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    Sometimes art and music provide a much more immediate and powerful connection with the past than history books, or the biographies that I write. This month I would like to dedicate my blog to another wonderful ‘History Girl’: the truly original and talented Anglo-Polish singer-songwriter Katy Carr. 

    Singer-songwriter Katy Carr

    I first met Katy when she came to the National Army Museum to hear me lecture about Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the Polish-born countess who was the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent during the Second World War, and the subject of my biography 'The Spy Who Loved'. Sporting a retro-chic 1940s look, topped by felt hat and red lipstick, Katy stood out among the audience, like an elegant ghost straying in from the post-war London streets. (The only other time I have been so struck by an individual member of an audience, was when WinStan Churchill, aka Stan Streather, professional Churchill doppelgänger, once turned up in a polka-dot bow-tie to hear me talk at the Imperial War Museum’s Churchill War Rooms.)
    You can watch my National Army Museum lecture here: Clare Mulley talking about Krystyna Skarbek at the National Army Museum

    Over lunch in the pub afterwards with our mutual friend, Paweł Komorowski, who is a distant cousin of Krystyna Skarbek, I began to learn what made Katy tick. Raised in Nottingham, Katy’s East Midlands accent belies her knowledge and passion for Poland, her mother’s country. This is a woman with a mission to communicate not just the culture and history of Poland, but the individual, and very personal stories, that compose and reflect the nation’s character.

    Katy has released four indie-folk music albums, the last of which, the hauntingly brilliant Paszport, was produced in Poland and Britain in 2012. Described as ‘an epic, poetic journey through her past and that of her mother’s nation’, Paszport is dedicated to the Polish experience in the Second World War. Its sixteen songs explore the themes of love and loss, patriotism and resistance, hope and struggle through the prism of Poland’s modern history.

    Paszport album cover

    Paszport is full of wonderful tracks. The bitter-sweet ‘Mała Little Flower’ was inspired by Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish Catholic girl who not only saved the lives of twelve Jews by hiding them in the basement of an SS officer’s house, but who went on to join the Polish resistance with the codename ‘Mała’, which means ‘Little’ in Polish. This song is dedicated to the memory of Irena’s fiancé, Janek Ridel, who was killed in action the day before their wedding in May 1944.
    Watch the video here: Katy Carr, 'Mala Little Flower'

    The song of Katy’s that I find most moving, however, is ‘Kommander’s Car’, which tells the story of Kazik Piechowski. Kazik was imprisoned by the Nazis for being a Polish Boy Scout at the start of the war and sent on the second transport to Auschwitz in June 1940. It would be two years to the day that Kazik and three fellow political prisoners would realize a plan to steal SS uniforms and drive out of the camp in the car belonging to its infamous commandant, Rudolf Höss. The song, beautifully illustrated here by South African born artist and illustrator Galen Wainwright, manages to convey the emotional truths as well as the factual story of Kazik and his friends’ bid for freedom.
    Watch the video here: Katy Carr, 'Kommander's Car'

    Two stills from the music video for 'Commander's Car'

    Katy had no idea that Kazik was still alive when she recorded the song, and she was thrilled when he got in touch, inviting her to meet him in his home city of Gdansk. Kazik had not only survived the war, but also seven years imprisonment by the Soviets afterwards, for his involvement with the Partisans and Polish Home Army following his escape from Auschwitz. ‘It is very difficult to make a film about Auschwitz’, Kazik, now in his 90s, told Katy. ‘But this music video, through the use of the symbols and artwork and music, is bringing something new to the world.’ 

    Katy and Kazik’s meeting was documented by British film-maker Hannah Lovell in a short film: Kazik and the Kommander's Car short documentary

    Kazik and Katy at a memorial in his local Gdansk park

    ‘Kazik is my inspiration’, Katy told me earnestly, ‘meeting him changed my life’. This is not just some flip patter. Kazik not only inspired Katy to learn more about her Polish roots, he showed her the importance of memory and reaching out to share stories. Kazik has written two books and many articles about his experiences, inspired by the words of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, ‘You did not survive simply to live, you have little time left, you must give the world the truth’. Katy now also tours schools and local community groups to bring Kazik’s story to new audiences, and to foster stronger relations with local Polish communities across Britain. It is work that has earned her the prestigious Polish Daily Award for Culture as part of their ‘People of the Year’ awards in 2013.

    Last year, when my biography of Krystyna Skarbek was published in Poland, Katy and I flew over to Warsaw together, where Katy is something of a star! Paweł came with us too, to generously help promote the book and to toast Krystyna in her homeland. The launch was held at the wonderful Warsaw Uprising Museum, where Katy has performed in the past with her band, The Aviators. However, for me the night before was just as special. Paweł’s wonderful aunt Joanna had invited us over for dinner to meet family and friends including his mother, Babcia. After some fine barszcz czerwony (Polish borscht) and far too much good Polish liquor, Katy got out her ukulele and treated us all to some traditional songs like ‘Hej Sokoły’ - in which you can hear my faintly ludicrous ‘Hej’s’ towards the end! A camera, balanced on a wineglass, recorded the lot: Katy and Babcia Sing 'Hej Sokoly'

    Katy singing with Babcia

    There is a lot of talk about immigration at the moment, and this month Polish Foreign Minister, Radek Sikorski, who also came to the Warsaw launch of the Polish edition of my book, blogged that ‘if Britain gets our taxpayers, shouldn't it also pay their benefits?’ I certainly believe that Britain is all the richer, in every sense, for remembering, celebrating and building on our historic connection with Poland during the Second World War. With singer-songwriters such as Katy Carr, I hope that another generation will hear these stories.

    I am absolutely delighted to announce that Katy is now working on a song about Krystyna Skarbek for her new album, Polonia. Being released this September, Polonia will mark the 75th anniversary of the start of the Second World War, and the beginning of Poland’s long loss of independence which Krystyna and the Polish Free Forces fought so hard to regain.

    Me, with Katy holding The Spy Who Loved

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  • 01/28/14--16:30: Article 0

  • London, 1794.  Revolution creeps across the channel, coffee houses seethe with gossip and the City is full of upstarts, émigrés and speculators.  But even in unruly times, daughters need husbands.  For five City men, the question is how to get them.

    The daughters.  Motherless Alathea, whose charms are grown disturbing, uses the whole of London exactly as she pleases.  Harriet, Georgiana, Marianne and Everina are cosseted at home, but home is not always a safe place.  As Claude Belladroit, piano-master, remarks, what’s the point of locking the shutters when danger comes through the front door?

    In the shadow of Tyburn gibbet, Vittorio Cantabile, exile and instrument-maker, also has a daughter.  Born with a deformity her father cannot forgive, Annie is far from cosseted.  In her father’s workshop, resentments are fashioned as well as pianofortes, and dreams are smashed without mercy.

    Fathers and daughters; mothers and daughters; husbands and wives; girls and boys; the pursued and the pursuing.  Whether in gilded drawing room or dusty workshop, when a city is infected with sedition, everything is reflected through a distorting prism of jealousy, revenge and sexual devilry.

    Katharine Grant
    Author of Sedition
    Author Photo: Debbie Toksvig
    in conversation with Theresa Breslin

    Theresa:   I love the title. It has enormous impact - the way it sounds and the freight the word carries.
    Katharine:   Titles are so important, aren’t they!  When I began work on this book, I called it the ‘Piano Book’, or the ‘Goldberg Book’, because it features both a piano and Bach’s variations.   But I remembered a previous conversation with an editor who listened patiently whilst I outlined a plot, then said, ‘but what’s the book actually about?’  Asking the same question of this book, the answer was clear.  Sedition.  Short and snappy, it stuck.

    Theresa:   The novel is set in a very particular year.
    Katharine:   Yes, a very particular year.   In Paris, the Terror came to gruesome climax; in London there were treason trials.  1794 was a year of political sedition in Europe and I liked the idea that domestic sedition was its mirror.   But I was also very taken with the discovery from Amanda Foreman’s excellent book that Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, in Paris midst all the 1789 summer turmoil, was overwhelmed in her hotel not by rioting crowds but by tradesmen, including stay makers, and that she went to the opera.  As history unfolds, ordinary life goes on.   In Sedition, though the City coffeehouses seethe with émigrés, spies and speculators, domestic concerns still prevail.   I find that to be true.  Even on 9/11, though we were all shattered, those not directly involved bought groceries, made tea, helped children with homework, cleaned the loo.

    Theresa:  Also, it’s close to the end of a century, which logically should make no difference, yet…
    Katharine:   It was a time of transition:  classical music moving towards romantic – Mozart died in 1791, Schubert was born in 1797;  the pianoforte was taking over from the harpsichord; Wordsworth and Coleridge published the first edition of The Lyrical Ballads in 1798;  in 1800, Alessandro Volta invents the battery;  the industrial revolution was gathering pace.   There’s a nervous energy about the turn of the eighteenth century which made it very attractive as a setting.

    Theresa:     The story is political as well as personal, seamlessly interwoven.
    Katharine:   The ‘city’ men, fathers of five of the girls, congregate in a coffee-house that shipmasters, traders and activists frequent. The coffee-houses were conduits for gossip, political pamphlets circulated, and news, both British and foreign, was exchanged. They witness, read about and discuss current events, though always, always with an eye for trade.

