Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Hieronymus Bosch by Miranda Miller




                                                                 (c. 1450 – 1516)




   I’ve seen Bosch’s paintings in Vienna and Venice and have always found him a fascinating and mysterious figure, so when I heard that his birthplace in Holland was celebrating the 500th anniversary of his death with an exhibition I immediately booked. Just as well, because by the end of March the exhibition was completely sold out. The man who has been said to have had “the wildest imagination in the history of art” has a lot of devoted admirers all over the world and, as Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian, “The Noordbrabants Museum has put on one of the most important exhibitions of our century.”

   The exhibition itself is a remarkable achievement. Nine years ago Charles de Mooij, the director of this small museum in ’s-Hertogenbosch (also known as Den Bosch), decided to borrow every work by Bosch in the world. Amazingly, he managed to assemble twenty of the twenty-five surviving panels, including several reunited triptychs and panels that were scattered centuries ago, and nineteen of his twenty drawings. Most of Bosch’s work has disappeared and it would have included stained-glass windows, embroidery and glasswork. This exhibition, which has now moved to the Prado, will probably never be seen in one place again. Many of these paintings could only travel because the Getty Foundation paid for conservation work and also for a huge research project into Bosch. The Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Accademia in Venice, the Metropolitan in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington all agreed to lend their work to this provincial museum.

   Before our eagerly awaited time slot we wandered around the sleepy Dutch town and visited St John’s Church, where Bosch would have worshipped and where his funeral took place although his body seems to have been lost, as the lady in the church shop apologetically told me. We know almost nothing about the life of Hieronymus Bosch, whose real name was Jeroen Van Aken. His grandfather, uncles and father were all painters in this provincial Brabant city, which was prosperous in the fifteenth century, and Bosch seems to have lived there all his life. He married, had a big house and studio on the market square and was a “sworn brother” of the local chapter of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, a religious confraternity. However conventional his outer life was it is clear that he had an extraordinary inner life and we are fortunate to be allowed to glimpse it.

   I loved this exhibition, which is imaginatively displayed. His paintings are cinematic and the dark galleries are dramatically lit, with spots on each work and monitors which display high resolution images of the unfolding details of certain paintings; the seething, crazy, wonderful details. All fantasy comes from somewhere and when you look closely you see that all these monsters and bizarre inventions are based on images in our everyday world: owls, fish, lizards, trumpets, knives, funnels, all beautifully observed and drawn and then brilliantly reinvented. Somehow all these impossible figments convince us of their own reality. You feel that he lived in terrifying times (like us, like everyone,) and felt infinite compassion for the ingenious cruelties people inflict on each other. Here is his Ship of Fools, from the Louvre.


   This illustrates a popular fifteenth century book with the same name: “Who takes his place on the ship of fools sails laughing and singing to hell.” It hangs directly above another panel , Gluttony and Lust, from Yale. These can now be confirmed as two halves of the same continuous vertical composition, reunited here for the first time in centuries.

   This mix of the extraordinary and the mundane appears even more original when you compare Bosch’s work with that by members of his workshop. Whereas Bosch’s monsters are authentically horrible and frightening, those of his followers look merely kitsch. He was one of the first artists in the low countries to sign his work, so he wanted to be remembered. Here he is above his own signature, making fun of himself as a monster that is also a self portrait: an ascetic, gaunt, bespectacled man with the legs of a lizard and the wings of a bird.

St John of Patmos.

   Even when he paints familiar religious scenes Bosch adds details which bring the hackneyed images to life. For example, in this small oak panel of Christ as a baby he imagines Jesus as a baby pushing along a fifteenth century walking frame and carrying a toy windmill in his right hand:




   Bosch’s nightmare bestiary riots through the galleries and into our heads. I had always assumed, quite wrongly as it turns out, that Bosch’s paranoid and erotic visions would have been considered shocking and even insane in his own time. Early critics called him ‘the devil’s painter” and early art historians regarded him merely as "the inventor of monsters and chimeras" or "wondrous and strange fantasies ... often less pleasant than gruesome to look at".

   However, recent scholars have come to view Bosch's vision as less fantastic, and think his art reflects the orthodox religious belief systems of his age. His depictions of sinful humanity and conceptions of Heaven and Hell are now seen as consistent with those of late medieval didactic literature and sermons. According to Dirk Bax, Bosch's paintings often represent visual translations of verbal metaphors and puns drawn from both biblical and folkloric sources. He may have been part of the Modern Devotion movement, which wanted to bring Christianity closer to the people by making Christian teaching accessible to all through texts in the vernacular instead of Latin, and by employing provocative images and jokes  from popular culture to reinforce the message. Their aim was to encourage a direct personal relationship between the individual and God - in 1517, a year after Bosch died, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg.

