Thursday 28 December 2023

One Day in Dublin, by Carol Drinkwater

 

Due to Covid and work restraints, I hadn't been back home to Ireland since the beginning of the pandemic. It meant that my trip planned for late November of this year (2023) was intended to be a special one. I was excited about it. I was planning to spend a few days alone in the capital to walk the city, visit outlying suburbs, to take a look, from the exterior at least, of the house where my late aunt had lived, as well as various other places from my childhood where I had spent time with my mother and other members of the family. This was before hiring a car to drive south to the Midland region, which includes the counties of Laois and Offaly, where several members of my family still live on the 'McCormack farm', close to where my mother was born and where so many wonderful memories from my childhood had unfolded.


Added to the list of these plans, there was something else I wanted to investigate. A quest which I have left almost too long. The identity, destiny, of a family member who had taken part in the Easter Uprising of 1916. 

I booked a room at the Gresham Hotel in O'Connell Street, on the north side of the city. As a rule I stay south but decided on the Gresham because, as a child, my mother had occasionally taken me there for tea, and more importantly, it was only a few steps from the General Post Office, one of the main locations for the 1916 Easter Uprising. Staying in O'Connell Street fitted with my plan. The Gresham itself is also a building of historic interest, situated in one of the city's most important thoroughfares. Two Georgian houses at 21-22 Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street) were bought by an Englishman, Thomas Gresham, who opened them in 1817 as an elegant lodging house, mostly for aristocrats and their families. 
Today, the Gresham is a Dublin city landmark and still retains the name of its founder. Thomas Gresham was an abandoned baby found on the steps of London's Royal Exchange. He was named after Sir Thomas Gresham, a merchant, politician and the founder of the Royal Exchange. 

The Gresham was burnt down during the Irish Civil War (June 1922 -  May 1923), but was rebuilt in 1926 and reopened in 1927. 


I found this postcard for sale on Amazon. A photo of the rebuilt Gresham Hotel posted in 1931 to an address in. Detroit.

My date of arrival was Thursday 23rd November. I was scheduled to land in Dublin on a late afternoon flight from Paris at around 5 pm. The horrors that I was to encounter later that day were triggered by a series of rather ghastly stabbings that took place at around 1.30 pm Irish time in Parnell Square East, north Dublin outside a primary school. The perpetrator, it was later announced, was Algerian. 
At that time, I was en route to Charles de Gaulle airport, blithely unaware of any stabbings or what was to follow once the news of the attacks had been made public.

The city riots began with an anti-immigrant protest. Unfortunately, the protests soon got out of control and grew violent.  I was in the plane and ignorant of what was unfolding. No announcement warned us passengers of the destruction, the looting and vandalism. It was not until I landed that I realised something was amiss. Outside the airport, there were several hundred people waiting for taxis to transport them to the city centre or other destinations. I had never seen such disorder there before. Even queuing at the airport, during my eighty-minute wait for a taxi, no one seemed to know what was causing the chaos and the lack of transport. It was my taxi driver when I finally managed to nab one, who at first refused to drive me to the Gresham Hotel declaring it to be dangerous, began to recount to me as he moved slowly towards the city, what was going on. He warned me that O'Connell Street, which is where the Gresham is situated, was barricaded off as was its neighbour, Parnell Street. 
'Why?' I asked bemused.
Three children had been stabbed and were seriously injured. An adult woman too, who was a carer and had tried to protect the children, had also been assaulted. They were being treated in hospital. At least one of them, a five-year old, was in intensive care, he explained. The assailant was not Irish; he was a foreigner residing in Dublin. An immigrant. It was this, the fact that he was a foreigner, that had unleashed the anger and the ensuing riots. Anti-immigrant agitators had taken to the city centre streets and to social media calling on others to join them, to swell the raging crowds shouting 'Ireland for the Irish'. Their messages vastly inflated the details, stating that the children were dead, (none have died), that the attacker was an illegal immigrant. He has lived in Ireland for twenty years and became an Irish citizen in 2014.  Demonstrators and hooligans carrying metal bars, some wearing balaclavas and hoods, letting off flares and fireworks, began to set light to cars, damage public transport, loot shops and to attack the police. Egging one another on, some were shouting, 'kill all foreigners', 'kill anyone you come across'. 
By this time Gardai were being bussed in from across the counties.
Public transport was suspended, which left many people stranded, caught up in the insanity with no means of reaching their homes. This, of course, added to the mayhem. It also explained why it had been almost impossible to get a taxi at the airport.

My driver dropped me a block away from the Gresham, by which time it was almost nine pm. I had been expecting to be in town around 6 pm. My driver, an Englishman who had relocated to Dublin a decade earlier because 'life is so much kinder here', apologised profusely for the fact that I would have to walk the rest of the way. 'A matter of a few hundred yards, not far.' A burly red-haired garda came to interrogate me. Only when he was satisfied that I was intending no trouble and there was nothing dangerous in my hand luggage, did he let me pass the barricade, warning me to 'mind yerself now'. As I turned onto O'Connell Street, my heart beating fast, the hot bright light hit me. It was a freezing evening, especially after my long queue, but I was taken aback by the light, the remaining flames. Further south towards the bridge, a bus had been set alight. Elsewhere a Luas train was also on fire. The street about me was littered with upturned chairs, broken bottles, sheets of glass from smashed shops and hotel windows. The air hung with an acrid smell. Petrol? Burning rubber? A few people, not many because they had been forced out of the danger area or arrested, were running to and fro. It was like a war zone. Gardai everywhere. I hurried to the Gresham and after brief questioning I was welcomed inside but warned that it was best if I didn't venture out again. I checked into my room and then descended to the bar, which was packed with local people taking refuge or hotel guests who, like me, had found themselves caught up in the fray. Everyone was in a state of shock, talking loudly. Someone was crying. I drank a glass of red wine, sat for a while watching people, taking on board what I had witnessed, the impact of it all, and then reluctantly took the lift to my room. The writer in me was urging me to go out onto the streets and investigate the situation further, get the fuller story, but the other Carol warned me off such a precarious adventure. By now, it was close to eleven pm. I switched on the hotel television and caught up on the news.

People watching the burning bus in O'Connell Street, Thursday 23rd November 2023



I have taken these images from the internet. No copyright is attached to them so my apologies for not acknowledging the owners of the images. Thank you for their use.

