Saturday, 23 March 2019

King’s Residence or Riot Control? - by Judith Allnatt

In the Northamptonshire village of Weedon, where I live, there stands an imposing garrison that shipped out arms to Wellington’s forces in the Napoleonic wars. As well as the massive storehouses still in existence for canon, muskets and gunpowder, there were once barracks, hospital, chapel, and three spacious white brick buildings known as the ‘Pavilion’, which are said to have been built as a retreat for George III, should Old Boney invade.

Other Ordnance Establishments nearer the coast, such as the Tower of London or Faversham Powder Mills, risked being destroyed or captured, whereas Weedon is pretty much in the centre of England and is about as far away from the sea as one could possibly get. Therefore, it seems plausible that the decision to build here could have been influenced by a need to spirit the king away to the safer Midlands.

He would have been well defended. Five hundred soldiers manned the place (suddenly the village had thirty pubs!) and vast quantities of firearms and ammunition were constantly being shipped in and out by canal (barges being smoother carriers of barrels of gunpowder than carts).

On the other side of the case, it has been mooted that the King’s retreat theory is just a Royal Rumour, suggested by the palatial appearance of the white buildings on the hill, which were only ever intended for the Governor and his Principal Officers.

Adherents to this argument point out that a site where every second ‘blast house’ was filled with earth in case an explosion should occur and bring them all down like dominoes seems an unlikely haven. In government plans outlined by the prime minister on Christmas Day 1803, it was stated that, in the event of an invasion, the king would lead his army and move to Chelmsford if the enemy landed in Essex, or to Dartford, if they arrived in Kent.

When researching for my novel, The Silk Factory, I became fascinated by the question of why the massive garrison had been built here, in Weedon. If it was not for the purpose of putting distance between the King and Bonaparte’s invading armies, why choose the Midlands? It didn’t seem practical that Arms stored here would have to travel long distances to port in order to reach their destinations abroad. I started to look at what was going on in the area at the time and to form a new and somewhat more sinister theory of my own.

At that time, there was terrible poverty and government fears of revolution were sharpened by events in France. Textile workers in the Midlands were dreadfully exploited: children started work as young as six, and men and women laboured long hours for starvation wages. On top of that, employers were bringing in new machines that were putting men out of work, some of which produced inferior quality goods. (The word ‘shoddy’ originally meant the thin, low-grade silk stockings that wide frame machines produced). In desperation, textile workers broke into premises and smashed the looms.

The Frame Breaking Act of 1812 made it a hanging offence to damage an employer’s looms, yet poverty was so extreme that the crime was almost commonplace. Lord Byron, prompted by pity for the weavers, spoke in parliament against the bill, saying: ‘Can you commit a whole country to their own prisons? Will you erect a gibbet in every field and hang up men like scarecrows?’

In the centre of the Midlands, an area where textile workers were starving and turning to violence and rebellion, the fact that 500 men and a reserve stock of 1,000 small arms were always kept at the garrison at Weedon is unlikely to be coincidental. Its force was well placed to crush any riot or insurrection and, sure enough, it was reported in 1816 that the cavalry rode out from Weedon to quell an ‘uprising of ribbon weavers in Coventry.’

The walled garrison on its hill overlooking the village and silk factory must have seemed horribly intimidating to the inhabitants and impoverished weavers below. Perhaps the rumour that the garrison was to act as a royal retreat was started even at this early point, as propaganda to make the building of the massive military complex seem more palatable. Writing on location, literally in the shadow of the huge buildings, helped me to channel the sense of might and authority of the Establishment over the populace.

Find out more at  The Depot Visitors Centre  A leaflet giving a guided 'Silk Factory Walk' is also available on site.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Stories From the City of the Dead by Catherine Hokin

Going out-out - the big night out that demands special clothes and a day off to recover - is one of those phrases I would never willingly use (along with party as a verb). I am, however, now tempted to declare that I've just been on a holiday-holiday. I've spent the last year working on a WWII story set partly in Buenos Aires (it's out on submission, send kindness) not knowing that, while I was in the thick of researching it, my OH was planning a surprise trip. Yes, he's a keeper. I've just returned and would go back in a heartbeat. Buenos Aires is an astonishing city bursting with contradictions. It is part of a once-colonised country with a love of all things European; its public history is both extravagantly told and tightly controlled, masking a troubled, hidden past; it harbours real poverty against architecture that will make your jaw drop. It could spawn a thousand blogs (if that book makes it, it will) but I'm going to focus here on the famous Recoleta Cemetery where we went for a couple of hours and lost a day.

The cemetery covers over 13 acres and, although the surrounding land was once orchards and fields, it is now situated in the middle of one of the city's priciest neighbourhoods. The cemetery takes its name from the monks of the Order of the Recoletos and is built around their convent and a church (which can both be visited) dating from the 1730s. The cemetery itself opened in November 1822, after the monks had been expelled, and was opened to all religions after 1863. Inside its high walls there are over 6,400 statues, coffins and crypts, and some 30,000 inhabitants. It is laid out in blocks, with narrow sidewalks branching out from wide walkways. The mausoleums are built from marble in a variety of styles including art deco, art nouveau, baroque and neo-gothic, each style grouped together and adding to the sense that you are wandering through a city's neighbourhoods - some of which are more up-and-coming than others. Many of the buildings have glass fronts and coffins above ground as well as below and the state they are in varies considerably. A grave in Recoleta is bought for eternity: even if the annual fee for maintenance isn't paid, it won't be cleared. Several of the older tombs have been shored up but are crumbling and the coffins that are visible lie under thick layers of dust. Some, however, are still used and gleam with polished glass and starched cloths. 