   Some writers see Bosch as a medieval surrealist, and this is closer to my own view. As it says in the catalogue, Visions of Genius, “Bosch makes art personal, on different levels, and that makes him modern.” His private thoughts emerge in his drawings; only twenty survive in the entire world, and nineteen of them are in this exhibition. They show us the secret Bosch, with his imagination full of monsters. One drawing is called The Wood Has Ears, The Field Has Eyes – a saying inscribed on Goya’s Caprichos. Human ears hang from the trees, human eyes stare out of the ground and in this one, Beehive and Witches, who knows what is going on:
   By the time of his death, Bosch was internationally celebrated as an eccentric painter of religious visions and his works were in the private collections of noble families of the Netherlands, Austria and Spain. Soon after his death. King Philip II of Spain became a serious collector of Bosch's work, and The Garden of Earthly Delights is said to have been hung in his bedroom. Bosch was imitated throughout the sixteenth century and his influence can be seen on Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who also used folklore and proverbs to create a fantasy world. Later, Bosch’s work influenced Goya and the imagery of Surrealism and Jung called him “the discoverer of the unconscious.”





Tuesday, 24 May 2016

A PERSONAL APPRECIATION OF ROBERTA GELLIS By Elizabeth Chadwick

I was very saddened the other day to read about the death of much loved, multi-million selling historical and fantasy novelist Roberta Gellis.  You can read a brief obituary of this remarkable lady  HERE.    Roberta was a long-serving class act of the romantic historical genre and one of the major inspirations and influences on my early career.  She was also kind enough to talk to me via e-mail on occasion and we had several detailed and interesting discussions about our mutual interest in the twelfth century, its characters and politics. 

I first came across Roberta's work in my late teens.  By that stage I had already embarked on my own (unpublished and a hobby at that time) historical writing. Having developed a passionate interest in the Middle Ages, I would haunt the library and devour whatever historical novels set in that period I could find.  Being short of income at the time, the library was a godsend. The books that I wound up borrowing numerous times, I went out and bought when I had money from my Saturday job or was given book tokens for birthdays and Christmas.

Together with Cecelia Holland and Dorothy Dunnett, Roberta Gellis was one of my library discoveries and auto buys.  I picked up her novel Bond of Blood and was immediately captivated by the struggles of a young twelfth century bride and the scarred warlord husband thrust upon her by society during the anarchy period of Stephen and Matilda. 
Tortured heroes and Beauty and the Beast are stereotypical features in fiction of all categories but have a particularly entrenched home in historical romance where they can often be much of a muchness, but Gellis was an  author who soared above the cliche.  Her hero, the badly battle-scarred Cain had a club foot and his mother had died giving birth to him and his twin brother. His father, in grim bitterness had bestowed on him the biblical name of the man who had slain his own brother.  
Leah comes from a family where she is only valued as breeding stock, and has learned to be very nimble with her wits when it comes to peace-keeping and making the best out of her circumstances.  However, she is no Mary-Sue but a resourceful and quietly determined young woman.  She and Cain are married by force of dynastic and political circumstance, and how they come to deal with each other's flaws and fears, and to appreciate the finer points  amid all the political machinations, makes for a terrific story full of emotional triumph and pain as well as edge of the seat adventure and skulduggery.  For me the reader it was a wonderful absorbing, believable read.
I enjoyed the more flighty historical romances I read, (I loved Kathleen Woodiwiss's way over the top epic historicals) but now I could clearly appreciate the difference between what felt like reality and what was more akin to getting out the dressing up box to flounce around in the costumes.  Roberta Gellis made history live for me more than any other author had done up to that point.  As a fledgling writer, she also taught me that it was possible to write romantic tales that were about people who were of their time. They thought like medieval people, they behaved like medieval people.  They drew you into their world and made you believe in them and their dilemmas, all of which were utterly realistic.  This was why I loved reading Gellis novels and this was what I wanted to write.  Something that felt real to me.

