Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Rough Music & Twitter by Imogen Robertson

Hudibras and the Skimmington (1721-26) - William Hogarth

How different are we to our ancestors? I’ve had that debate with fellow authors and audiences a number of times since I started writing historical fiction and I think the answer is a great deal and very little. 
The way in which a woman like me, born in England to English parents in 1973, understands the world is going to be very different to the way in which a woman born in 1473 understood the world which surrounded her. Most obviously, aside from the discoveries and innovations of the last 500 years, I had access to the same education as my brothers, I had the legal rights necessary to set up an independent household and make my own decisions about children and marriage. I also, like many of my generation was brought up on the atheist end of agnostic. Of course the world looks very different to me. 
But I think our emotional lives are not very different to those of our ancestors. We still love, struggle, fear and celebrate, experience pain and pleasure. Even if the changing culture might alter how we express and share those emotions, personally I believe human nature in all its diversity and complexity which underlies those expressions hasn't altered much since we started pressing our hands onto the cave’s wall and leaving our mark there. 

Cave of Pettakere, Bantimurung district (kecamatan), South Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Hand stencils estimated between 35,000–40,000 
BP and Shoreditch Graffiti 2018

I was forcefully reminded on these debates reading Edward Palmer Thompson’s article on Rough Music (Folklore, Vol. 103, No. 1, 1992) the other day. Rough Music, (also know as charivari or skimmington inter alia) is the name given to the tradition, common throughout Western Europe from the Early Modern period onwards of publicly mocking a violator of societal norms. It often involved a parade, street theatre, rhymes, sometimes the burning of an effigy, and was always accompanied by a crowd, normally mixed, making an unholy row by hoots and hollers and the banging of pots and kettles. In early modern times, it seems it was mostly used to humiliate couples where the man was known as ‘hen-pecked’, though in the nineteenth century it was often used to humiliate men known to beat their wives or children. Adulterers, those of loose morals, or widows and widowers thought to have remarried too quickly were often also victims, as were those suspected it seems (peering though the bowdlerised and purposefully vague accounts) of being gay. Unfair trade practices could also be a justification. 

Deatil of
Hudibras and the Skimmington (1721-26) - William Hogarth

The noise and pantomime could go on night after night and though some victims were taken from their houses and dunked in ditches or ponds, the aim was humiliation more than violence. People seemed to regard it as their right to punish a wrong-doer in this way. It was seen as a valid expression of community feeling, a punishment, a warning, a way of policing and reenforcing standards and expectations. At times it seems to have become a way of bullying the price of a drink out of the newly married. It was common for centuries and in Folklore (Vol 91, No 1 1988), you can even find an example from 1940. The writer’s lodger had a habit of undressing without closing the curtains and the locals showed their disapproval by standing outside the house, shouting and screaming and banging saucepans and kettles. 

Thanks to changes in the law and shifts in societal norms, a woman born in Darlington in 1973 has no reason to fear, or need the help of, rough music. The law is on my side, by and large. But now we find ourselves in an age where there is another sphere where the law seems unwilling or unable to reach, not the domestic space but a virtual one. 

Jon Ronson wrote a superb book in 2015 So You’ve been Publicly Shamed, expressing his uneasiness with the twitter mobs who seem to get such pleasure from finding someone to condemn and making a lot of noise about it. It’s well worth a read, and also interesting to look at in our post Brexit post Trump world. Ronson seems most concerned by a sort of left-leaning mob eager to condemn racism, or the sins of people like Jonah Lehrer. In other words, they were condemning crimes I would also also condemn. He though was discomforted by the self-congratulatory glee of some of these pile ons, and I find them discomforting too. Now a reenergised right wing search out remoaners, libs, feminists and snowflakes and though the targets are different, the glee looks familiar. 

