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    You'd better watch out, you'd better beware - three days to go and all over the country the familiar Christmas game of blackmailing the kids is reaching its peak, whipping Santa's swingometer into a frenzy to rival a BBC election night. But what if the little darlings in your house have you outnumbered and you've already drunk every drop of Santa's sherry? Don't worry, there's still time to up your game and, in the spirit of embracing all things European while we still can, introduce a new twist to the festive season. Forget jolly old Father Christmas and threaten them with Krampus.

     Greetings Card 1900
    Across Austria and much of Germany, no Christmas celebrations are complete without Krampus, a satanic goat-like figure sporting horns, a lolling red tongue and a bundle of sticks to swat naughty children with. Like Santa, Krampus carries a sack but his is more of a collection than a delivery system. Rather like two old friends who've chosen very different paths since university days, Santa and Krampus meet up once a year on the 5th of December, the eve of Saint Nicholas Day looking out for shoes or boots left outside their houses by hopeful/terrified children. Santa carries candy and coins, Krampus has his twigs - find one of those in your shoe and it's a yawning sack not a pile of presents that awaits. Krampus has been a fixture of cards in Austria since the 1800s and an article about the tradition written in the 1950s noted that many households liked to keep a bunch of gold-painted birch twigs on the wall throughout the year as a gentle reminder. I can see it would focus the mind.

    It's likely that the Krampus figure, who is often portrayed with one cloven and one scaly human foot, dates from a far earlier period than the St Nick stories. His name comes from the German word krampen which means claw and the traditional view is that he is the son of Hel the Norse god of the underworld. The Catholic church tried to ban him in the twelfth century for his similarity to popular depictions of the Devil as did the fascist
    Christian Social Party in the
    1930s but Krampus survived and is currently having a bit of a resurgence. If your little ones still aren't listening, how about a family fun day outing to a Krampus parade? The number of these parades is booming, tying the Krampus legend up with another pagan festival, perchten, where mythical creatures gather in January or at Lent to drive winter away. Some of them are on a huge scale - one of Austria's biggest (in Schladming south of Salzberg), involves 800 monsters and attracts over 8000 spectators. Krampus parades and parties have spread to the US and he's even popped up at Glasgow's Christmas market this year with a rather fancy array of masks on offer if you can't get that smoky party-eye look quite nailed. However you celebrate this year, enjoy it but don't forget to leave a couple of twigs in any miscreant's shoes tonight, you might just buy yourself a very peaceful few days...

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    Here is a view of the Old Town in Mainz, which I visted in November. There wasn't any snow, but I did feel as if I'd been transported into my favourite Advent Calendar from childhood. It came from Germany, as all our Advent Calendars did, and it featured just such a picturesque old German town, but in the snow, with people buying presents and Christmas trees and pulling them home on sledges, and bakers' shops selling Christmas goodies. We used to keep Advent Calendars and re-use them, and I did so love that one, mending its doors with sellotape when they began to come away. The problem was that the doors didn't keep shut after a while, for all my pushing them and getting annoyed with them.

    This Advent Calendar, by Marianne Schneegans, is from the 1940s, but it gives the general idea. There is something Breughel-esque about the scene, which is probably not by chance, when I think about it.
    So I thought I would open a door on an Advent Calendar for you, and find a picture of myself, at the age when I was opening Advent Calendars and yearning for Christmas to come soon - as opposed to adulthood, when one counts the days and hopes for more time..

    What I find inside the door is not an orange, or a Christmas tree, or a picture of a present, but my childhood self at age 10, playing the piano on Christmas Eve in Kendal, and concentrating hard (for I'd only just started lessons), while my brother, who was and is far more musical than I am, played violin. On top of the piano you can see another Advent Calendar, shaped like a Christmas tree, which also came out every year.

    That was 1962; the Berlin Wall had been built eighteen months earlier (I remember that, and the shock in our household), and John Kennedy was still alive, though it wasn't till June the following year that he visited the city and announced that he was 'ein Berliner.' The Berliners were more than pleased with his support, but characteristically amused that he'd announced that he was a doughnut. He would be assassinated in November the following year, something I also remember, though I have no idea where I was when I heard about it. I can remember the pictures in the paper, that's all, and looking at them as the papers lay on the sitting room floor. What I do have a vivid picture of in my mind is myself standing in the garden of my school, and another girl coming up to me and saying: 'We're waiting for the Americans to send their rockets to Russia, and the Russian rockets to come back, and that will be the end of the world.' That was the Cuban missile crisis, in October of that year. I knew about the bomb, and approved of the Aldermaston marches. I had even got hold of a CND badge from a young man in the youth club my parents ran at the YMCA.

    I had gone to grammar school at just 10, something for which I was academically, but not emotionally ready. Quite a lot of my classmates were almost 12. The other girls asked me if I liked Cliff or Elvis, and I said 'neither', so they told me I was 'square.' I still don't like either, and at Christmas 1962 I didn't yet know that salvation from squareness was at hand. The Beatles had released 'Love Me Do', also in October, and I was going to really like the Beatles. I still do.

    What were we playing that night? Probably 'Stille Nacht,' the haunting carol composed by Joseph Mohr, which for me epitomises Christmas. In my childish head, the beautiful simplicity of that melody rang out through a snowy mountain landscape, not in flat pre-Alpine Oberndorf, where it was first sung.

     My mother was born in Silesia, and she told me about spending Christmas in Giersdorf, now Podgorzyn, in the Riesengebirge/Karkonosce/Krkonosce mountains where my great-grandfather lived, where in winter the snow came up to the first floor windows and a tunnel had to be dug through it to get into the front door. So here is an Advent Calendar door in advance for Christmas Eve, with this 1930s postcard of a mountain hut now on the Czech side of the mountains (I had hot chocolate there a few years ago, in summer), and the snow making the trees into meringues. My great-grandfather did have to pull the Christmas tree back on a sledge. It must have taken quite a while to get the snow off it, mind, and it was decorated with handmade straw ornaments, my mother told me. On Christmas Eve there was carp (the area is full of carp ponds from old monasteries), and they'd have the bread and milk and ground poppyseed pudding which we shall eat tomorrow night, which is peculiar to that part of the world.


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    Thomas Becket returning from exile shortly before his murder
    The Christmas season marks the anniversary of the murder of Henry II's Archbishop of Canterbury in Canterbury Cathedral's transept on 29th December  1170.  It was from Henry's court in Normandy at Bur le Rois that the four knights who becameThomas Becket's murderers set out to commit their deed of slaughter.  Becket's murder on the steps of his own cathedral caused shock waves and repercussions throughout the Christian world

    The subject of numerous writings and artistic creations throughout christendom, this stubborn, complex, driven man became a saint (canonised in February 1173 by the Pope) and almost brought Henry II (also a stubborn, complex and driven character) down with him and only some astute diplomacy, some wonderfully stage-managed showmanship of penance, and a huge dollop of luck saved Henry II from excommunication and overthrow.
    A shrine was built to Thomas Becket at Canterbury.  Opened in July 1220, its first year's takings came in at over £700 - seven times the equivalent that a baron of medium income would pay to come into his inheritance.  Martyrdom was indeed a lucrative business for the Church.

    The event led among many other artistic creations to a British treasure known as The Becket Leaves.  The Leaves area four separate surviving vellum fragments of a much larger, now lost work of an illustrated life of Thomas Becket.   The leaves surfaced in Belgium in the first half of the 19th century as part of the library assembled by Jacques Goethals-Vercruysse following the French Revolution.  The library was presented to the city of Courtrai after his death, but the leaves were kept by a collector and held in the family until 1986 when they were then offered for sale at auction by Sotheby's.
    These richly illustrated leaves had never been properly examined and other than the originals were only known from an old set of black and white reproductions published in 1885.  Interest was intense and so was the bidding which rose to £1.4 million.  The British Library could not afford such a sum, but J.Paul Getty purchased the Leaves and placed them on indefinite loan to the British Library so that they could be studied and enjoyed by those who wished to do so, rather than having them vanish again into another private collection.
    A sick Becket's family is forced into exile by a furious Henry II
    The leaves hold 506 lines of rhyming verse written in dark brown ink.  Many historians have attributed the work to chronicler and artist Matthew Paris and it certainly has a look of his style and circumstantial evidence points that way, but we can never be entirely sure.  The evidence points toward Matthew Paris at least have sketched out designs for the illustrations in the lost manuscript certainly.  There is a decent Wikipedia article here about Matthew Paris including illustrations from The Becket Leaves and other works so you can compare and contrast and make up your own mind.

    The text narrates Thomas Becket's life story and the drawings illustrate it and give us a wonderful snapshot view of 13th century life - of clothes and culture and moments in history, including the coronation of Henry II's 15 year old son and heir also named Henry, and of the father serving the son and paying him honour at the coronation feast in Westminster.  Thomas Becket had refused to crown the young man of course and had tried to ban anyone else from doing so, but the coronation had gone ahead under the auspices of the Archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury.  There is a very likely apocryphal story that while serving his son, King Henry remarked that it was unusual for one king to serve another, to which his son swiftly replied that it was not so unusual to see the son of a count serve the son of a king!
    The coronation of Henry the Young King, who is then served by his father.

    What a pity the rest of the work no longer survives - or if it does, it is missing in a collection somewhere.  It would be glorious to see, but at least we have these few existing pages.

    Seasons Greetings to all

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       In October I revisited Assisi and the beautiful church of S. Francesco. Whether you’re religious or not (I’m not), St Francis, the animal lover who preached to the birds, is an endearing figure. If Dickens is sometimes called the man who invented Christmas, St Francis could be claimed as the man who invented the Christmas crib or presepio.

