Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Streets of Old Lambeth: The Thames Path to St Thomas's Hospital

A visitor to London, exploring the Borough of Lambeth, and having viewed the site of the Festival of Britain, can follow the Thames Path southwards, towards Westminster Bridge, passing the London Eye. We are walking, here, along an embankment created by the Victorian engineer, Sir Joseph Bazalgette (of whom more in a later post), which, by making this stretch of the tidal Thames narrower and deeper, did much to alleviate the problems of flooding that once marred the lives of residents of Southwark and Lambeth, as well as those of the City and Westminster.

The large building on the left is the old County Hall, which served as the headquarters, first of the London County Council, and subsequently of the Greater London Council, before the latter was abolished by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1986. Designed by the architect, Ralph Knott, it was opened by King George V in 1922, and now houses hotels, restaurants, and an aquarium.


County Hall, London. Photo: Arpingstone (image is in the Public Domain).


Westminster Bridge lies just beyond. The original Westminster Bridge was built by the Swiss engineer, Charles Labelye, between 1739 and 1750, in the face of opposition from the Thames Watermen and the Corporation of London, who stood to lose revenue from ferrying passengers across the river. It connected the rapidly expanding residential districts of Lambeth to Whitehall and the West End.

Westminster Bridge in 1789 by Joseph Farrington. Image: Stephencdickson (licensed under CCA).


This was the bridge that William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, crossed, on 31st July, 1802, on their way to visit William's illegitimate daughter and her mother in France. His "Lines composed on Westminster Bridge" were supposedly written on that summer morning:

"Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!"

In fact, the poem seems to have been written a year later ("emotion recollected in tranquility"), and to have been based, at least in part, on the impressions recorded by Dorothy, in her journal:

" ... we left London on Saturday morning at half past 5 or 6, the 31st July ... we mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross. It was a beautiful morning. The City, St Paul's, with the River and a multitude of little Boats, made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge. The houses were not overhung by their cloud of smoke and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light that there was even something like the purity of one of nature's own grand Spectacles."

Westminster Hall and Bridge in 1810 (image is in the Public Domain).


The current Westminster Bridge is not the one crossed by the Wordsworths, but a later one, of cast iron, opened in 1862, with details designed by Sir Charles Barry, who had also worked with Augustus Pugin on the design of the new Palace of Westminster, following a disastrous fire in 1834 (this building is now undergoing major renovation works).


The fire of 1834, by J.W.M. Turner, Philadelphia Museum of Art (image is in the Public Domain).

Westminster Bridge. Photo: Martin Durst (licensed under CCA).

The Palace of Westminster. Photo: Alvesgaspar (licensed under GNU). 

Westminster Bridge and Lambeth Bridge, 1897 Stanford's Map of London (image is in the Public Domain).


To the south of the bridge is Saint Thomas's Hospital, originally established in Southwark, in the Twelfth Century, but in its current location since 1871. It was at Saint Thomas's that Florence Nightingale established her training school for nurses in 1860, the first secular nursing school in the World, and the hospital now hosts a museum in her memory.


Florence Nightingale in c 1858 (image is in the Public Domain).

Florence Nightingale with graduates of her nursing school, 1886. Image: FormerBBC (licensed under CCA).

Florence Nightingale's "Polar Area Diagram" of causes of mortality in the Crimean War (image is in the Public Domain). Although she is known today primarily as a nurse, she was also a pioneer of medical statistics, and, in 1859, became the first woman to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society.


From here, it is just a short walk to our next stop, Lambeth Palace.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.



   

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Death and Light: Great Books of 2017

"Across my foundering deck shone a beacon, an eternal beam
Flesh fade, and mortal trash fall to the residuary worm;
World's wildfire, leave but ash;
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd,
Patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond."

Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Winter and death are among the themes explored by some of our greatest writers during 2017, continuing some of the threads established in the previous year. Among my choices for 2016 was Ali Smith's Autumn, which led me to ask whether there could ever be such a thing as "contemporary historical fiction" (as there is surely such a thing as "contemporary history"). Conventional wisdom has long held that works of great literature take a long time to write (this despite the fact that Shakespeare seem to have written Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet in little more than a year), but Smith's sequel, Winter, was published in 2017. Like David Hockney's tablet-produced, PhotoShop-enhanced landscapes, which adorn the covers, Smith's four seasons novels are crafted with purposeful haste, allowing her to capture aspects of the fleeting moment (the Brexit Referendum and the murder of Jo Cox MP, in the case of Autumn; the migration "crisis," and the rise of Donald Trump and Theresa May, in the case of Winter).




