Monday 31 December 2012

December Competition

Tell us in the Comments below about another monarch's obsession, to win a copy of Helen Rappaport's book, Magnificent Obsession.

Closing date 8th January

Our competitions are limited to UK residents only.

Sunday 30 December 2012

OLIVER CROMWELL...a historical character I can't warm to. By Adèle Geras

It's not his fault, it's mine. It all began when I was very young indeed and my history education came from the wonderful '1066 and all that," In this version of our island story, the Roundheads were 'right but repulsive' and the Cavaliers were 'wrong but romantic' and I knew which ones I preferred, just from the way they dressed. I've always had a soft spot for snazzy dressers (see my previous post about Marie Antoinette) and Oliver Cromwell didn't stand a chance judged by such frivolous standards.

It's extraordinary how many historical periods one can simply miss out altogether, even with a very good history teacher (Miss Butcher, or DWU about whom I've written on this blog). Unless you're studying history for A level, vast tracts of time just don't get looked at, and you have to pick up what you can from books, other people, representations on television, movies etc.

So what, without recourse to Wikipedia or any scholarly tome, but just from my general knowledge, so to speak, do I know about Oliver Cromwell? He had warts. He told a painter to paint him 'warts and all' and that phrase has entered the language. He signed Charles I's death warrant. He sat in various parliaments as an MP for Huntingdon and later for Cambridge. He did a lot to make Parliament into what it is today. He put down rebellions in Ireland with spectacular cruelty. He persecuted Catholics. There was something about his head...

From looking at Wikipedia, I discover that he lived briefly in Ely and his house is now the Tourist Information office.
He is descended from Thomas Cromwell;s family through Thomas's sister, Katherine. Some years after his death and burial in Westminster Abbey,after his state funeral, there was a king on the throne of England again and he was disinterred and his body beheaded and treated appallingly and his remains now reside in Sydney Sussex College in Cambridge. There seems to be online controversy about his head, ..... There are, surprisingly,lots of representations of him in popular culture. He's depicted in a Howard Brenton play by Douglas Henshall. Dominic West played him in a series called The Devil's Whore on television. Antonia Fraser has written a book about him. I feel I ought to be more interested and engaged but somehow I am not. Of his distant relative, Thomas Cromwell, I can never read enough, but Oliver still remains for me, a closed book. If Hilary Mantel ever wrote about him, I might change my mind but for now, here he is, warts and all and not my favourite historical character by a mile.

Saturday 29 December 2012

Magnificent Obsession by Helen Rappaport

Photo by Pete Ware

HELEN RAPPAPORT is an historian and Russianist with a specialism in the Victorians and revolutionary Russia. Her books include Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs and No Place for Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War. She lives in Oxford. For more information, please visit her website

We welcome Helen to the History Girls today with her sadly topical piece about the death of Prince Albert. You may remember Essie Fox's post on this subject last Christmas.

In the history of royal anniversaries, the one that took place last December – 150 years since the death of Prince Albert – seemed to me a perfect tie-in for a book I had always wanted to write. Victoria has been extensively written about and Albert too has had his biographies, but I wanted to take a close-up look at a particular point in their fascinating 21-year marriage, the effect his premature death had on Victoria’s continuing ability to rule and how the British monarchy changed as a result of that.

by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

My book Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy was published by Hutchinson on 3 November 2011 in good time, I hoped, for some media comment on what seemed to me to be a significant anniversary. Albert of Saxe-Coburg may have been a relatively obscure German prince when he married Queen Victoria; he may not have been king but only consort; but in every respect, by the time he died he was king in all but name.

Imagine my disappointment, when, aside from some lovely press reviews and thankfully some coverage on Radio 4, Albert’s anniversary seemed to evoke as little interest as ever in the UK, despite the enormous contribution he made to the cultural life of this country. And it is one we are constantly reminded of whenever we head for our great national museums in South Kensington. As a historian and writer I’ve always wondered why we pay so little attention to the life and achievements of the man who devoted over twenty years of unstinting, punctilious duty to the nation as husband and Prince Consort of Queen Victoria. But the fact is that even within 15 years of his death, when the great gilded statue of him was finally positioned inside the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, people had already begun to forget him. As Flora Thompson recalled in her memoir Lark Rise to Candleford: by the 1880s villagers in her kind of rural community saw no visible reminders of him, and only knew that ‘he had been the Queen’s husband, though, oddly enough not the King, and that he had been so good that nobody had liked him in his lifetime, excepting the Queen, who “fairly doted”.’