       Of course there had been paintings of the Nativity for centuries and Christmas plays, imitating those of Easter, probably grew up in the 11th century. In the century before Francis lived, ecclesiastics dressed up as the midwives, Magi, shepherds and other people in the Christmas story, as well as live animals. This is recorded in descriptions of the liturgical drama, the Spectacula Theatricalia.

       But it was Francis who, in about 1223, had the imaginative idea of re-enacting the birth of Christ very simply. He had recently visited the Holy Land, where he saw Jesus's traditional birthplace in Bethlehem. Later he told a friend: “I want to do something that will recall the memory of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by.” These animals are not mentioned in the canonical gospels but frequently appear in the apocrypha.

       A friend of his, Giovanni Vellita, was the Lord of Greccio, two miles away from Assisi. Like Francis, Giovanni had renounced worldliness and wanted to return to the poverty and simplicity of the first Christmas in Bethlehem. On Christmas Eve the manger was prepared in a cave, and an ox and ass were brought in. Local people began to come in procession, carrying torches and candles, and Mass was celebrated over the crib. In Greccio you can still see the stone where the hay was placed and the carved image of the baby was laid. There were no figures of Joseph and Mary, just the two animals.

       This fresco in the upper church at Assisi by Giotto, who was born only forty years after Francis died, shows the saint at Greccio during that first dramatisation of the nativity in 1223. A contemporary described Giotto as "the most sovereign master of painting in his time, who drew all his figures and their postures according to nature." Every Christmas this Nativity scene is still acted out by the people of Greccio.

       This idea spread rapidly throughout Italy and Catholic Europe. People later made cribs out of straw and clay figures and put them in churches, schools and in their homes. In Naples you can still buy these figures from street stalls and there, particularly, the presepio became an art form and was often very elaborate, like the one below.

       Eventually this charming tradition spread to Protestant countries as well. In England people used to bake a mince pie (using meat, not raisins) in the shape of a manger which would hold the pastry christ child until dinnertime, when the pie was eaten. The Puritans banned Christmas celebrations and outlawed such pies, calling them "Idolaterie in crust".

       There is a legend that at midnight on Christmas Eve animals have the gift of speech; because the humble farm animals gave the infant Jesus His first shelter, and warmed him with their breath, they were rewarded with the gift of human speech.Thomas Hardy knew this legend from his Dorset childhood and wrote his poem, The Oxen:

    Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.

    "Now they are all on their knees,"

    An elder said as we sat in a flock

    By the embers in hearthside ease.

    We pictured the meek mild creatures where

    They dwelt in their strawy pen,

    Nor did it occur to one of us there

    To doubt they were kneeling then.

    So fair a fancy few would weave

    In these years! Yet, I feel,

    If someone said on Christmas Eve,

    "Come; see the oxen kneel

    "In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

    Our childhood used to know,"

    I should go with him in the gloom,

    Hoping it might be so.

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    We are in the South of France at our Olive Farm. The weather is warm, the sun is shining and we are able to work outside on the land until late afternoon.
    There is no snow. Snow is a very rare event here. I think I have seen flurries of it twice in over thirty years. When it settles though it is quite beautiful and is usually accompanied by the sun shining across the Mediterranean in the distance.

                                                   A rare sight here, a light coating of snow over our beehives

    Do I crave those colder, snowier Christmases I enjoyed as a child? Not at all. I have embraced the differences of this lifestyle and enjoy them.

    Here, we eat our principal Christmas meal - le grand repas, or gros souper - on the evening of the 24th December. It will frequently include oysters, cheap as chips here, though this year we have not put them on our menu. The local poissonneries (fish shops) tend to erect a marquee outside their main shop. Here the oysters are chosen and prepared and laid out on round trays to take home and put directly on the table.
    Lunch on the beach on Christmas Day is also a tradition. Plenty of oysters being served there.

    Almost every family home will include its own crib and in the crib are to sure to be at least four or five santons. There are dozens to choose from.

    I took this photograph of the santons on display in one of the wooden chalets at the local marché de Noel in our village this week.
    By the way, the oldest marché de Noel in France is to be found in Strasbourg. Its Christkindelsmarik dates back to 1570 and is really worth a visit.

    Back to Provence. Here is an extract from an article I wrote for France magazine about santons and their history:
    "From mid-November right up to Christmas, you can find santon fairs known here as Les Foires aux Santons, all across the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region. A santon is a Provençal crib figure modelled from baked clay. Santon comes from the Provençal word santoun, meaning 'little saint'. 
    Buy them completed or still to be painted. Chat to one of the santonniers, the artists of the figurines, who will happily give you the history of these local treasures. At the time of the French Revolution, when the churches were closed by the anticlerical revolutionary authorities, nativity scenes were banned. In response, the Provençaux began to make their own cribs – sometimes exhibiting them in their homes for a few centimes. At first, they were formed out of papier mâché, cloth, bread or any material the maker could lay his hands on and could be used for modelling. It was both an act of faith and of revolution, and, if caught, the guillotine could be the reprisal.
    "The crib figures include, of course, the main players: baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, but you might also find a shepherdess or glass-blower, a fisherman, knife-grinder, miller, laundry girls, vendors of herbs or fruits, musicians, donkeys, goats, sheep, the local curé, even the schoolmistress. It forms a miniature re-enactment of 19th-century Provençal country life.
    "In 1797, in Marseille, an artisan by the name of Jean-Louis Lagnel (1764-1822) had the idea of creating the figures in clay and painting them. It was in Aubagne at the start of the 20th century that the clay was fired to make the figures more resistant.
    Santonniers are usually born into a family business passed down from generation to generation. What is remarkable is that even 21st-century artisans will spend hours in the hills hunting for thyme twigs, a stone or some precise detail they need to give their characters authenticity. Aubagne, birthplace of the great storyteller and film-maker, Marcel Pagnol, boasts an excellent santon museum."

    Another tradition, one we don't adhere to, is the serving of thirteen desserts on Christmas Eve to finish off the Grand Repas or Gros Souper. These thirteen known in Occitan as lei tretze dessèrts represent Jesus and his twelve Apostles. If you are going to be true to the tradition the table needs to be set with three candles and three tablecloths for the Trinity. The choices which vary according to family tastes and traditions are then left on the table until the 27th December. 

    Here is what is served: 
    dried fruit and nuts: raisins, walnuts, dried figs and almonds (all locally grown fruits). This quartet is known as the four beggars representing the four mendicant monastic orders: Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians and Carmelites. The choice of dried fruits might also include dates (to celebrate the land where Christ was born) or dried plums from Brignoles. (I don't know the significance of the dried plums except that they are a local variety.)
    Also on offer would be fresh fruits all grown in the region: apples, oranges, winter melon, grapes and tangerines amongst them. 
    Then, amongst the other dessert plates, you will find Calissons, originally from Aix, which is a marzipan sweet olive oil fougasse, two kinds of nougat, quince paste, cumin and fennel biscuits, candied citrons, biscotins ... well, you see why we don't serve all these. 
    French toast with apples and dried fruit might be an alternative or a melon and lavender tarte. Oreilletes, these are a feather-light waffle. 
    Some of the above you might eat for breakfast on Christmas morning.
    Tradition also insists that every guest must try a little of each. 
    All of these foods are, of course, a splendid and very practical way of preserving your harvests and to celebrate the local cuisine.
    I am begging to feel  full just writing about it all!

    And after all this food, the family would walk to the local church for Midnight Mass, a tradition I have grown up with in Ireland and the UK.  In some districts the mass might be partially celebrated in Provençal. I have certainly attended mass in the Camargue where it was sung and spoken entirely in Carmarguais-Provençal.

    Chestnuts are grown aplenty in Provence and further west so it is very easy to find chestnuts for your turkey stuffing. 

    Here are some photos I took two days before Christmas of our local town hall. They were snapped taken on my phone during its light show. This display lights up the facade of the Mairie each evening during this season so adults and children can congregate to admire and photograph it. A small chalet alongside the town hall serves coffees and hot chocolates and gateaux.

    I wish you a very splendid Christmas time, wherever you are, whatever your faith. Most of all, in these very troubled times, I pray for Peace on Earth and understanding.
    The next time I write it will be 2018 in our calendar, so Happy New Year to all my wonderful Sister Has and to all you readers. Thank you for popping by here.
    I hope for all of us it will be a sane and blessed year.