Conventional wisdom also holds that literary fiction is rarely funny, and Smith cheerfully drives a coach and horses through this assumption, but Winter is, to my mind, nonetheless, a less optimistic book than Autumn, taking alienation as one of its major themes: the jokes are a delight, but also a distraction (often consciously so, in the minds of the characters). Art (Arthur), the hero or anti-hero of the book, is a would-be nature-writer who seems to have little real connection to nature. He is alienated from his former girlfriend, Charlotte (who has hacked his social media accounts), and from his mother (Sophia, a once successful businesswoman), who is, in turn, alienated from her sister (Iris, a hippy and environmental campaigner), and, perhaps, even from herself (it is unclear whether Sophia is suffering from a mental illness, from a neurological condition, or from early-stage dementia). The one note of hope is offered by the character of Lux, a Croatian refugee, who agrees to impersonate Charlotte, and to spend Christmas with Art and his mother in Cornwall, and who does her best to engineer reconciliations all round. Smith's narration alternates between the present and the past tense, and between several viewpoints, encompassing the characters' memories of lives that have run parallel to Smith's own life, and to mine (the songs and films of Elvis Presley, the art of Barbara Hepworth, the death of Charlie Chaplin, the environmental insights of Rachel Carson, and the Greenham Common protests, all find a place in this rich tapestry of memories).


"Achaean," by Barbara Hepworth, St Catherine's College Oxford. Photo: Munkfishmonger (licensed under GNU).

Dead eagles from Seney National Wildlife Refuge, 1963. In her book, "Silent Spring," published the previous year, Rachel Carson had drawn attention to the threat to wildlife posed by pesticides, notably DDT - subsequently banned across Europe and North America. I read Carson's book as a sixth former, and the recovery of bird of prey populations, both in the UK and the USA, became a potent symbol for the human ability to reverse environmental damage. Photo: Albert Hemming (licensed under CCA).  

The Greenham Common peace protest in 1982 (I joined a parallel protest against nuclear weapons at RAF Molesworth the following year). Photo: Ceridwen (licensed under CCA). 


"God was dead: to begin with. And romance was dead. Chivalry was dead. Poetry, the novel, painting, they were all dead, and art was dead. Theatre and cinema were both dead. Literature was dead. The book was dead. Modernism, postmodernism, realism and surrealism were all dead. Jazz was dead, pop music, disco, rap, classical music, dead. Culture was dead. Decency, society, family values were dead. The past was dead. History was dead. The welfare state was dead. Politics was dead. Democracy was dead. Communism, fascism, neoliberalism, capitalism, all dead, and marxism, dead, feminism, also dead. Political correctness, dead. Racism was dead. Religion was dead. Thought was dead. Hope was dead. Truth and fiction were both dead ... Imagine being haunted by the ghosts of all these dead things ... Ghosts themselves weren't dead, not exactly ... but in any case forget ghosts, put them out of your mind because this isn't a ghost story, though it's the dead of winter when it happens ... "




Lincoln in the Bardo, the debut novel by the American writer, George Saunders, previously known for his short stories, on the other hand, is certainly a ghost story: in its rich cast of characters, all except the single historical figure of President Abraham Lincoln are ghosts, haunting the cemetery where their bodies lie buried. Most of them are in denial as to their true status, insisting that they are merely "sick," and using elaborate euphemisms for the words that they cannot bring themselves to utter, including "coffin," "corpse," "tomb," and "grave." The most recent arrival among them is Lincoln's son, Willie, dead from typhoid at the age of eleven (Lincoln originally intended for Willie to be buried in the family's home-state of Illinois, but decided that he could not bear such a total separation, and had him placed instead in the vault of a friend in Washington, which he visited several times during his grief).


The Lincoln family in the White House, Willie seated beside his mother (image is in the Public Domain).