The cemetery is, of course, full of stories which run the full gamut from the personal to the political. There are generals on every street, surrounded by plaques commemorating their long-forgotten victories. It has a resident ghost - a grave-digger who worked for 30 years saving money for his own plot and statue and killed himself once the architect finished the work, walks round at dawn jangling his keys and unable to leave. There is also a great statue of a couple who fought so much in life their effigies are now placed back-to-back.

Rufina Cambacere
However, as befits a place where you feel quite certain Edgar Allen Poe would have thrived, the most tragic (and popular) stories centre round beautiful young women. The story of Rufina Cambacere is actually the stuff of nightmares. Having been taken ill at her 19th birthday party, either with a heart problem/an epileptic fit/because she found out her mother was having an affair with her boyfriend (the stories all have stories) Rufina was buried in a beautiful marble tomb. Unfortunately the poor girl wasn't dead. Screams were heard on the night of the burial and, when the groundsmen plucked up the courage to investigate the next morning, the coffin had moved and poor, now dead, Ruffina was all covered in scratches where she had clawed at her face and throat. This incident is credited with leading to an Argentinean law stating that a body cannot be buried any earlier than twelve hours after the death certificate has been signed. Why it prompted her parents to add a statue of the poor girl emerging alive out of the tomb is anyone's guess. 

Another cemetery favourite is the tomb of Liliana Crociati. Although the bronze statue looks far older, this mausoleum in fact dates from the early 1970s. 

 Liliana Crociati de Szaszak
The young Liliana met her end on her honeymoon aged 26 when an avalanche swept over her hotel in Innsbruck, Austria and she died of suffocation. Rumour has it that she and her dog Sabú were so attached to each other that he died in Buenos Aires at the same time. The tomb, none of which is visible at ground level, is apparently a reconstruction of Liliana's childhood bedroom. That and the statue of her in her wedding dress patting Sabú was paid for by her grief-stricken parents. Interestingly there is no mention anywhere of the widowed groom. As you might be able to tell from the photograph (apologies for the quality, it was a very bright day), the green patina has been completely worn off Sabú's nose because visitors nowadays rub it for luck. 

In Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery also goes by the names the City of the Dead, the City of Cats and the City of Angels. Although it was the only place in the city where we actually saw a cat, Angels are really the place's emblem. They are everywhere although you need to crane up to see most of them. Some represent the Angel of Death and carry an hourglass, many carry trumpets or baskets of flowers; without exception they are beautiful and every face looks different. Which accounts for why we lost a day there.

Recoleta angel
There is one grave I haven't mentioned although many visitors flock to it clutching their flowers to poke through the gates and that is the one belonging to Eva Duarte Peron. Although Eva died from cancer in 1952, her body only arrived in the cemetery in the 1970s and the story of what happened to her body in the intervening years is as shrouded in myth as her life. A great mausoleum was planned following her death but the overthrow of her husband, President Juan Peron, in 1955 led to all references to Peronism in Argentina being erased. Eva's embalmed body disappeared - its alleged hiding places including a storage container labeled radio parts at a Buenos Aires military intelligence office and a graveyard in Milan - until Peron was restored in 1971 and brought the body back to Madrid. According to the (many and lurid) stories, he then stored the coffin in the dining room of the house he shared with his third wife, frequently opening it to look at Eva's preserved face. After Peron's death in 1973, it was left to his wife Isabel (who was now President) to take over control of the body. She had it interred in the presidential place, most likely to shore up support for her own power grab as Eva's name was now in the ascendant again. When Isabel herself was overthrown in 1976, Eva's body was turned over to the Duartes who were, by then, keen to acknowledge their illegitimate family member. Eva's mother was the mistress not the wife and she was turned away from all claims on the family estate when the wealthy Juan Duarte died. Its interesting to speculate what might have happened to Eva if the Duartes had been a little more welcoming in the 1920s - presumably not the harsh choices grinding poverty left her with. Eva is now interred in their crypt at Recoleta where her body is buried 5m below ground under two trapdoors and three plates of steel to prevent any further threat to it - Eva continues to be a controversial figure in Argentina, both despised for her brand of politics and worshipped to the point of a cult. Being in the former group, we gave that particular tomb a swerve and went back to the maze of mausoleums and angels we could more comfortably admire.

My advice if you visit - don't take a tour, do what we did and get lost. And then go to the barking mad cafe over the road and sit at a table with a frighteningly realistic Borges. They don't let go of their dead in Buenos Aires.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

HNSA Conference 2019 - making a noise about historical fiction

Back in 2017, Gillian Polack interviewed me about my role as program director of the 2017 Historical Novel Society Australasia conference in Melbourne. Hard to believe that 2 years has passed. I'm excited to say we've now launched the program for our 3rd biennial conference in Sydney on 25-27 October, 2019  in partnership with Western Sydney University. Writing historical fiction is my passion, and making a noise about the genre through programming  is a very rewarding labour of love.

As Chair and program director of HNSA, here’s an overview of what's on offer at the conference instead of my regular monthly history post. Forgive me, I've been a little preoccupied of late:) And if you're keen to learn more about Australian historical fiction in general, you can read my state of play for the Historical Novel Review: Indigenous Origins, Colonialism and Diaspora.

