Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Scents and Sensibilities: The Not So Smelly Middle Ages? By Catherine Hokin

Setting: one of the most important things for an author to get right. That might be the most obvious statement you read all day and no, you haven't stumbled into a 'how to write' blog but this balancing act of anchoring the reader fully in a time period very different from our own while not bludgeoning them to death under a tsunami of description is occupying a lot of my time with the current WIP.

One of the best ways to communicate a sense of place is through smell. The modern world is obsessed with fragrance: from beauty and cleaning products to the artificial bread that wafts through every supermarket, we walk through such a vanillery-bakery-flowery world that any slightly unpleasant scent feels like an assault. I am beginning to think that most of our Proustian moments will shortly be controlled by Airwick. The challenge for the writer, however, is that this most crucial sensory experience is the hardest to research and to replicate.

That the Middle Ages was a morass of stinking towns and villages filled with people whose body odours would have made a skunk weep is one of those history myths that gets peddled at school and repeated incessantly until it ends up on QI. Scrape under the mucky surface and things are rather different.

There are admittedly plenty of stories of medieval people who did not regard hygiene as a priority. Isabella of Castile (1451-1504) reputedly only bathed twice in her lifetime, once when she was born and once when she married. King Louis IX (1214-1270) was described by the Russian ambassador to his court as stinking like a wild animal. They, however, were not the norm for their class: foul odours were associated with disease, low standing in the social order and moral corruption (based on the idea of miasma). Those who could avoid smelling revolting did.

At the height of the Middle Ages, bathing was a serious business. For the wealthy this would take place in tented wooden tubs lined with cloth; the better-off town-dwellers had communal bathhouses; the peasants made do with rivers in the summer and fire-warmed water in the winter. Whatever rank you were, de-lousing with salty water would probably feature somewhere in your life. Health manuals such as the Regimen Sanitatis (c.1308) contained dozens of rules for bathing at specific times such as pregnanacy and noted the importance of bathing for getting rid of dirt and grime beyond that which was visible: “if any of the waste products of third digestion are left under the skin that were not resolved by exercise and massage, these will be resolved by the bath.” As with medicine, herbs and plants were central to the process of sweetening the body for those who had access to them. Thyme and rose petals were widely used to perfume bath water, the body could be dried using sheets sprinkled with rosewater and then dusted (men and women) with a powder made from ground rice, ground orris root  (a violet smell favoured by King Edward IV) and fragranced with cloves or lavender. Bay leaves, hyssop and sage were used to make deodorants and sachets of lemon balm and dried rose petals could be slipped into clothes already boiled in water scented with orris root and stored in chests containing 'sweet bags' which held a mix of ingredients such as musk, citrus peel and marjoram. Finally a 'pomme d'ambre' (an apple of ambergris) filled with a fragrant paste could be attached to a waist belt and, once Arabic gums and essential oil distillation methods could be combined with the discovery of alcohol distillation in the early 1300s, a perfume with notes of mint and rosemary could be added to the mix. The notion of a court filled with walking pot-pourri bowls is rather hard to escape.

 Woodcut 1489
So, if the people battled the negative associations of fetid smells rising from their bodies, where does the notion of the smelly medievals come from? For that we have to turn to place. I have always been an urbanite but I think medieval England may have forced a love of the country on me. Wood smoke, days old pottage and damp over-close animals still seem preferable to the alternative. Medieval towns stank. Clearly sanitation was an issue: towns were cramped, pavements were rare and Roman drains were long forgotten although muckrackers were well-paid. Houndsditch, which runs through London's glossy financial district, gets its name from the amount of dead dogs deposited in it when it was a great open ditch running through one of the medieval  city's main thoroughfares. In the 14th century, Sherborne Lane in the east of the capital was officially known as Shiteburn Lane and every town had its equivalent, Pissing Alley apparently being quite a favourite.

 Fes Medieval Tanneries
The main problem, however, was not the disposal of human waste,  it was the industries and commerce that multiplied as the towns grew. Anyone who has battled down the narrow Shambles in York can imagine how disgusting this road must have been when it was the open air Great Flesh Shambles with a drain filled with blood and offal running down its centre. Even more noxious were the great tanneries which used copious amounts of urine, dog excrement and stale beer in their processes. The smell of the tanneries in Nottingham was said to be so terrible it even repelled rats although, on the plus side, this is credited for reducing the incidents of plague in the area.

Awareness of the links between filth and disease can be seen in the regulations that were constantly passed in medieval towns. Fines were imposed for throwing waste from high windows and dumping it in clean water sources and on butchers for failing to clear waste which attracted dogs and wild pigs. But, as town populations continued to rise, the battle became increasingly hard and raw sewage continued to flow into the Thames until the nineteenth century. The towns smelled bad and, by the end of the Middle Ages, it is likely that the majority of people smelled pretty bad too. The public bath houses had long been associated with sexual activity, the Stews in Southwark for example were largely regarded as a front for brothels. The Church railed against them in vain but attitudes to communal bathing began to change after successive outbreaks of plague and the new disease syphillis, which began to make its presence felt in the late 1400s. Taking a bath became a rather risky adventure.

