Sunday 31 December 2017

December Competition

To enter our December competition, just answer this question in the Comments section below:

"What's your own favourite personal Christmas tradition?" (The quirkier and more specific to your family the better!)

Then copy your answer to

Closing date: 14th January, to give you time to recover from your own Christmas.

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

Good luck!


Saturday 30 December 2017

Cabinet of Curiosities by Charlotte Wightwick - Gingerbreadmen, women, angels and more...

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas. Mine was spent, as appears to be traditional for me, either in a food-related stupor, or watching TV programmes about food (and often both). Now I have to admit to a certain amount of perplexity when watching some of these (seriously, how complicated can it be to roast a turkey?) but I did come across one real gem, and the inspiration for this month’s entry into the History Girls’ Cabinet of Curiosities. Naturally I can’t remember which programme it was on, so I can’t just point you in the direction of the telly and get back to lazing around – although that is probably no bad thing.

What caught my eye on TV was a demonstration of how gingerbread was made in the medieval and early modern period, and in particular showcased the variety of stunning moulds that were used to make it.

Gingerbread mould, C17th
Gingerbread mould, C17th

Not for our forebears a clumsy, vaguely humanoid shape with raisins for eyes and smarties for buttons: originally, gingerbread was beautiful, elaborate and, to top it all off, often gilded. Of course, as spices such as ginger were luxury items, gold just added to the bling effect…

It also seems to explain (although this is only my guess) why gingerbread is called bread, given that we think of as gingerbread is more of a cake or a biscuit: originally, recipes featured breadcrumbs rather than flour. Mixed with spices and wet ingredients, the mixture was then pressed into the elaborate moulds and left to dry next to the fire (not baked in an oven). Other recipes used almond paste to make white gingerbread.

More details (and recipes) can be found at or

Alternatively you could of course just watch rolling Christmas food telly for hours on end to find the right TV programme. It would be a sacrifice to historical research worth making!

Gingerbread mould of an angel from Aachen. All images from Wikimedia Commons

Friday 29 December 2017

Christmas: a Biography by Judith Flanders

Our December guest is Judith Flanders, interviewed here by Charlotte Wightwick.

Judith Flanders was born in London, England, in 1959. She moved to Montreal, Canada, when she was two, and spent her childhood there, apart from a year in Israel in 1972, where she signally failed to master Hebrew.

After university, Judith returned to London and began working as an editor for various publishing houses. After this 17-year misstep, she began to write and in 2001 her first book, A Circle of Sisters, the biography of four Victorian sisters, was published to great acclaim, and nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. In 2003, The Victorian House (2004 in the USA, as Inside the Victorian Home) received widespread praise, and was shortlisted for the British Book Awards History Book of the Year. In 2006 Consuming Passions, was published. Her book, The Invention of Murder, was shortlisted for the 2011 CWA NonFiction DaggerThe Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London was published in 2012. And now, Christmas: a Biography has been published by Picador.

Welcome, Judith, for agreeing to be our very seasonal guest

Charlotte Wightwick: The book is called Christmas: A Biography. Why 'Biography' rather than 'History’?

Judith Flanders: I wish I had a more profound answer for this, but mostly it was because I wanted to give the subject a bit of ‘life’, not just that it was either dead history, or living kitsch. Oh, that and my publisher liked it.

CW: Its a commonplace that 'the Victorians invented Christmas as we know it.' How far is this true?

JF: Not true at all. This was what I thought when I began. (Annoyingly, this was even what I had written previously.) But the really exciting part of historical research is that you get to change your mind, and within only weeks I realized that this was just wrong, wrong, wrong. One historian had famously written that between 1790 and 1832, the Times newspaper had barely mentioned Christmas most years, and many years had never mentioned it at all. He had done his work before newspaper digitisation, so I had a huge advantage. When I ran a digital search on those dates in the Times, I actually found more than 5,000 mentions…

Christmas has always been a holiday of consumption. For most of history from the earliest mentions, in the 4th century, it was about consuming food and (especially) drink. With the coming of mass production and industrialization, the types of consumption changed, from food and drink to presents (and more food and drink!), which makes us think of the 19th century as being the period when Christmas was ‘invented’, but that really couldn’t be further from the truth.

CW: What's your favourite fact or story about Christmas which you didn't previously know? What surprised you when researching the book?

