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    Witty, urbane Walter Map was a clerk, courtier and man of letters at the court of King Henry II.  He was eventually made arch-deacon of Oxford, and died some time between 1208 and 1210.  During his lifetime he wrote many books - he's even reported to have had some share of authorship in the Arthurian romances - but the only one which has survived is De Nugis Curialium (Of Courtly Trifles), a brilliant mixture of memoir, gossip, stories and opinions – and one of the liveliest accounts of that lively era.

    Walter Map himself describes De Nugis Curialium– with mock-deprecation – as ‘A whole forest and timber yard, I will not say of stories, but of jottings… I am but your huntsman, I bring you the game, it is for you to make dainty dishes out of it.’

    Map is our source for the story of Wild Edric, for the story of King Herla, and for other wild and magical tales from the Welsh borders (I used him extensively in research for my 12th century historical fantasy Dark Angels), but he is also a brilliant raconteur with a pen dipped in acid and a happy way of letting all his prejudices rip.  He satirises the court.  He dislikes the Knights Templar.  He disapproves of the Cistercians and pokes fun at the over-the-top names of their abbeys:

    Thus they ... spread into many establishments; and the names of these always contain some spice of the divine, as Godscot, Godsdale, Port Salvation, Scale-heaven, Wondervale, Lantern, Brightvale (Clairvaux).  From this last rose Bernard [St Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux] and began to shine among, or rather above, the rest, like Lucifer among the stars of night. A man of ready eloquence he was, and used to have carts driven round through the towns and castles, in which to carry off his converts to the cloister.  …And as for the miracles which were done by his means, why, they were written by Geoffrey of Auxerre: believe ye him.

    How he jabs in the knife! - comparing Bernard to the bright evening star but also of course to Satan, whose pride Bernard rivals - revelling in the absurd hubris of 'carts full of converts' - and then that sly, dry comment at the end. 

    Walter Map even treats us to his opinions on the practicality of underpants - sensible garments which all monks ought to wear, especially in strong winds.  He illustrates this with a story in which of course a 'white monk' - a Cistercian - is the comic victim:

    The lord king, Henry the Second,  of late was riding as usual at the head of all the great concourse of his knights and clerks, and talking with Dom Remic, a distinguished monk and an honourable man.  There was a high wind, and lo! a white monk was making his way on foot along the street and looked round, and made haste to get out of the way.  He dashed his foot against a stone and was not being borne up by angels at the moment, and fell in front of the feet of the king's horse, and the wind blew his habit right over his neck, so that he was entirely exposed to the unwilling eyes of the lord king and Reric...

    Our view of the Middle Ages is - inevitably - telescoped, simplified, partial.  We are unaware, or forgetful of, the politics and rivalries which divided what can seem, at this distance, a monolithic structure: the Mediaeval English Church. The lucky survival of Walter Map's 'Courtly Trifles' preserves at least some detail of the very modern bitchery that was in fact going on.  And here is Map, at the dinner table of  Archbishop Thomas à Becket, letting us in on a conversation in which some famous names are being dropped. 

    I was once present at the table of the Blessed Thomas, then archbishop of Canterbury; next to him were sitting two white abbots who were telling of many wonders done by that man, I mean Bernard – the occasion being that a letter of Bernard’s was being read about the condemnation of Master Peter Abelard, the Prince of the Nominalists, who went further astray in dialectic, by the way, than he did in theology.  The latter was the study of his heart; in the other he laboured against the grain…

    Well, a letter was being read of Dom Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, to Pope Eugenius, who had been a monk of his – and no second monk of that Order has followed him in that see. In that letter it was said that Master Peter was as proud as Goliath, and Arnold of Brescia [a disciple of Abelard and preacher of apostolic poverty, executed 1155] was his standard bearer, with much more to the same vicious effect.  The two abbots seized the occasion to praise Bernard, and extolled him to the stars.

    So John Planeta [one of Thomas à Becket's clerks], hearing what vexed and pained him, remarked, “I saw a miracle at Montpellier which made many men marvel.”

    He was asked to relate it, and said he:  “That great man whom you so justly extol had a demoniac, bound, brought to him at Montpellier to be healed, and seated as he was on a great she-ass, he commanded the unclean spirit – the assembled crowd keeping silence – and finally said, “Loose the man and let him go.” But the madman, on feeling himself freed, began to throw stones at the abbot as hard as he could, chased him through the streets, and even when the people caught him, still kept his eyes on Bernard, though his hands were held.”

    The archbishop was not pleased with the tale, and said threateningly to John, “These are your miracles, are they?”

    “Well,” said John, “those who were present said it was a very memorable miracle, because the madman was kind and generous to every one, and only vicious to humbugs, and it still seems to me that it was a judgement on presumptuousness.” 

    Is it just me, or can you too still hear the table erupt in unkind laughter? 

    (The quotations in this post are from the translation by M.R.James, published by the Cymmrodorion Record Series, 1923)

    Picture credits: 
    Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter Wikimedia Commons http://www.silkewerk.com/wire2.htm
    Clip from 'Janvier' from Les Tres Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

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    Three of the things that give me pleasure - old travel guides, the Orkney islands, and storms. But let us define our terms.

    How old do I like my travel guides to be?  George Anderson and Peter Anderson of Inverness published their Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in 1850, and that does me fine.  (I don't own the book, sadly, but you can read it online here.)

    What exactly is meant by 'the Orkney islands'?

    The Orkney Islands lie off the north coast of Scotland, and are separated from the county of Caithness by the Pentland Firth, which is 51 miles broad at the narrowest part.

    Ah, but what constitutes an island?

    If these are considered islands that are insulated every high water, and have flowering plants growing upon them, there are seventy-three, but seventeen of these become peninsulas at low water, so that they are reduced to fifty-six at that state of the tide. Of these, twenty-nine are inhabited, and nineteen more are probably capable of supporting a single family each; but these smaller islands, or, as they are here called, holms, are at present the abodes of innumerable sea-fowl, that hatch upon them with little molestation, while on some a few sheep or cattle are pastured; however, these Peerie [Peerie is a word in common use in Orkney, and means little; and it is curious, that on the return of Captain Cook's discovery vessels from the South Seas, the officers mentioned that the same word is used in the same sense in some islands there.]* islands used to be more valuable on account of the sea-weeds that grow on their rocky shores, than for the scanty herbage that clothes their soil. 

    And what is a storm?  Well, if the Anderson boys are to be believed, it is a veritable tourist attraction, for ...

    If the tourist has the good fortune to be in Orkney during a storm, he will cease to regret the absence of some of the softer and more common beauties of landscape, in the contemplation of the most sublime spectacle which he ever witnessed. 

    This is what you do:

    By repairing at such a time to the weather shore, particularly if it be on the west side of the country, [the lucky tourist] will behold waves, of the magnitude and force of which he could not have previously formed any adequate conception, tumbling across the Atlantic like monsters of the deep, their heads erect, their manes streaming in the wind, roaring and foaming as with rage, till each discharges such a Niagara flood against the opposing precipices as makes the rocks tremble to their foundations, while the sheets of water that immediately ascend, as if from artillery, hundreds of feet above their summits, deluge the surrounding country, and fall like showers on the opposite side of the island. 

    Having visited the west crags some days after a recent storm, the writer found sea insects abundant on the hills near them, though about 100 feet high; and a solitary limpet, which is proverbial for its strong attachment to its native rock, but which also seemed on this occasion to have been thrown up, was discovered adhering to the top of the cliff, seventy feet above its usual position. We apprehend it is with limpets as with ourselves, that the highest, and particularly those who are thus suddenly elevated, are not the most happy.

    I feel you apprehend correctly, sirs - I really do - and it has been a pleasure!

    * It IS curious!

    Joan Lennon's website.

    (The photos are mine.)

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    Crowns come in all shapes and sizes. Kings wear them. Queens wear them. Little girls like to wear them when they dress up... and so do big girls! Since a crown appears as a magical object of power in the third book of my Pendragon Legacy series "Crown of Dreams" I had the perfect excuse to buy this shiny jewelled version to wear at events. ( Note to potential muggers: it’s plastic and came from the local pound shop, so those emeralds and rubies are NOT REAL… authors cannot afford to buy real crowns, ok?)

    The packet claims this to be a “Tales of Olde England" crown, which seems perfect for my books… but is it genuine? What kind of crown would the real historical King Arthur have worn?

    To find out, let's go back a few thousand years...

    No crowns from the pre-Christian era have survived, but we know what some of them looked like from studying other historical records. Perhaps the best known ancient crowns are the White crownand Red Crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, recorded in hieroglyphs. These were combined into the distinctive Double Crown worn by the Pharaohs of Egypt:

    The "Double Crown" of the Two Lands (White Crown and Red Crown worn together)

    Then there was the radiant crown of the sun god Helios, otherwise known as the Colossus of Rhodes - one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 226BC. Today, the same crown is worn by the Statue of Liberty in New York.

    Statue of Liberty

    In classical times, crowns were usually a simple ribbon called a "diadem". The ancient Greeks wore a white ribbon to indicate kingship, while the Persian Emperors wore a more elaborate blue-and-white diadem.


    Also in the ancient world, it was customary for winning athletes to be crowned with laurel leaves. In the early Christian era (around 300AD) Emperor Constantine adopted this idea, and so we see the laurel diadem worn by rulers of the Roman Empire with its (previously real) leaves beaten out of gold.

    Roman laurus crown

    Moving on a few hundred years, the oldest surviving European crown is the Iron Crown of Lombardy. This was fashioned in the Early Middle Ages (i.e. around the time of King Arthur, maybe?), and consisted of a circlet of gold fitted around a central iron band, which according to legend was made out of one of the nails used to crucify Christ.

    The Iron Crown

    This looks a bit different from my plastic version, but is probably a more authentic Arthurian crown. (I’m pleased it has jewels, because they are important to my plot!) The iron band in the middle having a religious connection is fascinating, and something I missed for my book – although other magical objects in the Arthurian legends have a spiritual connection, the most obvious being the Holy Grail, which becomes the Grail of Stars in the final book of my series.

    Crowns represent both worldly and spiritual power. According to the Bible, Jesus wore a crown of thorns at his crucifixion, and this has become a common symbol of martyrdom.

    Crown of Thorns.

    while in Roman Catholic shrines, Virgin Mary statues are ceremonially crowned in spring to commemorate her ascent to Heaven.

