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Travelers who visited in Venice in the 15th, 16th and 17th century never failed to marvel at the number of courtesans in the city. Thomas Coryat writing in 1608 was astonished to note that there were as many as twenty thousand courtesans operating in Venice and said that “many are esteemed so loose that they are said to open their quivers to every arrow.”

Venetian Courtesans

        The courtesans often dressed in clothing that had revealing cleavage to point even where the breasts were completely exposed. Travelers on occasion mistakenly thought these were the ordinary female citizens of Venice. But just as much as they might condemn the numbers and their behavior, the travelers’ descriptions of Venetian daily life in which the courtesan featured prominently the city is praised as an example of civic and social harmony. Two myths lying side by side. 
        Venice in fact was a vibrant and complex city, filled with merchants profiting from expanded trade opportunities and proud of its republic standing. The government was organized around a multitude of magistracies and councils and ruled by a doge, elected by a closed patrician group, called the Great Council. ​         

wealthy Venetian woman

        The people were generally a sober lot and the women of their class and the nobility were seldom seen in public. When they did, they too were somberly dressed, in dark colors. Venice was also crowded with people who worked at the shipyards, at the fisheries, the glassworks and other manufacturers in this blossoming commercial centre. Housing was difficult to find, even among the wealthier classes, and few had the luxury (at least in the 15th and 16th century) of owning their own palazzo. Most had apartments or rooms in buildings, some of the poorer classes shared rooms.  These conditions among a booming commercial centre created intense rivalries among the young men of various trades. Such competition often gave rise to faction fighting- sometimes fought desperately over bridges like the Rialto. Enemies of any class could be despatched in a dark alley and tossed in the canal.

Venetian Courtesan

​Poised between these two sides of Venice were the courtesans. There were two classes of courtesans that existed in Venice. The first, cortigna onesta, honest courtesan or intellectual courtesan and the cortigna lume, the lower class prostitutes who lived near and frequented the Rialto Bridge.
          The women from the first class of courtesan, the honest courtesan, were often born into patrician or merchant family they were raised as educated and cultured women. But in a society that dictated exorbitant dowries that could often bankrupt a family, extra daughters were often given no opportunity to marry. They could go into a convent and become a nun, but that still required a dowry, though not as large. They could remain in the household an ageing spinster tending to family member, forever dependent and submissive perhaps to a new mistress of the household if it should pass to a brother and his wife. Or circumstances, like poverty from funding a dowry to an older sister, or failed commercial activities could encourage a young woman to consider the life of a courtesan. Often, in these situations, a courtesan could end up being the sole support of their family. 

Venetian Courtesan

​          Among the Venetian men generally, courtesans were seen as cultured women who provided entertainment for wealthy noblemen and merchants.  In Venice, a man wouldn’t be expected to marry until well into his thirties and courtesans could provide these young men pleasure and culture and hopefully disease free. An older man might take a courtesan as his mistress and enjoy a less inhibited sexual experience than he would from a wife who had most likely been raised in a convent-like atmosphere.
          Successful courtesans could enjoy a luxurious life filled with parties and salons. They often moved in influential circles and had access to artists, poets, politicians and the thinkers of the day. In such circles a courtesan had the opportunity to wield influence if she was skilled enough to do so. Aside from the potential for power and influence the honest courtesan still faced the possibility of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, something that observed no class barriers.

