Monday, 23 October 2017

Brilliant trail-blazer of expressionism, Gabriele Münter: Heard of her? by Leslie Wilson

The picturesque in modern Murnau
In the summer, on our way from Munich to the mountains, we visited Murnau, a place I have long wanted to go to. It's where the Blue Rider school of expressionism found their spiritual home. This was due to a quality of the light in that town beside the Staffelsee and near the mountains, produced by the Föhn wind, a warm wind off the mountains which is also notable for giving people headaches.

. If you haven't heard of the Blue Rider, you might have heard of Vassili Kandinsky, August Macke, or Franz Marc. All of these are to be found in British art galleries. But have you heard of Gabriele Münter? Perhaps not. I haven't met many British people who have.
Gabriele Münter was born in Berlin, in 1877, and always wanted to paint, but had difficulty in achieving that ambition because of her gender. Women were only supposed to paint as a hobby. She began at the unpromisingly-named  'Damenkunstschule' (Ladies' Art School), but managed, in the teeth of her family's disapproval, to get herself to the Phalanx School, where she met Kandinsky. He was ten years older and married, but they fell in love.
Münter in later life

Münter was a pioneer in lifestyle as well as in art; she rode a bicycle when that was still daring for a woman (or for a man, if it comes to it), wore avant-garde 'reform clothes', and lived with Kandinsky without marriage. And she was a professional, driven artist.

Kandinsky's view of her work was enthusiastic: 'I can't teach you, you have natural, innate talent. All I can do for you is to care for your talent and nurture it, so that nothing artificial spoils it.' He was right to respect her abilities. As too often happens, she has been written off as Kandinsky's mistress and muse, and her work dismissed as a reflection of his.

In fact, her enthusiastic adoption of different forms was ground-breaking, and she led the way. It was she who began to paint pictures behind glass, adopting the old Bavarian folk-art form and using it in innovative ways. The others followed in her tracks. 

Paintings behind glass, Gabriele Münter
She was inspired by the vivid colours of the Murnau houses to paint equally brilliantly-coloured town- and landscapes in which the representational melded with the abstract: 'More and more I was comprehending the clarity and simplicity of the world.'
Much to the annoyance of some of the male Blue Rider painters, she contributed to the seminal 'Blue Rider almanac.' In 1911 the group put up an exhibition in Munich, which electrified and scandalised an art establishment still largely dominated by formal, academic art. 

This rejection of established norms was happening elsewhere, of course: in Vienna, for example, where Gustav Klimt and his colleagues called themselves, simply, the Secession. When the Blue Rider exhibited, the attendants had the unpleasant task of wiping off the spittle from the paintings.

Kandinsky and Münter lived in a house she bought at the edge of Murnau, which was known, then, as the 'Russian House', and deeply disapproved of because of the scandalous lifestyle of its inhabitants, and their guests' habit of disporting themselves nude, including by the lake, where the locals might catch sight of them. On the other hand, Münter was intimidated enough by convention to leave the house, for weeks at a time, when Kandinsky's family came to visit. He kept promising to marry her, and never did, and as far as his family were concerned, she didn't exist. And she did regard it as her duty to provide him with a comfortable home and forward his career. I do not regard these facts as detracting from her own magnificent abilities. They only demonstrate the kind of inner and outer difficulties that gifted women have always had to contend with, and if we ignore them, we also denigrate the achievement of the women who went before us in battling their way through.

I first saw her work when I was in Munich in the '90s, and found it deeply exciting; her paintings speak to me in a way that Kandinsky's don't, nor any of the men. It is that simplicity and clarity which I adore. Though it is very different in style and colour, it takes me into the world opened up to me by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi. I find both her Blue Rider work and her later work equally magnificent.
It was a huge pleasure for me to visit the house Münter lived in with Kandinsky, in whose cellar she hid much of the Blue Rider work from the Nazis (because of course she was declared 'decadent' during that period). The best of the collection she preserved is now exhibited in the Lenbach House in Munich, and I do recommend visiting it, but there is some of her art still in the house, and you can see the furniture and woodwork that Kandinsky painted. 
chest decorated by Kandinsky
Gabriele Münter, 1947

Excitingly for a blogger, photography is allowed in the Münter house.
She died in 1962 at Murnau.
If you're going to Munich this month, a major exhibition of her work will be held in the Lenbach House, and I wish I was able to be there!

