Friday, 24 May 2019

EMERGING FROM THE SHADOWS: My next project by Elizabeth Chadwick.

The Valence Casket, commissioned by the de Valence family circa 1290's  V&A Museum
Once every three years it comes time to negotiate a new contract with my publisher. My stint with The History Girls has seen me through my Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy, The Summer Queen, The Winter Crown and the Autumn Throne, followed by Templar Silks and the forthcoming The Irish Princess (September).

My new contract, freshly signed is for two novels still to be written, as yet untitled, and a third one cheekily slipped in, titled The Coming of the Wolf, set just after 1066. I wrote the latter some time ago. It's a prequel to my first published novel The Wild Hunt.  The Coming of the Wolf will have a blog to itself in the coming months, but it's not what I want to talk about today.

People often ask me how I choose who or what I am going to write about.

What tends to happen is that even while writing the previous book, I will be on the lookout for future projects.  Sometimes, the research for a current projects will turn up something that sparks my interest. With initial curiosity piqued, I then delve a little deeper and find out if the subject is just a passing fancy or whether it has a longer shelf life than that.  Sometimes the subject matter will have been covered by another author, but it doesn't bother me. The deciding factor is me asking a prospective protagonist: 'What you can you tell me about yourself that is true to your life but that you have never told anyone before?' And if they want to enter into a contract with me, they sit down and tell me their stories.  It's definitely a two way process.  We both have to want to travel with each other. 

Eleanor of Aquitaine was fascinating to research because from my own in depth research,  she bore little resemblance to the woman portrayed in several of her popular modern biographies, and often bucked the trend of the image fostered in the mainstream.  However, I must have done something right because Michael Evans quoted my research in his work 'Inventing Eleanor' for Bloomsbury Academic and cited me (and my research) as a historical novelist who managed to avoid the popular misconceptions about this great queen.

William Marshal's story 'The Greatest Knight was a worldwide bestseller for me and continues to be, and we are still travelling together 15 years later as I continue to study his life for my personal interest beyond the remit of the historical novel. Sometimes a character is for life rather than just the time it takes to write a book to order.


study of tomb of William de Valence, Wikipedia
The first of my new unwritten novels, currently untitled, came about because I happened to pick up a biography of one of William Marshal's granddaughters.  Her name was Joanna de Munchensey and she married King Henry III's half-brother William de Valence. Should you potter along to the Dictionary of National biography, you will find a fairly long article written about her husband.  You can visit his beautiful tomb in Westminster Abbey too. 

What you will not find in the DONB is an entry for Joanna de Valence.  Nor will you find her resting place because it has long been lost.  The former seems hugely unfair, but one of those instances where the woman has been written out of the history and subsumed by her husband's achievements, which were only possible because of her.  Her biographer, Linda Mitchell,  in Joan de Valence: the Life and Influence of a 13th Century Noblewoman comments that "Joan de Valence exerted an influence on the political, social and cultural landscapes of the thirteenth Century, one that has been neglected and perhaps even deliberately erased..."


Mitchell's biography and her statements championing Joan immediately piqued my curiosity and led me to invite Joanna de Valence to the table - her husband too, who had his part to play and appears to have been a loving and lifelong partner from their marriage in their late teens through to their sixties. She was his 'Dear friend and companion' more than twenty years into their marriage. Mitchell comments that the completely unfair character assassination of William de Valence by historians and chroniclers has led to his 'erasure as a viable historical character'  And William's erasure has led to an 'even more profound erasure of Joan in historical discourse.' 

 Rather like Mitchell, I was astonished at the dismissal of this lady from the records given her contribution and standing. We do have a few records from her household accounts in later life that paint a picture of a warm, busy, sociable and very capable lady.  However, for most of her life, she is ascribed no input or value. Her contribution is either glossed over or given a negative spin.  Her husband is often dismissed as an arrogant foreign sponger (in spite of the majority of his household knights and servants being natives) and his loyalty to Henry III and Edward I is set at naught and shrugged off.  But there are always two sides to every story, and it's time for the coin to be flipped and another side shown to the light.
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I relish  a challenge, especially if it involves an underdog or someone who has been done down by history. Last year, with Joanna on my mind, I visited the Welsh Marches with the intention of going to Goodrich Castle which was Joanna's favourite home in the years following the Barons' Wars of the 1260's and a place she built up during her time as lady of Goodrich.  We hired a holiday home for the duration of our stay, and it turned out, the owner of the holiday let was descended from Joanna and William de Valence via one of their daughters.  Yes, some things are meant to be!
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Goodrich Castle. Author's photo.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

The Beginning of the Wars of the Roses? By Catherine Hokin

Anyone who cares about history is obsessed with dates. We locate rulers with them. We decide what's historical and what's too close to our own lifetime to dare creep into that camp with them. As historical fiction writers we frequently weep over them and wish we could smudge a birth date here or a battle there to make our plot lines work. But how many, to borrow a phrase from 1066 and All That, can we trust are genuine - is it, as Misters Sellars and Yeatman would have it, really only two, reduced from four as two weren't memorable?

