Living in the Fourteenth Century
After I returned home from my time in Bologna, I continued reading everything I could find about 14th century medical education and practice, child-rearing and early education, home life, gender roles, and the production of books. Alessandra and her family felt utterly real to me (even though all the members of her family are made up, including what to me is quite a logical guess that her father might have been a stationer, giving Alessandra wide access—so unusual for the time—to hundreds of books).
There are records referring to Mondino’s second wife, Mina, and all their children, as well as their country place in Barbiano. All the facts in my novel pertaining to Mondino and his family—apart from his personal interactions with Alessandra—are based on research.
Of course I don’t know for a fact that Alessandra, if she lived, boarded with Mondino—although that, too, seemed logical, given the way things worked back then. Alessandra’s jealous rival Bene is made up. But it was a practice for parishes to sometimes raise money to send one of their best and brightest to medical school.
I’ve tried to give as realistic a picture as I could of how books were made and distributed in the late Middle Ages. The University of Bologna—the very oldest university in Europe—was an amazing place in the 14th century, perhaps more like Berkeley in the ’60s than anything else. The students were in charge. They hired teachers and fired them. If a student challenged a professor and could prove himself right—well, then that student became the professor. It was a true meritocracy and also probably a pretty rough and tumble place.
The advent of the university—and the sudden need for books—was as much an information revolution as the rise of the Internet has been in our own time.