Thursday 30 June 2016

June Competition

To win a a copy of Julia Gregson's Monsoon Summer, answer the question below in the Comments section:

"Who do you consider to have been the greatest female health educator in history and why?"

Then email your answer to: so that we can contact you if you win.

Closing date 14th July - you get a bit longer this time because of holidays.

We're sorry but our competitions are open to UK Followers only. 

Wednesday 29 June 2016

English Midwives in India by Julia Gregson

Credit: Alex Pownall
Our guest for June is Julia Gregson. She says of herself:

In my career as a journalist I spent four days with Muhammad Ali in a boxer’s training camp in Pennsylvania, interviewed Buzz Aldrin in Houston; Ronnie Biggs in a Brazilian jail at midnight; president’s wives, film stars in Hollywood and several notorious criminals. All good grist to my story-writing mill.

I enjoy writing short stories and have had many published in places like The Literary Review, The Times, Good Housekeeping, and read on the BBC.

Orion published my first novel, The Water Horse, in 2005. I rode a horse across Wales to do the research- a wonderful experience- and then went to Istanbul and Scutari where the rest of the novel is set.

Writing East of the Sun and Monsoon Summer involved three research trips to India, A great highlight.

I’m married, have one daughter and four stepchildren and live in Monmouthshire with two chickens, two rescue ponies, and a collie called Jellybean.

Welcome Julia! 

It is day four of a midwife training course in Northern India. A group of dais, (midwives), have been given a piece of paper and a crayon and asked to draw the human body as they understand it. Here are two examples of what was drawn.

In another exercise , they are asked to describe the inside of a woman’s body. What follows, is a selection of their responses:

“There is a uterus, egg tubes and a passage for urine and menstruation, there are 900 blood vessels.”

“Three holes from the rectum, vagina and urethra.”

“There are seven layers in the stomach and the first is very hard, they are softened by age and each delivery comes from a softer layer.”

“Nobody knows what is inside the body, you can only see it by experience “

The images and the words come from  Birthing with Dignity, a fascinating and still timely handbook for training midwives and health workers , written in 2004 by the Canadian midwife Diane Smith, who went to India, to work with the village dais and share their experience.

It would easy to laugh, or be alarmed at the primitive drawings above, but Smith points out this would be both stupid and dangerous.

After seven years in India, she gained a deep respect for many of the local midwives and says, ‘’We learned from each other,” Western medicine, she says, “sees the body as a machine made up of moving parts, rather than a dynamic energetic form.” While Western knowledge can be helpful to a traditional Dai, particularly when handling the kind of life threatening complications, that require emergency medical care, Smith believes passionately, we ignore at our peril the other kind of wisdom, based on intuition, traditional healing methods, and centuries of watching, listening, and aiding women deliver their babies.

Her hope is that by listening and learning from each other, Eastern and Western midwives, can become happy bed fellows. ( Sounds like E.M. Forster’s famous dictum: ‘only connect.’)

There is a long tradition of Western midwives travelling East with their birthing kits, and knitted babies, and wall charts. From England. In the late 19th Century, The Countess of Dufferin sent many midwives to India, funded in part by Queen Victoria. Some were magnificent and brave, some, though well-intentioned were naive and misguided.

In my new book, Monsoon Summer, my heroine, Kit belongs initially, to the latter group, and walks into a minefield of dangers and difficulties when she travels to South India, in 1948, to help set up a midwifery school.

She discovers that there is no such thing as a typical Indian midwife. Some of her colleagues were exceptionally talented, better educated and far more experienced than she was , at the other end of the spectrum were dais who were considered the lowest of the low and were only allowed to cut the cord say, or do away with the placenta- some of these tasks undertaken with rusty knives and unhygienic rags. These unhygienic practices added to poverty, and poor transportation leading to some horrifying levels of maternal and infant morality.

She encounters difficulties familiar to any Western midwife, rolling up her sleeves in India, chief among them, the bewildering layers upon layers of caste complexity, and birthing traditions. Brahminical Hindus, for instance, regard childbirth as a polluted female act, and one in which the Dai’s role is seen as being one of the most menial and dirty jobs around. This makes recruiting educated women to their ranks a huge problem. Other dais are called on only to perform illegal abortions, or to dispose of newly born unwanted girl babies.

But things are changing in India: government policy makers are encouraging women to have their first babies in hospital. But the reality for the majority of people living in poverty - over half our world- is that many still cannot afford to go to hospital. The local midwife is their best, and only option.

So this urgent work continues today. A healthy baby after all, is what every woman wants, doesn’t matter where she’s from.

As for the midwives, we should celebrate them more. The best of them to quote from Diane Smith’s teacher, must be a healer, a physician, a magician, a politician, an actor, comedienne friend, acrobat, seamstress, nurse, doctor, shift worker, mechanic. It’s quite a list. I don’t think I could do it, could you?

Monsoon Summer by Julia Gregson is published in the U.K. by Orion on June 30th

In the U.S. by Touchstone, in August 16th

Birthing with Dignity, a guide for training community level midwives and health worker. by Diane Smith, published by Jagori in 2004

Tuesday 28 June 2016

Standing Alone on the Edge of Europe by Julie Summers

Earl Grey 1764–1845
© Lord Howick
I woke up on Friday morning in a strange house in an unfamiliar county with that lovely feeling of being somewhere new and exciting. That was until I went downstairs, passing the magnificent 1828 portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence of the second Early Grey, the prime minister who introduced the Great Reform Act of 1832. In the kitchen a television was blaring and with a sense of growing disbelief I heard that British voters had opted to leave the European Union by 52% to 48%. My city of Oxford had voted 70/30 in favour of Remain and so wrapped up had I become in the bubble that is our lovely city that I had not realised the enormous determination to leave that had spread to other areas of the country.