What’s on offer at HNSA 2019
The HNSA committee  never thought we’d get this far - our 3rd biennial conference. We hope fans of the genre, both readers and writers alike, will gather as a community again –this time at historic Parramatta (the second oldest town in Australasia). There is a lot to celebrate at HNSA 2019!

Guest of Honour, Jackie French
HNSA 2019 Guest of Honour and Keynote Speaker
Jackie French is our Guest of Honour. Historian, ecologist, literacy advocate, and author of over 140 books for all age groups, she holds more than 60 awards in Australia and overseas. Our keynote speaker, New Zealand author and academic, Dr Paula Morris, will address our theme of History Repeats to explore whether historical fiction can engage readers who might not see the parallels between past and present. Our HNSA patron, Kate Forsyth will warmly open the conference.  Our theme will be explored further in a panel that ponders subtexts in historical novels with Winton Higgins, Michelle Aung Thin and Lucy Treloar (Learning from History). We also look forward to Marie Munkara talking about recovering the 'erased' history of First Nations people (Dispossession & Betrayal) due to shameful government policies and law that saw Indigenous children stolen from their parents. 

A treat for readers and writers
Our general stream is aimed at both readers and writers. We have over 60 esteemed authors discussing their books, inspiration, favourite history, personal journeys and thorny topics. On Saturday 26 October enjoy the insights of adaptable writers, Sophie Masson and Kelly Gardiner (The Versatile Writer); hear why Jane Caro and Ali Alizadeh are drawn to write about famous characters like Elizabeth I and Joan D'Arc (We Need to Talk about Bette and Joan); and explore the innocence, guilt and psychopathy of criminal protagonists with Janet Lee, Pip Smith and Catherine Jinks (The Criminal Mind).

On Sunday 27, October Nicole Alexander and Ella Carey explain the attraction of drawing on family legends (Personal Histories); and Kate Forsyth and Nastasha Lester travel back into France’s history (A French Affair). Alison Goodman, Anne Gracie and Anna Campbell will inspire us with Regency madness (George & Georgette) while Jock Serong, Rachel Leary and Stephanie Parkyn take us into the mind of characters who battle both internal fears and their environment (Survival of the Fittest). Meg Keneally and Gay Hendriksen will discuss the benefits of historical novelists and historians actively collaborating together (Walking Side by Side.) 

Kate Forsyth & Paula Morris
Honing your craft
Running parallel with our general stream is our second dealing with the craft and business of writing. On Saturday 26 October we kick off by delving into how to keep the sizzle factor in your historical romance series (Stoking the Flame) with Lizzi Tremayne, Renee Dahlia and Elizabeth Ellen Carter; and discover the hard work required to market your novel after your ‘book baby’ is born with author Lucinda Brant, publicist Debbie McInnes, and Berkelouws Books' Melanie Prosser (Connecting with Readers). Paula Morris, Isobel Blackthorn and Greg Johnston explain the challenges of imagining a dead person’s life (Respectful Research); while Jesse Blackadder, Rachel le Rossignol and Majella Cullinane discuss the value of writing degrees (It’s Academic).

On Sunday 27 October, Robert Gott returns with Katherine Kovacic and Tessa Lunney to divulge how to weave a web of truth and lies in detective fiction (History & Mystery); Gillian Polack, Ilke Tampke and Pamela Hart ponder the individual challenges of researching different eras (The Things We Don’t Know); Belinda Castles, Robyn Cadwallader and Julian Leatherdale explore the nuances of point of view (I am a Camera); and  Tea Cooper, Emily Madden and Carla Caruso describe the mystery element in parallel narratives (Intertwining Lives Revealed). The skills required to create a strong and plausible female protagonist is revealed by Lauren Chater, Kirsty Murray and Elizabeth Jane Corbett (The Feminine Mystique); while Jesse Blackadder and Mira Robertson discuss the secret to scriptwriting (The Silver Screen). 

Finally, to round off the conference we decided to leave the bedroom door closed and summon some black magic. I'm looking forward to joining  Kate Forsyth and Kim Wilkins to conjure weird and wonderful superstitions and concoctions to keep readers spellbound in Love Potions and Witchcraft.

A fresh approach – Friday Craft & Publishing Program
At HNSA 2017, we held short workshops concurrently with the main program. Attendees were frustrated they were missing out on panels on the main program to attend these - spoiled for choice! As a result, the committee has decided to take a fresh approach in 2019. Instead of holding a round table at a Friday Opening Reception, we're conducting a Craft & Publishing program on Friday 25 October with practical workshops for writers, masterclasses, and manuscript assessments.

There’ll be a suite of 9 two hour workshops by top rate tutors offering insights and practical tips on various aspects of the writing craft, research, and sub-genres. Our wonderful team includes Kate Forsyth (Spice & Swashbuckle – Writing Romantic Historical Fiction), Sophie Masson (Writing Historical Fiction for Children and Young Adults), Alison Goodman (Writing Historical Fantasy), Robert Gott (Writing Crime Fiction), Pamela Hart (Making Research Work for You), Kelly Gardiner (Scrivener for Beginners), Rachel Franks (Trove for the Historical Novelist ), Paula Morris (Writing Family History) and Evan Shapiro (Self-Publishing Essentials).

