Thursday 28 February 2019

Fifty Shades of Beige - by Ruth Downie

One of the first things the budding fiction writer discovers is that, left to their own devices, characters will spend a lot of time standing around talking in the kitchen.

I don’t suggest they should be hanging off cliffs instead, but if they’re doing nothing but talk, their dialogue has to be of stellar quality to hold the reader’s attention. For those of us who aren’t Harold Pinter or Shakespeare, it’s helpful to give them something to do. Preferably something useful, because that’s another thing about fictional people – they never eat properly, look after their children or earn a living unless the writer makes them get on with it.

Obviously characters can’t be so burdened by the daily struggle that they have no time to fall in love or investigate murders or whatever the purpose of their existence might be. They do, though, need to be anchored in some way to the reality of the world around them. At least, mine do. All of which set me to wondering: what did ordinary people in the Roman Empire actually do all day?

It turns out that for very many women, life must have involved a great deal of this:

Spindle, wool and fleece

In order for families to be clothed, either somebody had to grow flax, or wool had to be coaxed from being sheep-shaped to being roughly the shape of a human. So in the interests of research, I purchased the drop spindle you see above, found some wool and got to work.

Several years on, Downie Towers is home to many bags stuffed with potential. Or, as Longsuffering Husband sees it, with wool in various half-finished stages of processing, along with a faint but all-pervading whiff of rural life.

Imagine his joy now that a new development has begun. From the limited evidence we have of ancient textiles, it’s clear that our ancestors loved to wear colour. Most of the samples that survive have turned dingy brown, but here's a 'before and after' photo from Vindolanda, on Hadrian's Wall.

Ancient and modern fabric

Here are more of the glorious colours that can be produced by the use of natural dyes. They were on display alongside the Battle of Fulford tapestry, of which more in a moment:

Samples of wool dyed in bright colours

Even our own garden, it turns out, is full of materials that can be used to turn the pallid contents of the wool-bags into a splendid riot of colour. Well, in theory. Below are some of the actual results. They've been tactfully described by a visitor as “pastel”. Evidently dyeing, like spinning and—my next project—weaving, is a complex skill as well as an art. 

Skeins of wool in very pale shades

So, what did I learn from this attempt to give my fictional characters something useful to do?

  • Nobody knows exactly what those Romano-Britons were making anyway. Precious scraps of fabric have been recovered here, but next to no textile garments (there is a very short woollen cape/hood from Orkney). Most of the few pictures that survive are on tombstones, so they're hardly likely to show people wearing their everyday working clothes.
  • Wool and linen were the go-to fabrics of the day. The average Briton might dream of cotton and silk and even gold thread, but they'd be unlikely to wear them.
  • Even for highly-skilled workers, the simplest of garments would have taken a very long time to create. Here's a video of the amazing amount of work that was involved in recreating one dress found in Denmark.
  • After all this effort, clothes must have been valuable, and fabric used and re-used. This sock from Vindolanda seems to have started life as something else:

  • Doing detailed work in lamplight must have been a terrible strain on the eyes. I guess that's why modern re-enactors often place weaving looms near wide-open doors to let the light in. That would be fine in the summer, but in winter, weavers must have faced a tricky compromise between being able to see what they were doing and having fingers that were warm enough to do it. 

Ancient design of loom with warp threads held down by clay weights
Loom at Butser Ancient Farm. Don't block the light!
  • Knitting as we know it was not a thing in Roman Britain, nor anywhere else at the time, but...
  • Nalbinding – using a needle to create rows of knots – makes the cosiest socks ever. No wonder the Vikings and their ancestors used it. I’m not aware of any evidence for nalbinding in Roman Britain (if you are, please get in touch!) but that’s not to say it didn’t happen. Troops from many parts of the Empire served in Britannia and there must have been sharing of skills.

Thick brown woolen socks created by nalbinding

  • The easiest way to get a wool garment of the colour you really really want is to really really want cream and brown.
  • British children might have been running around in stripy socks like this one in the Ashmolean museum, but since wool doesn't survive well in our climate, we're unlikely to find out. Someone ‘knitted’ this on one needle (don’t ask me how!*) in Egypt in about AD 300-400. I like to think they enjoyed choosing those colours. For anyone who wants to join in, click here for some ideas on ways to recreate it.   *LATER - Big thanks to Catherine Stallybrass who's confirmed that this too is Nalbinding - see comments below.    

  • The main thing I've learned from all this is enormous respect for the skills of our ancestors, and for the modern craftspeople who keep those skills alive.

Beautiful and practical: woollen braid created by Catherine Stallybrass
Modern work in the style of the Bayeux tapestry
Part of a wonderful modern tapestry showing the Battle of Fulford
The Fulford Tapestry is a fantastic project that began in 2000. You can see the whole of the finished tapestry, and how it was made, at their website.

Meanwhile back at Downie Towers,the best that can be said is that we’re well on the way to producing Fifty Shades of Beige.

