Wednesday, 27 May 2015

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 26 - "A Mercy," by Toni Morrison

I began this series almost exactly a year ago, and am now just over half-way through. So far, apart from brief forays to Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland, I have focussed on the history of the Old World cultures of Europe, Africa and Asia. The course of world history changed, however, on 12th October, 1492, when Christopher Columbus's fleet made landfall on the Bahamas.

From the outset, the relationship between European explorers & settlers and the native peoples of the New World was to be one of subjugation and oppression. Columbus himself enslaved many of the Arawak people he encountered, and seems to have encouraged his lieutenants to rape the women. Inadvertently, his crew also introduced diseases, including smallpox, to which the peoples of the Americas had no immunity, and which would prove devastating.

An enclosure of the Susqeuhannock people of Maryland, c1671. Jacob van Meurs (image is in the Public Domain).

Within a few decades, Spanish, British, Portuguese, French, Dutch and Swedish adventurers had established colonies along the eastern seaboards of North, Central and South America, each group forming an alliance with one or more of the native peoples. Tobacco, long used by the native peoples themselves, but previously unknown in Europe, became a major export commodity.

A Susqeuhannock native, as seen by a European settler, c1675. Louis Nicolas, Codex Canadiensis (image is in the Public Domain).

It is estimated that around three quarters of all Europeans who travelled to the New World in the 17th Century were indentured labourers, men and women so poor that they were willing, in effect, to become slaves for a fixed period in return for a one-way passage to a new and uncertain life.

Nor did all of these labourers come from Europe: twenty Africans arrived in the English colony of Jamestown Virginia in 1619, and they seem to have been indentured labourers, rather than "slaves" in the full sense. Slavery, as we understand it from novels such as Alex Haley's Roots, developed later, and arose from specific legislation (it was explicitly legalised in Massachusetts in 1641, in Connecticut in 1650, and in Virginia in 1661).

African slaves on a tobacco plantation in Virginia, c1670 (image is in the Public Domain).

Toni Morrison's novel, A Mercy, follows the intertwined lives of Jacob Vaark, a Briton of Dutch descent, and his English wife, Rebekkah; Florens, a black slave who works on their farm in Maryland; Lina, a Native American, the survivor of a smallpox epidemic, who also works on the farm; and Sorrow, a "mongrelised" woman, the survivor of a shipwreck, and possibly the daughter of a sea captain. The chapters alternate between their viewpoints, in a style reminiscent of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

Florens: "Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark - weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more - but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. I explain. You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog's profile plays in the steam of a kettle ... If a pea hen refuses to brood I read it quickly and, sure enough, that night I see a minha mae standing hand in hand with a little boy, my shoes jamming the pocket of my apron."

Portrait of an African slave woman, by Annibale Carracci, c1580 (image is in the Public Domain).

Jacob: "The man moved through the surf, stepping carefully over pebbles and sand to shore. Fog, Atlantic and reeking of plant life, blanketed by the bay and slowed him. He could see his boots sloshing but not his satchel nor his hands. When the surf was behind him and his soles sank in mud, he turned to wave to the sloopmen, but because the mast had disappeared in the fog he could not tell whether they remained anchored or risked sailing on - hugging the shore and approximating the location of wharves and docks."

Mrs Richard Patteshall and child, by Thomas Smith, c1649. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (image is in the Public Domain). These are settlers of Jacob and Rebekkah's time and class.

Lina: "Lina was unimpressed by the festive mood, the jittery satisfaction of everyone involved, and had refused to enter or go near it. That third and presumably final house that Sir insisted on building distorted sunlight and required the death of fifty trees. And now having died in it he will haunt its rooms forever. The first house Sir built - dirt floor, green wood - was weaker than the bark-covered one she herself was born in. The second one was strong ... There was no need for a third."

Above all, what impresses me are the humane qualities of this novel. Each character has his or her own story, and each story is told in terms that would be meaningful to the character whose story is being told. There are no heroes or villains here, just real human beings, as complex as ourselves, trying to live decent lives, yet sometimes constrained by circumstances to take the most harrowing decisions ever faced by man or woman, and each one a participant in a grand narrative, the meaning of which is revealed to us, but never to any of them.

