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    For centuries, many noble women in Europe were forced into nunneries by their families either to safeguard their virtue until they could be married off, or to protect family lands by preventing them from marrying and splitting estates. Some women made the best of it, wearing silk gowns under their habits, and spending their days hawking, hunting, dancing and generally enjoying themselves in convents where abbesses would turn a blind eye, and money could buy any kind of pleasure or indulgence. Others found freedom within convents to make serious studies of the arts and sciences, write books, or practise medicine, liberated from the tedious obligations of marriage. But there were some women who refused to settle down quietly behind the cloister walls.

    This was the case with two of the nuns of the Sainte-Croix (Holy Cross) in Poitiers in 6th century. The Frankish Princess Clotild, was the child of King Charibert of the Merovingian dynasty and his concubine, a wool-carder’s daughter. Clotild’s cousin, Princess Basina, daughter of King Chilperic, had also been sent to the nunnery, arriving at the tender age of seven, after an assassination attempt on her family. But by then Basina had already been raped by soldiers and had lost her lands too, so she had plenty of cause for anger.
    King Chilperic and his queen

    The princesses’ resentment of their lot came to a head early in 589 when they declared that they would no longer put up with the treatment they were receiving from their Abbess, Leubovera, who wasn’t showing them the royal respect they were due. They persuaded 40 fellow nuns to join in them in their rebellion and marched out of the convent, refusing to return until the abbess was expelled. Several bishops to whom they appealed refused to do anything, but finally a female relative of King Guntrum, Clotild’s uncle, promised to ensure a commission would be sent to Poitiers to look into the matter.

    But the commissioners showed no sign of hurrying, so the nuns, now back at Poitiers, sought sanctuary at the church of St Hilary from where they recruited a small army of cutthroats and outlaws to defend them, including a notorious murderer Childeric, the Saxon. By the time the commission consisting of four bishops, deacons and clerics arrived, the Church of St Hilary had become a fortress for the nuns and their outlaw gang who were using it as a base to attack the abbess. When the outraged bishops came to the church to excommunicate the rebellious nuns, their whole party was attacked and the clerics, including the bishops, staggered from the church covered in blood and bruises.

    Far from being repentant, Clotild urged her gang of mercenaries to seize all the convent’s lands and beat up any who tried to resist. She was only prevented from attacking the main building of the convent by the terrible winter weather which drove many of the nuns to seek shelter in other convents or homes. Clotild and Basina took no notice of the censure of their royal uncles and by Easter 590 were ready to attack the convent itself with the intention of dragging the abbess out, even threatening to throw her from the roof.

    Abbess Leubovera, crippled by gout, took shelter in the oratory along with a precious relic of the Holy Cross, but the outlaws broke in during the night and she was only saved from being hacked to death with a sword, by another outlaw who presumably had some qualms about murdering an abbess in front of the relic of the true cross. In the dark and confusion, the Provost Justina, niece of Bishop Gregory, was seized in mistake for the abbess and carried off, but as soon as they realised their error, she was returned to the convent and Leubovera was captured and held prisoner in Basina’s chamber near St Hilary while the convent was looted.

    Bishop Maroveus of Poitiers ordered the townspeople to break into the house and release the abbess, but Clotild coolly handpicked a group of men giving them orders to kill the abbess at once should there be any attempt at rescue. In spite of this, a royal envoy managed to snatch the abbess back, but that only led to more violence in which men were slaughtered in the holiest places in the abbey including the shrine of the Holy Cross.

    Basina quarrelled with her cousin and made her own peace with the abbess, but this sparked further hostilities between Basina’s supporters and Clotild’s. According to the chronicler of the time, not a week went by without a new murder. Finally, it took the king’s men led by Count Macco to put down the rebellion, slaughtering many of the mercenaries hired by the nuns, while the rest fled back into the forest.

    A rather romantic image of the excommunication of a later
    Frankish king, Robert II (972-1031), known Robert the Pious,
    who invoked the Pope's wrath by marrying his 1st cousin.
    The punishment for the royal princesses was excommunication, which was considered a terrible sentence by the Church, since they would be excluded from most normal aspects of life and if they died in that state, would go straight to the eternal fires of hell. But since the pair had been excommunicated several times throughout the rebellion without it curbing their behaviour in the least, we can probably conclude that it didn’t worry them too much. Clotild’s own father, King Charibert, had himself been excommunicated in his lifetime because of his violent behaviour.

    In any case, thanks to intervention of King Childebert II, the Church Council was persuaded to restore them to grace a few months later. Perhaps the King intervened because he knew if the sweet little princesses were not readmitted to the Church he’d have no chance of banishing them safely to a convent again and he didn’t want to risk those two running around his kingdom uncloistered.

    Radegund who founded Saint-Croix abbey
    Basina did return to the life of a nun in Saint-Croix in Poitiers and, so the chroniclers say, lived there ‘in obedience’ for the rest of her life. But Clotild had no intention of meekly returning to a nunnery. Despite being illegitimate, she persuaded the king's mother, the infamous Queen Brunhilda, to grant her lands which she ruled until her death.

    Incidentally, the abbey of Saint-Croix had been founded by an earlier Frankish Princess, Radegund, around 560, when she fled her murderous husband. The rule she established meant that the nuns were very strictly enclosed, but allowed many hours to read and write. Radegund herself wrote Latin poems which she gave to the poet Venantius Fortunatus and to the bishop and historian, Gregory of Tours, who both became great friends. So she was one noblewoman who was grateful for the peace of her seclusion.

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    Hooded cloak like my mother's
    When I left California to study Classics at Cambridge, my mother gave me her fine hooded cloak of charcoal grey wool that she had bought in Chamonix on her honeymoon. Stylish as well as warm, the cloak protected me from the biting winds and frequent drizzle of East Anglia. I would cycle from Newnham College to my lectures with it billowing out behind me. One day I trustingly left it on a hook with other coats in the vestibule outside a lecture room. When I came out it was gone. I think it was the first time I have ever been robbed. At that moment I felt shock and a deep sadness. A precious link to my mother had been lost forever. I went to the police and put up notices but I never saw it again.

    If I’d lived two thousand years earlier in Roman Britain, I would have been more than sad; I would have been mad.

    replica Roman loom with "loom sword" at Fishbourne
    In chilly provinces during Roman times, the theft of the cloak was not just a nuisance; it could often mean the difference between life and death. A person's cloak often doubled as their blanket at night. If you caught a chill through lack of adequate covering, you might die. And in those days you couldn’t just wander down to Marcus et Spencerius to buy a new one. Someone had to collect the wool, spin it into yarn, weave the yarn into cloth, then sew that cloth. That took time and skill, and a woollen cloak might cost perhaps a month’s salary. The purchase of a new or even second-hand cloak might have meant a trip to the nearest town on market day. 

    a bardocucullus from the Roman Mysteries
    In Roman Britain, cloaks were very popular. Some were short, others were long. Some were impregnated with lanolin, the smelly oil that made them waterproof. Some had hoods, others didn’t. Some were popular with soldiers, others with civilians. One thing Roman cloaks didn’t have were pockets, but the Romans didn’t miss them because they hadn’t been invented yet. The poet Martial wrote a two-line gift tag for the Saturnalia gift of a bardocucullus, which was just a hood that you could wear under a cloak. He also wrote about a hooded cape called a paenula: ‘Even if you go on a journey with clear skies, don't forget a paenula made of leather, in case of sudden showers!’

    Here’s part of a lead curse tablet found in the famous hot springs of Bath Spa:

    drawing of lead curse tablet by Richard Lawrence
    From Docilianus, son of Brucerus, to the most holy goddess Sulis: I curse the person who stole my hooded cloak, whether man or woman, whether slave or free, and I ask that you not allow him a moment’s sleep until he has returned my hooded cloak to your temple.

    Docilianus of Bath Spa was angry, but not as angry as the man who wrote this curse from Caerleon in Wales:

    To the goddess Nemesis, I give you my stolen cloak and a pair of boots; let the man who is wearing them now pay for them with his life and blood!

    What a contrast to hear the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:40, And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. Or his words in Luke: ...from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. 

    Looking at the gospel passages, I remembered the story of a young Roman soldier named Martin who became a saint after he took pity on a freezing and naked beggar by the town gate of Amiens, (in what is now Northwest France), and gave him half his cloak. In fact, the word chapel comes from one of the Latin words for cloak: cappa, because the very first chapel held the remaining half of St Martin’s cloak, now a holy relic.

    Hooded cloaks have long been associated with Druids and other mysterious figures. The hood and voluminous silhouette of the garment can hide the wearer’s identity, age and gender.

    terra cotta figure and bronze figure with hidden phallus
    The most mysterious hooded cloaks in Roman Britain were those worn by curious figures known as the genii culcullati or ‘hooded spirits’. Some archaeologists have argued that they might be fertility spirits. Some of these ‘hooded spirits’ appear with a mother goddess. Others carry objects resembling eggs. Still others have an almost phallic appearance so that it is only one step from this to that. (above)

    A relief from Corinium (modern Cirencester)
    To the best of my knowledge, no inscriptions have ever been found with these mysterious hooded characters. Maybe one day we will find an inscription and solve the mystery. In the meantime the three mysterious hooded figures are providing inspiration for my new Roman Quests series. Who are the three mysterious figures? And where are they going? Watch this space to find out. 

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    Here's an almost entirely gratuitous picture of Mark Rylance, the thinking History Girl’s posset.

    Just for your pleasure, and mine.

    Please excuse the slightly intoxicated tone of this blog. I’ve only just finished watching Wolf Hall, and I am in love with every subtle crevice of Mark Rylance’s face.

    When I informed Mary Hoffman of this parish about the new heart-fluttering inside my bodice, she told me tersely, ‘Stand in line’.

    And when I mentioned it to Lucy Coats, history writer and fellow Guardian master class teacher, she snarled, ‘Stand in line. The whole internet is in love with Mark Rylance.’

    I consulted a third researcher, who shall remain anonymous, only to hear that she nurtures a well accessorized fantasy in which she just won’t return all Mark’s calls and he is growing increasingly desperate. When I mentioned my own predilection for the doe-eyed boy, she growled, ‘Stand in line and take a number.’

    I made a very small mouth.

    I’m telling myself to sublimate, sublimate, sublimate. But all I can manage is snivel, and … substitute.

    Apart from Mark Rylance’s, this is the face that draws me more than any other in the world and in time.
    Gentile Bellini 003.jpg

    It belongs to Sultan Mehmet II. It was probably painted by Venetian artist Gentile Bellini, brother of the more famous, more luminous Giovanni.

    A framed print of this portrait has pride of place in one of three rooms I’ve recently reclaimed for the light in my London home. Long ago, fellow History Girl Laurie Graham, who is a genius with names, christened the two other bedchambers ‘The Princess Grace Memorial Suite’ and ‘The Joan Collins Annexe’. So this new room needed a name of its own too.

    We have decided, for obvious reasons, to baptize it ‘The Sultan Mehmet II Mini-Suite’, especially given that its proportions are not exactly palatial. I would estimate that it could host only one substantial eunuch or two medium-sized concubines at any one time. And the latter would have to be on particularly good terms with one another.

    The room is both Venetian and oriental in flavour, as also befits one focused on this portrait, which was created at the exact moment that Gothic architecture, with its Arabian arabesques and stone lace, was flourishing in la Serenissima.

    Background detail only endears Sultan Mehmet II. He was born in 1432, ascending to the sultanate in 1451. He is famous for his restoration of Constantinople to its former glory after a century of siege, violence and dilapidation. He employed artisans from the entire known world to beautify his city. He loved Italian art and sought an Italian artist to paint his portrait.

    His reign was a time of diplomacy between the Ottoman empire and Venice. Sultan Mehmet’s court for a time included Gentile Bellini, whose mission, starting in September 1479, was as visiting artist in residence and general cultural ambassador. Also part of the diplomatic effort was a mission was Bellini’s friend Giovanni Dario (whose house is now known as the most haunted in the city). I have also seen writings that suggest that the arches Bellini painted around the Sultan are based on those inside Giovanni Dario’s house. If this is true, it is a pleasant metaphor … the stones of Venice curve protectively and decoratively over the former enemy, sealing the peace with beauty.

    The attribution to Gentile Bellini is not without controversy. Some have suggested that there are suspicious similarities between the sultan and a figure in Marco Palmezzano’s Jesus among the Doctors in the Temple.