So back to the balancing act. No one wants to read a seduction scene where the protagonists' body odour acts like extra characters but drowning everything in herbs seems like a recipe for a cliched dish. I'm off to Glasgow's West End streets to breathe in petrol fumes and ponder.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Several Very Large Fat Bears by Imogen Robertson

Study of a bear by Sawrey Gilpin
© The Trustees of the British Museum

I am, like most writers, often asked where I get my ideas from and I always say the research (which is true), but that can seem a bit vague and wafty, so I thought I’d give an example of how many great ideas one stumbles over, particularly if you have access the The Burney Collection Newspapers via the British Library. I’m looking at one newspaper, The General Advertiser published on Tuesday 21 February 1786. 1786 is when my work in progress is set by the way, but I’m not sure what will happen in it yet, hence the broad research. Annoyingly, I’m not sure any of the following will fit, but each of the following three fragments from the day deserves a novel of its own, so I hope quoting them illustrates the larger point. Finding ideas is not the problem, the work is deciding between them.

The first story is a suggestive fragment, the sort of thing I might use, but I can’t find any way to follow the real story. The second is worthy of a novel firmly based in fact and has an interesting stack of supporting documentation which can be followed via the internet but this is probably not a book for me, fascinating though the story is. The third is one of those oddities which can shed surprising light on a period, and though again, I’m not sure I’ll use it, it offers me a certain flavour of the time which is nevertheless invaluable.

So first, the fragment:

On Friday afternoon about dusk a very genteel dressed man was taken out of the Serpentine with several marks of violence  on his face, but he had no more than one farthing in his pocket. He was carried to Knightsbridge to be exposed to view. The Jury sat on his body on Saturday, and brought their verdict, Death by some unknown cause.

Definitely something to warm a crime writer’s heart there, this could be the opening paragraph to a novel. People better versed in archive delving might be able to find out more about the actual facts, I haven’t been able to do so. If anyone can find the coroner’s record or sift through the newspapers for more information, please do let me know what you find. 

On the same page is the starting gun for a novel or non-fiction work which I would love to read someday:

Friday last James Bently was charged on oath before Nicholas Foster Esq. with feloniously stopping Edward Tauplin… and feloniously taking from his person a bundle containing a large assortment of Bombazeen... 

This story, thanks to I could follow up, though the changes in the names don’t give you a lot of faith in 18th century journalism. You can read the whole trial here, but the summary is as follows, and I’m certain this is the same case.
JOSEPH BUTLER, Violent Theft > highway robbery, 22nd February 1786 
JOSEPH BUTLER was indicted for feloniously assaulting Edward Poulton, on the King's highway, on the 16th day of February , and putting him in corporal fear and danger of his life, and feloniously taking from his person and against his will, one linen handkerchief, value 6 d. sixteen yards of black bombazeen, value 40 s. a black silk gown, value 40 s. a black silk petticoat, value 20 s. the property of Martha Robinson , spinster. 
GUILTY , Death.
He was humbly recommended by the Prosecutrix to his Majesty's mercy.

Neptune wikipedia

Now, it seems that mercy was granted. Joseph is recorded (again, the record is via oldbailyonline) as being sentenced to transportation  for 7 years in early 1787. Thanks to a brilliant website called I know he reached Australia, but he only arrived in New South Wales on 28 June 1790. Joseph was a survivor of the Neptune, one of a fleet of three ships in which the convicts were basically left to rot in the hold for the duration of the journey. Of 1000 convicts some 300 died on the trip out. The death rate led to protests in Britain and after an unsuccessful prosecution of the captain of the Neptune, the system was reformed so private contractors carrying the prisoners were only paid for the convicts who got to Australia alive. Butler married and had children and is buried in Sydney. 

Then we have the third story, an advertisement:

Bears Grease
Its ancient use, known efficacy and established reputation down to the present time for the valuable purpose of strengthening and preventing the Hair from falling off the Head, or turning Grey, proves its virtue above spurious compositions daily offered to the Public to answer the same purpose.
Lewis Hendrie
Prefumer in ordinary to the Princess Royal…. Middle Shug Lane, Golden Square; begs leave to acquaint the Nobility and Gentry, that he has several very large, fat Bears, one of which he has just killed; that such as are pleased to have any of the Grease, will either call or send their servants to see it cut off the animal.
He has just imported from Paris…. 

Well, that rather stopped me in my tracks. Via the joys of the Burney Papers text search function I can tell you that Mr Hendrie had been killing bears to stop rich Londoners going bald since at least 1778. By June 1783 he was having his shop ‘greatly enlarged and new fronted’, perhaps to match the glamour of his shop sign, ‘a prodigious large Elephant’s tooth’ at the door which he mentioned as a way to recognise his establishment in March of that year. Just in case you accidentally wandered into one of the other bear killers' shops on Shug Lane. 

I’m not the first writer to have noticed Mr Hendrie:

I found this advertisement in Parker's General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer (London, England), Tuesday, April 1, 1783

This day is published… An Ode to Mr Lewis Hendrie &c… Principal Bear-Killer in the Metropolis

Rather brilliantly, ten days later the author advertises again to assure the public he means no disrespect to the other bear-killers in the capital, but regards Mr Hendrie as the original. 