There is a strange pleasure in doing something like this even though the end product rarely lives up to the early vision. Because the past is not only brought alive by reading words, visiting places and seeing exhibitions. Sometimes we make connections across time by doing

Ruth Downie writes murder mysteries featuring Roman army medic Ruso and his British partner Tilla, who is unfortunately far less interested in woolwork than her author.
Find out more at

Wednesday 27 February 2019

Michelle Obama by Janie Hampton

Sometimes you just know that you are witnessing history: when Kennedy was shot; the first human stepping onto the moon; or when Margaret Thatcher became the first female British prime minister. At other times, history creeps up on you, such as the invention of the internet, or Twiggy getting a damehood for being the face of the 1960s.
I'm not sure whether Michelle Obama crept up on me or exploded into my consciousness. But her autobiography makes it clear that her extraordinary life has been one of determination and immaculate planning. She can’t have known that she would find herself living in the White House, but it sure took some hard graft to get there. If she had not backed her husband so resolutely, it's unlikely there would have been an African-American President of the United States in 2008.
When ‘Becoming’ was published last year, the headlines were all about Michelle’s miscarriage, her daughters born by IVF, and the marriage guidance counselling. ‘How tedious,’ I thought. ‘These are such stereotypical women's issues. Isn’t she a clever feminist, fighting for our rights to be equal?’ But having read the book, I now see it was just typical journalism, and we all know that most journalists don't bother to read a whole book, especially one that is 428 pages long.
Happy First Family
I'm really glad I have read this, all of it. I feel as if I have witnessed history as it unfurls. Michelle Obama comes over as an extraordinary woman, even if this is her own version of her life. She was born into a poor but loving and hardworking African-American family on the rough side of Chicago. Her great great grandparents were slaves; her parents were unable to get the education they deserved. Michelle Robinson grew up knowing that as a female of colour, she had to put in the extra mile, if not ten miles, to get anywhere. She did, and then met Barack Obama who had similar ethics and aspirations. They fell in love slowly, which meant she wasn’t blind to his annoyances. (Most of which are the traits of a super-human angel, such as no interest in material things, a total focus on the job or person, and an indifference to his own good looks.)
She is honest, not just about the difficulties in getting pregnant, but also her resistance to politics and her husband's desire to be president. She made huge personal sacrifices, but refused to give up being a good parent, and managed to raise two sensible daughters under the relentless glare of the media.
Michelle is no non-speaking fashion model, like the current First Lady of the US. As soon as the first presidential election was won, she said to herself, ‘How can I use this unique platform for the greatest good?’ But she had to navigate what was, and was not, acceptable for a FLOTUS to do. She looked at previous First Ladies and decided that she didn’t want to arrange flowers, but nor did she want to be seen to be involved in her husband's political work, as Hilary Clinton had. So she concentrated on childhood nutrition, families of servicemen, and inspiring under-privileged young people to do better. Following her visit to a girls’ state school in London the girls were so affected that their grades and university admissions noticeably improved.
The First Lady of the United States at home.
It is fascinating to learn what it feels like to live in the lap of luxury in the White House, but never be allowed to open the bullet-proof bedroom windows; to have an army of domestic staff, but still have to pay for whatever food that they have chosen to cook for you.By travelling inside a plane with Michelle as she zig zagged around the nation, I started to understand the bizarre system of elections in the USA. When she nearly has a breakdown from the exhausting regime, she gave herself ‘Me Time’, by getting up at dawn and going to the gym! There were times when I thought, ‘This woman is too perfect, a worker, wife and mother.’ But then she admits to her failures, doubts and the problem of juggling all those lives. That’s a theme that makes this book part of the history of women. Michelle Obama's life is unusual, but it is also typical of the late 20th and early 21st century. It’s one we can all identify with: how can we have it all, and not collapse in a heap?
Michelle Robinson Obama by Amy Sherald, 2018.
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian INstitute, USA
I was surprised not just by the message of this book, but by its style too. It is beautifully written, and copy-edited to a T. Apart from the odd reference to US television programmes that I'd never heard of, I never stumbled over a sentence, or got bored of a topic. I don't believe that a highly trained lawyer such as Michelle can write in her own voice so fluently without help. She thanks ‘an incredibly gifted team of collaborators’ in the acknowledgments, and I can picture experienced ghost writers sitting with her and a tape recorder, quizzing her for the details that bring her story to life. What were you wearing that day? What was the weather like? How did you feel inside? It is all there, and makes the book and her life readable, and believable. For once, I’m grateful to ghostwriters. They have enhanced her story, and made it feel more real than she probably could. (Apologies, Michelle, if you wrote every word yourself! You are even more talented than I imagined.)
I predict that the compelling life of Michelle Obama will be retold in many a school history lesson about ‘Great and Inspiring Women of the 21st Century’. Read this candid and powerful book now, and be ready to tell your grand-daughters all about her. She will inspire them that anything is possible: they don’t need special talents, just plain old-fashioned perseverance.
Women on the campaign trail
Copyright Charlie Neibergall Associated Press
‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama, published by Penguin Viking, 2018.

Tuesday 26 February 2019

Paris 68 and a world of today, by Carol Drinkwater

Forgive the blatant self-promotion of this post, but I am very excited. Here is the front cover for my new novel to be published on 16th May. It has been described as "Carol Drinkwater's epic story of enduring love and betrayal, from Paris in the sixties to the present day."