The campaign was fought on both sides with dirty tricks, lies and some of the most unpleasant rhetoric and scaremongering I have ever heard. Claims and counterclaims about EU funding, EU rules, an EU army, EU migrants flew around like swarms of angry bees. Amid the cries of joy, horror, sadness, despair, disbelief, excitement and any other sentiment you like to attribute to the sentence, a few thoughtful voices have been heard. I thought I might take time to reflect on one of those for my piece this month, rather than writing about 'the true cost of war' as I had planned. That will wait until next month when it might turn out to be rather topical if negotiations go badly...

Anthony Beevor is one of those rare historians who writes history that is both thoroughly readable and wholly to be trusted. He is a researcher par excellence and has an overview of history that is, in my opinion, almost unparalleled. He suggested that looking at history would be an interesting exercise in contemplating what Britain thinks it can achieve while standing alone. How will the country (or should it be countries because England and Wales voted out and Scotland and Northern Ireland vote to remain) defend itself in the future. He wrote:

'Ever since the late 17th Century, we have relied on continental coalitions to oppose the over-mighty oppressor threatening the peace of Europe. Britain alone was never strong enough in manpower to confront a major power alone on land.'

Howick Hall was used as a convalescent hospital for Other Ranks from 1941-1945.
Over 11 different nationalities were treated there including Finnish, Greek, Polish,
Czech, Dutch and Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen.
Fast-forward to the twentieth century and that was more evident than at almost any other time. I am currently writing a book about houses that were requisitioned in the Second World War and used for a variety of purposes, including of course the housing of troops. In 1940 Britain faced the full force of the German war machine on its own. France had fallen. Belgium and the Netherlands had been invaded and we were, as is so often repeated, completely alone on the edge of Europe. Heroic little Britain as we will be in the future. Except that we were not alone. The country was full of friendly fighters who supported us in our hour of need. There were 30,000 battle-hardened Polish soldiers and airmen who knew a thing or two about fighting the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe. There were 5,000 Czechoslovak troops and pilots who had arrived in Britain in July of that summer. Pilots from both nationalities flew bravely in the Battle of Britain.

Canada had already sent thousands of troops to our shores in December 1939. They were joined by more divisions over the course of the war including the Canadian Royal Air Force. We had over three million American GIs in 1944 in the build up to D-Day, not to speak of Australian and New Zealanders who helped to defend these shores both on land and in the air. Far from standing alone, we were very much 'in it together'. Churchill knew that he could not win the war without Allies. He once said: 'There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.' That appears to be a risk for our future at the moment.

Anthony Beevor wrote in his article in the Mail on Sunday: 'No British politician will ever again dare to say that we are punching above our weight.' He concluded: 'We will be the most hated country just when we need to win friends.'

On this occasion I sincerely hope that he is wrong and that we will win back friends so that we have allies in the future but from this perspective and at this moment in time, it looks like we have precious few of either.

Monday 27 June 2016

Maria Merian's Butterflies & Flowers by Janie Hampton

I have always loved detailed, exotic flower designs such as William Morris's 'Pomegranate' wallpaper and Osborne & Little curtains. But until I visited the Queen's Gallery recently, I had no idea that they were all inspired by an extraordinary 17th century woman.
Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt in 1647. Her father was Matthäus Merian, a successful printmaker and when he died only three years later, her mother married the still-life artist Jacob Marrel, who taught Merian to paint accurate and detailed flowers.
Pineapple with Cockroaches which Merian described  as 
‘the most infamous of all insects in America’.
While raising a family, teaching and painting, she also published books of flower engravings, as reference for embroidery and amateur painters.

From childhood, she was also fascinated by the life-cycles and habitats of insects. Merian's full colour compositions were not only elegant but also carefully observed and naturalistic. The caterpillars, chrysalis and adult butterflies are shown on the actual plants on which they fed. Most naturalists then still believed that caterpillars and butterflies were distinct species and Merian was one of the first to understand the metamorphosis of insects. Her pioneering work on the relationship between animals, plants and their environment, and that specific food was vital to the survival of each species, made her the first 'ecologist'.

After separating from her husband, Merian moved with her two daughters to a Labadist commune in Waltha castle in Holland. Choosing to live in simple austerity, she continued her studies including into the metamorphosis of frogs. When the commune broke up, she moved to Amsterdam, then a thriving centre of art and nature, and saw her first pineapple.
Ripe Pineapple (Ananas comosus) with Dido Longwing Butterfly (Philaethria dido), 1702-3. Merian noted that the wine made from pineapples had 'an unsurpassable flavour.'
Merian was also fascinated by the specimens of exotic insects that were arriving into Europe from South America. But as they were dead, she could not observe their life-cycles. In 1699, she sold all her paints, prints and copper plates, and set off with her 21-year old daughter, Dorothea for Suriname. A Dutch colony in South America, it had been called 'Willoughbyland' until 1667, when the British exchanged it for some swampy islands further North, now called New York.

Maria Merian lived in the capital, Paramaribo, with Dorothea and explored the surrounding forests for plants and animals to draw, and caterpillars to rear and observe. For two years she painted scientifically accurate illustrations, until her ill-health forced them to return home.
Banana (Musa paradisiaca) and bullseye moth (Automeris liberia). Merian commented that a banana ‘has a pleasant flavour like apples in Holland; it is good both cooked and raw.’  
Back in in Amsterdam, in 1705 Merian published a luxury book of beautiful, hand-coloured etchings called 'The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname'. She also produced partially printed and  hand-drawn coloured plates printed on vellum to sell to her richer patrons. Merian, probably assisted by her daughters, inked sections of each etched plate and ran them through the press. While the ink was still wet, she transferred a reverse image onto a sheet of vellum. This ‘counterproof’ was then coloured by hand with watercolour mixed with gum arabic. Merian varied the arrangement of insects and plants so that each plate is a unique composition. She became one of the most celebrated natural scientists of her age and regarded throughout Europe as both an entomologist and an artist. She was also an astute businesswoman. ‘I had the plates engraved by the most renowned masters, and used the best paper in order to please both the connoisseurs of art and the amateur naturalists interested in insects and plants,’ she wrote.

