Wednesday, 31 January 2018

January Competition

To win a copy of Diane Atkinson's Rise Up Women, answer the following question:

'In the last 100 years, which woman in public life (i.e. not your mum!) has inspired you the most and why?'

Competition closes on 14th February.

We're sorry but the competition is only open to UK residents.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Cabinet of Curiosities - Harry Potter: A History of Magic at the British Library by Charlotte Wightwick

So I’m cheating a bit this month. The Cabinet of Curiosities is supposed to be one object which I’d love to have for myself. However I couldn’t resist talking about the current exhibition at the British Library on Harry Potter; A History of Magic, which is itself a compendium of incredible objects.

It’s a fantastic exhibition, making brilliant use of archive material, historical artefacts and modern technology to create an experience unlike any I’ve been to before. It combines original Harry Potter archive material and memorabilia with historical manuscripts and objects, setting J.K. Rowling’s fantasy world into the context of real historical beliefs about magic, with technology providing an interactive experience for those who want to try their own hands at ‘magic’.

So, for instance, the exhibition includes hand- and type-written excerpts from J.K Rowling’s original manuscripts (complete with editorial suggestions and some entirely unknown scenes which were cut from the final books), novel plans and some of her own early drawings of characters and locations – an absolute treasure trove for fans and fellow writers. There are also a large number of original drawings and paintings from the illustrated versions of the books by Jim Kay, with sound effects and objects from the films too.

The exhibition is organised into a number of different rooms, each of which is dedicated to an individual Hogwarts’ ‘lessons’ – Potions, Charms, Defence Against the Dark Arts, etc. In each case, Rowling’s archive material is cleverly interspersed with manuscripts and objects which explore ‘real life’ historical beliefs surrounding magic.

For example, the Herbology room includes Jim Kay’s illustrations of the greenhouses as Hogwarts; J.K. Rowling’s own drawing of Professor Sprout and some stunningly beautiful Herbals from the British Library’s Collection. The Care of Magical Creatures room is another highlight for anyone who loves medieval bestiaries and illuminated manuscripts.

The Astrology room contains stunning early globes, astrolables and orreries, as well as medieval manuscripts with illustrations of centaurs and other mythological creatures relating to the constellations. One of my favourite items in the exhibition was the sixteenth century ‘volvelle’ – a beautiful rotating paper model – of an astrological chart with a dragon at its centre, from Petrus Apianus’ Astronomicum Caesareum. The dragon could be spun in order to determine the latitude of the moon, or to cast horoscopes.

Similarly, the Divination room contains a whole raft of artefacts and manuscripts showing how different practices to determine the future have been used through centuries and across continents (another great feature of the exhibition is that it doesn’t restrict itself to European traditions of magic, but looks across continents and civilisations) – and makes use of modern technology to allow younger visitors the chance to look into their own futures.

So, which would be my one object to take home for my Cabinet of Curiosities, if I was allowed? Its tricky. The spinning astrological dragon would have to be up there. But then I’m also enough of a Potter fan to covet one of J.K. Rowling’s own drawings. The beautifully intricate gold filigree case containing a bezoar stone was also stunning.

But the thing I did actually take away with me, apart from a head full of wonder? The exhibition book. As well as beautiful colour photos of many of the exhibits, it also contains some fascinating essays by authors as diverse as astronaut Tim Peake, TV wildlife expert Steve Backshall, and author Anna Pavord. The exhibition’s curator, Julian Harrison, provides the overall foreword. He also tweets regularly, including about his favourite objects from the exhibition, and is well worth a follow @julianpharrison. 
My object for my Cabinet of Curiosities!
The exhibition book, published by Bloomsbury

To find out more about the exhibition (including whether there are any tickets left! It closes at the end of February) the website is:

If you do get the opportunity, I really would encourage you to go. It’s a wonderful example of how stories, even those set in with a supposedly fantastical backdrop, can stimulate our imaginations about the truth of history and of the world around us.

January Guest: Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes by Diane Atkinson

Diane Atkinson, author of Rise Up Women!
This month, our guest blogger is Diane Atkinson, author of Rise Up Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes. Marking the centenary of female suffrage, this definitive history charts women's fight for the vote through the lives of those who took part, in a timely celebration of an extraordinary struggle. It is published in the UK by Bloomsbury on 8th February.

Here, Diane commemorates some of the women who attempted to infiltrate government to get women's voices heard, and who paid the price of imprisonment for doing so:


A hundred and ten years ago, on the morning of 17 January 1908, Edith New, a schoolteacher, and Olivia Smith, a nurse, members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), arrived in Downing Street. Under their coats there were steel chains round their waists. They padlocked themselves to the railings outside Number Ten Downing Street, shouting ‘Votes for Women!’ loud enough for the Cabinet Ministers indoors to hear. Sylvia Pankhurst said: ‘Chains symbolically express the political bondage of womanhood, and the practical reason is that this device would prevent the women being dragged away’. Policemen tried to smash the padlock. ‘Considerable force was used before the chains could be broken.’ When Herbert Asquith, chancellor of the exchequer arrived, other suffragettes tried to surround him but he was protected by a circle of policemen. 

Flora Drummond
 Two taxi cabs pulled up, one was carrying two more suffragettes, Flora Drummond and Elizabeth McArthur, and during the chaos Flora and Elizabeth got into No 10. Mrs Drummond knew ‘the secret of the little knob’ in the door, and pushed it. Miss Mary Garth, ‘a frail, pale- complexioned girl,’ followed them. The three women nearly got to the Cabinet Room where they wanted to ask the Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman and the Cabinet if women’s suffrage was to be included in the King’s Speech at the opening of Parliament on the 29th January.

