Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Affirming Flames: Great Books of 2016

"Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame."

W.H. Auden (1939).

My Canadian fellow-writer, Barbara Kyle, shared these words of Auden's with her friends and followers a few days ago, as a sort of epitaph to a year that has had more than its expected share of dark moments, sending many of us to seek inspiration and solace more often in poetry than in prose.

I end this year, as I ended last year (and will, perhaps end every year), with more new fiction and non-fiction titles on my "to read" list, than on my "read and reviewed" list, but here are just three new books that caught my attention over the course of 2016, and which did strike me, in Auden's terms, as "affirming flames" that address themselves to the present moment, with all its dilemmas and uncertainties.

My first choice is a straightforward historical novel, The Women Friends - Selina, by Emma Rose Millar and Miriam Drori. Set in Austria between 1916 and 1938, it is inspired by Gustav Klimt's masterpiece, Die Freundinnen, and tells the story of a young woman, Selina, who leaves her rural community in the Tyrol to seek her fortune as a fashion model in Vienna. Work is hard to come by, however, in the capital city of a dying empire, and she finds herself with few resources or friends to fall back on, outside of a small circle of marginalised people - Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals, struggling to eek out a living, and to maintain their identity in a country that is losing its way, and increasingly turning against them. The history is very much in the background of the human story, but is made more interesting by virtue of its unfamiliarity (most British readers, I suspect, know far less about the early Twentieth Century history of Austria, than about that of Germany).

"Die Freundinnen," by Gustav Klimt (1916-17). Image: DirectMedia Publishing GmbH (image is in the Public Domain).

"Klimt didn't ask for me, and neither did Fraulein Floge. Neomi and Livia didn't even speak to me when they passed me on the stairs ... the days seemed terribly long. I wrote letters to my family in Tyrol, went to see exhibitions at the gallery and the Wien Museum on Karlsplatz, anywhere that was warm, where admission was free and I could at least improve my mind while my days were idle. But my purse was soon empty; I was short on the rent that month and increasingly frequented the library and the park so as to avoid my landlord as well as I could."

My second choice raises a fundamental question: is there such a thing as "contemporary historical fiction" (there is certainly such a thing as "contemporary history," with degree courses on offer at many of the UK's leading universities)? The Historical Novels Society defines "historical fiction" as being written "at least fifty years after the events described, or ... by someone who was not alive at the time." In another sense, all fiction is "historical," because of the time normally taken to edit and produce a book, even after the author has completed his or her final draft. Ali Smith's novel, Autumn, however, is recognisably set in 2016, with specific references to the Brexit Referendum, and to the murder of the MP, Jo Cox. Once again, the history is in the background to a human story (an inter-generational friendship between a centenarian man and a woman in her thirties), but it is unmistakably there. Rich in literary allusion, it is also written with very tangible warmth and humour.

Tributes to the murdered MP, Jo Cox, in London's Parliament Square. Photo: Garry Knight (licensed under CCA).

"It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That's the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it's in their nature. So an old old man washes up on a shore. He looks like a punctured football with its stitching split, the leather kind that people kicked a hundred years ago. The sea's been rough. It has taken the shirt off his back, naked as the day I was born are the words in the head he moves on its neck, but it hurts to. So try not to move the head. What's this in his mouth, grit? It's sand ... The sand in his mouth and his eyes is the last of the grains in the neck of the sandglass. Daniel Gluck, your luck's run out at last ... is this it? really? this? is death?"  

My third choice is a work of non-fiction: Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. Like Bakewell, I was a teenage existentialist, and voraciously read the philosophical works, novels, and plays of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. Although I knew that existentialism was not exclusively (or even originally) a French movement, I was far more suspicious of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who I knew to have been an active and enthusiastic Nazi, and, whilst I knew that I ought to read the works of Edmund Husserl, the translations available to me seemed dense and impenetrable, and my German, unlike my French, was not good enough for me to check them against the original. Bakewell combines the vocations of the philosopher, biographer and intellectual historian, and reveals much, here, that was unknown to me, not least the heroic role played by a Franciscan priest, Father Herman Van Breda, in protecting Husserl's manuscripts from the Nazis. Whether Van Breda actually considered himself an existentialist of any sort is unclear, but his actions show him to be as perfect an example of the existentialist hero as any invented in the novels of Sartre or de Beauvoir.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, with Che Guevara in Cuba, 1960. Photo: Alberto Korda (image is in the Public Domain).