 Warren Field Lunar Calendar: University of Birmingham
Trying to keep track of the time goes back almost to the dawn of it. The first formulized calendars date from the Bronze Age, but the title of 'world's oldest calendar', awarded in 2013 (more than three sources quote this date so I'm going to accept it) goes to an arrangement of twelve pits and an arc in Warren Field, Scotland which is approximately 10,000 years old. The oldest-still-in-use award is claimed by the Jewish calendar which was introduced in the ninth century BC. 

 The Lost 11 Days: Today in History
Baked into the development of all our measuring systems is the differing lunar year (354 days) and solar year (365 days). The Roman Calendar, 45 BC, introduced the concept of leap years to try and solve this mismatch. By the time the Gregorian Calendar was floated in 1582, the Roman's miscalculation of the solar year had thrown the seasons, and therefore Easter, out of sync. Pope Gregory's attempts to solve this involved changing the leap year system to a new calculation based on years divisible by four rather than an extra day every four years. Or something on those lines that defies my understanding. Anyway it obviously worked because, as we all know, Easter is now an immovable feast. Not everyone liked the changes: Germany resisted the swap until 1700 and England, as warm then to the idea of European regulations as it ever was, stuck it out on the old system until 1752. By this point the seasons were so messed up, Parliament took the rather fabulous decision to advance the year overnight from September 2nd to September 14th, thus removing 11 days at a stroke. Take all this into account and is it any wonder that the dates we choose as significant can sometimes feel more like a collective act of will than a fixed and certain point?

 Assassination of Franz Ferdinand
Which brings me back, finally, to where you might have thought this article was going: the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. Dating the start of conflicts is always a troublesome thing. I remember my confusion at school after being initially taught that dates were absolute and then being introduced to the Hundred Years War. Rounding down its extra 16 years seemed to offend both the laws of History and Maths. That the conflict was a series of wars and didn't even attract that name until the nineteenth century was a revelation left for university, by which time I was, luckily, a more cynical creature. If the Thirty Years war lasted longer than the 1618-1648 timeline given to it, I don't want to know.

Perhaps the problem goes back to our need to define the reasons for a key event in a way that can be regurgitated in an exam format. Four causes good, one cause even better. The start date for WWI is recorded across all common sources as 28 July 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. If asked, I would guess most people would state the main cause as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand - or, as Baldrick so beautifully puts it in Blackadder Goes Forth, when 'Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry'. That act has become our shorthand for all the colonial and dynastic disputes that went before. Similarly we start WWII on 1 September 1939 with its blitzkrieg images rather than the 1938 Anschluss, or the 1933 Nazi rise to power, or the end of WWI...  Obviously only the world's biggest bore would refuse to accept the commonly-agreed answer and we'd soon lose the pub quiz and all our mates if we disputed every date. The narrative of remembering is however, as always, in the victors' hands.

 Henry VI Part One
Today, May 22nd, is the anniversary of the First Battle of St Albans, fought between the rival houses of York and Lancaster in 1455 and commonly given as the starting point for the Wars of the Roses. The battle itself was a short-lived thing, lasting less than an hour and without major casualties (in context of the engagements that would follow), apart from Edmund Beaufort, Earl of Somerset who was killed. Its consequences, however, were widespread. The alignment of Somerset with the House of Lancaster led not only to his but to the death of all his male heirs, ending the House of Beaufort. The bravery displayed by the Earl of Warwick began the myth-building around him which led to his 'kingmaker' title and his later over-reaching. King Henry VI's capture paved the way for the Duke of York to reclaim his position as Protector of England and take again the controlling hand over the kingdom the Lancastrians had only just seized back following the King's prolonged period of physical and mental incapacitation. And the Yorkists won, so they liked to remember it.