    Crown of Immortality

    So perhaps it isn’t entirely unreasonable of me to crown King Arthur with a "Crown of Dreams" bestowed with magical properties? Being a legendary king, Arthur reigns in the enchanted mists between fantasy and history, with one eye on the Holy Grail and the other on the Dark Age barbarians rampaging across his lands. A crown that combines magic with kingship would seem to fit well on his head, even if he wasn’t strictly a king as we know it!

    King Arthur, maybe.

    What do YOU think King Arthur’s crown would have looked like, assuming he wore one?


    Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fantasy for young readers.

    The third book in her Pendragon Legacy series about King Arthur’s daughter Crown of Dreams is published this month in hardcover by Templar.

    Book 1 Sword of Light (nominated for the Carnegie medal) and Book 2 Lance of Truth are also available in hardback, paperback and ebook.
    Thanks to Wikipedia for the pictures used to illustrate this post.

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    On a morning in January when the snow was receding but still around on the ground, I visited Great Shelford. As I got off the bus, I admired all over again the little pink Post Office.

    Then I made my way to Woollard's Lane, and turned right to walk down to our beautiful state-of-the-art small library.

    Next door to the library there's a delicatessen, the Shelford Delicatessen that houses both a wonderful restaurant/cafe, (with a beautiful garden out at the back where you can sit and eat in the summer) and every kind of delicious food, lots of it home made. I go there very often with my friend Helen Craig, the illustrator, and we try to turn our eyes away from the cakes. Sometimes we succeed.

    I was on my way (accompanied by Helen) to the church of St Mary the Virgin, which has served the people of this village since the days when it was known as Shelford Magna. There has been a place of worship here on this site since Saxon times but the present church was built by Thomas Patesely between 1396 and 1418. The village celebrated a 600th birthday in 1996, so I'm calling it 616 years old. It's a very traditional church, but the tower you see in the photo is one that replaced a tall spire which crumbled and gradually fell during the 18th century: a time when the whole church seems to have been dreadfully neglected. Fortunately, it's been brilliantly looked after since the 19th century and the new tower is a fine one. I love old churches. I love cathedrals. I love any place where you can feel the weight of centuries all around you.

    In St Mary's, the first thing to catch my eye, though, was a beautiful parish banner, made by Mrs Rosamund Angus as a memorial to her parents. Even though this is a very modern piece of sewing, it has a nice Byzantine feel to it, on account of the gold fabric, which is not too clearly visible in my photo. Take my word for it, it lights up this side of the church.

    Look at this First World War memorial. I was struck, as I am always struck, by how many names there are just for this small corner of the country. The poppies look still fresh from November but the flags are older.

    One of the main reasons I wanted to look inside the church was to see the Doom, a painting of the Last Judgement.The photos I took of it don't begin to show it properly, but it is very faded and hard to make out. The booklet I bought tells me that it's one of the finest examples of such a painting in the country, even though you can scarcely see it. It was covered up during the Reformation. I quote the description of it written by Richard Hale, vicar in 1961 which comes from the booklet: "In the middle, Christ wears the crown of thorns and the scarlet robe and he sits on a rainbow with the sun on one side and the moon (with a face) on the other. His left hand is raised in a gesture of judgement. Angels on both sides bear the cross, the spear, the sponge and the javelin. To the left is John the Baptist - the prophet of wrath to come. To the right kneels the Virgin Mary, interceding for sinners. Above angels sound the last trump and below the dead rise from their graves. To the right, the redeemed enter through the gate of the heavenly city, welcomed by the blessed ones on the wall. To the left, the demons drag the doomed off to hell." You would be well advised to conjure up in your minds what Rev Hale has said and not look too closely at my inadequate photograph.

    I couldn't make out much of the detail of the painting, but this angel on a pillar can stand in for all the others Richard Hale described.

    All over the church there is beautiful wood carving. This is from the choir stalls.

    Above the font you can see John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary in stained glass.

    And on the way out, a beautiful Memento Mori, looking suitably sombre in the snow. But the impression that the church gives is far from gloomy. It's a place of calm, a very unflashy beauty and deep sense of the continuity of life in one place through hundreds of years that is deeply comforting, even to a Jewish atheist.

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    It’s been a particularly soggy winter in Britain, though not quite as bad as in the year the Black Death struck in 1348, when according to many independent records of the day, it rained every day from Midsummer’s Day to Christmas day. The saint we usually associate with rain is St Swithun, but today is the Saint’s Day of another rain-maker – St Cuthman.

    Cuthman was 7th century Anglo-Saxon shepherd boy who became a mendicant hermit, travelling the roads to beg and preach. His mother was paralysed, so he put her in a wheelbarrow which he dragged or pushed along wherever he went, by means of a rope round his shoulders. It certainly can’t have been a comfortable ride for the poor woman, being trailed through the mud in rain, wind and snow or bumped over frozen ruts on rough tracks.

    Inevitably, the wheelbarrow couldn’t take the jolting and fell apart at Penfold Fields in Steyning, Sussex and Cuthman’s long-suffering mother was pitched out, much to the amusement of the field-hands nearby who were hay-making. Legend has it that, in his rage at being mocked, young Cuthman cursed Penfold Fields saying that from then on whenever anyone tried to harvest hay there it would rain and destroy the crop. The curse seems to have drifted out far and wide, because eventually the superstition grew up that whoever cut grass on St Cuthman’s day would cause it to rain. An excellent excuse for not cutting the lawn today!

    But the accident was a blessing for Cuthman’s poor mother, for the young saint took it as a sign he should build a wooden church at Steyning together with a hut for his mother, which must have been a great relief to her. In 1939, Christopher Fry wrote a play about St Cuthman, called The Boy with a Handcart.

    Cuthman’s method of provision for his aged mother may have been unusual, but the problem of taking care of the elderly has been exercising all our minds recently as we all worry about our future pensions and who will pay for them. They had exactly the same concerns back in the Middle Ages. In medieval times pension provision took the form of a corrody, a single lump sum of money paid to a convent or religious house. In return the convent promised that when the corrodian became old and infirm they would provide lodgings, food and fuel for that person until their death.

    Sometimes the convent guaranteed to give the person a regular annual fixed income to buy these necessities, otherwise the convent would provide the lodgings, food and fuel itself.
    Employers often bought corrodies for valued employees. The religious houses used the insurance scheme as a means of obtaining ready cash especially in times of financial hardship -and they gambled that the old person would die quickly, so they could make a profit. But if the corrodian lived longer than expected, the religious house would end up losing money and there were a number of complaints from almoners in the convents or monasteries at the time that the elderly were living too long and proving too expensive. It seems little has changed!

    Sculpture of St Cuthman by Penelope Reeve, created 2000, on St Cuthman’s field. Photo attribution - Pam Fray [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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    Caroline & Richard, Villa San Marco

    by Caroline Lawrence

    We have fled snowy London for Naples in January. We arrive at lunchtime. Naples is cool and overcast, but blessedly free of snow. Our Cambridge alumni tour group is taken by bus to the Hotel Scapolatiello in the charming hill town of Cava de' Tirreni near the Amalfi coast. We check in, drop bags, and an hour later we set out to visit some Roman villas abandoned after the eruption of Vesuvius.

    Castellammare del Stabia
    Our coach – driven by the angelic Angelo – swishes along a rain-slicked motorway through an afternoon winter storm past un-picturesque buildings along an agro-industrial motorway. We pass through a town called Castellammare. (No town should have that many double consonants.) The pavements are decorated with the same pale wave pattern you see in some Pompeian villas.

    ticket booth for the Villa San Marco
    We arrive at a car park by a link fence in what looks like an ugly suburb. It is raining hard and almost closing time at the site of a few luxurious Roman villas rarely visited by tourists. Luckily someone is manning the ticket booth – you can never be sure in Italy – probably because our tour guide Valerie phoned ahead to make sure. Professor Valerie Higgins is no ordinary tour guide. She is a professor of Classics at the American University of Rome. She beckons us on.

    approaching the Villa San Marco
    Down a concrete path, sidestepping rivulets and puddles, we come to the impressive entrance flanked by two fat columns and an un-Roman pot plant out front. Through the entryway and into a big, dim atrium. Spattering, clattering rainwater is pouring through the compluvium, but perhaps not quite as the Roman builders intended. Despite four lions' head gargoyles (that word comes from gargle) at each corner, the lack of a gutter means the water falls from each edge and hits the sides of the impluvium, making the area around it very damp indeed.

    Professor Valerie Higgins
    Surely all the water should be carried into the rainwater pool?

    But we get a sense of the Dickensian darkness that Roman villas would have experienced in the depths of winter. Here the frescoes are obscure or almost invisible. You are almost upon a little figure before you notice him or her. Some are so dim that you pass them by. They’re watching you but you don’t even notice.

    Past a baths complex with a nice plunge bath deep enough to require three steps. Hopefully the slaves will have filled it with hot water so you can soak in a steaming tank with rainwater covering your upturned face with cold little kisses.

    Roman garden and swimming pool
    Passing this, you emerge from dark frescoed rooms into a long garden, bright even with lowering grey clouds. The grass is neon green, the sky electric with lightning as Jupiter Pluvius (Jove who rains) thunders and sends down increased volumes of ‘pluve’. There is a long swimming pool, Olympic-sized, sunk between the spiky rank of pollarded plane trees (not original). Water pours. A gutter channels mini-torrents along to a cistern which will provide the household with fresh water for many a day to come.

    Perseus with Medusa
    We hunch under umbrellas or hoods and make a dash for the balancing colonnade on the other side of the pool. Jupiter strobes us with his glory and roars his might. Jupiter Pluvior! Along this portico, through rooms, up a ramp, inviting and slick, promising us a view of the Bay of Naples and il Vesuvio looming beyond. What do we see? Grey mist and cloud. And a wonderful (but tiny) fresco of Perseus with the head of Medusa. Jupiter roars a laugh and flashes a picture of our consternation. Bah! Jupiter. We don’t mind. It’s atmosphere! We love it. Bring it on!

    And he does. Jove pours wetness from the wooly heavens, roaring and flashing in quick succession, closer and closer, lower and lower, nearer and nearer: Jupiter Pluvissimus!

    We scurry through the chilly rain, muttering curses, not at Jupiter but at our husbands who have left their umbrellas in the hotel room requiring us to nobly give over our own brollies and submit to rain in nothing but our hoodies.

