Monday, 8 February 2016

'Go Tell The Bees' - by Karen Maitland

'Bacchus discovering honey'
“If you would take a swarm of bees from a hollow tree. Saw off the top of the tree and cover the swarm with a cloth soaked in wet clay. Then saw through the tree beneath the swarm and carry it home. But it is best you do this swiftly.” – Advice given to Medieval Beekeepers.

This last line sounds particularly wise advice. Beekeeping was vital in the Middle Ages for the production of honey for use both in cooking and to preserve food, such as fruits. It was important in medicine too. It had been recognized since ancient times that honey helped to prevent wounds from festering, healed ulcers and helped internal ailments.

Beeswax was equally valuable for making the vast number of candles needed to light homes, workshops and churches. It was also needed to make polish to preserve wood and leather, for waterproofing and for sealing storage jars and documents. Bees also pollinated many food and forage crops. So, not only were bees kept in huge numbers in monasteries and manors, many medieval cottagers would have also have been beekeepers.
Bee skeps beneath a fruit tree in 1400's

In the Middle Ages, it was believed that the hive was ruled by a king bee, not a queen, with a social structure that paralleled human society, with the monarch at the top. In Shakespeare’s “King Henry V”, the Archbishop of Canterbury describes this belief. This parallel between human society and that of the industrious bee was frequently alluded to in sermons, as proof of the divine and natural order, which no one should even think about rebelling against. Although, a number of people down through the centuries had claimed it was a queen not a king, who was centre of the hive, it wasn’t until the second half of the 17th century, that the Dutch naturalist, Jan Swammerdam, finally managed to get the idea generally accepted.

In Britain, bee skeps have been traditionally made from whatever people used for making byres and cottages. In areas where reeds were used for thatching houses, it was used for skeps. Where corn was grown, they used corn straw. Pallandius writing in the 4th century, recommended hives made from wood or woven from wicker, covered with daub, and insulated with wool and moss. Sticks were laid across inside the skep to give the bees something on which to build the comb, which, if the bees co-operated, made it easier to remove honeycomb at intervals throughout the season, without damaging the skep or colony. Pallandius also advocated putting out dishes of honey boiled in water, infused with rosemary in the early spring to feed them. We now know that rosemary has antiseptic properties which might well have helped the bees to fight disease.

Medieval beekeepers were advised to put sweet smelling herbs inside a new skep, together with castor (oil from beaver glands). This may not merely have soothed the bees into staying, but might also have helped to discourage mites which can weaken and kill bees.

The Normans introduced the stone ‘bee tower’ or ‘honey pot’. The Cistercian monastery at Mellifont had a 40 ft high bee tower. The one erected by Nicholas de Verdon in 1230, in Clonmore, County Louth was 50 ft high and 10 ft square. It had tiers of louver openings on three sides, but not on the north wall, with lofts lined with straw on each tier to keep the hives warm and a central ladder.

Medieval manuals give detailed instructions on capturing wild bee colonies. Someone wanting to restock his own hives from the wild was advised to go and sit by shallow water in a forest. If he saw a large numbers of bees, he caught some by sucking them up them in a hollow reed and then marked them by sticking small pieces of feathers or petals of different colours to them with wax. He was then instructed to release them and observe which bees came back to the water first. This was a sign their nest was the closest, so he could follow those. But in reality, I suspect most medieval country dwellers would not have bothered with anything so complex. They, or their children, would have spotted colonies of wild bees whilst driving pigs into the forest in autumn or collecting kindling, and would simply have marked the sites to return to in spring.

Up to a few decades ago, it was thought that medieval beekeepers were pretty wasteful with bees, killing off most of the hives to take the honey in autumn and replenishing them from wild sources or a stock hive in the spring. But we have come to realise that medieval beekeepers were just as careful to keep any healthy hives going over winter, as the modern beekeeper. They knew how to combine colonies with a weak ‘king’ to a stronger colony. And they claimed that by setting out troughs of ‘toasts of bread soaked in strong ale’ near the hives in March, a colony could thrive for ten years.

