Saturday, 28 February 2015

Santiago de Compostela - The Emergence and Development of a Medieval Cult

How to create something from nothing? Surely a question for a magician rather than a historical writer but, from time to time, history throws up examples of such achievements. In 750 AD Compostela, in Galicia, was an insignificant Visigothic settlement standing on Roman foundations, probably a village rather than a town. A hundred years later, it was the centre of a religious cult and a centre for pilgrimage, at least within its region.

Similar cults have emerged in much more recent times (that of Saint Bernadette at Lourdes, or of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Knock, for example) and, almost always, one or more charismatic individuals are involved. In the case of Compostela, there are several such individuals, but the first was Bishop Theodomir of Iria (died 847 AD). He it was that "authenticated" human remains found at Compostela (by a shepherd in some accounts, by a holy hermit in others) as being those of the Apostle James. He also notified Alonso II, the King of Asturias, who authorised the building of a church there. Charlemagne may or may not have visited shortly afterwards (supposedly guided by the stars, although a letter from Theodomir or Alonso may also have been involved).

Theodomir's church was burned to the ground by the forces (both Muslim and Christian) of Al-Mansur Ibn Ali Aamir, acting on orders from the Caliph of Cordoba. Theodomir's tomb was one of the very few elements that survived intact.

The tomb of Bishop Theodomir at Santiago de Compostela. Photo: Froaringus (licensed under GNU).

The construction of the present cathedral began in 1075, under Alfonso VI of  Castille. Construction was halted several times owing to a lack of funds. It was at this point, however, that the second charismatic figure in Compostela's history intervened. He was an ambitious priest named Diego Gelmirez (1069-1149), who persuaded Pope Callixtus II to elevate Compostela to episcopal and, later, archiepiscopal status. Gelmirez himself became the second bishop (his predecessor having died after only a year in office) and the first Archbishop.

Diego Gelmirez, from the 13th Century Tumbo de Toxosoutos. Photo: Braracaugustana (licensed under CCA).

The Romanesque cathedral was built by two architects named Bernard (it is not certain that they were related, but it seems likely that they were father and son), and the Portico da Gloria, one of the masterpieces of the European Romanesque, was added, in 1188, by one Master Mateo.

Master Mateo's "Portico da Gloria." Photo: Scanprojekte Bundesdenk Malamt Osterreich (image is in the Public Domain).

Christ in Majesty, from the "Portico da Gloria." Photo: Pedronchi (licensed under CCA).

It is possible that Compostela was attracting some pilgrims from beyond Iberia even before Gelmirez's time (a burial recently found at Winchester with a perforated scallop-shell seems to date to the late 11th Century), but there is little doubt that, by raising the status of the shrine, he created the phenomenon of the "Camino" de Santiago, with various routes bringing thousands of pilgrims every year. Like modern tourists, these pilgrims made significant contributions both to the local economy, and to those of the towns and cities they passed through.

The Ways of Saint James. Image: Manfred Zentgraf (licensed under GNU).

The 15th Century Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella invested significant funds in the infrastructure of the Camino, establishing the Hostel dos Reis Catolicos (now a 5-Star Hotel) in 1492, but also opening many hostels along the Spanish roads leading to Compostela.

The Hostel dos Reis Catolicos at Santiago de Compostela. Photo: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sanchez (licensed under CCA).

In the century that followed, however, the pilgrimage went into steep decline, the result, in the first instance, of plagues, and then of the religious upheavals and civil wars that brought the modern world into existence. When, in 1740, the Baroque façade of the cathedral that we see today was added, it was in the context of a resurgent Catholic Church celebrating its survival in Iberia, and elsewhere, after the smoke of the Reformation had settled.

The 18th Century Baroque façade of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Photo: Vasco Roxo (licensed under GNU).

In recent years, the Camino has undergone something of a revival (the number of people arriving at Santiago de Compostela has risen steadily since 1985). In the 21st Century, the categories of "pilgrim" and "tourist" have become difficult to differentiate: does even the most pious of pilgrims become a "tourist" when she takes a selfie, or the most secular of tourists a "pilgrim" when he kneels for a moment of silent reflection?

Whatever their motivations, a significant proportion of people travelling to Santiago de Compostela choose to walk at least part of the way, and a modern infrastructure of way-marked paths, hostels and budget restaurants has grown up to meet their needs.

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, 22 February 2015

"The Golden Legend" - The Apostle James in Compostela and Reading

The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela features prominently in one of the storylines of my novel, Omphalos, and this is the first of a number of posts in which I will explore aspects of the pilgrimage.