I am delighted that it is to be published in May, although if I had been a little quicker with the research followed up by the writing, it would have been published last year, 2018, which was the fiftieth anniversary of Paris '68.

Instead, we are 51 years on from that extraordinary spring. A spring that saw 6,000 students locked out from their Paris universities and taking to the streets, the entire country coming to a standstill due to 10 million striking workers who forced the closure of factories all across the land, transport at a standstill, and the flight of President de Gaulle albeit for just a couple of days before his return to clamp down and put an end to the voices of so many.
Today, historians see Paris '68 as the jolt that pushed France into the twentieth century.

I was just beginning drama school in London in 1968. My interest in politics was, I must confess it, zilch. British politics seemed remote enough but French and world politics were far beyond my circles of interest. However, like many of my generation the War in Vietnam, American involvement in it, the burning of draft cards, had drawn my attention. If I were a student now and Paris was happening now, I would like to think that I would get involved. 

Soyez realistes, demandez l'impossible. 'Be realistic, ask for the impossible.' This was daubed on the wall of one of the Paris bridges.

'Run free, comrade, we've left the old world behind'. Scrawled across one of the walls of the Sorbonne buildings.

My novel is, after a fashion, my way of redressing that lack of interest on my part of fifty years ago. 

Grace, my protagonist, is sixteen in 1968. She dreams of becoming an actress - which she achieves rather successfully - and is awaiting her studies at a London drama school. She decides to spend a few months in Paris. The city of cinema, of Truffaut, Godard, Jean Renoir, Jacques Tati, and many others. Jeanne Moreau, Fanny Ardant, such actresses are her idols. On her first day in Paris, she meets a young English student who is studying at the Sorbonne, Peter. Peter is far more politically aware and active than the young Grace and he draws her into his world. She becomes involved in the demonstrations which lead to civil unrest. She fights along with the students, building barricades and spending late nights in caf├ęs and bistros where for the first time in her life she is presented with choices. How to live? What are her values? What is worth fighting for? Freedom of speech, independence, the sexual revolution. Women's rights.
A generation in revolt. 
Sleeping on a friend's floor somewhere on the Left Bank.
She rubs shoulders with Daniel Cohn-Bendit who was one of the leaders of Mai '68. Today, Cohn-Bendit, known back then as Dany le Rouge for his hair colouring not his politics is a member of the European Parliament and Germany's Green Party.

                                          Daniel Cohn-Bendit, today and as a young revolutionary

Abortion and homosexuality had both been legalised in Britain in 1967/early 68.
In France, the legalisation of abortion for up a pregnancy of up to ten weeks did not pass until 1975 and was finally made law in 1979whereas  same sex relations were decriminalised in France in 1791.

The '68 sections of the novel, which spans fifty years up to the present day, offered me the opportunity to research and then bring to life on paper the struggles and the dreams of those young. The Sixties was a very special decade in modern history. Television had arrived into our homes, or those of us in the western world who had the means to acquire or, in my family's case, rent a television set. The daily news was in our living rooms. Vietnam, the death of young soldiers - the same age as I was back then - was played out before my eyes on the small screen. War was there in front of me in black and white or, for some, in colour. The United Kingdom was doing its best to be accepted into the new European Economic Community, founded in 1957.
Music became a potent force for change. As a post-war baby, by the Sixties, I had pocket money and a little bit of earning power  (cleaning the houses of the well-heeled for one shilling an hour!) and could buy records. Eps, LPs, singles. The Beatles and the Stones dominated the British charts but there was also Janis Joplin, The Doors, Bob Marley, an endless choice of now legendary musicians.
The Woodstock Festival was one summer away. Hair, the American Tribal Love-Rock musical, which I saw in London brought nudity and pot-smoking to the West End stage. Quel shock!
In the UK the original production starred Oliver Tobias and Marsha Hunt.

We didn't have the internet, we didn't have emails or Smartphones but we were becoming connected to other like-minded young, and even to those who did not share our points of view. Grace steps out of her comfort zone when she steps off the train in Paris. Over the course of one summer, she falls in love - a head over heels kind of reckless teenage love that provokes a devastating accident and leaves its dark shadow on her life. She tries drugs, she demonstrates, she loses her virginity. She makes friends. Until that point in her young life, her family and her small town surroundings are all that she has experienced. The idea of changing the world is a notion she has heard about in songs, on the television. Her summer in Paris changes all that and by the time she returns to London to begin drama school, her life has changed forever. 

I hope you will read and enjoy THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF 

Monday 25 February 2019

Reimagining the Iliad by Miranda Miller

   I’ve just finished reading Pat Barker’s wonderful novel, The Silence of the Girls. She writes the familiar story in fresh new language, using contractions, and her characters say “yeah,” and “huh.” I’ve always thought that the main problem, when you’re writing historical (or mythological ) fiction is the dialogue. How did people speak in the thirteenth century BCE? We can’t possibly know. Her characters speak like people in a pub and it works beautifully. This is a long way from the nobleprissyspeak often imposed on the characters in historical fiction . Her matter of fact treatment of the gods also works very well; when Achilles meets his sea nymph mother Thetis on p. 298:”At first, she’s no more than a dark stain on the white gauze of mist, but then, as she wades towards him through the shallows, he catches the silvery gleam of her skin. He both longs for and dreads that moment, because every meeting now is a prolonged goodbye. He’s tired of this, he wants it to be over. He’s spent his entire life saturated in her tears. So when, at last, she disappears into a swelling wave, he’s secretly relieved.”