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    Tamara Karsavina aka Mrs Henry Bruce in 1923. 
    Karelia, Russia. July 1918. The British diplomat Henry Bruce, his lover the ballerina Tamara Karsavina and their 19-month-old son Nikita are fleeing for their lives. But having left their home in Petrograd to escape danger, the further they went, the worse it got. Here is the final part of their epic journey.  Read Part One of their adventure  here,  and Part Two here.
    Half way between Petrograd and the White Sea, Henry and Tamara discovered they had unwittingly crossed the front line of the Russian civil war and were now among the Red Army Bolsheviks. The commissar of Sumozero village believed they were foreign spies and told them they would be rowed to the next village across the lake. But his men were drunk and there was a storm brewing. Tamara’s patience ran out and she screamed at him. She was sympathetic to the communists but she could not tolerate bad behaviour in a drunk commissar, not even in the name of  "Peace, Bread and Freedom".
    Tamara as Pimpinella in Pucinella
    The commissar ordered them to be locked overnight in a barn, from which Henry knew they were unlikely to emerge alive. Then he remembered he had an old permit to travel to Moscow, signed several months before by the Bolshevik leader Georgy Chicherin. Gambling that the commissar was unable to read more than Chicherin’s name, Henry showed it to him, and then threatened to report him for disobeying government orders. It worked, and the commissar declared they could, after all, continue round the lake on their hired horse cart, but under armed escort. They still had to cross the River Suma by raft.
    Map of their route by cart  from Lake Sumo , to Murmansk by steam train
    and through the Arctic Ocean in a coal-boat.
    The next day, at Xvornii village, they were handed over to another Red Army commissar who recognised Tamara. Much to Henry’s surprise he issued them with a pass to continue. But it was for only twelve hours, not nearly long enough to reach the White Sea. Henry protested, and the commissar simply told them to get moving. Heading towards the Arctic Circle, the nights remained light.
    Twenty-four hours later, they reached the fishing village of Sumsky Pasod on the White Sea and realised they had crossed back into friendly territory. But the Red Army was closing in and the villagers were leaving. They leaped into the last boat and a fisherman rowed them up the White Sea to Kem harbour. From there they walked seven miles across the marshes to the railway line.
    At Kem station they found a throng of refugees, unsure from whom they were escaping – was it the Germans, Whites, Reds, or Finns? The railway line had been built in 1916 to transport arms and food from the Arctic Ocean to the German-Russian front. Now that Russia had made peace with Germany, the single track between Murmansk and Petrograd was being commandeered by both Whites and Reds to move their respective troops and supplies, north and south. When Henry asked to buy first-class tickets to Murmansk, the station manager told him, ‘I shall be obliged to close this conversation, Comrade, if you speak in tones unworthy of a socialistic state. And it is useless to bring the Lord into it. The rules state there is no Lord, but our saviour Lenin.’
    The train steamed out of Kem just days before the small town fell to the Red Army. Progress was slow: on orders from the Czar, the track had been built in only a year by Chinese labourers and 10,000 Austrian prisoners of war, without a proper survey. At bends the locomotive tilted precariously and at weak bridges everyone clambered out and walked across behind the train. The approach to the watershed between the White Sea and the Arctic Ocean was so steep that the train had to take a second run. The exhausted family travelled into the Arctic Circle past the snow-capped Khibiny Mountains and beside navy-blue lakes. It was a beautiful but terribly remote landscape, unchanged when my daughter Daisy and I travelled the same route 80 years later to the nuclear submarine city of Murmansk.
    In 1918, Murmansk, 850 miles north of Petrograd, was then only one year old, a single dusty street of wooden barracks called Pall Mall. Hugh Walpole described it as: "Simply the end of the earth. There are a few vessels, and nothing else save wolves and ptarmigans". The local forces were continually changing allegiance and that month Murmansk’s commissar was in alliance with the British general. Tamara and Henry found a railway carriage to sleep in but it gave little protection from the relentless sunlight, stifling heat, mosquitoes and stench of reindeer. When they heard that Tsar Nicholas II and his family had been assassinated in Ekaterinburg, they realised that they would not be returning to Russia soon.
    Two weeks later they boarded a British collier as ‘Purser’ and ‘Stewardess’ and steamed up the Kola Inlet and into the Arctic Ocean. For two days and nights, a storm raged. For Tamara, the fiercer the wind blew, the more her memories of the past months diminished, as she vomited repeatedly over the rail. The crew and their exhausted passengers felt their spirits rise as they threaded their way through the islands of Norway and out into the North Sea. Near the Orkneys, a German submarine fired a torpedo which missed their hull by a matter of yards.
    Tamara, Henry and Nikita arrived on the east coast of England at Middlesbrough in late August 1918. It had been a journey of two thousand miles by steamer, horse and cart, on foot, in a rowing boat, by train and by collier boat. That same month the Red Terror began in which over a million Russians were tortured and killed. In November the World War officially ended, although British, French and American armies continued to fight, and on the losing side, until 1922.
    Tamara Karsavina aka Mrs Henry Bruce,
    in her kitchen in London in 1948.
    Tamara Karsavina, formerly wife of Vasili Moukine, was now ‘Mrs Bruce’. How this came about we do not know. Under Russian orthodox law, divorce was impossible, and after the revolution the Bolshevik government abolished marriage. Did Tamara marry Henry in Petrograd, as they both claimed? Or perhaps the captain of the collier married them somewhere in the Arctic Ocean.
    Henry’s employers at the Foreign Office posted him to Tangiers, ‘a quiet posting away from it all’, but only on condition Tamara stopped dancing. When Diaghilev pleaded with her to rejoin the Ballet Russe, Henry chose to leave the diplomatic service and the family settled in London.
    With the Ballet Russe, Tamara worked with Matisse, Nijinska, Picasso and J.M. Barrie. She appeared in silent movies with Leni Riefenstahl and Johnny Weissmuller.
     In 1930, shortly after Diaghilev died, Tamara helped start the Royal Academy of Dance and her autobiography, Theatre Street, was published. An abridged edition appeared in the Soviet Union in 1971, with all references to Henry, Nikita and their escape from Russia deleted.
    Tamara looks at a portrait of herself painted by
    Sir Oswald Birley in 1920, The Tatler, 1951.
    Until her eighties Tamara choreographed and taught ballet to leading dancers including Margot Fonteyn. She never returned to Russia and died in London aged 93, nearly 30 years after she had buried her beloved Henry. Tamara and Henry had led one life that was only known in the Soviet Union; and another life after their escape in 1918 that was only known in Britain. It was a strange fate for one of the twentieth century’s greatest dancers.
    Henry James Bruce, British diplomat, 1934.
    Nikita went to Eton College, served in the Intelligence Corps during the Second World War, married and became an advertising executive with Schweppes. In 1971 he attended my wedding – one of many distant cousins in tail coats. If only I had known to ask him about his parents and early childhood.
    Tamara and Nikita shortly before their escape from Russia in 1918.
    Henry's cousins were surprised that he had recently married a dancer, and
    that their child was already walking. Tamara's good nature soon won them over.
    Here is a silent movie of Tamara in 1923: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMsHWuLbsOI
    Tamara Platonovna Karsavina (1885-1978). Henry James Bruce (1880-1951). Nikita Bruce (1916-1993)

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    Recently I read a fascinating book called “Bringing them up Royal”, about the relationships of royal children with their parents, from 1066 to the present day.  

    After a great deal of deliberation I decided to talk about the three royal children of one notorious king.

    Henry VIII would never have won any prizes as a husband, as we know only too well.  But what is also painfully clear is that this incredibly narcissistic king was an equally bad parent.

    Henry VIII
    When his daughter Mary was born to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, he was delighted with the little girl, fully confident that many more children, especially boys, would follow.  Sadly, when Catherine failed to produce the desired son – all her subsequent babies either miscarried or were stillborn – Henry decided it must be Catherine's fault, and that their marriage was cursed because she had been his dead brother’s fiancée.  He convinced himself that what was best for him was best for the country too, so as is widely known he decided to divorce Catherine, something which was forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church, to which they both belonged at the time.  The Pope refused to give his consent to the divorce, so, unprepared to be thwarted, Henry decided to break away from the Roman Catholic church and form his own, Protestant religion, the Church of England, thus setting in train many years of division and retribution among his people which in many places still resonates today.

    At this time Mary was ten years old, and fond of both her parents, so she was very confused and upset by their split, though she felt her mother was the innocent party.  She also believed, as she’d been brought up to believe, that the Roman Catholic Church was right, and divorce was wrong.  But Henry continued to court Anne Boleyn, banished Catherine from court while showering Anne Boleyn with favours, and refused to see his daughter.  

    Mary Tudor
    In 1533, he finally got his own way, divorcing Catherine and marrying Anne, and shortly afterwards Anne’s daughter Elizabeth was born.  Then things became even worse for Mary, now aged 15.  Two days after Elizabeth's birth, Henry announced that Mary was no longer a princess, but simply Lady Mary, and he also refused to let her see her mother at all.  Then he sacked all her ladies-in-waiting and announced that Mary was to be merely lady-in-waiting to Princess Elizabeth.  Anne didn’t help, either – she persuaded Henry to confiscate most of Mary’s jewels.  Shortly after this Henry announced that Elizabeth, not Mary, was to be his heir.  So effectively, Henry divorced not only his wife but his older daughter too.  One can only imagine how this affected the teenage Mary, and her feelings about her baby sister.

    Elizabeth, aged 13
    At first Mary denied her father, but from time to time she attempted a reconciliation with him, but to no avail.  He wanted nothing more to do with her.

    Of course, it wasn’t long before Anne Boleyn fell out of favour too.  When she too failed to produce a male heir Henry’s eye began to wander again, and soon fell on one of Anne’s other ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour.  Happy to listen to his sycophants’ tales of Anne’s supposed infidelity, he had Anne beheaded in the Tower of London when Elizabeth was only two years old, and married Jane.

    Now Elizabeth was an outcast too, and Henry totally ignored her.  Nobody knows whether he even told her why he’d had her mother executed.  To her credit, Jane Seymour was a good stepmother and did her best to bring Henry and his daughters closer together, and when her son, the future Edward VI, was born, both Mary and Elizabeth were allowed to play important parts at his christening.

    Unfortunately Jane died twelve days after Edward’s birth, but by then Mary was back in favour with her father.  Henry decided she should have the honour of being chief mourner (though she had been forbidden to attend her own mother’s funeral), and granted her a household and a lady-in-waiting of her own.  Meanwhile Elizabeth and her baby brother were sent to Hatfield Palace, in the care of Elizabeth’s governess, under whose care the two small children became friends.