The simple fact is, that despite Victoria’s concerted campaign to impose blanket memorialization of her beloved husband across the country for decades after his death, Prince Albert has always languished in his wife’s far more imposing shadow.

When Prince Albert died at Windsor at the age of only 42, Victoria’s response, as we all know, was to retreat into a state of relentless, catatonic grief that crippled and disempowered her as a woman and which, as the years went by, tainted her popularity as queen, turning the public against what had, when her husband was alive, been a popular monarchy into a deeply unpopular one where criticism of the queen’s dereliction of public duty was mounting and some were even calling for her abdication.

When I was researching Magnificent Obsession I was surprised that so little had been said about the country’s response to Albert’s death – coming as it did only ten days before Christmas 1861. No one had expected it, the official bulletins on Albert saying little to suggest how seriously ill he was at the time. All the papers had gone to press when he died at 10.50 pm on the night of Saturday 14th December, with only a few special broadsheets in London carrying the news the following day. The nation awoke that morning to the mournful sound of bells tolling the news across the country, as people made their way to church. On Monday, 16th the full impact of Albert’s death began to sink in. Florence Nightingale was proved right when she said that ‘the English will value him better now he’s gone’, which is precisely what happened. For days afterwards acres of heavily black-bordered newspaper space was devoted to eulogistic obituaries, all of them now lauding in the most hagiographic manner a man whom few had liked and even fewer had ever known, let alone understood.

For the British people Albert’s death was nothing less than a national calamity of biblical proportions. Churches were festooned with black crape, shops were shuttered, steamers on the Thames stood idle, flags were at half-mast, theatres closed and commerce in the city at a standstill. Everywhere the blinds of private houses were drawn down, the brass plates on doors surrounded in black, and mirrors and lamps covered. Omnibus drivers tied scraps of crape to their whips; in the countryside even the beehives were draped in black, as part of the age-old superstition of telling the bees of a death in the family. Everyone, from the highest in the land to the poorest cottager, donned some form of mourning, even if only a black armband. Across Britain the mourning warehouses were besieged with desperate customers anxious to put themselves and their children into mourning. Stationers’ shops selling cartes de visite of the Royal Family were packed, with copies of the last photographs of Albert selling at wildly inflated prices.

With Christmas only ten days away the government was anxious that the funeral should be held as soon as possible, to allow the public to recover in time still to enjoy the festive season. But as Elizabeth Gaskell recalled, ‘No one wishes each other “a merry Xmas” this year.’ Accounts of the funeral across the press were exhaustive and heartbreaking in their detail. But few people today realize that it was held in private – at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. There was no lying in state at Whitehall to allow people to pay their last respects and the ceremony itself was attended by an all-male congregation. Queen Victoria did not go – she was far too traumatized and could not face it, and Victorian funeral convention at the time generally excluded women, for fear they might break down and make a spectacle of themslelves.

Even though she did not see Albert’s coffin lowered into the crypt, Victoria had at least wanted to stay at Windsor until it was all over. Instead, she was bullied by the royal doctors (out of a totally bogus ‘fear of infection’) into going to Osborne, her house on the Isle of Wight. The chief mourners on her behalf at the funeral were two of her four sons: Bertie, Prince of Wales aged 20 and his 11-year-old brother Arthur – poignant shades of William and Harry at the funeral of Princess Diana. There are further echoes of that other, tragic royal death: then – as in 1997 – people were distraught at the sudden and unexpected loss of Prince Albert; his death, like Diana’s, felt like losing a member of their own family.

