Sunday, 5 July 2015

An Englishman's Pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1517 - Week 3 - Crete to Jaffa

Leaving Crete, the Venetian galley carrying the English priest, Richard Torkington, and his fellow pilgrims, sailed northwards, this unlikely (by modern standards) diversion presumably being occasioned by the wind direction.

"Sunday the v day of Julii, a bowte vj of the cloke in the morning, we made seyle from Candy towards the Rodes."

"Monday, at nyght, we passed by the Ile of Patmos wher Seynt John wrote the Apocalips."

Patmos from the sea. Photo: Lyn Gateley (licensed under CCA).

Torkington would surely have been prevailed upon by his fellow pilgrims to explain this most enigmatic and disturbing passage of scripture. He might have found this easier had he been able to take them ashore and explore the cave in which Saint John received his divine "Revelation," but Venetian sea-captains would not be distracted if favourable winds were filling their sails.

"Saint John the Evangelist on Patmos," by Hieronymous Bosch, a contemporary of Torkington. Many in Torkington's day believed that the author of the Apocalypse was also the author of the fourth gospel, but few modern scholars believe this to be the case. It is now thought unlikely that either of these authors was "John, the brother of James," and son of Zebedee.

The seven-headed beast, one of many terrifying images from the Book of the Apocalypse, from the 10th Century Beatus Escorial (image is in the Public Domain).

"The next day, Tewsday ...we sayled ryght Estwardes, towards Cypres, and left the Rodes on the left hende, not approched ny the Rodes by C myle ffor fer of the Turks."

"Wedynsday the viij Day of Julii, we came to Cypres, and ther we lay Thursday all Day."

Torkington seems not to have gone ashore on Cyprus. Presumably the crew were provisioning the ship, and the captain may have been waiting for a favourable wind. Other sources suggest that Venetian galleys of the time often lay at anchor at the entrance to the Larnaca salt-lakes, so this was, perhaps, the vessel's location at this point in time.

The entrance to the Larnaca salt-lakes (Cyprus), with the Hala Sultan Tekke mosque. Photo: Andreas Antoniou (licensed under GNU).

"Friday the xth Day of July, a bowt x or xj of the cloke, we made sayle."

"Saturday the xjth Day of Julii, a bowt iiij of the cloke at after noon, we had sight of the Holy Lande. Thanne the maryners sang the letany. And after that, all the pilgrims, with a joyful voice sung the Te Deum Lawdimus, and thanked all mighty God that he had goven us such grace to have onys the sight of the most holy lande."

Jaffa from the sea (image is in the Public Domain).

There was time, laying at anchor off Jaffa (modern Tel Aviv), for the pilgrims to reflect on the journey that they had made across the sea, and on the journey that they were about to make over land. For them, this journey of a lifetime was a preparation for an almost precisely similar journey to be made by the soul at the end of days, to the Valley of Gehenna, where Christ would make judgement between the saved and the damned.

More next week!

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





Saturday, 27 June 2015

An Englishman's Pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1517 - Week 2 - Zakynthos to Crete

Having left Corfu, the Venetian galley carrying the English priest, Richard Torkington, and other pilgrims (some of them English, but also French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese) sailed on along the Ionian coast of Greece. It was, for most of them, a once in a lifetime opportunity actually to glimpse some of the places they had heard tell of, both in the Bible, and in the works of Virgil and Ovid, by this time widely available as printed editions, fully accessible to a man such as Torkington, who used Latin on a daily basis.

"Saturday the xxvij day of Junij a bowt iiij of the cloke at aftyr Noone we cam to Ganta (Zakynthos) in Grece, and after we went on Londe, and there we taryed Sonnday, whych is under the Dominacion of the Venycians. Also we met with ij galyes of Venys, which went owt of Venys a moneth a for us, which galyes went to the Turk Ambasset. And they caryed with them riches and pleasurs as clothe of gold and crymsyn velvet ... There is the grettest winys and strongest that ever I drank in my lyff."

The Ionian Islands (coloured green) under the Venetian Republic, 1785 (image is in the Public Domain).

The wine in question is likely to have been Malmsey, produced in Croatia, Slovenia and on the Aegean islands. It was exported to England, among other places (George Plantagenet, the 1st Duke of Clarence, had been drowned in a barrel of it), but may have been beyond the means of a parish priest.

Torkington was shown around the island's castle: "the wallys are sore brosyd and brokyn with the earthe quake, which was in Aprill last past, and all the isle is sore troubled with the seyd erthe qwake diffuse times."