    Theresa:   One of the characters picks up a leaflet entitled ‘Pantisocracy and Aspheterism’. My computer spell check didn’t recognise these terms and couldn’t even make a suggestion as to what they might be!
    Katharine:   A stroke of serendipity! When writing the book I happened to be reading a biography of Coleridge and came across this. It fitted perfectly.
    (Comment from Theresa : This chimes with HG Celia Rees last post on Jan 18th)
    Theresa:   Tell me about the music. It’s integral to the story.
    Katharine:   Music was a big and natural part of my life. I was brought up in very musical household. We all played musical instruments and our nanny, who never liked to waste time, taught me and my siblings to sing in parts in the bath.  My parents hosted marvellous musicians and we were allowed to mingle and listen to performances.  The musicians were so open and kind.  Sometimes they allowed us to play their instruments.  So music’s something I grew up with and is still a source of great joy in my life. I learned the Variations – or as many as I could master in the time – with my characters, and continue to learn them.  Practising is also a form of therapy.  I’m a big-time stresser!  Music, being all-encompassing, leaves no room for angsting about the boiler, the roof, the all important key that’s strangely missing.

    Theresa:   I found the detail fascinating. The underarm pomanders as a deodorant.  The arches at Newgate becoming narrower as the condemned person approached the site of their execution.     
    Katharine:   All true! I drew on the resources of Glasgow University library, e.g. dress pattern books and fashion. I discovered that shoes had garden scenes painted on their heels (Sigh from Theresa. ‘I have a pair with similar on their soles!)  I studied (lots of) paintings. I researched by ‘walking’ London and absorbing how it is today. I think it can be a mistake to block out the present. We can use the present to see what it was like in the past. In some ways the scene locations are not so different now: noisy, air polluted, raucous etc. 

    Theresa:   There are laugh-out-loud funny bits which appealed to my sense of humour.  And twists of wit…The storyteller stating that the selection of the bass A string from the harpsichord was the most suitable to make a hangman’s noose for a scorned lover! 
    Katharine:   Ah, indeed. That carried a punch.

    Theresa:   In contrast with above - there is some very dark matter within the book.
    Katharine:   Yes, very difficult themes.  But I was given some advice very early on by Michael Schmidt, the poet.  ‘Be brave’, he said.  To me, this didn’t mean courting dark themes for the sake of sensation; it meant going where the story had to go.  Alathea Sawneyford’s character, for example, has been formed by her experiences.  It makes her complicated, but also allows you, as a writer, to explore places you wouldn’t otherwise explore.

    Theresa:   In The Literary Review, Jonathan Barnes talks of plait[ing] together comedy and tragedy with sly skill. Hard to plait?
    Katharine:   Yes – he was referring to the concert scene.  It was hard, but actually, by the time I got to the concert scene I was so inside that book that the plaiting wasn’t conscious … When I found the voice for the book I realised that nothing could be purely description. It all had to add to the individual. I took out anything that was descriptive unless it revealed or reinforced character, so the plaiting – and pressing the delete button – had become second nature.
    Theresa:   Would you like to talk a bit about voice and perspective in the historical novel? 
    Katharine:   That’s what takes the time, as you’ll know only too well!  Voice and perspective are key to all novels.  It took me quite a time to find Sedition's voice.  Not too arch, not too knowing, not too intrusive.  As for perspective, that took months – years – of paring away until I reached the book’s core.  It became an obsession, especially after I read Virginia Woolf’s insight that the success (in writerly terms) of all novels lies “not so much in their freedom from faults - indeed we tolerate the grossest errors in them all - but in the immense persuasiveness of a mind which has completely mastered its perspective".  That really gripped me.  As I wrote Sedition, I knew what was necessary and just hoped to goodness I’d found it!

    Theresa:   I think you certainly did!

    Sedition by Katharine Grant [website] is published by Virago (UK) and Henry Holt (USA)                                                                                  

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    When I spotted the first one, I didn't realise its significance.  Tineola Bisselliella is small, dull, and shuns light, so it isn't particularly visible, which is more than can be said for the destruction its grubs wreak on garments and furnishings.  Since I keep my clothes on an open rail in the room where I sleep, I wasn't happy about blasting them with poisons. I opted for conservative treatment: constantly turning the clothes on the rail and holding them in front of the window since the grubs drop away if exposed to daylight.

    As I shook out each garment, I recalled Chaucer's Wife of Bath bragging that her lovely scarlet clothing suffered no moth damage because she was forever out and about in it.  When I first met with Dame Alice I was a teenager studying for A-levels and read her statement as a sly joke, equating adultery with good housewifery.  Now I know that wearing clothes outdoors, instead of folding them away in a chest, would indeed have kept down the moths, as would cold weather.  Our centrally heated houses with warm dark wardrobes are Moth Paradise: one reason I knew nothing about clothes moths back in 1972 was that we lacked the central heating and double glazing that extend their breeding season.  I find myself wondering how well mediaeval people understood why frequently worn clothes got fewer moth holes in them.  Did they notice the grubs falling away?  They were undoubtedly interested in finding solutions for such problems: the medical encyclopaedia Hortatus Sanitatis includes illustrations showing bed bugs and a woman combing lice out of a young man's (or boy's?) hair. 

    Some terrifyingly large bed bugs and lice

    In fact grooming routines go back beyond the middle ages, ancient history or even prehistory.  They are our inheritance from our primate ancestors.  Clean, Virginia Smith's wonderful 'history of personal hygiene and purity', shows how the animal behaviour knows as COBS (care of body surfaces) is the origin not only of such human grooming as parasite removal but also of much more sophisticated procedures such as cleaning wounds and massaging painful limbs.   

    Monkey doctor and cat patient

    Back to my moths.  It wasn't until I was reading in bed and a moth swooped out from the bedclothes that my skin began to crawl ― all right, it's a cliché, but an appropriate one.  In the modern world, we conceive of 'personal space' as a certain volume of air containing our own (clean, insect-free) body and garments.  Yet for centuries most of our ancestors had virtually no personal space in our sense.  Even royalty, who had more living room than most, had to share it with such democratic intruders as the clothes moth, the flea, the louse and the bed bug.   These were so much a part of everyday life that John Donne's  'The Flea' takes it for granted that his mistress will laugh rather than be insulted at the suggestion that both poet and mistress are flea-bitten.    But I am a child of the twentieth century, a post-Victorian.  What I felt was anxiety (suppose the moths never went away?  The internet is full of horror stories about people having to move house) and a flicker of irrational shame.

    A woman tormented by fleas

    Perhaps it was the presence of bugs that enabled Donne to think of fleas as comparative light-weights.  Even royalty had the occasional brush with the bed bug: two rival firms claimed to be bug-destroyers to George III.   Queen Victoriaalso had an official bug-catcher, the attractively named Mr Tiffin, who claimed to have found a bug in the bed of Princess Charlotte.  Bugs give off a foul odour (this at least warns people of their presence)  and the bites they inflict are agonizingly itchy.  Worst of all, they can walk upside-down, which means they can ambush you.  The British Museum warned in 1949: 'There are well authenticated records of people isolating their beds by means of saucers of paraffin placed under the legs so that the bugs could not climb up, and retiring to rest with a pleasant feeling of having foiled their enemies, only to be disturbed later in the night by bugs dropping from the ceiling.'[1] It's not surprising, then, that 'lousy' is one of our older derogatory terms, dating back to the fourteenth century. 

    An unrelenting battle against these pests formed the background to most human lives.  Like the plague, a disease carried by rat fleas, insect infestations peaked and dwindled according to the season but never quite went away.  At various periods women laboured to control infestations by sweeping out soiled rushes, beating fabrics and 'shifting' linen as frequently as their resources allowed.  Society developed polite strategies.  Boys were taught to sweep off their hats as a sign of respect while taking care to conceal the interior of the hat, where lice might be lurking (but what happened if the nits were clearly visible on your hair?).  Our ancestors' predilections for hats, bonnets and caps make sense in terms of cold houses, fear of 'chills', notions of modesty (in the case of women's hair) and a dislike of tanned faces.  Headgear might also serve, however, as a barrier against lice.  Despite the horror stories about nests of wildlife in high hair (not necessarily apocryphal ― see below) the extremely high styles were only popular for a comparatively brief period during the eighteenth century.  In contrast,  it's been suggested that the eighteenth-century male habit of wearing a wig over a shaven head might be an effective strategy against lice, especially if both head and wig were scrupulously cared for. 

    Bottle for hair or wig powder 

    In a different context, decorative cutting and peeling of fruits rendered them more attractive and advertised the culinary expertise of the household but was also a way, in an age before pesticides, of checking that nothing nasty was concealed beneath the skin and ensuring no guest would find 'the only thing worse than a worm', namely half a worm.     

    How did it feel to know that creatures lurked everywhere, often in intimate contact with one's body or even inside it?  Weevils in the flour and the cheese, woodworm in the wainscot, cockroaches beneath the rug, rats and mice in the loft and the kitchen, silverfish in the cupboards, fleas in clothing and furnishings, bugs in beds, spiders everywhere.  Herbs were used to discourage or expel worms within the gut, but what of those worms which were thought to cause toothache?  How maddening to go about in the belief that worms were steadily boring into one's teeth.  The dividing line between self and world was fragile and permeable.    

