Friday 27 December 2019

Angelica Kauffman by Miranda Miller

   My eighth novel, Angelica, Paintress of Minds, will be published by Barbican Press in June. to coincide with an exhibition of her work at the Royal Academy.
   A few years ago I had the good fortune to be awarded a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at the Courtauld Institute, then housed in Somerset House. I became fascinated by the history of the building itself and by the story of the foundation of the Royal Academy there in 1768. In the library, deep in the basement, I found two excellent books: James Fenton’s School of Genius, a wonderful introduction to the eighteenth century art world in London, and Angelica Gooden’s biography of Angelica Kauffman, Miss Angel. Until then I only knew her paintings from visits to Kenwood House.
   Angelica’s mother was Swiss and her father, an unsuccessful painter, was Austrian. She grew up in her father’s studio and he soon realised that she was immensely talented. He used to ask her not to sign her paintings and would pass them off as his own. Other successful painters, including Artemisia Gentileschi and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, were also the daughters of painters; without such a background it was very hard for women to acquire an artistic education. Angelica was a prodigy, as can be seen from this self portrait she did when she was thirteen.

   In addition to being a talented artist Angelica had a beautiful singing voice. This painting dramatizes the decision she had to make in her youth to choose between painting and singing. All her life she performed as a good amateur singer and played the harpsichord. The great classical scholar Winckelmann said of her, ‘she sings with our best virtuosi.”

   After establishing herself as a painter in Italy Angelica came to London in 1766, when she was twenty-five. She became so successful that a word was coined, Angelicamad. She painted Queen Charlotte and other members of the royal family and her work was reproduced in engravings, as cameos by Wedgwood, on teapots and on Worcester, Meissen and Derby porcelain. The new invention of transfer printing made these items much cheaper and she gained an international reputation. Her popularity had a price; male artists could do as they liked but ‘paintresses’ always had to be decorous or risk losing their aristocratic patrons. Angelica was under enormous pressure to behave as ‘Miss Angel,’ the affectionate name her friend Joshua Reynolds gave her. Astonishingly, she was so well liked and respected that she survived the potential scandal of her first bigamous marriage to a fake Count. 

    I stared at this painting by Zoffany of the life drawing class in Old Somerset House and was intrigued to see that portraits of Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser were on the wall, staring down at the proceedings like ancestors. Although they were both alive and founder members of the Royal Academy, as women they were not allowed to attend life drawing classes there because respectable ladies were not supposed to look at a naked man.
   After fifteen triumphant and lucrative years in London, Angelica was terrified (as a  Catholic) by the Gordon Riots and she decided to return to Italy with her second husband, Zucchi, a Venetian artist.
    I discovered that Angelica spent her last twenty-five years in Rome, a city where I lived in my twenties and which I love. 
    In my novel Angelica, as an old lady, is living in her house at the top of the Spanish steps. As she looks back on her life she is afraid of the new century which is destroying the world she knew and finds herself isolated because her husband and most of her friends have died or left Rome. She has a valuable art collection and expects the soldiers of Napoleon, who she detests, to arrive at any minute and loot it.
   In her studio, Angelica stares at her self portraits and relives her journey from a poor background to international fame. She draws us into her fascinating past through her self portraits and the portraits she has painted of her friends, including Antonio Canova, Germaine de Stael, Emma Hamilton and Goethe. This is a novel about a gifted and powerful woman with a kind heart. Like us, she lives at a time of bewildering change and fears the unknown future.
   Slowly, my interest developed into a passionate engagement with Angelica and the many interesting people she painted and befriended. Every time I encountered a new name - Reynolds, Canova, Goethe, Madame de Stael and many more - I had to stop writing my novel and read a book, or several books, about them. Thanks to a generous grant from the Authors’ Foundation I was able to return to Rome and also to visit Weimar to learn more about Goethe, with whom I believe she was unrequitedly in love.   This is the portrait she did of him, which Goethe disliked because he didn't think it made him look heroic enough.

   In order to make a successful career as an artist Angelica had to battle against powerful waves of misogyny. Those battles are still being fought; it was not until 1936 that another woman, Laura Knight, was elected as an RA. Finally, generations of talented women artists are beginning to be recognised. This is the right moment to rediscover Angelica Kauffman’s life and work.

Friday 13 December 2019

Shot at Dawn. By Judith Allnatt

Private Henry Burden, a Northumberland Fusilier, was shot at 4 a.m. on 21st July 1915 having been found guilty of desertion. He was just seventeen years old.

Like many young men keen for adventure and caught up in the patriotic rush to war, he had lied about his age in order to join up. Once sent overseas, he lost friends at the Battle of Belwaarde Ridge, experienced nerve shattering barrages of shelling and was sent to a military hospital to recover. On the same afternoon that he was discharged, he was sent forward with his battalion to the front line. Burden left his post, he said, to visit a neighbouring battalion to see a friend who he had heard had lost a brother. Two days later he was arrested and two days after that he was tried by a court martial. He had a record of going absent without leave, which went against him and he had no one to defend him as those who could have spoken up for him had all been killed. He wasn't asked about his age and he didn't raise it. He was found guilty, not of the lesser charge of going AWOL, but of desertion, and condemned to death.

