Introduction to Sara The Historian and Academic 

Hello everyone. I have something new and wonderful to share with you. But before I do, let me provide you with a bit of background.

Apart from re-releases of Sara’s existing books or new reviews, I often wondered what I might be able to share with you that Sara would also have been willing to do so and which would add a fresh dimension to the Sara Douglass we all knew and loved. Many of you will be aware that Sara was a person with so many different talents and aspects to her personality and self – from academic, popular historian, writer, blogger, devoted cat lover, gardener and sustainable living advocate as well as a keen collector of many things from old maps to books and more – some of which she allowed various people access to while others she kept very, very private. IMG_0310

The one part of her life that’s probably least explored online and yet was integral to the person and writer she was, is her role as an academic and excellent historian. Beloved as a writer, before that she was also a much loved and respected lecturer at La Trobe University, Bendigo. It was in this role that I first met Sara. New to the university, she was one of my lecturers (medieval history) during my Honours year in 1992. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s because of Sara I became an academic – she encouraged and inspired me into what has been my career for over twenty years. I was among the first students she taught there, but of course she went on to teach for many years, introducing  students to the wonder and horrors of the past, igniting a passion for history within them, and influencing men and women in numerous ways in the process. One such person is Dr Ian Irvine.

Ian was one of Sara’s students as well, one who went on to teach beside her and, after she left La Trobe to pursue writing full-time, in her stead. I’ve known Ian for many years and recall him as a wide-eyed student, much like I was, yet to embark on the hell-year that was Honours. Imagine my utter delight then when, out of the blue late last year, Ian contacted me with an amazing story and offer. Turns out, when cleaning his shed, he found the boxes containing all the notes Sara had bestowed upon him when she left the university – all the lectures and jottings from her years of teaching history at tertiary level. Ian asked if I would like them. Yes, he really did. To say I jumped at his offer is an understatement. Generously, and with such goodwill, Ian sent me electronic and hard copy of all Sara’s notes. They are now in my desktop and safely stowed in a cupboard in my study – but only after they were pored over.

What a treasure trove they are! But it seemed such a pity to keep them under metaphorical lock and key when they not only reveal so much about history, but give us an insight into Sara Warneke, the brilliant historian and teacher.

Then I had the idea to share them with you.

Talking to Gina (my website guru) and Ian, cemented this notion – they were both so enthusiastic about it. Gina began uploading them for me to edit (I have just moved around some of the material – no words are changed) and I asked Ian if he could write an introduction.

Picture of fourteenth-century nobles from Paul Lacroix, Manners, Customs and Dress During the Middle Ages (London, 1874).

Picture of fourteenth-century nobles from Paul Lacroix, Manners, Customs and Dress During the Middle Ages (London, 1874).

Being a writer himself – a lovely one – Ian has written a simply wonderful, lively and fascinating introduction that’s also quite long. I have broken it into three parts (to draw out the delight as well) The first three of her lectures are ready for you to peruse, enjoy and, hopefully, gain more insight into Sara the historian. The second and third parts of Ian’s introduction I will release over the following months along with further of Sara’s lectures.

Whether you are a history buff yourself, a fellow writer or teacher, or simply a fan of Sara and her works, I really believe these lectures give you an insight into the depth and breadth of not only her knowledge, but the ways in which she imparted it to others, making the discovery of history simultaneously entertaining and educational. Just like her books!

So, over the next few months, I will be releasing more of Sara’s lectures on medieval history, starting with her introduction to the medieval world. Before I do that, however, I will let Ian set the context.

I hope you enjoy exploring this world and aspect of Sara as much as I did both in the past and again in the present, and as much as you have through her fantasy novels and non-fiction.

Warmest wishes,


Background to Some of Sara’s Many Worlds by Dr Ian Irvine

Rusty Implements Buried in the Fields of Medieval History


It was a typical Bendigo winter’s day – cool but sunny – when our band of stressed BA Honours students trundled into class to attend a session on Medieval social history. We were about midway through the year (being 1993) and the relentless Honours reading schedule was starting to wear down many of us. For the Medieval unit alone we’d read, analysed and delivered or listened to seminars on works by Aquinas, Dante, Chaucer, More, Erasmus, and others. The full-time students had also been reading a dozen other literary, philosophical and historical texts for a subject on the Roman world. At the same time we were all struggling to find time to research and write the thesis component to the qualification – due in November.

‘Anyone like to guess what these were used for back in the Middle Ages?’ asked our guest lecturer, a recently employed Medieval historian. She proceeded to run through a dozen or so slides of rusty looking cutting, chopping and pulverising implements dug up from all over Western Europe.

‘Farming tools … used in the fields …’ said one brave student.

‘Good guess, but nope …’ said the lecturer, her name was Sara – Sara Warneke, as it as written up there on the board.

‘Torture instruments,’ said a wag, and everybody laughed – a little hysterically it must be said.

‘Nope …’STM3D00Z-1

‘Carpentry!’ said someone else.

‘Nope …’

‘Tools used by butchers …’ I ventured.

‘Close …’ said Sara, ‘… doctors and surgeons in those days were ranked only slightly above butchers … Not many people survived “hospital”’. She paused thoughtfully. ‘These tools were used by surgeons … This vice-like clamp gadget, for example, was used to extract babies from their dead or dying mothers – probably had rust on it back then too …’ she mused. ‘They had no concept of infection in those days.’

Gasps of horror from the ten or so students present – all of us traumatised, it must be said, by months of reified analysis of classic Medieval texts.

Next up were images of strange metal gadgets – sometimes with locks, sometimes chains. Many seemed oddly ornate. As with the medical implements they were all somewhat rusty. They turned out to be chastity belts imposed on ‘ladies’ whilst their ‘lords’ were away fighting in the crusades.

‘The lord would take the key with him,’ said Sara. With this detail the class erupted into ghoulish laughter for a good quarter of an hour. The dam of stress that had been filling relentlessly across the semester suddenly gave way and we had a kind of group catharsis. By the end of this outburst a number of students were in tears. Sara watched it all unfold for a while, then began to joke along with us. At one point each student began adding bizarre story developments to a ridiculous scenario about a ‘lady’ in a castle who wished to set her chastity belt aside whilst hubby was away crusading. For the first time all year we felt relaxed about our Honours studies.

Boxes of Lectures Buried in a Shed

I’ve been asked by Karen to write this introduction to an aspect of Sara’s life – that is, her academic work and how, from my perspective as a student and, later tutor, it impacted upon her fiction. The collection of lectures that will be uploaded over time were all written and delivered by her between 1992 and 1998. She gave them to me – along with other course materials – when she resignsaras-notes-2ed from her position at La Trobe University in May 1999. She had decided to pursue her writing career full time and had recommended to the Head of School that I take over her Medieval World unit for the 2nd semester. I was eventually employed to deliver the unit across three campuses. For me the resources were a life saver since I hadn’t previously tutored in that particular Medieval history unit. Sara’s gift was but one example of her amazing generosity of spirit. The material – print and digital – was handed to me in a couple of large boxes just before she left the university. At the time I thought the boxes only contained resources for the unit I was about to teach. I remember at the time asking her whether she had digital back-ups and print copies.

I must have looked concerned because she added, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll do great! … Besides, there’s other stuff in those boxes – notes for the first year Early European History and Early Modern units. Actually, most of what I’ve taught here is in those boxes – that’s why they’re a bit heavy!’

I thanked her and pretended confidence but in my head I was thinking, ‘The students are expecting a celebrity author – this will be a really tough gig!’

When I too left La Trobe for an ongoing teaching position elsewhere at the end of 1999 I put the boxes aside. Interestingly, I was never quite able to throw them out, despite never teaching Medieval history again. After a while I moved the boxes out to our shed where they were slowly buried under building materials, garden tools and webs populated by red-back spiders. In short, they were all but forgotten until through Gina, Karen contacted me about an interview I’d done with Sara for The Animist in 1999. With my memory jolted I did a bit of suburban archaeology and set about recovering the boxes.

A Note on the Lectures

The various lectures featured at this website should be viewed much as theatre goers might view the printed script of a play. They were primarily written to be ‘performed’ for students and fall into sets related to at least three subjects Sara taught at La Trobe University between 1992 and 1999. The subjects are as follows: a first year general Early European History unit (the Fall of Rome to the period preceding the Reformation); a general Early Modern History unit (Reformation to Revolution) and a 2nd and 3rd year Medieval World unit based around the book Montaillou (a first-hand investigation of the Cathar heresies but also a wonderful description of little known aspects of Medieval social life). I suspect there are also one off lectures/presentations for Honors level subjects that were primarily taught by others in this collection, as well as material concerning some of Sara’s favourite Medieval literary texts – she loved the Arthurian tradition, for example, and wrote a book on it in the late 1990s. The lectures are exactly as Sara left them prior to her departure in 1999.

To best imagine attending a series of her Medieval lectures readers should try to imagine the print/oral content of the lectures being augmented by: a) dozens of black and white images projected onto a white overhead screen; b) Sara’s numerous asides detailing humorous, gossipy or strange stories concerning historic personages or events – sometimes she would quote historic figures directly (sometimes in character); c) discussion of essays or chapters from set-texts related to the topic (which students had supposedly read prior to class); d) quotes from favourite Medieval literary or pop culture texts that illustrated historic issues; and e) sessions involving colour slides related to Medieval life, landscape, architecture or art. Occasionally, students were also treated to a relevant video – e.g. The Devils of Loudun. The last ten minutes of classes were usually reserved for student questions, since on the whole Sara preferred not to be interrupted whilst delivering the primary content of her classes.

On the whole, the lectures give us but a glimpse of the vast materials she researched and, eventually, taught between 1982 and 1999. The process of absorbing that immense body of material, then synthesising it with her marvellous imagination was complete by 1994. Thereafter, the Medieval World became the essential back-drop to her life as a fiction writer.

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