    Nowadays we understand that even the cleanest bodies are colonised, though not quite in the same way as our ancestors did.  We are used to the idea of yeasts in the body, of 'good bugs' in yoghurt.  It seems that the distinctive scent of human fingertips is created by microorganisms which colonise the sweat glands there; when I first discovered this, I felt queasy but there was no reflex of conditioned shame. Similarly, the man who wrote to the London Magazine in 1768 about seeing the coiffeur 'open his aunt's head' (dismantle her elaborate pomaded hairstyle, after she had worn it for over two months) seems to have found the vermin within repellent but not particularly shameful.  Nor did the hairdresser appear at all embarrassed.  'When the comb was applied to the natural hair, I observed swarms of animalculas running about in the utmost consternation and in different directions, upon which I put my chair a little further from the table and asked the operator whether that numerous swarm did not from time to time send out colonies to other parts of the body? He assured me that it could not; for that the quantity of powder and pomatum formed a glutinous matter, which like lime twigs to birds, caught and clogged the little natives and prevented their migration.'[2] 

    Personally I'd find it easier to confess to petty theft than to 'swarms of animalculas' in my hair.  But then, I'm from a generation for whom verminous infestations carried a powerful stigma but were a very real possibility.  Until 1962 I lived in what was considered a slum, a Victorian terrace long since demolished.  The combination of urban and industrial grime with the conviction that 'cleanliness is next to godliness' meant that a dirty house was shameful (women would ostentatiously scrub their front steps) yet the houses were difficult to keep clear of vermin.  Rats were the biggest fear.  To discourage them, tins that had held fish or meat were burned in the fire to remove all food traces and only then put in the bin.  As far as I'm aware we didn't have rats, but we did have mice and cockroaches.  My father worried in case I put my fingers into the mouse traps.  My mother (who would be horrified if she knew I was writing this) came downstairs each morning, stepped onto the carpet and shuddered as a crackle informed her that she had just crushed a cockroach.  She saw these insects as a badge of shame and bitterly resented the woman next door who (she believed) was causing the infestation by lack of cleanliness.  'Then they come in here!' she moaned.  For all I know, the woman next door cherished a similar resentment against my mother.  The defining emotions were shame and disgust.  One of the worst things you could say about anyone was that their house 'had to be fumigated' (uttered in a shocked whisper).  It was like saying they were damned.

    Nowadays people call Rentokil without embarrassment,  seeing infestation as a force of nature rather than a sign of depravity.  I'm glad that pointless shame is a thing of the past and I agree that while Donne could turn a flea bite to a weapon of seduction,  a body spotted with itchy blotches would be death to eroticism for a modern reader.  Yet I like to see the presence of lice, fleas and worse in historical fiction, along with the human responses to them.  They were, after all, like the poor: always with us.

    [1] Quoted in McLaughlin, T.  Coprophilia
    [2]McLaughlin, pp 113-114

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  • 01/30/14--16:01: January Competition
  • We have five copies of Katie Grant's Sedition to give away to the five best answers to this question:

    'Can you match a novel with a piece of music (doesn't have to be classical) that would reflect the novel's story or mood?'

    You can read about Sedition in the post for 29th January.

    Just put your answers in the Comments section below. Closing date: 7th February

    We are afraid that History Girl competitions are open to UK residents only.

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    These were the plans for an indoor theatre that fell out of book in Worcester College Library, Oxford in the 1960s.A roughly U-shaped building with galleries, pit seating, a stage, musicians' gallery and a tiring house. For years they were thought to have been the work of Inigo Jones, but now scholars believe it to have been his protegé John Webb who sketched out his ideas for a theatre in the late 17th century. It is the earliest design for such a building in England.

    And it is almost certain that it was never built.

    But when  the visionary Sam Wanamaker had his ideas for building a new Globe based on the one Shakespeare's company would have played in, he wanted to create TWO performance spaces on Bankside.

    Photo by Christine Matthews under Creative Commons

    We are all familiar with the octagonal Shakespeare's Globe which sits opposite St. Paul's just a (no longer wobbly) walk across the Millennium Bridge. But you might not have realised that there was another building inside the complex, a red brick shell built at the same time in the 1990s to house an indoor performance space. It sat there waiting for its time to come - and it has.

    The outer shall of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as seen from the remodelled Foyer

    From 1609 onwards, Shakespeare's company, called The King's Men after their valuable patron James the First, had two places to stage his plays in: the open ait Globe theatre south of the river and an indoor hall in Blackfriars on the north side. Globe in summer, Blackfriars in winter was the pattern.

    There are no drawings left to tell us what the Blackfriars hall was like and the building is long gone. It had been the Refectory of the Dominican Friary and James Burbage, father of the actor Richard, bought it in 1596, only to be thwarted by local Nimbys, who did not want a "common playhouse." So Burbage built the Globe and waited for the Wheel of Fortune to turn.

    As it has again. A formidable team at the Globe, headed by Dr Farah Karim-Cooper, has been working for years to create not a facsimile of Blackfriars, which remains unknown nor a realisation of the Worcester College plans, which would have been unworkable, but a convincing wooden, candlelit indoor theatre as close to the Jacobean playgoing experience as possible.

    Computer generated image of the stage
     I saw Webster's The Duchess of Malfi there a week ago and it was a triumph. The theatre holds only 340 playgoers and is lit by six twelve-branched candelabra ("branchers") as well as sconces on the wooden pillars ("wallers"). The candles are lit in full view of the audience, by members of the cast.

    We sat at the lower level, only feet from the stage and, although well to one side had no problem seeing everything, but we were in the front row, just above the pit. The seats are made, like most of the wood in the playhouse from unseasoned oak, by Peter McCurdy's firm, who completed the main Globe theatre in 1997.

    By the interval, taken very late in this Duchess, I was wishing there had been cushions for hire as in the open-air theatre.

    The Frons Scenae, as the wall at the back of the stage is called, has three openings and is richly gilded, the detail being picked up by the light of the 72 + candles. In Shakespeare's day, in the Blackfriars it would have also sparkled on the jewellery and brocades of the audience. Alas, the jeans and jumpers of a matinée audience in January did not give much scope for that. Next time I must wear some bling.

    The lighting is just one aspect of the meticulous planning by Reconstruction Architect Jon Greenfield and the whole Architecture Research Group. Panels in the corridor between the auditorium and outer shell mimic the light going down as the afternoon advances. Professor Martin White, of Bristol University, knows how long it takes a beeswax taper to burn down and how much longer they last if their wicks are trimmed in the interval (no smelly tallow here!)

    Of the many specialist listed in the excellent programme for The Duchess of Malfi, it's good to see a Fire Consultant but  Oliver Heywood from Allies and Morrison, who were the architects for the project, assured me that perhaps surprisingly it is very hard for flame to get any kind of hold on solid timber. That's reassuring considering the main Globe theatre burned down in 1613 - though that is thought to have have been caused by a spark in thatch.

    Once Shakespeare had the resources of the candlelit Blackfriars at his disposal, he wrote plays that could take advantage of the more intimate, interior space. It's hard to think of the "headless corpse" scene in Cymbeline, the living statue of Hermione in Winter's Tale or the many illusions and masques of The Tempest coming off in broad daylight.

    For this if no other reason, I shall be fascinated to see what goes on in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. And just as in the main Globe theatre, they have resisted the tourist trade "Heritage" approach, if the first production is anything to go by.

    Do go if you can but I was also pleased to see a credit for Video/Camera Systems, which I hope means in time the plays will be part of the cinema relays that are proving so popular and which the main theatre already is. I'll be there if they are, bling at the ready.

    The Artistic Director of the Globe is Dominic Dromgoole, who also directed The Duchess of Malfi. It is thought that the Duchess was first performed at Blackfriars in 1613, the year the Globe burned down.

    My review of the production is over at my Book Maven blog.

    I am grateful to Oliver Heywood of Allies and Morrison for giving me his time and taking me to see the Playhouse while it was under construction

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    In 2009 I began researching Jan Van Rymsdyk and his contribution to the medical art of the eighteenth century. Then a controversial allegation that women had been murdered by medical professionals to provide corpses for dissection left me even more intrigued by JVR. His life, as it turned out, held just enough mystery to be fascinating. He had worked for both the great man-midwives of the eighteenth century, William Hunter and William Smellie, still revered as pioneers by modern obstetricians. It was Van Rymsdyk who had illustrated, almost entirely, their two defining works: Smellie’s A sett of anatomical tables, with explanations, and an abridgement, of the practice of midwifery of 1754, and William Hunter’s Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, Exhibited in Figures twenty years later. These books are still regarded as the moment modern obstetrics was born, through the labours of two supremely talented doctors. But Van Rymsdyk’s contribution has been largely ignored.

    He was not only an artist, but at times, a drunkard, a comedian, and a deeply thwarted man. His life’s ambition was to be a portrait painter, yet his life’s work was a series of dead women and their children. The women’s faces are never depicted, but every detail of their children is captured and there is a curious dignity, almost an adoration in his renderings: the sitting posture of the gravid woman, with her knees covered by a blanket but her internal organs displayed by the neat flaying of the anatomist, the baby curled snugly inside her, a stray wisp of its hair escaping the womb. These images and their origin became a touchstone as I wrote Georgian London: Into the Streets. Whenever the past eluded me I returned to Jan Van Rymsdyk, the conflicted artist who brought his precise hand to those Soho dissecting rooms.