Veronica Franco

​One of the most celebrated and well known Venetian courtesans was Veronica Franco, born in 1546. Born to the courtesan, Paola Fracassa and the merchant, Francesco Franco she also had three brothers.  Her intellectual life began with sharing her brothers' education by private tutors in the family home and while still in her teens she married the physician Paolo Panizza. Probably an arranged marriage, it ended badly shortly afterwards and Veronica was forced to support herself.
          Franco became a cortigiana onesta (honest courtesan) in the mid to late 1560s and soon became famed for the intellectual and culture entertainments she provided. She continued her education by frequenting literary gatherings of writers and painters in Venice during the 1570s and 1580s and mingled with politicians, poets, artists and thinkers. She captured the interest of Domenico Venier (1517-1582), a Venetian poet and the head of the most renowned vernacular literary academy in Venice, who became her reader and protector. A frequent visitor to his private literary salon at Ca' Venier (the Venier palace), Franco composed sonnets and capitoli in terza rima for exchange with male poets.
          By her mid-twenties, Franco was requesting sonnets for publication from male poets for anthologies that she assembled to commemorate men of the Venetian elite. One such volume, the Rime di diversi eccellentissimi autori nella morte dell'Illustre Sign. Estor Marteninengo Conte di Malapaga, in honor of the Count Martinengo, was published in 1575; she was not only the editor but also included nine sonnets she herself had written.

​          In 1575, during the epidemic of plague that ravaged the city, Veronica Franco was forced to leave Venice and lost much of her wealth when her house and possessions were looted. On her return in 1577, she defended herself with dignity before the Inquisition on charges of witchcraft (a common complaint lodged against courtesans in those days). The charges were dropped. She died in 1591. 
          I weave courtesans into the novels, The Sea of Travail and The Quest of Hope, part of the Renaissance Sojourner Series. 











Prester John

The kingdom was filled with gold, magical gems that could restore sight, and the Fountain of Youth. It also was home to a variety of miraculous beasts including huge ants which dug up gold, fish that exuded imperial dye and salamanders which lived in the heart of fires. And its king, Prester John (‘prester’ meaning ‘priest) was so powerful he could alter the course of the Nile. But where was this kingdom with its powerful king? It was a question that haunted Europeans for centuries.


      The legend of Prester John and his kingdom obsessed many people over the centuries, most particularly from the 12th century onwards after reports of his existence came from a German chronicler, Otto of Freising who recounted in his Chronicon of 1145 that the previous year he had met Hugh, Bishop of Jabala in Syria at the court of Pope Eugene III in Viterbo. Prince Raymond of Antioch had sent Hugh to seek aid against the Saracens and request a second crusade. Hugh reportedly told Otto of Freising about a Nestorian Christian, Prester John, who was both priest and king and had regained Ecbatana in a battle and had set out for Jerusalem until floods on the Tigris halted him. He also claimed that Prester John was both wealthy and descended from the three Magi. In 1165, a letter purportedly written by Prester John to the Byzantine Emperor began circulating throughout Europe filled with the marvels and richness of his kingdom and it captured the imagination of Europeans. It also prompted Pope Alexander III to write a letter that he entrusted his physician, Master Philip of Venice in 1177 and Master Phillip wrote back to the Pope describing his journey. What became of him once he reached Ethiopia is not known. 

Prince Henry the Navigator

     There was intense speculation about the exact location of Prester John’s kingdom. Originally it was thought to be in India and other parts of Asia, but European ideas about those regions were very vague. Eventually, speculation moved to Ethiopia, a once powerful Christian region, now obscure since the expansion of the Muslim faith. Explorers, including Marco Polo, and missionaries from Portugal and other countries followed that theory until the 17th century. Prince Henry of Portugal, known as Prince Henry the Navigator, was among those interested in locating Prester John’s kingdom. He was intent on exploring Africa with the purpose of converting the people to Christianity. He set up a navigation school in Sagres and funded many voyages to Africa by explorers eager to exploit his desire to convert souls. Their interest was more focused on acquiring riches, either through the slave trade or other resources discovered there.

Kereit ruler Wang Khan as Prester John

     But who exactly was Prester John? How did he rise to power and where did he spring from? Those questions were posed alongside of the questions of the kingdom's location. Many ideas were put forward.
    One idea was that the battle referred to by Hugh may have been that fought at Qatwan, Persia, in 1141, when the Mongul khan, the founder of the Karakitai empire in Central Asia, defeated the Seljuq sultan Sanjar. The title of the Karakitai rulers was Gur-khan, or Kor-khan, which may have been changed phonetically in Hebrew to Yoḥanan or in Syriac to Yuḥanan, thus producing the Latin Johannes, or John. Though the Gur-khans were Mongol Buddhists, many of their leading subjects were Nestorians, and, according to a report by the Franciscan missionary Willem van Rysbroeck in 1255, the daughter of the last Gur-khan and wife of King Küchlüg of the Naiman, a Central Asian people, was a Christian. Küchlüg, whose father’s name was Ta-yang Khan (Great King John in Chinese), was defeated by the great Mongol ruler Genghis Khan in 1218.  ​ 