The Carroll Crypt in Washington DC, where Willie Lincoln's coffin was initially placed (image is in the Public Domain).


Like Ali Smith, George Saunders does not eschew the humorous potential of the situations that he writes about, but nor does he ignore the serious issues that underlie them: even in death, his Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century characters are divided along racial and class lines; and between loyalty to the British Crown, and the nascent Republic. On another level, Lincoln in the Bardo is a sort of Dantean Purgatorio for our times, except that, where Dante (a late Medieval Catholic raised in the Scholastic tradition) had a high degree of certainty as to what the afterlife held in store, Saunders (our contemporary), and his characters, are shot-through with doubts, and have no Virgil or Beatrice to guide them. When characters do appear from the "familiar yet always bone-chilling firesound of the matterlightblooming phenomenon," it is very unclear whether they are leading our characters towards Heaven or Hell, and one understands why they choose, in many cases, to remain in the place and state that they know.

"On our wedding day, I was forty-six, she was eighteen. Now I know what you are thinking: older man (not thin, somewhat bald, lame in one leg, teeth of wood) exercises the marital prerogative, thereby mortifying the poor young - But that is false. That is exactly what I refused to do, you see ...I proposed that we should be ... friends ... I would expect nothing more of her ... she left a note on my desk ... she was happy, was indeed comfortable in our home, and desired, as she put it, to 'expand the frontiers of our happiness in that intimate way to which I am, as yet, a stranger' ... It was tacitly understood that, next night, we would further explore this 'new continent,' and I went to my printing offices in the morning fighting the gravitational pull that bid me stay home. And that day - alas - was the day of the beam ... a beam from the ceiling came down, hitting me ...  as I sat at my desk ... Per the advice of my physician, I took to my ... sick-box ... Then the physician returned, and his assistants carried me to his sick-cart, and I saw that - I saw that our plan must be indefinitely delayed ... "




My third choice for 2017 is a work of non-fiction, Six Facets of Light, by Ann Wroe. It does not focus on death, although death plays a role in the author's day-job (she is among many other things, a writer of obituaries), but rather on the English landscape, more specifically the downs and coastline of East Sussex. This is territory that is very familiar to me, since it is the landscape in which my mother grew up, and which was home to her ancestors as far back as we have been able to trace them. It is, technically, a 2016 publication, but appeared late in the year, and was given to me as a birthday present in January 2017. Ann Wroe herself describes the book as " ... a series of musings on light, compiled from wonderings, observations, and associations made while walking the luminous downs ... between Brighton and Eastbourne ... a love song to light, sung by myself and the various poets and painters of many eras, who have walked along with me." These poets and painters include, notably, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Milton, R.S. Thomas, John Clare, William Blake, Samuel Palmer, and Eric Ravilious, not all of whom knew this specific landscape as intimately as Ann Wroe and I know it, but all of whom, nonetheless, observed and documented the play of light on the landscapes through which they walked. The landscape is not unchanging, of course (few landscapes are, and probably none on our islands), and, as an archaeologist, I am trained to recognise the signs of change in the landscape: in the case of East Sussex, I cannot do so without an awareness that many of these changes were probably brought about by the labour of my own ancestors, as manifest in the flint walls of churches, in the lynchets of fields, and perhaps even in the forms of prehistoric round and long barrows, transformations that have continued through the centuries, despite political upheavals, plagues, and civil and foreign wars.

"A Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star," by Samuel Palmer, c 1830 (image is in the Public Domain).

"The Lonely Tower," by Samuel Palmer, c 1879 (image is in the Public Domain).

Lynchet at West Dean, East Sussex. Photo: Midnightblueowl (licensed under CCA).