Then of course there are the hate filled threats of violence so many, especially women, experience on twitter. I can’t help noting all those cases of women being punished for not accepting their husband’s authority in the history, and also note that even if rough music rarely involved direct physical violence, it threatened it with its effigies and rituals of shunning. Think of the photoshopped images passed out online and you'll see the equivalence. Many of the twitter users who are most foul in their abuse hide their identities, many don’t see the need. Some of those participating in rough music went masked, most did not. It was a an exercise in community bonding as well as a way to punish. The participants joined in to show they were moral, right-thinking people and, I’m sure, gained confidence and a sense of identity from looking right and left and seeing their friends around them, just as, I’m sure, many on twitter piling onto some celebrity or private individual for saying the wrong thing, do the same. 

E. P. Thomson wrote his article in 1992, those far off days when something like twitter was unimaginable. I had to keep reminding myself of that as I read these last lines of his article as they seem to resonate so strongly in 2018. This is a man who thinks he is writing about something which no longer happens, but it seems to me new technology has given us the opportunity to fall back on old ways. 

“… rough music could also be an excuse for a drunken orgy or for blackmail. It could legitimise the aggression of youths, and (if one may whisper it) youths are not always, in every historical context, protagonists of rationality or of change. I make the point strongly, arguing in a sense with part of myself, for I find much that attracts me in rough music. It is a property of a society in which justice is not wholly delegated or bureaucratised, but is enacted by and within the community. Where it is enacted upon an evident malefactor-some officious public figure or a brutal wife-beater one is tempted to lament the passing of the rites. But the victims were not all of this order. They might equally be some lonely sexual non-conformist, some Sue Bridehead and Jude Fawley living together out of holy wedlock. And the psychic terrorism which could be brought to bear upon them was truly terrifying: the flaring and lifelike effigies, with their ancient associations with heretic-burning and the maiming of images - the magical or daemonic suggestiveness of masking and of animal-guising--  the flaunting of obscenities-the driving out of evil spirits with noise.
Rough music belongs to a mode of life in which some part of the law belongs still to the community and is theirs to enforce. To this one may assent. It indicates modes of social self-control and the disciplining of certain kinds of violence and antisocial offence 
(insults to women, child abuse, wife-beating) which in today's cities may be breaking down. But, when we consider the societies which have been under our examination, one must add a rider. Because law belongs to people, and is not alienated, or delegated, it is not thereby made necessarily more 'nice' and tolerant, more cosy and folksy. It is only as nice and as tolerant as the prejudices and norms of the folk allow. Some forms of rough music disappeared from history in shadowy complicity with bigotry, jingoism and worse. In Sussex rough music was visited upon 'pro-Boers' including William Morris's close friend, Georgie Burne-Jones. In Bavaria the last manifestations of haberfeldtreiben were linked to mafia-like blackmail, anti-semitism and, in the final stage, to ascendant Nazism. For some of its victims, the coming of a distanced (if alienated) Law and a bureaucratised police must have been felt as a liberation from the tyranny of one’s ‘own’.

Next time you see a twitter storm whipping through your timeline, listen out for the sound of clattering pots and pans. Yes, we are very different. Yes, we are still the same.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Σηκωματα, mensa ponderaria, mesures à grains… by Carolyn Hughes

Ann Swinfen
I would like to pay tribute to Ann Swinfen, who died on the 4th August. 
Ann was a good friend to me and to many. She was a wonderful, much-loved writer of historical fiction, including the Oxford Medieval Mysteries and the Christoval Alvarez series. Her many readers will be sad that there can be no more stories about Nicholas Elyot or Christoval. But Ann also wrote fascinating, informative blog posts, here on The History Girls, as well as on her own blog, and she was very generous in the advice and support she gave to fledgling writers. I will miss dreadfully knowing that I could always ask for Ann's help, and receive a wise and practical response.
The 20th of the month used to be Ann’s day on The History Girls blog, until the time came when she felt she had to concentrate on her books, and she put my name forward to take her place.
So this post is dedicated to Ann.