    This need not concern us here, any more than the fact that … I once saw Mark Rylance walking down my street near the Globe.

    Mark Rylance is unavailable but we still have Sultan Mehmet II and that sultry profile.

    Another reason to admire our Sultan is that he spoke Turkish and Arabic Greek, Persian, Latin, and Hebrew.

    Plus, I present this picture of him smelling a rose.

    The picture is taken from the Sarayı Albums Hazine 2153, folio 10a, courtesy of Wikimedia commons. How many men can be painted smelling a rose without looking faintly effeminate? All that emanates from this portrait is a delicate, appreciative sensuality. Only Mark Rylance could smell a rose as sexily as Sultan Mehmet could.

    Sultan Mehmet II even looks good in coy three quarter view … as in this ‘alternative’ portrait from an unknown artist that was placed on Wikimedia Commons in 2011.

    But I remain committed to Bellini portrait as the perfect representation of a fascinating man. If you want to see the original, you haven’t far to go. It’s at London’s National Gallery. The catalogue entry says, 'The painting is almost entirely repainted, especially in the figure. An old inscription, lower right, gives the date 25 November 1480. The lower left inscription is a more recent reconstruction; it includes the names Mehmet and Gentile Bellini … There is insufficient evidence for deciding whether the picture is a copy or a very damaged original.'

    How did it get to London?

    Succession time was dangerous in the Ottoman empire. Once can imagine the portrait smuggled out of the imperial chamber in the dead of night after the death of its protagonist. The painting may or may not have been sold in the Bazaar at Constantinople by the Sultan’s heirs. Thereafter it appears to have stayed in what is modern day Turkey for a few centuries.

    Constantinople, or Istanbul was the posting of the eminent archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard, the man credited with making the bible true, by his excavations at Ninevah and Nimrud … the site of recent Islamic State atrocities against art.

    It is said that Sultan Abdul Hamid II was unhappy when Layard was posted away from him in 1880 after a quarrel with Prime Minister Gladstone. Some sources claim that the sultan made a parting gift of this portrait to the exiting ambassador. Layard and his wife Lady Enid were shortly to settle in Venice, where they bought and restored this grand palazzo on the Grand Canal in the late 1870s. It became known as Ca’ Cappello Layard. They moved their spectacular collection of Italian Renaissance art there and decorated the palace in sumptuous orientalist style. They were frightfully grand, as only English expats can be, with compulsory attendance at their soirees and parties by visiting luminaries.

    Alternatively, there is the more picturesque version of the portrait’s provenance that one finds in John Julius’ Norwich’s excellent book, A Paradise of Cities. Norwich explains that Layard loved to tell the story of an anonymous man who accosted him in the street and tried to sell him the picture for the equivalent of £5. I love to think of it wrapped in brown paper with stained string. But the archaeologist refused, doubting its provenance. In the end, the man left the painting on the Layards’ doorstep like a foundling child. Layard was too grand to buy something that might have fallen off the back of a gondola, but he wasn't too fine to look a gift horse in the mouth. The painting was welcomed into Ca' Cappello.

    Here is Sir Austen Henry Layard. Photograph by the London Stereoscopic Photographic Company, courtesy of Wellcome Images.

    And here is his Vanity Fair caricature from Wikimedia commons. I'm posting it here because, unlike Mark Rylance or Sultan Mehmet, you won't find Layard at my house.

    A nephew of Lady Enid recorded that the painting of Sultan Mehmet II was given a parrot for company at Ca’ Cappello Layard. One of the young boy’s duties was to go and cover the portrait with a green curtain at breakfast time, when the parrot performed ablutions that might otherwise have spattered the potentate.

    Lady Enid’s copious diaries record many pet parrots. She even took them calling with her, and on holiday. She spoke of green parrots but their exact nature is not known. One was accused of giving her typhoid. Chains are also spoken of. This watercolour drawing of a ‘pet parrot on a perch’ (suitably oriental-looking) is from Wellcome Images.

    There is a whole blog to be written about the parrots who lived with famous English expats and their friends on the Grand Canal at this point in time. But those birds are not kidnapping this one.

    Henry Layard died in 1894, Lady Enid stayed on in Venice, continuing with a perfervid social life, entertaining Browning (whose parrot was called Jacko), Ruskin and royalty whenever possible.

    The portrait of Sultan Mehmet II, like others in the Layard collection, was donated to the National Gallery after Lady Enid died in 1912.  But initially a 1909 Italian law on the export of art blocked the donation. Meanwhile Layard’s heir, Major Arthur Layard, pressed a claim for the Venetian portraits, based on an ambiguity of the wording of the will. Eventually he was compensated, and the Italian prime minister intervened to except the paintings from the export law. The dangers of World War I delayed the transport to London.

    Sultan Mehmet II finally arrived on these shores in 1916 – and in my guest bedroom almost exactly a hundred years later.

     (Mark Rylance is also welcome at any time.)

    Michelle Lovric’s website
    the picture of Mark Rylance is from Wikimedia Commons
    the original Sultan Mehmet picture comes from The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei, via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • 07/10/15--17:30: Time Out, by Laurie Graham

  • Today my theme is sanctuary, worth a blog post for the sheer pleasure of typing the name Dyfnwal, the Bald and Silent. Dyfnwal was an early Welsh king credited with inventing the concept of sanctuary. Did he, or didn’t he? We may never know, but it’s a great name anyway, Dyfnwal. Better even than Ethelred, the Ill-Advised.

    frith-stool, Hexham Abbey
    Sanctuary inside a church had become an established right in England by the 11th century. It gave an alleged criminal breathing space to decide how to plead, or a political fugitive time to consider his options.  Some foundations  -  York Minster, Battle Abbey, Winchester Cathedral, Westminster Abbey to name just a few  -  offered a broader interpretation of sanctuary than simply the interior of the church; a kind of Super Sanctuary. In those specially licensed places as long as you were within the area bounded by sanctuary stones and as long as you hadn’t committed high treason or sacrilege you were safe from arrest.

    Sanctuary Stone, Beverley Minster
    Every place of sanctuary had its own rules. Some had a stone seat, called a frith-stool, which you had to reach in order to enjoy the benefit of sanctuary. Some had a door knocker you needed to touch and shout ‘Pax!’  This reminds me of those truce words children used to use during street games. If your shoe lace was undone or your mother was hollering for you to go in for your dinner, you needed time out from the game. Where I grew up, in the Midlands, we used to cross our fingers and cry ‘skwogs!’  Do today’s children, accustomed to the pause button, still use such words, I wonder? But in wondering I have wandered from my theme.

    Once you were inside a place of sanctuary and had surrendered any weapons you had forty days in which to decide whether a) to stand trial or b) to forfeit all property to the Crown and abjure the realm, allowed to return only if pardoned by the King, otherwise on pain of death. If you chose exile you were required to declare it publicly    -  ‘Quick, everybody down to the church, Jethro Juggins is about to abjure the realm.’  It would have been a hot ticket.

    The coroner would then tell you which port you must sail from and you would be despatched, barefoot and carrying a wooden cross, instructed to keep to the King’s highway, not to dally and to sail on the first available vessel. Of course some fugitives never made it to their designated port. Some went on the run, some fell foul of summary justice meted out along the way by aggrieved victims or their relatives.

    People also sought sanctuary for political reasons. This was particularly true during the Wars of the Roses when fortunes swung back and forth according to the outcome of each battle. Edward IV’s Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, took sanctuary twice in Westminster Abbey. On the first occasion she was pregnant and gave birth there to her first son of that marriage, the future Edward V.  After her husband’s death she ran for sanctuary again and took a quantity of furniture with her. Sanctuary didn’t necessarily mean privation.

    The right to sanctuary was finally abolished in 1623 but there were other places that afforded a person some immunity from being seized and thrown into prison: The Liberties. Liberties were little enclaves where the King’s writ didn’t run and the law was whatever the mesne lord said it was. London had several until they were gradually abolished in the 19thcentury. One of the most famous was the Liberty of Clink, now home to Michelle Lovric of this parish.

    The Clink Liberty was the fiefdom of the Bishop of Winchester. It had its own prison which gave its name to prisons in general. And among its other claims to fame was a very accommodating view on the licensing of brothels and theatres. The Globe and Rose theatres were both situated within the Liberty of Clink and its bawdy houses were serviced by women known as Winchester Geese. Pandarus speaks of them in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.

    My fear is this,

    Some galled goose of Winchester would hiss,

    Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases

    And at that time, bequeath you my diseases.


    Sanctuary, Liberties, both places where once upon a time a person could go to earth, buy a little time, enjoy a bit of leeway, as long as he knew where to go. I suppose these days there’d be an App for it.



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     ‘Where did the idea come from?’ 

    Every author gets asked that

    , and it’s always a difficult question to answer because it’s rarely simple or straightforward.  Sometimes the seed of an idea gets planted in very early life.  It lies dormant for years and years until something else waters it and the seed starts to sprout.

    I was born and raised in Gravesend, Kent,  the town where Pocahontas died and was buried in 1617.  These days there’s a shopping centre behind her statue, but when I was young she stood outlined against the cold, grey Thames with the industrial landscape of Tilbury in the distance.   There was something about that juxtaposition that wormed its way into my head. It troubled me when I was small.  If I shut my eyes now I can still clearly picture the scene. She looked so out of place – standing alone, hands outstretched.  Her image haunted me. Maybe it was the idea that Pocahontas died before she’d been able to return home.  Or maybe there was something about the river that added to the power of her image.

     That image of Pocahontas was one of the many things that later contributed to the writing of both Apache and Buffalo Soldier.  In my next book – Hell and High Water - it’s the river behind her that was the trigger.

    By the time the Thames reaches Gravesend it has grown wide and powerful.  The opening chapter of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness describes it perfectly:

    “The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway.  In the offing the sea and sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked…. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.”

    At Gravesend, the waters of the Thames churn and heave.  It’s moody. Bad tempered. Magnificent. Treacherous.  I can only have been about six or seven when the teenage son of one of my mother’s colleagues drowned after setting out in a homemade boat. 

    That tragedy underlined what I already knew in my guts: I was fascinated by the river, but the Thames was no tame stretch of water to paddle around or swim in. It was a living, breathing, mighty force that demanded respect.

    I studied TS Eliot’s poetry for my A Level English. When I read The Dry SalvagesI thought at first he was describing the Thames.

    “I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river

    Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable,

    Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;

    Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;

    Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

    The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten

    By the dwellers in cities – ever, however, implacable,

    Keeping his seasons, and rages, destroyer, reminder

    Of what men choose to forget.”

    There’s something about tidal rivers that I find compelling.  They’re moving highways. Gateways to other worlds. 

    We moved to Devon when the children were small,  buying a house in Bideford. It’s a small town on the river Torridge but in its heyday the port rivalled London. It was from here that many groups of settlers set out for the New World, including those from the ‘lost colony’ of Roanoke.

    I suppose it’s safe to say that I have a bit of a thing about tidal rivers.

    I love the way they constantly change. I love the force of the tides, the cry of the birds feeding on the mud flats at low water, the way the spring tides are so high they completely flood the marshes.

    I assumed everyone felt like this until I had a conversation with my husband. He’d grown up near Bath - beside the Avon - where the river wasn’t tidal. He hated the way the Torridge could be brim full one moment and nothing more than a muddy trickle the next.


    That one conversation watered the seed of an idea.  When I started work on Hell and High Water our two differing opinions found their way into the minds and hearts of the book’s two main characters.

    Hell and High Water is published by Walker Books on 1stOctober.

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    In the wake of the Radio 4 Woman's Hour power list for 2015 let's forget Nicola Sturgeon and Caitlyn Jenner for a moment to consider the female movers and shakers of the Tudor age.

    The second half of the sixteenth century was uniquely characterised by a half-century of female rule and it was also a period when noble women were educated to an unprecedented level. So as the primary preoccupation of my Tudor trilogy is the theme of women and power, I have compiled a Tudor Women's Power List power list to rival that of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, featuring many of the women I have written about and some I have not.


    Still considered one of England’s greatest monarchs, history has perhaps glossed over some of the failures of Elizabeth I’s 44 year reign, choosing instead to focus on the triumphs. The defeat of the Spanish Armada was one such victory, indeed because the Catholic world deemed the Protestant Elizabeth a heretic, her reign was characterised by England’s successful defence against a perpetual and very real Spanish threat.