All the photographs were taken by me in the house. I cannot find any pictures of her greatest work on Wikimedia, but recommend an image search; there are wonderful reproductions on line.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

The Protest Song from Richard II to Donald Trump by Catherine Hokin

In line with our household's apparent 'let's only watch unremittingly depressing things on tv' policy, I've been immersed for the last couple of weeks in BBC4's excellent documentary series on the Vietnam War. It's so watchable because it feels like 'old-school' history - director Ken Burns uses archival footage, photographs and interviews rather than awkwardly mugging actors to capture the nuances of the conflict and its political, social and personal consequences. It's a style he perfected in his 1990 series on the American Civil War which was incredible in its detail, although very long - to the point where you can start to believe you're watching the war unfold in real time.

I've always been fascinated by Vietnam - it was one of my specialist areas at university, my Dad's first job as a rookie sailor was bringing the traumatised French soldiers home and the draft stopped 2 weeks before my American husband's 18th birthday. His bag for Canada was packed and ready. Due to the daughter's PhD edits which keep falling my way, I'm also becoming something of an aficionado of the protest song. The documentary's soundtrack is full of them - not great if Bob Dylan sets your teeth on edge (guilty) - and many people associate the genre with this particular war and the songs it gave rise to such as Eve of Destruction and Blowin' in the Wind. Protest songs however have much deeper roots and span every political creed known to man.

 Sheet Music Cover
Most of us are familiar with L'Internationale, the anthem sung with clenched fist and an awful lot of lip-syncing past the title. This was written in 1871 by Eugene Pottier, its title taken from a congress held by the recently-founded International Workingmen's Association in 1864. Its lyrics exhort the enslaved masses to rise up and take over (I'm paraphrasing) and it has become a rallying cry spanning groups as diverse as East German anti-Stalinists in 1953 to protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Rumours that Jeremy Corbyn still sings it in the shower are pure speculation. Going further back, the Diggers and Levellers movements, which followed the religious and political turmoil of the seventeenth century, gave rise to a number of ballads on a similar theme to L'Internationale, the most well known being The Diggers' Song with its world-order challenging refrain:

But the Gentry must come down,and the poor shall wear the crown.
Stand up now, Diggers all!

The Diggers Song likely dates from around 1649 although its lyrics weren't printed until 1894 but it has a challenger for the title of oldest known anti-oppression song in the shape of The Cutty Wren. This ditty comes from the tradition of English folk songs traditionally sung on St Stephen's Day (26th December) which was also known as Wren Day. These songs (whose origins now are very murky) may have an association with the symbolic slaughter of a wren just after the winter solstice, this replacing the human sacrifice once made to the old Year God. Or the eponymous wren may be King Richard II who the peasants intended to kill and feed to the poor in the 1381 rebellion. That was Marxist historian A.L. Lloyd's theory, published in 1944 and happily taught to me at university as 'fact' - ah Manchester, so dogmatically left wing in the 1980s. I think we may have sung it on a protest march or ten - how many levels of pretension there are in that defeats me.

 Statue of Thomas Davis Dublin
The move to industrialisation in the nineteenth century spawned workers' movements and a rise in topical protest songs as did the growing political struggles in countries such as Ireland where the rebel song is a huge musical sub-genre. According to my family legend, Thomas Davis, writer of one of the most famous Irish protest songs A Nation Once Again, was an uncle many times removed. Say that in any bar in Dublin and, trust me, you crawl out clutching your liver. Nineteenth century America also saw a huge rise in the angry or disillusioned voice as a political weapon, particularly in protest against slavery (Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child) and against the American Civil War (When Johnny Comes Marching Home). Groups such as the abolitionist Hutchinson Family Singers who appeared at the White House in the mid nineteenth century started off a musical legacy that can be seen running through the works of the big 1950s and 60s names such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Dylan. And war increasingly became a catalyst for protest - in 1915, the song I Didn't Raise My Boy to be a Soldier sold 650,000 copies in the USA although not to Theodore Roosevelt who was deeply upset by its sentiments.

 Born in the USA 1984
The golden age was in many ways the 1960s and 1970s with Vietnam, the growing civil rights movement and struggles against apartheid finding mouthpieces in the music world from the UK and the States to South Africa, Israel and Latin America. There have been more recent examples although they haven't always had the desired effect. Poor old Springsteen must cringe every time he hears his anti-Reagan Born in the USA (an account of how badly the working man has suffered from American economic and military policies) turned into a jingoistic rallying cry. Groups such as Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine have continued the fight against racism and capitalism but audiences have changed and are perhaps less unified against causes than they once were. Artists such as M.I.A and Kendrick Lamar have created a stir with their anti-Trump songs but, with the change in the way we all access music nowadays, I imagine the heady days of an artist as big as Paul McCartney getting banned by the BBC and it mattering are long gone - it was in 1972, it was called Give Ireland Back to the Irish and it was one step away from including a frog chorus. You do not need to hear it no matter where your sympathies with the sentiment may lie.

