If you are like me, you may be rolling your eyes at the fact that so much historical fiction focuses on Western Europe, especially England and France. There is not a month that another Tudor novel does not come out, and Marie Antoinette has been done to death (forgive the pun). I love my seven wives of Henry VIII as much as anybody, but . .
Eastern European history is just as fascinating. It had just as robust a culture – in the areas of arts, religion, politics, and social trends – as the West. That was the case in the medieval period, the Renaissance, and early modern history as well. Eastern European monarchs – including those from the Jagiellonian dynasty that ruled Poland and Lithuania for 200 years – frequently intermarried with other prominent aristocratic families of Europe, including the Habsburgs and the Valois.
As one example, King Zygmunt (Sigismund) the Old of Poland married Italian noblewoman Bona Sforza, heiress to the Duchies of Milan, Bari, and Rossano in 1518. She brought with her to Cracow (which was then the capital of Poland) a large entourage of courtiers, ladies-in-waiting, poets and artists, and thus introduced new trends in fashion, cuisine, and manners to the Polish court.
In particular, she and her women were criticized for behaving in ways that Polish women did not – they talked and laughed at the banqueting tables, rather than being quiet and demure. It was a significant clash of cultures between a (relative) freedom women enjoyed in Italy at that time and the more conservative (if not misogynistic) attitudes towards women in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. At first, it was considered scandalous, but over time those attitudes began to change to a degree.
My new mystery novel Silent Water (now available on pre-order) uses that clash of cultures as its historical background. It is set at the court of Zygmunt the Old and Bona in Cracow in the year 1519 and 1520.
My hope is that it will open the field to more historical novels set in Eastern Europe. We are living in a time when there is a justifiable push for stories and voices that are non-Western, hence the proliferation of historical fiction set in China, Japan, India, Africa, and other places. But we should not let the vast and culturally significant area between Western Europe and Russia fall by the wayside in the process.