Wednesday, 24 August 2016

ELEANOR OF AQUITAINE: Going the Distance by Elizabeth Chadwick

It is now four and a half years since I was contracted to write three novels about the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine - THE SUMMER QUEEN, THE WINTER CROWN and THE AUTUMN THRONE. I chose to write about Eleanor in the same way that I choose to write about all my subjects. I  become interested in them, and that interest will sometimes develop into a full blown curiosity that only a more in depth exploration will satisfy. 'Who were you really?' I ask myself, and then I set out on a voyage of discovery.

With Eleanor there were already many biographies and novels in circulation and I had enjoyed reading several of them especially Sharon Kay Penman's marvelous fiction series of books about Henry II and the rise of the Angevin 'Empire.'
Eleanor had also appeared in secondary and cameo roles in many of my own novels and as a result I had conducted a certain amount of surface research into her background, which had contributed to my deepening curiosity.

Articles online tend to stress what a 'kick-ass' feminist she was, way ahead of her time in all she did. Leading her first husband a merry dance and meddling in French politics for example.  Galloping off on crusade dressed as an Amazon and sleeping with her own uncle. Holding courts of love in Poitiers.  Scandalously marrying the young Duke of Normandy after having slept with his father and then being imprisoned by him for encouraging her sons to turn on him when she became insanely jealous of his mistress Rosamund de Clifford.

Eleanor's popular biographers have encouraged many of these dubious points of view.  However, when I began digging, I came across other opinions from historians working more sedately in the background of academia, suggesting that the majority of these notions were anachronistic and at best on shaky ground.  The most forward thinking academics were also of the opinion that Eleanor was a woman firmly grounded in the 12th century culture of her own lifetime, and while formidable and intelligent she was in no way exceptional when set against other high-ranking ruling women of her period, and in some cases had less authority.  The Empress Matilda, for example, or Melisande of Jerusalem or Adela of Blois.  However, the voices of reason were being drowned out by the brash clamour of colourful scandal tales and by the desire people have to always choose the juicy story over the sometimes more prosaic reality.

As a writer of fiction I knew I had to pick my way carefully.  I had to find my Eleanor and make her as real as possible for me and for my readers.  I needed the spotlight I shone on her to contain both the drama and story telling that is the essential lifeblood of historical fiction.  I wanted to illuminate Eleanor's life from a different angle while maintaining integrity toward her and doing her justice.

As I read my way through various reference works on Eleanor, it became clear that what was known about her was actually not very much and that conjecture and imagination had so often superseded fact that it had become fact itself - until one began digging.  I found her variously described by her biographers as a saucy hot-blooded blond who needed her sexuality keeping in check (no evidence), a curvaceous black-eyed brunette whose figure never ran to fat in old age (no evidence) and a good-humoured green-eyed redhead (no evidence). An oft-cited portrait of her at Chinon turned out to be highly likely a man, very possibly her son, Henry, the Young King. She was also frequently misrepresented in books and online articles by images from a 14th century German work, the Codex Manesse, which has nothing to do with her. 
A queen from the German 14th century
Codex Manesse - often falsely  portrayed
as Eleanor
 Biographer Amy Kelly, coming from a literature rather than history background, among other dubious notions, had promulgated the whole courts of love theory which has now been discredited, although the idea remains dear to the hearts of popular history. Victorian biographer Elizabeth Strickland is responsible for Eleanor's reputation for gadding about on the Second Crusade dressed as an Amazon.  Her source for this scandalous happening goes no further back than 1739. There is no evidence for this story before that date, but it has come to be accepted by many as the truth. (See Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post Medieval image of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Michael Evans).
There is the matter of the scandal of her supposed affair with her uncle Raymond of Poitiers en route to the second Crusade when Eleanor demanded an annulment of her marriage from Louis VII.  I discuss the unlikeliness of this one on my own blog Living The History. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Raymond of Poitiers and the Incident at Antioch  She is also supposed to have slept with her second husband's father Geoffrey le Bel, but since the chroniclers concerned were hell bent on bringing the Angevin monarchy into disrepute and were notorious gossips, it would seem prudent to err on the side of caution in that assessment. Geoffrey is supposed to have warned his son off marrying Eleanor, but since Geoffrey and his father had been desperate for years to get their hands on Aquitaine, I somehow doubt that warning would have taken place.  Indeed, I suspect that Geoffrey would have been keen to see his son marry Eleanor the moment the annulment with Louis VII was announced.

Many of the biographies and online articles (especially the latter) tell us that Eleanor incited her sons to rebel against Henry II because she was enraged that he had taken a young mistress, Rosamund de Clifford, and was treating her like a queen.  Serioulsy?  Eleanor would raise an empire-wide rebellion, dragging her sons into a war with their father because she was jealous of Henry's philandering with a baronial nobody?   It's a bit insulting to promote the idea that a savvy, intelligent woman such as Eleanor was some sort of emotional harpy who would throw over an entire kingdom because her husband, already known for sleeping around, was carrying on with another woman. Would the same be said if she was male?  What about the political machinations that were happening at the time as Henry undermined Eleanor's  authority as ruler of Aquitaine and held their sons firmly under the thumb?  Might that not just have been more pertinent to the situation than a supposed jealous snit over a mistress?

The outcome of the rebellion was that Eleanor was kept under sometimes harsh house arrest for the next fifteen years before her release on the death of Henry II.  I suppose this is the point where she becomes her most 'kick-ass' as a widow with the powers of adviser, mother and co-ruler of Richard I's domains while he was absent on the third crusade.  Here there is not so much digression between the narratives of popular and academic - perhaps because Henry II is now out of the picture and Eleanor is no longer the young and beautiful heroine, prime territory for sex and scandal,  but an older lady with iron in her soul. The sex and scandal mongers now turn their gaze on her eldest son and begin the dance of whether or not he was homosexual (cue eye-roll).

