Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Mary Anning by Miranda Miller

   Just before Easter I spent two very enjoyable days in Lyme Regis, on the Jurassic Coast , a World Heritage Site that stretches from Exmouth to Studland Bay. The layers of sedimentary rock along that coast reveal the history of Earth across 185 million years of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. The beaches around there are still crowded with fossil hunters particularly in ‘fossiling weather’ – when it is wet and stormy with a strong tide and a choppy sea. This section of the coast is one of the most active landslip sites in Europe and as the cliffs fall into the sea they reveal their secrets.

   I became interested in Mary Anning, the self-educated fossil hunter and collector, and read Tracy Chevlier’s vividly imagined novel about her, Remarkable Creatures, as well as Shelley Emling’s biography, The Fossil Hunter. Anning was the daughter of a cabinetmaker and amateur fossil hunter in Lyme Regis and when she was a baby she survived being struck by lightning which, people said, accounted for her unusual mind. Her father died in debt in 1810 and a year later, when Mary was twelve, she and her older brother Joseph thought they had found the skull of a crocodile. Anning then spent a year extracting the rest of the fossil from the 205 million-year-old Blue Lias cliffs on the beach. She sold the six foot long skeleton to a private collector for £23. It was not a crocodile but an Ichthyosaurus, a “fish-lizard.”

   Fossil collecting was dangerous because the cliffs could collapse at any moment and in one of these landslides Mary’s beloved dog, Tray, was killed. She taught herself an immense amount about fossils and found her first complete Plesiosaurus skeleton in 1823. She also found various Pterosaurs and a Squaloraja skeleton.

   Here she is selling her fossils in Lyme Regis. Museums and collectors all over the world bought them and her knowledge was respected. She became friends with distinguished geologists, including Henry De la Beche, William Buckland,Richard Owen andAdam Sedgwick, one of Charles Darwin’s tutors. The famous French anatomist, Georges Cuvier, doubted the validity of the Plsiosaurus she
found, with a neck that contained 35 vertebrae, when he first examined a detailed drawing. Cuvier probably suspected it was a forgery but the geologist William Conybeare defended Anning’s find and Cuvier eventually wrote that her fossil was genuine, and a major discovery.

   This amazing woman taught herself geology, paleontology, anatomy and scientific illustration. But because she was working class, and a woman, she was never completely accepted by the 19th century British scientific community and admiration was always tempered with condescension. In 1824 Lady Harriet Sivester, the widow of the former Recorder of the City of London, wrote in her diary after visiting Mary Anning:

". . . the extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved. . . It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour - that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom."

   Mary never published a scientific paper of her own—men wrote up her finds. She wrote sadly, "The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone." She never married, and was poor until a friend convinced the British Association for the Advancement of Science to provide her with an annuity of £25 per year shortly before she died of breast cancer.

   Although the Geological Society marked her death in a president’s address, they didn’t admit the first female member until 1904. In 1865 Charles Dickens, with his wonderful eye for snobbery, wrote an article about her, Mary Anning, The Fossil Finder:

“She met with little sympathy in her own town, and the highest tribute which that magniloquent guide-book, The Beauties of Lyme Regis, can offer her, is to assure us that "her death was, in a pecuniary point, a great loss to the place, as her presence attracted a large number of distinguished visitors." Quick returns are the thing at Lyme. We need not wonder that Miss Anning was chiefly valued as bait for tourists, when we find that the museum is now entirely broken up, and the
specimens returned to those who had lent them.”

    Many of her finds will never be associated with her name because the records were lost long ago. Now, however, The Lyme Regis Museum stands on the site of the house where she was born and there is an annual Fossil Festival at Lyme Regis. The Geological Society has placed one of her ichthyosaur skulls and a portrait of her and her dog in their front reception hall and The Natural History Museum in London has made her and her finds the main attraction of their Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery. In 2010, a hundred and sixty-three years after her death, the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.

   Fossils, of course, played a vital role in the gradual birth of the earth sciences and in the investigation of such theories as continental drift, plate tectonics and evolution. Studying fossils helps palaeoclimatologists discover how life forms reacted to climate changes in the past so that we can begin to predict how the oceans might react to climate change today. Mary Anning’s discoveries were the beginning of a revolution in our knowledge of the history of life. Many of the early collectors were clergymen who were forced to question the Old Testament's account of creation a generation before Darwin’s theory of evolution. This is still relevant at a time when Donald Trump has just appointed the creationist, Jerry Falwell Jr, the president of Liberty, the largest Christian university in the world, Liberty, to lead his higher education reform taskforce.

Monday, 24 April 2017

TURNING ON THE LIGHTS : How I write a historical novel by Elizabeth Chadwick.

It's that time again.  Having completed my latest project and handed it in,  I am turning my attention to the next contracted novel.
I have known for a while that it is going to be about Aoife (pronounced Eefa) daughter of Diarmit MacMurchada, king of Leinster, her marriage to Norman adventurer Richard de Clare and how Aoife held her own during  some incredibly difficult political, social and emotional storms.

I was saying to my agent the other day that an analogy for coming to a new historical project is rather like being given the keys to a mansion.  I arrive at night and all I can see is a darkened silhouette. Unlocking the door and entering the house, I stand for a moment, tuning in to the atmosphere. Listening, feeling the electricity raise the fine hairs on my arms.
I know I have to explore the mansion thoroughly to understand its layout, its quirks and foibles - and traps.  I need to turn on the lights and go from cellar to attic, studying the dimensions and familiarising myself with every nook and cranny because this is going to be my place of work for the next eighteen months.  This house is someone's story and it is my job to furbish it with their truth.  To remove the dust sheets and the detritus. To polish and illuminate until that mansion glows with light.

For the moment many rooms remain in darkness and behind locked doors.  It is for me to find the lights and the keys as I write. That part of the journey is as yet unknown. I have to decide what to showcase and what to leave as background ambience.

I go into the kitchen, the hub of the home, I  make myself a large mug of tea (I'm not a wine fan). I sit down at the scrubbed wooden table, and I begin to make plans.

The first thing I do is discover more  about my chosen subject.   I have already obtained the necessary research books concerned with my protagonists and their hinterland and I also have my web browser open.   I set about familiarising myself in a general way with my subject, their life and times, and then I go into more depth.
 I am looking for angles that while absolutely true to the characters also highlight information that has never been looked at before, or not in quite the same way. For example, in my Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy, I discovered from reading around that new research shows she was 13 when she married,not 15.  As far as I know, I am the only historical novelist to have written the story of that relationship from that age perspective - and it makes a huge difference to how the politics and relationships are played out.
 I began researching the 12th century in the early 1970's and have never stopped, so I do have a reasonable base line knowledge to help bring me up to speed.   I am not starting from scratch.  At this stage I will also use psychic snapshots and compare them against the known history. I find this utterly invaluable and I use conventional history and the psychic in tandem. (I wrote a post about using the latter in an earlier History Girls post here):Alternative Research

Once I have the broad outline of the story, I write a highly detailed synopsis. It's not so much a selling document as a ground plan of the mansion for me, and information for my editor and agent as to what I'm going to be up to for the next year and a half. If I was approaching an agent or editor for the first time, it would be a tight one pager.  As it is, the working synopsis is  more likely to be around 12 pages of single-spaced text.

 The synopsis completed, I then write a short 'blurb'.  The sort of thing you see on dust jackets or on the back of books.  It will give the reader a brief gist of the contents,  and be written in an economic but emotive way that will make them eager to read the work.  I

I write character studies of the main players -who they are in their world, how old they are, what they look like, their personality traits etc.

The preparation work completed, which has probably taken me around two weeks (not including background reading at mealtimes and in the bath!)  I begin writing, continuing the research and deepening it as I go.  It's the equivalent of going into that first room, switching on the lights, removing the dust sheets and  arranging the furniture.

I write the first three chapters in depth and polish them.  That first room becomes a showpiece for my agent and editor and also the readers.  I send the synopsis, blurb, character studies and chapters to my agent and editor, and then continue to write the first draft. I don't look back on that first draft now.   I go into rooms, pulling back curtains, shaking off more dust sheets, cleaning the chandeliers and adjusting the lighting.  Sometimes I will try out fabrics and colour schemes and then, not satisfied, change my mind and discard.  All the time I am writing that first draft, I am researching on the side and discovering more about my characters.)  An author should never dump historical information into their novel in chunks just for the sake of it. Research exists to inform the story and enable the author to walk with confidence in the world he or she has created. It allows that author to see the world through the eyes of the  protagonists. I cannot know my characters without  knowing their world as intimately as I know my own.  That intimate knowledge underpins the story and makes it flow organically and avoids those  'info-dump' moments.   It's vital to do the research because without it, the characters may show a tendency to come over as modern people in fancy dress. The rooms in the mansion must have the furniture that reflects their occupants. 

Once the sketch draft is complete, I return to the beginning and start editing.familiarity and deeper research.  It's a time to begin the finesse of fine tuning and looking at all the room as a whole.  Do they work together?  What needs adding?  What needs taking away?  Are there more rooms to be unlocked and discovered? Others that are better left closed with the dust sheets put back?   Once I have made those decisions I print out the next draft and read as a paper copy and make alterations with a biro. I then key the alterations into the PC while giving the manuscript another read through.
After that, I print out out again and read aloud.  This is like hoovering the floor and polishing the tables before the guests arrive. It's like chilling the wine and polishing the crystal.

And finally (and after some preliminary viewings by a select few such as my agent and editor)  I throw the mansion open to the public, the door widening on a path of sunlight leading into the hall. And beyond that, more subtle light and shade,  illuminating and draping people who are eager to tell their story and are so much more than names in a book.

Elizabeth Chadwick is a best selling author of more than twenty historical novels, including New York Times bestseller The Greatest Knight, and a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine - The Summer Queen, The Winter Crown and the Autumn Throne.  She has just handed in Templar Silks, a novel about William Marshal's pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1183-1186.  Due for publication in Autumn 2017.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

sourdough; slices from history, by Leslie Wilson

The starter, bubbling
It was only about two years ago that I realised how widespread the use of sourdough was, and also how recent is the practise of using brewer's yeast to raise bread. And if that sounds naive, let it be said in my defence that beer was brewed by the ancient Egyptians, and I have known that since my teens.

I've been eating and enjoying sourdough bread since I was a toddler, I guess, visiting my grandparents in post-war Germany. I always associated it with Germany alone, till I had it in Poland in the nineties; and realised the bread I was eating was identical to the bread my grandmother used to make. Since she was Silesian, this is hardly surprising. In Germany, post-war, the bread I had was sliced rye and wheat flour mixed, and also whole-grain bread, which British people call pumpernickel, but actually that is only one variety of what is called Vollkornbrot. Later, in the resurgence of artisanal breadmaking in both Germany and France, I had real Vollkornbrot, straight from the baker's rather than in little vinegary plastic packs, and made of spelt as well as rye, and in France, wonderful rye and white wheat flour pain de campagne.

However, two years ago, I was told by a Greek friend that sourdough was commonly used in Greece, and when I had got my own sourdough operation well under way, I opened Antonio Carluccio's  'complete Italian food' looking for a pizza recipe I could adapt to sourdough from yeast and discovered that traditional pizza is always made with fermented bread dough. Revelation! I guess that Indian bread was also leavened with sourdough once?

Then, Christmas before last, we watched Victorian Bakers on the BBC, and learned that British bread was all made from sourdough till the eighteenth century. It took so long for anyone to decide to try if 'yeaste, to make beere' might also raise bread (to the detriment of British digestions, I fear).
risen dough in a banneton

According to Isabella Beeton: 'It is said that somewhere about the beginning of the thirtieth Olympiad, the slave of an archon, at Athens, made leavened bread by accident. He had left some wheaten dough in an earthen pan, and forgotten it; some days afterwards, he lighted upon it again, and found it turning sour. His first thought was the throw it away; but his master coming up, he miced this now acescscent dough with some fresh dough, which he was working at. The bread thus produced, by the introduction of dough in which alcoholic fermentation had begun, was found delicious by the archon and his friends; and the slave, being summoned and catechised, told the secret.'

It may not have happened in Athens, but one can imagine the discovery of leaven happening by accident, like that, perhaps on a warm day. Sourdough functions by catching wild yeasts in a flour and water mix (in my recipe, you use a teaspoon of honey, too).

I assume that the careful elimination of any starchy material that might generate leaven, at the Jewish Passover festival, originally had to do with removing the remnants of the previous year's sourdough cultures. Which makes me think about the practicability of taking your sourdough starter with you when you set out into the wilderness, escaping from the Egyptians. It would be difficult. There is something essentially settled about having a sourdough starter,

Easy to hand-knead this much dough..
So, in the eighteenth century, people discovered that yeast from beer could also raise bread, and raise it more quickly (I imagine, from my own experience). Very soon, sourdough was considered only fit for the lower classes, and yeasted bread was for the aristocracy, who regarded it as more refined, because more bland in flavour. It's ironic that nowadays sourdough bread is viewed as a luxury product (consumed by elitist Remainers with cosmopolitan tastes?) I have no such ideas about it, since I ate it as perfectly normal bread during my childhood.

The way I bake my sourdough bread is a modern replication of the old methods. Anyone who watched 'Victorian Bakers' will have seen the participants filling a brick or stone oven with wood, firing it, then removing the wood when the oven was really hot, and putting the bread in onto the hot stones. (It was very hard work, as it was to knead a whole baking trough full of dough. No wonder the advent of mixers was greeted with relief by commercial bakers.)

I use a baking stone in an electric oven; I preheat the stone for half an hour at 'Bottom Heat', then set the fan oven to 245C, put the bread in (it forms a crust almost instantly) and bake it for ten minutes at that temperature. Then I turn the heat down to 180C and give it another 25 minutes, and then turn it down again for the remainder of the baking process, so that my oven cools gradually, and the hot stone is an important part of the whole business. Some people build stone ovens in their back gardens and do the whole archaic thing, but I have a novel to write.

In the oven, on a baking stone
People thought, when brewer's yeast bread came in, that it would be more digestible (which was another reason for relegating sourdough bread to the Lower Classes. Fluffy white bread was the New Thing., In the nineteenth century this idea was carried to its logical conclusion with the invention of aerated bread, where no raising agent was used (the Victorians began to think using any kind of yeast might by unhygienic), and air was blown through the dough. 'Different opinions are expressed about the bread', says Isabella Beeton cautiously. The Victorian Bakers production crew tried baking aerated bread too, and pronounced it pretty tasteless.

In fact, as we discover that our guts rely on a host of friendly bacteria to help us digest properly, it's becoming apparent that the lactic acid content of sourdough bread makes it pretty digestible, and maybe helps in the development of a healthy gut flora.

In Europe, at times of famine, bread was adulterated with potato (and with quite a few other, more sinister additives, such as alum or bone-dust). Here is another irony; I've had potato bread (made with leaven, not Irish potato bread) offered me in the basket at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, and I often add it to my own bread, as it gives a very nice texture. Isabella Beeton disapproved because it reduced the protein content; for the same reason, she advocated brown bread over white. People were already discovering that wholemeal was more digestible. 'In many parts of Germany the entire meal is used' (I presume she means the whole grain bread, with visible chunks of grain) 'and in no part of the world are the digestive organs of the people in better condition.' Whole grain bread has a very low GI factor (I think that's the right way round), ie, it's best for people with type 2 diabetes, or even if you want to avoid developing it. Isabella B didn't know that, however.

There's potato in this bread
Tips on sourdough baking, for those who want to try it, or for historical novelists who want to describe baking in the 17th century and earlier, and have their descriptions accurate: sourdough doesn't rise as fast as yeast bread. I usually set mine to prove (the final stage, when it's in the tin or banneton or whatever) overnight. Incidentally, the classic loaf tin came in quite late in the 19th century. It rises well at whatever temperature, in the fridge, even, so your baker doesn't have to put it in a warm place. I don't find it makes much difference whether it's summer or winter, if you're proving it overnight. In Greece, according to my friend Eleni, the starter is left out, and is made quite stiff and doesn't go mouldy. I tried this, but it didn't work for me, maybe because our climate is damper. However, a commercial baker would be feeding their starter every day, and therefore it wouldn't go mouldy, because there wouldn't be time. Overnight proving would also mean the loaves could be baked first thing in the morning.

In the Austrian Tyrol, in some places, bread was only baked twice a year, in a communal bread oven. People would make their own dough and bring it. I think this explains why bread dumplings are so important in Austrian cuisine (yummy). By the end of the six months you could only eat the bread if it was soaked. Isabella Beeton is definite that fresh bread is very unwholesome, and that it's best eaten after three or four days, and I know that in French peasant culture that belief was also prevalent. It does feel as if three or four months might be carrying things too far.
On the other hand, if you made whole-grain bread, that does seem to stay edible almost indefinitely (but I am degenerate enough to like it on the day of baking). I find that sourdough bread does keep longer, and stay moist longer, than beere-yeaste bread.

During the war, British bakers were forbidden to sell fresh-baked bread because people would eat too much of it, and I wonder if this is what was behind the idea that it was unwholesome. Economy.

The bread of the Austrian valley of the Lesachtal, in Carinthia, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage item. It is very delicious.

These are just a few bits of information that I have picked up over the last years, and if anyone else has more to add, that would be extremely interesting! One thing I would like to know is; what was Irish bread leavened with before bicarbonate of soda became readily available?

All photos were taken in my own kitchen, by me or by David Wilson.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Through a Glass Darkly: Mirrors, Myths and Magic by Catherine Hokin

I am a bit obsessed with mirrors at the moment. That's not an unusual state for many women as we oscillate between avoiding or checking our appearance depending on how hopeful/fearful we are feeling on any given day especially if, like me, your approach to dressing may be on the 'eclectic' side. An American acquaintance recently commented that she 'was interested in' the way I flaunted the look in the mirror, remove one item adjunct by adding three more. I digress (which may also be my clothing issue): my mirror obsession is currently centred on their mythical properties.

 Roman lead mirror, faces missing
Superstition is one of the many threads that connect us to our ancestors and many have ancient roots. Walking under a leaning ladder, for example, may have connections to the Ancient Egyptians and their belief that the triangle was a sacred shape. You might not be a salt thrower and you may place new shoes on the table without a care but I bet few of us break a mirror without a shiver. The belief that seven years bad luck would result comes from Ancient Rome and is linked to the 7 years the Romans believed it took for a soul to renew itself. If you do have a disaster, simply popping the pieces in the bin is not enough to reverse the misfortune: you can bury the pieces, immerse them in south-flowing water for several hours or grind them to a fine powder so the pieces no longer reflect an image. Or do all three while flinging salt and turning in a circle three times. Best to be safe in these strange times.

The idea of reflection, seeing an image that may otherwise be hidden or differs from what the watcher expects, has always fascinated, whether the source be water, metal or glass. We look for our identity in them, for good or ill: Socrates advised young men to look at their faces and, if the reflection was a handsome one, to focus their life on keeping their souls pure. Some ancient cultures believed the reflection was the true self, 'the shadow soul', hence the myth that vampires and evil spirits have no reflection. In some cultures, the images go beyond the individual: in ancient Chinese mythology, there is the story of the Mirror Kingdom in which creatures who will one day rise up to battle humans are caught in a magic sleep; the flickers we sometimes see in the corners of our eyes as we look into a mirror are the creatures' first stirrings. Other superstitions spanning cultures include not looking into them at candlelight when spirits of the dead might appear and covering mirrors when someone in the house dies so that the soul does not become trapped. The deep-seated hold these superstitions have on the popular imagination is reflected in stories as far apart as Narcissus, Snow White and Candyman. We look but we do not always believe or trust what we see.

 Ancient Egypt c. 1479 BC
That mirrors have grown up surrounded by myths is understandable: not only could they show us new aspects of ourselves and our world, in their earliest incarnations they were rare and expensive. Mirrors made from polished stone (obsidian) have been found in use in Turkey from 6000 BCE and also in South and Central America from 2000 BCE. Polished bronze discs with handles of ivory, wood or metal are seen in Egypt as early as 2900 BCE and in China from around 2000 BCE. By 465 BCE, some Greek mirrors were large enough to reflect a whole figure but most remained small enough to be portable and were highly ornamented, often with figures of the gods. All were recorded as being highly valuable: "For a single one of these mirrors of chiseled silver or gold, inlaid with gems, women are capable of spending an amount equal to the dowry the State once offered to poor generals’ daughters!” (Seneca). However, the reflected image purchased at such cost was not an accurate one: stone and bronze were both dark, metal scratched and tarnished easily and the very few glass mirrors that have been found were curved and therefore distorting - a problem which continued well into the sixteenth century and goes some way to explain the distrust around the reflected image.

 Pictish mirror symbol
Superstition and magic, mirrors have long been associated with both. The idea of reflecting things that were previously hidden or unseen is a short step from looking at mirrors as a method of divination: seeing not just what is there but what might be. One of the most common symbols carved onto Pictish stones in Scotland is a mirror, usually accompanied by a comb. There are a number of theories around the symbol's meaning, including a link to a matriarchal culture but another possibility is an association with astrology and using a mirror to read the heavens. Turning a mirror to the stars to divine messages about the future is seen in ancient Persia, by Shamans in Asia and is even attributed to Pythagoras who, according to legend, tipped a mirror at the moon to read the future. This practice, known as catoptromancy or scrying, is described in a number of ancient Greek texts and sometimes involves mirrors being lowered into water on a thread to provide a double reflection. It appears to have had a number of uses including predicting the future, medical diagnoses and communicating with people not physically present. Practitioners would burn herbs, chant 'prayers' and wait for answers and messages to reveal themselves in surfaces sometimes viewed as a portal between worlds. The practice is recorded well into the middle ages.

 15th century woman and mirror
During the mid to late medieval period, mirrors had rather mixed fortunes. Their role in divination made them a target for the Church and divination itself, associated as it was with demons and evil spirits, was banned. In The Book of the Knight of the Tower, an advice manual written in 1372 by Geoffrey de la Tour Landry for his daughters who are about to attend court, the dangers of sitting in front of the mirror rather than attending church are clearly spelled out:“Will this lady never be done combing herself! Staring at herself in the mirror? And as it pleased God to make an example of her, even as she stared into the mirror she perceived the enemy, who bared his behind, so ugly and horrible that the woman lost her reason, as if possessed by the devil.” However, mirrors also start to appear as a means of guarding against evil and excess: in Dit du Miroir by Jean de Cande, a man asks for a double mirror so he can look at himself inside and out. As mirrors became more common, it seems people were trying to find better ways to accommodate their presence.

The process by which mirrors were made gradually became more sophisticated: the process for making flat glass began in Germany and was perfected in sixteenth century Venice and new coating methods were discovered which improved reflectivity. At the same time, Johannes Kepler was working on a better understanding of the way light is received and focused by the eye. Distorted reflections and magic associations gradually became a thing of the past. Well logically they did but I'm not convinced humans are really that logical when you scratch the surface. For every child who listens to Snow White and then tries the magic mirror refrain out in their bedroom or reads Harry Potter and wants to buy scrying implements in Diagon Alley, there's a teenager giggling with their mates into a candle-lit glass on Halloween and an adult fixing a new mirror on the wall with very great care. Don't believe me? Go drop a mirror, I dare you...

Friday, 21 April 2017

William Sykes - Connoisseur or Forger? by Imogen Robertson

Daily Post (London, England), Tuesday, January 12, 1725

On December 31st 1724 Mr. William Sykes died in Bruges. He was a painter and picture dealer, a member of the Virtuosi of St Luke’s, an exclusive club of artistic connoisseurs, one of the close friends who received a mourning ring from Sir Godfrey Kneller and as you can see above 'a Gentleman distinguished and universally known for his extraordinary Performances and uncommon Judgement in that Art'. 

