Friday, 27 May 2016

World Menstrual Day by Janie Hampton

Now that I’m too old to have periods, I rely on writing my monthly History Blog to remind me of time passing. Because tomorrow is ‘World Menstrual Day’, that’s what I’m thinking about.
What’s the relevance of menstruation to history? Well, Queen Victoria had periods; as did Joan of Arc and Princess Diana. Yet this normal bodily function, that happens to half the world’s adults, is mentioned only rarely in the historical record.
Pliny the Elder 


2,500 years ago the Greeks believed that if a girl’s menarche (first period) was late, then blood would accumulate around her heart, and her womb would wander aimlessly around her body. This produced erratic behaviour, violent swearing, and even suicidal depression. Right into the 20th century these symptoms were known as hysteria, after the Greek word for womb.
Pliny the Elder, a Roman who died in 79CE, warned that menstrual blood: “turns new wine sour; crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens dry up, the fruit falls off tress, steel edges blunt and the gleam of ivory is dulled; bees die in their hives, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.”
In mediaeval times if a penis touched menstrual blood, a man’s penis would burn up and any child conceived during menstruation would be devil-possessed, deformed, or even red-haired. Some Europeans thought that touching menstrual blood was the cause of leprosy, while others reckoned it cured the disease.
Despite herbal books referring to menstruation as ‘the flowers’, a more positive image of blossoming and growth, menstruating women carried nutmegs and nosegays to disguise their condition. Amenorrhea (lack of periods) could be cured with potions of herbs and wine, or vaginal pessaries made from mashed fruit and vegetables. To reduce a heavy flow, women were advised to bind the hair from an animal’s head onto a young tree. If this failed, they could drink comfrey or nettle tea, while reciting numerical formulae. Or find a toad, burn it dry, and put its ashes in a pocket near her vagina.

Two menstruating women dancing. Rock engraving from the Upper Yule River, Western Australia.

Religion and menstruation

Such attitudes reinforced the Christian Church’s suspicion towards women. Catholic doctrine argued that Eve was to blame for the eviction from Eden and Abbess Hildegard of Bingen [1098-1179] claimed that menstruation was God’s reminder of Eve’s Sin. even today it is still called ‘The Curse’ by many people.
Until 1916, Roman Catholic women were forbidden to receive communion while menstruating. In Eastern Orthodox churches women are still expected to refrain from receiving Communion, and to remain outside the building. Many other religions, such as Judaism’s Halakha laws and certain Muslim traditions, forbid menstruating women from sharing a bed with their husbands. Given this history of ignorant prejudice, it is pleasing to read the theologian Carmody Grey writing recently in The Tablet, ‘We could begin to answer Pope Francis’ call by pointing out that, quite literally, shedding blood for the life of humanity is just what women do.’

Carmody Grey


How did women in history manage their periods? There is actually little evidence, other than frequent repetition of stories such as that ancient Egyptian women used tampons made from softened papyrus, or the Greeks from lint wrapped around bits of wood.
Until the advent of contraception and bottle-feeding, women were either pregnant or breastfeeding for many more years and so had far fewer periods. Poor diet and hard work meant that for most girls the menarche was not until age 17 or 18. Though well-nourished healthy girls such as Lady Margaret Beaufort [1443-1509] gave birth to the future King Henry VII when she was just thirteen. It nearly killed her, and despite four husbands, she had no more children.
“Menstruous rags”, as the prophet Isaiah called them, or “clouts” as they were termed in 1600s England, were made from any absorbent fabric, or even grass, hemp or sphagnum moss. Elizabeth I of England [1558-1603] owned three black silk girdles to keep in place her linen “vallopes of fine holland cloth”.
In the 19th century the subject was so taboo, that historian Laura Klosterman Kidd found not one reference to menstrual-management in North American pioneer women’s diaries, letters or inventories of wagon-trains.
And the mediaeval myths continued unabated. Even the British Medical Journal claimed that menstruating women were unable to pickle meat or churn butter successfully. Female factory workers in France were forbidden to work in sugar refineries during their periods for fear they would spoil the food; and a Viennese scientist thought menstruating women stopped dough rising and beer fermenting.

The paediatrician Dr. Bela Schick [1877-1967] believed menstruating women released plant-destroying substances through their skin, which he named ‘menotoxins’. He ‘proved’ it by asking housemaids to arrange cut flowers: if they were menstruating, the flowers died sooner. This notion was even repeated in The Lancet in 1974, with the modern addition that a permanent wave would not ‘take’ to a woman’s hair during menstruation.
As recently as 1980 I was told by a farmer’s wife in Shropshire that if a menstruating woman touched meat it would go rancid, and hams wouldn’t cure. When I queried this she asked, ‘Have you ever seen a female butcher?’ It was true, I had not.
My grandmother used linen rags held on with string and washed by hand, until French nurses in the First World War, discovered wood-fibre field bandages worked much better, and burned them after use. Kotex disposable pads were soon on the market.