One of the things that fascinated me about Eleanor and one in which she truly was ahead of our time, even if not her own, was the amount of energy she had and how indefatigable she was right up until her last days.  She died at the age of 80, which was a marvelous span in a period without life-saving operations and medication. Most octagenarians, even the robust ones, these days are swallowing a raft of tablets to keep them up to scratch.

Like many of the medieval aristocracy  Eleanor had a peripatetic lifestyle.  As a girl she would have been constantly on the move throughout Aquitaine with her parents. At 13 she married the soon to be Louis VII and shortly after their wedding in Bordeaux, travelled up to Paris. Then it was back to Poitiers and then a return to France where again, the court was constantly on the move. Around the age of 23, she set off for Jerusalem with her husband on the Second Crusade. This took them down through Germany, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) across the Bospherous, across Anatolia under constant attack, eventually to Antioch and then down the coastal strip to Jerusalem.  Eleanor and Louis returned home 4 years later via Sicily and Rome on what must have been one of the 12th century's most extreme military come sight-seeing expeditions. (Louis just loved his shrines).

Information board from Old Sarum. Click to enlarge.
Having divorced Louis and returned to Poitiers, Eleanor then married the young Duke of Normandy and future Henry II of England, 9 years her junior - and he had to be in order to keep up!  When he became King of England, Eleanor crossed the Channel with him and added that country to her map of lands where she had set foot.  During Henry's reign she was constantly on the move across the vast Angevin dominions that stretched from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees - or at least until she was caught up in a rebellion with her sons and Henry imprisoned her for the next 15 years.  That slightly curtailed her globe trotting, although later on in her house arrest she did journey between England and Normandy.  Perhaps her incarceration was a rest for her and gave her time to gather her strength and fortitude.

 When Henry died, Eleanor was released from imprisonment and was immediately back on the road, holding England safe until Richard arrived.  Appointed 'chairman of the board' during Richard's absence, she was herself absent for a time. She accompanied Richard to France to see him on his way, and then set out to Navarre to collect Richard's bride Berenguela, and bring her to his winter quarters in Sicily.   After a brief stopover in Pamplona, Eleanor and Berenguela crossed the Alps in midwinter on a horseback and on foot, with Eleanor now around the age of 65.  They would have spent Christmas Day in transit on mountain roads. Once over the Alps in the winter ice and snow, it was down to Rome and then across the straits of Messina to Sicily.

Barely had Eleanor arrived when she learned that her son John was making trouble back in England and Normandy and she had to turn straight round and head home.  Her respite was just 3 days.  Travelling between England and Normandy she kept an eye on matters, until the news arrived that Richard had been captured and held to ransom by the Emperor of Germany. Following a frantic flurry of money gathering to raise the ransom, she crossed the Channel again and headed to Germany, to Speyr to bring the ransom and fetch her son from captivity. By this time she was approaching seventy.  After this she tried to retire to a quieter life at the Abbey of Fontevraud which lay on the borders of Anjou and Poitou.  But the gentler times were not to last.  Richard died in 1199 and Eleanor, now 75, rushed down to Chalus in the Limousin to hold him in her arms as he died.  She then returned to Fontevraud to bury his body beside that of his father.

Her final son John came to the throne and she was requested to go to Aquitaine and take the homage of all of her vassals, which entailed travelling the region to do so. And then she was sent on a diplomatic mission to Castile to bring back one of her grand daughters who would then marry Louis, dauphin of France and hopefully cement an alliance/truce between the houses of Capet and Anjou.  So once more, she found herself, now 76, crossing mountains in winter, this time the Pyrenees, to bring back young Blanche of Castile to her marriage.  Eleanor did not go to Paris with her, but returned to Fontevraud, where soon after she suffered from a bout of ill health - which could well have been brought on by a mixture of grief and exhaustion.

There was one final journey. In 1202, threatened by warfare close to Fontevraud, she evacuated the convent and started down toward Poitiers.  However, when she stopped at the small castle of Mirebeau along the way, she found herself besieged by her teenage nephew Arthur, rival claimant to the Angevin throne.  Eleanor sent desperate word to John, who dropped his own campaign and rode like the wind to rescue her, arriving in the nick of time as Arthur's army were breakfasting on roast pigeon while Eleanor was barricaded in the keep.  Arthur was captured and the 78 year old Eleanor set free from her peril.  This was to be her final journey and adventure and she returned to Fontevraud and died there in April 1204.  It is thought that she had a say in the design of her own effigy and those of Henry II and Richard I, as well as the now lost effigy of her daughter Joanna.  If so, then she has portrayed herself reading a book - very likely intended to be of a religious nature, so even in death she is active, while her husband and son, lie  in state.  Since reading was often a communal affair and books read aloud, then perhaps Henry and Richard now have to listen to her for eternity! 

The majority of us will never pack in that much travelling or drama in our lives, and perhaps would not want to!  I am amazed at how much strength and fortitude Eleanor possessed. Her indomitable will is what I see as her true strength, right through to the core.  Yes, in the end a 'kick-ass' woman, but one of her own time and making and for whom I have the deepest admiration and respect.

