Thursday, 26 November 2015

The Wards of Old London: Cheape - Guildhall, and Windows into Cities Past

The main road running through the City of London, from Newgate in the west to Aldgate in the east, having passed through the Ward of Farringdon Within, and skirted the northern edges of Bread Street Ward and Cordwainer Street Ward, enters the Ward of Cheape (or Cheap, the latter being the preferred modern spelling).

The Wards of the City of London in 1870 (Image is in the Public Domain).

One might expect the names of the streets that run from north to south - Ironmongers' Lane, Wood Street, Honey Lane, Milk Street - to tell their own fairly obvious stories, and, probably, in the time of Geoffrey Chaucer, this was the case. By the time that John Stow was writing his Survey of London, in 1598, however, these demarcations of trade had largely broken down. He knows of the ironmongers of Ironmongers' Lane only from written records and, even in his childhood, his parents sent him to fetch milk, not from Milk Street, but from the Franciscan nunnery beyond Aldgate. At the point where Cheapside becomes Poultry, he writes of poulterers as a distant memory, and rather encounters, in Cheape Ward, grocers, apothecaries, pepperers, haberdashers and upholsterers.

Cheape Ward, from an 18th Century copy of Stow's Survey of London (image is in the Public Domain).

Ward boundaries in the city change from time to time, and only a small part of London's Guildhall is now in Cheap Ward. In Stow's time, however, it was wholly so, and it was the pulsing heart of city life, functioning as a seat of civic governance, a court of law, and a place where the representatives of the various City Livery Companies came together to consider matters of common concern.

The interior of Guildhall today. Photo: David Iliff (License CC-BY-SA 3.0).

It is, in fact, one of the very few Medieval buildings in the City to have survived the Great Fire of 1666. The first written reference to a guildhall was in 1128, and the current building was constructed between 1411 and 1440. The crypt may date to the late 13th Century. The current Grand Entrance, in "Hindoostani Gothic," was added by Charles Dance in 1788.

The crypt of London's Guildhall. Photo: The Wub (licensed under CCA).

In the days before mass-media (which extended well into the 19th Century), Guildhall Yard was London's most important gathering place. Whenever news reached London of an important national or international event, it was to the yard that the tradesmen and apprentices flocked, to hear the news delivered by the Lord Mayor, accompanied by whatever dignitaries could be enticed to join him with the promise of a good lunch and a generous glass of port.

Guildhall Yard in 1805: the buildings to the left and right were destroyed during a bombing raid in the Second World War (image is in the Public Domain).

Beneath the modern streets of Cheap Ward, however, and even beneath Guildhall Yard itself, lie clues to earlier incarnations of the city we call London. A printer's apprentice, listening to a speech by the Lord Mayor, can hardly have known that he was standing in the centre of Londinium's Roman amphitheatre, where gladiators faced one another in battles for life and death. It was only in 2000 that excavations by Museum of London archaeologists revealed its remains, its circuit now marked out on the paving slabs of Guildhall Yard, and its eastern entrance preserved in the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery.

The remains of London's Roman amphitheatre. Photo: Philafrenzy (licensed under CCA).

Guildhall Yard today, the black line at bottom right marking the curve of the Roman arena. Photo: Elisa Rolle (licensed under CCA).

The streets to the south of Guildhall became, after 1066, the focus for London's Jewish community, until the Jews were expelled from England in 1290, following a wave of anti-Semitic riots (London's Jewish community was only officially re-established during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell). In Milk Street, on a site that had been home to the wealthy Jewish Crespin family, archaeologists uncovered a 13th Century mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath, now reconstructed at London's Jewish Museum in Camden.

The persecution of English Jews, from the 13th Century Rochester Chronicle (British Library). The badges worn by the Jews were enforced upon them by an edict of Pope Innocent III in 1215 (image is in the Public Domain).

Returning to the main east-west street through the city, which is, by this point in our journey, Poultry, we have, perhaps for the first time, a clear sense of being at the low point between the two hills on which London is built: Ludgate Hill behind us to the west and Cornhill ahead of us to the east. We have little sense of the natural watercourse running beneath our feet, the Walbrook Stream, or indeed of the artificial watercourse that carried sweeter water from the headwaters of the River Tyburn to the "Great Conduit" which served Londoners from the 1240s until the time of the Great Fire in 1666.

No. 1, Poultry. Photo: John Salmon (licensed under CCA).

A post-modern office block, No.1 Poultry, and which incorporates Bank Underground Station, now stands where Medieval Londoners queued for fresh water (brewers were frequently accused of taking more than their fair share, but the alternative of brewing ale from the brackish and fetid waters of the Thames would probably have had far worse consequences). During its construction, Museum of London archaeologists found the remains of one of London's lost churches, the tiny Saint Benet Sherehog, as well as several Roman houses.