Kotex brought comfort and relief

An American osteopath called Dr Earle Haas invented the ‘catamenal device’ in 1929, using two cardboard tubes and a cotton-wool tampon. Four years later he sold the patent for US$32,000 to an industrious woman called Gertrude Tendrich who made them with a sewing machine and an air compressor. My mother started her periods in 1930 and was one of the first to use Tampax, but insisted that her daughters had to be married before we could use them. (Did we listen? No!)
In 1946 Walt Disney’s animated educational film The Story of Menstruation was shown to over 100 million American high school students. The first film ever to use the word 'vagina’, it nevertheless managed to avoid any mention of sex or reproduction. Despite the narrator, the actress Gloria Blondell [1910-86], encouraging girls to bathe, ride a horse, and dance during menstruation, the emphasis on sanitation reinforced the idea that menstruation was a hygienic crisis.

In 1969, the same year Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon, a glue was finally invented which held sanitary pads into knickers and sanitary belts were consigned to history.
Judy Blume was reputedly the first novelist to mention the unmentionable, in ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ published in 1970. In keeping up with the times, her sanitary-towel belt has been deleted in recent editions of the book. It was not until 1985 that the word ‘period’ was used in a television commercial; and as recently as 2010, US TV networks banned a tampon commercial using the word ‘vagina’ or even ‘ down there’.
Only very recently has a method been invented by a woman – the menstrual cup. This revolutionary egg-cup-sized silicone device cannot be seen or felt, needs minimal water, leaves no rubbish and lasts for up to 10 years. It avoids the waste products of the 3,000 pads or tampons that each woman uses in her life.

Contemporary Social Beliefs

Menstruation has always been associated with lunar cycles and the moon remains central to myths and rituals across the world. 'Have you Gone to the Moon?' is said by boys to tease girls in Malawi, where the Chichewa word for menstruation also means 'Moon'.

Why do disposal bags feature a lady in a crinoline? 

In Britain and USA girls are taught that a ‘normal’ menstrual cycle is 28 days – any shorter, longer or irregular is classed as ‘abnormal.’ At school, I associated ‘regular’ periods with tidy girls with neat straight hair who always did their homework on time. My own irregular periods were obviously a symptom of my lazy, untidy mind. I never knew how ‘abnormal’ I was because even among my closest friends it was taboo to discuss such matters.
Unfortunately millions of women and girls are still disabled every month by practical as well as cultural barriers to menstruation. In many parts of Africa, girls lose as many days from school due to menstruation as they do from malaria. A quarter of women in Africa have to stop work during their periods, which means less food and money for their families. Like our grandmothers, they simply don’t have the products to feel safe walking, digging or playing netball.

Women's co-operative in Malawi making washable pads
Menstruation is a complex mixture of the positive proof of womanhood and fertility, combined with shame. In recent years most women’s lives have improved economically, politically and socially. But even though we’re now more comfortable physically during menstruation, we’re still embarrassed to talk about this normal part of our lives.

Pad made by Girl Guides in Malawi

The 28 May was chosen by the U.N. in 2014 for Menstrual Hygiene Day because the average menstrual period lasts 5 days, and happens every 28 days. But why did the UN add the word ‘hygiene’? I think it was because even in the 21st century, this normal bodily function is considered ‘unclean’. I prefer to call it simply World Menstrual Day to celebrate this important function us women have in reproducing humans.

More from the Museum of Menstruation 

Thursday, 26 May 2016

History beneath my feet, Left Bank, Paris, by Carol Drinkwater

Caveau de la Huchette
 Sidney Bechet in 1922

What is in a street?
It was my husband, Michel's, birthday last week. We were in Paris. I decided that aside from taking him for a delicious dinner it was time for us to stay up late and go to a jazz club. We haven't done that in a while. Instead of choosing one of the spots we have visited in the past I thought I would find somewhere unknown to us both and after trawling through the pages of Pariscope ( a Parisian equivalent of Time Out, sort of), I settled on the Caveau de la Huchette which promised good jazz and dancing. Because I was busy I did not take the time to find out the history of the place. I looked up the Californian clarinetist, Dan Levinson, who was billed to play, but nothing about the building itself, housed at 5, rue de la Huchette, a small cobbled street running westward from Rue St Jacques,  and a very short walk from Shakespeare & Co. Quintessential Paris cinquième, steps from where Michel and I first lived when we began our love affair some years ago in Paris. (And where several chapters of THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER are set).

                                                    Rue de la Huchette, Paris 1900

The street itself is one of the oldest along the capital's Left Bank, running horizontal to the Seine and it claims some rather handsome buildings, once hotels. I did not know the meaning of the word huchette and neither did Michel. So, I looked it up in my four-volume Harrap's dictionary. The closest I found was huchet, a masculine noun meaning a hunting horn. I then read on Wikipedia that as early as the year 1200 the street was known as rue de Laas and ran adjacent to a vineyard which was sold off in the early thirteenth century for urban development. I have failed to find out anything further about the vineyard, or the wines grown there. If anyone reading this knows more, I would be fascinated to hear from you.