Photo credit: Harry Mitchell [CC BY 4.0 (] 

In the British Army, discipline was harsh. The offences for which a soldier could be executed were many and various. They included: cowardice, casting away of arms, disobedience, striking an officer and desertion. Falling asleep on sentry duty could also carry the death penalty as it endangered a whole section of the line. Soldiers on duty at night stood with head and shoulders above the parapet, rather than using a periscope, so that they could get a good field of view. (There being less chance of being hit in the dark other than by a random shot). It was therefore very obvious, if a sentry slumped, that he had fallen asleep and those who did so were easily caught. Standing at their posts for hours, dealing with mind-numbing boredom and body-numbing cold, it was all to easy to be overtaken by exhaustion. Fear of the consequences resulted in the practice of using matchsticks to prop their eyes open.

Around 3,000 soldiers were executed for offences such as those listed. There is a strong sense of the authorities using the ultimate punishment to 'set an example', a stark warning to re-assert discipline. Before facing the firing squad, the soldier's General Service buttons were removed from his tunic as a mark of his shame. Blindfolded and manacled, he was led to a stake and a target such as an envelope was pinned to his chest. Often, the firing squad was chosen from the soldier's own unit, presumably to hammer home the lesson that breaches of discipline would not be tolerated. One can barely imagine the horror and mental anguish that this practice must have caused both the man and his comrades. Apparently, the traditional belief that one of the bullets used would be a blank so that each soldier was left with the moral let-out that his shot may not have been the lethal one, is actually untrue. The whole squad were, in fact, given live ammunition.

The man's disgrace often continued after death: there were relations who chose not to talk of the relative who had brought shame on the family and memorials in towns and villages that omitted their names. Not until the 21st Century, when it became clear that many of those found guilty had suffered what we now know as Post traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) , was there any attempt to give them a memorial.

At the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, this shift in understanding and attitude found expression. The memorial Shot at Dawn, by Andy de Comyn, consists of a larger-than-life sized statue of Henry Burden, blindfolded and with his hands tied behind his back. Before him, the firing squad is represented by six juniper trees and behind him are an array of wooden stakes representing 309 other victims, each one individually named. These are the men who were posthumously pardoned by the British government in 2006. The pardons were granted not to imply blame for the officers who had acted in line with army regulations and without the understanding of PTSD that we now have, but in a spirit of mercy and in recognition of the battle trauma experienced by many, often very young men, and the suffering of their families. The Director of the Arboretum said that  "over 80 years of medical, psychological and sociological advantage (was) denied those who sat on the court-martial boards that passed sentence."

So, what of Henry Burden? As always, it is the small human details that suddenly pierce the heart. I think of his body taken down from the stake to be prepared for burial and the tattoos discovered upon it of "clasped hands" and "Love Lilly".  I am glad that his statue is placed at the eastern end of the arboretum where the sun's first rays strike.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon 1914

Friday 6 December 2019

From Sinister to Sweet: The Strange Tale of the Nutcracker by Catherine Hokin

A deeply creepy inventor ‘uncle’, a seven-headed mouse, a little girl who tears her arm open on broken glass and a curse which traps first a queen and then a boy inside the misshapen body of a giant nutcracker: what better story to entertain your little ones with this Christmas? 

For the next few weeks theatre foyers will mill with children stickily clutching wands and toy soldiers and waiting to be inducted into the wonderful Christmas world of The Nutcracker, a ballet with far darker origins than their sugar plum fairy and sweetie-filled heads can possibly imagine.

The Nutcracker was first performed on the 18th December 1892 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, set to music by Tchaikovsky. The book on which this ballet was based - Histoire d’une Casse-Noisette by Alexandre Dumas - was not, however, the original story. That first appeared in 1816, in ETA Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King

Hoffmann wrote a number of spooky stories that were set to music during the 19th century. One of these, The Sandman which is about about evil inventors who create a robotic girl, appears in the Offenbach opera, The Tales of Hoffmann and likely inspired the ballet Coppelia, in which a young man who falls in love with a life-size dancing doll. The original Hoffmann story, as outlined above, is a complex thing which blurs fantasy and reality. The rodents are cursed, the parents are oppressive and cruel and the little girl at the centre of the story runs away to her nightmare/dream world and does not return.

The Dumas version, which continues to form the basis of the ballet, simplified the plot and made the story rather more gentle. In this version, Clara rejects the fantasy world and wakes up happy and smiling under the Christmas tree, a Hollywood-style ending which was largely the reason for the ballet’s future success. And its success was very much in the future. In 1892, the unimpressed Russian critics called the choreography confusing, the libretto lopsided and the whole experience (according to the St Petersburg Gazette) “the most tedious thing I have ever seen.” After the first Russian Revolution in 1905, the ballet was dropped from the repertoire and, in a twist Hoffmann (and his fan Edgar Allen Poe) may have appreciated, its principal male lead, Sergei Legat, slit his throat.