On the morning of 24th, I set out to investigate the city. In spite of a restless night, I was up and out reasonably early so the streets were relatively deserted. Little had been cleaned up. First I walked to Parnell Street where a Luas train was parked, obviously abandoned the previous evening, many of its windows had been smashed, seat upholstery ripped, but as far as I could see, it had not been scorched. Quite a few of the shops had been looted. I walked for possibly three or four hours roaming side streets and the main northern centre which mostly seemed down at heel, shabby. I went into Chapters Bookshop in Parnell, always a welcoming address, signed a couple of books and talked to one of the members of staff who told me that they would be closing early, at 3pm, to get the staff home safely before any possible further attacks took place. A demonstration had been announced for 4 pm. 
The bookseller thought it was to be an Anti Anti-Immigration Demo.
I crossed the Liffey River and made my way to the lovely Regency building that is The Clarence Hotel,  (once partly owned by Bono and Edge of the rock band U2), situated on the waterfront in Temple Bar. 
I have stayed many times at the Clarence, many times with my late mother too. She loved this hotel. Since my last visit there, the U2 musicians had sold their shares and the place has been refurbished. It is still elegant and trendy. The restaurant, where I have dined with my mum so many times in the past, was closed - it was still early, around noon - so I went to the lounge/bar. I ordered a cup of coffee and began to scribble notes on all that I had witnessed over the course of the morning. The manager of the hotel came over to say hello and welcome me back. I apologised that I wasn't staying there this time. It made no difference to the warmth of his greeting. When I told him I was at the Gresham, he shook his head. 'Good hotel but wrong location right now.' 
He himself had been working till five in the morning, he said, and 'back in again first thing'. He had been ferrying his staff home. No public transport meant the members of his team had no means of getting to anywhere in the city or the suburbs. But for his generosity, they would have been stranded. 
 'Almost all the staff here are immigrants,' he explained. 'These riots are not in my name, not in any of our names here. Ireland is an inclusive country.'
I was heartened by his kindness and his loyalty to so many who were from abroad working in Ireland and, as he described it, 'holding up the hospitality business'. As I shook his hand, promising to see him next time I was in the city, he warned me to get back to my hotel before dark. 'It could get nasty again.'
I spent that afternoon at the Irish Film Institute in Eustace Street in Temple Bar, and in various bookshops, not wishing to venture too far. I never reached Grafton Street that day, nor any of the other haunts I had written down on my memory trip list.  I decided to cut short my stay and go home to France. I will return to Ireland in the spring when it will be warmer and, hopefully, calm.

Before settling back at the Gresham, as the daylight was fading, I lingered outside the General Post Office, another historic landmark on O'Connell Street. Opened on this site in 1818, when O'Connell was still Sackville Street, this extraordinarily impressive building had served as the headquarters for the leaders of the 1916 Uprising. It was also burned down in the early twentieth century following the failed Uprising. It was rebuilt and then re-opened in 1929. 
I smiled. I speak barely a word of Irish except for a few prayers and the fact that my mother always insisted for some reason unknown to me that I should be able to say 'post office' in Irish:  Oifig an Phoist
I muttered it again then.

Alongside visits to my family over the upcoming days,  my quest had been to try to find out about the role of a relative - my great uncle? - in the 1916 Easter Uprising. Since a child, I had heard talk/whispers within the family of this relative, someone connected to my mother's father, my maternal grandfather - a brother? -  who I vaguely recalled had died in the Uprising. I had never gleaned the facts. This trip had been to learn something about this long disappeared relative. To me, a mythical family hero. Or perhaps not.
General Post Office, O'Connell Street

What part had he played, if at all, in the Easter Uprising, the Rebellion? I don't know. Aside from the family name of McCormack, I am not even sure of his identity. The Uprising was an insurrection that took place during Easter Week in Dublin in 1916. Republicans were fighting against British Rule. Their aim was to establish Irish Independence, an Irish Republic, and to force the British out, once and for all out of Ireland. Alas, the Easter Uprising did not succeed. After a week of fighting and too many deaths on both sides the insurrectionists surrendered.  Fourteen of their leaders were executed in Kilmainham Gaol. The executions were carried out over several days by firing squads at dawn. The bodies were then transported to Arbour Hill Cemetery for burial. (None carried the surname McCormack).



The green flag was flown over the General Post Office during the Uprising. Alas, it didn't get to stay there long. 


Few of my family who might be able to enlighten me about this unknown relative are still living. When I was younger, it had not seemed to be so important to discover the veracity of this tale. Now it does. 

I turned my head and glanced up and down O'Connell Street. Clusters of police had been gathering while I had been standing outside the Post Office, reflecting. They were present in significant numbers now. Expecting further trouble? What about the demonstration? I saw no signs of it here. A few pedestrians were walking the length of the thoroughfare, staring at the remains of the detritus still lying about from the previous day's rioting. I began to step slowly northwards to my hotel, passing by a circle of half a dozen Gardai on my way. A bullet-headed man in a crumpled jacket appeared from out of nowhere, from a shop doorway or side street to my right and skidded to a halt almost in front of me. He directed himself to the police standing in the centre of the street, shouting something, and then he spat. I was taken back, and shuffled to my right. One of the gardai swung to face him and yelled at him to go home, to cause no trouble. This incited the fellow who was dead set on a fight, it seemed. He began to cuss foully. Both men were well built, like a pair of rocks head on to one another, and they were but an arm's length from me. The garda was now at the shoulder of the shouting fellow. His arm was raised. The man turned south, the garda followed hard on his heels, both were shouting, arguing. I steered by them and speeded up my step. 
I felt profoundly sad. 

Because I don't live permanently in Ireland, because Ireland is for me an island mostly of memories both recent and distant, of family members dearly loved, many of whom have since passed on or I have lost contact with, I recognise that I have, or had, carried a romanticised perception of the country which is why these two days shocked me to my core. It is a fact that there is now a small but vocal extreme-right faction who have tainted the image of this peace-loving, welcoming nation. President Michael D Higgins, who for me epitomises much that is warm and intelligent about the Irish people, said in his speech after the stabbings: "This appalling incident is a matter for the Gardai and that it would be used or abused by groups with an agenda that attacks the principle of social inclusion is reprehensible and deserves condemnation by all those who believe in the rule of law and democracy."

Yes, indeed.

I was back in the Gresham by seven pm. There were no further incidents of violence reported. I left the following morning for France where I have made my home for thirty-seven years. I am also a foreigner living abroad!  All being well, I'll be back to Ireland in the spring of 2024, my quest not forgotten. 

Here in France we have Marine Le Pen and her supporterss to contend with, a worryingly larger faction than Ireland's extreme right. Europe has known refugees, immigrants, for centuries. Making room for the others is not easy. The principle of social inclusion can be challenging especially for those who have little to share although in my experience it is frequently those with little who share the more readily. 
Imagine though, for example, if the young nations of America and Canada had rejected the boatloads of Irish immigrants who were seeking refuge from famine and oppression ...

