Thursday 31 December 2020

Saving lives in the French Alps. An Act of Love, by Carol Drinkwater


   An Act of Love will be published on 29th April 2021 by Penguin UK.
How do we find the stories, the ideas for our novels or how do they find us?

I am always on the lookout for ideas, for seeds that might grow like flowers into fully-realised stories. We writers are always digging about for nuggets. Magpies, we are, looking for what shines. Sometimes, the work involves weeks, months, of research, grappling with a vague idea for ages, knowing that it might or might not crystallise, until we are at the point of giving up and moving on to something else. On other occasions, a story, a voice, a person leaps out at you and you know - as much as in our guts we know anything for sure - that this lead will be the one we need to follow. 

So it happened with me a long time before An Act of Love was thought of.  I was at work on one of my Olive Farm books and took a short journey inland to visit some of the small hill towns that are situated in the hinterland up behind the city of Nice.


One of the Alpine towns, Saint-Martin-Vésubie, instantly drew my attention. I walked about its hilly medieval streets with its coloured houses and its astounding views in every direction within the Mercantour National Park. I knew nothing of its twentieth-century history at that time. Of its Second World War deeds of generosity and courage. Of the suffering, nor acts of humanity that had been lived out in this modest settlement. I chanced upon its tiny museum. It was there I hit upon the seed to my future story. 

By the autumn of 1942,  the greater number of the thousands of Jews who were living in France had fled from the German-occupied territories into the non-occupied zone, the Zone Libre or Free Zone. In May 1940 as the German army marched into Paris, more than one hundred thousand French-born Jews (known to the French as Israelites) fled Paris and the north, escaping to the south to avoid capture and deportation. Aside from the nationals, there were also the hundred of thousands of immigrants who had arrived from other parts of German-occupied Europe. They were fleeing their conquered lands, seeking refuge - a refuge that was looking less and less dependable. 

By the autumn of 1942, both French and foreign Jews were beginning to fear that their chances of survival were slim. Thousands had made it to the Free Zone in southern France but even there, their options were diminishing because by November of that same year, 1942, the Germans who had occupied the north and the southwest as far as Spain were ordered by Hitler to cross from the Occupied Zone into the Free Zone and take control of it. 

Until November 1942, those Jewish French citizens as well as the thousands of foreign refugees, most of whom were without legitimate papers and therefore stateless, who had found their way to Nice and the resort towns along the French Riviera had been living in a relatively relaxed freedom. However, in November 1942 a turn in the war in favour of the Allies, ironically, brought a dark cloud upon the lives of all those hiding from the Nazis. The Allies won North Africa. From there, the possibility of their armies moving north, crossing the Mediterranean into France, threatened Germany's hold on France. Hitler ordered his armies to move into the Free Zone, to take Marseille, move east towards Nice and be ready for any Allied invasion from the sea. Hitler also ordered Italy to send in troops to the south, to take control of the eastern corner of the Free Zone. 

Zones Occupé and Libre.

For those in hiding, no area of France was now safe. 

Nice, the eastern most city in the south of France, was now to be ruled by Italian soldiers. Up until that time, the Côte d'Azur had been the fugitives' safest bet. However, as good fortune would have it, the Italians, although a member of the Axis Powers, had no interest in harassing and imprisoning Jews. They did not follow Hitler's dictates to arrest Jews or any other 'undesirables' for deportation. 

In late November 1942, the Nazis marched into Marseille. Early the following year, 22nd January, the old port area of Marseille was ransacked. Entire streets were burned to cinders. As part of Action Tiger, over four thousand Jews were hunted down, arrested, put on trains, sent to holding camps such as Drancy in the north to await deportation to one of the camps in eastern Europe.

Nice would not be far behind. Nice, where until then, the Jews, both French and refugees, had lived in relative safety, but now knew that their days were numbered. Italy was still an Axis nation. There was no safety in trying to escape into Italy, not at that stage. Transport by boat to Palestine or the United States was limited, expensive. Special exit visas were required and they cost money, if they could be procured. The waiting list was long.

The Nazis were moving eastwards. If the Allies did not reach the south first, Nice would be occupied by Hitler's armies. Every enemy of Hitler would be rounded up and murdered. Until the thousands of Jews in hiding could be given safe passage onwards or the war was won by the Allies, other hiding places needed to be found. Urgently.

And this is where the hill town of Saint-Martin-Vésubie steps into the story. 

This small community agreed to house Jews. From November 1942 onwards, through to the spring of 1943, homeless, displaced Jews arrived by the busload into Saint-Martin. The residents welcomed them into their community, rented them housing, accepted them as a part of their lives - even while members of the Italian army were living there too. But, as I said, the Italians had no interest in harming Jews. They left them in peace. What grew up here in this alpine community was an unlikely convergence of peoples. Italian soldiers, local mountain residents, some of whom were living underground, fighting with the Résistance, and Jewish immigrants. These peoples of different faiths and a babel of languages lived together in peace for almost a year until September 1943, when Italy surrendered and its troops were withdrawn. Then the Jewish temporary residents found themselves yet again unprotected and in greater danger than ever before. Were they trapped? Where from here could they flee? The Wehrmacht had taken Nice. The coast was cut off to them. What options were left to them?