Thank you, Carolyn, for this tribute to Ann. Today is the day of her funeral and the History Girls would like to send sympathy to her husband David and their children and grandchildren.  Mary Hoffman


For today’s post, I thought I would again write about something different from my usual histories of the Meon Valley. We spend some time every year – and have done for the past thirty or so years – in south-east France, in the department of Drôme, which, if you don’t know it, runs from roughly south of Grenoble to roughly north of Avignon. The magnificent river Rhône flows the department’s entire length, with abundant vineyards in the valleys and on the hill sides, growing alongside cereals and fruit, olives and lavender, and the dramatic Vercors mountains rise to the east. It is a wonderful region, yet it is not well known and so is, for the most part, quite tourist-free.
To the west of the Rhône lies the department of Ardèche, another magnificent region with some wonderfully remote communities and many ancient villages. One such is Chalencon, a mediaeval stone village, perched on the Vernoux plateau, overlooking the valley of the Eyrieux.
Chalencon By JMO [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0
(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Chalencon is a village of narrow and winding cobbled streets, old houses and shops, and towers. There are cars but it’s very possible to take a photo excluding much (if not all) of modern life, giving you a good sense of how it might have felt hundreds of years ago, though it was undoubtedly not quite so clean and picturesque back then!

Chalencon's streets Photos © Author 

The village apparently has Celtic origins, with the Celts building some sort of community on the promontory here sometime between the 9th and 4th centuries BC. Later, the Romans built an oppidum (a fortified town) on this site. Chalencon became a barony in the 10th century AD, and its most famous baroness was Diane of Poitiers, the mistress of Henry II.

So why am I telling you about Chalencon? It is not just because it is ancient and beautiful, even though it is. It is because it has the most remarkable mesures à grains, a public amenity for measuring grain, which played an important part in the development of trade and commerce by standardising grain measurement and deterring fraud. Chalencon’s mesures probably date from the 15th century, but are wonderfully well preserved.

In order to write this post, I thought I’d have a look online for other examples of such public measuring devices, expecting to find innumerable images to share. But, in truth, I have not found very many. I daresay many physical examples can be found throughout France and elsewhere, but perhaps no-one has thought to photograph them, or to post their photos online! 

However, I will share something of what I have learned…

In ancient Greece there existed measuring tables called σηκωματα or sekomata. I have found references to a few such sekomata, but one found on Naxos in the 19th century will serve as an example. The date of this table is not given in the literature I have read, but it is referred to as “Hellenistic”, putting it somewhere between 323 and 31 BC.
Sekoma from Naxos, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
Image from Documenting, measuring and integrating sekomata:
An example from Naxos
 by Carla Cioffi,in 
Dialogues d’histoire ancienne,
Année 2014, Suppl.12, pp. 41-56.
The stone table has six basins of different sizes, presumably conforming to some  standard capacities. The size of the small ones might suggest that they were mostly used to measure liquids rather than grain, but I don’t know if this was in fact the case. These six basins have a hole in the bottom, which was presumably plugged when the commodity was being added and then opened to allow it, once measured, to flow out. A depression between two of the basins (between d and e) seems to have been some sort of overflow system, though I am not clear how it worked.
Naturally, this sekoma would have been mounted horizontally and raised high enough off the ground to enable the out flow and collection of the measured commodity.
In Latin, the same sort of public measuring table is a mensa ponderaria, a term apparently coined by Italian archaeologists in the 19th century. There is a very good example at Pompeii, located in the forum.
This is made of limestone and has five main basins, each with an outflow hole in the bottom, just like the sekoma in Naxos. The table was apparently modified in c20 BC to add four new measuring holes at the corners, though, again, I am not at all clear how they might have worked. But this information does at least help us to date the table to somewhere in the 1st century BC or earlier.
Mensa ponderaria, with inscription on the front. Photo © Michael Binns. September 2016.
mensa is in Naples Archaeological Museum. 
The inscription across the front of this mensa records the action of the local magistrates in charge of standardising the measures in Pompeii in accordance with those at Rome:
Aulus Clodius Flaccus, son of Aulus, and Numerius Arcaeus Arellianus Caledus, son of Numerius, duumvirs with judicial power, saw to the standardisation of the measures in accordance with a decree of the town councillors.”
Moving into the Middle Ages, I have found an image of a mesure à grains in Caylus, southern France, which might date from the 14th century, as the halle in which it is situated apparently dates from that time. I understand that there may have been more several grain measures in Caylus’s halle, of different sizes. This one is, sadly, in poor condition. 
Grain measure in the halle of Caylus, Tarn-et-Garonne, France

And so to the grain mesures of Chalencon, which are in an exceptional state of preservation. There are three measuring basins of differing sizes carved from two blocks of granite.

