Monday, 10 December 2018

The Good Death II – Michelle Lovric

Five years ago I posted a piece about a fascinating and little-known Venetian scuola – The Company of Christ and the Good Death, the kind men who retrieved drowned bodies from the canals and provided funerals for those corpses who were not reclaimed by any family or friend.

On many afternoons, over many years, I’ve stood wistfully outside this 1644 building at San Marcuola and tried to imagine what it was like inside. It was always closed. Until I could see the interior for myself, I could not use it in my latest novel.

My interest was regenerated when I came across this strange painting at the tiny museum above Sant’Apollonia. It shows the Company at work, accompanying a corpse, dressed in extraordinary and rather terrifying costumes. (Apologies for the bad photograph, snatched against the rules.)

Then, on a recent Saturday afternoon, I limped off the vaporetto at San Marcuola. I was tired, full of notes that desperately needed transcribing (before even I myself would be unable to decipher my doctor’s-daughter scrawls). But, for some reason, instead of turning right towards home, I wandered off to the left. And so I came across the entrance of the scuola – not only open for the first time in my experience, but also bedecked with intriguing objects.

The scuola had been opened for a charity sale to support the parish.

The items for sale would be described in Italian as 'cianfrusaglie' - stuff/bits & pieces. A judgmental person might translate 'cianfrusaglie' as 'junk' or even 'frippery'. I am not that person.

You can guess how fast I scampered inside, and how earnestly I asked for permission to take photographs. Here they are.

Surely these are the processional lamps brandished by the Company in the painting above left?

The building’s interior appears greatly foreshortened – there are two rooms and a staircase behind the altar. Surely these steps (below) lead up to the chambers where the bodies were laid out and prepared for burial. What remained up there? I was shooed away from a full inspection when I dared to open the doors for this tantalizing glimpse.

Now my imagination needs to declutter the space and find my way to its original state, with at least three important paintings on the wall, the candle-holders arrayed with fragrant wax and disposed with dignity, men quietly praying.

I’m working on it.

Michelle Lovric's website 

Sunday, 9 December 2018

What to Bring to a Saturnalia Feast

Our Saturnalia host, Steve Cockings
by Caroline Lawrence

For many years, my motive for studying Classics and writing historical fiction has been an intense desire to know what it would really have been like in the ancient world of Greece and Rome. So when I was invited to a Saturnalia banquet in Bedford around this time last year, I jumped at the chance. 

Steve Cockings is a re-enactor who loves to collect real and replica artefacts. He is a stickler for detail and has read several early drafts of my books, always coming back with valuable corrections.

Alisa, Simon, Caroline and Elizabeth

Alisa fights in many countries
There were five of us in all. Steve, his wife, gladiatrix Alisa and her husband Simon, also a re-enactor. We all dressed up in Roman garb. Although we didn't recline and there were no frescoes on the walls, we ate recipes from Apicius off real Samian plates with antique Roman spoons to the flickering light of oil-lamps. Roman music played softly in the background and Steve had prepared Saturnalia gifts for each of us: epigrams of the poet Martial, translated into English, written on papyrus, wrapped around a candle and tied with a thin strip of red-dyed leather.  

hard boiled eggs in sauce
The three course meal consisted of:
1) Gustatio (Starter)
• Hard boiled eggs in a sauce of honey, fish sauce, ground pepper, celery seed and chopped almonds.
2) Mensa Prima (Main Course)
• Chicken in Thyme (chicken, ground pepper, thyme, cumin, fennel, mint, rosemary, wine vinegar chopped dates, honey and olive oil)
• Leeks with Celery in a pepper honey sauce.  
• Mushrooms with a Rich Sauce of honey, olive oil, ground pepper and celery seed.
3) Mensa Secunda (Dessert)
• Poached Pears in a sauce of cinnamon, cumin, honey, sweet white wine, olive oil, egg yolks and nutmeg
• Walnut Cake
• Figs, grapes and apples

pears poached in sauce of honey, wine, olive oil and spices

The experience was illuminating in many ways. 

I saw what felt right. 

I saw what was very un-Roman.

I saw what might have been improved. 

It is traditional to give gifts on the Saturnalia. Next time I attend such a dinner I’ll know what gifts to bring. 

a thirsty bronze double-flame oil-lamp
I. Olive oil 
Oil-lamps guzzle oil and need to be refilled fairly often. I took one of my own replica oil-lamps one with a chariot design bought from the British Museum gift shop perhaps a decade ago. I had a piece of twine in it but Steve said it should be plaited linen. The thicker the wick, the brighter the flame. At one point I tried to ‘trim the wick’ with a tiny pair of real Roman tweezers and sent a shower of angry embers onto the linen tablecloth. 

linen wicks
II. Linen wicks
I should have brought some proper linen wicks. You can order them on Amazon, mainly in cotton. They are intended for use with kerosene lamps. 

III. A fan 
Every time a wick was replaced or oil replenished I got a lungful of smoke. A papyrus or silk fan would have discreetly dispersed the offending miasma.  

A loom woven linen napkin from Naples
IV. A napkin
Even using my dual-purpose Roman spoon (one end pointy, one end spoonish), my fingers quickly became very sticky. Most ancient Romans carried a napkin down the front of their tunics. This multi-purpose item can be spread over your clothes to avoid stains, used to wipe mouth and fingers, as a handkerchief for a runny nose and as a personal doggy bag. 

real and replica glass vessels
V. Wine
You need wine to wash down those strange Roman dishes. I bought the cheapest, blackest wine I could find: a £4 bottle of Australian Shiraz from my local Co-op. It was fabulous. 

VI. A replica beaker or jug  
In Roman times it was considered barbaric to drink wine neat. What with watering down the wine, you need as many beakers and jugs as possible. 

Saturnalia scene from The Roman Mysteries TV series
VII. Pillei 
Professor Llewelyn Morgan, an illustrious Oxford Latinist, saw my tweets and asked, ‘Where are your pillei?!’ And he’s right. We should be wearing the conical hats that show we are free from the usual restrictions. A real pilleum would have been made of coloured wool or felt. For a cheap one buy a Santa hat at Poundland and take off the fake fur trim. After all, the origin of Santa hats are the Saturnalia. 

clay figurines of girls dicing
VIII. Dice
I should have brought dice. They can make everything fun. Roll the dice to see who gets the real Samian ware plate. Roll the dice to see who gets the antique Roman spoon. Roll the dice to see who gets the last poached pear in a sauce of honey, cinnamon and olive oil. 

CD of Roman Music
IX. Music
Ideally a live performance of lyre, tambourine, pan-pipes and aulos. But re-imagined Roman music will do nicely. Our host was playing the very well-researched CD Musica Romana Pugnate on a vintage boom box hidden behind a tapestry. But you could play tunes curated by Armand D'Angour as well, easily found on YouTube. 

X. Epigrams of Martial 
It is my personal theory that these were the origins of the mottoes in Christmas crackers. A little two-line poem that also served as a gift tag. Ideally on papyrus in both Latin and English.

Epigram of Martial on papyrus

And speaking of Martial, here is one of his Saturnalia poems: 

Unctis falciferi senis diebus
regnator quibus imperat fritillus
versu ludere non laborioso
permittis, puto, pilleata Roma. 

In these well-oiled days of scythe-bearing Saturn
When the dice box is king of all
I pray that all you cap-wearing Romans
Will permit me some playful poems... 

(Martial XI.6)

Saturday, 8 December 2018

'The American POW's Who Built A Church In England' by Karen Maitland

St Michael and All Angels, Princetown, Dartmoor
Photographer: Theroadislong
Situated 436 metres above sea level, St Michael and All Angels in Princetown, Devon is one of the highest locations for a church in the country. But it is also unique in being the only church in England to have been constructed by American prisoners of war. Most British people know that Napoleonic prisoners were incarcerated in England, but we often forget that American POWs were also imprisoned in England at the beginning of the 19th century.

The granite church sits on the top of windswept and wild Dartmoor, close to the notorious Dartmoor Prison. The building of the church began in 1812, by French prisoners and was completed in 1815 by American POWs. The prisoners had to quarry the hard stone in all weathers, summer and winter, shape them and then transport the great blocks to the site, before each piece could be hoisted in place.