To separate honey from wax, the combs were broken inside sacks and the sacks hung up and left to drip, this produced the finest honey. The combs were then bruised and beaten in the sack and hung in a warm place, often in front of the fire, so that a lesser quality honey ran out. The final few drops of honey were extracted by pressing the combs in straw under heavy stones. Monasteries who had cheese or fruit presses would use those, but in cottages the family quern or grinding stone was often used as the weight. Afterwards, the straw was pressed into bundles while still wet and hardened into a waxy tapers or spills, which could be used to light fires or to smoke the bees, to stupefy them.
King Louis XII of France riding to attack
rebels in Geneo. The bees and skeps
 illustrate the motto - "The king whom
we obey, does not use his sting."

Medieval laws regard bees were very complex and often varied widely across the country. In Ireland, if a swarm from a known hive settled in the hollow trunk of neighbour’s tree. The produce in the first three years had to be divided, with two-thirds going to the person who owned the tree and a third to the owner of the hive from which they came. In the fourth year, the bees became the sole property of the tree-owner. But if the bees instead settled in branches of the tree, the proportions were reversed, with only a third going to the tree owner. However, rather unfairly, if the owner of the original hive was of humble birth, he was only entitled to a half of the produce, not two-thirds.

If some passing a hive got stung, providing he hadn’t struck the hive, under Irish law he was entitled to a full meal of honey, unless he killed the bee which stung him, then he got nothing as the crime had been avenged.

There are many ancient superstitions connected to bees, often originating in the belief that they were the messengers between earth and heaven. One is that bees must be informed of births or deaths in the family immediately, otherwise they will fly away. And even twenty-years ago, I remember an elderly relative going out to tell the bees about the death of her husband before she would utter a word to anyone.

Telling the bees

Sunday, 7 February 2016

MANCHESTER JUNE 15th, 1996 by Adèle Geras

  Twenty years ago....a long time ago...once upon a time...back in the day, terrorists had much better manners.  On the morning of June 15th (a most beautiful, sunny day in Manchester) the IRA rang up the police and gave them notice that there would be a bomb in the city centre.  Remember that: the police had notice of the bomb. They sent in robots to find it, and they had time to evacuate the 80, 000 people working in shops and office in the area.

       Meanwhile, four  miles down the road, in leafy West Didsbury, I was getting ready to go to town. I was in search of a wedding present and I intended to go to Debenham's to look around their rather good cookery store. 

I took the 42 bus and as this was long, long ago in the days when most people still didn't have mobile phones, I gazed out of the window at Manchester looking rather lovely. As I say, the sun was shining. There was a some exciting sporting event going on...was it the Olympics? European Cup? In any case, there was something happening that was lifting this normally vibrant city to even more vibrant heights.

I didn't think anything of it when I got off the bus at Piccadilly Gardens and saw crowds filling the space. I was pondering jugs, possibly lovely glasses, or maybe even some kind of coffee pot for my friends who were getting married. I crossed the square to get to Debenham's, making my way through lots of (now I'm remembering) very quiet people. On the pavement in front of Debenham's stood a policeman. Behind him, the street was cordoned off. There was no traffic, I noticed,  on Market Street. I said to the policeman: "Can I go into Debenham's, please?"
 "No, sorry," said the policeman. "The whole area's cordoned off. We've just had a bomb threat."

In that instant, the bomb went off.  A huge, loud, fiery explosion which shook the ground and hurt the ears and which I could see, rising above the buildings. I saw it. I was standing about three minute's walk from where it detonated. Smoke, and alarms going off and everyone in the square still not saying a thing, and not moving. I will never forget it. The policeman didn't bat an eyelid. Cool doesn't begin to cover it.
 "You'd better go and stand over there with the others," he said. And so I did.

