Monday, 26 January 2015

"A Great Voyage Through The Lands of the Huron," 1623-24

In "The Infinite Labyrinth," one of the six stories that make up my novel, Omphalos, a Royal Navy midshipman chooses an antique book as a birthday gift for the young woman he is courting. The midshipman has been offered a commission which would involve working on the Canadian/American border, and he wishes to persuade his love to follow him there as his wife.



The book in question is Gabriel Sagard's Le Grand Voyage aux Pays des Hurons. Sagard was a member of a Catholic religious order, who was posted to a mission in Canada in 1623, and remained there for just over a year, before being recalled to France. Reading between the lines, I have a suspicion that his recall may have been prompted by a concern that he had become "too close" to the native people amongst whom he was living, and more preoccupied with learning about their culture than with "the job in hand," converting them to Christianity.

The book that he produced on his return to France (it was published in 1636) is a masterpiece of early travel-writing, which can also be considered as one of the earliest works of serious ethnography. He begins with a description of the journey, by foot to Dieppe and thence by ship, running the gauntlet of pirates, and encountering whales and manatees.

Whales attacking a ship, from Olaus Magnus's Carta Marina of 1539 (image is in the Public Domain). Such images, fanciful as they may appear to modern eyes, defined the way in which contemporaries understood a world that few of them would ever experience for themselves.

Having arrived in the New World, he began his journey up the St Lawrence River, where he first encountered the Huron (or Wyandotte) people, and embarked upon a study of "their government, their ways of doing things, their faith and beliefs, their forms of torture and executions of prisoners, their medicines and remedies, their dances and songs, hunting, fishing, the birds, animals and fish, how they cultivate the ground and how they bury their dead."

A reconstruction of a Huron long-house near Toronto. Photo: Laslovarga (licensed under CCA).

We cannot know with what level of proficiency Sagard learned the local language, but the French-Huron dictionary he produced remained in use well into the 19th Century. Although he followed the conventions of the day in describing non-Christian people as "savages," his respect for the people with whom he lived for a year is evident from the text, and the social institutions he describes are anything but "savage."

The Huron-Plume group at Summerwood, Quebec City, 1880. Photo: Jules-Ernest Livernois (image is in the Public Domain). By this time, the descendants of the people with whom Sagard interacted were, for the most part, confined to reservations.

Sagard was perhaps naïve, however, in his expectations concerning the on-going relationship between these people and his own. Behind the façade of peaceful missions such as Sagard's, the French and British were engaged in a violent struggle for control of the fur-trade, each co-opting some of the native peoples as allies (the Huron became allies of the French, their traditional enemies, the Hadenosaunee, became allies of the British) and pitting them against one another. Nor could he have had any inclination of the devastation that would be caused in these communities by European diseases such as smallpox and measles, of which he himself may have been an unintentional vector.



Sagard's account provided important inspiration and background for Brian Moore's historical novel, Black Robe, which follows a fictional Catholic priest, Father Laforgue, on a similar journey through the lands of the Huron, and which, in turn, inspired Bruce Beresford's (1991) film of the same name.

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


Monday, 19 January 2015

Freemasonry in 18th Century Britain and France

On the 24th of June (the feast-day of St John the Baptist), 1716, a group of men came together in "The Apple Tree" tavern in Covent Garden. They had previously been meeting in four separate groups in this tavern, and in three others (The Goose & Gridiron, The Rummer & Grapes and The Crown), but they now resolved to form a single "Grand Lodge of London and Westminster." When, in the following year, the lodge elected Anthony Sayer as its first Grand Master, the "Craft and Mystery of Freemasonry" was born.

The Goose and Gridiron, one of the four taverns in which the early Masonic Lodges met (image is in the Public Domain).

The "Grand Lodge" was, in these first years, very much a London institution, structured along the same lines as the City Livery Companies, but bringing together men from very different professional backgrounds (including lawyers, businessmen and Anglican clergy). Its rationale seems to have been essentially social, with no specific religious or political agenda.

The third Grand Master was John Theophilus Desaguliers, an Anglican priest from a French Huguenot family, who initiated both Francis, Duke of Lorraine (subsequently Holy Roman Emperor), and Frederick, Prince of Wales into the craft. Desaguliers was also a scientist, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who had acted as an experimental assistant to Sir Isaac Newton.

John Theophilus Desaguliers (image is in the Public Domain).

A formal constitution "for the use of the Lodges in London and Westminster" was commissioned by Desaguliers in 1723, and prepared by James Anderson, a Scottish Presbyterian clergyman.