Rue de la Huchette, around 1900

When we lived around the corner from Rue de la Huchette,  I have to admit I always hurried by this narrow street, avoiding it when possible, because I found it rather touristy, full of slightly tacky Greek restaurants touting for clients. I have never really taken to its ambience.  I now discover that as early as the seventeenth century, the street was lively with taverns, hostelries, cabarets and rotisseries and that the cries and drunken shouts of laughter could be heard all over the quarter! It is claimed that Abbé Prévost (novelist and Benedictine monk) penned his short novel, Manon Lescaut, published in 1745, in one of these auberges. One wonders with such noise going on how he managed it!

The novel was a huge success and three operatic adaptations were made of the Abbé's oeuvre. The first, the least known, was Daniel Auber's published in 1856. In 1884, Massenet wrote his opera, Manon. Shortly after, Puccini adapted the book keeping the original title. This he wrote between 1890 and 1893.
There has also been at least one film adaptation of the book.

Théâtre de la Huchette

At number 23 stands the Théâtre de la Huchette. What is remarkable about this small theatre is that it has been staging the same two Eugène Ionesco plays, performed as a double bill, with the original production values and sets, since 1957:  La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano) and La Leçon (The Lesson). This makes these two plays, as a double bill, the longest running show in the history of modern theatre. Also astounding is the fact that the theatre seats a modest 85 and yet over one and a half million spectators have seen the double bill. Now, a third play has been added to the repertoire, but this changes from time to time. Why, I asked myself, would the same two plays continue to be performed? This story is also fascinating. The theatre opened on the 26th April 1948, founded on a shoestring by Marcel Pinard and Georges Vitaly. In 1952, it was bought outright by Pinard who brought to its stage the works of Genet, Lorca, Ionesco, Turgenev amongst others. Some of whom, like Ionesco, were criticised, spurned by the mainstream theatrical community. When Pinard died in 1975, the theatre was threatened with closure, so the actors who were performing the two Ionesco plays formed a limited company in order that they could continue with the production and fight for the principle's that had been the life-blood of the theatre.
Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jean-Paul Belmondo are but two of a long list of actors who made their first or early appearances there.

Outside Le Caveau de la Huchette 1949

Now to 5, Le Caveau de la Huchette. The jazz club exists in a sixteenth-century building, formerly a hotel, where the American journalist, and author, Elliot Paul, resided during the 20s and 30s. Paul left Paris in the thirties due to ill health and went to convalesce in Spain but moved back to Paris at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. When WWII was declared, he returned home to the States.  Once back in America, he went to work in Hollywood. One of Paul's most notable co-screenwriting achievements is the classic Rhapsody in Blue. (Clifford Odets was another contributor to this screenplay though uncredited)

Original poster for Rhapsody in Blue
Released in New York on 26 June 1945 and nominated for one of the Grand Prizes at the Cannes Film Festival in September 1946

Poster for the first Cannes Film Festival held in September 1946

Back to Rue de la Huchette.  No 5 is built of stone with a cavernous dungeon-like interior with dangerously narrow winding stairways that lead to two seating areas. The largest 'room' is the underground dance floor and stage where Dan Levinson was playing.
Caveau de la Huchette started its life as a jazz club in 1946 and today is hailed as the Temple of Swing.

But looking back centuries earlier into the history of No. 5, I discovered that it was a meeting place for the secret brotherhood of the Rosicrucians and also for the Templars. The history is a little woolly after that, but it seems that in the early seventeenth century, the building was used by a Brotherhood of Freemasons. (Freemasonry was founded from "ecclesiastical associations of builders formed by bishops from the Middle Ages, especially the Benedictines, Cistercian and Templars" so perhaps the use of the space was passed down from the Templars?)
The lodge was composed of two basement rooms, one on top of the other, which served as the meeting rooms. From these rooms, two subterranean tunnels were excavated. One led to Châtelet and the other to the cloister of Saint-Severin.
(This is not as incredible as it sounds. Paris is built on old holes, quarries, catacombs and subterranean trails. As Victor Hugo wrote, "to plumb the depths of this ruin seems impossible".)

                                             Georges Danton Lawyer and Politician  1759 - 1794

During the years of the French Revolution, No. 5 became an important gathering point for radical democrats seeking to dislodge the monarchy and create a republic. It hosted members of the Club of the Cordeliers. The upper room was transformed into a public house where such political luminaries as Danton, Marat and Robespierre came to drink and sing revolutionary songs, songs of La Liberté. Trials and executions took place in the lower room. A very deep well still exists there which is claimed to be where the corpses of those executed were thrown. Arms from that epoch still decorate the walls.

In 1946, Paris was a capital celebrating its freedom, a different liberty. The Germans had gone, the Occupation was at an end. The Americans were back. Everybody was in the mood to party. Jazz and its upbeat energy swept through Paris. The Caveau de la Huchette claims to be Paris' first jazz club but I would contest this because Sidney Bechet, to name just one, was playing with his own band in 1928 at the the chic nightclub, Bricktop's Club in Montmartre, owned by flaming red-haired, "one-hundred percent American negro",  Ada 'Bricktop' Smith.
The Caveau certainly welcomed the GIs and with them came the beginning of France's passion for be-pop and swing. It was nicknamed the Temple of New Orleans jazz.
Sydney Bechet's jam sessions down in those cellars after his return to France in 1950 have become legendary.