   Members of the French Résistance with Fugitive Jews.

The story in my novel, An Act of Love, begins in February 1943 when Sara, a seventeen-year-old Polish girl, arrives by bus into Saint-Martin-Vésubie with her parents. She is sad to leave the coast, the splendour of Nice, the Mediterranean way of life where she and her parents have made a home of sorts in relative safety since their illicit arrival into France eighteen months earlier. Settling into this backwater is yet another uprooting in her young life. She wants to live like an ordinary teenager, like any of the friends she makes in the village, but this is war-time and destiny has other plans for her ... 

The novel has been inspired by real events, courageous acts, but the characters are all of my imagining. Sara's story is the journey of a young woman in extraordinary times. I sincerely hope you will enjoy it.

Friday 25 December 2020

Christmas Day 2020 by Miranda Miller

Victorian greeting card from the 1880s. A dead robin was regarded as a symbol of good luck in late 19
th Century England.


  Whatever you’re going today, it probably isn’t what you’d normally be doing on Christmas Day. I live in London so my family Christmas has been cancelled and I'm feeling a bit dead robin.  I thought I’d look back to other years when Christmas didn’t happen. For eight years in the seventeenth century there were no official Christmas masses or celebrations.

The Observation of Christmas having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dressing up in Fine Clothing, Feasting and similar Satanical practices are hereby FORBIDDEN with the offender liable to a fine of five shillings.

   Strict Protestants and Puritans believed that December 25th should be a fast day devoted to sober religious contemplation. In January 1645 parliament issued its new Directory for the Public Worship of God, a radical alternative to the established Book of Common Prayer, which made no reference to Christmas at all, and traditional festivities were abolished by order of the both Houses of Parliament.

   Naturally many people continued to celebrate in private but the issue became a political football and a war of words was fought in the wonderfully rich language of the period.

   The royalist satirist John Taylor published a pamphlet, The Complaint of Christmas, from the King’s stronghold of Oxford, lamenting that the “harmless sports” are now extinct and put out of use… as if they had never been.” “Thus are the merry lords of misrule suppressed by the mad lords of bad rule at Westminster”.

   In his later pamphlet The Vindication of Christmas (1652), John Taylor provided a lively portrait of how, he claimed, the old Christmas festivities were still being kept up by the farmers of Devon.

The Vindication of Christmas, or his twelve years Observation upon the great and lamentable  Tragedy between the King and Parliament’

 (In the speech bubbles;) Keep out, you come not here.

Oh Sir, I bring good cheer

Old Christmas, welcome, do not fear.


  Puritans retaliated by conflating the elderly bearded Taylor with Old Father Christmas in their own pamphlets. 

   In 1653, this pamphlet attacked the Puritan tax on Christmas ale:

The Trial of Old Father Christmas

For encouraging Drunkenness Gaming, Swearing, Rioting, and all manner of Extravagance and Debauchery. At the Assizes held in the City of Profusion.

   After the defeat of Charles at Naseby the conflict became more aggressive. In the words of a contemporary ballad: “To conclude, I’ll tell you news that’s right, Christmas was killed at Naseby fight.”


   There were violent pro-Christmas riots. Puritan tradesmen in London opened up their shops for business on 25 December in order to show that they regarded this day as no different from any other. In December 1643, the apprentice boys of London rose up in violent protest against the shop-keepers who had opened on Christmas Day, and “forced these money-changers to shut up their shops again”.

   When the Lord Mayor despatched some officers “to pull down these gawds,” the apprentices resisted them, forcing the Mayor to rush to the scene with a party of soldiers and break up the demonstration by force. they set up Holly and Ivy ” on the pinnacles of the public water conduit.” In December 1646 a group of young men at Bury St Edmunds threatened local tradesmen who had dared to open their shops on Christmas Day, and were only dispersed by the town magistrates after a fight.The worst disturbances took place at Canterbury, where a crowd of protestors first smashed up the shops which had been opened on Christmas Day and then went on to seize control of the entire city.

   MPs demanded that the fast should be kept “with the more solemn humiliation, because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers, who have turned this feast, pretending [to] the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights”.


    After Cromwell became Lord Protector in 1653, the celebration of Christmas continued to be  forbidden. Cromwell and his colleagues often  made a point of transacting government business on 25 December.