    The period saw a great flourishing of culture supported by the Queen, in particular the rise of English drama with playwrights like Shakespeare and her encouragement of the exploration of the New World by figures such as Frances Drake, all helping to establish the English cultural identity that persists to this day.

    Unlike her sister Mary, Elizabeth understood the mechanics of power for a woman on the throne and that her potential for marriage allowed her to play one foreign state off against another. To commit herself in marriage, she realised, would mean a compromise of that power, so she remained single at great personal cost and without the ability to produce an heir to continue the hard-won Tudor line.

    Elizabeth features prominently in all three of my Tudor novels.


    The Tudors would have remained a family of ordinary nobles were it not for the indomitable Margaret Beaufort. As the mother of Henry Tudor (Henry VII), an upstart king, with a tenuous claim to the throne, who won his crown on the battlefield, she understood the importance of establishing the Tudor dynasty as a force to be reckoned with.

    A mother and widow by the age of twelve, Margaret Beaufort managed to place herself, through marriage, into a position from which she could pull the strings to eventually see her son crowned. The English throne had been contested for decades, passing between the houses of York and Lancaster in an endless bloody struggle and it was Margaret who managed to broker a marriage between the Lancastrian Henry and Elizabeth of York, thereby uniting the warring houses.

    Once Henry VII was on the throne she ran the royal household with a rod of iron, setting down codes of behaviour and helping negotiate illustrious and powerful marriages for her royal grandchildren to create alliances across Europe: the eldest Arthur to Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon; Margaret to James IV of Scotland; Mary to Louis XII of France and we all know what became of younger brother Henry.


    The eldest daughter of Henry VIII with his first wife Catherine of Aragon is remembered as Bloody Mary. This is somewhat unfair as, though it is true 280 people were burned for heresy in her four-year reign, many other monarchs of the period were responsible for equally brutal punishment regimes, indeed her younger sister Elizabeth ordered the execution of no less than 600 in the aftermath of a Catholic uprising in the north of England alone.

    Mary’s route to the throne was not straightforward and she was compelled to raise an army to overthrow her young cousin Lady Jane Grey, who had been named as her brother Edward VI’s successor. Staunchly papist, Mary dragged England back to Catholicism kicking and screaming, re-establishing papal power and marrying her cousin Philip of Spain. Unfortunately this marriage was the source of much anxiety as the English worried about becoming an annex of Spain. An uprising ensued but Mary stood her ground and quelled the rebels gaining the respect of her people.

    But Mary’s Spanish marriage caused England to join in Spain’s European war, which ultimately led to the loss of Calais (the last English territory on the continent) and her lack of an heir meant that when she died she had no choice but to pass the crown to her popular Protestant sister, thwarting her hopes of a Catholic England.

    Mary Tudor and her reign are explored in Sisters of Treason.


    Catherine of Aragon is remembered primarily for the humiliation of her divorce from Henry VIII in favour of Anne Boleyn and miserable end in a damp castle separated from those she loved. But that is a mere fragment of her story. As Henry’s queen for more than twenty years, and with her illustrious family ruling over most of Europe, she was the most powerful woman in England, prompting Thomas Cromwell to say of her ‘if not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of history,’ and this from an enemy.

    She promoted education for women and relief for the poor and during Henry’s French campaign she was made Regent of England, raising an army to fight the invading Scots, who thought with the King away they would find an easy victory in England. This was not to be, James IV was killed at Flodden Field and the pregnant Catherine, who had ridden north in armour to encourage her troops, sent a piece of the Scottish King’s bloody coat to her husband in France to mark her triumph.


    Katherine Parr is not an obvious choice for the Tudor power list as she is remembered as the wife who managed to survive marriage to Henry VIII by being meek, uncontroversial and managing to outlive him.

    This was far from the case: Katherine used her position as queen to forward her reformist political agenda in a volatile, polarised court. Her Catholic enemies tried to bring her down but failed miserably as she managed to stay a step ahead of them causing them to topple in her stead. At a time when women were supposed to be seen and not heard, she was one of the first women to publish in the English language, penning two widely read books, one a highly dangerous political text that might have seen her follow her predecessors to the block.

    Like Catherine of Aragon, Katherine Parr was the only other of Henry’s queens to hold the position of Regent of England, while Henry was campaigning in France, a role she performed with aplomb, managing the politically divided council and ensuring the safety of the realm. It was Katherine who encouraged Henry to reinstate his outcast daughters to the succession, thus playing an important role in the eventual half-century of female rule in England, and played a pivotal role in the education of the young Elizabeth Tudor.

    Katherine Parr is the focus of Queen’s Gambit.


    Bess of Hardwick is the only woman on the Tudor power list without a direct connection by blood or marriage to the monarchy, but as an ordinary woman born into a family of minor gentry who eventually became the Countess of Shrewsbury, amassed great wealth and land and oversaw the building of some of the great Elizabethan houses such as Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall, she deserves a mention.

    Some might dismiss Bess as a canny gold-digger but this is far from the case. In the period as a woman if you didn’t manage to elevate your family through marriage you were deemed a failure, so Bess’s marital mountaineering was more about clever negotiation than seductive pulchritude. Her final marriage contract with George Talbot the Earl of Shrewsbury, one of the primary nobles in the land, was cleverly constructed to include the marriage of her son and daughter, from an earlier union, to Shrewsbury’s son and daughter, meaning that her children and their progeny would also become part of the illustrious Talbot line.

    Shrewsbury managed his money badly and lost a fortune as Elizabeth’s jailor to Mary Queen of Scots, who he was impelled to house, with her vast queen’s entourage, for nearly twenty years. Bess in the meantime shored her fortune up, cultivating powerful friends, building houses and accumulating land in Derbyshire. But her ambitions were greater and she managed to marry one of her daughters to Charles Stuart, the grandson of Margaret Tudor, meaning that the daughter of that union, Arbella Stuart, was a strong contender for the English throne after Elizabeth. Bess’s hopes of becoming the queen’s grandmother were, however, dashed when Elizabeth handed the crown to Arbella’s cousin James VI of Scotland.

    Arbella is to be the protagonist of my next novel.


    An less obvious candidate for the power list as she's a little known figure, but as a prominent and well-connected woman who forwarded the ambitions of her family at court, was involved in risky secret espionage with the Scottish Court on the matter of the Stuart succession and lived openly in an adulterous relationship, having several children with her lover, a very bold move for a woman of the period, she deserves her place.

    Forced into a deeply unhappy marriage aged eighteen, Penelope became the muse of Sir Philip Sidney, inspiring his sonnet cycle Astrophil and Stella and was highly influential in the Elizabethan cultural world of poets and playwrights. Her refusal to be shamed in her adultery, in which she behaved in a way that was the norm for men of the period but completely taboo for women, marks her out in my mind as a proto-feminist. Also she was listed as one of the perpetrators of her brother The Earl of Essex's rebellion and not only was she the sole woman listed but was the only person not to be tried for her part in it. This points to her having great power and influence behind the scenes.

    Penelope Devereux is the heroine of Watch the Lady

    Find out more about Elizabeth Fremantle's Tudor trilogy on www.elizabethfremantle.com 

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    Honestly I should be puffing my book but as there is a small amount of swimming in it perhaps that's how I can make the link. You may be relieved that this post isn't about a cause celebre of Regency England but about getting your kit off and splashing about.
    Szechenyi Spa Budapest

    I love a swim me. Being not particularly good at any sport that involves throwing or catching, (or running for that matter) swimming is the perfect exercise. Of course until that hazy far off future when my books make me so much cash that I can to dig my own pool out in the garden I  have to make do with communal pools. This one, pictured above is probably the most fabulous I have ever been to; The Szechenyi Spa in the centre of Budapest.  This thermal bath is only one hundred years old, opening in 1913, just before old Europe imploded, styled as old Rome meets High Nineteenth century bling, one of the last gasps of Austro Hungarian excess. It is fabulous, apart from the outdoor pools in the picture, there are many indoor warm baths and if you suffer from arthritis or similar conditions, you can get visits on prescription.  I could have stayed there a week no problem.

    The other thing that sparked this blog was a meeting in a production company office in London. You can imagine it; lovely modern office building in a tower block in Covent Garden, brilliant views all round, including the new roof of the British Museum to the north. This company overlooks one of London's wonderful and shrinking cohort of Lidos, the Oasis. Built as a municipal pool as part of a council estate in Covent Garden - in the 60s when central London was practically empty, the Oasis is a roof top open air pool without the pretensions or the nasty exclusivity of some (Shoreditch House I am looking at you). It may not have the grandeur of Central Europe but at least it's (relatively) cheap to locals.

    The Oasis Pool London

    What's sad is how many we have lost. Open air swimming was hugely fashionable in the post war years. A way of getting the huddled masses - who were revealed by World War One call ups to be unhealthy and malnourished - out into the fresh air.  Pools and Lidos went up all over the country -even at St Leonards a stones throw from where I live now- a massive seaside Lido which was loss making almost as soon as it opened.

    St Leonards Lido in the 1930s
    What's sad is how many we've lost. Finchley Lido, and Victoria Park are two from my childhood. But there is one last good news story. London Fields, the Lido that came back from the dead. It was opened in 1932, a 50 metre pool without the acreage for sunbathing that Finchley had, but perfectly serviceable. It had turnstiles which took 20p and it was heavily used up until the late 80s. It was a great relief for Hackney parents - me included.
    London Fields Lido
    But it shut in 1988 and remained empty for years. A group of residents campaigned and kept the premises viable, maintaining the fabric of the site and campaining hard, even when the pool was squatted.  Local pressure was kept up and in 2006 the pool was revamped and reopened. It has heated water and is open all year - even in the snow.  It may not be Budapest but there is nothing nicer than swimming on your back looking up at the blue sky as a flock of green parakeets scythes overhead.

    Catherine Johnson's latest book is The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo, published by Corgi. Please go out and buy it now. If you can't buy it order it. There, that was easy. x

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  • 07/14/15--17:00: The Viking Faeroes
  • by Marie-Louise Jensen

    For a number of years, I had a bit of an obsession with the Faeroe Islands, dating from receiving a postcard from there aged 20. The islands looked so weird and wonderful, distinctive green mountains rising steeply out of the sea, and I instantly wanted to visit.

    It was 20 years before I got there, but in the intervening time, I read a fair bit of Faeroese literature (in Danish) and was generally fascinated by the remoteness of the islands and the isolated life there. A life that was isolated not just from other countries but by being a series of islands with treacherous seas running between them.

    In the Viking era, the islands must have seemed less of a remote outpost than they do now, despite all that cheap flights and bridge-building between islands by the Danish government can do. The Fareoes were very central in the North Atlantic trade and exploration routes - a handy stop over on a voyage to Iceland, Greenland or even Scotland from the rest of Scandinavia.

    The Vikings settled them early - duly driving out the Irish monks, as they did in Iceland. They even had their own saga - Faereyinga Saga - though the manuscript has sadly been lost.
    In the sagas where they are mentioned, ships stop over on their way to Iceland, and I was inspired by that for my travellers in Daughter of Fire and Ice to stop there for fresh water; a life-changing stopover for my characters as it turned out.

    Most of the literature I read about set in the islands was about mu
    ch later periods - priests who were deeply mortified about being posted to such a backwater, or who tried desperately to stop their incorrigible flock spending their days in drunkenness.  And - an eye-opener for me - about the leper colony on one of the islands. The over-riding theme of the later literature (19th century and prudish) was the issue of sexual licence. A small colony was in need of new blood to avert in-breeding, so the women reputedly tumbled into bed with every sailor who visited. Myself, I suspect this was either much exaggerated by the male authors (who also told tales of stoning brothers and sisters to death for incest) or down to the Faeroese men being jealous or perhaps they just didn't know how to treat their women properly?

    There's no doubt it was a hard life and a poor one for much of the islands' history.

    I'm still fascinated by the islands' history and geography and am currently drooling with jealousy over photos my mother has been emailing to me (she's just been there). I've now shared these! Trip, anyone?

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    So what is it that makes the Tudor period so endlessly fascinating to writers? Well... passion, treachery, adventure, a turbulent political climate, beautiful (albeit probably uncomfortable) clothes, larger-than-life characters, royalty, Shakespeare... Hm. Yes, it does seem to have one or two things going for it - and Elizabeth Fremantle's new book taps into most of them.