I continued to devour Roberta Gellis's medieval novels at speed. Knight's Honour, The Sword and the Swan, the Dragon and the Rose (where she took a positive view of Henry VII). 
 But then, for me, Robert Gellis excelled her own already high standards and produced something rather special when she brought out her 4 book Roselynde Chronicle series - Roselynde, Alinor, Joanna and Gillian.  In my opinion she hit the top of her game with these novels set in the time of King Richard, King John, and the early years of Henry III.  Alinor, a wealthy young heiress who has been raised by her grandparents and given a somewhat enlightened education  for a young woman, (although an education still of its time for the privileged) is given the middle-aged but vigorous and experienced knight Simon LeMagne as her guardian.  What starts out in a certain amount of resentment, gradually blossoms into friendship, then love and marriage, but not without numerous trials and difficulties, including a journey on the third crusade where Alinor joins the household of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and Simon is attached to Richard's household.
The other books in the quartet follow the fortunes of Alinor and her loved ones through the ending reign of John and into the early 1230's.  In the course of the story, Gellis brings to life one of the 'hottest' romantic historical heroes ever in the second book, Alinor, in the form of Ian de Vipont, Simon leMagne's squire and later lord in his own right.  Any woman who has not encountered Ian de Vipont and gone weak at the knees is lying. 
Gellis's skill lay in her ability to create a man who was drop dead gorgeous but at the same time the complete antithesis of the cardboard cutout he could so easily have become in less skilled hands.  Ian de Vipont lives, breathes, walks off the page with all of his believable flaws and insecurities and sweeps the reader into his and Alinor's very real 12th century world.  I read those books to shreds, especially Alinor.  
When they were published in a special hardcover edition along with two more in the series,  I saved up to buy the two new ones, Rhiannon and Sybelle, and made sure I had enough over to by myself a new copy of Alinor.  I have to say that the covers do not particularly do the content justice. The latter always outshines the former.

Gellis was later asked to write more in this series, and completed one more - Desiree in 2000, but she said that she did not want to go further into the series really because that would mean having to write the death of Alinor and it was not something she was willing to do.

In her later career Roberta Gellis dabbled in the popular historical mystery genre and introduced readers to the wonderful  new heroine Magdaelne la Batarde, high class brothel keeper of mid 12th century London.  Just as her earlier medieval novels straddled the line between the romance and the straight historical, so her Magdalene novels - A Mortal Bane, A Personal Devil, Bone of Contention and Chains of Folly, were as much historicals as mysteries, with the same evocative sense of period and personalities.

I have yet to read Gellis's novels set in the world of Greek mythology and there are sundry medieval and other works that are still on my to read pile but it means I still have work m of hers that is new to me even though no more will be written -  a poignant thought.

Roberta's website is still with us online and it gives a warm glimpse into the personality of this remarkable author, who, if she hadn't taken that particular career path, might have made her career as a bio-chemist.  Do go along and take a look.  ROBERTA GELLIS WEBSITE 

I am so sorry that such a lovely, talented lady, who has given millions of readers so much pleasure for so many years has passed away, but what a legacy she has left behind, and I honour her now and extend to her my heartfelt thanks both as a reader and a writer.

Monday, 23 May 2016

FLINTS, CLAY, MUD AND WITCHES ... by Leslie Wilson

When I set out to write a novel about a witch in the seventeenth century (choosing the time that a local witch, from Waltham St Lawrence, was prosecuted and hanged, it wasn't just important to do the historical research, as I've described in a previous blog (Who were the Witches). I had to do what every writer needs to do, to inhabit the world of my book.

Whitchurch St Leonard, my fictional village, lay in the chalk country of the Thames Valley, where pockets of clay alternate with chalk and gravel, and flints lie everywhere in the soil, as local vernacular building attests.

flints and clay
I have all three in my garden, so when I wrote the first chapter, where the witch's daughter and son-in-law bury her covertly in the churchyard, I had an idea of what they were contending with. They were digging into an existing grave, but all the same:

'Hard work,' says Margaret, Alice's daughter, 'even digging into ground that's been turned before. Flints stop the spade, and the clay's heavy.'


I know all about that, when the spade hits a flint, which could be small, or it could be eighteen inches wide, gnarled, knobbly, and weirdly beautiful, but you don't appreciate that when you're sweating and struggling, trying to find where it ends and get a purchase on it. The strain of that work has written itself into the aches and pains of my poor arms, shoulders, and back. Some things don't change, though I've never dug six foot down into a grave.


The Bell, Waltham St Lawrence, rubble-filled walls.