    The road back to Cava de' Tirenni
    Finally reaching the safe haven of the coach again, we stamp up the steps into its warmth, the other British passengers smiling ruefully at the inclement weather. Our coach aquaplanes down torrents that were streets and sends great bow waves up onto the pavement. Back along an ugly motorway that cuts inland across the gulf, not even glimpsing that pastel kingdom of Lemon-dom: Sorrento. At last we reach our hotel on a hill whose rain-slicked terrace can almost – but not quite – show us the Amalfi waters of Solerno.

    Sabbatino makes a Hot Mark Twain
    Damp and shivering, we congregate by a the hotel bar and try to think of variations on hot toddies. I ask Sabbatino the bartender, what the locals drink. He turns, surveys the colourful bottles on the shelf and finally chooses a bottle of something orange. This is very good, he says. But when he can’t undo the top and has to run it under boiling water I get suspicious. Is this that notorious bottle that has been lurking at the back of the others? Does he finally sees his chance to offload it on an unsuspecting tourist?

    Scapolatiello fireside
    The previous week my friend McAvoy Layne AKA Mark Twain visited London from Nevada to promote a whiskey. At the reception, they served a drink called a Mark Twain. It consists of whiskey, lemon juice, sugar syrup and water. We could make one with hot water and call it a Hot Mark Twain!

    Do you have lemons? I ask Sabbatino. But of course! In a region that produces four crops of lemons a year, the hotel has plenty.

    And it turns out that a Hot Mark Twain is just the thing to sip after a chilly afternoon spent with Jupiter Pluvius on the Bay of Naples.

    Caroline travelled to The Bay of Naples with Andante Travels via CamTravel at her own bleeding expense! But it was worth it.

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    Since 2009 an incongruous outsider has dominated one of the most crucial views in Venice. The obtrusive guest is this blindingly white sculpture of a boy with a frog by American artist Charles Ray. He’s been placed at the Punta della Dogana, the tongue of marble that juts out into the Venetian bacino, once the perfect vantage point to drink in the Piazzetta of San Marco, the sweep of the Riva degli Schiavoni, the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. To the left are the grandest palaces of the Grand Canal; to the right the lozenge of Giudecca melts into the lagoon.

    It was once described to me as the most perfect place to kiss in Venice.

    But now all kisses are supervised by an outsize naked boy.

    Boy stands like a Roman, legs spread. He’s eight feet tall – but his proportions are those of a child, creating, for some, an uneasy paedophilic aura. In one hand, the blank-faced boy clutches the limp frog, which seems to be dead. The frog hangs upside down, like the dead Mussolini suspended in front of the hating crowds.

    And American art critic has praised the work as enigmatic and beguiling, a manifestation of shape-shifting, seeing it also as 'at once Greco-Roman and hyper-real'. According to this critic, the figure 'casually invokes time'.

    Now Venetians love art, and have hosted the world-famous Biennale of modern art since 1895. But Boy with Frog is so much disliked by so many locals that guards had to be employed twenty four hours a day to stop people from pushing him into the lagoon, or inscribing those tempting white buttocks with graffiti. Eventually, after a call to arms for his destruction, he acquired a huge glass and steel cage, like an oversized telephone booth, in which he is encased every night

    A Venetian has explained a possible meaning of the sculpture to me: ‘Venice is an amphibious city – that is what the frog represents. The boy is Youth. So Youth holds the dead Venice upside down in a humiliating position. Perhaps he killed her. Perhaps he didn’t. But he shows no respect to her corpse.’

    No wonder so many Venetians hate the statue! Even if they don’t subscribe to this insulting interpretation, their favourite passeggiata culminates in a view of the lagoon filtered through the boy’s shiny buttocks.

    Despite a petition and a Facebook group against him, Boy has mysteriously stayed in place for four years in a city where even a new window-sill can be refused permission because it does not conform with the all-important ‘tipologia veneziana’’

    There have been repeated promises to remove the sculpture, which offends so many, and restore what was there before him: one of the romantic lamp-posts that shed a sweet rose-coloured light around the city by night. This was uprooted in 2009 to make way for Boy, and has never been seen since.

    Meanwhile, Boy has stayed in place.

    Another Venetian has explained to me that the statute has been ‘bait’, drawing the crowds to the point of the Dogana, where the owner of the sculpture, French millionaire Francois Pinault houses part of his art collection. I will say that his financing of the restoration of the Dogana, or Customs House, is a great boon to Venice, and it was carried out with remarkable sensitivity by the Japanese architectTadao Ando. Boy was placed in front of the museum to mark the festivities of the opening, and it was thought that he would be removed soon afterwards. He was not.

    If the price of the restoration of the Customs House is the continued presence of this boy with a frog, then Venice has paid highly. As the Gazzettino put it recently, many have been questioning the ‘"svendita" della città al primo imprenditore di passaggio’ – the way the city lay down for/sold out to the first passing millionaire.’

    However, I am happy to report that the buttocks shall soon have a happy ending.
    A former councillor for the ministero per i Beni culturali, Franco Miracco, recently wrote a hard-hitting letter to the Venice’s Comune and Soprintendenza ai Beni artistici e architettonici.He asked a simple question: what had happened to the authorization to leave the statue standing in this place?

    What indeed?

    It has been announced that from March 18th works will commence to remove Boy from his position. His destination is unknown, possibly away from Venice. And in his place will be erected a lamp post created from an original 19th-century mould in Mantova. It will be funded by a consortium of lighting companies.

    As the Gazzettino rejoices,’ Insomma Bingo! Per la gioia dei veneziani "puristi", dei nostalgici o solo dei romantici.

    I would say that this not just a gift for the nostalgic or for the romantics. This is history reasserting itself. Nineteenth-century history, as the original lamp dates back only to then, but living history in that the image of that lamp is held in the memories of living Venetians, those who loved to walk to the Punta della Dogana, those who loved to kiss there.

    I hope that Boy finds a pleasant retirement somewhere in the countryside, in place where his presence is congruous with his environment. Venetian Macau, the subject of my last History Girls blog, comes to mind ....

    Michelle Lovric's website

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    Doctors, in spite of their long years of training, don’t always stick to medicine. I’ve known a few myself who’ve been tempted away into office jobs or lucrative pharmaceuticals or even journalism. Dr Thomas Pettigrew went into show business.

    He started off conventionally enough. The son of a Navy surgeon, he seemed set to follow Pa. He walked the wards, rose to be Professor of Anatomy at Charing Cross Hospital, and built up a rather ritzy patient list that included Queen Victoria’s uncle, the Duke of Sussex. Then things unravelled little. He left Charing Cross under some unidentified cloud, but he seems not to have minded. He was a man given to enthusiasms  -  in fact the only reason I ever stumbled upon him was his memoir of Horatio Nelson which encouraged a campaign for the belated recognition of Nelson's daughter and the award of a pension for her  - and in Victorian England there was an enthusiasm ripe for his energies: Egyptomania.

    In the early 1800s one could buy mummies. Pettigrew paid £23 for his first one, bought at auction at Sotheby’s. Many people bought them just to own them. Dr Pettigrew at least brought something of his medical training to his examination of the embalmed bodies. He became recognised as an expert in embalming techniques and published a book on the subject, though these days there’s some dispute as to how much his public unrollings added to our knowledge. But above all he was a showman and his Unrollings became hot tickets in the 1830s and 40s. ‘Mummy’ Pettigrew, they called him.

    He carried out his first public unrolling at Bullock’s museum in Piccadilly. Yards and yards of bandages, so they say. Sometimes he’d unroll a mummy at his house in Savile Row. What an understanding wife! During one domestic unrolling a maid is reported to have overhead him exclaim that he’d found some hieroglyphics which might reveal the identity of the body. She ran down to the kitchen and announced, ‘Doctor Pettigrew has his name. It’s Harry Griffiths.’

    Sometimes he unrolled in a more learned setting. A ticket for one of his Unrollings at the Royal Institution could set you back a guinea. Often though he unrolled at private houses. It was all the rage, a bit like Tupperware parties in the 1960s. Then attitudes changed. People began to ask was it right to disturb the dead in such a circus setting, and was anything being learned from the exercise? Unrolling parties suddenly became very ‘last year.’ But Dr Pettigrew has one final claim to fame.

    The 10th Duke of Hamilton, a man known in life mainly for the splendour of his wardrobe, was also keen on all things Egyptian. He ordered a mausoleum to be built in the grounds of Hamilton Palace and bought himself a Ptolemaic sarcophagus. Then, when he died, in 1852, Pettigrew hurried round to Portman Square as arranged and embalmed him. The body was then transported north to Lanarkshire in a regular coffin. At Hamilton it was transferred to the basalt sarcophagus. This had originally been the resting place of an Egyptian princess and so had to be chiselled out a little, to accommodate the duke’s more substantial body. There he rested for several years, but the estate fell into disrepair and the house and mausoleum were demolished in the 1920s. There's a sports' ground there now, The Duke and his sarcophagus ended up in a council cemetery. O tempora! O mores!

    Horatia Nelson did get her pension however. But that’s another story.    

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    Richard III's burial site
    photograph by Chris Tweed 
    [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

    It’s like something out of a novel. A writer, obsessed with Richard III, manages to raise the hefty sum necessary to fund an attempt to find his remains. She then persuades sceptical experts to take on the project and, lo and behold, in the very first trench dug on the very first day of excavation, finds her man.

    It’s like something out of a novel but, if you gave that novel to an archaeologist to review, s/he would say it would never happen.

    “One of the things you don’t do in archaeology is you don’t go looking for a specific thing, because the chances are you’ll never find it. And you don’t go looking for famous people.”

    So said Leon Hunt, the dig supervisor, in last week’s (excellent) Channel 4 documentary which followed the dig from the beginning (you can watch the documentary here.)

    And Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist added:

    “There are people who have these great dreams of finding things… As an archaeologist I just know how many variables there are at play on any excavation. So the chance of finding Richard was… a million to one.”

    It was the first attempt in this country to find the lost remains of an anointed king.

    It was taking place in the car park of a Leicester social services building.

    It was led by an intensely emotionally involved writer, Philippa Langley, who "suddenly felt cold" when she stood on a parking space marked with an R (for, um, ‘reserved’).

    It had, in short, all the ingredients for a rather wonderful and eccentric English comedy, ending in noble failure. I could see exactly why Channel 4 chose Simon Farnaby, a comic actor best known for playing Death in Horrible Histories and Spike in Jam and Jerusalem, as presenter (and not just a voiceover presence, incidentally, but there in person at the dig).