I went to stand with everyone else. There were suddenly lots of police everywhere. People from Debenham's and other shops nearby, still in their shop uniforms, were standing in tight groups. Buses appeared: lots and lots of buses, and someone from the police guided  thousands and thousands of us towards them as they left  Piccadilly Gardens going south. They didn't charge anyone for the ride.  People lined up at the bus stops. There wasn't one person I saw who pushed, or shoved or made any fuss of any kind. They simply lined up and got on the buses. There were long, long queues at the phone boxes. One at a time, everyone stood there, waiting to phone someone to tell them they were okay and not to worry. I didn't see a mobile phone that day, though I guess there must have been some early ones around. 80,000 people were behaving as well as any group of people I've ever seen has ever behaved. Calm police persons, calm bus drivers, silent passengers looking over their shoulders, back at the centre of town, which was now changed forever. Every pane of glass within a very wide radius was shattered. The hundred or so injured people were hurt by broken glass.  Not one single person was killed. That's worth saying again: NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON WAS KILLED. And that's because terrorists in those days behaved differently  from today's killers. A phone call made the difference.

When I got home, my husband, who'd heard the noise of the explosion from four miles away, dismissed it as a lorry backfiring or something. He'd been reading. There was no Twitter, nor  any internet  connection to tell him the news. We turned on the tv and watched the reports. We listened to the radio. We read the newspapers.  And that was it.

A short while later, we went into town to see the damage for ourselves. I remember a pub with a big chalkboard in front of it and on it in big letters was the legend: F*** YOU, IRA! We're open!" That was the attitude of the whole city. The centre was rebuilt to be even better than it was before, and there were jokers who persisted in saying that the IRA had done us a favour.  Nevertheless, I can still remember how I felt that night as we walked around in streets full of broken windows and twisted traffic lights: bereft. Sadder than I thought it was  possible to be about the physical fabric of the city. To see the buildings destroyed hurt me in a way I'd never have thought possible. "No one was killed," I kept telling myself. "This can be rebuilt." As indeed it was, and in record time, but the wounds to bricks and mortar were very sore that night and I can recall how it felt whenever I see pictures of war zones, so much, much worse than anything Manchester suffered.

There are many clips on Youtube which show film of what I've been describing. Just put in Manchester IRA Bomb on the site and that'll get you there.  But what these clips of film can't describe is the people, who were amazing and brave and in every way admirable.  And that's one thing that hasn't changed in the twenty intervening years. For the most part, people behave admirably when things get tough. 

Saturday, 6 February 2016


Dorothy Morris is shown here sitting in the early morning sun with a very young patient on the roof of a children’s hospital in Murcia, Spain, in 1938, at a time when the refugee crisis caused by the Civil War was getting steadily more desperate.   A few months later she wrote home expressing her anger about ‘that wicked old devil of a Chamberlain’ and the British government which refused to help or sell arms to Republican Spain, yet turned a blind eye to the support given to Franco by Hitler and Mussolini:

‘This minute, we have here two children, most piteous little rascals of his ‘Non Intervention’.  They were bombed by huge ½ ton incendiary bombs dropped on them in Barcelona by his fellow fiends the Italians and Germans, and by ‘Non Intervention’, Spain can’t buy the means to defend them.  I don’t want to rant but you can imagine how I feel.’

You won’t have heard of Dorothy.  She died eighteen years ago, after a lifetime of looking after people at their wits' ends, of organising ways to provide hope and sustenance for the hopeless and hungry. In other words, she’s exactly the kind of person who usually sinks into oblivion.  Except now she won’t, because as you can see, there’s a book about her, Petals and Bullets by Mark Derby, and it’s exactly the kind of book which is meat and drink to the writer of historical fiction. 

Dorothy was born in New Zealand and when she first came to London, she lived at the Grosvenor Court Hotel, just round the corner from Selfridges, where she worked as private nurse to an elderly company director on his last legs. Everything changed in 1936 when she went to a rally in support of Republican Spain at the Albert Hall and wrote a note on the back of the cheque she donated to the funds:

‘she wished it could have been more but she was only a poor nurse from New Zealand on a working holiday in England.’

Poster from TUC archives
The message was read out from the stage, Dorothy was invited to volunteer, and before long she was on her way to southern Spain with Sir George Young’s Ambulance Unit.  Her instructions were to bring just one small suitcase and not tell her family she was leaving for fear of alerting Franco’s sympathisers in Britain to the Unit’s plans.  The first refugees she encountered were in flight from Malaga, ‘pathetic bundles on donkeys trailing along the dusty endless road that we were tearing down at 50 miles an hour’.  They made such easy targets for the machine-gun and bomb attacks of Nationalist aircraft that out of one group of 80 children evacuated from an orphanage, only ten survived. 

