Carolyn Hughes my guest this week

Back in December, as I am sure many of you remember, Helen organised a wonderful blog tour, “And The Best Supporting Role Character Is…”, where she interviewed a supporting character from twelve different novels. I was one of the proud participants, among an otherwise rather an illustrious crowd of “histfic” writers!
Anyway, I thought that interviewing characters was such a good idea that I asked Helen if I could interview another of the characters from my novel, Fortune’s Wheel, and she said yes!
I am currently writing book two, A Woman’s Lot, in my series set in the fourteenth century, “The Meonbridge Chronicles”. Fortune’s Wheel is book one. One of the characters who I think will play a more significant role in book two than she does in the first is Emma Coupar. I spoke to her briefly in the months following the Black Death, when the events of Fortune’s Wheel take place, when I was trying to find out about all the folk who lived in Meonbridge.

Carolyn: Mistress Coupar, I am sorry but may I take you from your labours, just for a few moments, so that we can talk?
Emma [shrugging]: I scarce have time for gossip, Missus Hughes, but I can’t say I wouldn’t welcome a moment’s rest and, as its you, I s’pose the reeve’ll not make a fuss…
C: I promise not to keep you long. But, please, can you tell me first a little about yourself?
E: For my sins, I’m wed to Bart – my beloved Bartholomew – who’s a weak and idle clout, yet, despite his faults, I love him dearly. I were scarce much more ’n a child, he fifteen years older, when he first courted me. [giggles] Despite his age, he were still strong and handsome, wi’ a constant twinkle in his eyes. But, though he could work hard, he were known more for his idleness an’ love of ale. Yet I were so flattered by his passionate attentions, I ignored my Pa’s warnings. An’, in truth, I were already wi’ child when I married him. [blushes] But I’ve been happy enough…
C: Can you say what happened to you at the beginning of this year [1349]?
E [eyes wide]: The Death?
C [nodding]
E [eyes filling]: We lost all three o’ our little lads. The girls survived, that’s Beatrix – Bea we call her – she’s 5, an’ Amice – Ami – who’s 2. But losing the boys was… I can’t even tell you how… [wipes her sleeve across her face]. Sorry, I’m not one for weeping, but… ’Course lots o’ folk lost loved ones in the Death, but it were such a dreadful passing, our little ones did suffer such terrible agony an’ fear…
C: Oh, I’m so sorry, Emma. I shouldn’t have asked about it. Let’s talk of something else.
E [wiping her face again and nodding]: So, Bart and me, we’re cottars – labourers – the lowest in the pecking order on the manor. We have to turn our hands to anything, for anyone, to earn even a meagre crust. Though, in truth, it’s only me who does any work [raises eyebrows] – Bart’s usually too lazy to get up of a morning, ’cept to go to the alehouse, though he can be strong and able when he puts his mind to it.
C: Can you tell me something of your work?
E: As I said, I can turn my hand to anything, though these days I mostly work for Missus atte Wode, whatever she needs, in her fields or in her garden. Im a good worker. I’m hoping Missus Titherige’ll let me help wi’ her sheep, ’cause I like sheep, an’ lambing or shearing, I can do anything a shepherd can! An’ I won’t hear a bad word said ’gainst either lady, for they’re both really good to me. Missus atte Wode keeps pressing me to better meself – take on some of the land that’s going spare now so many’ve died in Meonbridge. But I tell her it’s no good, wi’ Bart being so lazy and good-for-nothing… [rolls her eyes] I couldn’t manage it by meself. Which is a shame, ’cause I’d like to give my girls a better life.
C: Your life sounds terribly hard, Emma! Is it the same for all cottars?
E [grimacing]: ‘’Course it is! Specially for us women, who got the house and children to cope with, as well as the work we do for other folk. An’ I’m not the only one struggling to earn enough to keep a roof over our family’s head. In my case, I got an idle clout for an husband, but there are lots of widows too, since the Death…
C [lowering voice]: Emma, are you willing to tell me what you think of Sir Richard and Lady de Bohun? Is he a good lord?
E [raising eyebrows again]: D’you really want to know what I think? [C nods] Hah! Well, her ladyship’s probably quite nice, though I’ve never talked to her, an’ I don’t s’pose she even knows who I am! But his lordship… [grimaces] Well, he’s only interested in what he can get out of us, ain’t he? As much work for as little wages as he can get away with! Even since the Death, he’s not really budging. Even though there’s half the number of us left, so twice as much work for each of us to do, he still won’t raise our wages. I tell Bart we ought to go, leave Meonbridge and find an employer willing to pay a fair wage for a fair day’s work… [pauses, then purses her lips] Mind you, Bart don’t ever do a fair day’s work, so what’d be the point? [when she looks up, her eyes are glistening]
C [regretting her choice of question]: Oh dear, the reeve’s noticed I’ve kept you talking, so I’d best let you get on.
E [shrugging]: Naught ever changes for us cottars… [sighs and bends down again to her weeding]

Carolyn Hughes
Author of Fortune’s Wheel, the first of “The Meonbridge Chronicles”

Twitter: @writingcalliope
Website and blog:

I also post a blog on the 20th of every month at

Previous Post: Superstitions at Sea - Scratch a Stay and No Whistling!  

Superstitions at Sea

      From Pirates Truth and Tales by... well, by me!
Sailors were a superstitious lot. Were pirates as wary of causing bad luck as their merchant and Royal Navy counterparts? Maybe because they led a life where they were in control of their freedom the rituals and taboos were not so important. On the other side of the deck, perhaps superstition was  even more necessary in order to stay alive and catch that next Prize.

For sailors, certain days of the week were regarded as bad luck to do things, particularly in the Western. Christian, world. Friday was a bad-omen day to set sail from harbour. This came from Good Friday, the day when Christ was crucified. The first Monday in April was the day Cain killed Abel, the second Monday in August was when Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God and the last day of December was the day Judas committed suicide. All bad luck days.

Also from the Bible was the fear of a Jonah, someone aboard, either crew or passenger, who was the conduit for bad luck or bad things to happen. There is such a character in the Patrick O’Brian novels which were made into that excellent movie, Master and Commander.

Candlemas Day, celebrated forty days after Christmas Day, was also thought to be a bad day to set sail. In pre-Christian custom this day was associated with the approaching end of winter and coming of spring, a day to bring as much light as possible into the world to chase away the darkness. There was, additionally, a belief that the weather on this day would predict what the year was to bring:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain
Winter shall not come again.

Which, if you were a sailor makes good sense to take note of. Roaring waves and rolling clouds also indicated an omen not to set sail –  common sense more than superstition.

The belief that a woman aboard would bring bad luck stemmed from the Roman and Greek mythology of the female deities such as Sirens who lured sailors to their death. Given that it is possible several women served as crew disguised as men this superstition seems somewhat amusing. In some cultures mermaids and mermen were considered to be lucky as they granted wishes.

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Sea birds were lucky omens, the albatross being the prime one, but it was bad luck to kill an albatross. This large seabird can have a wingspan of up to twelve feet and range over the Southern Ocean and the Pacific, although some do stray into the North Atlantic. The are superb in the air, riding the thermal currents and covering huge distances with very little effort. They feed on fish and squid, and are colony nesting birds making use of remote islands to breed. Which may explain their importance to sailors: the birds could indicate a way to fresh water, a haul of fresh fish and even wind direction. It was also believed that birds carried the soul to heaven after death.

For some obscure reason, bringing bananas aboard was a taboo. Maybe because they often had tarantulas or poisonous spiders hiding within the huge bunches? Whistling on deck was a no-no because it can call up a wrong wind, but maybe the origin is associated with being confused with the whistles sounded in connection with giving orders. It could also be connected with the legend that mutineer Christian Fletcher used a whistle-call as the signal to rise up against Captain Bligh aboard HMS Bounty. One exception was the cook. If he was whistling then he wasn’t sampling too much food!

Renaming a boat supposedly was bad luck, although given that pirates did this all the time maybe it did not affect them? Or could this be why so many pirate ships had the same name? Still, there was a tradition to avert the bad luck: you de-name the vessel in a special ceremony, then officially re-name it. Sounds like a good excuse to have a party and sample the rum to me.

Not all superstition was regarded as ill-luck, there were some good omens as well, although many were assumed to ward of bad luck …

Cats. Ashore in many areas a black cat was associated with witches and regarded as unlucky, but for sailors a cat aboard was assured to bring good fortune. This one is a practical belief: cats catch rats and mice.

Caul. Babies born with the uterus membrane in place around their head were believed to be protected from drowning. It is a very rare occurrence. Sailors would often purchase a caul from midwives and mothers to keep as a good luck charm. Needless to say, I us this particular superstition in my Sea Witch series (Voyage Four: Ripples In The Sand)

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Losing a hat over the side indicated that the voyage could be a long one, and eggshells had to be crushed into small pieces before tossing them overboard in case they attracted witches.

me hanging on to my hat on a very windswept Exmoor!
Pierced ears – the gold hoop earring typical of a pirate – were worn to assist the soul to the afterlife by paying for its passage. If death was by drowning, and therefore no formal burial could take place with a coin placed in the mouth or over the eyes, the gold would be there to pay the ferryman the required fee. (So now you know why my Jesamiah Acorne wears a gold acorn earring!) 

Tattoos were often designed to bring good fortune and ward off bad luck, a red-haired man was to be avoided, and certain words were not to be uttered aboard: drowned, goodbye and good luck being three of them. To scratch a stay brought good luck, as did turning three times east to west, the way the sun travelled – woe betide anyone who got it wrong and turned widdershins, west to east though!

The Patron Saints of sailors, (they had two) were Saint Nicholas because he calmed a storm with prayer, and Saint Erasmus also called Saint Elmo. He is said to have continued preaching even though a thunderstorm raged and lightning struck the ground beside his feet. An electrical discharge which occasionally occurs at the masthead was believed to be a sign of his presence and was called Saint Elmo’s Fire. 

And a way to counteract the seven years of bad luck when a mirror is broken, is to toss the shards into running water - presumably the froth of a ship's wake would serve the right purpose?

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Do you know any odd superstitions? Do share them by leaving a comment below!