During the war of 1812 between Britain and America, which lasted 32 months, many American prisoners of war were captured during sea-battles They were initially held on the prison ships in Plymouth, ironically, where the Pilgrim Fathers had sailed from, but after riots on board, the authorities decided to move them to the remote and grim prison at Princetown on Dartmoor. In groups of 250, they were marched a gruelling 17 miles up onto the moors, to Princetown, often swathed in mist and rain, surrounded by forbidding tors and deadly sucking mires.
Dartmoor Prison in the Mist
Photographer: Rob Purvis

The prison had been built between 1806-1809 to house 10,000 men. Between 1809 and 1812, 8,000 Napoleonic prisoners had passed through it’s gates, and 6,500 US sailors were imprisoned there in the years between 1813-1815. Conditions were bleak and harsh, with frequent floggings, though these were often ordered by the prisoners’ own courts. But in contrast, there are reports of music and plays being performed by the prisoners. Sadly, more than 280 Americans died in prison from food poisoning, measles, pneumonia and small pox. The stained-glass east window in the church was eventually installed as a memorial to them.

Perez Drinkwater, from Maine, a lieutenant on the schooner Lucy, was captured by the British Navy in 1813. He wrote to his brother in 1814, one of the few letters ever to make it out of Dartmoor Prison.
'We arrived in Plymouth on 20th January was put on board the prison-ship Brave on 24th and landed from her on 31st and marched to this place in a snow storm. The prison is situated on one of the highest places in England and it either snows or rains the whole year round and is cold enough to wear a great coat the whole time. There is 10,000 men here now but the French are about going home … we have but 1lb and a half of black bread and about 3 ounces of beef and a little beef tea to drink and all that makes us one meal a day.
Interior of St Michael's Church with the British, American 
and French Flags.

He also complains about getting little peace between the ‘Englishmen’ and ‘creepers’ (lice and bedbugs) which force them up in the mornings. What seems to have been worse for him is that he had nothing to do or think about except his imprisonment. Working on the church, for some of the prisoners at least, must have at least got them outside those high walls for a few precious hours.

At the end of the war in 1815, there was a delay of some months in releasing and repatriating the prisoners. That and food shortages, led to what some reports called a ‘protest’, others called an ‘uprising’ or ‘riot,’ which was quelled with armed forced. Tragically, seven American prisoners were shot dead and somewhere between 31 and 60 were wounded according to differing accounts.
Some of the small granite stones
marking graves of prisoners 
after 1900.

The churchyard of St Michael's contains over 1,000 burials. When Dartmoor prison was reopened for convicts in 1850, prisoners were buried anonymously in their own area in the churchyard and without a grave marker, unless their families could pay for one. Now, thanks to local researchers their names and history are recorded inside the church. By 1900’s, prisoners were allowed a small granite marker with just their initials and date of death, though when I examined these rows of little stones, even these scant details seem largely unreadable now. There is, however, a large granite cross, with an arrow on each corner, carved by the prisoners themselves to remember all their fellow inmates who lie in unmarked graves.

But it was not just prisoners who had no grave stones. A large empty area between the gates and the cross is where the local people are buried who could not afford a stone, especially during the measles and typhoid epidemic in which some families in Princetown lost several of their children, siblings dying within days or even hours of each other. 

I visited the church just before Armistice day, when like so many across the country, it had been decorated with the transparent outlines of soldiers in the pews. Somehow, these ghostly figures seemed even more poignant inside St Michael’s one of England’s most stark but haunting churches, a moving memorial to the French and Americans POWs who created it.
Poppies and the transparent outline of the solider 
who never returned in the pew in St Michael's church.

Friday, 7 December 2018

How to Look at Stained Glass by Jane Brocket. Reviewed by Adèle Geras

Below is a photograph of the book I'm reviewing today.  It's not in the same class as all the other pictures on this post, which were taken by Jane Brocket, the author of How to look at stained glass. However, it has the advantage of showing a glimpse  of the back cover.

Jane Brocket knows a great deal about a great many things. I came to her blog (link in the author biog below) because it was beautiful. She posted photos of flowers, cakes, knitted socks, and the creative nail polish choices of  her teenage daughter. She travelled and noticed things as she went and drew them to her readers' attention. She is someone who's endlessly curious about  many things and who moreover makes a point of becoming enormously well-informed about everything  she intends to write about. 