   John Evelyn, seen here in this portrait by Hendrick Van Der Borcht, was a Royalist and an Anglican. He describes in his diary the scene on Christmas Day 1657 when he was arrested, together with the entire congregation, while receiving Holy Communion at Exeter Chapel near Temple Bar:

   When I came before them they tooke my name and abode, examin’d me why—contrary to an ordinance made that none should any longer observe ye superstitious time of the Nativity (so esteem’d by them)—I durst offend, and particularly be at Common Prayers, which they told me was but ye masse in English, and particularly pray for Charles Stuart, for which we had no Scripture. I told them we did not pray for Cha. Stuart, but for all Christian Kings, Princes, and Governors. They replied in so doing we praied for the K. of Spaine too, who was their enemie and a papist, with other frivolous and insnaring questions and much threatning; and finding no colour to detaine me, they dismiss’d me with much pitty of my ignorance. These were men of high flight and above ordinances, and spake spiteful things of our Lord’s Nativity. As we went up to receive the Sacrament the miscreants held their muskets against us as if they would have shot us at the altar.

   If, like me, you’re feeling hard done today, it’s worth remembering that Evelyn, and many others, managed to live on through the fire of London and the plague less than ten years later.

                                            (This is the one we haven’t had yet.)

Friday 18 December 2020



Some years ago I wrote up the peripatetic wanderings of King Henry II for The History Girls blog and it proved to be popular. You can read it here If it's Christmas it must be Chinon

At the moment I am writing about events that happened during the reign of Henry II's grandfather, Henry I, so I've been studying his itinerary, to see where he spent the Christmas feast for each year of his reign between 1100 and 1134.  He died just before Christmas 1135 while in Normandy.  His Christmas's were equally divided between Normandy and England. Of the 18 Christmasses Henry spent in England, 7 were at his palace of Westminster with the recently completed huge Great Hall built by his brother William Rufus. Five were spent at Windsor, two at Dunstable, one at Winchester, one at St. Albans, one at Norwich, one at Brampton.  In Normandy there are ten occasions when we do not know where he stayed, although a best guess for most of them would probably be the Norman capital of Rouen.  We do know  for certain of three Christmas stays in Rouen, then one in Bayeux, one in Argenten.  In the final year of his reign, he did not make it as far as Christmas, dying (supposedly) of a surfeit of lampreys at his hunting lodge at Lyons la Foret on the first of December while waiting to return to England. 

Without further ado, on to Henry I's Christmas itinerary. 

1100: Westminster. The First Year of Henry's reign after the unfortunate accident in the New Forest when his older brother William Rufus was shot by a 'stray' (cough) arrow.  Henry, fortuitously on the scene at the time, sped off to Winchester to claim the treasury and the crown.  He married Edith, daughter of the King of Scotland in the November, and spent Christmas at Westminster.

Photo (Wikipedia) shows Westminster Great Hall today.  The roof is 14th century, but the lower course of the wall shows the dimensions of the hall as built by William Rufus in the late 11th century. 

1101  Westminster

1102 Westminster

1103 Westminster

1104  Windsor - for a change. The King had been in Normandy for part of the year and returned to spend Christmas at Windsor. 

1105 Westminster again

1106 Rouen - Possibly.  The King was in Normandy and in Rouen on the Feast of St Andrew - 30th November. 

1107 Westminster

1108  Normandy - no indication as to where but possibly Rouen

1109  Westminster

1110  Windsor possibly. ''On this year the King did not wear his crown at Christmas'.

1111 Rouen possibly.  The King was definitely in Normandy.

1112  Normandy - unspecified

1113 Windsor

1114 Normandy - unspecified. In the early spring the King was at Rouen and caused the barons of Normandy to swear fealty to his son, William.

1115  St. Albans, 'where he caused the monastery to be hallowed'

1116  Normandy - presumably Rouen

1117 Normandy unspecified

1118 Normandy unspecified

1119 Bayeux, Normandy

1120 Brampton near Huntingdon.  This is the year of the White Ship where Henry's son and heir, William and many members of the younger English court were drowned on the 25th of November, returning to England from Normandy on a new, fine vessel, that then hit a rock off the coast of Barfleur and sank with all but one of those on board.  Henry kept Christmas with Theobald Count of Blois, older brother of the future King Stephen... 

1121 Norwich

1122 Dunstable

1123 Normandy - unspecified

1124 Normandy - unspecified. We are told that the Nativity was held at Winchester and that the king's Justiciar, Bishop Roger of Salisbury caused all false moneyers to be brought to Winchester and during the 12 days of the Feast of the Nativity, he caused each to be deprived of his right hand and emasculated. 

1125 Normandy - unspecified

1126 Windsor

1127 Normandy - unspecified

1128 Argentan - possibly

1129 Winchester

1130 Rouen. For those interested in the career of William Marshal's father, he is present witnessing a document confirming privileges of the priory of St Mary le Desert with the archbishop of Rouen. 

