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.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

By the Skin of our Teeth? The UK Election in Historical Context

I have never met the Scottish writer, Val McDermid, but it was she who convinced me that I should write this post. In a recent article in The Guardian, she commented on the involvement of writers in the Scottish independence referendum campaign. "When people lose trust in politicians," she suggested, "they need to find it elsewhere. Maybe, because they trust writers to tell some kind of truth buried in the fiction, we are being listened to as we rarely have before, and that's a scary thought."

Scary, perhaps, but here goes. I rarely allow my political views to surface here. They are a matter of public record (serving as a councillor and standing for Parliament are not things one can do in secret), but this blog is primarily about my books, and aimed at people who either are, or might be persuaded to become, readers of them. Not all of these people live in the UK, and those that do may well not share my politics. I won't presume to tell anyone how they should vote, (although I do hope that those who are entitled to will exercise the rights that have been won for us at the expense of much bloodshed). Instead, I will tell a story, and attempt to paint a bigger picture than often emerges from the speeches of politicians.

It begins here, at the Pont du Gard, in Southern France, a Roman aqueduct which is at once a thing of beauty and a marvel of practical engineering.

Le Pont du Gard. Photo: Patrick Clenet (licensed under CCA).

In 1969, the art historian, Kenneth Clark, sat in its shadow to record the opening scene of his ground-breaking television series, Civilisation. Speaking of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century AD,  he expressed the view that European civilisation had survived these traumatic events "by the skin of our teeth." He had in mind, of course, the tiny handful of scholars of the early Middle Ages who kept alive the flame of Classical learning: the Italian monks of Monte Cassino, who copied the works of Tacitus, and the Anglo-Saxon scholar, Alcuin of York, who revived the historical tradition of Suetonius at the court of Charlemagne.

The Monastery of Monte Cassino, Italy. Photo: Ludmila Pilecka (licensed under GNU).

The monk, Raban Maur (left) and Alcuin of York (centre) presenting scholarly works to the Bishop of Mainz (right). Vienna, Osterreichische Nationalbibiothek, Codex 652 (image is in the Public Domain).

Only modesty prevented Kenneth Clark from mentioning that civilisation had survived by the skin of its teeth once again in his own lifetime, and that he had played no small part in this himself, ensuring the protection of Britain's greatest artistic treasures by evacuating them from London to secret locations in the countryside. My own great-uncle, Frederick Haynes, played his part also, as a soldier of the British Eighth Army, ironically enough in the Battle of Monte Cassino, where he was decorated for bravery. It hardly matters whether he understood the cultural significance of the place in which he was fighting: he was certainly in no doubt about the difference between the civilisation he defended and the barbarism that he was up against.

The Battle of Monte Cassino. Photo: Imperial War Museum, Non-Commercial License, NA13010.

In the decades since the end of the Second World War, Britain has, I believe, become more civilised. My mother was born into a country in which people were imprisoned for being gay; in which men and women were hanged on the basis of unsafe convictions; in which the Police Service was institutionally racist; in which women were systematically excluded from many of the career opportunities available to men. She joined the first cohort of nurses in the NHS and, in London, nursed children of all races on an equal basis. My Irish father arrived in a country in which lodging houses displayed notices saying "No Blacks, No Irish."

Harrow, 1966 (image is in the Public Domain).

Am I saying, then, that all of this is at stake in the coming election? Not exactly, but I fear that it might be. Conservative and UKIP candidates promise an early referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union. I am very unsure as to why this is felt to be necessary (we have never had a referendum, for example, on our membership of NATO), but, under a Conservative Government, it will surely happen. At stake then would be our right, as individuals, to study, work and receive healthcare in any EU country; not to mention the economic benefits of the single market; and the protections offered by the European Court of Justice. I would, of course, lend my support to the "In" campaign, but are we really sure we want to take the risk of the economic chaos that might follow an "Out" vote?

The risks are not only economic, but also political. If the UK votes "Out" but Scotland votes "In," there would be an immediate demand for another independence referendum, which the Scottish Nationalists would easily win. Wales might well follow. Has anyone given any thought to what the political landscape would look like (or feel like) in a rump "UK" that might comprise just England and Northern Ireland? Issues (including, for example, capital punishment) that have been off the agenda for a generation (in no small part because of the European treaties), might well reappear. I struggle, here, to see a country in which I would wish to live.