She's originally from Stockport and the first time I met her was in a café in Didsbury, Manchester. Now she's moved to Cambridge, I have met her all over again. My attention was drawn to this book when I read an wonderfully-illustrated article in the Daily Telegraph.  It was only at the end of the piece that I noticed that the book in question was by Jane Brocket. I was amazed  and delighted but not in the least surprised. 

Stained glass interests me. I love it, of course. Most people do. But I lived for a very long time in a house in Manchester which had 1910 stained glass  panels in every window and even in the glass on  the doors inside. If Jane had lived in my house she'd have found out the name of the firm that installed it and probably also the name of the person who designed it...she's that sort of person. I just stared at it over years and wrote the odd poem about it. 

When I moved to Cambridge, I went to visit Ely Cathedral and there's a brilliant stained-glass museum there. And just recently, I had two stained glass experiences. The first was a visit to the Sainte Chapelle in Paris where the windows are miraculously beautiful and glorious in every way, and the second was an Imagine programme on the BBC which was about the dazzling window David Hockney designed for Westminster Abbey, at the Queen's invitation.

By the brilliant Irish designer Harry Clarke. In St Mary, Sturminster Newton, 1921

You're actually going to need two copies of this book. The first can sit on a convenient table where people can pick it up and look at it carefully, reading some of the witty, entertaining and hugely informative text. The second has to be kept in the car if you're travelling round the country, so that you can look up your county in the index and check to see if there's a convenient church you can pop into, in order to admire the stained glass.

The only windows by Marc Chagall in England are in All Saints, Tudeley, Kent. Amazing set of windows - this is a detail (1985).

This book is very well-organised. There's a list detailing what's in the illustrations, a list of 50 churches to visit, an index of churches arranged in counties, and so on. Best of all, the book is divided into short chapters (you don't want to be reading endless screeds when you're looking round a church on a day out) under headings such as Angels, Grisaille, zzzz (for people sleeping) and so on. Dogs and cats, flowers, fire, insects, lead, textiles, saints, restoration, science, feet, crowns, etc. Brocket has encompassed almost everything a person can imagine being depicted in glass. This method of classification things makes it easy for anyone to look out for what particularly interests them. Also, it encourages a search for specific things when you're standing in front of a huge window whose details may at first seem too much to take in.

Lovely semi-abstract glass in Manchester Cathedral by Anthony Hollaway, 1980.

The friendly and approachable tone can't hide the enormous knowledge of the subject that's on display. Brocket explains a great deal about the processes, history and present-day state of stained-glass. She knows the artists. She knows the glass makers. She knows how all the varied strands of stained glass history come together.
In Christ Church in Southwark, which was flattened by bombs in WW2 and rebuilt in late 1950s. By FW Cole, 1961.

It strikes me that this book is a kind of literary stained-glass window. The separate elements are bound together into a satisfying
whole, and you can look at bits of it, one at a time, as you're looking at the actual glass. Or you can do what I did for the purposes of writing this post...start at the beginning and read all the 
way through to the end. 

Detail of vast scheme of windows by Heaton, Butler & Bayne (1860s and 1870s) in St Mary, Banbury.

I'm now fired up to go and explore the Cambridge churches that are mentioned in the book. And I will henceforth know what I'mlooking for when I go anywhere where stained glass is part of the building.

By Joan Howson and Caroline Townshend (1940). In St Credan, Sancreed. (Cornwall, hence Cornish tin miner.)

Three of my favourite books are The Gentle Art of Domesticity and The Gentle Art of Knitting and Vintage Cakes.  Brocket has written lots of others, too, but this one will take its place on the shelf and give me pleasure for years to come.

I'm going to end with a quotation from the book, taken from the section on Beards, to give you a flavour of Brocket's tone and style. I am certain there are many, many people out there who would love to find it under the tree. Merry Christmas!

"Young, virile, heroic saints such as St George and St Michael are usually clean-shaven, the better to show off their remarkably strong jawlines, but older saints, such as St James the Greater and St Peter, who have come through a long life or martyrdom, are often depicted with unruly, unkempt beards, in keeping with a long pilgrimage or an earlier life as a fisherman."