1131 Dunstable

1132  Windsor: Henry is unwell

1133 Normandy - unspecified

1134 Normandy - unspecified.  Possibly Argentan or Rouen

1135 - November Lyons la Foret.  Dies from 'A surfeit of lampreys.' I wrote about the event here in this blog for The History Girls.A surfeit of lampreys

Friday 11 December 2020

Parlour Games for Christmas by Judith Allnatt

Like many people in these difficult times, I've turned to light reading as a bit of escapism and my most recent choice  has been to reread The Diary of  a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, published in 1892.  The 'nobody' in question is Mr Charlie Pooter, Edwardian bank clerk: a comic creation who tells  terrible jokes yet takes himself rather too seriously.  He dutifully records his household woes, for instance his threat  to walk out if the same blancmange is served up again after seeing it 'for every meal since Wednesday'. He and his wife Carrie are often visited by two friends: Cummings and Gowing (of course he makes a joke about that). Their entertainments include cards, singing, and impressions but also parlour games such as Cutlets.

Cutlets involves one person sitting down, and everyone else being asked in turn to sit on the lap of the person before them until they are arranged one on top of another in a pile, provoking general hilarity. Then, they are asked 'Are you a believer in the great Mogul?' to which they have to answer all together 'Yes, oh yes!' when unexpectedly,  the person on the bottom gets up, resulting in a toppling of the pile.  The game was clearly perceived as a little risqué, as Grossmith presents the husbands as insisting that the wives sit on their spouses' laps and not anyone else's! 

This made me think about how grownup  'play' often involves  a challenge to the propriety of the day: the rules of the game  temporarily replacing the normal rules of staid adult mores to allow behaviour that, in the parlance of the day, is a little 'naughty' or 'daring’.

Readers may remember playing Blind Man's Buff  as a child at parties. My memory of the game includes being spun around until you were dizzy when being the 'blind man' and the aim of the game being to catch one of the kids who were calling out and poking you, so that they would have to take over the role and you could escape. However, for centuries the game has clearly been played not only by children but by adults. Tennyson mentions playing it in 1855 and the painting below, by Pietro Longhi  shows it being played in an eighteenth century scene. The original version of the game had a further element that our childish version lacked, which is that the blind man  has to identify, by touch, the person they have captured, before they are allowed to swap roles. Like Cutlets, Blind Man's Buff involves physical contact normally outside the realm of polite behaviour, providing both humour and flirtatious opportunity.

Reverand Crawley's Circle demands that all the players hold hands, but not with the people immediately next to them. The resulting knot then has to be untangled by twisting, turning and stepping through gaps, without letting go, resulting in contortions much like the modern game of Twister. The identity of Reverand Crawley has long ago been lost. Was he even a real person? Or was the name chosen to give a spurious permission from religious authority to get 'up close and personal’?

Sardines is another game that involves close physical contact. The game is a back-to-front version of Hide-and -Seek. Only one player hides, then as each seeker finds them they have to join them in their hiding place so that it becomes progressively more 'cozy' or 'cramped', depending on one's attitude to the person  in close quarters next to you. 

Some games, rather than making mischief with polite gender norms, allow a playful expression of aggression. Where are you Moriarty? is a game that presumably makes reference to the longstanding enmity between Holmes and the criminal mastermind. It requires two players, both blindfolded, and each holding a rolled up newspaper, to lie on the floor head to head, with a gap of around a metre between them. One asks the question and when the other answers 'Here!' the first attempts to hit them with the newspaper whilst they roll about trying to avoid getting bashed.

More modern games sometimes have elements of older ones. Killer is a game played at Christmas in our household because it works for almost all age groups, including the elderly, who might prefer to sit. It starts with everyone receiving a piece of paper, only one of which has the word 'Killer' written upon it. The players then sit in a circle while the killer seeks to catch a person's eye and 'kill' them by winking. The victims have to count to twenty before they expire, to give the killer the chance to perform a further massacre before anyone can accuse them. The winner is the person who manages to level a correct  accusation before being winked to death and a wrong accusation results in exclusion from the game. The Victorian game If you Love me Dearest, Smile worked on a similar principle but was far more innocent. It required  a nominated person to smile at the other players to get them to smile in turn, the winner being the last one to hold out against smiling - a gift to a young lady  looking for an excuse  to catch the eye of a particular gentleman . . .

Parlour games may seem rather tame to us today when we're used to more sophisticated entertainment. However, over a Christmas that, at the time of writing, may well be constrained by Covid regulations, they have something to recommend them as a way to entertain the members of a single household, who may have a wide spread of ages. What they all have in common is that they tend to end in one thing - laughter - and we could all do with some of that.

Chat with me about this post @JudithAllnatt or read more about my writing and more blogposts here

Friday 4 December 2020

Fighting To Be Free, by Pippa Goodhart

We have a guest to start off December for us.

Pippa Goodhart was born in Cambridge, but moved to Leicester more than twenty years ago. She has worked in bookselling and publishing, and now combines writing with teaching writing for children, and with author visits to schools.
Pippa has had over sixty books published, most of them for children. Her publications include picture books, young reader books and junior novels, as well as a novel for adults.