    And yet, not only did the Leicester University team find Richard III, but they found him straight away– his leg bones were uncovered in the very first trench (minus the feet, destroyed when a Victorian outhouse had been built; how close the whole skeleton had come to destruction, no doubt one of many such close shaves). At that stage, the archaeologists weren’t even sure they had found the right building. The exact layout of the Greyfriars friary they were looking for was not known before digging began. And so they covered up the legs and made no attempt to uncover the rest of the body until they had found their architectural bearings.

    As time went on, and it became nail-bitingly clear that the skeleton might be that of Richard III, presenter Simon Farnaby rose to the occasion brilliantly. He seemed able to empathise both with Philippa Langley’s frequently overwhelmed state, and with the bemusement of the academics who were startled by someone reacting as a close relative might when viewing what were in fact the 527-year-old remains of a stranger.

    At this stage of the documentary – as Philippa, Simon and the experts stood clustered around the skeleton in the lab – I was experiencing pangs of job-envy (why wasn’t I an archaeologist/bone expert/obsessed Richard III Society member with excellent fund-raising skills?). How I would have loved to be able to examine a bone from Richard III’s forearm and notice its gracile quality. ('Gracile' isn’t a word I’ve had cause to use before this week, but I’ve learnt it means gracefully slender and, to a bone expert, it implies femininity. Usually.) How fascinating it would have been to peer at the nasty effects of one of his post-mortem injuries, or examine the truly gruesome traumas to his skull.

    I must admit to slightly ghoulish instincts in this regard, I think because I have never fully accepted that I cannot go back in time and meet these people – and meeting their remains might be the next best thing. For example, when the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Katherine Parr (Henry VIII’s sixth wife) tells me that:

    For nearly 250 years her body lay forgotten until it was accidentally unearthed by some workmen in May 1782. Opening the lead casket, they found the body in perfect condition but it rapidly disintegrated...”

    …I do rather wish a Channel 4 documentary team had been there to film it.

    But this train of thought untangles, for me, one of the many reasons for my complete fascination with what has been going on in the search for Richard III. We simply do not usually have the chance to examine the remains of known individuals from history, to compare the sources with the bone-hard evidence. In Richard’s case, we can now compare written descriptions of his build, his looks, his disability and the manner of his violent death and his treatment afterwards with the story his skeleton tells. We can compare the surviving portraits (none painted in his lifetime) with the facial reconstruction made using his skull.

    We cannot tell anything about his personality and his actions other than that, most likely, he fought doggedly to the end. We cannot tell whether or not he was responsible for the murder of his nephews. But we can imagine with more accuracy, perhaps, what his experience of scoliosis was like, as a war leader in a brutal age which expected him to be able to fight for his life (for example there is a very interesting article by Julie Myerson, who also has scoliosis, here). And we can evaluate more accurately exactly what the Tudor propagandists got up to in their portrayal of Richard (as the art historian Pamela Tudor-Craig commented in the Channel 4 documentary, it is much easier to take a fact and exaggerate it than it is to invent something from scratch).

    All this is made possible by the fact that Richard was lost – and then found. Bones that have never been lost cannot be dug up, willy-nilly, for the sake of interesting tests. Much as I would love a facial reconstruction expert to get to work on Anne Boleyn’s skull (since no authenticated likeness drawn or painted in her lifetime exists) or for samples to be taken from Henry VIII’s bones to see what can be learnt about his medical history, the Church of England does not allow such investigations. The bones of the supposed Princes in the Tower – uncovered in the 17th century during building work at the Tower of London and now interred in Westminster Abbey – have been the subject of a concerted campaign by those who want tests done to establish, as far as possible, their identities. However, permission to exhume the remains has been refused. And although DNA and dating tests might bring relative certainty about the identity of the two skeletons, it could not help with the question of who was responsible for their deaths, since Richard III only reigned for two years and dating cannot be done to that level of accuracy. (For more detail on the reasons for the Church of England’s refusal of permission in this case, see this article.)

    Portrait of Anne Boleyn (17th century copy of a lost original, described by Prof. Eric Ives as "the best depiction of Anne we are ever likely to have, failing the discovery of new material”)
    - attributed to John Hoskins 

    [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    So, to meet an ancient king in the bones (if not the flesh) is a rare thing. Richard was the last King of England to die in the thick of battle – and indeed the only king, I think from a quick rummage through the Plantagenets, since Harold had been killed at the Battle of Hastings more than 400 hundred years previously. The details of his wounds given by the experts who worked on his skeleton make sobering reading. And they also widen the attention of all of us interested observers, I hope, to the battle itself. Clearly this was on the mind of Michael Ibsen, a nephew of Richard III at 17 generations’ remove, whose DNA had been used for comparison in the tests. In its report of the day last week when the identity of the skeleton was confirmed, in a blaze of publicity, The Guardian said:

    Ibsen… grew more quiet and subdued as the day wore on. "My head is no clearer now than when I first heard the news," he said. "Many, many hundreds of people died on that field that day. He was a king, but just one of the dead. He lived in very violent times, and these deaths would not have been pretty – or quick."

    Just one of many, many hundreds of dead – not only at Bosworth, but at so many other terrible battles during the Wars of the Roses. None of the other individual dead men could stir up such intense international interest, or gain a university working on their remains such publicity. And yet perhaps Richard III’s remains will lead more people to become interested in those battles, and in what life (and death) was like for the ordinary soldier. There is, for a start, an absolutely brilliant article here on the archaeological work done in the last few years (and still ongoing) on the skeletons of those who died in the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil: the Battle of Towton in 1461. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

    H.M. Castor's novel VIII - a new take on the life of Henry VIII, for teenagers and adults - is published by Templar in the U.K., by Penguin in Australia, and will be published by Simon & Schuster in the U.S. this summer.

    H.M. Castor's website is here.

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    Greetings, oh readers of history.  I am immersed in the fifteenth century just now, researching the historical thread of the Joan of Arc book (I am certain, by now, that I know who she was and it certainly wasn’t a peasant girl who happened to be able to ride a warhorse in full armour). 
    Eaglesham Church, courtesy of wikimedia commons
    In the process of this, I am remembering my childhood, brought up in a small village in the Scottish lowlands. 
    The origins of the village go back far further than my current time period. It seems likely there had been a place of worship at the foot of Balageach, the local hill, since the fifth or sixth century AD  and I am inclined to think it goes back a lot further than that.
    The name itself has nothing to do with winged birds of prey, but comes from the Old English given name of Ecgwulf ,or Ecgel, meaning ‘Sword Wolf’ coupled with the better known ‘ham’ for a village or steading.  The village of Egglisham is recorded as having been part of a bequest made by Fitz-Alan, the first high steward of Scotland, and founder of the Stuart dynasty, to Roger de Montgomerie, fifth descendent of the Roger de Montgomerie who fought at the side of the Bastard of Normandy at the battle of Hastings (you can tell which side I would have preferred to have won: history often hangs on a single battle and Hastings is one of those – our entire feudal system arises from that one afternoon’s mistaken strategy).
    The Earls of Eglington owned the village by the fourteenth century and it was one of those whose words were recorded in the family bible, a copy of which my brother and I studied when I was young.  It wasn’t the bible that was interesting, but the marginal notes. The tradition of medieval times was that these were made in the margins to create a running diary for posterity. 
    I remember little of what was said, except for one notation to the effect that the Earl of the time had been jousting ‘at the tilt’ and there was so much blood in his great helm, that he had to soak his entire head in hot water before he could take it off.
    The Orry in Eaglesham, couresty of wikimedia commons
    One assumes he succeeded in doing this without drowning himself, and lived to fight on, but it’s the kind of personal detail that is missing from the history books and that is feeding now into my sense of awe and wonder and the men who took to jousting as a profession and spent their lives and their finance pursuing it.
    The closest I’ve come to the head-boiling incident in the written histories is the story of William Marshal, who rose from being a fairly lowly knight to end up as a regent of the young king Henry III on the basis of his prowess at the joust. 
    There is an oft-repeated story to the effect that William went missing one day after yet another winning bout and was found in the blacksmith’s with his head on an anvil having his great helm beaten back into a shape that would allow him to take it off. 
    I’ve only worn a great-helm once and that was quite claustrophobic enough. I wouldn’t want to fight in one and I certainly wouldn’t if I thought there was a danger of its being crimped onto my head forever. 
    The Covenanters' memorial, courtesy of Dr Mark Jardine
    Still, back to Eaglesham. It progressed quietly enough, knights not withstanding, until the Covenanter wars of the Seventeenth century when  Charles I tried to impose a new prayer book and regulations on the Presbyterians of Scotland and they rebelled in the form of the Solemn League of the Covenant.
    Alexander, 6th Earl of Eglinton, signed the Covenant and was clearly an active  supporter and the churchyard hosts a memorial to two Covenanters who were shot on their return from a ‘convenantical’ in May 1685.  The hill at the top of the village was known as ‘Covenanter’s Hill’ well into my teens: oral history often survives when the politics of a place has long since moved on.
    In the 18th century, Alexander, the 10th earl of Eglinton, rebuilt a ‘planned village’ (much like our new towns, only pleasanter), shaped around the letter ‘A’, which was itself placed over the old Motte built in 1388 with money paid for by ransoming Henry, Lord Percy, who had been captured at the battle of Otterburn. 

    Memorial text, courtesy of Dr Mark Jardine

    The central green was the A itself, with woods in the northern triangle and a pub at the base, between the long arms of the A.  Cottages line the outside edges of the two long arms, with the track along the middle being left as a muddy lane that was gradually paved over.  Coo Lane (coo = cow) led out west to the dairying fields and the village church, built in 1790, sat on the lower end of the eastern half.
    Our latest claim to fame in the 20th Century is that Rudolph Hess bailed out of his stricken Messerschmitt to land in fields just outside the village on the night of 10th May 1941.
    Since then, we have languished in quiet obscurity, too close to Glasgow for comfort, not quite close enough to have super-fast broadband.  But it’s still a magical place and you can taste the history in the air on a summer’s day…

    Warnning: Do NOT Get Caught While Searching!!
    Your IP : - Country : - City:
    Your ISP TRACKS Your Online Activity! Hide your IP ADDRESS with a VPN!
    Before you searching always remember to change your IP adress to not be followed!
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     I know, I know, it's that day isn't it. And I had intended to write a piece about St Dwynwen, Wales's very own Saint of Love who ended up living as a hermit on her own island just west of Anglesey. Her feast day isn't Valentine's but Candlemas, two weeks or so ago. I was going to write about her  life as put upon virgin who is unlucky in love and grows up to be nun (romantic? nuh-uh), but that led me to one of my all time favourite books - The Penguin Dictionary of Saints.