Guava tree (Psidium guineense) with Army Ants (Eciton sp.), Pink-Toed Tarantulas (Avicularia avicularia), Hunstman Spiders (Heteropoda venatoria) and a Ruby-Topaz Hummingbird (Chrysolampis mosquitus). Merian showed a tarantula carrying off a hummingbird which may have led to the erroneous belief that tarantulas eat birds.
Merian died in Amsterdam in 1717. Three hundred years later her meticulous, brilliant works continues to inspire and excite artists and designers. Several plants, butterflies and beetles have been named after her, such as the Split-Banded Owlet Butterfly (Osiphanes cassina merianae).

False Coral Snake and Banded Cat-Eyed Snake with  unidentified frogs. Merian shipped snakes from Suriname, preserved in brandy. This drawing may be by one of her daughters, Johanna or Dorothea who were also talented artists. Dorothea worked for Peter the Great in St Petersburg and left her mother's sketch books with the Russian Academy of Sciences.

In 1810 George III bought the set of plates from Merian's Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium which are now in the Royal Collection in London.
Kate Heard's book Maria Merian's Butterflies [ISBN 978 1 909741 31 7] is a treasure to behold and tells the story of Merian's life and work with 150 colour illustrations.
All illustrations copyright Royal Collection Trust/ Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2016.  @janieoxford

Sunday 26 June 2016

Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine, by Carol Drinkwater

Many of my colleagues are writing glorious posts inspired by recent holidays. How envious I feel as I stay locked to my desk, moving inexorably towards my upcoming deadline. However, I did make a short trip to Krakow two weeks ago, for five days, taking all my work with me. I wrote all day in our lovely hotel room and then about 4pm I allowed myself out to revisit the city.

My husband, Michel, was on the jury for the Krakow Documentary Film Festival and I tagged along because it is a city I remember from two decades back. I first visited Poland months after the Berlin Wall had come down.

Of course, my first observation was how dramatically the city has changed. My first visit was, as all my trips have been, for work. I was filming there. In fact, I have been employed as an actress in Poland on several occasions. I have also taken the role of director of English dubbing on a couple of films, written the screenplay for a six-part film series partially shot in Poland, and, more recently, I have returned as an author on a book tour. Over the years, I have been a sporadic witness to its evolution.

When I first went to Poland it was, as I said, after the Wall had come down. Communism was still visible everywhere, of course. There were few foreigners except business folk. It was a time for enterprise, for overseas companies to step in and offer their wares or stake a claim in the opportunities for new business. It was grey. The streets were grey. The citizens, poor. There was little to buy in the shops. Many of their windows were bare with possibly one object on display. There was a subdued, vanquished, sense of national identity because the dominant identity was Communism. I observed certain overseas visitors treat the Poles badly, as the underdog but most were keen to express their enthusiasm at finally being offered the opportunity to collaborate, to create a mix of experience and skills.

Krzysztof Kieslowski 

In my sphere, I was exceedingly fortunate. I was given many opportunities to work with brilliant filmmakers. The Polish people have a marvellous history of cinema, and one of the finest film schools in the world is in Lodz. Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Kieslowski (there was a small retrospective in his honour at this year's doc festival because, incredibly, 2016 is the 20th anniversary of his death), Jerzy Skolomowski (who I worked with in 1976 on The Shout which was honoured at Cannes), Andrzej Wajda,  Krzysztof Zanussi, who was the president of the jury when I was part of the team at the Monaco TV festival some years ago, and a remarkable lady I have never met, Agnieszka Holland. These directors amongst many others have given Polish cinema a fine reputation internationally, and an exceptional body of work.

                                                                 Agnieszka Holland

I had little opportunity for sightseeing this time, revisiting places I had been to years ago. I did go to the castle again and to light candles for my recently-departed mother at the cathedral, and I did make a special trip to see Leonardo da Vinci's Lady With an Ermine, which I had not seen before. It is magnificent and I was humbled to stand before such a work. I felt profoundly grateful for the opportunity to be there in that room in the company of such a masterpiece even if I had to share the moment with many Asian and European tourists. I left the castle and wandered down into the old town where tourists were seated in every restaurant and every bar, none of which had existed a decade or two ago. There were the inevitable lager louts behaving badly, getting drunk loudly, sloshing pints everywhere, making the most of cheap beer, having flown in off the cheap flights. I sighed at the sight of them, and I then I remembered what my driver had said on the way into town from the airport. "Life is good for us now. We have every nationality visiting us here, enjoying our food, our culture, our way of life, our art. We can afford to eat better and we can travel too. For those of us who remember Communism, this is a real step forward, a liberation. And our children can travel anywhere throughout Europe, experience new horizons, learn languages. The world has expanded." 
His words seemed more poignant than ever at this time. Communism is Poland's past. Europe is its present and its future. Borders have been removed; diversity is celebrated; free trade and access to elsewhere is the norm now.

Since I wrote this post on Wednesday 22nd June, Great Britain has been to the polls.  52% of British voters, as the world knows, put their cross in the box 'Leave', to leave the European Union. I cannot describe the overwhelming sadness I felt when the outcome was announced. Britain is choosing a new, more independent, more isolated path and for the moment the decision has caused a financial free fall. I fear for the uncertainty that lies ahead, which will probably include the splintering of the United Kingdom.