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Photo: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sanchez (licensed under GNU).

Compostela and Canterbury were among the most important destinations for pilgrims in the Middle Ages, but there is an important difference between them. There is no doubt that Canterbury's patron saint, Thomas a Becket, was murdered in the cathedral, or that the shrine visited by pilgrims up to the time of the Reformation contained his physical remains. It is, by contrast, very uncertain whether Compostela's patron saint, James the Greater, was ever there in life, or that any part of his remains is actually present in the elaborate shrine to him which pilgrims visit to this day.

The Shrine of Saint James at Compostela. Photo: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sanchez (licensed under GNU).

The Saint James in question was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, the son of Zebedee and Salome who, with his brother John, was called by Christ to join the Apostles. According to The Acts of the Apostles, he was executed by "Herod" (most scholars agree that this was Herod Agrippa, and that the execution took place in 44 AD). The Bible says nothing about him ever having visited Spain, but local tradition holds that he did so, somewhat unsuccessfully, gaining only nine converts before returning to Judea.

Saint James depicted as a pilgrim at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Photo: Simone Ramella (licensed under CCA).

According to 12th Century sources, his body was, following his martyrdom, either brought by his followers to Spain, or (in the so-called "Golden Legend") translated there miraculously in a stone boat. It was not discovered, however, until the time of King Alfonso II (791-842 AD) and his bishop, Theodomir, who was led to the site by mysterious flickering lights, and confirmed the remains (we know not on what basis) to be those of Saint James.

These 12th Century sources (I'll have more to say about them in the weeks to come) also have Saint James appearing to Charlemagne (a contemporary of Alfonso) and inspiring him to liberate Spain from the Saracens. Saint James was even supposed to have appeared on horseback, sword in hand, to intervene on the Christian side in the (fictional) Battle of Clavijo, but, as a priest points out in my novel, "Saint James was a fisherman. He never held a sword in his hand in life and, if he rode any creature it would have been an ass."

Saint James "The Slayer of Moors," from the Codex Calixtinus, a 12th Century document in the library of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Photo: HombreD Hojolata (licensed under CCA).

It is possible that the Spanish cult of Saint James (he has been the patron saint of Spain since the 12th Century) was invented in the 9th, 10th or 11th Century in order to supplant another cult, that of Priscillian, a local man who had been executed under the Christian Emperor, Magnus Maximus (Priscillian, who promoted gnostic texts alongside the canonical scriptures, would have been considered a heretic by churchmen of the Middle Ages).

Intriguingly, a mummified hand, which has long been believed to be of the same Saint James, currently sits in a Catholic Church at Marlow in Buckinghamshire. In 640 AD (a full two centuries before Bishop Theodomir's supposed discovery in Spain), this was apparently in the possession of the Bishop of Torcello, in Venice. By 1046 it had passed into the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor, and was brought to England by the Emperor's widow, Matilda (the daughter of Henry I), who gifted it to Reading Abbey.

The supposed hand of Saint James from Reading Abbey (image is in the Public Domain).

Throughout the Middle Ages, Saint James welcomed pilgrims at Reading, just as he did at Compostela, and worked miracles in both places. This would not have troubled the Medieval mind unduly: it was not unusual for the relics of a saint to be dispersed to several locations and, if he could exist in Heaven and still intervene on Earth, why should he not be able to do so in more than one earthly location?

Reading Abbey. Photo: Chris Wood (licensed under CCA).

In 1539, with Thomas Cromwell's agents at the gates, the monks of Reading placed the hand in a chest and hid it in the abbey walls. It was rediscovered in 1786, by workmen building Reading Gaol.

Whatever the real identity of the Reading hand, or of the remains contained within the shrine at Compostela, it is clear that most Medieval pilgrims took for granted the truth of the stories they were told about the relics, and believed in their miraculous powers. Where deliberate fraud was involved, it was likely to have been known about only by a tiny number of individuals, who took their secrets with them to their graves.

As to the question of why an English pilgrim would walk all the way to Compostela to seek the intercession of Saint James, when he could more easily seek it in Reading, some may have been motivated to travel through foreign lands by a sense of adventure and curiosity, whilst, for others, the journey was a penitential one, with short-cuts leading inevitably to Hell.

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the last French town a British pilgrim to Compostela would pass through before crossing the Pyrenees. Photo: Theklan (licensed under CCA).

The longer the journey was, the more opportunities there were to seek intercessions from other saints. A Londoner on the road to Compostela in the 14th Century would almost certainly have visited the shrine of St Thomas at Canterbury before embarking for France at Dover, and, when he stopped at Tours to seek the intercession of Saint Martin, he might well have shared a meal with a Spanish pilgrim, for whom Canterbury was the ultimate destination.