Posted to the southern frontline, Dorothy Morris worked in almost impossible conditions in mobile field hospitals in the mountains south of the Sierra Nevada. She and her medical colleagues cleared out hovels that had neither light, water nor sanitation, and managed to set up an operating theatre.  Men arrived, frostbitten, on mule litters.  The next move was to Cabeza del Buey in Extramadura,  (‘a wild, desolate area’), then to Belalcázar where they set up in vacated school buildings, before being stationed in the ‘high hills of the Sierra Morena’, from where they could see ‘the smoke, flashes and movements of the battle below’. 

When I first began to research the book which became A World Between Us, although I knew that advances in blood transfusion methods during the Spanish Civil War would be important as both theme and plot, in my ignorance I initially dismissed the idea of making my female lead a nurse.  What a cliché, I thought to myself.  It didn’t take long to change my mind, and six years later I’m all the more ashamed at the memory of my mistake as I read of Dorothy Morris’ experiences in Spain.

Three other NZ nurses, Renee Shadbolt, Isobel Maguire and Millicent Sharpes in Huete,
soon after their arrival in mid-1937.  Isobel Maguire tells her
story in this programme made by Radio New Zealand. 
In August 1937 Dorothy was transferred again, to the ‘abyss of misery’ which was Murcia, according to Quaker relief worker Francesca Wilson, whose book In the Margins of Chaos describes her own arrival as being a scene from a nightmare. As Málaga, Cadiz, Seville and other southern towns fell to Franco, almost 60,000 refugees poured in to the city: ‘They surged around us, telling their stories, clinging to us like people drowning in a bog.’ 

To her fury, Dorothy was sent back from Spain to England in February 1939, when the tragic outcome of the war was all too clear. She agreed to go only because her involvement with the International Brigades put her and her Quaker colleagues in danger. ‘As the German secret police – the Gestapo – are expected to start work right away on Nazi models, the Quakers became alarmed for my safety in case I should be arrested!  Imagine – for nursing sick men!’   But her work with Spanish refugees didn’t end there, for the Retirada (retreat) was in full swing.  After the fall of Barcelona, over 450,000 refugees crossed the border from Spain into France, only to be herded into camps on the beaches of Argelès, St Cyprien and Barcarés. (You can ead more about their horrors in Rosemary Bailey’s brilliant Love and War in the Pyrenees.) 

Beach at Argelès-sur-mer today
By April, Dorothy was back in action, running the Perpignan office of the International Commission of Child Refugees in Spain. Since it's National Libraries Day today, I should mention that one of the first things she organised was books for the refugees. She was to spend most of the rest of her life working in humanitarian relief, joining UNRRA (newly formed) after the Second World War. 
From R to L: Dorothy Morris, Mary Elmes and
their delivery van driver Juan in Perpignan, 1939.
Unfortunately only a portion of Dorothy’s letters survive, and her biographer never knew her.  I’m not sure she comes alive in quite the same way as Patience Darton does in Angela Jackson’s biography in the same series. As Mark Derby admits, telling a story of ‘organised altruism’ is a considerable challenge. But the inspiration offered by early refugee workers like Dorothy (and her colleague Mary Elmes, pictured above), dealing for the first time with the effects of 'total' war on civilian populations, is needed now more than ever before.  And of course everything that adds to the visibility of women far too easily dismissed as ‘do-gooders', politically active women, women who could perhaps be difficult and abrasive but needed a very particular kind of heroism to cope with the challenges they tackled, is very much to be welcomed.  So too is the growing body of literature on the medical advances made in the Spanish Civil War, and I only wish (selfishly!) that more of both had been published while I was working on A World Between Us.