Opposite my house is a 16th century farmhouse, and while I was writing Malefice, the friend who used to live there took me upstairs and opened a door set into the wall, that led to a cupboard. Inside there I could feel the fill in between the timbers: chalky rubble, horsehair, twigs and rags; the texture of the past. In the days before such houses were lime-washed, their white surfaces must have been much rougher than nowadays, and scratchy, as I described when Margaret remembered pressing herself to a house wall, the day Royalists and Parliamentarians fought in the village street.
bluebells scrambling up an ancient road edge, Kent


Where you can easily find remnants of the past is in the woods, on the bridle paths that were once roads, often deeply sunken with the passage of time. Paved with flints, very often, in this country where it is the local stone, and walkable in dry weather in spring and summer, often mired and squelchy in winter. That's what travel used to be like, and you can get a sense of it still, even if you're wearing high-tech walking shoes or boots.

'You will hear the beat of a horse's feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes..'
(Rudyard Kipling, The way through the woods)
Flints paving an old road.


What you don't have is the danger. Recently we walked down Pack and Prime Lane, which leads to Henley from Rotherfield Greys; it was a haunt of footpads, and the packmen who used it had to pack their pistols with powder and prime their flints before they entered. Of course now, it's just beautiful woodland, heaven for dogs. But it was along those laborious, hazardous roads that Margaret tramped, fleeing the village that used to be her home, her thoughts travelling back to her mother's past, and her own.

'Rain and mud, and the road slithers under your feet, you stumble over the huge soft ruts… I wish it wasn't raining.. The people we meet talk about thieves, highway robbers, trying to frighten country bumpkins on the nove who are good for a laugh.'

Once, in the late eighties, I was driving on the A4 a friend at dawn; coming back from a night watch at Greenham Common, and over the Berkshire fields was a thick layer of mist. The picture stayed in my head for a few years, till it was time to use it for Malefice.

'That morning,' says Simon, the village drunk, 'the mist lay in the air like milk in water, can't get drunk on milk, here I am, poor rat-catcher, sober as the devil. Milk in water, and the trees stood out of it, under the trees you fumbled your way, but if you climbed a hill to look for the King's men, you could see the bare black branches fingering out of the whiteness.'

Day after day, when I've walked my dog in the w
inter, I've seen drops of melted frost on the sloe bushes, something Alice yearned for when she was shut up in a stinking seventeenth-century jail. 'She shut her eyes and tried to see blackthorn twigs like gnarly claws in the morning mist, each grasping a small clear bead of water.'


When I was writing Malefice, I was still able to pick up the phone and ask my mother-in-law about farming things; she's gone now. My mother-in-law had really made butter, and I needed to understand about it, because spoiling the butter was something witches did. She did me proud. 'Winter's the best time,' she told me, 'in summer, it just runs through your fingers.' I gave that line to Judith, whose butter the witch Alice supposedly spoiled.

'But what I should have done,' says Judith, 'I should have put the red hot poker in the cream, that day I knew the witch was spoiling the butter..'If you're here,' I should have said, 'have at your eye.' I might have blinded her.' I didn't know that was what you did, and to be sure, it did seem strange when I found out. Surely, the red hot poker wouldn't do the cream much good? But probably you only did that when the butter was already spoiled, and you wanted to get your revenge on the witch.

The Past is another country - and yet there are parts of it that I recognise. What that world of more than three and a half centuries ago shares with ours, still, is a whole lot of imagery, stories, that live in our heads still, even though we've overwritten them with a lot more information. But some of the imagery, I'm convinced, is to do with how the human brain works, and it's hard-wired into us.

witches giving babies to the Devil: Wellcome Trust

Think of the phenomenal success of films like The Exorcist. Possession by evil forces, people with supernatural powers to do harm, people who have an animal alter ego, still rampage through fantasy novels and films, and probably computer games, too, though I don't play them. Have you never looked in a mirror when you've been all alone in the house, and had a frightening fantasy that you might see something terrifying standing behind you?

What was going on in my head when, having done all the research and the reading, I sat down and wrote Malefice, hardly aware of what was going on, just kept typing, and then came out of something like a trance and read what I'd written? It wasn't just stuff from my personal subconscious and image-store that swam up and directed the story, that's for sure.


 To get Malefice on Kindle, go to amazon.co.uk

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Childbirth Rituals in Medieval England by Catherine Hokin

The research demands of my second novel have required me to spend much of my time recently in fourteenth century birthing chambers. I have been buried in tracts on the rituals and beliefs surrounding pregnancy and the many hazards of delivery. These have proved a fascinating revelation, if somewhat gasp-inducing given that I spent my own twentieth century pregnancies resolutely refusing to read a thing or accept the inevitability of how it was all going to end.