JF: There were endless surprises, but my favourite fact was one that showed how little change there has been in some things. In 1805, on the Lewis and Clark expedition, a government-sponsored expedition to map out much of the west of America, Lieutenant Lewis recorded in his diary that Captain Clark had given him ‘Fleeshe Hoserey vest draws & Socks’, and another man had given him a ‘pr. Mockerson’. That is, he received fleece hosiery (long underwear), a vest, underpants and socks, as well as a pair of slippers. It was good to know that boring Christmas presents have a long history!

CW: As well as universal traditions, every family/ set of friends has its own particular festive quirks. What's your own favourite personal Christmas tradition?

JF: I have to admit to being a total Christmas fraud in real life, compared to on the page — I’m Jewish, and don’t celebrate Christmas. We had a tree a couple of times when I was a child, but it was never a big thing for my family. And today I do nothing at all: I find the run-up to Christmas so exhausting that I’m always happy just to lie on the sofa through the holidays, reading all the books I didn’t get around to all year.

CW: Santa: is he real? (Sorry, couldn't resist!)

JF: Oh dear. This is going to take a while, isn’t it? I’m sorry, Virginia, but I have to tell you that no, Santa Claus isn’t real. But the various ‘Santas’ that have been suggested include a ‘coster’ (a street-seller of fruit and vegetables) who breathes fire through the keyhole on bad boys and girls, and, my own favourite, a newspaper in 1815 which had a letter signed ‘Santa Claus, Queen and Empress of all handsome girls…Queen and Empress of the Court of Fashions’, followed by a letter of approval from this ‘good, delightful, charming’ woman’s husband, St Nicholas. So there you have it, Santa is really a woman.

(We are very grateful to Judith, Charlotte and the publishers at Picador for responding so swiftly to our request, after a glitch in the system nearly left us guestless in December!)

Thursday 28 December 2017

Children of the King by Lynne Benton

Recently I read a fascinating book called “Bringing them up Royal”, about the relationships of royal children with their parents, from 1066 to the present day.  

After a great deal of deliberation I decided to talk about the three royal children of one notorious king.

Henry VIII would never have won any prizes as a husband, as we know only too well.  But what is also painfully clear is that this incredibly narcissistic king was an equally bad parent.
Henry VIII
When his daughter Mary was born to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, he was delighted with the little girl, fully confident that many more children, especially boys, would follow.  Sadly, when Catherine failed to produce the desired son – all her subsequent babies either miscarried or were stillborn – Henry decided it must be Catherine's fault, and that their marriage was cursed because she had been his dead brother’s fiancée.  He convinced himself that what was best for him was best for the country too, so as is widely known he decided to divorce Catherine, something which was forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church, to which they both belonged at the time.  The Pope refused to give his consent to the divorce, so, unprepared to be thwarted, Henry decided to break away from the Roman Catholic church and form his own, Protestant religion, the Church of England, thus setting in train many years of division and retribution among his people which in many places still resonates today.

At this time Mary was ten years old, and fond of both her parents, so she was very confused and upset by their split, though she felt her mother was the innocent party.  She also believed, as she’d been brought up to believe, that the Roman Catholic Church was right, and divorce was wrong.  But Henry continued to court Anne Boleyn, banished Catherine from court while showering Anne Boleyn with favours, and refused to see his daughter.  
Mary Tudor
In 1533, he finally got his own way, divorcing Catherine and marrying Anne, and shortly afterwards Anne’s daughter Elizabeth was born.  Then things became even worse for Mary, now aged 15.  Two days after Elizabeth's birth, Henry announced that Mary was no longer a princess, but simply Lady Mary, and he also refused to let her see her mother at all.  Then he sacked all her ladies-in-waiting and announced that Mary was to be merely lady-in-waiting to Princess Elizabeth.  Anne didn’t help, either – she persuaded Henry to confiscate most of Mary’s jewels.  Shortly after this Henry announced that Elizabeth, not Mary, was to be his heir.  So effectively, Henry divorced not only his wife but his older daughter too.  One can only imagine how this affected the teenage Mary, and her feelings about her baby sister.
Elizabeth, aged 13
At first Mary denied her father, but from time to time she attempted a reconciliation with him, but to no avail.  He wanted nothing more to do with her.

Of course, it wasn’t long before Anne Boleyn fell out of favour too.  When she too failed to produce a male heir Henry’s eye began to wander again, and soon fell on one of Anne’s other ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour.  Happy to listen to his sycophants’ tales of Anne’s supposed infidelity, he had Anne beheaded in the Tower of London when Elizabeth was only two years old, and married Jane.