    The more I read about Van Rymsdyk, Smellie and Hunter, the more interesting it became. It wasn’t just a story which made medical history, it was a scientific collaboration formed around the pivot of an artist. Both doctors were desperate to leave a legacy. Smellie wanted his advances in the use of forceps to continue helping women after his death. Hunter wanted his scientific discoveries on why women miscarried, presented still births and died in childbirth to ensure his fame. They both needed Van Rymsdyk. He worked fast, with pinpoint accuracy, recording the fresh corpses in a only a few hours. And his images had a strange allure, for all their gruesome reality; in them he managed to combine the Enlightenment ideal of beauty and truth. As Hunter said, the magic of Jan Van Rymsdyk is that he ‘represents what was actually seen, it carries the mark of truth, and becomes almost as infallible as the object itself’.

    So, I am delighted to be collaborating with the Dittrick Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, on a temporary exhibition of their Jan Van Rymsdyk collection this month. Dr Brandy Schillace and Dr Jim Edmonson are putting together a wonderful show based on Jan as both artist and a man working under some of the most challenging working conditions imaginable.

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    Over Christmas I chanced upon the original Starwars films (parts now called IV and V) being shown on TV.  These were the cult films of my school days - I collected the bubblegum cards and played games based on the world in the playground.

    I can't show the Death Star due to copyright but here is Mimas,
    a moon of Jupiter that looks just like it! Thanks to NASA.
    'These are classics, so much better than the new ones,' I announced confidently to my fifteen year old son so we sat down to watch.

    Oh dear.

    Yes, they are much better than the more recent clutch of three, saved by a knowing humour missing from the solemnities of parts I-III, but I had forgotten just how stilted the love dialogue was in them - or maybe I didn't notice.  Add to that, I now see how much they reflect their era of late 70s, early 80s - they are a little history of what we thought the future would look like (though technically Lucas claims them for long long ago in a distant galaxy...).  Good (American) guys fighting an evil empire - the men's hair - the futuristic white Leia costume that somehow look like a Biba trouser suit - the 70s is everywhere - I'm sure you know what I mean.  Even the sexual politics is very much of its time - Leia a kind of Germaine Greer fighting for her rights among the masculine warriors while the Hollywood male (Harrison Ford) manages to quell her with a kiss.  I missed this as a kid but now wish Leia had kneed him in the place where he did most of his thinking.

    That set me thinking how futuristic films and novels are so often the best way of accessing the preoccupations of the present.  To change my metaphor, they are a boiled down stock of all most intense flavours swirling around in society.  One of the first futuristic novels I can think of is Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826).
    This is probably her most interesting novel after Frankenstein.  The scenario is a dystopian one of debates about monarchy and republicanism all swept away by a terrible plague that wipes out all but the lead character - The Last Man.  You don't have to think for very long to see how this reflects her era of the failing romantic spirit, the fears of everything being cancelled by death.  So many of her own generation were dead by then; on the larger political stage, France had gone from beacon of revolutionary ideas back to creaky old monarchy.  The mid 1820s had seen a banking crisis (sounds familiar?) and Mary Shelley was living a marginal existence trying to raise her son.  No wonder all the best days seemed in the past.  (The  human world ends in 2100 by the way; from the increasing alarming pace of climate change, maybe she knew something when she picked that date? Or is that just my 'spirit of the age' showing?)

    Next major work I thought of was The Time Machine by H G Wells (1895).  Much better know, you are probably aware that this captures the ripples of the Darwinian evolutionary debate with a society that has divided in to useless, pretty Eloi and underground predators, Morlocks.  There are also fascinating reflections influenced by the Marxist debate of where class and society is going.

    And then there is Zamyatin's We (written 1921) - one of the best reflections in the Russian revolution even though it is sci-fi. And George Orwell's 1984 (1949) - we haven't come to the end of the lessons that teaches us, have we?  The examples are popping up everywhere now I am looking for them.

    So that leads me to the rather pleasing conclusion that to understand the past we need to be familiar with the future.  I'd love to hear you thoughts as this is a huge topic and I'm sure you'll have your own gems to share.

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    My husband's Uncle Bill Dilger was a watch and clockmaker-cum-repairer, and his workshop, in a small back room in his Victorian Manchester home, was a fairy palace dedicated to Time. You walked through the door and found yourself immersed in a sussuration of soft ticking from walls crowded with clocks - mahogany-cased wall clocks with sober cream faces and slow-swinging brass pendulums; elaborately carved grandfathers looming up to the ceiling with their painted moons and suns and ships; busy gilt carriage clocks tick-tick-ticking away; great dark rustic cuckoo clocks with pine-cone weights and little half-open doors (family history proudly states that the Dilgers were one of two Black Forest families who claim the invention of the cuckoo-clock); a Mickey Mouse clock with eyes that flicked from side to side;  a clock with a ballerina who spun around on her pointed toe to the tune of the Blue Danube; an antique novelty clock shaped like a clockmaker holding a timepiece under his arm: big clocks, little clocks, old clocks and new clocks, clocks in the process of being mended, and clocks which would never work again, clocks ready to be claimed and clocks whose very owners, it seemed, had left them here long ago and vanished into time themselves.

    In the middle of the small room, under a low-hanging, glass-shaded light, was Uncle Bill's wooden worktable, covered in small, intricate, shining parts - cogs and springs and watch-cases.  Those he wasn't currently working on would be protected from the dust by a collection of upturned crystal sherry-glasses whose stems had snapped. Everything gleamed.

    We always tried to arrive just before noon.  Bill would welcome us and we would all crowd into his workshop, adults and children alike, and wait, breathless and smiling. There would be a strange whirring. Then the first shy chime. And then one after another every working clock in the room would clear its throat and strike.  Ding, ding, ding - dong, dong - bing, bing, bing - cuckoo, cuckoo - interrupting one another in a delightful, clashing crescendo and diminuendo of shrill and rapid and slow and mellow, till finally the last cuckoo ducked back in as the little doors whipped shut, and all that would be left was the constant tick-tick-ticking. It was something that could never fail to give pleasure.

    Isaac Peabody - illustration by A.R. Whitear

    Uncle Bill's clock room often used to remind me of Isaac Peabody's workshop in Elizabeth Goudge's novel 'The Dean's Watch' which is set in the 1870s in an unnamed fictional cathedral city which combines elements of both Wells and Ely.  Isaac is described as 'a round-shouldered little man with large feet and a great domed and wrinkled forehead. ...His eyes were very blue beneath their shaggy eyebrows and chronic indigestion had reddened the tip of his button nose.  His hands were red, shiny and knobbly, but steady and deft.'  As for his workshop:

    The shop was so small and its bow window so crowded with clocks, all of them ticking, that the noise was almost deafening. It sounded like thousands of crickets chirping or bees buzzing, and was to Isaac the most satisfying sound in the world.

    But old Isaac has a secret.  Brought up by a stern father in the fear of an angry God, he is terrified of the great cathedral, and even though he is fascinated by the Jaccomarchiadus (the mechanically-operated figure that strikes a bell on the outside of a clock) which adorns its tower, he is too afraid ever to go inside the cathedral and see the clock for himself:

    The Jaccomarchiardus stood high in an alcove on the tower, not like most Jacks an anonymous figure, but Michael the Archangel himself.  He was lifesize and stood upright with spread wings... Below him, let into the wall, was a simple large dial with an hour hand only. Within the Cathedral, Isaac had been told there was a second clock with above it a platform where Michael on horseback fought with the dragon at each hour and conquered him. But not even his longing to see this smaller Michael could drag Isaac inside the terrible Cathedral. No one could understand his fear.  He could not entirely understand it himself.

    Perhaps not.  But here is the dial on the outside north wall of Wells cathedral, and here - below - is the west entrance, and I think you can see that there is, or could be, something awe-inspiring, even terrible, about its beauty.  You might well feel a bit of an ant, approaching it as Isaac does through the small streets of his anonymous city: 'Like a fly crawling up a wall Isaac crawled up Angel Lane, scuttled across Worship Street, cowered beneath the Porta, got himself somehow across the moonlit expanse of the Cathedral green and then slowly mounted the flight of worn steps that led to the west door...'

    Eventually, right at the end of the book, Isaac does manage to conquer his fear and enter the cathedral. And there it is, the other clock.

    It was just as it had been described to him. Above the beautiful gilded clock face, with winged angels in the spandrels, was a canopied platform. To one side of it, Michael in gold armour sat his white horse, his lance in rest and his visor down. On the other side the dragon's head, blue and green with a crimson forked tongue, rose wickedly from a heap of scaly coils. They waited only for the striking of the bell to have at one another. It was a wonderful bit of work. ...And to think he had lived in the city all these years and had not seen it!

    Here is the one at Wells.  It dates to the late 14th century. Around the dial you may just be able to make out the four angels in the corners, who hold the four cardinal winds.

    On the hour, every hour, armoured knights ride around the platform you can see at the top, jousting with one another, while higher up the wall to one side, the Jack perches in his alcove, striking his bell.

    After I had taken these pictures, one of the cathedral clergy came out and spoke to the gathered onlookers. He didn't preach, not in a specifically Christian way, but he did ask us to consider the value of time in our lives, and to make good use of it. It was a suitable message.  In Goudge's book, old Isaac makes friends with the great Dean of the cathedral, whose clocks he comes to wind. The Dean is a sick man, who knows he has not long to live.  He pays a visit to the clock-shop and listens to Isaac talking about horology:

    He delighted in Isaac's lucid explanations and he delighted too in this experience of being shut in with all these ticking clocks. The sheltered lamplit shop was like the inside of a hive full of amiable bees. ... [The clocks] spoke to him with their honeyed tongues of this mystery of time, that they had a little tamed for men with their hands and voices and the the beat of their constant hearts and yet could never make less mysterious or dreadful for all their friendliness. How strange it was, thought the Dean, as one after another he took their busy little bodies into his hands, that soon he would know more about the mystery than they did themselves. 