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

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Signs of Lost Stories? The Megalithic Art of Atlantic Europe

The passage graves of Atlantic Europe are, in many cases, decorated with carvings, easily missed by casual visitors to the dark interiors of these monuments, but impossible to forget once seen. Only occasionally does one spot something with an obvious meaning (a stone axe blade, for example, or a hafted axe), and even these symbols are often surrounded by seemingly abstract signs - swirls and spirals, zig-zags and lozenges, or concentric semi-circles.

Axe blades and other symbols on the wall of the passage grave of Gavrinis. Photo: Joachim Janke (licensed under GNU).

Such art, produced between six and five thousand years ago, is found in Spain and Portugal, Brittany, the Channel Islands, Ireland, Wales and the Orkney Islands, with each region having its own distinctive motifs. In some monuments, one finds only a single inconspicuous carving, whilst in others, such as Gavrinis in Brittany, virtually the whole interior is covered with them.

The passage grave of Gavrinis. Photo: Joachim Janke (licensed under GNU).

Some years ago, two archaeologists, David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson, suggested that the abstract symbols were "entoptic" images or phosphenes, patterns produced neurologically in the states of "altered consciousness" that may have been the basis of shamanic rituals. Such states can be achieved with the help of hallucinogenic drugs (most probably derived from mushrooms in the case of Neolithic Europe), but Namibian shamans seem to be able to achieve them through meditation and dance, without any chemical assistance.

A modern artistic representation of a phosphene. Photo: A12 (licensed under GNU).

It was this work that inspired the following passage in my novel, Undreamed Shores:

"He drank from the bowl that his uncle handed to him, a broth made from the red and white mushrooms that his aunt collected and dried in the autumn ... he felt he was falling backwards, being pulled back into the belly of the earth. The signs of the ancestors flashed before his eyes: bindweed tendrils, spirals, whirlpools in the air ..."

Carving in the passage grave of Les Pierres Plates, Brittany. Photo: Jean-Charles Guillo (image is in the Public Domain).

Over time, however, I have come to doubt whether it is necessary to invoke such states of altered consciousness to explain the carved symbols that we see in the passage graves. A modern artist such as Joan Miro produced similarly enigmatic patterns without any need to enter a trance, drug-induced or otherwise.

In any case, just because an image appears to us to be "abstract" does not mean that it was understood as such by the person who produced it. I recently saw the "Indigenous Australia" exhibition at the British Museum.

Australian Aboriginal art often appears "abstract," or, in some cases, identifiable representations (of people, for example, or of animals) are superimposed on a background of seemingly abstract patterns. To the artists, however, these patterns have precise meanings and, together, they tell a particular story, which can be understood by anyone who has been taught the visual "language" that links the symbols.

"Wondjina" at Barnett River, Mount Elisabeth Station, Australia. We know that these represent cloud & rain spirits, but only because Aboriginal people are able to explain this. Photo: Graeme Churchard (licensed under CCA).

Aboriginal artwork explained. Photo: Pstein6 (licensed under CCA).

Australian Aboriginal culture, however, is, in the title of the exhibition, an "enduring civilisation." Artists are still producing works in a tradition that goes back 60,000 years. The European passage graves were systematically sealed up and abandoned between four and five thousand years ago, and with their disappearance vanished the language that connected the symbols and allowed their stories to be told.

I once believed that, by systematically cataloguing the symbols, and recording their associations, one with another, it might be possible to decode this vanished "grammar" and reconstruct the stories themselves, or at least their outlines. I am not the only person to have attempted this, but nobody has yet succeeded, and I now doubt that anyone ever shall.

Fiction, of course, allows us to explore those realms that science cannot reach, and this (again from Undreamed Shores), is what I made of one mysterious carving from the passage grave of Bryn Celli Ddu, in North Wales:

"This is a picture of the dream my father had on the night before he died. A sorceress painted it for me. She was the one who was with him at the end, the woman he loved after my mother died ... She said that it represents our path through life, which goes in one direction but never in a straight line. You won't get where you want to be by rowing south alone. Come to Wiko Elawar, come north with Nanti ..."

Carved stone from the passage grave of Bryn Celli Ddu. National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. Photo: Wolfgang Sauber (licensed under GNU).

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

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Entrances to Eternity? The Passage Graves of Atlantic Europe

Between 4250 and 3250 BC, the early farming communities of Atlantic Europe came together to build a remarkable series of stone monuments which are, in almost all cases, the earliest buildings now surviving in the countries in which they stand.

The passage grave of La Hougue Bie, Jersey, where I directed excavations from 1991 to 1994. Photo: Ellywa (licensed under GNU).