But Drummond, McArthur and Garth were grabbed by the porter and policemen and chucked out of the building. One supporter outside was knocked down in the melee. The Daily Mirror reported that Flora Drummond was ‘very violent’ and ‘tripped up a gentleman and he would have fallen had he not seized the rails.’ The suffragettes refused to leave Downing Street, five were arrested and taken to Cannon Row Police Station. In the afternoon their cases were heard by the chief magistrate, Sir Albert de Rutzen. Flora Drummond, Elizabeth McArthur, Edith New, Olivia Smith and Frances Thompson were sentenced to three weeks in Holloway Gaol in the second division as ‘common criminals’ and not political prisoners, which meant they could not wear their own clothes, and had to do menial work.

Edith New, right, on her release from Holloway in August 1908, after serving two months for smashing windows at 10 Downing Street with her comrade Mary Leigh, left.

The next day a photograph of Flora Drummond, dwarfed by five burly policemen, appeared on the front page of the Daily Mirror. Olivia Smith told the court she had refused to unchain herself from the railings because ‘I do not see why I should not chain myself up on a man’s fence if I like. I did not hurt the fence, I did not hurt anybody … it is my right to exert my individuality and accept my three weeks’ imprisonment.’ Edith New had already served two weeks in Holloway for her part in the protest at the House of Commons on the 8th of March 1907. Edith, a member of the WSPU since 1906, was a paid organiser, born in Swindon in 1877. Before her suffragette days Miss New was a schoolteacher in Greenwich.


Alice Hawkins, a mother of six children, who had been arrested in skirmishes with the police in Westminster in February 1907, and spent two weeks in Holloway Gaol, had opened a branch of the WSPU in her home town of Leicester. Alice, who worked in the boot and shoe industry before and after her marriage to Alfred Hawkins, was born in Stafford in 1863. In 1886 Alice went to work at Equity Shoes, a cooperative, where workers were encouraged to participate in political organisations.

Alice and Alfred, a shoe clicker – he cut the uppers from the leather – were long-standing political activists: they joined the Independent Labour Party in 1892, and met the Pankhurst family in the mid 1890s. In 1896 Alice joined Equity Shoes’ branch of the Women’s Cooperative Guild, and was active in the Boot and Shoe Trade Union. In 1906, because of its failure to promote women’s suffrage, Alice fell out with the I.L.P.

Alfred Hawkins took care of the children when Alice went to London to attend the suffragettes’ Women’s Parliament on 14th February 1907.

One day in the exercise yard at Holloway Alice saw women with babies: ‘The thought that a young life born into the world should have to spend its first months of life in prison. It was one more injustice to add to our cry for the right to stop some of these horrible things being allowed.’ She invited Mrs Pankhurst’s daughter Sylvia Pankhurst to Leicester and introduced her to the workers at Equity Shoes. Sylvia spent the summer of 1907 with the Hawkins family, drawing and painting and writing about the women in the boot and shoe trade as they worked.

In the January issue of the suffragette newspaper, Votes for Women, Frederick and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, who were the financial backers of the WSPU and editors of paper, launched the 1908 campaign. They presented readers with stark choices: 
"Are you going to play the woman or are you going to play the coward? Are you going to stand by and let others bear the brunt of battle? Are you going to say to yourself, “I will be sympathetic; I will occasionally talk about it to my friends, perhaps I will give a little money, but I do not mean to risk my reputation or friendships or personal esteem by too prominently identifying myself with the cause of my sex” … or are you made of sterner stuff than this? Are you going to come forward and say, I will be a battle comrade in the great fight; I will share the difficulties and the hardships; I will make the sacrifices that are required of me."

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence
Frederick Pethick-Lawrence

Fred and Emmeline urged: ‘stand with us so that this year shall see the fulfilment of the promise for which women have worked so long.’

During the first six weeks of 1908 the WSPU’s headquarters in Clement’s Inn – which now employed twenty workers and had dozens of volunteers - made preparations for the three-day Women’s Parliament at Caxton Hall, February 11th –13th. The WSPU’s plan was to present a petition to the House of Commons on the first day by smuggling themselves into the building in two pantechnicons.

The Trojan Horse raid was the brainchild of Mrs Pankhurst’s son, nineteen-year-old Harry, and twenty-one women almost succeeded in their invasion.

Rise Up Women! by Diane Atkinson
Front cover, published 8th Feb 2018 by Bloomsbury

Sunday, 28 January 2018

The Key to Learning by Lynne Benton

When I was at school I hated History.  For four long years in my teens I had an extremely boring History teacher, who made everything seem really dull.  My main memory of her lessons is of her writing on the blackboard lists of dates and Acts of Parliament and telling us to copy them and learn them.  I don’t remember her telling us anything interesting: about the people, how they lived, how they thought, or why the Acts of Parliament were important. And in those days there was no internet, and we had no television either, so although I enjoyed visiting castles and museums, these seemed to bear no relation to what I was supposed to be learning at school. I wasn't inspired.  I’m sure I wasn’t the best pupil, but Miss P. wasn’t the best teacher either.