Jane Brocket is an author, blogger and Master of Wine. In 2005, after an MA in Victorian Art & Literature at Royal Holloway, she created her well-known blog, yarnstorm order to write about knitting. Discovering very quickly that she couldn’t knit fast enough to produce enough material for frequent posts, she widened her subject matter to include all things domestic, plus plenty of buns, bulbs and books. She has subsequently written eighteen books on a variety of creative and cultural themes, the latest of which is How to Look at Stained Glass. Jane is married to Simon; they live in Cambridge and have three grown-up children.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Did Fanny Vote? by Sheena Wilkinson

In just over a week, on 14th December 2018 it will be the centenary of the election where some women in Britain and Ireland had the right to vote for the first time in a parliamentary election.

Last week in Dublin I saw commemorative posters of Constance Markievicz on almost every lamp-post. Markievicz was of course the first woman elected to Westminter, though as an Irish Republican she never took up that seat, recognising Dáil Eireann instead. I knew then that I’d have to find something fresh to say about the 1918 election for my upcoming History Girls post.

commemorative posters in Dublin 
Fresh? How? I’ve been living with this date for over two years, since I started writing my 2017 novel Star By Star which focuses on that election. I’ve done suffragist-themed events from Aberdeeen down to London, and from Derry to Kerry. I've written lots of relevant articles and blogs. I’m pretty much electioned-out, especially as during that time I also found myself campaigning in real life during both NI Assembly and UK Westminster elections. 

So today I’m thinking not of Constance Markiewicz, not even of Winifred Carney, who stood for Sinn Féin in an east Belfast seat she hadn’t a hope of winning, but of an obscure woman in a terraced parlour house in that same East Belfast electoral ward.

Fanny Duff 
Fanny Duff was my great-grandmother. I know very little about her. She was, according to my grandmother, her daughter Frances, a gentle and quiet woman. She brought up a large family. She saw her sons off to good skilled shipyard jobs like their father, and one to emigration. Two daughters went into shirt factories, and one died in her teens. Fanny was widowed young, and took in sewing to help provide for the family. She died suddenly in 1936, the day after my grandmother's 28th birthday. 

Was Fanny eligible to vote in 1918? I assume so. She was over 30, and married to the householder of a respectable three-story terrace house whose rateable value would have been over the necessary £5 threshold. 

She lived in an area that was then more mixed than it is today, but even so it was a safe unionist seat and Fanny’s family were unionists. The newspapers -- it is most likely the Duffs read The News Letter -- were full of exhortations to vote and instructions on how to do so. I love the idea of her defying family tradition – and possibly her husband, James, and casting her vote for a woman, feminism trumping tribal identity, but that was even less likely in 1918 Belfast than it would be today, and there is no evidence that Fanny was a feminist. 

Maybe she didn’t vote at all. In December 1918 the flu pandemic was still raging. It affected both the election campaigns and turnout. Fanny may have been nursing one of her children, or have been ill herself. Or she may have been well but reluctant to queue up at a crowded polling station and risk infection. 

I talked to my own granny a lot about what we both called the olden days. But I never asked about that election day when she was ten years old. I never asked if her mother went to vote or if politics was talked about in the house. There can be nobody alive now who remembers Fanny Duff, who died in 1936. She’s just one more working class woman who may, or may not, have played a part in that historic election. But she was my great-grandmother, and next Friday, on the 14thDecember, I choose to think of her striding proudly down Beechfield Street, perhaps on her husband’s arm, perhaps alone or with a group of neighbours, ready to cast her vote for the first time. 

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Paris Remastered - Joan Lennon

Photographs and film footage from the past are always evocative, now matter how shaky or blurred.  Recently, advances in technology are being applied to them, partly in the name of preservation and partly as a way of bringing them even more vividly to modern audiences.*  Have a look at A Trip Through Paris, France below - 

Instead of the jerky movements we're used to seeing in early film, the footage has been slowed down to a more natural pace.  Instead of adding a (sometimes really dire) music sound track, there are the noises of horse traffic, bicycle bells and people talking.  Watching this, I had a real sense of people wearing clothes, not people in costume.  I loved the kid who stood right in front of the camera until poked out of the way with an umbrella.  And those moving walkways in the snow - if I had seen this before writing Slightly Jones and the Case of the Hidden City, set in 1890s Paris, I would definitely have found a way to include them in the story!