The other good news is that women are the focus of this year’s Len Crome Memorial Conference on March 12th in Manchester, an annual event held by the International Brigade Memorial Trust which is always fascinating.  There’ll be talks about La Pasionaria, the Spanish politician whose farewell speech to the departing Brigaders is impossible to read without tears, Aileen Palmer, the Australian activist and poet who worked as a Medical administrator in Spain, Fernanda Jacobson of the Scottish Ambulance Unit (‘Samaritan or Spy?’), and also the Barcelona photographs of Austrian-born Margaret Michaelis. You can book here

Margaret Michaelis, [Doctor with Child], c. 1936.
© By kind permission of
the National Gallery of Australia
If you’d like to read more fiction about the women of the Spanish Civil War, you’ll be pleased to hear that a novel by pioneering historian Angela Jackson, series editor for Petals and Bullets is now available as an ebook. Warm Earth can be downloaded free in the week following the conference.
       'Spain veined with blood and metals, blue and victorious,
       proletariat of petals and bullets,
       alone, alive, somnolent, resounding.'
                                   From 'What Spain was like', Spain in my Heart (1938), Pablo Neruda

Mark Derby, Petal and Bullets: Dorothy Morris, New Zealand Nurse in the Spanish Civil War (Cañada Blanch/Sussex Academic Studies on Contemporary Spain, 2015)

Friday, 5 February 2016

ROM, I Think I Love You by Joan Lennon

From time to time on The History Girls, people share museums and exhibitions that they've visited that they think you might not have come across or that they just plain loved.*  And for me, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto ticks those boxes.  It was opened in 1914, a "graceful structure of buff-coloured brick and terracotta"** and then, in 2007, the stunning Michael Lee-Chin Crystal was added.  I ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT!!!  (Just saying.)

The place holds exhibits from dinosaurs to modern art and pretty much everything in-between, but I want to talk about just one cabinet that I saw when I visited recently - the one in the Ancient Egypt section titled Apprentice Work.  I don't think I've ever seen Egyptian apprentice pieces before.  It was fascinating -

practice drawings of scarabs

the just-blocked-out stage of a figure

 a surprisingly sweet face

And then, at the other end of the game, a poem by the artist Irty-sen (Middle Kingdom, reign of Mentuhotep  II, c. 2040 BC) who writes -

I am a craftsman who excels in his art
I know the walk of the male figure, and the pace of the female figure,
the positions of an instant,
the bending of the body of him who strikes the captive,
how one eye looks at another,
how to make the faces of prisoners look frightened,
how to poise the arm of him who harpoons a hippopotamus,
and the stride of the runner.
I know how to make pigments,
substances which will adhere, without allowing the fire to consume them
and which cannot be washed away in water ...

I love his confidence - and his un-anonymity - and I believe every word he says.

So if you can, go to the Royal Ontario Museum - you will not be disappointed.

* For example, try Katherine Langrish's piece yesterday about the Musee de Montmartre in Paris or Mary Hoffman's post on the Celtic Exhibition at the British Museum.  Next best thing to going to them yourself!

** ROM website.

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Silver Skin.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Wild Hunt Rides Over Paris - Katherine Langrish

Around about a year ago I spent a few days in Paris with my daughter: we stayed in Montmartre, which I didn't know very well in spite of having once lived in France for four years, close to Fontainebleau.

I unreservedly recommend Montmartre as a place to visit.  Sure, there are rather a lot of sex shops at the foot of the hill and along the road of the Moulin Rouge; but up on the hill it still feels very much like the village it once was: home of artists and revolutionaries (most of whom wouldn't actually have minded the sex shops anyway.)  High above Paris, the hill used to be covered with windmills and gypsum mines; it was occupied by the Russians when they invaded Paris in 1814: they used the hill as a base for the artillery bombardment of the city, and legend proclaims they here invented the first bistro - fast food - from the Russian word bystro, "quickly".

Be that as it may, history-soaked Montmartre was once the haunt of artists like Pisarro, Matisse, Van Gogh, Renoir, Degas, Utrillo, Valadon and Toulouse-Lautrec - and the home of cabarets like La Palette d'Or and Le Chat Noir, for which Théophile Steinlen designed the iconic poster.

After walking up and down the steep little cobbled streets (there are still two old windmills to be seen) we ended up at the Musee de Montmartre, housed in what was once a 17th century abbey.  Renoir lived there for a time, and painted the garden. As you'd expect, the museum has a lot of brilliant art and plenty of information about the history of Montmartre - but the thing I really couldn't take my eyes off was the painting that heads this post.  Once I'd seen it, that was it.  I could have stood and looked at it for hours.

