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Dragons and sex drew Robyn Cadwallader to the Middle Ages

The more she read about St Margaret she realised her power was connected to her purity.

“The female..

The more she read about St Margaret she realised her power was connected to her purity.

“The female body was considered to be such a sinful, inferior thing because of a woman's weakness and lustfulness. The only way a woman could be pure and powerful was to deny her body, deny her womanhood.”

Book of Colours, published by Fourth Estate.

Photo: Supplied

During her thesis research she read that copies of the story were given to a group of “anchoresses” in the 13th century and she wondered what they were.

When she discovered they were young women who effectively locked themselves away in a tiny stole cell for life she was at once horrified and fascinated and she knew she had to tell a story.

And now she has penned another one, also mired deep in the Middle Ages. Its not a sequel but at the end of The Anchoress, a young girl finds a burnt manuscript after a fire. Her new book, Book of Colours, is the story of that manuscript.

Its London, 1321, and a group of illuminators, or limners, the painters who decorated manuscripts, with intricate doodles, if you like, in the margins of important texts, have come together for a special commission.

The story switches back and forth between two timelines, the actual illustration of the book, and the reactions of the owner, Mathilda, as she looks back with hindsight over the period of its creation.

“I wanted to the bring together both the creator and reader,” Cadwallader says.

“I think pictures tell stories we dont first see.

“In the Middle Ages that was very much the case, religious paintings were about telling stories.”

She had access to actual 14th-century manuscripts during a research stint at the British Library and couldnt believe how intricate the illustrations were.

“Thered be all sorts of creatures and beautiful flowers and vines but a lot of funny stuff as well, hybrid creatures, pictures of people doing all sorts of stuff you wouldnt expect, a lot of sexual drawings.

“They weren't just there to look at, there were symbols and ideas in them that you had to find.”

In that sense, there are more stories hidden away in Book of Colours as well.

Cadwallader, who lives in the village of Murrumbateman outside Canberra, wasnt ready to let go of her discussion of a womans place in the Middle Ages and beyond.

“I'm really interested in the fact that women did so much real work during the Middle Ages, not just helping out, but real work, and they weren't given positions or recognised for what they did.”

A character in the book, Gemma, covers for her husband, one of the master illuminators, but goes unrecognised by those outside the small room in which they work.

Mathilda, a woman of high-standing, is left without little agency once her husband dies.

“The problems women faced back then are not dissimilar to a lot of today's problems,” she says.

“We struggle with women not getting equal pay and not being on boards and I was just reading the other day about Julia Gillard starting up the new centre in London and the figures there and I'm thinking yep, we haven't resolved a whole lot of things since the Middle Ages.”

Book of Colours, by Robyn Cadwallader. Fourth Estate, $32.99.

Robyn Cadwallader will be in conversation with Catherine Milne for an ANU/The Canberra Times event at the Australian National University on Thursday April 26, 2018. Register now at

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Karen Hardy

Karen Hardy is a reporter at The Canberra Times.

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