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Falcons, camlets, and food

The History Hunter's Report #2

Falcons, Camlets, and Food

Here’s the latest scoop on research for my next series, which features a female artist born on the island of Rhodes in the 15th century, when it was ruled by the Knights Hospitaller.

Some of the scholarly articles I’ve read contain true gems for my writing. My latest hot discoveries involve falcons, camlets, and food.

Falcons

Just the word ‘falcons’ makes my eyes light up. Falcons are the fastest of all raptors. They can reach speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour when pursuing prey. Their vision is so superior to ours that they basically roam the planet with built-in zoom lenses in their eyes.

In medieval times, falcons were status pets. Kings, queens, and lesser nobles who could afford it would stock their castles with collections of falcons that were trained by live-in falconers. At the falconer’s command, a bird would fly off to hunt and return with the spoils. Unfortunately, this desire for “status falcons” is still going strong today, especially in the Arab emirates.

In the 15th century, The Knights Hospitaller were ruled by a Grand Master, whose palace dominated Rhodes Town. Different noblemen assumed the post of Grand Master over the years. However, one thing that stayed consistent was their desire for falcons.

Getting the real dirt from letters

One of my favorite sources of falcon lore is a two-volume book of letters called The Greek Correspondence of Bartolomeo Minio, translated by Diana G. Wright and John R. Melville-Jones. Minio was dispatched in the late 1400s by the Venetian government to oversee Venice-controlled territory from a base in the Greek town of Nauplion. He later did the same job on the island of Crete (which was also under Venetian rule).

Minio’s letters are full of references to both the Turks (who frequently raided the area but also engaged in some diplomacy with him) and to the Knights Hospitaller, who sailed to Nauplion and Crete during Mediterranean voyages. A few of his letters describe representatives of the French king and others seeking dozens of saker falcons. This type of falcon, once common to Crete, is now extinct on the island. Thanks, poachers!

I also found tantalizing references to a French falconer who worked for the Knights Hospitaller in Rhodes and wrote a book about falconry. Despite my attempts to track it down, the book (written in medieval French) appears to only exist in a few libraries in France.

The fallout? My series includes falcons, a falconer, and—even more significantly—his daughter.

Camlets

What, you may ask, are camlets? Good question. I’m still trying to get to the bottom of this myself. It appears that camlets were fine fabrics, commonly woven of wool from a variety of sources, sometimes mixed with silk, and then dyed various colors. There was a thriving camlets industry on the island of Cyprus in the middle ages which persisted until about the time of my story.

In the early days, camlets were so rare and costly that only royalty could afford them. As the merchant class grew in wealth and power, camlets became a status item for more than just the noble-born.

While reading about this a few weeks ago, I came across a reference to a resident of Rhodes who received a bale of 60 camlets “as warranty for a loan of 103 ducats.” Camlets came in a dazzling array of colors, including white, azure, emerald-green, pistachio-green, and deep purple.

Camlets will definitely make an appearance in my new series.

Food

Food, glorious food! I can’t tell you how hard it’s been to get a sense of what people ate in Rhodes during the rule of the Knights Hospitaller. During some deep dives down obscure rabbit holes, I found reference to villas outside the walls of Rhodes Town with gardens containing lemon trees, orange trees, pomegranates, and capers. I found evidence of properties planted with vineyards, so there was local wine production as well as table grapes and raisins.

Fishing was a big deal on Rhodes back then as it is now, so it feels safe to say people ate fish. Goats and lamb and chicken were also available to those who could afford meat. Spice traders frequented Rhodes Harbor, so I’m confident my characters ate pepper, cloves, saffron, and other commonly traded spices. Salt, honey, and sugar were all readily available on Rhodes, and the wine just never stopped flowing. At the time of my story, wine was transported via ships in wooden casks (a new development, because up until then it was carried in ceramic vessels).

One of my main sources about food was an article simply titled “Food” by scholar David Jacoby describing the trade in foodstuffs and wine around the Mediterranean and into Constantinople before it fell to the Turks in the 1450s.

Some of my findings from “Food”: People ate a lot of cheese. They ate bread, both leavened and unleavened. They ate nuts and dried fruits. Olive oil was a major commodity. Just as today, there were varying grades of olive oil for sale. Constantinople also imported caviar from the Black Sea. In my research, I learned Rhodes saw its share of merchants and traders from the Black Sea, so imports of caviar were likely common there as well.

Why focus on obscure historical details?

Historical fiction comes to life when writers include vivid details of daily life, such as the food people ate and the clothing they wore, as well as references to trendy cultural phenomena like those glamorous falcons. The time that goes into retrieving bits of lore (some of which may get just a passing reference in the final story) is critical to the writing process—even though it means I can’t churn these books out as quickly as I’d like.

I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into medieval Mediterranean history. Stay tuned for my next History Hunter’s Report in a few weeks.

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

  1. Julie Cassin says:

    Yes, please! Your details are part of what makes your work so amazing! Thanks for this bit of insight into your process.

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