It's by Adolphe Willette, called Parce Domine - the opening words of a Catholic antiphon:  Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo: ne in aeternum irascaris nobis (Spare, Lord, spare your people: be not angry with us forever).  It's a massive canvas, taking up most of one wall: it's a nightscape over Paris: the smoky city stretches out at the very bottom of the frame, with the hill of Montmartre rising to the right.  And streaming out across the sky, over the rooftops, as if they have just leapt out from the windmills of Montmartre, is a fantastic and macabre harlequinade of the beautiful and the damned.

It's led by a Pierrot-like character, a suicide with the gun still in his hand, embraced and semi-supported by a woman in black with black butterfly wings.  She seems to be holding up his jaw.  Her feet run trippingly on nothing: his are elegantly crossed: it is clear he would fall without her: yet he is the foremost of this troupe. Behind comes another Pierrot-type character, dapper in white shirtfront, white spats and buckled shoes, dancing, dancing; and behind him...

... behind him sweeps a whole frenzied crowd of men and women, swirling and leaping and brandishing guitars and tambourines, rapiers and antler-crowned standards, brooms and whips; in the background a horse-drawn omnibus sways and hurtles along like a chariot.

Their feet never touching the chimneys below, they stream out across the smoke-stained sky from the dark windmills (whose very vanes are staves of music) - a black cat (a Chat Noir) the size of a panther leaping across the canvas with a dancing girl sitting sideways on his back waving aloft what appears to be a swaddled baby (a dead child?), followed by a troop of naked and very young-looking girls - while a mortal cat, dark and solid on the snow-capped rooftop in the lower right hand corner, arches his back and spits at the ghostly throng.  Above it all...

... eyeless Death himself looms in the shape of a ghostly cloud and we read the words of the desperate music ringing from the vanes of the moulins: Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo.  Spare, Lord, spare your people. 

If there's a better expression anywhere of the energy, gaiety, cruelty and poverty of late 19th century Paris, I don't know it. This is an amazing, amazing painting.  Think of it, the next time you hear the can-can.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

On gluttony, by Vanora Bennett

So January is over, and with it that month of post-Christmas penance. You may have spent it dry or dieting, as I did. The start of February, nowadays, is when many people start again with a clean slate, feeling free to eat what they want.

I wrote about seasonal excesses of food last month, and here I am writing about food again. But the fascinating foodie posts of fellow History Girls Gillian Polack, yesterday, and Elizabeth Chadwick, a week or so ago, reminded me of one of my favourite bits of Chaucer – the Pardoner’s brilliant rant about gluttony and the other deadly sins. And since we are just starting to come off the brown rice and mineral water I thought it might be timely to share it with you here.

Reading The Canterbury Tales for the first time was, for me, one of the great pleasures of writing The People’s Queen, a novel about Alice Perrers, wife (maybe) of half a dozen rich old City of London merchants, mistress of the senile Edward III, and, once she’d stopped being a young woman in a hurry, patron of Geoffrey Chaucer. The historical Alice was an extraordinary, divisive, hard-headed, business-minded female, yet with enough charm and oomph too to help her associates in the City make loans at Court and cream off large percentages in the middle without anyone noticing or asking difficult questions. It took years for it all to come out. When it did, it caused a 14th-century credit crunch. As a result, Alice was much disliked in her lifetime. Still, she’s often held to be the prototype of Chaucer’s fictional Wife of Bath, that rambunctious, outrageous yet lovable female, who in the Tales is off on a pilgrimage to Canterbury for no other reason than to catch herself a fifth husband to keep her. And the Wife of Bath is loved to this day, dubious morals or not, for her quick wit and cheerful impatience with other people’s sanctimonious pomposity - so Alice must have been doing something right, at least for her protégé.

Naturally, to write about Alice and Chaucer, I had to read what he’d written about the Wife of Bath, and generally to immerse myself in Chaucer’s work. The “sermon” on gluttony has stayed with me ever since. It’s definitely one of the best bits.