"Where philosophers before him had written in careful propositions and arguments, Sartre wrote like a novelist - not surprisingly, since he was one ... Above all, he wrote about one big subject: what it meant to be free. Freedom, for him, lay at the heart of all human experience, and this set humans apart from all other kinds of object. Other things merely sit in place, waiting to be pushed or pulled around. Even non-human animals mostly follow the instincts and behaviours that characterise their species, Sartre believed. But as a human being, I have no predefined nature at all ... I am always one step ahead of myself, making myself up as I go along."

In their different ways, each of these books seems to me to have something particular to have something to say to us, living in the present moment. Whether one is reflecting, directly, on the year that we have just lived through; or learning the lessons of a more distant past; or considering the nature of human freedom (and the responsibilities, as well as the opportunities, that it confronts us with); one realises that nothing that we face is entirely new or unique. However disturbed we are by the things going on in the word around us, and with however much trepidation we walk on into the coming year, we can reflect, with the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet, channeled here by Seamus Heaney, "That passed over, this can too."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels: 46 - "A Grain of Wheat," by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

From the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries, following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, and the consequent disruption of the overland trade-routes connecting China and India to the markets of Europe and the Mediterranean world, the coastal cities of East Africa, including Mombasa and Zanzibar, became magnets for European, Arabic and Chinese traders. Chinese junks brought silks; Arabian dhows brought pepper and cloves; and traders from Portugal, England, and Oman, vied with one another to purchase these commodities. Few of these traders ever ventured more than a few miles from the coast. Small numbers of native Africans in the interior were involved in the procurement and trade of goods (gold, ivory, rhino horn, tortoise shell) for the European, Arabian and Chinese markets, but most made their living either as subsistence farmers or as herdsmen.

The European exploration of the African interior began in the mid-Nineteenth Century, and went hand in hand with missionary activity. Colonisation followed, the motivation for this being partly economic (diamonds, minerals, rubber), and partly geopolitical (the British seized territory in order to keep it out of German or French hands, and vice-versa). In 1870, only 10% of Africa had been under European control, but, by 1914, this had risen to 90%. Kenya became a British protectorate in 1895, and railways were built to open up the interior, and connect it to the coastal ports.

A Church of Scotland missionary service in a Kenyan village, 1905-40 (image is in the Public Domain).

The "Lunatic Express," near Mombasa, in 1899, one of the railways connecting Kenya's coast and interior (image is in the Public Domain).

The highlands of Kenya proved to be perfectly suited to the intensive cultivation of coffee, increasingly in demand across Europe and North America. Plantations were established by European settlers, but native Africans were forbidden by the colonial authorities from producing coffee, and other cash-crops.

A coffee plantation in Kenya, 1936. Photo: Library of Congress, Matpc-13872 (Public Domain).

Kenyan soldiers of the King's African Rifles fought with distinction on the British side in both World Wars, gaining military experience, but also an understanding of the world beyond their homeland. Ireland had already won her independence from the British Empire, and India would achieve hers just two years after the end of the Second World War.

The King's African Rifles, 1952-6. Photo: Imperial War Museum, MAU-345 (non-commercial license).

Whilst many returning Kenyan soldiers remained loyal to the Empire, others were inspired to take up the struggle for independence, a cause that gained increasing support among the younger generation. Village communities, and even families, were divided, as some served in the pro-British Home Guard, whilst others left to join the Mau-Mau rebels in the forest. A State of Emergency was declared in 1952, and atrocities were committed on both sides, before Kenya finally gained her independence in 1963.