Fast forward 25 years, when my daughter was the same age as I’d been then.  At the time there was a series on television called “Robin of Sherwood”, on which she and her friends were all hooked – especially the hero, Robin Hood, played by Michael Praed.  (Seen here with Judi Trott, who played Maid Marian)

 They all had posters of him on their bedroom walls and never missed an episode.  That term at school (an all-girls school) they had a new History teacher, Mr. Pritchard, and he began their first lesson by saying, “Right, girls, Robin of Sherwood!”  Instantly he had the entire class in the palm of his hand, and they lapped up everything he could teach them about life in mediaeval times.  This has sparked a lifelong interest in mediaeval history in my daughter at least, and maybe in others too.  History teaching had certainly improved since my day, so well done Mr Pritchard!

In fact I did come to love history later, after I’d given it up at school, when a friend recommended historical novels by the likes of Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton etc. 

I was soon hooked, and read all the ones I could find.  It was fascinating to learn about life in different periods in history, and importantly how the behaviour and beliefs of those who ruled the country affected ordinary people.  I was inspired to find out more about the eras I was reading about, and realised what I’d missed through such uninspired teaching.

This is why I love writing for children, especially writing historical novels.  I hope to make history exciting for children, so they will enjoy it more than I did.  Now I don’t have to learn lists of dates I love doing all the research required, to make sure I’ve got the facts right.  And when my first book was published ("Raiders!", about the Viking invasion of Britain) it filled me with great satisfaction to imagine how Miss P. would have scoffed at the idea of me writing a historical novel!

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Mary Beard's "Women & Power: A Manifesto" by Janie Hampton

Professor Mary Beard, © Caterina Turroni
Professor Mary Beard is Britain’s most famous classicist and The History Girl’s History Girl. Her book Women and Power: A Manifesto is a reminder of  the progress, or lack of, that women have achieved in the last hundred years.
This highly readable book of 100 short pages is based on two lectures Mary Beard gave for the London Review of Books at the British Museum in 2007 and 2014. She uses classical examples to remind us of the deep strata of ugly gender prejudice that underlie what women are still up against. “This is not,” Beard insists, “the peculiar ideology of some distant culture, however distant in time it may be.”
Telemachus tells his mother Penelope to keep on weaving, Athenian pot, 500 BC
She takes the story right back to the first known account of misogyny: Homer’s Odyssey, composed almost 3000 years ago. Telemachus, the teenage son of Odysseus, ordered his middle-aged mother Penelope to be quiet and go back upstairs to her weaving, and leave the men to get on with the important job of talking to each other. Haven't we all been there? I am old enough to have been to dinner parties where after the cheese course, the women withdrew to the drawing room to chat about childcare and recipes, leaving the men to drink port, smoke cigars and discuss world affairs (or so we assumed). My innocent husband once tried to join us women, but was physically barred from leaving the dining room by our host! Telemachus was learning the art of being a real man, which included telling women to be quiet. How many women readers of The History Girls have sat on committees, and either not been allowed to speak or had their bright idea taken up by, and credited to, a man?
Beard explores with wry wit and accessible language, the early history of misogyny and how it has been reinforced ever since Western “civilization” began. She gives the stories of three women who spoke up in the Roman forum. Unfortunately, according to the male Roman writing about her, Maesia "really had a man’s nature"; and as for Afrania, her speech was “yapping and barking”. Her demise in 48 BC was recorded, only because "with unnatural freaks like this" it was more important to record her death than her birth. The third woman, Hortensia, was only permitted to speak for other women, and not on behalf of men too. There are echoes here of modern governments that have Ministries of Women. “Look,” say the ruling men. “We have a Ministry for Women. We can’t possibly be misogynists." Like the dinner parties, the women are encouraged to knit and cook, leaving the men to govern the important things like the economy and war.
Demeaning language about ‘yapping’ women also continues today. In 2017, a Times headline screamed “Women prepared for Power Grab of London in Church, Police and BBC.” While men are awarded positions of power and authority, women have to grab them, pushing aside those unfortunate, less qualified men who previously gained the work or positions.
Little has changed in two thousand years. The image of Donald Trump as the Greek god Perseus holding aloft the decapitated head of Hillary Clinton as Medusa, was an unpleasant and graphic warning during the 2016 U.S. election campaign of how Trump would rule as president.
Donald Trump as Perseus with the head of Medusa depicted as Hillary Clinton, 2016.
Beard’s saddest observation is that women are their own worst enemies. Women often condone and reinforce misogyny, and behave and present themselves as "almost men." In 1588, Queen Elizabeth I is reputed to have encouraged her troops who were about to face the Spanish Armada, with the words, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” In other words, “Forget I’m a woman, I’m as good as a man.” She knew that only by ignoring her sex could she hang onto her power: with marriage and babies she would lose it. 
Elizabeth I rousing her troops at Tilbury, 1588.
She seems to be giving  'two fingers' to the Spanish.
Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May both reached their positions of high power by emulating men’s deep voices and long strides. Neither woman has behaved, at least in public, in a feminist or friendly way to other women, although they have both cleverly made use of a symbol of womanhood to reinforce their positions: Thatcher’s hand-bag became a weapon and May’s uses her kitten-heeled shoes to mollify. Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel both wear trouser suits, presumably to ‘blend in’ with the men. “Having women pretend to be men may be a quick fix, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem,” writes Beard.
Even though Mary Beard has broken through many of the barriers preventing women from achieving their potential, she still suffers abuse just for being herself. Without appealing for sympathy, she reflects on how she has been treated in both print and social media. She has not been judged on her skills or intelligence, but on what she looks like. The late food critic A.A. Gill commented not on the content of her television programmes but on her teeth, hair and clothes; and judged her to be "too ugly for television". Although undoubtedly hurt, (even tough, hard-working women have feelings) she fought back against "the blokeish culture that loves to decry clever women" and hoped to show young women that there was more than one way of being a woman, and of growing older.
Despite gratuitously rude men like Gill, Beard is both respected by her academic peers and admired by television viewers for her authenticity. In 2013, I saw her presented with “The Oldie Pin-up of the Year Award” at the smart London restaurant “Simpson's in the Strand”. In a forthright and witty speech to the male-dominated audience, she made no concessions. She was probably the only woman present not wearing lipstick, and certainly the only one in a comfortable grey cardigan.
Beard considers how the exclusion of women from power is culturally embedded, and how the views of male ancient Greeks are still repeated, in order to make gender violence seem normal. As Jacqueline Rose wrote in The Guardian, Beard describes “the poison of patriarchy as it drips into the body politic of what parades under the banner of civilisation.”
All round the world there are women who dare not speak at all, even when raped. Let’s hope that the news of sexual harassment from Hollywood and Westminster will not become tomorrow’s chip-wrappers. Those who support the ‘witch-hunt’ hypothesis certainly hope so. Beard notes that sexual predation is about power, and it is the men who usually have that; if they happen to be film producers or politicians, even more so.
Beard makes a plea that women should be allowed to make mistakes, and then pick themselves up without being pilloried. “If I was starting this book again from scratch,” she writes, “I would find more space to defend women’s right to be wrong.”
The conclusion that Beard comes to is a surprise. Women must stop trying to gain equal power because power itself is designed by men, and not what we really want or need. Society will only improve when power is redefined. "We don’t have a model or a template for what a powerful woman looks like,” she writes. “We only have templates that make them men." This brilliant and readable book will hopefully make us all wonder how can we help men to achieve equality for women. And ask, what would a world with articulate women allowed to speak look like? Would there be less violence? No rape, no guns? More equality?
Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard published by Profile (£7.99).
PS I have noted the irony that I have used Mary Beard’s father’s name – the patrilineal. Even journalists and academics model themselves against men!