For many women of the upper classes, pregnancy rituals began outside the birthing chamber. Very public pilgrimages to pray for conception or a safe delivery were common, particularly to religious sites associated with the Virgin Mary such as Our Lady of Caversham and the shrine built in 1061 at Walsingham by Richeldis de Faverches which was reputed to house a vial of the Virgin's milk. Once her time drew close, however, childbirth became a secluded affair from which men, unless the circumstances were exceptional or the child was royal, were very much excluded.

Woodcut, Der Swangen Frauen, Rosslin, 1513
Medical treatises on childbirth were available in the fourteenth century although it is difficult to gauge their practical importance. The most common, The Sickness of Women, was a translation of a far earlier work by Trotula de Salerno. Trotula was a wealthy woman, born around 1090, who became a professor at Salerno's Schola Medica Salernitana. She held forward-thinking views on the value of pain-relief in childbirth, encouraging the use of opiates and herbs. It is a stretch to imagine many midwives knowing this work: most were apprenticed young, were illiterate and learned their skills on the job. The actual practice of midwifery was unlicensed, and therefore overlooked, until the 1500s when the Church got rather jumpy about these unregulated women with their mix of charms and religion and their ability to perform baptism, one of their sadder duties when the child was not expected to survive. However, the importance placed on tackling pain rather than accepting endurance as a woman's lot (the religious, male view) can be seen throughout their birthing practices.
                                             

15th century illustration, midwife at birth
So what was life like for the expectant upper-class mother confined to her birthing chamber? With the regard often shown for the sensory aspect of medical procedures in this period, her experience was conducted in a place kept dark, quiet, scented with purifying herbs and warm. Tapestries lining the walls depicted only soothing images. The birthing chamber was, in may ways, an external recreation of the womb, its aim to ensure the safest transition for the child and therefore, hopefully, life for both baby and mother. Symbolic barriers to the womb opening were removed, especially if the labour was proving complex: cupboard doors were opened, knots untied, hairpins removed. As with battlefield surgeries, chanting was an important part of the calming process. Prayers would be offered to Saint Margaret who managed to get herself spat out of a dragon's mouth. Other charms have been found which mix Latin with English but all require their words to be repeated three times: a hangover from pre-Christian days perhaps. 

The whole process of labour was embedded in ritual. The mother, who would deliver sat on a birthing stool not in a bed, might wear a gemstone on a girdle such as amber, sard or jasper which had first been rubbed against her thighs to ease the pain. The German Benedictine abbess Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179) wrote down a form of words to be used during the application of the stone to help summon the child, a wonderful example of religion and 'magic' overlapping:

Just as you, stone, by the order of God, shone on the first angel, so you child, come forth a shining person, who dwells with God.

Lacnunga, MS Harley 585 f.185 r.v
Birth girdles were commonly used throughout the social levels. These could be sewn together from strips of parchment bearing charms and prayers and handed down through families or, for royalty, could have real iconic status such as the girdle of the Virgin held at St Peter's Westminster which was used by Henry III's wife Eleanor or the girdle of St Ailred kept at Rievaulx Abbey. In addition, the mother might have amulets or charms placed on her stomach to speed contractions, coriander put on her thighs to attract the baby and poultices of eagle's dung or rose water (possibly to counteract the eagle's dung) rubbed in to alleviate the pain. For a particularly difficult delivery, the midwife could take the thread she had used to measure the women's progress with, turn it into a candle wick and then burn it while offering prayers to their preferred saint.

Once the baby was safely delivered, the rituals continued. The cord had to be burned to get rid of the sins thought to be transmitted with conception. Herbs would be used to make the baby sneeze to expel any last remaining sin. Vinegar would be rubbed on the baby's tongue to ensure speech would follow. These were all purposeful, happy rituals: birth had been survived by both mother and child and, although dangers remained, the midwives' main task had been completed successfully. 

It is impossible to determine whether or not any of the methods employed to relieve pain actually worked - I am definitely on the fence when it comes rubbing gemstones to ward off speeding-up contractions and can just imagine the reactions of most modern women if it was suggested. That, however, is not the point. With child and maternal death rates so high, a medieval midwife's main aim was to get labour completed as quickly as possible thus minimising the chance of complications. The best way to ensure this? A calm, trusting mother who believed herself to be in safe hands. Some things, at least, do not change. 


Saturday, 21 May 2016

Brick Walls and Red Cars by Imogen Robertson

Now, given that to see this post you must have access to the internet, I'm assuming you've all seen this. The latest optical illusion that is tearing through the ether.