The passage grave of La Hougue Bie. Photo: Ellywa (licensed under GNU).

These "passage graves" (or "passage tombs," or "passage dolmens" - different terms have been used in different places and times) are found all along the Atlantic coast of Europe, from Spain and Portugal in the south to Denmark and the Orkney Islands in the north.

The passage grave of Tustrup-Dysserne, Denmark. Photo: Marlene Thyssen (licensed under GNU).

Most are built using massive stone slabs both as uprights and as capstones, and would originally have been covered by a substantial cairn of smaller stones, although this has frequently been denuded over the course of time, leaving the skeleton of the monument exposed.

The cairn of Le Petit Mont, Morbihan, which covers three passage graves. It may also be the hill, mentioned in Julius Caesar's Commentaries, on which he stood to watch the sea battle between the Romans and the local tribe, the Veneti. Photo: Man Vyi (image is in the Public Domain).

Judging from the pottery, stone tools and other artefacts found within them, it seems that some of these monuments remained in use for centuries, and were then, in many cases, deliberately sealed and abandoned, to be discovered by archaeologists thousands of years later. Quite how they were used, and what they symbolised, is frequently unclear. Human remains are found in some, but not all of them, and the quantity of bones is often small. Certainly they do not seem to have been permanent charnel-houses for all the dead of a community.

In "The Song of Strangers," the sixth story in my novel, Omphalos, I imagine them thus:

"On the top of the hill is a great shrine ... The cairn of the shrine has long, straight sides, and it covers not one, but eleven stone chambers, each one a womb from which the spirits of the ancestors are reborn."

The cairn of Barnenez, in Northern Brittany, which covers eleven passage graves. Photo: New Papillon (licensed under GNU).

This specific suggestion arises from the womb-like form of the chambers, and from the fact that a significant number of these monuments are deliberately oriented in such a way that the sun shines directly into the passage at particular moments of the year (sunset at the spring and autumn equinoxes at Jersey's La Hougue Bie; mid-winter sunrise at Ireland's Newgrange; mid-winter sunset at Orkney's Maes Howe). Having experienced this personally at several sites, I find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that a sexual union of sun and earth is intended as part of the symbolism.

In my earlier novel, Undreamed Shores, I have my protagonist taken into his "clan shrine" (the passage grave of Mont Ube in Jersey) by his uncle:

"The quartz and mica crystals of the stones twinkled in the flickering light of his uncle's lamp ... Gero smiled at him, but it was not a friendly smile. He reached into the depths of one of the stone boxes that lined the wall of the shrine, and produced a skull, handing it to Amzai. 'Litura,' he whispered. Amzai held the skull in his two hands, as Gero had taught him, supporting the jaw with his thumbs. It was bleached white, cracked like burnt flint, with cavernous eye-sockets."

The passage grave of Mont Ube, Jersey. The capstones, and most of the cairn, were removed long ago, leaving only the uprights. Photo: Pymouss (licensed under CCA).

The stone boxes containing human remains were recorded by the Victorian excavators of Mont Ube, but these remains were not permanently sealed away, as in a Medieval church or a modern cemetery, but accessible to the living, who must have interacted with them in some way. They were, perhaps, entrances to another world, a space which the living and the dead could share, on something like equal terms.

The passage grave of Maes Howe, Orkney. Photo: Islandhopper (licensed under GNU).

I have spent the best part of a lifetime trying to understand these monuments. Each time I have approached one, first as a student and aspiring poet; then as an archaeologist; now as a novelist; I have tried to conjure fresh insights, but each time, as I walked away, I did so realising that there is much that we do not yet know about them (and probably much that we will never know), and that this, indeed, is part of their enduring fascination.

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

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

"The Land of the Marsh-Lords" - the rich prehistory of the Golfe du Morbihan

There is a place which features in both my archaeological writing and in my novels, but which, so far, has always remained "over the horizon" in my fiction. In my first novel, Undreamed Shores, set in 2400 BC, my protagonist, Amzai, sets out to reach it, but his companions continue without him when he is taken ill. In "The Song of Strangers," the final story in my third novel, Omphalos, set almost 2000 years earlier, Amzai's ancestor, Txeru, does travel to the "Land of the Marsh-Lords," but the story is narrated from the point of view of his future wife, Egraste, who does not accompany him on that part of his voyage. That place is the Golfe du Morbihan, in the south of Brittany.