A British Army patrol in Kenya, 1952-6. Photo: Imperial War Museum, MAU-587 (non-commercial license).

Ngugi wa Thiong'o's novel, A Grain of Wheat, is set in a rural community in the Kenyan highlands on either side of the Uhuru (independence) celebrations at the end of 1963. It is a powerful evocation of a divided community, struggling to make sense of its past as it moves forward towards an uncertain future, and facing the realities of personal, as well as political, betrayals.

"Mugo walked, his head slightly bowed, staring at the ground as if ashamed of looking about him ... he heard someone shout his name. He started, stopped, and stared at Githua, who was hobbling towards him on crutches. When he reached Mugo he stood to attention, lifted his torn hat, and cried out: 'In the name of blackman's freedom, I salute you.' Then he bowed several times in comic deference. 'Is it - is it well with you?' Mugo asked, not knowing how to react ... Githua did not answer at once ... 'I tell you before the Emergency I was like you; before the whiteman did this to me with bullets, I could work with both hands, man' ... Githua's voice suddenly changed: 'The Emergency destroyed us,' he said in a tearful voice and abruptly went away."

"Kihika was tortured. Some say that the neck of a bottle was wedged into his body through the anus as the white people in the Special Branch tried to wrest the secrets of the forest from him. Others say that he was offered a lot of money and a free trip to England to shake the hand of the new woman on the throne. But he would not speak. Kihika was hanged in public, one Sunday, at Rung'ei Market, not far from where he had once stood calling for blood to rain on and water the tree of freedom. A combined force of Homeguards and Police whipped and drove people from Thabei and other ridges to see the body of the rebel dangling on the tree, and learn."

"Looking at Gikonyo, you could not believe that he was the same man whose marriage to Mumbi almost thirteen years before had angered other young suitors: what did Mumbi see in him? How could a woman so beautiful walk into poverty with eyes wide open? Now four years after returning home from detention, Gikonyo was one of the richest men in Thabei. He had recently bought a five-acre farm plot; he owned a shop - Gikonyo General Stores - at Rung'ei; and only the other day he had acquired a second-hand lorry for trading. On top of this, he was elected the chairman of the local branch of the Movement, a tribute, so people said, to his man's spirit which no detention camp could break."

Mau-Mau suspects under guard(image is in the Public Domain).

A Grain of Wheat is not a comfortable read for a white Briton such as myself, whose beloved uncle and aunt fled the Mau-Mau uprising after a lifetime spent in the colonial administration of Mombasa and Zanzibar. I wish, however, that someone had pressed it into my hand when I was a younger man, and that I could have discussed it with them. It is a mark of Ngugi's accomplishment as a writer that he invests human agency and dignity in his black and white characters alike: this is no triumphalist novel of the Kenyan independence movement, but rather a generous and even-handed treatment of one of the most troubled chapters in the shared history of its author's nation, and of mine.

President Jomo Kenyatta at the Eldoret Agricultural Show in 1968. Photo: Museum of World Cultures (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. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels. 

Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Wards of Old London: Holborn - London's Underworld

A visitor to London, exploring the Ward of Farringdon Without, and walking in a south-westerly direction along West Smithfield, arrives at Holborn Viaduct. He or she is, though there are few clues to this today, entering the course of the Fleet River, which flows south, from Hampstead and Highgate, to join the Thames at Blackfriars. The viaduct itself is the latest version of a bridge that has existed since Roman times, carrying Watling Street out from Newgate towards Westminster, the West Country, and, ultimately, Wales.

Holborn Viaduct. Photo: Chris Downer (licensed under CCA).