My most recently published novel, An Act of Love, is the story of a Polish Jewish girl, a young woman on the brink of adulthood, taking refuge with her parents in a mountain village behind Nice during WWII. The novel was inspired by the fact that, in 1942, the inhabitants of that mountain village voted almost unanimously to take in war refugees. It is a love story on many levels.

Peace on Earth.


©caroldrinkwater December 2023













Friday 22 December 2023

 Queen Square by Miranda Miller

 



Most references to queens in London are memorials to Queen Victoria but this statue in the gardens of Queen Square is of Queen Charlotte, the wife of George 111 who was treated for mental illness by Dr Willis in a house nearby. The pub on the corner of the square, called the Queen’s Larder, is said to be on the site of the house where she stored his favourite foods in a cellar when she visited him. I should add that, like so many of the best stories, it’s quite possible that this is an urban myth; In Alan Bennett’s play and subsequent film The Madness of King George Dr Willis appears to have treated the King in the White House at Kew - but I’m a novelist, not a historian, and I was comforted by this touching story recently when I spent a lot of time sitting in the gardens after visiting a dear friend in the National Hospital for Neurology and Nerosurgery.

Judged by the rather low standards of royal marriages, George 111 and Queen Charlotte were in fact a devoted couple who lived together for 57 years. Here their modest lifestyle is mocked in a cartoon by Gillray:

The king dines off a boiled egg, using the tablecloth as a napkin to save money, while his wife tucks into a huge bowl of sauerkraut. Their own unpretentious habits made the wild extravagance of their oldest son, the Prince Regent, later George IV, particularly annoying and the King famously detested his oldest son who in turn despised his father.

What was the recurring mental illness the King suffered from throughout his reign? Doctors at the time simply said he was mad when he talked incoherently, had seizures and panic attacks and was quite incapable of ruling the country.  Later doctors thought that he was in fact suffering from a rare hereditary blood disorder, porphyria, and more recently many think his illness might have been a bipolar disorder. At different times the royal physicians entrusted the daily management of the king’s illness to specialist “mad-doctors," particularly to the Reverend Francis Willis and, later, to his sons.  

The Willises used a straitjacket to restrain the King, enforced his confinement and insisted on a strict medical regime to bring down his “fever” and “turbulent spirits”, including vomits, purges, bleeding, blistering, the application of leeches and regular doses of medicine.Although this treatment sounds harsh to us, they were considered kinder and more considerate than other “mad-doctors” in the 18th century. This is the medal Dr Willis issued when he believed he had “cured” the king:

 


An inscription on back of the medal declaims: Britons Rejoice, Your King's Restored, together with the date, 1789.  Sadly, twelve years later, King George suffered a relapse and his symptoms returned. 

 

In the 18th century Bloomsbury was considered a healthy place to live, being on the northernmost edge of London with views across to Hampstead Heath. The novelist and diarist Fanny Burney and her musicologist father Dr Burney lived in Queen Square. There was a girls’ school known as the girls’ Eton, where Boswell’s daughter was a pupil. The young ladies had a coach in their schoolroom so that they could practise getting in and out of a coach decorously.

The philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham had a house round the corner in Queen Square Place. He has been described as the spiritual founder of University College London, which now dominates so much of this area. When Bentham died in 1832, he asked in his will for his body to be preserved and his skeleton, dressed in his own clothes, topped by a wax head, now stands in a glass case on the ground floor of UCL's Student Centre. According to another irresistible story (which may or may not be another urban myth) Bentham’s “Auto-Icon” attends meetings of the College Council and is solemnly wheeled into the Council Room. His, or its, presence, is supposedly recorded in the minutes with the words:  Jeremy Bentham - present but not voting.

Many French refugees lived in Queen Square after the French Revolution and there were a number of shops selling books and prints. The square was also known for its charitable institutions, including the Roman Catholic Aged Poor Society and the Society of St Vincent de Paul. 

There seems to be an interesting feminist thread running through the history of the square from the mid-19th century; Joanna Chandler, a remarkable medical pioneer who cared for her paralysed grandmother as a child, founded the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic, which is now the world famous National Hospital; the Royal Female School of Art  was in Queen Square from 1861 and Elizabeth Malleson, the suffragist, started the Working Women's College at number 29.  The London County Council Trade School for Girls was housed here from 1910, and later the Technical College for Women. There was also a women-only Turkish bath in nearby Queen Square Place. 

The Art Workers' Guild, which is still at number 6, was founded in 1884 by architects, artists and designers, including John Ruskin and William Morris, who lived in the square.

 


Now Queen Square is a surprising oasis of peace where you can sit in contemplation, just minutes away from the ferocious traffic of Southampton Row. The square is still dedicated to the pursuit of mental and physical health; the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery and the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine are here and Great Ormond Street Hospital for children is in the street which leads east from the square. As well as the statue of a benign looking Queen Charlotte there’s a plaque marking the spot where a bomb from a Zeppelin raid landed on the gardens in 1915. Luckily no one was killed. During the Second World War thousands of people slept in an air raid shelter below the square. There’s a little sculpture of Sam the cat, in memory of the nurse, cat lover, and local activist Patricia Penn, who lived nearby, and a very old water pump that has been converted into a lamp. On the benches in these quiet gardens, doctors, patients and their anxious friends and relations snatch a few calm minutes.



 

Friday 8 December 2023

Anne Boleyn's Book of Hours by Judith Allnatt

 On 19th May this year I visited Hever Castle, Anne Boleyn's childhood home. It was on this day in 1536 that Anne was beheaded at the Tower of London following charges of adultery, incest and plotting to kill her husband, Henry VIII. Modern historians regard these charges as fabricated: the couple had failed to produce a male heir; several miscarriages had followed the birth of their daughter Elizabeth and Henry had begun to court Jane Seymour. In memory of Anne, on the 19th of May 2023, her precious Book of Hours was brought out from the archive and put on display at Hever, along with fascinating historical details that could be deduced from it.


A Book of Hours is basically a Christian prayer book designed to guide the spiritual life of a secular person. It often contains psalms, hymns, extracts from the gospels and prayers to be read at the canonical hours of the day from Matins to Compline. Affluent owners often had their books lavishly illuminated and sometimes they were wedding gifts given by a husband to a wife.  The books were  sometimes personalised through having the owners  themselves featured in the paintings or through featuring local saints; some have notes written in the margins, some were so much a part of daily life that they were hung from a woman's girdle, like her keys. In the case of Anne Boleyn's Book, the prayers in English show more wear, from kissing or rubbing the pages, than the Latin prayers. It is tempting to see in this the enthusiasm Anne had for promoting an English Bible for all to be able to read, as shown by her protection of those working on English translations. However, the Hever exhibition points out that after Anne's death the Book was owned by various Kentish women who may not have known Latin and whose use of the book would have left its mark. 