Chalencon’s 15th century mesures à grains Photo © Author

The sizes of the basins are (according to a delightfully illustrated sign):
  • Le sestier = about 83 litres
  • L’emine = about 41 litres
  • La quarte = about 20 litres
It seems that the Chalencon archaeologists are not certain of the mesures' date but believe them to be 15th century.

Somewhat differently arranged from the earlier examples, the basins’ flow holes are located on the side of the granite blocks, but the principle remains of closing them off when the basins were being filled, then opening them (the chutes appear to have little doors) to let the grain escape.

The illustrated sign shows how it was done:

© Medièval-Lyon / dessins: T. Guyon / Commune de Chalencon

The inscription in the illustration suggests (I think) that the basins were used to measure out both oats (avoine) and rye (seigle), both of which would be paid to the barony as rent (redevances = fees) for the land held from the baron by his/her tenants.

If anyone can shed any further light on these fascinating public measuring amenities, I would love to hear it!

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Empress-less :( By L.J. Trafford

The five Julian-Claudian emperors that ruled Rome from 27BC to 68AD clocked up eight empresses between them. 

The chart shows the distribution. It reveals an anomaly.
Rome’s second Emperor Tiberius ruled with no Empress at all. This is quite noteworthy given he ruled for 23 years. Caligula managed two whole empresses in a reign of only 5 years.  So why did Tiberius not marry whilst Emperor? 

He was relatively late in years when he succeeded his stepfather Augustus at the age of 56 years old. Still that was no impediment Claudius married his fourth wife (and second empress) Agrippina aged 59. There was nothing to stop him marrying a much younger woman and producing heirs. But then Tiberius already had heirs aplenty; a son and grandson from his first marriage. Also he'd adopted his nephew Germanicus as his son. Germanicus had three sons of his own. 
This seemed ample enough successors. Any more might well cause the sort of infighting, back-stabbings and poisonings the Julio-Claudian family became famous for.  
Perhaps it was a strong attempt to not muddy the dynastic waters any further. 
However, I rather think not. I rather think Tiberius’ lack of an Empress was a decision born of his traumatic romantic history. 

Wife Number One 

Tiberius' first wife was Vipsania. She was the daughter of Emperor Augustus’ right hand man Agrippa.  They were married when she was likely a teenager and Tiberius was in his early 20s.
Evidently it was a happy marriage.  They had one son, Drusus and Vipsania was pregnant again when in 12 BC her father Agrippa died. 
This was to have devastating consequences beyond a daughter's natural grief. For Tiberius' stepfather, the Emperor Augustus,
ordered the couple to divorce.  This seems like an unnecessary cruelty of the emperor towards Vipsania and Tiberius.  She’d just lost her father and then her husband is forced to divorce her even though she is pregnant with his child. I could here make a valid point about how marriage for centuries was a contract between families, how love had very little if anything to do with it. Naturally with Agrippa dead the marriage between the families is void.  Tiberius was needed elsewhere.  
That’s the standard in the elite rungs of Roman society where marriages were made and dissolved based on changing circumstances. 

But actually this everyday tale has a very bitter sting to it. Tiberius obeyed his stepfather and divorced Vipsania, but it was with much reluctance. 
Hankies at the ready folks, this is what Suetonius has to say:   

But even after the divorce he regretted his separation from Vipsania, and the only time that he chanced to see her, he followed her with such an intent and tearful gaze that care was taken that she should never again come before his eyes.  

And he continued to regret it. As Emperor he maintained a vendetta against Gaius Asinius Gallus who Vipsania had been hastily remarried to. “He had hated him for years” As Tacitus neatly puts it. 
So who was the woman Tiberius was forced to divorce the wife he deeply loved for? 
She was Augustus’ daughter, Julia. 