    Dear Uncle Bill was nothing like poor frightened Isaac, but a truly happy man and a faithful Catholic who willed his best and favourite clock, the massive black grandfather which stood in his living room, to the Catholic Bishop of Salford. It was a typical gesture which I hope the Bishop appreciated, but I expect he did, as - just as Isaac does for the Dean - Bill used to go regularly to wind the Bishop's clocks.  Bill used to joke sometimes, that he didn't know what he'd do in heaven.  "I don't know what I'll do in heaven," he'd say in his soft Manchester accent, with a twinkle in his eye. "There's no clocks there!" He died at the age of ninety-? contented to the last, and would have both enjoyed and deserved the genuine epitaph that Elizabeth Goudge quotes at the beginning of 'The Dean's Watch':

    Epitaph from Lydford Churchyard

    Here lies in a horizontal position
    The outside case of
    George Routleigh, Watchmaker,
    Whose abilities in that line were an honour
    To his profession:
    Integrity was the main-spring,
    And prudence the regulator
    Of all the actions of his life:
    Humane, generous and liberal,
    His hand never stopped
    Till he had relieved distress;
    So nicely regulated were all his movements
    That he never went wrong
    Except when set-a-going
    By people
    Who did not know his key;
    Even then, he was easily
    Set right again:
    He had the art of disposing of his time
    So well
    That his hours glided away
    In one continual round
    Of pleasure and delight,
    Till an unlucky minute put a periodto
    His existence;
    He departed this life
    November 14, 1802,
    aged 57,
    Wound up,
    in hopes of being taken in hand
    By his Maker,
    And of being
    Thoroughly cleaned, repairedand set-a-going
    In the World to come.

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    It's no secret that I find having a sleeping cat near me when writing to be both soothing and inspiring, in equal measure.  When I've read about how, in medieval scriptoria, monks shared their literary space with cats, I've thought, Aw, that's sweet - them and me and our furry muses ... not thinking about any other reasons to keep a cat.  I know the Pangur Ban poem which begins - 

    I and Pangur Bán, my cat 
    'Tis a like task we are at; 
    Hunting mice is his delight,
    Hunting words I sit all night.

    and still I didn't twig.

    It's obvious, of course.  Medieval monks, working away at their beautiful illuminated manuscripts, had enemies other than just Nordic types going a-viking.  They were painstakingly inscribing their letters and images onto lunch.

                                                          (© Corpus Christi College Cambridge, MS 214, fol. 122r)

    That manuscript has been thoroughly gnawed and nibbled on.  (Though the mice have shown a certain restraint.  Or is it just a question of generous margins?)  It was, therefore, an excellent idea to have in your scriptorium at least one cat.  Some, perhaps, larger than others ...

                                                                     (image from wikipedia)

    (Okay, I know, I know, it's a lion and it's there because St Jerome took a thorn out of his paw - but it's such a lovely picture ...)

    But, as anyone who's ever tried to shoo a cat off a keyboard will know, cats and writing do not always go together so peacefully.

    (image from National Geographic)

    Inky paws skitter across the page - or sometimes something worse ...

                                                            (© Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

    Make the image a bit bigger - that's a cat the cheesed-off monk has drawn, not a donkey, and those accusing fingers are pointing at potent, pongy, moggy pee.  It's enough to make a good man curse.

    Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi cattie venire possunt.
    Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.
    Well, it's good advice.  Vermin and vellum may not mix, but cat pee really doesn't enhance anything at all.

    Joan Lennon's website.
    Joan Lennon's blog.

    P.S.  It was not only monks who had grudges against cats.  If, instead of nibbling the vellum, the vermin had engaged in some art work of their own, they might very well have come up with something along the lines of this 18th century Russian print -

    (image from wikipedia)

    I'll not be showing this to my cat.  She's a sensitive soul.

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    No, not the one stuffed full of Greeks that destroyed the ancient city of Troy, although war is meant to be one of the wood horse's characteristics! This is the Chinese Year of the Wood (or Green) Horse, which began earlier this week and heralds a year of similar nature to that of 60 years ago, when the element of wood last coincided with the animal sign of the horse. (1954, if my calculations are correct... anyone remember that one?)

    Chinese zodiac wheel (picture thanks to wikipedia)

    The Chinese zodiac dates back to the Han dynasty of 206-220BC and works on a 12-year cycle, rather than the 12-month cycle associated with our western zodiac. Each year is named after an animal:

    Rabbit (Hare)
    Rooster (Hen)

    In addition, the Chinese believe that the universe is made up of five elements – earth, water, fire, wood, metal – which interact with the 12 animals to influence the year ahead.

    a tiger galloping along the water?

    As a horse lover, I've got a natural fondness for horse years, although it seems I was not born in one - I am a tiger (a water tiger to be accurate), but that's ok since tigers can apparently get on well with horses... which is maybe just as well, since I enjoy riding them! You are a probably a horse if you were born in 1918, 1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, or 2002 although if your birthday falls in January or early February you might be a snake instead. Famous historical figures born in the Year of the Horse include (rather appropriately) the Mongol leader Genghis Khan, the artist Rembrandt, French scientist Louis Pasteur, and US president Franklin Roosevelt.

    If you want to check which Chinese zodiac sign you were born under and discover your horoscope for 2014, try this site.

    According to the Chinese, this is a year to be bold. There is a lot of fire involved, and may be battles, since the wood aspect means people will stick to their guns this year and not be prepared to negotiate. I imagine it as a rather stubborn horse, digging in his toes when forced to carry a rider where he does not want to go, but galloping keenly in his chosen direction. I have decided it will be a good year to get my Genghis Khan novel out of its drawer and into the world, since my fascination with the Chinese zodiac began while I was doing the research for that book a few years ago... and, of course, it has horses in it!

    In the meantime, some other YA books you might like to explore in this Year of the Wood Horse are:

    I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade by Diane Wilson - an award-winning young adult title set in the time of Kubla Khan, a delightful story for readers young and old.

    The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman - which I haven't read yet, but the title caught my eye.

    I am the Great Horse - the story of Alexander the Great told by his warhorse Bucephalas, who left some of his hoof prints across territories later crossed by Genghis Khan.

    Troy by Adele Geras - not Chinese, but it contains the famous wooden horse of Greek myth.

    Please feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments, and maybe we'll build a History Girls list of titles for this Year of the Horse.


    Katherine Roberts writes historical fantasy/legend for young readers. Her latest series is the Pendragon Legacy quartet about King Arthur's daughter, available from Templar Books in hardcover, paperback or ebook, which comes complete with magical mist horses from the enchanted land of Avalon.

    More details at www.katherineroberts.co.uk

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    There was a time, O Best Beloved, when things were not as they are today. Many of the older History Girls and many of our older readers will have a dim memory of the days when the Guardian was a broadsheet newspaper. Back then, there was a whole page of book reviews in the paper four times a year. Just imagine it: a full broadsheet page! Four such pages per year. In charge of all this in the halcyon days of the late 60s and early 70s and into the 80s was Stephanie Nettell. Anyone who was around in the Children's Books world in those days knows Stephanie. The broadsheet changed to a Berliner format; Stephanie retired to a beautiful farmhouse in Norfolk and has since those days been a tireless supporter of all things literary, both through her work as an editor and with schools and also by being involved for many years with the King's Lynn Literary Festival.

    Stephanie's husband is Alex Hamilton. Above is a picture of the cover of his latest book, which I'm going to review here. It may seem odd to be reviewing such a volume, which has nothing overtly historical about it. I justify this by saying: the kind of journalism that is collected here is a thing of the past, for the most part. The Paris Review keeps up a formidable roster of far-ranging long interviews with writers, but apart from the odd article in the Sunday papers, and those mostly for writers who are already well-known, the kind of interviews Alex has given us here are few and far between. His name may be less familiar to some readers but for many years he was well known for compiling, for the Bookseller and the Guardian the famous BEST SELLING HUNDRED BOOKS list. This, however, was only the tip of a huge literary iceberg. He was born in Brazil and came to the UK as a child. As an adult, he's written novels, short stories and all manner of other things, but he's best known as a journalist. Below is a photo of him.

    There are several good reasons for reviewing this book. The first and most important is: it's a book that deserves much wider recognition than it received when it came out. It comes from the Matador imprint of the Troubadour Press which is a small press and I fear many literary editors wrote it off immediately for that reason alone. Then there's the subject matter. It's all appeared before, in the pages of the Guardian or the Times, mostly. For the young, whose horizons are bounded by the latest prizewinners and hyped up first novels, a collection in which you might rub shoulders with Erskine Caldwell (who he? the 20 year old might ask...) Edmund Crispin, Charles Addams, etc will not be all that enticing. True, there are the Golden Oldies like Graham Greene and Rebecca West but surely this book will only be of interest to students of literature and not to the general public? Nothing could be further from the truth. These are proper interviews which cover a whole lot of gossipy and fascinating personal ground for each writer. Hamilton is very good at being self-effacing but we never forget we're overhearing a conversation, and it's always a pleasure to eavesdrop when two good talkers are doing the talking.

    My second reason for loving this book is because, unlike so much of the rest of the lit.crit world, it gives equal weight to genre fiction. Science fiction and crime are treated as meriting close scrutiny and the same standards as are applied to more literary efforts. That is a rare thing indeed, as any genre writer will know. The best you can hope for, if you write genre fiction is a round-up where your book will get maybe 100 words of criticism if you're lucky and it's very hard to be deep in 100 words. Full marks, too, for including romance and erotica along with thrillers and SF. Hamilton deserves three cheers for that as they really are the Cinderellas of the literary world.

    The third reason to write about this book is very simple. I loved it. It seems to me the ideal bedside book and the perfect present for anyone who likes reading and wants to know more about beloved writers from the past and also from those who've had a long shelf-life, like Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood. You can read about two or three writers before you turn out the light, but be warned: it's very easy to say: "Oh, I'll just read one more piece and then go to sleep."

    The fourth reason is: it's a book where women writers are well-represented. That also doesn't often happen. In short, it's a smashing, satisfyingly fat volume and one you're sure to enjoy if you're at all bookish. My one caveat is: there are no children's writers represented here. Perhaps Alex is waiting for his wife to compile her own collection...that would be fun! Meanwhile, go to your nearest bookseller and order a copy of WRITING TALK. You won't regret it.

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    ‘... nor any drop to drink.’ Coleridge wrote in the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

    Those of us living in the south west of England have been somewhat preoccupied with the over-abundance of water in the last few weeks. One of the effects of the constant rain, has been that springs and wells which haven’t run for years have suddenly started flowing again. Having just learnt there used to be a holy spring in my garden, though no one can remember quite where, I have taken to anxiously pressing my ear to the ground to listen for the sound of rushing water, just in case this holy spring turns out to be under the house!

    Long before the Christian era, natural springs where water mysteriously gushed straight out of rock or the earth were sacred places, conduits to the world of the dead. These springs were where the gods of the air met the gods of the underworld. With the coming of Christianity, medieval churches built near these sites or over caverns were often dedicated to St. Michael the archangel, the Christian replacement for the gods of the ‘elder faith’, because he is winged and so can command the air, but was also thought to hold the keys to hell or hades, therefore substituted for the god of the underworld.

    Researchers have discovered that down through the centuries there have been proportionally more recorded supernatural events and disturbances, such as graves being opened, in medieval churches dedicated to St Michael than in churches dedicated to any other saint. Although this may be due to the fact there are over 600 churches in England dedicated to St Michael.

    During the medieval period many ancient sacred springs themselves became associated with saints. Legend often had it that they gushed out when saints such as St Edith had, like Moses struck a rock, to provide water for her workmen. A number of holy wells are said to have sprung up on spot where a saint’s head had been struck from their body, such as St Justinian, presumably because the gush of water resembled the arch of blood which would pour from a severed neck.

    More unusually, the feisty St Medana was so fed up with the attentions of a persistent suitor that she flung her own eyeballs at him to make him go away. She then brought forth a holy spring from the rock, so she could restore her sight. (Brings a whole new meaning to giving someone a dirty look.)

    People came to these holy wells, they had in pre-Christian times, with a bent pin, a coin or flowers to offer to the saint, instead of the water deity, in the hope of a cure. That generated a lively trade in the selling of ampulla in which to carry water home to keep in the house or wear as an amulet to protect against sickness or the perils of childbirth.

    Incidentally, superstition has it that if you are obliged to walk around a holy well or spring to pass it, you must always walk around it deiseil that is in a clockwise direction, with the sun. To turn to the left, and walk widdershins around the water will strengthen the powers of darkness, bring bad luck and even rouse some malicious spirit or monster from deep within the well or spring.

    The sudden drying-up of certain holy springs or wells such as St Helen’s Well in Staffordshire is said predict a national disaster. If the spring in Langley Park dries up, it foretells a battle, but if it fills up there will be peace. This was said to be true whatever the weather. While the Drumming Well at Oudle warns of a calamity when a thumping is heard down the shaft. The predictions of some springs such as Dudley Spring in Warwickshire or Barton Mere at Bury St Edmunds are more easily explained, These are known as Cornsprings or Levants which Gilbert White in his Natural History of Selbourne said would fill or flood if the price of corn was going to rise. I think we can take it then, bread prices are going to rise this year!

    I wonder if it was a co-incidence that in the 16th Century, as soon as the collecting of ‘holy water’ from saints' wells was deemed heretical under the Reformation, people began to discover the ‘health’ properties of water such as Malvern water, and started bottling it to sell to all parts of England? Perhaps we still need to believe in the powers of healing water. Certainly watching people today determinedly clutching their bottles of water as they walk around towns, reminds me of those medieval pilgrims clinging to their ampulla of holy water.

    One last thought - I was listening to politicians and Environment Agencies this week explain that it makes good economic sense to allow houses and farmland in some areas to flood. And it reminded me of an ancient statute I came across while researching medieval fenlands. It said that if you wilfully, or through neglect, caused a neighbour’s property to flood by failing to maintain ditches, water courses or flood defences, you could be buried up to your neck in the dyke and left there to drown in the flood water. Your body would then form part of the flood defences to protect your neighbour. I wonder if that statute is still on the books, if it was revived, it might concentrate the minds of our planners and ministers wonderfully.

    But remember in 1348, the year the Black Death, came to Britain it rained every day from Midsummer's Day to Christmas Day - I think someone must have walked round quite a few springs widdershins that year.

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    ...also Blue, Red and White! by Caroline Lawrence

    My fellow History Girl Katherine Roberts recently blogged about horsey books for YA readers and got me thinking!

    When schoolchildren ask me what I would do if I could time-travel back to ancient Rome, I always answer without hesitation: A day at the races! When I was researching the 12th book in my Roman Mysteries series, The Charioteer of Delphi, I learned so many amazing things about chariot racing I had never come across whilst studying Classics at Uni. Here are twelve fascinating facts that convinced me this would have been THE most exciting thing to do in the Eternal City.

    1. Chariot racing was the most popular public event in Imperial Rome, attracting far greater crowds than beast fights and gladiatorial combats.

    2. The size of the arenas reflect this: the Flavian Amphitheatre (now known as the Colosseum) held 50,000 people keen to watch beast fights and gladiatorial combats. But the Circus Maximus held five times that number! Nearly a quarter of a million people could fit in Rome’s famous hippodrome. As far as I know, there is no arena of equivalent size in the world today.

    3. Unlike the Colosseum, women and men could sit together at the races. This is why the poet Ovid tells young men that the Circus Maximus is a good place to pick up girls!

    4. Chariots were not the sturdy wooden vehicles we see in almost every dramatisation of Ben Hur. They were very springy and light so they could go as fast as possible. Oil lamps, frescoes and reliefs show that they were made of wicker and leather. Driving one would have been like driving a basket on wheels!

    5. Most chariots were pulled by ungelded stallions; two for a biga (2-horse chariot) and four for a quadriga (4-horse chariot). As many as twelve teams ran in each race. That means you could have the testosterone of up to 48 ungelded stallions thundering around the racecourse at any one time.

    6. Charioteers were mainly young men in their teens and twenties. Some of them achieved superstar status, but like football players today, you stayed faithful to your faction (your team) not to specific personalities. The life expectancy of a chariot racer was not long, and if one survived more than a thousand races he became known as a miliarius or thousander. It was the same for a horse!

    7. The charioteer would tie the reins around his waist. This left his right hand free to wield the whip and his left to tweak one of the eight reins. With the reins tied around his waist, he could use his whole body to steer. He wore a curved knife in his belt so that if he was thrown from his chariot he could cut himself free as he was being dragged along.

    8. Whenever a chariot crashed, the crowd would yell out naufragium! This means ‘shipwreck’ in Latin! See? I told you it was fun!

    9. Some charioteers downed a concoction of bull’s mucus before the race to make them more phlegmatic (i.e. to calm them down). They called this disgusting potion snorteum. 

    10. Four dozen horses thundering around a dirt track could raise a cloud of dust thick enough to obscure the action and choke the spectators. For this reason there were special boys called sparsores (or sprinklers) to keep the dust down. They would run out onto the track between laps and sprinkle the dust with water. There were frequent fatalities.

    11. For me, the most exciting fact is that every single element of the Circus is symbolic, relating it to the cosmos.

    • The four faction colours represented the four seasons and also the four humours or temperaments. Red stood for summer or the choleric temperament. Blue was autumn and also melancholic. White was winter and phlegmatic. Green was spring and sanguine. Charioteers wore leather helmets and jerkins in the four colours of their factions. The horses were adorned with ribbons and gear in these colours, too.

    • The seven laps represented the days of the week.

    • The twelve starting gates (and lanes) represented the months of the year.

    • There were often twenty-four races held per day. These represented the hours of the day.

    • The water of the euripus (canal in the central spina) represented the sea.

    • The dirt race-track represented the earth around the sea.

    • The obelisk rising from the euripus represented the sun.

    12. Finally, as if to prove how little some things change, you could buy chariot-themed souvenirs at the Circus Maximus such as glass beakers or clay oil-lamps.

    Now come on, admit it! Wouldn't a day at the Roman races be your first choice, too?

    Caroline Lawrence writes history-mystery books for kids. She has written over twenty books set in first century Rome and is now writing a series about a detective in the Wild West. There are horses in those books, as well. For more info, go to www.carolinelawrence.com and follow her @CarolineLawrenc

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  • 02/09/14--13:00: January Competition winners
  • The winners of the January competition are: 

    Ruan Peat
    Clare the Reader
    Spade and Dagger

    Please send your land addresses to:


    to claim your prizes. 


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    A friend of mine - a Renaissance man himself - has made an exotic purchase in Venice: a letter of passage for two zebras. He has kindly allowed me to share its contents.

    The letter is addressed to Cavaliere Cerrutti, agent and Consul General for Sardinian Affairs in Egypt and was written in Alexandria on the 23rd June, 1833

    Most Illustrious Lord,
    By order of Signor Cavaliere Luigi Molinari, Consul in Aleppo, I am shipping to you, on the French steamer Menton, two zebras (or two desert mules), male and female, to be put at the disposal of Signor Francesco Gatti, for the Royal Menagerie of Turin.

    Rather than simply consigning them to the steamer and sending them off, I thought it would be better to send a trusted man of mine to see to their care; the fares of the man and the animals were paid by me; I only ask that Your Illustrious Lordship arranges the return of the aforementioned man, named Hassan, and to acknowledge the receipt of the animals and advise their condition; if these same beasts are doing well, I’d ask you to give him a tip, as I assured him that he would be remunerated by the recipients if they were satisfied.

    These animals eat barley, vegetables, milk, unsalted bread, but the best food for now is milk, and therefore it is recommended that the man should obtain milk and vegetables in every port where the boat stops.

    I rejoice in this opportunity to express my respect and to be able to offer my obsequies and declare myself yours, my most Illustrious Lord.
    Your devoted servant
    Sardinian Consul
    C. Belfonte

    So many interesting questions are raised by this letter. Were the zebras ordered particularly? What was the role of Cavaliere Cerrutti in this matter? I could have spent several days researching this matter but in the end decided to concentrate on the destiny of the two zebras rather than the surely far more prosaic lives of their human keepers.

    I believe that this letter refers to the 18th century Palazzina di Caccia of Stupinigi, a stupendously grandiose hunting lodge for the Royal Houses of Savoy. Stupinigi is now a suburb of Nichelino, ten kilometers southwest of Turin. A Royal Menagerie of exotic creatures was set up at the Palazzina di Caccia between 1815 and 1826. The collection constituted a kind of living Cabinet of Curiosities – the animals in ornate cages and enclosures being an extension of the rich collections of minerals, shells and antiquities kept under glass in cupboards and display tables. The exotic beasts of the Royal Menagerie were intended as an expression of the monarchy’s wealth, culture and taste.

    Unlike the animals displayed in the travelling circuses already common at this time – especially in Turin, it seems – our zebras were destined to be seen only by honoured guests and aristocratic visitors to this favourite palace of the royals. Weddings and great parties were often held there.

    The Stupinigi zoo was later turned into a stud farm. Were our zebras still alive then? Were they put to reproductive works?

    But it seems that some of the exotic animals from Stupinigi, including perhaps these milk-fed zebras, ended up stuffed in the zoological museum of Turin. The collections of this organisation now appear to have been translated into the Museo Regionale di Scienze Naturali di Torino.

    If I am ever in Turin, I shall certainly make a visit in the hope of meeting the two zebras face to face.

    Letter courtesy of Greg Warren Wilson
    Translations by Sergio and Daniele Altieri and Michelle Lovric

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    Simon Sebag Montefiore ‘s most recent novel, One Night in Winter, poses this chilling question:  if your children were arrested and tortured, what might they tell about you?
    The story takes place principally in Moscow during the summer of 1945.  As Russia celebrates victory over the Nazis, on a day of parades and rejoicing in the streets, shots ring out and two teenagers lie dead on the Kamenny Bridge. They are both pupils from School 801, a kind of Bolshevik Eton for the progeny of Stalin’s nervous, sweating, ever-shifting inner circle.

    Sebag Montefiore, author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, is of course an accomplished guide into the mad, bad world of Stalin’s Russia. It’s a place where secrets  can be a matter of life and death. The school children have their Fatal Romantics’ Club. Their high-flying parents have their histories, their weaknesses and most dangerous of all, their privately held opinions of The Master, Josef Stalin.

    Everything is coded: the Organs, the Little Corner, the Game, Up the Hill (to the Lubianka).  Children will play. But can children ever really be children in a state where a ten year old may be sent to Siberia and a twelve year old is eligible for the Highest Measure of Punishment, otherwise known as a bullet in the back of the neck?

    Piece by piece the story demolishes our assumptions. Parents will go to any lengths to protect their young? The young will honour their parents without question? Two and two make four? Interrogation scenes swing with nauseating speed between different characters. Within the walls of the Lubianka you feel their confident sense of entitlement melting away.

    Russian stories seem fated to have a cast of thousands. One Night in Winter is prefaced with a welcome and useful list of characters, fictional and real. This is a thriller so I will reveal nothing of their particular roles in the story except to paraphrase a quote and say that, like a party of roped mountaineers, if one falls they are liable to take the others with them.

    I have just one slightly baffled complaint. The book’s title doesn’t make any obvious sense.  There are admittedly a couple of snowy moments but they’re relatively minor scenes. I can only conclude that ‘winter’ refers to the long, dark night of Stalin’s reign. Perhaps someone will put me straight.    

    Whatever, it’s a gripper.

    One Night in Winter,published 27th February 2014 by Arrow, price £7.99



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    Section of a pom-pom gun being reassembled by Ordnance Wrens at Liverpool (World War II)

    by Royal Navy official photographer, Lt H.W. Tomlin.
     [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    In three days’ time a new exhibition will open at The Queen’s House (a 17th-century former royal residence which is now part of the 'Royal Museums Greenwich' in London). Entitled War Artists at Sea, the exhibition is going to be made up of a rolling programme of displays, over the next twelve months, of paintings and drawings from both the First and Second World Wars. The displays will include, in the words of the Royal Museums website, “visually arresting and moving portraits, battle scenes, and depictions of everyday life during conflict” created by a number of different artists. Of those artists listed on the website so far, only one is a woman: Gladys E. Reed.

    Gladys Reed’s contribution to the exhibition consists of 14 pencil drawings of her fellow Wrens (members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service), made while she was a wireless telegraph operator during World War II. Unfortunately, for copyright reasons, I cannot include examples in this blog, but if you click here, you will get a sense of how fantastic – and fascinating – the drawings are. Executed in pencil on cheap paper during Reed’s break times, these are wonderfully intimate and detailed portraits of women at work, captured when the Wrens were in the middle of maintenance and engineering tasks, operating the wireless messaging service, or staying up on night watch.

    The drawings were acquired by the National Maritime Museum in 1947, and this is the first time they have been exhibited. The museum is hoping that the exhibition will shed light on the life of Reed, who is something of a mystery to the curators.

    They do have a few letters from her correspondence with Frank Carr, who was the Director of the National Maritime Museum at the time of the acquisition. In them Reed apologises for the grubby state of the drawings, saying she carried them about with her, and sketched whenever the opportunity arose, “under all sorts of conditions”.

    I console myself,” Reed goes on, “with the thought that they may still reflect a little of that busy, happy atmosphere that did exist in the WRNS – especially in the “open air” categories.”

    [excerpt from letter quoted on Royal Museums website here]

    Wrens riveting anti-submarine nets at Greenock, Scotland (World War II)

    by Royal Navy official photographer Lt S.J. Beadell
    [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    Well, the drawings I've seen so far have certainly captured my attention – as has the fact that the Museum knows so little about Reed and is eager to find out more. Aside from the information in the letters, the curators know a few details of her wartime service, but they are not allowed to access her service records, and do not even know whether (perhaps?) she is still alive. Moreover, the 14 drawings Reed gave to the National Maritime Museum were not her entire collection – she had kept a total of around 30 drawings from her time as a Wren. Perhaps she gave some to friends – perhaps they are still treasured as part of someone’s family collection?

    So I thought I would do my small bit to spread the net perhaps a little wider… Does anyone reading this blog have any more information about Gladys E. Reed? Here are the details of her life that are known, as stated on the Royal Museums Greenwich website:

    We know that Reed joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) in 1943. From February to July 1943 she was in the Woolwich class and trained at the coding school HMS Cabbala, a shore base near Warrington for wireless telegraph operators. Between 1943 and 1944 she worked as a wireless telegraph operator in the Liverpool and Birkenhead area, and was stationed at the shore base HMS Eaglet, Liverpool, the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief of the Western Approaches. This shore base coordinated the British side of the Atlantic Convoy system, and monitored German U-boat activity with the aim of suppressing it.”

    If you have any further information, the Museum would be delighted to hear from you! There are links to follow at the bottom of this page on their website, telling you how to get in touch.

    Gladys Reed’s drawings will go on display on March 15th2014, as part of the rolling programme for War Artists at Sea.

    WRNS craftswomen dismantling a large marine engine 
    in the workshop at HMS Tormentor, Southampton (World War II)

    by Royal Navy official photographer Lt L. Pelman
    [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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    In February people’s thoughts turn to love – whether we want them to or not – so I thought I might take a brief look at some Tudor and Stuart love stories, though not the kind with happy endings.

