ScienceThrillers welcomes E.C. Ambrose, author of a series of thriller-oriented dark fantasy novels about medieval surgery, centered on a barber-surgeon in 14th century London who learns he has an unnatural affinity with death. Ambrose told me, “Part of the fun in writing these books is doing the research and working in authentic details about the surgical practice of the time.” Well, that sounds worthy of a guest blog post, don’t you think?
The Dangerous World of Medieval Surgery
Guest post by E. C. Ambrose
“The Dark Apostle” series, which continues this summer with Elisha Rex, began with research. I needed to know more about medieval wound treatment for another fantasy novel I was writing. Having caught the research bug from an assignment for the Odyssey Writing Workshop, I found a few resources, starting with a paperback popular history work entitled, Devils, Drugs, and Doctors: The Story of the Science of Healing from Medicine Men to Doctor (Classic Reprint) by Howard W. Haggard, M. D. I have the Pocket Book edition of 1940, the 15th printing of a work that first came out in 1929.
It is old and tattered, but what it lacks in footnotes, it makes up for in the human details of the history of medical knowledge and technology. Haggard takes as his guide the changing approaches to childbirth, an area fraught with dangers for both mother and child, and with the kind of high-stakes that make for good reading—and great fodder for fiction. That book led me to many others, in particular, to as many primary sources as I could find: Guy deChauliac’s Chirurgia Magna, Ambroise Paré’s Apologie and Treatise, and various works by Galen, Trotula, and other early medical practitioners. I discovered wonderful blogs like the Chirurgeon’s Apprentice and Brandy Schillace’s medical humanism at dailydose.com.
I started to build an image of the medical understanding of the Middle Ages, from the writings of the practitioners of that time, as well as from the works they would have been familiar with or inspired by. The highly stratified society of that time was reflected in the separate roles of its medical practitioners: the lofty university-educated physicians, the skilled surgeons who were regarded more as craftsmen, and the lowly barber-surgeons.
In addition to cutting hair, barbers pulled teeth and stitched wounds. Under the direction of the physicians, they bled patients to balance their humors, and handled many other minor medical and surgical complaints. In spite of their own apprenticeship system and guild (the College of Barbers), they were looked down on by the others, yet they were at the forefront of illness and trauma, doing their best to aid their patients. Thus, Elisha Barber was born, a compassionate man, peasant-born, in service to the whores and workmen of 14th century London—until he is sent to the front as a battlefield surgeon, to thrive, or to die.
In addition to the medical knowledge of the time, I also had to be sure how these techniques affected the patient, and to give my protagonist a clear understanding of anatomy and surgical practice. A writer-friend of mine who is also a physician became my medical advisor, providing valuable insight and sending specialized sources (like a cutaway view of the leg which helped to orient the amputation scenes). As my character confronts his own problems and the prejudice of the times, he builds relationships and advances in his society, but the works continue to engage with surgical skills—culminating in that most dreaded of operations, the trepanation. But I don’t want to say too much. . .
Researching the fascinating and high-stakes world of medieval surgery brought this character to life, yet it still may be the death of him.
For sample chapters, historical research and some nifty extras, like a scroll-over image describing the medical tools on the cover of Elisha Barber, visit www.TheDarkApostle.com
C. Ambrose blogs about the intersections between fantasy and history at http://ecambrose.wordpress.com/
Buy volume one, Elisha Barber on amazon;