The writer of the Critical Review, or Annals of Literature thought the ode ‘in some parts very laughable’.

Mr Hendrie continued killing bears until his death in 1790. The bears didn’t get their revenge, I’m afraid, his death was occasioned by the bursting of a blood vessel.

I’ve read a lot about the 18th century in the last ten years, but I admit I never knew that barbers imported bears from America and Russia to fatten and then kill in their shops. In search of a little context I came across this magnificent book, The Georgian Menagerie by Christopher Plumb, which will I am sure tell me a great deal of other things which I didn’t know I didn’t know. Plumb says around 50 bears were killed in London by barbers and hairdressers every year, and offers some of the methods customers used to make the grease smell less unpleasant. 

What will I find in the newspapers for 22 February 1786, I wonder?

Monday, 20 February 2017

Medieval Hunting - by Ann Swinfen

Before I began to write the third book in my Oxford Medieval Mystery series, The Huntsman’s Tale, there was one area of research demanding my attention – what exactly went on at a medieval hunt? Most of us are familiar with images of medieval hunting, like the hawking scene from Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry:

And I suppose that we also know that the origins of more recent forms of hunting, on horseback, with a pack of hounds, must lie somewhere back in that remote past. Modern hunts have about them an aura of wealth and privilege, and those medieval pictures show the nobility in fine clothes, so it must always have been a pastime of the rich, mustn’t it?

Well, yes and no.

As I delved into the subject, I discovered that everyone, from king down to villein, hunted as a regular part of life. At any rate, every man, and quite a few women. The nature of the hunt and the type of quarry varied, but everyone hunted for food. Pursuing something as inedible as a fox would have seemed like madness, unless it was to protect farm stock from a predator. Deer and boar were the favourite quarries of the rich, but everyone hunted hares and rabbits (usually called conies), either on horseback or on foot, and every type of edible bird either with nets or birds of prey.

Two principal and invaluable contemporary books on hunting survive from the Middle Ages. The Master of Game, by Edward, Duke of York, and Le Livre de Chasse, by Gaston Phébus, Count of Foix.

Edward Plantagenet of Norwich, Duke of York, was a grandson of King Edward III, killed at the age of 42 at the Battle of Agincourt, where he saved the life of King Henry V at the cost of his own. His book, The Master of Game, is the first book in English on the subject of hunting, and is a translation – with additions and modifications – of Le Livre de Chasse:

Edward Plantagenet had served as Master of the Hart Hounds for his cousin, King Henry IV (amongst many other more obviously distinguished posts) and wrote his book between 1406 and 1413, dedicating it to the Prince of Wales, later Henry V. Gaston Phébus was obsessed lifelong with hunting, and wrote his treatise in the 1380s. He died of a stroke at the age of sixty, after an exhausting bear hunt. (All right, bears were a slightly more exotic quarry in parts of Europe. Wolves were also hunted as dangerous predators preying on farm stock, but by the late medieval period had almost disappeared from Britain.)

The hunting of deer was the outdoor sport par excellence in England, and was originally confined to royalty and nobility, hunting on horseback, with two main types of dog – tracking dogs, often a breed called lymers (and also precursors of the greyhound breed), and killing dogs, like the alaunt (a breed now extinct, which seems to have resembled mastiffs, and could be dangerous even to their own handlers).
Lymers now held back, alaunts released
Although a successful deer hunt would provide food in the form of venison, participants also viewed it as both a source of ‘delite’ and as a training for young men in many of the skills they would need in mounted warfare. Deer were hunted in forests, chases, and parks.

A ‘forest’ was not a synonym for a ‘wood’, it was an area usually belonging to the king which could include woodland, heath, and even marsh. A forest was reserved for royal hunting, or for those to whom the king gave a licence, and it was subject to strict forest laws. Those who lived within the boundaries of a forest had certain rights (usufruct), but could also be severely punished if they broke the forest laws. The term survives, for example, in the New Forest.

A ‘chase’ was a free liberty, and not subject to forest laws. However, as time passed, the right to hunt in a chase was granted more and more as a favour or reward to nobles, where the king then enforced forest laws. The term survives in Cannock Chase.

A ‘park’ was an enclosed area in an estate where a breeding herd of deer was kept for hunting, and belonged to the king, a noble, or an ecclesiastical body. Those in holy orders were not above enjoying the hunt, as Chaucer makes clear in The Canterbury Tales. Many deer parks survive to this day on great estates, some owned by the National Trust.

The kind of hunt which took place in a park tended to be different from the day long pursuit of quarry on horseback over often dangerous ground. The park was usually situated near a manor house or hunting lodge, where spectators could view the hunt. Often the hunters would be lined up – somewhat like the guns in a modern grouse shoot – and the deer would be driven past them by the senior huntsman and his assistants. As the deer passed, the hunters would aim their bows or crossbows and take down their quarry at far less risk to themselves.

Although a few notable women took part in the mounted hunt, it was more common for them to join one of these driven hunts. Even well into old age, Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed this form of hunting (as well as hawking).