Many of the Mariinsky dancers scattered across Europe in the early twentieth century and the ballet re-appeared, first in Budapest in 1927 and then in London in 1934. 

It took an American showman, however, to bring The Nutcracker fully back into the light. In 1940, Walt Disney used the entire Tchaikovsky score in Fantasia, bringing the music to a huge new audience. On Christmas Eve 1944 the San Francisco Ballet performed the first complete version of the ballet and in 1954 George Balanchine’s New York production turned the ballet into the classic Land of Snow and Kingdom of Sweets version we recognise today. Where America went, the rest of the world followed: more companies have performed The Nutcracker than any other ballet. In 2015 the Royal Ballet December production was beamed live to 2000 cinemas and, according to Daniel J Wakin of the New York Times, its holiday run “is generally the foundation of an American dance company”.

Why has The Nutcracker become so popular that even non-ballet fans, who would run a mile at a suggestion of an evening with Les Sylphides, are happy to be dragged along? 

Perhaps because it truly is family-friendly: it has parts for over 35 children; a pattern of short, highly-charged dances and watered-down cute mice and dancing toys. Perhaps because, in the words of Isabel McMeekan, founder of Everyday Ballet and a former dancer, it is“the eternal fantasy of Christmas come to life on stage…the girl, the guy, the dream, the magic tree that grows to 7 feet, the glittery snowflakes.” Or perhaps because it has proved so adaptable. As well as traditional outings, there have been hip-hop, LGBT and Jewish versions and, my own personal favourite, Matthew Bourne’s Dickensian orphanage with its pyjama-clad cupids and cast of very wicked sweets (check out the exceedingly sticky Knickerbocker Glory). 

And in that, I think, lies the ballet’s endurance – to paraphrase one supermarket’s ad: however you do Christmas, there’s a Nutcracker for you.

Friday 29 November 2019

Son et Lumiere - Ancient Portents by Elisabeth Storrs

To me a violent storm instils fascination and fear. After a long, sweltering day in Sydney, there is nothing quite as spectacular as a display of lightning bolts sparking on the horizon, or the sky being lit in startling intensity as the temperature cools, and the clouds darken. People scurry to gain cover as rain pelts down. Don’t shelter beneath a tree! Don’t stand on high ground! I love counting down the seconds between a lightning flash and the crack of thunder. That way I can tell how many kilometres away danger lies. And as the interval between sound and light narrows, I wait for the sonic collision and instinctively duck when the thunderclap booms even when in the safety of my home.

Sydney thunder storm
If we in the modern world find lightning bolts a visceral experience, how did the ancients view them? Greeks and Romans saw such powerful displays of nature as heralding divine disapproval or a portent for the future. However, the Etruscans of ancient Italy (who lived in the areas now known as Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria) were far more adept at deciphering the secrets of thunder and lightning. Their priests raised the art of prophecy to a science and recorded the tenets of their beliefs in a codex known as the Etrusca Disciplina. Sadly very little of Etruscan literature survives other than remnants of ritual text but we do have a Greek translation of an Etruscan brontoscopic calendar created by John the Lydian (born 490 CE) as set out in his book, De Ostentis (On Omens). The Etruscan version would probably have been presented on bronze or terracotta plaques. Individual priests who specialised in reading thunderbolts may well have transcribed the calendar onto linen books (libri lintei) for their personal use. These seers were known as ‘fulgurators’.

Organised into 12 lunar months commencing in June, the brontoscopic almanac functioned as a reference table to determine portents concerning the weather, crops, animals, war, government, social conflict and more. It contained a wealth of information about society, religion, agriculture and medicine. According to the calendar, thunder could forebode the common people would suffer trials of nature, threats of disease or famine, or be given the chance to rebel against powerful men.  Men’s preoccupation with the status of women was also evident. On one day thunder could signify that women were more sagacious than men whereas on another day it meant that women would be given greater control than appropriate to their nature! Fulgurators would consult the calendar to find the meaning of thunder according to the particular day of the year on which it occurred. For example, as this post is published on 29 November, you should be aware that: ‘If it thunders, it shall signify a year of well being.’ Here's hoping a thunder storm happens today.

Etruscan Tomb of the Augurs
Etruscan fulgurators could also prophesy the future based on lightning.  The type, colour, force and place at which lightning struck were all clues to interpret the will of the gods. Pliny and Seneca provided evidence the Etruscans believed nine gods had power to throw a thunderbolt (whereas the Romans believed only Jupiter, King of the Gods, could hurl one.) The Etruscan equivalent of Jupiter, known as Tinia, was able to use three types of bolts: the first was a benign warning; the second could do both harm and good; and third was completely destructive.