The Autumn Throne is published in the UK by Sphere on September 1st and by Sourcebooks in the USA on October 1st.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

August 1914: The Enemy Within? by Leslie Wilson

'Two Germans entered the tube at Belsize Park. While the train was in motion they conversed in German, but during the short periods of silence at the stations they relapsed into bad, gutteral French. Two young men, hearing a reference to carrier pigeons, broke their journey at Leicester-Square and followed the Germans through Coventry-Street to a café. '

I was given this brown scrap of newspaper by another Quaker; it comes from the archive of Edward H. Milligan, once archivist at Friends House, a man who has been a valued resource for anyone working on Quaker history for many years. He has recently moved from a house to a flat, and has had to pass on many of his impressive collection of books and documents, quite a few of which I have been lucky enough to acquire.

The zealous young men were hugely excited at the opportunity of catching German spies and fifth-columnists. Did they really hear the words 'carrier pigeons' (Brieftaube), or was the wish father to the thought? They might have been complaining about dust (Staub) for example, or mentioning that someone was deaf (taub). Or the word might have been used figuratively. (Note that the French had to be 'gutteral', a term of abuse against foreign languages that I don't get, since gutterals are just gs, ks, chs, js, etc, and English has plenty of them). One young man sat down to keep the villains under observation, while the other one rushed off to Vine Street police station to tell them what they'd discovered. He then returned, to find that the Germans were departing. The amateur detectives trailed them to Leicester Square, hemmed them in, and told them they were being watched. The Germans 'hurried on, hoping to get rid of us,' and when they saw police, tried to make their escape. Or so the young men told the police. The amateur sleuths 'marked the house which they entered, and informed the local police, who have the matter in hand.'

And all for the crime of talking German between themselves, and talking bad French at the stations.

WHOLESALE ARRESTS, proclaims another column. Two 'alleged Germans' who said they were Russians, were overheard by a teacher of German, 'talking suspiciously' in Conway, and were arrested. (They might well have been Russians of German ethnicity). In London, a German was arrested as a spy and the police seized 'several large deed-boxes' full of documents. The man was held, pending enquiries, at Moor Lane police station. The documents were maybe his business papers. Three supposed German spies were captured on the railway line at Maidstone.

German reservists were being 'arrested wholesale.' I wonder if they were really reservists, since the German reserve had already been mobilised by then, so why would 'a hundred and thirty Germans and Austrians' arrive on boats in the Mersey? Maybe the captains were staggeringly bad at navigation? Apparently many Germans were employed in the lace trade in Nottingham, and they too are described as reservists, and were being arrested 'wholesale.' I do wonder if any young men of military age were considered to be reservists.

Maybe someone has some information that could elucidate this for me?

What the last snippet does reflect is the number of Germans who had lived cheerfully and inoffensively in this country for hundreds of years up till the beginning of the war.The German Lutheran church, in London, pictured below, was founded in 1762.
German Lutheran Church, London, secretlondon 123

Like Friedrich Wilhelm Singer, pastor of the German seamen's mission at Shields, who was remanded on bail, charged with spying.

The language employed is interesting. TELL THE POLICE! urges a headline, describing how more enthusiastic citizens were informing the police about the whereabouts of German residents, who were required to register immediately, or pay a fine of £100 or be imprisoned for six months. The registration offices were the police stations, and the paper says that since the early morning they had been 'invaded' by foreigners making enquiries. So it was an annoyance (to the Evening News, at least) that the Germans and other foreign nationals were following instructions. The paper also seems to regard it as outrageous that many of the Germans were prosperous, and arrived in carriages and taxi-cabs (the implication being that they'd grown rich on payments from the Imperial intelligence agency?).

Spy fever was running high: telegraph wires were reported as being 'tampered with' by Germans, and also soldiers and sailors were said to have been accosted by Germans, eager to pump them for information about troop movements, warships and stores. There was a German who 'left England recently for Germany, who for some time served in a British regiment and obtained the rank of sergeant.' One wonders how much information he'd have gleaned, if he was a spy, serving in such a modest capacity.

There were also, apparently, armies of spies masquerading as commercial travellers. Clearly, there were German spies working in Britain at the time, but surely they'd  have had to be pretty stupid to employ such very visible agents.

In an incident that has spooky resonances of poor Jean Charles de Menezes's murder by the British police, a man 'of foreign appearance' was seen carrying an attaché case near the high level bridge over the Tyne in Newcastle. A patrol challenged him, but instead of stopping he began to run, got into a boat and pushed off. The patrol got another boat and gave chase, but 'as he still declined to stop' he was fired on and wounded. He was said to have thrown the attaché case into the river (or maybe it just fell in?) He died soon after he'd been captured. 'The authorities are very reticent', the paper says.

This story has come through two filters, that of the patrol and that of the newspaper. There are plenty of instances of modern shootings where the police account has been edited, shall we say? One wonders what was really going on there. Of course, the man could have been a quite ordinary thief.

At the same time, shopkeepers were jacking up the price of stores, and there were demonstrations against grocers and bakers in Hitchin; people were panic-buying provisions, though expressly told not to, since, for example 'mild-cured bacon does not pretend to keep like the old farmhouse kind'. People were buying a year's supply of potatoes, and also laying in butter; the paper advises against this, since 'the old-fashioned method of salting fresh butter and keeping it in jars is no longer followed. That last snippet demonstrates the usefulness for the nerdishly inclined historical novelist of reading old newspapers. So people were eating what my mother-in-law called 'sweet butter' at the time, rather than salted, which I grew up with and always supposed to be traditionally British. And anyone writing about the 19th century might like to know that salted butter was sold in jars. I wonder at what period specifically?Anyway, the uncertainty about food probably contributed to the general atmosphere of paranoia.