The English Schoolhttps://thetudortravelguide.com/2019/09/21/hever-castle/

Anne was originally a maid of honour to the Queen, Catherine of Aragon, but by 1527, the year of the book's printing, Henry was hotly pursuing Anne and was considering the annulment of his marriage to Catherine. Assistant creator Kate McCaffrey explains in the Hever exhibition that books from this printing were commissioned for the English court, including both Catherine and Anne, but that their copies are of different quality.  



The vivid colours used in illumination were made from sources such as charred wood (black)  lapis lazuli( blue) gold, cuttlefish ink (sepia), crushed insects ( crimson)  or limonite (ochre). Anne's Book of Hours is decorated with gold borders, red and blue corner patterns and oval borders with inscriptions, whereas Catherine's is plainer. Whether this was perhaps due to Anne, full of confidence as she moved towards becoming Queen, commissioning the books herself, or whether the books were gifts from the King  that reveal his  coldness to  Catherine and his passionate interest in Anne is a matter for speculation.



The rivalry between Anne and Catherine is further shown in a tiny illumination in Anne's music book in which her emblem, the falcon, is shown pecking rather viciously  at Catherine's emblem, the pomegranate.   



Leaving aside the machinations of Court, I was also intrigued to see an inscription in Anne's own hand at the foot of one of the pages of her Book of Hours.


In June 1528, when Henry was still married to Catherine and pursuing Anne, a 'sweating sickness' occurred in London that sent the court, in action all too reminiscent of the last few years,  scattering to the countryside to quarantine. Anne and her father at Hever became dangerously ill and Anne's brother-in-law died of the virus. Kate McCaffrey's research suggests that the inscription was written at around this time, possibly while Anne battled with the death-dealing illness. 

It reads:

 Remember me when you do pray

that hope doth lead from day to day

 - Anne Boleyn 

It  made me shiver to think about what lay ahead of her only eight years later. I reflected on the relief she must have felt on her recovery, the determination to seize the day and her opportunity to become Queen and how fragile human hopes can be. 



 

 

Friday 1 December 2023

History repeats. ‘Almost pathological madness’: the monster cruise ships to return to Venice by 2027, guided in by Mayor Brugnaro - Michelle Lovric


Luigi Brugnaro, Venice’s mayor, has never quite given up on the cruise ships – not even after they were banished to Marghera to the applause of the entire world, (apart from the cruise industrialists and that tiny tight ring of local entrepreneurs who scoop profit out of their operations). Now Brugnaro is endorsing a new plan to bring the monster cruise ships of up to 60,000 tonnes back to Venice's historic centre from 2027. The Titanic, to put the proposal in context, weighed in at 52,000 tonnes, fully laden.

This scheme treats the Venetian lagoon as a highway, not an irreplaceable living thing. In such contempt lies danger for flora, fauna, beauty and history. Cue cries of disbelief and outrage about the threat to the lagoon’s ecosystem, the danger of collisions and fuel spills, the menace to the foundations of Venice’s historic buildings, the shipwrecking of air quality – and a general sense of disbelief that Venice’s own mayor is backing something that goes against every instinct for what is right and good for the city. Brugnaro, of course, was elected by the votes of the mainlanders of Venice and largely rejected by the islanders. He makes no secret of his allegiances.

'What will happen if the cruise ships return'?
NGN poster
Environmentalists led by NoGrandiNavi (NGN) and AmbienteVenezia, political parties, researchers and residents have denounced the new schemes presented by the Port System Authority in September. Brugnaro’s pet projects are three: redevelopment of the Malamocco-Marghera canal (also known as the Canale dei Petroli), the excavation and enlargement of the Vittorio Emanuele III canal that leads to the historic centre of Venice, and the creation of an artificial island for the accumulation of toxic sludge from the digs.

In summary, the scheme would excavate great trenches in the highly polluted mud of the lagoon, deep enough to permit 150 massive cruise ships annually right back to the Stazione Marittima near the end of the Zattere. This plan, doubtless years in the brewing, probably explains why no new creative idea has ever been entertained for the Marittima since the cruise ships left by the national government decree that Brugnaro and his cohort feel no obligation to observe. The cruise ‘interessi’, it seems, were just biding their time, setting up their funding and working out how to market their idea to a sceptical world: in a breathtaking coup of doublespeak and greenwashing, they are calling their excavations, which will bring a world of pollution into Venice, ‘The Green Deal’.

The proposed dredging routes are shown in the map above: the Canale dei Petroli in red leading to Marghera and the Canale Vittorio Emanuele in blue leading to the Stazione Marittima near the Zattere. With thanks to AmbienteVenezia


Tommaso Cacciari, leader of the NoGrandiNavi committee, has described Brugnaro’s new moves as an "almost pathological madness".

I attended a sombre meeting at San Leonardo on September 29th, when Cacciari explained that NoGrandiNavi is remobilizing. But now the front will move to the Canale dei Petroli.

NGN and its sister organisation AmbienteVenezia are planning a double campaign … a ‘mobilitazione popolare’ and also a legal, procedural route. For example, City councillor Gianfranco Bettin (Venezia Verde Progressista), Luana Zanella (Green Party MP) and Franca Marcomin (Green Europe spokesperson) have announced that the European Green Party is drafting a document to protect Venice, to be presented to the European Parliament.

On September 29th, Cacciari set out his road map for protest but also listed the grim new obstacles for those who want to stop Brugnaro’s tide of massive cruise ships.

NGN, Cacciari explained, has already had a taste of the new problems facing the new campaign.

For a start, there's the turbo-charged greenwashing being deployed by the cruise lobby, as by so many other notable polluters. Expensively marketed greenwashing is hard to fight. The law is only just catching up with this double crime against the environment. Claims are made in contexts where no challenge is possible. Comments, for example, are disabled under articles and videos. Unarguable but absolutely irrelevant facts are grandly puffed. Unpalatable projects are sugar-coated with childlike cartoon graphics. In a pretty You-Tube video, also airing in English, many picturesque and comforting claims are made about the Port System Authority’s ‘Green Deal’, with a patronising lack of detail. There is no mention, for example, of the toxic waste leaked by Marghera’s petrochemical industry into the lagoon sediment for over a century – or what might happen if the heavy metals embedded in the mud are suddenly shaken and stirred into the living waters.