Discarded behind the houses, and preserved only thanks to the waters of the Walbrook stream, was found a Roman letter, written on a thin slither of wood, which gives us a fleeting glimpse into the life of one of Londinium's inhabitants. It is the deed of sale of a Gaulish slave-girl named Fortunata, sold for the equivalent of two years' salary for a legionary. Fortunata was probably literate (illiterate slaves were cheaper) but, whatever her background, she was now at the very bottom of the heap, the slave of a slave of a slave. Her age is not given, but she must have been young (she is described as a puella, which can mean either "virgin" or "girl," but the latter reading is to be preferred, since slaves enjoyed no legal protection from rape). She will be the protagonist of my next novel.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 33 - "Angels and Insects," by A.S. Byatt

Britain's industrial revolution in the 19th Century went hand in hand with the popularisation of science. Where, a century earlier, a knowledge of classical antiquity had been the mark of a "gentleman," increasingly an "educated" man or woman was expected to keep abreast of the latest developments in chemistry, physics and biology. London's Royal Institution, founded in 1799, offered public lectures by some of the leading scientific figures of the day. It was here that Sir Humphrey Davy inspired the young Mary Shelley with a lecture on galvanism; and Michael Faraday both demonstrated electricity and established the Institution's annual Christmas Lectures for young people; Sir John Lubbock lectured on the social behaviour of ants, bees and wasps; and Thomas Henry Huxley ("Darwin's Bulldog") on evolution.

Michael Faraday lecturing at the Royal Institution in 1856 (image is in the Public Domain).

Experimental science became not only the foundation of new technologies, but also a hobby for many people. It also posed some difficult questions, however, removing some of the certainties on which people had based their lives for centuries. If, as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace claimed, life had evolved by means of "natural selection," was there any basis for a belief in God? If not, then the Bible could surely no longer be the basis of morality, but what was to replace it? The Metaphysical Society was founded in 1869 to ponder just such questions, bringing together such luminaries as Huxley (who coined the word "agnostic"); the politician, William Gladstone; the artist and critic, John Ruskin; the poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson; and the churchmen, Cardinal Manning and Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, the Dean of Westminster Abbey.

Cartoon of Charles Darwin, from The Hornet, 1871 (image is in the Public Domain).

Similarly, if, as men such as Davy and Faraday had proven beyond doubt, we are constantly surrounded by powerful forces, such as magnetic fields and radio waves, of which we are unaware, but which can, with the right knowledge and equipment, be harnessed to human use, what else might be "out there" to be tapped? The spirits of the dead, perhaps, moving unseen amongst us, waiting to be "contacted"? Spiritualism, like science, became a hobby and, for some people, an obsession. Some mediums, such as Florence Cook in Hackney and the Fox sisters in America, even claimed to be able to "materialise" spirits, until their fraudulent practices were revealed and demonstrated in the 1870s by stage magicians such as John Nevil Maskelyne and George Alfred Cooke.

The medium, Florence Cook, claimed to be able to materialise a spirit, "Katie King" (image is in the Public Domain). Here the chemist and physicist, Sir William Crookes, encounters her, and is convinced, but Cook was later unmasked as a fraud by George Sitwell (the father of the poet, Edith).

A.S. Byatt's novel, Angels and Insects, is, in effect, two novellas bound together, exploring these issues through the eyes of both fictional and historical characters.

In the first novella, Morpho Eugenia, a fictional naturalist, William Adamson (who has much in common with Alfred Russel Wallace) returns to England from an Amazonian expedition. He is impoverished, but finds a patron in the Reverend Sir Harald Alabaster, who employs him to catalogue his collection of natural history specimens. Sir Harald agonises over the reconciliation of science and faith, and looks to William for reassurance, which he finds himself unable to provide. William falls in love with, and marries, Sir Harald's socially awkward daughter, Eugenia, and they start a family. Whilst William enjoys the uneasy confidence of Eugenia's father, he meets outright hostility from her brother Edgar, a hostility he assumes to be founded in snobbery, but which turns out to have much darker roots. Together with his children and their tutor, the mysterious and beguiling Miss Matty Crompton (a servant who quotes Milton & Ovid, and writes poetry and fiction of her own), William embarks on a study of ants' nests around Sir Harald's estate, but Matty is party to the family secrets, and it is very uncertain where her increasingly close association with William might lead.

Statue of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), a zoologist mentioned in Byatt's text, but who also appears, at least in part, to be the model for William Adamson. Wallace hit upon a theory of natural selection independently from Darwin, and a summary of both theories was presented simultaneously to the Royal Society with neither man actually present. Although the two theories are essentially similar, Darwin's reputation went on to eclipse Wallace's, in part because of his more influential social connections. The statue, at the Natural History Museum, is by Anthony Smith. Photo: George Beccaloni (licensed under CCA).