Wild boar provided another noble quarry, although by the late Middle Ages they were becoming rarer in English woodlands. An adult male boar was a dangerous beast, which could kill a man, especially as the final kill was often by a man on foot. A boar spear had a crosspiece on the shaft, to halt the animal, for otherwise a boar was capable, even when speared, of running up the spear as it plunged into him, and killing the hunter even as it died.
Boar hunt. Note cross piece on spear
These noble hunts were large affairs, starting with an open-air meal, attending by ladies and other spectators as well as the hunters. For preference this was served in a grassy clearing beside a stream. The modern stirrup cup before a hunt is a vestigial survival of the original hunt breakfast.
Hunt "breakfast"
The hunt would be organised by the chief huntsman, a man of considerable skill, whose salary might exceed that of apparently much higher officials. Under him would be a large company of assistants and dog handlers with their animals. The hunters carried horns, which were used to sound various recognised signals (like a modern hunt). At the kill, a most complex ritual was carried out, to butcher the animal, reward the dogs, divide the venison according to established practices, and sometimes even leave an offering in the wood.

Hares were also hunted. Although they did not carry the cachet of the deer hunt, yet their speed, their cunning tactics, and elusiveness meant that they provided an exciting ride for the hunters. Nets might also be used.
Hunting hares with dogs & nets
Men of a lower class than those nobles granted the rights of the chase by the king did, nevertheless, sometimes manage to poach deer, for those who were unsuccessful in concealing their crime have left their names in the records of the courts. The names of those convicted occasionally include women. Famously Shakespeare was alleged to have poached a deer in the park belonging to Sir Thomas Lucy. There were also criminal gangs, not unlike modern organised crime gangs, who poached on a massive scale. Interestingly, they were often peopled by men of gentle birth, like the notorious Coterel and Folville gangs in the earlier part of the fourteenth century, and the gang led by Richard Stafford, known as ‘Frere Tuk’, a hundred years later. These were not the stuff of romantic Robin Hood legends, but thugs who terrorised whole communities.
Poaching. Nets were not part of a noble stag hunt
Landowners frequently held ‘rights of warren’, which meant they could build artificial warrens, in which rabbits were bred for the hunt, although this was almost more like a form of farming, rather than hunting. The conies brought in valuable income for their meat and especially their fur. They were also frequently poached by commoners, who did not need the elaborate equipment of the deer hunters. Some nets to cover the escape holes, and an agile ferret or small terrier would serve. This was a form of hunting – or poaching – often undertaken by women.
Women hunting conies with ferrets & nets
Commoners also used nets and traps to capture other types of game, including wolves and foxes which preyed upon farm animals, or when poaching deer.

Hawking was a sport for the rich. The birds themselves were costly, usually imported. Several dealers in birds of prey are to be found in the records, importing hawks of various types mostly from Arab countries of the eastern Mediterranean. And the expense did not stop there. Training a hawk to kill, but then return to the hawker’s hand was a long and arduous process, demanding weeks or months of constant attention and sleepless nights on the part of the falconer. The falconers themselves were skilled and highly paid specialists, so only the wealthy could afford trained birds.

There was also a very strict hierarchy as to who might fly which type of bird of prey, from gyrfalcons (only for kings) down to goshawks (for yeomen, if any could afford one). Ladies flew female merlins. The Boke of St Albans (1486) gives a comprehensive list, including some unlikely hawkers, but then medieval people did so love lists!

  • King: gyrfalcon (male or female)
  • Prince: peregrine falcon
  • Duke: rock falcon
  • Earl: tiercel peregrine (male)
  • Baron: bastarde hawk
  • Knight: saker
  • Squire: lanner
  • Lady: merlin (female)
  • Yeoman: goshawk or hobby
  • Priest: sparrowhawk (female)
  • Holy Water Clerk: sparrowhawk (male)
  • Knave: kestrel
  • Servant: kestrel
  • Child: kestrel

I think some of these may be taken with a pinch of salt. The last three probably refer to members of a noble hawking party who were allowed to join in, but probably did not own the birds. On the other hand, the clergy probably did.

Commoners also caught birds, especially water fowl like ducks and geese, for eating, but used nets or sticky lime spread on branches, which trapped the birds’ feet. They might also shoot birds with bow or crossbow, using spaniels with their soft mouths to retrieve them, again much like today.
Spaniels, used for retrieving game 

Medieval hunting in all its variety is an enormous subject, its rituals of the kill alone requiring much study for young noblemen. It might seem a blood-thirsty business to the modern mind, but it was not undertaken purely as an enjoyable pastime. Certainly those galloping through a forest on a beautiful day and a lively horse would have enjoyed themselves, but the primary purposes were to obtain food, to train young men in skills for warfare, or to protect flocks and herds from predators – not unworthy goals.

Ann Swinfen

Sunday, 19 February 2017

A Lesser-Known Blitz by Katherine Webb

In May last year a friend of mine, and several hundred of her neighbours, were evacuated from their homes in the northern streets of Bath. The reason: the discovery of a five-hundred pound unexploded bomb beneath the playground of a school on Lansdown Road, leftover from World War II. A three-hundred metre exclusion was put in place at once, as the bomb disposal team sought to disable it. Eventually, they managed to move it safely to the Torr Works quarry, where it was blown up, 74 years after it had been dropped.