Friday, 26 January 2018

Picasso's Plates, by Carol Drinkwater

                                                               La Guerre 1952  Pablo Picasso
                                                             Picasso Musée National, Vallauris

Forgive the brevity of this post. I am up against several deadlines at present and I am very short of time. Again!

In these wintery days, there is little that can be more heartening than admiring some of the art that came out of this corner of the Côte d'Azur throughout the twentieth century. Warm vibrant colours and exceptional landscapes. This post is really an excuse to share with you some of my favourites and some that are new to me. A breath of beauty to brighten up these days.

Picasso War and Peace 1952

There are many fine galleries down here along French Riviera celebrating the work of so many great artists who made this part of their world their home. Bonnard spent his life in the village of Le Cannet where I buy my morning baguettes, just a half a kilometre from our farm. A new Bonnard museum has recently been opened there and, although small, is well worth a visit. There are several exhibitions offered every year. It also offers fabulous views down across the red-tiled rooftops to the sea. Picasso lived with his last wife, Jacqueline, less than a kilometre to the rear of us. Occasionally, I turn a corner and there I am in front of the inspiration for someone's masterpiece. 
Renoir, for example, and his olive trees in Cagnes-sur-Mer. His home has also been transformed into a fascinating museum dedicated to his life and work.

Picasso in his studio in Vallauris

I was reminded of all of this by chance this week when I was contacted by a television company who are making a mini-series about Pablo Picasso. The episode they wanted to discuss with me concentrates on Pablo's ceramic work in Vallauris. 

In 1946, Picasso went to Vallauris to visit the annual pottery exhibition. This small hillside town has been known for its pottery since ancient times. Back in the day it produced wonderful examples of amphorae used to transport wine and olive oil, but it really came into its own as a pottery centre during the 19th century. A century later, Picasso's arrival on the scene brought another injection of life and a new direction for this local industry.

Glazed vase. Art Nouveau period. Potter: Delphin Massier. One of three brothers all working in their father's family pottery business in Vallauris. This example was fifty years before the arrival of Picasso.

During his 1946 visit, Picasso met Suzanne and Georges Ramie who owned the Madoura workshop and were to change his life. He was keen to try new forms of art. The couple offered him space in their studio. He returned the following year to their workshop and began to experiment with ceramics for the first time.

The rest is history. The town was revitalised. Artists came from all over to experiment with paint on cooked clay and give new forms to pots and cooking utensils.  So taken was Picasso with this work that he bought himself a property in Vallauris, Les Fournas, an ancient perfumery. This he converted to create for himself a large studio. 
His Vallauris period was between 1948 to 1955 even though he continued to experiment with ceramic and linocuts for the next twenty years and returned to the town regularly. He even married his last wife, Jacqueline, in secret in the town hall there. I believe Jacqueline was a young cousin of Suzanne Ramie.

Picasso working with linocuts in his Vallauris studio.

Here are a few examples of the groundbreaking pottery work Picasso produced over a period of forty years. I hope they will bring joy and sunshine to your day.

Next month I will be again talking about The LOST GIRL as the paperwork is to be published on 8th March.

This is a series of eight plates, La Corrida

Thursday, 25 January 2018

San Clemente, Rome by Miranda Miller


   As a sixteen-year-old I fell in love with Rome on a day trip. Six years later I went to live there and now I can see that my fascination with the city - and with history itself - was triggered by my excitement that Rome is a palimpsest; our moment in time balances precariously on top of other centuries which are actually visible. Nowhere is this more true than in San Clemente, a 12th-century church built on top of a 4th-century church built on top a late 2nd century pagan temple. The wonderful thing is that you can explore all these different levels.