This afternoon as I visited various shops and made stops here and there in the south of France where I live, while talking to traders, it became clear that 27 states are moving forward, shocked by the UK's vote. The European Union was built out of the rubble of two world wars. It has ensured peace across Europe for half a century. It has laid down the basis for humanitarian values. It has made a historical shift in how the individual entities, countries, perceive and interact with one another.
For all its faults, I believe in Europe, in working together; the exchange of ideas and cultures.  Immersion not estrangement.
The loss of the UK is  a sorrow for one and all. This was a united journey, sometimes bumpy, but one that contained a united vision. It still does, except tragically, Britain has gone.
We cannot yet see the full impact of this split. I pray that we who remain in Europe can work together to overcome the loss of such an important member and move forward as an entity, redoubling our efforts towards solidarity and open-mindedness. Now more than ever, with so many parts of the world in turmoil, we need unity not disparity.

Saturday 25 June 2016

History of Bedlam by Miranda Miller

   While I was writing my Bedlam Trilogy (which will be published as one volume next year by Peter Owen), I became fascinated by the history of the hospital before the nineteenth century, the period I was writing about.

   In 1247 The Priory of St Mary of Bethlem, Bishopsgate was founded and stood where Liverpool Street Station is now. It was to provide a fundraising base for the Church of St Mary of Bethlehem in Palestine and from the 1330s it is referred to as a hospital. The first references to Bethlem housing insane patients date from the early fifteenth century and it is therefore the oldest psychiatric hospital in Europe that is still being used. Henry V111 seized the hospital as an ‘alien priory’ and it became both ‘royal’ and a City institution (until the NHS took it over in 1948), The Royal Bethlem Hospital, jointly administered with Bridewell, a former palace that became a prison. Of course, definitions of madness change constantly and people suffering from dementia, post natal depression and learning disabilities would probably have been inmates.

   The hospital’s history is inextricably involved with the history of London and the word Bedlam would have begun as a Londoners’ contraction (like "innit"). Recurring scandals about the treatment of the inmates soon gave the word its association with chaos and pandemonium. The hospital was near two London playhouses, The Curtain and The Theatre, and it has been suggested that Shakespeare may have visited it to observe madness. Jacobean plays, including The Honest Whore, The Duchess of Malfi, Bartholomew Fair and The Changeling, all refer to it as a place of horror. In the late seventeenth century one of the most famous inmates was Lady Eleanor Audley, who published her Strange and Wonderful Prophecies and sat on the Bishop of Litchfield’s throne to declare herself Primate and Metropolitan. She should now, perhaps, be considered something of a feminist hero, as the first woman bishop. Oliver Cromwell’s gigantic porter, Daniel, was also a prophet and owned a bible that was said to be a present from Nell Gwyne. People used to gather outside the hospital beneath his window to listen to his preaching.

   After the Fire of London the hospital was rebuilt at Moorfields (where Finsbury Circus is now), in an elegant, spacious building designed by Robert Hooke, a friend of Wren’s. An anonymous poet wrote that:
So Brave, so Sweet does it appear,
Makes one Half-Madde to be a Lodger there.

   The galleries of the new building attracted many visitors, some of whom teased and provoked the inmates, and this was allowed until the late eighteenth century. In 1728 Dr James Monro was appointed as physician, the first of a dynasty of ‘mad-doctors’ - four generations of Monros - who ran the hospital until 1853. His son,Dr John Monro, wrote that “madness is a distemper of such a nature, that very little of real use can be said concerning it.” Alexander Cruden, a writer who was briefly incarcerated in Bedlam in the eighteenth century, said bitterly of the physicians there: "but is there so great Merit and Dexterity in being a mad Doctor? The common Prescriptions of a Bethlemitical Doctor are a Purge and a Vomit, and a Vomit and a Purge over again, and sometimes a Bleeding, which is no great mystery". Jonathan Swift, who was a Governor of the hospital, suggests in his Tale of a Tub (1704) that Bedlam is the best place to recruit the nation's politicians since the inmates could not be any more insane than the men in power.

   This is the terrifying image of Bedlam that we all know: 

   It is, of course, the final scene of Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress (1735), sales of which raised funds for the hospital. The fashionably dressed women have come to the asylum as a social occasion, to be entertained by the bizarre antics of the inmates. Around Tom Rakewell a tailor, a musician, an astronomer and an archbishop are suffering from various delusions. One man thinks he is a king but is naked, carrying a straw crown and sceptre.

   In 1786 Margaret Nicholson, convinced she was the rightful heir to the throne, made a rather feeble attempt to assassinate George 111 with a blunt knife:
   The king, whose own experience of madness had made him compassionate, said: ‘take care of the woman - do not hurt her, for she is mad.’ A few years later James Tilly Matthews was confined to the hospital on the grounds of his very complex paranoid delusions. In fact, he might have been a spy or double agent actually persecuted by Lord Liverpool’s government ( for more about this amazing story see a fascinating book by Mike Jay: The Air Loom Gang: The Strange and True Story of James Tilly Matthews and His Visionary Madness).

   By the end of the eighteenth century the once palatial building was collapsing so that ‘not one of the floors are level, nor any of the walls upright.’ The hospital had to be demolished and in 1815 moved to St George’s Fields, then in Surrey but now in Lambeth, where the Imperial War Museum is. Anyone interested in the history of the hospital should visit a wonderful new museum, The Bethlem Museum of the Mind, which is in Beckenham, Kent.

Friday 24 June 2016

THE DEALER AND THE ADDICT by Elizabeth Chadwick

I'm not quite sure how I came to be on their list of users, but however they found me, they ended up targeting me, and I am now a hopeless addict.  The moment one of their occasional catalogs drops through my letterbox, I'm there, filled with anxious anticipation at the fix to come and knowing that I shall have to consume it as fast as I can because to reap the ultimate reward I have to do the deal before anyone else gets to it  - and there are many of us out there.