The Golfe du Morbihan (top right) and Quiberon Peninsula (left) from space. Photo: NASA (image is in the Public Domain).

Why, you may ask, given the fascination this place clearly holds for me, have I been so reluctant to take my readers there? The answer is simple: it deserves a novel of its own, and I hope, some day, to write that novel.

I first travelled there myself at the age of seventeen, hitch-hiking from Saint-Malo with a friend. I was drawn to this archaeological paradise by Glyn Daniel's The Hungry Archaeologist in France, a guide both to the archaeology and the gastronomy of the region (not that I could afford much of the latter on this first visit - I made up for that subsequently).

The Golfe today is a shallow inlet of the sea, with more than 40 islands of varying sizes, but the sea-level in the epoch of my characters was significantly lower, and the islands would have risen not from the sea, but from a marsh, the salinity of which probably varied with the tide, a landscape more like that of today's Briere National Park, which lies a short distance to the south.

The Briere National Park. Photo: Fanny Schertzer (licensed under GNU).

Between 4500 BC and 2000 BC, the people who lived around the Golfe, and on its islands, built an extraordinary range of stone monuments. Some of these, "passage graves" including the elaborately decorated Gavrinis, were clearly used for funerary rituals over a period of centuries, although we can only speculate as to the precise nature of these rituals and the meaning of the carvings.

The cairn of Gavrinis, on an island in the Golfe. Photo: Myrabella (licensed under CCA).

Carved stones in the passage grave of Gavrinis. Photo: Joachim Jahnke (licensed under GNU).

Others, such as the enormous Tumulus Saint Michel, appear to have been individual burials, and are marked by rich grave-goods, including elaborate ceremonial axes of jadeite, imported from the Italian Alps.

Le Tumulus Saint-Michel, Carnac. Photo: Haubi (licensed under GNU).

Jadeite axes from burial mounds around the Golfe. Musee Nationale des Antiqites, Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Photo: Calaume (licensed under CCA).

To the west of the Golfe lie the megalithic alignments of Carnac, rows of standing stones extending over several kilometres. On my first visit, we camped among these stones, but they are now sealed off to prevent erosion. We have virtually no idea what these alignments meant to the people who built them, but they represent at least as large an undertaking as Stonehenge, and cover a far greater area.

The Alignement de Menec at Carnac. Photo: Steffen Heilfort (licensed under GNU).

I have returned to the Golfe many times over the years, as a PhD student, as the leader of both student field-trips and commercial tours. I have visited all the known monuments, seen all the artefacts in museum collections, and spoken to virtually all the archaeologists who have excavated in the region during my life-time.

My book, Statements in Stone, was my attempt, as an archaeologist, to make sense of these monuments, but I realised, even as it went to print, that archaeology could do little more than scrape the surface when it came to understanding the lives and beliefs of the people who built and used them. It was this realisation that first motivated me to write fiction set in the prehistoric past.

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.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Song of Roland - The Making of a Medieval Myth

Many of the Medieval pilgrims making their way to Santiago de Compostela passed from France into Spain via the Pass of Roncesvalles, where, having crossed the Pyrenees, they could find hospitality at the local monastery, and where they would inevitably have been told (or, perhaps, heard sung) stories of a great battle that had been fought there several centuries before.

The monastery of Roncesvalles. Photo: Liesel (licensed under GNU).

According to these stories, the Christian Emperor Charlemagne had been campaigning against his Muslim enemies in Spain, and was returning into France, leaving behind a rear-guard under the command of his knight, Roland. Another of Charlemagne's lieutenants, Ganelon, was sent to conclude a peace with the Muslims, but he treacherously betrayed his Emperor, and told them where Roland's force was camped. Roland and his army were massacred but, with his dying breath, Roland blew his horn to alert the Emperor, who turned around and pursued the Muslims to the River Ebbro, where they were drowned. Ganelon was captured, tried, tortured and executed.

The torture of Ganelon, 14th Century miniature (image is in the Public Domain).

The pilgrims would even be shown Roland's horn, and a stone on which he had supposedly tried to break his great sword, Durandel, so that it could not fall into enemy hands.

The "Horn of Roland." Photo: Gerald Gariton (licensed under CCA).

The "Stone of Roland" at Roncesvalles. Photo: Jaume (image is in the Public Domain).