* Peter Jackson's piece They Shall Not Grow Old, done as a commission from the Imperial War Museum, is another example, though I haven't summoned up the courage to watch it yet.  (There's a short news report on it here.)

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Slightly Jones and the Case of the Hidden City.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

ROTAS SATOR: the Magical Square - Katherine Langrish

In Lady Wilde’s ‘Ancient Legends of Ireland’ there’s a story about a young man, a poet, who attempts to seduce a farmer’s daughter. He’s used to having his wicked way with girls, for we're told that Irish poets were known for possessing ‘the power of fascination by the glance … so that they could make themselves loved and followed by any girl they liked.’
With this particular girl, however, the power doesn’t seem to work very well at first. The poet arrives at her farm and begs for a drink of milk, but the young woman happens to be on her own in the house – the maids are busy churning in the dairy – so she refuses to let him in. Annoyed by this, the poet takes action. Lady Wilde continues:
The young poet fixed his eyes earnestly on her face for some time in silence, then slowly turning round left the house and walked towards a small grove of trees just opposite. There he stood for a few moments resting against a tree, and facing the house as if to take one more vengeful or admiring glance, then went his way without once turning round. 
The young girl had been watching him from the window, and the moment he moved she passed out of the door like one in a dream, and followed him slowly, step by step, down the avenue.
As the girl passes through the farmyard, the dairymaids notice her entranced state. They raise the alarm and her father comes running from his work, shouting for her to stop, but his daughter doesn’t seem able to hear. The poet does, though,

…and seeing the whole family in pursuit, quickened his pace, first glancing fixedly at the girl for a moment. Immediately she sprang towards him, and they were both almost out of sight, when one of the maids espied a piece of paper tied to a branch of the tree where the poet had rested.  From curiosity she took it down, and the moment the knot was untied, the farmer’s daughter suddenly stopped, became quite still, and when her father came up she allowed him to lead her back to the house.
Recovering, the girl tells her family how she’d felt impelled to follow the young man ‘wherever he might lead’, only coming to her senses when the spell was broken. But what was the spell?
The paper, on being opened, was found to contain five mysterious words written in blood, and in this order:
These letters are so arranged that read in any way, right to left, left to right, up or down, the same words are produced; and when written in blood with a pen made of an eagle’s feather, they form a charm which no woman (it is said) can resist…
(In a sceptical aside, Lady Gregory adds, ‘but the incredulous reader can easily test the truth of this assertion for himself.’)
The Sator, Rotas, or Rotas Sator Square as this acrostic is called, is both very old and tantalisingly obscure; at any rate, no one has yet succeeded in explaining to everyone else’s satisfaction exactly what it means. Carved in stone or painted on walls, it crops up all over the place, at sites in Italy, Britain, Sweden and even Syria, ranging in date from Roman to medieval to near-modern. The words are obscure in themselves and have given rise to various tortuous interpretations (explored in this interesting article by Duncan Fishwick MA, "An Early Christian Cryptogram?"), which range from the reassuringly rural though still opaque, ‘The sower Arepo works the wheels with care’ – to Satanic invocations. AREPO is a nonsense word, and it seems that the rest, though they may resemble Latin words, are so ungrammatical as to be pretty much nonsense too. 
However, back in the 1920s two German scholars discovered (or re-discovered) that the Square hides an anagram: it can be arranged as the word PATERNOSTER written twice in a cruciform order which uses the N only once, and leaves four letters over: two As and two Os – Alpha and Omega.  
There’s really no chance that this is not deliberate, but to assume a Christian solution is problematic. The earliest known examples of the SATOR square are two graffiti from Pompeii which predate the Vesuvian eruption of AD 79.  Duncan Fishwick summarises the difficulties thus: there's no convincing evidence of any Christians in Pompeii before it was destroyed; the Cross is not found as a Christian symbol before about AD 130; Christians of the First Century used Greek not Latin for teaching and liturgy; the Christian use of Alpha and Omega as symbols for God was inspired by verses of the Apocalypse, which by AD 79 had not yet been written; finally, ‘cryptic’ Christian symbols first appear only ‘during the persecutions of the third century’ when overt Christianity had become politically unsafe. 
But as various graffitti testify, there a Jewish population living in and around Pompeii, and Fishwick suggests that rather than Christian, the Sator Square may have been Jewish in origin. The Alpha and Omega may derive their significance from Old Testament passages such as Isaiah 44, 6 in which God declares, ‘I am the first and the last’, while as for the Paternoster anagram, Fishwick explains that, ‘Far from being a Christian innovation this form of address [eg: 'Our Father'] has its roots in Judaism’, citing various Judaic prayers. He concludes that the Square may likely have been a charm constructed by Latin-speaking Jews, the magic of which resides in its satisfying symmetry and the concealed invocation which, revolving around the single letter N, hints at the unspoken nomen or name of God. Another scholar, Rebecca Benefiel, points out in a fascinating article, "Magic Squares, Alphabet Jumbles, Riddles and more: The culture of word-games among the graffiti of Pompeii," that the Sator Square is only one of many different word-squares found at Pompeii.