Sidney Bechet 1897 - 1959

The club's reputation has never faded. Lionel Hampton performed there for the club's thirtieth birthday celebrations in May 1976.

Every night of the week there is live jazz, and, what was an eye opener to Michel and me, was the dancing. Be-pop and swing are alive and jumping in Paris. Dozens of couples, singles too, congregate there to dance. It was a remarkable sight to see and you cannot help feel energised and uplifted. Dan Levinson, in from California to play for two nights, said that it is one of his favourite clubs to perform anywhere in the world. No musician could claim that the reception was anything less than 'très chalereux'.

My new novel - the one I am at work on now - its title for the moment, though for a very different reason, is All that Jazz (though I am sure Penguin will have other suggestions!) It begins in Paris in 1947.  I feel very tempted now to write a scene set at the Caveau de la Huchette.
Here, below, is the cover of THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER, also partially set in Paris, published a couple of months ago.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Hieronymus Bosch by Miranda Miller

                                                                 (c. 1450 – 1516)

   I’ve seen Bosch’s paintings in Vienna and Venice and have always found him a fascinating and mysterious figure, so when I heard that his birthplace in Holland was celebrating the 500th anniversary of his death with an exhibition I immediately booked. Just as well, because by the end of March the exhibition was completely sold out. The man who has been said to have had “the wildest imagination in the history of art” has a lot of devoted admirers all over the world and, as Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian, “The Noordbrabants Museum has put on one of the most important exhibitions of our century.”

   The exhibition itself is a remarkable achievement. Nine years ago Charles de Mooij, the director of this small museum in ’s-Hertogenbosch (also known as Den Bosch), decided to borrow every work by Bosch in the world. Amazingly, he managed to assemble twenty of the twenty-five surviving panels, including several reunited triptychs and panels that were scattered centuries ago, and nineteen of his twenty drawings. Most of Bosch’s work has disappeared and it would have included stained-glass windows, embroidery and glasswork. This exhibition, which has now moved to the Prado, will probably never be seen in one place again. Many of these paintings could only travel because the Getty Foundation paid for conservation work and also for a huge research project into Bosch. The Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Accademia in Venice, the Metropolitan in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington all agreed to lend their work to this provincial museum.

   Before our eagerly awaited time slot we wandered around the sleepy Dutch town and visited St John’s Church, where Bosch would have worshipped and where his funeral took place although his body seems to have been lost, as the lady in the church shop apologetically told me. We know almost nothing about the life of Hieronymus Bosch, whose real name was Jeroen Van Aken. His grandfather, uncles and father were all painters in this provincial Brabant city, which was prosperous in the fifteenth century, and Bosch seems to have lived there all his life. He married, had a big house and studio on the market square and was a “sworn brother” of the local chapter of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, a religious confraternity. However conventional his outer life was it is clear that he had an extraordinary inner life and we are fortunate to be allowed to glimpse it.

   I loved this exhibition, which is imaginatively displayed. His paintings are cinematic and the dark galleries are dramatically lit, with spots on each work and monitors which display high resolution images of the unfolding details of certain paintings; the seething, crazy, wonderful details. All fantasy comes from somewhere and when you look closely you see that all these monsters and bizarre inventions are based on images in our everyday world: owls, fish, lizards, trumpets, knives, funnels, all beautifully observed and drawn and then brilliantly reinvented. Somehow all these impossible figments convince us of their own reality. You feel that he lived in terrifying times (like us, like everyone,) and felt infinite compassion for the ingenious cruelties people inflict on each other. Here is his Ship of Fools, from the Louvre.

   This illustrates a popular fifteenth century book with the same name: “Who takes his place on the ship of fools sails laughing and singing to hell.” It hangs directly above another panel , Gluttony and Lust, from Yale. These can now be confirmed as two halves of the same continuous vertical composition, reunited here for the first time in centuries.

   This mix of the extraordinary and the mundane appears even more original when you compare Bosch’s work with that by members of his workshop. Whereas Bosch’s monsters are authentically horrible and frightening, those of his followers look merely kitsch. He was one of the first artists in the low countries to sign his work, so he wanted to be remembered. Here he is above his own signature, making fun of himself as a monster that is also a self portrait: an ascetic, gaunt, bespectacled man with the legs of a lizard and the wings of a bird.

St John of Patmos.

   Even when he paints familiar religious scenes Bosch adds details which bring the hackneyed images to life. For example, in this small oak panel of Christ as a baby he imagines Jesus as a baby pushing along a fifteenth century walking frame and carrying a toy windmill in his right hand:

   Bosch’s nightmare bestiary riots through the galleries and into our heads. I had always assumed, quite wrongly as it turns out, that Bosch’s paranoid and erotic visions would have been considered shocking and even insane in his own time. Early critics called him ‘the devil’s painter” and early art historians regarded him merely as "the inventor of monsters and chimeras" or "wondrous and strange fantasies ... often less pleasant than gruesome to look at".