German missionaries interned at Alexandra Palace, Imperial War Museum
There were in fact around 50,000 Germans or Britons of German origin living in the country in 1914. German shopkeepers (even naturalised Britons) had their windows smashed in; Germans married to British women were marched off to internment camps, which were described by their inmates as 'veritable hell.'

People with German names changed them pretty quickly in order to avoid xenophobic abuse and violence; among them, of course, the Royal Family, who became Windsors instead of Saxe-Coburgs. Given that George V was the first cousin once removed of Kaiser Wilhelm, they might easily have fallen under suspicion.

What struck me, reading these ancient and fragile cuttings, was a resonance between the xenophobia and the outbreaks of racial and xenophobic abuse following the referendum result on June 23rd this year: sheer tribalism. One can only imagine the distress of all those people who had settled here and regarded these islands as their home, at what had occurred, and (because I am half German) I can imagine that many of them must have felt torn in half that their birth country and their adopted country were now at war and their neighbours suddenly hated them.

(The Evening News was part of Associated Newspapers by then, and was thus a sister paper to the Daily Mail.)

The painting of the German missionaries is the work of  George Kenner.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Scotland's Pictish Stones and The Lost Story of Guinevere by Catherine Hokin

I have been time-travelling this month in the name of research. Now that book two (fourteenth-century) has been delivered to my agent, I have been delving into the twelfth century for book three and, rather more challengingly, the sixth century in search of the Picts. This will either make sense when the idea finally gets out of my head and onto the frighteningly blank screen or it will have been  a wonderful diversion, either way the literal journey is proving fascinating.

 Scotland's Kingdoms 600 AD
The Picts were a confederation of tribes who lived primarily in northern and eastern Scotland during the late Iron Age and early medieval periods, their kingdom being destroyed around 840  AD.

As with so much of the discussion around this period, there is no agreed definition
of the name Pict. It may refer to 'painted people' (they loved a tattoo even more than a modern-day hipster Glaswegian) or derive from the Roman blanket term for the, diverse, tribes of northern Scotland or it may be a mis-hearing of the Old Norse name which was Pecht/Pettir. Whatever the origin, they live on in tales of a savage warlike people, covered in woad and in some Scottish place names such as aber (a river mouth) in Aberdeen, pert (a copse or woodland) in Perth and the use of pit (a share of land) in Pitlochry. They also live on in the wonderful, intricately carved standing stones which have been found throughout Scotland - stones which tell of a far-more sophisticated people than perhaps popular imagination gives these early tribes credit for.

 The Pictish Beast
Several hundred stones have now been found and these often combine Christian crosses with uniquely Pictish symbols, depicting a world on the cusp between the old religions and the new.

The stones are largely sandstone and many have been carved over or simply weathered by time but archaelogists have been able to identify three symbol types: recurrent and consistent abstract or geometric designs; real and mythical creatures including the Pictish beast which is like a dolphin/legless elephant hybrid and the manticore which has a human head, a lion's body and wings; real-life objects in pairs, such as a comb and mirror or an anvil and hammer.

 Some Pictish stone symbols
Like the origins of their name, 'reading' the stone symbols leads to a multiplicity of interpretations and there is considerable discussion over whether the symbols are 'heraldic' or linked to the distinct language we know the Picts spoke. It has been suggested that some of the symbols (eg. the crescent and v-rod) could hark back to the Roman cult of Mithras or could be associated with sun-worship. It is also possible that they are tribal badges and the animal depictions are land markers or have associations with Celtic mythology, the serpent, for example, being linked to kingship and status.  The comb and mirror have been suggested as indicators of female power or wealth, particularly if they are associated, as they commonly are, with the mermaid symbol. Whatever their meaning, they are complex and beautiful and suggestive of a culture far more multi-layered than woad-wearing and creating mayhem.

I am lucky enough to live in Scotland so, last weekend, we went on a stone-hunting journey to the little village of Meigle where the Scottish Pictish Stones Museum is located. The collection there is large but we were on the trail of one particular stone: Guinevere's burial marker. Yes, Guinevere, of King Arthur fame, Keira Knightley's pout and far too many romantic-myths.

 Vannora's Mound
It was the series of books by the late Norma Lorre Goodrich that spurred the visit: she locates Arthur very much in Scotland and Guinevere as a warrior queen/priestess rather than the adulterous 'heroine' of the Arthur myths, a trend that began in the later medieval period with the chivalric poets. In her reading, Guinevere was the daughter of a Stirling-based King and may have ended her days close to Meigle at Mordred's Castle on nearby Barry Hill. In the mid 1990s Goodrich went to Meigle and there was not only the stone but also a burial mound in the churchyard known as Queen Vannora's (Guinevere's) mound. The stone itself is stunning: on the plinth it stands over 10 feet tall and its red sandstone is intricately carved on both sides - my picture really doesn't do it justice!

 The Guinevere Stone
There is a wonderful description of it in the Goodrich book which positions Guinevere as the angel on the top with Arthur next to him - like everything, Goodrich's reading of the myths and the stone is a theory not a fact but it's a really interesting one. And this is where the rant came in - my husband had already stepped back, expecting it, he's used to me. The plaque below the stone continues the hackneyed tale of an adulterous queen pulled to death by four horses - you have to search for the Goodrich (and any other theories) in the dusty information folders at the back. Not only that (husband has gone for a coffee and a lie down by now) but the guide informed us that the stone was saved by the a local (male) vicar who brought it inside out of the weather to preserve it after centuries of exposure to the elements. Except Goodrich was very clear (and I've checked this in the local press cuttings since, I like my rants to have meaning) that the stone was saved by the local women of the village who used their own savings to pay for the first museum which was known locally as a women's museum. They did this to honour the memory of a woman of legend from their area. No mention of this, anywhere. The guide also chose not to re-tell the colourful local legend that girls should not step on the burial mound as it would make them barren, like Guinevere herself, on the grounds that it was 'tasteless history'. Also known as the best bits.