Here’s what Chaucer gets his crafty character the Pardoner to say about gluttony (which, like all other forms of excess, was at odds with the medieval idea that well-being came from equilibrium - finding the tactful mid-point in anything, by whatever form of balance or blending or moderation was called for).

Chaucer gets the Pardoner going with the popular medieval notion that it wasn’t disobeying God’s wishes but just plain old gluttony – that is, the wish to eat an apple – that got Adam expelled from the Garden of Eden (“for while he fasted he was in Paradise”). But he moves quickly on to consider the medical problems of “excess and gluttonies” – if only the damage excess could do were better known, he argues, would people not be “more moderate / In diet, And at table more sedate”? He mocks the “short throat” and “tender mouth” that force men all over the world to slog to “get a glutton dainty meat and drink”. He quotes St Paul condemning the gluttonous.

"Meat for the belly and belly for the meat:
And both shall God destroy," as Paul does say.

And then he just takes off in this gloriously unselfconscious, stinking, dung-laden, farting, belching riff:

Weeping I tell you once again they're dross,
For they are foes of Christ and of the Cross,
O gut! O belly! O you stinking cod,
Filled full of dung, with all corruption found!
At either end of you foul is the sound.
With how great cost and labour do they find
Your food! These cooks, they pound and strain and grind;
Substance to accident they turn with fire,
All to fulfill your gluttonous desire!
Out of the hard and riven bones knock they
The marrow, for they throw nothing away
That may go through the gullet soft and sweet;
With spicery, with leaf, bark, root, replete
Shall be the sauces made for your delight,
To furnish you a sharper appetite.
But truly, he that such delights entice
Is dead while yet he wallows in this vice.

There’s more – much more – on all the sins, but this is enough to give a flavour. I read it as pure comedy (especially the fantastically gross “at either end of you foul is the sound,” something I’m often tempted to say to my teenage sons). I laughed out loud. And I put a few words from the next bit of the riff into my fictional Chaucer’s own mouth, when a twist in the story leaves him hung over and self-pitying after drinking with Alice.

But as with all good comedy it has darkness in it.

It was only after discovering yet another classic of medieval literature (yes, I know, shame on me for not being better read) – this time Dante’s Divine Comedy – that I realised quite how seriously the medieval world took gluttony.

Dante’s Purgatory is a mountain on the only bit of land in the southern hemisphere. Divided into many layers for different types of sinner, it’s a kind of brutal reform school for errant souls, where virtue is whipped back into pupils through a regime of punishments lasting many times longer than the sins that had originally got them sent there.

Of course there is a correctional classroom for gluttons.

All those who in life have over-emphasised food, drink and bodily comforts are confined to the sixth of seven layers – one for each of the deadly sins - to be purged. Their punishment consists of being starved in the presence of fruit trees whose fruit is always out of reach. Voices call out to them to consider examples of the opposite virtue of temperance - the Virgin Mary, who shared her Son’s gifts with others at the Wedding of Canaa, and John the Baptist who only lived on locusts and honey.

Medievals needed the threat of that punishment, it seems, because gluttony was the gateway to so many other sins.

O gluttony; full of all wickedness,
O first cause of confusion to us all,
Beginning of damnation and our fall

As Chaucer’s Pardoner saw it, getting hedonistically drunk and eating too much fine food was just a first step to lechery - getting slim, attractive girls of ill repute to join you in the fleshpots. And, once you’d sunk that low, even murder might be only a brief further step along the road to eternal damnation…

I’m going out for dinner tonight. I’ve been looking forward for all the dry January weeks to celebrating my son’s birthday with that first glass of February wine while cake is consumed. But now I’ve remembered all this, it’s looking a bit different.

Perhaps I won’t.

Vanora Bennett's website

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Discovering what characters eat - Gillian Polack

Food history is important to me. When I wrote The Time of the Ghosts, I made sure that every single character’s cooking and eating habits reflected their lives. You can deduce who has lived where and what they’ve done by what they cook and what they eat. You can also deduce those for whom food is not terribly important. In fact, if you watch the food, you can unravel characters’ secrets.

