Thursday 29 December 2022

The Ireland of my Childhood, by Carol Drinkwater

Small Things Like These by the Irish novelist Claire Keegan is my Book of the Year. There have been several books especially by women authors that have 'spoken' to me but this one hit a deep chord. I am late to the party in the sense that this novel, published in 2021, has already been short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award  back in May. There have also been several other gongs for this haunting work including the Orwell prize. It is less than 100 pages in length, so little longer than a novella but it throws such a powerful punch, and its graceful writing has stayed with me, resonating, taking me back to my own Irish childhood, looking at many of my memories anew. 

The story is set late in the twentieth century in a small Irish town during a bitter December. Its principal character is Bill Furlong, a caring family man with five daughters who owns his own modest coal and timber business. A merchant of coal, anthracite, logs. These he delivers to his customers himself in his rather antiquated lorry. His yard is manned by a small crew of men who work for him. He is a kind boss and there are good vibes between them all.

Bill 'came from nothing'. He was born to a young woman, little more than a girl, who at the age of sixteen fell pregnant. She was a domestic servant in a big house on the outskirts of the town where Bill Furlong lives. The house was owned by a well-heeled Protestant woman, Mrs Wilson. Mrs Wilson took pity on the serving girl and did not dismiss her when she got pregnant. She kept her on and allowed her son to remain with her. Bill Furlong grew up on the estate, a happy child. He was never told the identity of his father who he assumed was possibly a gentlemen of some standing related in some way to the kind, widowed Mrs Wilson.

The novel takes place in the days leading up to Christmas in 1985. Bill is exceptionally busy with the orders,  his deliveries. These include a load of logs to the local convent. I don't want to give too much away of this marvellous story, but at the convent he discovers a girl locked in an outdoor coal shed. She is freezing, barely-clad, barefoot and traumatised. He is shocked by her presence there and by the condition of her. He releases her, leads her across to the main convent building and asks the nuns to take care of her. Little does he yet realise that it was the holy sisters who have locked the girl in the unheated shed. 

From the eighteenth century onwards, religious institutions in Ireland took in 'girls of ill-repute', 'prostitutes' and girls who had fallen pregnant outside the 'holy order of marriage'. The first home was founded by Protestants but soon they became predominantly Roman Catholic asylums run by religious sisters, nuns.  These institutions were known as laundries because that was how the convents paid their way, by taking in laundry. It was the girls, the single mothers, who did the work, the drudgery.

Many of their babies were sold to families who wanted children, both in Ireland and abroad. Over 9,000 babies died while in the convents' care.

The last of these laundries closed in 1996.

Inside a Magdalene Laundry, 
(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (found on the internet)

The revelations that started to come out in 1993 about the treatment the girls and their babies suffered, kept under lock and key like prisoners, working till they could barely stand, is one of Ireland's most heart-rending modern scandals. It is believed that over 30,000 girls passed through these 'asylum' doors over the two centuries the houses were operating.

It was in 1993 when the Dublin-based Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sold off a portion of their land to a property developer that the scandal first came to light. When the land was dug up to begin construction work, more than one hundred bodies in unmarked graves were discovered. There were no death certificates, the deaths had never been registered, which was illegal. 

The bodies were exhumed and reburied in a mass grave.

This discovery led to the opening of an enquiry. It was all a great deal more horrific than anyone might have imagined, though both Church and State were aware of the existence of these homes. The tragedy continues today; many women are still looking for the bodies of their mothers, sisters, aunts etc.

Claire Keegan deals with the subject with great delicacy. Her touch is light, her words are powerful. She concentrates on one man, Bill, who was an illegitimate child himself but whose mother was shown kindness and was offered a home and shelter for herself and her baby. As a grown man with five daughters of his own in these days before Christmas, Bill looks back on his more fortunate past and considers the present and the young starving girl he has discovered in the coal shed.

The novel is not hard to read. Although it has been inspired by a harrowing chapter in Ireland's modern history, it does not bludgeon the reader with unpalatable details. It is rich in humanity and the power of ordinary love and courage. I highly recommend it.

Reading the novel set me thinking back to my own youth and my childhood in Ireland, in the fifties and sixties, and how little I knew or understood of what was going on.

I was born in London to an Irish Catholic mother and partially Irish Catholic father. I have always considered myself Irish rather than English. I am an Irish citizen and carry an Irish passport. Those early Irish days were, for the most part, the happiest ones of my childhood. However, it is perhaps fair to say that in some ways I romanticised my childhood in Ireland. I look back on those times as joyful, colourful, full of love with occasional recollections of harshness, which puzzled me at the time because I did not understand the roots of this behaviour.

My childhood was lived between school-term times in Kent in England where I attended a Catholic convent run by an order of nuns that had been founded near Lyon in France in 1675,  the Trinitarian Sisters of Valence. At our convent, they were ruled over by a fierce Irish Reverend Mother with a poker expression and mean thin lips. I was exceedingly unhappy there. We were educated to fear God, to recognise that we were born with the stain of original sin on our souls (hence our lifelong burden of guilt) and to be pure young girls in both mind and body. Compare this to the long leisurely holiday months which I spent in perfect harmony at my grandparents' and uncle's farm in rural Ireland. The excitement, for example, when a litter of pups was born. I watched on with wonder as the pups sucked milk from their mother's nipples. I was taught to milk cows, sitting on a tiny stool, squeezing and gently tugging with thumb and forefinger at the huge warm beast's udders. The smell of damp hay, the heat of the white liquid milk. Its odour. Nature and the seasons ruled. Life was about the earth, the rotation of crops, of harvests and planting, of birth and death. This was my mother's family home. She was born one village away where Protestants and Catholics lived and worked alongside one another in harmony.

I cannot remember the Irish Reverend Mother's name. I have erased it from my mind. No doubt because she so terrified and traumatised me, warning me that my father would rot in hell for his sins. The sleepless nights that caution caused me. I have never entirely recovered from it. For a short while at our convent in Kent, we had a French Reverend Mother, Genevieve, who I adored because she broke all the rules - 'serious' rules such as lifting up the skirts of her habit, revealing her black lace-up shoes and stockings and her trim ankles in order that she could more easily hare up and down the wooden staircases or hotfoot it along the corridors! I never saw her walk. Even though it was drummed into us girls on a daily basis that young ladies never run, they walk sedately with their heads held high as though carrying books on their head.