 Norma Lorre Goodrich
Now let's be honest here, I have no desire to be the mad woman in the museum: I asked questions politely and did the ranting primarily to myself and my lying down husband before writing a strongly worded email to Historic Scotland which they ignored. If you get a chance to visit Meigle do: all the stones in the museum are beautiful and it is humbling to see them. However, it strikes me as very sad that a story that spans centuries, that carries a legend from women to women and whose symbols can still call so eloquently has become as lost as the Picts it stemmed from in less than 50 years. I think I'm going to go back and rant a little louder.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Fire! Fire! by Imogen Robertson

I’ve always felt a bit sorry for people who were actually born in London because they’ll never have the pleasure of a first visit to the capital. I remember mine. I told the patient Beefeaters all about the Crown Jewel, got a tour of Broadcasting House from a cousin who worked there (and a BBC pen which I treasured for years), fed the pigeons and had my first visit to the Museum of London. The memory of the flickering diorama of the Great Fire stayed with me long after the pen had run out. No surprise then that I’m delighted to have been asked to chair a discussion at the museum on the Great Fire, Fact and Fiction next month. 

It’s part of a series of talks the museum is running alongside their excellent new exhibition commemorating the 350th anniversary of the fire, and the panel consists of Hazel Forsyth, Alex Larman and Andrew Taylor. I do hope some of our History Girls readers can come along. It should be a great discussion with Hazel talking about the material culture of the period and what the wreckage left by the fire teaches us, Alex setting the fire in the context of the political turmoil of post-Restoration, post-Plague London, and Andrew discussing how it has inspired his new novel Ashes of London, an explosive beginning to a new series of historical thrillers. You should buy all three books, of course, particularly because they form a matching set.

To make sure I ask them the right questions, I went along to the museum to see the exhibition last week and can thoroughly recommend it. The visual design is gorgeous, based on contemporary woodcuts and it makes great imaginative use of shadows and silhouettes. Vignettes of a spark from Thomas Farriner’s oven landing on a pile of dry wood, figures waking up in the smoke and clambering out of windows, a brilliant map of the spreading flames, and wonderful use of sound all fascinated the children who were visiting with me, and I suspect their memories of the flaming houses will be just as long lasting as mine were. You can handle burnt tiles and bricks as well as hearing extracts of letters, and peer at the first newspaper report of the fire and knowing the press which printed them was consumed the same day. 

There is also an excellent final section the the exhibition which looks at the aftermath of the fire, both the rebuilding and the rumours which circulated even before the fires were put out. I did not know for example about scapegoating of Robert Hubert who confessed to starting the fire as part of a Papist plot. On display is the cracked marble plaque proclaiming his guilt which was not permanently removed from the Monument of London until the nineteenth century. There is plenty of food for thought about the politics of blame as well as a chance to sit and listen to the stories of the refugees in the mock-up of one of the camps set up to shelter the thousands of Londoners who had last everything in the conflagration. 

It's all gorgeous and thoughtful. Well, I know what I’m aiming for as chair now. 

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Managing a Medieval Nunnery - by Ann Swinfen

I’ve long had a vague feeling, at the back of my mind, that the women’s colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, as created in the nineteenth century, shared many characteristics with medieval nunneries.
Somerville College, Oxford
Vague, that is, until my recent immersion in research for my work-in-progress, The Novice’s Tale, set in the 14th century and partly in Godstow Abbey, near Oxford. This has confirmed that feeling in a number of interesting ways.

I am not saying that those who ran those women’s colleges devoted their lives to worship, like their medieval forebears, but that the way they organised their institutions was remarkably similar. There were other points of similarity, too. When I was a student at an Oxford college, it was still all-female, and was one of the last to admit both sexes. We were, I now realise, at a transitional stage. All of the older dons were unmarried and lived in college, in ‘sets’, consisting of a sitting room cum study, in which they conducted tutorials, plus bedroom, bathroom, and small kitchen. Their rooms were cared for by college servants (‘scouts’), they ate most of their meals in the college Hall, and they foregathered with their colleagues in the Senior Common Room. It was the form of female college life as portrayed in Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night (without the crime!). She had attended my own college during World War I, and some aspects of that earlier life still remained in my time there.

However, things were changing.

A number of the younger dons were married, and although they still had rooms in college, they had homes outside, inhabited by husbands and children. Some of the very youngest were not yet married, and did live in college, but drove fast cars, instead of riding the ancient upright bicycles, and were sometimes quite glamorous.

It is in the older form of this collegiate life that we can see parallels with medieval nunneries.

When the women’s colleges were set up, they were, naturally, modelled on the men’s colleges. These in turn had begun life in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as ecclesiastical institutions, intended to educate men for the church and other professions, men who had taken at least minor orders. They therefore closely resembled monasteries and nunneries in their organisation, so it is not too fanciful to see a direct line of descent to the nineteenth and early twentieth century women’s colleges.

There were even some correspondences in the buildings. The central Hall of a college (like those in the Inns of Court) harks back to the hall of a medieval manor, with a dais at one end for the high table. In the frater or refectory of a nunnery the senior nuns would sit here, as the fellows of a college do now, while the junior nuns and novices, like the students, dined at lower tables. A comfortable Senior Common Room has replaced the hard stone seats of the chapter house, but like the chapter house it is used for meetings.
Laycock Abbey, converted into a manor house
Traditional colleges are enclosed within walls and built around a series of quadrangles, sometimes with cloistered walks, again retaining the layout of medieval monasteries and nunneries. There is a gatehouse, generally with a wicket set into a larger gate, which is presided over by a porter, again on the medieval model. At night, the gate is closed and locked.