There are several versions of the story in various languages (Latin, Anglo-Norman, High German, Dutch), including one that forms part of the Codex Callixtinus, the document that seems to have been used to train those who would guide the pilgrims along the route (this version was fraudulently attributed to Archbishop Turpin, a contemporary of Charlemagne, but was actually produced in the 12th Century). All of them have in common the theme of a "clash of civilisations," a battle between Christianity and Islam, and all have Ganelon as a villain who betrays both his Emperor and his God.

The first page of the Chanson de Roland - this 11th Century manuscript in the Bodleian Library (image is in the Public Domain) appears to be the earliest surviving version.

The historical truth seems to have been rather different. There really was a battle at (or near) Roncesvalles. It took place on the 15th August, 778 AD and, according to Charlemagne's biographer, Einhard, the rear-guard was indeed commanded by a man named Hroudlandus (Roland), the Prefect of the Breton Marches. Roland's force was ambushed, not by Muslims, but by Christian Basques.

"Le Chanson de Roland," 15th Century pictorial representation, The Hermitage, Saint Petersburg (image is in the Public Domain).

As far as the broader campaign was concerned, Charlemagne had been in alliance with the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad, and fighting against the Umayyad Emir of Cordoba. Ganelon is not mentioned by Einhard (he is a fictional character, thought by some to be based on Wenilo, an Archbishop of Sens accused of treason by Charles the Bald in 858 AD). Far from the clash of civilisations related to the pilgrims, Muslims and Christians had been fighting on both sides.

The Death of Roland, from a manuscript of 1455-60, Bibliotheque Nationale de France (image is in the Public Domain).

Historical truth, however, could not be allowed to get in the way of a good story, and this one would certainly endure. The legend of Roland became the centre-piece of "The Matter of France," one of the three great mythological cycles of Medieval European literature (the others being "The Matter of Britain," focussing on King Arthur and his court; and "The Matter of Rome," which proceeds from the fall of Troy and the flight of Aeneas to the founding of Rome).

Ganelon is mentioned in Chaucer's "Shipman's Tale," ("God take on me vengeance/as foul as evere hadde Genylon of France"), and in Cervantes's Don Quixote ("To have a bout of kicking at that traitor of a Ganelon, he would have given his housekeeper, and his niece into the bargain"). More recently, Le Chanson de Roland has been referenced by Graham Greene in The Confidential Agent, and by Stephen King in his Dark Tower series. Most disturbingly, however, it has probably contributed to the dangerous modern myth of an inevitable "clash of civilisations" between Christianity and Islam. Enjoy it as a story, folks, but don't confuse it with history!

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, 23 April 2015

Sacred and Secular - Aspects of Medieval Music

Just in passing, Happy Birthday, Youtube! Please enjoy the musical links embedded in the text below.

When I was examining copies of the 12th Century Codex Callixtinus, as part of the research for my novel, Omphalos, one of the things that struck me was the amount of music it includes. Much of it is devotional in character (settings of the Mass, hymns to Saint James), but there are also pieces which, though sacred in their subject matter, are not formally liturgical: marching songs, for example, which pilgrims must have sung along the way.

Music from the Codex Calixtinus: Frank Cooper Museum, Facsimile Collection (image is in the Public Domain).

Here are some of the words from the "Little Song of Saint James," which I adapted for the novel, and which, incidentally, I suspect was sung to a tune better known as a drinking song (the Latin words are a perfect fit).

"First of the Apostolate,
Blessed Santiagu,
Martyr of Jerusalem,
Holy Santiagu,
Many are the miracles
He has worked amongst us,
Those in peril call to him,
He has never failed us!
Jacobi propicio,
Veniam speramus,
Et, quos ex obsequio,
Meriti debemus."

In fact, the manuscript is of considerable interest to the historian of both sacred and secular music, which were very much interwoven throughout the Middle Ages.

The music of the early Catholic Church, from the 6th Century AD, took, for the most part, the form that later became known as Gregorian Chant. Its simplicity (everyone sings the same words to the same tune at the same time) was considered appropriate to the liturgical context.

Gregorian Chant, from a manuscript of c950 AD (image is in the Public Domain).

From the 10th Century, however, musically-minded clerics began experimenting with polyphony (two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody). Among the earliest examples of two-part polyphony are the Musica Enchiriadis and Scolica Enchiriadis, both dating to around 900 AD.

The Codex Callixtinus itself includes the earliest known example of three-part polyphony, Congaudeant Catholici.

Congaudant Catholici, from the Codex Callixtinus (image is in the Public Domain.