It was very sudden the replacement of Mother Genevieve. One day she was there, the next we were in the iron grip of the Irish ogre. It was whispered between us girls that Reverend Mother Genevieve had engaged in an illicit affair with the gardener, fell pregnant and was sent to Africa. I doubt there was a word of truth in this, but it brought simple amusement and a soupçon of naughtiness to our regimented  'holy-clean' days. 

A nun as a 'fallen woman' was a delight to us. She'd bucked the system, broken the rules.  We, innocent girls, who knew nothing of the existence of the Magdalene Laundries and the shame of unlawful pregnancies. (By the way, I was conceived out of wedlock, but it was a long time before I discovered this and what it implied. Did my grandparents ever learn this? I have no idea. I was certainly never judged or blamed for it, if they knew. You might think this odd, that the child of an "illegitimate" pregnancy might be punished, but they certainly were. Back to the Magdalene Laundries where the offspring were taken from their mothers and either sold or ... many child corpses were later found when the truth of what had been going on at these asylums was, literally, unearthed.

I was so unhappy at that convent in Kent. I loved learning but the convent was a prison in my mind. 

When I wasn't in Kent during the term times, I was in Ireland with my mother staying with family. She had an older sister in Dublin who was rather strict with me, insisting I kneel on the kitchen floor to say my prayers. 'You must say your penance,' she bid. She was very religious - or so I looked upon her back then. I knew nothing of her past. Only later did secrets come to light.

As well as Dublin, there was the modest family farm in County Laois, in the Midlands of Ireland. I loved it there. It was my bucolic heaven: the fields growing with acres of tall ripening wheat, the river with its salmon, the farm dogs and chickens and geese all foraging in the yard beneath endless lines of washing billowing in the wind. My plump grandmother adored me. She'd cackle and pull me up onto her lap. She smelt of potatoes, peat, grass and carbolic soap. She had a few wisps of hair on her face which I found a bit scary, witch-like, but she was kind as kind to me. My gentle-natured grandfather was as thin as his wife was rotund. They adored each other. I never heard a cross word in that small farmhouse, unlike our family home in Kent, which was forever ringing with the sound of angry voices. 

I knew nothing of my grandparents' love story back then: how they had run away together when she was twenty and he eighteen. She, the daughter of not quite landed gentry but comfortably-off land-owning parents. He, hardly yet a man, the labourer employed by my granny's parents.  My grandparents, the young lovers, (still unmarried at the time?) crossed counties from Kilkenny to be free of the family wrath. The pair ended up in Laois where they spent their entire lives, dying within eleven months of one another. Granny was cut off by her family. Any financial assistance marriage might have brought her was denied to her and her beloved. 

I believe her parents did at some point forgive her. I don't know when.  I never met them and know very little about granny's side of the family. What I know is that my grandparents tale was a happy one, bolstered by love, courage and the choices they had freely made for one another, even though they had a hard life financially and must have been judged when young as an 'immoral' couple.

The Ireland of my childhood (fifties, early sixties) was a very different island to the foreword-looking republic it is today. It lived in the long dark shadow of the Catholic church and, though politically unshackled from British rule, the British Monarchy still had a say in the running of the state, until as late as 1949. The Republic of Ireland only became a fully independent state in 1949 with the passing of the Republic of Ireland Act.

In 1960, Penguin Books published an unexpurgated edition of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. It was immediately banned for obscenity. Penguin fought the case. The obscenity trial lasted six days at the Old Bailey. The jury found the novel to be Not Obscene. Penguin won. The book was not only a sensation but it became an overnight bestseller.  More importantly, it was a watershed decision for both literature and society. 

I was eleven or twelve at this time, an adolescent but still very much a naive girl. 

As the British poet Philip Larkin wrote in the opening lines of his poem Annus Mirabilis

"Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(which was rather late for me) -

Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban

And the Beatles' first LP"

After the Lady Chatterly trial and as the Beatles were emerging, according to Larkin, Britain was waking up to sex and the liberation of the written descriptions of it. The birth pill came on the market at the beginning of 1964 and that brought a new freedom for young women. Sex and babies, as the late bestselling author Fay Weldon pointed out, were no longer intrinsically linked.

The Brits were dancing and singing, reading about and having sex ("doing it", as the Irish might have said). In the US, the Hippie generation was rolling out the sexual revolution. Free Love. Make Love Not War (the Vietnam War). While in Ireland, the Catholic church continued to keep its vice-like grip on the nation's morals. Birth control, the sale and import of contraceptives, was illegal in the Republic until February 1979 when, with a highly-controversial vote, the Irish government defied the Catholic Church and approved the sale of contraceptives. Even so, access was very limited. One needed a prescription from a practicing doctor.

I have a cousin who, to all intents and purposes, did not exist back in the 60s, in spite of the fact that he is ten years my senior.  No one knew about him or if they did they were keeping silent. The acknowledgement of his existence might have broken up at least one branch of our family. How many in our clan ever found out about him or acknowledged him, I don't know. He was born in a convent in Dublin and later adopted. The circumstances are not discussed. Most of those involved have died now. I am in touch with him. He is a senior citizen today, partially broken by all that he lived through.

It was not until 25th May 2018, that abortion was made legal in the Republic. I remember the powerful emotions so many of us felt when, from all over the world, thousands of women flew home to vote. I even read that some loaned others the money to pay for their air ticket. The hashtag  #hometovote became famous. The Irish diaspora mobilised itself with such a force that it felt to me, as I witnessed what was happening, that two centuries of pain and subjection was being rightfully overturned.

The law - the repeal of the 8th amendment, which had kept abortion illegal for so long - was overwhelmingly overturned. It was a watershed moment for men and women, for everyone in Ireland.