"Sixty miles south of London, reached by an ambling train that divides at Haywards Heath, lies Eastbourne in East Sussex. Weathermen say it is the sunniest town in Britain, with brightness almost every day ...  The sea breaking on Holywell Lodge ... sparkles in sequinned foam, and a single yacht -there is always one - cleaves the sea like a blade. The artist Eric Ravilious was brought up here in the early 1900s, the tall, floppy-haired son of a man who, appropriately, made his living by selling and fitting blinds. On Sundays you might see him - 'the Boy,' as friends called him, in token of that unjaded child's gaze - arm-in-arm with his parents, walking briskly to the Methodist church where the minister preached hellfire. For hours he would sit there, morning and evening, in a hall darkened by infernal visions, watching through the high windows how the light played outside. He would hear above the wheezing organ seagulls crying light, scrapping for it, keening down the great curve of it, while wood-and-canvas biplanes buzzed them and more boats, sails shining, rode jauntily on the sea. Or so he painted the scene later, adding - for good measure - vapour trails, clouds, fireworks."


"Shelling by Night," by Eric Ravilious, 1940, Tate Britain (image is in the Public Domain). 


Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


Thursday, 14 December 2017

Invasion! Archaeology, Genetics, and National Myths

A major new BBC television series, presented by the maritime historian and archaeologist, Dr Sam Willis, sets out to tell "the stories of the invasions of the British Isles" from earliest times down to the modern era. Appropriately enough, Willis begins by insisting that "invasions come in many forms:" glaciers and pigs, as well as marauding foreign warriors, such as the Saxons and Vikings, can be "invaders." The supposed "Celtic invasions" of the Iron Age, he tells us, probably did not happen in the conventional sense (they may, instead, have been "fashion invasions"): and there may even have been a "foodie invasion," between Julius Caesar's brief military intervention of 55/54 BC, and the more definitive Roman invasion of Britain under the Emperor Claudius in 43 AD; in which Britons were "softened up" by the Romans, through imports of wine, olives, and fish sauce from the Mediterranean. There is little, here, with which I would necessarily disagree.

This narrative, however, is somewhat undermined by the production team's insistence on interspersing the comments of Willis and various specialist contributors with CGI-enhanced "reconstructions," showing hordes of hairy warriors charging across fields, variously waving (depending on the period in question) spears, shields, battle-axes, clubs, swords, bows and arrows. Even in Willis's script, there is much talk of the "wholesale replacement ... through violence" of one population by another, and almost no mention of (for example) trade, or intermarriage; as if the replacement of one population by another could ever have been achieved by male warriors in the absence of women - none of whom appear in the reconstructions until the actress, Gina McKee, appears in the character of Boudica from the recent production at Shakespeare's Globe (which production I very much enjoyed, but as drama, not history). The programme sets out, in Willis's words, to bridge "the gap between myth and reality" (the myth being that of British exceptionalism), yet in some respects reinforces a national myth of the British as not merely an "Island Race" (Winston Churchill), but as an unusually martial one.

The "wholesale replacement" of one population by another is something that has probably happened very rarely in human history. The European colonisation of some corners of the New World between the Fifteenth and the Eighteenth Centuries may have come close, but this was largely down to the deadly pathogens (smallpox prominent amongst them) which Europeans inadvertently carried with them, to which the native populations had no immunity. Prehistoric Britain and its continental neighbours however, had contact with one another over dozens, if not hundreds, of generations prior to the postulated "invasions," making this scenario far more difficult to believe.

The prime example of "wholesale replacement" in the first episode of Invasion! (I ought to clarify that I am writing this having seen only the first episode) is that of the "Beaker People:" these are the people referred to as "Semona" (an entirely fictional name) in my novel, "Undreamed Shores". In the archaeological record for the period 2900-2500 BC, a new package of material culture appears across disparate areas of Europe. This package includes a distinctive form of drinking vessel, the "bell-beaker," together with some of the first tools of copper and bronze, and gold jewellery, and is associated with changes in burial rite, ritual practice, and settlement.


Artefacts of the "Beaker Culture" from Germany. Photo: Thomas Ihle (licensed under GNU).

Copper dagger of the "Beaker Culture" from Brandenberg, Museum of Prehistory and Early History, Berlin. Photo: Einsamer Schutze (licensed under GNU). 

The distribution of elements of the "Beaker Culture" in Europe, based on research by Professor Richard Harrison (image is in the Public Domain).