Christmas 1861 was an unutterably bleak one in Britain; for the royal family the date 14 December became talismanic thereafter, even more so when Victoria and Albert’s second daughter, Alice, died of diphtheria 17 years later, on the very same day as her father. A century and a half on from Albert’s death it is a shame that history continues to pay so little attention to a gifted and dedicated man who contributed in countless ways to the cultural life of this country. The role of consort is not an easy one – as our own Prince Philip has shown. The ultimate irony, perhaps, is that Albert, who found the role of consort difficult and clearly longed for power, had been building a position of unchallengeable influence at the queen’s right hand that sooner or later would have come into conflict with government. His death, in many ways, saved the monarchy and ensured that it became the figurehead, ceremonial one that we have today.

Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy, published in paperback by Windmill.

And Helen is appearing as a talking head in a 3-part BBC2 documentary 'Queen Victoria and Her Children'  that discusses  some of the issues raised in her book. Transmits 1, 2 and 3 January 2013, 9 pm.

© Helen Rappaport, 13 December 2012

Friday 28 December 2012

Where the Dickens is my Club Card, by K. M. Grant

I'm now so hooked on audio books that those two little earphony white snails dangle permanently down my front.   This is a boon and a curse.  It's a boon, in that what wouldn't our ancestors have given to escape the mundane entirely at their convenience?  Those longuers in hideously uncomfortable carriages would have been transformed by, say, Martin Chuzzlewhit, Vanity Fair or a Philosophy Bites podcast.

The curse is that when Jo is dying (Bleak House), or Keith Talent's at the darts (London Fields), or I'm singing with Mollie (Ulysses) it's hard to concentrate on, for example, the shopping.  Last week, in Tesco's, the brown-shirts had just invaded the Ephrussi house in Vienna (The Hair with Amber Eyes).  At the checkout, they hurled Emmy's dressingtable over the balustrade.  Asked if I had a club card, I heard only the dressingtable hit the marble.  When I got home, my shopping had apparently been done by a lunatic.  No cheese.  Three apples.  Something I had taken for cream but wasn't.  Sweetcorn instead of peas.  Edmund de Waal had ruined our dinner.

In the park, shrieking at my dogs (I'm deaf, with the snails in my ears, and irritable since I don't want to miss a word and the dogs will lag and dawdle to sniff) I felt my mobile vibrate. Unable to find the pause button (iPod nanos are very nano indeed) I pulled a snail out of my left ear, answered my phone and found myself, in a second or two, live on the radio talking about something or other, with Lolita still pouring into my right ear.  I tried to make sense for my radio audience, but they may have got more than they bargained for, with Lolita clearly audible from the dangling left snail.  Why didn't I just pull the whole snail contraption from the socket?  I've no idea.  You become slightly deranged when attached to great literature.

And other people get involved.  Slightly weepy (Ragtime - it's Doctorow reading his own work that gets me) I find myself patted on the shoulder by strangers.   I've given up trying to explain, since this alarms people.  I forget we're inhabiting different worlds and I'm sure they want to enter mine as little as I want to enter theirs.  Luckily, you can't yet get Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety on audiobook.  I'd be a wreck hearing the gravelly tones of Sean Barrett intone, 'There is a point beyond which - convention and imagination dictate - we cannot go;  perhaps it's here, when the carts decant on to the scaffold their freight ... Camille is now, suddenly, calm ... For ten seconds Danton looks away. After that he watches everything ... He watches each death, until he is tutored to his own.'

A little Waugh next.  Scoop, perhaps, if it's available.   I'll be cackling in the post office queue and metaphorically shaking my fist at lorries and buses who dare drown out the voice of William Boot.  At least I hope metaphorically.  Once plugged in, imagination and reality fuse together.  I may not be quite myself.  If you hear I've been arrested, you'll know why.   I went to a convent school so am perfectly at home in institutions and just imagine how many audio books could fill a decent ten year stretch.

Happy New Year!

Thursday 27 December 2012

The Artificial Person, by Louisa Young

Earlier this year I got involved with an Art Collective, which felt magnificently 1960s, and was a lot of fun as it was full of youngsters, and I don't usually do art. I made various items based on The Book of the Heart, my cultural history of our most symbolic organ, and gave each a theme song. There was the Interactive Dartboard of Love (Cupid, Draw Back Your Bow) . . . 

. . . the Psychostasia of Hank Williams (Your Cheating Heart), based on the ancient Egyptian Judgement Day practice where Thoth weighs the heart of the deceased against the feather of truth, and if it is found true it goes across the Nile to ive with Osiris and eat cake, but if it is found wanting it is eaten by Amit - part crocodile, part lion and part hippo . . . 