Nowadays a lot of what we hear as protest songs are the old faithfuls, either in their original state or re-worked with topical inserts or non-political songs like We Are Family which have become politicised. My current favourite of the doctored variety is Mr Tangerine Man which featured in pretty much every anti-Trump Women's March this year - and is now lodged firmly in your head. Perhaps the History Girls' next competition should be for lyrics...

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Sad / Happy by Imogen Robertson

I lost a ring a fortnight ago in Brighton. I was / am deeply gutted as it was a present from my aunt, and she had had it from her aunt and the chain of ownership made it particularly special to me. It made me happy to wear it - the above is me wearing it on my wedding day.

I felt it slip of my finger (in Church Street in Brighton, just FYI) and spent forty minutes going up and down the street searching the gutters, but no luck. I've filed a police report and emailed some of the businesses on the street who very kindly said they'd keep an eye out for it and even went out and looked themselves, so that's the first happy thing out of the sad thing. People are very kind.

I've been thinking about my Great Aunt who first owned the ring recently. Her name was Constance Charlotte Robertson, she was born in Alnmouth in 1883 and she was the first female Doctor in my home town of Darlington. My grandfather recovered from his time as a POW in WWI (and a bout of Spanish flu) at her home. He met my grandmother there, and Constance introduced him to the man who would become his business partner, so it was that decision of hers to move to Darlington which meant I'm around now. I sneaked a mention of her into the end of my novel The Paris Winter, and at the end of last month got the details of her degree from the lovely archivists of Newcastle University. Yesterday I told Mum and Dad I'd lost the ring, and they were sorry for me and we talked a bit more about Constance. She was always called Dumps in the family, and I always think of her by her initials CCR, largely I think because they are engraved into some silver spoons we have at home, and it was how she'd mark her books which I'd find from time to time in my parents' bookshelves when I was a child. Anyway, I had another look on the internet to see if there was anything about her I'd missed, and found an article, published a few days after I lost the ring about her on the Durham at War website. So that is the next happy thing out of the sad thing.

Perhaps the gods of chance will bring it back to me. There's a family story from Alnmouth that my Great Grandmother lost her engagement ring on the beach when the family were having a picnic. The following year they were picnicking there again, and, digging her hand into the fine sand she said 'it was just about here I lost my...' only to find the lost ring in her palm.

Outside the old family home in Alnmouth

But the last happy thing is what my husband said to me, 'it's your contribution to future archeology'. I should stress that's not the first thing he said, he was extremely sympathetic and offered to bother all his Brighton friends to go and look for it. I did say I would rather future archeology got my watch or my wallet, but still it is a comforting idea to think he might be right and that the ring may surface again, as a treasure in someone else's hands.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Corhampton Church – a Saxon gem in Provincia Meanwarorum

Corhampton (Quedementune (11th c); Cornhampton (13th); Corhamtone, Cornhamtone and Cornehampton (14th); Corehampton (16th) lies on the west bank of the River Meon, seven miles upstream from Wickham, the subject of my previous History Girls post. Corhampton is equidistant, at only a little over half a mile, from two other villages, Meonstoke (the inspiration for my “Meonbridge Chronicles”) and Exton. Exton also lies to the west of the river, while Meonstoke – with which Corhampton forms a civil parish – lies on the east bank. Between the three little communities there are, today, perhaps 1000 inhabitants, but each community has an ancient church. Those in Meonstoke and Exton are 13th century, but Corhampton’s church is Saxon, built in 1020, and it is this church that I will explore further in this post.

But, first, a little more about the people of the Meon Valley.

The Romans left Britain in the 5th century, leaving behind a population some of whom at least were Christians. At about the same time, Saxons and other tribes, Jutes, Angles and Friesians, came from Denmark and northern Germany to invade and then settle in Britain, bringing with them the beliefs and customs of the polytheistic Germanic religion of Wodin and Thor. The invaders became known as the “Anglo-Saxons”, establishing in time the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex, which were eventually unified into the Kingdom of England in the early 10th century. Our area, the Meon Valley, lies close to the boundary between Sussex and Wessex.