My choice at this election is an easy one. I will vote Labour, as I always have. My constituency has, I believe, been well-served by its Labour MP, Dame Joan Ruddock, who is stepping down at this election, and the candidate who aims to succeed her, Vicky Foxcroft, has served us well as a local councillor. People in other constituencies, with different dynamics and different candidates, may well make other choices, but I very much hope they will not lose sight of the bigger picture as they do so.

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, 5 April 2015

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 25 - "Pure," by Andrew Miller

In 1682, France's King, Louis XIV, established a new court at Versailles, a bold and ambitious statement of his country's place in the world, and of his own. Over the course of a reign lasting more than seventy years, Louis established France's role as a global superpower, with decisive victories over both Spain and the crumbling Holy Roman Empire. He also set himself up as an absolute monarch, at the head of one of the most centralised states in the world. He evidently had the charisma to hold all of this together, but this in itself would pose a great challenge to the lesser men who would follow him.

The Palace of Versailles in 1668, by Pierre Patel (image is in the Public Domain).

The decades following the death of the "Sun King" in 1715 saw a great flourishing of intellectual life in France, with the publication of Diderot's Encyclopaedia in the 1750s, and the philosophical works of Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau. The new spirit of rationalism and free thought embodied in these works would inevitably conflict with the Catholic authoritarianism of the Crown, and France faced other challenges: her involvement, first in the Seven Years War (1756-63) and the American Revolutionary Wars (1775-85) had left the country bankrupt.

Andrew Miller's novel, Pure, is, in a sense, a book defined by what it is not about. It is not about the French Revolution, being set in the early 1780s, before the revolution begins, but the reader (unlike most of the characters) knows that it is imminent, and Miller's present tense narration gives a very clear sense of a society on the brink of catastrophe. We catch a brief glimpse of Camille Desmoulins, between the pillars of the Palais Royale (I doubt I would have recognised him had I not previously read Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety, which is here referenced directly, if obliquely), and we also get to make the acquaintance of a genial doctor by the name of Guillotin, but these characters are still very much in the process of becoming the people we now know them to have been.

The action begins at a Versailles that is already tangibly in decay:

"A young man, young but not very young, sits in an anteroom somewhere, some wing or other, in the Palace of Versailles. He is waiting. He has been waiting a long time. There is no fire in the room, though it is the third week in October, and cold as Candlemas ... The mirrors ahead of him, their surfaces hazed with dust (some idle finger has sketched a man's bulbous cock and next to it a flower that may be a rose), give out a greenish light as if the whole building were sunk, drowned."

The young man is an engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, who has been summoned to a meeting with a minister. The minister has an assignment for him: he is to clear out and make clean the Cemetery of Les Innocents in Paris, a place infested with the stench of decay. All of the human remains are to be moved into catacombs (the cemetery and its clearance are historical - everything else is fictional).

Les Innocents, around 1550, 19th Century engraving by Theodor Hoffbauer (image is in the Public Domain).

Baratte takes rooms in a house nearby, and finds that he has friends and allies in the local community, men like himself, "of the party of the future," but also opponents, those of "the party of the past," who feel threatened by change, and may even be prepared to kill to defend the only world they know.

La Mort, Saint Innocent. The statue, dating to around 1530, was in the cemetery, but is now in The Louvre. Photo: Jebulon (licensed under CCA).

"There is nothing now between him and the night sky, nothing between him and the church of les Innocents, for surely that black hulk, just discernible against the eastern sky, is les Innocents ... if he were to climb over the bed and leap from the window, he would be in it, this place that is poisoning Paris! Certainly it is poisoning the Rue de la Lingerie. The stink that creeps through the open window he has already smelt something of in the breath of all the Monnards, in the taste of their food. He will have to get used to it ... "

Baratte never does quite get used to the stink, but he conscripts Flemish miners and sets to work. He is determined to play his small part in making this corner of Paris a better place, but something is in the air that is more pervasive even than the stench of physical decomposition. Graffiti appears on the wall of the cemetery: "FAT KING SLUT QUEEN BEWARE: BECHE IS DIGGING A HOLE BIG ENOUGH TO BURY ALL VERSAILLES." In fact, Beche (a nickname for Baratte) is simply getting on with his job, but we can only guess at what will become of him, and of the other characters, when events unfold themselves as we know that they shall. This is, for me, the ultimate novel of a time "pregnant with change."

The Market of Les Innocents, set up on the site of the former cemetery, as depicted by Theodor Hoffbauer (Brown University, image is in the Public Domain).

The Paris Catacombs, to which the human remains from Les Innocents were removed. Photo: Janericloebe (image is in the Public Domain).

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