"'It is hard,' he said to William, 'not to agree with the Duke of Argyll that the extraordinary beauty of these creatures is in itself the evidence of the work of a Creator, a Creator who also made our human sensibility to beauty, to design, to delicate variation and brilliant colour ... The world has changed so much, William, in my lifetime. I am old enough to have believed in our first Parents in Paradise, as a little boy, to have believed in Satan hidden in the snake, and in the Archangel with the flaming sword, closing the gate. I am old enough to have believed without question in the Divine Birth on a cold night with the sky full of singing angels and the shepherds staring up in wonder, and the strange kings advancing across the sand on camels with gifts. And now I am presented with a world in which we are what we are because of the mutations of soft jelly and calceous bone matter through unimaginable millennia - a world in which angels and devils do not battle in the Heavens for virtue and vice, but in which we eat and are eaten and absorbed into other flesh and blood ...'"

Morpho eugenia, the Amazonian butterfly that gives its name to the first novella, Museum of Toulouse. Photo: Didier Descouens (licensed under CCA).

In the second novella, The Conjugial Angel, we find ourselves in Margate, in the company of Mrs Lilias Papagay, the wife or widow of a sea-captain (missing, presumed drowned), and Miss Sophy Sheekhy, a spirit-medium. Their social circle includes Emily Jesse (a historical character - the sister of the poet, Tennyson, and the wife of a retired sea-captain, Richard); and a Mr Hawke (fictional, I think), described as a "theological connoisseur:"

"He had been a Ritualist, a Methodist, a Quaker, a Baptist, and had now come to rest, permanently or temporarily, in the Church of the New Jerusalem, which had come into being in the spiritual world in the year 1787 when the old order had passed away, and that Spiritual Columbus, Emanuel Swedenborg, had made his voyages through the various Heavens and Hells of the Universe, which he was shown in the form of a Divine Human, every spiritual and every material thing corresponding to some part of this infinite Grand Man."

"When Mrs Papagay tried the automatic writing on her own for the first time, she received, she thought, indisputable messages from Arturo, then or now, alive or dead, tangled in seaweed or in her memory. Her respectable fingers wrote out imprecations in various languages she knew nothing of, and never sought to have translated, for she knew well enough approximately what they were, with their fs and cons and cuns. Arturo's little words of fury, Arturo's little words, also, of intense pleasure. She said, dreamily, 'O, are you dead or alive, Arturo?' and the reply was 'Naughty-lus tangle-shells sand sand break break breaker c.f.f.c. naughty Lilias, infin che'l mar fu sopra noi richiuso.' From which she concluded that on the whole he was probably drowned, not without struggle. So she put on mourning, took in two lodgers, tried her hand at a novel, and lived more and more in the passive writing."

Advertisement for a "planchette" to facilitate automatic writing, as a method of communicating with the deceased (image is in the Public Domain). Manufacturers experimented with various materials as a means of "insulating" users from the influence of evil spirits, just as the makers of the first electrical devices sought to insulate their customers from electric shocks.

A shipwreck, and the character of Mrs Papagay's husband, Arturo, create the link between the two novellas, as becomes clear at the junction between them. In both cases, Byatt's narration is interwoven, not only with the dialogues between her characters, but with the poetry, fiction and theology of the time itself. Historical fiction meets the history of ideas in a dazzling evocation of a moment in which everything seemed to be at stake, the fiery furnace in which modern Britain was forged.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Wards of Old London: Cordwainer Street - Shoemakers, and a Church of Many Stories

Immediately to the east of Bread Street Ward lies Cordwainer Street Ward, so-named for the cordwainers who worked here throughout the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Cordwainers were workers in leather and, more specifically, makers of shoes and boots from new leather (thus distinguishing them from cobblers, who repaired used shoes, or made new ones from recycled leather). The finest shoes of all were made from white goat-skin leather imported from Cordoba in Spain, and the word "cordwainer" is derived from "Cordovan," although the cordwainers of London are likely to have worked both with this luxury material and with cheaper leather produced within England.

A modern cordwainer at work on the island of Capri. Photo: Jorge Royar (licensed under CCA).

This particular quarter of London was designated for the use of cordwainers by a statute of Henry VI in 1431. At various times during the Middle Ages, fashions in footwear seem to have got out of hand, and orders were sent out by monarchs, charging the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers to restrict the length of the "pikes" on the shoes being made and sold.

A Medieval shoe with a prominent "pike" (pointed toe). Photo: Marieke Kuijjer (licensed under CCA).

