Snowball Effect and Zwingli’s Birthday

I write novels about the Bible, people and their faith. It’s somewhat ironic because while I am not a person who has no faith, I couldn’t name it. For me, faith is possibly the most secret, personal and precious fact any individual has. The first two novels are about young men in 13th century Switzerland, high middle ages, a century before the Black Death arrived with ferocity and wiped out at least 30% of the population of Europe.

In writing my first two novels, I had to learn about the Catholic church; not the church today, or the medieval church as we view it through the very smoky lens of 800 years of change and fiction and melodrama, but as close as I could to the way the people saw it roughly between 1190 and 1250. At the time in which my novels are set, there was really no Inquisition — perhaps the seeds of it. While indulgences were certainly out in the marketplace, it was not yet with the absolute absurdity with which they were sold in the 16th century. The Crusades were coming to an end — constant warfare for 100 years designed partly to get the wild-savage young-nobles out of the way so life could go on and society could prosper. Terry Jones did a great kind of documentary on the Crusades which I love because he actually manages to show US something of how THEY would have seen these events. And, it’s fun to watch.

Having been raised Baptist (by default?) with an undercurrent of passionate anti-Catholic feeling, it wasn’t very easy for me to approach that Catholicism. I thought, at first, my Protestant indoctrination was a disadvantage; later, as I became more educated — and went to two beautiful masses in a small church in Little Italy here in San Diego and mass in Latin at the Basilica St. Ambrogio in Milan — I came to really love it. By then I was far back in time in my mind, in a pre-Reformation world, and I had entered, somewhat, the mentality of people whose lives were defined by this faith, who lived at least part of their lives on the plane of metaphor, and who were not angry at the Church. A male friend of mine — devout Catholic — was hoping I would convert and offered to go to Catholic school with me if I chose to. I couldn’t. And from what would I be converting as my own beliefs are absolutely personal and private to me? It would mean conversion from a private relationship with the Deity to a public relationship with a lot of other people and, to me, a compromise.

Once Martin of Gfenn was out in the little world from which he came (little in terms of size, not importance) I got an email from a man in Switzerland who suggested I check into my ancestry. He thought maybe — since so many Swiss had emigrated to America during the 18th century because of their religious beliefs — maybe my ancestors had, too. The only reason I had to imagine this to be the case was my grandmother’s cooking, specifically her way of making macaroni and cheese and green beans, ham and potatoes, but I did check and was stunned to find they had come from the very part of Switzerland about which I’d been writing. They were the very people I’d been “imagining” in my second novel, Rudolf of Apple Tree Village, minor nobility (knights) and opportunists, serving the Habsburgs. By the 16th century, some were Anabaptists.  Over the next two hundred years, they left their town (Affoltern am Albis) in waves for Strasbourg and the Palatinate. In the early 18th century my direct ancestor came on a ship named Hope.

What did that mean? I did not even really know — I knew the general overall history anyone who travels in Zürich will learn, that Zwingli, the great (truly great) Swiss reformer brought about the first killing of a Protestant by a Protestant in the person of Felix Manz, an Anabaptist. To find out who and what my family was I had to learn more. I was stunned. These were people who believed in the separation of church and state; that a man (meaning human) was responsible to God and his own conscience first. I’ve now read many letters and sermons, Michael Sattler’s statements in the Schleitheim Confession. There is a long list of things they believed and, of course, somehow I’d been raised to believe most of them myself. Still, I couldn’t really “like” the Reformation; I love paintings too much and wish I could have seen the inside of the Grossmünster before the artwork was destroyed. And, great though he no doubt was, I couldn’t like Zwingli — or Calvin, either, for that matter.

With screen after screen of family trees in front of me (thank you Internet, the Mormon Church and various people to whom I’m distantly related who care about genealogy) I could see a whole list of characters. I knew where they would live and the historical events that would propel their choices and their actions. I could see a family of brothers torn apart by the Reformation. A baby who is unbaptized because the only one at home at the moment he is born is his older brother who follows Zwingli who, in the early days, stated his opposition to infant baptism (Zwingli changed his mind). This means that the baby cannot be buried with its mother in consecrated ground. A  monk who falls in love but cannot stomach the then-common lie of a secret marriage, so leaves his faith, marries his love, becomes the catalyst for reformation in his abbey and then sees his brother killed by leaders of the new church — all these are incidents tied to family members who had lived in the same place three hundred years before.