This means that when Elizabeth Chadwick wrote her History Girls’ post on medieval food, it brought me to my next novel and made me think “What did I do with the food in it?” This last month or so I’ve been working on my non-fiction, so I had to actually go back into the world of my novel and reconstitute my thoughts about food. Since a significant part of the food in The Wizardry of Women's Stuff (which will be out in a couple of months) is based on my family’s foodways from the nineteenth century until the 1980s (when my cooking and eating started to diverge drastically from family tradition) this little exploration also took me into my family’s past.

What I discovered was that London Jewish cooking was different in the early part of the century to the later. The food early on was partway between traditional Sephardi and very London. There were lots of flavours from the Mediterranean and North Africa and the Netherlands – a legacy of where Sephardi Jews fled to after they were expelled from Spain in 1492. My family brought those flavours to Australia in its cuisine, which shows where that side of the family comes from. We have recipes for popular foods (stuffed monkeys, Madeira cake, seed cake) but also for scones and raisin wine. What was lost in my family’s transition to the colonies were the Sephardi festive foodstuffs, the ones that appear in the very first Jewish English-language published cookery book. Subtract those recipes from the book and you have my grandmother’s personal cookbook. I don’t just know this from a general guess: I actually made a table of the recipes from each book and compared them and tested critical elements (and cool recipes) from each. 

This says a lot about nineteenth century Australian Jews. They came from many places, and, for my novel, I had to be careful to develop a tradition that belonged to one family. I didn’t want a generic Jewish culture in my novel. I’ve been doing some reading of other novels that contain Jewish characters recently, and all too often, authors decide that a generic Jewish culture is good enough – that takes individual lives out of the story, which makes the story so much less interesting for readers. So, no generic. I needed something as precise as my family’s food tradition.

I worked out when the family came to Australia (just before the Goldrush) and where they came from (Home Counties) and what their background was (educated and innovative, but with some very interesting hidden heritage). This drew me inexorably to Mrs Montefiore’s cookbook as a basis for the tradition. The book was known in Australia around that period, so that was easy. 

How do we know it was known in Australia? The very first published Australian cookbook plagiarises it. There’s a copy online at the National Library of Australia if you want to check this out!  I discovered the plagiarism when I was trying to find out if my ancestors had access to chorissa (kosher chorizo) in Melbourne (I was trying to find out why my family lost and gained different dishes) and was torn between horror and amusement. Abbott (the author) felt there was a need for “Hebrew” recipes in his book and he lifted straight from Montefiore's The Jewish Manual, down to the footnote on where to buy chorissa in London.

Plate from Abbott's book courtesy National Library of Australia

I had the book, I had proof it was known in Australia, and, thanks to my grandmother's enthusiasm for writing everything down, I even knew how the cuisine was changed to fit Victorian surroundings. Victorian in both senses, for it was during the later Victorian period that items like chorissa were dropped and that meat and three vegetable became the staple dinner. Some London region style puddings replaced the dishes that disappeared. Apart from dishes where the ingredients were unobtainable (why I was checking chorissa) the main dishes to be replaced were mostly sweet dishes of various varieties – what were called in my childhood ‘sweets’ and ‘pudding’.

That was almost all of the work done. I just had to add my characters’ lives and their personal tastes, and I had a cuisine! What’s more, I had both a historical cuisine that I could include as family history and a current one that one of my characters could burn with aplomb. 

The work for The Wizardry of Women’s Stuff was a lot easier than the work for The Time of the Ghosts. I only needed the one cuisine, for one thing. I developed three major ones for The Time of the Ghosts and bits of others and some of the dishes have fascinating histories. Some of those histories are linked to the plot, however, so I can’t tell you them without giving spoilers. If you’ve read the book and you find me somewhere, ask me and I’ll tell you all the secrets.

It strikes me that one day my readers might want the cookbook for my novels. It would contain a lot of very good food! In the meantime, I shall continue to cook that food. 

Every time I create a cuisine for a character, I get to eat wonderfully. Right now I’m testing seventeenth century food for the St Ives novel I'm writing this year. Seventeenth century English food was not one of the great cuisines in world history, but it's fascinating nonetheless. If anyone wants to learn my processes up close, I’m always happy to share the testing. It helps to know what other people think of recipes.