   The church is on a shabby street that winds between the Colosseum and the church of S. Giovanni in Laterano, which is the real cathedral in Rome (not St Peter’s in the Vatican) and was the first church to be built there, by Constantine the Great. By then, of course, Rome was already an ancient city. Saint Clement, who was supposedly the third pope or successor to St Peter, was martyred under the emperor Trajan. He was exiled to Crimea and forced to work the mines,but since he persisted in his missionary activity Roman soldiers bound him to an anchor and threw him into the Black Sea. His body was recovered at the bottom of the sea when the waters miraculously receded. Later, his remains were later brought to Rome and buried under the main altar of this church.

   You enter the upper church, or second basilica, of San Clemente from the world of cars and cappuccinos, through a small cloister and immediately feel a dizzying mix of timelessness and historical curiosity. After the pomposity of Baroque architecture this church is moving in its simplicity. There is a swirling marble pavement,

an ornate marble choir and frescoes of the Life of St. Catherine by Masolino and his young disciple, Masaccio. A 12th-century mosaic fills the apse with a Triumph of the Cross, showing a crucified Christ with the Tree of Life growing in twisting vine tendrils all around.

   Then a lift takes you down to ancient Rome. You are in another, lower church that is known to have existed in 392, when St. Jerome wrote about it. There are early Medieval wall paintings and frescoes of the Life of St. Clement and the Story of St. Alexis.

   This 6th century fresco in the Lower Church shows either a Madonna and Child or the Empress Theodora. It’s very dark and if, like me, your night vision is weak this adds to the mystery of the experience.

   Then you descend another flight of stairs to, roughly, ancient Roman street level and find yourself in a Mithraic temple.The altars of both later churches are placed directly above the altar to Mithras. When you peer through the grating and you' can see a relief carving of the god sacrificing a bull.

As part of their rituals, Mithraic priests used to sacrifice bulls until the blood flowed into troughs, which followers would then scoop out with their arms to bathe in.

   The first building on this site was probably destroyed in the great fire of 64 AD. Titus Flavius Clemens, a wealthy consul and an early Christian, allowed other Christians to worship secretly at his house when their religion was still illegal in Rome, and the basement was used as a temple to Mithras.

This is a Roman wall painting. As you wander through the dark, brick vaulted rooms of Flavius Clemens' grand palazzo, you can hear the sound of rushing water from ancient pipes and aqueducts behind the walls.

   These lower levels were flooded for many centuries and this unique building is, amongst other things, an example of co-operation between the nations of Europe: Irish Dominican monks have been the caretakers of San Clemente since 1667, when England outlawed the Irish Catholic Church and expelled the entire clergy. Pope Urban VIII gave them refuge at San Clemente, where they have been ever since, running a residence for priests studying and teaching in Rome. In 1857 Fr Joseph Mullooly began excavations The Irish Dominicans have collaboratied with Italian archeologists. In one of the chapels there is the tomb of Saint Cyril, who translated the Bible into Slavic language and Christianised the Slavs.

   I’ve visited San Clemente many times and it never disappoints me; whether one believes in miracles or not the survival of such a rich and complex building is itself miraculous. On a wall in the atrium is a plaque affixed by Pope Clement XII in 1715: "This ancient church has withstood the ravages of the centuries.” In Rome three more centuries don’t really seem to make a lot of difference.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

DESTRIER - A Recent Hunt in Progress by Elizabeth Chadwick

late 13th century apocalypse British Library
Social media has its problems, but I love it for the exchange of ideas and information which just wouldn't have been possible before the days of the Internet, or certainly not possible within the time frames to which we have now become accustomed.

About a fortnight ago, I got talking on a Facebook friend's page with him and other interested people about the word 'destrier' as a term for a medieval warhorse.   A debate began about when the word first came into use.  1400 was mentioned as a date for the word to enter the vernacular, and that the Normans would not  have used such a term for their own warhorses.

My area of expertise is from circa 1066 up to around 1230, and I had always used the word 'destrier' in my novels as a term for a knight's warhorse, so I was surprised to read that the name came in so late. It was pointed out to me that the 13th century History of William Marshal, which has a great deal of engagement with warhorses, doesn't once mention the word destrier.  Warhorses are always just known as 'chival' and indeed, that's where the word 'chivalry' comes from.  It's made clear that a knight's riding horse was a 'palfrey' his pack horse a 'sumpter' and his warhorse was a 'chival.' Ordinary riding horses are called 'roncins'.
Sumpter horses - Hortus Delicarum 

Made curious, and not convinced, I went digging.
I headed first to the Anglo Norman Dictionary.  It's a wonderful online resource of primary source evidence for Anglo Norman words.
website here for the Anglo Norman Dictionary  Looking up 'Destrier' I immediately got the word back to 1230 together with references to palfreys (high ranking riding horses) and coursers (fast horses for hunting).  So clearly 1400 as an assumption was wrong.   Looking up the word again in the same source for this blog, I glanced at the entry below 'destrier' - 'destries' (various spelt, sometimes without the 's' which means 'behind' but discovered when checking the source for an example citation that 'destrier' by chance, happened to be part of the sentence. 'il est destries lui sur le destrier asis.' The source is given as The Romance of Horn and dates to circa 1170.  Now I had the source back to the latter part of the 12th century and a full 230 years before 1400.

