Articles on this Page
- 07/07/15--16:30: _'Nuns Behaving Badl...
- 07/08/15--17:07: _Romano-British Cloa...
- 07/09/15--16:30: _Stand in line - Mic...
- 07/10/15--17:30: _Time Out, by Laurie...
- 07/11/15--16:30: _Sprouting Seeds by ...
- 07/12/15--22:00: _THE TUDOR WOMEN'S P...
- 07/14/15--00:14: _In the Swim ...
- 07/14/15--17:00: _The Viking Faeroes
- 07/15/15--18:00: _Watch The Lady, by ...
- 07/16/15--22:00: _HISTORY & GEOGRAPHY...
- 07/17/15--16:30: _Shadow Boxes - Cel...
- 07/19/15--01:27: _'Down the hatch' - ...
- 07/19/15--16:30: _Ambroise Paré: The ...
- 07/20/15--16:30: _Notes on Notebooks ...
- 07/21/15--16:30: _All that Glitters b...
- 07/22/15--16:30: _Atticus Finch, by L...
- 07/23/15--16:30: _THE MIDDLE AGES UNL...
- 07/24/15--17:30: _A PARADISE FOR MARR...
- 07/25/15--16:01: _Scorched Earth, by...
- 07/26/15--16:01: _Procrastination and...
- 07/07/15--16:30: 'Nuns Behaving Badly' by Karen Maitland
- 07/08/15--17:07: Romano-British Cloaks by Caroline Lawrence
- 07/09/15--16:30: Stand in line - Michelle Lovric
- 07/10/15--17:30: Time Out, by Laurie Graham
- 07/11/15--16:30: Sprouting Seeds by Tanya Landman
- 07/12/15--22:00: THE TUDOR WOMEN'S POWER LIST – Elizabeth Fremantle
- 07/14/15--00:14: In the Swim Catherine Johnson
- 07/14/15--17:00: The Viking Faeroes
- 07/15/15--18:00: Watch The Lady, by Elizabeth Fremantle: reviewed by Sue Purkiss
- 07/16/15--22:00: HISTORY & GEOGRAPHY by Penny Dolan
- 07/17/15--16:30: Shadow Boxes - Celia Rees
- 07/19/15--16:30: Ambroise Paré: The Gentle Surgeon - by Ann Swinfen
- 07/20/15--16:30: Notes on Notebooks by Imogen Robertson
- 07/21/15--16:30: All that Glitters by Kate Lord Brown
- 07/22/15--16:30: Atticus Finch, by Leslie Wilson
- 07/23/15--16:30: THE MIDDLE AGES UNLOCKED: Elizabeth Chadwick interviews the authors.
- 07/24/15--17:30: A PARADISE FOR MARRIED WOMEN by Eleanor Updale
- 07/25/15--16:01: Scorched Earth, by Carol Drinkwater
- 07/26/15--16:01: Procrastination and Hedgerow Jelly by Janie Hampton
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.
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|
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.
|Hooded cloak like my mother's|
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|
|a bardocucullus from the Roman Mysteries|
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|
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|
|A relief from Corinium (modern Cirencester)|
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.
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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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.
1. ELIZABETH TUDOR
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.
2. MARGARET BEAUFORT
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.
3. MARY TUDOR
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.
4. CATHERINE OF ARAGON
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.
5. KATHERINE PARR
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.
6. BESS OF HARDWICK
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.
Find out more about Elizabeth Fremantle's Tudor trilogy on www.elizabethfremantle.com
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|
|London Fields Lido|
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
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.
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.
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.
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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|A Parrot for Juan Gris |
|Untitled (The Hotel Eden), 1945|
|Untitled (Tilly Losch), c. 1935.|
|Francis I King of France|
|Paré prosthetic arm|
|Paré prosthetic leg - interior & exterior|
|Paré prosthetic hand|
|Title page of Paré's Oeuvres|
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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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.
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.
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.
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...
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!
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
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'.
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?
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.
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.
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....’
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.
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.
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.
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
|The view from my study|
|Blackberries in July, waiting for you.|
|The Army & Navy Stores Catalogue of 1940 had all the equipment needed for jam-making|
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