   However, recent scholars have come to view Bosch's vision as less fantastic, and think his art reflects the orthodox religious belief systems of his age. His depictions of sinful humanity and conceptions of Heaven and Hell are now seen as consistent with those of late medieval didactic literature and sermons. According to Dirk Bax, Bosch's paintings often represent visual translations of verbal metaphors and puns drawn from both biblical and folkloric sources. He may have been part of the Modern Devotion movement, which wanted to bring Christianity closer to the people by making Christian teaching accessible to all through texts in the vernacular instead of Latin, and by employing provocative images and jokes  from popular culture to reinforce the message. Their aim was to encourage a direct personal relationship between the individual and God - in 1517, a year after Bosch died, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg.

   Some writers see Bosch as a medieval surrealist, and this is closer to my own view. As it says in the catalogue, Visions of Genius, “Bosch makes art personal, on different levels, and that makes him modern.” His private thoughts emerge in his drawings; only twenty survive in the entire world, and nineteen of them are in this exhibition. They show us the secret Bosch, with his imagination full of monsters. One drawing is called The Wood Has Ears, The Field Has Eyes – a saying inscribed on Goya’s Caprichos. Human ears hang from the trees, human eyes stare out of the ground and in this one, Beehive and Witches, who knows what is going on:
   By the time of his death, Bosch was internationally celebrated as an eccentric painter of religious visions and his works were in the private collections of noble families of the Netherlands, Austria and Spain. Soon after his death. King Philip II of Spain became a serious collector of Bosch's work, and The Garden of Earthly Delights is said to have been hung in his bedroom. Bosch was imitated throughout the sixteenth century and his influence can be seen on Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who also used folklore and proverbs to create a fantasy world. Later, Bosch’s work influenced Goya and the imagery of Surrealism and Jung called him “the discoverer of the unconscious.”

Tuesday, 24 May 2016


I was very saddened the other day to read about the death of much loved, multi-million selling historical and fantasy novelist Roberta Gellis.  You can read a brief obituary of this remarkable lady  HERE.    Roberta was a long-serving class act of the romantic historical genre and one of the major inspirations and influences on my early career.  She was also kind enough to talk to me via e-mail on occasion and we had several detailed and interesting discussions about our mutual interest in the twelfth century, its characters and politics. 

I first came across Roberta's work in my late teens.  By that stage I had already embarked on my own (unpublished and a hobby at that time) historical writing. Having developed a passionate interest in the Middle Ages, I would haunt the library and devour whatever historical novels set in that period I could find.  Being short of income at the time, the library was a godsend. The books that I wound up borrowing numerous times, I went out and bought when I had money from my Saturday job or was given book tokens for birthdays and Christmas.

Together with Cecelia Holland and Dorothy Dunnett, Roberta Gellis was one of my library discoveries and auto buys.  I picked up her novel Bond of Blood and was immediately captivated by the struggles of a young twelfth century bride and the scarred warlord husband thrust upon her by society during the anarchy period of Stephen and Matilda. 
Tortured heroes and Beauty and the Beast are stereotypical features in fiction of all categories but have a particularly entrenched home in historical romance where they can often be much of a muchness, but Gellis was an  author who soared above the cliche.  Her hero, the badly battle-scarred Cain had a club foot and his mother had died giving birth to him and his twin brother. His father, in grim bitterness had bestowed on him the biblical name of the man who had slain his own brother.  
Leah comes from a family where she is only valued as breeding stock, and has learned to be very nimble with her wits when it comes to peace-keeping and making the best out of her circumstances.  However, she is no Mary-Sue but a resourceful and quietly determined young woman.  She and Cain are married by force of dynastic and political circumstance, and how they come to deal with each other's flaws and fears, and to appreciate the finer points  amid all the political machinations, makes for a terrific story full of emotional triumph and pain as well as edge of the seat adventure and skulduggery.  For me the reader it was a wonderful absorbing, believable read.
I enjoyed the more flighty historical romances I read, (I loved Kathleen Woodiwiss's way over the top epic historicals) but now I could clearly appreciate the difference between what felt like reality and what was more akin to getting out the dressing up box to flounce around in the costumes.  Roberta Gellis made history live for me more than any other author had done up to that point.  As a fledgling writer, she also taught me that it was possible to write romantic tales that were about people who were of their time. They thought like medieval people, they behaved like medieval people.  They drew you into their world and made you believe in them and their dilemmas, all of which were utterly realistic.  This was why I loved reading Gellis novels and this was what I wanted to write.  Something that felt real to me.