James Anderson's Constitution of 1723 (image is in the Public Domain). It was reprinted in Philadelphia in 1734, by Benjamin Franklin (subsequently elected as the "Grand Master of the Masons of Pennsylvania"), and was also translated into Dutch (1736), German (1741) and French (1745).

This constitution contains much "speculative history" (some would say "pseudo-history"), tracing the origins of the Masonic tradition back through the "lodges" of Medieval stone-masons to Euclid, Pythagoras and ultimately to Hiram Abiff, the supposed architect of Solomon's Temple. This is, of course, a fantasy in its entirety, but a harmless one, so long as we don't fully lose sight of the fact that freemasonry really began in a London alehouse in the summer of 1716.

The Grand Lodge of France was established in 1728, by Catholic Jacobite refugees from Scotland, its first Grand Master being the Duke of Wharton. A Papal interdiction on Catholics participating in Masonic rituals was issued in 1738, but was never ratified by the French parliament, and was largely ignored in France. Many lodges included Catholic priests as active members, and at least one lodge was reserved exclusively for them.

A rare example of a preserved 18th Century Masonic temple at the Chateau de Mongenan (image licensed under OTRS).

The Grand Lodge of France was reorganised in 1771, under its aristocratic Grand Master, Philippe d'Orleans (later known as "Philippe Egalite," because of his support for many of the key ideals of the French Revolution), and was subsequently renamed the Grand Orient (the distinction between the Grand Lodge and the Grand Orient persists in French freemasonry, and depends on the premise that, whilst adherents to the former must acknowledge the existence of a "Supreme Being," the latter tradition is open also to atheists and agnostics).

Philippe d'Orleans, by Antoine-Francois Callet, Palais de Versailles (image is in the Public Domain).

Some post-revolutionary Catholic historiography would later portray the French Revolution as a Masonic conspiracy set on the destruction of Christianity, but the truth is that freemasons were active on both sides of the American and French Revolutions, and that their ranks included both believers and non-believers. Philippe d'Orleans, specifically, sought a compromise between revolutionary and monarchical principles which might have spared France the Terror (as the Terror unfolded, it would claim his own life, as well as countless others).

The Festival of the Supreme Being, 1794, by Pierre-Antoine Demachy. Musee Carnavalet (image is in the Public Domain).

Although Robespierre's "Cult of the Supreme Being" clearly drew on Masonic traditions and symbolism, the Revolution was ultimately a disaster for freemasonry: of the 1000 lodges active in 1789, and subsequently suppressed by the Committee of Public Safety, only 75 were in a position to resume their activities in 1801.

Masonic initiation ceremony, Paris 1745 (the colouring dates to 1805). Image is in the Public Domain.

Masonic "Third Degree" ceremony, Paris, 1745 (the colouring dates to 1805). Image is in the Public Domain.

When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power, he made his brother, Joseph, Master of the Grand Orient, but he made clear his own cynical position towards the end of his life, from his exile on Saint Helena: "Freemasons are a pile of imbeciles who assemble for good cheer, and for the execution of many ridiculous follies. Nevertheless, they have carried out good actions from time to time."

Freemasons' Hall, London. Photo: Eluveitie (licensed under CCA).

I am not now, and have never been, a freemason, but can certainly recommend a tour of Freemasons' Hall as one of the more interesting and unusual things to do in London, and the library there as an excellent resource for historical writers.

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

Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Duchy of Bouillon: A Bypassed Corner of European History

Ask a group of history students to name the states that once made up the Holy Roman Empire, and the odds are that most will begin with Prussia, Bavaria, Hanover and Saxony, some will extend to Brandenburg, Regensburg, Cologne, Wurtemburg and the Austrian states, but few, if any, will include Bouillon. Change the topic to the First Crusade, however, and the name of Godefroi de Bouillon, one of its preeminent leaders, will soon be on the tip of every tongue.

View over Bouillon. Photo: Jan Roegiers (licensed under GNU).

The River Semois at Bouillon. Photo: Jean-Pol Grandmont (licensed under CCA).

Bouillon is, today, a community of 5-6000 people, located in Belgium, but bordering on France. Surrounded by forest, it is some miles distant from most tourist trails, too far south for those who are visiting the battlefields of the First World War; too far north for those exploring the Rhineland. Its beauty is undeniable, but it is a beauty discovered by few from beyond the region.