In my earliest academic publications, written between twenty and thirty years ago, I argued (though I was by no means the first to do so) against the idea that this complex necessarily reflected a mass migration of people: my model, in fact, was rather closer to Sam Willis's idea of a "fashion invasion," although this was not a term that I used. By the time I came to write Undreamed Shores (2012), the discovery of graves such as that of the "Amesbury Archer" (on whom I based the character of Arthmael) had led me to revise this opinion, at least to some extent: the "archer" was, demonstrably, an immigrant to the British Isles, and not from the near continent, but from central Europe (the evidence for this, incidentally, is isotopic, not genetic - it is based on analysis of the water that he drank as an infant, a mineral record of which is preserved in his teeth). Accordingly, I depicted Arthmael as a foreigner, but not an "invader:" nothing in the archaeological record for southern England suggested to me then, or suggests to me now, a large-scale military invasion (which is not to deny that violence sometimes broke out, as it does in the novel), still less a "wholesale replacement" of one population by another.


Reconstruction of the burial of the "Amesbury Archer," Salisbury Museum: "Beaker" burials tend to be individual, whereas earlier Neolithic burials are often collective. Photo: Richard Avery (licensed under CCA). 


Replica of a copper halberd found with an oak handle at Carn, County Mayo: weaponry does feature in "Beaker Culture" assemblages, and some skeletons show evidence of violent trauma; the rejection of a "wholesale replacement" hypothesis does not depend on an assumption that relationships were always peaceable. Photo: Thefuguestate (image is in the Public Domain).

Barbed and tanged arrowheads from the burial of the "Amesbury Archer:" these are likely to have been weapons of war, rather than hunting equipment. Photo: Wessex Archaeology (reproduced with permission). 


Bell-beakers and associated artefacts are only ever found in a minority of burials in the British Isles, and only in some parts of the country. The burial of the "Amesbury Archer," in many ways a classic "Beaker" burial, was found close to the extensive settlement of Durrington Walls, which was certainly occupied during his lifetime, and where he himself may very well have lived: but where most households continued to use the older Neolithic style of pottery ("Grooved Ware"), and where few objects of copper or gold were found.


Gold ornaments found in the grave of the "Amesbury Archer:" previously described as "ear-rings," such objects may, rather, have been worn in the hair; some of the earliest gold and copper objects in the British Isles have been found with "Beaker" burials. Photo: Wessex Archaeology (reproduced with permission). 


When, in the first episode of Invasion!, I heard the suggestion that the "Beaker People" originated in the steppes of the Ukraine and southern Russia (where "bell-beakers" have never been found), I rather assumed that someone on the production team had been reading a text-book of the 1940s or 1950s, when such interpretations were in vogue (before the widespread adoption of radiocarbon dating in its modern form).


The "Kurgan Hypothesis" for the spread of Indo-European languages, wheeled vehicles, and the horse. The hypothesis was popularised by the Lithuanian/American archaeologist, Marija Gimbutas, in the 1940s and 50s. "Kurgans" are burial mounds in the Pontic Steppe, superficially similar to the "Beaker Culture" burials found further to the north and west. Image: Dbachmann (licensed under GNU). 


Out-of-date textbooks pose an occupational hazard for programme makers and historical novelists alike, but so do untested summaries of very recent research. Someone on the production team must surely have read an article in "Nature" Magazine, by Ewen Calloway, dated 17th May 2017, and summarising DNA research by a team led by Inigo Olalde and David Reich of the Harvard Medical School. This research does appear to resurrect Marija Gimbutas's "Kurgan Hypothesis," and to suggest the replacement of earlier British (but not continental) genomes by the "Beaker People." Calloway's article, however, carries a fundamental health warning, to the effect that the research has not yet been through the standard scientific process of peer review. The findings seem to be based on an analysis of just nineteen British "Beaker" skeletons, and thirty-five earlier ones, which, it strikes me, is a very flimsy basis on which to build a hypothesis at variance with the available archaeological evidence. As my colleague, Marc Vander Linden, of the Institute of Archaeology at UCL, has commented, this is "not at all the end of the story."