    This book is a cracker, even though I'm not a Catholic. I think my copy was bought by my brother in a jumble sale in the mid seventies and I stole it off him. I have been entranced by St Agatha with her breasts on a dish (patron saint of bell founders - they're the same shape) or Saint Bathild, carried off by pirates as a child and sold into the household of Clovis II, who married her. Saint Budoc - the book lists him as a 'fantastic composition' whose mother, Azenor, was thrown into the sea off Brest in a cask where she gave birth to little Budoc.  Five months later, still in this cask, the pair wash up on the coast of Ireland alive and well. Or Saint Pelagia of Tarsus, roasted to death inside a brazen bull,  which as  I'm sure you're all aware was a bronze bull shaped torture and execution device which transformed the screams of the torturee into the 'sounds of a bellowing, infuriated bull. Apart from poor St Pelagia, Saint, Eustace and Saint Antipas (pictured) suffered the same fate.

    pic via wikpedia commons

     also suffered the same fate. There are more. Who knew how many ways there were to live and die and get canonised? The book is full of lovely snippets of the fantastical alongside the rather dull and well worth a look. It's worth it just for the names.

    Anyway, like I said I wasn't going to write about saints. But Dwynwen and Valentine did get me thinking about love, and not just the romantic kind.

    One of my theories is that's what we all write about when we make up stories.  Having just finished edits on two very different books, one an 18th century romp with danger and death and dis-interring, the other a 19th century story of self deception and despair and romantic love, they are both about relationships. About need, truth, dependance, desire, the million and one ways people fit together, manipulate and deceive, get hurt or get bored.Some things remain the same whatever century we're writing in.


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  • 02/14/13--14:00: January Competition Winners
  • And the winners of Deborah White's book, Deceit, are:

    Ruan Peat
    Sarah (Walker)
    Young Historian

    Please contact Liz Scott at: liz@lizscottpr.co.uk to receive your prizes


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    (Warning: there's not an awful lot of history in this...)

    I've been musing recently about the relationship between thinking and walking. Like many people, I find that walking helps my thinking. I was going to say that it helps me to think, but it's not quite as clear-cut as that: sometimes when I'm walking I'm not consciously thinking at all. I notice things - like this morning, when I saw a rabbit sitting very still in the distance and realised - with some pleasure - that its outline was exactly the same as a relief carving I did of a rabbit years ago. Or yesterday, when I saw white blossoms trodden into the mud on the ground and looked up in surprise; what could be flowering so early? But mostly, my mind is at rest, not 'besely seking with a continuell chaunge' (to borrow Thomas Wyatt's words). Something is happening though, below the surface, because often by the end of the walk a knot is untied - whether it be a knot in a plot, or a knot of some other kind.

    Anyway, there's that - but also, I recently read a novel called The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. I was gripped by this book. It tells the story of a man in his sixties: very conventional, rather dull - who one day walks out of his house in Salcombe, Devon, to post a letter, and decides on impulse that he will carry on walking all the way to Berwick-on-Tweed, where the intended recipient of the letter lives. The walk changes him, and it changes others, too.

    There used to be far more walkers in the British countryside: tramps, they were called. You don't see them so often now. My father used to tell me a story about one: an ex-soldier, one of the many who couldn't find a job or a place after the First World War - you can read a version of it here. Last week, a sprightly 90 year-old in one of my writing classes told us about another one, who often passed through the town where she lived with her young family in Kent in the 1950s. He was called Smokey Joe. No-one knew anything about him. He had his belongings packed onto his bike, which he never rode, only pushed along the roads. In the piece she wrote about him, Phyllis imagined that he had come back from the war and been unable to face life inside a house, with his family: so one day, he just walked out of the door: he needed the sound of his feet pounding the tarmac, the rhythm of his walking, to deaden the sounds in his head, to stop the procession of images, he couldn't bear to see.

    And in the small town where I live, there is another walker. He's not a tramp -  he lives in the town. But every day, all day long, he walks. He usually has earplugs in, or he stares intently at a mobile phone screen as he walks along. He never, ever makes eye contact, and has only been known to speak to someone - angrily - if they try to push it, to make him talk. Does he walk to think, or does he walk to deaden thinking? I think the latter is more likely. Or perhaps it is that he walks to calm the thinking down, to reduce the noise it makes inside his head? I always think of him as the Walker, partly for the obvious reason, but partly also because he makes me think of the Walker in Susan Cooper's fantasy novel for children, The Dark Is Rising. That one walks because it's his destiny to do so, not just for years, but for centuries; he too carries inside him a burden of  unhappiness which is presumably only bearable if he keeps on moving.

    And finally, I've just started a book called The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane, who lectures in English at Cambridge but has also walked for thousands of miles and written most beautifully about his journeys. He relates a fascinating piece of etymology which shows that the link between thinking and walking has long been seen to exist - and here it is:

    "The trail begins with our verb to learn, meaning 'to acquire knowledge' Moving backwards in language time, we reach the Old English leornian, 'to get knowledge, to be cultivated'. From leornian, the path leads further back, into the fricative thickets of Proto-Germanic, and to the word liznojan, which has a base sense of 'to follow or to find a track' (from the Proto-Indo-European prefix leis- meaning 'track'). 'To learn' therefore means at root - at route - 'to follow a track'."

    And so the journey goes on.

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    Last week I was wandering around Hastings with my brother, idly sight-seeing.  

    Among the tall black-painted net huts below RockaNore Cliff was the Fisherman’s Museum, empty enough on that cold weekday to examine all the exhibits in enjoyable detail, even the huge model of the Great Harry.

    I clambered on to the deck of the old fishing boat in the centre. The walls - although I’m sure that’s not the right word - barely reached the height of my knees. I felt slightly dizzy, even without the swell of the sea. 

    I bought a copy of "Voices from the Stade" The man at the desk was very pleased as he'd been one of the people involved in the collecting the old fisherman's tales and was keen to share his experiences.

    We ambled on, past “Winkle island” with its shiny new sculpture, eyed the windows of the arty, gift and goth shops, and chatted over lazy tea and cake. 

    Then I saw it. An image painted across a pub wall: The America Ground.

    It was one of those moments to do with writing when something remarkable happens. 

    Oddments of information loosely connected to a certain topic suddenly start appearing everywhere, even when you aren’t searching or researching for them.

    Is it that you just didn’t notice such things before? 

    Or does some animus start flinging fascinating details at you, intent on luring you away for weeks or months or years?

    My current writing project is partly involved with the passion for independence that grew among the people of Europe and America in the late eighteenth century and beyond: a deep longing for rights, equality and liberty, combined with that questioning of the crown, clergy and gentry that led to rebellion and revolution.

    There, in Hastings, was the story of a small revolution, a time when the local people rebelled and seized their land for themselves. The “land” wasn’t new. It belonged to nobody. Officially, it wasn't there. 

    Back in the thirteenth century, great storms had reshaped the South Coast. The old cinque ports of Rye and Winchelsea were locked inland and the natural harbour behind Lydd island transformed into the Romney salt-marshes. 

    Even the harbour at Hastings was altered. A long shingle bank was thrown up by the waves, blocking the harbour and making land where there was sea before. This new ground lay outside the bounds of the Borough of Hastings so anyone who settled there need pay no rent or taxes to the town.

    Over time, this No Man’s Land of shacks and upturned boats grew until it held more than a thousand inhabitants. 

    While the great landowners - Lord Cornwallis, the Earl of Chichester, Battle Abbey Estates and the Hastings Corporation – fought each other through the courts for ownership, the place thrived in its own happy rate-free state.

    Originally a haven to fishermen and boat repairers, by now it had tradesmen, lodging houses, livestock keepers, a rope walk, a bakery and a brewery. More enterprises followed: limekilns, stonemasons, a tallow factory, a sawing house, a gin palace and even a small school.

    In 1822, inspired by the American Revolution, the people proclaimed their own independence. They raised the Stars and Stripes and named the strip of shingle shore “The America Ground.”

    However, with seaside resorts becoming fashionable, the Hastings councillors decided that this undesirable collection of shacks and huts must be removed. A Crown Commission offered seven-year leases to the inhabitants, after which the land would belong to the Crown. Most refused, taking their shacks and moving further along the coast to St Leonards.

    So, by 1834, just twelve years later, the America Ground was empty.

    The Councillors got their way and development followed. 

    Now all that is left to commemorate that small stand for independence is the painting on the outside wall of a pub near Robert Street and the raising of the Stars and Stripes nearby every Fourth of July.

    Meanwhile, up here in Yorkshire, there’s another area of land that’s nominally part of England but covered by the Stars and Stripes. 

    Menwith Hill. 

    A different kind of independence.

    Penny Dolan 

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    Not everyone's cup of tea, but I couldn't wait to see it. I have visited caves in the Dordogne and in the Pyrenees and seen the astounding paintings but I have rarely seen the equally impressive carvings and objects which are on view here.

    These objects are of enormous antiquity. 10,000, 20,000, 40,000, the years clock up like the whirling figure on a time machine, going back and still further back to a time we cannot imagine. They are strange to us, profoundly enigmatic, and have been subject to endless interpretation since they were first discovered. At first, because of their size and origin, they were often dismissed as toys. Toys? Really? Does the above look like a toy to you?

    Or this?

    It has been calculated that the Lion Man took 400 hours to make. Would that amount of effort be expended on a toy? It is clearly of far greater significance and this exhibition goes a long way to underline the importance of an object like this. It is a creature that could not exist. In that, it shows the workings of the imagination: a bonding of observation, interpretation and creativity that has informed art ever since. And perhaps it does more than this. I was reminded of the great cave painting in the Trois Frères Cave in Ariège, France, half man, half stag. Does it show a god, or a shaman? We can't know, it was painted 16,000 years ago, but there is a continuity of belief in the stag headed one from  this figure to Herne the Hunter and on to the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance which is still performed today. 