. . .  and the Icy Blue Heart (Icy Blue Heart, Emmy Lou Harris version) - this last I videoed as it melted. 

I also made a rather cack-handed mobile of some silver-plate votive body parts that I got at the monthly antiques market in Arezzo (I doubt they're very antique though). Originally, you place them on the altar of an appropriate saint as an offering in hope of or gratitude for the recovered health of a particular body part. I strung mine together more or less in the shape of a person. Here's the head, torso and an upper limb:

                                            I particularly like the torso, with all its organs:  


And of course the heart, the most familiar votive:

And a lovely foot.

I'm very interested at the moment in the various ways the human brain makes people - inventing characters in fiction, fantasising a lover to perfection in our mind, dreaming about people, hallucinating them, seeing ghosts, hearing voices and so on. Perhaps it is a mental, emotional, psychical version of my constant interest in surgery. God I wish I'd written Frankenstein.. 

And then at the Musee de la Grande Guerre in Meaux last month I saw a piece of, well, art, I suppose, which put my poor mobile to shame. It was made, like mine of artificial body parts. But this was made of prosthetics, created for soldiers who had lost limbs. It was hung on invisible strings in a cunningly lit cabinet: a glass eye, a tin mask, an arm, with a kind of girdle to hold it on, two different kinds of false leg, a wooden seat for a man with no lower half at all . . .  A replacement soldier, made entirely from spare parts. It was as sad a set-up as I had ever seen. 

I wasn't able to photograph it, so here is a set of anatomy parts for you to build your own:

These are all 19th or early twentieth century. Here is something from a much older world:  a sixteenth-century artificial hand. A Facebook friend, the writer KA Laity, put it up on her page and it immediately grabbed me - (oh, I'm sorry). 


I found this about it, on an armoury website, 

A Rare German Prosthetic Hand, circa 1580

Made entirety of iron, with a hollow, naturally modeled hand furnished with a movable thumb and paired fingers, internal ratchet mechanism and external push-button release, and a tubular socket comprising of a long outer plate fretted with a pattern of repealed chevrons, and short inner section formed of plain and scalloped riveted strips, each fitted with buckles for the attachment of a harness.

Overall length: 12 1/2 in; Weight: 1 lb

It is not unlikely that armourers, with their proven skills in working and articulating metal to the forms of the human body, would have been among the first craftsmen to involve themselves in the manufacture of functional artificial limbs. In the case of the hand shown here, both the thumb and the paired fingers are capable of being independently locked in several positions by means of an elaborate system of ratchets and spring-operated pawls that can be instantly released by pressure on a push-button protruding from the back of the hand.

The earliest surviving hands of this kind are those made for the celebrated Franconian Knight, Götz von Berlich (circa 1480-1562), raised to heroic status by the young Goethe in his childrens' drama of 1772. Two are preserved in Schloss Jagsthausen, and a third in Schloss Grüningen bei Riedlingen. They were clearly made after 22 June 1504 when the twenty-four year old Götz lost his right hand to a cannon ball at the siege of Landshuf, but probably no later than 1512 when a prisoner of the Nuremberg campaign recorded that er hab auch Gotzen von Berlingen mit de rein hend aigentlich gesehen, hab an der eysinen hand ein handschuch gehapt (he personally saw Gotzen von Berlingen with the one hand, having had a glove on his iron hand). With his 'iron hand' Götz distinguished himself in a long active military career. According to a verse composed by Count Franz Pocci in 1861, it allowed him to securely grip both his lance and his sword. The earlier of the two Jagsthausen hands is constructionally very similar to the present example. 

This is (l) one of von Berlich's iron hands, and (r) how such things were attached:

The workings!

 And, a 19th-century lady's hand - an exquisite clacketty set of bottle-openers and Swiss army knives. 

I think of these, when I see the man in our neighbourhood who lopes along on one natural leg and one of the bouncy modern feats of engineering we became accustomed to during the Paralympics.

Happy New Year everyone. Look out for your limbs.