Godefroi de Bouillon, 13th Century illumination from William of Tyre's Histoire d'Outremer, British Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

It is, perhaps, significant, that one of Godefroi de Bouillon's first publicly recorded acts was to sell all of his lands and properties in the territory from which he took his name to the Bishop of Liege. This generated the funds that allowed him to raise an army. He rode out from Bouillon, never to return, and would ultimately become, in 1099, Jerusalem's first Christian ruler (it is said that he refused the title of king, insisting that this belonged to Christ alone). Godefroi was a direct descendant of Charlemagne, but he seems never to have married, and thus had no legitimate descendants.

Godefroi de Bouillon, from a 15th Century fresco by Giacomo Jaquerio, Salluzo, Italy (image is in the Public Domain). His distinctive coat of arms with its five crosses, was incorporated into those of the subsequent Ducs de Bouillon, although they were not Godefroi's descendents.

The bishops of Liege thereafter styled themselves "Duc de Bouillon," until 1678, when the French army captured the territory, the king placing it in the hands of the family "de la Tour d'Auvergne," who administered it until 1796. These dukes, Godefroy Maurice (1641-1721), Charles Godefroy (1706-1771) and Godefroy Charles Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne (1728-92) were among the premier nobles of France, but they largely ignored the territory itself and the people of Bouillon, for the most part, returned the compliment.

The Chateau de Navarre, near Evreux (image is in the Public Domain).

Godefroy Maurice and his successors also had the title Comte d'Evreux, and he built a chateau at Evreux, in Normandy, which became the family's main seat. They also had a Parisian townhouse, which is now the Elysee Palace. Godefroy Maurice's father, Frederic Maurice had been an important patron of the artist, Claude.

"Landscape with the Abduction of Europa by Jupiter," commissioned from Claude by Frederic Maurice de la Tour d'Auvergne (image is in the Public Domain). Since the family had a "tower" in its name, they also had one in their coat of arms, and the central round tower here is a reference to this.

Godefroy Charles Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne was an active freemason (the family had their own lodge, "Saint Charles de la Parfaite Harmonie"), who embraced the French Revolution, but Bouillon was forcibly annexed to France a few years after his death. Napoleon subsequently gifted the Chateau de Navarre to the Empress Josephine. In the wake of Napoleon's final defeat, Godefroy Charles Henri's adoptive son, the British spymaster, Philippe d'Auvergne, raised a small army to press his claim to the duchy, but the arbitrators appointed by the victorious powers awarded it, instead, to a rival claimant, Prince Charles de Rohan, and Philippe returned, bankrupt, to London.



In his memoire of Bouillon, Patrick McGuiness paints a poetic and evocative picture of a back-water as indifferent to its former dukes as most of them were to it:

"My mother's family have lived in Bouillon for generations. until the early twentieth century, many of the men worked as miquelets, small-scale loggers, cutting down trees in the forest that surrounds the town, chopping the wood and tying it up into rafts, and then floating them into Bouillon to be dried and sold ... Later, like my grandfather's family, the men worked in one of the two factories, or, like my grandmother's, as domestic servants or hotel chambermaids, waiters, handymen or kitchen staff ..."

None of the dukes of Bouillon are remembered in the stories told by the people of Bouillon. Cardinal Mazarin, on the other hand, is remembered, but for all the wrong reasons:

"'Monner un train Mazarin' - to flaunt yourself like Mazarin, to live the life of Riley - is one of those patois phrases I heard a lot. It goes back to the days when Cardinal Mazarin ... passed through Bouillon, leaving an impression of such wealth and opulence that the term is still used today. I first heard it when my grandmother used it to describe a neighbour buying a colour television. By the time she had her own colour television, she was using it to describe people who had two colour televisions. It's always someone else who flaunts themselves like Mazarin."

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







Monday, 5 January 2015

The Psalter of Bonne of Luxembourg - A Masterpiece of 14th Century Illumination

In New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art can be found a small masterpiece of 14th Century art: the Psalter (or prayer-book) of Bonne of Luxembourg, the daughter of John the Blind, King of Bohemia, and wife of the future Jean II of France. Bonne died of the plague in 1349, before Jean ascended the throne, so she was never Queen of France, though her children included the future Charles V.

Bonne of Luxembourg, with her husband Jean. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image is in the Public Domain).

The descendants of Jean II and Bonne of Luxembourg. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image is in the Public Domain).

The psalter is tiny, 12.5 x 8.4 x 3.9 cm, but there are 334 pages of text and illustrations. Some of the text is in Latin (psalms, canticles, the creed and litanies), and some is in French (there is a page for each month of the year, with astrological information taken from the Roman writer, Manilius).