"Thursday the Ijde Day of Julii, a bowt xj or xij of the cloke a for non, we came to Candi (modern Heraklion, on Crete, then under Venetian control) ... We found vj or vij Englishe merchaunts, which made us good cher ... In Candia, sine Creta was mashye first founde ... Armyes first founde on horsebake ... There was law first put in writing. Armour was first there devisyd and founde."

Candia (Heraklion) in 1487 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Venetian harbour of Heraklion. Photo: J. Olle (licensed under GNU).

The Venetian arsenal of Heraklion. Photo: Beemwej (licensed under GNU).

 "In Candi also ys the old churche, whereof Titus was Bishoppe, to whom Paul wrote epystyllis. I saw the hede of the seyd Titus coverd with silver and golde ... and this citee of Candi was some time the ... lordshippe of King Minos ... In that londe, xxx mile from Candy, ys an old cittee, which was called Cretina ... In this citee we tarried Ij dayes and an half."

The "broken city" can only have been that of Gortyn, rather than Knossos (which is, in any case, much closer to Heraklion), Phaistos or Mallia: little, if anything, of these Bronze Age cities, is likely to have been visible on the ground prior to the 19th and 20th Century excavations. Gortyn, on the other hand, was a Roman city, parts of which must have been visible. There Torkington would also have visited the 6th Century Basilica of Saint Titus.

Roman remains at Gortyn. Photo: Marc Ryckaert (licensed under CCA).

The Basilica of Saint Titus. Photo: Marc Ryckaert (licensed under CCA).

Although this journey was a pilgrimage, and there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Torkington's religious motivation, it is clear from his account that time was set aside for sightseeing, the sampling of local produce, and other activities that we would think of in terms of "tourism." Certainly it was a very different experience from the 12th Century pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostella that I have discussed in earlier blog-posts.

More next week!

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










Monday, 22 June 2015

An Englishman's Pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1517 - Week 1 - Venice to Corfu

Soon after the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, in 312 AD, Jerusalem became a place of pilgrimage. Among the first to make the pilgrimage was his own mother, recognised by the church as Saint Helena. She travelled there in 326 AD, and was convinced that she had found Christ's tomb, and the remains of his cross. Her son would later finance the construction of a basilica on the site of her discoveries.

Chaucer's fictional "wife of Bath" had already made three pilgrimages to Jerusalem when she set out for Canterbury, but the journey in her day would have been a difficult and perilous one. By the end of the 15th Century, however, it had become easier. Venetian galley-owners had established an effective monopoly, liaising with the Muslim authorities in Palestine to smooth the journey. These were, in effect, Europe's first package tours.

A Venetian galley. Image: http://telias.free.fr (reproduced with permission).

Several travellers who made the journey in the late 15th and early 16th Century wrote accounts of their pilgrimages, and one of these was an English priest, Richard Torkington (the Vicar of Mulberton in Norfolk, a benefice dependent on Thomas Boleyn), who travelled in 1517. His was one of the accounts that I used to reconstruct the pilgrimage of Richard Mabon, in my novel, Omphalos (Mabon, like Torkington, was a historical pilgrim, but he left no record of his journey). Let us follow Torkington's journey, week by week.

Torkington sailed from Rye to Dieppe on 20th March, and made his way on horseback to Venice, via Paris, Lyon, Milan, Pavia and Ferrara. He witnessed the ceremonial marriage of the Doge with the sea.

The Doge's "Marriage with the Sea" - anonymous 16th Century miniature (image is in the Public Domain).

Here Torkington describes his departure, and the days that followed.

"Sunday after Corpus Christi Day, the xiiij of June, we departed from Venys in a little bott whych brought us to the shippe that lay iiij myle without the castellys, a good new shippe whiche mad never jorney a fore of viij C tunne. The name of the patrone was called Tomas Dodo."

Venice, by Bolognino Zaltieri, 1565 (image is in the Public Domain).

"Twesday the xvj day of June a bowt v of the clok in the morning, we mad sayle with scarce wynde."

"Thursday xviij June - Ruyne (the modern Croatian port of Rovinj), 110 miles from Venice - went ashore."

The back-streets of Rovinj, where Torkington may have wandered, stocking up on cheese, wine, fruit and cured meat for the on-going journey. Photo: Ivana (image is in the Public Domain).

"Midsomerday we passed by the most strong and mighty town called Aragousse (Dubrovnik) in the countrie of Slavanye or Dalmacie. They pay tribute to the Turk ... it is the strongest town of walls, towers, bulwerks, watches and wardes that ever I saw in all my lyffe."

The fortifications of Dubrovnik. Photo: Luna04 (licensed under GNU).

