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BITTER GREENS: Vampires in Renaissance Venice

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

BITTER GREENS has won the ALA Award for Best Historical Novel 2015!

To celebrate, I'm running some vintage posts about the writing of the novel. Enjoy!


One of my absolute favourite things about writing a novel is all the extraordinary things you discover while doing your research that are begging, no, pleading, no, SCREAMING OUT to be used.

My novel BITTER GREENS is stuffed full of these forgotten, fascinating facts, but my absolute favourite is the burial rites of suspected vampires in Renaissance Venice.




Corpses suspected to be those of vampires had their jaws wrenched open, and a large brick or stone jammed into their mouths, before they were wrapped in a shroud and flung into a plague-pit.

The brick was to prevent them from chewing their way out of the grave.

BITTER GREENS is a retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale, interwoven with the dramatic life story of the woman who first told the tale, the 17th century French writer, Charlotte-Rose de la Force. So you may be forgiven for wondering what on earth that has to do with Venetian vampires. 

Well, Charlotte-Rose de la Force wrote her version of the old Maiden in the Tower tale while locked up in a falling-down old nunnery in rural France in the late 1690s. 

However, an earlier version of the tale was written by a Neapolitan soldier, Giambattista Basile, in the early part of the 1600s, while he was serving the Venetian Republic. 

I have always been fascinated by Venice, and so I at once saw how perfect it would be for a retelling of Rapunzel. All those secret, walled gardens, all those labyrinthine alleyways and canals, all those tall towers and secret passageways. I planned a parallel story, with one narrative thread being the story of Charlotte-Rose, writing in France in the 1690s, and the other set close on a hundred years earlier, in the gorgeous and dangerous world of Renaissance Venice.

I decided to have three Points of View – Charlotte-Rose herself, the Rapunzel character (who I called Margherita), and the witch. It was while writing the story of the witch - who I made a beautiful courtesan and Titian’s mysterious red-haired muse -  that I stumbled across the real-life 16th century woman who had been buried with a brick jammed in her jaws.




The body was discovered in early March, 2009, by archaeologists digging up a mass grave on the Lazzaretto Nuova, an island in the Venetian lagoon where plague victims were taken to die. 

When the skeleton with the brick-jammed jaws was first discovered, project leader Matteo Borrini, a forensic archaeologist at the University of Florence in Italy, said that this was a common practice among people who believed fervently in vampires.

He said that the belief in vampires in the Middle Ages may have begun because the process of decomposition was not well understood. For example, as the human stomach decays, it can release a dark, bloody fluid from a corpse's nose and mouth. As mass burials were often opened up again to add new plague victims, Italian gravediggers would see some shrouds were stained or torn about the mouth, and so surmise that those corpses were those of vampires.

Inserting bricks and stones into the mouths of suspected vampires was thought to stop them chewing their way out, feasting on other corpses, and stalking the night looking for fresh blood.

Suspected witches (often thought to drink blood too) were also buried with bricks in their jaws. Further studies on the skeleton found on the Lazzaretto Nuova show that she was a lower-class woman of around 61 to 71 years of age, which is surprisingly old for a woman of that time. 

Matteo Borrini says this may show that the old woman had been accused of being a witch. In medieval Europe, many people believed the devil gave witches the power to cheat death.

All this was, of course, a gift to a novelist writing partly from the point of view of a witch in 16th century Venice. 

To see how I used this particular gift, well, you’ll just have to read the book .... 

Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY IT HERE!

Comments
Janet @ writers' web commented on 21-Oct-2012 10:13 PM
Great pitch, I'm hooked, Kate! Love Venice, viewing fairy tales through an adult lens and the historical layering of fascination. Off to buy Bitter Greens next week. Cheers, Janet
Kate Forsyth commented on 22-Oct-2012 03:48 PM
Thank you so much, I really hope you enjoy it :)
Janet @ writers' web commented on 09-Dec-2012 10:05 PM
Kate, I've finally read Bitter Greens and loved it - from the "lightness" of the fairytale aspect to the underpinning facts and the feminist angle. Now in the process of writing a review of it for our local newspaper!
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