    Robert Cecil
    But above all, it has two fascinating characters at its heart - as well as a number of others on the periphery. The 'lady' of the title is Lady Penelope Devereux, the sister of one of Elizabeth's favourites - the Earl of Essex - and the stepdaughter of another, the Earl of Leicester. The title comes from a piece of advice given by Lord Burghley, Elizabeth's trusted adviser, to his son, Robert Cecil, who is the other viewpoint character in the book. Burghley and Cecil are both aware that Penelope is not only beautiful; she is also highly intelligent, politically astute, and the driving force of her flamboyant family. Burghley sees her ability and advises his son to watch her. Cecil sees her ability too, but he's also very aware of her beauty. There's poignancy here, because Cecil is crooked, not beautiful at all. The first time he sees her, she smiles at him - a smile that 'would light up the shadows of hell'. Usually, girls look at him with 'disgust'. As a result, though he will always be an enemy of her brother, his feelings for her are ambivalent - and in the end, this helps her to survive in the dangerous world of Tudor politics.

    Penelope is a passionate character. When she is very young, she falls in love with Sir Philip Sidney, the perfect knight: brave, loyal, chivalrous, learned. He falls for her too, but her marriage is a matter of political and economic expedience; she is obliged by her family to wed Lord Richard Rich - they need his wealth, and he needs their ancient lineage. The marriage is not a success, but Penelope is a pragmatist and she makes the best of it - and finds that she is able to turn the situation to her advantage: she takes charge.

    Her brother, handsome, charming, ambitious, becomes to the Queen the son she has never had. But along with all his good qualities, Essex is also headstrong and erratic; he suffers from mood swings which leave him sometimes plunged into despair and sometimes dangerously out of control. Penelope is the rock of her family; her mother, who lost the Queen's favour when she married Leicester, is foolish, and her sister wants a quiet life, away from the temptations and dangers of court. It is up to Penelope to improve the fortunes of the Devereux clan - but she also wants personal fulfillment; she wants love.

    Penelope Devereux
    Elizabeth Fremantle weaves a richly coloured tale of Elizabeth's court. Naturally, as a novelist she My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun... She reveals the complex machinations and manouevring for place and power, and she shows how Tudor realpolitik is merciless in its sacrifice of the innocent - I could hardly bear to read about the fate of a certain character, whose name I won't reveal. It's always interesting to see how novelists deal with characters who have become well-known to us through other novels and history books; Penelope Devereux is not widely known, but many of the others are very familiar. Elizabeth herself  emerges, at this later stage of her life, as an unlikeable but also rather pitiable figure: Cecil evokes pity and revulsion in roughly equal measure.
    takes leave to use poetic license - in Richard Rich's proclivities, for example, but also in a delightful scene where she imagines how Shakespeare might have come to compose his famous sonnet:

    But at the heart of the novel is the character of Penelope - warm, clever, courageous and loyal. It's a delight to keep her company as she plunges into the intrigues of Elizabeth's court, and yet somehow manages to retain her integrity throughout. She's a charismatic addition to the canon of powerful women of the Tudor era.

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    I’m in that” trudging through a tangled story state” right now, so my mind isn’t up to too much precise history. Here’s today’s alternative:


    At school, at a certain point, I was (ahem) moved from the form that did History to the class that enjoyed Economic History, and very glad I was too. Later, as far as I can recall, one chose History or Geography, People or Places. You were either studiously academic or supposed to like the open air and walking.  I am very glad how well these subjects now work together.

    I am not a great traveller, unless you count books and stories, but when I flew to Canada recently, history and geography seemed inseparable. 

    The rail track from Leeds to Manchester went through steep valleys, the trees lush green from the same damp that assisted cloth production, and with names like Halifax and Huddersfield. The railway pushed on through the remains of the industrial revolution: stone bridges, arched viaducts and sudden tunnels; canals, four storey mills and cloth factories. It was a fine journey, if time was not an issue, although one that any “Northern Powerhouse” rail route could destroy. Then, after a purgatory of junk food, booze and shopping, came take-off and flight.

    Unusually, the day was clear and sunny, so peering down was like gazing at a familiar map of Great Britain. The landscape was a patchwork of green fields, hedges and trees, pleasing now, less pleasing during the Enclosures. The small roads twisted here and there between them, naturally fit around the contours, and curves. Over this gentleness lay the rigid lines of motorways, straight and autocratic as Roman roads.

    On the plane went, out over the shipping lanes that carried people and cargo into and out of Liverpool and the other ports along the coast. Now, the calm sea just held the tiny pins of the wind-farm, and the pale silt-laden water still spreading out into Morecombe Bay. The shipyards and trade along this coast have gone.

    Next, the plane passed over the great hook of Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria. In the middle ages, the Cistercian abbey at Furness was a centre for mining minerals; by the twentieth, the small natural inlets offered protection for the building of warships and submarines. 

    The plane passed across the Isle of Man with its circling road and then above Ireland. At one point, there was Derry, clearly divided by the Boyne, just like the aerial view I’d seen on a recent history programme. 

    Then all was gone. We were over the Atlantic.


    Five hours later, land re-appeared: a vast area of trees, lakes - seemingly small - and more trees and more lakes, a seemingly empty terrain as divided and broken as a jig-saw puzzle. Now I’ve checked, I think this was Newfoundland and Quebec. Then, as I looked down, all I could wonder was why and how would people travel over such a difficult, inhospitable landscape, and when, as there seemed to be no roads winding between the patches of water and rock. Suddenly, from the yellowed text book came a long lost term: “Canadian Shield”.  Surely this landscape, scraped by glaciation, was what that term had meant? The land itself was history and home for the First Nations.

    Before long, down below the wings, we saw the long channel of the St Lawrence River. We were flying inland past Quebec city, south west, down towards Toronto, Lake Ontario and the flat lands beyond.

    The curving British roads had gone. Now I stared at a grid of square plots and straight roads and flat roof buildings. These were the blind-eyed signs of colonial settlement where the simplest way was to draw boxes on a map and sell the land off in tidy lots. When the geography of a place is so vast, why take landscape into account? Other than the divisions come back to haunt us, as in the troubled lines drawn on Africa.

    Once we had landed, I started longing for a map, a real map because I did not know where I was at all. There was only the hire-car GPS - and at one point even that stopped working – and the half-familiar names like Lincoln or Grimsby or Cambridge only confused me further.  How can one understand the land and its story when you are guided by satellite alone?

    I apologise if all this sounds like bleating, but I hated being map-less. I hated the sense of not being able to find out where I was, of being unable to read the layers of history in the landscape, the architecture or in the curve of a road. 

    Even though we went to a Mennonite Market, drove past Sir Allan MacNab’s Dundurn Castle in Hamilton, peered through the Victorian peepholes out into the torrent of Niagara Falls and more, I felt as if there were layers of history missing, stories I could not see.

    I admit I was surprised by that sense of loss. Was it just the lack of a map? Or because I had no history in my head when I could see a map? 

    Here, at home, I live in the triangle between York - of the castle, the walls and the Vikings - and Leeds - with its Victorian arcades and waterways - and the ancient sheep pastures of the Dales where low sunlight reveals the strip and furrow farming of older settlements.

    There, in Canada, I admit I did feel the absence of those histories.

    Penny Dolan

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  • 07/17/15--16:30: Shadow Boxes - Celia Rees
  • I've always been fascinated by Wunderkammer, Cabinets of Curiosities, things in boxes, the stranger the better, so I was delighted to hear about Joseph Cornell's Wanderlust Exhibition at the Royal Academy .

    A Parrot for Juan Gris 
    Winter 1953-54

    Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack, New York, Christmas Eve, 1903. He rarely stirred out of his native state but his art took him to far distant places. He didn't set out to be an artist, yet his work can be found in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Guggenheim, the Smithsonian and museums all over the world. He began as an obsessive collector. He wandered the streets of New York in his lunch hour, haunting the second hand shops, dime stores and flea markets collecting old books, prints, photographs, keepsakes and odd bits and pieces from clay pipes to watch springs. On day, in 1931, he went into a gallery looking for a particular photograph and stumbled into an exhibition of surrealism. He was instantly attracted to the collages of Max Ernst and began making his own assemblages of images at his kitchen table. Gradually, he developed the glass fronted 'shadow box', boxed assemblages of found objects, which became his art form. 

    Untitled (The Hotel Eden), 1945

    His collections of found objects and ephemera allowed him to travel and explore realms of the imagination and creativity without ever leaving his basement in Queens. He became an 'armchair voyager', creating little worlds and stories captured in boxes, caught behind glass. He used maps and postage stamps, timetables and hotel advertisements, postcards and photographs, Baedeker guides and compasses. The viewer is drawn into an evocative world of distant exotic places, but they are places that never existed, realms of the imagination, something akin to fairyland. I think this is why I find his creations so fascinating. 

    Pharmacy, 1943

    Cornell was admired by many of his contemporaries - from the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp to Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. His influence can be seen in the work of later artists, like Peter Blake and Damien Hirst. 

    Naples, 1942

    Cornell's shadow boxes speak to me in a particular way. I find them inspirational and exciting, a visual expression of something familiar yet oddly disturbing. When we write anything, particularly when we write of the past, of places that can no longer be seen or visited, it is as though we are doing the same thing as Joseph Cornell but in words. The found objects, the printed ephemera of a particular time, pictures, postcards, paintings and photographs are the kinds of things we collect when we are writing. An exhibition like this makes me want to create my own shadow boxes made from the visual reference I've used to create a particular book. Perhaps I will one day. 

    Untitled (Tilly Losch),  c. 1935. 

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    It’s summer, it’s hot, and I’m up to my eyes in researching the next book… Happily, it doesn’t always have to be the heavy stuff. Today I’m looking into cocktails - specifically, those popular between the ‘Jazz Age’ of 1925 or thereabouts, and the early 1930s. In this endeavour, I’ve been assisted by a book, which, although published in 1949, still has about it the raffish feel of that earlier time. It’s my father’s well-used copy of the Esquire Handbook for Hosts, and it contains everything one could possibly want to know about… well, being a host. To this end, it offers chapters on cooking - provocatively titled ‘the world’s best chefs wear pants’ - on keeping one’s guests amused during the hours between cocktails and dinner (card games of all sorts, from Gin Rummy to Poker, feature here) and on ‘what the well-dressed host will wear’ (‘your double chested dinner jacket of the same midnight blue as the dress trousers is always in good taste’). But the main point of the book is - not to put too fine a point on it - the drink.

    Here are chapters on knowing your wines, on mixing a punch ‘to bowl you over’, on fixing a ‘highball’, and on making the perfect Mint Julep. There is even a section for teetotallers, as well as one for the inevitable morning-after hangover cure. But the sections which interested me are the ones that deal with the cocktail, in all its variety. So here’s the Manhattan - this particular version an eye-watering concoction of ‘4 parts Rye or Bourbon to 1 part Italian Vermouth’, stirred, not shaken and poured into a glass with a cherry or ‘preferably, a twist of lemon peel’. Here’s the Old Fashioned, which seems to consist mainly of Angostura Bitters, sugar, and orange zest; the Daiquiri (fresh lime juice, Bacardi rum, ice and sugar); the Gimlet (3 parts dry gin to 1 part Rose’s lime juice) and of course the Martini. This classic drink, as most aficionados will know, has many variations, but the classic, as given in the Handbook, is 1 part French Vermouth to 2 parts gin, served in a cocktail glass with a green olive or a twist of lemon. The Gibson, otherwise called a ‘Very Dry Martini’, is a lethal sounding combination of ‘1 part Vermouth to 5 parts gin’, served with a cocktail onion…