"Thursday after Midsom Day, about iiij of the cloke at aftyr noon we passed by Corfana (Corfu) ... At Corfana the patrone shewyd me the ... strong castellys, standing upon ij rokkys, they hold of the Venysyans."

The Venetian fortress of Corfu - 16th Century print. British Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

"Ffryday that was John's and Pauli we sayled with ese wyndestal, in alto pelage (on the high seas), levyng Grece on the left hand, and Barbary (North Africa) on the ryght hande."

At the end of their first week, Torkington and his companions had left the Adriatic Sea behind them, the galley turning eastwards towards the Holy Land.

More next week!

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









Sunday, 14 June 2015

Kinship with Cattle - Humans and Animals in Prehistoric Europe

When I first began studying the megalithic monuments of Brittany and the Channel Islands in the 1980s, I noted the coastal distribution of many categories of these monuments, including the passage graves, and confidently assumed that the people who built them, between four and seven thousand years ago, must have depended as much on fishing as on farming. Doubtless they would also have hunted: the modern farmers that I encountered in Brittany certainly did.

Since then, however, scientists have developed new techniques, which allow them to reconstruct the diets of prehistoric people based on a chemical analysis of their bones. As result after result was published, the findings were startling: when the Neolithic way of life (cereal cultivation and herding) arrived in western Europe from the east between 5000 and 4000 BC, the people who lived there stopped hunting and fishing altogether, and seemingly within the space of a single generation.

How to explain this abrupt transition? Agriculture, after all, is an uncertain business. Crops and domestic animals are vulnerable to drought, floods and disease: why, then, would people who knew perfectly well how to hunt and fish put all their faith in a new and uncertain way of feeding themselves?

Religious changes seem to have been taking place at the same time (as evidenced by the sudden appearance of the monuments themselves), so it would have been relatively easy (and lazy) to think in vague terms such as "taboo." Perhaps they avoided seafood and venison for the same reason that Jews and Muslims avoid pork?

The megalithic cairn of Barnenez, covering eleven passage graves and overlooking the north coast of Brittany. Photo: Farz Brujunet (licensed under CCA).

Many of us, however, turned to anthropology for possible explanations. One problem, it seemed, arose from our own mind-set, a mind-set that has developed in Europe over more than two thousand years, and finds its ultimate expression in our 21st Century supermarket culture of packaged foods. It is a mind-set that views the animals whose meat and eggs we eat, whose milk we drink, in purely instrumental terms. It had not, it seemed, been safe to assume that our prehistoric ancestors must have shared this mind-set. After all, not all modern societies do so.

Take the Nuer of Southern Sudan, for example. Anyone who has studied anthropology (including me) knows about them, thanks to the work of the British anthropologist, E.E. Evans-Pritchard (1907-1973). They are primarily a pastoral people, reliant on herds of cattle. They do also grow millet, but they gain most of their protein from the blood and milk of living cattle (they slaughter their cattle only for special events, such as funeral feasts).

Their relationship with cows are anything but instrumental. A man's status is defined by the number and quality of the cattle he owns. He sings songs about them, composes poems about them, takes a nick-name based on the colours of his favourite cow. He can recite their genealogies, as well as his own, back through five generations. He guards them at night, walking among them with an iron spear, ringing a bell to reassure them.


Nuer cattle, and Nuer man with "song-ox." Photos: E.E. Evans-Pritchard (images are in the Public Domain).

What he doesn't do is milk them, for that is women's work. Women also stir the curds and make the cheese. There is an eroticised dimension to the relationship between men on the one hand; and women and cows on the other.

Nuer girl milking. Photo: E.E.Evans-Pritchard (image is in the Public Domain).

This dimension is echoed in cultural traditions elsewhere in the world, notably the Hindu tradition: the Bhaghvad Purana, for example, depicts Lord Krishna courting the gopis (cow-herd girls) of the forest, enchanting cows and gopis, alike, with the music of his flute.

Lord Krishna with gopis, 1790-1800, Smithsonian Institute (image is in the Public Domain).

Archaeologists in Britain and Europe began interrogating the evidence for signs that something similar might have been happening among our own Neolithic ancestors, and they found it. Many of the English long-barrows (burial mounds) have been found to contain the bones of cattle, as well as humans: the remains of funeral feasts, perhaps?

The long-barrow of Thickthorn Down, Wiltshire. Human bones were found beneath the mound, and cattle bones in the flanking ditches. Photo: Jim Champion (licensed under CCA).

One of these long-barrows (Beckhampton, near Avebury) appears to have been exclusively for cattle, with no human remains found at all.