Wife Number Two

Julia was 28 years old and already a mother of 5 children. This was to be her third marriage.  At age
Tiberius' Stepfather the Emperor Augustus
14 she’d been married to her cousin Marcellus. He had died of a fever after only two years.
Her second marriage had been to Agrippa. Which meant that not only was Tiberius marrying his step sister, he was also marrying his former mother in law. It had to feel weird. 
The two had been raised together in the same household as Tiberius’ mother Livia was married to Julia’s father Augustus. Julia’s upbringing had been strict.

(Augustus) In bringing up his daughter and his granddaughters he even had them taught spinning and weaving, and he forbade them to say or do anything except openly and such as might be recorded in the household diary. He was most strict in keeping them from meeting strangers. 

It was hardly surprising given these restrictions that Julia might develop a rebellious streak.

One day she came into his presence in a somewhat risque costume, and though he said nothing, he was offended. The next day she changed her style and embraced her father, who was delighted by the respectability which she was affecting. Augustus, who the day before had concealed his distress, was now unable to conceal his pleasure. "How much more suitable", he remarked, "for a daughter of Augustus is this costume!" Julia did not fail to stand up for herself. "Today", she said, "I dressed to be looked at by my father, yesterday to be looked at by my husband."  


This rebellion went beyond a slightly low cut dress

When people who knew about her shocking behaviour said they were surprised that she who distributed her favours so wildly gave birth to sons who were so like Agrippa, she said, "I never take on a passenger unless the ship is full."  
Tiberius was well aware of Julia’s wild streak for he had been on the receiving end of one of her passes.

He disapproved of Julia's character, having perceived that she had a passion for him even during the lifetime of her former husband, as was in fact the general opinion.   

Presumably Tiberius did not take her up on her offer.

There is a strong hint of misogyny in descriptions of Julia’s life but the Julia that appears in Macrobius’ account is fun and witty and well read. He tells us:  Her kindness and gentleness and utter freedom from vindictiveness had won her immense popularity, 
However for all these good qualities she was an ill matched wife for Tiberius. Where she was sociable and friendly and fun, he was sullen, taciturn and introspective.  Suetonius says of Tiberius: 

 He strode along with his neck stiff and bent forward,usually with a stern countenance and for the most part in silence, never or very rarely conversing with his companion  

As a teenager he suffered badly from acne and in later years developed a skin complaint that caused weeping ulcers on his face.
Hardly a good fit for the fun loving sparkly, attractive Julia.
They did try to make it work though. They had a child together but when that child died their relationship completely broke down and Tiberius moved out.
 Julia might have made some sort of pass at him in their youth but she was as unhappy as he was with this marriage.  She was most probably relieved when Tiberius went off to Germany on campaign, leaving her in Rome. 
She had her freedom and she enjoyed it a lot.  Too much, for the stories regarding her behaviour get more and more extreme:

She had been accessible to scores of paramours, that in nocturnal revels she had roamed about the city, that the very forum and the rostrum, from which her father had proposed a law against adultery had been chosen by the daughter for her debaucheries.  
Sold her favours and sought the right to every indulgence with even an unknown paramour. 


The emperor’s daughter selling her body to passing men in the Forum was a huge scandal not least because, as Seneca mentions above, her father had introduced a series of morality laws.

One of these, the Lex Iulia de Adulteriis Coercendis,  proscribed banishment for those caught in adultery. It also stated that husband’s (under certain circumstances) could kill their unfaithful wife. On the milder side the husband was compelled to divorce an adulterous wife.  
Julia was treading a very dangerous path as her antics became known to everyone in the city, bar her doting father Augustus. Tiberius was undoubtedly in full knowledge of what his wife was indulging in and it placed him in a terrible predicament.

The law of his own father-in-law stated he should divorce his unfaithful wife but that wife was the emperor’s daughter. It also cut into all that Roman society felt about marriage, husband’s should be able to control their wives. What did it say about Tiberius as a Roman man that he could not? The innuendos and gossip he faced must have been unbearable. 

So unbearable that Tiberius bailed:

At the flood-tide of success, though in the prime of life and health, he suddenly decided to go into retirement and to withdraw as far as possible from the centre of the stage. 