Even if not Christian in origin, the Square was soon adopted as a Christian charm and invested with more specifically Christian symbolism: a belief arose that the five 'words' of the palindrome were the names of the five nails which fastened Christ to the cross.  And it went on from there to enjoy a long subsequent history as a potent magical spell. It was used in the 12th century, according to medieval scholar Monica Green (quoted by Sarah E. Bond in a post, 'Power of the Palindrome', in her blog History from Below), as a charm which could be written on butter and eaten, to help women who had miscarried. At some time in the 18th century the Sator Square was brought from Germany to America: in the Pennsylvanian Dutch example shown below, dated circa 1790, you can see that mistakes have been made in the lettering, so that it becomes simply a piece of magical gibberish. One wonders how early any awareness of the Paternoster anagram had vanished. 
In 1820 printer and chapbook seller, Pennsylvanian John or Johann Hohman published German and English versions of a book of spells, charms and remedies called 'The Long Lost Friend' or 'The Long Hidden Friend'. On the page reproduced below, we find in charm number 121 the Sator Square, used 'To Quench Fire Without Water':
It's clear that people tried it. The photo above, from the Oberhausmuseum in Passau, Bavaria, shows 'a plate with magic inscription, used as a fire fighting device to expel the evil spirits of fire.'  Perhaps people prepared them in advance? I suppose it might even have worked to damp out a very small fire, but one hopes those who tried this charm were busy stamping out the flames at the same time. (At least it's fairly brief, unlike the elaborate spell Hohman provides for 'Preventing Conflagration' which involved throwing into the fire a bundled-up sheet stained either with the menstrual blood of a chaste virgin, or the blood from child-birth.)

A charm written on wood, intended to put out fires

In fact 'The Long-Hidden Friend' itself had a long history as a popular folk-magic text: as late as 1904, Carlton F. Brown wrote in The Journal of American Folk-lore (Vol. 17, No. 65, Apr. - Jun., 1904, pp 89-152) that 'in eastern Pennsylvania whole communities, even whole counties, firmly believe in the realities of "hexing", and protect themselves from its influence by the charms and incantations of witch doctors.' Subsequent investigation by the Berks County Medical Society into the practices of the witch doctors showed that 'the principal source of the charms which they were using was this very book of Hohman's.'  And they charged high prices for their services.

Who would have thought that a word puzzle dating from at least as early as first century Pompeii would still be in use as a popular charm in 19th century America, and appear in a 19th century Irish folk tale? Whether Judaic or Christian, Roman or medieval, European or American – whether religious symbol, magical aid for women in childbirth, a charm to put out fires or a spell to lure young Irishwomen away – the Sator Square will surely continue to puzzle and intrigue.


Picture credits

Fair Rosamund, by Arthur Hughes, 1854. (So no real connection with Lady Wilde's story, but a sweet young woman in a summer garden with something doomful looming.)
Rotas square from St Peter ad Orotarium, Capestrano, photo by Poecus, at Wikimedia Commons
Rotas square from Cirencester,  photo by ThrowawayHack, at Wikimedia Commons
Pennsylvania Dutch talisman c. 1790, Wikimedia Commons
Plate from Passau, Bavaria, with Sator charm against fire, photo by Wolfgang Sauber at Wikimedia Commons
Sator square from Freistadt, Austria: Mühlviertler Schlossmuseum: Magic formula against fire, photo by Wolfgang Sauber, Wikimedia Commons