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

Monday, 16 February 2015

Secrets of the 18th Century Diary

When I began the research for my third novel, Omphalos, I knew that I wanted one of my six stories, set in the 18th Century, to take the form of a diary, and I therefore set about reading as many real 18th Century diaries as I could find. The diary, as a form, had really come into its own in the previous century (the first recorded use of the word "diary" with its modern meaning is in Ben Jonson's comedy, Volpone, in 1605), and I was already familiar with the 17th Century diaries of Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn and Jean Chevalier.

"The Diary-Entry," by August Muller (1836-1885). Image is in the Public Domain.

The diary is a peculiarly intimate form of writing. Some diarists may have hoped that their writings might be published or otherwise disseminated after their deaths but, within their own lifetimes, they were intensely private, and many diarists employed codes or eclectic shorthand, to ensure that their family members or servants could not read their most intimate thoughts. Certainly Pepys would not have wanted his wife to read his diary entries, which document his all too frequent adulteries, not to mention behaviours that, in today's parlance, would count as "sexual harassment."

A page from the diary of Samuel Pepys (image is in the Public Domain).

Among the first that I studied were James Boswell's London Journals (almost certainly not intended for publication, and not "discovered" until the 20th Century) and Captain James Cook's journals of his voyages (an official record, which he would have expected to be archived by the Admiralty, and to stand as a public record).

Captain James Cook, by Nathaniel Dance Holland. National Maritime Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

It was from Cook that I learned that I ought not to try too hard to imitate "the style of the time." A practical seaman, and a Yorkshire-man to boot, there was no space in his diary for purple prose:

"Thursday, 1st September, 1768 ... Very hard gales with some heavy showers of rain the most part of these 24 hours, which brought us under our two courses, broke one of our main topmast puttock plates, washed overboard a small boat belonging to the boatswain, and drown'd between 3 & 4 dozen of our poultry, which was worst of all ..."

I knew, however, that my fictional diarist was to be a young woman, and so it was to female diarists that I was naturally drawn. The diaries of the novelist, Fanny Burney (later Madame d'Arblay), was a good starting point. She has a novelist's ear for dialogue:

"'What's all this laugh for?' cried Dr Johnson. 'Why, sir,' answered Mrs Thrale, 'Mr B just now called out - nobody knows why - <Sweet are the slumbers of the virtuous made.>'"

Fanny Burney, by Edward Francis Burney (image is in the Public Domain).

But she also uses her diary for the more conventional exercise of introspection:

"That portion of philosophy which belongs to making the most of the present day grows upon me strangely: and, as I have suffered infinitely from its neglect, it is what I most encourage, and, indeed, require."

Here she switches, as diarists of all periods almost invariably do (but which, in my experience, is counter-intuitive to literary editors), between the present tense, when describing states that are on-going at the time of writing ("that portion ... belongs," "it is what I most encourage"), and the past or perfect tenses ("I have suffered") when talking about things that have happened during the day, or further back in the past. As in Jane Austen's novels, Christian names are used only by close family members, never between courting couples (Mr Darcy courts "Miss Bennett," not "Elizabeth"), and often not even within a marriage.

One of the most remarkable discoveries of recent years has been the "secret diaries" of Miss Anne Lister, opening a window into the previously invisible world of lesbian relationships in the early 19th Century. Written in code, she certainly did not intend for these diaries to be read by any of her contemporaries, although I do wonder whether she might not have had an eye to posterity, and the thought that the day might come when such relationships did not have to be conducted in such secrecy. She includes little dialogue, preferring reported speech (each diarist has his or her own style, so there are no hard and fast rules for writing a fictional diary):

"She asked if I thought the thing was wrong - if it was forbidden in the Bible ... I urged, in my own defence, the strengths of natural feeling and instinct."

Miss Anne Lister, by Joshua Horner (image is in the Public Domain).

My fictional diarist, Suzanne de Beaubigny, is not a lesbian (Sarah Waters tells those stories far more convincingly than I can), but the following quote from Lister's diary did give me an insight which became part of Suzanne's experience:

"After supper, firing off the pistol that had been heavily charged above three weeks, out of my room window. The report was tremendous. It bounded out of my hand, forced itself through the window, and broke the lead and two panes of glass. My hand felt stunned for some time."

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, 9 February 2015

"La Correspondence:" Espionage and Insurgency in the French Revolutionary Wars

I have written elsewhere of the character of Philippe d'Auvergne, a British spymaster of the French Revolutionary Wars, and a character in my novel, Omphalos.