He told Augustus his retirement to the island of Rhodes was because Julia’s sons were now of age and he was no longer needed. That was the official version.  
Unofficially everybody (bar her doting father) knew the real reason. 
“From disgust at his wife, whom he dared neither accuse nor put away, though he could no longer endure her.”  Suetonius

Four years after Tiberius ‘ flight from public life Augustus was finally made aware of what had been public knowledge for some years.  The Emperor was devastated and Julia, as the law he’d introduced  dictated, was banished.   

After Julia was banished, he denied her the use of wine and every form of luxury, and would not allow any man, bond or free, to come near her without his permission,   

In Tiberius’ absence Augustus divorced his daughter from his stepson. Tiberius eventually returned to Rome eight years after his exile. In 14 AD he succeeded his stepfather as Emperor.  

Single Once More

Tiberius was a man who held grudges, note his dislike of Vipsania's second husband. He certainly held a grudge against Julia and all that she had put him through. In later years Augustus had lessened the conditions of Julia’s banishment. Once emperor Tiberius increased them.
He had not forgotten.  He had not forgiven. 
It is hardly surprising after the abject failure, personal humiliation and misery of his second marriage that Tiberius did not seek a third even when he was Emperor and the choice would have been his alone.  

But there is also something else at work here. We have a long list of Julia’s lovers but from the moment the couple separated there are no named mistresses or favourite slaves or any paramour at all named for Tiberius.
In a society high on Imperial gossip this is so unusual as to be positively noteworthy.  That the emperor was apparently celibate from his early 30s is quite staggering particularly when you remember he lived in a palace that catered to the emperor’s every sexual whim.  

Unsurprisingly there is quite a lot of speculation by historians over this. Speculation it will remain because they are all theories born of an absence of information. But I can quite believe that Tiberius, as several historians have supposed, was sexually timid, perhaps impotent (maybe caused by the oppressive stress of public life) perhaps even indifferent to sex after his humiliation by Julia. 
However  our tale takes another twist when Tiberius took a second retirement to an island, this time to the island of Capri. 
During these years some quite unbelievably shocking sex stories become attached to his name.  

The Capri Years  

Capri. Photo by Radomil

In 26 AD having ruled for 12 years and at the age of 67, Tiberius left Rome for the island of Capri. He was never to return to the city. 
The reasons why he departed Rome are much to numerous and complex to cover in this short piece. The gist of it was that he was thoroughly fed up with politics and ruling. 
He remained on Capri for 11 years up to his death in 37AD. The citizens of Rome therefore did not set eyes on their emperor for over a decade. Hidden away on a small island is it any wonder stories were told as to what Tiberius was up to. It had to be something sinister for him to abandon his grand position didn’t it? 
Tacitus mentions secret vices. Suetonius helpfully records exactly what the gossips were saying. It is about as extreme as emperor gossip gets.  You have been warned: 

On retiring to Capri he devised a pleasance for his secret orgies: teams of wantons of both sexes, selected as experts in deviant intercourse and dubbed analists, copulated 
before him in triple unions to excite his flagging passions.  

Its bedrooms were furnished with the most salacious paintings and  sculptures, 
as well as with an erotic library, in case a performer should need an illustration of what was required. Then in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this "the old goat's garden," punning on the island's name.  

He acquired a reputation for still grosser depravities that one can hardly bear to
 tell or be told, let alone believe. For example, he trained little boys (whom he termed minnows) to crawl between his thighs when he went swimming and tease him with their licks and nibbles; and unweaned babies he would put to his organ as though to the breast, being by both nature and age rather fond of this form of satisfaction

What are we to make of this? Had Tiberius gone senile in his old age? Had his old humiliation by Julia and his loss of Vipsania been repressed and then spilled over into this strange explosion of depravity?  There is a suggestion in other sources that Tiberius had always possessed secret vices but that he had repressed these until he was away from the public eye. 