    After Henry’s fourth marriage, to Anne of Cleves, and speedy divorce, he became infatuated with the teenage Catherine Howard, who was ten years younger than Mary, which must have been very difficult for both his daughters.  However, Catherine soon proved, or was reputed to be, unfaithful to him, so he had her executed too.  This may have reminded him of the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, because he took out his misery on the nine-year-old Elizabeth and exiled her from court.  By now Elizabeth was clever enough to realise that if she was down, her half-sister was up, as once more Mary was given an honoured place at court.  They both knew that not only their status but also their lives were at the irrational whim of their spiteful, petulant father.

    Finally, in 1543, Henry made a sensible marriage, to Katherine Parr, who became a good stepmother and carried on Jane Seymour’s good work of trying to mend Henry’s relationship with his children.  She got on particularly well with Elizabeth, and quickly persuaded Henry to allow his younger daughter back to court.  Then, having no children of her own, she also persuaded him to revoke his earlier decisions and restore both Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession, after their brother Edward VI. 

    Edward VI
    All three of Henry’s children subsequently ruled the country, but thanks to Henry the reigns of both Edward, a staunch Protestant like his father who insisted on punishing Catholics, and Mary, a staunch Catholic like her mother, who insisted on punishing Protestants, were fraught with intrigue, fear and bloodshed.  It was only when Elizabeth came to the throne that things began to calm down a little, though it took a while for everyone to come to terms with the new regime.  Considering the difficult childhood she’d had it is perhaps surprising that she coped so well in her adult life, but she was intelligent and pragmatic enough to realise that some degree of religious tolerance would benefit her people.   A useful lesson indeed.

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    Our December guest is Judith Flanders, interviewed here by Charlotte Wightwick.

    Judith Flanders was born in London, England, in 1959. She moved to Montreal, Canada, when she was two, and spent her childhood there, apart from a year in Israel in 1972, where she signally failed to master Hebrew.

    After university, Judith returned to London and began working as an editor for various publishing houses. After this 17-year misstep, she began to write and in 2001 her first book, A Circle of Sisters, the biography of four Victorian sisters, was published to great acclaim, and nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. In 2003, The Victorian House (2004 in the USA, as Inside the Victorian Home) received widespread praise, and was shortlisted for the British Book Awards History Book of the Year. In 2006 Consuming Passions, was published. Her book, The Invention of Murder, was shortlisted for the 2011 CWA NonFiction DaggerThe Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London was published in 2012. And now, Christmas: a Biography has been published by Picador.


    Welcome, Judith, for agreeing to be our very seasonal guest

    Charlotte Wightwick: The book is called Christmas: A Biography. Why 'Biography' rather than 'History’?

    Judith Flanders: I wish I had a more profound answer for this, but mostly it was because I wanted to give the subject a bit of ‘life’, not just that it was either dead history, or living kitsch. Oh, that and my publisher liked it.

    CW: Its a commonplace that 'the Victorians invented Christmas as we know it.' How far is this true?

    JF: Not true at all. This was what I thought when I began. (Annoyingly, this was even what I had written previously.) But the really exciting part of historical research is that you get to change your mind, and within only weeks I realized that this was just wrong, wrong, wrong. One historian had famously written that between 1790 and 1832, the Times newspaper had barely mentioned Christmas most years, and many years had never mentioned it at all. He had done his work before newspaper digitisation, so I had a huge advantage. When I ran a digital search on those dates in the Times, I actually found more than 5,000 mentions…

    Christmas has always been a holiday of consumption. For most of history from the earliest mentions, in the 4th century, it was about consuming food and (especially) drink. With the coming of mass production and industrialization, the types of consumption changed, from food and drink to presents (and more food and drink!), which makes us think of the 19th century as being the period when Christmas was ‘invented’, but that really couldn’t be further from the truth.

    CW: What's your favourite fact or story about Christmas which you didn't previously know? What surprised you when researching the book?

    JF: There were endless surprises, but my favourite fact was one that showed how little change there has been in some things. In 1805, on the Lewis and Clark expedition, a government-sponsored expedition to map out much of the west of America, Lieutenant Lewis recorded in his diary that Captain Clark had given him ‘Fleeshe Hoserey vest draws & Socks’, and another man had given him a ‘pr. Mockerson’. That is, he received fleece hosiery (long underwear), a vest, underpants and socks, as well as a pair of slippers. It was good to know that boring Christmas presents have a long history!

    CW: As well as universal traditions, every family/ set of friends has its own particular festive quirks. What's your own favourite personal Christmas tradition?

    JF: I have to admit to being a total Christmas fraud in real life, compared to on the page — I’m Jewish, and don’t celebrate Christmas. We had a tree a couple of times when I was a child, but it was never a big thing for my family. And today I do nothing at all: I find the run-up to Christmas so exhausting that I’m always happy just to lie on the sofa through the holidays, reading all the books I didn’t get around to all year.

    CW: Santa: is he real? (Sorry, couldn't resist!)

    JF: Oh dear. This is going to take a while, isn’t it? I’m sorry, Virginia, but I have to tell you that no, Santa Claus isn’t real. But the various ‘Santas’ that have been suggested include a ‘coster’ (a street-seller of fruit and vegetables) who breathes fire through the keyhole on bad boys and girls, and, my own favourite, a newspaper in 1815 which had a letter signed ‘Santa Claus, Queen and Empress of all handsome girls…Queen and Empress of the Court of Fashions’, followed by a letter of approval from this ‘good, delightful, charming’ woman’s husband, St Nicholas. So there you have it, Santa is really a woman.

    (We are very grateful to Judith, Charlotte and the publishers at Picador for responding so swiftly to our request, after a glitch in the system nearly left us guestless in December!)

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    I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas. Mine was spent, as appears to be traditional for me, either in a food-related stupor, or watching TV programmes about food (and often both). Now I have to admit to a certain amount of perplexity when watching some of these (seriously, how complicated can it be to roast a turkey?) but I did come across one real gem, and the inspiration for this month’s entry into the History Girls’ Cabinet of Curiosities. Naturally I can’t remember which programme it was on, so I can’t just point you in the direction of the telly and get back to lazing around – although that is probably no bad thing.

    What caught my eye on TV was a demonstration of how gingerbread was made in the medieval and early modern period, and in particular showcased the variety of stunning moulds that were used to make it.

    Gingerbread mould, C17th
    Gingerbread mould, C17th

    Not for our forebears a clumsy, vaguely humanoid shape with raisins for eyes and smarties for buttons: originally, gingerbread was beautiful, elaborate and, to top it all off, often gilded. Of course, as spices such as ginger were luxury items, gold just added to the bling effect…

    It also seems to explain (although this is only my guess) why gingerbread is called bread, given that we think of as gingerbread is more of a cake or a biscuit: originally, recipes featured breadcrumbs rather than flour. Mixed with spices and wet ingredients, the mixture was then pressed into the elaborate moulds and left to dry next to the fire (not baked in an oven). Other recipes used almond paste to make white gingerbread.

    More details (and recipes) can be found at http://www.theoldfoodie.com/2006/12/through-ages-with-gingerbread.html or http://www.historicfood.com/Gingerbread%20Recipe.html.

    Alternatively you could of course just watch rolling Christmas food telly for hours on end to find the right TV programme. It would be a sacrifice to historical research worth making!

    Gingerbread mould of an angel from Aachen. All images from Wikimedia Commons

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  • 12/30/17--16:01: December Competition
  • To enter our December competition, just answer this question in the Comments section below:

    "What's your own favourite personal Christmas tradition?" (The quirkier and more specific to your family the better!)

    Then copy your answer to maryhoffman@maryhoffman.co.uk

    Closing date: 14th January, to give you time to recover from your own Christmas.

    We're sorry that our competitions are open only to our UK Followers.

    Good luck!


    Warnning: Do NOT Get Caught While Searching!!
    Your IP : - Country : - City:
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    Before you searching always remember to change your IP adress to not be followed!
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    Happy 2018 to all our Followers and readers!

    At the beginning of a new year we thought you'd like to know some statistics. There are 1,183 official Followers on this site - who are eligible to enter our competitions if they live in the UK. But there are many more of you who read the blog without being Followers.

    In July 2018 we will have been History Girls for eight years!

    We've had over three million hits, a third of them from the United States of America. But we've also had nearly 36K from Ukraine and over 21K from China.

    Our most popular post ever was Leslie Wilson's on Maria von Maltzan, 23rd July 2012. It has had nearly 96K hits!

    The third most visited post was written only last month. Michelle Lovric's Suicide by Greed about the way Venice is succumbing to the effects of huge tourist cruise liners, was published on December 10th 2017. It has had over 17.5K hits already in three weeks.

    I hope you find all this as fascinating as I do.

    In case you are new to the site, this is our pattern:

    1st - 28th of every month: a daily post by on of our 29 members (we have a job share on 15th).
    29th: a guest post from a writer of history or historical fiction.
    30th of months with 31 days: Cabinet of Curiosities by Charlotte Wigtwick, about an object or objects from history.
    Last day of month: competition to win the latest book by the guest on 29th.

    But the daily work of the site is to provide a different post every day of the year on a historical topic. So I must get on and give you a review of Edward ll the Man: a Doomed Inheritance by Stephen Spinks.

    For many people, all that they know about England's second king of that name (after his father, Edward Longshanks), is that he died from a red hot poker up his backside. And this was a punishment for being a homosexual. He was deposed for his unnatural instincts and then cruelly murdered.


    Well, for that you have to thank Christopher Marlowe, whose play, published posthumously in 1594, was first given the title The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer.

    It portrays  Edward's fascination with his "favourite" Piers Gaveston, who is executed not far into the play and then his successor "Spenser" (Hugh Despenser the Younger historically). At the end of the drama, the regicide referred to above is carried out by the villainous Lightborn, whom many have identified with Lucifer (though surely he'd be called Lightbearer in that case?)