Our popular 1:1 manuscripts assessments will also happen on the Friday – this year with Scholastic publisher Clare Hallifax, and agent Irina Dunn. And Gillian Polack is offering 1:1 masterclasses on writing and research instead of teaching small groups. 

Munkara, Masson, Serong, Alexander, Gott & Jinks
And the winner is….
Our signature First Pages Pitch Contest will be held on Saturday 26 October. This year we’re offering $200 in prize money.  So polish up your pitch and the first few paragraphs of your work-in-progress. Rachel Nightingale returns as our narrator with Clare Hallifax (Scholastic Australia), agent Margaret Connolly, and Michelle Lovi (Odyssey Press), acting as our judges. Every writer in the audience can benefit from hearing the critiques of experts on which words first attract a publisher’s attention. It’s entertaining for everyone else too. 

The ARA HNSA Short Story Contest also returns thanks to our generous sponsor, ARA, which  is donating $500 prize money. Our HNSA Conference patron, Sophie Masson, is our judge. 

An evening by the river
Our conference dinner on 26 October will be held at Sahra by the River, a restaurant nestled on the banks of the Parramatta River. Historical Romance author, Anna Campbell, will regale us with stories after Sophie Masson announces the winner of the ARA HNSA Short Story Contest.

En garde!
Fancy some sword play? Or curious to know how to wear armour or hold a longbow? Richard Halcomb from the Medieval Archery Society is joining us this year to provide hands-on advice on Medieval Arms and Armouring while Richard Cullinan from Stoccata School of Defence will give an Introduction to Historical Fencing. So indulge your inner Robin Hood or Arya Stark at our Historical Reenactments and Weapons demonstrations.

Challenging the genre
In our extended Academic stream on Sunday 27 October, we’ll bring together postgraduates, academics, and other interested scholars to consider the complexities of the genre of historical fiction and its readership. This will also be open to general admission for conference delegates. A Call for Papers is currently been made. 

Say hello
Thanks for letting me share my news. I know many of you live in the northern hemisphere, but I hope you might travel Downunder later this year. If you do, please say hello!

For more information about HNSA 2019, you can visit our 2019 Conference page and go from there. And if you're keen, you can buy tickets here.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome, and co-founder of HNS Australasia. Learn more at her website.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Inspirational homes (1) by Carolyn Hughes

“Inspirational homes” might put you in mind of a strapline blazoned across the front of a glossy interior décor magazine, but that’s not the sort of inspiration I’m going to talk about. In this post, and my next two, I thought I’d reveal a little about the real-life buildings that “inspire” me as I write about the homes in which my characters spend their lives.

In my novels, set in 14th century southern England, my characters are peasants, artisans of various sorts, and the gentry. The peasants might be poor or wealthy, and free or unfree, so some are on the lowest rung of village society, whereas others, even if they owe service to their lord, are well off enough to be the equivalent of a middle class.

Depending on their station in life, these people would have lived in:
  • One-roomed cottages, barely better than hovels, in which every part of life for a family was spent in the same space;
  • Bigger two- or three-roomed cottages, perhaps with a platform for sleeping and possibly small storage spaces;
  • Houses with two storeys, a hall downstairs, and a solar upstairs for sleeping accessed by a narrow staircase;
  • Large manor houses with several rooms, but still centred on a main great hall, and with a solar perhaps divided into chambers. Some manor houses might be fortified. 

Above and beyond the manor houses there were of course great castles, but I have none of those kind of aristocratic folk in my novels, so I need no castles to inspire me!

To get some idea of what 14th century homes might look – and indeed feel – like, I am very fortunate to have quite close by, in West Sussex, the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, a living museum, whose mission is to rescue and conserve historic buildings from across the south of England. Buildings are saved from being demolished, or from simply falling down, by being carefully dismantled and rebuilt on the museum’s site. The museum has more than fifty buildings, spanning nine centuries. Most are open for you to go inside, so that you can get a real feel for what it was like to live and work in them. The museum is a wonderful resource.

As also is English Heritage, which manages over 400 historic monuments, buildings and other places of historical interest, including both some modest homes and wonderful castles.

The buildings I am going to discuss in these posts can be visited either at the Weald and Downland Museum or at an English Heritage site.

Today I am going to discuss the homes at the bottom end of the scale, peasants’ cottages. Because they were the homes of the poor, and were often built of materials that were given to decay – timber, wattle and daub, thatch – few such buildings survive to the present day. Of course some houses with origins in the Middle Ages are still standing, but they were likely to have been constructed of stone, and presumably will have been maintained and refurbished over the centuries to keep them structurally sound.

Two of the five mediaeval houses re-erected at the Weald and Downland Museum are the 13th century cottage from Hangleton in Sussex and a house from Boarhunt in Hampshire that dates from the 14th century. These are both small peasant houses.

Some peasant houses might have been designed to accommodate animals in one end of the building, but that is not the case with either of these. It must be presumed that animals would have been kept in a separate byre or barn.

The two-room cottage from Hangleton is a flint cottage reconstructed using archaeological evidence from excavation of the mediaeval village. The cottage was probably built in the 13th century and abandoned in the 14th. Hangleton itself, which is about 4 miles (6.5 km) north-west of Brighton, seems to have been already in decline by the middle of the 14th century as a result of the climatic and economic upheavals of the early part of the century. The arrival of what we call the Black Death in 1348-1350 might have been the last straw.

