Review: Tithe Barns by Joseph Rogers

Tithe Barns by Joseph Rogers is a little gem of a book.  Crammed with lovely photographs and illustrations, it takes the reader on a firesi...

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Guest Post: Marian L Thorpe

I've had the great pleasure of reading all of Marian's books and so enjoy being immersed in her imaginary world which, in lots of ways, feels familiar.
I'm delighted that Marian has written for the blog today, explaining how she has built this world and focusing on one important aspect: The Ti’acha. Over to Marian:

My books – the Empire’s Legacy trilogy, the novella Oraiaphon, and my new release, Empire’s Reckoning, are ‘historic fiction of another world’. The setting bears a fair resemblance to northern Europe in the ‘dark ages’: between the decline of Rome and the Norman Conquest, roughly, but also many, many differences. There is no magic, though: they are simply stories of war and politics, love and loyalty, no different than historic fiction, except that it’s not our world. 
But one of the most frequent comments in reviews is how real my world, and I’m often asked to explain how I do that. I’m not sure I can: I simply write, with fifty years of reading about medieval Britain behind me. However, I’m going to try to analyze one important aspect of my world, and how I created that aspect: the Ti’acha, the schools that exist in the country north of the Wall, Linrathe.

In this scene, the narrator of my first trilogy, Lena, has been chosen to stand as hostage to a truce between her country and Linrathe. The Teannasach of Linrathe, Donnalch, is thinking about what to do with her for the months she’ll be his responsibility.

“Will you read? And write?” Donnalch asked.
"Of course I can,” I said, too startled to be more polite. 
"No, lassie, that's not what I asked,” he said, spreading his hands. “I asked if you will. Do you like to do such, I should perhaps have said.” 
"Yes,” I said slowly, with a quick glance at Casyn. “I have learned to like both; I have been reading the stories of our Empire, and I keep a journal, a private record of the happenings of my life.” 
“Then,” he said, with a confirming look to his advisors, “I know what to do with you. You were a bit of a puzzle, lassie, but now I have it: I will send you to a Ti’ach; a house of learning, as we do with one of our own sons or daughters who are drawn to the written word. Will that suit you?”

Ti’acha are boarding schools. Both boys and girls are sent to them for education: depending on which Ti’ach, the focus may be history and politics, or mathematics and science, or the healing arts, but music and  languages are always part of the learning, regardless of where. Children of the nobility mix with children of the peasantry: a keen mind, not status, gains you entrance.

Where did the idea come from? Like almost everything in my fictional world, the concept has some basis in history: the monastic and cathedral schools of Ireland, Scotland, and England. 

In Ireland, the monastic movement began in the mid-500s, possibly at the monastery of Clonard, and spread out across Ireland and into what is now Scotland. Most monasteries had a school attached, and not just for the young men who had a religious vocation, but for youth who would take their place in government or the military. Boys of the land-holding class, for the most part. Latin and Greek were part of their education, as was a study of not just religious texts, but classical authors such as Virgil and Socrates, as well as mathematics, astronomy, and music. The equivalents in my world are what are taught at the Ti’ach – actually, all I did was change the names of the Greek and Roman writers. I’ve used some classical writers – notably Marcus Aurelius, who becomes Catilius in my books – verbatim. 

When Lena arrives at the Ti’ach, she learns a man named Perras is the Comiádh, or head of school. This is another borrowed concept. In his 1906 book A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland, (which may be a rather romanticized view) Patrick Joyce tells us of the Fer-leginn, the ‘man of learning’ who was responsible for the educational direction of the school, in concert with the abbot, who was responsible for the religious aspects of the monastery. Christianity doesn’t exist in my invented world, so there is no abbot. However, there is the ‘Lady’ of the Ti’ach, Dagney, who is also the scáeli (bard) attached to the house. Her authority is equal to that of Perras, but whereas he teaches history and politics, and the language that corresponds to Latin, she teaches music and literature.

Dagney’s teaching and her specialities are based on the traditional bardic schools, which may have existed in pre-Christian Ireland, taught (perhaps) by Druids and likely by bards. They concentrated on the passing on of oral history and literature, continuing in some form into the 19th century. In my Ti’acha, I simply combined the two. Is it accurate? No. Does it feel familiar? Yes, and that’s what I was aiming for.

Not all education occurs at the Ti’acha, however. Younger children of landholders, or those not suited to the rigors of advanced study, are frequently taught by a travelling teacher. Taught themselves at the Ti’acha, these journeying teachers may stay for a season or a number of years. Here I drew on a long tradition throughout Europe of itinerant teachers, priests and otherwise, attached both to noble households and wealthier towns. 

But – including women in the Ti’acha? Well, women in the real early-medieval world weren’t all as badly educated as popular culture would have us believe, but neither were they included in mixed schools. Daughters of the nobility could be tutored in mathematics and sciences, languages and history; nuns in certain houses were taught Latin and Greek. I deviated quite a bit from real history, but I had my reasons: the exploration and challenging of gender roles is one of the themes of the series. 

The role of the Ti’acha in politics and diplomacy will become a central theme in the planned next trilogy, Empire’s Reprise, borrowing from one of the roles played by the English scholar Alcuin at the court of Charlemagne, in the mid-700s, and that of Columba of Iona two hundred years earlier, when he undertook diplomatic negotiations between the Kingdom of Dalriada and the Kingdom of Ireland. Diplomacy needs educated, agile minds, so I have little doubt those who acted as envoys and negotiators were taught well, either at the monastic schools or by teachers who themselves had learned there.

I also had a solid vision of what the school looked like, based not at all on the monastic schools and entirely on the farmhouse and related outbuildings near the Roman fort of Vindolanda. Completely the wrong era, but it gave me a structure to work with, and a geography of the school and its surrounding area.

The Ti'ach

This is the history behind one aspect of my world. I realize it doesn’t truly explain how I created the Ti’acha and their roles, but that’s a matter of taking these facts, mixing them together with the themes of my books, baking them in the creativity of my subconscious, and hoping what emerges is palatable. I cook like that, too.

Many thanks to Marian. If you want to read her books - and I heartily recommend them - you can find her website here:

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