    The female figurines hold the same power and the same continuity of depiction. A tour of some of the other galleries in the British Museum will show similar abstract female figures but of a much more recent date. The earliest discoveries shown here, however, were often interpreted as mere erotic objects. Erotic object? Some kind of stone age sex aid? The mind boggles.

    These little figurines have real power and a beauty that can only really be seen in three dimensions.

    This figure, much admired by Picasso, has just the sketch of a face, a few lines, delicately etched. The effect is transformational. No wonder these figures inspired artists like Picasso, Matisse and Henry Moore, they sensed the specialness that emanates from these objects and obviously felt a kinship with their makers, an affinity that early archaeologists  appear to have largely lacked.

    The animal carvings, etched on bone and mammoth tusk, show precise, exact observation of every hair,  muscle and whisker.

    As in the cave paintings, there is an effort to record animals moving, a horse galloping, something not achieved until photography and moving pictures, but the desire to capture movement is the same.

    The artists' vision, skill and complexity of execution, sense of purpose, focus, talent all telescope the time between us and them but when we look for meaning, purpose, the gap yawns wide open. 

    '... we seem no closer to knowing why the people of that period penetrated the deep limestone caves of France and Spain to make images in total darkness ... and on pieces of portable stone, bone, ivory and antler. We do not know what the images meant to those who made them or to those who viewed them.'
    The Mind in the Cave - Consciousness and the Origins of Art, David Lewis - Williams

    This is the deep and abiding mystery which makes this art and these objects so fascinating. The gap created forces us to use our own imaginations just as they once did. I recently read Alan Garner's novel Boneland where he explores just this mystery. The book is set both in the present and in the very deep past.

    'He cut the veil from the rock, the hooves clattered the bellowing waters below him in the dark. The lamp brough the moon from the blade the bull from the rock. The ice rang.

    He took life in his mouth, spat red over his hand on the cave wall. The bull roared. Around, above him, the trample of the beasts answered, the stags, the hinds, the horses, the bulls, and the trace of old dreams.'
    Boneland, Alan Garner

    I like the idea of 'cutting the veil', of capturing the essence of something, it's inner core and meaning, and thus penetrating the separation of the spirit realm from the real world.

    For me, the most enigmatic, mysterious, awesome object of all was probably owned by a shaman. It was found buried with him along with other objects which suggested his role and status. It is an articulated male figure, a puppet made from mammoth ivory, 27,000 years old. Once one realises that it would probably have been used to create a shadow play on the walls of a cave, one begins to sense something of its true meaning and power.

    I was reminded of the allegory of  Plato's Cave.

     Perhaps these ancient peoples had more humility in the face of the mysteries and meaning of life than we have today. 

    The idea of continuity and kinship, rather than separation and difference are key to understanding this art, its meaning and purpose. Here are the thoughts and reflections of the first people to enter the Chauvet Cave in the Ardeche, France. 

    'Alone in that vastness, lit by the feeble beam of our lamps, we were seized by a strange feeling. Everything was so beautiful, so fresh, almost too much so. Time was abolished, as if the tens of thousands of years that separated us from the producers of these paintings no longer existed. ... Suddenly we felt like intruders. Deeply impressed, we were weighed down by the feeling that we were not alone; the artists souls and spirits surrounded us. We thought we could feel their presence; we were disturbing them.'

    The Mind in the Cave - Consciousness and the Origins of Art, David Lewis - Williams

    Celia Rees


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    In 1552 a fifteen year old boy, Felix Platter, left his home in Basle to go and study medicine in the south of France. He wrote an account of his journey to Montpelier, kept a diary during his five years of study there, and also an account of his travels as he returned home via Paris. His journal was published in various forms but my copy was translated from the original German by Séan Jennett and published in English in 1961. It is one of the most fascinating books in my library.

    Felix was a student at a time of huge social change. As in The Nostradamus Prophecy medicine was still practised using charms and spells. Creams and salves were prepared and applied according to ritual, with astrological interpretation used as a key component to judge whether the movement of the planets would ensure greater potency. Barbers performed surgery and tooth extraction, and in the absence of effective anaesthetic patients were frequently strapped to the operating table. Surgery was brutal. Life was hard and sometimes painfully short.  Herb gardens supplied natural remedies with some success, but the main enemy for effective cure for ailments was infection. People lived in close proximity to raw sewage with effluence of all types just piled at the side of the road to make a passage for horses and carts as opposed to proper disposal.

    The system of student exchange operating at the time meant that the son of one family could swap places with the son of another in order to attend a particular course at a certain university. It meant that the expenses for each family were kept down as, by negotiation, no payment need be made by either party for food and lodging.  Felix begins his journal by taking us with him as he sets out for Montpelier. And right away we are engaged. For in addition to being crammed with historical detail his writing in intensely personal and utterly engaging.   

    Away from home for the first time Felix stops over at an inn and becomes separated from his companions. Low in spirits he’s concerned that he might be robbed and murdered and goes to the stables where he leans on his horse’s neck and bursts into tears. He reaches his destination and has all the usual anxieties of a modern day student: the newness of the place, the strange food and customs, his relationship with his landlord, fellow students, and professors. 

    His description of his lectures and practical work is absorbing. We watch the gruesome spectacle of dissections taking place and wonder a t the fact that people other than students could attend, including ladies, even thought the corpse might be male.  Then… moments of anxiety as he joins up with a grave-robbing group of students, and I’m as worried for him as I might be for one of my own children away at University. Whew! He scrapes through that episode unscathed.

    I laugh out loud at his antics to impress girls when he buys himself new red breeches, slashed, and lined with taffeta and:  ‘…so tight that I could scarcely bend.’And then later, when he is wearing spurs and tries to dance with a young lady but only succeeds in tripping and tearing her dress.

    I shudder at the public executions he witnesses, including the gruesome description of the burning of a man found guilty of heresy.  Then I smile as Felix is caught out eating eggs cooked in butter during Lent - despite trying to hide the eggshells in his room.

    This is such a readable book. You are drawn into his life and are able to see how and why his opinions are formed.  I felt I’d sharing Felix’s life and his youth and his rite of passage to adulthood as he slowly matures during the time of his university course.  

    Felix survived his studies and his various escapades to make the long return journey where with enormous joy he meets up with and marries Magdalena, the girl who’d waited for him at home.
    I’m glad to know that he went on to become a respected physician, greatly honoured by his own students and peers. His letters and his herbal are kept in the University of Basle.

    Twitter: @theresabreslin1 
    Spy for the Queen of Scotsis nominated for the Carnegie Medal and an Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales illustrated by Kate Leiper is nominated for the Greenaway Medal.
    The Divided City music theatre show will be performed the Millennium Theatre as part of the Derry-Londonderry City of Culture 2013.    

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    It seems you can pick up bits of dead kings just about anywhere now. We’re all still buzzing with the discovery of Richard III under a Leicester car park, but over the last thirteen years in France they’ve managed to identify the head of Henri IV, the blood of Louis XVI, and the heart of Louis XVII, with an added bonus in the hair of Marie Antoinette. Honestly, it’s enough to make you want to search the attic.

    Richard III
    Yet outside the scientific and historical worlds these discoveries haven’t been greeted with the same excitement as our own ‘Richard Crookback’ - and what I want to know is why. I'm a Francophile myself, I'm interested in all those kings, but there's something special about the Richard III discovery that sets it apart.

    What is it?

    The heart of Louis XVII is at least as good a story, and by far the most tragic. He was the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the little Dauphin who was imprisoned in the Temple under the name ‘Louis Capet’ and died there of tuberculosis at just ten years old. He had been kept in in a darkened cell from the age of eight, with no-one to wash or clean up after him, and was degraded by being forced to sign a document confessing to incest with his murdered mother. He probably never knew his parents had been guillotined and he was the uncrowned King of France.

    The Dauphin - Louis XVII
    But did he really die that lonely prison death? Was the wracked little body the doctors recorded as being covered in sores and tumours really his? Perhaps it’s because the child’s treatment was so unbearable that rumours abounded of his secret escape, and of the substitution of a dying pauper for the wretched king. Baroness Orczy even wrote the novel ‘Eldorado’, in which the Scarlet Pimpernel himself rescued the child, and part of me still wants to believe it.

    Some facts supported the theory. A prison guard called ‘Simon the Shoemaker’ quit his job in 1794, and his widow later claimed he had smuggled the Dauphin to safety in a laundry basket. The story was given credence when in 1894 the coffin of the supposed Dauphin was exhumed and found to contain the body of a man aged between 18 and 20. True, the body had already been moved once when it was rescued from its mass grave, but still the questions remained.

    Heart of Louis XVII - Associated Press
    Not any more. One particular relic had been making the rounds for centuries, and was even offered to Louis XVIII on the restoration of the monarchy – the supposed heart of the Dauphin, which had been secretly removed during the autopsy by Dr Philippe-Jean Pelletan, who ‘wrapped it in my handkerchief and put it in my pocket without being seen’. Even the relic's story is full of incident. Pelletan kept it in alcohol in a jar on his bookcase, but as the alcohol dried out the heart grew desiccated. In 1810 it was stolen, but when the thief contracted tuberculosis himself he repented, and his widow restored it to the doctor. In 1828 Pelletan gave it to the archbishop of Paris, but the palace was vandalised in the July Revolution, the crystal container was smashed, and the heart was finally discovered buried in a pile of sand. But still it survived, and in 2000 scientists finally decided to put it to the test of DNA.

    There were obviously no living descendants – but there was a dead ancestor. The hair of Marie Antoinette had also survived in the form of cuttings taken when she was a child in Austria, and when the two were compared the result was pretty conclusive. The chief scientist, Jean-Jacques Cassiman, was far too cautious to say definitely that the heart was that of Louis XVII – only that he was descended from Marie Antoinette. The child’s heart has finally been removed from public display, and been buried at the Saint-Denis basilica near the graves of his parents.

    Henri IV and Louis XVI have had a sober time in comparison, but their stories too are worth considering. Henri IV fell victim to the same fate as poor Cardinal Richelieu, being dug up and decapitated during the French Revolution, and his head carried away to form part of a private collection. It was at least kept in a nice padded box, and over the years has changed hands many times, but (like Richelieu’s) it was mummified, and it is still faintly possible to see traces of a face.

    Henri IV reconstructed face
    In 2010 scientists set to work identifying that face. They were fortunate to have three clues to go on: a healed facial wound, a lesion near his nose – and a pierced ear. The less squeamish can see a video of all this here, but this picture gives at least a general idea.