These are the discharge papers for Sergeant George Rose who fought and was wounded at the Battle of Waterloo. Discharged from the British Army in 1837 at the age of forty-five, he had served in Germany, the Netherlands, Gibraltar, Malta, Corfu, and, of course, Belgium, over almost three decades. When he left the army, labelled in his discharge papers as ‘an efficient, trustworthy and sober soldier’, and awarded a pension, George Rose chose to train as a Methodist minister in Scotland. He then travelled with his wife and children to Jamaica ‘to spread the word of God’. He died there in 1873. It was near his birthplace, Spanish Town. George Rose had been born in Jamaica to an enslaved woman, so began life in enslavement.

Somehow (there’s a story waiting to be written to fill the gap!) George Rose got from Jamaica to London. Slavery was made illegal within the British Isles in 1807. Back home in Jamaica, under British rule, slavery continued until 1833. George Rose volunteered to join the 73rd Foot King’s Militia. He got promoted to become a Corporal and then a Sergeant, possibly the most senior black man in the British Army of that time. 

George Rose was one amongst many black men in the British Army and Navy in that Napoleonic era. Regiments stationed in the West Indies would recruit strong local young men into their ranks.

 An ‘Indian’ (as in West Indies) brigade is listed as having been present, held in reserve at the Battle of Waterloo. The assumption is that the bulk of soldiers in such an ‘Indian brigade’ would have been Afro-Caribbean but led by white British captains and higher ranks. (My own grandad in the First World War, and two uncles in the Second World War, were white army captains in ‘The Indian Army’ of soldiers from India. So colour/rank discrimination persisted). In that time when slavery was still legal in British colonies but not in the British Isles, joining the British Army or Navy was one legal way out of enslavement. Those Caribbean soldiers in the British Army of George Rose’s time were paid the same as their British counterparts, but they belonged to the Army for as long as the Army wanted them, so legal ownership of a sort went on…

… Just as legal ownership applied to children apprenticed in the mills of the Industrial Revolution. Workhouses paid mill owners to take on children to work in their mills, and those children could not legally walk free from that work until they were at least eighteen.

A child fighting to find her identity and freedom as she is passed from workhouse to Quarry Bank Cotton Mill near Manchester in 1838 is the subject of my new children’s novel, The Twisted Threads of Polly Freeman. But in the background of that story is a soldier very like George Rose. I’d love to write a sequel, or perhaps a prequel, that would take us more fully into my soldier from Jamaica’s story! 



The Twisted Threads of Polly Freeman is published by Catnip, ISBN: 978-1910611227
Pippa’s previous historical novel for children, The Great Sea Dragon Discovery, also published by Catnip, ISBN: 978-1910611081 won the Historical Association’s 2019 Young Quills Award for best historical novel of the year for children aged 10-13.


Thursday 26 November 2020

The Lost Tomb: Etruscan a la Baroque by Elisabeth Storrs

Visiting the Italian city of Tarquinia is an experience I’ll never forget. Not just for the beauty of its medieval fortress but because of the Etruscan frescoes of the  Monterozzi necropolis – a city of the dead lying opposite the living one. Much of what we know about Etruscan society is gleaned from interpreting paintings on the walls of underground tombs. On the surface, the Monterozzi necropolis is an arid landscape dotted with earthen mounds known as tumuli. What lies beneath these hillocks is astonishingly beautiful – small funerary chambers decorated in vivid colours with scenes of banquets, games, musicians, flora and fauna as well as demons and monsters. They are given names such as Tomb of the Leopards, the Bulls, the Shields and the Blue Demon.  Some even come with an ‘X’ rating, a fact remarked upon by DH Lawrence in his book, Etruscan Places, when he visited Tarquinia in the 1920s. 

Tomba del Biclinio Plate 7

 A common artistic theme in Etruscan funerary art is a banquet where men and women share dining couches (biclinio) in a way considered scandalous by contemporary Roman and Greek societies. Such banqueting scenes are also believed to be connected with Dionysian worship (see The Elusive Search for Dionysus) The tombs of Monterozzi are now temperature controlled and protected by glass barriers but even so, curators battle to conserve these extraordinary artworks due to climatic conditions and earth movements.

One Tarquinian tomb disappeared long ago yet the images depicted on its walls have not been lost due to the efforts of an C18th Scottish antiquarian and artist, James Byres. It’s known as the Tomba del Biclinio.

At the end of the 1700s, Etruscan pottery and jewellery had been popularised by artisans such Josiah Wedgewood and the Castellani Brothers (see my post on Neo-Classical Revivalism). Byres wanted to take advantage of this growing interest in the Etruscans by producing an illustrated history. He visited Tarquinia (then known as Corneto) in 1766 where he recorded scenes of Tarquinia as well as decorations of various underground tombs or ‘hypogaei’.  He also commissioned his protégé, a young Polish artist named Franciszek Smuglewicz , to make sepia copies of the murals of the C5th BCE Tomba del Biclinio.  Byres's recording of the elegant paintings from these tombs parallels the internationally-influential recovery of Roman wall-decorations from the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Byres’ masterpiece never eventuated due to lack of funding, and the fact his copperplates were detained in Livorno during the Napoleonic Wars. Ultimately they were published posthumously in 1842 by an English portraitist, Frank Howard, in a volume of engravings entitled Hypogaei, or Sepulchral caverns of Tarquinia, the Capital of Antient (sic) Etruria.

