It’s true that the medical techniques of the middle ages leave a lot to be desired—bleeding, amputation without anesthetics (opium was sometimes available, but often banned by the church), tooth-pulling and balancing the humors with all sorts of strange diets. But this makes for an exciting world of possibilities for the writer: the stakes are high, the research is fascinating, and it’s an area for fantasy where not much has been written.
Q: You don’t have a medical background—what lead you to write about a surgeon? And why a barber?
It started out with research I was doing for another book. I read up on medieval surgery for a scene where an injured character gets treated, but I was so intrigued by my reading that I just couldn’t stop. I had read half a dozen books on the topic before I realized I was already building a new world and a new character in my head.
I wanted to call the series “The Barber’s Battle,” but my editors at DAW worried that not enough people knew that barbers were medical practitioners and not just hairdressers. During this period, there was a distinct medical hierarchy among formal practitioners, from the university-educated physicians, to the surgeons who may or may not have had formal education, to the barber, the lowliest role, who performed most of the bleedings as well as amputations and minor surgery. This is apart from the folk practitioners who worked in the town and village environment and might begin as herbalists, “wise women” or midwives who filled other healing functions as well.
Q: How did the series become fantasy as well as history?
This question has two approaches. First of all, when I started writing it was historically inspired, but not pinned down to any particular time and place. It wasn’t until I started imagining my illiterate protagonist, Elisha, attending medical school that I resolved to make it historical. During the 1300’s, the medical school at Salerno, which had been the most famous, was somewhat in decline. It still provided a rich setting, near the site of Pompeii, part of the kingdom of Naples,which was ruled by a young woman who was accused of killing one of her husbands, and close to the place Vergil named as the entrance to Hell (probably because of the volcanic activity). None of this comes into play in the first book, but it helped me to narrow my timeframe to 1347.
Q: So where does the fantasy come in?
A second touchstone of my research had to do with crime and punishment. How criminals were treated, what crimes were considered significant, how witchcraft might be thought of. . .that lead me to the truly grim areas of my research: torture, injustice, the inquisition. One of the things that struck me as I read was the number of times that witches, Jews and gays are grouped together with heretics. Whenever something went wrong, people identified as members of these groups (rightly or wrongly) were rounded up and expelled, punished, sometimes tortured or even burned at the stake. It felt like the set up to some cruel joke: what do witches, Jews and queers have in common? When the stake goes up, they are the first to burn. That realization lead me to a variety of plot elements as well as characters in the book.
Q: Sounds both disturbing and exciting, from a writing standpoint. So what’s the blurb for the book?
England in the fourteenth century: a land of poverty and opulence, prayer and plague, witchcraft and necromancy. Where the medieval barber-surgeon Elisha seeks redemption as a medic on the front lines of an unjust war, and is drawn into the perilous world of sorcery by a beautiful young witch. In the crucible of combat, at the mercy of his capricious superiors, Elisha must attempt to unravel conspiracies both magical and mundane, as well as come to terms with his own disturbing new abilities. But the only things more dangerous than the questions he’s asking are the answers he may reveal…
Q: Where can readers learn more?
The book is available now at all major outlets (and probably some minor ones as well!).
For sample chapters, more historical research including a bibliography and some nifty extras, visit www.TheDarkApostle.com
E. C. Ambrose blogs about the intersections between fantasy and history at https://ecambrose.wordpress.com/
Barnes & Noble: https://bit.ly/13pEciI
E. C. Ambrose is the author of “The Dark Apostle” series of historical fantasy novels, beginning with Elisha Barber from DAW Books. Published works include “Spoiler Alert” and “The Romance of Ruins” in Clarkesworld Magazine and “Custom of the Sea,” winner of the Tenebris Press Flash Fiction Contest 2012. Additional stories are forthcoming in Fireside and through the Penguin Specials e-book program. The author is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing workshop, a participant in the Codex on-line neo-pro writers’ workshop, and a member of the Cambridge Science Fiction Writers Workshop.
In addition to writing, E. C. works as an adventure guide. Past occupations include founding a wholesale business, selecting stamps for a philatelic company, selling equestrian equipment, and portraying the Easter Bunny on weekends. The author spends too much time in a tiny office in New Hampshire with a mournful black lab lurking under the desk.