Philippe d'Auvergne, Prince de Bouillon by adoption. (image is in the Public Domain).

Mont Orgueil Castle, Jersey, by Henry King Taylor (image is in the Public Domain).

The network of spies and counter-revolutionary agents that d'Auvergne operated from his headquarters at Mont Orgueil Castle, in Jersey, came into being almost by accident. A Jerseyman with a distinguished career in the Royal Navy behind him, d'Auvergne had been approached by the civil authorities of Jersey at the beginning of 1794, to put together a flotilla to protect the island against the threat posed by Revolutionary France (the fears of the islanders were well-founded - an army of 20,000 infantry, 200-300 cavalry and 200 artillery was assembling at St-Malo for the specific purpose of invading the Channel Islands).

By June of that year, d'Auvergne had assembled a flotilla of three gunboats, the Bravo, the Seaflower and the Plumper, and he had also obtained permission to hire and arm three privately owned vessels, the Daphne, the Aristocrat and the Royalist.

An armed cutter of the type used by the Royal Navy at the time of the French Revolutionary Wars (National Maritime Museum - image is in the Public Domain). They were often privately owned, their captains sailing as privateers under Letters of Marque.

In a letter written some years later, d'Auvergne described the roles of his flotilla:

  • To command a division of armed vessels to cover these islands
  • To open communication with the continent, so as to obtain early information of the hostile movements of the enemy
  • To maintain communication with the insurgents in the western provinces.
  • To distribute aid to lay French emigrants in these islands.
He was not, of course, doing all of this at the behest of the civil authorities on Jersey. His controller in London was Sir Evan Nepean, Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department with responsibility for naval and military intelligence. "La Correspondence," as the network became known, thus operated outside of the usual chain of command, and d'Auvergne could run its operations as unconventionally as he saw fit, much to the alarm of the Admiralty, and the military authorities represented, on the islands, by the Lieutenant-Governor.

The islands were, at the time, home to many Royalist refugees from France and, as well as distributing aid to this community, using funds channelled through Nepean, he recruited many of his agents from amongst them. These agents made clandestine landings in France, delivering weapons and counterfeit money, and collecting messages from agents operating within France.

As Royalist insurgencies raged throughout much of western France, their leaders, men such as Georges Cadoudal in Brittany, and Louis de Frotte in Normandy, were supplied from Jersey, and made visits to d'Auvergne at Mont Orgueil and, less frequently, to Nepean in London.

A Chouan guarding a church in Brittany, by Charles Loyeux. Collection du Musee d'Art et d'Histoire de Cholet (image is in the Public Domain).

Since the operations of "La Correspondence" were, by their nature, secret, with d'Auvergne and Nepean burning most of their correspondence once it had been read, the historian cannot easily reconstruct these operations. We know the code-names of various agents (l'hermite, le vigoreux, Picard, Voltige), and the location of some of the offshore reefs where supplies were landed, but only occasionally can we see beyond this.

A Breton chasse-maree, the Corentin. Vessels such as this probably conducted clandestine operations between the Channel Islands and France. Photo: Rene Jouan (image is in the Public Domain).

We do know, for example, of a Frenchman named Jacques Destouches (codenamed Auguste), a Chouan (Royalist insurgent) based in Coutances, who was arrested and condemned to death, but was released by some of d'Auvergne's agents and brought to Jersey. Unfortunately, however, he had been tortured beyond the limits of endurance, and spent the rest of his life in asylums, first in London and then, having been pardoned, in Caen.

The Couer Chouan, a symbol of the French Royalist insurgency. Photo: Rama (image is in the Public Domain).

We also know of a Jerseywoman named Marie Le Sueur (also a character in Omphalos) who, despite a six-month spell in a French prison in 1793, continued her work, receiving, in 1799, a payment of 566 livres (an average skilled labourer at the time would have earned around 500 livres per year, but we don't know what period of time is covered by this payment to Marie).

The Royalist cause had taken a heavy blow, however, in 1795, when a British-backed invasion attempt at Quiberon Bay fell apart, largely because its French aristocratic leaders could not agree among themselves either on matters of strategy (some argued for an invasion further south, in the Vendee) or on matters of policy (some favouring constitutional monarchy, others a return to the Ancien Regime). Cadoudal and de Frotte fought on, but many of their comrades in arms, feeling let down by those they had looked up to as their social betters, simply put down their weapons and returned to their farms.