This seems all a little too convenient. Surely Tiberius would have shown some indication of perversion prior to retiring to Capri ? Yet as previously discussed we have absolutely nothing on Tiberius. Not even any normal sexual relations recorded. 
I am rather reminded of the emperor Domitian whose love of solitude was inexplicable to the public facing Romans. A story circulated that during these quiet periods he was in fact stabbing flies to death with his pen . Because he had to be up to something sinister, didn’t he? 
I would suggest similar forces are at play here. To abandon Rome, the city he ruled and to hide himself away was so odd to the Roman mind that stories were invented to explain the inexplicable. Given that Tiberius spent 11 years on Capri that gave ample time for these tales to be embellished and then further embellished until, as Suetonius notes, they could barely be believed. 

The End 

Tiberius died on Capri in 37AD entirely unloved and unmourned.
The people of Rome, deserted by their emperor declared “To the Tiber (river) with Tiberius”
He was succeeded as Emperor by a man who became the embodiment of vice and depravity, Caligula. He’d spent some time with Tiberius on Capri and the gossips claimed it was the old emperor who first led the impressionable Caligula into his demented perversions.
Which is a sad epithet for an emperor who had dedicated his entire life to both public and military service. Who left the treasury bursting with coinage. Who took over this newly created role of ‘emperor’ from Augustus and kept it going when it might so easily collapsed into the civil wars that Augustus had ended. A legacy that endured for 400 years.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

The History Girls’ Wunderkammer - Celia Rees

Every month, a History Girl nominates an object for our virtual Cabinet of Curiosities. It would be a fascinating collection and a very large one by now, bursting from its original cabinet, a whole room of wonders.

In some ways, the whole blog is a Cabinet of Curiosities. A Magical one containing not just objects

but people (some famous, some not so), spanning eras of time, allowing us to travel from the dawn of human history to the very recent past, expanding out of the actual into the realms of magic, folk lore, abstract ideas and philosophy, whisking us off to every part of the world, from Japan to Australia, America to Venice, Ireland to the East East of London, and that’s only in the last couple of months.

Each History Girl, past and present, is their own Cabinet of Curiosities posting month after month, about people, places, objects, paintings, photographs that have caught her attention or fed her obsession. Here are some images from my own cabinet, chosen from the blogs I’ve posted over the years.

The History Girls also contains a Virtual Library, but that’s for another time.

Friday, 17 August 2018

William Blake and the Bunhill Fields Celebration by Penny Dolan

Last Sunday, the 12th of August, amid all the chaos of London, a new tombstone was laid in Bunhill Fields, City Road, London EC1Y 2BG. It was inscribed by stone-cutter Lisa Cardoso with the following words:

Here lies William Blake, 1757-1827.
Poet, Artist, Prophet
and lines from Blake himself:
‘I give you the end of a golden string
Only wind it into a ball 
It will lead you in at Heavens gate
Built in Jerusalem's wall.’

The Portland Stone slab, bought by public subscription, marks for the first time the precise spot where William Blake lies buried. The location that had taken two years of research, funded by the William Blake Society, even though he was known to be buried in the grounds where "his father, mother, aunt and brother" - and eventually - his wife lay.

The area of common land was beyond the city's reach, and known as "Bone Hills", a reference to the many pits and mass graves within the area. However, after the Church of England was established in 1664, Bunhill Fields also became a burial place for dissenters, non-conformists and more, until in 1853, the bulging graveyard was closed for burials. Eventually, after time had settled things down, some of the old stones and memorials were moved and Bunhill Fields was opened out to become a much-needed, green space for the inner-city population. Although it was known that Blake was buried there, the exact spot was without recognition until last Sunday.

The press, and a large number of enthusiastic population came to the free ceremony. The event was open to all, with specially-composed music and choral singing, speakers including author Philip Pullman, President of the Blake Society, Archbishop Rowan Williams, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, and Nick Dunn of the Trust.  In addition, one-hundred-and-ninety-one burning candles were placed around the grave, marking the 191 years since William Blake’s death, and afterwards many lay flowers at his tomb. Ah, one of those events I can only wish I'd been too.