As the Etruscans believed the gods lived in different sectors of the heavens, a fulgurator could ascertain which divinity had thrown a thunderbolt by determining the direction from whence it came. Those deities of darker intent resided in the northwest, those who granted the greatest good fortune lived in the northeast. Etruscan prophets even had the ability to ‘call down lightning’ to provide proof that Nortia, the goddess of Fate, had agreed to defer a person’s or even a city’s destiny.

As you can guess, learning about the immense skills of Etruscan soothsayers fired my imagination when devising the story arc and sub-plots in my ‘A Tale of Ancient Rome’ trilogy. And despite professing I’m not superstitious, I’m always relieved when a storm front comes from the north-east.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. Learn more at  Images courtesy of Skira Colour Studio  and WikiMedia Commons Lobster1, CC BY-SA 3.0

Friday 22 November 2019

At the edge of the world... by Carolyn Hughes

In September, our family revisited a favourite holiday destination. We hadn’t been there for several years and were eager to return. It being autumn, the weather was mostly chilly, and rainy, but it didn’t dampen our enthusiasm. Indeed, that sort of weather, we always think, suits the landscape and, of course, without it, the flora of heather, oakwoods, ferns and abundant moss would not be there.

Anyway, the rain held off often enough and long enough to enable us to enjoy the beauty, the magnificence, of this relatively remote location. So, where were we? The far west coast of Scotland, in the region of Moidart, part of the Morar, Moidart and Ardnamurchan National Scenic Area, a remote area of islands, lochs, ancient woodlands and narrow winding roads, an hour’s drive to the west of the nearest town of any size, Fort William (population 10,500). Moidart is part of the area also known as the Rough Bounds, justifiably so, it might seem, for it is famous for its wildness and inaccessibility and remains very sparsely populated. It feels rather like being at the edge of the world...

And it is this very wildness and inaccessibility that is both part of the appeal for us coming here at all, and also a spur to my imagination.

The house we stay in, Dorlin, has history: it was once part of a much larger house that was demolished in the early 1960s. This larger house wasn’t especially old, having been built in the 19th century. Our “cottage” was a wing of the house, and may originally have been a chapel. It remained standing and was converted to the cottage that is now used for holiday lets.

Dorlin Cottage beneath Cruach nam Meann cc-by-sa/2.0 –
Stuart Wilding –
(The cottage is that lone building in the middle of the picture.)
There was an earlier house on this site, built in the late 18th century “in the Georgian style” by Aeneas R. Macdonald, a nephew of the estate’s owner, Alexander MacDonald, known as “Lochshiel”. Apparently Aeneas assumed he’d succeed to the estate and planned an extensive tenant clearance scheme. But he was thwarted when his plans came to the notice of Lochshiel’s family and the estate was sold from under him to James Hope Scott. Scott was married to Charlotte, a granddaughter of Sir Walter Scott. Apparently Scott proved a benevolent landlord and did much to improve the property, constructing roads, improving the dwellings of tenants and erecting a church and school and so on. Today Dorlin can be reached only by sea, or via a very narrow, winding road that runs alongside the lively Shiel River. One wonders what sort of access the property might have had in the mid 19th century?

After Charlotte’s death in 1858, Scott married Lady Victoria Fitzalan Howard, daughter of the 14th Duke of Norfolk, who was christened Victoria in honour of one of her godmothers, the Queen. It was now that Scott built the three-storey Dorlin House. The work was completed in 1864, exactly one hundred years before it was demolished. One is led to wonder at the lifestyle of these, one presumes urbane, people in such a remote, inaccessible region. For nearly six years a goddaughter of the monarch hosted parties for members of the aristocracy. I have always wondered at the heroic logistical efforts that these people’s servants must have had to make to supply all the provisions necessary to keep these grand house parties satisfied.

Dorlin House in 1964 cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Iain A Robertson –

The house changed hands a number of times over the next half century or so until, during World War Two, it was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and, as HMS Dorlin, was used for special boat and beach signal training, particularly for Royal Marine Commando units.

The history of Dorlin House is interesting, of course, but not – to me, at any rate – quite as fascinating as that of the building that lies in the tidal bay on the shores of which Dorlin stands.

For in the bay is Eilean Tioram (“dry island”), a tiny island that becomes accessible on foot only for a few hours each day when the sea withdraws sufficiently to reveal a causeway. And on the island stands a ruined castle – Castle Tioram – that probably dates from the 13th century and, as the seat of the Clan Ranald, a branch of the Clan mac Donald, had a surprisingly important role in Highland history, given its extreme remoteness.

Castle Tioram from the Silver Walk cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Bob Jones –
(The cottage is along the beach over to the left of the photograph.)