Wednesday 26 December 2012

Postcards from the Threshold – Dianne Hofmeyr

Albert Memorial 1904 
This is not exactly a Boxing Day post – for that you’ll have to go to Dec 26th 2011 but Essie Fox’s on Christmas cards reminded me of how each year my mother-in-law put the same old favourites on display – some going back as far as the first Christmas after her marriage.

It was finding Susannah Clapp’s ‘A Card from Angela Carter’ in my Christmas stocking that reminded me of how histories can be woven from a few sparse sentences. Clapp has written this slim volume drawing from a few postcards Carter sent to her as a friend… like a paper trail of her life. Carter’s words are terse and funny and the images on the postcards often unexpected and baring no relation to the message.

The book made me dig out some of my own old postcards from the threshold of the last century. In the early 1900’s postcards would have been what email is to the early 2000’s, just as telegrams were what texting is today. Between the short sentences, it’s often the words left out that give the glimpse into history.

The Albert Memorial postcard above is dated 1904 and addressed to a Miss Brooks of The Dairy, Kew Green. It says: Hoping you have safely arrived with love to all. J. S. Where had Miss Brooks been that she might not be safe? And who is J. S.?

One from my mother-in-law written from her Junior school, Herschel in Cape Town in the early 20’s to her parents, in rounded, childlike cursive describes cutting herself on some rocks on an excursion to the sea, then she writes: I have been doing my best to please my mistress for my sake, their sake, and your sake, so please let me come home next Sunday and bring someone with me.

Her own father in his early teens arriving from Dallas Texas, to take up a position at a Stationers in London declares to his sister: I have been made fun of in London because no one wears their hair parted in the middle and I have had to adopt a side parting.

My father receives a postcard in 1913 aged six, from his father, while he stays in the Somerset Hospital in Cape Town for a few months with tuberculosis. His father writes: Hoping you are getting well. Daddy will see you on Sunday. One wonders if this, in typical Edwardian fashion, is the first visit he’ll have from any family in the time he’s been there? (the word ‘daddy’ surprised me).

The front of the card is rather gouged and shows children in his hometown of The Strand, 30 miles away, promenading on the beach. It’s all quite jolly with boys in boaters and knickerbockers and girls walking arm in arm, compared to the rather grim exterior of the hospital on a bleak seashore next to the Cape Town harbour. I wonder if the scene cheered him up or made him feel worse.

The new Somerset Hospital, Cape Town - 1897
The Strand beachfront, Cape - 1913
So with postcards and Christmas cards now a thing of the past, what about emails and texts? Will they be collected as a record of fashion and whimsy and modern comment – a new threshold to the world? In the mean time enjoy Boxing Day... or rather... the Feast of St Stephen.

Tuesday 25 December 2012


Merry Christmas everybody!  

Scottish Presbyterians having a good time - From The llustrated London News 1855
When I was young, my mother told me that I was very lucky to live in England because the people of Scotland had no fun at Christmas: for them it was just another day.  According to my mother, they kept their celebration for the New Year, and that festival was no match for our orgy of food and garish plastic the week before.  Years later, I married a Scotsman and found out how wrong she'd been.  As children, hundreds of miles apart, we had simultaneously twiddled the knobs of our new Etch-a-Sketch machines and wondered at the technical ingenuity of The Magic Robot as we scoffed mince pies in a sea of torn wrapping paper on Christmas morning. 

The image of the dour Scottish Christmas goes back a long way, and a little light is shed on it by an exhibition of documents I visited the other day  in the wonderful Robert Adam rotunda of Register House in Edinburgh.

 'Exhibition' is rather a fancy word for the tiny display, which takes up  a single glass case, but I want to share its charming selection of Christmas vignettes with you.

John Knox's statue in Edinburgh
First, to those drab times: which of course are associated with John Knox and his ferocious followers, who, in the 1550s and 60s, prefigured Cromwell and the English Puritans with their attacks on Christmas celebrations for their 'popish' and pagan associations. 

 Quite how much success they had in suppressing the festivities is unclear.  One of the documents in the exhibition shows how, in December 1574, St Nicholas Kirk Session in Aberdeen admonished fourteen women for plaing, dansink & singin off fylthy karrells on youll day. 
So, as so often, the official line on how people should behave and what people actually did were rather different.