In the late 7th century, Wilfrith (or Wilfrid), born to a noble Northumbrian family, and appointed the Bishop of York, was obliged to leave the north for a few years and spent his time evangelising the heathen south Saxons. Briefly (and indeed, simplistically, for Wilfrith’s story is actually rather complicated!), Wilfrith was keen to move the northern Christian Church from the old Celtic traditions to the new Roman practices. He was mostly successful, building many churches and founding many monasteries. But he had to appeal to Rome for support against a plan by Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to subdivide his diocese of York. While waiting for the case to be decided, he was forced into exile. He went first to Sūþseaxna rīce (Saxon Sussex) and then travelled to the Isle of Wight and to the Meon Valley, where he apparently began his missionary work. It is thought likely that Wilfrith was responsible for building many mud and wattle churches in the Valley.

Bede (the “Venerable Bede”) was also born in Saxon Northumbria, about forty years after Wilfrith, but he remained a monk, spending most of his life in a monastery in Jarrow. Bede was a scholar and author who, in his time, was as well known for his writing on scientific matters, chronology, grammar, and biblical studies as for the historical and theological work for which he is perhaps best known today.

In his most famous work, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (An Ecclesiastical History of the English People), Bede refers to the valley of the River Meon, calling it “Provincia Meanwarorum” or the Province of the Meonwara (“Meon People”), some of the Jutes and Saxons who had come from Denmark three centuries earlier.

Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum
(Ecclesiastical History of the English People) © British Library

For seven centuries or more (until, and after, the Norman Conquest in 1066) the Provincia Meanwarorum was developed as a fertile farming valley running from the South Downs at East Meon to the Solent at Titchfield Haven. Trading vessels navigated the River Meon, wider and faster flowing in those days. Vessels reached as far as Droxford, enabling flour and other agricultural produce to be taken back to the Solent and to the trading ports of Hamwic (Southampton) and Portesmuða (Portsmouth).

In his History, Bede refers to the hamlet of Cornhampton as a settlement on the west bank of the Meon where corn was milled and traded. The mill (immediately adjacent to, and to the north of, the church) is the possible origin of the first part of name of the hamlet (“Corn”).

The Domesday Book (1086) does not include a reference to “Cornhampton”, but does refer to the parish of Quedementune, which is presumed to be Corhampton. However, there is no mention of a church in Quedementune, which is rather strange as Corhampton Church is considered to pre-date the Domesday Book.

In Bede’s time, there were about thirty villages and churches in the Meon Valley. Around 1000, by which time Christianity was firmly established, parish boundaries had been laid out, and the building of permanent churches was possible, many of those earlier churches were replaced by stone structures. However, in Provincia Meanwarorum, it is only the church at Corhampton, built in 1020, that survives more or less intact from the period. Other post-conquest churches in the valley are built on, or close to, sites of Saxon churches, and some do have links to the Saxon era. But Corhampton Church pre-dates the Norman cathedral in Winchester and most medieval cathedrals except those at Canterbury, Hereford, Litchfield, Rochester, Worcester, and York, some of which have subsequently been largely re-built.

Of the two other nearby churches, St Peter and St Paul in Exton is 13th century, situated on the site of an earlier church dating back to 940 AD, but much restored during the 19th century. St Andrew’s in Meonstoke was built in 1230 and has few later alterations, although the tower was rebuilt in flint in the 15th century, and the roof and aisles were raised in the 18th century, followed by a top to the tower, built in wood.

St Peter and Paul Church, Exton By Nicholsr (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

 St Andrew’s Church, Meonstoke By Pterre (Own work)
[CC BY 3.0 (]

But Corhampton Church is a rare example of a truly Saxon Church, with its Saxon font, original stone side altar, 12th century frescoes, sanctuary chair and Saxon sundial, and most of the original building still in situ. It stands on a mound adjacent to the River Meon beside an ancient yew tree, which almost certainly predates it. When the church was built, Canute was King of England (as well as of Denmark and Norway), his capital of Winchester 10 miles to the west, and Corhampton was a royal estate.

The church is remarkable for many reasons, one of which is that it is one of only a very few churches that are undedicated. It is thought that churches at this time were built under the patronage of the local lord, who would have had the right to choose to whom the church would be dedicated, a saint, for example, as are the churches at Exton and Meonstoke. But, it seems that the church at Corhampton missed out on such a dedication, and has always simply been known as Corhampton Church.