The battle started the openly bloody phase but it did not start the civil war. The origins of that go back to the eleventh century and the first Plantagenet king, Henry II, and his battling brood. No one sat comfortable on the throne for two hundred years and then, in 1399, the key split came: the deposition of Richard II by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV. That particular tussle split an already hostile family into two competing branches (the Lancastrians following Henry's line and the Yorkists from Richard) and the original Game of Thrones began. What finally tipped the dynastic feuding into full-blown conflict? A weak king. The saintly Henry VI with his catatonic illness was, by any measure, unfit to rule. Pair that with a strong man in opposition (Richard, Duke of York), a Queen with a long-awaited heir and no intention of relinquishing power (Margaret of Anjou) and all the fortunes tied up in aristocratic privilege and it's little surprise that a war erupted. And our shorthand for all that is the First Battle of St Albans. (And yes, I appreciate that's a whirlwind tour but there's a lot more detail in my novel, just saying). Perhaps the next question should be when did the civil war end? Easy: 1485 and the Battle of Bosworth. Except, of course, it didn't - the ramifications were still shaking the throne when the Tudors climbed on it. 

Mary Beard's Twitter Challenge
Causes and dates. We need them to make sense of where we are in the world and what brought us here but they aren't always reliable. A few months ago, Mary Beard asked her followers on Twitter to set future exam questions on what got us to Brexit. The answers were depressingly entertaining. A Level, 2069: Summarise the latest plan for Britain to exit the EU. Discuss the shifting relationship between Britain and Europe, using examples from 6200 BCE, 55 BCE, 43 CE, 410 CE, 865, 1066, 1534 and 2016-2019. To what extent did Brexit mean Brexit? My particular favourite was the short and to the point: When did Brexit End? Hopefully we can all agree on a date to that soon.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Labyrinths and initiations by Elisabeth Storrs


Labyrinths have always been a source of fascination to me. None more so than the famous lair of the Minotaur in ancient Crete. According to Greek myth, this bewildering structure was designed by the inventor Daedalus (father of the doomed Icarus) at the behest of King Minos. The maze was built in the city of Knossos to hold the half man/half bull monster to whom 7 youths and 7 maidens were sacrificed each year as tribute owed by the Athenian King Aegeus to Minos for killing the Cretan king’s son. The minotaur was ultimately slain by Aegeus’ son, Theseus, who was sent as one of the sacrificial youths to Knossos. Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with the prince and assisted him to kill the monster and then escape the labyrinth by giving him a ball of thread to enable him to retrace his path.

Classical pattern, medieval pattern, modern walking labyrinth and hedge maze

A seven course single path design known as ‘unicursal’ became associated with the labyrinth on Cretan coins as early as 430 BC, and became common as a visual depiction of the legendary labyrinth from Roman times onwards. In later religious tradition, large labyrinth designs set into floors were walked and used for private meditation or for therapeutic purposes based on the concept of a pilgrimage from the entrance to the centre where God awaits. In comparison, a maze is a complex pattern with branches and dead ends known as ‘multicursal’ which require a series of choices to be made in order to safely navigate. Medieval garden hedges are a fine example of these.

In the ancient world, the feat of escaping a labyrinth was associated with a triumph of life over death. In some cases, navigating one was seen as a form of initiation where a boy was required to enter as a child and emerge as a man after surviving danger. One such initiation ritual was known as ‘The City of Troy’ in Rome and Etruria.

The City of Troy was a reference to the labyrinth of Crete. Yet what was the connection between the legendary cities of Troy and Knossos? An explanation comes from both archaeological evidence and the poetry of the Roman poet, Vergil.

Tragliatella Vase
In his great epic, The Aeneid, the Roman poet Vergil tells of the wanderings of Aeneas, the son of Anchises and Venus, following the fall of Troy. After fighting to defend the besieged city, Aeneas escaped carrying his father on his shoulders while leading his young son Ascanius (who later came to be called Iulus) to safety. According to Roman tradition, during the funeral games for his grandfather, Ascanius took part in a processional parade or dance called the Game of Troy (Lusus Trojae) while mounted on a horse given to him by the Carthaginian queen Dido. The young prince and his companions performed a complex weaving pattern by riding between and around each other as though threading their way through a labyrinth. Vergil drew a comparison between the tortuous convolutions of the rite to the twisting pathways within the Minotaur’s den at Knossos. He also referred to the manoeuvres of the game as mimicking the ‘Crane Dance’ performed by the youths Theseus saved from the Minotaur. From Vergil’s description it is clear that completing the game involved great skill to avoid injury or death.