Oast House Archive/Mediaeval Cottage at Weald & Downland Museum,
Singleton, West Sussex/
CC BY-SA 2.0

Although this is an entirely flint-built cottage, other cottages from the area were built with a framework of wooden posts, and the spaces between filled with wattle and daub, though later this was replaced with flint. The walls of this cottage are about three or four feet (one to one and a half metres) high. Above the eaves is the timber framework of the roof, which is covered in thick straw thatch, although apparently the roof could have been wooden shingles or turf, some other type of thatch, or possibly even clay tiles.

The cottage has two rooms. The main room is where the family – on average five people – would have lived their entire lives: cooking their food, eating it, sleeping and carrying out all the essential tasks of everyday life. It must have been very cramped! I don’t have the exact dimensions, but I don’t think it can be much more than 15 feet (3 metres) square.

The second room has an oven, which is not usual for an ordinary cottage at a time when villagers were expected to have their bread baked in the lord’s oven, but perhaps the occupier of this house was a baker...

Most of the homes at this time (even relatively wealthy ones) would have had a hearth in the middle of the floor of the main (or only) room, and this is true of the main room here. A circular stone hearth has been laid on the floor, not quite in the middle but somewhat to one side. The room is open to the rafters, and the smoke from the fire would have risen and found its way out through the thatch. Most people assume that there would have been a hole of some sort in the roof’s ridge through which the smoke escaped, but I have read that the gaps in the thatch would have provided sufficient egress. It is also said that the smoke was good for keeping the thatch insect free, though I daresay creepy-crawlies were pretty abundant in mediaeval cottages.

The museum has dressed the room with a couple of small tables, a bench and a few stools, a fairly strong-looking chest, perhaps for storing linen, clothes and any valuables, and an array of baskets, tubs and cooking and eating utensils. Tools and other items are shown hanging from the rafters, or stored on the top of the wall, but there is clearly little space for much in the way of furniture or possessions. No bed is shown here, so we must assume that the family would lay down their pallets when they were ready for bed, at a suitable distance from the open hearth.

There is just one small window and, of course, it is not glazed. It has vertical struts offering a measure of security, and a sort of blind – oiled cloth perhaps – has been installed to keep out the weather. I suppose that a shutter might have been added for greater protection, but one isn’t shown here. It must have been very dark indoors, even with the blind open, and exceedingly gloomy with it closed. Given that these poor folk’s only source of light after sundown was the fire and smelly tallow candles or feeble rushlights, one presumes that, as soon as evening came there was no point trying do anything other than rolling out their straw pallets and seeking sleep!

I have spent a day (well, more like a few hours) in this little cottage, dressed in medieval clothes, learning how to spin, crouching round that central hearth, making soup (“sowpys dorry”) and cheese pottage. I discovered how very hot and smoky it was inside, and thought that maybe I wouldn’t have much enjoyed being a 14th century peasant...

The author, enjoying being "mediaeval" for the day

The “hall house” from Boarhunt, 7 miles (11 km) north of Portsmouth, in Hampshire, dates from the late 14th century (1355–1390). It is a bit larger than the Hangleton cottage, having three bays, and is built with a cruck frame over the middle of the central hall. In the museum’s view, this building was particularly well constructed for its size.

Keith Edkins / Boarhunt Hall / CC BY-SA 2.0

The central bay is the main living room – the “hall” – again with the hearth in the middle of the floor. The hearth is shown as a rectangle, taking up a surprisingly large portion of the space available. The roof timbers in this central hall show the blackening effects of smoke from the open fire. Although this is a somewhat larger house than Hangleton, the main living area is still quite small, say 20 feet (just over 6 metres) square. The furniture used to dress the hall is much the same as for Hangleton, and again there is no sign of a bed.

It is thought that the bay to the right of the main entrance was probably a service or storage room, while the third room accessed by a door to the left of the hall is thought to be a “solar”, a private room. This inner room has no windows, so perhaps it was simply used for sleeping. It was also completely sealed off from the smoke-filled hall, whereas the service room was only separated from the hall by a screen below cross-beam level.

I have spent time in both these buildings so, when I am writing about peasant cottages in my novels, I can recall what it felt like to be inside them and I try to replicate that feeling in my descriptions of domestic life. Some of my peasant characters do live in one- or two-room cottages, while others' houses might be a little larger. I have seen it conjectured that some people might have constructed sleeping platforms under the rafters and, liking that idea, I have given one or two of my families that arrangement. It would seem to me to be a safer place to sleep than clustered around the hearth, though it would presumably be quite unpleasantly smoky up there!

I think it would be true to say that, for mediaeval peasants, their homes would mostly be cramped from lack of space, dark from a lack of windows, smoky from the central hearth and, in bad weather, cold, draughty and damp. But I suppose that, if you know no different, you would accept that level of discomfort as simply normal, and be grateful that at least you had a place of your own in which to eat and sleep and spend time with your family.

Next time, I will discuss homes of a somewhat higher standing: one belonging to a wealthy farmer and another built by a Souhampton wine merchant.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

The Terminators Part Two By L.J. Trafford

Last month I looked at the assassinations of three Romans: Julius Caesar, Caligula and Domitian. I examined the How, the Who and the Why of those murders and in doing so uncovered high principles, self preservation and wholesale revenge.
This month I'm examining three more assassinations and seeing if there are any linking themes.