Corhampton Church, south side © David Hughes

The mound on which the church is built appears to be artificial, rather than a natural undulation in the landscape. This is not common for a Christian church and it has been suggested that the church may stand on the site of a pre-Christian temple of Roman or even earlier which were sometimes built on mounds. Some evidence of a Roman settlement was found in the 1930s just a few hundred yards to the north of the church, and there is a Roman coffin with a lead lining, pre-dating the church by seven centuries, in the churchyard, moved there in 1912 after its discovery in a nearby field.

Corhampton Church, north side © David Hughes

The church, consisting of a nave and a chancel, was constructed of whole flints, locally available and cheap, which were plastered over. The walls are only 2’ 6”/76cm thick, as apparently Saxon walls often were, but they were strengthened by stone quoins. The stone came from the Isle of Wight, either from Binstead or Quarr, and shipped up the River Meon. The church has survived substantially unaltered. Late in the 19th century, a porch and couple of buttresses were added, together with a vestry-cum-boiler room, and repairs were required a little earlier when, in 1842, the east end of the church collapsed resulting in some rather incongruous red brickwork being added.

Immediately to the right of the porch, set into the wall, is the Saxon sundial, one of the best preserved such Saxon dials in England. It is in fact a “tide dial”, the dial being divided into eight “tides” rather than twelve hours. The day in Saxon times was divided into eight tides, each about three hours long. The eight tides can be clearly seen, as can the hole in the middle where the gnomon, the piece that projects the sun’s shadow onto the dial and probably made of metal, would have been. The dial itself is in a reddish brown stone quite different from any other stone in the church, pre-dating the present building and maybe even dating back to Wilfrith’s time. The dial could well have been in use from the time Wilfrith was in the Meon Valley until the Norman conquest, when the use of such dials seemed to fall away.

Saxon tide dial at Corhampton Church
© Pierre Terre [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

Corhampton Church is particularly renowned for its wall paintings. The collapse in 1842 of the east end of the church damaged these remarkable works of medieval art, but they were uncovered in 1968 and restored. There is some uncertainty about the age of paintings: they could be as late as 1225, but it is generally thought that they date from the middle of the 12th century.

Corhampton Church wall painting, south wall
© David Hughes
Not all the scenes in the paintings can be deciphered. However, the painting at the top of the south wall is said to depict stories from the life of Swithun, Bishop of Winchester in the mid 9th century. One is the miracle of the eggs. Here, Swithun is inspecting a bridge being built over the River Itchen and, in the crowd that has gathered, an old woman is jostled and her eggs fall from her basket. But Swithun puts the broken eggs back together. To the right of this, the painting is thought to relate to the story of a young man who fell into the Itchen after being frightened by two wild women. He was judged to be dead when he was pulled from the river, but his body was laid for three days by Swithun’s tomb and was restored to life. Below these paintings is a border pattern coloured red and green, and below that are swags and a large medallion featuring two doves back to back with their heads turned to face one another. I understand that designs such as these are very rare for this early period. I really recommend a visit to Corhampton to see the paintings in their full glory!

Finally, an impressive feature of the churchyard of Corhampton Church is the huge, and thriving, yew tree, one of the finest and oldest examples in the country. Its branches grow at about half an inch (1.25cm) a year, and its girth is 23 feet/7m, so it is almost certainly 1000 years old and may even pre-date the church. Some historians think that churches were built next to ancient trees rather than the other way round. Certainly yews are characteristic of English churchyards, and some are estimated to be well over 1,000 years old. It seems that they may have been planted as some sort of act of sanctification. Apparently, the Druids regarded the yew as sacred and planted them close to their temples. Early Christians often built their churches on those ancient consecrated sites, so the association of yew trees and churchyards may simply have been thus perpetuated. On the other hand, some think that yews were planted in churchyards to ward off evil spirits, or because they grew so well with their roots feeding on the corpses that there was a plentiful supply of the wood for making good bows!

1000-year-old yew in Corhampton churchyard
© David Hughes
Whatever the truth of the planting of the yews, the tree in Corhampton churchyard is magnificent. And it is truly remarkable to consider how much of the history of the Meonwara it has witnessed!

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Roman women in Late Antiquity by Alison Morton

Helena, mother of Constantine the Great 
(author photo, Naples Museum)
I set out to write about women in the late Roman period – ambitious for a blog post, but I thought I could pull some threads out of a big subject and produce a digest. Not that easy, as I discovered...

'Late Antiquity' is a vague name for the period bridging classical antiquity and the early middle ages, approximately 3rd to 6th century, but I was looking at the first half of that period, hoping to focus on the time that Roma Nova, the imaginary country portrayed in my novels, was founded AD 395. The snag? Sources for this period are patchy and often only legal codes, medical texts or written by early Christian fathers with their own agenda.