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


Thursday, 7 December 2017

Who were the Scythians? Warriors, Herders and Traders of the Eurasian Steppe

In an earlier blog-post, I explored the question of "Celtic" identity through a review of an exhibition at the British Museum, and a related BBC television series. The British Museum's current major exhibition is on the Scythians, an even more elusive people: it is subtitled "Warriors of Ancient Siberia," but the Scythians (as the exhibition itself makes clear) were so much more than this. Certainly they were warriors, and, as such, perfected the art of mounted warfare, and the technology of the complex bow, to a greater extent than any people before them, and in ways that would influence the military history of Europe and Asia for centuries after their time. They were also herders, goldsmiths, and traders, and their domain extended from Siberia in the east to the Black Sea in the west.

Gold plaque depicting Scythian archers, which would probably have been sewn onto a garment, probably from Kul-Oba (Crimea). Photo: World Imagery (licensed under GNU).


The Scythians are the earliest in a succession of historically documented peoples whose natural environment was the steppe belt that connects Europe and Asia (later examples included the Huns, Goths, Turks, and Mongols). These vast, grassy plains were unsuitable for ancient agriculture, and thus could not support settled, urban communities, but were ideally suited to a nomadic lifestyle, with the herding of horses, cattle, sheep and goats. The settled communities of the Greek, Persian, and Chinese worlds feared the sometimes violent incursions of their nomadic neighbours, yet they also depended on them for access to goods that they valued.

The Eurasian steppe belt, indicated in blue. Image: Clivius (Public Domain).

Scythia and Parthia (Persia) in c 100 BC. Image: Dbachmann (licensed under GNU).

The steppes of Kazakhstan. Photo: Togzhan Ibrayeva (licensed under CCA).


The Greek historian, Herodotus, seems either to have met Scythians, or to have met people who had traded with them, but he would have known nothing of Siberia. His Scythians lived along the northern shores of the Black Sea, including the Crimea: he refers to more or less settled communities of "Royal Scyths," who regarded the truly nomadic Scythians to the east as their slaves. Archaeological evidence suggests that these "Royal Scyths" had a taste for Greek wine and metalwork, which they probably obtained in exchange for Chinese silks and Indian spices.


Electrum vessel from Kul-Oba (Crimea), found between the feet of a woman in a Scythian royal grave, 400-350 BC; Hermitage, Saint Petersburg. Photo: Joanbanjo (licensed under CCA).

The design from the Kul-Oba vessel; the man on the right is stringing his bow, whilst the one on the left wears a diadem, similar to that worn by the principal (male) burial in the grave; all wear trousers, a characteristically Scythian garment (image is in the Public Domain). 

Gold ornaments from the Kul-Oba grave, showing Greek influence; these would probably have been sewn onto clothing; Cabinet des Medailles, Paris. Photo: PHGCOM (licensed under GNU).

Relief from Behistan (Iran), showing the Scythian King, Skunkha, as a captive of the Persian King, Darius the Great. Photo: Livius.org (reproduced with permission).


At the other end of the trade route, in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia, close to the modern borders of Russia, China, and Kazakhstan, lived other groups of more or less settled Scythians, whose elites lived a similarly "royal" lifestyle, based on their close trading contacts with the Chinese. The archaeological evidence from Siberia, which is well represented in the British Museum exhibition (many of the artefacts on loan from The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg), is of particular interest, since frozen conditions have allowed for the exceptional preservation of wooden objects, textiles, and even human bodies, some of which have elaborate tattoos.


Gilded wooden deer from a royal grave at Pazyryk, Siberia, c 400 BC. Photo: The Hermitage Museum (reproduced under Fair Usage Protocols). 

Part of a carpet from the Pazyryk burial chamber; possibly made in Persia or Armenia, it is the oldest surviving wool-pile carpet in the World. Photo: The Hermitage Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

Painting on a felt hanging from the Pazyryk burial chamber. Photo: The Hermitage Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

Gold plaque from Siberia, thought to represent a resurrection scene from Scythian mythology. Photo: The Hermitage Museum (reproduced under Fair Usage Protocols). 


The Scythians were never a united people, and may not even have shared a common language. Those around the Black Sea seem to have spoken a language allied to modern Iranian, whilst others may have spoken Germanic, Turkic, or Mongolic languages. As highly mobile traders, however, their elites are likely to have been multi-lingual, and they seem to have initiated the complex network of overland trade-routes that would later be referred to as the "Silk Roads," connecting Europe and the Middle East with India, Central Asia, and China, and which continued to operate, in a myriad of different forms, throughout ancient and medieval times, until they were finally supplanted, in the late Fifteenth Century, by maritime trade routes controlled by the Portuguese and Spaniards.