1) Commodus 
© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0
Prior to Commodus there had been a run of, what Edward Gibbon in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire likes to call, The Five Good Emperors. These were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius. This is what Gibbon sees as the height of Roman power and good governance. Commodus succeeded his father Marcus Aurelius in the year 180 AD at the age of 18 to a system that had been run extremely well for over 70 years.

The big question here, and I know you’re all thinking it: how did he cock it all up?
We shall see.... but before that let’s skip ahead for a look at Commodus’ final moment.

The How
If you’ve seen Gladiator and are now yelling “I know this! In the arena by that Australian dude!”, you are in for a rude awakening. For history has a very different tale.
Firstly Commodus’ wife Marcia served him up a dish of poisoned beef. However, the Emperor vomited the beef and the poison up. As Commodus recuperated in a nice restorative hot bath, a wrestler named Narcissus was sent into the bathroom. Narcissus proceeded to strangle the Emperor.

The Who
Well two are named above. His wife and the wonderfully named wrestler Narcissus. But there were more involved. Cassius Dio names Laetus and Eclectus. Laetus was the Praetorian Prefect. Which is interesting given Laetus had a whole guard at his command to undertake the assassination, which he didn’t use.

The Why
Commodus had reigned 12 years when he was assassinated. We are extremely lucky in that we have an actual eye witness, in the shape of Cassius Dio, as to what living under Commodus was actually like. I make no apologies for posting this long extract. Because it is so worth it and gives you an insight into what those 12 years of Commodus' rule had been like:

And here is another thing that he did to us senators which gave us every reason to look for our death. Having killed an ostrich and cut off his head, he came up to where we were sitting, holding the head in his left hand and in   his right hand raising aloft his bloody sword; and though he spoke not a word, yet he wagged his head with a grin, indicating that he would treat us in the same way. And many would indeed have perished by the sword on the spot, for laughing at him (for it was laughter rather than indignation that overcame us), if I had not chewed some laurel leaves, which I got from my garland, myself, and persuaded the others who were sitting near me to do the same, so that in the steady movement of our armies we might conceal the fact that we were laughing. 

Commodus was very fond of playing in the arena, as again Cassius Dio, who was actually there informs us:
On the first day, then, the events that I have described took place. On the other days he descended to the arena from his place above and cut down all the domestic animals that approached him and some also that were led up to him or were brought before him in nets. He also killed a tiger, a hippopotamus, and an elephant. Having performed these exploits, he would retire, but later, after luncheon, would fight as a gladiator. 

Obviously performing as a Gladiator and as a wild beast hunter is very un-emperory. Even when you are extremely good at it: 

Such was his prowess in the slaying of wild beasts, that he once transfixed an elephant with a pole, pierced a gazelle's horn with a spear, and on a thousand occasions dispatched a mighty beast with a single blow 
Historia Augusta 
A young Commodus

And forcing the Senate and the people to watch it is a bit annoying, especially if they had a much better event to go to. But is it justification for murder? Probably not. However, we do have a long list of Commodus' other offences:

  • Letting unpopular favourites such as Praetorian Prefect, Cleander run Rome whilst he ran around shooting ostriches and head waggling intimidation of Senators.
  • Full scale eye popping debauchery. Which included collecting 300 beautiful concubines for his pleasure from across the Empire, whether they wanted to be collected or not.
  • Megalomania on an epic scale. Which involved renaming Rome, Commodiana after himself. He also renamed the months of the year to  Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, Pius,Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius. And he even renamed himself to this far from catchy title: The Emperor Caesar Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Pius Felix Sarmaticus Germanicus Maximus Britannicus, Pacifier of the Whole Earth, Invincible, the Roman Hercules, Pontifex Maximus, Holder of the Tribunician Authority for the eighteenth time, Imperator for the eighth time, Consul for the seventh time, Father of his Country.
  • Horrific cruelty, including: "One corpulent person he cut open down the middle of his belly, so that his intestines gushed forth.  Other men he dubbed one-eyed or one-footed, after he himself had plucked out one of their eyes or cut off one of their feet." Historia Augusta. 
  • And err this: "It is claimed that he often mixed human excrement with the most expensive foods, and he did not refrain from tasting them, mocking the rest of the company, as he thought." Historia Augustua
All in all I think the question we need to ask regarding the assassination of Commodus is not Why? But rather, why not?

The Aftermath
Our friend Cassius Dio sums the aftermath up nicely “After this there occurred most violent wars and civil strife.”
Indeed there was. The year following Commodus’ assassination is known as the year of the 5 emperors. So you can imagine what a bloody mess that was.

Was it a success?
As with last month’s look we have to look at the key aims before we can evaluate the success rate. Despite our eye witness of the times, Cassius, the detailed motives of Laetus and Eclectus are kind of vague. Which actually makes sense, there was no cataclysmic one thing that pushed them over the edge rather 12 whole, long years of Commodus’ erratic and strange behaviour.
It was successful therefore in the fact that the Senators who’d been worn down from this behaviour were freed from the tiring, depravity of it all.
So yes. We’ll call it a success despite a civil war later breaking out.