"Don't touch the lagoon - No to the new
excavations; no to cruise
ships back at the Stazione Marittima.
They want to destroy the lagoon.
They want to bring the cruise ships back
to Venice by excavating new channels."

Some of those heavy metals are at 120 percent of what is considered safe or acceptable by the scientific community. These deposits are the legacy of the Veneto’s millionaire-making 20th century rush into petrochemical, resin and chlorine production. Lead, dioxins, vinyl chloride monomer, polychrome biphenyls are described by journalist Ugo Dinello as ‘the fingerprints left at the crime scene that tell the story of Veneto's industrial development … . highly carcinogenic chemical compounds that remain in the environment with great persistence, so much so that they are defined as "eternal pollutants"'. Brugnaro plans to excavate 1,280,000 cubic meters of this sediment to facilitate the access of the cruise ships to Venice. Italy has no landfill site equipped for such volumes of poisonous waste. So what does not get ‘accidentally’ swilled into the water during excavations will be redistributed in the lagoon or deposited on the manufactured island known as the Isola delle Tresse, near Fusina.

Venetians of the lost Republic would never have allowed such imprudence – they knew to avoid deep dredging near Murano, for example, where arsenic and lead leaked from the glassworks.

Greenwashing is recognised by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority as not just moral but commercial misconduct. Those who falsely claim green credentials gain customers who want to do the right thing, and who will pay more for what they believe to be wholesome products or services. Entities that do not lie about their green credentials are thereby disadvantaged. However, everyone wants to hear good news about the environment. Good-hearted people want to feel that they can be part of a solution, making them easy targets for the greenwashers.

Also difficult for NGN’s new campaign is the fact that the visible outrage of the outsized cruise ships is no longer there to draw the world’s attention to the new problem. The cruise lobby is profiting from the fact that the world thinks, ‘mission accomplished’ in Venice. Gone and good riddance. It seems inconceivable that Venice, suffering from damaging numbers of tourists, would shoot itself in the foot by ushering in more, or expose the historic centre to the known danger of collisions and impacts such as the terrifying incident in June 2019 when the MSC Opera ploughed into another vessel and the embankment at the Zattere after a technical fault went unnoticed by the crew until it was too late.

In any event, the big ships seem to have gone. But in fact they are still in Venice’s lagoon, sending out toxic emissions, causing danger. The passengers, currently diverted to Marghera and other places, are still transported in to choke Venice’s overburdened streets without adding anything of much value to the city’s economy – profits are tightly palmed by those few who host, ferry for and supply the cruise lines. Cruise tourists the world over bring little economic benefit to the city they infest as their time is carefully engineered so that they do most of their spending aboard. Cruise ships in Venice, for example, stage special late-night dinners so their passengers don’t have to spend at Venetian restaurants.

How will NGN fight these twin problems of greenwashing and invisibility? NGN’s plans to highlight the absolute interdependency of Venice and her lagoon. Those who want to gouge the lagoon for the cruise ships will not be allowed to do so out of sight and out of mind.

NGN’s roadmap was set out at the meeting on September 29th. 

October 7: an Assemblea Cittadina informed the public and set in motion plans to get going with before the excavations start. NGN will take the campaign out to the lagoon, deploying the bricole (navigation poles) along the Vittorio Emmanuel Canal to signal the looming problem by ‘decorating’ them with NoGrandiNavi banners.

October 22: NGN made the new danger felt in the Venice Marathon (see photo below).


November/December: a conference at the university.

January: NGN will celebrate its birthday with a campaign dinner.

February: an NGN parade at Carnevale.

March 24: a large public demonstration will take place all over the city on foot and in boats. An island of boats, a floating protest, will stretch right out into the lagoon, pointing the way to the threat.

April: the launch of the Biennale of Art. NGN is working with various artists on a ‘super-proposta’ to make the idea of defending the lagoon both concrete and communicable.

NGN have already provided the international symbolism of a city that has resisted the cruise industry, Cacciari told us on September 29th. “Now the battle has moved to the lagoon and the polluted mud. We have to defend the lagoon from the greed of the boats and the authorities that collude with them.”

These maps were kindly provided by Luciano Mazzolin of Ambiente Venezia to illustrate what can only be described as the proposed routes of betrayal through the lagoon.
 
Meanwhile, NGN is hampered on another front – those with deep pockets continue to persecute members with expensive prosecutions. On that front at least, there was good news last week. The latest trumped-up charge against the NGN leader Tommaso Cacciari – initiated in 2017 – was dismissed by the Venetian courts on November 20th. Cacciari was accused of interfering with a police vessel during a demonstration against the cruise ships. The entire case was dismantled, having no factual basis. Here's NGN celebrating after the verdict.


In London, the River Residents Group and other organisations continue to deal with the plans of the Oceandiva, Europe’s biggest party boat, which wants to operate on the Thames. Our members too have been subject to threats of legal action and indeed falsely denounced to the police for planning a non-existent large demonstration. We try not to waste time or energy on intimidations like this: it’s a well-worn tactic of large companies to try to neutralize activists this way. Nor was I surprised when the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) declared my safety questions about the Oceandiva ‘vexatious’ on the grounds that they took up too much time, also complaining about repeated questions - questions repeated because answers were evaded in the first place.

So many people ask why the Mayor of London hasn't stopped the Oceandiva. Unfortunately, the Mayor has sidestepped the issue. Because it floats, the Mayor of London disclaims any responsibility for the impacts of the Oceandiva, even though its emissions would travel from the piers, surrounded by residents, where it plans to charge and hold long, static parties. Because it floats, the Mayor disclaims any responsibility for the Oceandiva’s effects on historic views.

Like Brugnaro's 'Green Deal', the Oceandiva is trying to enter the city on a flood of greenwash. Its advertising – and that of its agents in the eventing world – boasts of being 100 percent carbon neutral and fully electric. It is in fact a hybrid, capable of running just three hours on its batteries, according to its own marine technician speaking at webinar in June. The rest of the time it will use Hydrolized Vegetable Oil, a form of diesel, which is linked to deforestation by virtue of its use of palm oil. Meanwhile all the associated emissions will be discounted via discredited carbon credits (VCA). And no mention is ever made of the embodied carbon in the £25,000,000 new build out of steel and aluminium.

We understand that the Oceandiva is currently restricted to the privately-owned Royal Docks and not allowed on the river because it has not gained its safety certification from the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA). The only visible manifestation recently has been a planning application to sanitize the unauthorised electrical infrastructure erected a year ago at West India Pier, in front of 750 residents. The pier is owned by Sunset Moorings Ltd which shares directors with Oceandiva Shipping Ltd.