   When mythology and the supernatural intrude on the human, for instance when Hector’s corpse is miraculously preserved, you believe Barker’s unsentimental voice. On p. 314: Cassandra “was a virgin priestess of Apollo, who’d once kissed her to give her the gift of true prophecy, and then, when she still refused to have sex with him, spat in her mouth to ensure her prophecies would never be believed.” Historical novels, even more than other kinds of novels, are the victims of changing fashion. Scott, for example, captivated all of Europe in his lifetime but I find him unreadable now. In Barker’s world women are clever and subtle as they watch the loud, boorish men showing off. Women are prizes, things, who are passed on to men of their own caste. Briseis, her memorable central character, is a woman most of Barker’s readers can identify with - a survivor, brave and kind and pragmatic as she watches the war. She sees other women kill themselves to preserve their honour and thinks that she would rather go on living. The men around her like to repeat the adage,“Silence becomes a woman.”


   Shakespeare’s ancient men, on the other hand, never stop talking. While I was reading Pat Barker’s terrific novel I watched a dvd of Jonathan Miller’s 1981 production of Troilus and Cressida. Achilles, Patroclus, Agamemnon, Cassandra, Odysseus, Priam, Paris and Helen all appear in both the novel and the play. Shakespeare, after all, was already at least fourteen centuries away from the Trojan War. Naturally, they speak a rich allusive Elizabethan English and, in this production, wear 16th century costumes. Shakespeare’s original audience would have been as familiar with Homer and the Greek gods as most people are now with the character of Eastenders, so he didn’t have to explain what was going on. There are many long speeches which could be boring but which, in Miller’s witty and intelligent production, come to life. The actors have the house style of RSC actors of that period, seeming to think the words before they burst spontaneously from their lips. Charles Gray, who later had great success playing James Bond villains, is a magnificently lecherous Pandarus as he manipulates the lovers. His niece Cressida (Suzanne Burden) would now be seen as the young victim of abuse rather than as a conniving faithless woman. Like the women in Barker’s novel, she is passed on as a prize and has no control over her own destiny. She is dragged off, kicking and screaming, from her Trojan lover to the Greek camp, heartbroken - but, like Barker’s Briseis, she wants to survive in a brutal world where women are powerless.

   Like Briseis, Cressida sees through the posturing and heroics of the men and when Alexander says of Ajax: “They say he is a very man per se and stands alone,” Cressida replies cynically,“ So do all men, unless th' are drunk, sick, or have no legs.”

   The  camp, almost Round the Horn style of Pandarus and the transsexual venomous slave Thirsites - the thing that audiences forty years ago would have found daring and even shocking - now seems rather dated; why make such a fuss about being gay? Achilles and Patroclus appear with their arms wrapped around each other, sexually obsessed with each other, whereas in Pat Barker’s more subtle interpretation they are foster brothers and soul mates whose love may once have been sexual but who have in some way become one another. In Shakespeare’s play, “The great Achilles, whom opinion crowns The sinew and the forehead of our host, Having his ear full of his airy frame, grows dainty of his worth, and in his tent Lies mocking our designs. With him Patroclus Upon a lazy bed the livelong day.”

This is David's painting of Paris and Helen.   In both the novel and the play Helen is represented as a bit of an airhead, too narcissistic to understand her own destructive power.

   How magnificent these stories are,   a  goldmine for every new generation of writers. Inevitably the new life they are given breathes the air of the period. But they DO breathe, their vitality is astonishing and they make most other stories look very feeble. European civilisation won’t die while they still inspire us.

Sunday 24 February 2019

My Monthly Random Read by Elizabeth Chadwick

As a writer of historical fiction I have to be both wide-ranging and focused in when it comes to research.  The close focus is always what I absolutely need to know in order to write my novel. The books containing that information have a shelf to themselves at the start of each new project.  I'm moving into the thirteenth century for the new novel (announcement under wraps at the time of writing this blog) and this is currently the state of my shelf of 'must have' material with more to come.  Before that the shelf hosted books on Medieval Ireland when I was writing The Irish Princess, and before that, with works on the Medieval Middle East for Templar Silks.

The wider-ranging material is a looser melange of subjects connected with my chosen project.  I might suddenly need to know about dogs, or harness, or cloaks, or a particular custom on a certain feast day, which means trawling the internet and my broader medieval library of several thousand books.

That's two strands then.  The focused material that forms the outline on the canvas, and the wide-ranging one that takes the form of small but essential points of colour over the main painting.
But the wide-ranging strand has a sub-strand of its own  - the 'random palette'.  These are the colours I don't know will be useful until I read them.
I make it part of my routine around once a month to choose a book from my research library at my whim and read it just for fun/education/see what turns up and it's always a win-win situation.  Either I learn something new to add to my general knowledge base that might come in later, or I find another pod of colour to add to my current paint palette that would otherwise have lain undiscovered.