Shoe-making in London began to decline during the English Civil War (or the War of the Three Kingdoms, depending on one's point of view), when Oliver Cromwell placed a bulk order with shoe-makers in Northampton, for shoes and boots to equip the New Model Army. With more physical space for expansion, and easy access to raw materials (Northamptonshire had been a centre of the leather industry since Roman times), the shoe-makers of Northampton flourished at the expense of the London cordwainers.

There were, at the time of John Stow's Survey of London (1598), seven ecclesiastical parishes within the ward, but only two churches survive. Both have their origins in Saxon times, but both were remodelled in the Middle Ages, destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, and damaged in the Blitz. Saint Mary Aldermary, where Geoffrey Chaucer's father, Richard (a wine-merchant), lies buried, is one of the few churches that Wren chose to rebuild in a Gothic, rather than a Neo-Classical style, and is thus one of the very earliest expressions of an architectural tradition that reached its height with Barry and Pugin's Palace of Westminster.

The church of Saint Mary Aldermary. Photo: Lonpicman (licensed under GNU).

The more famous church, however, is Saint Mary-le-Bow, the bells of which can apparently be heard as far away as Hackney Marshes (traditionally, Londoners can only consider themselves "Cockneys" if they were born within hearing distance of them). The bells were used, at various times, to give notice of a curfew within the city, after which the gates would be closed.

The church of Saint Mary-le-Bow, as designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Photo: Lonpicman (licensed under GNU).

John Stow has more stories to tell about Saint Mary-le-Bow than about any other London church. Here are just a couple of them:

"First, we read that, in the year 1090 ... by tempest of wind, the roof of the church was overturned, wherewith some persons were slain, and four of the rafters, of twenty-six feet in length, with such violence were pitched in the ground of the high street, that scantly four feet of them remained above ground, which they fain to be cut even with the ground, because they could not be plucked out, for the city of London was not then paved, and a marish ground."

The church of Saint-Mary-le-Bow, as it appears on the Agas Map of 1561. Image: Stephencdickson (licensed under CCA).

"In the year 1196, William Fitz Osbert, a seditious tailor, took the steeple of Bow, and fortified it with munitions and victuals, but it was assaulted, and William, with his accomplices were taken, though not without bloodshed, for he was forced by fire and smoke to forsake the church; and then, by the judges condemned, he was by the heels drawn to the Elms of Smithfield, and there hanged with nine of his fellows; where, because his favourers came not to deliver him, he forsook 'Mary's son,' as he termed Christ our Saviour, and called upon the Devil to help and deliver him. Such was the end of this deceiver, a man of evil life, a secret murderer, a filthy fornicator, a polluter of concubines, and, among his other detestable facts, a false accuser of his elder brother, who had in his youth brought him up in learning, and done many things for his preferment."

The crypt of Saint-Mary-le-Bow, where some of the Medieval masonry is preserved. Photo: John Salmon (licensed under CCA).

The interior of Saint Mary-le-Bowe, as designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Photo: David Iliff (License CC-BY-SA3.0).

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

The Wards of Old London: Bread Street - Goldsmiths, Bakers and Fishmongers

In an earlier blog-post, I followed in the footsteps of an imagined visitor to London from the west, entering the city through Newgate (having travelled, perhaps, from Reading or Oxford), and passing along Newgate Street to Saint Paul's. We left our visitor at the foot of Cheapside Cross, beyond which lies Cheapside itself, now, as in the past, part of the main thoroughfare running through the city from west to east. Newgate Street and Cheapside, together, closely follow the course of their Roman equivalent, the Via Decumana.

Charles Dickens Junior, in his 1879 Dictionary of London, says of the street:

"Cheapside remains now what it was five centuries ago, the greatest thoroughfare in the City of London. Other localities have had their day, have risen, become fashionable, and have sunk into obscurity and neglect, but Cheapside has maintained its place, and may boast of being the busiest thoroughfare in the world."

Cheapside in the early 20th Century. Photo: Snapshots of the past (licensed under CCA).

On either side of Cheapside were the shops of goldsmiths and jewellers. On its south side stood "Goldsmiths' Row," described by John Stow as "the most beautiful frame of fair houses and shops that be within the walls of London, or elsewhere in England ... It containeth, in number, ten fair dwelling houses and fourteen shops." This was built in 1491 by Thomas Wood, a goldsmith. The records of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, which owned the freehold to these properties, show that the company tried very hard, throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries, to ensure that the shops and houses were let only to goldsmiths, but that, in practice, this was often difficult to enforce.

Cheapside in 1639 (The Reception of Marie de Medici in London - Image is in the Public Domain).