The column split apart
As files in the three squadrons all in line
Turned away, cantering left and right; recalled
They wheeled and dipped their lances for a charge.
They entered then on parades and counter-parades,
The two detachments, matched in the arena,
Winding in and out of one another,
And whipped into sham cavalry skirmishes
By baring backs in flight, then whirling round
With leveled points, then patching up a truce
And riding side by side. So intricate
In ancient times on mountainous Crete they say
The Labyrinth, between walls in the dark,
Ran criss-cross a bewildering thousand ways
Devised by guile, a maze insoluable,
Breaking down every clue to the way out.
So intricate the drill of Trojan boys
Who wove the patterns of their prancing horses,
Figured, in sport, retreats and skirmishes        
        
(Aeneid, V. 5.580–593 Translation by Robert Fitzgerald)

Vergil conjured the image of the Lusus Trojae when writing in the 1st century CE, but there is archaeological evidence of its existence dating from the late C7th BCE. The Tragliatella Vase discovered near the Etruscan city of Caere (modern Cerveteri) depicts two horsemen emerging from a spiral marked with the word ‘Truia’. A line of marching warriors is also displayed on the wine jug which seems to suggest that the vase portrays a military ceremony similar to the one of legend. As the Romans were heavily influenced by the Etruscans, it is plausible that the equestrian ceremony that was later referred to by Vergil was in fact an Etruscan tradition.

Detail Tragliatella Vase City of Troy design
The Game of Troy was ‘revived’ by Julius Caesar who claimed to be a descendant of Iulus (Ascanius) and was performed by the young sons of high ranking families. It was not associated with any particular religious festival and was conducted at funeral games and in military triumphs. Suetonius and Tacitus also wrote of the Lusus Trojae which appears to have become more of a military review by the time of Nero.

With my love of all things Etruscan, I found the etchings on the humble Tragliatella Vase intriguing enough to inspire me to include an episode in my book The Golden Dice: A Tale of Ancient Rome involving the Troy Game. Yet what strikes me most about the Lusus Trojae is how legend, poetry and history are intertwined and held fast by a strong thread from two epic stories that inspired three great civilisations: Etruria, Greece and Rome. 

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome saga. Learn more at www.elisabethstorrs.com  
Images are courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 20 May 2019

Inspirational homes (3) by Carolyn Hughes

The “inspirational homes” I discussed in my previous two posts represented the sort of mediaeval houses that might have been lived in by the poorer members of society and those of the “middling sort”. We saw how the way of life afforded by the homes of the wealthier members of society included more space, a little more privacy, a degree of greater warmth and light. The peasants might have thought the homes of the yeoman farmer and the merchant offered unbridled luxury compared to their own modest houses, even if, to us, those “luxurious” houses still seem distinctly lacking in comfort.

So what of the houses of the gentry? I am not considering here the great castles and palaces of the aristocracy, for none of the characters in my novels have such high status. But my novels do have knights and their ladies, the sort of people who held manors big and small, some of which (though not all) included a manor house. Manor houses might have been relatively modest, scarcely much different from the yeoman’s farmstead, Bayleaf, that I described last month. Others might have been quite grand, almost castle-like, with high crenellated walls, towers and moats. And of course there were manor houses of all sizes in between. But what perhaps they all had in common at this period was that they were centred around a main great hall, had a number of other rooms and most likely a solar on the first floor.

These posts concern buildings that have “inspired” me in my writing about the homes in which my characters live. For the previous two posts, the houses I discussed came from either the Weald and Downland Museum in West Sussex, or English Heritage. In today’s post, the “inspirational home” again comes from English Heritage.

Stokesay Castle is a 13th century fortified manor house 7.5 miles (12 km) north-west of Ludlow in Shropshire. It is perhaps not quite the right style for a Hampshire manor house, but nonetheless I love it and its interior in particular lives in my head as I write about the homes of my lords and ladies. 

Stokesay Castle, Shropshire
By Andrew Mathewson, CC BY-SA 2.0

This wonderful building was constructed in the 1280/90s. It was extended and refurbished during the 17th century, but it is the 13th century aspects of the house that are my “inspiration”. The house is another merchant’s house, built at almost exactly the same time as John Fortin’s house in Southampton, which we saw last month. In Shropshire, the wool merchant Laurence of Ludlow, one of the richest men in England, bought the manor of Stokesay in 1281, and soon embarked upon building his grand house.

Ten years or so later he obtained a licence to crenellate – or fortify – his house. Although Edward I’s conquest of Wales in 1284 meant that there was now relative peace in the border counties, it seems that bands of thieves continued to roam the countryside and Laurence wanted to ensure that his new house was secure. However, the fortifications did not detract from Laurence’s apparent desire also to demonstrate his sophistication and wealth.

The house is surrounded by a walled moat, though it is not clear if it ever actually held water. An entrance through a gatehouse (17th century, though there was probably an earlier one) leads into the courtyard or bailey. The huge courtyard area (the grass in the photographs would not of course have been there) would have contained additional buildings, such as a kitchen, bakehouse and storerooms.

The main house has an enormous hall and an upper private solar area, and there is a tower at each end of the main building, also containing various private rooms and facilities like privies. To the south is a high crenellated tower, and to the north a tower whose roof balances that of the solar block at the other end of the main central building. On the west side of the building, however, the upper storey of this north tower juts out in a grand jetty. You can see this jettying in the first photo.