Now Elizabeth was an outcast too, and Henry totally ignored her.  Nobody knows whether he even told her why he’d had her mother executed.  To her credit, Jane Seymour was a good stepmother and did her best to bring Henry and his daughters closer together, and when her son, the future Edward VI, was born, both Mary and Elizabeth were allowed to play important parts at his christening.

Unfortunately Jane died twelve days after Edward’s birth, but by then Mary was back in favour with her father.  Henry decided she should have the honour of being chief mourner (though she had been forbidden to attend her own mother’s funeral), and granted her a household and a lady-in-waiting of her own.  Meanwhile Elizabeth and her baby brother were sent to Hatfield Palace, in the care of Elizabeth’s governess, under whose care the two small children became friends.

After Henry’s fourth marriage, to Anne of Cleves, and speedy divorce, he became infatuated with the teenage Catherine Howard, who was ten years younger than Mary, which must have been very difficult for both his daughters.  However, Catherine soon proved, or was reputed to be, unfaithful to him, so he had her executed too.  This may have reminded him of the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, because he took out his misery on the nine-year-old Elizabeth and exiled her from court.  By now Elizabeth was clever enough to realise that if she was down, her half-sister was up, as once more Mary was given an honoured place at court.  They both knew that not only their status but also their lives were at the irrational whim of their spiteful, petulant father.

Finally, in 1543, Henry made a sensible marriage, to Katherine Parr, who became a good stepmother and carried on Jane Seymour’s good work of trying to mend Henry’s relationship with his children.  She got on particularly well with Elizabeth, and quickly persuaded Henry to allow his younger daughter back to court.  Then, having no children of her own, she also persuaded him to revoke his earlier decisions and restore both Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession, after their brother Edward VI. 
Edward VI
All three of Henry’s children subsequently ruled the country, but thanks to Henry the reigns of both Edward, a staunch Protestant like his father who insisted on punishing Catholics, and Mary, a staunch Catholic like her mother, who insisted on punishing Protestants, were fraught with intrigue, fear and bloodshed.  It was only when Elizabeth came to the throne that things began to calm down a little, though it took a while for everyone to come to terms with the new regime.  Considering the difficult childhood she’d had it is perhaps surprising that she coped so well in her adult life, but she was intelligent and pragmatic enough to realise that some degree of religious tolerance would benefit her people.   A useful lesson indeed.