The stretch of Watling Street that passes through the Ward of Farringdon Without is named Holborn and, to the west, High Holborn. The coronation processions of Medieval and Early Modern monarchs passed along it, on their way from the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey, but the lanes and alleys leading off to the north and south had very different stories to tell. King Edward V, in 1483, gave orders to the City authorities " ... to eschewe the Stynkinge and Orrible Synne of lechery" in the district, whilst James I, in 1622, complained of " ... disorderly houses in Saffron Hill" (one of the roads leading north from the eastern end of Holborn), which "of longe tyme hath bene and is still much pestered with divers immodest lascivious and shameless weomen generally reputed for notorious common whores."

Staple Inn, Holborn, in 1866 (image is in the Public Domain). The building, which dates to 1585, and in which wool was once weighed and taxed, still stands.
Leather Lane, leading north from Holborn (image is in the Public Domain). 

The entertainments to be had in the area were not exclusively of a heterosexual nature. In 1726, the City authorities raided the home of a coffee-shop keeper named Margaret Clap, in Field Lane (very close to where Holborn Viaduct is today). It had been reported to them as a "molly house," a gathering place for homosexual men. They found forty men on the premises, three of whom were subsequently executed for sodomy. "Mother Clap," as she was known, was not operating a brothel, merely providing beds, and drinks which she fetched from a nearby tavern. She was, nonetheless, pilloried, and died later in the year.

The molly house never re-opened, but Field Lane retained its low-life reputation. It features in Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, as the location of one of Fagin's dens:

"Near to the spot on which Snow Hill and Holborn meet, there opens, upon the right-hand side as you come out of the City, a narrow and dismal alley, leading to Saffron Hill. In its filthy shops are exposed for sale huge bunches of pocket-handkerchiefs of all sizes and patterns, for here reside the traders who purchase them from pickpockets."

Field Lane in 1840 (image is in the Public Domain).

Field Lane was swept away in the wave of civic improvements that saw the construction of Holborn Viaduct itself, but the wider area remained a magnet for people whose personal journeys were approaching their unhappy endings.

The Fleet Ditch, close to Field Lane, in 1844 (image is in the Public Domain). 

The opening of Holborn Viaduct in 1869 (image is in the Public Domain).

Many of them ended those journeys in the Shoe Lane Workhouse. Others preferred suicide. One such was the poet, Thomas Chatterton, who had come to London from his native Bristol with high hopes of making his fortune as a writer: he ended his life at the age of eighteen, with arsenic, in his lodgings in Brook Street, in the home of a sack-maker. The tragedy of his life would later be romanticised by more successful poets and artists.  

Street-map showing the location of Shoe Lane Workhouse (image is in the Public Domain). Although he was not an inmate, Thomas Chatterton was buried in its cemetery. 
"The Death of Chatterton," by Henry Wallis, 1856. Image: Tate Britain (Public Domain).

Holborn today is an extension of the modern City of London, a place of jewellery shops, insurance company headquarters, and smart hotels; but there are also taverns, many of which were once frequented by the whores and mollies, the pickpockets and their victims; and by those whose once bright hopes had been dashed, drowning their sorrows with one last drink.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Monday, 14 November 2016

The Wards of Old London: Smithfield - Slaughter and Tournaments

A visitor to London, exploring the Ward of Farringdon Without, and walking north from Saint Bartholomew's Hospital emerges into West Smithfield, a road running north-east to south-west, connecting Aldersgate Street with Holborn. Today, this quarter of London is dominated by Sir Horace Jones's meat market, which opened in 1868. The market sits above a network of tunnels, which made it possible for trains to bring an annual total of 220,000 cattle and 1.5 million sheep into London, to be slaughtered out of the sight, hearing and smell of the city's inhabitants, and the effluvia cleared away, before the cleaned and butchered carcasses were hauled up into the market itself.

Sir Horace Jones's Smithfield Market. Photo: James Ketteringham (image is in the Public Domain).

It had not always been like this. Before the construction of the Victorian market, and the beginning of the railway age, cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks and turkeys were brought on foot to the capital from all corners of England Scotland and Wales. The drovers who brought them did not use the main roads, where the presence of so many animals would have been a considerable nuisance to human travelers: instead they followed a network of tracks, many of which had probably been in use since prehistoric times.