I then turned to the Pipe Rolls to check if the word was being used in Latin in the twelfth century. The Pipe Rolls are basically the King's annual accounts for England.  Sadly not all of these account rolls have survived the vagaries of time and the early part of the 12th century and the reign of Henry I is barely covered. However, enough remain to reveal that 'destriers' glossed in Latin as 'dextrarii'  single 'dextrarius'  are constantly mentioned. In 1197, Joscelin de Amundeville gave a destrier and a hawk in homage to his overlord.  One Nicholas de Chavencurt gave 10 marks and a destrier he had promised to Count John (future King John).
The same thing happened throughout the pipe rolls of Henry II,  as high status gifts and pledges, sometimes given with a hawk, which is strongly indicative of a gift denoting that the giver renders service and allegiance to his overlord. In other words it's always in a high status context.  When the Count of Toulouse was making an agreement with King Henry II in 1173, one of the terms was a payment of 100 silver marks or alternatively ten 'dextarii' worth ten marks each.  Around this time, a common soldier's riding horse - aforementioned roncin or rouncy - would fetch around one and a half marks. A surviving pipe roll from the last years of Henry I , three times references the term 'dextarii' in the context of high status payments.

Checking further primary sources I had on my shelves,  there was again a reference to 'dextarii' in William FitzStephen's Description of London, dating to around 1174, where he describes the horse sales held every Friday at Smithfield in London where earls, barons and knights, as well as ordinary citizens came to view the beasts on offer.  The destriers (dextarii) are described as 'beautiful in shape, noble in stature, with ears and necks erect and plump buttocks.'

I was also alerted to the fact that the Song of Roland, written down some time around 1100 to latest 1130, contains the term 'destrer' for Count Ganelon's warhorse  named Tachebrun.  So now we're potentially 300 years adrift from 1400 and clearly the evidence points to the term referring to a high status war horse.  Destrier in Old French.  Dextarius in Latin.

As another note, there is a Welsh word meaning 'well fed horse' that is very similar to 'destrier' - 'edystir' and this will bear further investigation. It occurs in the laws of Welsh Prince Hywel Dda which are 10th century in origin, but surviving manuscripts in Welsh and Latin date to the mid 13th century.

The hunt continues, as does the question as to why the horses were actually known as 'destriers'.  There are two theories for which I am currently searching for primary proof.  I also acknowledge that the theories may blend and both may be right - or neither.  Without primary source evidence, it can only remain best guess.  I can find several secondary sources, but as yet none from the horse's mouth (pun intended!).

Tournament Guiron le Courtois Naples 1352 British Library

One notion goes that the horses were always led on the right hand side by the squires and grooms who tended to these expensive, magnificent beasts and would have to lead them in their lord's pack train.  Destriers were not used as ordinary riding horses, but generally led to the place of tourney or battle and then mounted at need.  For example in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal,  Patrick of Salisbury, William's uncle was killed while trying to get from his palfrey to his warhorse when his party was ambushed on the road.  Earlier in the Histoire, William's father John ambushed Patrick when Patrick was unarmed and riding casually, but heading to make war. (clearly Patrick didn't learn from experience!).

The other notion is that destriers were so called because destriers were trained to lead on the right leg when commencing a gallop to the joust. But this doesn't fully explain the early 12th century use of the term with regards to jousting.  One on one jousts did exist as we hit the 1130's, but there were no barriers and they were always a preliminary to the main event which was a free for all with everyone piling in to fight over a wide area.   Having said that, warhorses were highly trained animals and the lead on the right leg could have been part of general fighting tactics.

It will be interesting to find out if the word 'destrier' occurrs around the same time as the joust and organised combat sport meetings begin to take off in the early 12th century, or whether it goes back earlier.  I am still digging away at sources and pondering ideas and theories.  I have not carved anything in stone beyond the fact that the word had entered parlance long, long before 1400.

As always, my curiosity and my research continue, being refined as I go.  I started that particular day a fortnight ago, never knowing that such a fascinating research tunnel was waiting to open up in front of me!  If anyone has any primary source reference to the world going back before circa 1100, then do leave a comment - I'd love to know!

My thanks to Brendan Cronin, Nigel Amos, Joseph Pickett and Jean Gill for imformation and conversations.

References - in very short.

The Anglo Norman Dictionary Online (linked in the text of the blog near the sumpter horse picture).
The Annals of Roger of Hovedon volume 1
William FitzStephen - Description of London
The Song of Roland
Various Pipe Rolls of the reigns of Henry I, Henry II, Richard I, and King John
The Laws of Hywel Dda.
Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal

Elizabeth Chadwick is a best selling author of more than 20 novels set in the Medieval period.  Her latest novel, Templar Silks, covering what William Marshal might have done during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land will be published in the UK in hardcover on March 1st.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

History restored: the Red Kite, by Leslie Wilson

Photo: Mike Prince from Bangalore, India
'The kites are gathering.' I don't know how many historical novels I have read those words in, and I can't find a reference now, which is annoying. But as a child, I knew that kites came to battlefields, and internalised those words. Perhaps the birds recognised the signs of incipient battle, which would mean food for them.

Nowadays, if I want to see a kite, all I have to do is go outside. There was one this morning, when we walked the dog; riding the wind, adjusting its wings with admirable skill. Riding on the rein of a wimpling wind, as Manley Hopkins wrote about the kestrel. It's been called the British vulture, though no vulture is as beautiful and elegant as the red kite. It's an enormous bird; when you see the odd kite that has landed and is sitting on the grass, you can see what large birds they are. Their wingspan can reach up to 195 centimetres, almost two metres.