All the traditional colleges, including the women’s colleges, have a chapel, like the chapel or church or abbey which was an intrinsic part of a medieval nunnery or monastery.

The wealthiest colleges – primarily the older men’s colleges – are supported by the endowment of property from benefactors through the ages, as the monasteries and nunneries were. The nineteenth century women’s colleges were less fortunate.

When we look at the occupations of the nuns in a medieval nunnery, we can see further parallels to a woman’s college. A nunnery of medium or large extent was a major institution, involving not only the professed nuns but also novices and often schoolchildren (including young boys), lay sisters, male and female servants, some senior male staff, and a home farm with a full complement of agricultural workers. To manage such a large institution, the senior nuns were required to take on managerial roles which would not seem out of place in any similar modern institution, including women’s colleges.

At the top of the hierarchy, if the nunnery had the rank of abbey, was the abbess. In the smaller nunneries she was a prioress. Under the abbess was the prioress, and there might also be a subprioress. The abbess was the overall head of the institution, supervising her ‘obedientiaries’ or senior nuns, chairing meetings of Chapter, dealing with senior figures outside the nunnery, and corresponding with the bishop and other important men. Abbesses also had the right to sit in the House of Lords, the only women to sit in Parliament until the twentieth century.

Reporting to the abbess, a group of obedientiaries had defined roles in the organisation. One of the most important was the treasuress, who handled all income and expenditure. Her role corresponded closely to that of the bursar of a college. Agreement would be reached amongst the ‘managing committee’ of senior nuns as to what proportion of the budget should be allocated to the various spending departments, for example to purchase food or clothing. Some of the endowments granted to the nunnery would have been ear-marked for specific purposes, and these would be taken into account in the planning. A modern parallel might be scholarships restricted to students from a particular county or to the offspring of indigent clergymen.

My college had both a treasurer and a bursar, the bursar and her assistant having taken over a number of the roles below, including those of fratress and cellaress. A housekeeper in charge of the scouts (who replaced the lay servants of the past) took the place of the kitcheness and had some of the duties of the cellaress.

The care of the church in the medieval nunnery was in the hands of the sacrist. This meant not only being responsible for the fabric of the church and arranging for repairs when necessary, but also caring for the valuable church plate, altar clothes and vestments, and providing the candles for both the church and the nunnery generally. She would purchase wax and tallow and arrange for candle-making at least once a year, either by a local candle-maker, or by one of the itinerant makers, who would come to the nunnery for the number of days needed to make the supply.

The precentrix or chantress was in charge of all the music and the church services. She would train the novices in the complex singing of the services, arrange for the copying of music, and usually also served as the librarian in charge of the institution’s books. If the nunnery had a scriptorium for the copying of texts, this would come under her care.

The chapel in a modern college clearly does not play anything like so important a part in the lives of the members as it did in the medieval period. The chapel and choir in my college was a personal interest of one of the dons. In some of the men’s colleges nowadays, of course, especially those with famous choirs, there will usually be one or more organ scholars, a chaplain, and a choirmaster, as well as teachers in the choir school. Now that colleges have much larger collections of books than a medieval nunnery, the role of librarian has assumed a correspondingly greater importance.

The frater or refectory was run by the fratress. This involved responsibility for all the tables and chairs, the dishes and table linen, the cleaning of the frater and the lavatorium where the nuns washed before eating. She would supervise the laying and clearing of meals by the servants, but was not responsible for the food itself.

The cellaress carried a particularly heavy burden. It was she who was responsible for seeing that the nunnery always had sufficient stores of food and drink, no simple task in the days before refrigeration. She arranged for supplies from the home farm and bought in anything which it could not supply, and as a result also supervised the home farm. She was in charge of hiring and firing servants, allocating their duties and overseeing their behaviour. As a result, she carried out most of the duties undertaken in a country manor by the steward, housekeeper, and butler.

The actual preparation of the food fell to the kitcheness, although she probably did not do much of the cooking herself, but managed the kitchen staff, mainly seculars, who could be male or female. She reported to the cellaress, and must have worked closely with her.

The chambress was responsible for all the clothes and bedding of the nuns and the servants, which involved buying cloth, employing seamstresses to make it up into garments, sheets, and blankets, in some cases overseeing full cloth production – preparation of the raw wool, spinning, weaving, fulling and dyeing. It should be remembered that in many cases the religious institutions, like the great estates, tried as much as possible to be self-sufficient, so they would have had a supply of wool from their own sheep.

The duties of the chambress have lapsed in the modern world, when students provide their own clothes, and – as far as I know – none of the women’s colleges has ever had its own flock of sheep!

If the nuns fell ill, they were cared for by the infirmaress who would need to combine the skills of an apothecary and a physician. The infirmary was generally a separate building, to avoid spreading infection, and she would prepare her medicines in a still room.

Nowadays this is not a duty undertaken by one of the dons. Members of the college with minor illnesses are treated by the college nurse. Anything more serious falls to the NHS.

The poor who came to the nunnery for help would receive money, clothes, and food from the almoness, while guests of the nunnery (travellers or secular women who retired there), would be in the care of the hospitalless.

Colleges still support charities, and welcome (paying) guests when rooms are available.