So, people who live near Bath certainly know that the city was bombed in the war, and I'd known it for some time - it was bombed as part of the Baedeker raids, so called, after the famous travel guides, because the targets were chosen for their cultural importance and beauty, rather than because of any military or strategic significance. Lately, I've been researching the Bath Blitz in more detail, for my next book, and it turns out I'd had no idea of the scale of the bombing.

Bomb-damaged Georgian houses in Bath

Across two weekend nights, from the 25th to the 27th of April, 1942, one hundred and fifty or so German bombers flew over Bath in three bombing raids, two the first night and one the second night. Hundreds of high explosives of various sizes, and incendiaries designed to start devastating fires, were dropped; the exact number will never be known - it is known that many fell into the River Avon, and were swallowed by the mud. One has to assume that they're still down there... The Baedeker Raids, which included attacks on Canterbury, Norwich, York and Exeter, were in revenge for RAF attacks on Rostock, the location of important German factories and shipyards. As well as dropping bombs and incendiaries, some planes dive-bombed to as low as fifty feet, and raked the streets with machine gun fire. The damage can still be seen today - notably in the walls of the old labour exchange on James Street:

Bullet and shrapnel damage in the walls of the old labour exchange

The idea of setting a book in the Bath blitz has been niggling the back of my mind for a long time, and as luck would have it I stumbled across this pamphlet a few years ago, at an antiquarian book fair in Bath:

Produced by the Bath & Wilts Chronicle and Herald later on in 1942, this booklet gives a great overview of the raids, and their effect on the city. It's also a wonderful snapshot of the language and attitude of the press at the time:

'Dr Goebbels may now weep his slimy crocodile tears over "the destruction of historical and art treasures in Luebeck, Bath and Canterbury... Did not Goebbels once boast, "When I hear the word culture, I push back the catch of my revolver"? 

The author, Mr Claude Wimhurst, goes on to describe the grit and spirit of the city, and, in a fine example of stiff upper lip, to declare that the purpose of the booklet is not to 'harrow feelings',  but to 'steel the hearts' of those fighting the good fight, and to serve as a warning to future generations of the horrors and modern warfare. A timely reminder, likely to be ignored, in these days of turbulent global politics. Nevertheless, the history of the raids is harrowing. Of course it is. Four hundred people lost their lives, over a thousand more were injured, and many thousands lost their homes. And whilst this is small number compared to the 32,000 or so souls who lost their lives in London, the human stories that come from those two terrible nights in Bath are every bit as heart-breaking.

Some of the dead from the first night's attacks were laid out in a temporary mortuary in the crypt of St James's church, only for the church to be hit itself on the second night, and badly burnt. In putting out the flames, the fire service inadvertently destroyed all the identification papers on the dead bodies, so that nobody knew who they were, and many had to be interred anonymously. On May 1st, 247 people were laid to rest in a mass grave.

Bath Blitz victims are laid to rest on May 1st, 1942

There are devastating personal histories, described in the Bath Chronicle booklet and in the statistics listed on the excellent Bath Blitz memorial website, At no. 3, Howells Court, William and Beatrice Rattray were killed along with their seven children: Christine, 7; Donald, 5; George, 13; Joan, 8; Pamela, 10; Shirley, 2; and William, aged 10. What an unimaginable scene. Sergeant Clifford Ford, a serving soldier, returned on leave to find that his wife, Emily, and their six children had all perished at no. 7, New King Street. A baby girl was found in the wreckage of one house, and taken to Bristol Infirmary, where she died. Of her, the Chronicle records:

'Who she was no one knows. All that can be said about this unknown child victim is contained in the following terse official description which has been preserved: "Age, about two years; hair, fair; eyes, blue-grey; division between top row of teeth; no other distinguishing features." '

One can only assume that whoever was looking after the little girl that night was also killed, and never identified. What a sad end to a tragically short life.

It's easy to spot the gaps in Bath's architecture where Georgian splendour gives way to some 1960s built block of flats or carpark. Often, buildings were not rebuilt until much later, and there is still a ruddy great bomb crater in the lawned centre of The Circus. The famous Assembly Rooms, which had been visited and written about by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, were badly damaged by an incendiary. They had only re-opened in 1938 after a £50,000 program of refurbishment, and the Chronicle laments that they probably can't or won't be rebuilt again. They were, however, and are now back to their original glory:

The tea room in Bath Assembly Rooms today

The same room shortly after the blitz

Other buildings were beyond saving. One of the oldest mansions in Bath, the Abbey Church House in Sion Hill, was destroyed. Mainly Tudor, the building had foundations dating back to 1138, when a leper hospital stood on the site. Another medieval leper hospital, attached to the Mary Magdalene Chapel on Holloway, was also damaged. Today, it's easy to see, on a walking tour of the city, where the gap left by a bombed-out building has been filled with something more recent - with varying degrees of architectural grace. It's as fascinating to me as peering behind the Georgian facades and finding the medieval, Tudor and Stuart origins of many of Bath's buildings.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to visit, and stood high on Beechen Cliff, in the south of the city, to have a virtual birds' eye view of the damage that had been done. There are familiar stories of making do, of mucking in and not being dismayed. I have always wondered how far that was genuinely the case, or how far merely a statement of intent perpetuated by the media. It must have been utterly terrifying, and the effects of that terror long-reaching in the hearts and minds of the survivors. But the city did mend itself. On April 25th, 2008, Willi Schludecker, then aged 87, came to Bath to lay a wreath during the annual memorial service to the Bath raids. Willi, who died in 2010, was one of the German pilots who'd flown on the raids.