Women belonged in the private sphere during most of classical antiquity, and the Romans drew a clear line between the public and the private. Formal politics took place outside the private dwelling house; even when senators conducted political and government business in their domus, or family home, it was in the 'public' rooms separated from the  personal familia areas.

Everybody living in the domus was subject to, and the responsibility of, the paterfamilias, the 'father of the family'. In law, this authority did not extend to wives who were subject to their fathers, but in practice husbands ruled.  Women retained the right to manage and dispose of the property they brought into their marriages and enjoyed full inheritance rights on a par with their brothers.

Roman family group
(author photo, Roman National Museum)
Husbands were expected be the public face for their wives in legal cases, but women had the right to act on their own if they chose. It was only by the late fourth century that widows (not divorcees) could be the legal guardians of their children. Christian emperors were obliged to revise the law in order to reflect Christian ideals of the time (heavily influenced by the ever pragmatic Constantine, I suspect!). However, that must have been tricky with the traditionally open Roman divorce law; even at its most restrictive, it probably failed to match the orthodoxy of the new, strict Christian teaching.

Traditional Roman morality saw adultery in terms of property rights; marriage was often an economic arrangement for the pragmatic Romans with the participants often having little say in parents' decisions. The double standard of sexual behaviour remained as it always had throughout Roman times but despite Christanisation, divorce and remarriage were still relatively easy. It would change, of course. But that and differences between slave and free and between concubines and wives must have raised considerable conflict with Christian universalism.

Christianity also challenged aristocratic marriage practice by forbidding marriages between relatives and by making celibacy (and so leaving inheritances outside the family) an acceptable option. The latter, of course, gave women an opportunity for the single life which apart from becoming a Vestal hadn't been available in traditional Roman society.

Fayum mummy portrait 3rd century
Louvre, Paris
Women were expected to dress modestly, but were not veiled nor secluded. Chris Wickham in The Inheritance of Rome says there is plenty of evidence for female literacy and literary engagement not only among the aristocracy. In Egypt, women have been recorded as buying and selling property, renting out property, money-lending, operating as independent artisans and shop-owners as well as practising medicine as midwives and more broadly.

Women still could not hold public political office in this later period, but Wickham cites one female city governor, Patrikia, in Antaiopolis in Egypt in 553 AD. In Alexandria, Hypatia, as the city’s leading intellectual (mathematician, astronomer and head of the Neo-Platonic School), "appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more" (Socrates Scholasticus).

Sadly, Hypatia was killed by a mob in Alexandria in 415 AD, caught in city-wide anger stemming from a feud between Orestes, the prefect (governor) of Alexandria and Cyril, the Christian bishop of Alexandria.

Galla Placidia
And as the Western Empire shrank, powerful empresses such as Galla Placidia were common in the fifth and sixth centuries. Daughter of Theodosius I, Regent for Emperor Valentinian III from 423 AD until his majority in 437 AD, consort to Ataulf, King of the Goths from 414 AD until his death in 415 AD, and briefly Empress Consort to Constantius III in 421 AD, she was a major force in Roman politics for most of her life.


Thanks to two invaluable sources:
The Inheritance of Rome: A history of Europe from 400 to 1000 , Chris Wickham, Pengiuin 2010

Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Lifestyles, Gillian Clark, OUP 1993   

Alison Morton's latest book in the Roma Nova thriller series, RETALIO, is available from the usual retailers as ebook or paperback.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Cova des Cuieram - A Pilgrimage of a Kind - Celia Rees

I blogged here about my first visit to the Balearic island of Ibiza. My fascination for the island hasn't left me. I knew that one visit would never be enough. This September, I went on another Yoga Retreat with my daughter, Catrin. We would have a chance to explore the island further, visit the hippy market (always a must and I missed it the first time round).

We were also determined to visit Cova des Cuieram, the cave of Tanit, Goddess of the White Island, that we'd failed to find the year before.

The  cave is near to the town of Cala San Vicente in the North East corner of the island.

It is situated high up in the hills with commanding views down to the sea. From the 5th Century BC it was a Sanctuary to the Phoenician goddess, Tanit. Although there is little to see from the outside, it is a large underground complex of interconnected caverns, running deep into the ground.  Discovered, or re-discovered, in 1907 and excavated, the cave complex was found to contain 600 bell shaped terracotta female figures, thousands of other objects, figurines, fragments of ceramics and a plaque in in Punic to 'our lady, to Tanit the powerful....'