Etruscan Tomb of the Shields
The book depicts not only the murals of  Tomba del Biclinio but also cross sections of the 5 chambers within the tumuli mound to a standard higher than anything achieved at the time in archaeological investigations. It’s a tragedy such priceless cultural monuments have been irrevocably destroyed. And I find it somewhat haunting to imagine those C18th century ‘virtuosi’ adventurers venturing into the subterranean caverns to copy the frescoes in the flickering shadow play of torchlight. Unfortunately, Byres and Smuglewicz did not faithfully record what they saw. Etruscan fresco art is extremely distinctive but is sometimes regarded as crude compared to Greek art of the same time. Accordingly the Hypogaei engravings appear to be filtered through the lens of classical Greek art enveloped in a Baroque haze. Nevertheless they are exquisite in their own way, and give us a semblance of what has been lost. Compare the actual rendering of an Etruscan couple in the Tomb of the Shields compared to Byres' version in the Tombo del Biclinio.

Tomba del Biclinio murals Plate 8

Byres himself was a fascinating character.  He was member of a culturally significant minority in Scotland, his family having remained Roman Catholic during the Reformation.  His parents made their escape after the catastrophic defeat at Culloden of the Jacobite rising of 1745-46, and arrived eventually in Rome, where Byres was to make his career as antiquarian, art dealer and cicerone (a guide who conducted tours of classical sites for wealthy young British aristocrats on the ‘Grand Tour’.) In fact Byres guided Edward Gibbon during the historian’s brief sojourn in Rome. Byres was also interested in natural phenomena, in particularly volcanoes, becoming a close acquaintance of Sir William Hamilton, the famous vulcanologist and British Ambassador to Naples. Indeed, Byres sold the Roman cameo glass vessel known as the Portland Vase to Hamilton (which was reproduced by Josiah Wedgewood in an echo of Byres’ copperplates of the lost Etruscan tombs.)

Byres regarded the Etruscans as the 'first people of Italy' and saw their subjugation by the Romans as barbaric. It is not unlikely, given the C18th taste for drawing contemporary parallels with ancient history, that he may have thought the Etruscans as comparable to the oppressed Jacobite Scots or his ‘ain folk’. He remarked in the draft of his History of the Etrurians:  The Romans ‘vanity of appearing the only great nation probably induced them to destroy Etruscan records, which perhaps showed the meanness of their own origin, which they probably wanted to conceal.’

As an Etruscophile myself, I can only concur that the Rome's annihilation of Etruria, its literature, and its people, was unspeakable. I’m grateful for Byres’ attempts to record Etruscan society’s hidden art even if the images he engraved were distorted by the prism of his artistic prejudices.   The Tomba del Biclinio stands as a symbol of a lost civilisation whose temporal beauty even now remains fragile. Let’s hope the efforts made by Italian historians to preserve sites such as the Monterozzi necropolis and other Etruscan ruins are successful.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the founder of Historical Novel Society Australasia. Learn more at  Neo-Classical Revivalist jewellery can be found on her Pinterest board. Images are courtesy of Maravot and Wikimedia Commons.

Friday 20 November 2020

Pandemic then and now (part 2)...

My current series of historical novels is set in the middle of the 14th century, a period (in)famous for its devastating plague. The events of the first novel occur just after the Black Death has passed on, and so don’t concern the plague itself but rather its consequences for a community that lost so many of its members. But I have recently published the fourth novel in the series, which, sadly, is at least partly “about” plague, which returned to England in 1361 (and many times thereafter).

I was still writing this fourth novel when the world was plunged into chaos by the arrival of COVID-19. Although it was unsettling writing about a pandemic when we were in the midst of one, it did give me food for thought, comparing the two events.

My last post on The History Girls blog, in May, related something of medieval people’s understanding of the reasons for the plague, focussing on the idea that “lewd” fashion, and indeed lewdness in general, might be responsible.

In today’s post, though, for what I think may be my last on The History Girls concerning plague, I thought I’d talk a little more about how medieval people responded to plague. It’s particularly interesting because there are a few fascinating parallels with our own responses to the 2020 pandemic.

In the 14th century, people had some curious (to us) notions about the causes of the disease. Death was of course everyday – accidents were commonplace, illnesses mostly incurable, and even untreatable, life generally subject to manifold risk. Medieval people had a tendency to credit adversity of any kind, be it the loss of a child, dead cows, a bad harvest, or the failure of the butter to churn, to God’s will or the Devil’s work.