I continued to devour Roberta Gellis's medieval novels at speed. Knight's Honour, The Sword and the Swan, the Dragon and the Rose (where she took a positive view of Henry VII). 
 But then, for me, Robert Gellis excelled her own already high standards and produced something rather special when she brought out her 4 book Roselynde Chronicle series - Roselynde, Alinor, Joanna and Gillian.  In my opinion she hit the top of her game with these novels set in the time of King Richard, King John, and the early years of Henry III.  Alinor, a wealthy young heiress who has been raised by her grandparents and given a somewhat enlightened education  for a young woman, (although an education still of its time for the privileged) is given the middle-aged but vigorous and experienced knight Simon LeMagne as her guardian.  What starts out in a certain amount of resentment, gradually blossoms into friendship, then love and marriage, but not without numerous trials and difficulties, including a journey on the third crusade where Alinor joins the household of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and Simon is attached to Richard's household.
The other books in the quartet follow the fortunes of Alinor and her loved ones through the ending reign of John and into the early 1230's.  In the course of the story, Gellis brings to life one of the 'hottest' romantic historical heroes ever in the second book, Alinor, in the form of Ian de Vipont, Simon leMagne's squire and later lord in his own right.  Any woman who has not encountered Ian de Vipont and gone weak at the knees is lying. 
Gellis's skill lay in her ability to create a man who was drop dead gorgeous but at the same time the complete antithesis of the cardboard cutout he could so easily have become in less skilled hands.  Ian de Vipont lives, breathes, walks off the page with all of his believable flaws and insecurities and sweeps the reader into his and Alinor's very real 12th century world.  I read those books to shreds, especially Alinor.  
When they were published in a special hardcover edition along with two more in the series,  I saved up to buy the two new ones, Rhiannon and Sybelle, and made sure I had enough over to by myself a new copy of Alinor.  I have to say that the covers do not particularly do the content justice. The latter always outshines the former.

Gellis was later asked to write more in this series, and completed one more - Desiree in 2000, but she said that she did not want to go further into the series really because that would mean having to write the death of Alinor and it was not something she was willing to do.

In her later career Roberta Gellis dabbled in the popular historical mystery genre and introduced readers to the wonderful  new heroine Magdaelne la Batarde, high class brothel keeper of mid 12th century London.  Just as her earlier medieval novels straddled the line between the romance and the straight historical, so her Magdalene novels - A Mortal Bane, A Personal Devil, Bone of Contention and Chains of Folly, were as much historicals as mysteries, with the same evocative sense of period and personalities.

I have yet to read Gellis's novels set in the world of Greek mythology and there are sundry medieval and other works that are still on my to read pile but it means I still have work m of hers that is new to me even though no more will be written -  a poignant thought.

Roberta's website is still with us online and it gives a warm glimpse into the personality of this remarkable author, who, if she hadn't taken that particular career path, might have made her career as a bio-chemist.  Do go along and take a look.  ROBERTA GELLIS WEBSITE 

I am so sorry that such a lovely, talented lady, who has given millions of readers so much pleasure for so many years has passed away, but what a legacy she has left behind, and I honour her now and extend to her my heartfelt thanks both as a reader and a writer.

Monday, 23 May 2016

FLINTS, CLAY, MUD AND WITCHES ... by Leslie Wilson

When I set out to write a novel about a witch in the seventeenth century (choosing the time that a local witch, from Waltham St Lawrence, was prosecuted and hanged, it wasn't just important to do the historical research, as I've described in a previous blog (Who were the Witches). I had to do what every writer needs to do, to inhabit the world of my book.

Whitchurch St Leonard, my fictional village, lay in the chalk country of the Thames Valley, where pockets of clay alternate with chalk and gravel, and flints lie everywhere in the soil, as local vernacular building attests.

flints and clay
I have all three in my garden, so when I wrote the first chapter, where the witch's daughter and son-in-law bury her covertly in the churchyard, I had an idea of what they were contending with. They were digging into an existing grave, but all the same:

'Hard work,' says Margaret, Alice's daughter, 'even digging into ground that's been turned before. Flints stop the spade, and the clay's heavy.'

I know all about that, when the spade hits a flint, which could be small, or it could be eighteen inches wide, gnarled, knobbly, and weirdly beautiful, but you don't appreciate that when you're sweating and struggling, trying to find where it ends and get a purchase on it. The strain of that work has written itself into the aches and pains of my poor arms, shoulders, and back. Some things don't change, though I've never dug six foot down into a grave.

The Bell, Waltham St Lawrence, rubble-filled walls.

Opposite my house is a 16th century farmhouse, and while I was writing Malefice, the friend who used to live there took me upstairs and opened a door set into the wall, that led to a cupboard. Inside there I could feel the fill in between the timbers: chalky rubble, horsehair, twigs and rags; the texture of the past. In the days before such houses were lime-washed, their white surfaces must have been much rougher than nowadays, and scratchy, as I described when Margaret remembered pressing herself to a house wall, the day Royalists and Parliamentarians fought in the village street.
bluebells scrambling up an ancient road edge, Kent

Where you can easily find remnants of the past is in the woods, on the bridle paths that were once roads, often deeply sunken with the passage of time. Paved with flints, very often, in this country where it is the local stone, and walkable in dry weather in spring and summer, often mired and squelchy in winter. That's what travel used to be like, and you can get a sense of it still, even if you're wearing high-tech walking shoes or boots.

'You will hear the beat of a horse's feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes..'
(Rudyard Kipling, The way through the woods)
Flints paving an old road.

What you don't have is the danger. Recently we walked down Pack and Prime Lane, which leads to Henley from Rotherfield Greys; it was a haunt of footpads, and the packmen who used it had to pack their pistols with powder and prime their flints before they entered. Of course now, it's just beautiful woodland, heaven for dogs. But it was along those laborious, hazardous roads that Margaret tramped, fleeing the village that used to be her home, her thoughts travelling back to her mother's past, and her own.