He left his business at Two Golden Balls, Portugal Row, Lincoln’s Inn--Fields to his son, and the family continued in the art trade through the rest of the 18th century. 

Google him now, however, and you’ll read that he was a forger. 

I’m working on a novella in the Westerman and Crowther series that revolves around art fraud in the period, so I stumbled across Sykes in the early stages of my research. I then went down a rabbit hole of art history and am reporting from deep underground. 

The internet articles about William Sykes seem to originate in Noah Charney’s book The Art of Forgery. Its a beautiful book, but I’m not convinced by his takedown of Sykes. It's made me realise how careful we need to be, or how careful I feel we should be, when accusing historical figures of crimes. I don't think Charney is careful enough, he's providing snappy prose rather than history in the pages which deal with Sykes and I think that's a shame, particularly because it makes me wary about the rest of the book. 

So here's my issue: Charney writes ‘Horace Walpole, the eighteenth century art historian called the con man William Sykes a ‘noted trickster’.’ 

No he didn’t. George Vertue did. According to A. C. Ducerel.
George Vertue by Jonathan Richardson, 1733

George Vertue (1684 -1756) was an artist and engraver who around 1713 embarked on a grand project to collect every scrap of information he could about the history of art in England. He died however before he could shape those notes into something fit to be printed. Horace Walpole, who had often corresponded with him, bought the manuscript notes and used them as the basis for his Anecdotes of Painting in England. In the first volume he wrote about a picture he owned at the time which was known as ‘The Marriage of Henry VII’. Now another of Walpole’s correspondents, A. C. Ducerel wrote to him (23/2/1762), and told him that Vertue had said: 

'That Lord Pomfret bought this picture of one Old Sykes above 30 years ago, which Sykes dealt in pictures and was a noted tricker—that he (Sykes) gave it that name, well knowing how to give names to pictures to make them sell—that Geo. Vertue had carefully examined that picture ... and that, upon the whole, it was suspected, at the time that Lord Pomfret bought it, that Old Sykes, who was a rogue, had caused the figures and representation of the marriage, to be added to the representation of the inside of a church, Old Sykes having before been guilty of many pranks of that sort.' 

So Walpole didn’t use that phrase ‘noted trickster’. It was Vertue who said it to Ducerel, who related it to Walpole who then flew off the handle. Of course he did, Vertue was impugning his picture, of which he was very proud, from beyond the grave. I seem to remember he paid £84 for it.

Now, in one of those gleams of serendipity which seem to come up when researching, it turns out that the picture which Walpole was defending is up for sale next week at Christie’s in New York, and certainly someone messed about with it. A lot. When Walpole owned it it looked like this:

Well, that's an engraving of how it looked. After very careful restoration - it now looks like this:

Lot 8 Attributed to Hugo van der Goes (Ghent c. 1440-1482 Rode Klooster, near Brussels), The Virgin and Child with Saints Thomas, John the Baptist, Jerome and Louis, oil on panel, 43 5/8 x 49 ¼ in. (110.8 x 125.2 cm.). Estimate 3,000,000 - USD 5,000,000 © Christie’s Images Limited 2017.

The estimate is 3-5 million dollars, in case any of you fancy it.

So was this transformation William Sykes’s handiwork? I think there is no way of knowing. This detailed and scholarly article almost convinced me, but a portrait that the author, Alain.R.Truong identifies as by Sykes, and relies on for comparison is now listed on the National Trust site as by an unknown 19th century painter. I’ve emailed to ask about that and will let you know if I hear anything. 

Charney’s accusation however in The Art of Forgery is not that Sykes repainted the painting above, but that Sykes forged an inscription on the back of a different painting. The painting, now known as The Enthronement of Saint Romold as Bishop of Dublin, was for a long time thought to be a Van Eyck portrayal of The Enthronement of Thomas a Becket. It did certainly pass through Sykes’s hands, but that doesn't prove the inscription is the work of Sykes. 
painting by Master of the Youth of Saint Romold
(Museum: National Gallery of Ireland)

Charney implies Sykes attributed the painting to van Eyck because he was ‘the most famous and highest selling artist in the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth centuries in England’, which, given Sykes died in 1724, would make him a prophet as well as a forger.

George Vertue gathered information from Sykes about painters the older man had known, so was willing to take his words on some things, but he’s very distrustful of him too. When Vertue decides that a portrait, traditionally called ‘Mary Queen of Scots with her son’, in The Drapers Hall in London is in fact no such thing he writes ‘I fancy Sykes the painter was concerned in it’. Hmm. Well. Assertion is not evidence. 

I have noticed that though Vertue was an early student of Godfrey Kneller, he didn't get one of those mourning rings, and Sykes did. Jealousy, perhaps? That could make an interesting novel... 

Thursday, 20 April 2017

After the Black Death

“It is June 1349. In the Hampshire village of Meonbridge, the worst plague in England’s history has wiped out half its population…”
So goes the blurb for my historical novel Fortune’s Wheel.
“Meonbridge” is broadly somewhere in the upper reaches of the valley of Hampshire’s River Meon. The Meon is not a grand river, only twenty-one miles in length, and for much of that length is a somewhat shallow chalk stream – in summer months, at any rate. The river rises in the South Downs, near the village of East Meon, and winds and meanders through the other villages of the Meon Valley, until it rushes, broader and deeper, out into the sea, the Solent, to the south of Titchfield.

Danse macabre by Michael Wolgemut, 1493
The plague referred to in the novel’s blurb is what we call the Black Death, the plague that struck England in 1348-50. At the time they referred to it as the Great Death, the mortality or the pestilence. Having spread across the world from Asia and throughout Europe, it arrived in England in June 1348, or thereabouts. Famously, it was once thought to have entered the country at Melcombe in Dorset, although some believe it might have come in closer to Southampton, or Bristol, but it’s also possible that it arrived in several places at about the same time. The disease lasted a matter of months in any one location, although overall, as it spread relentlessly across the country, it persisted for the best part of two years.
In Hampshire, it was in October 1348 that the effects of the plague began to be seen. We know that partly because William Edyngdon, the Bishop of Winchester, issued a letter to the clergy in his diocese…1
“We report with anguish the serious news which has come to our ears: that this cruel plague has now begun a savage attack on the coastal areas of England. We are struck by terrors lest (may God avert it!) this brutal disease should rage in any part of our city or diocese.”
Sadly, the bishop’s prayers were not answered, for the diocese of Winchester suffered gravely, with 48.8% of its clergy dying, the highest proportion for any diocese in England where figures were available.2

Extract from a Map of Hampshire, by Robert Morden, 1695,
centred on the Meon Valley.

Source: Portsmouth University, http://www.geog.port.ac.uk
In southern Hampshire as a whole, including the Meon Valley, roughly half of the populations of the towns and villages lost their lives. 
Titchfield is at the sea end of the Meon Valley. There, in the year January 1349 to January 1350, 423 tenant deaths were recorded on the manor,  compared to 56 in the previous year. In all, Titchfield might have lost perhaps as much as 80% of its population. In Corhampton, closer to the part of the Meon Valley where I think that “Meonbridge” is located, 55% of people died. In Bishops Waltham, a market town some five miles south west of Corhampton, it was more like 65%. In Funtley, further down the Meon Valley towards Titchfield, the numbers were not large (21 deaths) but it represented a huge percentage of the tenant population, and in Crofton, closer still to Titchfield, there appear to have been perhaps 92.5% mortality among tenants in the 1349-50 plague year.  
But losses were not evenly distributed. Although the places I have mentioned had relatively high losses, the plague apparently skirted some places altogether, while a few communities died out completely for a while. An example of the latter is Quob, a tiny hamlet near Funtley, where a manorial court statement in the plague year indicated that no-one survived in that community. However, as Tom Beaumont James says, in The Black Death in Hampshire, whilst there is a popular belief that many communities in England died out as a result of the Black Death, this is probably not true, but rather that the high mortality caused by the plague started a decline that was completed as much as a century or two later. Quob was tiny, perhaps just a few families, so it was undoubtedly easy enough for the plague to kill them all, but the little community did recover some years later. Whether or not a community recovered was undoubtedly affected by factors other than the Black Death, including the later outbreaks of plague, and perhaps the increasing mobility of working people, driving some away from the countryside and into towns.
It’s not unreasonable to extrapolate from what is recorded for real Hampshire to what might have happened in fictional Meonbridge. There, I have the plague arriving in December and being more or less over in early summer, which accords reasonably well with the evidence. The high levels of mortality among clergy in the Winchester diocese show that the plague was at its worst there during the first half of 1349. Evidence of the devastation in this part of Hampshire comes also from the records of the Bishop of Winchester’s manors, where much higher than normal deaths among tenants meant that many holdings became vacant and large tracts of agricultural land were therefore left uncultivated.
But, whatever the numbers, it is surely very hard to imagine how shattering the plague’s arrival must have been. The disease was of course quite terrible enough in itself, but it followed in the wake of two other appalling disasters: overpopulation and severe poverty in the first decade of the century, ruinous weather, disastrous harvests and devastating famines in the second.
Probably not nearly as cute as he looks!
We know now that this terrifying disease was caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, carried by a flea that lives on the black rat, although exactly how it was transmitted to people remains a matter of some debate.
The particular hideousness of the disease was described by many contemporary chroniclers. One, Gabriele de’ Mussis, a lawyer from Piacenza in Italy, in his Historia de Morbo, wrote thus3:
“First, out of the blue, a kind of chilly stiffness…a tingling sensation, as if they were being pricked by the points of arrows. [Then]…a fearsome attack which took the form of an extremely hard, solid boil [typically in the armpit or groin]. As it grew more solid, its burning heat caused the patients to fall into an acute and putrid fever, with severe headaches….In some cases it gave rise to an intolerable stench. In others it brought the vomiting of blood…Some died on the very day the illness took possession of them…the majority between the third and fifth day….Those who fell into a coma, or suffered a swelling or the stink of corruption, very rarely escaped.”
It sounds decidedly grim. The “boils” of course were the black pustules that we call “buboes”, giving the term bubonic plague, though not all victims suffered from this form of the disease. Some caught the pneumonic variety, which attacked the lungs, causing pain and an inability to breathe, then coughing up of blood and sputum. Apparently this form of the disease was invariably fatal, and quickly so, whereas it wasn’t unknown for bubonic plague victims to recover.
It seems that they may have been fortunate
enough to find a priest to shrive them…
Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411)
But whichever form of the disease friends and family members suffered, it must have been almost beyond horrifying to witness. And how fearful people must have been when they saw how randomly the plague seem to find its victims – rich and poor, old and young, reprobate and innocent, any and all were taken. Moreover, the very scale of affliction in a community often meant that there was no priest available to give the last rites to a dying victim – the priest being either simply too occupied with others, already dead himself, or perhaps he’d even abandoned his flock to try and save himself – bringing the added terror that your loved one might be about to die in sin, unconfessed, unshriven.
The particular terror of the plague undoubtedly tested relationships and familial bonds to the utmost. With a lack of understanding of how the disease was spread, and the terrifying speed with which it invariably dispatched its victims, some people did abandon loved ones in an attempt to escape their fate. Indeed, when some thought that the disease could be communicated through the gaze or breath or clothes of victims, it is perhaps unsurprising that many were left to die, not only in extreme agony and terror, but entirely alone. However, not everyone abandoned their loved ones to their fate – some stayed to care for them, and it is perhaps one of the mysteries of the disease that, given its apparent virulence, not everyone in a household was necessarily afflicted.
And how much more frightening was it to be told that this disease – like other natural (and perhaps man-made) disasters – was God’s punishment for man’s sin, for your sin? This was presumably what priests would have taught their congregations. In September 1348, at the original behest of the king, Edward III, a letter was sent from the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury to all the bishops in the southern counties, ordering them to arrange urgent prayers to be offered up against the plague. It is clear from the letter that the plague was seen as a punishment for sin.4
“Terrible is God towards the sons of men… Those whom he loves he censures and chastises;…he punishes their shameful deeds in various ways… He…allows plagues, miserable famines, conflicts, wars and other forms of suffering to arise and uses them to terrify and torment men and so drive out their sins.”
Yet people might well have wondered which of their sins could be so great that God would want to punish them so severely.

But it is what happened after the Black Death had moved on that is the underlying premise of Fortune’s Wheel. I didn’t want to write a novel about the Black Death. Rather, I was interested in what happened after it had passed on, leaving communities with fewer neighbours, empty houses, unfarmed land. How on earth did people cope with such calamity? I suppose that medieval society was more hardened to natural and human disasters than many of us are today, and it seems that people in fact rebuilt their lives quite quickly.
Social change had already begun in rural manorial communities, with the feudal system of lords and peasants starting to break down. But the huge demographic shift that resulted from the simultaneous deaths of so many people during the plague accelerated that change. It is an interesting period of social history.
For those who survived, opportunities presented themselves for demanding higher wages and taking on untenanted land, which generally brought benefits to ordinary people and caused problems for the wealthier landowners. The old rules about tenants not being allowed to leave their manor were largely swept away, giving peasants more freedom to choose where to work and for what price. Women too had improved opportunities, which lasted for perhaps the next 150 years or so. On the whole, conditions improved for many ordinary English men and women: with higher wages, and fewer mouths to feed, they ate better, and could afford better homes.
In 1351, the government, worried that the old way of life was being overturned, brought in the Statute of Labourers, which attempted to curb the demands of peasants for higher wages, attacking both the peasants themselves and those employers (manor lords) who were willing to meet their demands. But it didn’t really work. Wages did rise, and some who’d been previously landless were able to become tenant farmers but paying money rent for their land rather than giving feudal service. Indeed, the feudal system eventually broke down completely, giving peasant populations a greater degree of freedom to manage their own lives.
Nonetheless, imagine the heartache that people must have felt, the turmoil they must have faced, in society as a whole, and also at a personal level. Those of us who, today, live in villages or small town communities may know, or at least be acquainted with, a great many of our neighbours. But we in the twenty-first century generally live quite dispersed lives, having our homes in these communities, but probably working elsewhere. But in former centuries, when communities worked together too, the death of half of your neighbours must have been unimaginably devastating.
Death surely never looked so jolly!
Women lost husbands, men lost wives, and both lost children. Young people were orphaned and had to learn to fend for themselves. Workers realised they were now a scarce resource and had some bargaining power, and said so, while their lords and masters tried hard to cling on to the status quo and keep the workers in their place. As the peasants rebelled against the old ways, priests railed against the upsetting of God’s pre-ordained social order, and preyed upon people’s fears of further divine retribution for their sinful lives.
Yet, amidst all this turmoil and undoubted continuing fear, normal life simply had to continue: fields had to be ploughed and sown, crops harvested, meals made, animals nurtured. People would still fall in and out of love. Babies would still be born and children cherished. The wheel of fortune forever turns…

  1. Referred to in The Black Death, edited by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester University Press, 1994, p.115 
  2. I owe my information about the 1348-50 plague in Hampshire to the excellent pamphlet The Black Death in Hampshire by Tom Beaumont James (Hampshire Papers, No.18, , Hampshire County Council, 1999).
  3. Referred to in The Black Death, edited by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester University Press, 1994, pp.24-5.
  4. Referred to in The Black Death, edited by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester University Press, 1994, p.113.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Bath's Secret Leper Hospital by Katherine Webb

I've recently been finding out as much as I can about the Holloway and Beechen Cliff areas of Southern Bath, to use as a setting in my next novel. It's a fascinating part of the city, though much altered by two catastrophes in its recent history. Firstly the Baedeker raids of the Second World War, which I wrote about in a previous blog post. Holloway and other areas in the south of Bath were badly damaged - many houses sat in ruins for decades after the war, and were never rebuilt. And then, in the mid 1960s, came the aggressive redevelopment that has become known as the 'Sack of Bath'. By this time, many of the C17th, C18th and C19th cottages in the area, which had long housed poorer members of Bath's society - small artisans and the working classes - had fallen into disrepair and been categorised as slum dwellings. They were torn down, wholesale, to make way for road improvements and a raft of 'modern' (ugly), cheaply built houses and flats.

The demolition of Victorian artisan housing at the foot of Beechen Cliff in 1966

The redevelopment was so brutal - and deemed by many as so unnecessary - that it actually led to new, tighter development laws. There are a great many photographs of what was lost, and what was built in its place, available to view (but sadly not to reproduce here) on the bathintime.co.uk website - just search for Holloway. So, not much remains of the district as it would have looked at the time I am setting my book - in 1919, and in 1942 in the aftermath of the bombing raids. But there are still little bits of architectural magic here and there, and one that has particularly caught my eye is Number 90, Holloway; aka Magdalen Cottage; aka the old leper hospital.

S & N Buck's 1734 drawing looking west over Bath. Beechen Cliff is the high wooded hill on the left; Holloway the steeply descending housing going towards the bridge

Holloway, as it turns out, is a truly ancient bit of road. It was originally built by the Romans as part of the Fosse Way that linked Lincoln to Exeter via Bath, but it's likely that they built along an existing, far older trackway. There's some dispute as to whether the name 'Holloway', which is found all over the UK, means 'holy way', ie leading to a holy site of some kind; or merely 'hollow way' as in a sunken road. Both definitions fit for Bath's Holloway, since not only did it lead to the Roman shrine to the goddess Sulis, and later to a Christian abbey and city associated with St Dunstan, popular with medieval pilgrims, but it is also cut into the steep slope of the hill.

An early C19th map of Bath, showing Holloway curving around Beechen Cliff towards the city

At the bottom end of Holloway, about five hundred metres beyond the remnants of the medieval city walls, sits Magdalen Chapel; and a few metres further down the hill sits No. 90 Holloway: a small, plain Georgian cottage bearing a tantalising stone stating: 'This hospital was rebuilt in 1761 AD.' The cottage's origins, however, like the chapel's, are medieval. Sitting a safe distance outside the city walls, this was Bath's first leper hospital. Mercifully, given that it was in a poor state of repair by the 1960s, it was saved from demolition by belonging (and still belonging) to the St John's Hospital Foundation, who still do excellent work in Bath providing housing and resources for vulnerable people.

The east end of Magdalen Chapel on the left; the small, detached cottage further down the hill is No. 90

In the 1170s, a monk suffering from leprosy travelled from Reading to Bath in search of a cure - Bath's thermal spring waters had been reputed to have healing powers since Roman times. It is likely that this monk, thought to have been named Elias, would have stayed at Magdalen Cottage. The chapel and cottage had been gifted to Bishop John of Tours by one Walter Hussey, upon the foundation of Bishop John's cathedral priory in Bath in 1100. Bishop John was also a physician, and it seems likely that it was he who first decided to use the cottage as a hospital for lepers. Beechen Cliff has many natural springs, so the cottage would have had its own supply of clean drinking water.

The name 'hospital' here is possibly misleading. There was no cure for leprosy. Upon admission to a Lazar House, as they were known, sufferers had to make a will and cut all ties with the world. It was a form of living death, so 'hospital' is meant more in the sense of 'hospitality' -  a place to stay - than as we now interpret the word, as a place of treatment and healing. St Mary Magdalen Hospital gets a mention in the 1212 will of the Bishop of Lincoln, and the 'Master and Brethren' were then granted royal protection in 1256. As you can see in the photograph below, the cottage is tiny. Behind it there is a small yard, and then the land drops away steeply again, towards the river. It is unlikely that, when rebuilt in the C15th and then again in 1761, it was built any smaller than the original footprint. So, even sleeping several to a room, it could not have housed many unfortunate residents at a time, and in very cramped conditions. And, of course, no amount of bathing in Bath's waters would have effected a cure for the disease.

The old leper hospital. I'm no architectural historian, but it looks to me as though parts of the older structure are visible at the feet of the rebuilt C18th walls
By the late medieval period, leprosy had become a far rarer condition in England. However, such was the reputation of Bath's waters, there are records of lepers still visiting to bathe far later than this - into the C16th. The fortunes of the hospital rose and fell over the years. By 1486 it had fallen into a desperate state, and housed only two or three impoverished people. It was restored by Prior John Cantlow in 1491, after being described by Pope Innocent VIII as 'a ruinous hospital'; declined again and was restored, again, thanks to a bequest, in 1560. However, soon after this, in the 1570s, a new hospital for lepers was built inside the city walls, near the baths, with its own separate bathing pool, and it is likely that Magdalen Hospital began another period of decline. By the time it was rebuilt in 1761, it was being used as a refuge for the mentally handicapped; which is a very sad thought.

Magdalen Chapel, with the hospital visible just down the hill, in a drawing from 1829

By the time the cottage was listed Grade II in 1950, the interior was described as being in a very poor state, with no original features remaining. In 1954 a timber lean-to kitchen was added to the rear of the property, and it may have been at this time that the cottage was used as a private dwelling for the first time. It was extended and updated in the 1960s, again in 1997, and most recently in 2011-12. It is now let out to private tenants by the St John's Foundation. It is, not unexpectedly, reputed to be haunted, with a variety of ghost stories relating to its history - a reputation I plan to make the most of in my novel! It's a fascinating little building, in an interesting part of the city, and its history gives an intriguing snapshot of the history of Bath before and after its famous Georgian period.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Book of the Book - Celia Rees

Every time I plan a new book, one of the first things I do, once the idea has gelled, once I know it will be a book, is to buy the Book of the Book. The one above is the Book of the book I'm writing now.

Book of Sovay
Book of The Fool's Girl

These are two I made earlier...

I have a weakness for notebooks, as many writers do. This is the perfect excuse to indulge my vice. The Book of the Book is special, to me anyway, so it deserves to be handsome and expensive. Once I have the book, the right book (selection is important, too) them I'm ready. 

The Book begins with the starting point, first ideas. Something I saw, remembered, a place I visited, even an object which ignited an idea that I knew would be a book. I collect things, postcards, flyers, programmes, photographs, it's part of what I do, so usually, I have some record of that first spark.  

First page for Sovay

First page for The Fool's Girl (originally titled Illyria)
From here, the ideas begin to accrue. Not all of them will be used. Some will be discarded but all signify something. To embark on a large project, I need to be excited. Collecting, visiting places, taking photographs, going to museums and art galleries, finding pictures of people who could be reference to characters, images of objects from the period, helps me to tap into the initial rush that having the idea gave me in the first place. It fuels the spark.     

Initial ideas for Sovay

Fool's Girl - walk along the South Bank
I may, or may not, have started writing at this point. Maybe I'm working on something else, maybe I just don't feel ready, but once I begin to write, the Book tracks the book's growth and progress. The Book is a record, not just of what the book is about, you can read it for that, but of the writing of the book, with all the wrong directions taken, dead ends and frustrations encountered, as well as the pure joy of making new discoveries, finding the thing that will fire that initial excitement again,  help me find the right path. 

The Book follows the patterns and rhythms of my writing. Each entry is dated (mostly) so it gives a rough history. It is also a record of the places that I visited, the research I undertook as I went along, so a page might have a coaster from a coffee shop, a restaurant card, a cafĂ© bill, an entry ticket. 

Not everything finds its way onto the page and, if it does, it might just be a line or two. Sometimes, I can't even remember why I found this, or that so fascinating, but the pages work as snapshots of what was going through my mind at the time I was writing; they also work like time capsules, taking me back to a particular stage of the writing. The pages show how I constructed a scene, a setting, a character, out of all sorts of bits and pieces, not just what I needed to know but what I found interesting, the detail needed to breathe life and veracity into a particular passage. 

The Book tracks the life of the book from first beginnings to the end of the writing. On the last page is the date the book was finished and sent off and the cover. I could not have imagined either thing  when I had that first idea.