Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Hild and her gemæcce

Someone deeply familiar with the seventh century recently admitted she'd had to go hunting on my other blog, Gemæcca: The story of a novel about Hild of Whitby for the meaning of gemæcca. It occurs to me that if she doesn't know the word, few others will. So here's some thoughts about the term, lightly adapted from a post I wrote four years ago.

I subscribe to British Archaeology, a bi-monthly magazine stuffed with dug-up-in-Britain wonders, covering everything from how to excavate an abandoned Ford Transit Van to discovery of tools created half a million years ago. The thrill factor is variable (I often read it in bed and nod out over the articles). But just as I was beginning Hild, I read a review that knocked my socks off, of a scholarly text about textile production in the early middle ages, Cloth and Clothing in Early Anglo-Saxon England, AD 450-700, by Penelope Walton Rogers (CBA, 2007).

I don't normally continue to research once I've begun the the work of actually committing fiction (facts, until they're fully assimilated, tend to sit in great undigested lumps in my imaginative path) but I had to have this book. It took a week or so to arrive and then I promptly devoured it. It not only derailed my imaginative process, it blew the whole thing off its tracks.

The book lays out in detail what Angles and Saxons wore, and how women made it, and how fashions and means of production changed geographically and chronologically. It demonstrates that women must have devoted at least 65% of their time to textile production. Textile production, therefore, more than child care, more than food production, was their major concern. It was a critical task.

We've all read those awful historical novels where the feisty heroine flings her embroidery down and flees the castle to ride her spirited mare through the forest. No. Wouldn't happen. Couldn't happen. Sticking with their weaving and sewing (and sowing, and harvesting and retting and scutching and beating and spinning and dyeing and weaving, and on...) wasn't just some boring gendered task designed to keep women occupied, it was vital to survival and quality of life. Abandoning it meant abandoning the group--the kind of selfishness that would get you shunned and driven out. That is, not optional.

For me, as a writer, that was a problem: if a woman is spending two thirds of her waking life working on textile production, how do I make her life exciting and particular? (This is such a huge subject that it will require its own blog post, so more on this another time.)

The first thing I had to do is reimagine--totally reimagine--the social networks of a small holding, a settlement, a royal court. A lot of cloth production involves cooperative behaviour; a lot involves two-person teams. Immediately, it became clear to me that the notion of 'best friend' would be a deeper, more serious, and quite possibly formalised relationship--perhaps even political at the upper end of the food chain. So then I imagined what that relationship might look like, and then I started hunting for an Old English (in my fiction I'm currently using the term 'Anglisc' but this may change) word to describe that relationship. And the only thing I could find was gemæcca, which according to Old English Made Easy means 'mate, equal, one of a pair, comrade, companion' and 'husband or wife'. I found it a complicated but interesting concept.

So I repurposed the word. And used it as the title for my research blog. And, much later, wondered if I should use gemæcce, with an e. Pronounced something like Yem-ATCH-ee. And frankly I still don't know. I just don't know enough about Old English nouns to be able to work it out (I get lost in the strong vs. weak noun thing and retire in disgust). But I like the 'e' better than the 'a', so that's what I've been using in the novel.

One of Hild's most important relationships is with her gemæcce, Begu. They're not related, they don't have sex, they're utterly different. One a chatterbox, the other mostly silent. One short, one tall. One a thegn's daughter, the other royal. But when they meet they fall in friend-love (as I think most really good friends do). And that friendship sustains them through joy and tedium and horror (as really good friendships do). Yet Begu would never have existed if I hadn't stumbled across that review, if I hadn't formed the sudden conviction that I had to have this book, if I hadn't allowed my whole notion of Hild's life to reform itself.

You never know when some tiny detail will change everything.
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