When the results were announced, I broke down. I wept for my mother who had so recently died, for her generation, those before her and those who came after (my own generation). I wept for my aunts and their offspring both known and unknown, my cousins and other loved ones, for all these innocent women's young lives lived, for some of them, shrouded in secrecy. In fact, I wept for all women, living or dead, who had been held in shame, some imprisoned in these convents, punished for acts that were born of love, passion, ignorance, or rape ... For every woman who was obliged to travel beyond the frontiers of the Republic to obtain the healthcare, the assistance, she needed, which should have been available to her in her homeland.

I am delighted that Claire Keegan's novel has sparked so many emotions, exchanges, both outside Ireland and within the Republic. A short beautiful novel that has unpeeled layers of hidden pain and misjustices and shown us the power of love and courage.

Let us celebrate the power of the written word.

In the meantime, I hope you receive many books for Christmas. I wish you a wonderful 2023.

Friday 23 December 2022

Exmouth Market by Miranda Miller


   I’ve always loved street markets and I’m sad that now, like all retail shopping, they’re being strangled by the internet. One of my favourite streets to walk down is the pedestrianised  Exmouth Market in  Clerkenwell. Who can say why certain streets lift your spirits? This one does, and this morning I decided to find out more about its history. Several shops are now empty, it isn’t flourishing as much as it was before the pandemic but it’s full of interesting, unusual shops, tempting restaurants and delicious foodie stalls.  


   This street and the wider area have a rich history, which started when a spa was discovered in the area in the 17th century. Exmouth Market was built on land formerly known as Spa Fields. Tea-gardens and other resorts grew up in this area from the late seventeenth century, and house-building began to take off in the second half of the eighteenth century,



   At number 56 the great clown Joseph Grimaldi once lived in an elegant 18th century house. His father, Giuseppe, was an Italian immigrant, also a performer. Joey was 9 when his father died and he became the family's breadwinner, performing as Little Clown, a child prodigy who eventually became the most popular entertainer in Regency England. He developed the role of the Clown in the harlequinade that was part of the traditional pantomimes at Drury Lane, Covent Garden and Sadler’s Wells, which is just round the corner from Exmouth Market. His style of clowning had its origins in the Italian commedia dell'arte of the sixteenth century, and It’s because of him that clowns became known as “Joey” He invented what is still the classic clown face, painting a white base over his face, neck and chest and then adding red triangles to his cheeks, thick eyebrows and large red lips set in a grin. His most famous catchphrases  were "Here we are again!", and "Shall I?", before some piece of mischief, which prompted the audience to yell back, "Yes!". His best-known song was "Hot Codlins", an audience participation song about a seller of roasted apples who gets drunk on gin while working the streets of London. I wish I’d see nis act, don’t you?


   His first wife Maria, the daughter of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre manager, died during childbirth. After this tragedy he distracted himself by often performing two shows a night, one at Sadler's Wells and the other at Drury Lane. 

A person in a white dress

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   This is a portrait of his second wife, Mary Bristow, by John James MasquerierDuring one of his crazy routines, Grimaldi accidentally shot himself in his foot. His mother arranged for a dancer called Mary Bristow to attend to him in his sickness. They fell in love, married and had a son, Joseph Samuel, who tried to copy his father’s successful career but failed and became an alcoholic.


   Like so many comedians, Grimaldi suffered from depression and used to joke, "I make you laugh at night but am Grim-all-day". A story is told, that ought to be true, that he once went to a famous doctor to ask for a cure for his depression, but didn’t give his name. The doctor recommended that he should go to see a performance of Grimaldi the clown to cheer him up. The patient stared sadly back and said, “I am Joseph Grimaldi.”

   His stage act was so physically exhausting and damaging that when he was only 43 he was diagnosed with "premature old age". The Times noted in 1813:

"Grimaldi is the most assiduous of all imaginable buffoons and it is absolutely surprising that any human head or hide can resist the rough trials he volunteers. Serious tumbles from serious heights, innumerable kicks, and incessant beatings come on him as matters of common occurrence, and leave him every night fresh and free for the next night's flagellation."


  Here he is at his farewell appearance at Drury Lane in 1828 – too weak to stand.

    In his last years, Grimaldi lived in relative obscurity and became an impoverished alcoholic despite all the money he had earned.  He outlived both his second wife and his son. When he died,  aged 58, he was buried in St James Church, Pentonville Road. The church has since been demolished but the grave remains in what is now Joseph Grimaldi Park. Clowns from all over the country, gather each year to remember Joseph Grimaldi  at the annual Grimaldi Church Service, which now takes place on the first Sunday in February from 3pm. at All Saints Church, Livermere Road, Haggerston, London E8. Here is a recent photo of them gathered in full motley – make-up and costume – to respect the memory of the “King of the Clowns” and the “Michelangelo of buffoonery.”

   Exmouth market and the area around it went on to become a centre for London’s Italian community. The late nineteenth century Anglo-Catholic Church of Our Most Holy Redeemer looms over  the street, which became a market in 1892.  It was described  as  “one of the market streets of the poor … Stalls of fruit and vegetables, of cat's meat and embroidery, jostle one another.” A contemporary novel evokes an evening scene here with “naphtha lamps flaring, the smell of butchers' shops, the pease pudding, gutters full of vegetables. “ 

   The market later declined and the street might have been abandoned to be carved up by property developers but, fortunately, it’s now in a conservation area. Whenever I approach it, I stare up admiringly at Finsbury Town Hall, a dazzling monument to late Victorian confidence built in a flamboyant style known, apparently, as Flemish Renaissance Revival. It’s full of gloriously indulgent turrets, carvings, friezes , domes and fake medieval windows. Finsbury stopped being a separate borough in 1965 when it was merged with Islington, but this eccentric building has survived as a dance academy and venue for weddings. 

                                                         Happy Christmas, everyone!



Saturday 17 December 2022

IT'S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS - or 'Here Comes the Sun' : By Elizabeth Chadwick


Knowing that I had a blog post to write in the vicinity of Christmas, got me wondering about Christmas itself. My particular interest is the mediaeval period, but I thought I'd take a brief coffee time look at the origins of this now globally massive (occasionally traditionally religious)  festival of consumerism - try and find a single Christmas advert in the mainstream featuring the religious aspect these days, and I suspect you'll fail - from its inception to the Medieval period. 