By Tony Harrison from Farnborough, UK -
Stokesay Castle Shropshire IMG_8744, CC BY-SA 2.0

By LisaPB73 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The great hall lies between the north tower and the solar block, beneath the wide span of roof that you can see in the picture above. On the east wall, overlooking the bailey, are four pointed gables, three of which have double lancet windows with a circular light at the top.

The vast space of the great hall has a magnificent cruck roof. Originally, the curving timber beams that hold up the roof – the “crucks” – reached further down the walls than they do now. Apparently they were replaced with stone in the 19th century when they began to rot. Nonetheless the roof is one of the glories of the hall.

Chris Gunns/Stokesay Castle, the great hall/CC BY-SA 2.0

By Nick Hubbard - Stokesay Castle-21
Uploaded by AlbertHerring, CC BY 2.0

The high windows on the east side of the hall are matched by others on the west wall, making the great space really very light. Today, the windows are fully glazed, but originally it is likely that glass was put only in the top windows, leaving the lower ones to be covered by shutters in cold or wet weather.

Another of the hall’s glories is the wonderful staircase, most of which is original – that is, remarkably, its treads are over 700 years old! It leads to the upper rooms in the north tower. You can get a splendid view of the hall from the top of the staircase. But it is possible that, on special occasions, minstrels played on the gallery area at the top of the stairs.

It is imagined that the lord, Laurence, and his family and guests would have dined at a table set at the opposite end of the hall from the staircase. This table might well have been raised up from the floor on a dais. The rest of the household would sit at tables set along the side walls. The central hearth – octagonal in shape – was located in middle of the U shape of the tables, the smoke apparently curling up and out of an opening in the roof. I suppose that with the room being so very large, one might not have really noticed the unpleasantness of the smoke. Though it might also be true that the fire would have struggled to heat such an enormous, and enormously high, space!

It is thought that a timber screen might have been installed between the dining area and the staircase, sheltering the diners from the draughts coming from the great main door, which gave access out into the courtyard and the kitchens. It might also allow for the dishes being brought in from the kitchen to be given a discreet last-minute once-over to ensure they met Laurence’s undoubtedly high standards.

The north tower reached by the staircase has its original tiled floor and the remains of wall paintings. Interestingly (given that the great hall has a central hearth), there is a fireplace on a wall in both of the upper rooms. The top floor room overhangs the one beneath by means of a supported jetty on three sides (see the first photograph), although the windows themselves were added in the 17th century.

At the southern end of the hall is the two-storey solar block, which it is thought Laurence and his family used as their private living area until the south tower was built. The ground floor of the block contains what was probably a storeroom. The upper room of the block was refurbished in the 17th century, converting it into a panelled chamber, so sadly there is no sense of how it originally appeared. This room was accessed by an external staircase (the existing one is not original), and it seems that the staircase was sheltered by a “pentice”, a sloping roof attached to the wall. You can see the line of it in the photograph below, just underneath the cut-off window.

The Solar, Stokesay Castle
By Tony Grist - Photographer's own files, CC0

Beyond the solar block is the tall south tower, the most castle-like part of the house, built perhaps as a further demonstration of Laurence’s power and taste. But it was also where he moved his private quarters.

The room on the first floor has six windows giving views in almost every direction. Four of them are large enough to accommodate window seats, where – with a cushion or two, perhaps – it must have been very pleasant to sit on sunny days. But the windows were not glazed and had to rely on shutters to keep the heat in and the weather out. Fireplaces and access to a privy were provided for both this room and the one on the floor above. Plenty of mod cons!

By LisaPB73 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Sadly in some ways, English Heritage hasn’t attempted to furnish the mediaeval parts of Stokesay Castle, although there are a few pieces of furniture in the solar refurbished in the 17th century. It would be wonderful in particular to see the great hall furnished with cloth-covered tables, and benches, perhaps great tapestries on the walls, and to have a fire burning in the hearth, as they do in the houses at the Weald and Downland Museum. But I must put my disappointment aside and simply use my imagination and try to visualise what life in this wonderful building must have been like.

Clearly, Laurence of Ludlow’s fortified manor house was state-of-the-art in the 13th century. The grandeur of Stokesay Castle is undisputed, but the comforts of fireplaces and privies, the light offered by the large windows, the availability of lots of space and even a little more privacy, all of these surely contribute to its status as luxurious accommodation? But one presumes that, on his manor, while there might have been a few relatively affluent villeins whose homes were closer to the Bayleaf farmhouse we saw last month, the majority of his tenants undoubtedly lived out their lives in one of those small, dark, smoky cottages – with no luxury at all.