    Suggestive certainly, but nothing is definite these days without DNA. Short of digging up poor Louis XVII’s heart yet again, it was hard to see where a possible match could be found – until someone thought of this.

     It’s perhaps the oddest of all of them. This gourd has been in the possession of an Italian family for more than a century, and what they found intriguing was the inscription partially shown below, which translates as follows: ‘In the 21st of January this year Maximilien Bourdaloue soaked his handkerchief in the blood of Louis XVI after his decapitation… When it was congealed, he put it in this gourd and gave it to me for two banknotes of ten francs each.’ 

    Handkerchiefs are clearly less durable than the blood of kings, and there was no sign of such a thing when in 2011 the gourd was lent to the University of Bologna for testing. There was, however, a sticky residue, and when geneticists from Bologna and Barcelona examined it they found it to be blood of a male of the right age and antiquity, who was also a ‘heterozygote’ - a compatible form for a person with blue eyes. The genetic pattern itself was found to be extremely rare (scientists among us can find a more intelligent description here), and it would be hard to find anything like a match.

    Enter (in its box) the head of Henri IV.
    (I was going to include a picture, but it's really too gruesome for a family blog. The curious can see one here.)
    Blood and head were both tested for DNA, and the results made headlines. From this BBC site: They ‘share a genetic heritage passed on through the paternal line,” forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier told AFP. “They have a direct link to one another through their fathers. One could say that there is absolutely no doubt any more.’ Voila. Two kings confirmed for the price of one.

    Interesting stories? To a French fanatic like me they're utterly fascinating, but still somehow not up to the standard of Richard III. I was enthralled by the French discoveries, but when I watched the documentary about the finding of Richard III I cried.

    So why? Why? What is it about the discovery at Leicester that’s so special? 

    Is it age? Richard III was already history when Henri IV was on the throne, and to whippersnappers like Louis XVI and XVII he was ancient history at that. But I don’t think that’s the answer. If it’s age that excites us we can look at these 27 Anglo-Saxon skeletons discovered last year on Salisbury Plain. Heck, we can look at this one exhumed in South Africa that’s estimated at 2 million years old. It’s far, far more historically significant – but it doesn’t make me cry.

    Neither do Egyptian mummies, come to that. They’re kings, they’ve been dead even longer, but maybe it’s almost too long. They lack significance dead because we have no sense of them alive. The portraits are too stylized to be meaningful, and if someone says the word ‘Tutankhamun’ I think immediately of either a gold mask or something dead in bandages. An Egyptian specialist would be horrified by that, but I suspect it’s a common layman’s view.

    Then is it the mystery? As an ardent Ricardian and great fan of Josephine Tey, I’m all for anything that will smash the Shakespeare/Thomas More myth and clear Richard III’s name – but his skeleton won’t do that. We’ve learned a bit about scoliosis and the hunchback, but whether or not he killed the Princes in the Tower – not so much. There’s far more mystery solved in the case of Louis XVII than there is with poor Richard.

    Is it the tragedy? The horrible details of post-mortem injuries, the reality of that lonely grave for a man who should have had a state funeral? It’s part of it, I think, and I’m warmed by the prospect of the body finally being given the respect it deserves, but even Richard wasn't in the same league as ten year old Louis. If tragedy were all, then Louis XVII would be king in this discussion even if he never was in life.

    Of all the possible explanations, I think our own H.M. Castor came closest to the truth when she said in her post here:  ‘We simply do not usually have the chance to examine the remains of known individuals from history, to compare the sources with the bone-hard evidence’. I don’t know the Anglo-Saxon skeletons or Eqyptian mummies, but we all know Richard III. He’s what ‘1066 And All That’ would call a ‘Memorable King’, and he’s part of the more sensational narrative of history. The discovery of his bones makes us look at the whole story again with the sudden certain knowledge that it’s true. We may have known that with our heads, but here are the bones, here was the man, and it’s true.

    Richard III Skeleton - Image credit University of Leicester
    But there must be something else. Louis XVI was well known, so was the Dauphin, they have the same legendary quality of Richard, but still we’re not stirred to the same degree. Nationalism, of course, Richard was British and the two Louis are French, but to someone like me there’s no difference and it’s my own reaction I’m trying to understand.
    For me personally there is that one other thing, and it’s this. Richard III was found under a car park. Not in a box or a gourd where he’d been specially preserved, but just somewhere dumped and under our feet. Millions of people have walked over his grave and never even known.

    Currently doing the rounds on Twitter - credit unknown
    That’s it. That’s where it is. When people say ‘the past is all around us’ I doubt they’re really referring to kings under car parks, but that’s surely part of what they mean. As Shakespeare wrote in ‘Hamlet’, ‘Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.’ So he might. How many people have breathed this air before us? Whose bodies have fertilized the soil from which we harvest our vegetables? Do we really think we stand upon an island certified sterile from that terrible thing we call the past?

    It’s a macabre thought, and may give an unwelcome significance to the phrase ‘Caesar Salad’, but there’s a truth in it way beyond the physical. We’re not alone. We didn’t spring up by magic. Millions of people have been here before us, and what they said and did has defined who we are now. 

    That’s history. And as the body of Richard III has reminded us – it’s true.


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    Paris Café by Ilya Repin

    One of the many things I love about this blog is the opportunity to offer up bits of research that haven’t made it in to my novels or have done so in such a heavily fictionalised form their origins are lost. The robbery yesterday of £30 million in diamonds reminded me of two stories of 19th century jewel heists I read during my research for The Paris Winter (available for pre-order now, since you ask). 
    The first I like because of its elaborate set-up and was reported in the Bradford Observer April 29 1875. A couple, claiming to be English and accompanied by a servant, took a very nice apartment in Avenue d’Eylan for two months and paid in advance. They made themselves conspicuous by their lavish spending, particularly at the jewellers where they managed to spend six thousand francs in a week. The apartment was six hundred and fifty a month by comparison. They paid in cash and were, unsurprisingly, well liked. At some point the husband began negotiations to buy a set of diamonds for his wife costing 112 thousand francs. He and the jeweller agreed on the bargain price of 106 thousand and the jeweller was then invited to bring the diamonds up to the apartment and receive payment. Up he went into the fashionable sitting room and was invited to wait while the husband took the diamonds into the bedroom to show his wife. She was unwell, you see. 
    The jeweller saw signs of the wife’s presence in the apartment; her sewing box, her shawl, and there was also the comforting sight of bundles of bank notes on the side-table ready to pay him. He made himself comfortable and began to read the paper. It took him some three-quarters of an hour before he became suspicious. He found that he had been locked into the room and the bundles of bank notes were in fact ‘prospectuses’. He tried to ring the bell (this is my favourite bit) but the bell pull came away in his hand. It was another three-quarters of an hour before he could get any help as the concierge had been sent away on a complicated errand by the ‘servant’ of his customers. By the time anyone could work out what had happened the thieves had a two hour head start which was, apparently, all that they needed. They had left no clues, even removing any maker’s mark from a hat left in a cupboard, though they did leave a set of false whiskers behind them.

    The second case involved some of the French Crown Jewels, most of which were sold off by the state in 1887. M. Lepée in Rue de Madeleine bought some of them which he displayed in the window of his shop. One morning the following year the managers niece came to open the shop and found the ten thousand pounds worth of diamonds were missing and the shop was full of the robbers tools, including a crowbar and a dark lantern. The shop would have lost a lot more, the thieves were obviously planning to open the safe, but it seems they were alarmed by some noise and fled. Not before they had paused for a snack though. It seems from the report they paused mid-robbery to have some ham. This proved to be a bad idea not just because they didn’t have time to open the safe, but because the police saw the name of the butcher on the meat wrapping and went to ask him if he’d sold ham to anyone suspicious recently. He had and was able to give a description of two men with foreign accents, a description that matched the one the concierge gave of two men who had been enquiring about the empty flat above the shop.
    I didn’t find any room in the novel for ham loving criminals or doctored bell-pulls, though there are diamonds, betrayal and cruelty enough. I did find myself thinking though as I read these stories, why are we often so fond of jewel thieves from Raffles to Ocean’s 11? Is there something about people wearing jewels that cost more than most houses that means when they are stolen our moral sense is less offended than by other crimes, other robberies? Not that there is anything noble, roguish or charming about the diamond thieves in my book, but it is a trope, isn’t it? I’d be interested to know what you think. 

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    The horsemeat contamination debacle has thrown up familiar discussions in our household as elsewhere; about the convoluted nature of our modern food chain and how vulnerable it leaves us, and how passive our consumption is. 

    Grimani Breviary: February (Flemish), c1490
    But how easy was it to feed your household in February in the past, when production could be (largely) in your own hands or at least in the hands of those working nearby? What was available and what was being prepared for future months? What tasks out there in the yard or garden would I have to be busy with right now if I couldn’t open the fridge-freezer or nip to Tesco?

    I’d rather vaguely assumed that there was very little around to eat in February, that the diet must be dull and barrel-scraping, relentlessly salty and lacking in variety – especially once the restrictions of Lent kicked in: an added challenge for both housewife and husbandman. And since pancake day I’ve been wondering whether there were ever years in the past when the hens hadn’t even started laying by Shrove Tuesday for this very egg-orientated feast (can any historian-chickenkeepers out there enlighten me, please?).

    Les Tres Riches Heures du duc
    de Berry: (February, detail)
    Limbourg brothers,  c1412
    The Anglo Saxons apparently called February solmonath, or ‘mud month.’ I don’t know whether the seasons were more advanced on the Continent – but the Dutch called February Spokkelmaand, or ‘vegetation month’ which, looking out of my window (there are actual icicles today), seems very optimistic.

    A glance at February entries in the diary of the Somerset parson, William Holland, shows his household busy even in this cold month of 1806:

    Feb 8 – John finished spreading the dung in the Paddock.

    Feb 11 – Sent John into the garden to prepare ground for potatoes. Turned the great horse into the churchyard to stretch his limbs. Walked to Court House and got some seeds from Furse, he had pease and beans very fine, and Early Peep potatoes. Rain came on after dinner so we could not plant any.

    Feb 12 – A fine pleasant day. I put down my Early Peep potatoes and John planted carrots and onions.

    Feb 19 – This evening sat by a good fire and with my family compared the Four Evangelists on the Resurrection. (It would have been Ash Wednesday.)