My random book at the moment is one of those and absolute fun and joy to read.  It has been around a while - first published in Britain in 2003.  As the title says (I love the cover), it's all about Sweets: A History of Temptation by Tim Richardson.

Basically it's a history of confectionary from pre-history to modern day that goes far behind the scenes and examines in depth our relationship with sweets - the technical, the social and the deeply emotional.
There are eleven chapters, all wittily or punnily titled, each containing a main theme and a 'lucky dip' the latter being the history of a particular confection.  Thus chapter 1 is headed 'Chocolate Money' and looks at the financing of the sweet industry - the big sweet fairs,  the state of the art Toblerone factory in Switzerland, the secrecy and espionage surrounding recipes. The growth of global brands.
 The 'lucky dip' section in chapter 1 traces the history of Turkish Delight. I was delighted to have it confirmed that William Marshal could have eaten this delicacy while on pilgrimage in the Holy Land. 
Further delving in ensuing chapters, informed me that William Marshal could also in his lifetime have eaten liquorice, marshmallow, (but wouldn't have enjoyed it as it was a sticky, medicinal gloop)  and enjoyed hard candy, comfits (a seed or a nut coated in layers of sugar) and marzipan.  With reference to the latter, there's an excellent discussion about how the name 'marzipan' came into being - and it wasn't because someone called Marzip invented in 1671 as one claim goes.  Others strands claim that it comes from the Latin phrase 'Marci panis' meaning 'St Mark's bread' which became the Italian 'marzapane', German 'marzipan' and English 'marchpane' and later 'marzipan.' But then it might be from the Latin 'Massapanis'  which was a small reliquary box for holding holy wafers - and perhaps you might put your almond and sugar confection in there and it would take on the name.  Or the Arabic 'mazaban' which came to refer to light wooden boxes used to transport commodities including sweets.   It might even have something to do with a sweetmeat of obscure origin called 'manus christi'

While trawling my medieval period, I also discovered that in 1288, the household of Edward I consumed 6,000lbs of sugar in that one single year.  Sugar had well and truly arrived, at least on the aristocratic scene. Henry VII and his grandaughter Elizabeth I were both described as having black teeth at the time of their deaths, due to too much sugar consumption during their lives and blackened teeth was seen as a failing of the English in general.

As with all things, the surface is often bland and smooth, but once you dive in and begin looking underneath, things become much more fascinating and complex.
The book has a light and amusing touch, but it doesn't shirk the darker sides of the story and there is a chapter on sugar fortunes built on the backs of slaves. 'Slavery truly is the skeleton on the back of the chocolate industry' Richardson writes in the chapter 'Bad Candy' and still continues today.  The 'Bad Candy' chapter also includes a discussion of dodgy additives and a cornucopia of interesting facts. Jelly babies weren't always called jelly babies for example. At one time they were marketed as 'unclaimed babies.' And of course candy cigarettes had to go, not to mention Freekee drops which resembled blood-stained syringes!

I am so glad that I picked this book from my shelf as my random read and I highly recommend it to others.  It's a magnificent rainbow pick'n'mix. I loved it.  And now I am off to buy a quarter of sherbet lemons!

Elizabeth Chadwick is a bestselling author of historical fiction.  Her latest novel is Templar Silks, the story of the great William Marshal and his missing years on pilgrimage.

Saturday 23 February 2019

The Making of Silk - by Judith Allnatt

Since the Yangshao period, 5,000 to 10,000 BC, silk has been prized for its feel, lustre and lightness and for its coolness in summer and warmth in winter. The value of the textile made the rearing of silk worms (sericulture) seem worthwhile, despite its many difficulties.

Silkworms are fed on fresh Mulberry leaves, so their expensive incubation indoors must be timed to coincide exactly with the opening of the trees' buds. This can never have been an easy matter as the Roman, Pliny, writes of the Mulberry tree, 'when it begins to put forth buds it dispatches the business in one night, and that with so much force, that their breaking forth may be evidently heard.'

The trees grow fast and furious, spreading out so that they are always wider than they are tall. They age quickly but when the limbs collapse the tree grows ‘on its knuckles’, sometimes rooting to form a new tree. In Rodmell, East Sussex a grove, apparently of thirty trees, is in fact only one.

In the early seventeenth century, to support the silk weaving industry and avoid the costs of importing bales of raw silk from Europe and the Far East, James 1st tried to establish silk farming in Britain, ordering ‘ten thousand mulberry plants’ to be distributed. The failure of his rather grandiose plan was probably due to the cool, moist English climate. In 1718 a patent was granted to one John Appletree, who made a plantation to feed silkworms in Chelsea Walled Park and farmed them using ‘a certain engine called the Egg Cheste’ to keep the eggs warm until hatching. Previous methods for smaller amounts of eggs were to stow them in a manure heap or to keep them in a pouch between one’s breasts.