A letter from 1694 shows that, more than a hundred years after Knox;s death, the Church of Scotland's opposition to Yuletide celebrations was both persistent and flouted.  Alexander, Lord Montgomery wrote to Sir William Cunningham of Cunninghamehead:

I am to have some friends with me the morrow to keep Crisinmass and if you will doe me the favour to make up the number you shall be most welcome and I hope to eate ane gouse that day will give little offence to presbritray however you may if you please lay the blem upon me

The exhibition jumps forward to the twentieth century with  a marriage register open on Christmas Day 1936 to show the entry for the wedding of Jean Christmas McCormack to Gilbert Reid. The label suggests that many Scots were married on Christmas Day because it was one of the few days in the year that they didn't have to work.  
[I find that a little hard to understand, as Scotland has far more local holidays than England, and if all the shops and restaurants were open on 25th December (as I'm told they were) who was serving in them? But we'll let that one go for now]. 

The sign below the marriage entry notes that. since 1855, when civil registration began in Scotland, seventeen people with the first or middle name 'Christmas' appear in the Scottish registers of births, marriages or deaths.  Many of them were born on 25th December.  Two of them had the surname 'Carol'.

A little digression:
Christmas Humphreys

Older readers of this blog may remember the controversial lawyer, Christmas Humphreys, who led for the Crown in many famous murder trials, including the Evans/Chrisite, Ruth Ellis and Bently cases and went on to become a controversially lenient judge.  Despite his name, he was also one of the UK's most prominent Buddhists.

But back to the Register House documents.  They show that 'Christmas' is also a surname.  Since 1855, forty-five babies have been born into 'Christmas' families in Scotland.

The Statutory Registers include 1,538 children with the first or middle name 'Angel', 2,207 called 'Noel', 328 named 'Star', 2,515 named 'Gabriel', and 28,726 named 'Carol'.  One boy, born in 1901, was given the middle name'Bethlehem'.

The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch

So despite the cliched image of the repressed Scottish Presbyterian - most touchingly reinforced in the breach by a picture many of us will have received on Christmas cards this year - it seems that Christmas in Scotland has never been the cheerless day that I was led to expect.  Even in the late sixteenth century, a Kirk Session was complaining about playing cards and dice, masked dancing with bells, selling  yule loaves, cross dressing and 'extraordinary drinking'. 

I hope your family, like mine, is keeping those traditions going today, though you may want to draw the line at singin off fylthy karrells in front of the children.

Here's to a wonderful New Year for the History Girls and all who read the blog.

PS: Many thanks to all who have been in touch about the eye trouble I mentioned in my last blog here.  The good news is that, at least on electronic devices, reading is becoming a pleasure again.  I downloaded Great Expectations to re-read before seeing the new film, only to discover that I had never actually read it in the first place, and that - as you all know - it is one of the best books in the world!

Please look out for my new book, The Last Minute, published on January 3rd.

Monday 24 December 2012



Santa Claus by Essie Fox

Before taking up writing novels I worked as a commercial illustrator, often selling to greetings cards companies, and the Santa Claus shown above was one of my favourite Christmas designs.

Even in those days I took inspiration from the Victorians - such as in the use of a border of 'scraps'. However, before Queen Victoria's reign there were no commercial Christmas cards – that tradition only really beginning after the introduction of the Penny Post, when Sir Henry Cole had the bright idea of printing up thousands of images which were sold in his London art shop and priced at one shilling each. What an industry that enterprise began!

Sir Henry Cole's first commercial Christmas card

As far as my own jolly gentleman would have been concerned, well, hardly anyone in England then would even have known his name. And yet by 1870 almost every child would recognise the sleigh that was drawn by reindeer, and the stockings full of precious gifts - if only an orange or apple to eat - as a present from Father Christmas.