Montgomeryshire drovers, c 1885, National Library of Wales (image is in the Public Domain).
Stone bridge carrying a drovers' track over the River Dylif, Gwynedd. Photo: Tony Edwards (licensed under CCA).

In the pre-Victorian market of Smithfield, beasts were slaughtered and butchered in the open air, having previously been fattened by graziers in Islington or Bermondsey, and driven though the streets of the City itself. By the mid-Nineteenth Century, however, the presence of a beast-market in such close proximity to the metropolis was, in itself, recognised as a public nuisance.

Smithfeld in 1827, by John Greenwood. Image: Mark Annand (licensed under CCA).

"Of all the horrid abominations with which London has been cursed," complained Thomas Maslen, in 1843, "there is not one that can come up to that disgusting place, West Smithfield Market, for cruelty, filth, effluvia, pestilence, impiety, horrid language, danger, and every obnoxious item that can be imagined ... " Charles Dickens was among those who campaigned for its closure, which finally took place in 1855, the market moving out to Islington whilst Jones's state of the art facility was being built.

The last day of Old Smithfield, 1855, Illustrated London News (image is in the Public Domain).
New Smithfield Market in the Nineteenth Century (image is in the Public Domain).

The sale and slaughter of beasts had been carried on at Smithfield at least since the Twelfth Century. Nor was it only animals whose blood was spilled there. It had, in the Middle Ages, and in Early Modern Times, been a place of public execution. Lollards (proto-Protestants who argued for the translation of the Bible into English) were burned at the stake here under Henry V; as were Protestants under Mary I; and the Scottish rebel (or patriot, depending on one's point of view), William Wallace, had been hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield in 1305. Here it was, also, that Wat Tyler, the leader of the "Peasants' Revolt," had met his death at the hands of the City's Lord Mayor, in 1381.

Smithfield, as shown on the Agas Map of 1561. Image: Stephencdickson (licensed under CCA).
The death of Wat Tyler, from Les Chroniques de France et de l'Angleterre, by Jean Froissart. Image: British Library (Public Domain). The building in the background may be the Priory of Saint John, Clerkenwell. 

As an area of open ground beyond the City gates, Smithfield was also the venue for Medieval tournaments. The ageing Edward III held a seven day tournament in 1374, in honour of his mistress, Alice Perrers. Richard II held one in 1390, with Geoffrey Chaucer as master of ceremonies: this tournament had been announced by heralds the length and breadth of Europe, ensuring that the greatest knights of France, Flanders, and Germany, as well as England and Scotland, came to Smithfield to compete. Edward IV held a joust in 1467, as part of his strategy to win the support of Londoners for his regime.

Knights competing in Edward IV's joust at Smithfield in 1467 (image is in the Public Domain).
Whilst the wholesale meat market at Smithfield continues to function today, it does so on a much smaller scale than was the case only a few decades ago. The future of many of the area's historic buildings is currently uncertain, although the proposed relocation of the Museum of London to the former market (perhaps opening as early as 2021, if funding can be secured, offers some hope of sustainable regeneration.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 45 - "Birds of Passage," by Brian Castro

The Australian continent was among the last significant land masses on Earth to be "discovered" and colonised by Europeans, beginning with the voyages of the Dutchman, Willem Zamszoon, in 1606; and the English navigator, James Cook, who claimed the territory for the British Crown in 1788. Unlike other territories, such as New Zealand and Hawaii, Australia was developed by the British as a series of penal colonies, the "First Fleet" arriving in Botany Bay in 1788.

As with these other territories, however, the native population, which, in the case of Australia, had occupied the land for more than forty thousand years, was soon devastated by the diseases brought by the colonists; and the task of building the infrastructure and developing the economy of a new nation was too great to be accomplished by the European settlers on their own. The Australian colonies drew in migrant labour and, as in New Zealand and Hawaii, many of the immigrants were Chinese, driven from their homeland by a combination of poverty and political upheaval.