Where sacred music led, secular music followed, and sometimes the two genres were combined, as in Sumer Is Icumen In, one of the earliest examples of six-part polyphony. This overlays a sacred text, Perspice Christicola, dealing with the passion of Christ, with a secular one, referring to the physical manifestations of Springtime, including the song of the cuckoo and the flowering of meadows, but also the farting of billy-goats.

Sumer Is Icumen In, British Library, Harley Manuscript 978, Folio IIV, a manuscript copied at Reading Abbey, c1240 (image is in the Public Domain).

All of this was rather too secular for some churchmen, notably Pope John XXII (R. 1316-1334), who attempted to ban polyphony altogether within the church. This, however, was an impossible demand. Avignon, where Pope John was based, was a flourishing centre of both sacred and secular music which, within a few decades of his decree, was to produce the first full polyphonic setting of the Mass, Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame, in which, I think, we hear the first clear expression of the sacred musical tradition that united the Catholic countries of the late Middle Ages.

The Palace of the Popes at Avignon. Photo: Jean-Marc Rosier (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 UK or Amazon USA.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

"Chastened and Cleansed" - The Experience of Medieval Pilgrimage

"Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every reyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred in the flour ...
Thanne langen folk to goon on pilgrimages ... "

Thus begins Chaucer's prologue to The Canterbury Tales. April, clearly, was the time to set out on pilgrimage, although not if one wanted to visit Canterbury for the Feast of Saint Thomas, which in Chaucer's time was in July (the journey on foot from London to Canterbury, which I made a few years ago, takes five days).

Geoffrey Chaucer, from the Ellesmere Manuscript in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California (image is in the Public Domain).

The much longer pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is estimated to have taken 90 days (I haven't tested that), so April is pretty much the time at which one would set out (allowing for a few rest days) if one wanted to get there in time for the Feast of Saint James on July 25th. This would have been good timing, since it would allow for the return journey to be completed before winter set in. A 13th or 14th Londoner making the pilgrimage might well have travelled via Canterbury, seeking the intercession of Saint Thomas along the way, before embarking at Dover.

The 12th Century characters in my novel, Omphalos, start out not from London, but from the Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, where the Abbot would have preached a very specific sermon, the Veneranda Dies. It was significant because it was believed to have been written by Pope Callixtus II. In fact, it is a forgery, but neither the Abbot nor anyone else present is likely to have known this.

The Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel, Normandy. Photo: Zewan (licensed under GNU).

"O how blessed are those who have such an intercessor and pardoner! Why, therefore, devotee of Blessed James, do you delay in going to this place, where not only all the tribes and languages, but also all the angelic hosts converse, and where the sins of men are forgiven ... "

"In the name of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, accept this purse ... that it is made from the skin of a dead animal signifies that the pilgrim himself must mortify his flesh ... through hunger, thirst, through many fasts, through cold and nakedness, and through many insults and hardships."

The purse or scrip allowed a pilgrim to carry with him some modest resources, which he might supplement by seeking alms along the way. Some illustrations show it as purse-shaped, others portray it more as a small satchel.

A German illustration, from 1568, of two pilgrims on the route from Santiago. The pilgrim facing us clutches his scrip in his right hand and his staff in his left (image is in the Public Domain).

"Accept the staff as a support for the journey ... the defence for man against wolf and dog ... The dog and wolf signify that way-layer of the human race, the Devil."

"If he has been a robber or a thug, let him become a dispenser of alms, if he has been a fornicator or adulterer, let him become chaste. Similarly, may he restrain himself, from now on, from every guilt in which he was previously grasped."

Chaucer's pilgrims, even the humble miller, travel on horseback, and some 12th Century pilgrims may have done likewise. The sermon, however, enjoins them to travel on foot, using the staff "almost as a third foot," which "implies faith in the Holy Trinity, in which one must persevere." Only then could pilgrims arrive at the Shrine of Saint James "chastened and cleansed," in readiness for absolution.

"The Pilgrimage to Canterbury," by Thomas Stothard, Tate Britain (image is in the Public Domain).

Nor, I think, should we imagine many tales being told on the road. My own journey on foot to Canterbury taught me that it is quite difficult for a group of people, of differing ages and levels of fitness, always to stay together. Some inevitably march ahead, others fall behind, a large party breaking up into smaller groups, coming together again at the end of the day, where the tales would be told in the inns and hospices along the way.

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.