You'd never think they were so big when you see them hanging in the sky. I love their display call, a confident, almost insolent whistle; Whee, whee-whee-whee! They look less confident, though, when they're being harried by a mob of crows. Crows seem to hate them, and probably they do raid crows' nests,but the crows raid theirs.

Robert Southey talks about kites squealing in the skies over the Lake District, where you won't hear them nowadays. Shakespeare says: 'When the kite builds, look to your lesser linen.' Kites haven't changed, then; they are fond of taking small cuddly toys and underwear to put in their nests. They were even known as the 'hat bird' because they were supposed to have removed hats from people's heads. Luckily, I don't wear a hat much in bird-nesting season.

They were apparently protected in England and Wales in medieval times, because they were useful scavengers; like vultures, they cleared up carrion and thrown-out meat that would otherwise rot or attract rats. Killing them even attracted the death penalty, according to a blogger. I'm sure I've seen references to kites hanging round the rubbish dumps on the outskirts of British cities. In Britain it was known in the past by a number of local names the most widespread being 'Glead' or 'Gleade' - a name derived from its gliding flight and 'Puttock'.

However, by the eighteenth century the kite was seen as a danger to game and even crops; it was relentlessly hunted, and it became vanishingly rare. Egg collectors were a further threat to the few remaining pairs, as they wanted to get the last eggs for their collections, which, frankly, makes me want to spit. 'On the authority of two good ornithologists' says my early 20th century The Birds of the British Isles and Their Eggs, 'we know that a pair nested in Devonshire in 1913, though unfortunately the eggs were taken.' Only a few birds managed to survive in Wales.

red kite (not captive) by Jason Thompson
It sounds hopeless; and yet very recent history tells a very different story, as inhabitants of the Home Counties and the south Midlands know. In the late 1980s, the red kite was considered to be one of the most threatened birds in Europe - and then the Chilterns reintroduction was launched by the RSPB and the Nature Conservancy Council. It began in 1989, shortly after we came to live on the lowest slopes of the Chilterns, and began to walk regularly at Christmas Common and Watlington Hill, where a wooden board went up; Red Kites in the Chilterns. You can still see it in the Watlington Hill car park, faded now, and rather superfluous. The few chicks who were brought from healthy populations of Spanish kites were kept in wooden pens in the Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire beechwoods, and then released into the wild. The first pair bred successfully in 1991. In the early '90s, we still thought ourselves lucky if we saw a red kite at Watlington Hill. How different things are now! You can see them over urban Reading.

Can anyone tell me more about red kites in literature and history?

To see a map of current distribution of red kites in the British Isles, go to the RSPB, where you can also see a video of a kite flying, though unfortunately you don't hear the display whistle. What you can hear is all the little birds crying out in alarm when the kite stoops; it does have a bird of prey profile, after all, and they do take nestlings.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Diamond Annie and the Fearless Forty Elephants by Catherine Hokin

 Jewellery Displays at the Ritz Paris
In among all the Brexit misery and non-shuffling cabinet
re-shuffles that have dominated the press so far this year, there has been one story which has had more elements of farce than even the Prime Minister can conjure up: the recent jewellery heist at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. For those of you who missed it, a group of thieves (one dressed as a builder) armed with small axes smashed through a window and assorted display cases and stole items with a value of several million euros.

Not surprisingly their actions triggered the alarms: the hapless thieves (who were all known to police), ran, scattering their loot like confetti, and were pretty much immediately caught by security. More Wallace and Gromit than the Pink Panther. Perhaps they should have spent a bit more time studying history than the hotel layout and acquainted themselves with the shop-looting tactics of the Forty Elephants, a female-run gang which dominated parts of the London crime scene for almost two hundred years.

The gang worked out of the Elephant and Castle district and, although they are primarily documented between the 1870s to the 1950s, appear to have grown out of the Elephant gang of highwaymen operating around the area's Elephant Coaching Inn in the eighteenth century.

 Female Shoplifter
Their activities included blackmail and house-breaking but they were most notorious for ransacking department stores, including Selfridges and Whiteleys. Police reports describe thousands of pounds of clothing and jewellery being seized in a single swoop, to be stored away in deep pockets, muffs and the voluminous bloomers and crinolines of the period. Perhaps because of all the stowed loot, one report (in the 1925 San Jose Chronicle) reports many of the gang women as big handsome women about six feet tall. They are also described as fashionably dressed although the mention of razors in their corsages does cast a darker side on some of the rather glamourised reporting which focused on their good looks and excessive, partying lifestyle particularly in the 'decadent' 1920s. These girls were territorial and ruled their patch as much by violence as any of their male counterparts.

 Lilllian Rose Kendall, the Bobbed Haired Bandit
The gang seems to have been at its strongest in the 1920s and 1930s when they took full advantage of the newly available motor car to extend their operations beyond London and acquire get-a-way vehicles far faster than anything the police could manage. One police report describes how they would descend in taxis and limousines like a gang of locusts, stripping out a store within an hour. Others describe the arrest of one gang member at Whiteleys who had a bag hidden inside her clothes which hung from her waist to her knees and contained over 40 stolen items and one who used a false arm in her blouse. Techniques included the 'crush' where women crowded at a counter and then handed round or dropped items for others to hide. And fighting back, hard. During this period, the gang had its most famous queen: Alice Diamond or Diamond Annie as the police dubbed her after her jewel-encrusted rings which gave her a punch to beware of. Alice was born in Lambeth workhouse, came from a crime family and was a notorious shoplifter by her teens. She took over the gang in 1916 when she was 20, continuing to rule the mob even after she was imprisoned in 1925 after the 'Battle of Lambeth' when a dispute led to Alice leading an army of women armed with lumps of concrete and broken bottles into a brutal attack. The role of Queen passed next onto Lillian Kendall and the gang continued its operations into the 1950s.