Sunday, 19 May 2019

Roman Recommendations by L.J. Trafford


I thought for this month’s post I might do something a bit different. Rather than write a piece on some part of Roman history I thought I would recommend some Roman related things that I have enjoyed and that you might too.


Books

When I became Roman obsessed in the early 90s there really wasn’t much in the way of ancient Rome set fiction. What there was were weighty, long and frankly, dull books in the vein of Ben Hur and Quo Vadis. Which ,yes I did read but by Jupiter’s fiery thunderbolt they were a struggle.
But then I stumbled across a few books that gripped me in their story and not once did I have to skip chapters of long philosophical meanderings to get to the ruddy plot.

I, Claudius – Robert Graves 

The classic book that has forever, probably unfairly, set our views on the Emperor Claudius. Here he is the underdog in the nest of vipers that is the Julian Claudian clan. He’s clever and able but he can’t show it if he wants to survive. But survive he does through the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. Which is no mean feat given the family members who are popping off left, right and centre of him.

This is also notably the book that casts Livia as a mass murderer intent on getting her son, Tiberius to be emperor. You do have to wonder when she found the time for all that murder let alone why she bothered when the Tiberius portrayed here is such a freaky pervert. Really she should have bumped off everyone much sooner. I mean at one point there is only Agrippa and Augustus standing between Tiberius and emperor-hood. Surely that was the time to strike? Why wait until Agripppa has children who clutter up the system? It makes no sense.

Elsewhere Graves tries to make more sense by straightening out that Julio Claudian habit of giving everybody the same name, e.g. Agrippina becomes Pina, Drusus Castor. Which takes all the fun out of trying to work out which generation of Julia is bonking about the place.

It’s a work of classical fiction. But with sex a plenty, skulduggery a muchly and all the best bits of Suetonius wrapped up as literature.



The Falco Series – Lindsey Davis


Whereas I, Claudius concentrates on life in the palace and the fierce battling to be emperor, the Falco books examine life for the ordinary Roman making do. Yes, Imperial types such as Vespasian and Titus do feature and act as sometime employer of Falco but the emphasis is very much on Rome’s ‘others’.

Falco himself is from the rough Aventine district where he works as a detective for hire. Falco’s job gives Davis scope to explore wide ranging aspects of ancient Rome, such as criminal gangs, religion, law, gladiatorial shows and slavery. She also takes Falco out of Rome into the provinces like Britannia and Germania.

They are written as a 40s crime noir but with the twist that although Falco is your typical cynical, hard edged tec he is burdened with a large interfering family. Philip Marlow never had to counter with a Ma like Falco’s!

In fact it is Falco’s extended family, friends and enemies that make the series so enjoyable. Not least his arch nemesis, palace spy Anacrites. Now I know my fellow writer and ex History Girl, Alison Morton will disagree with me most passionately on this, but Anacrites is by far the best character. Possibly because Davis maintains him as a man of mystery, the genuine noir loner, for nearly the entire series.
Falco says of Anacrites that ‘he could be pleasant and was tolerable to look at’. By which I think we can deduce he is well sexy and charming. For which I will forgive his occasional attempts to murder Falco.


Augustus - Allan Massie



This was the book that cemented my passion for ancient Rome. It is a simply brilliant telling of the rise of Augustus from the man himself. Massie gets Rome's first emperor dead on; his sentimentality but ruthless ambition, his never ending drive and controlling nature. If you ever wanted to understand how devious Octavius become benevolent first citizen Augustus, this is the book to read.
Massie followed this up with Tiberius. Another absolute cracker of a read, Massie reject those Capri stories about Tiberius and instead paints a credible picture of a humiliated but proud man. It has never been bettered as a portrait of Tiberius, nobody has come even close. Highly, highly recommended.



Other books worth reading:
Steven Saylor’s hero Gordianus the Finder flexes his detecting muscles in Late Republican Rome. It would be difficult to write a dull book about the late republic, it is positively bursting with characters and incidents. Both of which Saylor uses magnificently.
His portrayal of Marcus Caelius Rufus is stuck in my head as definitive and nothing but nothing can shift it.

Also see Ruth Downie's Medicus series for another Roman detective, this time based in the wilds of Roman occupied Britain.



Podcasts
Podcasts! They’re like radio shows that you can listen to anytime you like! And seemingly the technology is there for any bod with a bedroom and a microphone to inform the nation about their particular passion. Which has done wonders for history broadcasting.