Willi Schludecker, who flew more than 120 sorties for the Luftwaffe during WWII, in Bath in 2008

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Imbolc - Celia Rees

This is the time of Imbolc, perhaps the least well known of the four great Sabbats or Celtic Festivals that mark the turning points of the year. Traditionally dated to the 1st of February, it falls midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and signifies the point where winter recedes and spring begins.
Wheel of the Year, Witchcraft Museum, Boscastle by midnightblueowl 

St Brigid's Cross
I first came across Imbolc when I was researching the death of Charles Walton on 14th February, 1946. I've written about that on this blog before but one theory associated with Walton's unsolved murder was that it was a ritual killing, his blood spilt to bring new life to the land. That would imply a continuity of belief that reaches back to the Neolithic. In Ireland, certain Megalithic monuments are aligned to the Imbolc sunrise.

Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1480 – 1556/57)

I guess there is more than a bit of the pagan in me. I like the idea of ancient spokes of Celtic belief on the Christianised wheel of the year. In Ireland, Imbolc is celebrated as St Brigid or St Bride's Day, the mysterious 6th Century saint, who may, or may not be, the Christian embodiment of Brigid, the great Celtic goddess of healing, poetry and smithcraft. Also known as the Mistress of the Mantle, Brigid was the sister or virgin aspect of the Great Goddess and such a powerful pagan entity that some Christians have cast doubt on her namesake's sainthood and questioned whether there ever was a St Brigid, she is so obviously the goddess in another guise. 

In the Christian calendar, the 2nd Of February is marked as Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. The Feast of the Presentation is one of the oldest Christian Holy Days, celebrated since the 4th century AD. On Candlemas, Christians from many different denominations bring candles to church to be blessed.

Purification links Candlemas to the Lupercalia, the festival observed in Rome on 15th February to avert evil spirits and purify the city. In turn, some researchers have suggested that the Lupercalia is in some way connected to our celebration of St Valentine's Day. Whether there is a connection is debatable but it is clear that all these different celebrations and festivals clustered round the beginning of February mark a significant turning in the year's cycle. 

Spring is on the way!

Celia Rees

Friday, 17 February 2017

Singalong with the Sterkarms by Susan Price

A Sterkarm Tryst by Susan Price

Tryst: (Old French) an appointed station in hunting. An appointed meeting place, often of lovers. To engage to meet a person or persons. A cattle market, e.g. 'The Falkirk Tryst.'


A Sterkarm Tryst: an appointed meeting place of which only one side is aware: an ambush. 


The third Sterkarm book, A Sterkarm Tryst, was finally published at the end of last month, and Penny Dolan (who wrote the wonderful A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E) has kindly allowed me to post about it here, on what would usually be her HG day.

'Tryst' is the third in the series. The first two, after being out of print for some years, have been republished by Open Road. They are The Sterkarm Handshake and A Sterkarm Kiss.

The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price
A Sterkarm Kiss by Susan Price

The books were inspired by the reivers of the Scottish Borders though Handshake only came to life for me when I thought of sending workers for a 21st Century company through a time machine to the 16th Century Border 'Marches' where they hope to mine the coal, oil and gas. The 16th Century 'natives,' the Sterkarms, suppose them to be Elves. After all, the strange clothes of the 21st Century people give them an eldritch appearance and their carts which move without horses demonstrate their supernatural powers.

The Sterkarms, the local Riding or Raiding* Family, welcome the Elves at first, for their magical wee white pills which take away pain (aspirin). The welcome doesn't last. The Border men were notoriously 'ill to tame,' as a contemporary put it, and the Sterkarms don't relish being told what they can and cannot do, even by Elves.
*The word 'raid' is from the Scandinavian or Scottish form of the Old English 'rade', which meant 'road.' Our word 'road' is from the same Old English word, which also gave us 'ridan' or 'ride'. A road was where  you rode. A track over a moor or through a wood is still called 'a ride.'
     Raiding was often what you were doing when you rode down a road or ride. So a 'Riding Family' and a 'Raiding Family' were the same thing. Ride, road and raid all stem from the same word.
     And 'reivers', as in Scottish Border reivers, comes from the same root as 'bereave,' which survives to the present almost exclusively in the sense of bereavement by death. 'To reave' originally meant to rob, to take, to forcibly deprive.
     I just thought you might like to know that.
Looking back over the books, I realise that the words and music of old ballads run through all of them. (I hear the music, anyway.) The 21st-Century heroine, Andrea, is 'embedded' (in more ways than one) with the 16th-Century Sterkarms and learns many songs from them. She finds that the songs often give her the words to understand the Sterkarms and her own situation.

The higher on the wing it climbs
The sweeter sings the lark,
And the sweeter that a young man speaks
The falser is his heart.
He'll kiss thee and embrace thee
Until he has thee won,
Then he'll turn him round and leave thee
All for some other one.