Illustration by John Leech from Dickens' A Christmas Carol

The two names - Santa Claus and Father Christmas - have now become interchangeable, but their origins are quite different. Father Christmas, on whom Dickens based his Christmas Present was derived from an old English midwinter festival when Sir Christmas, Old Father Christmas, or Old Winter was depicted as wearing green; a sign of fertility and the coming spring. Hence homes were often decorated with mistletoe, holly and ivy. But this visitor did not bring his hosts gifts or climb down their narrow chimneys. He wandered about from home to home, feasting with the families and bringing everyone good cheer; as celebrated in this medieval carol:-

'Goday, goday, my lord Sire Christemas, goday!
Goday, Sire Christemas, our king,
For ev’ry man, both old and ying,
Is glad and blithe of your coming;

The image of Christmas Present with which we are more familiar now is that of Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas, who 'arrived' in America in the seventeenth century when Dutch settlers imported their own Sinter Klass. And it was in America, in 1822, that Clement Clare Moore wrote a poem for his children which went on to have such a remarkable and enduring influence:-

'He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his sack.
His eyes how they twinkled! His dimpled how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up in a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed like a bowl fully of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, - a right jolly old elf –
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.'

A Visit from Saint Nicholas (now more popularly known as The Night Before Christmas) described the old man’s appearance in detail - and this is what children today will know. His image and 'traditions' are beautifully illustrated in the woodblock print below. Published in 1866 in Harper’s Weekly magazine, it was created by Thomas Nast, and based on personal memories from his own happy childhood in Germany.

Santa and His Works by Thomas Nast


Sunday 23 December 2012

Dormice and other Saturnalia Gifts

by Caroline Lawrence

a dormouse?
Marcus Valerius Martialis (AKA Martial) is one of my favourite Roman poets. His acerbic, gossipy, sometimes shocking poems were a kind of ancient Sex in the City for the Flavian period in late first century Rome. He uses the f-word and the c-word plenty and warns his readers that they might be shocked.

Less daring were his epigrams. An epigram is a short poem, in Martial's case usually a poetic couplet, i.e. two lines. One of the customs of the Roman midwinter festival called Saturnalia was to compose an epigram to accompany a Saturnalia gift. Martial wrote a batch of these and published them in two papyrus scrolls which are numbered books 13 and 14 in his corpus and are given the names the Xenia (Greek for "guest gifts") and the Apophoreta, (Greek for "things to be taken away"). Although you could give gifts any time during the Saturnalia, a particular custom was to give your dinner guest a present to take away, hence the titles of those books.

(T.J. Leary's commentaries on the Xenia and the Apophoreta are full of information, but if you don't have a Classics library nearby or can't afford the scholarly price tags, you can access the Loeb version of Martial's epigrams free on the internet at sites such as this one.)

These poetic "gift tags" are often written from the point of view of the gift, almost like a riddle. Some are humorous, some straight-faced.  Some have literary or mythical allusions. But for me the appeal is the concrete. From them we know exactly what kinds of gifts people gave each other from the humblest (handful of nuts) to the most extravagant (a slave). This is the kind of detail about ancient Rome that I adore. It brings that world to life.

It is Martial who tells us that Romans ate stuffed dormice, a popular trope of all historical fiction set in ancient Rome. Here is the fifty-ninth epigram in book 13, which also show the format of these Saturnalia couplets: a title and two lines.

tota mihi dormitur hiems et pinguior illo
tampore sum quo me nil nisi somnus alit.

I snooze the whole winter long and am fatter at that 

time, when nothing except sleep nourishes me. 

The joke here is that usually men and beasts grow thinner in the winter, when food is scarce, but the dormice are presumably fed so much that they enter a comatose state akin to hibernation.

The dormouse, glis glis, was a delicacy banned by the Emperor Claudius for being too extravagant. These mice were kept in special containers called gliraria and were fattened on beech nuts until they grew to the size of rats: 20 cm or 8 inches, not including the tail. They were then killed, stuffed, baked, glazed with honey and sprinkled with poppy-seed. Yum.

Here are some other gifts we know Romans gave to one another, thanks to Martial's wonderful Saturnalia epigrams.

pomegranates and other fruit
FOOD like pepper, beans, lentils, flour, barley, lettuces, asparagus, grapes, figs, pine nuts, jar of figs, jar of plums, smoked cheese, onions, sausages, box of olives, eggs, sucking pig, pomegranates, sow’s udder, chickens, early peaches, mushrooms, truffles, a hoop of little birds, ducks, ham, goose liver and Rhodian hardbake, (a kind of shortbread that might break your tooth.)

