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.
- On The Anniversary of Huldrych Zwingli’s Birth (zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com)