    Stephen Spinks quickly deals with Marlowe's version at the beginning of his new biography and then proceeds to demolish what the play tells us. He makes it clear that his subject suffered terribly from being the middle Edward of a three generation kingship of that name. His father was known as The Hammer of the Scots, while this king suffered the ignominious defeat by Robert Bruce at Bannockburn.

    His son, Edward lll, reigned for fifty years, produced thirteen children in his long marriage to Philippa of Hainault, was immensely popular with his subjects and, through his oldest son Edward the Black Prince, won victories in France, even taking the French king prisoner.

    So the second King Edward is an early example of the "squeezed middle," and his reputation has consequently suffered. That he did have homosexual relationships is indisputable but he also had four children with his wife, Isabella of France. He was cultured, educated, refined and took pleasure in all sorts of athletic and aesthetic activities.

    But his relationship with his father was stormy and the old king was increasingly irascible at the end of his reign. At his death Edward l left his son a burden of debts and of administrative chaos. The young Edward had a cohort of young knights with whom he had grown up and who formed a tight loyal band. Men like Roger Mortimer the Younger, who would eventually become Queen Isabella's companion in arms and lover.

    Roger Mortimer, who would depose his friend and be executed by that friend's son after three years when he had effectively become the ruler of England.

    Stephen Spinks has been fascinated and obsessed by Edward ll from boyhood, writing his PhD thesis on him and now this book, the culmination of many years of study.

    So what does he think about Edward's end? Well, he adopts the thesis of historian Ian Mortimer in his book The Greatest Traitor: the Life of Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March. Both Spinks and Mortimer believe that Edward the Second was not in fact killed at Berkeley Castle in 1327 at all  and that his funeral was faked. They rely on a letter written by Manuele de Fieschi, a Papal notary in 1336.

    According to the Fieschi letter, Edward survived, escaping first to Ireland and then to the continent where, after many travels, he became a monk in Lombardy and made his confession to Fieschi in 1335.

    So, no red hot poker. No murder in fact and the king left to die of natural causes in a religious house in Italy. It's a quite different story. By contrast his former friend, then traitor Roger Mortimer was executed after three years of tyranny and his former queen, Isabella, was imprisoned by their son. Edward's half brother, the Earl of Kent was executed for plotting to restore Edward to the throne - something possible only if the deposed king had still been alive.

    The author's enthusiasm for his subject ensures that this book is extremely readable and that Edward's reputation is at least partly rehabilitated. A good read for anyone who, like me, is fascinated by the Plantagenets.

    (I'm afraid that Blogger absolutely refuses to upload any of my images, which has been a problem for a while now.)

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    To celebrate 2018 arriving yesterday, I've asked a friend in to chat. She is, of course, a writer. Rachel Nightingale, would you like to introduce yourself?

    Rachel: Hi Gillian. Yes, I'm a writer - my book, Harlequin's Riddle is (apparently!) second world historical fantasy. It's about the Commedia dell'Arte of the Italian Renaissance, but it's set in a fictionalised Italy since there isn't magic in the real one. I'm also a historical re-enactor, which means one of my hobbies is going along to medieval feasts and creating dresses from various different time periods. 

    Gillian: Why all the history for both of us? I can tell you why I'm obsessed with historical food and historiography and so many things, but it goes back to my childhood and is profoundly connected to how I try to interpret the world around me.

    Rachel: I've been trying to think back to a beginning, but I can't really pinpoint a time when I wasn't interested in history. I read The Diary of Anne Frank at a young age, and I know that had a profound impression on me - gaining insight into the life of someone from another time, and how that opened up my awareness of the terrible events of WWII. In school I always found history to be the most interesting subject - looking back I'm not sure why I didn't study it. As an avid reader I was always aware of the setting, realising that lives were always lived in context, and that context impacted on what they could and couldn't do, and what happened to them. For me history has always been closely linked to the stories of people’s lives. Given your interest in historiography, it sounds like you focus on asking who is telling those stories and why they are telling them in a certain way...

    Gillian: That's certainly what my university training was in. As an adult, I need to understand the cultural contexts of all the stories, to work out where they come from and why they're told in the way they are. As a child, though, things were different. The pleasant aspect of 'different' is that my mother taught geology. I had a very science-based childhood. My passion for history included how humans use landscapes and what rocks are used when and how and why, and what living on different types of land meant to different societies. This goes back to when I was about ten.

    Earlier gave me the biggest factor in me demanding to find out why things happen and how they affect ordinary people. I saw my first picture of a pile of dead bodies from a WWII death camp when I was six. I understood that the pile of corpses belonged to people who had been murdered, but I didn't understand why the word used to describe the murder was the same one we use to refer to the outcome of pesticide. Soon after, I discovered that some of them were potentially cousins or distant relatives. That and a mild form of antisemitism at primary school meant that I could see history as my family's past, where those who didn't flee to a safe land were tortured and murdered. I didn't understand how that was possible. I needed to understand. Later (much later) I discovered that I myself was part of a different form of bigotry at school.

    All of this pushed me into trying to find out how humanity operates. Who we are. How we make the decisions we make. The story side of it is because this turned out to be a key factor. We are good to others and we murder others based on the stories we tell. Stories are powerful.

    Rachel: Absolutely! The power of stories is what I wrote my thesis about, with a focus on climate change. My background is in social work, and I was trained as a narrative therapist. Narrative therapy is a deliberate and structured process that examines and pulls apart the stories that get told, considering where they came from and how they maintain problematical situations, before moving on to construct and strengthen new stories that are more affirming and less destructive. It's mostly used as a form of individual counselling, but I applied it to cultural stories in relation to climate change. Specifically I looked at the stories we tell about the earth and other living creatures, and how they impact on our relationship with it and our willingness to act (or not) in the face of catastrophic species extinction and the loss of a liveable planet. But that's another story for another day.

    What I've found in recent years is that I've really shifted into a headspace where I can't help querying the cultural narratives underpinning the stories and relationships in society - both now and in the past. Invariably those cultural narratives are created and maintained by those with power and privilege, and used against those without it. What I find frustrating and fascinating is why so many people don't see or question that now - we are highly educated and have access to many different sources of information. In previous centuries the cultural narrative ensured acceptance through imbuing authority such as the divine right of kings, or of the church, and questioning authority was a very dangerous proposition. But those stories have weakened. Now we have stories around how good capitalism is for everybody, when the reality is the opposite. But people tend to believe what they're told, not what they observe. That's the power of stories.

    In terms of history, one of the huge cultural narratives was (and still is?) that women don't do anything of value. Of course those who decide what has value tend to be white wealthy males. The result is that so many women's stories either get framed in a highly negative light or disappear completely. My personal mission at the moment is to learn more about the lives of women who made huge contributions, in whatever field, and had those contributions minimised or, very often stolen, by the men in their lives who have gone down in history as 'great men'. 
    Gillian: We're coming from opposite ends, and meeting in the middle. It all comes back to story, though, which explains why we meet in the middle.

    For me, those cultural narratives become more and more important as our lives become more and more difficult. This is not an easy decade. Understanding the cultural narratives around us helps us get through it. Using historical fiction can be especially powerful, becuase it gives us a safer place to explore and it provides contexts for our current lives. Not all historical fiction gives this, and not all writers who intend to present story this way do so, but for readers, every book we read that helps us with our own lives is essential reading.

    What I've noticed over the years is that the assumption that literary wriitng has more meaning for us than genre writing is ill-conceived.

    The writing that has most meaning is the writing that helps us decode our culture and to understand who we are. The best writers do this, no matter the form their writing takes. This has important cultural implications for the kind of decisions some readers make about reading genre writing. They're cutting themselves off from material they need and from understanding that would give them emotional help in tough times. The best historical fiction writers deliver all this along with fine stories in historical settings. The trick is not to find a particular type of writing (historical fiction, science fiction, literary novels) but to find the themes and stories we need for a particular moment in our lives. Some reasons for reading require specific genres, but for others, genre is far less relevant than the other things an author may put into their novel.

    When I joined the History Girls, I explored this. I read books by all the members I could find in two weeks. Those two weeks were what convinced me that it's all in the skill and hard work of the writer: every one of those novels contained deep meaning and would be perfect for readers who needed that specific type of understanding.

    Not all writers are as good as this and not all books by even our favourite writers are equally classic. And some of us need fun reading within a genre, with no extra meaning from time to time. This summer I'm reading a dozen of the latest Regency romances, because it fits my mood. I'm reading them alongside the other novels, however, and not replacing either with the other: they have their own cultural niches and meet different needs.

    Rachel: I couldn't agree more regarding genre fiction. I enjoy well crafted stories but if I'm going to really love a book it needs to have some depth to it, exploring those themes and ideas you mention. We tell stories to make sense of what it means to be human and to live in human society. Literary fiction tends to do this by holding up a mirror to what we see and know, whereas genre fiction does it by opening a doorway to another time or place, or world. Either way, both can function on a purely story telling level, with a series of events, or they can dive in deeper and ask explore the meaning behind behind those events. What genre fiction does well is provide comparisons and contrasts. For example, in a novel about the lives of Tudor women we can see how they are constrained by the social rules of the time, and compare that with our own experiences - how they differ and how they are the same. In a book set in another world we can see a society that is set up differently to our own and thus question why our world works as it does, and perhaps question whether that's a good thing. 