    The list of evocative sounding names goes on: the Pink Lady (gin, egg white, lime juice and grenadine), the Whisky Sour (lemon juice, sugar and bourbon), the Manhattan (orange bitters, vermouth and rye or bourbon), and something called ‘Death in the Afternoon’ - a mixture of champagne and absinthe - which was apparently a favourite of Ernest Hemingway’s… Needless to say, I haven’t tried all these drinks - or at least, not all at once - but reading my father’s cherished ‘how to’ book on being a good host had given me an insight into a long-lost world. It was a world of elegance, and sophistication - of Jay Gatsby’s ‘blue gardens’ with their ‘whisperings and… champagne’ and ‘yellow cocktail music’ - but it was also a world of excess, and desperate gaiety, and borderline alcoholism. One only has to think of Lady Brett, in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, with her cropped hair and her sporty clothes, and her fondness for getting ‘tight’. Or Fitzgerald’s alcoholic screenwriter, Pat Hobby. Or Waugh’s brittle and affected Bright Young Things, in Vile Bodies… Alcohol and literature have always had a close association, and never more so than in the hey-day of the cocktail - which, roughly speaking, lasted from 1920 to the early 1960s.
    The earliest use of the term ‘cocktail’ dates from much earlier - the beginning of the nineteenth century - and drinks such as the Sazarac, a mixture of brandy, bitters and absinthe, were popular from the 1850s onwards. But it wasn’t until much later - after the First World War, in fact - that the idea of mixing one’s drink of choice with sweet or ‘dry’ mixers, really took off. The first cocktail party was apparently held in St Louis, in May 1917 - perhaps as a ‘send-off’ to some of those brave ‘Doughboys’ going off to fight in France - but the full impact of what newspapers of the time came to describe as the ‘cocktail habit’ wasn’t felt until after the war, and the imposition of Prohibition in 1920, across the United States. During this period, which lasted until 1933, drinkers had to take their pleasures illicitly, in the notorious ‘speakeasies’, where illegally produced ‘bathtub gin’ and other horrors, would be mixed with sweet-tasting liqueurs, and chilled with lots of ice, to mask the taste. In Europe, where no such restrictions existed, the craze nonetheless caught on, and soon the ‘cocktail hour’ became an established fixture of any smart social circle, celebrated by writers of the period from P.G. Wodehouse to T.S. Eliot. In Carry on Jeeves, we first meet Bertie Wooster when he is recovering from a night of excess, drinking concoctions of the sort enthusiastically described in another Wodehouse novel, Uncle Fred in Springtime: ‘champagne… liqueur brandy, armagnac, kummel, yellow liqueur, and old stout, to taste…’

    Then he seemed to flicker, and wasn’t there any longer, I heard him moving about in the kitchen, and presently he came back with a glass on a tray.
    ‘If you would drink this, sir,’ he said, with a kind of bedside manner, rather like a royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince. ‘It is a little preparation of my own invention. It is the Worcester Sauce that gives it its colour. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.’
    I would have clutched at anything that looked like a lifeline that morning. I swallowed the stuff. For a moment I felt as if someone had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seemed suddenly to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; birds twittered in the tree-tops; and generally speaking, hope dawned once more.
    ‘You’re engaged!’ I said, as soon as I could say anything.



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    It’s astonishing what you discover when you are doing the research for a novel. In my first 17th century Fenland novel, Flood, Tom Bennington, brother of the narrator, Mercy Bennington, is injured twice in the same leg, develops gangrene and suffers an amputation. In the second novel, Betrayal, I alternate between the two as first-person narrators. Tom goes to London to resume his legal studies at Gray’s Inn, while searching for the missing royal charter which granted possession of the common lands to the fenlanders. While in London, Tom also hopes to have a wooden “peg leg” fitted, to improve his balance and mobility.

    What did I know about artificial legs in the mid-seventeenth century?

    Precisely nothing – which led me to Ambroise Paré.

    Nowadays we are all familiar with the amazingly sophisticated artificial limbs which provide the chance of a near normal life to accident victims and soldiers, but people have lost limbs through accidents and war injuries from earliest times. They were not left helpless. Greeks, Romans and Egyptians all made attempts to provide replacements for such tragic losses, but inevitably these were very simple and crude. Things did not improve much over the centuries. Remember those illustrations of Long John Silver and his wooden leg? Such basic legs were still common for much of the twentieth century, as attested by photographs.

    Yet back in the sixteenth century – yes, that’s not a mistake, the sixteenthcentury – there was a new approach to this painful problem. Enter Ambroise Paré.

    Ambroise Paré
    Ambroise Paré was born in Bourg-Hersent, near Laval, France, in 1510 and followed in the footsteps of his elder brother, who was a barber-surgeon. This was a catch-all profession, covering everything from cutting hair and pulling teeth to stitching up wounds and carrying out amputations. His basic professional training took place at the most prestigious hospital in Paris, the Hôtel-Dieu, where he was taught the standard practices of sixteenth-century surgery. These included some which seem horrific to us now – wounds would be treated with boiling oil, and after an amputation the severed limb was cauterised with a red hot iron.
    Francis I King of France
    Paré was both a compassionate man and brilliant innovator. Like most surgeons, his first major experience as a young man was on the battlefield, in the Piedmont campaign of Francis I in 1537-8. Two episodes during these battlefield experiences had a profound effect on him. On one occasion he was horrified when he saw severely wounded men put out of their misery by having their throats cut by their comrades – it determined him to devote himself to improving the care of those with gunshot and sword wounds and never to abandon his attempts to save life.

    On another occasion, there were so many men with wounds that he ran out of supplies of the hot oil used to scald them. Having read of a method used by the Romans, he mixed up a salve of oil of roses, egg white and turpentine. He dreaded that the men whose wounds were only salved would die. Instead, the following morning those treated with hot oil were in severe pain, their wounds inflamed, and some had died, while those treated with the makeshift salve were making a good recovery. Subsequently, Paré used the same treatment for amputations and never cauterised again, finding that those treated by the old and violent method frequently died of shock or infection, while his new method spared his patients a great deal of unnecessary pain and resulted in a far better rate of recovery.

    A further problem with amputations was the risk of the patient haemorrhaging to death, if cauterisation failed to seal the arteries. Paré introduced ligature of the arteries to prevent this happening. It seems extraordinary that his life-saving techniques did not at once become widespread, for he did not keep his methods secret, as some surgeons at the time were apt to do (for example in the case of obstetrics). Instead Paré published extensively, explaining his methods in detail; his first work, based on his treatment of war wounds was The method of curing wounds caused by arquebus and firearms (1545). His use of ligature was discussed in his Ten Books on Surgery (1564).

    What was to become of these young soldiers who lost an arm or a leg in battle? Cast out of the army, crippled for life, they faced a bleak future. Some resorted to suicide. Paré believed that it should be possible to make life more bearable for them. Curious and inventive as ever, he developed the art of prosthetics beyond anything before envisaged. He designed artificial legs with jointed knees and ankles, arms with jointed elbows and wrists, hands with complex fingers.
    Paré prosthetic arm
    It was around this time that elaborate automata had become popular as toys for the wealthy, and the mechanisms of clocks also grew more complex. Many of the same principles were applied by Paré to his artificial limbs.
    Paré prosthetic leg - interior & exterior
    Instead of simple wooden props, his metal legs were intended to reproduce as nearly as possible the movement of the human leg, but they were very heavy. Some of his experimental limbs were made in collaboration with a lockmaker he refers to as “Le Petit Lorrain”. Was he a short man called Lorrain? A man from Lorrain? Such a man would have similar skills to a clockmaker, for this was also a time of complex locks. Lorrain designed a type of artificial leg using leather to reduce the weight. The extraordinary breakthrough in prosthetics pioneered by Paré was recorded in detail in his book Ten Books on Surgery(1564), which was lavishly illustrated.
    Paré prosthetic hand
    As well as providing limbs for amputees, Paré also developed false eyes for those who had suffered eye injuries, another common battlefield wound from flying fragments of shrapnel, in this new age of hand-held firearms.

    Paré’s work was not only concerned with war wounds and their aftermath. He also served as surgeon to four successive kings of France: Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III. Indeed, he was so valued by Charles IX that the king saved his life during the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572); as a Huguenot Paré was in considerable danger. He continued as the royal surgeon until his death in Parisin 1590.

    In peacetime medicine, one of his principal interests was obstetrics. At a time when most babies were delivered by midwives, surgeons would normally only become involved when something was seriously wrong, endangering mother or baby or both. At the time there were usually only two options: a Caesarean, which generally killed the mother, or the dismemberment of the unborn baby, killing the child. Paré believed that such deaths were often unnecessary, like the deaths of his soldier patients. He developed methods of manipulating the baby in utero in order to achieve a safe delivery. He wrote a treatise on midwifery and trained other surgeons in his methods, which must have saved hundreds of lives.
    Title page of Paré's Oeuvres
    As an expert anatomist, he also had an interest in forensic medicine and the presentation of legal evidence. Another of his books was Reports in Courtcovering the subject of what we would now call expert medical witness evidence.

    Above all, Paré was activated by two principles: he devoted his life to developing surgical, medical and mechanical techniques for saving and improving lives, and he believed above all in sparing his patients unnecessary pain. It earned him the title of “the gentle surgeon”.

    So why is he virtually unknown today? And why – going back to my initial discovery of his mechanical legs – did it take so long for his ideas to become commonplace? In the matter of cauterising wounds, it seems to have been a sheer pig-headed refusal to abandon long-established practices. As for the prosthetic limbs, perhaps they were just too complicated and expensive to come into general use.

    Whatever the reasons, I feel Ambroise Paré should be celebrated as the man who first saw that surgery need not be a form of unavoidable but agonising butchery; instead his gentle practices could save and transform lives, although, as a devout man, he always attributed his successes not to himself, but to God. He laid the foundations of modern surgery, something we should all be grateful for.

    “There are five duties of surgery: to remove what is superfluous, to restore what has been dislocated, to separate what has grown together, to reunite what has been divided, and to redress the defects of nature.” – Ambroise Paré

    So, in Betrayal, when my protagonist Tom Bennington arrives in London, he seeks the help of a barber surgeon who is an admirer of Ambroise Paré, determined to carry on with his work.

    Ann Swinfen


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    To be clear, I don’t think I’d have a career as a writer at all if it weren’t for the invention of the word processor. I can’t spell, and I’m never going to be a ‘one perfect line at a time’ author. My novels grow by a process of accretion, and each one is a palimpsest.  

    But try and take my notebooks away from me and… well let’s just say I spend a lot of my working life working out how to kill people.

    I have seen pictures of writers’ studies where a particular sort of notebook is collected in neat ranks - the testament to a lifetime of devotion to a particular brand, size and paperstock which verges on the fetishistic. I’m too much of a magpie for that and there are too many different appealing textures of cover and paper for me to be so monogamous. That said though, I realise I’ve developed patterns and preferences and have in my own way become just as rigid as anyone else. I have categories.

    First is the handbag notebook - the one that I carry everywhere. Sometimes there are a few of these on the go at once - they live in different bags - or as this category is the most varied, they get replaced with the next shiny gift. Paperblanks are the favourites - the midi format ones with jewelled covers that fold over themselves with a satisfying magnetic clunk. Into these go all the random thoughts, books recommendations, scraps of poetry or quotes from whatever I’m reading on the train, odd paragraphs of journal or conversations overheard on the bus, advertising slogans, classified ads, exchanges with my husband, dreams. Sometimes I write down words I’ve recently discovered and think might come in handy such as ‘accretion’ and ‘palimpsest’.

    Often I never reread them, the good stuff I remember and the rest sort of sinks back into the subconscious somewhere for mining later. The act of writing these things down though does give them more of a chance to hang on, somewhere in the brain where they might be useful one day. My shiny notebooks will, of course, be used in evidence when my husband finally gives up and tries to get me committed.

    For research I need something bigger, something that looks a bit more serious. It’s probably a way to deal with that impostor syndrome one often develops as a writer of historical fiction. The Proper Historian appears, sneering, and says ‘how dare you write about history? You know nothing! Where is your PhD?’ I fend them off with my Moleskine©  Ruled Cahier Journals - Kraft Brown - Large, saying ‘Ha! No! But I have a really good notebook and I’ve written in very neatly,’ adding, sotto voce, ‘often with a fountain pen.’

    Then there are the ‘working things out in prose’ notebooks. I discovered a stack of perfect ones for this in a shop under my mother-in-law’s house in Porto. Ned tried to take one once - probably to write notes about cheese in - and we almost got divorced. They are cheap exercise books and full of attempts to get plots in order - so I end up with pages of fairly neat progressions then WHY? written huge and coloured in - or BLACKMAIL? (underline star star star). Ah, yes. In this picture it’s BLOOD. These might form exhibit two in my committal hearing.

    And finally - and just visible in the first picture - there are the huge sheets of drawing paper which are the starting point for a book. They often get covered in doodles too, but mostly are spider diagrams, with one side of the page getting crowded with names and short hand for scenes, while other limbs dangle out lonely into space, waiting for the next thought to anchor them. 

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    Conjure an image of an Arabian Souq, and one thinks of maze-like alleys lined with shops selling incense, spices and gleaming displays of gold and silver jewellery. Now, many of the gold shops here may be modern and luxurious, but jewellery still plays an important part in society, just as it has for thousands of years.