Efforts to farm silkworms on a larger scale continued into the early nineteenth century with a little more success, encouraged by the fashion for lightweight gowns and much decoration.
A vast array of different silk ribbons were produced: Chine (painted), Damask (woven), Moire (clouded or watered), Loves (gauze –like), Velveteens, Scallop, Picots and Taffeties. In my novel, The Silk Factory, the rather villainous silk-master, Septimus Fowler, has his daughter wear a whole range of frills and furbelows so that she is a walking shopfront for his wares. The money-grabbing Fowler attempts to cut costs by farming his own silk worms, an ambition doomed by their proneness to disease.

The worms had to be kept in shallow trays, indoors, safe from birds and vermin but the resulting humid conditions could lead to 'pepper disease', which caused them to turn black and to stink. The floor of the shed, or ‘magnanerie’, would be sprinkled with lavender, rosemary, thyme, savory and penny royal, to keep it smelling sweet. The worms were also very sensitive to heavy thundery weather and this would sometimes stop them feeding. This led to superstitious attempts to save them, such as placing iron objects in the shed or carrying a live coal around to waft smoke  about and ‘calm’ them. When healthy, they ate vast quantities of foliage and the sound of their munching was likened to that of a monsoon falling on leaves.

When the worms grew restless and showed signs of wanting to make cocoons, stalks (preferably the ‘boughs of the seedstalk of turnip or asparagus') were placed in a fan shape to make a framework on to which they could crawl. Here, each worm secreted silk from two pairs of spinnerets below the mouth, moving its head to and fro around 150,000 times.

Rather brutally, the cocoons are dropped into boiling water to kill the moth inside as, if a moth is allowed to emerge, the threads of silk are cut and the cocoon is ruined. Only a few moths are kept for mating. The rest meet a grisly end, after which each cocoon is brushed to find the ends of the filament. Then, from a single cocoon, around a mile of raw silk is wound onto a reel and a yarn is made by combining several threads of silk. It takes around 5,500 silkworms to produce a kilogram of silk.

The fabric is still used as a luxury textile and is often chosen for wedding dresses. As Oscar de la Renta percipiently observed, 'silk does for the body what diamonds do for the hand'.  

Friday 22 February 2019

How Fictional is your History? by Catherine Hokin

We're having something of a surge in historical fiction films at the moment. You can lose yourself in the politics of medieval or Tudor Scotland with Outlaw King and Mary Queen of Scots, or the excesses of the eighteenth court with The Favourite. If the racial-tensions of 1960s America are more your thing, there's Green Book or you can loop back round to politics with Vice - which I'm including here as it covers Dick Cheney's early life and therefore slips in past the 30 year HNS rule for classifying a work as historical fiction. A little tenuous perhaps but that is rather my point...

 Robert the Bruce - Chris Pine would be preferable but
not Netflix's wrath
What the above films share is the accusation that they all play fast and loose with the facts, and are guilty of providing what Simon Jenkins in the Guardian called “fake instant history.” Screen outings that, in other words, become received wisdom - what I am re-christening Braveheart moments in honour of  the film dubbed the most historically inaccurate movie ever made. I'm not going to list all its errors here - there is a whole industry devoted to logging them - start with the small point that William Wallace was never called Braveheart (that was Bruce, and not in his lifetime) and the whole timeline is about 20 years out which really messes up a lot of marriages and deaths and you'll get the idea. Does it matter? Well yes - the last time I was at the Wallace memorial there was a full-size (thankfully cardboard) Mel Gibson waiting to greet the hoardes of visitors. To my mind this not only gives the film a legitimacy it doesn't deserve, it also necessitates a whole lot of de-bunking I'm not sure was widely available.

As I said in my review of Outlaw King (Historia Magazine, it's a bit ranty) I don’t mind a bit of cinematic embellishment if it enriches the story. Queen Anne didn't keep 17 bunnies in her bedroom to replace her lost children (rabbits being eaten not petted at the time) but that worked for me in The Favourite as a good visual shorthand for the depths of her loss. And no major historical events were harmed by their use. The Favourite does what many historical writers do - it found a story lurking round the facts (the competition between the two female favourites, the allegations around Anne of 'unnatural' preferences) and it wove something bigger. As Lucy Worsley said in the Guardian: "people at the time thought that Queen Anne and the Duchess of Marlborough were [lovers] and this was a line of attack that was used by their political enemies, so that’s one thing...Another thing is that people were very much sharing beds the whole time; that was a standard way of sleeping. So who knows when they were and when they weren’t having sex? It’s all very difficult to define, isn’t it?” So difficult to define but plausible, not jaw-dropping in the way of Outlaw King (read the review) and not down-right dishonest as in the case of Mary Queen of Scots. 

Personally I don't mind about the accents in this film or others set in periods where dialect and accent are hard to be purist about. Whether it was French or Scottish or some hybrid, we don't really know which one Mary had and we don't know what either of those accents actually sounded like at the time. But I'm with Simon Schama regarding the two women meeting - “the whole drama of Elizabeth and Mary lay in the fact they never did meet”. Like Outlaw King, one of the key words you hit when you google this film is true. It's not: the two women meeting is a major distortion I've already had to explain to more people than I wanted to (or who wanted to hear it). To coin an overused and too-needed phrase: it's fake news. 