The castle seems to have been built (or more likely extended) by Amie mac Ruari, a 14th century noblewoman, who was a sister of the Lord of Garmoran, a medieval lordship that included the areas of Moidart, Morar and Ardnamurchan, as well as the Small Isles. This lordship formed part of the Lordship of the Isles, a title of Scottish nobility with historical roots that go back beyond the kingdom of Scotland. Despite paying technical homage at times to kings of Norway, Ireland and Scotland, for the most part the Lords of the Isles remained independent and extremely powerful: at their height they were among the greatest landowners and most powerful lords in Britain after the kings of England and Scotland. Castle Tioram, for all its remoteness, was once the main residence of the lords of Garmoran and, subsequently, of the chiefs of the Clan Ranald.

Anyway, Amie was the wife of John of Islay, chief of the Clan Donald (mac Donald), and the (first?) Lord of the Isles. John was ambitious and, to cement his alliance with Robert, who would become king of Scotland, he divorced Amie and married Robert’s daughter, Margaret, disinheriting Amie’s children. Ranald, Amie’s son, having lost his claim to be the Lord of the Isles, founded the Clan Ranald, and had his residence at Castle Tioram.

The castle remained in the family’s possession until the 19th century, despite turbulent times and several declarations of forfeiture. Until the mid 16th century, the Clanranalds were intermittently involved in the struggle between the Crown and the Lordship of the Isles and later with the Jacobite uprisings. The history is undoubtedly colourful, with much fighting, sea battles and hints of piracy.

But one of the aspects of life in Castle Tioram that has always intrigued me hugely, much more so really than the warring, is how the rich and powerful in these incredibly remote regions managed to lead the richly provisioned lives they did. Throughout the years of its occupation, Castle Tioram was obviously a centre of power for the Clanranalds as well as a dwelling. Under the clan system, the chief would provide land and security for his people and bore his responsibility in exchange for their loyalty and military service. The clan expected their chief to be strong, fearless in battle but also generous. Hunting and feasting, and music, were important. And, just as with the parties held centuries later at Dorlin House, at a time when there were few but at least some roads, in the earlier centuries of Castle Tioram’s existence, all provisions presumably had to be brought either by sea or somehow overland…

Until the 19th century, the castle could only be approached overland by narrow, rough hill tracks passable only on foot or by sturdy highland ponies. The castle itself was almost certainly a hive of activity but somebody was making this possible: the clan chief obviously supplied the money but again it had to be an army of servants who would have had to source the provisions and have them delivered, taking into account the inevitable periods of highly inclement Highland weather…

Anyway, I would just like to round this piece off with a story from the 17th century, about Donald, the 13th of Clanranald, who lived for the most part at Castle Tioram, and whom local stories painted as a man of courage in battle but also as a man whose behaviour was autocratic and even savage and cruel. These stories were written down in the 19th century by a parish priest of Moidart, Charles MacDonald, in his book charting the history of the Clanranald clan, Moidart: Among the Clanranalds. And there is one story in particular that fired my storytelling imagination…

One of the tales became a well-known local tradition and illustrated the power and jurisdiction held by a chief over his clansmen. When a quantity of silver went missing, Donald suspected three castle servants, two men and one woman who, apparently, walked daily to their work at Tioram across the moor along one of those rough tracks, having set out from Kinlochmoidart, several miles away. Although he was unable to prove their guilt, Donald had the two men executed by hanging on the gallows hill south of the castle, and the woman was tied to one of the rocks in the estuary by her hair and allowed to drown in the rising tide. Execution of men by hanging and women by drowning was evidently used in more ancient times, so the story may in fact apply to a previous era, or indeed be quite untrue. However, Father MacDonald reported that a rock on the shore of Eilean Tioram was once known as the Rock of James’s Daughter, so maybe there was some truth in it…

Anyway, in the 19th century, when a path was being constructed around the Loch Moidart shore, a hoard of silver Elizabethan coins was discovered. The story of course then claimed that they were Donald’s missing coins, hidden on the path by the thieving servants as they made their way to work across the moor. But those coins were one hundred years old at the time of Donald’s loss, so maybe the conjecture was fanciful. But it made a good story, and in honour of the tale, the newly constructed path became known as “The Silver Walk”.

After Donald’s death in 1686, Castle Tioram lost its role as the Clanranald family residence, for his son Allan lived elsewhere. The castle was garrisoned by Government troops from 1692, because of Allan’s support for the Jacobite cause, and fell into disrepair. But, in September 1715, Allan retook the castle but then ordered it to be burnt down before he left for the battle of Sherriffmuir, to prevent it falling into his enemy’s hands. It is thought he had a premonition, for he died at Sherriffmuir. At any rate, it was the end of Castle Tioram as the seat of the Clanranalds, and the beginning of its decline into the rather romantic ruin it now is.