So who are these nefarious people encouraging and feeding my habit?

They are specialist second hand and antiquarian book dealers Bennet & Kerr Books who operate out of a warehouse at the end of a farmyard in the Oxfordshire village of Steventon.
Edmund Bennet and Andrew Kerr, the business owners have known each other for five decades and in September will have been in business for 34 years.  Their company began in their houses with a stock of inherited books and two manual typewriters,  but success required expansion.  Having outgrown the garage built to hold more of their collection, they acquired the warehouse at Steventon in 1992 which currently houses a stock of around 7,000 books.

Members of the Association of Antiquarian Booksellers and The Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association (members must adhere to a code of professional conduct), they often handle specialist collections from the estates of established historians.  Norman Davis for example, Kathleen Major, Norman Scarfe, Derek Brewer, Margaret Aston, Barbara Reynolds.

Bennet & Kerr are a delight to do business with - which also helps to fuel my addiction.  My queries and orders are dealt with promptly and efficiently.  They know me when I phone through my order - I'm not sure whether it is Mr Bennet or Mr. Kerr who answers, but he is always knowledgeable and charming.  The books generally take about a week to arrive and are packed with meticulous care.  There's a layer of tissue, then newspaper, then card, and bubble wrap, and all neatly executed. The books are valued as the precious objects they are, no matter their condition and their price.  A book costing £5 will receive the same meticulous attention as one costings thousands.  I would recommend Bennett and Kerr to anyone interested in the broad spread of the Middle Ages.  However, if you go looking then beware, because you will become an addict too.  You have been warned!

You can click on the picture to enlarge. 

Regarding the books themselves, here is a selection of what I have acquired from them  - by no means the whole.  They might have a warehouse for their existing stocks, but I wonder how many warehouses worth they have sold to their addicts customers!

One of my more recent purchases is this one - a history of the Temple Church published in 1907. (see star mark in the above catalogue). I was touched to see this dedication on the flyleaf from its original purchaser to his wife.  I haven't been able to decipher the entirety, but the sentiments are clear.

'To my darling wife with the first of our extra profits at...? Joiner Street perhaps?

A few more of my eclectic purchases (the tip of the iceberg)  from Bennett and Kerr.  I've posed them on one of my bookshelves.

Another part of the addiction is that one never knows quite what one is going to find when browsing the catalogue.  For example I came across a one of its kind bound university thesis from 1971 on the history of hats complete with sketches and photographs made by the author.  It perhaps only has a limited use in my medieval research - although a use nevertheless, but it give me warmth and joy to have this work on my shelf that is clearly someone's passion as well as their study towards a degree. 

For anyone who wishes to feed their addiction, here is Bennet & Kerr's website. Bennett & Kerr

Thursday 23 June 2016

The Patriot Game; nationalism versus humanity, by Leslie Wilson

German revolutionaries (Wikimedia Commons)

Nationalism in its modern form was born in 1848, the Year of Revolutions, and it was a very different animal from what it was to become. It was about liberalism, not economic liberalism, but liberty, equality, and fraternity. The setting-up of nation states was seen as an alternative to the old, feudal states; they were to be just, have democratic constitutions, and royal and aristocratic dominance would be abolished.

German nationalism was born at a time when young, idealistic people were mobilised to fight against Napoleon, with the promise of a constitutional state. This last was important, because Napoleon, though a warmongering imperialist, did introduce constitutions and rights in the German states that he conquered, and these were attractive to intelligent, reform-hungry bourgeois people. In 1848, the revolutionaries were angry because the reforms had not been implemented by the victors of Waterloo. Metternich, Castlereagh, Wellington, were pretty ruthless reactionaries and they clamped down on the middle and lower classes. The same ideas spread to Slav peoples who felt their own languages and cultures were being suppressed by Russian and Austrian overlords.

But there's a serious problem with nationalism; first that it tags itself all too easily to ethnicity, or what is perceived as being the 'natural' ethnic population of any given place. You don't see neighbours any longer, just 'that German' or 'that Fleming' or 'that Serb', 'that Croat', who lives down your street and who, you can too easily end up thinking, should be packed off to a 'home' they've never lived in, because they don't belong in your newly-formed nation. Secondly, it too easily morphs into a belief that your nation is not only superior to other nations, and has more rights, but also that it must not be questioned, for fear of being unpatriotic.

When my grandfather was arraigned by the Nazis in 1933, he was accused of 'lack of national feeling,' and when that happened to him and countless others, the metamorphosis from liberal, democratic nationalism to something hideous and criminal was complete. My grandfather did love his country; loved it enough to want justice and a decent standard of living for its workers (he was a Social Democrat), but he didn't trust the Nazis to deliver that. They didn't, of course. Twelve years of Nazi rule left Germany in a far worse state than it was in after the Wall Street crash, when Hitler's popularity began to rise.
photo: Imperial War Museum

Fast-forward to the present, especially the past few weeks, when 'I want my country back' has become the cry of people who've been taught, by a press propaganda campaign that Hitler might envy, that incomers and refugees are the root of all their problems. I'm not saying that the problems aren't real (though I'd find other people responsible for housing shortages, health service queues, and low wages), nor am I without sympathy for anyone who finds their neighbourhood has changed completely with the arrival of people they can't chat to. In some cases, however, UKIP is really strong in areas where the immigrant population consists of the local Chinese takeaway proprietors. Nigel Farage's poster, depicting a queue of refugees (who were not coming to Britain, incidentally); untrue stories, lapped up, about of millions of Turks heading here; people convinced that the proportion of migrants in their town is 80% when it is actually 10% or less; all these are manifestations of a nationalism which too easily fastens on foreigners and different races for someone to fear and blame.