Part of a mural in a church in Hrastovlje, Slovenia, painted at the end of the 15th century,
showing people of every rank and station being led by grinning skeletons towards a grave. 
National Gallery of Slovenia. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We know well enough the medieval notion that the coming of the Black Death, or indeed any disaster, was the result of mankind’s sin. That was what the Church promulgated. However, even if this was the generally accepted view, ther were scientific explanations too. Various complicated theories about the movements of the planets were proposed, and also ideas that miasma, or foul air, was to blame. Foul air was thought to be a cause of disease in general, and plague was no different.

But, if medieval people had some notions of the cause of the disease (even if they were wrong), I imagine it was far trickier for them to work out how to deal with it.

Isolation, keeping oneself to oneself generally, was certainly understood. The value of social distancing, as we now call it, was recognised. The premise for Boccaccio’s Decameron (completed in 1353) is the isolation of a group of young people who flee Florence to escape the plague. And a 14th century French physician, Jean Jacmé, wrote in a treatise on the plague:

In pestilence time nobody should stand in a great press of people because some man among them may be infected” *

So close contact with a victim was to be avoided. People did go into “lockdown”, confining themselves and their families to their homes, only going out “if absolutely necessary”, presumably to fetch water, buy food, tend to their animals or manage their land.

But Doctor Jacmé had some other familiar-sounding advice. He advocated the washing of hands “oft times in the day”*, though he recommended using water and vinegar, rather than soap.

Touch, then, was certainly to be avoided, but another physician posited that looking into a plague victim’s eyes was also risky, on the grounds that disease could be transmitted via the “airy spirit leaving the eyes of the sick man”*, which does seem somewhat less than plausible. But something much more familiar is avoiding a victim’s “foul air” – the emissions resulting from coughing or even breathing. The “plague doctor” bird beak masks of later centuries hadn’t yet been invented, but I can well imagine that those who attended victims might have covered their nose and mouth.

The 17th century equivalent of a “hazmat” suit?

Though these sorts of beak masks weren’t used in the 14th century.

(Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel (Dr. Beak), a plague doctor in 17th century Rome.

Published by Paul Fürst (1608–1666) who was perhaps also the engraver. Public domain.)

What medieval people didn’t seem to know about, for I have seen no reference to it in the sources I have been reading, was the role of rats and fleas. Rats have long been implicated in the spread of plague, though some scientists now think the speed of spread was, in practice, too rapid and too far for transmission by rat flea alone to be viable. Others have it that the rat fleas jumped host to people, and then human fleas and body lice were infected, making it easier for rapid people-to-people transmission. Yet the situation is unclear. The World Health Organisation, speaking of the present time, says, “human to human transmission of bubonic plague is rare”. Yet, the 1361 outbreak was in the summer months, in which bubonic, as opposed to pneumonic, plague, was in principle more common. Whichever it was, it spread very quickly, and was undoubtedly hideous and terrifying.

Perhaps not quite the culprit he’s been made out to be? But not this cute either!
(Etching by W. S. Howitt, 1808. Wellcome Library, London. Public domain.)

And of course doctors in the 14th century really didn’t know how to treat the disease, though some undoubtedly thought they did. Some would probably have tried their favourite cure-all, blood-letting, or applied a variety of substances to the suffering body, from herbs and vinegar, to urine and excrement, none of which were beneficial. In my novel, I have a barber-surgeon lancing the buboes, a practice that wasn’t necessarily carried out in the 1300s, though it was a couple of centuries later. But I can imagine eager medieval surgeons trying various methods to save their patients, just as the university-trained physicians ceaselessly sought answers in the heavens. And, even in the 14th century, catching plague wasn’t absolutely a death sentence, for some people clearly did survive it – even people who had been close to, or even nursed, victims.

It’s been a strange year for all of us, and of course it’s not over yet. When I embarked upon writing the fourth novel, back in 2019, I could never have imagined how close to home the events I wrote about might seem. As the 2020 pandemic took off, I recoiled a little at that “closeness”. Yet, since then, I have welcomed the opportunity once more to compare experiences then and now, finding, as so often, that, despite the centuries between us, there is much that we share.

* Quotes are from The Black Death, translated and edited by Rosemary Horrox. If you’d like to read more about plague in the 14th century, I really do recommend it, for it has a wealth of fascinating detail, and uses contemporary texts to reveal the thinking of the time.

Friday 13 November 2020

Fabulous Roman Facts By L.J. Trafford

Back in 2018, a very different world to the one we are living in now, a publisher asked me whether I would like to write a non-fiction survival manual about living in Ancient Rome. Part travel guide, part self-help book How to Survive in Ancient Rome was to feature 14 separate topics covering just about every aspect of ancient Roman life. 
I was charged with being ‘engaging’ and writing a book that was ‘lively’.

After pondering for a good 27 minutes, I accepted this challenge and set forth to find as many interesting facts about ancient Rome as I could possibly squeeze into a lean 50k words.  
I thought for my History Girls piece this month I would share a few of the gems I discovered whilst doing my research, because they are just too good to keep to myself.