It is certainly a place that sparks a writer’s imagination: the remoteness and the beauty of course feed the soul’s desire for spiritual nourishment but it’s not hard, either, if you stand alone in the bay as the sun dips beneath the horizon throwing the castle into gloom, and the tide begins to ripple back again, to let tales of terror conjure up a quite different sort of spirit…

Castle Tioram from the Silver Walk cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Russel Wills –
(With the sea now covering where Donald’s poor serving woman was allegedly tied to a rock
as the tide came rushing in…)

Sunday 17 November 2019

Of Great Men by L.J. Trafford

Rome being grand.
Photo by Scott Rowland

Ancient Rome is awash with Great Men, particularly in the era of the Republic when Rome was conquering all in her path on her way to becoming a full blown empire.
So, I thought I would pay tribute to a couple of them.

Fabius Maximus 

Known for:
  • Being Warty
  • Facing an army of flaming cows
  • Trying not to fight Hannibal 
The 3rd century BCE brought Rome a series of stunning victories one after the other. As Rome picked off such islands as Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia, it was inevitable that this would bring them into conflict with the other power in the Mediterranean: Carthage. Rome faced off Carthage in three separate wars, known as The Punic Wars. But as in the case of most series, the second one was the best. Because it was the one with the elephants.
Yes, it’s this second Punic War that features Hannibal, his elephants and one of the worst defeats Rome ever suffered at the Battle of Cannae.

Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus was born in around 280 BCE. Verrucosus was a nickname meaning warty. Let us assume it was a cracker of a blemish given that Greek historian Plutarch felt the need to mention it 300 years later in his life of Fabius.
As well as having to carry around the name Warty, Fabius was also nicknamed Lambkin for his calm, gentle nature. Fabius Maximus might seem an unlikely man to face off Hannibal and his elephants but Italy was in somewhat of a panic after that ascent of the Alps and nothing else had worked so far, so why not give Warty Lambkin a go?

Fabius was given the title of dictator and handed the job of expelling the invading Carthaginians from Italy. If you’re expecting a series of fierce battles between man and elephant, think again, for Fabius’ tactics are rather unexpected; he decided to defeat Hannibal by not fighting him.

One can imagine the loaded silence that followed. The gaping jaws and shocked expressions as the general in charge of defending Rome from invasion announced that they would not engage the enemy in battle. Or as Plutarch puts it,
“(they were) convinced that he was a nonentity who was utterly devoid of warlike spirit.” 
The Man with the elephants, Hannibal.

However, a man who has spent his life being called Warty Lambkin has a thick skin by necessity and Fabius stuck to his plan. He had his army follow the enemy but stay that little bit too far away to catch up with. His reasoning was that Hannibal’s invading force was not a large one and by the gods did his elephants need feeding. Fabius’ plan was to cut off supplies to the enemy and slowly wear them down, without actually fighting them.

We are told that Hannibal saw the shrewdness of this plan. He was alone in that one. Fabius’ own soldiers were soon raging against him. Not least after the Carthaginians went on a rampage destroying farm land. All except for Fabius’ own country estate which they cleverly left untouched. Unsurprisingly fingers began to point right at Warty Lambkin.

Matters did not improve for Fabius. At one point they had Hannibal’s army completely surrounded. This could have been decisive had the Romans not fallen for a terrible trick.

By cover of night the Carthaginians gathered up two thousand oxen. To their horns they fastened bundles of twigs and then set them alight. They then drove the cattle forward. To Fabius’ lurking Romans it looked uncannily like a massive torch holding army marching their direction. This became even more terrifying when the twigs burnt down to the oxen’s flesh, sending them wild and on the stampede. With the landscape rapidly catching fire the Romans were given sufficient light to see the rampaging, blazing bovine army heading their direction. I don’t think anyone can blame the Romans for legging it as fast as they could.

After the flaming cow debacle Fabius did manage to clock up some significant victories over Hannibal. Perhaps proof that his plan of depleting his forces had actually worked.

It was for this that Fabius gained yet another nickname Cunctator. Meaning the Delayer.

Cato the Elder 

Known For:
  • Excessive lack of excess
For Romans Cato was the epitome of the Roman traditional virtues of self-restraint, resilience and hardness. Not that anyone, even in his own lifetime, wanted to emulate his example. For Cato took things to the extreme. 
The time of Romulus when things were harsh and Cato would certainly have approved
Bronze statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf. In the Capitoline museum, Rome CC Wellcome Collection
He boasted that he never wore any item of clothing that cost over 100 drachma and that he never paid more than 1500 drachma for a slave. When he inherited a patterned Babylonia rug he despised it’s luxury so much that he sold it off immediately. Though one wonders what he did with the money, perhaps he buried it or purposefully kept it on full display in his house to show his absolute restraint in not spending it.
He was heavily into farming but not the usual Patrician route of owning acres of land and letting the slaves work it. No Cato worked alongside his slaves in the same clothes they did in winter and in summer just in his underwear.

However, it was not enough for Cato to deny himself the pleasures of life. No, he wanted everyone else to as well. This was first inflicted on his household slaves who suffered various indignities and then in the education his son, which he undertook himself. He taught the young lad reading and writing and how to ride a horse. Which all sounds sensible until you get to the bit where Cato junior’s education included how to endure extreme heat and cold. As well as becoming such a good swimmer as to be able to cross a hazardous river. You have to wonder how many failed attempts the bedraggled boy suffered on route to his success.