When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in 1799, he brought to an end the persecution of Catholics that had fuelled the Royalist insurgencies. Many of those who had taken refuge on the Channel Islands returned to France. With the Peace of Amiens in 1802, the rationale for "La Correspondence" largely disappeared, although it seems that d'Auvergne continued to liaise with agents in France until 1815. His highly unconventional and largely amateur network of spies and secret agents, however, had kept the Channel Islands safe as "peculiars" of the British crown, and had undoubtedly saved many French lives during the Revolutionary Terror.

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, 2 February 2015

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 22. "My Name is Red," by Orhan Pamuk

In 1453, Constantinople, the capital of the Christian empire of Byzantium, fell to the Muslim forces of the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet II. In the years that followed, a number of Christian scholars migrated to Italy, bringing with them a knowledge of the Greek language, and, in some cases, manuscript copies of ancient Greek texts that would give new life to the Italian Renaissance. Most of the Christian population of what was, by now, Turkey, however, stayed where they were, the autonomy of the Orthodox Church guaranteed by the Sultan, and many of the Greek mercantile elite actively preferring Ottoman over the alternative possibility of Venetian rule.

The Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, from which the Ottoman Sultans ruled much of the Cemtral and Eastern Mediterranean. Photo: Christian Torrisson (licensed under CCA).

A new world order had been established. With the conquest of Asia Minor came control over the silk and spice routes linking China and India with the growing markets of northern and western Europe. This, more than anything, was what inspired the rulers of Spain, Portugal, England and the Netherlands to finance the voyages of discovery that would lead to the colonisation of the Americas, and the opening up of trade routes across the Pacific.

Orhan Pamuk's novel, My Name is Red, stands, in a sense, as a companion-work to Marguerite Yourcenar's The Abyss, dealing with the same period of rapid cultural change, but from an Asian, rather than a European point of view. Prior to the capture of Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire had stood between the Muslim and Catholic worlds, but now the Ottoman Empire faced Italy, France and Spain directly, establishing an uneasy dialogue between civilisations that saw the world in profoundly different ways.

The novel is set in the claustrophobic world of the miniaturists in the Ottoman court, operating under the direction of the historical figure of Nakkas Osman ("Master Osman" in the novel), and takes place over just a few days during the winter of 1591. Master Osman himself is true to the style of the Persian master, Bihzad (1450-1535), but some of his miniaturists moonlight for another master, Enishte Effendi, who has been commissioned by the Sultan to produce a book with illustrations influenced by European art.

The consultation of old scriptures, by the historical Nakkas Osman ("Master Osman" in the novel). Image is in the Public Domain).

A battle between Timur and the Mameluke Sultan of Egypt, by the Persian master, Bihzad. Golestan Palace, Tehran (image is in the Public Domain).

The miniaturists themselves are friends, colleagues, sometimes even lovers, but, inevitably, they are also rivals, both in their work and in their private lives. With religious disputes and rivalries for the hand of a beautiful woman, murder stalks the snow-bound streets, and nobody knows who the murderer is, or who the next victim will be.

A scene from the romance of Husrev and Shirin, semi-historical, semi-mythical figures whose story is interwoven with those of Pamuk's characters. Image is in the Public Domain.

As a complex story of art, murder, love, religion and politics unfolds, Pamuk passes the narrative baton from one character to another, and the characters are not just living people: corpses, coins, drawings, even abstract concepts such as the colour red, take their places in this dazzling narrative relay race to an unknown destination.

Ottoman miniaturist painters (image is in the Public Domain).

"I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well. Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what's happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below. As I fell, my head, which he'd smashed with a stone, broke apart; my face, my forehead and cheeks, were crushed; my bones shattered, and my mouth filled with blood."

"I'm a dog, and because you humans are less rational beasts than I, you're telling yourselves, 'Dogs don't talk.' Nevertheless, you seem to believe a story in which corpses speak and characters use words they couldn't possibly know. Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen."

"I am a tree and I am quite lonely. I weep in the rain. For the sake of Allah, listen to what I have to say. Drink down your coffee so your sleep abandons you and your eyes open wide. Stare at me as you would at jinns and let me explain to you why I'm so alone ... They allege that I've been hastily sketched onto nonsized rough paper so the picture of a tree might hang behind the master-storyteller. True enough ... there are no other slender trees beside me, no seven-leaf steppe plants, no dark billowing rock formations which at times resemble Satan or a man and no coiling Chinese clouds ... But my story is so much more complicated."

Tales sit within tales, and some of them are lies, as human and non-human characters address the reader directly, and Pamuk explores the art of storytelling itself, and the nature of the relationship between realities and their portrayals.

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.