Then there's the ballad which gives the Sterkarms their rallying cry and boast:

The 'Sterkarm Handshake': their badge
My hob is swift-footed and sure,
My sword hangs down at my knee, 
I never held back from a fight:
Come who dares and meddle with me! 

A 'hob' was the breed of small, strong, intelligent horse which the reivers rode (down roads on raids). This ballad was historically associated with the Elliot family rather than the Armstrongs on whom the Sterkarms are very, very loosely based. ('Sterkarm' means 'strong arm.) 
Child's Ballads

These old songs fitted themselves naturally into the story as I wrote. I'd known many of them by heart for decades before I had any idea of writing the Sterkarm books. I never had to hunt for a quote. The scene I was working on would set a particular song playing in my head.

I knew the songs because, while still a young teenager, my love of folklore led me to Child's Ballads. I was already familiar with the lyrics before I discovered recordings of them by various folk-groups and singers.

I was a deep-dyed folkie, me. I was having none of your long-haired sensitive types strumming acoustic guitars while they intoned modern protest songs. If it wasn't at least 200 years old, I didn't want to hear it. I wanted elbow-pipes, Shetland fiddles and bodhrans. I wanted people with closed eyes singing unaccompanied with one hand over an ear. "As I walked out one midsummer morning..."

It was the stories, of course, that attracted me. I wanted to hear about the Billy Blind starting up at the bed's foot  and the loathly worm toddling about the tree. And the Broomfield Hill. And Twa Corbies.

I often listen to music while writing and, for me, the music has to be fitted to the book I'm working on. It creates the atmosphere. For the Sterkarms, it had to be traditional folk, especially the Border Ballads. The music and words of the ballads were as much a part of setting the Sterkarm scene as details of their food, clothing, furniture and buildings.

I wasn't too purist, though. In A Sterkarm Handshake, Per Sterkarm is hurrying through the alleys of the tower, on his way to Andrea's 'bower' (which always sounds so romantic, but just means 'private room,' 'bedroom' or 'sleeping place.') Per thinks he's on a promise. The song that runs through his mind is:

Oh, pleasant thoughts come to my mind
As I turn back smooth sheets so fine,
And her two white breasts are standing so
Like sweet pink roses that bloom in snow.

The second book, A Sterkarm Kiss ends with the lines:

For there's sweeter rest
On a true-love's breast
Than any other where.

 Neither of these quotes come from the Border ballads, although folk-song is, by its very nature, hard to date or pin down to a specific place. The first verse, as far as I know, comes from 'The Factory Maid.'

I'm a hand-loom weaver by my trade,
But I'm in love with a factory-maid,
And could I but her favour win,
I'd break my looms and weave with steam.
Mayhew's ballad seller

     This dates it, roughly, to the late 18th or 19th century and means that this version is likely to have been a 'broadside ballad.'
These were lyrics, printed on the long sheets of paper which gave them their name. Often written about hot topics of the day, such as industrialisation, they were sold in market-places. There was no music but the name of some well-known tune would be given. 'To be sung to the tune of...'

The lines about the true-love's breast come from a song with a beautiful tune, which I know as 'Searching for Lambs.' (This being what 'the loveliest maid that e'er I saw' was doing when her lover walked out one midsummer morning.) It's very hard to guess at a date for the lovely maid and her ewes, but the song doesn't have that robust mix of extreme vengeful violence and the supernatural that typifies the Border ballads, so it's probably later.

The date for my Sterkarms is about 1520 (though there were reivers long before and after this date. It wasn't until James I of England and Scotland took the English throne in 1603 that concerted action was taken to bring peace to the Borders.) Some of the songs I quote are certainly later than the 1500s and can be roughly dated to the late 1700s, but this doesn't mean that the Sterkarms wouldn't know something close to these lyrics and tunes. I justify my inclusion of them by the way that elements of folk-tales and ballads 'migrate,' from song to song and tale to tale over long periods of time.

The songs and stories were spread by word of mouth. If a singer or story-teller couldn't remember a detail, they invented their own. Or inserted a verse they could remember from another song. They might also take a verse from one song and put it into another simply because they liked it. They might change an ending to make it happier (see Johnny of Briedesley below) or change the relationships within a song, for example, having the hero murdered by his mother instead of his lover.

The same applies to the music. If they couldn't remember a tune, then they set the words to another or made up a variation. Other lyrics and tunes were updated. These tried-and-tested old tales can go on for centuries. Some researchers think some folk-tales go back to the Bronze Age.

There are old songs which almost seem to be compilations of verses:

Oh had I wist, when first I kissed
That Love had been so ill to win,
I'd have shut my heart in a silver cage
And pinned it with a silver pin.

The men of the forest, they asked it of me,
How many sweet strawberries grow in the salt sea?
I answered them well, with a tear in my e'e;
'As many fish swim in the forest.'

When cockle-shells turn silver bells
When fishes swim from tree to tree
When ice and snow turn fire to burn
It's then, my love, that I'll love thee.

The writers of broadside ballads certainly drew on these old songs too, re-using verses to save time as they tried to make a living. So because a verse about a factory maid was published in a broadsheet ballad in, say 1810, it doesn't mean that something very like it wouldn't have been known very much earlier and sung about a dairy maid.

