The impetus to write John the Pupil hit me when I was sitting in the British Library reading about the medieval Franciscan and magus Roger Bacon, who is often described as the first ‘modern’ scientist. I was researching writing something about bomb-making when a byway took me into a biography of Bacon, who had rediscovered gunpowder. The book contained the following footnote: ‘In 1267, Bacon sent his pupil John to Italy with two companions to deliver his book, the Opus Majus, to the Pope.’
I no longer have access to that book so I’m sure to be paraphrasing, but that was the substance, and approximate length, of the footnote. I think I made a very loud noise when I read it. Because it wasn’t a footnote, it was the outline of a novel that hadn’t been written yet, and which I would have to write.
And that’s what I did. I abandoned the thing I had been writing and immediately set to researching the background to John the Pupil.
I knew some twentieth-century history, a little about the English Civil War and next to nothing about the thirteenth century. I also disapprove of most historical fiction, the way the present gets decked out in fancy dress: put a contemporary type in a costume, throw a hat on her head and give her something vaguely formal and archaic to say and—voila! The past! People change, times are different: almost all ‘historical fiction’ is a lie or, at best, a metaphor. But I would write something that purports to be the translation of fragments of a found manuscript, the chronicle of John the Pupil’s journey, written by himself.
I spent the next nine months in libraries. Fortunately, the sources are finite; and I was largely restricted to those that are in or translated into English—although my Latin improved greatly over the course of the researches. I read poetry, songs, philosophy, scientific works, chronicles. I did not read anything more modern than Dante, because I wanted, as best as I could, to steep myself into the thoughts, principles and symbols of the age. And then I felt ready to begin to write—and stopped writing almost immediately because even though I had the tone of voice I needed, of boy John, seventeen years old, Roger Bacon’s favoured pupil (‘a virgin, not knowing mortal sin… full of sweetness, goodness and discretion… and an excellent keeper of secrets’), I needed to cover the physical journey.
So I began by walking from Canterbury to Dover. This is a journey that should be about twenty-one miles but, if you have as poor a sense of direction as me and if, like me, you have trouble with maps, then it stretches to about twenty-seven miles. That’s a journey which wouldn’t have been arduous to John, who could easily cover thirty-five miles in a day, on difficult terrain in unforgiving footwear, but was rather more difficult for me, much less hardy, and carrying a full backpack and wearing new boots that made my toes bleed. I finally made it to the port, and caught the ferry to Calais, and then a train to Paris, and then another train to Rheims; and then I walked, and took another train, and in this way, trains and walks, I made my way down through France.
I had been intending to do what my precursors had done, and, like John and his two young companions, take the passage across the Alps from France to Italy at the Mon Cenis pass, but this was April turning to May and the pass is closed except in the summer months. So, both relieved and disappointed, I caught a train to Turin and hired a car and drove back up to the Alps, where I walked. In Italy, I continued to follow the Via Francigena—the traditional pilgrim and merchant route from Canterbury to Rome—by car and in circular walks on foot. A few weeks after I had set out from Canterbury, I had arrived at my destination. (In 1267, civil war in Italy between the parties of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor had forced Pope Clement IV, the secret commissioner of Roger Bacon’s book of knowledge, to relocate from Rome.)
Finally I had reached Viterbo, its unspoiled medieval centre, and the Papal Palace, where John had delivered Bacon’s book to the Pope. I managed to find the Bishop’s Secretary, who, after a comic business of mime and appalling Italian (mine), and generous heart and good English (his), took me to the original rooms, the ones that John would have gone through on his arrival. The photographs I took on my phone are of corners of wall and ceiling, or else of my thumb over the lens, because I was too excited to take proper stock of my surroundings.
On my return to London I got back to work, and less than two years after I’d read that footnote in the British Library, I had finished John the Pupil. I don’t think the wounds on my feet had quite healed when the novel was completed. And, somehow, that’s connected to it being the book of mine that has come closest to the original conception I had for it.
To find out more about our books, events and competitions, click here to sign up to our newsletter.
If you enjoyed this, try: