Monday, 20 August 2018

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

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


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

Chalencon's streets Photos © Author 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The illustrated sign shows how it was done:

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

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

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

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Empress-less :( By L.J. Trafford

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

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

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

Wife Number One 

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

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

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

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

Wife Number Two

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

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

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

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


This rebellion went beyond a slightly low cut dress

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

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

Presumably Tiberius did not take her up on her offer.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

So unbearable that Tiberius bailed:

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

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

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

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

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

Single Once More

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

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

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

The Capri Years  

Capri. Photo by Radomil

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End 

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

Saturday, 18 August 2018

The History Girls’ Wunderkammer - Celia Rees

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 August 2018

William Blake and the Bunhill Fields Celebration by Penny Dolan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The building is Westminster Abbey.

The boy? His name is William Blake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penny Dolan

Thursday, 16 August 2018

The SS Great Britain: Sue Purkiss

A couple of months ago, I wrote about Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I'm afraid you're going to be hearing a good deal more about him and his ship, the SS Great Britain, because I recently started volunteering at the restored ship which is back in the dry dock in Bristol where it was originally built and then launched, in 1843 - and I'm finding it endlessly fascinating.

A visitor rather shyly asked me yesterday why it's so special, and you may be wondering the same. Well - at the time it was built, it was the biggest ship in the world. It was the first ship made of iron (which was why it was able to be so big; believe it or not, an iron ship is lighter than a wooden ship), and it was the first ocean-going liner to have a screw propellor, which made it much faster than sail-driven ships - or even than the paddle steamers which preceded it. It was also the world's first luxury liner. In many ways, then, it was the grandmother of all our modern ships.

The weather deck of the SS Great Britain

The ship has been restored with enormous imagination, skill and flair: so that as you wander through the elegant dining saloon or peer into the cabins with their tiny bunks, it's easy to imagine what it would have been like to travel on the ship as a first class passenger. And then you walk along the dimly lit corridor and enter steerage, and see how the other half lived - and how they ate: moving from six-course dinners with fresh meat and elaborate desserts - to ship's biscuit, watery stew and porridge, all prepared in a crowded kitchen in the centre of the ship near the engine room. You hear the sounds, too, and smell the smells and experience the heat - there was no air-conditioning, and no heating.

The ship was intended to sail from Bristol to New York, but she had only done this trip a few times when she ran aground at Dundrum in Ireland, due to an error on the part of the captain. And there she lay for twelve months, when Brunel got her refloated. But of course she was badly damaged, and she was vastly under-insured. She was sold to Gibbs, Bright & Co, which refitted her to travel between Liverpool and Melbourne in Australia, carrying migrants and, on occasion, huge nuggets of gold back from the gold fields. She did 32 round-the-world trips, and it's said that around a million Australians and New Zealanders are descended from people who went out on the Great Britain.

As well as the ship itself, there is the new Being Brunel Museum (which features all sorts of clever things - more of that another time), the dockside, the dry dock which is beneath the ship and allows you to see the rusty underneath of the ship, in a very fragile state after years of being immersed in sea water in the Falklands - and there is the Dockyard Museum, which shows the history of the ship - and of its passengers. In the Dockyard Museum, there's a new feature: the boarding card stand. This is one of the many ways in which the stories of individual passengers are brought to life - as well as Brunel and the ship itself.

Some of the boarding cards

It is a spin-off from a project called Global Stories, which seeks to find stories associated with the passengers who travelled on the Great Britain. There is now quite a lot of information about some of these passengers, and boarding cards have been created for them. You can choose one - or more - and use the QR code on the card to find out more about the passengers. I picked out Rachel Henning, who came from my county, Somerset - and I'll tell you more about her next time!

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

The lifeline of libraries in an age of loneliness by Fay Bound Alberti

On Twitter this week, the writer Neil Gaiman responded to the debate on libraries’ decline. Rejecting claims that libraries were obsolete, he suggested that they are actually “more relevant and useful than they were 30 years ago”. He’s right, and not only because libraries lend books. 

Libraries have political, social, emotional and educational relevance. Their history is long and complex. The earliest libraries, based on cuneiform script on clay tablets, date back to 2600 BCE. They recorded mostly business transactions and inventories of goods. Over 30,000 clay tablets from the 2600 year old Library of Ashurbanipal remind us that the Middle East was, for centuries, a global centre of knowledge and education in medicine, art and culture. 

In the sixth century, the great libraries of the Mediterranean world were Constantinople and Alexandria. Egypt's Library of Alexandria is the most famous library of Classical antiquity. Dedicated to the Muses, the nine goddesses of the arts, the library was patronised by the Ptolemaic dynasty and a global site of scholarship from the 3rd century BC until the Roman Conquest. Filled with papyrus scrolls, the Library is most famous now for having burned down, resulting in a devastating loss of treasures. 

The Library of Alexandria
In the ancient world, libraries were a means to announce power, status, identity and civic pride; the same drive that was behind the expansion of libraries in the Enlightenment West. This so-called golden age of libraries saw many important European libraries being founded. The British Library was established in 1753 and Chetham's Library in Manchester, said to be the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, opened in 1653. The Mazarine Library and the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève were also founded in Paris and the Austrian National Library in Vienna. 

An aisle of Chetham's Library, Manchester

The principal of libraries being open to the public was increasingly commonplace, reflecting their educational and civil status. Knowledge mattered; to be seen to be knowledgable arguably mattered more. Where once libraries open to the public had chained their books to the desks, the principle of lending libraries provided a means for people to carry that learning into their own homes, providing they had enough literary, space and leisure time. 

The Public Libraries Act of 1850 gave local boroughs the power to establish lending libraries, while the Education Act of 1870 expanded literacy. These two moments connected the desire for civic pride to the equally strong desire to educate the working classes, and to encourage their leisure time to be both clean and moral. Libraries represented civility and the pursuit of knowledge for social advance, and for its own sake.

What has changed? Why are libraries no longer seen as crucial to the social fabric, and therefore not worthy of investment? Why have there been such massive cuts to library budgets since 2010? 

Leaving aside the social indifference of successive Tory governments, and the wholesale impoverishment of institutions and structures that represent collective interest (the NHS, state schools, care homes), there is no longer any definitive sense of what kind of knowledge matters. In the age of Trump there has been a movement away from intellectual reason towards primitive impulse; we might argue that this precondition allowed Trump's rise, rather than being a direct result of his presidency. 

But there are other reasons too, including a lack of financial investment and support. Part of the reason why libraries are supposedly in decline is the growth of digitisation. More resources online, it is argued, provides better access than outdated buildings, with limited books; it also eliminates the problems of access: geographical, economic, physical. But not everyone has access to reliable internet resources. Books and papers and physical objects are critically needed in countries with dodgy internet connections and limited electricity. 

Besides, libraries are not just spaces to hold books. They are filled with insightful librarians and curators, who can link you to the source that you need (and even borrow it from other libraries); perhaps not as quickly as Google, but certainly with more humanity.

As a girl growing up in rural Wales, the weekly visit across the border to Shropshire town of Oswestry and its library, gave me hope. Searching the shelves, feeling limitless as my gaze drifted from Mills and Boon to Shakespeare, from Dryden’s poetry to local history, there were options available to me. Potential and places that reached beyond the narrowness of the shelves and the chlorine smell of the nearby municipal pool.

Oswestry Library
As a lonely child with a difficult family life, I treasured those moments of escape. I loved everything about the routine: the piling up of six books - SIX! - with their tattered and grubby plastic covers, cherry-picked from a dozen different shelves; queuing for the librarian; smiling as she expressed interest (or sometimes shock) in what I was choosing; watching as she flicked through the pages to find the sweet spot and oh the muffled clunk of the date stamp, those were physical moments of bliss. 

Carrying that stack home, holding it on my lap as a shield that protected me from the inevitable arguments of the car that backfired, squirrelling it up in my room where I could smell the pages and look at all the different people who had borrowed each book before me - or the joy of being the one single stamp of newness - was a special kind of bliss. I belonged to a community of readers who stretched beyond the narrow, sad confines of my bedroom. 

And for me that is the point. Libraries are far more than buildings to hold books. They are pivots of connections between individuals and the world outside; not only in the date stamps that nestle aside one another, but also in a more literal, physical way. Libraries are spaces where anyone can go, to browse, to sit, to read the newspapers they can't afford to buy, to keep warm, to think, to meet other people. And in an age of loneliness this collective, free-to-use space is crucially important, and critically endangered. 

Books bring people together, literally, figuratively, physically. When we imagine that libraries aren’t needed, and we allow governments to shut them down on the basis they aren’t viable, or God forbid necessary, we toe a line of individualism that weakens society as a whole. 

I don’t use libraries like I did when I was a child, though half the adult population do. I did try, when my own children were younger, and the weekly run to the library to perform those rituals of choosing, carrying, stamping (and inevitably mislaying) are treasured moments of motherhood for me. The moments of drawn out time are a distant memory for me - and no doubt for many, caught up in our technologically driven, imperative age where every second counts, and Amazon Prime has a same day delivery option. 

The depressing thing about libraries closing down is that lack of use becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; an ideological sleight of hand by which cut backs appear justified. Deprive public libraries of millions of pounds to buy resources, to fund decent opening hours and enough staff, and people inevitably spend less time there. Create a narrative of decline and obsolescence and libraries become - especially the local, public libraries that sustained me as a child, redefined as an unnecessary and unsustainable expense. 

Communities need libraries. Like they need hospitals and schools and roads and utilities. Libraries are spaces of learning and information, yes, but they are also spaces of acceptance and belonging and engagement in ways that are neglected in the 21st century. Many libraries are changing to adapt to the needs of their users; some have knitting circles and board game groups, tea mornings and yoga alongside Harry Potter and Pride and Prejudice. And adaptation may be key to this survival. But don't let people say libraries don't matter. They have never mattered more. 

My new book, A Biography of Loneliness will be published in Spring 2019 by Oxford University Press. 

You can follow my blog and website for updates: 

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

The Victorians meet the Geisha - by Lesley Downer

Playing the shamisen by Felice Beato (1860s)
In 1867 a 24 year old Englishman called Ernest Satow was travelling around Japan. Satow could speak and read Japanese - he was the legation interpreter - and had heard all about the ‘famed singing and dancing girls’ of Ozaka (Osaka). He was referring to geisha, though the word with all its titillating associations had yet to enter the English language. Japan had been open only a few years and no one in the west knew much about it, nor had the geisha and the myths that surround them become the source of fascination that they now are.

Satow went to a party where some performed but was not impressed. ‘Some of them were certainly pretty, others decidedly ugly, but we thought their looks ruined any case by the blackened teeth and white-lead-powdered faces,’ he wrote.
Kiyoka of Shimbashi
by Kazumasa Ogawa, 1902

For centuries there had always been twenty stalwart Dutch merchants who inhabited the tiny Dutch trading post of Dejima, but apart from them Japan had been closed to westerners. Westerners first arrived in any quantity in 1853, when the American Commodore Matthew Perry hove into view with his four gunships bristling with cannon. The following year his crew billeted at the port of Shimoda demanded women. Anxious to protect respectable women and to limit contact between foreigners and ordinary Japanese, the shogunate sent them geisha, who were in any case the only sort of women suitable for such a job. Having enjoyed their company and spawned a fair number of mixed raced babies, the Americans wrote in shocked tones in their journals and reports about what a sexually lax race the Japanese were.

Thus from the very start of western interaction with Japan, the western arrivals - initially entirely men - had a distinctly ambivalent attitude towards Japan and Japanese women.
Kobayakawa Okichi of Shimoda by
Kobazakawa Kizoshi, 1930s

In 1858 the first American Consul, Townsend Harris, and his Dutch secretary, Hendrick Heusken, arrived. They too demanded women and put their negotiations on hold until they got them. As before, the only women available for the job were geisha. Townsend Harris was given a geisha called Okichi and Ofuku moved in with Heusken. According to legend Harris later left Okichi without a second thought and she ended up turning to drink and drowning herself.

Townsend Harris’s negotiations forced the Japanese to allow westerners to settle in Japan. They built a town - Yokohama - to house them. They also provided a pleasure quarters just outside, on the not unreasonable assumption (to the Japanese way of thinking at the time) that westerners, being men, would need one. There were geisha, courtesans, dancing, feasting - but mysteriously not many westerners went. The Japanese managers finally worked out that while westerners had the same impulses as them, they preferred to satisfy them surreptitiously, rather than be seen walking into the pleasure quarters in broad daylight.
The Teahouse Beauty
by Utagawa Toyokuni (1769 - 1825)

One of the most sympathetic visitors to Japan was Ernest Satow’s friend and colleague at the British Legation, Algernon Mitford, the grandfather of the Mitford sisters. He spent three years there in the 1860s and was very impressed by the orderly society he saw. He visited the most famous pleasure quarters of all, the Yoshiwara, which was, he wrote, a decorous place where prostitution was confined and ritualised and kept well away from ordinary people. Yokohama, however, with its western seamen and adventurers, was almost ‘as leprous a place as the London Haymarket’ - prostitution being, of course, at least as prevalent back home.

Eventually Japan opened up fully and westerners began to flood in, bringing with them all their Victorian preconceptions and prejudices.

Early visitors were shocked to the core to discover that men and women cheerfully bathed together in large hot baths. They concluded the Japanese were licentious, promiscuous and immodest, with a shocking lack of moral fibre - not surprising, given that they were pagans and thus inferior to the European master race. Then in 1882 one British visitor, well ahead of his time, began to wonder if perhaps the Japanese ‘simply did not look at each other’s nakedness with lust or lewdness, inconceivable though this may seem to the European mind.’

The easily shocked Victorians were also horrified by the way Japanese women casually slipped their arms out of their sleeves and rolled down their kimonos to breast feed in public. And once or twice a Victorian was out riding when a whole family- grandparents, parents and children - leapt from the bath and rushed out stark naked to have a good look at the extraordinary sight.
Girl playing a Gekin by
Baron Raimund von Stillfried, 1890

But the Japanese soon got the measure of western prudery and thereafter kept their clothes on, at least when westerners were around.

It didn’t take long before the word ‘geisha’ entered the English language. To this day people still worry about whether geisha do or don’t. There’s also the confusion between who is a geisha and who is an ordinary girl in a kimono.

One problem is that westerners are ignorant of the different sorts of kimono (the word just means ‘clothing’) and the different ways of wearing it and what they signify and thus can’t distinguish between respectable kimono-wearing women and geisha or courtesans. As a result geisha and ordinary young Japanese women exist ‘interchangeably in the western imagination in the twilight zone between respectability and decadence, between prudery and immodesty’ (to quote a wonderful book on the subject called Butterfly’s Sisters, by Yoko Kawaguchi.)

All of which is rather satisfying to western men, who have long been convinced that Asian women are of deliciously dubious morality, a quality embodied above all in the concept of the geisha.
Kyoto maiko by me

When I lecture on the geisha, I start out by explaining that the word means ‘artiste’ and that geisha undergo a rigorous five year training in classical Japanese dance and music, akin to becoming an opera singer or joining the Bolshoi ballet. But no matter how often I repeat that geisha are independent, empowered women, sooner or later someone will stand up and ask, ‘But are they prostitutes?’ The fantasy that geisha are ‘submissive’, trained in the arts of pleasing men, is one that western men are not prepared to relinquish.

My latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan and is out now in paperback. 

If you’re curious about geisha you could also take a look at my oldie but goldie, Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World

And the marvellous Butterfly’s Sisters by Yoko Kawaguchi, Yale University Press, 2010
For more see

Old photographs and woodblock prints of geisha courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.