The lives of those who lived and worked here are celebrated (and satirised) in Thomas Middleton's (1613) play, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. It was on the site of one of these shops that workmen in 1912 discovered the Cheapside Hoard, probably the stock-in-trade of one of the jewellers, buried for safekeeping in the early stages of the English Civil War and never recovered. We will almost certainly never know whether this artisan fell as a Royalist in the Battle of Edgehill (alongside his likely commander, Robert Bertie, the 1st Earl of Lindsay, who, as Treasurer of the British East India Company, may have had an interest in some of the jewels), or as a Parliamentarian (probably with Philip Skippon's London Trained Bands) in the Siege of Basing House.

Cheapside separates Bread Street Ward, to its south, and Cripplegate Ward Within, to its north. Our visitor from the west might well have been tempted by the aromas of freshly-baked bread, to turn right from Cheapside onto Bread Street. As early as 1302, "the bakers of London were ordered to sell no bread at their houses, but in the open market at Bread Street" (Statute of Edward I).

Bread Street and Cordwainer Wards in 1720 (image is in the Public Domain).

The City Livery Companies were responsible for regulating their respective trades (the Worshipful Company of Bakers, for example, was concerned to ensure that the flour in the London loaf was not adulterated with sawdust, chalk or other contaminants), and this was, at least in theory, made easier by having all the practitioners of a particular trade operating in the same areas. In practice, however, this did not prevent all abuses - the Cheapside Hoard includes a number of fake rubies, produced from rock-crystal.

A woman buying bread from a baker, by Jorg Urlaub, 1568, Stadbibliothek Nurnberg (image is in the Public Domain).

Friday Street was part of the domain of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, responsible for ensuring that all the fish on sale here was either fresh, or properly salted or smoked. Whilst Cheapside itself was clearly a thoroughfare, streets such as Bread Street and Friday Street are unlikely to have been navigable by horses or wheeled transport during market hours, being filled with market stalls, their owners and customers.

The fish market at Antwerp, by Marten Pepijn & Adriaen van Utrecht, c1630, Rubenshuis (image is in the Public Domain).

Walking the streets of Bread Street Ward today, one has little immediate sense of its rich history. The Medieval Churches of All Hallows, Bread Street (where John Milton was christened in 1608) and Saint Mildred, Bread Street were both destroyed in the Great Fire of London. Both were rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, but All Hallows was demolished in 1876; and St Mildred's (where Percy Bysshe Shelley married Mary Godwin in 1816) was destroyed during the London Blitz. A large part of the Ward, including "Goldsmiths' Row," is now beneath One New Change, the only large-scale modern shopping mall within the City. The up-side of such developments is that the developers are legally obliged to fund archaeological excavations before they start building. I was fortunate to have a tour of the excavations whilst they were in progress (they revealed Roman, Medieval and Early Modern features), and the Museum of London's archaeologists are now working on the publication.

One New Change, under construction  in 2009. The photograph is taken from Saint Paul's Cathedral, looking east along Cheapside (to the left) and Cannon Street (to the right). Photo: Graham Horn (licensed under CCA).

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is now working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Witches of Ancient Rome and London

Since the time of the Renaissance, ancient Rome has frequently been presented as a supremely rational society, informed by philosophy and logic, and governed by the rule of law. One does not have to dig too deeply, however, to discover that many Romans were deeply superstitious, living in fear of ghosts, werewolves and witches. Halloween was not a Roman festival - ghosts, in particular, were more in evidence at Lemuralia (in May) - but witches might be encountered at any time of the year, and they were generally to be found in and around cemeteries.

Roman mosaic from Pompeii. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen (licensed under CCA).

Throughout the Roman world, it was forbidden to bury human remains within a town or a city, and cemeteries were consequently clustered around the roads leading into and out of them. People generally avoided travelling at night because of the perfectly rational fear of robbers, but also because of the fear of unquiet spirits haunting the tombs along the roads. To a witch, however, these spirits, and the human remains to which they were connected, were a resource which could be put to use for good or ill.

Tombs on the Appian Way, leading south from Rome. Photo: Geoff Wong (licensed under CCA).

The writer, Horace, in his Satires, refers to witches on the Esquiline Hill (originally located beyond the limits of Rome, and therefore used as a burial ground):

"Now one may live on the Esquiline, since it is made a healthy place [human remains had been systematically and carefully removed], and walk upon an open terrace, where lately the melancholy wanderers beheld the ground frightful with white bones, though neither the thieves or the wild beasts accustomed to infest this place occasioned me such care and trouble as did those hags that turn people's minds  by their incantations and drugs. These I could not by any means destroy nor hinder, but that they would gather bones and noxious herbs as soon as the fleeting moon had shown her beauteous face."