I spent a long time thinking, there's a badly made brick wall and feeling sure there was something else I was supposed to be doing other that looking at it, then I cheated and read the hints. Stop reading now if you just want to keep staring. 

There's a cigar shoved in between the bricks and sticking out at a ninety degree angle, and once you've seen it, you can't unsee it. It's obvious. Which is a bit like historical research... 

Yup, I will try and justify that. When I first started thinking about the 18th century I imagined a world where women were almost completely lacking in agency. It did not occur to me that women were powerful economic players, owned and ran businesses or were active in politics. But then I had my cigar moment, and I started seeing evidence everywhere. Women speaking at meetings, women listed as print shop owners, women making and selling their cheese in markets, women painters, engravers, designers and writers. All of a sudden they were obvious. Waiting just below the surface of things to be recognised.

I would imagine that everyone who writes for the History Girls has had a similar moment of revelation and confirmation. For a while it seemed to me there were references to business women in every eighteenth century text I picked up. Every copy of the The Gentleman's Magazine, every text book on farming, folk beliefs or natural philosophy added new names to by list of women entrepreneurs and inventors until I began to believe they were legion. Which brings me on to the red car syndrome, more properly called the frequency illusion. Just to explain the red car syndrome. You know when someone in your family buys a new car, say a red one, and suddenly it seems that the same car is much more common on the roads than you had thought? Now you are driving a red car it seems everyone else on the roads is too. Of course this isn't true. There are exactly the same number as there were before - plus the one you just bought - it's just now a bit of your hindbrain is really looking for them and flagging every example which passes by. You're not aware of the fact you are looking for them and ignoring all the others, but that doesn't change the fact that you are. 

Same with my legion of entrepreneurs. Yes, there were a lot of independent women out there, more than I had thought there would be, but now I was really looking for them. Each name felt like a victory and a confirmation, but I realised I was in danger of letting the big picture go blurry. I was ignoring the fact that for every woman I came across there were a hundred men. I had to contain my excitement and temper it, remembering all the disadvantages, legal and societal, that women were suffering under at the time. 

It's worth remembering when you get excited about some new insight or line of enquiry, you may just spotting all the red cars and not keeping an eye on the flow of traffic. 

But don't let that stop you getting excited in the first place. The wall / cigar thing is still really cool.


Friday, 20 May 2016

Pets in the Middle Ages - by Ann Swinfen

If you had lived in the Middle Ages and wanted an animal companion, what would you have chosen? A good deal depended on your gender and occupation. For ladies of the gentry and nobility, one breed above all was the favourite, this one:

The Maltese is alleged to go back, as a breed, for a thousand years. Certainly the existence of small, white, long-haired dogs of the Maltese type, as the pampered pets of wealthy women, is attested in the iconography, not only paintings but even tapestries.

Clearly the ownership of such a dog was a status symbol, just as certain breeds today can become fashionable for a time, then be replaced by the latest fad, often these days by some new cross-breed (never to be called mongrels!).

These little white dogs were pampered pets, sleeping on embroidered cushions or the owner’s bed, and frequently shown wearing velvet collars adorned with bells.

Moralists raved against the keeping of such dogs, usually fed on expensive white bread and milk, food which should have been given to the poor. The dogs lived mostly indoors, only venturing outside on a lead or carried by a loving mistress, though they must surely have attended to the needs of nature, which might often have involved a long trek from the lady’s private chambers to the garden. Perhaps a servant took care of such problems. The dog would accompany its owner when travelling, either on horseback or by carriage:

When the dog died, it would be mourned as deeply as any modern pet, and many were given marble monuments. Poets and friends of the bereaved owner would write elegies or appropriate epitaphs for the tomb. For the owner it meant the loss of a beloved daily companion.

But was it only women who owned such dogs? For their male counterparts, who spent much of their life outdoors, there were also animal companions, but they tended to be different. Favourite dogs were hunting dogs, who might be trackers, retrievers, or killers. Their descendants are still with us today in the various retrieving breeds, including spaniels, tracking dogs like fox hounds, or the hunting breeds like wolf hounds and boar hounds. These male-owned dogs did not share their owners’ homes, but lived in kennels, and their collars were practical and serviceable, sometimes adorned with spikes to protect their throats in a fight.

Men of the nobility also owned favourite horses, who clearly could not be pets, but lived in stables, and various types of birds of prey, who were kept in mews, although they are sometimes pictured indoors, where a favourite hawk might be seen perched on a special stand.