    Traditionally in the region, finely worked silver jewellery was worn by Bedouin travellers. It was both a mobile and decorative way of transporting their wealth from place to place. A Bedouin woman effectively carried her fortune with her in the form of elaborate head-pieces, veils, necklaces, rings, belts, anklets, cuffs and bracelets, and it was hers to dispose of as she wished. It was customary for a woman to be given jewellery upon marriage and to celebrate the birth of each child.

    Designs traditionally incorporated coins, tiny silver bells, and precious stones such as turquoise, amber, pearls and coral from the coast. Just as in the West, it was believed certain gemstones and designs were lucky, and would protect the wearer. The beautiful flowing forms of written Arabic lend themselves to elegant jewellery designs. Pieces are also often influenced by traditional geometric patterns, and even in the work of contemporary jewellers one sees familiar motifs such as the hand of Fatima, or intricate calligraphic tughras. Antique jewellery is also a fascinating document of the past. Because of the nature of Bedouin life, the oldest jewellery incorporated techniques and designs from cultures across the trade routes.

    Over time, tastes have changed, and exquisite sets of gold jewellery are now favoured for a bride's wedding trousseau, so the shops in the malls tend to favour these designs. More than simple decoration, fine jewellery shows wealth, status and family pride. Each piece of gold jewellery sold is hallmarked by the government, to ensure its purity, and local jewellers are highly skilled, able to produce bespoke pieces using gold, silver, and gemstones, including the pearls which play such an important part in local history. There is something for everyone, and European, Arabic and Indian designs are sold side by side. Often the pieces are sold according to weight and carat based on the day's price for gold, rather than the beauty of the design, although hand made items command higher prices.

    Personally, I'm gradually collecting a few pieces of old silver jewellery while we are here. Throughout history, this jewellery has been about more than decoration. These beautiful, intricate pieces honoured the geographic and tribal links of the woman who wore them, and reflected her economic and social status. They are historical documents in their own right, and a portable way to take a little of the past of our home for now with us when we leave.

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    So: it's out at last, the long-awaited 'sequel' (though it was actually the precursor) of the beloved 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' I can't have been the only one who, when she first read that 'Go Set a Watchman' dealt with the later life of Scout and Atticus Finch, imagined them both marching forward into the '50s with anti-racist banners waving. How naïve of me! Because even 'Mockingbird', when I read it, left me uneasy about Atticus's views.

    The book has generated a furore; unsurprisingly. It is deeply upsetting to see the lovable father of 'Mockingbird' growling his racist opinons in the most repellant manner. I think it is this shock and disappointment that has also provoked some hostile receptions of the book itself, with some critics describing it as 'less lovable' and even 'mediocre.' As Hadley Freeman said in the 'Guardian', this maybe validates Lee's initial decision not to let it be published.

    Personally, I think publishing it as a novel in itself, 'an unforgettable novel', the jacket blurb tells us, was a wrong decision in absolute terms, though not, doubtless, in commercial ones! I would prefer to see it published in a back-to-back edition with 'Mockingbird', because it is a first draft, unedited, and a valuable piece of archival material which deserves to be published on that account. But it is anything but mediocre.

    What I read in 'Watchman' was a piece of compelling and horrifically fascinating writing; much darker than 'Mockingbird', and undoubtedly less of a superb achievement - but after all, this draft was written first. To me, the most remarkable thing about 'Mockingbird' is the way in which a whole adult world, not ducking out of its darkest aspects - rape, lynchings, incest - is evoked from the point of view of an eight year-old. The childhood parts of 'Watchman' display the same wry humour and unerring characterisation - and they are all a joy, and new, for most of them deal with Scout's adolescence. 'Watchman' would be worth reading for these alone.

    Only - only there is this older, repellent Atticus. How can we bear him? Perhaps by trying to comprehend what he really is.

    Listen to Jem in 'Mockingbird', describing the society of Maycomb County.

    'There's four kinds of folks in the world. There's the ordinary kind like us and the neighbours, there's the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes.' The children then try to work out what the difference is between the four kinds of people - education, property? and Scout opines that there's no difference at all, really, they're all just 'folks.' Because Walter Cunningham, for example, is 'as smart as he can be, he just gets held back sometimes because he has to stay out and help his daddy.'

    Contrast this insight of Scout's with Atticus's remarks in the courtroom, disparaging people who 'promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious.. because all men are created equal, the educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inequality.' I take it that 'promote' means allowing children like Walter Cunningham to move up a class, rather than keeping them back if they didn't make the grade. Atticus doesn't recognise his intelligence, nor does he contradict his sister when she forbids Scout to play with Walter because he is 'trash' (and he doesn't allow his daughter to go and visit the black servant Calpurnia at her home, either.) And what is one of the crucial things that Atticus objects to in 'Watchman?' To black kids being offered the same opportunities, education-wise, as the white ones. He loathes the NAACP - the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, who have a long history of fighting for equal educational rights for black people. His objection to the advancement of black men and women to full citizenship is that they are 'backward', and he deeply mistrusts the organisation that is seeking to make them less so.

    The society of Maycomb contains impoverished 'aristocrats' and ex-slave owners like the Finches; then the Cunninghams who are 'deserving poor' (or 'deserving trash), then the totally undeserving 'white trash' like the Ewells, and finally the black people who are totally at the bottom of the heap. It's a stratified and rigid class system, and the Finches sit at the top of it.

    Atticus, talking to Jem about the black people's lot in Maycomb, tells him: 'As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it - whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, or how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.'

    This is an aristocrat speaking about noblesse oblige. It doesn't mean that Atticus wants to reverse the order of society or even change the condition of black people in any other way than giving them justice. It is almost on a level with kindness to animals. If you are in a privileged position, you should justify it by behaving properly to those below you.

    Both this novel, and 'Watchman' were written in the '50s, in a very different world from now, and 'Mockingbird' is set in 1935. The fact that Uncle Jack brings Scout to her senses (in the book's terms) by clouting her across the head is pretty shocking to me, but this was an era when that kind of behaviour was considered acceptable. Consider the Georgette Heyer stories where the heroes talk blithely about husbands beating their wives. In 'Watchman', the involvement of Communists in the struggle for racial equality is tacitly considered to discredit those struggles, though in fact the most famous 'rape' case of the inter-war years, that of the Scottsboro Boys, was defended, not by a noble-minded Southern aristocrat, but by Communist lawyers. But in the Cold War 50s, ridden by terror of Reds under the bed, 'Communist' was a dirty word. We have at least come far enough now to acknowledge that not all actions carried out by Communists were evil. But the past is another country.

    And on that topic; quite a lot of commentators have expressed their horror that the word 'negro' is used interchangeably with 'black' in 'Watchman', as it is in 'Mockingbird', come to that. That's another example of the past being another country. When I was a child in the '50s, and we had black YMCA secretaries coming to stay in the house, I was taught that the respectful way to refer to them was 'negro.''Black' (as in 'Little Black Sambo') was dreadfully offensive. It wasn't till the Black Power movement took off that the word was reclaimed and 'negro' became offensive. I do wish people would trouble to find this simple fact out. The other 'N-word' has always been offensive, but that is a different matter.

    So let's look at Atticus Finch, a man of his time, who has been given the job of defending a black man accused of rape, when most of his own class, and the other local white people, expect him not to defend Tom Robinson at all. Even if it is noblesse oblige, even something like kindness to animals, is it easy for Atticus to stand up for his aristocratic principles and his belief in abstract justice? Of course not. He is vilified by his own class, Bob Ewell, the father of the supposed 'victim,' spits in his face; his children suffer, and finally only just escape death at Ewell's hands.

    If the Atticus who sits alone outside the prison to protect Tom from the lynch mob is far from a modern anti-racist, can we vilify him for that? We may feel that we've come further than he has, like Scout herself in 'Watchman' - and even she has views that grate on a modern reader. But it takes real courage for Atticus to go as far as he does. He actually believes a black man deserves the same justice as a white person! Most of the residents of Maycomb County don't share that conviction.
    Harper Lee

    There is a tendency in modern life to dissect the reformers of the past and almost gloat over what we consider to be their failings. To criticise the initial campaigns against slavery because they 'only' focussed on the abolition of the trade, rather than abolition altogether. But as far as I know nobody, up till the eighteenth century, had ever questioned the institution of slavery. It was part of the world set-up, and had been for as long as history went back. The astonishing fact is that people did get up and become uneasy about it - and then went on to campaign against slavery altogether. Our ideas about racial justice and equality are based on the actions of those who went before us. The steps they took make it possible for us to take further ones.

    In fact, how much do modern Britons (to say nothing of Americans) have to be proud of even now? In a country where a black lawyer, entering a conference chamber, can be assumed by her colleagues to be the tea-lady, and where if the police are called to a disturbance, their reaction is too often to arrest the black victim of violence. Black people are discriminated against on a daily basis at all levels of British society. Those of us who are white sit on a cushion of privilege which perhaps we're barely aware of and it ill behoves us to sit in judgement.

    So I would like to say to Atticus Finch - yes, you are a racist, and many of your opinions make my hair stand on end - but all the same, I salute your courage.

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    About 15 years ago I met medievalist historian, lecturer, editor and author Gillian Polack on an online forum and over the years we gradually got to know each other. (she's also a History Girl!)  I often send her historical queries and she's my go to person if I want to ask anything about French or English 12th and 13th century culture. 

    Gillian Polack

    I have only recently met textile archaeologist, teacher and academic Katrin Kania but she is lovely and highly knowledgeable.  I recently sent her a query about men's shirts in the 12th century and she was able to give me the answer!
    Katrin Kania 

    For as long as I have known Gillian, she has been writing The Middle Ages Unlocked. It has gone through several changes from catterpillar to butterfly. Its working title was 'THE BEAST' because of its vast scope.   I was uitterly delighted for both Gillian and Katrin when they found a publisher for what I consider is an essential work that should be on every medievalist's bookshelf.  I was also honoured and delighted when they asked me if I would write the introduction.

    I thought it would be interesting to ask Gillian and Katrin a few questions about UNLOCKING THE MIDDLE AGES and their journey together so far, so here they are, complete with some enlightening answers!

    ELIZABETH:  Can you give the blog readers a quick resume of THE MIDDLE AGES UNLOCKED and its purpose. What do you think readers will gain from it? 

    GILLIAN: The original main purpose behind the book was because there wasn't anything quite like it (though a few came close) and there was a crying need for it.  I know there was a crying need because people kept telling me so.  So many readers wanted an introduction that didn't assume that they knew a vast amount of history, but that alseo didn't treat them as intellectual lightweights.  This is why it was begun, originally, and why it kept changing form and content.  It was quite hard to establish what people really did need when the main thing they knew was that they hadn't seen it.

    KATRIN: The main purpose of the book for me is to provide a basic understanding of the topics and how they interconnect.  With a basic understanding, the reader can go on to research, for instance, stone masonry or stained glass or Arthurian legends or Judaism.  But to find scholarly articles for research and to really profit from them you need a solid basis to stand on, and that can be difficult to find.

    ELIZABETH: Is there anything you would like to say to potential readers?

    KATRIN: Be aware that you will have deeply ingrained cultural assumptions and biases that will colour how you read and interpret history.  While working together, Gillian and I kept stumbling across little differences in our basic assumptions that made big differences in how we read the same text with the same facts.  Working together has been an eye-opener for me in that regard, and although I was theoretically aware of how one's own background can be an influence, actually dealing with effect of these influences really drove the point home.

    ELIZABETH: THE MIDDLE AGES UNLOCKED has been a long labour of love for you - Gillian, I can remember you were working on it more than ten years ago and its unofficial title has always been 'THE BEAST'. What made you begin writing it in the first place and allied to that, can you tell us a little about its journey to publication?  I know that it has been a tale of ups and down.  How did the collaboration work between you and Katrin as part of that journey?

    GILLIAN: There once was a mail list called LMB. Seriously it's where I met you and a lot of my friends. It's where we all chatted and swapped tales and a friend called Tamara Mazzei said (and everyone else echoed) 'We need this book.' Tamara Mazzei was key to the first team, as was Wendy Zollo, who did some lovely sketches for clothes, and Lara Eakins (an astronomer) who was going to do the astronomy.  Life caught up with everyone and somehow I was left to carry THE BEAST through to publication.  I've joked so many times that it was my albatyross, for it was one of those tasks that one does for others and finds that it takes over one's life.  Now it's out there and people are finding it useful.  I'm glad I did it, but I'm also glad that Katrin joined me about this time of year in 2011: THE BEAST is not a book to be written by one person alone.  I'd like it if the material Tamara worked on saw the light of day sometime; she did some lovely work.  I'll hand over to Katrin to talk about the publishing end. 