    Oatley (2011) says that if readers lay themselves open to imagination they can abstract themselves from immediate reality, gaining the ‘ability to conceive alternatives and hence to evaluate ... [to] gain the ability to think of futures and outcomes, skills of planning’ (Such stuff as dreams: the psychology of fiction, p.30). I think genre writing requires a greater flexing of the imagination muscles because readers will only be truly transported if they open themselves to the journey, which will take them further from what they know than literary fiction. But this distance can allow them to see their own world differently, with new ideas. 

    Coming back to the idea of themes, exploring those themes in another time or place also shows us what we have in common with those who look different or live different lives. There is a growing body of research showing the importance of stories in increasing empathy, which is desperately needed right now. As Ursula Le Guin says, writers have an obligation,
    by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader's mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live nowis the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continueunquestioned.  (The wave in the mind, 2004)

    About Rachel:  Rachel Nightingale is an Australian writer, playwright, educator and actor. With a passion for story telling and the theatre, it was natural that her first fantasy series would centre
    on both. You can find out more about her and her writing here.

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    Medical students in the 18th century faced a big problem: not enough dead bodies on which to experiment. The solution? Wax anatomical models. Made from a mixture of wax from bees and other insects, the models were a clever and less stinky alternative to cadavers, often with take-out parts and cut-away sections to highlight particular systems of the body.

    The centre for wax model making was Florence and model-makers were generally male. However, in the mid 1700s Marie Marguerite Bihéron rose to fame in Paris as a self-trained anatomist who exhibited her collection of wax anatomical models as a cabinet of curiosities in her house near the Sorbonne.

    From drawing to dissection

    Little is known about Bihéron’s background, or why she developed such a fascination with anatomy.  She was born in 1719, the daughter of an apothecary. She studied illustration at the Jardin du Roi with Madeleine Basseporte, who taught her the art of anatomical drawing.

    However, it was quite a leap from anatomical drawing to anatomical modelling, which was altogether a more ‘hands-on’ experience. Bihéron would have had to obtain corpses from hospitals and graveyards, then take casts of dissected specimens in order to produce wax copies. She would then have painted on structures such as membranes, or imitated them using thread. Each model would have taken months to complete.

    The result was life-size anatomical models including a detailed model of a pregnant woman, complete with moveable parts and foetuses, which she demonstrated to the Académie Royale des Sciences.

    Unbreakable bodies

    Bihéron was widely praised for the anatomical accuracy and lifelikeness of models. Jakob Jonas Björnståhl wrote to Carl Linnaeus that:

    ‘Marie Catherine Biheron makes models of parts of the body that are absolutely lifelike. And they do not break. She does not reveal what material they are made of, although it seems as if they were made of wax mixed with something.’

    Her display of anatomical models attracted a significant audience including surgeons, academicians, scientists and artists. In the early 1770s, she travelled to London where she exhibited her models in a room on the Strand.

    She was also employed as a teacher of anatomy. The French writer and philosopher Denis Diderot sent his daughter to Mlle Biheron for a sex education lesson before her marriage. 

    His brother, a priest, was appalled.

    Image 1 -  half-scale wax Anatomical Venus likely made as a study for La Specola’s Medici Venus. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.
    Image 2 - Weeping Woman by Amé Bourdon, first published in 1678. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

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    Let us start with Jane Austen.

    “While the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of a man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogised by a thousand pens, – there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit and taste to recommend them.  'I am no novel reader – I seldom look into novels – Do not imagine that I often read novels – It is really very well for a novel.' Such is the common cant. ‘And what are you reading, Miss – ?’ ‘Oh! It is only a novel,’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference or momentary shame.

    “... Or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

    Northanger Abbey, Ch. 5

    Of course this is very funny and of course one cheers (though I suppose I may be just as guilty of the modern equivalent: ‘I watch hardly any television – the odd documentary – nothing, really – it's all such rubbish’ – etc). But here, from an improving book called Letters to a Young Lady on a Variety of Useful and Interesting Subjects by the Rev. John Barrett, published 1791, is a passage which casts vivid light on the sort of prejudice Austen must have encountered. After all, she was writing Northanger Abbey in 1798-1799, only a few years after Letters to a Young Lady appeared. And the Reverend Barrett’s awful warnings about novels clearly chimed with the opinions of stuffy people everywhere, for my own copy of his tiny little pocketbook is the tenth impression, dated 1843.

    The Reverend Barrett is Firmly Against Novels. And yet funnily enough he uses the fictional device of the epistolary novel to make his points. Using as his example the (presumably fictitious) young Lady Harriet ******, this is what he has to say:

    Though Lady Harriet ****** is not yet fourteen years old, she has more than the airs and forwardness of a woman. Who can have taught this girl, that roses are expected to open all at once, and not by degrees? 

    Who or what indeed? Mr Barrett blames first: boarding schools. Persisting with his sentimental flowery metaphor, he explains that he likes girls to remain children.

    Timidity and diffidence are the most attracting qualities of a girl... Boarding schools, it would seem, may be compared to hot-beds. They bring fruits and flowers quickly to their growth. But they have not their proper essence, healthiness, or flavour. 

    The girlish state is so pleasing, in itself, that we wish not to see it exchanged, before its time, for the caution, the artifices, or the subtle policy of age. It is desirable that a girl should retain, as long as possible, the innocent dress, manners, habits and sentiments of childhood. She will never be more captivating when she is a woman. ...

    A forward girl always alarms me. Indelicacy, imprudence and improper connexions start up to my view. I tremble for her friends, and see her history gradually unfolding into indiscretion. 

    In other words, don’t send your daughter to school, Mrs Worthington. Who knows what mischief a group of twelve and thirteen year-old girls may get up to between them? Why, they may even expand their ideas and vocabularies by reading and exchanging novels or poems! I feel sure Jane Austen would have enjoyed Reverend Barratt’s comical alarm at the notion of being confronted with a well-read, self-possessed teenage girl. He has no idea how to respond, so is reduced to predicting her entire moral and social ruin. The poor man turns again to the dire example of Lady Harriet:

    I could discover, from the conversation of Lady Harriet, that she was deeply read in novels and romances. Her expressions were beyond nature, turgid, and overstrained, where she only wished to convey a common idea. 

    A volumewould not be sufficient to expose the dangers of these books. They lead young people into an enchanted country, and open their view to an imaginary world full of inviolable friendships, attachments, ecstacies, accomplishments, prodigies, and such visionary joys, as never will be realised in the coarseness of common life. 

    What is wrong with the fellow? How can he possibly object to inviolable friendships, and accomplishments, and visionary joys? But here is the old argument, so many times rehearsed and still alive today: that fiction and fancy and poetic invention are nothing but harmful lies which unfit a person for ‘real life’.

    The romantic turn they create, indisposes for everything that is rational.

    Worse still.  Novels and poems ‘corrupt all principle.’

    Fortitude they unnerve, and substitute, in its place, a sickly sensibility, that cannot relish common blessings or common things; that is continually wounded with its own fancies. ... Plays, operas, masquerades and all the other fashionable pleasures, have not half so much danger to young people as the reading of these books. With them, the most delicate can entertain herself in private without any censure; and the poison operates more forcibly because unperceived. The most profligate villain, that was bent on the infernal purpose of seducing a woman, could not wish a symptom more favourable to his purpose, than an imagination inflamed with the reading of novels.

    In the face of this kind of disapproval, no wonder Jane Austen’s imaginary young lady hastily hid her book. (I feel sure somehow that the Reverend Barratt and Mr Collins knew each other. They probably went up to Cambridge together.)  Let’s give Austen herself the chance to retort upon Mr Barratt with the last word. If instead of a novel, the young lady had been discovered reading a journal like The Spectator, she suggests –

    ... how proudly she would have produced it, and told its name; though the chances would be against her being occupied with any part of that voluminous publication of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of the papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation ...  and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it. 

    And.. well. Yes.


    Picture credits:

    Coloured print of Jane Austen, University of Texas, Wikimedia Commons
    Letters to A Young Lady, frontispiece: scan from book in author's possession
    Young Regency lady reading: unknown provenance.

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    The collapse of the Quebec Bridge in Canada in 1907 and the resultant deaths were caused by irresponsible engineering. But then, twenty years later, something rather wonderful happened ...

    The first ceremony of the Calling of the Ring took place in 1925, using a ritual created by Rudyard Kipling, at the request of H.E.T. Haultain, professor of engineering at the University of Toronto.  To this day, the ring is worn on the "dominant hand" so as the engineers draw or write, the reminder is always present. 

    Learning humility from history ...

    Joan Lennon's website.
    Joan Lennon's blog.
    Walking Mountain.

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    In December 1913, the Irish suffragette, Republican and socialist activist, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, wrote to Lady Ishbel Aberdeen, the writer and philanthropist, thanking her for the ‘great act of kindness’ in providing Christmas dinners to prisoners and suggesting that she might do so again.  Having recently been imprisoned herself, Mrs Sheehy Skeffington appreciated ‘what such a treat must have meant…something that drew Christmas Day nearer…’

    Hanna Sheehy Skeffington 

    One of the joys of Christmas is receiving hand-written cards. I have two old friends with whom I exchange ‘real’ handwritten letters during the year, never having grown out of the habit established in student days, but by and large, the art of the handwritten letter is dying out. That this is a matter of regret to many was suggested by the recent BBC Radio 4 programme Pen Pals, in which people wrote to strangers abroad. The resulting letters were appreciated for their tangible nature, the pleasure of something personal arriving by post, as much as for their content.

    Reading Hanna Sheehy Skeffington’s letter to Lady Aberdeen, I wondered what it might have looked like as a physical entity, whether it was typed or handwritten, how long it took it to travel from Dublin to Scotland, how Lady Aberdeen received it. It is a letter of request, but also of thanks.