Another group of men did keep indoor pet dogs: clergy and scholars (many of the latter also being in holy orders). Like the wealthy ladies, they tended to favour the small white dogs, quiet companions often shown curled up at the owner’s feet while he studies or writes. Sometimes there might also be another, bigger dog, more of a watch dog. Petrarch favoured large dogs and even wrote about them in surviving letters.


Dogs, of course, were not the only pets. Cats were not merely companions but served a useful purpose too, since they kept down mice and rats in the home, a laudable occupation as commemorated in the ninth century Irish poem Pangur Ban by an anonymous scholar. The moralists who condemned pet dogs seem to have been more tolerant of cats, who were probably less spoiled and less expensive to keep. They also seem to have been much more difficult for contemporary artists to depict!

The typical native British cat was grey with black stripes, probably still the commonest form of moggy to this day. Our own rescue kitten is of this type. However, from the fourteenth century a type of Syrian cat began to be imported into Britain. They were a tawny brown with black stripes, a tabby colouring, and these exotic animals were much coveted, selling for high prices. Merchants would buy them and import them, often via Greece, Cyprus, and Italy, and if they survived the journey they would become the latest fashion accessory for the wealthy.

Another small mammal which often occurred as a lady’s pet – and unfamiliar today – was the squirrel. These are generally depicted with a collar and lead, presumably because they were apt to run away. They were, of course, red squirrels, the invasive American greys not yet having reached Europe. One can be seen in the arms of the woman at the front of the carriage below, while the woman at the back is being handed a small white dog. The ladies were off on their travels, taking their pets with them.

The only other type of animal which was regularly kept as an indoor pet was the monkey. Some ladies loved the creatures, despite their destructive habits, dressing them in little coats and treating them like substitute children. However, they were most popular amongst the higher clergy, who sometimes kept more than one and lavished rich food and affection on them, a practice which was roundly condemned as improper and immoral.

These abbots and bishops, like their secular counterparts, also kept horses, hunting dogs, and hawks. Chaucer has much to say (and mock) on the subject, as indeed he mocks the Prioress with her dogs.

Birds were the last of the main types of pet. These were often singing birds, our common garden songsters. Sparrows were popular, and had been ever since Catullus wrote two poems lamenting the death of his mistress Lesbia’s pet bird back in Roman times. These birds frequently had elaborate cages, some even of gold and studded with jewels. There was no limit to the ostentatious bling for such pets.

What can surprise us is the number of parrots which were kept. A parrot sounds like a very exotic pet for the Middle Ages, yet they seem to have been fairly common. These were Indian parrots, the green rose-ringed parakeet, and they appear in the margins of manuscripts, form the subject of large illustrations, and occur in portraits of their owners. Moreover, being more talkative than cats and dogs, they spawned a whole literature of their own. They had a tendency to narrate satirical poems and stories, all the way from Scotland to Spain.

Pets in the wrong place could raise hackles. Nuns had a habit of taking their little dogs (and rabbits) into divine service with them. Repeated injunctions failed to eliminate the practice altogether, though keeping pets in nunneries was tolerated as long as they were not taken into church. So many animals were kept in monasteries that it aroused the wrath of the authorities, but once again it had little effect.

The other institutions which tried to clamp down on the keeping of pets were the universities. Again and again Oxford and Cambridge issued regulations banning the keeping of pets by students. These boys came up to university at a very young age, some as young as twelve, and one can have some sympathy for a homesick boy wanting the companionship of a favourite dog. However, as many students came from the landed gentry, they also liked to bring their horses, hawks, and hunting dogs. The university bans grew ever more desperate, excluding dogs, birds, monkeys, deer, ferrets, badgers, foxes, wolves, and bears. Bears??

As far as I know, these regulations are still in existence and more successfully enforced, though when I was at Oxford there was a student who kept a pet python. He used to come to parties with it draped round his neck . . .

Most of the literature and the portraits depicting animals relate to the upper classes, but we should not assume that it was only the wealthy who kept household pets. Certainly the less wealthy could not afford collars and cages of gold, or costly embroidered cushions for their pets to sleep on, but many families would have owned a cat, one of those simple grey and black striped moggies, to keep the rats out of the vital food stores. Most accusations of witchcraft against poor old women involved claims that her pet cat was a satanic familiar. And a family dog does not have to be a pampered overfed Maltese, carried everywhere like a toy. There were ordinary household dogs, even in humble homes, like this one:

So, if you had lived in the Middle Ages, which kind of pet would you have chosen?