"We would propose," wrote archaeologists Keith Ray and Julian Thomas, " ... that a fictive kinship with cattle, both genealogised and metaphorical, was created by these people in the intimacy of their relationships with their herds."

This is why, in "The Song of Strangers," the Neolithic story in my novel, Omphalos, the sorceress, Egraste, is the guardian of a sacred bull, as well as the guardian of a shrine (the shrine contains the horns of the bull's supposed ancestors), a sort of Neolithic gopi (though her mind-set and religious beliefs are very different from those of modern Hindus). Only the real threat of starvation will impel her to eat a salmon (stolen from an otter, since she, unlike her ancestors, does not know how to fish), a meal with which I managed, in my youth (though I was no more capable than Egraste of catching one), to delight a number of ladies of my acquaintance.

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









Monday, 8 June 2015

Land for the Living, Tombs for the Dead - The Gallery Graves of Northern France

A visitor to Brittany, Normandy or the Channel Islands encounters several types of megalithic monument. All were built during the Neolithic period, more than four and a half thousand years ago, and long before any written records were produced. In an earlier blog-post, I discussed the passage graves of Europe's Atlantic fa├žade, talking of their womb-like form, their alignment towards sunrises and sunsets at equinoxes and solstices, and the existence within them of a space that might be shared by the living and the dead.

Passage graves were built between 4750 and 3250 BC. Gallery graves, built between 3250 and 2850 BC, are profoundly different, and seem to represent a changing concept of mortality. Passage graves have spacious chambers in which people could stand up and do things. They often contain only fragmentary human remains, like the relics in a Medieval Catholic church. Gallery graves, on the other hand, are rarely high enough to stand up in, and seem, in many cases, to have been packed with corpses. They were, it seems, truly the domain of the dead.

The gallery grave of Mogau-Bihan, Brittany. Photo: Lamiot (licensed under CCA).

When I was studying archaeology at Cambridge, and our professor, Colin Renfrew (subsequently Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn), was developing a theory of megalithic monuments as "territorial markers," it seemed to me that this model explained gallery graves far more successfully than it explained passage graves. They have a more inland distribution, and are rarely found in close proximity to one another. "This land is ours," the builders seem to have been saying, "because it was cleared and cultivated by our ancestors, and here are their bones to prove it."

In my first novel, Undreamed Shores, my protagonist, Amzai, who comes from a culture of passage graves on Jersey, returns to his island from a long journey, and is shocked to see the gallery grave built by invaders, who have arrived in his absence:

"He looked again at the ground, and saw that the tracks led along the path to the right. He followed them to a clearing. In the clearing was a stone construction, a shrine of some sort, but not like the shrines he was used to. Clearly they expected to stay!"

The gallery grave of Ville-es-Nouaux, Jersey. Photo: Man Vyi (image is in the Public Domain).

After Amzai and his companions have defeated the invaders, the sorceress, Meruskine, undertakes to exorcise the foreign monument:

"Today you must attend to the burial of the dead. Please don't touch this accursed shrine. I will purify it with charms and potions the like of which I hoped I would never have to use."

The monument in question, Ville-es-Nouaux, seems to have been deliberately sealed and abandoned in c 2400 BC, with a series of elaborately decorated pottery vessels placed within it.

Another Jersey gallery grave, that of Le Couperon, features in my third novel, Omphalos, whose Medieval characters, Sir Raoul de Paisnel and his steward, Guillaume Bisson, believe it to be the haunted grave of "a Danish pirate."

The gallery grave of Le Couperon, Jersey. Photo: Pawel Szubert (licensed under GNU).

The walls of gallery graves, like those of passage graves, are sometimes decorated with carved motifs, but they are very different from the art of the passage graves. The most common motif is a pair of breasts and a necklace, sometimes thought of as representing a "mother goddess," also depicted on a small number of free-standing menhirs.

The "statue-menhir" of Le Castel, Guernsey. Photo: Man Vyi (image is in the Public Domain).

Objects buried with the dead include stone axes, pottery vessels, and elaborate knives made from flint quarried at Grand Pressigny, in central France. It is one of these knives (found at Le Pinacle, Jersey, and now in the Archaeological Museum at Hougue Bie) that Amzai wields in his dream:

"He took a flint knife, a long, honey-coloured knife from Aramaio, with a polished handle and a serrated blade, and he sliced through the anchor-rope, allowing the boat to drift off on the ebbing tide. He heard a screech from the cliff above him. A young male peregrine took flight for the first time ... From the other side of the bay, a second bird appeared, a young female. The two birds found one another and gambolled together like airborne lambs, rising high in the air and swooping downwards, spiralling around one another, their wingtips almost touching."