"I myself saw Canidia, with her sable garment tucked up, walk with bare feet and dishevelled hair, yelling together with the elder Sagana. Paleness had rendered both of them horrible to behold. They began to claw up the earth with their nails, and to tear a black ewe-lamb to pieces with their teeth. The blood was poured into a ditch, that thence they might charm out the shades of the dead, the ghosts that were to give them answers."

Canidia and Sagana, in Horace's account, go much further, torturing a boy to death by burying him upto his neck in a pit, and starving him, with food placed just beyond his reach, so that "his parched marrow and dried liver might be a charm for love, when once the pupils of his eyes had wasted away, fixed on the forbidden food."

Women consulting a witch, Villa del Cicerone, Pompeii. Photo: Wolfgang Rieger (image is in the Public Domain.

Accounts such as Horace's were widely translated and printed during the 16th Century, and would have been available for sale at the many book-stalls in the church-yard of Saint Paul's in London, so, when we read that Canidia, "having interwoven her hair and uncombed head with little vipers ... orders funeral cypresses and eggs besmeared with the gore of a loathsome toad, and feathers of the nocturnal screech-owl ... to be burned in Colchian flames," we can have little doubt that she and Sagana are the direct ancestors of the "weird sisters" in Shakespeare's Macbeth.

The witch, Pamphile, transforming herself into an owl, spied upon by Lucius, from a 1537 edition of The Golden Ass, by Apuleius (Nicolo di Aristotile - image is in the Public Domain).

There is archaeological, as well as literary, evidence for Roman witchcraft and magic. Throughout the Roman Empire, lead "curse tablets," or defixiones, are found cast into streams, rivers and wells, invoking spirits either to harm a person identified by the person writing the curse, or to cause someone to fall in love with that person.

Lead defixio (curse tablet), from Telegraph Street, London (British Museum, image is in the Public Domain). The text reads: "I curse Tretia Maria, and her life and mind and memory; and liver and lungs mixed up together; and her words, thoughts and memory; thus may she be unable to speak what things are concealed, nor be able ..."

Around the Walbrook Stream, which divided Roman London into its western and eastern halves, several discoveries have been made over the last hundred and fifty years, of human skulls buried in pits. Under Roman law, they should not be there, since the pits are located within the city boundaries. It was once thought that these were victims of Boudicca's rebellion in 60/61 AD, but the most recent research shows them to be a century later in date. Evidence of violent deaths has led scholars to the conclusion that these were the remains either of executed criminals, or of gladiators killed in the arena. This may well be the case, but the skulls still ought not to have been buried within the city. The area in which they were found seems to have been an industrial quarter with foul-smelling tanneries, a place likely to have been shunned by toga-clad magistrates, but just the sort of environment in which a British Canidia or Sagana might have been able to operate.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Who were the Celts? Art, Identity and Myth in Ancient Europe

For those of us living in the United Kingdom, a current exhibition at the British Museum, and a recent three-part television documentary, have raised some interesting questions about "Celtic" identity. The exhibition ("Celts - Art and Identity"), to my mind, explores these questions with a degree of subtlety, whereas the BBC documentary ("The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice") seems to me to perpetuate, rather than to challenge, some of the myths that have emerged about "the Celts" over the last few centuries.

To talk of "the Celts" at all (rather than, say, "Celtic art" or "Celtic languages") makes certain pre-suppositions that ought not to remain unchallenged. It is unlikely that anyone living in Europe prior to the late 17th Century AD ever thought of themselves as "Celts." The exhibition does make clear that the term "Keltoi" was first used by Greek writers to refer to people whose culture was very different from their own. As he marched his legions through Gaul, Julius Caesar never thought that he was fighting "the Celts." He referred, instead, to "Gauls," "Belgae" and "Britons," but he recognised that none of these groups were homogeneous, and one of his favourite military strategies was to play one tribe off against another: the Aedui against the Arverni and Sequani in central France; the Trinovantes against the Catuvellauni in southern England; much as later European colonialists would play Tutsi against Hutu in Rwanda, Nuer against Dinka in Sudan.

There are at least two potentially coherent uses of the term "Celtic" in relation to the ancient cultures of Europe. The first is linguistic - people who spoke "Celtic" languages. The idea of a "Celtic" language group is a modern construct, but the surviving Celtic languages (Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, Manx, Cornish, Breton) clearly have more in common with one another than they do with other languages, and it is reasonably clear that most of the people referred to by Caesar as Gauls, Belgae and Britons spoke languages closely related to these. The second is art-historical: there is a style of art, extending from the 4th or 5th Century BC to the 7th or 8th Century AD, which, for want of a better term, has been described as "Celtic." Unsurprisingly, given its focus on the art, the British Museum takes the art-historical definition as its starting point.

The "Battersea Shield," almost certainly made by craftsmen and used by a warrior who spoke a "Celtic" language. Photo: QuartierLatin1968 (licensed under CCA).

