Saint Godelieve as the mother of the protagonist?
The life of Saint Godelieve was the original inspiration for the novel, and one of the reasons I concentrated on illness right from the start. A long time ago, before the World Wide Web, Facebook, and Google. I used to spend my spare time connecting with other medievalist historians using listservs. One of my favourites had a “saint of the day” feature with a little biography, and one July 6th, the story was all about Saint Godelieve, patron of battered wives. She came from France to marry her Flemish husband in Gistel at the end of the eleventh century, and, according to the life, her husband, Bertulf, had her murdered. The biography also recounted a late medieval legend about Godelieve, which was that after killing his wife, Bertulf went on crusade to expiate his crime, and also that he also had a daughter who was stricken blind because of his actions. The panel painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that we used for the cover of the novel reflects the story of that version of the legend. The blind daughter captivated me. What would it feel like, I wondered, to have a saint for a mother who cured everyone except for you? The blind daughter became Gebirga, my heroine.

If other history buffs wanted to write a historical fiction novel, what advice would you give?
My advice would be to read as many primary sources you can get your hands on–diaries and letters if possible. Chronicles and histories if that is what is available. It is only by reading primary sources that you will be able to understand what your characters would have valued and how your characters would have thought. And besides, reading that kind of material is fun and will give you lots of inspiration about what to write.

Did you find yourself needing to do additional research for this story, or did you know everything you wanted to write already?
I knew a lot of the political and religious history of the period, but academic historians pay very little attention to how people lived their day-to-day lives. Where did they sleep? What did they sit on? What did they eat? How did they dress–not just what went on top, which you can see in an illustrated manuscript, but what did they wear underneath? Was it scratchy? How far can you walk in a day? Ride on horseback? Travel by boat? Those were the hardest questions to research. I found myself grateful over and over again to those people in the Society for Creative Anachronisms who document their research carefully and share it online.

The dynamic of court and the Catholic Church and their agendas was fascinating and not something I think the general public knows a lot about. Was part of your aim for this novel to describe this?
One of the challenges was not writing too much about court and church dynamics and also making sure that what I did include was straightforward enough that it could be read by someone who didn’t know anything about the period. I had to do a lot of cutting and paring once I finished my first draft! But it was important to me to show some of the complexity of the world they lived in, so I did not want to have cardboard cut-out kings and queens or a simple message that Church equals bad (or good). So Gebirga meets good abbesses and mean abbesses, helpful rulers and arrogant ones. I also wanted to show the ways in which women could hold power during the period. Some of my important political rulers are women, and they are all based on real people.

And finally, for fun, what’s your favorite fact about this time period?
Eggplants, figs, dates, lemons and many other fruits and vegetables we take for granted were all introduced into Europe in the Middle Ages via Muslim Spain. The way the food Gebirga ate changed as she slowly travelled south was a good way to show how the world of my blind heroine was transforming. I had a lot of fun researching what she would have eaten and where.

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