    Margaret Douglas in later years

    In the mid sixteenth century with Henry VIII on the throne and no male heir, the Tudor dynasty was not secured; meaning marriages that might challenge the throne were dangerous indeed. This resulted in a number of sorry tales of star-crossed romances and the incarceration of some of the noblest lovers in the land. One such lover was Lady Margaret Douglas. Born in 1515, Margaret was the daughter of Henry VIII’s elder sister Margaret Tudor and her second husband Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus. She lived under the watchful eye of her uncle at the English court, eventually joining Anne Boleyn’s household.

    Margaret was a particularly romantic girl, being part of a group of young courtiers that wrote and exchanged love poems. The love sonnet was becoming fashionable in English court circles, as a result of Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard’s re-workings of Plutarch. Fuelled by notions of romantic love, and also perhaps by the unusual example of the King who had recently made a love match with Anne Boleyn, the young and attractive coterie around the new Queen created a hothouse ambiance of flirtation. This was encouraged by Anne Boleyn and would later be used against her. 

    Bess Throckmorton
    It is probable that the king hoped to make a useful alliance by marrying Margaret into one of the European ruling houses, but while no marriage was arranged it was perhaps inevitable that Margaret’s head would be turned in this heady atmosphere. She fell for one of the Queen’s cousins: Lord Thomas Howard whose family was exceedingly powerful. She and Thomas met in secret, exchanging love tokens and eventually engaged in a secret betrothal. This was a serious commitment at a time when to make such a promise in front of a witness was a binding contract. Their betrothal remained a secret for a year, perhaps due to the fact that the King’s attentions were entirely taken up with the collapse of his second marriage, ending with the Queen, for whom he had sacrificed so much, on the scaffold. With the fall of her mother the two-year-old Elizabeth Tudor was, like her half sister Mary, deemed illegitimate, meaning that Margaret Douglas found herself second in line to the English throne, after her half-brother James V of Scotland. This made her secret betrothal to one of the powerful Howards all the more dangerous, as any male heirs from the match could potentially destabilise Henry’s position.

    So when Henry, newly married to Jane Seymour, got wind of the secret romance the erstwhile couple were clapped in the Tower, where they continued to exchange gifts and poems. They were entirely oblivious to the fact that Henry was forcing a new law through parliament that deemed those of royal blood who married without consent, and those who sought to marry them, as committing treason. Thomas was condemned to death; Margaret fell seriously ill and was released into the care of the nuns at Syon Abbey. Some months later poor Thomas died of ‘an ague’ still incarcerated in the Tower. Margaret, with her beloved Thomas dead and shunted to third in line after the birth of Edward Tudor, was released and pardoned, going on to serve the next Queen, Anne of Cleves, and her successor the young and naïve Katherine Howard.

    Lady Katherine Grey with her son, born in the Tower
    Margaret behaved impeccably in the four years following the debacle that sent her to the Tower, but her romantic spirit had not been entirely quashed and it was yet another Howard boy, this time Charles, brother to the new queen, who caught her eye. But Katherine Howard was on the brink of a calamitous fall, due to her own amorous and adulterous behaviour, and when her household was investigated Margaret’s flirtation with Charles Howard emerged. He was banished and she was warned in no uncertain terms by the King that having ‘demeaned herself towards His Majesty, first with the Lord Thomas Howard, the second with Charles Howard’, to ‘beware the third time’. She was later happily married to the charismatic Earl of Lennox, in a political alliance that gave Henry VIII leverage over Scotland. This marriage produced two sons, one being Lord Darnley who was the second husband of Mary Queen of Scots and father of Scottish King James VI who eventually became James I of England.

    Elizabeth Vernon
    A few decades later, during Elizabeth’s reign, love became an increasingly dangerous business. The queen’s cousin, Lady Katherine Grey, sister of the tragic Jane, secretly married the Earl of Hertford, was imprisoned and gave birth to two sons in the Tower. The eldest, as the first boy to be born with Tudor blood for some years, would have had a strong claim to the throne, had Elizabeth not had him deemed illegitimate. Poor Lady Katherine died in captivity and her sister, Lady Mary, too, was imprisoned for an unsanctioned marriage. Elizabeth was notoriously averse to her maids-of-the-chamber getting hitched, royal blood or not, and a number of them ended up incarcerated: Anne Vavasour, who gave birth to the Earl of Oxford’s bastard in the maid’s dormitory at Whitehall Palace, and Queen’s favourites, Bess Throckmorton and Sir Walter Ralegh, were sent to the Tower. Elizabeth Vernon, who secretly married the Earl of Southampton, had a spell in the Fleet Prison. Other’s avoided prison but were banished from court, like Lettice Knollys who wed the Queen’s beloved Earl of Leicester never to be forgiven, and her daughter-in-law, Frances Walsingham, whose marriage to Lettice’s son the Earl of Essex (another of the Queen’s favourites) was cast out from court for life.

    Arbella Stuart
    Another sad story is that of the granddaughter of the above-mentioned Margaret Douglas. Arbella Stuart was, like her grandmother, a strong claimant to the English throne. Some championed her as Elizabeth’s heir, suggesting her claim was stronger than that of her cousin James VI of Scotland, as she’d been born on English soil; but it was James who won out. Seventy years had passed since Margaret Douglas’s incarceration, when Arbella found herself in a similar situation. Having secretly married William Seymour (grandson of the above mentioned Lady Katherine Grey) the couple were locked up: William in the Tower and she under house arrest in Highgate. The doughty couple managed to both escape, Arbella dressed as a boy. Sadly William failed to make it to their meeting place on time and Arbella was obliged to set sail without him in the hope that they would be reconciled once on the continent. But her ship was captured off Calais and she was returned to the Tower where some accounts say, she starved herself to death. William made it to the Low Countries where he spent some years as a fugitive only able to return to England after Arbella’s death.

    On that note, Happy Valentine’s Day!

    For Margaret Douglas and Katherine Grey’s stories see Leanda De Lisle’s Tudor: The Family Story& The Sisters who would be Queen; for the shenanigans of Elizabeth’s maids- of-the-chamber see Anna Whitelock’s Elizabeth’s Bedfellows and for Arbella Stuart’s sad tale see Sarah Gristwood’s Arbella: England’s Lost Queen.

    Elizabeth Fremantle’s novel Sisters of Treason– out May 2014 – tells the tragic story of the Grey sisters. For details see Elizabethfremantle.com

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    Drawing by Durer 

    Valentine's day? Pah! Today I write a love letter to the Internet, boon to writers and sad teens world wide. I really don't know what I'd do without it all that random clicking to find out where and when, the ability to swoop through antique maps of cities far far away, the chance to see what people wore and how long it might take to travel by stagecoach from Valenciennes to Paris. What did one do before the internet? Were writers dependent on big important libraries? What if you didn't live in a big city or even if you did felt too intimidated by 'proper academics' to go in?

    Those of us with computers and internet access are all so very very lucky.

    So bearing in mind that we all have go to websites, ones we like - mine include several high end vintage clothes dealers that I scroll through and drool over as well as a lovely fly through map of 18th century Paris - I thought I would share this one, a fabulous site that was initially simply a history of people of colour in Europe through art. I think it's much more than a repository of interesting pictures from collections of art and illuminated manuscripts, for me it's much more visceral; it's a kind of personal endorsement that says you know what, people like you have been here forever, you belong just as much as anyone else. And if that isn't a truly loving thought for Valentine's day then I don't know what it is...

    This is the address,  go and have a look and let us know your favourite sites too...


    A Mulatto Gentleman c1800 Fabre

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  • 02/14/14--17:00: Swords of Lineage
  • by Marie-Louise Jensen

    Tolkien's named swords in Lord of the Rings have brought the concept of swords with lineage and personality into common consciousness. Swords such as Bilbo's Sting and Elendir's Narsil which is reforged for Aragorn as Anduril (Flame of the West) are known to Lord of the Rings fans everywhere.
    Tolkien took his inspiration for this - like so much else - from the Norse sagas. His people of Rohan, in particular, were based on Viking peoples and society.
    There are a number of named swords recorded in the Viking sagas and elsewhere. All the names are intended to glorify the wielder or the gods and to intimidate the enemy. The sword of Laxdaela Saga is Leg Biter, another recorded name is Foot Biter. Others are Fierce, Head Biter, Hole Maker, and Sword Breaker.

    Viking swords (courtesy of Wikipedia)
    There was also a sword known as Odin's Flame.
    All these swords were almost certainly the valuable Ulfberht swords which were forged with sharp steel edges in Germany or Russia, using hotter forges and more advanced techniques than the Vikings had themselves. They were highly prized and often worth more than everything else a man owned. It was centuries before such quality could be reproduced again.
    When one considers these swords were pitted against Viking-forged iron swords which had a habit of bending in combat and needing to be straightened underfoot, it becomes clear why they were so prized.
    There were also Viking battle axes with murderous names: Skull Splitter and Head Crusher are two I've come across and I wouldn't feel inclined to face either in battle. And of course the most famous Norse named weapon is the hammer of Thor himself - Mjolnir.
    Viking named swords were passed down through families or were occasionally buried with their owner. Rarely, they were stolen from the burial mounds by men who were brave enough to face the grave ghost. 
    Both these traditions (if they can be called that) are also used by Tolkien. Sting is found in a troll hoard by Bilbo and later passed to his nephew Frodo. And in the Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo and his hobbit companions are trapped in a barrow by a barrow-wight, sent by Angmar the Witch King to haunt the downs. They manage to defeat the wight and escape, taking the valuable swords with them from the barrow, thus echoing the ancient Norse tales in many ways.
    Tolkien borrowed freely and I love discovering the links.

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