The 25th of December as the date for the nativity is first mentioned in 354 in Rome apparently. From there the notion spread to Constantinople. A 4th century Christian writer tells us that the date was one on which pagans were accustomed to kindle lights for a festival holy day to celebrate the return of the sun. That festival however, was in itself fairly recent and only eight years earlier than the aforementioned Roman date, and borrowed from an older Syrian worship of the“ Unconquered Sun.” in the 5th century, Pope Leo had to remind people that it was Christ they were worshipping, and not the sun! However, maximus of Turin, also in the 5th century was happy to mention that a cult of Pagan sun worship had been taken over for Christian use.

The Romans celebrated the feast of Saturnalia around this time of year - 17th December - and the revels might go on for over a week. Everywhere closed down, gambling was permitted in public, the mood was joyous, and gifts of light were exchanged - candles for example, and the masters waited upon the servants at meal times. There were games and high japes. Shortly after this, the Kalendae sacred to Janus, would be marked with more exchanges of gifts to bring luck during the coming year. The gifts were often of food - figs, honey and pastry. Later on, these were commuted to coinage

The feast of the nativity, amalgamated and absorbed both of these Roman feasts and promulgated new ones of its own. By the 2nd century the Eastern churches were celebrating the baptism of Christ on the 6th of January. By the 4th century, the Epiphany was known in Gaul. By the 6th century, the wise men from the East, whose number had been unknown in the original texts, were now settled at three, had become kings, and arrived at the nativity scene bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh. By the 8th century, wrangled out in various synods and councils, the Mediaeval system of the 12 days of Christmas was in place with the 25th of December as a highlight celebrating Christ's birth. The actual word "Christmas" in English is first recorded in the year 1038 as "Cristes Maessan." By the last quarter of the 8th century, Alfred the Great's Law Code granted freedom from work to all servants during the 12 days of Christmas.

In northern Europe, the midwinter celebration for Scandinavian society was known as"Yule" - a word brought to England by the Danes in the 11th century, and becoming an alternative word for "Cristes Maess." not a great deal is known about the actual ceremonies of Yule, but it was a major midwinter feast based around the solstice with its focus on New Year's Day as the sun was seen to be triumphing and strengthening over darkness. Welsh culture too of the early mediaeval period focused on a New Year Feast which was mentioned in poems such as Y Gododdin and  Culhwch ac Olwen.

Whatever version of Christmas you celebrate or don't may I wish you seasons greetings and a peaceful heart.

For those wanting to delve further I can highly recommend The Stations Of The Sun - a history of the ritual year in Britain by Ronald Hutton published by Oxford University Press

Photo credit Image by Wolfgang Dietz from Pixabay

Friday 2 December 2022

The great camellia at Pillnitz, by Lesli Wilson

Camellias in Europe

In early April 2009, I went with my husband to Dresden, a place I had long wanted to visit, and we took a side trip to the nearby Schloss Pillnitz. Schloss Pillnitz has extensive gardens and two great glasshouses, and it was the second of these that I particularly wanted to see.

Camellias were first brought to Europe in the seventeenth century from Asia. Legend has it that the Pillnitz camellia was brought from Japan by Carl Peter Thunberg, along with three others, one of which was given to Kew Gardens. However, sadly, this story is now considered doubtful. Sadly, because that would mean none of these camellias survived. However, the Pillnitz camellia was certainly planted at Pillnitz in 1801 by the gardener Carl Adolph Terscheck, in the soil where it is still growing.

Camellias were initially considered to be tender plants. We know now that they can survive some frosts (like the one in my garden), and their RHS rating is H5, which means it is hardy down to -10C, though best in a sheltered site. At Pillnitz, temperatures went down much below that. 

In any case, even in England, glazed camellia houses were built for the prized new acquisitions. I first discovered camellias when I wandered, dog on lead, as a teenager into the camellia house at Wollaton Park near my home, and was blown over by their beauty. They certainly look fragile.

So a house was built for the Pillnitz plant, and in winter it was wrapped up with straw and bast matting. A hundred odd years later, in 1905, the camellia house was accidentally overheated and burst into flames. The fire was extinguished, but as it was -20C outside, the water froze solid around the plant. The gardeners must have been in despair, but, staggeringly, the camellia survived inside the ice and flowered the following spring.

In 1992, a new protective house was built for the huge shrub. It weights 54 tonnes and is 13.2 metres high. Its structure protects the place between October and May, and gets moved away on runners for the summer months.

The Pillnitz camellia may not have been brought to Europe by Thunberg, but records do show that it arrived at the court of the King of Saxony between 1770 and 1790, and it is the oldest camellia north of the Alps. It is also beautiful, a lovely shade of cerise, with shapely, single flowers. I am so happy to have seen it, and it's a pleasure to revisit it now.

Thursday 24 November 2022

The Legend of Tanaquil and the auspicious flight of birds by Elisabeth Storrs

Queen Tanaquil

As can be seen from the tragic stories of Lucretia and Virginia, the women of early regal Rome gained fame when used as exemplars of Roman virtues. In each case their deaths were the catalyst for revolution against oppressive rulers.

Yet one famous woman of early Rome did hold power. Her name was Tanaquil. She was not Roman, but Etruscan. And she did not gain fame for dying but for being a prophetess and a queen.

Tanaquil was an Etruscan noblewoman from the city of Tarquinia. Her husband, Lucumo, was the son of an immigrant Greek. Tanaquil knew Lucumo would not gain power in her city because of this and so she convinced him to travel to Rome to seek his fortune. As their carriage ascended the Janiculum Hill, an eagle swooped down and snatched Lucumo’s cap carrying it aloft before once again replacing it on his head. Skilled as a seer, Tanaquil predicted that, as the bird had flown from the direction of Rome and taken the cap from the crown of Lucumo’s head, her husband was destined for greatness.