That’s what I’m working on now and it’s exciting to write and to learn about. January 1 is Zwingli’s birthday.

Inspiration? Idea? BrainTSUNAMI!

Daily Prompt: Brainwave: What’s the best idea you’ve ever had? Regale us with every detail of the idea — the idea itself, where it came to you, and the problem it solved.


We think by feeling. What is there to know? 
I hear my being dance from ear to ear. 
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. ("The Waking" Theodore Roethke)

The most compelling idea (and not a problem/solution idea)  I’ve ever had was Martin of Gfenn. It started in 1997 when I first saw the Lazarite Church in the village of Gfenn north of Zürich. It’s a plain little church. My inexperience with Europe and Catholicism gave me the proper personal ingredients to SEE that small sanctuary in the way I did. Much is said against ignorance, but I personally think it’s often a useful tool in discovery. If I had KNOWN anything, I would not have seen what I did.

The walls of the church are plastered stone. There are fragments of paintings only on one wall. In the chancel the ceiling paintings of the four apostles and one of Christ and his mother remained as well as paintings of St. Lazarus the Leper, St. John the Baptist and Christ around the arched east window. I was stricken intensely by the “image” of Christ. His body is the window. Above the window is painted a haloed head. “…I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (KJV John 8:12) I literally and absolutely fell in love with that sanctuary.  (The photo below shows the paintings as they were when I first saw them; they’ve since been restored.)


I took home the small booklet that was available so I could decode the German. I had friends who could have translated it, but their attitude was, “Learn the language. We learned yours. Here’s a Langenscheidt.” The difference between them and me was that they studied English as kids in school and I was 45… OH WELL. Plus, they were so jaded with this history stuff that they could not have cared less, but there is no High-Medieval America. We have our stone age and our early-modern, but we’re right out of medieval.

I learned that the church had been part of a leper hospital built in the 13th century. I was stunned. This bit of knowledge penetrated my subconscious mind and I began dreaming of Zürich long ago. How could I do that? I had no knowledge of it. I’d only been in the city twice. I dreamed of Zürich for several months and on a trip back that summer I saw paintings in the Landesmuseum that showed me how accurate the images of my dreams had been. I was shaken. What was going on?

By winter 1998 I had my story. My hero-protagonist was Martin a young monk who had been trained to paint fresco. He got leprosy when he was entering adulthood and was compelled to go to the Lazarite Church at Gfenn rather than fulfill his life as an artist. I wasn’t sure what to do with this plot line. I’d written lots of short stories (that no one published) and many more articles (that people liked to publish) but never a novel. I had no idea how to do write a novel, but the story had captured me and charged me with a kind of energy and obsession I had never experienced. It wanted to be real.

That December, I was in Genoa visiting a friend for a short time before I went back to Zürich to spend the holidays with my family-like-friends. We were eating a pizza and talking about ourselves, what we were doing and I told him the story. He looked at me intently and said, “It’s a good story. Write it.”

When I returned to the states, I wrote my friend’s words on a piece of paper and taped it above my computer. With those clear instructions in front of me, I did as I was told. I wrote the story. Of course, I thought writing the story would be the end of the idea, but “..way leads on to way,” in the realm of ideas, too.

This WAS My Best Day Ever!

Mureplan_farbig_MauerMarch something, 2005. I meet Rainer Hugener in front of St. Peter’s Church. He has a map of Zürich, not a new map, but a medieval map. We are going to “walk” through the Zürich I wrote in my novel, Martin’s Zürich (you can see it on this map: it’s the Zürich implicitly circled within the orange towers). Rainer is a Swiss Medievalist Historian, a grad student at the University of Zürich. I found him online and contacted him, hoping to find someone to corroborate my historical research on Martin of Gfenn. It was our first meeting. We walk across the bridge to the Salzmarkt and stop in front of a house about which I wrote in my novel. The coincidences are beyond explaining; had I lived there once? Did I remember something? Don’t know. Sternen for bratwurst mit bürli (und senf!) then a tram to the top of the Zürichberg, walk down the hill, past a ruined monastery, and down to Dubendorf. A bus to Gfenn. And there we are at setting sun in this beautiful place where the story happened. Walking back on the wanderweg to the train, back to Zürich to meet his girlfriend, eat fondue and cake, drink champagne. After copious amounts of champagne I ask, “Do you like being identified as Swiss Medievalist historians?”  Swiss society is a bit more stratified and labeled than ours. Rainer’s girlfriend laughs, “Of course, and what do you think you are?”