    Sometimes it’s too late to thank people. I’m reviewing the collected political writings of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington for the Dublin Review of Books, and so many times, putting a post-it note beside some little fact or witticism, I’ve thought how grateful I am to radical, brave women like her, and what a pity she’ll never know. It’s the same gratitude which inspired my novel Star By Star which focuses on the 1918 General Election when women in Britain and Ireland voted for the first time.

    Though one of the suffragette’s slogans was Deeds Not Words, words are important. This year, I’m going to take time every month to thank a woman who deserves it. I’ll remember women from history, women today, and even fictional women – who doesn’t feel gratitude to Jo March? My lovely publishers Little Island have produced these beautiful postcards, with space on the back for a message ‘for a woman who inspires you’.  On the 14th of each month they’ll print my postcard on their blog at www.littleisland.ie. The last postcard will be printed on 14th December 2018, the centenary of the 1918 election. 

    Thanks to Little Island for the wonderful postcards 

    You can join in! The postcards will be distributed to selected bookshops, and I’ll be giving them out at school visits. Or if you ask the good people at Little Island very nicely, they might send you one… as long as you promise to send it on with a message, and take a picture to share with us. Or of course, you can use your own postcard. All you need are the words, and a woman to thank. 

    There’ll be more information about the project on the Little Island blog on 14th January, so do call in and have a look. I can't wait to share my twelve thank you messages, and I can't wait to read yours. 

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    On a beautiful day last November, I visited the Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich with my friends Ewa and Bob. The house is set in a lovely park and contains much treasure and art that belonged to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.  So far, so pleasant and though fascinating, par for the 'looking round an interesting historical house'course. Then, just before we left, we stepped into one of the strangest rooms I've ever seen. I took the photos that follow, but bought a guide to the Closet  on the way out of the museum and I am using the facts contained within it and would like to acknowledge the expertise and work of Mary Halliwell, its editor and all the contributors to the publication.  They go into much more detail about the paintings and anyone who'd like to find out more about them is advised to apply to Friends of Ipswich Museums. 

    My first impression of the room, as I stepped into it was of being in an enclosed space, about two and half metres square, whose every wall was covered with pictures. Many, many paintings, each one of which was not very big but which together added up to a stretch of rectangles which depicted a very strange world indeed. Almost all the paintings are derived from emblematic books, which, after the Scriptures, were the most popular books in the 17th century to which people turned for visual representations of spiritual and mental well-being and how to attain them. 

    Lady Anne Drury lived in Hawstead Place near Bury St Edmunds, and she was the wife of Sir Robert Drury and sister of Nathanial Bacon,  a talented painter. It's thought that she herself painted these pictures and I like to believe that. Her husband was often away at court or on foreign campaigns and she turned to religion for comfort while she was living in Suffolk. She was a Puritan and greatly influenced in meditation and prayer by Joseph Hall, her chaplain and spiritual director at Hawstead. Images of God and the Saints were not part of her devotions.

    Then, in 1610, her daughter, Elizabeth died. She was fifteen years old and Lady Drury was now childless. John Donne wrote an Elegy for her called 'An Anatomy of the World, wherein, by the occasion of the untimely death of Mistris Elizabeth Drury, the frailty and decay of the whole world is represented.' 

    It was printed first in 1611 and here are the two final lines:
    'She, she is dead; she's dead. When thou knowest this,
    Thou knows how lame a cripple this world is.'

    In 1612, Donne printed another version of the poem, called 'The Second Anniversarie. Of the Progress of the soul' and this version contains the lines:
    'She, she is gone; she is gone; when thou knowest this,
    What fragmentary rubbish this world is
    Thou knows, and that it is not worth a thought.'

    It's an interesting change. This, bynthe away was John Donne's first published verse. To me, the room displays 'the fragmentary nature of the world' as well as the wonders to be encountered there. We see flowers, landscapes, figures, animals: all manner of things, some beautiful, some grotesque, like the very disturbing mermaid below. The whole universe is before our eyes. There are images of flight and creatures from nightmares. Crocodiles and sheep. Mountains. The image of the well, above, seems almost surrealistic to a modern eye.


    I imagine Lady Anne going every day to paint. Thinking: what shall I look at next in order not to see the pain in my heart? What shall I focus on so that I don't have to focus on my loss? Finding peculiar  items in the emblematic books and making pictures of them and arranging them to fill an endlessly empty horizon. 

    If you have the chance to visit the real thing, please do. You will be haunted by this room as have been since I saw it. I will return. 

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    Devon Lane. Photographer: Richard Knight
    Country roads in Devon are hazardous at the best of time, but in freezing January, they can be lethal. Devon has 8,000 miles of roads, more than any other county, and many are twisting, single-track lanes, enclosed by high hedges on either side and pitted with deep potholes. You can always spot the car whose owner lives in Devon by the 'hedge rash', the numerous scratch marks on the near-side. When two vehicles try to pass each other they either have to ‘hedge hug’, squeezing passed each other, shaving the paint from the side of the car as it's dragged along a thorn hedge, or one car will have to back up or down the hill and round the twisting bends until they find a passing place. There is an unwritten local code governing who should politely give way. The pushy people who try to force someone else to back up, are contemptuously referred to as 'blow-ins' or 'emmets' (ants), better known as tourists, whether they are or not!

    Of course, these lanes were in use centuries before the invention of cars, caravans and tractors. So perhaps the solution is to encourage tourists to read the highway code section of an ancient medieval book called TheSachsenspiegelwhich became the law book of the Holy Roman Empire. It was written around 1220, but parts of it were still in use until 1900. A learned administrator, Eike von Repgow, complied a book at the behest of his liege, Count Hoyer of Falkenstein, drawing together the Saxon laws of custom and practise. He translated the work from the Latin into Middle Low German. The Sachsenspiegel covers laws governing many aspects of life, but some of the most fascinating rules concern roads and travellers.

    One states that the king’s highway must be wide enough to enable one cart to give way to another, in other words about 13 foot. There was a strict rule in the order of precedence. Someone on foot must give way to a rider, a rider must give way to a cart and an empty cart must give way to a laden one. But if carter should find himself behind a pedestrian or rider approaching a narrow bridge, then he must draw the cart aside allow them to cross the bridge first in case the cart becomes wedged.

    If two carts are approaching on either side of the bridge, then whichever cart gets onto the bridge first must be allowed to cross first, regardless of whether it is full or empty. The same principle underlies a familiar proverb which also comes from this book, 'Wer zuerst kommit, mahlt zuerist.' It literally means ‘He who comes first, grinds first,’ which was a law governing people who were bringing their grain to the mill. Chaucer was obviously familiar with this, as he uses it in the ‘Wife of Bath Prologue’– 'Whosothat first to mille comth, first grynt.' Or as we now say – 'First come, first served.'

    Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims by William Blake
    The Sachsenspiegel states that any traveller could cross uncultivated land provided it wasn’t enclosed, but could be fined heavily for straying across cultivated fields. If you were in a cart you were fined a penny a wheel, or if riding then a halfpenny. You could also be obliged to compensate the farmer for the value of any of the crops you had destroyed. These were on-the-spot fines and anyone refusing to pay could be lawfully seized and held until fine of 3 shillings was paid, which was roughly the cost of a sheep.

    Any traveller stealing hay or corn from a field at night and carrying it off, faced the death penalty, but it was permitted that if a traveller’s horse was on the verge of collapse, the traveller could feed it by cutting as much corn or fodder as he could reach while standing with one foot on the road. But it had to be eaten by the horse on the spot.
    Travellers being directed to shrines containing holy relics.

    Travel was extremely hazardous, not only did you have to contend with the weather and the risk of accidents, but there were unfriendly animals too. Many travellers put the herb known as hound’s tongue inside their shoes which had such a foul smell that it was supposed to drive away unfriendly dogs.

    But in case that didn’t work, the law said that any traveller who was attacked by a dog, pig or bull, was entitled to defend themselves, even to the point of killing it, without having to pay the owner compensation, provided he swore on a holy relic that he’d had no other choice. But anyone who owned an aggressive dog or a pet wolf, bear, stag or ape, must pay for any damage these animals did. It is interesting that in the 13th century there were enough people who kept these animals as pets or for use in entertainments at fairs, that it was necessary to specifically name these ‘tamed’ animals in law.
    1411-1413 A pet ape or monkey
    playing with a dog
    at the foot of a bed.

    If you survived the vicious farm dogs and wandering livestock, one major hazard still remained – outlaws and robbers. They knew that most travellers, especially those on horseback or in carts, were bound to be carrying at least enough money for a few night’s lodgings and probably a great deal more, in addition to goods, valuable horses and carts which were a great temptation to any thief. The significance of choosing to travel on the king’s highway or waterways was that, in theory, you were under the protection of the king at all hours of the day and night. Specifically mentioned in the Sachsenspiegel was the protection it afforded to women, Jews and priests.

    Anyone found guilty of murdering, assaulting or robbing a traveller on king’s highway was liable to be executed by beheading or being broken on the wheel depending on their crime. Severe though this punishment was, it probably didn’t do that much deter crime, since you first had to catch those responsible and on a lonely stretch of forest road, it might be hours if not days before a victim would be found.

    A woman being set upon by robbers on the road.
    But there was also a class of beggars or confidence tricksters who flourished both in Europe and England. They specialised in stripping themselves naked, smearing themselves with dirt and animal blood and wandering into towns or villages tearfully claiming they had been robbed on the road. Monasteries, churches or kind-hearted townsfolk would often take pity on them providing them with shelter and food, and also fresh clothing which they could carry off and sell in the next town. They might even receive a little money to compensate them for their loss, especially if they claimed the supposed robbery had taken place within the village bounds, which the inhabitants were supposed to protect. I suppose the modern equivalent would be those fraudsters who make false insurance claims.