Wednesday 27 December 2017

Tamara Karsavina & Henry Bruce, Part Three by Janie Hampton

Tamara Karsavina aka Mrs Henry Bruce in 1923. 
Karelia, Russia. July 1918. The British diplomat Henry Bruce, his lover the ballerina Tamara Karsavina and their 19-month-old son Nikita are fleeing for their lives. But having left their home in Petrograd to escape danger, the further they went, the worse it got. Here is the final part of their epic journey.  Read Part One of their adventure  here,  and Part Two here.
Half way between Petrograd and the White Sea, Henry and Tamara discovered they had unwittingly crossed the front line of the Russian civil war and were now among the Red Army Bolsheviks. The commissar of Sumozero village believed they were foreign spies and told them they would be rowed to the next village across the lake. But his men were drunk and there was a storm brewing. Tamara’s patience ran out and she screamed at him. She was sympathetic to the communists but she could not tolerate bad behaviour in a drunk commissar, not even in the name of  "Peace, Bread and Freedom".
Tamara as Pimpinella in Pucinella
The commissar ordered them to be locked overnight in a barn, from which Henry knew they were unlikely to emerge alive. Then he remembered he had an old permit to travel to Moscow, signed several months before by the Bolshevik leader Georgy Chicherin. Gambling that the commissar was unable to read more than Chicherin’s name, Henry showed it to him, and then threatened to report him for disobeying government orders. It worked, and the commissar declared they could, after all, continue round the lake on their hired horse cart, but under armed escort. They still had to cross the River Suma by raft.
Map of their route by cart  from Lake Sumo , to Murmansk by steam train
and through the Arctic Ocean in a coal-boat.
The next day, at Xvornii village, they were handed over to another Red Army commissar who recognised Tamara. Much to Henry’s surprise he issued them with a pass to continue. But it was for only twelve hours, not nearly long enough to reach the White Sea. Henry protested, and the commissar simply told them to get moving. Heading towards the Arctic Circle, the nights remained light.
Twenty-four hours later, they reached the fishing village of Sumsky Pasod on the White Sea and realised they had crossed back into friendly territory. But the Red Army was closing in and the villagers were leaving. They leaped into the last boat and a fisherman rowed them up the White Sea to Kem harbour. From there they walked seven miles across the marshes to the railway line.
At Kem station they found a throng of refugees, unsure from whom they were escaping – was it the Germans, Whites, Reds, or Finns? The railway line had been built in 1916 to transport arms and food from the Arctic Ocean to the German-Russian front. Now that Russia had made peace with Germany, the single track between Murmansk and Petrograd was being commandeered by both Whites and Reds to move their respective troops and supplies, north and south. When Henry asked to buy first-class tickets to Murmansk, the station manager told him, ‘I shall be obliged to close this conversation, Comrade, if you speak in tones unworthy of a socialistic state. And it is useless to bring the Lord into it. The rules state there is no Lord, but our saviour Lenin.’
The train steamed out of Kem just days before the small town fell to the Red Army. Progress was slow: on orders from the Czar, the track had been built in only a year by Chinese labourers and 10,000 Austrian prisoners of war, without a proper survey. At bends the locomotive tilted precariously and at weak bridges everyone clambered out and walked across behind the train. The approach to the watershed between the White Sea and the Arctic Ocean was so steep that the train had to take a second run. The exhausted family travelled into the Arctic Circle past the snow-capped Khibiny Mountains and beside navy-blue lakes. It was a beautiful but terribly remote landscape, unchanged when my daughter Daisy and I travelled the same route 80 years later to the nuclear submarine city of Murmansk.
In 1918, Murmansk, 850 miles north of Petrograd, was then only one year old, a single dusty street of wooden barracks called Pall Mall. Hugh Walpole described it as: "Simply the end of the earth. There are a few vessels, and nothing else save wolves and ptarmigans". The local forces were continually changing allegiance and that month Murmansk’s commissar was in alliance with the British general. Tamara and Henry found a railway carriage to sleep in but it gave little protection from the relentless sunlight, stifling heat, mosquitoes and stench of reindeer. When they heard that Tsar Nicholas II and his family had been assassinated in Ekaterinburg, they realised that they would not be returning to Russia soon.
Two weeks later they boarded a British collier as ‘Purser’ and ‘Stewardess’ and steamed up the Kola Inlet and into the Arctic Ocean. For two days and nights, a storm raged. For Tamara, the fiercer the wind blew, the more her memories of the past months diminished, as she vomited repeatedly over the rail. The crew and their exhausted passengers felt their spirits rise as they threaded their way through the islands of Norway and out into the North Sea. Near the Orkneys, a German submarine fired a torpedo which missed their hull by a matter of yards.
Tamara, Henry and Nikita arrived on the east coast of England at Middlesbrough in late August 1918. It had been a journey of two thousand miles by steamer, horse and cart, on foot, in a rowing boat, by train and by collier boat. That same month the Red Terror began in which over a million Russians were tortured and killed. In November the World War officially ended, although British, French and American armies continued to fight, and on the losing side, until 1922.
Tamara Karsavina aka Mrs Henry Bruce,
in her kitchen in London in 1948.
Tamara Karsavina, formerly wife of Vasili Moukine, was now ‘Mrs Bruce’. How this came about we do not know. Under Russian orthodox law, divorce was impossible, and after the revolution the Bolshevik government abolished marriage. Did Tamara marry Henry in Petrograd, as they both claimed? Or perhaps the captain of the collier married them somewhere in the Arctic Ocean.
Henry’s employers at the Foreign Office posted him to Tangiers, ‘a quiet posting away from it all’, but only on condition Tamara stopped dancing. When Diaghilev pleaded with her to rejoin the Ballet Russe, Henry chose to leave the diplomatic service and the family settled in London.
With the Ballet Russe, Tamara worked with Matisse, Nijinska, Picasso and J.M. Barrie. She appeared in silent movies with Leni Riefenstahl and Johnny Weissmuller.
 In 1930, shortly after Diaghilev died, Tamara helped start the Royal Academy of Dance and her autobiography, Theatre Street, was published. An abridged edition appeared in the Soviet Union in 1971, with all references to Henry, Nikita and their escape from Russia deleted.
Tamara looks at a portrait of herself painted by
Sir Oswald Birley in 1920, The Tatler, 1951.
Until her eighties Tamara choreographed and taught ballet to leading dancers including Margot Fonteyn. She never returned to Russia and died in London aged 93, nearly 30 years after she had buried her beloved Henry. Tamara and Henry had led one life that was only known in the Soviet Union; and another life after their escape in 1918 that was only known in Britain. It was a strange fate for one of the twentieth century’s greatest dancers.
Henry James Bruce, British diplomat, 1934.
Nikita went to Eton College, served in the Intelligence Corps during the Second World War, married and became an advertising executive with Schweppes. In 1971 he attended my wedding – one of many distant cousins in tail coats. If only I had known to ask him about his parents and early childhood.
Tamara and Nikita shortly before their escape from Russia in 1918.
Henry's cousins were surprised that he had recently married a dancer, and
that their child was already walking. Tamara's good nature soon won them over.
Here is a silent movie of Tamara in 1923:
Tamara Platonovna Karsavina (1885-1978). Henry James Bruce (1880-1951). Nikita Bruce (1916-1993)