The British Museum exhibition, which runs until 14th January, includes a wealth of spectacular objects, never previously seen in western Europe, and shedding important new light on our shared European and Asian heritage.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.




Friday, 1 December 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: December

The Medieval approach to "The Festive Season" could hardly have been more different from our own. The festivities, which today culminate on the 25th December, could not begin, in the Middle Ages, until Christmas Day, and, in order to respect the religious solemnities of the festival, the exchange of gifts more commonly took place towards the end of the season, often on New Year's Day.

Nativity scene, from the Hours of Charles d'Angouleme, late 15th Century, National Library of France, Latin MS 1173, 18v. Image: Cardena2 (licensed under CCA).


In place of the modern commercial bonanza, with "Black Friday," "Cyber-Monday," and "Small Business Saturday," Christmas was preceded by twenty-four days of fasting and penance, as Christians prepared to mark the arrival (adventus) of Christ. Rich foods, and especially meat, were set aside. The Fifteenth Century Franciscan, James Ryman, complained of the fare served in his priory during Advent, that: "we ete no puddynges ne no sowce, But stynking fisshe not worth a lowce."  Other sources, however, suggest that, in the private homes of the wealthy, a rich variety of fish and seafood were served, elaborately prepared in spiced sauces.


Saint Ambrose, with a border of mussel shells, Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c 1440, Morgan Library (image is in the Public Domain). 

Saint Laurence, with a border of fish, Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c 1440, Morgan Library (image is in the Public Domain).


Then, as now, the season was marked by the telling and retelling of particular stories: not only the familiar ones about the Nativity, and the Annunciation to the Shepherds, but also those of Saint Nicholas (a Fourth Century bishop in what is, today, Turkey, who resuscitated some children whose remains had been salted by a butcher during a time of famine, and whose feast is celebrated on 6th December); Saint Stephen (the first Christian martyr, celebrated on 26th December); and the Holy Innocents (the children supposedly massacred by King Herod, commemorated on 28th December); even the story of Adam and Eve, whose sin created the need for Christ's redemptive Passion.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, from the Hours of Philip the Bold, c 1370, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 3-1954 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, from the Hours of Charles d'Angouleme, late 15th Century, National Library of France, Latin MS 1173, 20v. Image: Cardena2 (licensed under CCA).

Saint Nicholas, De Grey Hours, c 1390, National Library of Wales MS 155370 f37p (image is in the Public Domain).

King Herod ordering the Massacre of the Innocents, Black Hours, Morgan Library MS M493, c 1475 (image is in the Public Domain).


Then, as now, also, there were specific pieces of music, including "There is no Rose of Swych Vertu," "The Boar's Head Carol," and "The Coventry Carol." Some of the stories were enacted in puppet-shows, and, whilst Saint Francis, in 1223, may not actually have been the first to reenact the Nativity as a tableau with live animals, he and his followers certainly did much to popularise such practices. There were no Christmas Trees, as such, but the Elizabethan commentator, John Stow, found a document of 1444 (it has not survived), describing a tree erected on Cornhill in London (almost certainly the "great shaft" which, in the Spring, served as a maypole), "nailed full of holme and ivie."


A puppet show, 13th Century, MS 251, Brugge (image is in the Public Domain).


When it came to the festivities themselves, turkey and roast potatoes would not have been on the menu (they did not arrive in Europe from the New World until the Sixteenth Century). Richard de Swinfield, a Thirteenth Century Bishop of Hereford, held a Christmas feast that included boars' heads; beef; venison; partridges; geese; bread; cheese; ale; and wine. King Richard II's Christmas feast of 1377 required the slaughter of twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep. Game of various sorts was often a feature of such feasts, and hunting scenes are frequently depicted on the calendar pages for December.

Hunting in December, Hours of Hennessy, 1530, Royal Library of Belgium (image is in the Public Domain). 

Hunting in December, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c 1440, Musee Conde MS 65, f12 (image is in the Public Domain). The building in the background is the Chateau de Vincennes.


Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.