The criticisms over the other films mentioned above are different - perhaps because those portrayed in them or their families are still alive. Green Book has been condemned by the family of African American pianist Donald Shirley for what they see as a completely false portrayal ("a symphony of lies") and for them not being consulted, precisely for that reason. Vice has been accused of being misleading, of fabricating events, of being shallow and being evasive with the truth over Cheney's portrayal - including by a large number of people with no reason to defend him at all.

 Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette
Things that were never historically done/said becoming not only popular belief but often the main thing we 'know' about a time/character is nothing new. The phrase let them eat cake was attached to a number of insensitive royals before it stuck to Marie-Antoinette and there's no contemporary account proving the accuracy/existence of Elizabeth I's famous Tilbury speech, although we're pretty sure Mary wasn't there. It is, however, a truism, if an annoying one that many people get their understanding of history from television and films, and likely also from novels. So where does a creative's responsibility lie?

Clearly no one wants to impose some kind of Stalinist censorship on film-makers or writers, who are also not exempt from these charges of being elastic with the truth. The recent condemnation of Heather Morris's best-seller The Tattooist of Auschwitz by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre as being a book which "contains numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts, as well as exaggerations, misinterpretations and understatements” has not made comfortable reading. Or stopped it getting a sequel. Film-makers insist they are not reporting history but a version of it. As writers we are all looking for the story in the gap, and we are also not historians: we are writing fiction. We do, however, live in a time when real and fake news seem to blend seamlessly together and there are concerns about the level of critical thinking many people are exposed to. What then, if any, is our responsibility when we take readers into the past? Is it to make it clear (through notes or end-pieces) how much of a novel has been invented as Kate Atkinson does in Transcriptioncommenting that she has made one thing up for everything true? She then does then go on to prove how rooted in fact all the made-up stuff is and how it never distorts the truth it's based in. Or perhaps it's Stephanie Merritt's (who writes as SJ Parris) advice that holds true: "if you are going to play fast and loose with historical fact for the sake of a good story, you'd better have done your research thoroughly if you want readers to take you seriously; only then will you have the authority to depart from those facts."

For me, I like things simple and to do as I would be done by. Let writers and film-makers turn Jane Austen into a zombie slayer if they want, as long as they call it fantasy. Let them bring bunnies or tigers or whatever they like into the nursery, as long as its clearly a metaphor. But please don't mess with timelines or bring in ridiculously anachronistic behaviour or change the nature of history. That's a different kind of fiction entirely.

Thursday 21 February 2019

The Secret Garden: Ancient World Contraception by Elisabeth Storrs

Etruscan woman holding a pomegranate
Childbirth is dangerous. The Western world often forgets this. The advances made in medicine and mothercraft to improve the mortality rates of both mother and babies have been remarkable but are now taken for granted. So too effective forms of contraception. Many forget that the development of the ‘Pill’ only occurred in the 1960s. And it can be argued that the introduction of reliable oral contraceptives gave impetus to the feminist movement as women were at last given the opportunity to plan their pregnancies as well as their careers.

Women of the ancient world did not have access to such sophisticated medicine; instead they relied on more humble ways to prevent falling pregnant. I was absorbed when researching the methods used in classical Greece, Rome and Etruria when writing my Tales of Ancient Rome series.

One of my protagonists is a young, innocent Roman girl who is married to an Etruscan man to seal a truce between two warring cities. She discovers her husband’s society offers independence, education and sexual freedom to women. Such freedoms, however, do not excuse her from the duty of bearing children.  In her quest to delay this destiny she learns that there were certain plants that offered a chance to avoid falling with child including a delicious fruit grown in her garden, and a mysterious plant from a distant land.
Prosperpine by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Pomegranates were associated with the myth of Persephone (Roman Proserpina) and the vegetation cycle. Persephone was the child of Zeus, king of the gods, and Demeter, goddess of the harvest. When Hades, god of the Underworld, abducted Demeter’s daughter, the deity was so grief stricken she rendered the earth barren. Faced with a desolate world, the other gods pleaded for Zeus to intervene. He demanded Hades release Persephone whom he’d instructed not to eat while in the Underworld. Hades grudgingly agreed but before the maiden left his realm she ate some forbidden pomegranate seeds. For her disobedience, Persephone was ordered to return to live with Hades for three months of the year. And so, during winter, Demeter refused anything to grow until her daughter was once again returned in the spring.
In various ancient cultures, the pomegranate was seen as a symbol of fecundity. An Etruscan bride would offer a pomegranate to her groom during the wedding ceremony. However, the fruit was also considered useful for regulating menstrual flow. Accordingly the fruit was seen as holding the secret to both fertility and sterility.
Ancient physicians such as Hippocrates, Soranus and Dioscorides prescribed the seeds and rind of the pomegranate to prevent conception but details of the preparation or the quantities used are unknown. There is mention of the fruit being eaten while some sources state that the seed pulp was used on pessaries.
Did pomegranates work? Studies conducted during the 1970s and 80s on rats and guinea pigs revealed reduced fertility in females that had been fed the fruit. Furthermore, scientists discovered the pulp around the seed was most effective compared to the roots or the flesh. Accordingly, there may have been some efficacy to using pomegranate pulp in pessary form as was described in ancient sources although extrapolating the results of tests conducted on rats to human reproduction can be tricky.

Using pomegranates may have been haphazard as a means of prevention but there was another plant that clearly was considered as a viable contraceptive. The Romans called it ‘silphium’ while the Greeks knew it as ‘silphion’. 

Modern botanists have identified silphium as a member of the giant fennel (Ferula) family based on ancient descriptions, and pictures on coins and pottery. The plant was rare, growing in the dry climate of Cyrenaica in northern Africa (modern Libya). The pungent resin from silphium's stems and roots was known as laserpicium and was used as an additive which gave food a rich distinctive taste. It was also used to treat coughs, sore throats and fevers. Perfume was distilled from its blooms.

The crop became the main commodity of Cyrene (Shahhat, Libya) a city colonized by the Greeks in C7th BCE. These colonists had reluctantly migrated from the island of Thera, having been forced to draw lots. According to Theophrastus, a pupil of Aristotle, the settlers discovered the silphium plant which made them rich and their city famous. Demand across the ancient world for the plant bumped up its price leading the playwright Aristophanes to write in The Knights: “Don’t you remember when a stalk of silphium sold so cheap?”
Silphium stalk on Cyrene coin
The wealth brought from exporting silphium led Cyrene to recognize the importance of its prize export by stamping its coins with the distinctive symbol of the plant in a similar manner to Athens’ use of an owl. The design of one series of four drachma coins depicts a woman touching the plant with one hand while pointing to her womb with the other. Interestingly, there is also speculation as to a connection between the contours of silphium seeds and the traditional heart shape as silver coins from Cyrene from C6–5th BCE bear a similar design. The coat of arms of Italian Libya also bore an image of the plant indicating the importance of its history to the region even as recently as 1947.
There is a reference to the plant’s resin being applied to pessaries but silphium could also be taken orally. Soranus recommended women take about a chick pea’s size of silphium juice dissolved in water once a month. It is clear that he also considered it had abortive effects, as did Dioscorides.
The Roman poet, Catullus, advised his lover, Lesbia, in Carmen 7, that they could share as many kisses as there are grains of sand on the shores of ‘silphium producing Cyrene’ as follows:

You ask, my Lesbia, how many of your kisses
are enough and more than enough for me.
As big a number as the Libyan grains of sand
that lie at silphium producing Cyrene
between the oracle of Sultry Jupiter
and the sacred tomb of old Battus;
Or as many stars that see the secret love affairs of men,
when the night is silent.
So many kisses are enough
and more than enough for mad Catullus to kiss you,
these kisses which neither the inquisitive are able to count
nor an evil tongue bewitch.
Heart shaped silphium seed - Cyrene coin
Catullus’ endorsement of the plant to his lover was an assurance that their lovemaking could continue as long as silphium was obtainable. Unfortunately, at the time of the poet’s death in 54 BCE  stocks of the plant were dwindling with the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, remarking during Nero’s reign in 37-68 CE “only a single stalk has been found there within our memory”. In effect, the plant was considered worth its weight in silver denarii or even gold. With its scarcity, a lucrative black market thrived.
Ultimately silphium became extinct. Various theories include demand outstripping supply, or simply over-farming by the Romans after they gained governorship over the Greeks. However, Theophrastus wrote that silphium was peculiar in that it couldn’t be cultivated and only grew in a narrow band of land along dry mountainsides facing the Mediterranean Sea. Repeated attempts to farm the plant proved futile; instead it was harvested from the wild under strict rules. It has now been posited that the plant was either a hybrid with unpredictable generational outcomes, or similar to wild huckleberries. This fruit is native to the mountain slopes, forests and lake basins of North America. The berries are sensitive to soil chemistry so when grown from seed, bear no fruit.
Was silphium effective? It’s difficult to say when scientists possess no specimens upon which to test. However, another member of the fennel family, asafoetida, exists and can be successfully cultivated. It is used today to give Worcestershire sauce its characteristic flavour. Early testing of asafoetida and other Ferula species on rats proved notable anti-fertility effects. In 1963, it was established that asafoetida was effective as a contraceptive for humans. Given this, the popularity of silphium as a drug of choice in the ancient world can be given credence.
There was a veritable pharmacopia of other herbs and plants used by women of the ancient world: Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot), rue, myrrh, juniper and pennyroyal to name a few. Unfortunately most of these are also poisonous when taken in incorrect dosages.
Despite the folklore and science surrounding all these natural remedies, it is a sobering fact that the average life expectancy of females in the Iron Age was approximately 27-30 years. We will never know how many women avoided an unwanted pregnancy through use of herb, fruit or plant, nor how many mothers and children perished due to the use of toxic abortifacients. And even those who welcomed a baby quickening within them weren’t guaranteed a long life - the mortality rate for both maternal and infant deaths in childbirth was incredibly high. 

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome saga. Learn more at  
Images are courtesy of the MET project, Wikimedia Commons and
Expedition Magazine Vol. 34, Nos. 1-2, 1992. "The Coins from the Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone." by T. V. Buttrey .