Last, but by no means least, of the major officials in a medieval nunnery, was the mistress of the novices. She was responsible for teaching and training the novices, and also supervised their behaviour. Some girls were given to the nunnery as oblates (‘gifts to God’) at a very young age, others joined later, either because they had no marriage prospects, their families wanted to dispose of them, or they had a genuine vocation. If the nunnery had a school, the mistress of the novices was usually in charge of this as well.

Clearly all the dons in a college, apart from those with a pure research appointment, fulfil the functions of the mistress of the novices, teaching the students, while some have a particular responsibility for behaviour and discipline, generally the dean.

A medieval nunnery also employed a great many other people. The steward tended to be an honorary position, often held by a nobleman, more like a patron than the usual idea of a medieval steward. Colleges now often have a ‘visitor’, a similar honorary position, held by some distinguished individual.

Nuns could conduct services, but could neither hear confession nor administer the sacraments, therefore they had a chaplain, generally with his own lodgings within the enclave but outside the nuns’ quarters.

The most important lay officer was the bailiff, who rode around the many properties of the nunnery (which might be scattered) collecting the rents. He might also be in charge of fetching supplies, if these needed to be purchased some distance away.

As well as household maids, and personal maids for some of the senior nuns, there would be a large domestic staff, both men and women: cook and kitchen servants, brewer, maltster, baker, laundress, dairy woman (to milk the cows and make butter and cheese) and grooms to look after the stable. The home farm employed the usual workers: ploughmen, cowherd, oxherd, swineherd, shepherd, carters, farm labourers, and (at harvest and other busy times) casual labourers.

Certain essential craftsmen might also be employed or hired from the nearest village – blacksmith, wheelwright, thatcher, carpenter, mason, and others.

The modern college is spared the need for many of these people, but will still buy in the services of those like builders as the need arises, just as the medieval nunnery did.

What I find most striking is the skill and competence of the nuns who managed a medieval nunnery. These were complex organisations. The nuns needed to be able to read and write and keep accounts. The money management alone was demanding, especially when the income from rents or the produce of the home farm could fluctuate alarmingly. A number of obedientiaries have left behind comprehensive manuals of instruction for their successors on how to carry out their responsibilities.

I suppose the usual general idea we may have of a medieval nunnery is that it was a group of unworldly women, shut away from secular life and contact with the outside world, their lives devoted entirely to prayer. The truth could hardly be more different, although prayer was certainly important. As an alternative to being married off to some distasteful husband and forced to bear child after child, with all the desperate risks of death in childbirth, these women could lead a fulfilling life where they had real careers and responsibilities, beyond anything most of them would have experienced in the secular world. Those early dons in the women’s colleges, fighting for women’s rights to an education and a more fulfilling life, were – in a curious and ironic way – carrying on the work of those celibate and enclosed sisters in the medieval nunnery.

Friday, 19 August 2016

A Great Olympian by Katherine Webb

I hope you'll forgive a somewhat truncated post from me this month - it is holiday season, and by the time this goes live I shall be sunning myself (and reading voraciously) on a beach many miles away - hurrah! The only thing bothering me slightly about this holiday is that its dates coincide exactly with the Olympics in Rio.

I love the Olympics. It's the only sporting event I watch even more assiduously than I watch Wimbledon fortnight, and that's normally not a problem - the British weather being what it is, I don't generally feel bad for skulking around the TV instead of being out in the world. I can't do that on holiday, though... Well, maybe just the highlights show. So my blog this month is the review - or rather, the recommendation - of a book about a truly remarkable Olympian, Louis Zamperini.

Louis Zamperini in 1938

Laura Hillenbrand's 2014 book, Unbroken, tells the life story of this remarkable man, born to Italian parents in the USA in 1917, and a resident of California. From a childhood on the wrong side of the tracks, Louis became a college track superstar, setting a new intercollegiate record for the mile at a smidgen over 4 minutes 21 seconds. He qualified to represent the USA in the 5000m at the 1936 Olympics, and though he didn't finish in the medals, his final lap was so fast - just 56 seconds - that the Führer asked to meet him, and so Louis Zamperini met Adolf Hitler in person.

World War II broke out, and in 1941 Zamperini joined the US Army Air Corps. In 1943, he was on a B24 bomber called The Green Hornet, and known to be faulty, when it crashed into the Pacific Ocean some 850 miles south of Hawaii. Louis and two other crew members left alive after the crash managed to survive 47 days adrift at sea in an inflatable life raft, only to arrive at the Marshall Islands and be taken into captivity by Japanese soldiers, where they would remain until the end of the war. Zamperini's account of the treatment he and other POWs received at the hands of the Japanese guards, and in particular a man called Mutsuhiro Watanabe, is painful but important reading.

Mutsuhiro Watanabe during the war. He was notoriously brutal; feared and loathed by the prisoners under his jurisdiction.

Laura Hillenbrand, who also wrote the bestseller Seabiscuit, has turned this man's incredible life into an accessible, compulsively readable story of survival and triumph against all odds. I read it in conjunction with Richard Flanagan's Booker-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, about the plight of POWS forced by the Japanese to build a railway across Burma during WWII - commonly known as the Death Railway. Both books are shocking, compelling, and heart-breaking; beautifully written in their very different ways, and give a valuable insight into the depth to which war can plunge men. But in this Olympic month, it's Louis Zamperini, who died in 2014 at the age of 97, who gets my loudest cheer.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Way We Lived Then - Celia Rees

Compton Verney is currently hosting the Exhibition, Britain in the Fifties - Design and Aspiration, looking back to the time when Harold Macmillan announced that 'most of our people had never had it so good'. A time when everything was new. Modern. The exhibition starts with the Festival of Britain and follows through to 1959, the end of the decade and the dawn of the Sixties and Withnail's 'greatest decade in the history of mankind.'