    KATRIN:  We did have a lot of ups and down - many of the editors we spoke to were interested in the book and did like it, but it still didn't work out.  There is more to getting a book into a publishing house catalogue than pleasing the editor: it also has to fit in with the rest of the programme, sales and marketing has to decide - whether it's saleable and so on.  Which means that we heard 'I like this book, but we're not the right house for it' more than once.
    Our collaboration in finding a publisher was much like our collaboration in writing the book itself.  We tried to play to each other's strengths - I would often draft the letters and e-mails and provide the basic structure and Gillian made sure it was proper English (she can tell a tale or two of how German and English spelling clash at key points in letters) and that there was proper narrative.

    ELIZABETH: How did you go about organising your sections? Did you always know that it would begin with 'Rich and Poor. High and Low: The People of Medieval England' and end with 'How Many Miles to Babylon? Measuring Things?  How did you decide?  And how did yu decide on the great, evocative chapter headings?  Incidentally I love 'Death and Taxes you cannot avoid.' Too true!

    KATRIN:  We swapped chapters around more times than I like to remember.  Any book about a complex topic with lots of cross-connections will run into chapter structure problems, and we had them all the way through. Many of the tings we write about are relevant to more than one topic.  The final chapter order is a mixture of a big restructure that we did while discussing the book with another editor and our original structure - for a long time the book started with the government and religion sections.  The chapter headings were actually one of the last things we did before handing in the manuscript, our working titles were much less interesting.  Apart from the one about the land which was 'Nature Calls' for a long time!

    GILLIAN: Some of our working titles were fun but not usable. We had one that was perfect for Katrin but reminded me of a well-known Australian song for instance, and it took ages for us to find a workaround that didn't bring the tune to mind.  I don't work with soundtracks because my soundtracks become earworms and that's exactly what Way Out West was.  Let me share it with you.
    Way Out West

    ELIZABETH: Which areas of this period do you think are well represented in terms of what we know and which have scarcer resources?  What would you liked to see researched in the future?  Is there anything  that especially interests you that you'd like to see? And are there any changes you'd like to see in the way we study history? 

    GILLIAN: That's such a huge question.  I'm going to be quite evil and let Katrin answer.

    KATRIN: I think that whatever topic you are looking into, as soon as you delve deep, you will find there are a lot of things we don't know.  On the surface many aspects seem to be well researched and well known but once you burrow down, there are holes in our knowledge and so many details that are confusing or unexplained.  As for changes in how we study history, I'd like to see more interdisciplinary work.  We can learn so much from our colleagues in adjacent disciplines - but it can be hard to get started because questions and methods are often very, very different.  So what I would like to see for future research is a way of teaching scholars how to communicate with those from adjacent disciplines.

    ELIZABETH: If you could write a reference work as big as you liked, is there anything else you would add to 'UNLOCKED.'

    GILLIAN: All the things we left out!  A vast and detailed bibliography, footnotes, lists of birds and animals and plants and comets and eclipses.  For THE BEAST as I would have preferred it, we would have needed four times the number of pages.  It would be unpublishable alas.  Most of the things we left out, we left out because there are limits to what one can do with a print book.

    ELIZABETH: Can you give us examples of common misconceptions about this period that you have come across? 

     KATRIN:  Clothes were drab, grey sacks.  Making a fire with flint and steel was difficult and took a long time.  That's just naming two of them that irk me on a very personal level but Gilliam can tell you many, many more...

    GILLIAN: So many misconceptions!  That castles were built in the geographical centre of towns, always. That people never washed and were deeply superstitious and weren't very bright. That people in the Middle Ages disguised rotting meat with expensive spices. That chastity belts and iron maidens were not later inventions. That...so much.
    I teach whole workshops in breaking down misconceptions.  We have a lot of fun, but there often comes a moment when I explain very gently to someone that these are our ancestors we're talking about and if their ancestors really did all these things, then I'm terribly sorry for them. We generally come to an agreement that I won't be rude about their ancestors and that they will pay attention to the historical evidence and do some serious thinking.

    ELIZABETH: THE MIDDLE AGES UNLOCKED brings together a vast range of subjects under one cover - the life cycle from cradle to grave, languages, religion, taxes, the military, economics, travel, clothes, food and so on.  I am struck by the breadth, depth and scope of the work which never fudges or skimps, and unites disciplines.  It's one of those books that in my opinion should form part of the backbone in the library of anyone interested in the Medieval period.

    GILLIAN: Thank you!  I learned more from working on it than from my doctorate.  I now have a a much better insight into how my own work fits into the wider medieval world.  I'd read a squillion books about the Middle Ages and of course I'd studied my own specific subjects, but it takes the depth of a big and broad project to see how it all fits together. Working with Katrin was also very good for expanding my horizons.  I studied a bit of archaeology as an undergraduate but that was all.  I know so much more about what archaeologists do and the insights they can give us.  It's been a roller-coaster ride, but I am very pleased to have ridden that roller coaster.

    KATRIN; I can only second what Gillian says - both the thanks and the statement.  It really was a wonderful and very long roller-coaster ride!

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    I have a good friend with a gift for finding the perfect book. A few weeks ago she appeared with a slim volume that had been languishing in a charity shop: Life Among the English, by Rose Macaulay.
    Yes - THAT Rose Macaulay, the author of The Towers of Trebizond.

    Dame Rose Macaulay by Howard Instead
    matte bromide print, early 1920s
    NPG Ax20446 © National Portrait Gallery, London
    This little book, published in 1942, was one of a series published by William Collins of London, aimed at capturing, for a wartime readership, the essence of the Englishness they were fighting to preserve. 

    Each book was very short - in this case, just 48 pages - but the list of authors is impressive. Graham Greene was signed up to do British Dramatists, John Betjeman British Towns and Cities, and John Piper British Romantic Artists.

    It fell to Rose Macaulay to romp though English social history from 'the first two or three centuries AD' to the middle of the Second World War.  What a daunting task. But Macaulay launched on it with spectacular verve, right from the start. Here's the opening:

    Owing to the weather, English social life must always have largely occurred either indoors, or when out of doors, in active motion.

    Macaulay's voice is one of the prime attractions of the book. Any modern academic historian would have little difficulty finding 'facts' to quibble with, or quotations infuriatingly unsourced, but who could fail to enjoy forays into mind reading, and tongue-in-cheek passages such as this vignette of post-Roman Britain:

    ....toga-wearing Celtic chieftains whose wives vainly aped Roman manners, but seldom went so far as to use the fashionable baths in their courtyards and did not really grasp the plumbing system (possibly some Romans, if they at all resembled Romans today, did not grasp it either).

    The Dark Ages and the Medieval period are crunched into one (much as they still were when I was at school).  They are summed up as having provided:

    A full life for both men and women, and if one adjective had to be selected to describe it, perhaps the aptest would be 'quarrelsome.'

    The book really fizzes into life when it gets to the Tudors. Like so many history books, this one tends to describe the manners and lifestyle of the upper classes as if they pertained to everyone, but most of the time, Macaulay catches herself when she falls into this trap. What she is remarkably 'modern' about is her concentration on the lives of women -- and for most periods she portrays them (especially those who were monied and married) as having had a pretty good time, quoting a Dutchmen who saw England as The Paradise of married women...Their bodies satisfied and their heads prettily mizzled with wine.

    Lack of space drives Macaulay to almost poetic concision.  Here's how she opens the section on the Stuarts:

    We slide, with the seventeenth century, into a gentler, less rampageous age; socially more civilized, intellectually less at the boil, but more adult. 

    Amidst the racy detail of fashions in clothes, food, learning and manners, the message throughout this little book that people, and especially social climbers, don't change. And though Rose Macaulay inevitably sticks with the standard narrative of events, she does challenge some clichés.  For example, she rejects the idea of a crudely polarised clash of cultures in the run up to the Civil War.

    There were then, as now, a hundred different Englands. Through one recorder's eyes we see frivolous court-goers, scent-soaked, ornament-hung, wearing little mirrors in their hats, crowding round gaming tables and drink bars, furnishing texts for puritan invective; through another's, quiet, well-bred thoughtful country squires...

    The Civil War itself gets hardly a mention. The Commonwealth paradoxically presents a disciplinary problem for young people on the make. Macaulay quotes from Dorothy Osborne::
    "The want of a court to govern themselves by is in great part the cause of their ruin. Though that was no perfect school of virtue, yet vice yet wore her mask."

    It seems that the 'Interval' was not as successfully straight-laced as we have been led to believe.  Macaulay sums it up like this:

    People idled, joked, sang and played, talked in coffee houses, courted, travelled, consulted astrologers and quacks, hunted witches, met for secret worship, laughed at 'the canters' and their comical ways, wrote verse, read romances, kept journals, drank the waters at Tunbridge and Bath, went by Smithfield and 'saw a miserable creature burning that had murdered her husband,' then on, unperturbed, to see curiosities in ivory.

    It's hard not to wonder whether, writing when Britain's very Britishness was under threat in World War Two, Macaulay wasn't making a contemporary appeal not to let fear cramp fun and individualism.

    She goes on to capture the relief and release of the Restoration with equal zest, once again revelling in the intellectual and social power of women.  In her eyes, that power increased still further in the 18th century Augustan age, with the birth of the Bas Bleus (bluestockings) and their salons.
    There's a swift transition from this to the nineteenth century (and what follows is only the second half of a very long, but elegant sentence):

    Ladies flocked to lectures, pressed flowers, made purses of beads and mats of Berlin wool, read Keepsake, and floated round ball-rooms with lovely shoulders sloping up from gowns that passed from classical to puff-sleeved rococo and thence to stately Victorian flow; while gentlemen, progressing from bucks and dandies into swells, curled their hair and grew side whiskers.

    While making fun of those 'swells', Macaulay nevertheless acknowledges that they were probably little different from their dandy, buck, beau and maccaroni ancestors.

    But women, she insists, were, as the Victorian age progressed, subject to more change, heralding the rise in education for the sake of pursuing a professional career, rather than the simple acquisition of 'accomplishments'.

    Although the series prided itself on being lavishly illustrated (especially for wartime) the pictures are pretty dreadful.  The blurring of this image is not entirely down to my photography, and the colours are the same for everything from medieval documents to eighteenth century cartoons.
    Other aspects of the Victorian era are swept aside dismissively. Writing in the early 1940s, Macaulay could only see Victorian architecture and taste as 'monstrous'.  As for the Edwardian society of her own youth, she celebrates its class-squashing social provisions such as Old Age Pensions and Health Insurance, but derides its pleasure-seeking excesses.  Her wit carries through into an account of the domestic effects of the war that was going on around her in 1942:

    Bare legs became a feminine summer fashion; men, more sartorially conservative, clung to such socks as they had.

    Within the same paragraph, as the book comes to a close, we get a taste of of the dangerous world in which Macaulay was celebrating her homeland:

    English social life is, in these curious, troubled years, moving a few steps nearer that democracy for which we say we are fighting and which have never yet had.  Only a few steps; and whether these will be retraced or continued when the solvent furnace of war dies down, and we are left to grope a way through the wreckage and smouldering ashes, we cannot yet know.

    If only Macaulay could have carried on to cover the rest of the twentieth century.  But what a joy it is to read such a quick romp through English history, even if it is packed with assumptions and prejudices from which we now recoil. Wouldn't it be fun if there were a similar book from the perspective of the twenty-first century, and one of today's great writers could make it as easy for a new generation to get a feel for the sweep of our strange little island's story?


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    A few days ago I headed north, driving from our home on the French Côte d’Azur to our home in the Brie, mid-centre between Paris and Reims, fifteen minutes from the Champagne district. I love these long trajectories penetrating and discovering France. In the years I have lived here I have driven in every season, at every hour of the day or night and some of the trips have been memorable for the landscapes, colours, temperatures beyond the car windows. Landscape films. My recent journey will join the memorable ones because of the heat. Down in the south, most days this late June and first half of July, the temperature has hovered at around 30C, occasionally rising to 32 or even 33C. Because we live within view of the Mediterranean, the sea breezes, the humidity, keep the climate reasonably constant. No rain down our way for months on end is to be expected and we have the vegetation to handle it, and plenty of it, including the olive tree.