Tuesday 26 December 2017

Provençal Christmas treats, by Carol Drinkwater

We are in the South of France at our Olive Farm. The weather is warm, the sun is shining and we are able to work outside on the land until late afternoon.
There is no snow. Snow is a very rare event here. I think I have seen flurries of it twice in over thirty years. When it settles though it is quite beautiful and is usually accompanied by the sun shining across the Mediterranean in the distance.

                                               A rare sight here, a light coating of snow over our beehives

Do I crave those colder, snowier Christmases I enjoyed as a child? Not at all. I have embraced the differences of this lifestyle and enjoy them.

Here, we eat our principal Christmas meal - le grand repas, or gros souper - on the evening of the 24th December. It will frequently include oysters, cheap as chips here, though this year we have not put them on our menu. The local poissonneries (fish shops) tend to erect a marquee outside their main shop. Here the oysters are chosen and prepared and laid out on round trays to take home and put directly on the table.
Lunch on the beach on Christmas Day is also a tradition. Plenty of oysters being served there.

Almost every family home will include its own crib and in the crib are to sure to be at least four or five santons. There are dozens to choose from.

I took this photograph of the santons on display in one of the wooden chalets at the local marché de Noel in our village this week.
By the way, the oldest marché de Noel in France is to be found in Strasbourg. Its Christkindelsmarik dates back to 1570 and is really worth a visit.

Back to Provence. Here is an extract from an article I wrote for France magazine about santons and their history:
"From mid-November right up to Christmas, you can find santon fairs known here as Les Foires aux Santons, all across the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region. A santon is a Provençal crib figure modelled from baked clay. Santon comes from the Provençal word santoun, meaning 'little saint'. 
Buy them completed or still to be painted. Chat to one of the santonniers, the artists of the figurines, who will happily give you the history of these local treasures. At the time of the French Revolution, when the churches were closed by the anticlerical revolutionary authorities, nativity scenes were banned. In response, the Provençaux began to make their own cribs – sometimes exhibiting them in their homes for a few centimes. At first, they were formed out of papier mâché, cloth, bread or any material the maker could lay his hands on and could be used for modelling. It was both an act of faith and of revolution, and, if caught, the guillotine could be the reprisal.
"The crib figures include, of course, the main players: baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, but you might also find a shepherdess or glass-blower, a fisherman, knife-grinder, miller, laundry girls, vendors of herbs or fruits, musicians, donkeys, goats, sheep, the local curé, even the schoolmistress. It forms a miniature re-enactment of 19th-century Provençal country life.
"In 1797, in Marseille, an artisan by the name of Jean-Louis Lagnel (1764-1822) had the idea of creating the figures in clay and painting them. It was in Aubagne at the start of the 20th century that the clay was fired to make the figures more resistant.
Santonniers are usually born into a family business passed down from generation to generation. What is remarkable is that even 21st-century artisans will spend hours in the hills hunting for thyme twigs, a stone or some precise detail they need to give their characters authenticity. Aubagne, birthplace of the great storyteller and film-maker, Marcel Pagnol, boasts an excellent santon museum."