Many of the women involved in the gang have colourful reputations but also stories of lives begun in terrible poverty. Alice was one of eight children born in the dreadful conditions of a workhouse and her father was a violent and illiterate petty criminal. Life had few choices for women in her position so perhaps the path the glamour-loving Alice chose is not so hard to understand. Last year it was announced that Marnie Dickens is developing a series for the BBC about the gang and its members - with so much 'glamour' involved it's easy to see why this could be a female Peaky Blinders but let's hope it tells a rounded tale. For anyone interested in finding out more, there are a number of books about the gang, including one by Brian McDonald whose uncles led the male Elephant and Castle gang who the Forty Elephants were linked to. It's quite a story.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Historical Research - Pelicans and Donald Rumsfeld by Imogen Robertson

Ned signing his contract
It’s been an exciting couple of months at our house. My husband Ned Palmer who crops up in my History Girls posts from time to time, has got a book deal. God help us, we are now a two author household. He’s a cheesemonger, and for the last few years has run a company providing cheese and cheese talks to all sorts of people from lawyers and lobbying firms to family groups and incidental gatherings of historians. 

His book is provisionally titled A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles. From Roman cheese moulds to factory cheddar of the 20th century; from 18th century squires promoting Stilton, to monasteries coming up with meaty tasting washed rind cheeses; from scientific farming to witchcraft and charms in the dairy, Ned examines history through a cheesy lens. The book is due out from Profile at the end of 2019.

Other than sharing my pride in the other half though, I wanted to talk about how watching him plunging into the research has reminded me of my old friend Donald Rumsfeld. His most famous quote (see above) has echoed in my mind since I started writing historical novels for a living and it's not just me see Antonia Senior's great piece about how the hunt for unknown unknowns can inspire a writer. 

But unknown unknowns can be a pain, and I fear by best beloved is feeling that pain. At the moment Ned feels his has to know everything about everything which has happened in the last 2,500 years with the depth and detail of a specialist scholar. This makes me afraid that A Cheesemonger's History will in fact become the Key to All Mythologies with cheese. 

Patrick Malahide as Casaubon in BBC's adaptation of Middlemarch

I’m in a better position to help than Dorothea Casaubon was though. I know for a fact that if I had a private income, I’d still be researching my second book. Now an extra eight years of research might have made for a slightly better book, but would probably made for a much worse one. We have to decide what is important to our characters, to our story and follow those threads. Of course we need to reserve some time for free and easy wandering through the archives, letting our curiosity lead us into dark corners where inspiring forgotten stories might lurk, but we mustn't become paralysed by a fear we'll be caught out as if preparing for some terrifying exam. 

I saw a great ‘Meet the Author’ interview with Conn Iggulden some years ago, and at one point, talking about research Conn confessed he’s always afraid that in his research he’s missed some key fact ‘like everyone in the 15th century had a pet pelican’. (I can’t find the interview online, so forgive the from memory paraphrasing). Anyway, I remember snorting into my coffee as I heard him say that, because it’s such a familiar feeling. You know that you have done your research and it’s unlikely that you’ve missed anything fundamental which your critics will gleefully point out to you, waving their pelican banners over bonfires of your book, but at the same time it’s incredibly difficult not to think that perhaps in the next book, the next scholarly article, the next newspaper or PhD thesis you are going to find something which fundamentally alters your understanding of a period. Learning to write historical fiction is learning to manage that anxiety, work out what is important to your story, and what is important to you as a writer. 

Detail of a "disgorging" medieval misericord in Ludlow parish church
via wikipedia

I care about getting the history right in my books, and hate it when I get things wrong. I noticed a reference to the Green Man in one of my books the other day - the shame now I know that phrase was only introduced as a descriptive of the foliate heads in churches by Lady Raglan in 1939 . I have to make sure as I disappear into the weeds of my research though that I remember what I’m actually doing for a living. Telling a story. Creating characters. Delivering a satisfying sense of their world. Sometimes I teach classes about writing historical fiction, and the most common question - most often from people who have the hollow eyed look of someone who has spent six months checking for pelicans - is how to manage your research. My answer is always go back to the story. Go back to the motivations and world which your character inhabits, concentrate your research on the world which is closest to them, which matters most to them, on their story. 

That said, sometimes I just need to know things. Even if they don’t end up in the novel I need to understand them so I feel I have the authority to describe a place or time in the book. For Paris Winter I had a chart of sunrise and sunset times and daily weather reports. A fellow writer and I were talking about the tide tables she wanted to study for her book. 

We all have our things, and often looking for them leads to some nugget of detail, some serendipitous discovery which can expand and enhance your story. We have to make sure there is time in our research to stumble upon things, but we also have to admit upfront what our goals are. For me, that’s tell a satisfying and absorbing story.

So to Ned I’m saying, your readers aren’t coming for a page summarising the current academic debate of invasion v. settlement in the Anglo-Saxon period, they are here to hear you talk about how a cheeseboard can be a lesson in history and culture, rich in anecdote and insight as well as delicious. Stop scanning for pelicans, search out the nugget. And so to lunch.