Totalus Rankium



As the introduction informs, this podcast “ranks all the emperors from Augustus to Augustulus” not unlike a game of Top Trumps.
Our presenters Jamie and Robb review the record of each Roman Emperor giving them a rating for
  • Fightius Maximus – Were they an all conquering Caesar? Or a hide in a march until the battle is all done with type of emperor?
  • Opprobrium Crazium – Meglomania alone won’t get you a high ranking, best to juice it up with dollops of scandal, a dash of sadism and a strong belief that your horse would make a decent politician.
  • Sucessus Ultimus – With all the power in the world, how well did they wield it?
  • Imigo Facius – With extra points for sexiness, a commanding chin and a truly great beard.
  • Tempo Completo – How long did they reign for?

And then finally deciding whether they possess a certain Je Na Caesar

As you can probably guess from the above, this is no serious history programme. It is a very funny, sometimes nonsensical, sometimes idiotic and always hilarious podcast.
Where else can you hear about the Flavian conquest of the east on two Vespa mopeds?
Or the students that plagued Antoninus Pius’ life with pranks?
Not to mention Elagbalus and his unique way of hiring staff based on their erm advantage.

Highly recommended. Though a word from the wise, probably best not to listen to at work. Unless you want to spit tea all over your desk from laughing, as I once did.
Series One took us up to the fall of the Western Empire. They are now covering the Byzantines who are properly extreme in a cut off your nose, eunuch-tastic way.



Roman Things to See (if you’re not in Rome)


British Museum
Upstairs in the Roman Gallery you have the treat of hanging out with scary Augustus head. Be sure not to look in his eyes.



Look out for the clever positioning of the bust of Tiberius, a clear three paces behind that of his mother Livia. Ha! Also Hadrian and his lover Antoninus directly facing a bust of Hadrian’s wife Sabrina. Ouch!


Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge
Having lived near Cambridge the vast majority of my life I had somehow, shamefully, never quite managed to visit the Museum of Classical Archaeology.

I put this right a few months ago. Situated in the grounds of one of the colleges this Museum is a joyful collection of plaster casts of famous Greek and Roman statues.
Augustus kindly points the way to the toilets. Gent


L.J. Trafford is the author of the Four Emperors Series of books.



Saturday, 18 May 2019

The Tarot - Celia Rees

 


I own several different packs of Tarot cards. Over the years, I've used them for inspiration and divination. In various ways and guises, they've found their way into the books I've written. The name derives from the Italian tarocchi , a pack of playing cards used from the 15th Century for various card games, some of them still played today in various parts of Europe: Italy, France and Austria. Like common playing cards, the tarocchi pack is divided into suits: coins, clubs, cups, and swords, which equate with our more familiar diamonds, clubs, hearts and spades. It has the same numbered cards, from one to ten and ‘face’ cards: King, Queen, Knight and Jack or Knave. There is also a single separate card, the Fool, which equates with our Joker, and has no face value but can be played in different ways, depending on the game, and is therefore, in some ways, the most valuable card to have. 

The tarot pack was not just used for playing games, it was also used for cartomancy, the art of fortune telling, with the different cards and suits attributed with different significances and meanings. The esoteric tarot developed from this. One of the earliest packs used in this way was the Tarot of Marseilles. The design has changed very little. This is a 1751 pack and the pack I use today. 








The biggest difference between a tarocchi pack, a pack of ordinary playing cards and an esoteric pack is the Major Arcana (the greater secrets). The Minor Arcana (the lesser secrets) is almost the same as in a conventional pack of cards. Fifty six cards, divided into four suits, ten numbered cards, with the addition of a Knight into the face card suits. The Major Arcana is different. It contains 22 cards without suits: The Magician, The High Priestess, The Empress, The Emperor, The Heirophant (or Pope), The Lovers, The Chariot, Strength, The Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, The Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, The Devil, The Tower, The Star, The Moon, The Sun, Judgement, The World, and The Fool. The cards are numbered from I to XXI in Roman numerals with the Fool, like the Joker in a conventional pack of cards, having no number. 



For many people, this is where the fascination, mystery - even fear – lies. In a reading, cards from the Minor Arcana are just as significant to the querent but it is cards from the Major Arcana that appear to hold the greater meaning. The central images appear simple but there is a strangeness about them. The backgrounds and the details within them are heavy with symbolism and invite you to look deeper in. The cards are not just for divination. They can be used for meditation, creative inspiration or as arresting images in their own right. 