Eating cabbage before knocking back the vino will prevent intoxication.

So, Pliny the Elder tells us. Cabbage for Pliny is an all-round wonder drug, as he himself says, “It would be a lengthy task to list the good points of the cabbage.”
To summarise, cabbage is good for headaches, impaired vision, spots before the eyes, the spleen and the stomach. An application of pounded cabbage also helps heal wounds.
Oh and it is a cure for hypochondria as well, presumably for the reassurance that it can miraculously cure whatever ailment you think you have.

Pet eels were all the rage.

An unadorned eel

The politician Marcus Licinius Crassus trained his eel to come when called & take food from his hand. He also adorned his beloved pet with earrings & necklaces like a 'lovely maiden'
Crassus was far from alone in being a lover of our aquatic friends. Fish ponds were all the rage and Romans could become excessively devoted to showing them off. Something that Cicero, who has clearly sat through one too many dinner party discussions on eel training, is most scornful of, calling them ‘fish fanciers’.
A term literally applied by Crassus to his lovely maiden eel.

Rome's first king and founder, Romulus vanished into thin air. 
Romulus in happier days with his brother Remus.
Wellcome Collection.

Yes, King Romulus had been going about his kingly business when a mist descended and enveloped him. When the mist rose, he was nowhere to be found.
His close aides, who were with him at this time, came to rapid conclusion that he must have been spirited away by the gods. One even claimed that he had spoken to the ghost of Romulus who had told him he was fine and happy hanging out with the gods and that Rome should just get on with being fabulous without him.

Historian Livy raises the far more likely explanation that the close aides had killed the king, disposed of his body and come up with this ludicrously rubbish cover story to hide their actions.

The length of a Roman hour changed depending on the season

The Roman day was divided into 12 hours that started at sunrise and ended at sunset. Only, even the Romans couldn’t fail to notice that in winter the time between sun up and sun down was shorter than that during the summer. What to do?

Change the length of an hour depending on the season of course! In summer a Roman hour was around 30 minutes longer than an hour in winter. 
Globe identified as a sundial on a Pompeii Fresco
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Keeping on to a theme of measuring time.....

In the 263 BCE Rome was gifted its first ever public sundial by Sicily. This was proudly installed in the Forum. It took 95 years before anyone noticed the calibration was off and it had been telling the wrong time for nearly a century.

Which tells you exactly how little Romans were concerned with being places on time.

To inject more impact into their eloquence, lawyers would hire an audience for their trials. 3 denarii per head would buy you a mob to applaud your finest points and shout 'bravo' at key moments.

Lawyers were not alone in hiring an encouraging mob, the Emperor Nero was at it too. He put together a team of 5,000 youths who accompanied him during his artistic endeavours and made sure he received his rightful adulation.
They had three different types of clap: the bees, the roof tiles and the bricks.
The roof tiles was produced by clapping with hands rounded like roof tiles and the bricks by clapping with flat hands (because bricks unlike roof tiles are flat). And the bees clap? Maybe it sounded like humming, maybe it was produced by a rapid clapping of the hands like the wings of that flying insect, maybe it was a clap with a sting in it’s tale. In short, we have no idea.
Photo by John Severns.

It was the fashion to drink perfume.

Perfume was extremely expensive in ancient Rome and so using liberal amounts of it was to demonstrate your extreme wealth. The Emperor Otho was said to have dabbed perfume on the soles of his feet, Caligula had his bathtub smeared with perfume before he would get into it and Nero's famous golden house squirted perfume from the walls onto his guests.
But the most ludicrous use of scent was those people who mixed it in a drink, so that their insides would smell as sweet as their outside.
Perfume bottle 1st Century CE.
Metropolitan Museum of Art

There were penalties for not being married.

The Emperor Augustus brought in a set of laws designed to improve the moral structure of Rome, as well as increasing the birth rate. He offered a bonus for producing three children,
Alongside the carrot came the stick, you could expect to be fined if you were not married by the age of 20 for women and 25 for men. 

One man morality machine, Augustus
Wellcome Collection

Slaves could be ludicrously expensive.

There are plenty of examples of Romans spending silly money on particular slaves. A man named Calvisius Sabinus spent 100,000 sesterces on a slave that could quote the entirety of Homer from memory. Which is mere horse fodder when compared to the slave that Sejanus, heard of the Imperial guard in the 1st century CE, sold. The eunuch, named Paezon (meaning 'boy toy') was sold by Sejanus for an alleged 50 million sesterces!  
This sum is so ludicrous that we have to suspect that the purchaser of Paezon had been menaced into it  by Sejanus. Or alternatively was very keen to buy Sejanus' influence.....

For more fabulous Roman facts check out my new book How to Survive in Ancient Rome

L.J. Trafford is the author of the Four Emperors series of novels which cover the fall of Nero and the tumultuous year that followed when four emperors attempted to rule Rome.
They are available on Amazon and other sites.