A page from the psalter. The image is of one fool drinking, whilst another pulls his cowl and strikes him with a broom. In the margins of the psalter, there are around 200 depictions of birds, with 40 species recognisable. Metropolitan Museum of Art (image is in the Public Domain).

The psalter was probably made in the 1340s, a period during which new commercial illumination workshops were increasingly vying with the great monastic scriptora. Women, as well as men, were involved in these endeavours, and this particular manuscript was produced by a father-daughter team - Jean le Noir and his daughter, Bourgot (the future Charles V rewarded them with the grant of a house in Paris in 1358).

A page from the psalter, with a depiction of the crucifixion. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image is in the Public Domain).

Two pages from the psalter. The theme of "the three living and the three dead" is taken from a poem by Baudoin de Conde. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image is in the Public Domain).

Such psalters were intended as an aid to personal devotion. After Bonne's death, it is likely to have remained in the French royal collection. This collection was broken up after the revolution of 1789. We know that, in 1865, it was owned by a collector named Ambroise Firmin Diderot, and it was subsequently purchased at auction by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969.

I think, however, that it is now possible to say a little more about its post-revolutionary history. Jane Ashelford, in her biography of the 18th Century British spymaster, Philippe d'Auvergne, records that, on a visit to London in 1784, Philippe received, from his adopted father, Godefroy de la Tour d'Auvergne, Duc de Bouillon, an "illuminated Bible" that had been made for Bonne of Luxembourg (her source is Philippe's papers in the Jersey Archive). Since I can find no record of such a Bible existing, I think it overwhelmingly likely that it was this psalter he received.



Philippe may have believed it to have been a genuine family heirloom, but this cannot be the case. Godefroy must have purchased it at one of the post-revolutionary auctions, and would presumably have taken it either to his ducal seat in modern-day Belgium, or to his chateau in Normandy, or to his Paris town-house.

Godefroy de La Tour d'Auvergne, Duc de Bouillon, by Jean-Francois Gilles Colson. Musee d'Evreux (image is in the Public Domain).

Philippe, in turn, would have taken it to Jersey, where it would have been in his library either at Mont Orgueil, or at the pavilion he had built for his pleasure at La Hougue Bie (it is in this context that the psalter functions as a non-human "character" in my novel, Omphalos - one of my protagonists, staying as Philippe's guest, comes across it in his library). Philippe was declared bankrupt in 1816, and, at this point, the psalter must have been sold, and its provenance between 1816 and 1865 remains, for the moment, unclear.

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

Thursday, 1 January 2015

New Year, New Book (again) - a preview of my latest writing project

On a day (I can't remember which one exactly) between Christmas and New Year's eve, 2006, I sat down to write the first draft of the first chapter of my first novel. I began by imagining a scene - a boy sitting on a cliff with his sister, talking about the voyage that he will soon make, in the course of which he would become a man. By the time Undreamed Shores was published in 2013, this was no longer the opening scene, but it is still there, albeit in a much abbreviated form, and presented as a memory, rather than in real time:

"The previous summer, he had sat on the cliff with his sister, looking out towards the coast of Aramaio. She had asked him why men were so obsessed with voyaging overseas, and why they were not afraid of its dangers. His answer had sounded good at the time. A man's answer, not a boy's. 'Being a man is not about avoiding fear, Itsara. It's about facing it, and knowing the way forward, and having the courage to take that way, whatever the risks may be."

The bay of Greve de Lecq, Jersey. The photographer who created this early 20th Century postcard was standing in the same position as I imagined Amzai and Itsara sitting. Photo: Snapshots of the Past (licensed under CCA).

Almost exactly eight years after imagining that scene, I sat down a few days ago to write the first draft of one of the stories that will make up my fourth novel. The protagonist is a slave-girl in Roman London, and the scene I started with is of the festival of Fors Fortuna (the book I have in mind has much to do with changes of fortune, and how people deal with them).

A casual observer might imagine that I am getting into my stride as an author who produces a book each year (Undreamed Shores in 2012, An Accidental King in 2013, Omphalos in 2014), but this is an illusion. Each of these books took almost three years to research, write and edit. I'm not expecting Fors Fortuna (the title may change) to be completed in 2015, perhaps not even in 2016, but the bottom line is that it will be published when it's ready, and not before.

Medieval Allegory of Fortune, a central theme in my next novel. From an edition of Boccaccio's De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (1467), Glasgow University Library (image is in the Public Domain).

I have now lived in London for longer than I have lived anywhere else, and I have access to some fantastic research resources (the British Library, National Archive and London Metropolitan Archive, to name but three), so this is where the next novel will be set. For most of its history, "London" meant, specifically, what we call "the City," and this, indeed, will be the primary focus of the novel. It will have a similar structure to Omphalos, and, for specific reasons that I'm not revealing at this stage, it will include stories set in the present day, the early 20th Century, the 16th Century, 14th Century, 6th Century and 2nd Century. Most of the protagonists will probably be fictional, but they may well interact with historical figures.

The City of London in the 17th Century (W. Hollar - image is in the Public Domain).

Here are just a few of the places that I think are bound to feature in the book one way or another.

The Tower of London. Photo: Kjetil Bjornsrud (licensed under GNU).

The church of All Hallows by the Tower. There has been a church on this site continuously since the 7th Century, and the remains of a Roman house can be seen in the crypt. Photo: Patrice78500 (licensed under CCA).

Cheapside in 1890 (image is in the Public Domain).

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

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Great Books of 2014 - My Personal Choices

2014 has been a great year for books, and especially for historical fiction, so I hardly know where to start. Those that I have enjoyed the most I have already reviewed, either here on my own blog, or elsewhere, so I thought that I would provide links to those reviews, rather than repeating the content here, and instead reproduce the opening paragraphs as an enticement to other readers.



My favourite book of the year is Ali Smith's How to be Both. There are two intertwined stories, which can be read in either order. The story that I read first brings a 15th Century character, invisibly, into the modern world. I won't attempt to reproduce the extraordinary prose poem with which it opens (a tribute, I suspect, to the late, great Edwin Morgan), but here is what follows:

"A boy in front of a painting. Good: I like a good back: the best thing about a turned back is the face you can't see stays a secret: hey: you: can't hear me? Can't hear? No: My chin on your shoulder right next to your ear and you still can't hear, ha well, old argument about eye or ear being mightier all goes to show it's neither here nor there when you're neither here nor there so call me Cosmo call me Lorenzo call me Ercole call me unknown painter of the school of whatever you like I forgive you I don't care - don't have to care - good - somebody else can care ... "



Hannah Kent's Burial Rites was actually published in 2013, but it was published late in the year, and I, like many other readers, did not get to read it until the New Year had begun. It is a stunning evocation of a time and place (19th Century Iceland).

"They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a grey wreath of smoke. I will vanish into the air and the night. they will blow us all out, one by one, until it is only their own light by which they see themselves. Where will I be then?"



Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake takes the reader into an England devastated and laid waste in the months following the Norman invasion of 1066. It is a book that has divided my friends, much as it seems to have divided the judging panel of the Man Booker Prize (it made it onto the long-list, but not the short-list), some finding it unreadable, but others (including myself) dazzled by the author's use of the English language.

"the night was clere though i slept i seen it. though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still

when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after after and for all time. a great wind had come in the night and all was blown then and broc. none had thought a wind lic this colde come for all was blithe lifan as they always had and who will hiere the gleeman when the tales he tells is blaec who locs at the heofon if it brings him regn who locs in the mere when there seems no end to its deopness."



Lucy Pick's Pilgrimage intrigued me from the outset because she was writing about the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela at the same time as I was (my 12th Century story in Omphalos is set just a generation or so after hers, and, by coincidence, one of my characters is actually descended from one of hers).

"'It doesn't seem natural how that girl can make her way around so well when she can't see.'

Gebirga strained her ears to hear the group of nuns, taking a break from their tasks to mutter outside in the July sunshine. Sweat plastered the thin wool of her dress to her back, though the day was barely warm. She imagined the nuns standing there, casting sidelong glances as she entered the monastery gate. She held her head high as she made her way through the courtyard toward them, a strong grip on the lead of her dog, Liisa, and a bundle under her other arm. Liisa would make sure she avoided the worst of the mud puddles from last night's rain, not yet baked dry by the weak northern sun."



Judith Starkston's Hand of Fire takes us onto the familiar ground of the Trojan War, but shows it from the unfamiliar perspective of an Asiatic (Luwian/Hittite) woman.

"Antiope's breath rasped like a distant wave scouring a rocky shore. Too faint to sustain life. Briseis squeezed her mother's hand, then balanced her mother's limp hand on her own, shifting each finger until the two matched up. When had her fingers grown as long as her mother's? It didn't mean she was ready to take on her mother's work alone. She rubbed gently, but Antiope's hand remained slack. Briseis shifted closer to her mother on the bed and adjusted the fleeces cushioning her mother's shoulders from the leather straps pulled across the bed's wooden frame. No response. What should I do, Mama? Tell me how to save you. You've taught me to be a healer from birth, but I don't know this, the one thing I have to know. Tell me."

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










Thursday, 18 December 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 21 - "The Abyss," by Marguerite Yourcenar

In a very real sense, the 16th Century saw the birth of the modern world. As Portuguese, Spanish and British navigators circumnavigated the globe, the map of the world was gradually metamorphosing towards its modern form. The rapid growth of mercantile capitalism opened up new trade routes to the east and to the west.

Francesco Rosselli's map of the world, 1508 (image is in the Public Domain). The eastern coasts of Brazil and Newfoundland are shown, as are the Caribbean Islands.

The "Fool's Cap Map of the World," 1580-90 (image is in the Public Domain). The western coastlines of North and South America can now be seen.

In the field of ideas, Humanist scholars re-engaged with the art and literature of classical antiquity; Christian refugees from fallen Byzantium found work as tutors in the courts of Renaissance Italy, bringing with them not only a knowledge of Greek, but also works by Plato and Aristotle that had not been read in western Europe for almost a thousand years. The dogmas of the Catholic church were called into question, not for the first time, but in a far more comprehensive way than had ever been the case before, with Europe increasingly divided between Catholic and Protestant states.

There were, however, false dawns as well as true ones. The 16th Century was also the golden age of alchemy, combining elements of what we would recognise today as chemistry with elements of mysticism and (by modern standards) pseudo-science.

An alchemist's workshop of c1580 (image is in the Public Domain).

Marguerite Yourcenar's novel, "The Abyss," opens in Flanders with a chance meeting on the road between two young cousins. Both are leaving home to seek their fortunes in this rapidly changing world: Henry Maximilian Ligre, the legitimate son of a wealthy banker, to become a mercenary captain; Zeno, the illegitimate son of the banker's sister, abandoning a career in the church to learn the art of alchemy.


"I'm sixteen," proclaimed Henry Maximilian. "In fifteen more years we shall see if, perchance I'm a second Alexander. In thirty years we'll know if I'm equal or not to the defunct Julius Caesar. Why should I spend my life measuring cloth in a shop in Woolmarket Street? One wants to be a man ... I'm heading for the Alps."

"And I," said Zeno, "for the Pyrenees ... Look there," he said, pointing ahead, "beyond this village, other villages, beyond that abbey, other abbeys ... Beyond the Alps, Italy. Beyond the Pyrenees, Spain ... And farther, still, the sea and its vast expanse, Arabia and the Morea, India and the two Americas. Everywhere valleys where herbs may be gathered, rocks where metals hide, each symbolising a single moment in the Great Transmutation; everywhere magic formulas placed between the teeth of the dead ..."

More than a decade later, again by chance, the two cousins meet again in Innsbruck. Henry Maximilian has proved himself in battle (though not, it seems, as an equal of Alexander), and Zeno (the central, but not the only protagonist of the novel) has worked as an alchemist and physician, variously in Montpellier, in Paris, in Constantinople and in the service of the King of Sweden. Often he has travelled and worked under false names, his published treatises on alchemy having earned him the enmity of senior figures within the church.

Alchemical treatise of Ramon Llull (16th Century, image is in the Public Domain).

Zeno lives in constant fear of torture and violent death, not only because of his alchemical investigations, and the "atheism" inferred from them, but also because of his homosexuality.

" ... one fear was ever present, that of torture. That men should be paid to torment their fellow men systematically was a hideous fact that never ceased to appal this man, whose calling it was to heal. Long since, he had steeled himself, less against the pain of torture (which in itself is hardly worse than what a wounded man feels when operated upon by a surgeon) than against the horror that such pain should be deliberately inflicted ...

Bruges - the execution of monks found guilty of sodomy, 28th June 1578 (image is in the Public Domain). This real event features in Yourcenar's novel.

Yourcenar's narration in this novel follows a model that is, today, somewhat unfashionable - entirely in the third person, and fully omniscient. In some scenes we follow Zeno, and in others we follow one or other of the minor characters (we follow Zeno's step-father, for example, into the 1534 Anabaptist rebellion in Munster). The book is based on meticulous research, over many years, and Yourcenar certainly does not reveal everything she knows. The reader is left to join up many of the dots, but I do not know of a novel that better evokes the spirit of Europe in the first decades of the modern era.

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