It is not safe, however, to assume that all "Celtic" art was produced by people speaking "Celtic" languages. There is a major problem with the vision presented in the documentary series, of a "unified" Celtic culture extending from Portugal in the west to Turkey in the east: it ignores the existence of the Germans. Roman writers, including Caesar and Tacitus, make a clear distinction between "Gauls" and "Germans" (Germani or Alemanni, terms sometimes, but not always, used interchangeably), and linguists certainly distinguish "Celtic" from "Germanic" languages. It is almost certain that some of the masterpieces of "Celtic" art were produced by people who spoke Germanic (and other) languages, but it is not always easy to determine which ones. Let's look at some specific examples from the British Museum exhibition.

The "Lord of Glauberg." Photo: Heinrich Sturzl (licensed under CCA).

The so-called "Lord of Glauberg," a sandstone statue of an elite warrior found in Baden-Wurtenburg, is probably a representation, however stylised, of a real man: a burial found nearby had a torc almost identical to the one depicted on the statue. Glauberg straddles the border between the Celtic (Gaulish) and Germanic-speaking worlds, so was he a Gaul (perhaps married to a German), or a German (perhaps married to a Gaul)? Either way, he might well have been bilingual, and is unlikely to have used either term to describe himself, citing, instead, a tribal name that may well have become lost in the mists of time. Torcs, in themselves, are often seen as indications of "Celtic" identity, but they may well have been worn by people who did not speak "Celtic" languages, and the Glauberg torc (even in art-historical terms) is far from typical of those found in areas where those languages clearly were spoken.

The Glauberg Torc. Photo: Rosemania (licensed under CCA).

Gold torc from Snettisham, Norfolk, a far more typical example of "Celtic" gold-work. Photo: Johnbod (licensed under CCA).

Even more problematic is the Gundestrup Cauldron, a spectacular masterpiece of the silver-smith's art currently on loan to the British Museum from the National Museum of Denmark. The smiths who made it were probably Thracians, and the cauldron was ultimately buried in Denmark: it is very unlikely that "Celtic" languages were spoken either in Thrace or in Denmark, and yet there are several themes in the iconography that suggest a link to the Celtic-speaking world.

The Gundestrup Cauldron. No photograph can truly do justice to this extraordinary artefact. I had seen it before, in the National Museum of Denmark, but would happily have paid the £16 admission for the exhibition just to see this. Photo: Knud Winckelmann (licensed under CCA).

The horned figure depicted here on the cauldron, holding a torc in his right hand, and a serpent in his left, is thought by many specialists to represent the Celtic god, Cernunnos (Germanic speaking people may well have called him by a different name). Photo: Malene Thyssen (licensed under GNU).

These figures on the cauldron are playing carnyxes, musical instruments that are known to have been used by "Celtic" (Gaulish) armies as they entered battle. Photo: Malene Thyssen (licensed under GNU).

For me, the cauldron speaks of the fluidity of cultural identities in the part of Europe that lay beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. Tribal groups, some of them speaking languages ancestral to modern Welsh & Breton, others speaking languages ancestral to modern German & Swedish, knew of, and interacted with one another, sometimes fighting, but sometimes also feasting together, trading and intermarrying.

 Bronze carnyx from Tintignac, France. The people who made and used this artefact are likely to have been Celtic-speaking Gauls. Photo: Claude Volette (licensed under CCA).

Celtic and Germanic speaking peoples may have had more in common than has sometimes been supposed, not only in terms of artistic expression, but also of religious practice. Their gods had different names, but many similar attributes, and they demanded human sacrifice, with ritually killed bodies found in bogs from Ireland to Denmark and northern Germany. The documentary presents this as a specific marker of  "Celtic" identity, but it seems to have been a practice shared by "Celts" and "Germans."

The British characters in my novel, An Accidental King, speak the "Celtic" language of pre-Roman Britain, wear "Celtic" jewellery and worship "Celtic" gods, but they see themselves not as "Celts," but rather as Regnenses (in Sussex), Catuvellauni (in the Thames Valley) and Trinovantes (in Essex). Some of them come to see themselves as "Britons," but this is a Roman concept, which, in the novel, seduces some of the native people of our islands, whilst alienating others. This, I imagine, is how things must have been, and it is why I find the vision offered by the British Museum more compelling and convincing than that of the BBC documentary.

The British Museum exhibition "Celts - Art and Identity" runs until 31st January 2016. Advance booking is recommended.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Berlin - The Diary of a Nightmare - A Remarkable Testament of the Second World War

It is one thing to take an interest in history, quite another to immerse oneself in primary sources: the letters; diaries; administrative documents; even shopping lists and newspaper advertisements; that have survived from a particular moment in the past. Many prefer indirect narratives of history, whether in the form of museum exhibitions, documentary programmes on television, or historical novels. For those of us who create those narratives, however, primary sources, where we can find them, are an essential starting point.