Ann Swinfen


Thursday, 19 May 2016

Fact and Fiction by Katherine Webb

Something interesting I'm often asked in interviews is how I balance fact and fiction in my novels. And it's a very important balancing act! I often tell the following anecdote: I used to belong to a writer's group in Berkshire, which ran a twice yearly short story competition, just within the group, and on a theme. One spring, the theme was the town where we were based, Newbury. The stories were judged and scored anonymously, and the one I rated the highest, and which went on to win, gave an overview of the history of Newbury itself via the rise and fall, the life and times of one Newbury family across the generations. It was well written and I was pleased to have learned something of the town's fascinating history. Except, I hadn't. When I approached the author of the story to congratulate him, he told me airily that he'd made it all up.

Newbury clock tower in the middle of the last century, from the Francis Frith Collection


I was outraged! I thought I'd learnt something. I thought he'd done research. I knew his characters were fictional, but I'd supposed their actions to be based in historical fact. At that time, I had just started to write my first novel with a historical setting, and the incident taught me a valuable lesson. I wanted readers to come away from one of my books entertained and moved, but also able to feel that they'd learned something. And if they'd learned something about a piece of history that was completely new to them, then so much the better. I think there has to be a bond of trust between historical fiction author and reader - trust that, however extraordinary the story, the author has done enough research to bring their story alive, and to portray society, place, manners and politics of that era as faithfully as possible.

Because if you can just 'make it all up', what's the point? You might as well write a fantasy novel (though this might be the trained historian in me speaking!). And it's often easy to spot when an author hasn't done enough research into their era, and can't furnish the story with real detail. But here's a big but: what if the demands of your story go beyond the established facts? In The English Girl, which is set during the Jebel War of 1958-59 in Oman, I needed a certain set of characters to meet. But, realistically, I knew from my research that they probably never would have. So, I tweaked history. I had officers of the SAS, newly deployed in the battle, find the time to have dinner at the British Residence in Muscat, so that my characters could get involved with each other. In The Night Falling, I wrote one of my fictional characters into a real life massacre of starving Italian farm workers by fascists landowners - though I was careful to give the names of those who really did die at the back of the book. In both cases, I stuck to the true course of events as closely as I could in all other respects.

Now framed and on my wall, the photo of a Puglian peasant wedding from 1920, found in a Devizes junk shop, that initially inspired The Night Falling.


I'm similarly nervous about using real-life characters in my novels. With a very few exceptions - the Sultan of Oman, for example - everybody with a speaking part in one of my novels is fictional. I don't even like the term 'based upon', because it still implies some filching of a famous person's actual life, career or personality - putting words into their mouths and deeds into their lives that they never in fact spoke or did, though there are a great many authors who are quite happy to do this, and make it work very well. I tend to go with the term 'inspired by'. To give a couple of examples, my character Maude Vickery, intrepid Victorian female explorer in The English Girl, was inspired by Gertrude Bell (as I talked about in an earlier blog). In A Half Forgotten Song, the character of Charles Aubrey was inspired by the charismatic, Welsh, post-impressionist artist, Augustus John.

Augustus John, photographed in 1914. Brooding charisma present and correct.

In both cases, I took themes from these characters' lives - what it was that made them extraordinary - and used that as the starting point for a character of my own - one who embodied what had fired my imagination about the original, but one in whom I could invest the personality, motivations, and titillations I needed for my story. I once heard Phillip Pulman say that writers are like magpies, and I think this is particularly true for historical writers. We can roam all of history, picking out the bright, exciting parts that catch our eye, and gathering them together. With Augustus John, for example, it was his beautiful drawings of women that caught my eye - I'd known them for years, having worked in a printing factory in my summer holidays from college, where we printed a book of his work. Like a magpie, I swooped in on the idea of a man of huge talent and irresistible magnetism, who loved women and saw no reason to limit himself to his wife, mistress or mistress's sister... But I had no wish to write a biography of the man. I wanted to take a man like him, and put him into extraordinary events of my own creation.

Augustus John's 1924 portrait of Alice Appleton Hay

But it's a tricky business. Obviously, no serious author of historical fiction would include glaring anachronisms, or deliberately set out to rewrite history to better suit their plot. But at some point, unless you are writing a serious, factual tome, this rewriting of history is bound to take place. So perhaps that is the bond of trust between reader and writer - that the author will only tweak in small ways - and in plausible ways - in a wider setting of historical accuracy; and that the reader will forgive them for it, and enjoy the story as much as the history!