On arrival in Rome Lucumo became friend to the king, Ancus Marcius, as well as guardian to his children. When Marcius died before his children were old enough to take the throne, Lucumo was elected to be king by the Romans and changed his name to a Latin one – Lucius Tarquinius Priscus. He was to be the first of three Etruscan kings who ruled Rome before the third, Tarquinius Superbus, was expelled after the rape of Lucretia.

So could the myth of a prophetess such as Tanaquil be based in fact? The Etruscans were indeed skilled in the art of foretelling the future from the flight of birds. And there is evidence from funerary art and tomb inscriptions that Etruscan women may well have been priestesses of high standing. The Roman author, Livy, who tells us Tanaquil’s tale, does not question her ability. In fact he writes that her powers of prophesy proved correct again when she saw a slave boy called Servius Tullius asleep with a blue flame burning above his head. Tanaquil predicted that he would also rule Rome.  When Lucumo was murdered, Tanaquil cemented her own power by supporting Servius Tullius in being appointed the monarch.  He in turn was to become one of the greatest and most just Kings of Rome (but that is another story…)

Vel Saties

As mentioned, the Etruscans observed the flight of birds for the purposes of divination. The process of interpreting the patterns of flight was known as taking the auspices (literally ‘looking at birds’). As was the case with understanding lightning portents, the sector of the sky where a bird flew was a determining factor to interpret the will of the gods based on the quadrant in which the relevant deity resided. The type of bird was also important. Doves transmitted messages from Turan (Aphrodite/Venus) whereas the king of the gods, Tinia (Jupiter/Zeus), used an eagle.

The Romans relied heavily on the act of auspication, too. It was an essential part of the politics of Rome. Before any decision of State was made, omens were observed through the flight of birds. This sometimes involved an augur releasing a flock of birds and watching whether they flew to the right or left. The term ‘sinister’ derives from sinistra the latin word for ‘left’ as it was considered an ill omen if the birds flew in that direction. Negative connotations of being left handed have continued for centuries and may well have stemmed from this concept.

In Rome the different bird calls of ravens, crows, owls and chickens were also used to identify divine will. The flight of eagles, vultures and woodpeckers all had significance too. The eating patterns of chickens were also observed. It was considered ill luck if, once released from a cage, the hens baulked at eating the proffered bread. I presume this form of divination allowed for some human manipulation of results!

The founding of Rome itself was based on auspication. When the two feuding brothers, Romulus and Remus, could not agree on the site upon which the city was to be built, they decided to test their abilities as augurs. Romulus saw twelve vultures settle on the Palatine Hill while Remus saw only six alight upon the Aventine. An interesting way to settle an argument.

What is fascinating about Tanaquil is the fact she was, in every way, a player rather than a victim. As a queen and seer, she was instrumental in establishing and continuing the reigns of the Etruscan kings over the Romans. Her ambitions became those of the men she influenced. Unlike Lucretia and Virginia who were controlled by men and whose fate was to die for Rome, Tanaquil moulded destiny to her purpose. And strangely, whereas Etruscan women were usually criticised as wicked and corrupt by the Romans due to the freedoms afforded to them, Tanaquil was not reviled but revered. There are some who posit that she was later deified as a Roman Goddess of Fire, the Hearth, Healing and Women.

The image of Tanaquil was painted by Domenico Beccafumi, (1486 – May 18, 1551) an Italian Renaissance – Mannerist painter who was a representative of the Sienese school of painting. This is apt as Siena was one of the cities of ancient Etruria.

The image of Vel Saties is from the Francois Tomb in Vulci, Italy (circa 330BCE). It depicts the aristocratic wreathed with laurel and wrapped in a lavish purple cloak bordered with scrolls and embroidered with nude male figures holding shields. The Etruscan is observing a woodpecker in flight while his servant, Arnza, holds a female woodpecker attached by a string to attract the bird back. The woodpecker was sacred to the god of war Laran (Ares/Mars), and it is likely that Vel Saties was consulting the deity before a military encounter. Images are courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. She has also written a short story based on the Lucretia legend which can be obtained at her website

Friday 18 November 2022

Poison is in everything… by Carolyn Hughes

Paracelsus, the sixteenth century Swiss physician and alchemist, said: “Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.”

An engraving by Pieter Van Sompel (1600?-1643?) of Swiss physician and alchemist
Paracelsus (born Theophrastus von Hohenheim).
After Pieter Soutman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, I did know that already, about dosage level making the difference between a killer and a cure, but when I was writing my latest Meonbridge Chronicle, Squire’s Hazard, set in fourteenth century southern England, I needed to know a little more about how plants might be used for good and also for ill.

I refer to plants quite extensively in my novels – gardens are an important theme. I often mention the vegetables grown in peasants’ gardens, especially those used in pottage – onions, turnips, cabbages and the like. Flowers feature too, for the most part those grown in the manor garden. Herbs were undoubtedly grown in the gardens of both rich and poor, to add flavour to food, but also, I imagine, to make remedies for common ailments. As I understand it, ordinary folk – women mostly – would have known something of this therapeutic use of herbs and wild flowers. In one of my novels, I refer to blue scabious (scabiosa) being considered good for curing itchy skin, and to the tiny white flower called eyebright (euphrasia) being used to treat sore eyes.

I’ve also mentioned often the medicinal use of plants, such as in the various salves and lotions used by the Meonbridge barber-surgeon. I’ve imagined him preparing them himself, though he might have acquired them from a different sort of healer, a “wise woman”. There was such a woman in Meonbridge, sought out mostly for her beneficial herbal cures, but also for magic charms and potions, which might be used for good or for ill.

For my most recent book, however, I needed to know more about the less beneficial properties of plants. For one of my characters was wondering how she might silence a lout’s abusive, misogynist tongue. She thought maybe some toxic plant might do the trick, but didn’t know which one, or how to use it, or what effect it might actually have. In truth, at that stage, neither she nor I were even sure how her desire for retribution might unfold, but I thought I’d help her devise a plan with a bit of investigation into the varieties and effects of toxic plants.

My reading led me first to wolfsbane – Aconitum napellus, also known as monkshood or devil’s helmet. I did know already that it was toxic, but not what symptoms it caused. I learned that long-ago hunters of wolves used to dip their spear and arrow heads into a wolfsbane brew and that it acted fast, causing the victims to die “without a struggle”, which is what the Greek word akoniton – ἀκόνιτοv – means. Apparently, it was used also on the battlefield.