    The type of traffic on our roads may have changed, but human nature doesn’t.

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    Caroline Lawrence & the 'Emperor Domitian'
    In screenwriting classes they often urge authors to give their hero the most powerful opponent possible. 

    So when it came time for me to write a long-planned spinoff to my Roman Mysteries books I looked at my timeline in the late first century AD and realised I had the perfect opponent, a fascinating tyrant who was the most powerful man in the world at that time: the Emperor Domitian. 

    Domitian was the eleventh emperor if you start counting from Augustus. He was the third Flavian and ruled for fifteen years, longer than his father Vespasian or his brother Titus. By all accounts he was a corrupt monster. Recently some scholars have tried to argue that his reputation was the result of a smear campaign by a few disgruntled senators.

    For the first three books in my Roman Quests series, he is the unseen opponent sending soldiers, guards and torturers to pursue my protagonists. In the final book, Return to Rome, we finally meet him and witness his assassination. Of course I am writing for children so some of the action happens offstage and other events are seen through the eyes of my young protagonists.  

    When you write about someone you can’t help but empathise. I feel Domitian was probably somewhere on the spectrum and socially dysfunctional. As one of my characters says near the end of Return to Rome, ‘If Domitian had been merely a butcher or a sailor he only would have made life miserable for his small circle of family and slaves. A man like that should not be given the power to rule an empire.’

    Domitian’s assassination in AD 96 was documented in gory detail by Suetonius Tranquillus, the great biographer of the Caesars who was about 27 years old at the time of Domitian’s death. You can read a vivid account in all its gruesome detail hereOther ancient authors who write bitterly about the eleventh emperor include Aelius Aristides, Dio Chrysostom, Dio Cassius, Eusebius, Martial, Pliny the Younger, Statius and Tacitus. 

    Here are fifty bizarre claims about Domitian  – all made by ancient sources – that make him an irresistible opponent in a historical novel set at the end of the first century.

    He was born on 24 Oct AD 51 in a house on Pomegranate Street in Rome.
    This is one of the few ancient addresses that has come down to us.
    He later turned the house into a temple dedicated to the Flavians, his family.
    He grew up in poverty, although his father Vespasian later became emperor.
    Once, before his father became emperor, he was forced to flee for his life.
    He survived by dressing like a woman and hiding in the house of a friend.
    He always plotted against his older brother Titus, who succeeded their father.
    He was a skilled archer and often fired arrows through slaves’ spread fingers.
    He often amused himself by spearing heat-drugged flies with a stylus. 
    A steward once quipped that nobody was with him, ‘not even a fly’.
    He became emperor in AD 81 after the mysterious death of his brother Titus.
    An officer named Saturninus conspired against him in late 80s.
    Domitian’s resultant paranoia led to a ‘reign of terror’ in the AD 90s.
    He covered some walls with reflective stone so that nobody could sneak up on him.
    He put the freedman who assisted Nero’s suicide to death.
    Unlike Nero, he did not avert his eyes from torture.
    He liked to watch people and terrify them with his gaze
    He often pretended to befriend people just before he executed them.
    He encouraged slaves to denounce their rich masters as traitors
    He then confiscated the property and split the proceeds with the delator.
    He accused a pantomime actor named Paris of having an affair with his wife.
    He spared his wife Domitia but murdered Paris in the middle of a street.
    He executed people caught leaving flowers at spot where Paris had died.
    He was a notorious womaniser and called his lustful activity ‘bed wrestling’.
    He seduced his niece Julia, daughter of his brother Titus, and got her pregnant.
    He caused Julia’s death by demanding she have an abortion that went wrong. 
    He terrified guests by inviting them to death-themed dinner parties
    The dinner parties were held in pitch-black rooms draped in black cloth.
    Guests’ name-tags resembled grave slabs and were lit by grave lamps.
    He gave them food commonly served at banquets for the dead.
    Guest were served by naked boys painted black to resemble ghosts
    He liked to watch female gladiators and pygmies battle in the arena.
    He collected freaks and was especially fond of a boy with a tiny head.
    Late in his reign, he demanded to be addressed as ‘master and god’.
    He erected a gigantic bronze equestrian statue of himself in Caesar’s forum
    He changed the name of his birth-month October to Domitianus.
    (This change of month name did not catch on.)
    He added gold and purple to the chariot factions of red, white, green and blue.
    (The new chariot factions did not catch on.)
    He put a high podium in his palaces to lift himself above others.
    He was obsessed with his hair loss and wore an expensive wig.
    He wrote a book about curing baldness.
    He revered Minerva above all other gods and considered her his protector.
    Shortly before his assassination he dreamt that Minerva abandoned him.
    From an early age he knew the exact day and hour of his foretold assassination.
    He had several astrologers put to death in order to stop their prophecies.
    On the fated day lying slaves told him the deadly hour had passed and he relaxed.
    After the first assassin stabbed him, several others piled in, too.
    His wife was out of town but reputedly knew of the planned assassination.
    Rome’s initial reaction to his death was fairly low-key.
    The Senate proclaimed Nerva emperor with suspicious rapidity.
    The Senate also decreed that his name and image be destroyed.
    Domitian’s body was removed and cremated by his childhood nurse Phyllis.
    She mixed his ashes with those of his niece Julia, whose death he had caused. 

    Domitian (erased) with his wife Domitia on a coin
    These are only a few fascinating claims about the life and death of Domitian. You can read lots more of them along with a fictionalised account of his assassination in my fourth and final Roman Quests book, Return to Rome. He also appears in my Roman Mysteries, especially final book in the series, The Man from Pomegranate Street

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    According to my hero, Giuseppe Tassini, the palazzo shown below right once hosted a devil in the form of a monkey-butler. The simian Satan was outed and cast out by a clever Franciscan monk.

    Ca' Soranzo de l'Anzolo
    The clever monk was Matteo Serafini da Bascio (1495 – 1552). Born in the Papal States, he was ordained in 1520. He espoused the barefoot poverty of his order’s founder, Saint Francis of Assisi, also adopting the saint’s pointed hood and beard. Father Matteo attracted his own followers, who became known as the Capuchin (hooded) order, and were awarded canonical approbation by Pope Clement VII in 1528. But the comfortable desk-life of the order’s first vicar general did not appeal to da Bascio, who preferred more strenuous and austere missionary work. He accompanied the papal troops in Germany in 1546, where he was said to have spurred the soldiers to victory with his inspired preaching. These sermons he continued thereafter in Venice, which is where he came to attend at the Ca’ Soranzo de l’Anzolo just behind the Piazza San Marco.

    At that time, the palazzo belonged to Iseppo Pasini, lawyer of the Ducal Curia. This man was well known for his grasping and unscrupulous ways, by which he had earned hugely. Nevertheless, he pretended to great piety. So he invited the celebrated preacher to dinner at his elegant home. Before proceeding to table, Pasini told Father Matteo that he had in his home a most extraordinary and highly skilled monkey. This unusual servant had full command of his domestic matters.

    Father Matteo
    da Bascio, courtesy
    of Wikimedia Commons
    Father Matteo knew immediately, by divine grace, that something was far from right about the monkey – such a beast was surely a manifestation of the devil. He desired to confront it immediately. The monkey must have known a holy man was in the house, for it was discovered hiding under a bed. Father Matteo told it, ‘I command you in the name of God to explain who you are, and for what reason you entered this house.’

    The monkey replied, ‘I am the devil. I have brought myself here to take away the soul of this lawyer, which is owed to me on account of many sins.'

    Father Matteo continued, ‘And why, therefore, being so hungry for his soul, have you not yet killed him, and brought back with you to hell?’

    ‘Only because, before going to bed, the lawyer always prays to God and the Virgin. If he had only once omitted his usual prayer, I could have without delay carried him to eternal torment.’

     Hearing this, Father Matteo hastened to command the enemy of God to leave the house immediately. The monkey informed him that he had his own instructions: he might not leave this dishonoured house without doing some kind of damage.

    ‘Very well,’ said Father Matteo. ‘You may do some damage, but only what I shall prescribe you, and no more! You will leave via this wall, and the resulting hole will serve as testimony to what has happened here.’

    The devil obeyed. Father Matteo, sitting down dinner with the lawyer, made him review his past life. Finally, picking up a corner of the tablecloth, he twisted it. Miraculously, copious quantities of blood flowed out. ‘This,’ said Father Matteo sternly, ‘is the blood of the poor whom you exsanguinated with so many unjust extortions.’

    The lawyer repented and lamented his crimes, and warmly thanked the Capuchin for leading him back to grace. But when he saw the hole left by the devil, he declared that he could not be free of fear if his proud adversary remained free. But Father Matteo was reassuring, commanding him to place the image of an angel in that hole, as any fallen angels (like the devil) would flee from a saintly one.

     The relief may still be seen today. It consists of a sculpted tabernacle containing two gothic shields above which presides the lushly winged angel.
     The angel holds a ‘crusader orb’ – a globe with the cross carved upon it – and is blessing it. There are traces of colour, probably not original to the sculpture. Above the angel, there are also the remains of a 14th century fresco of the Madonna and Child with angels. The angel still lends its name to the street and bridge adjacent to it.

    Michelle Lovric's website
    Image of the devilish monkey above courtesy of Wellcome Images: a  monkey holding a clyster in an apothecary's shop; satirizing physicians who gave enemas to ladies. (How much more devilish does a monkey need to be?) Engraving by F. Basan after D. Teniers the Younger.


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