My favourite card is The Fool, titled Le Mat in the Tarot de Marseilles. In more modern packs he is shown as a young man walking, seemingly unaware, towards the brink of a precipice. He is accompanied by a small dog and holds a rose in one hand and carries a bundle over his shoulder. He is accompanied by a butterfly and above him, the sun shines in the sky. The Fool belongs to the tradition of the Wise Fool, the Sacred Fool. The rose he carries symbolises innocence and hope. The dog at his side, sometimes tearing at his clothing, symbolises old ways of thought seeking to hold him back. The pure light of the sun shines down on him and his bundle contains an accumulated store of wisdom and knowledge. He is led on by a butterfly to new adventures and higher attainment. That he is stepping towards a precipice, doesn’t seem to matter.  He knows he will be just fine. 



Celia Rees

www.celiarees.com





Friday, 17 May 2019

JACK FORTUNE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE HIDDEN VALLEY by Sue Purkiss: Review by Penny Dolan

With the gardens full of rhododendrons and exotic blooms, today seemed a good month to re-post this review of History Girl Sue Purkiss's plant-hunting adventure for junior/middle-grade readers. 

How does one start to hunt for plants? My own love of plants began with Cecily Mary Barker’s picture-and-verse Flower Fairy books, Yet the works are not pure fantasy: Barker’s charming fairies, first appearing in 1923, were based on drawings of real children in her sister’s kindergarten, while the detailed flowers and settings are painted with meticulous, botanically-accurate skill. The Flower Fairies taught me- and no doubt many others – to find and identify common plants, even though some of those flowers are rarer than they used to be.



However, Barker’s pretty fairies - still hovering around today – can surely only charm a very particular young audience. There’s space for bolder books about the history of the plants and stories for older boys and girls who would welcome tales of adventure.

I was very pleased to come across JACK FORTUNE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE HIDDEN VALLEY, a novel for 8-12 year olds, written by fellow History Girl Sue Purkiss.

Inspired by the lives of 18th century plant-hunters, Sue has written a fast-moving historical adventure story.  Jack Fortune, the young hero, is energetic and most interestingly naughty. Bored, and not allowed to attend school, he can’t resist devising tricks that shame his stern widowed Aunt Constance and horrify her genteel guests.

As a character, Jack is immediately likeable - and trouble! When he accidentally damages a priceless object, Constance summons her  brother, Uncle Edmund, insisting that he take responsibility for his young nephew.

Uncle Edmund refuses; not only is the scholarly bachelor unused to children but he is about to depart on his first plant-hunting trip to India. Jack, hearing this exciting news, wants to accompany the expedition so Uncle Edmund reluctantly agrees, while Aunt Constance, unable to face any more disobedience, agrees despite the dangers.

From this point on Jack and his uncle  – and the reader – experience a new life full of challenge and interesting people and places. They sail to Calcutta, cross the Great Plain and travel through the jungle before reaching a high mountain kingdom with a hidden valley. All the way, Jack and his uncle face setbacks and dangers: vagabonds, wild animals, “mountain sickness” and, at last, reports of a huge, legendary being who brings death to any intruders in the Hidden Valley. Moreover, Jack soon realises that an unknown traitor is spoiling the expedition’s food supplies and stirring up problems with local villagers.  Who wishes them ill? Is it Sonam, their guide or Thondup, the heir to the throne who accompanies the party, and whom Jack has begun to admire?  

Sue Purkiss’s plot moves along with plenty of pace and action and just enough description to fix the story in its historical time and place without overloading her young reader’s enjoyment. She also touches lightly and skillfully on darker issues such as servants and colonisation, but lets the bold adventure end as happily as it should.

However, I felt the book was about more than the plant-hunting quest: Jack and Uncle Edmund make a wonderfully odd and warm partnership, and the hardships met on the expedition teach them more about the other.

Bookish Uncle Edmund slowly reveals his bravely determined nature and his passion for plant-hunting. Gradually, Jack sees the burning passion that lies behind Uncle Edmund’s search, and his desperate hope that the plant will bring him fame, fortune and the approval of the influential Sir Joseph Banks when - and if -  they ever return to London.

Meanwhile, faced with real demands and responsibilities rather than endless tea-parties and polite manners, Jack becomes the boy-hero he was meant to be and is even able to accept his own inherited artistic gifts and inheritance.

One of the particular reasons I enjoyed JACK FORTUNE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE HIDDEN VALLEY was that, despite the difficulties Jack and his Uncle face, the adventure is a positive and hopeful experience and one that might encourage children to look beyond everyday life and issues in school and out into a much wider world with all its interweaving histories.

Penny Dolan
ps. Years after the Flower Fairies, my gardening interests led to a set of children’s stories based on the history of British gardening, written for re-telling at RHS Harlow Carr gardens.

NB. Alma Books have also created some downloadable activities to support of this title:  http://almabooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Jack-Fortune-Activity-Book.pdf  as well as an interview with the author Sue Purkiss: http://almabooks.com/interview-sue-purkiss-author-jack-fortune/