'Rain and mud, and the road slithers under your feet, you stumble over the huge soft ruts… I wish it wasn't raining.. The people we meet talk about thieves, highway robbers, trying to frighten country bumpkins on the nove who are good for a laugh.'

Once, in the late eighties, I was driving on the A4 a friend at dawn; coming back from a night watch at Greenham Common, and over the Berkshire fields was a thick layer of mist. The picture stayed in my head for a few years, till it was time to use it for Malefice.

'That morning,' says Simon, the village drunk, 'the mist lay in the air like milk in water, can't get drunk on milk, here I am, poor rat-catcher, sober as the devil. Milk in water, and the trees stood out of it, under the trees you fumbled your way, but if you climbed a hill to look for the King's men, you could see the bare black branches fingering out of the whiteness.'

Day after day, when I've walked my dog in the w
inter, I've seen drops of melted frost on the sloe bushes, something Alice yearned for when she was shut up in a stinking seventeenth-century jail. 'She shut her eyes and tried to see blackthorn twigs like gnarly claws in the morning mist, each grasping a small clear bead of water.'

When I was writing Malefice, I was still able to pick up the phone and ask my mother-in-law about farming things; she's gone now. My mother-in-law had really made butter, and I needed to understand about it, because spoiling the butter was something witches did. She did me proud. 'Winter's the best time,' she told me, 'in summer, it just runs through your fingers.' I gave that line to Judith, whose butter the witch Alice supposedly spoiled.

'But what I should have done,' says Judith, 'I should have put the red hot poker in the cream, that day I knew the witch was spoiling the butter..'If you're here,' I should have said, 'have at your eye.' I might have blinded her.' I didn't know that was what you did, and to be sure, it did seem strange when I found out. Surely, the red hot poker wouldn't do the cream much good? But probably you only did that when the butter was already spoiled, and you wanted to get your revenge on the witch.

The Past is another country - and yet there are parts of it that I recognise. What that world of more than three and a half centuries ago shares with ours, still, is a whole lot of imagery, stories, that live in our heads still, even though we've overwritten them with a lot more information. But some of the imagery, I'm convinced, is to do with how the human brain works, and it's hard-wired into us.

witches giving babies to the Devil: Wellcome Trust

Think of the phenomenal success of films like The Exorcist. Possession by evil forces, people with supernatural powers to do harm, people who have an animal alter ego, still rampage through fantasy novels and films, and probably computer games, too, though I don't play them. Have you never looked in a mirror when you've been all alone in the house, and had a frightening fantasy that you might see something terrifying standing behind you?

What was going on in my head when, having done all the research and the reading, I sat down and wrote Malefice, hardly aware of what was going on, just kept typing, and then came out of something like a trance and read what I'd written? It wasn't just stuff from my personal subconscious and image-store that swam up and directed the story, that's for sure.

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Sunday, 22 May 2016

Childbirth Rituals in Medieval England by Catherine Hokin

The research demands of my second novel have required me to spend much of my time recently in fourteenth century birthing chambers. I have been buried in tracts on the rituals and beliefs surrounding pregnancy and the many hazards of delivery. These have proved a fascinating revelation, if somewhat gasp-inducing given that I spent my own twentieth century pregnancies resolutely refusing to read a thing or accept the inevitability of how it was all going to end.

For many women of the upper classes, pregnancy rituals began outside the birthing chamber. Very public pilgrimages to pray for conception or a safe delivery were common, particularly to religious sites associated with the Virgin Mary such as Our Lady of Caversham and the shrine built in 1061 at Walsingham by Richeldis de Faverches which was reputed to house a vial of the Virgin's milk. Once her time drew close, however, childbirth became a secluded affair from which men, unless the circumstances were exceptional or the child was royal, were very much excluded.

Woodcut, Der Swangen Frauen, Rosslin, 1513
Medical treatises on childbirth were available in the fourteenth century although it is difficult to gauge their practical importance. The most common, The Sickness of Women, was a translation of a far earlier work by Trotula de Salerno. Trotula was a wealthy woman, born around 1090, who became a professor at Salerno's Schola Medica Salernitana. She held forward-thinking views on the value of pain-relief in childbirth, encouraging the use of opiates and herbs. It is a stretch to imagine many midwives knowing this work: most were apprenticed young, were illiterate and learned their skills on the job. The actual practice of midwifery was unlicensed, and therefore overlooked, until the 1500s when the Church got rather jumpy about these unregulated women with their mix of charms and religion and their ability to perform baptism, one of their sadder duties when the child was not expected to survive. However, the importance placed on tackling pain rather than accepting endurance as a woman's lot (the religious, male view) can be seen throughout their birthing practices.