    The olive tree is the most drought-resistant plant in the western world. It has a magnificent and complex perspiration system and a message service between root, branches and the underside of its leaves that monitors the level of water dispensed during perspiration. If a serious drought sets in, a warning signal goes up through the tree, telling it to hold back its sweat, to conserve the liquid and use it for survival. It really is extremely sophisticated and remarkable.

    Effects of Desertification, California

    As I drove from Cannes to Avignon before turning north towards Lyon, the world around me remained green and thriving. Cypress trees, olives, palms: each surviving in the canicule (midsummer heat wave). And then I moved towards landlocked regions and the temps rose. By the time we reached the southern outskirts of Lyon, the thermometer in my car was reading 42.5C. I never use air-conditioning as a rule but I was drenched and it was blasting at full strength and I was wondering whether it was broken or I hadn’t set it correctly, it made so little difference. Once through Lyon into the Beaujolais region and the land was telling a very worrying story and what I witnessed grew worse as I moved north. I have never seen France so parched. The golden wheat fields were bled of hydration and the gold had turned to a pallid sand colour. Even the fields of sunflowers drooped like worn-out washer women. The countryside around me looked as though it was a sand desert not corn fields.

    Desertification, I thought.

    Everybody is talking Climate Change and Global Warming. Some scoff at the concept. Others dread it. Some say our planet’s temps have always varied while others again believe that we have just a short time left to drastically change our lifestyles before the the effects of our carbon expenditure, our over-use of fossil fuels which is causing the layer of gases that protect our planet to get thicker and cause Earth to heat up to a degree that will make our lives here unpalatable and eventually impossible.

    This is such a complex issue, whichever side you take. And for the majority of us it is little more than a serious of debates. We talk about the natural legacy we are passing on to our children and grandchildren but mostly we cannot visualise what this heating up of Earth means, what it looks like.

    I have seen it. Not because I am a visionary or brilliant in any way at all, but simply because I was travelling, searching for stories, gleaning facts about the history of the olive tree.

    I was in Algeria, a country four times larger than France, ten times the size of Britain and the second largest country in Africa. It has a population of 34 million and most of them are living close to its Mediterranean shores or just inland in the mountains. Beyond, heading south, is desert. Nothing but Sahara sand where little grows and few survive except in oasis towns. But it wasn’t always so. Algeria was, along with Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, an agriculturally rich part of the Roman Empire. Olives for oil and wheat were mass produced here and I was soon to find out to what extent a terrain can change in a matter of a mere two thousand years.

    For the first weeks of my Algerian travels I hugged the coast visiting families working with bees and olive farming, and during all that time it rained. It rained incessantly so I have comparatively few photos of those very important days.

    For my own sake I was disappointed, but for Algeria the rain was essential. It was the first they had seen in over four years. Dry earth was an understatement. And so, even though it made my own plans difficult, I celebrated for the Algerians as I lay in bed in modest homes with no running water listening to the downpours fall into tin buckets. I visited deserted Roman sites such as the World Heritage site of Timgad, a magnificently laid out city all but forgotten now where a forty-kilometre wide lake had once irrigated the surrounding countryside rich with Mediterranean trees and wheat fields and fed the Romans’ exceedingly advanced plumbing systems.

                                                                Roman site after rain deluge

    In The Olive Tree I wrote the following while standing in some weed bedraggled thermal baths:
    ‘Those evergreen woods and the abundance of fresh water had been deciding factors in the choice of Timgad for the Roman soldiers’ metropolis. Twenty-first century Timgad claimed neither copse nor pond. The Romans felled the bulk of the trees; they denuded the ancient forests to heat the gallons of water required for their public baths...
    Waterless was the ruined city I stood in; a desolate, windy outcrop....’

                                                              Windblown olive tree, Algeria

    Today in Algeria, all these inland Roman sites, World Heritage Sites, barely visited, sit in the middle of nowhere. If you didn’t know the history you would ask yourself why on earth such an advanced civilization had bothered with such isolation. It was food for thought, but nothing prepared me for my march towards the desert.

    Triumphal Arch, Timgad, Algeria

    After almost a month of travelling rough, washing out of buckets, wearing the same mud-stained clothes, in and out of danger zones where Al-Qaeda was marking out its territories and setting up training camps in the midst of Berber tribal territories and the wind blew raw and rough, I climbed in an old yellow taxi to the mountainous portals of the desert, into a town called Tébessa from where, two millennia earlier, a busy road had run back to the coast. A ‘Roman bread basket’ rich with tablelands of wheat fields. This region had once been one of Rome’s most bountiful granaries. The grain was freighted to the sea and put on boats to feed the Empire. No more.

    I was on my way to visit what I had been told was the 'oldest olive mill' in North Africa, built by the Romans. To find it I travelled through the dustbowl that was Tébessa, and on southwards another fifty or more kilometres into the Sahara. In fact, where I was headed was not the oldest olive mill in North Africa but it turned out to be the largest. Finding it, in the middle of this empty desert zone, was no easy task but find it we did as I and my driver bumped over, descended into a dried up wadi, a sand track that had once been a flowing river, damaged the jalopy’s axle and approached El Ma el Abiod, the oil mill’s Arabic name. It is also the name of a region inland of coastal Annaba. No Roman name for the mill or the location has been discovered.

    After days of travelling, I had found it. It rose up before me in the middle of nowhere like a magic castle, a stupendous sandstone construction of a size that beggared belief and I thought might melt away at any second. I stood dumbfounded.
    How many mills were once operating within this complex? How many thousands and thousands of gallons of olive oil were pressed here on a daily basis? How many olive trees were required to produce the fruits to feed this humungous enterprise? I could not imagine the acres of cultivated trees that must have grown here. I looked about me. Nothing but wind and sand.

    I scooted from the car to the mill’s green gate. The site was fenced, locked with a substantial padlock. Lord knows why. I turned about. One small Berber mud abode with goatherd boy and mother. She was the keeper of the key. It was like a prop out of a Harry Potter sequence. I could barely lift it. But it opened the gate and in I went. There were clues of every kind, witnesses to the magnitude of the commerce that had once taken place. More oil was pressed here than is pressed today in the entire French olive oil sector. The river so dry and sunken today had been a vital water source for the vegetation and for the turning of the mill wheels.

    I closed my eyes and pictured this place in its heyday and then looked about me at the nothingness. There was not a tree in sight. Nothing but a few yellow weeds that fed the skeletal goats.

       Alas, I have no photographs but here is a shot from the internet of a few miles of the Algerian Sahara.

    Desertification. The process by which fertile land becomes desert, typically as a result of drought, deforestation or inappropriate agricultural practices. The loss of topsoil, pesticides killing off vegetation and ground cover which are essential food sources for birds and insects. Erosion is a consequence. Loss of species is another such as the endangered honeybee.

                                                            Bumblebee at our Olive Farm

    I am regularly asked what I brought back from seventeen months of travelling round the Mediterranean in search of Olive Tree stories. It is impossible to sum it up in a few sentences but I did discover that there are multi-million dollar programmes being implemented in the southern Sahara to reforest areas of the desert. The olive tree has a principal root that seeks out deep water levels and encourages rain, when there is any, to follow its path and settle deep in the earth, hence encouraging the replenishment of groundwater. I stood witness to Man’s mismanagement of the earth on many occasions and I wept. Equally, I shared moments of joy when a project of regrowth, reforestation was showing early signs of success.

    This week as I made the hot and arduous journey up through France in temperatures that hit 42.5C, an unheard of level of heat in central France, I took it as a warning. We cannot debate and procrastinate any longer. Time is running short. The parched earth is a first stage warning. It is time to repair our damaged planet.

    Below is a link to Nasa's website on global climate change and another to UNESCO's


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    While thinking about my blog for History Girls, my mind wandered and I looked out of the window.

    What did I see?
    The view from my study
    A reason to leave my desk - my vegetable bed was calling out to be hoed. This was an ideal opportunity for procrastination. Without my immediate intervention the as-yet-inedible beetroot had only hours to live.  The tiny seedlings would soon get smothered in giant horrible weeds. So out into the garden I went, picked up the hoe, and noticed it needed sharpening. Looked for the sharpening stone, I wondered what the proper name for a sharpening stone is. 
    As I spotted it on the shed shelf, I remembered it is a whetstone, spelled with an ‘h’. Is that to do with water or something quite different? Made mental note to look it up.  Sharpened hoe. On the way down the garden path I noticed the courgettes needed watering.  So the hose had to be untangled. And on it went- one procrastination opportunity surpassing the last. By lunchtime I had found the whetstone, sharpened the hoe, sliced through several rows of weeds, watered the courgettes, and the beans for good measure, put the garden tools in a neat row, and even swept the ground beneath them. I’d also learned that whet is from the Anglo-Saxon whaet, meaning keen or bold which led to sharpen or stimulate (as in ‘appetite’.) But I was still no further on with my blog.

    I am skilled in the art of procrastination, defined as  'putting off,  delaying,  deferring,  postponing, especially something that requires immediate attention.’ Crastimus is the Latin for ‘pertaining to tomorrow’ – and we all know that tomorrow never comes. It’s the Roman equivalent of ‘manana’. Synonyms include ‘dithering, stalling, delaying tactics and vacillations’, to which I would add ’seeking out distractions, around any corner.’ 

    I suspect that most History Girls and our readers indulge in various levels of procrastination, and can spot a handy distraction a mile off.  The most rewarding kinds of procrastination for writers are those that somehow connect to the writing one is supposed to be doing.  While researching my book ‘How the Girl Guides Won the War’, I found a Second World War recipe that took procrastination to new levels. In one fell swoop, I could procrastinate and be ‘researching’ my book at the same time: the recipe demonstrated the historical economics of food rationing, the philosophy of Make Do and Mend and offered an opportunity to practice Real History. And unlike most procrastinations and distractions, there is something delicious to eat at the end.

    Hedgerow Jelly - free from a hedge near you

    Find some hedges in late August or September, preferably containing many varieties of fruit-bearing bush.
    Blackberries in July, waiting for you.
    Harvest the fruit on your own and the time spent is both ‘exercise’ (walking along a hedgerow) and ‘work’ (you are silent, so obviously thinking important thoughts). If this stretches your conscience too far, then go with some friends as ‘recreation’ - an essential time of ‘re-making your creativity’. Wander  down lanes in the countryside, or  seek out rogue wild bushes in parks and along footpaths in cities. Carry a woven basket for authenticity, or a cotton bag for Green credentials, or a plastic supermarket bag for practicality.

    Pick as many berries as you can find, or can be bothered to pick, or can carry. Mix together hawthorn, rose hips, elderberries, both black and red blackberries (red contain more pectin which helps jelly to set), crab apples, wild gooseberries and raspberries. Do not include holly, ivy, privet, yew nor deadly nightshade – they are all poisonous.
    The Army & Navy Stores Catalogue of 1940 had all the equipment needed for jam-making

    After washing them in a colander, boil up the berries together in a little water until soft, and then mash them up a bit.  Then put into some clean, old tights, and hang from the back of a chair over a large bowl to drip overnight. If you wish to remain historically accurate, use cotton muslin or an old, clean tea towel. In the morning, or after a few hours, squeeze the tights (or muslin) to get out all the juice.  Put the seedy pulp into the compost, or feed to wild birds or your chickens.

    For every pint of thick red juice, add one pound of sugar. In a big jam-pan, boil up until the jelly reaches a lovely rolling setting point - drop a blob on a bottle from the fridge. If it sets like jelly, stop cooking. Don’t let it burn. With practice, you can tell when it’s ready: the boiling jelly rolls at a certain speed and plays a certain note.

    Delicious and healthy jelly to be proud of

    Pour into very clean glass jars, or tea cups if you don’t have enough jars. Put circles of greaseproof paper on the surface of the jelly, and screw on a metal lid while still hot. For presents, add circles of dress fabric or old shirts, tied with brown string. You can use ribbon, but it is a bit twee.

    Make labels that say ‘Best War-time Hedgerow Jelly, 2015’. Then get back to work.

    During breaks, eat this delicious, clear, red jelly with bread, or meat, or cheese. Or put some in hot water on cold winter days to remind you of sunnier times.
             After your berry-picking walk, sit down with a friend and chat to a squirrel.

    If you don’t manage to make this jam this year, then don’t worry, next year will do instead. It’s a deadline that you are allowed to miss.

    www.janiehampton.co.uk Photos copyright Janie Hampton 

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