Aurelian. Originally produced
in the Nordisk familjebok.
2) Aurelian

Aurelian ruled for only 5 years from 270-275 AD. Which might not sound like much but it’s worth bearing in mind this was during the 3rd Century Crisis. A hundred years of turmoil that saw Emperors come and Emperors before they had a chance to get the posh purple clothing on. A century in which you had a whopping 82% chance of an unnatural death as Emperor. The average reign was only 3.6 years. So Aurelian was punching well above his weight to rule a whole 5 years and he packed a surprising amount into that half decade:

  • He expelled the Vandals, the Juthungi and the Sarmatians from Roman territory. 
  • He defeated the Goths. 
  • He defeated the Palmyrene Empire. 
  • He defeated the Gallic Empire.
  • He had a bit of a breather. Then reformed the monetary system, built some massive walls and generally made things better.

For this he declared himself Restorer of the World. Then somebody assassinated him.

The How
In 275AD Aurelian had decided that he just didn’t have enough victories to his name and started eyeing up the Persians. It was whilst he was in Thrace preparing for this campaign that it happened.
Compared to other assassinations the description we have is disappointingly brief.

Observing Aurelian to go out of the city with a small retinue, they ran out upon him and murdered him. 
OK. That’s the how dealt with. Given this is an era without firearms we’ll assume swords were involved. Perhaps daggers. Maybe a spoon.
Let us move on.

The Who
The Who in this case were his own Guards. But they had been egged on by a man named Eros or alternatively Mnestheus. Whatever his name was, he worked for Aurelian. Zosimus says he carried messages for the Emperor.

The Why
In a nut shell: Eros/Mnestheus had screwed up. We know not at what. But it was something big enough for him to fear Aurelian’s wrath. Though I guess this depends on how nervy Eros/Mnestheus was and how exacting Aurelian was. Possibly it was a slight misfiling of letters. Possibly he’d been nicking money on the side. Possibly he’d given the wrong message to the wrong person and that’s why they were going to war against the Persians. We shall never know. Which is bloody annoying.
Anyhow Eros/Mnestheus had screwed up in a way that apparently could only be resolved by killing the sole man who’d managed to restore the Empire, defeat all it’s enemies and bring stability to the region.
Rather than doing the deed himself Eros/Mnestheus went to the Guards and told them a:

Plausible story, and showed them a letter of his own writing, in the character of the emperor (which he had long before learned to counterfeit), and persuading them first that they themselves were to be put to death, which was the meaning expressed by the letter, he endeavored to prevail on them to murder the emperor. 

Firstly, being able to counterfeit the Emperor’s handwriting is quite a suspicious talent and one that makes you wonder whether that is at the bottom of Eros/Mnestheus’ screw up.
Secondly, let’s be impressed not only by Eros/Mnestheus’ counterfeiting skills but also by his ability to spin a yarn to the Guards. Because they swallowed this whole. Which suggests three possibilities:

1) The Praetorian Guard were a particularly gullible lot who unfortunately had been allocated swords.
2) Aurelian was the sort of boss that you could most easily would order your death on a whim. Or as the Historia Augusta puts it “Aurelian — it cannot be denied — was a stern, a savage, and a blood-thirsty prince.”
3) The Guard were somehow involved/implicit in Eros/Mnestheus’ screw up/possible corruption/maybe counterfeiting ring.

The speed at which the conspiracy formed and was executed suggests that it was deemed very necessary. As does the fact that the Guards had no successor in mind. Which is highly unusual in an era where rival legions propelled forward their own candidates for Emperor.

The Aftermath
It went as well as can be imagined when a hasty conspiracy murders an extremely capable emperor who had only just restored stability after decades of bloody instability.
Surprisingly as mentioned above, the Guards did not appoint a successor. They handed that honour over to the Senate. There even seems to have been a bit of regret at their hasty actions.

After he was slain and the facts became known, those very men who had killed him gave him a mighty tomb and a temple. 
Historia Augusta

The Senate gave it eight months thought and came up with Marcus Claudius Tacitus as the new emperor. He lasted 8 months.
His successor Florian didn’t even last that long.
And so the crisis of the 3rd century continued.

The big walls of Rome that Aurelian built at Porta Asinaria
Photo by MrPanyGoff

Was it a Success?
Given the original motivation was to prevent Aurelian finding out about whatever it was that Eros/Mnestheus had screwed up, well yes it was a success. Aurelian never did find out about the cock up.
But this was his fate:
Mnestheus, however, was afterward hauled away to a stake and exposed to wild beasts. 
Historia Augusta 

Eeek. One can’t help feel that Eros/Mnestheus might have been able to use those magnificent counterfeiting and smooth oratory skills on more usefully escaping Aurelian’s wrath.

3) Valentinian III

Possible diptych of Aetius. Historian Ian Hughes in his book
Aetius: Attila's Nemesis suggests that this may very well be Aetius.Photo credit Tatarrn

Valentinian III became Emperor of the Western Roman Empire at the age of only 6 after showing prodigious talent in drawing, colouring and ruining furniture by jumping on it.
Just kidding. He, of course, inherited the title. An early start meant he ruled for 30 years. Or rather other people ruled on his behalf. First up his mother Gallia Placidia, followed by the top general Aetius.

During this period the Western Empire was continually menaced by troublesome and fearsome sounding tribes like the Visigoths and the Vandals and *cue dramatic music* Attila and his horrifying Huns.

Luckily for Valentinian he had a trusty and talented general in the shape of Flavius Aetius. Aetius was happily fighting off the Franks, the Burgundians and the Bagaudae, in addition to everyone else in this fighty happy period.