CONDIMENTS and CUTLERY People also gave each other condiments and wine, cutlery and cups. Garum (fish sauce), honey, mulsum (honeyed wine), raisin wine, retsina, Falernian wine, Surrentine wine and vinegar. Luxury tableware included antique cups, golden bowls, jewelled cups, arretine ware, glass cups, crystal cups and murrhine cups (a semi precious stone that gives flavour to wine). Other utensils mentioned by Martial are a strainer for snow, a flagon for snow, a drinking flask,  small table jugs, an earthenware jug, silver spoons, snail spoons, baskets and mushroom pots.

replica Roman gaming board and oil lamp
STATIONERY and FURNITURE were also popular gifts. Martial mentions wax tablets, ivory tablets, three leaved wax tablets, parchment tablets, small Vitellian tablets for love letters, ivory cashbox, dice, dice box, nuts (for gambling), gaming board, gaming pieces, case for writing materials, stylus case, bookcase, bundle of reed pens, oil lamp for the bedroom, candle, multi wicked lamp, wax taper, candelabrum, horn lantern, lantern made of a bladder, incense, smokeless wood, peacock-feather fly whisk, ox-tail fly-swat, place-keeper for scroll (like a bookmark), palm leaf broom, peacock couch, semicircular couch, citrus wood table, maple table, tablecloth, feather stuffing for a mattress, marsh reed stuffing for a mattress and hay for a mattress, if you are really strapped for sesterces.

sandals and pull toy (replica)
OBJECTS FOR GROOMING and BEAUTY - Martial mentions such gifts as a toothpick, an ear scoop, a hair pin of gold, combs, hair, wigs, hair dye, a parasol, a hair-cutting kit, a bath-set, a strigil, dentifrice (dentifricium) for polishing teeth, bean meal for folds in your stomach, opobalsam (a balsam type perfume for men), a breast band, a sponge, wool lined slippers, a horn oil flask, a medicine chest of ivory, an ivory back scratcher in the shape of a hand, unguent, a garland of roses, an earthenware chamberpot, rings, a ring case, a toga, a wrapper for after a workout, a broad-brimmed hat, a hooded cloak, a leather overcoat, a pilleum (freedman's hat), a girdle, an apron, a bath wrap, white wool, purple wool, amethyst wool, etc. Here's a poem about the gift of a red cloak:

SCARLET CLOAK Careful if you support the Blues or Greens at the races, this cloak might make you a traitor! XIV.131

replica Roman rag doll
THINGS FOR BOYS and GIRLS - a hunting knife, hunting spears, a belt and sword, a dagger, a small shield, a small hatchet, a feather-stuffed ball, a ball for trigon, dumbbells, a leather wrestling cap, a rattle, a parrot that says ‘Ave Caesar’, a ‘talking’ crow, a nightingale, an ivory cage, a lyre, a plectrum, a hoop, jewellery and of course SIGILLA: little clay or wooden figures.

SIGILLUM of a HUNCHBACK – I think Prometheus was drunk when he made hunchbacks from the earth, he was fooling around with Saturnalian clay. XIV.182

 clay mask from Lipari, Sicily
LUXURY GOODS - If you were really rich, you could give opulent gifts of silver, gold, jewels, animals and - in an age of slavery - even people. Martial composes epigrams for a gold statue of Victory, various figures in Corinthian bronze, paintings of different mythological characters, a clay theatrical mask, Minerva in silver, Homer in parchment notebooks, Virgil, Livy or Cicero on parchment, works by poets such as Propertius, Ovid, Lucan and Catullus – (scrolls were luxury items in those days) - a hawk, dwarf mules, a Gallic lapdog, a greyhound, a monkey, a wrestler, a dancing girl, a scribe, an idiot, a cook, a confectioner, and a dwarf!

DWARF - If you only saw his head, you would think he was Hector; if you saw him standing up, you’d think he was Astyanax. XIV.212

That epigram was the inspiration for the bad guy in my tenth Roman Mystery, The Colossus of Rhodes. But I have used Martial for inspiration throughout the eighteen books of my Roman Mysteries series, copies of which would make perfect apophoreta for children aged 8 and up!