And just because a gentle love song doesn't mention treachery, incest, fratricide, infanticide or any of the other -cides so popular in the Border ballads, it doesn't mean it wasn't known on the Borders. Even there, they had their quieter moments.

I thought it a pity that my readers couldn't hear the songs that are quoted so frequently throughout the Sterkarm books - and then realised that there was a way for me to share them. If you have a Facebook or Spotify account, here's a link (below) to my playlist for the Sterkarm books.

The songs here are the best versions I could find on Spotify of the ballads I quote, but they aren't definitive. For instance, in the linked Johnny of Breadiesley, sung by Ewan McColl, Johnny kills seven enemies and rides away triumphant. In other versions, he is killed: His good grey hounds are sleeping,/ His good grey hawk has flown,/ A grass green turf is at his head,/ And his hunting all is done. The verse quoted above, from January, [The higher on the wing it climbs...] also has slightly different words in the recording by June Tabor.

If you like songs about murder, revenge killings and executions - plus the occasional love-song - and if you like deep-dyed folk - this is for you.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

A Message From The Past - by Sue Purkiss

I recently visited Canterbury for the first time. The cathedral is a beautiful building, though my favourite is still Wells, which is my 'local'. Wells certainly has the most stunning chapter house: I really think it must be one of the loveliest rooms in the world.
Geoffrey Chaucer - a kindly face from Canterbury.

What Canterbury does have, though, is an incredibly powerful story - which is soaked into its very stones. It's the story of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170: specifically, it's the story of his murder.

Becket came from a moderately well-to-do Norman family. As he was beginning to make his way in the world, his father suffered some kind of financial setback, and Thomas had to take a position as a clerk to pay his way. However, he did well: working to start off with for a relative, but later moving to the household of Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury - then, as now, the archbishopric of Canterbury was the foremost one in the English church. Becket did well, and was entrusted with several missions to Rome as well as being sent to France to study canon law. In 1154 he became Archdeacon of Canterbury and was also given various other posts in the church.

In fact, he did so well that Theobald recommended him to the King, Henry 11 for the post of Lord Chancellor - a position of considerable power and renown. Henry was engaged in a struggle with the church, because he felt it had too much power: for instance, a priest could only be tried in a church court, no matter what his alleged crime was. He believed that Becket was on his side - that he was ideally placed, with one foot in the church camp and one in the secular camp, to help him to shift the balance of power in favour of the crown.

At first, all went as planned. Becket helped Henry to extract money both from the church and from secular landowners; the two men got on well, with Henry even sending his son to live in Becket's household.

Then Theobald died, and Henry had a brilliant idea: he would make his friend archbishop, and then power over the church - with all its possessions and riches - and state would reside firmly in Henry's hands.

But it didn't work out like that. Thomas took his new position and responsibilities extremely seriously. He saw it as his duty, not to do what Henry wanted, but to defend the church - if necessary, to the death. Henry was astonished. How dare this man defy him? Wounded and furious at this perceived betrayal (is this reminding you of anyone?), he exiled him. The Pope eventually brokered a kind of peace, and Becket returned: but still he defied the King. Eventually, in what might possibly be called a tantrum, Henry turned on his courtiers and demanded to know why none of them would sort Becket out for him. (The exact words are not known, but he is commonly said to have railed at them: 'Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?') And four knights took him at his word.

This is where Thomas was killed. The two swords, and their shadows, represent the four knights who killed him.

They went to Canterbury, and inside the church, in a small space where one staircase led to the crypt, another up to the altar, and a door led to the cloisters, they brutally attacked him. As he died, his blood soaked into the stones.

Who knows if this was really what Henry meant to happen? Afterwards, he came to the cathedral and did humble and apparently sincere penance. But the four knights, though they eventually had to go into exile, were not arrested and their lands were not confiscated.

Very quickly, Becket's tomb inside the cathedral became a place of sanctity and pilgrimage - a place to come and be healed. Becket was soon declared a saint. Fifty years later, his remains were moved upstairs to the new eastern part of the cathedral, beyond the altar, into a tomb richly decorated with gold and jewels. In the sixteenth century, Erasmus, the famous Dutch humanist, priest and theologian, saw the tomb and was astonished by it; he said that the gold was the least of its riches, compared to the wealth of huge jewels which had been given by kings and nobles in homage to the martyr.

A few years later, Henry VIII ransacked the tomb and stole the gold and the jewels. But it wasn't just about the money. It was about the story. He had to do everything he could to obliterate the cult of Thomas Becket; because, even more so than Henry II, he couldn't bear the thought that a commoner should defy the king; that a man's conscience should be more important to him than his allegiance to the crown. But it didn't work. Thomas, and what he stood far - a determination to act according to his conscience - was not forgotten, despite the best efforts first of one king, then of another, far more brutal one.

I'm not a believer, but I think that's quite an encouraging message from the stones of Canterbury Cathedral. Especially at the moment. Those who are close to political leaders, take note: your allegiance to what is right takes precedence over your allegiance to your boss. That's the message that resounds down the centuries from Thomas Becket.