20 December 2016

The Importance of Religion in Historical Fiction

My Tuesday Talk Guest  Nicole Evelina

After the Historical Novel Society Conference in Oxford, England, Helen was kind enough to ask me to be a guest on her blog, so I thought it would only be fair to talk about something related to the conference.

My favorite panel was Beyond the Temporal, in which four authors (Essie Fox, Karen Maitland, Antoinette May, and Mary Sharratt) shared their experiences of incorporating religion and spirituality into their historical fiction, as well as highlights from their period research. I liked this lecture because I’ve always been fascinated by religion and it played such an important part in nearly every aspect of people’s lives until recent history.

For those unable to attend, here are a few of my favorite tidbits:

Middle Ages
  • The demons and fantastic animals portrayed in the architecture of medieval churches and buildings were very real to the average person.
  • At one point the Church declare it heresy to not believe in vampires and werewolves.
  • Witchcraft and sorcery were not illegal, though you could be charged with heresy if you practiced without Church permission.
  • As late as the 15th century, pagan Celtic and Norse beliefs/practices were still mixed in with Catholic ones.
  • It was believed that corpses could climb out of their graves, so criminals were buried at a crossroads, their bodies spun around and placed face down so they couldn’t find their way back to their village.
  • Because the Reformation did away with superstition and created a “pure” religion based on the Gospels, many people felt unprotected and turned to folk magic.
  • This also led to a conflation of Catholicism with pagan practices, and some Catholics were unfairly accused of witchcraft.
  • Witch finders were very real. Some believed family members could be the Devil in disguise. Others believed there were vast groups of witches trying to undermine male authority and government.
Victorian Period
  • This time period was torn between new inventions of science and old beliefs of their ancestors.
  • There was a firm belief in ghosts.
  • The cult of mourning and death came partially out of the fact that there was a high mortality rate and death was all around.
  • Mail order companies existed to fill all your mourning needs from clothing to memorial jewelry.
  • Seemingly miraculous (and invisible) advances like x-rays, electricity and the telegraph enhanced the idea that one could see or communicate with the spirit world.

In my own books, you’ll find ample reference to the religion(s) of the time and place. The pagan/Druidic religion of the Celts plays a strong part in my Guinevere’s tale stories (Daughter of Destiny and Camelot’s Queen – a BRAG Medallion winner – are currently available. Mistress of Legend should be out in 2017) which are set in late 5th and early 6th century Britain. One of the things I wanted to explore in this series was the tension between the old religion of Britain (which I’ve chosen to define as the Druid faith) and the ascending power of Christianity. We really don’t know for certain when Christianity came to Britain or when it became dominant. Some scholars say it was already the main religion of the people by the time my book opens in 491 AD, especially given that Constantine legalized it in the early 300s. However, as the Celtic Church’s later squabbles with Rome show, change took a long time to travel from Rome to Britain, and when it did, it was often slow to be adopted. Therefore, it’s my personal belief that the period of my novel was still a time of transition when the old ways were dying out and slowly being replaced by Christianity.

Establishing Guinevere as an Avalonian priestess and showing the old beliefs during her time on Avalon gives the reader a baseline to contrast with the predominance of Christianity that she experiences once she leaves Avalon, and later on into later books. I spend quite a bit of time in Daughter of Destiny on Guinevere’s time in Avalon because I wanted to show an approximation of what Druidic training may have been like. Due to the nature of a novel and the rest of the story I had to tell in the first book, I had to speed up the historical 20-year process to four years, but I have my students study subjects that Druids likely did. In addition, in keeping with Celtic belief, my magic is more subtle than in a lot of fantasy. I show rituals based on neo-paganism because we don’t have sources from that time period to draw from.

Moving ahead 1,300 years in time…You wouldn’t think that a book about the first female presidential candidate of the United States would have a religious aspect, but Madame Presidentess does. Victoria Woodhull, whom the book is about, was a Spiritualist and a practicing medium who believed she had clairvoyant and healing powers. Victoria’s mother encouraged her and her sister Tennie in this belief and her father used these gifts to make money even off of them when the girls were very young. Victoria maintained her whole life that she was guided by the spirits, especially that of the Greek orator Demosthenes, whom she identified as her spirit guide. She claims he predicted her success in New York as well as her candidacy. Victoria said she consulted the spirits regularly, supposedly even for stock tips (though there’s a secular explanation for that as well). She was even president of the National Spiritualist’s Association.

Regardless of the time or place, religion was interwoven with daily life of people for most of the last 3,000 years or so. From the ancient Egyptians to the strict Christian/Catholic upbringing of many people into the 1950s/1960s, religion directed gender roles, life choices and social morals, so I feel it is an important way to give historical fiction novels authenticity, as well as explore cultural aspects that impact the characters.

Twitter @nicoleevelina

Daughter of Destiny
Reviews; Grand Prize, Chatelaine Awards, Women's Fiction/Romance; Gold Medal Winner, Fantasy, Next Generation Indie Book Awards; Gold Medal Winner, Fantasy, Readers Choice Awards; Winner Colorado Independent Publisher's Association (CIPA) EVVY Awards, Fairytale/Folklore
Barnes & Noble

Camelot's Queen
Madame Presidentess
a historical novel about Victoria Woodhull, America's first female Presidential candidate (Chaucer Award Winner, First Place US History Category, Historical Fiction) 



  1. A lovely informative post. Funnily enough, I'm just writing a piece and taking issue with someone who complains about the constant mention of and reference to God in a novel about the Tudors. I'm pointing out that to them, He was an abiding presence and that yes, they really did pray. Often.

    1. Hi Anne! Thanks for reading. Yeah, I find it odd when people don't realize how important religion used to be to most people (and still is to many). Good for you for setting them straight!

  2. Too many today wish to write historical fiction with 21st century attitudes and sensibilities. And that's not going to work.

    1. I totally agree. As a writer, I can say that it's a hard situation to be in because you are trying to balance making the story relatible/appealing to a modern reader with being historically accurate. It's my hope that most historical fiction writers take that challenge seriously.

  3. Thank you Annie and Mystic Scholar for dropping by - and thank you Nicole for such an interesting article!


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