15th century illustration, midwife at birth
So what was life like for the expectant upper-class mother confined to her birthing chamber? With the regard often shown for the sensory aspect of medical procedures in this period, her experience was conducted in a place kept dark, quiet, scented with purifying herbs and warm. Tapestries lining the walls depicted only soothing images. The birthing chamber was, in may ways, an external recreation of the womb, its aim to ensure the safest transition for the child and therefore, hopefully, life for both baby and mother. Symbolic barriers to the womb opening were removed, especially if the labour was proving complex: cupboard doors were opened, knots untied, hairpins removed. As with battlefield surgeries, chanting was an important part of the calming process. Prayers would be offered to Saint Margaret who managed to get herself spat out of a dragon's mouth. Other charms have been found which mix Latin with English but all require their words to be repeated three times: a hangover from pre-Christian days perhaps. 

The whole process of labour was embedded in ritual. The mother, who would deliver sat on a birthing stool not in a bed, might wear a gemstone on a girdle such as amber, sard or jasper which had first been rubbed against her thighs to ease the pain. The German Benedictine abbess Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179) wrote down a form of words to be used during the application of the stone to help summon the child, a wonderful example of religion and 'magic' overlapping:

Just as you, stone, by the order of God, shone on the first angel, so you child, come forth a shining person, who dwells with God.

Lacnunga, MS Harley 585 f.185 r.v
Birth girdles were commonly used throughout the social levels. These could be sewn together from strips of parchment bearing charms and prayers and handed down through families or, for royalty, could have real iconic status such as the girdle of the Virgin held at St Peter's Westminster which was used by Henry III's wife Eleanor or the girdle of St Ailred kept at Rievaulx Abbey. In addition, the mother might have amulets or charms placed on her stomach to speed contractions, coriander put on her thighs to attract the baby and poultices of eagle's dung or rose water (possibly to counteract the eagle's dung) rubbed in to alleviate the pain. For a particularly difficult delivery, the midwife could take the thread she had used to measure the women's progress with, turn it into a candle wick and then burn it while offering prayers to their preferred saint.

Once the baby was safely delivered, the rituals continued. The cord had to be burned to get rid of the sins thought to be transmitted with conception. Herbs would be used to make the baby sneeze to expel any last remaining sin. Vinegar would be rubbed on the baby's tongue to ensure speech would follow. These were all purposeful, happy rituals: birth had been survived by both mother and child and, although dangers remained, the midwives' main task had been completed successfully. 

It is impossible to determine whether or not any of the methods employed to relieve pain actually worked - I am definitely on the fence when it comes rubbing gemstones to ward off speeding-up contractions and can just imagine the reactions of most modern women if it was suggested. That, however, is not the point. With child and maternal death rates so high, a medieval midwife's main aim was to get labour completed as quickly as possible thus minimising the chance of complications. The best way to ensure this? A calm, trusting mother who believed herself to be in safe hands. Some things, at least, do not change. 

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Brick Walls and Red Cars by Imogen Robertson

Now, given that to see this post you must have access to the internet, I'm assuming you've all seen this. The latest optical illusion that is tearing through the ether.

I spent a long time thinking, there's a badly made brick wall and feeling sure there was something else I was supposed to be doing other that looking at it, then I cheated and read the hints. Stop reading now if you just want to keep staring. 

There's a cigar shoved in between the bricks and sticking out at a ninety degree angle, and once you've seen it, you can't unsee it. It's obvious. Which is a bit like historical research... 

Yup, I will try and justify that. When I first started thinking about the 18th century I imagined a world where women were almost completely lacking in agency. It did not occur to me that women were powerful economic players, owned and ran businesses or were active in politics. But then I had my cigar moment, and I started seeing evidence everywhere. Women speaking at meetings, women listed as print shop owners, women making and selling their cheese in markets, women painters, engravers, designers and writers. All of a sudden they were obvious. Waiting just below the surface of things to be recognised.

I would imagine that everyone who writes for the History Girls has had a similar moment of revelation and confirmation. For a while it seemed to me there were references to business women in every eighteenth century text I picked up. Every copy of the The Gentleman's Magazine, every text book on farming, folk beliefs or natural philosophy added new names to by list of women entrepreneurs and inventors until I began to believe they were legion. Which brings me on to the red car syndrome, more properly called the frequency illusion. Just to explain the red car syndrome. You know when someone in your family buys a new car, say a red one, and suddenly it seems that the same car is much more common on the roads than you had thought? Now you are driving a red car it seems everyone else on the roads is too. Of course this isn't true. There are exactly the same number as there were before - plus the one you just bought - it's just now a bit of your hindbrain is really looking for them and flagging every example which passes by. You're not aware of the fact you are looking for them and ignoring all the others, but that doesn't change the fact that you are. 

Same with my legion of entrepreneurs. Yes, there were a lot of independent women out there, more than I had thought there would be, but now I was really looking for them. Each name felt like a victory and a confirmation, but I realised I was in danger of letting the big picture go blurry. I was ignoring the fact that for every woman I came across there were a hundred men. I had to contain my excitement and temper it, remembering all the disadvantages, legal and societal, that women were suffering under at the time. 

It's worth remembering when you get excited about some new insight or line of enquiry, you may just spotting all the red cars and not keeping an eye on the flow of traffic. 

But don't let that stop you getting excited in the first place. The wall / cigar thing is still really cool.