​     When I wrote The Quest of Hope, the third book in the Renaissance Sojourner Series, I chose to use one avenue that was pursued in the book, The Prester Quest, by Nicholas Jubber, published in 2006, which was part travelogue and historical narrative that explored the notion that Gebre Mesquel Lalibela was the true identity of Prester John. Lalibela was Emperor of Ethiopia during the Zagwe Dynasty, reigning from 1181-1221. The complex monolithic churches located in what was then Roha and now called Lalibela, are attributed to his reign, though some buildings could have earlier origins. The churches are rough-hewn out of rock and have become a UNESCO heritage site.
     You can read more about the Renaissance Sojourner Series on the book pages of my website here.

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I have always been enthusiastic about Medieval History, but have to confess I know little about events in Medieval Spain other than the Moors and, of course Ferdinand & Isabella. Recently I had the opportunity to read Jessica Knauss' new novel, ​The Seven Noble Knights and found it to be an incredibly vibrant time in Spain's history.  Below, Jessica talks about the novel and the events that it inspired it. 

Don Mudarra's tomb

How the Seven Noble Knights Survived One Millennium … and Counting
A guest post by J. K. Knauss
The events that inspired Seven Noble Knights may have taken place in Spain in the late tenth century. The medieval sources of the tale draw on local geography and include several documented historical people. These include Count García and Almanzor, but also some people who don’t rank as high in government. In chancery documents, we find “Gundisalvus,” a Lord of Lara, and his wife, and “Flammula,” a fascinating name in any context.
Some scholars believe that the story isn’t based on true events, but on previous epic poetry brought from northern Europe with Christina of Norway and her courtiers in the thirteenth century, or via crusaders, who often spent long periods on the Iberian Peninsula before continuing East. 

Church at Salas

Whether the story is factual or not, the first people likely to pick up on the seven noble knights of Lara were the minstrels, who traveled singing the news in towns where people could pay for their services. The story would have circulated among such entertainers for years, gaining flourishes and a set meter and rhyme as memory aids, with each new singer. At this stage, the names cited in the chancery documents probably found their current forms: Gonzalo and Lambra.
The poem is considered lost because no direct written evidence of it remains. But the story continued its journey through scholarly efforts. The earliest recorded version appears as historical fact in the Estoria de Espanna, created during the reign of Alfonso X of Castile (1252–1284). This elegant version was expanded and romanticized in the Crónica de 1344. Early twentieth-century scholars were thrilled to find that both of these texts contained segments with epic meter and rhyme patterns. The medieval historians had relied heavily on an epic poem! It has since been partially reconstructed.
The seven noble knights must have been real crowd pleasers, because more evidence of their story turns up in the short poems known as romances in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, half a millennium after the events would have occurred. While the epic poem probably stayed under the control of the specialized minstrel community, romances are the poems of the people. These are the stories people would tell each other around the fireside—medieval folktales. Here, the story takes on a rich emotional impact, with monologues full of description and motive, love and rage.