However, sometime ago I read Peter Ackroyd's wonderful life of William Blake. Below now, to pay respect to the new gravestone is a passage of fiction inspired by that very fine biography.

The ancient abbey is vast and, in later centuries, will be crowded with ornate memorials. Nevertheless, now – in London, in 1771 – a few historic effigies and tombs can be seen in the shadowy aisles, their carvings worn and their paint faded.  

The newly-reformed Society of Antiquaries is eager to have a record of these treasures for surely their own nation’s history is now as worthy of study as the classical world? 

A series of careful engravings are required, and that is why the boy sits in the hallowed gloom, pencil in hand, drawing the long dead. His master, James Basire, the foremost architectural line engraver in London, has chosen this fourteen year old apprentice specifically for this stage of the commission.  
First of all, the boy has been copying casts of classical statues since he was ten. He has the ability to draw a good foot, a hand, a torso, a head, a detail and more. Secondly – and maybe this is just as important a reason – Master Basire knows the boy has a passionate, argumentative nature and that he is easiest when left to work alone. Certainly, the lad’s brain seems fit to burst with his tales of biblical visions and lines from scripture and Milton’s poetry. 
Time passes. The boy works. The tall windows let in little daylight so he lights a candle stub or two. The small flames make the tombs look like great four-poster beds: the stone slabs in place of soft mattresses and the hard, carved canopy instead of curtains overhead.

His task, in drawing each tomb, is to demonstrate it from every angle and produce a record of every important detail and inscription. 

Down below, under the fine stonework, he knows the bodies are waiting. Once or twice, where stones have been cracked and shifted, he spied bones and breathed dust from the darkness within.Now he raises his head and stares. 

Up there, high up on their stony beds, the strange elongated effigies of old kings and queens face upwards, heavenwards, God-wards. The royal features are not for common, everyday eyes to view - and yet the Society has asked for a true record of all that is there, have they not?

Fortunately, the boy is determined, as well as small for his fourteen years. When the abbey is quiet, he climbs right up on to the tombs and stands there, just below the carved canopies. Leaning forward, he draws the human figures at his feet, reaching out to measure the features as he does so. Some of the tombs are so low that he is forced to kneel or crouch almost nose to nose with the cold, dead faces. He does not mind: his imagination feeds on these moments. 

He works. Now and then, he hears voices echo in the sacred air and once ghostly monks passed in a procession. He does not mind. Such spectres are better than the flesh-and-blood schoolboys who visit the abbey, mocking him and his work. He glances down at his marked knuckles, his eyes still alight with righteous anger. Master Basire was correct about that temper.

Imagine the boy, working. Imagine what patterns this particular work must be forming in his mind. 

All his youthful energies are bound up with the spirits of this place: the sense of history, of worldly and godly glory, of living words cut into stone, of the eternal victory of death - and of his own dreams, eagerly calling him on to great things. All he sees, hears and feels while working alone in that place will go into his own work. He pauses, stretches his shoulders, bends over and draws again.

The building is Westminster Abbey.

The boy? His name is William Blake.

As I began reading Peter Ackroyd’s excellent biography of Blake, I came across his account of this stage in the boy’s apprenticeship and, startled by the scene conjured up, used it as a starting point for my own writing, above.

Adolescent experiences can be intense enough to imprint perceptions that persist long afterwards - especially if you are an imaginative young apprentice working twelve hours a day, six days a week, and with a head constantly spinning with new thoughts and half-biblical visions.

Reading about Blake standing on the tombs, I felt as if a half-recognised aspect of Blake’s work had suddenly become understandable. 

There is, of course, the strongly sculptural nature of many of his figures, but I also wondered – and this is only my thought which you can take or leave – whether the young artist, leaning over the effigies on the tombs, had so absorbed the physical and bodily memory of that encounter that he recreated that stance over and over again in the form and shape of his paintings and artwork.

Is this idea possible? Did the familiar "Blake" shape of the bending deity or spirit, leaning over the human come from something remembered in his own body? What do you think?

Meanwhile, I must see more and read more of Ackroyd’s William Blake - and maybe more elsewhere, including Blake’s own account - and see what I discover.

Penny Dolan