These artefacts are now on display in the Archaeological Museum in Eivissa. We did manage to visit there last year but never made it to the Sanctuary where the objects were discovered. They were votive offerings left there by those who visited the shrine, either to ask for Tanit's intercession, to give thanks, or to appease her. Not so very different from the little plaques and objects found in Catholic churches, left near statues of saints or the Virgin Mary, in thanks or asking for blessing. In Britain and Ireland people still tie notes and ribbons onto trees that grow near to sacred wells or springs. Even coins in a fountain belong to a need we've felt since ancient times to make a connection of some kind by giving and leaving something of ourselves behind. 

Just as there is an ancient compulsion to leave offerings, there is an equally ancient compulsion to visit places of significance. Whether we call them religious centres or places of power, they are often one and the same. Just as old gods meld into new gods, so their places of worship change hands, what doesn't seem to change is our need to make pilgrimage and leave offerings there.  

Where I holiday in Italy, outside Siena, the Via Francigena runs practically past the door. Modern pilgrims in hiking boots, carrying backpacks and plastic water bottles still walk the centuries old way along white roads, farm tracks, main roads and dual carriageways following the ancient pilgrim route that leads to Rome. 

Our visit to the Cova des Cuieram felt very like a pilgrimage. Although it is marked as a tourist attraction, it is not easily gained. It is situated off the road, high up on the side of a deep valley. The way to it is marked by the ancient sign of the Mother. 

There are other, easier approaches by car but the route we took was on foot. We walked about a kilometre from the town of Cala de Sant Vicent and then followed the signs up the hill. 

 The way was steep, roughly paved and cut into the side of the slope, snaking up the hillside, it had the feel of a way that had been trodden since ancient times, taken up recently by the hippies who had colonised Ibiza in the Sixties and probably painted the fading signs of the Mother that showed the way. 

The route was hard going, especially in the heat of the day with insufficient water (my fault). Testing to the mind, body and spirit which I suppose all pilgrimages are, or should be. Not far from the top, we were about to give up, when we met a couple who shared their water and told us it really wasn't much further. A serendipitous meeting. If I was a certain kind of person, I'd say they were sent by the Goddess. At the top there was more water, a litre bottle, still cold. Maybe the Goddess left it there for us, or for other thirsty pilgrims to her shrine, or maybe Ibiza is just that kind of place.  

Even though the shrine was firmly barred and padlocked (despite guide book and website claims that it would be open), it was worth the hard climb. The opening to the main chamber still held its chthonic mystery, perhaps even more so, since it could not be entered, only peered into - Tanit's secrets are hard won.

Each of the barred chambers was festooned with offerings of all kinds put there by visitors: necklaces, bracelets, stones, crystals, shells, flowers, real and artificial, curling and fading photographs, ribbons, even hair bands and bobbles, as though everyone who went there felt compelled to leave something of themselves, as they had been doing in this place for thousands of years. I liked that feeling of continuity of behaviour, if not belief.

 The place was high up, cooled by a constant breeze, peaceful, with just the sound of the wind in the trees. It was a good place for some quiet contemplation, gazing out over the plain and down to the sea.  We dutifully made our own offerings, lit our candles, offered our thanks and maybe our prayers and then, after a little while, we left to begin the long climb down. 

Celia Rees


Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Markenfield Hall and the Scarlet Banner by Penny Dolan

Markenfield Hall, south of Ripon, reputably the oldest, complete moated house in the country, opens up to the public under the Historic Houses scheme for a few days a year.  I visited the place for one of their “Mop-Up Monday” tours, arranged to cope with the growing flood of interested visitors.

Only the name on a gate-post hints at the Hall’s existence: a tight turn takes the car on to a long track which runs through fields for almost a mile before the present Hall and its cluster of farm barns and buildings appears.

The Markenfield estate borders the Fountains Abbey lands and the Hall, built in 1310, situated close to the mediaeval Ripley to Ripon Road. Back then, any passing traveller would be aware of the Hall’s imposing presence while those within had early warning of interesting people or troublesome groups using that stretch of road.  

The builder was John De Markenfield, Canon of Ripon Cathedral. He was also Chancellor to King Edward II, who granted John permission to crenellate and fortify the walls as defence against powerful Northern barons and marauding Scots. On the outer wall of original hall, one can see where the stone staircase once led up to the living quarters on the first floor of the square tower, providing more safety. Not only did the Markenfields defend themselves well: they married well and wealthily, adding the coats of arms of several heiresses to the outer south wall of the great kitchen block. 