The emphasis is on design, everything from fabric to furniture and household goods. The exhibition allows us to look with new eyes at everyday items easily overlooked or dismissed as 'ordinary'. We are invited to see that things that we might unthinkingly assess as unexceptional, dull, even ugly, were actually different from anything that had gone before. It was the decade when everything was new. Not new exactly, but the design movements of previous decades in furniture, ceramics, fabrics, architecture were no longer exclusive, they were being made available to Macmillan's newly prosperous, aspirational middle classes. 

New, bright, boldly patterned designer materials might be available but women still routinely made their own clothes. Shop bought 'gowns' were for the rich, or for special occasions. Few households were without a sewing machine as this spanking electric machine, array of dress patterns and impressively stocked sewing box illustrates.

New materials, like formica, and a host of mechanical gadgets and appliances from fridges, to washing machines, electric cookers, electric mixers and teasmades were set to make women's lives much easier. 

The display shelves themselves are an example of the new design. The appliances arrayed show what housewives aspired to, or desired: a Kenwood Chef, a teasmade, a portable radio, stainless steel toast rack, an electric kettle. The styling was American or Scandinavian. The aptly named 'Maidsaver' with it's multiple cupboards and counter, replaced the larder, scullery and notional 'maid'. 

The introduction of a television into more and more living rooms was poised to transform everybody's life. The advent of ITV, launched in 1955, and the 'commercial break' were about to make people want the above illustrated innovations and all the household products that went with them: Persil, Flash, Fairy Liquid. Their slogans and jingles would become part of our consciousness and culture.

All this innovation is neatly illustrated in a series of artfully created rooms,  deceptively simple but carefully curated. Meticulous in every detail, each one re-pays close attention.  The television, showing the Coronation on a loop, is twinned with a large radio standing rather forlornly in the opposite corner. The previous source of all home entertainment was about to be eclipsed. Many of the exhibits were loned by local people like my friend, Barbara Crowther, items still in use 'part of the furniture'. This adds to the illusion that these are rooms in real homes rather than artefacts in a museum.

They certainly spark much memory and reflection. The rooms murmur with the chatter of re-discovery:

"We had one of those..."
"My mum made me a dress in that material."
'I had one just like that!"
"I remember..."

'I remember' is repeated over and over again, sometimes as an  exclamation of recognition, sometimes prefacing a deeper memory, a longer anecdote. The display of bathing suits (stout to our eyes, frilled and ruched) seems particularly redolent, sparking memories of trips to the lido, the seaside, family holidays with sisters and brothers, mum and dad. When I visited the exhibition with friend and fellow author Linda Newbery, we were exclaiming at every turn over one thing or another, adding our voices to those around us. 

The lifestyle depicted  is neatly summed up by a series of panels from Ladybird books in their pre-ironic incarnation. 

Mother is dressed to go shopping in a hat, heels and costume, the little boy is in his school uniform, the little girl in a smart red coat and beret. She carries a basket, a miniature of the one her mother carries. They visit different shops to make purchases. I remember such trips with my mother going from shop to shop, to George Mason's (grocer), Dewhurst (butcher), Simpson's (fishmonger), Warden's (draper & haberdasher), Timothy White and Taylor (chemist), Midland Educational and Twig's Toy Shop. This was how my mother shopped. There were no supermarkets in our town until the 1960s. 

My mother went 'up the village' most days, buying little and often. She had to shop like this because we didn't have a fridge. Or most of the shiny gadgets and appliances on display. We were a middle class household but we didn't have a washing machine. My mother made do with a wringer then a spin dryer. An odd fact of British consumerism is that the front loading washing machine, the Bendix as it was known from its manufacturer, was eschewed for the twin tub top loader. Front loading made washing too easy.  As it says in the accompanying notes to the exhibition, 'in practice many of these new, much trumpeted machines failed to liberate women from the kitchen, but instead tended to re-enforce gender stereotypes - resulting in more rigid gendering of domestic spaces.' In some ways they made more work, not less. Ease of cleaning and washing meant these chores were performed more often.

 This exhibition offers a snapshot of a certain kind of life style. It shows a revolution in design that  has one way or another influenced all our lives. The title is Design and Aspiration and, by default, the lifestyle shown is middle class, even upper middle class. Most households, even middle class ones like mine, didn't have all the 'mod cons' on display here and some had nothing at all. The new council houses, much of the design a bargain basement version of what we see here, were not available to all. Slum and back to back housing was still very much with us. Not everybody could aspire to live like this. 

As historical novelists, we are always interested in visiting exhibitions that re-create a particular era and this one does it very well. It is important, however, to remember what is not shown here. I lived through the Fifties, so I could fill in some of the gaps. Remember things that no exhibition can show. The cold in winter when few people had central heating. Coal grates, gas fires and single bar electric heaters didn't heat much of the house. Frost on the inside of the windows as well as the out. 

And smells. Smoke from those coal fires and steam trains, people smoking indoors. I don't specifically remember, but its not hard to imagine the body odour. Baths rather than showers. Some houses still without bathrooms. Talcum powder at best, the use of deodorants was not widespread. Sounds that are lost, like the early morning rattle and whine of the milk float. The noise, or lack of it, in a world with far less traffic, fewer aircraft, ubiquitous machines in cafes, musak in every shop. If we can remember the era, we have to remember hard. If not, we have to imagine if we are to re-create how people really lived then. 

Celia Rees