Nationalism peddles the idea of a homogeneous, ethnically white Britain where everyone speaks the same language. Leaving aside the fact that I find some regional accents difficult to understand, and that there are actual language differences in different parts of the country: (going for a dander, dog-daisies, bargeing a bucketful, anyone know what these things are?), Britain (even England with the cross of the Syrian St George on its flag) has never been homogeneous. Brythons, Celts, Saxons (who confusingly came from Denmark along with the Angles and the Jutes), Normans (also of Viking origin), are our mixed ancestry, along with Africans from Elizabethan times onwards,Jews, Huguenots, Chinese, Indians, because we went and took over their country, are all a part of the mix, along with smaller inputs derived from intermarriage (like me). I don't claim this as a comprehensive list.

Nationalism ignores this reality. Nationalism demands that we put our own country first, in defiance of humanity and international cooperation; that we refrain from facing unpleasant facts about our country's abusive and exploitative actions and glorify them instead, so we can be 'proud of our heritage.'
Do these really trump everything?

But if your loved child committed a murder, or a rape, is it right to glorify those crimes because you love them and want to be proud of them? Is it right to feel you must even encourage them to commit crimes, because otherwise you'd be disloyal? My generation in Germany, post-war, decided that the best way of loving their country was to face up to the horrors of the past, and try to make sure it never happened again. It caused intergenerational conflict; the older generation felt personally attacked and condemned (my mother did when I tried to understand what had happened), but it had to be done, and Germany nowadays attracts respect for that openness.

Actually, the world has been interconnected for thousands of years. Mediterranean peoples sailed to Britain to get tin to make bronze. The west has been trading with China, along the silk road, since Roman times or earlier. International cooperation has been far more important than wars. Even the Norse settlers were far more likely to be traders who came peaceably than Viking raiders who massacred the locals. But then, war makes a better drama than peace, and so it's easy to downplay the fact that the benefits of cooperation will keep the peace for years and years, pushing the idea that peace is only obtained at gunpoint.

Today is a day that will, as Marie-Louise Jensen pointed out last week, make history, and what history it makes is yet to be seen. But if we listen to the siren call of nationalism and believe that we can cut ourselves off from the opportunities the European Union offers, and become 'Great Britain' again, I fear we are fooling ourselves. If leaving the EU leads to economic decline, then the forces of right-wing nationalism are likely to exploit the anger of the poor and mushroom up, as they did in Germany in the early 30s. That led to the complete inversion of all the values I personally treasure; humanity, compassion, openness. Last Thursday, a young woman who had lived her life in the service of those values was murdered by a man who shouted 'Britain first!' and referred to her as a traitor. The BNP are the only party who are contesting her seat: they are determined to profit by the murder. Putin, Le Pen, and other reactionaries are desperate for Brexit; it's just what they want.

I believe that extreme nationalism, with its filthy twin, murderous racism, are like opportunistic viruses, lurking within the body politic. Economic weakness, like bodily weakness, give them the chance to proliferate and thrive, taking over healthy cells.

I love my country; it's my home, though I am not a nationalist. Without glossing over its faults, or the limitations of its democratic system, I value it hugely and want it to remain a mainly decent place to live. I want to see it participating within the EU to tackle the enormous challenges that face us in the twenty-first century, seeking, as Jo Cox did, to spread humanity and justice among the peoples of the earth.

Wednesday 22 June 2016

Medieval Masterchef by Catherine Hokin

As I mentioned in my last blog, I am currently spending a considerable amount of time in the fourteenth century. This has allowed me to indulge a number of obsessions, including the entymology of words and, my real love, food and the development of our culinary heritage.

These two things are very inter-connected. The arrival of the Norman French in the years post the Conquest brought many of our current words into use - in this context, curfew is particularly relevant coming as it does from the signal to bank the hearth fires at the end of the day and stemming from the Latin coverir (to cover) and feu (fire). It also heralded the start of a real explosion in culinary learning as eleventh century Michel Roux Juniors arrived to educate the palates of the English upper classes - I live in hope that there was an equivalent Monica Galetti terrifying young cooks from beneath her wimple.

The Forme of Cury c.1390
The interest in the culinary arts achieved its peak in the reign of Richard II and has come down to us in the form of a wonderful manuscript known as The Forme of Cury, with cury being the Middle English word for cookery.

This manuscript is not just a description of meals enjoyed, it is an instructional text: a series of recipes, 196 in total, put together in a parchment scroll by King Richard's cooks so that other cooks could learn their trade. Some of the recipes are for everyday use ('common meats for the household as they should be made, craftily and wholesomely') and some are for feasts. All are fascinating for the glimpses they give us of the incredible range of ingredients available to medieval cooks in wealthy households, the customs surrounding eating and the links drawn between food and other important contemporary disciplines - the introduction says that the work was given 'the approval and consent of the masters of medicine and of philosophy' who served at Richard's court.

 Medieval Feast
Everday meats and pottages are one thing, it is the feasts that fascinate me. The recipes are full of wonderful ingredients from olive oil and spices such as caraway and cardamom to more exotic food that even the most hipster twenty-first century restaurant would blanch (pun intended) at - cranes, curlews, herons and even seals and porpoises. Many of the dishes served required a huge array of techniques to prepare them, separating them out from the far less complex roast meats which had dominated in earlier times. By the end of the fourteenth century, meat would be presented in a wide variety of fashions: mortrews was a type of meatloaf with a base of minced pork and chicken which was boiled and then thickened with bread, spices and eggs and often served with a broth; raysols also used minced meat as the main ingredient (in this case pigs livers), with the addition of cheese and a saffron crust. The list of techniques for tackling meat alone read like something Jamie Oliver might employ with words such as stamp, meddle, smite and seethe littering the recipes. When you think about some of the centrepieces these kitchens produced - such as the cockatrice formed from the front of a capon and the back of a piglet stitched together or the peacocks brought to the table with their bodies and feathers reformed - you have to marvel at their ingenuity.