    Feb 20 – John went on still very well in the garden but he was called off rather soon to go with our little sow to the boar to Strinxon, Farmer Landsey went with him.

    Plucking examples at random: 16th-century household accounts at high-status Wollaton Hall show salt fish eaten in great quantities during Lent, such as cod, eel, ling, pollack and lobbe. Salted and dried, or salted and packed in barrels, which was called green fish. There was also stockfish, which was air-dried, and preserved herring. And there was fresh fish available in Lent from local suppliers and inland markets – historian Mark Dawson in Plenti and Grase mentions a great variety of fresh sea-fish and freshwater fish, including cod, skate, turbot and thornback. Big households also had the advantage of fishponds on their estates, for more readily caught bream, pickerel, pike, tench and by the end of the century, carp.

    For those that could afford it, dried fruit was a part of the Lenten diet too – figs, prunes, currants, almonds, and there were always spices and other flavourings to ring the changes.

    Giles Moore of Sussex records various purchases on the 17th and 18th Feb 1663 for ‘an entertainment’, including a Quart Bottel of Sack, 3 pecks of barley malt, Pullet, three nayle of Beef, halfe a pound of sugar, spice, bread, butter, rosewater. A few days before, he’d bought a gallypot of greene Ginger. (Though I should say it wasn’t quite Lent yet, as a quick check in Cheney’s ‘Handbook of Dates’ shows that Easter was 19thApril this year.)

    Spinacia oleracea,
    Otto Wilhelm Thome,
    Flora von Deutschland, 1885
    There was greenery too, if you planned ahead: 16th-century gardener Thomas Hill talks about the importance of planting with Lent in mind. He says that spinach is the ‘plant aptest for Lent … the first Pot-herb which is found in gardens about [this] time. This plant very well endureth … cold, frosts and snow.’ He goes on to point out the merits of the ‘Carot and Parsnep .. sown in harvest time to enjoy them all the Lent.’ And there were other roots that would keep well until now – dried peas and beans, and stored keeping apples and pears of very many kinds.

    17th-century Hannah Woolley gives us a Bill of Fare suitable for every Month in the Year, and suggests for February:

    A Chine of roast-Pork, Veal or Beef roasted, A Lamb-Pye, and Mince-Pyes, a couple of wild Ducks, a couple of Rabbits, fried Oysters, a Skirret-Pye. And for the second course: A whole Lamb roasted, three Widgeons, a Pippin-Pye, a Jole of Sturgeon, a cold Turkey-Pye.

    By far the largest section in 18th-century Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery is devoted to recipes for fasting food – from Crawfish Soop to Buttered-wheat and Chesnut Pudding. She lists foods available at this time of year, including: ‘many sorts of cabbage and savoy, small herbs on the hot beds (i.e. hot with dung) also mint, tarragon preserved under glass, chervil, sallary, marigold flowers and mint dried, beet-leaves, sorrel…

    I’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic, but my overall feeling, having glanced over these February choices from the past, is that although we pride ourselves on the range of year-round food drawn from all over the world available to us - in the past (for those who could afford it), there was quite a startling array of fresh or readily-available food.

    I don’t really approve of hankering after the past per se, and am grateful not to have to be taking my sow to the boar today in order to ensure a supply of pork for the months ahead – but right now I’m thinking that it might be interesting to try a nice fresh pickerel served with colliflower and followed by a dessert of Golden-pippin or Winter Pepperning, or a Dagobent Pear… Anyone care to join me?

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    I was given a copy of the 1899-1890 Girls' Own Annual when I was a teenager, by an old family friend; I don't know where she got it from: maybe it came from her mother, but she is dead now and I cannot ask her. It's a shame that we often don't ask people things until it is too late. It wasn't the kind of 'Christmas Special' that annuals were in my childhood, just the bound-up numbers of that year. I read them with great interest; the serials - 'Work, Wait, Win'; 'Kathleen's 'Handful,'' Elsie's Victory,' and the truly revolting 'Story of a Summer,' whose heroine, Winifred, gave up the man she loved and who loved her, so that her cousin could have him.

    Kathleen's 'Handful.'

    A high-risk strategy, if you ask me, but in the story the man obligingly did fall in love with the beautiful but emotionally-constipated Eva (Eva loved him, and Winifred 'knew' that Eva would only love once. Odd, that Victorian superstition. ) Winifred ended up devoting herself to her mother, a tyrannical invalid, and became the Angel in the House, though at the time I didn't know about that image. In the other stories, the heroines, especially Kathleen, were luckily less door-mattish, or I might have ended up binning the volume, and that would have been a pity.I read the advice from 'Medicus' - largely common-sensical - the historical articles, which amused me because I had travelled into history to look back at history. I made some of the 'home-made sweetmeats' toffee, and cocoa-nut tablet. They were good.

    The book sat neglected, through my adult life after that - till I began to write about Victorian times, and then I remembered it, feared I had got rid of it, and whooped with pleasure when I found it. It is a mine of things that authors want to ask. I set my novel The Mountain of Immoderate Desires in 1899, just because I had such a wealth of material to hand in that volume. And I made Lily, the heroine of The Mountain, possess some copies of the paper, and use its words - usually in ways that would have horrified the virtuous Christian publisher - for guidance.
    How useful I found: 'Dress: In Season and In Reason,' by the 'Lady Dressmaker', when I wanted to envisage the fashions of that era.
    I think the lady on the left, particularly, looks as if she would run on wheels. See my post-it in the top corner.
    There was a wonderful series of articles called: 'On the Purchase of Outfits for India and the Colonies.' From it I learned that each passenger on the P&O steamers (such as went to Hong Kong) was allowed a whacking 336lbs of luggage and that travellers to the East needed 'the tin boxes with plain pine covers, which are made for the purpose, for, owing to the climate and the insects, everything must be kept in tin, or else it will be spoilt.' Having lived in Hong Kong, I was familiar with the mould-inducing damp and the depredations of cockroaches that made this precaution necessary; and we too kept food in insect-proof containers and tins, if they weren't in the fridge. I also learned that woollen underwear was considered best for really hot climates, something I thought hilarious, till someone told me that really fine wool is excellent for wicking perspiration away from the skin. That was, of course, after I had made fun of my hero Samuel's woollen underwear in the novel, and it had been published. Oh, well..

    Later, I found another volume in a second-hand bookshop, for 1899, and I bought that, just for interest. However, I do recommend the GOP for anyone wanting advice on the small domestic details of Victorian life. It was from the 'Answers to Correspondants' column that I discovered that ladies in 1889 were already learning how to operate a type-writer. The 'Girls' Own' title is misleading; the paper was intended not only for teenage girls but for young women setting up as housekeepers and others who wanted to train for a career. So it is a mine of information if you want to find out about Victorian women's work. I'm sure copies can be located nowadays on the web.

    The 1899 volume has a set of chatty articles called: 'Three Girl-Chums, and their life in London rooms.' 'Ada is a type-writer in a very good office in the City. She has got on so well that she is earning £100 a year. Jane is a cookery teacher in a distant parish,' and Ada's sister. Marion Thomas lives with them and does the house-keeping for them, but she is working up 'a connection of music pupils.' What may be particularly useful to writers - perhaps to me, some day, is the detailing of the money they spent on their household items - two small enamel saucepans at eightpence-halfpenny and sixpence-halfpenny, a rolling pin at a shilling, weights and scales at fourteen shillings and sixpence - that's an expensive item, but we have upstairs a set of weights and scales perhaps of similar vintage, which my mother-in-law used till her death.

    These kinds of minute details might be useful if you wanted to have your characters take a trip to Paris at the period. You could go for six pounds, if you were careful, and the article shows you exactly how. As well as the Louvre, Notre Dame, Chateau de Vincennes, etc, on the list of must-sees is the Morgue, where unidentified corpses were exhibited - supposedly for relatives to find missing loved ones, but in practice it became a ghoulish reality-show. Clearly 'our girls' had strong stomachs.

    There's also a series called 'In Mine House,' by Lina Orman Cooper (author of 'The King's Daughter, etc.' Not 'authoress', I noticed with satisfaction.) Miss or Mrs Cooper can tell you just how jam was made in the nineteenth century and of her 'old lady's' (her mother's?) preference for not covering her jam-pots. 'If well boiled and made of fresh sound fruit, it should jell enough to keep without excluding air. A sheet of newspaper laid over the rows of pots' is all that is needed. But your jam-cupboard must be well ventilated. Lina knows how to do DIY, too. 'How well it is when the mistress of a house can wield hammer and gimlet and screwdriver' she tells us, thus driving another nail into the coffin of preconceptions about Victorian womanhood. You may find out, too, what was recommended for the Victorian medicine cupboard: 'some sweet nitre for feverishness, and some pilules of aconite; spirits of camphor for a cold, and a screw of lump sugar;' and many more.
    Then there are the above-mentioned 'Answers to Correspondants.' The GOP's answerers supplied quotations the 'girls' wanted, told them how to deal with illness in their children, or 'a wild, unmanageable, girl' (send the clergyman to admonish her first, if all else fails, send her to a Home); opined on their handwriting (often severely), or the poetic offerings they sent up 'quite the usual thing we receive,' one poor girl was brutally told, 'not at all worth printing.' The GOP was often rude or at least forthright. 'The lady always speaks first, not the gentleman, so you were in the wrong, of course'. There is advice about how to train as a nurse, and as a teacher of the deaf; information about a Pension for Protestants on the Normandy coast (why did Protestants need a special Pension of their own? Maybe so that they wouldn't meet Marcel Proust),encouragement for a correspondant wrestling with 'bad tempers and evil thoughts', and a 'regret that we cannot recommend any depilatory.' Just as well; depilatories of the time probably removed your skin into the bargain. There is also advice on how to make a wrist support (perhaps as a result of too many hours at the type-writer?)
    My favourite Answer to a Correspondant, however, is the one written to the enterprising young E.M.R.C.  'You ought to be ashamed of yourself. To receive clandestine love-letters, when you owe filial confidence to your mother and submission to her will and judgement, is most ungrateful as well as undutiful. But to take in letters of two men continually, through the blinds of your bedroom window, encouraging them both at the same time, is simply disgusting! 'How shall I squash them?' is a heartless question after so much encouragement. It would be well if your mother were informed of your unseemly conduct and would effectually 'squash' you.'
    So who said teenagerdom was a post-war phenomenon?

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