Salas town crest

In the hands of the wider population, the story also lent its legendary quality to old structures, weaving into people’s daily lives. Mudarra’s tomb in Burgos Cathedral, for example, was in fact the resting place of a twelfth-century noblewoman. A spot on the Burgos city wall has become known as the height from which Doña Lambra hurled herself, committing suicide. (She doesn’t do that in the Seven Noble Knights novel.) A church in Salas de los Infantes guards a casket with what are said to be the remains of the seven noble knights. The Salas town crest tells the Lara side of the story visually. Additionally, some fascinating spots in Córdoba would be spoilers if described here.
Across the world in the Philippines, a popular movie and comic book continued the story’s legacy in the twentieth century. The seven noble knights are also presented in a yearly pageant in their hometown of Salas.
Any way you tell it, Seven Noble Knights has stood the test of time. It’s a story worth enjoying again and again.
Spain, 974. Gonzalo, a brave but hotheaded knight, unwittingly provokes tragedy at his uncle’s wedding to beautiful young noblewoman Lambra: the adored cousin of the bride dead, his teeth scattered across the riverbank. Coveting his family’s wealth and power, Lambra sends Gonzalo’s father into enemy territory to be beheaded, unleashing a revenge that devastates Castile for a generation.
A new hero, Mudarra, rises out of the ashes of Gonzalo’s once great family. Raised as a warrior in the opulence of Muslim Córdoba, Mudarra must make a grueling journey and change his religion, then chooses to take his jeweled sword to the throats of his family’s betrayers. But only when he strays from the path set for him does he find his true purpose in life.
Inspired by a lost medieval epic poem, Seven Noble Knights draws from history and legend to bring a brutal yet beautiful world to life in a gripping story of family, betrayal, and love.


Born and raised in Northern California, J. K. Knauss has finally found her home in Spain. She worked as a librarian and a Spanish teacher and earned a PhD in medieval Spanish literature at Brown University before entering the publishing world as an editor. Feel free to sign up for her mailing list for castles, stories, and magic.
Her epic of medieval Spain, Seven Noble Knights, will be re-published by Encircle Publications on December 11, 2020. Find out more at

Throw your name into the Goodreads hat to win one of three first edition softcovers of Seven Noble Knights. Giveaway ends December 14!




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Posting on the blog today is a fellow historical fiction writer, Tony Riches who brings history to life in his novels and non fiction works.  

Tony is a full time author of best-selling fiction and non-fiction books. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales with his wife and enjoys sailing and kayaking in his spare time.

Tony first came to my attention when I noticed that one of his novels was about the Duchess of Gloucester in, The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham, which overlaps my own novel, The Imp of Eye, that also has the Duchess as a main character. 

Tony has a new series out about the Tudors. Not the ones we all know, though, and below he talks about how he became interested in them.  


Although I was born within sight of Pembroke Castle, I only began to study its history when I returned to the area five years ago. I was amazed to find there were no books about Owen Tudor, the father of Sir Jasper Tudor, the Earl of Pembroke, who once owned and lived in the Castle. I found several accounts of the life of Henry Tudor, Jasper’s nephew, (who later became King Henry VII and began the Tudor Dynasty) but there were no novels that brought his story to life.

I was reading Conn Iggulden’s impressive Wars of the Roses trilogy when the idea for the Tudor Trilogy (unsurprisingly) occurred to me. I realised Henry Tudor could be born in book one, ‘come of age’ in book two, and rule England in book three, so there would be plenty of scope to explore his life and times.


 I started with a year of research, as I do my best to ensure my novels are historically correct, and feel the role of the historical fiction novelist is to ‘fill in the gaps’ with a plausible narrative and explore how people might have reacted to often quite dramatic events. I am always disappointed when authors distort or manipulate the known history, and firmly believe history has more amazing stories than anything I would ever dream up.

The first book of the trilogy was my fourth novel, so I had a good idea about the structure, and it had a ‘natural’ and dramatic end point (not wishing to give anything away for non-Tudor aficionados). In book one, OWEN, a Welsh servant of Queen Catherine of Valois, the lonely widow of King Henry V falls in love with her and they marry in secret.  Their eldest son Edmund Tudor marries the heiress Lady Margaret Beaufort, and fathers a child with her to secure her inheritance. Unfortunately, Lady Margaret is barely thirteen years old and the birth of her son, Henry, nearly kills her. When her husband dies mysteriously without even seeing his son, his younger brother Jasper Tudor swears to protect them.