Knives of flint from Le Grand Pressigny. Photo: Latenium (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, 3 June 2015

The Shattered Idols of Prehistoric Brittany - Europe's First Iconoclasm?

For much of the Twentieth Century, archaeologists believed that the passage graves of Atlantic Europe had been built around 3-3500 years ago, inspired by the "mastaba" tombs of ancient Egypt, and by monuments such as the "Treasury of Atreus" (actually a tomb rather than a treasury) in Mycenean Greece.

The "Treasury of Atreus" at Mycenae, a Bronze Age tomb of c1250 BC. Photo: Fingalo (licensed under CCA).

When radiocarbon dating was first developed in the late 1940s by the American scientist, Willard Libby, these assumptions seemed to be confirmed. Twenty years later, however, when the technique was refined by reference to tree-rings, the archaeological world was shocked. Many of these monuments were shown to be much older than had previously been thought. Analysis of charcoal from the passage grave of Kercado, in Brittany, suggested that it had been built between 5200 and 4360 BC, at least 3000 years earlier than the Treasury of Atreus.

The passage grave of Kercado, once thought to be an imitation of the Treasury of Atreus, now understood to be at least 3000 years earlier. Photo: Binche (licensed under CCA).

The Kercado date is now recognised as a very imprecise one, and the most recent research suggests that the earliest European passage graves were built in the late 5th, rather than the 6th Millennium BC, but this, nonetheless, rules out any possibility that they were inspired by any prototypes in the Mediterranean world.

A further shock came in 1983, when my late friend and colleague, Professor Jean L'Helgouac'h, published a paper in which he demonstrated that several of these passage graves incorporated the shattered remnants of a yet earlier phase of megalithic activity. At Locmariaquer, on the western shores of the Golfe du Morbihan, there had once been an alignment of standing stones carved with symbols, including images of stone axes. One of these is still standing, but has been incorporated as the back-stone of the passage grave of La Table des Marchand.


The carved back-stone and capstone of La Table des Marchand, Locmariaquer. Photo: Myrabella (licensed under CCA).

Another, the largest of all stones ever raised by prehistoric people anywhere in the world, lies broken in four pieces nearby. This was originally more than 20 metres high, with a weight of 280 tonnes. It seems to have been raised around 4700 BC, and to have fallen around seven hundred years later, probably as the result of an earthquake.

The "Great Broken Menhir" of Locmariaquer. Photo: Louis Carlier (licensed under GNU).

Another stone, carved with images of a hafted axe, a bull, a goat and an enigmatic symbol, was broken into three pieces, each of which has been incorporated in a different monument (La Table des Marchand, Gavrinis and Er Grah). Yet another is incorporated as a capstone of the nearby passage grave of Mane-Rutual.

Reconstruction of the "Great Broken Menhir" (left) and its companion, the fragments of which are now incorporated in three separate monuments. The hafted axe on the lower fragment of the stone on the right is the one that can be seen on the capstone of La Table des Marchand above. Image: Professor Jean L'Helgouac'h.

These stones were erected by some of the earliest farmers in Europe, and the symbolism of the one shown above seems to encapsulate the new agricultural way of life. Whilst the largest of the stones may have been felled by an earthquake, the others seem to have been deliberately smashed and reused. Was the earthquake itself seen as a portentous omen, prompting the first of many waves of iconoclasm in Europe?

This iconoclasm, however, was not limited to the south of Brittany. As L'Helgouac'h and his colleague, Serge Cassen, showed me around their excavations at Locmariaquer in the late summer of 1988, and as we later shared a bottle of Muscadet, I realised not only that the first European megaliths must have been built more than five centuries earlier than any of my tutors at Cambridge had dared to imagine, but also that I knew of other examples of shattered idols incorporated in later passage graves: the "cup-marks" of La Hougue Bie on Jersey (a site that I would go on to excavate myself, with the help of L'Helgouac'h's students, as well as my own), and the so-called "Guardian" of Le Dehus on Guernsey.

The "cup-marks" of La Hougue Bie. This is the stone on which Tubal sits, in my novel, Omphalos, before Txeru and Egraste go on to build the passage grave. Photo: www.megalithics.com.

The "Guardian" of Le Dehus, Guernsey. The site is visited by Amzai and Nanti, in my novel, Undreamed Shores, although they don't see the carving, because Nanti is afraid to enter the passage grave. Photo: Temp Wingas (image is in the Public Domain).

What I did not know, however, on that most memorable of days, was that I would go on to write novels in which the builders of these monuments would feature as characters: novels which, sadly, my friend, Jean L'Helgouac'h, would not live long enough to read.

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






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.