The How

Valentinian decided to go riding on the Campus Martius with a few guardsmen and the followers of Optila and Thraustila (Huns loyal to Aetius). When he dismounted from his horse and was walking off to practice archery, Optilla and his followers mad for him and, drawing the swords at their sides, attacked him. Optila struck Valentinian across the side of his head and, when he turned to see who struck him, felled him with a second blow to the face 
John of Antioch.

Ouchy. And clearly unexpected:

Whether those present were stunned by the surprise of the attempt or frightened by the warlike reputation of the men, their attack brought no retaliation. 
John of Antioch

The Who
We have the two names above. Optila and Thraustila. We also have one other bit of key information “Loyal to Aetius”.
To get to the why let us us rewind 6 months to September 21st 454 AD.

The Why
Attila the Hun, one of Rome's many enemies at the time.
Illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514)

As we’ve seen above Flavius Aetius was the Western Empire’s greatest general at a time when they really needed great generals.
In 454 Aetius was at the height of his fighty-ness and success. His son was even betrothed to the Emperor’s daughter. He was basking in Imperial favour and general respect by all.
Then on the 21st September 454 Aetius was invited to a planning meeting with the Emperor. As Aetius went through the boring details of tax revenues and finances and budgets, the emperor suddenly jumped up from his throne and started yelling accusations at him.
The key accusation being that Aetius was a treacherous so and so (insert your own favourite term of abuse here) and was plotting to replace him as Emperor.
The historian Priscus picks up the story:

While Aetius was stunned by this unexpected rage and was attempting to calm his irrational outburst, Valentinian drew his sword from his scabbard, and together with Heraclius, who was carrying a cleaver under his cloak…for he was head chamberlain, fell upon him. They both rained down blows on his head and killed him, a man who had performed so many brave actions against enemies both internal and external. 

Yes, really. Valentinian jumped up and stabbed to death his employee during a particularly dull meeting. I mean clearly we’ve all been in meetings like that and possibly we’ve all imagined killing our colleagues just to end those types of meetings. But it’s still quite shocking is it not? The Emperor of the West jumping up and stabbing to death his most favoured general to death during a meeting on tax revenues, of all things.
So why did he do it? Was Aetius really plotting to take over? He had the popularity, the army, the capability to do so. But then his son had just got betrothed to Valentinian’s daughter. His grandchildren would be of Imperial birth. He had no need to push Valentinian out the way.

Valentinian clearly believed Aetius was planning to usurp him and we are told why:

Maximus, a powerful noble, who had been twice consul, was hostile to Aetius, the general of the forces of Italy. Since he knew that Heraclius, a eunuch who carried very great weight with the Emperor (Valentinian III), was extremely hostile against Aetius for the same reason….since they both wished to replace his sway with their own. The made an arrangement and they persuaded the emperor that if he did not act first and kill Aetius, Aetius would kill him.

John of Antioch

Back to Valentinian's murderers, Optila and Thraustila. Post bloody emperor murdering, we are told this:

Both of them took of the Emperor’s diadem and horse and rode off to Maximus. 


Yes the exact same Maximus who had persuaded Valentinian to murder Aetius. Funny that. Even funnier, guess who succeeded Valentinian as Emperor?

The Aftermath
What a magnificent piece of treachery that was!  We are expecting high things of Maximus as Emperor now, aren’t we? After all he successfully played on the paranoia of Valentinian to remove the top general in all of the West, and then plied up feelings of revenge in the breasts of assassins Optila and Thraustila to remove Valentinian.
He probably ruled for decades playing off everyone against each other in a thoroughly schemey reign.
Err no.

His reign lasted only two months. Mostly because one of his earliest actions was to cancel the intended marriage of Valentinian’s daughter to the son of the Vandal King, Geiseric.
Geiseric did not take this well and launched an invasion into Italy. Given there was no highly successful Vandal repelling Aetius to sort out Geiseric, the civilians of Italy hit panic mode. As did Maximus, who sensing his scheming powers were of little use against the invading Vandals, legged it. Whilst fleeing he was set upon by an angry mob and killed. Meanwhile the thwarted Geiseric took out his frustrations on Rome, spending two weeks sacking the city.

Was it Successful?
By the Gods above it was. Maximus successfully murdered his way to becoming Emperor without getting his own hands bloody. It was inspired. It was just unfortunate that he wasn’t actually much good at being Emperor and had orchestrated the murder of the only man who could have saved his reign.

Having examined the assassinations of six ancient Romans can we find any common themes/links/similarities?

They all involved conspiracies of more than one person. Whether it be Brutus and his high minded gang, Caligula's staff turning their heads as Cassius plotted, or Laetus and Eclectus frantically improvising when their original plan to kill Commodus failed.
We also have some criminal masterminds who managed not to get their own hands bloody in the shape of Domitian's chamberlain Parthienus, Aurelian's nervy assistant Eros and of course the mega scheming Maximus.
Motivations wise we've had revenge (Caligula). We've had self preservation (Domitian, Aurelian and probably Commodus). We've had ambition (Valentinian). And we've had high minded principles (Julius Caesar).

All in all the key thing we've learnt is most definitely: Watch those closest to you.
Whether they be your own Guards (Aurelian, Caligula, Commodus), your wife (Commodus), your secretaries (Aurelian, Domitian) or your friends (Julius Caesar, Valentinian).

L.J. Trafford is the author of The Four Emperors Series of Books, which cover a whole series of bloody Emperor deaths that all took place in a single year. And available on Amazon