Still Cato itched for his way of life to be taken up further beyond the perimeters of his land. So, he decided to stand for the post of Censor. The main role of the Censor was to make a census of all Roman citizens and review the ranks of the Senate. Essentially this was to ascertain the size of the army and the taxable population. But it also involved accessing the suitability of men for inclusion into the ranks of the Senate.
Nobody could pretend they did not know what Cato was going to do with this power. Part of his canvassing involved standing on the rostra and crying out:

 “that the city needed a thorough cleansing and insisted that if they were sensible the people of Rome would choose the most forceful doctor.” 

He declared that he would be:
 “cauterising the Hydra like diseases of luxury and effeminacy.” 

Roman surgical instruments possibly like those Cato had in mind to cauterise effeminacy
 cc Wellcome Collection

The people of Rome decided they liked this, and duly elected him. Cato soon got to work expelling those he thought unsuitable from the ranks of the Senate for such crimes as daring to kiss their wives in broad daylight!

He then turned his attentions to the general population by increasing the value of such items as clothing, jewellery and utensils to increase taxes and discourage people from living a luxurious utensil heavy life.

Though this made him hugely unpopular with those wedded to their utensils, he was surprisingly popular with other slices of society. So much so they put up a statue dedicated to his censorship, the inscription read:
 “When the Roman constitution was in a state of collapse and decline he became censor and set it straight again by effective guidance, sound training and sensible instruction.” 

So what can we conclude by studying two Great Men of the Republic?
1) Having an unique name is not necessarily a hindrance to success.
2) Cows are scary in the dark.
3) Everyone likes to sock it to the utensil owning class.
4) Steadfastness; whether it be in the values of your values or the rightness of your plan, is a trait admired by Romans

L.J Trafford is the author of the Four Emperors Series set in 69 AD.

Friday 8 November 2019

Sheela na gig: Warning - Explicit Content! - Celia Rees

At the end of September I met my New Zealand friend, Ismay, in Bordeaux. With my husband as expert driver, we were about to embark on a long planned research trip, looking at Romanesque churches, searching for carvings of bicaudal mermaids and what are euphemistically known as exhibitionist figures.  

We were staying for a week in a gite adjacent to a chateau and surrounded by vineyards.  The chateau was a shell. During the war, it had served as temporary head quarters for the 2nd SS Panzer Division, Das Riech, infamous for their brutal massacre of the inhabitants of Oradour - sur - Glane.  During their time in the chateau, they had emptied the cellar and smashed every single item in a thousand piece collection of china. They had despoiled the place so thoroughly that the family did not return until 1989. 

We set out to explore the villages around, looking for Romanesque churches, on the hunt for bicaudal mermaids. I've written about bicaudals before on this blog, so I won't expand on them now. Suffice it to say that, much to our delight, we did find them, proudly displaying their two tails, on arches and corbels.

We were also looking for their sisters, female exhibitionist figures, also known as Sheela na gig. These figurative carvings of naked women boldly displaying themselves are found on churches and castles all over Europe, from Ireland (where they acquired their name) to Italy and Spain. 

12th Century Sheela na gig on Kilpeck Church, Herfordshire, England
 Male figures are often to be found close by displaying their genitals. 

Male figure from behind
There is disagreement among scholars about almost everything to do with the Sheela na gig and their continental counterparts. Their purpose, their origin, the etymology of the name itself are all hotly debated. The traditional view was that they were a warning against lust and the sins of the flesh, although it's hard to see them as in any way erotic. They were often placed above liminal spaces, windows and doorways, so they may have had some apotropaic function, to ward off evil, to guard and protect, perhaps specifically for the women of the community as they entered these portals for weddings, baptisms or churching after childbirth. They are also found in different cultures that have nothing to do with European Christianity. This is a Maori image from New Zealand.  

Maori carving from the marae at Waitangi 
One of my favourite theories comes from Ireland and draws parallels between the sheela na gig and the ancient Irish myth of the goddess who granted kingship. She would appear to prospective candidates as the Loathly Lady, a hideous hag, rejected by all except the one true king. When he slept with her she transformed into a beautiful maiden who gave him his crown and blessed his reign.  
Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady
We found what we were searching for in the small, ancient and isolated church of Monbos.  