A Peacock Centrepiece
It wasn't just the savoury courses that were astounding. Many of us have heard of the sugar subtleties that heralded each course or acted as warners that the banquet was about to begin. I (perhaps because I am married to an American who was brought up with this tradition rather than the custard approach I knew) am fascinated by the brightly-coloured jellies which were used to encase everything from fish to fruit, which in turn were often gilded. Kate Colquhoun in her wonderful book Taste lists some of the colouring ingredients from blood and bark (reds and purples) through heliotrope (blue), almonds (white) and mint to the glorious and highly-prized saffron. A sea of heraldry for the table.

Feasts were an important part of the medieval calendar and we are currently in the middle of one of the key celebrations: Midsummer. Midsummer was the culmination of the spring festivals that heralded fertility, the hopes of a good harvest and the solstice. Its dates have shifted slightly: astronomically the longest day falls on the 20th/21st June but the 1752 calendar alignments fixed the date on June 24th, the Feast of John the Baptist. Whatever the date, Midsummer Eve has traditionally been celebrated with bonfires (originally burning animal bones, hence the name), cooking and decorating with flowers and herbs to entice the fairies and of course, food.

Lots of Midsummer recipes involve fruit and vegetables but I honestly think a celebration is not a celebration without cake. So, here is a recipe for fourteenth century Bryndons - small cakes in a sauce of wine, fruit and nuts -which I think captures the ingredients and the array of techniques our medieval cooks would have employed, even on small dishes. There is a a modern translation of the recipe at a wonderful website called A Boke of Gode Cookery. I really hope to see someone have a go at these on the Bake-Off, I feel Mary Berry would approve.

 Bryndons - admittedly not my attempt
Boil wine, honey, sandalwood, cloves, saffron, mace, cloves, minced dates, pine nuts, currants and a splash of vinegar. Add ground figs that have been boiled in wine and strained. Make thin cakes out of flour, saffron, sugar and water. Slice these thinly and fry in oil. Serve the cakes in a shallow dish, arranged on the boiled and cooled syrup, which should be runny and not stiff.

Accept star baker.

Tuesday 21 June 2016

Casa Museu Medeiros e Almeida by Imogen Robertson

My husband and I have just got back from Portugal. My mother-in-law lives in Porto but before we went to visit her, we spent a week in Lisbon. 

There is plenty of material for history blogs in that remarkable city and you’ll be hearing more over the next few posts, but I have to admit that the whole holiday was rather overshadowed by the coming Brexit vote. Lisbon is a town of travel, trade and immigration just as London is.  We revelled in it, and were miserable at the idea the concept of a smaller, walled country might triumph over the glories and complexities of connection in the UK.

If you go to Lisbon take the time to veer off the main tourist trail and visit Casa Museu Medeiros e Almeida. It’s an astonishing collection, all the more remarkable because several of the rooms remain those of a private house, just as the original collectors arranged them. 

Walls are lined with French painted panelling, crazed mid-19th century furniture vies for the attention with two headed enamelled peacocks and the golden shell baby carriage of the son of the Duke of Wellington. There’s an entire room devoted to watches and clocks from rock crystal extravaganzas to pocket watches shaped like cherries and apparently conservative looking pocket watches which contain little pockets of clockwork porn within them. 

They speak of culture and ideas, of wit and pleasure crossing great expanses of space and time before settling in this beautiful cool house in a Lisbon side-street.  

I hope I’ll be celebrating our decision to remain in Europe next month, a decision to remain an outward looking people who wish to share and celebrate. For now, apologies for the short post and fingers crossed.

Monday 20 June 2016

Discovering Medieval Oxford - by Ann Swinfen

I fell in love with Oxford when I was nine years old.

My mother and I had arrived in England to spend some months with the English half of my family, and my uncle was driving us north to the Midlands. I think I probably fell asleep, but when he stopped to let us stretch our legs for a while in the dark, I stepped out of the car into a wide, tree-lined street – no, it was more than a street, a long triangle, disappearing into the distance. Under a sky of moon and stars, strange buildings stood out, crenellated, turreted, like something from a medieval tale. Then from all over the town, bells began to ring.

It was Oxford. St Giles. And it was midnight.

St Giles with St John's College

What an introduction! Later, when I was lucky enough to go there as a student, the love deepened. Of course, there were all the usual things – wonderful friends, punting on the river, picnicking while watching cricket in the Parks, parties, singing in the Bach Choir, acting, glamorous balls. And incidentally, falling in love and marrying. Well, yes, there were lectures and tutorials to be squeezed in as well.

Underneath it all, however, that first impression remained strong, and grew even stronger whenever I thought of all those who had inhabited the same streets through the centuries. I remember one particular occasion when I was walking alone down tiny Magpie Lane in winter. Deep snow lay under foot. There was a single lamppost. In my memory it was one of the old gas ones, can that be right? One bar of gold light fell across the snow, and, in Merton chapel, someone was playing the organ. There wasn’t another soul to be seen. Yet I could feel all those people around me, especially those early scholars from the Middle Ages.

Magpie Lane

I’ve never believed in physical time travel, but there are certain spots in our lives when we make that emotional leap, and that was one of them for me. I wouldn’t claim I could see those medieval scholars, but I could certainly feel them.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that sooner or later I would have to write about medieval Oxford, and that is what I have been doing in recent months. However, I always love the research as well, and in this case it has been fascinating. First of all, my central character is a former student, now a bookseller, so I needed to know everything about book selling in the fourteenth century, parchment making, bookbinding. I made some curious discoveries.