Wolfsbane or monkshood (Aconitum napellus) By Walther Otto Müller,
in Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, 1885.
Public Domain, via Wikimedia commons

But would it do the trick for an unmannerly misogynist? The symptoms of wolfsbane poisoning seemed promising, with laboured breathing and weakening heartbeat, and in particular the numbing of the mouth and tongue. Perfect!  On the other hand, if one got the “dosage” wrong, the odious tongue might well be stilled for ever…

So how much of a hazard was wolfsbane? It seems that most recorded deaths from wolfsbane poisoning have been accidental, but I found a few mentions of its use as a murder weapon. One interesting case was of a man who died after his wife combined boiled-up wolfsbane leaves and stems with crushed sleeping tablets and added the concoction to his wine. She then made his death look like a car accident, but confessed to the murder five years later (why she confessed, the article didn’t say). But, extraordinarily, traces of the aconitine were allegedly still to be found in the poor man’s body. Persistent stuff! And maybe too much of a hazard for my character to contemplate?

So, I looked at other plants that she might use. Three seemed to have potential.

Hemlock. In Atlas der officinellen Pflanzen, O.C. Berg, C.F. Schmidt.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Eating the bright red berries of the cuckoopint or lords and ladies, Arum maculatum, can apparently cause the lips, mouth, tongue and throat to burn and swell. That sounded useful. But, I read, because the unpleasant sensation begins as soon as the berries touch the lips, they would have to be very well disguised to be effective as a weapon. Hemlock (Conium maculatum) too might work, with respiratory failure and loss of speech listed as symptoms, but it tastes bitter and has an unpleasant smell, so again would need to be heavily disguised. 

Tasting the glossy black berries of Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade or devil’s cherries) can result in a dry mouth, confusion and incoherent speech. And, more usefully, the berries apparently taste sweet, so ground up in something also sweet, like cake or wine, might make their presence relatively easy to conceal…

Belladonnna. In Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, Franz Eugen Köhler.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I read all this and shared it with my character, through the medium of Meonbridge’s wise woman. Despite the woman’s reputation (amongst some of Meonbridge’s populace) of being a witch – a common enough problem for medieval wise women – she in fact gives sound and cautious guidance about the pros and cons of using wolfsbane, belladonna and the others, essentially employing Paracelsus’s dictum (albeit that physician would not be born for another 130 years): dosage is everything.

What my character decided to do with the information given to her is not relevant to this article. But I read a little more about how some of these “poisons” can indeed also be “cures”, provided they are administered in appropriate amounts.

In herbal medicine, wolfsbane has been used as a treatment of joint and muscle pain, as a diuretic, for reducing fever and inflammation, and also as a means of slowing the heart rate in people with cardiac problems. However, it is not used today in conventional medical practice.

Deadly nightshade, on the other hand, is used in modern medicine. Apparently, its constituent compounds can help with nausea, acid reflux, controlling the heart rate and the treatment of other conditions, and is an ingredient, in tiny quantities, in many medications. It is also of course well known historically as a cosmetic. The name belladonna alludes to the “beautiful women” of sixteenth century Italy, who used an extract of it to enlarge their pupils and flush their cheeks, which was considered attractive at the time. Those ladies presumably considered their cosmetic “beneficial”, but I imagine it often led to most undesirable consequences…

In my novels, the Meonbridge barber-surgeon uses belladonna for remedial purposes in the form of “dwale”, an anaesthetic used when performing surgery. Although I’ve read elsewhere that dwale was made, not from belladonna, but from a combination (again, presumably in small quantities) of hemlock, opium (poppy, Papaver somniferum) and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger, another member of the nightshade family), mixed with lettuce (perhaps surprisingly!), vinegar and other substances. It was apparently mixed with a great deal of wine before being given to the patient to drink. I wonder if a surgeon would have mixed the dwale himself? With those ingredients, it sounds a risky thing to do! However, dwale was widely known about in medieval times, and I’ve read that recipes for it might have been found in domestic herbals, and could have been administered by housewives. Extraordinary, if true!

One last thing. Again, for my latest Chronicle, as the story progressed, it turned out that I needed to know how a housewife might treat her precious cows’ mastitis. I delved into the sources once again, looking for what medication medieval people might have used. I came across no specific historical reference, but did discover – and was not at all surprised to learn – that, in modern homeopathy, belladonna is yet again the answer, as a remedy for easing inflammation, including mastitis. Whether my housewife, who owns a great book of herbs, would really have known of its use, I don’t know. But I can guess that, if women like her knew of “dwale”, they would probably also know about belladonna as a treatment for inflammation. And, of course, once more I have her understanding the principle of suitable dosage when she explains to her prying servant: “It is poisonous, but only in large measures. The scant amount I put in here is curative.”

Anyway, what is the point of this post of mine? I hope it’s been of some interest, this talk of poisons, but I’m sharing it as just one of many fascinating subjects that I’ve found myself exploring over the past few years. It’s a reminder of the joy of writing fiction, and especially perhaps historical fiction, when your imagination takes you in unexpected – and unfamiliar – directions, and you then find yourself diving down a veritable warren of research rabbit holes, to bring illumination and fascination to your story, but also – in my case anyway – for the sheer pleasure of discovery. 

Friday 11 November 2022

The Petronius Maximus Guide to Plotting Your Way to Power Without Getting Your Sandals Bloody. By L.J. Trafford

Coin of Petronius Maximus. Credit; Wikicomms/ Classical Numismatic Group,

    I’ve spent the last year writing a book entitled Ancient Rome’s Worst Emperors. It has been quite an education in how rulers can comprehensively eff up the whole ruling thing and has given me comfort that the current politically tumultuous situation of the UK could be worse, a whole lot worse. Yes, we may be on our third Prime Minister of 2022 but of the previous two incumbents of the position neither has been forced into suicide nor decapitated in Parliament square, unlike Otho and Galba who were both (briefly) emperors in 69 CE, a year that became known as the year of the four emperors. No matter how confusing and chaotic the British political scene currently is, it is positively staid and boring compared to ancient Rome.

    Of all the emperors I have spent the past year researching and writing about there is one who really stands out for me, a man whose story interested me more than any other. It’s an emperor you’ve likely never heard of, which is not surprising given he was only emperor for two months in the year 455 CE. During this short rule he displayed none of the sexual excesses, megalomania and all out bonkers behaviour that many of the other emperors I cover in my book do. Yes, Caligula and Commodus I do mean you. But his story is fascinating because it stands as a case study, nay a warning for all those that seek power. 
    Prepare yourself for one hell of a tale. Enter Pertonius Maximus

The Man Who Had Everything

    A good five years after Petronius Maximus had briefly been emperor of Rome, a man named Sidonius Apollinaris received a letter that annoyed him no end. It was from his friend Senanus, (although after Apollinaris’ reply that friendship may well be at an end) who had written a very long letter the contents of which Sidonius Apollinaris hotly disputed:

‘The consecrated words of greeting over, you give all the rest of your space, no trifling amount, to laudation of Petronius Maximus, your imperial patron. With more persistence (or shall I call it amiability?) than truth and justice, you style him 'the most fortunate', because, after holding all the most honourable offices of state, he at last attained the diadem.’

    As the youth of today would say (probably, I'm far too middle aged to know), burn! I have some sympathy for Senanus whose roasting by Sidonius has been preserved for two thousand years, but not a lot. Because like Sidonius before me I find it jaw dropping that Senanus could look at the story of Petronius Maximus and conclude he was ‘most fortunate’. As Sidonius writes back to Senanus:

 ‘Personally, I shall always refuse to call that man fortunate who is poised on the precipitous and slippery peak of office.’

Enter the Master of Plots  

    Petronius Maximus was a very successful man.

He had scaled with intrepidity the prefectorian, the patrician, the consular citadels; with an unsated appetite for office, he took for a second term posts which he had already held.’ 
Sidonius Apollinaris

He was enormously wealthy but also cultured: 
'With his conspicuous way of life, his banquets, his lavish expense, his retinues, his literary pursuits, his official rank, his estates, his extensive patronage.’ 
Sidonisus Apollinaris

He was, in short the full package of Roman manhood. 

    But for Petronius Maximus having it all was not enough. He wanted more. He wanted a dollop of caviar added to his full monty breakfast. He wanted to be emperor. ‘His head swam beneath the diadem at sight of that enormous power.’ as Sidonius puts it.

    Petronius Maximus might have been the full package of Roman manhood but there were two other Roman packages in the way of him achieving what he thought was his right, the job of emperor. The first was the emperor himself, Valentinian III who at 36 years old didn’t look like he was going to conveniently drop dead anytime soon and free up the position. The second was Flavius Aetius.

    Aetius was a man whose package was so much bigger than Petronius Maximus’ that it required an extra line of postage stamps. Aetius was Rome’s most successful general, one who had repelled no less a foe than Attila the Hun, alongside the numerous other barbarian types who were continually harassing the empire in this era. This is well and truly a time when you needed good generals and Aetius was the best there was. He was so good that Imperial favour was lavished all over him and his son was betrothed to the emperor’s daughter. He was a formidable man, one who would uncover any plot forged against the emperor quicker than you can say Gaiseric King of the Vandals (on whom more later).

    But Petronius Maximus was a clever man, and he went about removing the two impediments to his ambitions; Aetius and Valentinian III in a very clever way.

Removing the General
    First up on his hit list: Aetius. The assassination of Flavius Aetius, the most successful Roman general of his era, is unique. It’s unique because it’s not carried out by Petronius Maximus nor any henchman paid by Petronius Maximus, Flavius Aetius was killed by Emperor Valentinian III himself.

    It occurred on the 21st September 454 CE during what Aetius had assumed was a standard planning meeting and it was until the any other business section when:

 The emperor suddenly jumped up and declared that he, ‘could no longer bear being the victim of so many drunken depravities’. 
John of Antioch

    Given that immediately prior to this Aetius had been explaining the projected tax revenues, I think we can all agree Aetius was fully entitled to be stunned and just a bit terrified. However, Aetius had faced off Attila the Hun so he’s made of sterner stuff than you or I, instead his reaction was to marvel, ‘at this unexpected outburst.’
An image thought to be Flavius Aetius. Credit: Wikicomms/Tataryn

Unfortunately, Aetius didn’t have much time to marvel because, 

‘Valentinian drew his sword from his scabbard, and together with Heraclius, who was carrying a cleaver under his cloak…for he was head chamberlain, fell upon him. They both rained down blows on his head and killed him, a man who had performed so many brave actions against enemies both internal and external.’John of Antioch

    Jeepers, is all I can say, and much like Flavius Aetius briefly thought before being stabbed to death by his boss, what the hell is going on? What drunken depravities? And no doubt something around the tax revenues not being that bad.

    Behind this extraordinary event there was our pal Petronius Maximus. He was in league with Heraclius, the eunuch who’d handily been standing by with that cleaver under his cloak to help the emperor in his murdering.

Impediment number 1 had been disposed of. Next up the Emperor himself.

Murdering the Boss

    Valentinian III’s murder of the very popular Flavius Aetius meant that Petronius Maximus didn’t have to try very hard to find two new people to do his dirty work for him again. Their names were Optelas and Thraustelas who, as pals to Aetius, were easily persuaded that the emperor’s brutal killing of their friend determined retribution:

‘They would reap the greatest rewards, he said, if with justice they exacted revenge when the opportunity arouse.’ John of Antioch. 

    Note again, as with Aetius’ death, that Petronius Maximus is playing no part in the gruesome bit of the plot, he’s staying well away from any blood splatter to his, no doubt expensive, sandals.

    A few days later the emperor set off on an outing to the Field of Ares accompanied by Optelas and Thraustelas.