However, on that fine autumn morning of my visit, the setting seemed idyllic and peaceful. We gathered in the car-park beside the impressive Victorian farm buildings, admiring the pair of black swans and the ducklings on the moat, before being led across the wooden drawbridge and through the Tudor gatehouse. Through the kitchen we went and up to the lofty Great Hall, scented with wood-smoke, and which contained sofas and tables stacked with relevant books and histories, as well as several objects and portraits relating to the family.

Generation by generation, the Markenfields had risen, surviving Lancastrian and Yorkist loyalties and fighting for the King at Agincourt, Flodden Field and other battles. However, it was in the Chapel of St Michael the Archangel, a space so small we could only crowd in twelve at a time, that one saw the emblem of their downfall. 

The Markenfields were once a fiercely Catholic household and masses had been said in this chapel for over two and a half centuries. Signs of faith are set into the walls there. Beside the altar is a double piscina, a kind of basin used by priests for ceremonially washing vessels after communion. A squint is cut through the corner-stones of another wall so that daily mass could be observed from the lord’s private chamber.

Then, on the far wall, hangs particularly doleful treasure : a scarlet banner embroidered in gold with the Five Wounds of Christ, which was once a famous devotional image, especially in the strongly Catholic North of England. 

The deeply revered standard is rather luridly decorated with a sacred heart and chalice, the wounded hands and feet of Christ and a crown of thorns, and it testifies to the family’s faith and their role during two rebellions against the Crown, and to the loss of Markenfield itself.

The first, The Pilgrimage of Grace, was in 1536. This rebellion was led by Robert Aske, brother-in law to the Sir Thomas Markenfield of the time. The Northern lords and people rose against Henry VIII, petitioning him to halt the Dissolution of the Monasteries and raising other grievances. Henry and his Commissioners appeared to be deliberating: a long game  which weakened the rebel’s hands and which finally led to the fierce suppression of  Fountains Abbey and other religious establishments in 1539. Robert Aske was executed on Clifford’s Tower in York, but Sir Thomas and his family survived, at least for a generation.

Then came the second rebellion - The Rising of the North - led by the first Sir Thomas’s son Thomas. Richard Norton of Norton Conyers, his uncle, was standard bearer, charged with carrying the famous and gory banner. 

On 20th November 1569, a host of rebels gathered in the courtyard of Markenfield Hall itself. After hearing Mass in the chapel, the leaders set out on their mission. Their plan was to remove Queen Elizabeth – the "illegitimate heir" – and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots who would restore the practice of the Catholic faith. Defeated by the Queen’s troops, most of the rebels were killed or executed. Thomas and Richard fled the country and died in poverty.

Markenfield, both house and estate, were confiscated for High Treason. The Hall passed out of the family and into other hands, becoming an insignificant tenanted farmhouse with absentee landlords. In 1777, the turnpike and new toll road  (now the A61) shifted all passing traffic a mile further away and Markenfield Hall disappeared from public life.  However, this very neglect and insignificant income meant that the property was not improved, the great hall was largely unaltered, the moat left un-drained and all the original features unchanged.

In 1761, the Hall was brought into the hands of Grantleys of Markenfield, descendants of the original owners, who took more care of the property. Gradually - and especially recently - the Hall was restored to comfort and use again, from the Courtyard and Lodgings to the Undercroft, the Great Hall and even the Four Poster bedroom (once part of the solar.)

The Chapel too, feels peaceful in its restoration, with a rare portrait of Sir Richard Norton now looking down from the wooden panelling, and candles lit below the small array of icons in a devotional alcove. Services and masses are sometimes held here and each August, a Tridentine Requiem Mass is said in commemoration of Sir Thomas Markenfield and three other members of the family – Anne, Isabel and Elizabeth – who were all witnesses to the passions and suffering aroused by that sacred scarlet banner and the Five Wounds.

The Chapel of St Michael was also used for the wedding of the writer Ian Curteis and Lady Deidre Curteis, widow of the seventh Lord Grantley – a Protestant and a Catholic - who have made Markenfield Hall their home.

Image result for THE MAN ON A DONKEY

P.S. After my visit to Markenfield, I  bought myself a replacement copy of H.F.M. Prescott’s 1952 work, THE MAN ON A DONKEY, her wonderful novel about the Pilgrimage of Grace that first introduced me to the history of Yorkshire and the North several years ago.
This copy will not be borrowed!

Penny Dolan