The discovery of gold in Victoria and New South Wales, in the mid-Nineteenth Century, became a major pull-factor. It is estimated that, in 1855, 11,493 Chinese immigrants arrived in Melbourne alone. Almost all of these were young men, keen to make their fortune (which few did), and return home (in Victoria's Bendigo Goldfield, in 1861, there were 5367 Chinese men recorded, and only to women).

Bendigo, a sketch-map of the newly discovered gold-field, William Sandback, 1851 (image is in the Public Domain).
Gold diggings at Ararat, Victoria, 1854, by Edward Roper. State Library of New South Wales (image is in the Public Domain).

Clashes broke out between Chinese prospectors, and those of English, Scottish and Irish ancestry, who, ironically, now considered themselves to be "native" Australians. The Chinese were regarded as better organised and harder working, but were also accused of being dirty, spreading disease, and "stealing" white women.

Anti-Chinese cartoon of 1886, National Library of Australia (image is in the Public Domain).
Anti-Chinese cartoon of 1886, National Library of Australia (image is in the Public Domain).
Banner used in anti-Chinese protests and riots at Lambing Flats, New South Wales, 1860-61 (image is in the Public Domain).

Australia's gold-rush was as short-lived as its counterparts in New Zealand, and those Chinese immigrants who did not return to China (as many did), found themselves a minority, frequently discriminated against in education and employment. The beginning of the Twentieth Century saw the implementation of the "White Australia" policy, with support from successive state and federal governments of both the right and the left. Its legacy persisted into the 1970s, and arguably still reverberates in aspects of Australian culture and politics today.

"White Australia" badge, 1910, produced by the "Australian Natives' Association" (image is in the Public Domain).

Brian Castro's novel, Birds of Passage, tells the story of an Australian-born Chinese man, Seamus O'Young (Sham Oh Yung) struggling to find his identity in post-Second World War Sydney. He suffers very modern forms of discrimination, but also discovers papers relating to his Nineteenth Century ancestor, Lo Yun Shan, who made the journey from China's Pearl River Delta to Australia in the 1850s, and eventually returned home, leaving his son in the care of his mother, a woman of Irish heritage.

"My passport lies open on the table. Its empty pages marked with the word VISAS tease my imagination. My stub of a pencil trembles over them for it is here that I will begin my journey. Beside me I have the fragments of a journal. I found them a long time ago, stuck to my memory like the remnants of a dream. I have read and re-read those words, translated and re-translated them, deciphering the strokes of the Chinese characters, building up their meaning, constructing and re-constructing their sense. I feel the closeness of the situation the author is describing; I feel I am the counterpart of this man who was writing more than a century ago."

"I had to go for an interview. They were undecided about whether I was capable of being a teacher. They wanted to give me a reading test. (I later discovered that this was only given to foreigners) ... In the city I went to a bookstore and browsed among the shelves to kill time; I bought a copy of 'The Trial' by Franz Kafka ... I was called first ... 'Please read from the book in front of you' ... The heading at the top of the page said 'The Yellow Race.' I began to read. 'Before the discovery of gold there were relatively few of the Celestials in Australia. However, in the fifties, the yellow tide threatened to engulf the country. The white race was partially to blame for spreading rumours in Chinese ports that fortunes could be made here ...'"

The stories of the two men, descendant and ancestor, immigrant and Australian-born, both recounted, for the most part, in the first person, are interwoven, and combine to make up a poignant narrative of the search for individual identity in a nation that has yet to settle on is own, or to find a reconciliation with its past.

Australia Day, 2014 (Chinese Australians make up around 4% of the country's population. Photo: Chris Phutully (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. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales - a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

"Abhorred Erichtho" - Witchcraft and Necromancy from Rome to the Renaissance

In my Halloween blog-post last year, I introduced the ancient Roman witches, Canidia and Sagana, and suggested that they might well have had counterparts in Roman London. Roman literature, however, presents us with an even more terrifying witch, in the person of Erichtho, first referred to, it would seem, by Ovid, in his Heroides. Ovid places her in Thessaly, a rural province of Greece which seems to have been infamous for witchcraft long before his own time in the First Century BC.