This all takes place during the Wars of the Roses and in book two, JASPER, (published 25th March), Jasper and young Henry flee to exile in Brittany and plan to one day return and make Henry King of England.  In the meantime, King Richard III has taken the throne and has a powerful army of thousands – while Jasper and Henry have nothing. Even the clothes they wear are paid for by the Duke of Brittany. So how can they possibly invade England and defeat King Richard at the Battle of Bosworth?

I am currently researching the final book of the trilogy, HENRY, and plan to explore how he brought peace to England by marrying the beautiful daughter of his enemy, King Edward IV. I also want to understand how their son, who became King Henry VIII, became such a tyrant and transformed the history of England forever.

For more information about Tony’s other books please visit his popular blog, The Writing Desk and his WordPress website and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches


In 1541 Eleanor, the Duchess of Gloucester, was accused of witchcraft. Margery Jourdemayne, ‘the Witch of Eye next Westminster’, Thomas Southwell (Chaplain of Westminster Palace and a canon), and the scholars Roger Bolingbroke and John Home (Hume) were all accused of witchcraft too.  It seems impossible that a noblewoman and other powerful and learned people would be accused and tried for something like witchcraft at that time period. And that some of them would meet a terrible end, as a result. But there was more to it than meets the eye (excuse the pun).

The Imp of Eye, uses these events as the centrepiece for its plot.

Duke Humphrey of Gloucester

15th century England was a time of great turmoil and power shifts. When Henry V died he left an infant son, Henry VI, who was under the care of his uncles. The Duke of Bedford and the Duke of Gloucester who were appointed the regents. As Henry matured, various powerful nobles maneuvered for position and control, including his uncle, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester. When Humphrey’s older brother died it left Humphrey as the next in line to the throne and closest to the young king. For a while, he was able to influence the young king and encourage him to continue the war with France that had dragged on for almost a century. But other factions, especially the one headed by Cardinal Beaufort, a distant relation, vied for power.  A key plan was to discredit Humphrey and get him out of the way.

Eleanor and Duke Humphrey

    His second wife, the lovely but volatile Eleanor Cobham, former lady in waiting to the Duke’s first wife, played into their hands. They used her desperate, frequent consultations with the known herbalist and witch, Margery Jourdemayne (the Witch of Eye), to try and bring about her downfall. 


Moonyeen Blakey read about this trial and the witch, Margery Jourdemayne, in the course of her research for a previous book she’d started writing. She discussed the storyline with me several times and I followed its development. She sat down to write it and had a draft of it completed when she fell ill with a second bought of cancer. This time, unfortunately, she was unable to beat it and she died in March 2014.  Before she died, she asked me to take on the novel and do with it what I thought best.  I read it through and overhauled it, creating some new characters, changing some other characters, and eliminating characters entirely. All the time I worked on it I felt her looking over my shoulder discussing and debating as the story took shape.  Though there are missing faces, changed faces and new faces in the current story, one character above all remained as he was: Barnabas. I made him older, but his spirit is unchanged, as is the voice that she created for him.

This book is now the first in a series, The Renaissance Sojourner Series, that features Barnabas.

The book is published in ebook and print and can be purchased below or the print copies ordered in bookstores.  

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Catherine Hokin and the The English Historical Fiction group on Facebook tagged me to write about a character in my forthcoming novel.  How could I resist the chance to write about Barnabas, who features in The Imp of Eye? 

London 1540:

BARNABAS  is a streetwise thirteen year-old orphan who dreams of sailing off to foreign countries. His mistress, the Witch of Eye, Margery Jourdemayne, and his guardian, Thomas Southwell, the Canon of Westminster, want to use his clairvoyant talents to further their ambitions. When the vain and ambitious Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester and her maid Alys visit the Witch of Eye for help to conceive a child, Barnabas is pulled into a web of intrigue and danger.  

While Barnabas is a fictional character, Margery Jourdemayne, Thomas Southwell and the Duchess of Gloucester are actual historic people who were caught up in the political intrigues of the times.

The ebook is now available for pre-order from Amazon.  The hardback will be published with the ebook on June 15.

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