‘When he dismounted from his horse and was walking off to practice archery, Optelas and his followers made for him and, drawing the swords at their sides, attacked him. Optelas struck Valentinian across the side of his head and, when he turned to see who struck him, felled him with a second blow to the face’
John of Antioch

    Ouch. After Valentinian was well and truly dead, ‘a swarm of bees appeared and drew up the blood flowing from his body into the earth. They sucked up all of it.
Which I’m mentioning for no other reason than it’s a bit weird.

    So that’s the empire’s greatest general and the emperor out of the way, and standing ready in the wings is the man who has engineered the entire situation, Petronius Maximus. God he’s good, isn’t he? He’s removed the two most powerful people in the empire without getting his hands bloody at all. This is genius level of plotting.

    Petronius Maximus sat in the palace that night. ‘rue-ing his own success.’as well he might. He had schemed his way to obtaining the one title missing from his CV, that of emperor.

Being Emperor

So there was Petronius Maximus, he had achieved the ultimate; he was emperor. But being emperor was a bigger step up than the endlessly successful Maximus had imagined. 

‘He soon discovered that the business of empire and a senatorial ease are inconsistent with each other’. Sidonius Apollinaris

He’d led such a charmed life, one that he’d been so effortlessly successful at that he just assumed he’d be a successful emperor. He wasn’t. 

 ‘His rule of it was from the first tempestuous, with popular tumults, tumults of soldiery, tumults of allies.’ Sidonius Apollinairs

It was pretty much on day one of Petronius Maximus’ reign as emperor that he made the decision that would bring his rule crashing down. He announced his intention to marry Valentinian III’s widow, Eudoxia. You can sort of see why he thought this was a good idea, it would link him to the previous dynasty strengthening his right to be emperor. What he hadn’t factored into this clever piece of politicking was how Eudoxia might feel about this. Very unhappy is the answer,
The Empress Eudoxia. Credit: Wikicomms/Otto Nickl

Something else that Petronius hadn’t thought about during his path to the top job was how the deaths of Aetius and Valentintian III might be seen in the rest of the empire. Why would he when he was so consumed with his own success and so sure of his own abilities?

Whilst Petronius Maximus had been living his best life, Aetius and Valentinian III had been negotiating a peace deal with Gaiseric, the ruler of the fearsome Vandals. It was a peace deal that had been cemented with an engagement between Valentinian III’s daughter Eudocia to Gaiseric’s son, Huneric. The murder of Valentinian III was therefore for Gaiseric a family matter, or at the very least a useful pretext for having a go at those Romans again, as is neatly summarised by John of Antioch, 

‘Gaiseric the ruler of the Vandals learned of the murders of Aetius and Valentinian and decided it was time to attack Italy seeing the peace was void now those who had made the treaty were dead and the man coming into power did not have a noteworthy force.’ 

 Because the man coming to power had murdered the general who had created a noteworthy force to rival the Vandals.

A further incentive for rampaging was handed to Gaiseric by Euxodia who it was said begged him to invade Rome and rescue her from being forced to marry Petronius Maximus. Gaiseric set his Vandals on the road to Rome.

Facing Down the Threat 
Starting a war with an enemy of Rome that had been subdued after decades of war and careful negotiations was not a great start to the reign of Petronius Maximus. But he’s an experienced politician and as we’ve previously established, a very clever man, no doubt he has a heap of ideas and schemes and plans to deal with this unexpected turn of events.

‘When Maximus learned that Gaiseric’s army was positioned at Azestos (this was a place near Rome) he became very fearful. He mounted his horse and fled. The Imperial bodyguard and the freedmen who he used to trust the most deserted him; when they saw him riding away, they mocked and berated his cowardice. Just as he was about to leave the city, someone threw at stone at the side of his head and killed him.’ John of Antioch.

I don’t know about you but I’m proper disappointed in Petronius Maximus, as disappointed as those imperial bodyguards and freedmen were. Facing his first real test as emperor he completely loses his nerve and does a runner. It makes us look back at those assassinations he was behind with new eyes; perhaps it wasn’t him being clever getting other people doing his dirty work, perhaps Petronius Maximus’ was a cringing coward reliant on others to do what he himself did not dare to do.
Coin of Valentinian III. Credit Wikicomms/Classical Numismatic Group


Coward or not, Petronius Maximus quickly learnt that being emperor was very different to how he imagined it would be. ‘

The future did not deceive his sad forebodings; it was no help to him to have traversed all other offices of the court in the fairest of fair weather.’ Sidonius Apollonaris

Petronius had steered his Imperial ship straight into a tsunami as the realities of being emperor were starkly revealed to him; it was making decisions that you alone would face the consequences of.
Sidonius has a neat analogy for this discovery of Petronius Maximus:

 ‘Behold a bare sword, swinging from the ceiling right over his purple-mantled shoulders, as if every instant it must fall and pierce his throat.’

Petronius Maximus had uncovered the secret, that to be emperor did not necessarily make you happy, it was far more likely to make you unhappy. Not least because of the target it painted on your forehead for your poor decision making or because of a foolish notion that another would make a better emperor. As Sidonius put it better, that bare sword swinging from the ceiling above your head at all times (and also in your face should you be Valentinian III.)

Petronius Maximus’ tale is one of hubris, of a man so confident of his abilities that he believed it was perfectly acceptable to murder his way to the job he felt should be his. It was that very confidence, that assurance of his own brilliance that brought Petronius Maximus crashing down and exposed him for what he truly was; a man not up to the job. Perhaps it was this crushing realisation that led to that attempted flight from the folly of his own ambition.

But his legacy is even worse than as a woeful example of misplaced confidence and pride because Geiseric didn’t turn around his Vandal army after Petronius Maximus was stoned to death by his disbelieving and disgusted subjects, no they kept going and sacked the city. 

It’s hard to think of a greater consequence for Rome of having an emperor in post who was so very not up to the job. Nor a man least worthy of the title 'most fortunate'. I think we are all likely sharing Sidonius levels of crossness with Senanus for such a misplaced description of Petronius Maximus.

L.J. Trafford is the author of two non fiction books; Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome and How to Survive in Ancient Rome. As well as the fictional Four Emperors series set in that year of the Four Emperors, 69 CE.
Ancient Rome's Worst Emperors will be released in 2023.