Another tradition, one we don't adhere to, is the serving of thirteen desserts on Christmas Eve to finish off the Grand Repas or Gros Souper. These thirteen known in Occitan as lei tretze dessèrts represent Jesus and his twelve Apostles. If you are going to be true to the tradition the table needs to be set with three candles and three tablecloths for the Trinity. The choices which vary according to family tastes and traditions are then left on the table until the 27th December. 

Here is what is served: 
dried fruit and nuts: raisins, walnuts, dried figs and almonds (all locally grown fruits). This quartet is known as the four beggars representing the four mendicant monastic orders: Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians and Carmelites. The choice of dried fruits might also include dates (to celebrate the land where Christ was born) or dried plums from Brignoles. (I don't know the significance of the dried plums except that they are a local variety.)
Also on offer would be fresh fruits all grown in the region: apples, oranges, winter melon, grapes and tangerines amongst them. 
Then, amongst the other dessert plates, you will find Calissons, originally from Aix, which is a marzipan sweet olive oil fougasse, two kinds of nougat, quince paste, cumin and fennel biscuits, candied citrons, biscotins ... well, you see why we don't serve all these. 
French toast with apples and dried fruit might be an alternative or a melon and lavender tarte. Oreilletes, these are a feather-light waffle. 
Some of the above you might eat for breakfast on Christmas morning.
Tradition also insists that every guest must try a little of each. 
All of these foods are, of course, a splendid and very practical way of preserving your harvests and to celebrate the local cuisine.
I am begging to feel  full just writing about it all!

And after all this food, the family would walk to the local church for Midnight Mass, a tradition I have grown up with in Ireland and the UK.  In some districts the mass might be partially celebrated in Provençal. I have certainly attended mass in the Camargue where it was sung and spoken entirely in Carmarguais-Provençal.

Chestnuts are grown aplenty in Provence and further west so it is very easy to find chestnuts for your turkey stuffing. 

Here are some photos I took two days before Christmas of our local town hall. They were snapped taken on my phone during its light show. This display lights up the facade of the Mairie each evening during this season so adults and children can congregate to admire and photograph it. A small chalet alongside the town hall serves coffees and hot chocolates and gateaux.

I wish you a very splendid Christmas time, wherever you are, whatever your faith. Most of all, in these very troubled times, I pray for Peace on Earth and understanding.
The next time I write it will be 2018 in our calendar, so Happy New Year to all my wonderful Sister HGs and to all you readers. Thank you for popping by here.
I hope for all of us it will be a sane and blessed year.

Monday 25 December 2017

Telling the Christmas Story by Miranda Miller


   In October I revisited Assisi and the beautiful church of S. Francesco. Whether you’re religious or not (I’m not), St Francis, the animal lover who preached to the birds, is an endearing figure. If Dickens is sometimes called the man who invented Christmas, St Francis could be claimed as the man who invented the Christmas crib or presepio.

   Of course there had been paintings of the Nativity for centuries and Christmas plays, imitating those of Easter, probably grew up in the 11th century. In the century before Francis lived, ecclesiastics dressed up as the midwives, Magi, shepherds and other people in the Christmas story, as well as live animals. This is recorded in descriptions of the liturgical drama, the Spectacula Theatricalia.

   But it was Francis who, in about 1223, had the imaginative idea of re-enacting the birth of Christ very simply. He had recently visited the Holy Land, where he saw Jesus's traditional birthplace in Bethlehem. Later he told a friend: “I want to do something that will recall the memory of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by.” These animals are not mentioned in the canonical gospels but frequently appear in the apocrypha.

   A friend of his, Giovanni Vellita, was the Lord of Greccio, two miles away from Assisi. Like Francis, Giovanni had renounced worldliness and wanted to return to the poverty and simplicity of the first Christmas in Bethlehem. On Christmas Eve the manger was prepared in a cave, and an ox and ass were brought in. Local people began to come in procession, carrying torches and candles, and Mass was celebrated over the crib. In Greccio you can still see the stone where the hay was placed and the carved image of the baby was laid. There were no figures of Joseph and Mary, just the two animals.

   This fresco in the upper church at Assisi by Giotto, who was born only forty years after Francis died, shows the saint at Greccio during that first dramatisation of the nativity in 1223. A contemporary described Giotto as "the most sovereign master of painting in his time, who drew all his figures and their postures according to nature." Every Christmas this Nativity scene is still acted out by the people of Greccio.