The witch, Erichtho, by John Hamilton Mortimer (1740-79). Licensed under CCA.

Erichtho plays a much more prominent role in the work of a later poet, Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (Lucan), the nephew of the philosopher, statesman and dramatist, Seneca. Lucan's epic poem, Pharsalis, deals with the Roman Civil Wars of the First Century BC. In the poem, Sextus Pompeius, the disreputable son of the revered statesman and soldier, Pompey the Great, consults the witch on the eve of his father's defeat at the hands of Julius Caesar. She searches a battlefield for the corpse of a recently slain soldier, which she reanimates, to help her predict the future.

Denarius of Sextus Pompeius, depicting the lighthouse of Messina, and the monster, Scylla, believed to live in the straits. Photo: Classical Numismatic Group (; licensed under CCA.
The Straits of Messina, between Italy and Sicily, where Sextus Pompeius had his naval base. The tidal flows are thought to have given rise to the legends of Scylla and Charybdis. Photo: NASA (image is in the Public Domain). 

"Sextus, unworthy son of worthy sire,
Who soon upon the waves that Scylla guards,
Sicilian pirate, exile from his home,
Stained by his deeds of shame the fights he won
Could bear delay no more; his feeble soul,
Sick of uncertain fate, by fear compelled,
Forecast the future: yet consulted not
The shrine of Delos, nor the Pythian caves ...
Abhorred Erichtho, fiercest of the race,
Spurned for their piety, and yet viler art
Practiced in novel form ...
She burned the fruitful growth, and with her breath
Poisoned the air else pure ...
 ... At length the witch
Picks out her victim with pierced throat agape
Fit for her purpose. Gripped by pitiless hook
O'er rocks she drags him to the mountain cave
Accursed by her fell rites that shall restore
The dead man's life ...

 ... Then the blood
Grew warm and liquid, and with softening touch
Cherished the stiffened wounds and filled the veins,
Till throbbed once more the slow returning pulse
And every fibre trembled, as with death
Life was commingled. Then, not limb by limb,
With toil and strain, but rising at a bound
Leaped from the earth erect the living man."

Erichtho reanimating the corpse. British Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

Erichtho is mentioned by Dante, in his Inferno, from which it is reasonably clear that he has read Lucan, as well as Ovid, but it was with the rise of printing in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries that the works of these classical authors found a wider readership, both in the original Latin, and in translation. Erichtho, together with Canidia and Sagana, is a lineal ancestress of the "weird sisters" of Shakespeare's Macbeth. The circulation of these texts is accompanied by a renewed interest in necromancy and witchcraft: the Oxford English Dictionary first records the word "necromancy" in 1456, and "Halloween" in 1556.

Lucan's Pharsalis, a Latin edition of 1592 (image is in the Public Domain).
Lucan's Pharsalis, frontispiece to a French edition of 1657 (image is in the Public Domain).

Shakespeare's contemporary, John Marston, includes Erichtho herself as a character in his play, Sophonisba, or The Wonder of Women, and transforms her into a sexual predator, luring young men to her bed under cover of darkness, so that they are unaware that they are copulating with a monstrous hag. Although rarely performed today Sophonisba, which premiered at Blackfriars in 1606, was as much a commercial success in its day as many plays by Shakespeare or Ben Jonson.

The image of the witch as both hag and sexual predator, a seducer of men of previously good character, became far more familiar from this time: there were many more witch trials (mostly of women) between 1580 and 1650 than there had been throughout the supposedly "superstitious" Middle Ages. In a Christian world, however, these latter day "witches" had acquired a dimension that the Classical Erichtho, Canidia and Sagana never had: as agents of the Devil in a war for Christian souls.

Witches, by Hans Baldung, 1508 (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. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.