Medieval Bookshop

It would be another century before the invention of printing replaced the handwritten book, but nevertheless booksellers did exist and in university towns they could be licensed to provide the peciae, sixteen-page extracts from essential texts. Students would hire and copy these, in order to have their own versions of the study texts, and the system provided booksellers (who were also stationers) with a regular income. The rental rates were controlled by the university. This was a wonderful and totally unexpected discovery. So that was how students acquired their textbooks in the fourteenth century!

Although the most luxurious decorated books were expensive, there was a brisk trade in secondhand books. Moreover, certain books were popular amongst the literate laity, such as books of hours and collections of traditional tales. This book ownership was more widespread than I had realised. There is even a recorded case of a vagrant stealing a book of hours belonging to a servant.

By this period paper had come into use, though parchment was the material of choice for the pages of books. Its production was demanding, but the liberal supply of flowing water all round Oxford was ideal for the purpose. And – glory be! – I discovered that out beyond the castle there was a Bookbinders Bridge!

Preparing Parchment

The university system had not yet taken on its later form, so that in 1353 (when my first story is set) undergraduate students were not admitted to the colleges. They lived in ‘halls’, or sometimes in town lodgings, and would only join a college if they proceeded to advanced study after completing the Trivium and Quadrivium. A hall was run by a Warden or Master, and there was a whole cluster of them in the northeast part of the walled town. Only one of these survives to this day, St Edmund Hall. Although in recent years it has become a full-blown college, it still proudly retains its title of ‘Hall’.

St Edmund Hall

However, the constant murderous fights between town and gown are well known. One of the earliest led to the flight of a group of scholars to the fens of Cambridgeshire to found Britain’s second university, but these bloody encounters continued into the fourteenth century with probably the worst occurring on St Scholastica’s Day in 1355, when there were so many deaths and injuries that the town (which had thought itself victorious) was severely penalised by the king. The fight started at the Swindlestock Tavern on Carfax, the central crossroads in Oxford. When I was a student, my bank stood on the spot (though it’s a different bank now).

All this trouble meant that the university decided that students needed to be better regulated and cared for. Merton began admitting undergraduates to college around the 1380s and other colleges followed suit, although official university halls continued to accommodate students as well.

The street plan of the walled town of Oxford has remained remarkably unchanged. Originally a fortified Saxon town, it was built around the crossroads of four streets: the High Street from the East Gate, Northgate Street from the North Gate, Fish Street from the South Gate, and Great Bailey (a post-Conquest name) originally from the West Gate, which was knocked down to make way for the Norman castle and replaced by a much smaller gate. All four streets met – and still meet – at Carfax.


Three of these streets have changed their names. Fish Street is now St Aldate’s, Great Bailey is Queen Street, and Northgate has become the Cornmarket. The Guildhall was located in Fish Street, where the Town Hall now stands.

One of the best-known streets in Oxford today is the Broad, lined with magnificent buildings. I found it entertaining to discover that it lies over or at least near the old stinking Canditch, which surrounded part of the town, lying outside the town wall. There are still bits of the wall to be found, if you search. For my fourteenth century inhabitants, it formed the boundary of the town proper, although already the town was beginning to spread beyond the wall.

Of course, the period I have chosen is immediately after the Black Death, known at the time as the Great Pestilence, or simply the Death, when anything from a third to half the population perished. The university was hit hard, but it survived. More than that, it took advantage of tumbling values to acquire large amounts of property in the town. After the Death, the warren of small cottages to the north of St-Peter-in-the-East had become more and more squalid, inhabited by criminals and the worst sort of prostitutes. It was recognised as a place of danger and disease, and the neighbours heaved a sigh of relief when it was cleared away to make room for New College in 1379.

New College

From St Edmund Hall on High Street in the south, to Hart Hall, near the junction of Catte Street with the wall at the small Smith Gate in the north, ran a winding lane known at Hammer Hall Lane, after one of the many halls in the area. Nowadays the northern part in known as New College Lane, the southern part as Queen’s Lane.

New College Lane & Hertford Bridge

Only a handful of colleges existed at the time, and not all are still extant. The survivors include Merton, Queen’s, Oriel, University, Exeter, and Balliol. Gloucester became Worcester, Canterbury was replaced by Christ Church, much of Durham was taken over by St. John’s College and Trinity. Gloucester and Durham were Benedictine foundations. Hart Hall has become Hertford College (my husband’s college – the one with the bridge). You will not find the Hospital of St John, next to the bridge over the Cherwell. It has vanished under Magdalen College.

Originally, of course, the university was established to train men in holy orders, although the growth of a secular ‘civil service’ required by the king and the law courts created a demand for more and more educated men outside the church. As well as the colleges, Oxford was surrounded by ecclesiastical institutions: the Augustinian Friary, the Carmelite Friary, the Franciscan Friary, the Dominican Friary, St Frideswide’s Priory, Rewley Abbey, Osney Abbey, and a little way north of the town, Godstow Abbey (a nunnery), where Henry II’s mistress, Fair Rosamund, was buried. All came to an end with the Dissolution, but in the fourteenth century they were still flourishing.

Even now the maze of waterways formed by the many branches of the Thames and the Cherwell encompasses the town, and the water meadows, now as then, are at risk of flooding. All this water provided the driving power for at least five mills: Holywell, Blackfriars, Castle, and Trill, and across the water meadows to the east, King’s Mill.

Holywell Mill

A curious personal note. I wanted to use Holywell Mill in this first book. Something nagged at the back of my mind, but I couldn’t pin it down. I looked up a picture of the present Holywell Mill, built in 1888, architecturally in seventeenth-century style (no longer a working mill). The picture hit me like a thunderclap. As a first year student I cycled there once a week for a tutorial. My unpleasant fourteenth-century character, Miller Wooton, I’m glad to say, no longer lives there.