   This idea spread rapidly throughout Italy and Catholic Europe. People later made cribs out of straw and clay figures and put them in churches, schools and in their homes. In Naples you can still buy these figures from street stalls and there, particularly, the presepio became an art form and was often very elaborate, like the one below.

   Eventually this charming tradition spread to Protestant countries as well. In England people used to bake a mince pie (using meat, not raisins) in the shape of a manger which would hold the pastry christ child until dinnertime, when the pie was eaten. The Puritans banned Christmas celebrations and outlawed such pies, calling them "Idolaterie in crust".

   There is a legend that at midnight on Christmas Eve animals have the gift of speech; because the humble farm animals gave the infant Jesus His first shelter, and warmed him with their breath, they were rewarded with the gift of human speech.Thomas Hardy knew this legend from his Dorset childhood and wrote his poem, The Oxen:

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.

"Now they are all on their knees,"

An elder said as we sat in a flock

By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where

They dwelt in their strawy pen,

Nor did it occur to one of us there

To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years! Yet, I feel,

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

"Come; see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

Our childhood used to know,"

I should go with him in the gloom,

Hoping it might be so.

Sunday 24 December 2017

THE BECKET LEAVES By Elizabeth Chadwick

Thomas Becket returning from exile shortly before his murder
The Christmas season marks the anniversary of the murder of Henry II's Archbishop of Canterbury in Canterbury Cathedral's transept on 29th December  1170.  It was from Henry's court in Normandy at Bur le Rois that the four knights who becameThomas Becket's murderers set out to commit their deed of slaughter.  Becket's murder on the steps of his own cathedral caused shock waves and repercussions throughout the Christian world

The subject of numerous writings and artistic creations throughout christendom, this stubborn, complex, driven man became a saint (canonised in February 1173 by the Pope) and almost brought Henry II (also a stubborn, complex and driven character) down with him and only some astute diplomacy, some wonderfully stage-managed showmanship of penance, and a huge dollop of luck saved Henry II from excommunication and overthrow.
A shrine was built to Thomas Becket at Canterbury.  Opened in July 1220, its first year's takings came in at over £700 - seven times the equivalent that a baron of medium income would pay to come into his inheritance.  Martyrdom was indeed a lucrative business for the Church.

The event led among many other artistic creations to a British treasure known as The Becket Leaves.  The Leaves area four separate surviving vellum fragments of a much larger, now lost work of an illustrated life of Thomas Becket.   The leaves surfaced in Belgium in the first half of the 19th century as part of the library assembled by Jacques Goethals-Vercruysse following the French Revolution.  The library was presented to the city of Courtrai after his death, but the leaves were kept by a collector and held in the family until 1986 when they were then offered for sale at auction by Sotheby's.
These richly illustrated leaves had never been properly examined and other than the originals were only known from an old set of black and white reproductions published in 1885.  Interest was intense and so was the bidding which rose to £1.4 million.  The British Library could not afford such a sum, but J.Paul Getty purchased the Leaves and placed them on indefinite loan to the British Library so that they could be studied and enjoyed by those who wished to do so, rather than having them vanish again into another private collection.
A sick Becket's family is forced into exile by a furious Henry II
The leaves hold 506 lines of rhyming verse written in dark brown ink.  Many historians have attributed the work to chronicler and artist Matthew Paris and it certainly has a look of his style and circumstantial evidence points that way, but we can never be entirely sure.  The evidence points toward Matthew Paris at least have sketched out designs for the illustrations in the lost manuscript certainly.  There is a decent Wikipedia article here about Matthew Paris including illustrations from The Becket Leaves and other works so you can compare and contrast and make up your own mind.

The text narrates Thomas Becket's life story and the drawings illustrate it and give us a wonderful snapshot view of 13th century life - of clothes and culture and moments in history, including the coronation of Henry II's 15 year old son and heir also named Henry, and of the father serving the son and paying him honour at the coronation feast in Westminster.  Thomas Becket had refused to crown the young man of course and had tried to ban anyone else from doing so, but the coronation had gone ahead under the auspices of the Archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury.  There is a very likely apocryphal story that while serving his son, King Henry remarked that it was unusual for one king to serve another, to which his son swiftly replied that it was not so unusual to see the son of a count serve the son of a king!
The coronation of Henry the Young King, who is then served by his father.

What a pity the rest of the work no longer survives - or if it does, it is missing in a collection somewhere.  It would be glorious to see, but at least we have these few existing pages.

Seasons Greetings to all