Historians are often sceptical about the first-hand testimonies that emerged from Germany in the aftermath of the defeat of the Third Reich. Many of these, especially the "diaries," were actually written up, in their present form, after the event, and and they are frequently at pains to emphasise the anti-Nazi credentials of their authors. Novelists and historians alike must exercise careful judgement in the ways in which we use such documents.

A USAF bombing raid over Berlin in 1944. Between 1940 and 1945, the USAF dropped 23,000 tons of bombs over the city, and the RAF dropped more than 45,000 tons. By May 1945, 1.7 million people (40% of the population), had fled. Photo: US National Archives & Records Administration, 197269 (reproduced with permission).

Ursula von Kardorff's "diary" of life in Berlin from 1942 to 1945 was written up for publication in 1947, presumably based on memory and brief, coded notes. A professional journalist, she makes no claim to have been a heroine of the resistance, but her diary does include comments that she is unlikely to have committed to paper during the war, since, if they had come to the attention of the Nazi authorities, they would certainly have brought disaster not only upon herself, but on many others (her social circle included most of those directly implicated in the 1944 plot against Hitler's life, and she was subsequently, questioned about this by the Gestapo).

Von Kardorff's diary is more about survival than about resistance, and most of the key facts can easily be checked. It is the account of daily life that attracted me to it as a key source informing the letters written by my fictional character, Greta, in "The Spirit of the Times," the 20th Century story in my novel, Omphalos. The details of individual hardships, and inevitable gallows humour, certainly have the ring of truth about them.

The following are excerpts from Von Kardorff's diary (the English translation is no longer in print, but used copies are available, and copies are likely to be available in many libraries).

"13th July 1943. A cynical joke is doing the rounds. A man is dug out after being buried in rubble for two days. His wife and child are dead, and he himself has lost his left arm, a leg and an eye, but he raises his remaining arm in salute and says 'Heil Hitler - Danzig is German, and that's the main thing!'"

"25th November 1943. The zoo was badly hit ... Many of the animals were killed, and others escaped. It is odd to think that a tiger might bob up at any moment ... towards morning we lay down and tried to get some sleep. Papa was on his rubble-covered bed ... Today Klaus and I tried to get things in order. We swept and scrubbed and carried piles of broken glass onto the balcony. We carted buckets of water up four flights of stairs, and managed to get at least one room into habitable condition."

"25th January 1944. I went into the zoo shelter when the seven o'clock warning sounded. It was eerie. The ack-ack had already opened fire, and a herd of human animals began to file towards the entrances of the shelter, which are too small, and far too narrow ... The walls of the shelter, made of massive blocks of stone, look like a stage-set for the prison scene in Fidelio. Snarling policemen drive the unwilling crowd slowly up the stairs, in order to divide them out onto the different floors of the shelter."

The entrance to the air-raid shelter at Berlin zoo. Anti-aircraft guns were mounted on top of it. The sign reads: "Men between 16 & 70 years old belong at the front, not in the bunker." Image is in the Public Domain.

"12th April 1944. I  walked home from the zoo because the weather was so fine ... The oriental buildings, in comically poor taste, stand there half-gutted. I peeped in through the cracks in the walls, but could see only crows. Sheep were grazing in one spot, and there was a smell of horse manure. I felt homesick for the country, but even here there is something beautiful about springtime. The Tiergarten is in full-bloom, in spite of the bomb craters."

The bombed ostrich house of the Berlin zoo. Many animals were killed, and many more were shot by troops after escaping. Presumably they were eaten (meat being in very short supply), but not, apparently, by von Kardorff. Image is in the Public Domain.

"20th September 1945. So this is Berlin. Fascinating and depressing. Everyone is hungry. All the people look half out of their minds, utterly worn out by the struggle for existence. In spite of everything, they are kind. They have been through Hell, whilst we have been living on the fat of the land in Swabia. It is shaming, but none of our friends reproach us. In the evening I went to the Kunfurstendam. Pretty girls with combs in their hair, and handbags slung on their shoulders, were strolling about with British, French and American soldiers ... Hot jazz resounds from bars which only serve hot drinks, and where there is nothing to eat."

German women washing clothes at a water hydrant, in July 1945, beside the wreck of an armoured car. Photo: Imperial War Museum, non-commercial license BU 8609.

It is precisely documents such as these, whether published (as here) or in archives, that provide historical novelists with the details of sights, sounds and smells, the sense of lives disrupted but also of life going on despite everything, that allow us to animate a time and a place that we never experienced, could not have experienced and, in truth, would not want to have experienced for ourselves.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.