Meanwhile, questions are now being asked – in an excellent piece of investigative journalism by the Byline Times – about both the roles and accountability of the Port of London Authority (PLA) and the MCA in the Oceandiva story.

With the PLA encouraging more and more cruise ships into the metropolitan Thames, London and Venice have ever more in common. London's River Residents Group continues to be inspired by and learn from NGN and AmbienteVenezia, both of which I thank for the images in this post. Particular thanks also to Barbara Warburton Giliberti and Luciano Mazzolin.

It's a hard battle ahead for all of us. As NoGrandiNavi says – ‘We are on the right side of history and we will not stop fighting for the ultimate extermination of these monsters from our city!’

 

LINKS 

To join NoGrandiNavi, please visit their website. On this page you can donate to their cause:

Sostieni le nostre lotte – Comitato No grandi navi

The facebook page for AmbienteVenezia is here: (1) AmbienteVenezia | Facebook

More information about the chemical threat can be found on the website of Campaign for a Living Venice: Venice and the Poisons of the Small Canal. Study Reveals the Dangers of the Vittorio Emanuele Excavation – Campaign For A Living Venice

To join the River Residents Group, please visit our website: River Residents Group . You don't need to live on the river to be a part of this movement - you just need to care about the Thames. 

Michelle Lovric’s website www.michellelovric.com



Friday 24 November 2023

Tullia Minor - Rome's Murderous 'Bad Girl' by Elisabeth Storrs

Tullia runs over the Corpse of her Father by Jean Bardin (1765)

In previous posts, I’ve told the stories of exemplary women of Roman legend such as Lucretia, Verginia and Tanaquil. In The Legend of Tarpeia – a  Roman Morality Tale, I’ve also related the fate of the greedy traitoress, Tarpeia, Today, I tell the tale of the ultimate ‘bad girl’ – Tullia Minor – the last queen of Rome.

The historian, Livy, described Tullia as ‘ferox’ - savage. What did she do to be branded so? Try sororicide, mariticide and parricide then add mutilating a corpse to her list of crimes!

Tullia Minor was the younger daughter of King Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome. A son of an enslaved Latin noblewoman, Servius ascended the throne due to the influence of Queen Tanaquil, a gifted Etruscan seer, who foresaw his greatness (see The Legend of Tanaquil and the Auspicious Flight of Birds). After Tanaquil’s husband, Tarquinius, was assassinated, she contrived to have the Senate appoint Servius as monarch in preference to her own two sons, Lucius and Arruns. Servius therefore became king without holding a popular vote (although he later called for one and was successful in the election.)

History records Servius Tullius as a visionary leader who introduced important reforms including the Census. This led to the division of citizens into 5 wealth classes each with the right to vote but also the responsibility to serve in war. Under his reign, the boundary of Rome was expanded to include the Quirinal, Esquiline and Viminal Hills. He successfully established a crucial treaty with the neighbouring Latin League, founding a shrine to the Latin goddess, Diana, on the Aventine Hill to mark their concord.

However, Servius’ popularity in expanding the franchise to the lowest classes of citizens raised the ire of the upper-class patricians. The simmering resentment which ensued paved the way to his downfall. But it was the hatreds seething within his own family that were to effect his demise.

To placate the ousted sons of King Tarquinius, Servius Tullius arranged marriages for them with his daughters. The girls, both named Tullia, (according to the custom of women taking the feminine form of their father’s cognomen) were extreme opposites in temperament as were the princely brothers. Unfortunately, the sweet natured Tullia Major was wedded to the ruthless Lucius, while the scheming Tullia Minor became the wife of the unambitious Arruns.

Determined to gain power, Tullia was frustrated by Arruns’ refusal to overthrow Servius and rightfully reclaim the throne. Instead, she turned to Lucius who matched her zeal. The pair conspired to murder their spouses resulting in brother killing brother, sister killing sister, and both committing homicide of their respective in-laws. Unaware of their part in the assassinations, Servius reluctantly then approved a marriage between Lucius and Tullia Minor.

Emboldened, Lucius embarked on a vicious campaign to undermine Servius’ authority and foment rebellion. Having convinced a bloc of Senators to support him, he proceeded to the Curia Senate House and sat on the throne, surrounded by armed guards. When Servius arrived to accost the usurper, Lucius hurled his father-in-law down the Curia’s stairs into the Forum. Dripping blood and abandoned by supporters, the old man limped along Clivius Orbius, the road to the Esquiline Hill.

When Tullia heard Lucius had seized power, she called for her carriage and sped to the Senate House, hailing her husband as king. She then urged him to kill her father lest Servius survive and raise an army from his remaining supporters. Lucius quickly dispatched assassins who slew the injured Servius and left his mutilated body lying across a small alleyway known as the Vicus Cuprius.

With chaos unleashed in the Forum, Lucius ordered Tullia to return home for her own safety. On the way, she came upon her father’s corpse. In a frenzy, she ordered her driver to force the horses to trample the body. As a result, Tullia arrived at her house with blood spattered clothes as ‘a grim relic of the murdered man... The guardian gods of the house did not forget; they were to see to it, in their anger at the bad beginning of the reign, that as bad an end should follow.’

The historian, Livy, pulls no punches when he describes Tullia as maniacally ambitious and transgressive. Unlike Tanaquil who quietly pulled strings behind the scenes, Tullia harangued Lucius into bloody deeds. ‘To Tullia the thought of Tanaquil’s success was torture. She was determined to emulate it: if Tanaquil, a foreigner, had had influence enough twice in succession to confer the crown – first on her husband, then on her son-in-law – it was intolerable to feel that she herself, a princess of blood, should count for nothing in the making, or unmaking of kings.’

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and Tullia were to become models of  regal depravity: venal, psychopathic and unjust rulers. But Tullia, as a woman, is held up as a shocking example of private and public impiety who is responsible, in great part, for her family’s exile. For ultimately, Lucius and his family were banished when the Romans could no longer stomach his tyranny, rising in outrage at the rape of the virtuous noblewoman, Lucretia, and her subsequent suicide. See Roman Honour Killings – Lucretia and Verginia. As such, the public actions of two women with diametrically opposed characters can be seen as catalysts for the overthrow of the monarchy and the birth of the Republic.