Female Figure - Monbos Church
In the apse, at the far end of the small, dark church, were a number of pillars with carved and painted capitals. They showed foliage, vines and wheat ears, animals, hunting scenes, both male and female naked figures and a couple copulating. The effect was strongly pagan and seemed to me to confirm one of the other major theories relating to these figures: that they are pagan in origin and are to do with fertility.
Male Figure Monbos Church
There is no doubt that even to modern eyes they appear shockingly rude and seem to have no place in or on a religious building. Yet they have not been removed, they have survived the centuries, so they must have held importance for the people who gathered there to worship.  We can never know the true meaning of these images, or what belief lay behind their carving, or what was in the minds of those who worshipped in the churches where these figures display themselves. Did they really gaze up at them and reflect on the dangers of lust, the sins of the flesh and the prospect of eternal damnation? On the contrary, these figures look celebratory to me. Proud in their nakedness, shame-less, celebrating life and the natural abundance of field, vine and forest.

My belief that these images are essentially pagan and part of what might be an extremely ancient tradition was confirmed by a visit to the Musée d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux. Practically the first thing I saw there was the majestic and wonderful Venus of Laussel. An unassailable celebration of the feminine, she is approximately 25.000 years old. She is painted with red ochre and in her right hand she holds a crescent moon, marked with the thirteen lunar cycles. She has large breasts, ample hips and her left hand points to her vagina. She is an unambiguous celebration of the divine feminine and was found carved onto the wall of a rock shelter at Laussel in the Marquay area of the Dordogne, less than 50 miles from Monbos. 

The Venus of Laussel, Musée d'Aquitaine, Bordeaux, France 
Celia Rees

Friday 1 November 2019



The Isles of Orkney and the seas around Scapa Flow make a natural harbour, and have been used by sea voyagers and travellers through the ages. The scattered islands seem to circle around each other, providing bays and beaches and inlets that have been used by viking raiders, by the Earls and their descendants, by lairds and lords and by the folk of the islands.

File:Wfm orkney map.svg - Wikipedia
However, in the 1940's, a huge construction project was begun which changed the pattern of the waters and many aspects of life on Orkney.  

The Royal Navy had had reasons to worry about the wide harbour of Scapa Flow. Back in 1918, after the Surrender, the fleet of German warships was anchored there while the powers at Versailles decided their fate. 

The Fleet Commander, Admiral Ludwig Von Reuter, sent a secret message to all seventy-four German ships, giving orders for each ship to be scuttled by their crews. The date he chose was 21st June, 1919, the date then proposed for the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

Just after 11am on that day, all valves and sea-cocks were opened, bore-holes driven through bulkheads and portholes and doors unsealed. About an hour later, the crews on the Royal Navy guard-ships saw the captured fleet avoiding further disgrace sinking before their very eyes. Although some vessels were beached, fifty-four German ships were scuttled at Scapa Flow. This year, 2019, is the hundredth anniversary of that event.

Then, on 14th October 1939 - more than a decade later, and at the start of WWII - there was another blow to the Royal Navy's morale.  

Although Scapa Flow was considered invulnerable to submarine attack, a German U-47 submarine passed through the block-ships and torpedoed the elderly HMS Royal Oak which was anchored there. Over eight hundred sailors, including many young recruits, lost their lives.

In 1940, in response, Churchill decided that a set of concrete causeways would be built, blocking the eastern lanes into Scapa Flow and linking the islands South Ronaldsay, Burray, Glimps Holm and Lambs Holm to the orkney Mainland
The Churchill Barriers were completed in 1944 and opened in May 1945. While the narrow causeways did make road travel between these islands possible, the changes to the flow of the water also damaged local fishing grounds.

Of course, Churchill's bold scheme would need a quantity of labourers, so a work force of over twelve thousand Italian prisoners-of-war was brought from the sands of the North African Campaign to the wild, wind-scoured Orkneys 

Under the Geneva convention, POW's were not supposed to take part in war work, so the barriers were described as "improvements to communications."

La capilla de los italianos | EL CAJÓN DE GRISOM
Here, amid all the seafare and warfare, is a small piece of history that I found inspiring and hopeful. 

While the men were working there as prisoners, they also built two chapels. The chapel on Lambsholm still exists: it is cared for, used for very occasional services and open for visitors.

The chapel was simply built. It was constructed from two concrete-covered nissen huts and given a bitumen coating. Only the ornate concrete facade hints at what can be found within.

In their spare time, prisoners decorated the inside of their nissen huts so that it resembled the stone, marble and mosaic interior of  their chapels and churches back in Italy.

Two men were largely responsible for the creation of the chapel and organising all the careful work. Signor Guiseppe Palumbi was the person who made the iron work and screens from whatever metals he found available. This hanging sanctuary lantern, below, is made from a bully beef tin.

Signor Domenico Chiochetti was the creator and painter of much of the artwork, especially the large mural behind the altar: a copy of "Madonna and Child" by the artist Nicolo Barabino. 

After so much about men and their machines in this post, I am glad of the fact that Chiochetti used the image from a card that his mother had given him as he left home and which he carried in his pocket throughout the war. He got home safely and he returned several times to the little chapel he had created on Lambs Holm.

After the wrecked ships and the concrete blocks and the evidence of past wars, the love spent on this tiny chapel - and the magic of the Orkney landscape and light - were things that lifted the heart.  

Penny Dolan