Interview with Marjorie Watkins

Hello, Marjorie. Welcome and thank you for taking the time to stop by Damsels in Regress to talk with us.

1. How did the idea for Rotaida and the Runestone come about?

In reading biographies of Charlemagne, an ancestor of my mother’s, I discovered a mystery child. None of the Frank king’s biographers told any more about her than her name. Even Einhard, Charlemagne’s friend and advisor, famous for his fabulous memory, who wrote the first biography of the Frank king a few years after his death, claimed he couldn’t remember her mother’s name. He named Charlemagne’s four wives and their eight legitimate children, plus four concubines and their five children, and one illegitimate son, Pepin, whose mother’s name he omitted though other sources give it, and ended his list with “the last (child) was a daughter, Rotaida, daughter of a concubine whose name I cannot remember.”

History records bits of the lives of Charlemagne’s other children, but nobody tells more of Rotaida than that she lived and had that name. Plenty is written about Pepin, that he led the charge that broke the Avars, that he plotted to kill Charlemagne and was banished to the poorest monastery in the kingdom, that his name was taken away and given to his young half-brother, but not a word more of Rotaida than her name.

“Why not?” I thought. There’s a mystery here. What horrible scandal about her and her mother, worse than the one about Pepin, would have tarnished Charlemagne’s heroic reputation? What could have still been politically dangerous to his descendants, at the time Einhard who knew the royal family so well, wrote his book?

This girl deserves a story, I thought, so I wrote one: Rotaida and the Runestone.

2. What kind of research did you do?

I studied stacks of books about the early Middle Ages, got information on Medieval crafts from the Internet and from experts of all sorts. My most helpful books in writing the three-book series—I’m writing the third book now—are Two Lives of Charlemagne by Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, with information-filled introduction by translator Lewis Thorpe, Lost Country Arts by Dorothy Hartley, Food by Waverly Root, Frank Beebe’s books on falconry, Women at Work in Medieval Europe by Madeleine Pelner Cosman, and The Barbarians Conversion from Paganism to Christianity by Richard Fletcher.

When I lived in northern France and traveled in Western Germany and other western European countries, I learned a smattering of German and became fairly fluent in modern French and what the lands were like. But to really know the terrain and vegetation of Aachen and the surrounding territory, while working on Rotaida I traveled back again to northern France, took a bus from Holland to Aachen, spent time exploring the town, the area, and the city hall built upon Charlemagne’s palace foundation. I brought home topographical maps, photos, and illustrated brochures. I’ve experienced the weather there at all seasons.

Books on the wild flowers and trees of northern Europe helped me describe them accurately. Human experts helped me, too. A woman with a collection of ancient spindles demonstrated how to spin, and a woman who cards, spins, and weaves instructed me in carding and spinning wool. I’ve reinvented 8th Century mesclin bread (2 parts whole wheat flour to 1 part rye flour, a tiny bit of yeast, and long rising) as near as I can come to the bread Truda and Rotaida made in Rotaida and the Runestone. It’s delicious, well textured, sturdy bread.

3. Your story includes bits from the different languages spoken at the time. Did you have to do any special study on this?

I sure did, but while I love tracing modern words back to their ancestral roots I could find no dictionaries of English-to-Old Saxon or Old Frankish. Luckily I got my hands on an old book, Grammar of the Gothic Language. It has Old Saxon words tucked into it, and a glossary of Saxon to English. I dug out enough Old Saxon words to make myself a little dictionary. For Old French, a local research librarian found me a French etymological dictionary. Tracing back modern French words to the Old Frankish roots unearthed the words I needed. For instance, modern French ‘cuve’ (tub) lead back to ‘cuvele’ for the big two-handled vegetable tub in Charlemagne’s kitchen.

4. Charlemagne starting a school fascinated me. I would’ve thought teaching girls and boys together would have been unacceptable at the time, much less royalty and commoners. Do you have any more information on how this came about?

Charlemagne wanted his six beautiful, intelligent daughters to have the same fine arts education he’d had and made sure his sons got. His first daughter, Rotrude, was betrothed at the age of nine to the Greek son of Queen Irene of Istanbul. He had her tutored in Greek, by a Greek, and learned to read Greek himself. He brought brilliant teachers like Alcuin from Britain and Einhard from Hesse to teach all his children, and then opened his Palace School to the children of the counts, then those of the merchants of Aachen. He wanted to give every child with the talent and desire to learn (the opportunity) without having to become a monk or nun, and even made a royal command that every priest be able read the Bible.

5. What were your favorite books growing up? Do you have a favorite historical novel?

I loved all of Louisa May Alcott’s books, and Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Favorite novel now? How can I choose just one? I’ve enjoyed all of Karen Cushman’s historical novels, especially The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. Another favorite is Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson. Most recently I read and recommend Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross. Another well-researched, good read is Jezebel by Lesley Hazleton. Right now, I’m reading the story of Katherine of Aragon, titled Constant Princess, by the English novelist, Philippa Gregory. A common theme of all these books is that of a girl forced into a challenging situation not of her own choosing who by her own will, wit, and perseverance overcomes all obstacles – or not. In Rotaida and the Runestone a young girl sold as a slave in Charlemagne’s palace seeks to solve the mystery of her own true identity, a stubborn search that nearly costs her life, the life of the king, and of Christianity in all Europe. There’s a happy ending.

Thanks for chatting with us!

My pleasure. You can find out more about Rotaida and the Runestone, and its sequel, Royal Spy and order them, through my website, www.marjwatkins.com, also accessed as www.rotaida.com.

Stayed tuned for next week’s review of Royal Spy, illustrator interview, and contest to win a copy of either Rotaida and the Runestone or Royal Spy.

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2 Responses to Interview with Marjorie Watkins

  1. Audry says:

    Just the fact that Rotaida was a real person makes this story sound really interesting to me, even though I know the story itself is fictional 😀

  2. Lainie says:

    This is very interesting, as I’m currently chasing another unnamed Carolingian- Charles’ second wife, the Lombard princess. Not only is she unnamed, but the sources can’t seem to agree on when they married (probably 770-771 but no better than that), why she was put aside, _when_ she was put aside, whether she went straight to Corbie or if she went there when her father and the rest of her family was sent there, and when she died. I found one offhand remark that she was sent to Corbie and died there shortly after, in childbirth. But I haven’t been able to verify it, because, well, no one can agree…

    There’s entirely too many possibilities there for for some very interesting fiction!

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