Borghese Steps, Rome

As an interesting side note, the Via Cupria was dubbed Vicus Sceleratus – the Wicked Street – after Tullia’s desecration of her father’s body. In the early C15th century a grand staircase was built over it connecting the Esquiline to the Basilica San Pietro in Vincoli. The Palazzo that was built over these steps by the Cesarini family was given to Vannozza dei Cattanei, the mistress of Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander V) and the mother of the infamous Borgia children; Cesare, Lucrezia, Juan and Gioffre. The steps became known as the Borgia Steps. On June 14, 1497, Juan Borgia left the family apartments through the heavy door to the stairway and was attacked and killed. His body was then thrown into the Tiber, remaining undiscovered for three days.

The identity of Juan Borgia's murderer remains an unsolved mystery. Was it his brother Cesare? Or a jealous husband or brother avenging their family’s honour? It wasn’t a robbery given his body was found with a coin filled purse. Whatever the answer, the scene of his death resounds with ghostly echoes of Tullia Minor’s crimes. Definitely a street to avoid after dark!

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Quotes from The Early History of Rome by Livy translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, 1971.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. www.elisabethstorrs.com / www.hnsa.org.au 


Friday 17 November 2023

Medieval climate change by Carolyn Hughes

A couple of weeks ago here in the UK, we put our clocks back one hour from daylight saving time. So now it’s more or less dark by 4.30pm. I know that some people suffer from SAD, seasonal affective disorder, brought on by the shorter days. I’m not one of them but, even so, I do always have a sense of descending gloom at this time of year, which I know won’t be relieved until the spring. 

But I do take pleasure in any splendid sunny days, such as the morning I am writing this, when the sky is utterly blue and the sun is bright, casting a glorious golden light on those deciduous trees in my garden and beyond whose leaves are turning brown. I suspect it is not all that warm outside but, later on, I will don my coat and maybe a scarf and gloves, and go for a reviving walk.

However, as so often when weather is on my mind, my thoughts turn to the folk I write about in my novels, people who lived in the fourteenth century. For us, shorter days may signal the arrival of a period of “hunkering down”, but we can to a considerable extent still get on with our lives without too much disruption. We generally have on-tap heating and lighting in our homes, and even travel and going to work are mostly manageable (in temperate climes like the UK, at any rate). But, for my Meonbridge folk, especially the poorer ones, shorter days meant fewer hours in which to work, especially outdoors. Obviously, rural peasants were farmers, so there would be work to do. They would wrap up as best they could to go out and harvest winter vegetables, fertilise fields, repair buildings and fences, collect fuel for fires and, if they had animals, feed them.

But then they had to retreat indoors, and it is hard to imagine, isn’t it, how restrictive life must have been? With only a wood fire burning in the central hearth, undoubtedly emitting a good deal of smoke but possibly not all that much heat, the long evenings and nights would often have been very cold and “hunkering down” might have meant wrapping yourself in every garment you possessed (which might not have been all that many), and huddling around the fire.

The lack of light too must have severely limited what people could do indoors. Spinning or sewing, or any craft or repair work, would have been difficult to manage by candlelight, or, worse, by rushlight. And, in the depths of winter, when bright sunny days might be infrequent, the days too would offer little opportunity for industrious activity. Windows in peasant cottages were few and small and, if shutters or blinds were closed to keep out the winter weather, it would be dark indoors, even at midday. If outdoor work was not required, then confinement inside must surely have been excessively tedious!

I don’t have any special insight into how such medieval lives would have been lived, or whether indeed people then suffered from SAD, not that they would recognise it, of course. But bringing my imagination to bear, as of course I do when writing my novels, leads me to assume that winter life would have been uncomfortable and dull for them at best. Not of course that they knew any different, so undoubtedly they did simply get on with life as best they could. 

If you’d like a little more insight into winter life in Medieval Europe, this article might be of interest: https://www.medievalists.net/2020/12/medieval-peasants-winter/

The 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference or COP28, is scheduled to take place at the end of this month (November) in Dubai.  I can scarcely contemplate the difficulties the world faces in tackling the problems caused by centuries of industrialisation, but I won’t comment on that, as I have no expertise to offer on reasons or solutions.

But, again, because I spend my days “living with” people from the fourteenth century, I am bound to think about how their lives might have been affected by particularly challenging weather situations.

Recently, Storm CiarĂ¡n battered the southern counties of the United Kingdom. Some countries of the world of course suffer frequent violent storms, with horrendous winds and torrential rain, more or less as a matter of course, but we are less used to it here. As a result of the storm, there was a good deal of flooding, bringing misery and great discomfort to many people, not to say fear at what the rest of the winter’s weather might throw at them, for winter has barely started.

Unusual or extreme weather did not in fact often affect my Meonbridge people, for in the period in which my Chronicles are set, the middle couple of decades of the fourteenth century, the weather was, if hardly benign, not often especially extreme. In the early part of the century, there had been such torrential and unceasing rains, and flooding so widespread, that harvests were dire and animals died, and the Great Famine stalked the land for three years. This was the beginning of the “Little Ice Age”, an extended period of cooling, particularly in northern Europe, which lasted until 1850, with periods of relatively mild weather and others of more extreme cold.

However, frightening weather was not unknown even in the middle part of the fourteenth century. At the end of my book, Children’s Fate, an extraordinary wind that affected not only the British Isles but also northern Europe did cause great disquiet and, in some places, severe damage, disruption and death.

This is how I describe it in my Author’s Note:

“Plague left England in December 1361, though it was still in Scotland. In Hampshire, I think it would have passed on by the autumn. By Christmas, people were presumably beginning to think the time had come at last when they could move on from horror and disaster.

But, two weeks later, on 15th January 1362, came yet another cataclysm: the Saint Maurus’ Day storm, a wind – the “Great Wind” – one of the most violent extra-tropical storms ever to hit the British Isles and northern Europe. It was so strong that it toppled church spires, destroyed houses and mills, and caused huge damage to farms and forests across the south of England.

A chronicler of the time said it was “as if the Day of Judgement were at hand… no one knew where he could safely hide, for church towers, windmills, and many dwelling-houses collapsed to the ground”. Norwich Cathedral lost its wooden spire, Salisbury Cathedral was so badly damaged the bishop appealed to the Pope for funds, and St Albans Abbey was destroyed.

The storm was in fact much more damaging in the Low Countries, where the event was called the Grote Mandrenke, the “Great Drowning of Men”. Storm surges caused sea floods that washed away towns and villages, leaving tens of thousands dead.

But, following on from months of plague, one can perhaps appreciate why some people might have thought the end of the world had finally come.”

Storm in the Sea by Pieter Mulier, c 1690. In Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
 
And here is an extract from Children’s Fate showing my imagination’s take on the Saint Maurus’ Day storm:

“Eudo was humming as he made preparations as usual for the office of Vespers. It was already fairly dark but, chancing to look up at the great window behind the altar, he thought it looked beyond the glass more like midnight than late afternoon, albeit it was the middle of January.

It was then he noticed too that the brisk breeze of earlier seemed to be blowing harder. He could hear the wind quite clearly from the chancel, whereas normally the thick walls of the church stifled any sounds of weather. It was a while yet before the office had to begin, and he hurried to the porch door to look outside.

Unthinking, he lifted the door’s great latch, and was almost knocked off his feet, as the door, heavy as it was, blew open. The edge caught him in the chest and, for a few moments, he was unable to catch his breath. Holding fast to the door, he eased it open sufficiently for him to step out into the porch, then closed it carefully behind him, ensuring the latch had dropped. He moved towards the porch’s front, his feet shuffling through all manner of debris presumably whisked in by the wind.

It was indeed as black as midnight out beyond the building. Yet, as his eyes accustomed to the dark, he realised the churchyard yews were swaying wildly, and small branches of other trees, and objects he could not identify, were being tossed about, spinning through the air. He clapped his hands over his ears to muffle the din of it.

He had surely never heard or witnessed such a wind before.

Eudo turned and hurried back into the church. He had to lean hard upon the door to close it, and he again made sure the latch had fallen, and hoped the iron fastener was strong enough to hold.

He had no intention of trying to get home to the parsonage whilst this storm was raging. He suspected there would be no Vespers congregation now, for surely no one would venture forth in this? Nonetheless, he returned to the chancel to complete his preparations. He would of course recite the office regardless of the absence of any worshippers.

But, as he waited to see if any of his congregation did come, the wind outside seemed to gather force, and it fairly roared around the walls of the chancel. He recoiled as flung debris struck the glass of the great window, just feet away from where he stood at the altar, and his heart raced with anxiety.

When it was clear no one was coming, Eudo did wonder for a moment if he might give Vespers a miss. The wind was so loud, it was likely he would not even be able to hear himself. Yet, God would surely know if he did not perform his duty and, anyway, he really did not want to leave the safety of the church.

[Eudo tries to recite Vespers…]

Yet he made little progress with the office as the roaring swelled, and his heart thudded within his breast. His throat went dry and he could no longer speak the words, even if he could remember them. And his memory was now distracted by a new persistent noise, the clattering of what were surely tiles being torn from the church roof and thrown down onto the ground. Unable to concentrate, Eudo looked up towards the rafters, but the chancel candles cast too dim a light for him to see so high above him. Despite the raw cold inside the church, his face grew hot. What if all the tiles were stripped away? Would the wind then strip away the rafters too and invade the church? Of course he had no way of knowing.

But his efforts were undone when some object, much larger than the debris flung at it already, crashed into the great window, the only glazing in the church, and the glass exploded, showering Eudo with sharp and stinging fragments.

Eudo screamed and threw himself prostrate upon the floor before the altar, wrapping his arms over his head. ‘Mea culpa, mea culpa,’ he cried out, weeping. ‘Oh God, forgive me, for I have sinned…’

For surely it was God who had sent this terrible wind…

Perhaps the pestilence had not been chastisement enough. God saw mankind had not learned its lesson, but had simply returned to their old ways… Such a wind as this could wreak destruction across the land, topple great oaks, rip up fields, fling beasts into the air, demolish houses and even bring down mighty churches. God had the power to destroy the Earth, if mankind no longer merited it…

Yet maybe it was not mankind…? Was God chastising only him? For continuing to sin, week in, week out… For promising to fulfil the penance, whilst knowing he would not do so…

Another roar around the chancel walls brought a swirl of flying debris through the shattered glass, small branches, twigs, dead leaves, shingle, and fragments of every substance, all scooped up from the ground and now tumbling down upon his back.

Eudo fell to sobbing, drumming his feet against the cold stone floor.

The Day of Judgement most surely was at hand. But was it for mankind, or for Eudo Oxenbrigge alone?”


The Last Judgement (detail) by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1525/1530. In Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, USA.  Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons



The priest Eudo is a sinner, and is perhaps justified in his terror (even if his rational mind might realise the storm couldn’t possibly be aimed solely and specifically at him). But I’m sure it wasn’t only sinners who were terrified by the destruction caused by storms. For everyone assumed it was a punishment sent by God; indeed, bishops told them it was His punishment, and bid them to atone for whatever sins they had committed and to pray daily for God’s mercy. Amidst all their fear and agony, they believed what was happening was their fault: they had brought it upon themselves, and prayer was all they had to try to avert the punishment and expiate their guilt.

Coastal areas in particular across the world are today much threatened by climate change, because of rising sea levels. Flood defences are being constructed everywhere to try and mitigate the damage. The east coast of England has always been notorious for suffering from erosion, which has been going on since the end of the Ice Age, when sea levels rose dramatically from the effects of melting ice. Storms, particularly those at sea, can cause devastation to such low-lying areas. Many towns and villages have been lost over the centuries.

A famous one is Dunwich in Suffolk, an example of a once thriving town that almost totally disappeared in the late thirteenth century. Dunwich was a great port of medieval England, with several churches, hospitals and two seats in parliament. The town battled constantly against the sea. In 1328 a great storm blocked up the port and by the 16th century the town and its houses were regularly falling into the sea. Today all that remains is a quaint village with a tiny population, which is still under threat from the sea. In East Yorkshire, there used to be a seaport called Ravenser Odd. It was too a thriving place, with warehouses, and cargo ships and fishing vessels going in and out, customs officials, a market and an annual fair. But by 1346 already two thirds of this busy town had been lost to the sea from the effects of storms and erosion. Then, in that great Saint Maurus’ Day storm of January 1362, Ravenser Odd vanished altogether. 

The erosion of England’s east coast does of course continue, as melting ice at the poles once more threatens sea levels. And our present changing climate will continue to threaten us, even here in the temperate isles of Britain, with more storms, more floods, more grief for many.

Much like our ancestors, we know that we – aka mankind – are (at least partly) to blame for what is happening to the world’s climate. But even if we too have “brought it upon ourselves”, our accountability is obviously not the same as theirs. We do not believe our sinfulness is at the root of our culpability, nor that the change in the weather has been instigated by some wrathful divine being. Moreover, we have options other than prayer to alleviate our present situation, for we do understand its causes and have some notion of the sort of remedies required to try to mitigate its worst effects.

Yet, as always, what I find so thought-provoking is to recognise the differences between our medieval forebears and ourselves, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the similarities and connections.

 

The Deluge by Francis Danby c. 1840. In Tate Britain, London. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons



The Deluge by J. M. W. Turner, 1805, Tate Britain, London. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons