Wednesday 25 January 2023

Discovering Lost Culture, by Gillian Polack


Lost culture is exciting. How can something be exciting when we have lost it? Most times when we talk about loss, it’s in terms of the events that caused the loss. The political pressure, the murders – dire events that add up to big cultural losses. Yet, when a culture is lost because of irrepressible cruelty, it leaves traces. For years, I’ve been watching for such traces, to see how much we can know when remnants of a population have been forced away from their homes and when their lives have to be rebuilt from scratch. I don’t want to hear about horror. I want to find out what we can know about what was destroyed. I don’t look for the names of people: I want to know how they lived.

The first and most obvious relic is, in many cases, linguistic. I was just reading a study of eighteenth and nineteenth century Yiddish in Europe. It traced loan words from cultural areas such as food. Those loan words matched with a bunch of trade records and showed that there was a dynamic and strong Jewish butchers’ industry in the Polish-Lithuanain Commonwealth in the seventeenth century. These days most of the surviving descendants are in the US and may not even eat kosher, but some of the Yiddish has snuck into US English and so, in parts of the US, there is a memory of a life that people once led.

Other records come from the persecutors themselves. The records of the Inquisition have vast repositories of cultural information about Spanish Jews. They used it to technically prove that people were reverting to Judaism or had not dropped Judaism. While conversion to Christianity is by a claim of faith, the Inquisition demanded complete cultural change. Those who held religious power in the empire of Spain was key to maintained that Jews were impure and that impurity carried down the line to children and to children’s children so people with Jewish ancestry had to be watched forever in case they shifted back to their ancestral religion.

The “convert, leave or die” ultimatum in Spain in 1492 left a lot of people, then, having to forsake family traditions and local customs. It was not safe to wash and wear nice clothes of Friday, or to send for sweets made by your favourite Jewish confectioner, or even to eat salad on Saturday afternoons. It was possible to be burned alive if any of these small things informed the Inquisition that you were secretly Jewish. Because the Inquisition documented their research into what they regarded as lapsed converts, we know more about everyday life before 1492 as well as after it.

Another hidden aspect of culture is what happens when a whole cultural/religious group is suddenly missing: local culture changes to fill the biggest and most gaping holes. For example, in some places where Jews were sent into exile or mass murdered, the remaining Christian population would suddenly eat more pork. Why? I assume because it proved they were not Jewish and were therefore safe. Big cultural shifts have reasons. This is only one of them, but it’s a deeply-distressing one.

Let me finish on a less distressing note. Superstitions. Some superstitions are folk beliefs that have walked alongside popular culture and religious culture for a while. Others are what’s left when the framework and history for that belief or action is lost. I can imagine that, when we all have flying cars, people will still look both ways before crossing the road, because a hundred years of watching for regular cars instilled a habit so strong we mostly don’t notice we’re doing it.

What look like irregularities in a contemporary culture can tell us a lot about where that culture has been, historically. It’s not the core of my research right now. It’s something I keep an eye on. A lot of the lost elements of culture are the aspects that will bring a novel to life for readers. Understanding how they fit together and create living spaces for real people in our past also helps us write history into fiction more accurately. 


Someone sent me to a story the other day because they knew I was interested in alternate Jewish history (because my most recent novel, The Green Children Help Out, has superheroes and alternate Jewish history) and that story rested all of its research on Christian views of history. The concept was a terrific one: what would happen if the relationship between Christianity and Judaism were inverted, with Christianity the minor religion. Making Judaism more Christian both culturally and religiously meant the story didn’t even come close to exploring the concept. The major players were changed, but the everyday culture was not.

It’ll be a while before I can write a novel using these historical explorations, unless I want to follow the path of the story I so dislike. Before I can bring my imagination to play and tell stories based upon hidden and lost history, I need to find as much as I can about the hidden and lost histories. It’s a marvellously fun trail, but the research is happening now. Old and trusty studies aren’t nearly as useful as conferences and conversations with those doing the research.

Friday 20 January 2023

The March Into Oblivion by Maggie Brookes

Seventy-eight years ago, in a bitter Polish January, an appalling atrocity of the second world war began, but it is not widely known about. Even in this age of excessive information, some historical events become distorted in the public imagination, and others are totally forgotten within the space of one generation.
Watch tower at Lamsdorf, Stalag 344.

Many people wrote to me after the publication of my first novel The Prisoner's Wife to say, 'I didn't know that happened,' about two different aspects of the book. Some were referring to the use of British PoWs as unpaid labour by the Nazis; others were talking about The Long March, in which perhaps 80,000 allied prisoners of war were force-marched more than 500 miles across Europe in mid-winter.

When I began my research for the novel, I was aware that British PoWs were put to work for the Third Reich. I knew this because my dad had been a Nazi prisoner in Austria and he and his comrades in arms spent a year building a road up to the village of Zedlach. 

The prison guards at my dad's labour camp.

Second world war media representation has established a different narrative about prisoners in Germany. Films like Stalag 17, The Wooden Horse, The Great Escape and The Colditz Story (with its long running TV series spin-off) show PoWs as incarcerated behind barbed wire for years at a time, with little to do but plan escapes and put on shows. But that's not the full story.

The PoWs, (including my dad) who built the road up to Zedlach in Austria

By 1944 the Nazis had established huge prisoner of war camps at the eastern reaches of modern-day Czechoslovakia and Poland in order to keep the captured allies as far as possible from home. The officers were held in camps like those in the movies, but the 1929 Geneva Convention allowed the lower ranks to be deployed into labour camps known as Arbeitskommado. About a third of all soldiers wearing a British Empire uniform were eventually moved to Lamsdorf POW camp (Stalag 344). The German authorities called it Britenlager, the British camp, though the 'Britons' included 271 Indians, 1,543 Canadians, 1,829 Australians, 2,217 New Zealanders, and 1,210 Palestinians, all of whom were Jewish.

Lamsdorf was like a massive labour exchange, supplying workers to keep the Third Reich running. The camp could hold thirteen thousand prisoners at any one time, but also controlled the deployment of twelve thousand additional men into labour camps. If they were lucky, they were sent to build roads or work on the land. If they were unlucky, they were sent to the mines. They were not supposed to be asked to do any work which aided the German war effort, but many were employed in factories and industries which directly supported the regime. In that case, they often found ways to delay orders or sabotage production. They were worked hard, without proper breaks or rewards, but generally found being employed was preferable to endless days sitting around in the camps. And sometimes there was the promise of extra food rations because they were doing physical work. The Arbetiskommando labour camps were denoted with an initial letter E, for 'English.' So when I was told the extraordinary story which became The Prisoner's Wife, my informant remembered that he was at E111 Saubsdorf quarry in Czechoslovakia.

Huts at Lamsdorf, Stalag 344.

I had known about the work camps, but the second element of my novel which people write to me about was a complete revelation to me when I began my research. How was it possible that I had never heard of The Long March across Europe? I knew about the Japanese forced marches, The Sandakan Death Marches and The Bataan Death March, so how was it I didn't know about the forced marches across Europe in temperatures as low as -25 c?

Eye-witness accounts exist of-course, particularly those so meticulously chronicled in The Last Escape by John Nichol and Tony Rennell (Penguin 2002.) 

But this cover image is one of very few photographs, and the marches consisted of raggle-taggle groups of prisoners ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand together which took 3 different routes across Europe. The marches have also been known by various names, 'The Long March' 'The Death March' 'The March' 'The Black March' 'The Long Walk', 'The Long Trek', 'The Bread March', and 'Death March Across Germany.' Perhaps it's the lack of a consistent name and visual images which have made it vanish from public memory? And the fact that these men's harrowing experience was soon overshadowed (quite rightly) as the full horror of the holocaust became known, with photographs which burn into our minds.

So, what actually happened? The evacuation of Lamsdorf began on 15 January 1945 when seven hundred sick British POWs were removed by train, just before the mass departures on foot began in the middle of the night on 22nd January 1945. This continued over several nights, in groups of one or two thousand, until 21,867 British PoWs had set off into the blizzards.

January and February 1945 were among the coldest winter months of the 20th century in Europe. Poorly clothed, ill-fed men covered about 20km a day in icy conditions, sleeping in barns or out-buildings, or in the open, day after day for week after week, all the way from January through into March or April. A Red Cross official estimated that 80% of the men suffered the additional misery of dystentery.

It is impossible to know how many men died on the Long March because it’s even hard to be certain about the number of Allied prisoners held by the Nazis. In 1944 the number of British prisoners was thought to be 199,592, but at the end of the war, the number of PoWs logged as having returned home was only 168,746. What happened to those 30,846 men? It may be that the first figure was wrong, but many of them may have died on the Long March. According to a report by the US Department of Veterans' Affairs, almost 3,500 US and Commonwealth POWs died as a result of the marches. The records of one working party show that 1,800 men set out on the Long March, and only 1,300 completed it, with 30% dying on route.

Emaciated PoWs at Stalag 11B at Fallingbostel, 17 April 1945 The British Army in North-west Europe 1944-45 BU3865.jpg

Why did the marches happen? The Soviet army was closing in on the Eastern Europe camps and the Nazis perhaps feared that liberated prisoners would swell their ranks. There are also theories that Hitler ordered the evacuations so he would have a human shield of prisoners for his last stand in the Baltic or to be used as hostages for a peace deal.

In a way, those theories are more believable than the shocking fact that perhaps 80,000 half-starved, ill-clothed men could be force marched 500 miles across Europe in mid-winter – and that within a generation it would be all but forgotten.

POWs at Stalag 11B at Fallingbostel in Germany welcome their liberators, 16 April 1945. BU3661.jpgs

For more information about Lamsdorf and The Long March:
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Facebook: @maggiebrookesnovelist

Friday 13 January 2023

Wonders and Warnings - by Ruth Downie

Head and shoulders drawing of a bearded man labelled "Pline lAncien"

Maybe Pliny the Elder was born 1900 years too early. As a man who was interested in everything and who needed very little sleep, he would have loved the possibilities of the Internet. As it was, he gathered together everything he’d learned in an early handwritten version of Wikipedia that stretched to 37 volumes, and if you want a splendid and entertaining overview of it, click back to LJ Trafford’s 2019 post on "The Curious Roman".

Pliny’s daylight hours were filled with a series of highly responsible jobs, so his writing was done largely at night. His reading relied on what we now call audiobooks, achieved by having his staff follow him around and read to him in every spare moment. With limited opportunities for fact-checking, he adopted an early version of the retweet – not claiming that what he wrote was accurate, merely reporting that someone else had said it.

I’ve restricted myself to a few highlights from his writings about the Human Animal, some of which may come as a surprise but all of which were thought to be accurate by somebody… unlike the picture of him above, which as far as I can make out is based on no evidence whatsoever.

First: wonders and marvels.

Should you travel where the north wind rises, you may run into the Arimaspi, people with one single eye in the middle of the forehead. You may also encounter the local griffins. Try not to be there when they meet each other. The Arimapsi have a bad habit of stealing the gold that the griffins have painstakingly mined out of their burrows, and there will probably be a fight.

There are wild men in the woods of Abarimon whose feet are fitted on back to front, but you may never see them because they can run very fast. Also, they’re unable to breathe in a foreign climate, so they don’t travel well.

Everything is bigger in India, and at this point I should probably mention the dog-headed men. They do little of interest beyond barking and hunting using only their nails, but as Pliny’s source says there are 150,000 of them, you are more likely to spot one than either a griffin or a man with his feet on backwards.

Drawing of various men with one leg, one eye, no head and dog head.

India is also the home of the men who have only one leg and jump everywhere. When the sun is fierce, the jumping stops and they lie down to shade themselves under their one foot.

Sadly Pliny does not dwell on the details of the men who are enveloped by their ears, nor the men without necks whose eyes are in their shoulders.

A little more time is devoted to the Astomi, a hairy people who clothe themselves in cotton-wool, have no mouths and get all their nourishment from smell. This is a mixed blessing, as a stronger-than-usual stench can easily be fatal.

Further away lies the mountainous home of the pygmies, which would be delightful were it not blighted by plagues of cranes. In spring the pygmies saddle up their goats, gather their bows and arrows and set out on a three-month cull of the crane breeding-grounds.

Drawing of horse with man's head and torso, waving a club

If you feel your credulity being stretched by any of this, bear in mind that Pliny actually saw a Hippocentaur - the exciting result of breeding a horse with a human. It was preserved in honey and had been brought from Egypt to show to the Emperor Claudius. 

Which brings me to reproduction – and here I want to change Pliny’s order slightly. It is no good starting with his warning that it is potentially fatal to yawn during childbirth. We need to lay down a few fundamentals first.

Since men can turn into women and vice-versa, it may be useful to know that a woman has fewer teeth than a man. Also, women are never left-handed.

If you are indeed a woman, you should be aware of the dangers of the menstrual flow. Should you venture abroad at the relevant time of the month, disaster will follow you. New wine will turn sour, crops will fail, seedlings will shrivel, fruit will fall prematurely from the tree, knives will go blunt, bees will die, metal will rust and even the local ants, should they catch a whiff of you, will drop the food they were carrying and run away. 

Photo of Roman iron dagger and sheath
Stay away, ladies. 

On a brighter note – should you wish for a beautiful child, take care to keep your gaze on something beautiful at the moment of conception. Remember that children can inherit birthmarks, moles, scars and – in the case of Dacian children – tattoos.

I’ve already mentioned the yawning. Also, try not to propel the infant out feet first. This is how both Caligula and Nero were born, which does not bode well. 

You may have noticed that the human race as a whole is getting smaller. This is because the earth is getting warmer and the heat dries up the fathers’ semen.

Despite all this, be encouraged. Your child has the potential for a bright future. Not only has Rome produced more outstanding individuals in every field than all the other nations put together, but Romans are the most virtuous people in the world.

The length of a human life is an uncertain business, but claims of humans living 500 or even 1000 years are only made by people who don’t understand that a year lasts for a whole twelve months. There are plenty more reliable records from Italy, including one region where fifty-four men were recorded as over 100 and three of them were over 140. 


Pliny was adamant that “nature’s supreme gift” of death was the end of every human existence, and there would be no afterlife beyond it. He received that gift himself at the age of only 55, while on a research and rescue mission during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. His nephew, who witnessed the disaster from across the bay, described the cloud above the volcano as in the shape of a pine tree.

Here, in honour of the splendidly enthusiastic and energetic Pliny the Elder, is the pine tree that now looms over the Getty Roman Villa.

Photo of pine tree with branches spread above roof of building.

Ruth Downie writes the MEDICUS series, featuring Roman Army medic Gaius Petreius Ruso - a man whose desire for a quiet life is thwarted both by unwanted murder investigations and by his British partner, Tilla.

This post was inspired by Mary Beagon’s “The Elder Pliny and the Human Animal – Natural History Book 7" – published by Clarendon Ancient History series. There is a fine selection of the complete Natural History published by Penguin Classics.

Photo credits -  

Pline L'Ancien -
Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Curious creatures in Zoology -
Public Domain

Hippocentaur -
Centaur with bull and maiden - edited
Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons 

Dagger - author's own photo

Pine tree - author's own photo



Friday 6 January 2023

Speaking Scottish by V E H (Vicki) Masters

'Speak properly,' my mother was forever reminding me as a child. By which, of course, she meant don't use Scots - either the words or the grammar. Fortunately my dad did use it, so I know and understand the language of my country. How much richer is Haud yer wheesht than Be quiet.

On one memorable occasion, when Dad came to pick me up from university I introduced him to some American exchange student friends. His greeting was, ‘Aye, and it’s a gey dreich day the day is it no.’ Blank looks all around – although he was right. It was a damp, dreary day.

Because of the general injunction to speak properly I always thought Scots was a form of corrupted, and inferior, English. When I came to write my first book The Castilians, which is set in St Andrews, Scotland, one of the many things that exercised my mind was what would be considered ‘correct’ speak in 1546.

I soon discovered that Scots is a language in its own right. It seems both Scots and English, are descended from the same Germanic language — Anglo-Saxon, although Scots also contains words from and Old Norse, like bairn and kilt, and Dutch, like haar (a sea mist). From the early 1400s it began to replace Latin in formal documents and statutes. Court poets, playwrights and story tellers also started to write in Scots.

Here’s William Dunbar (1490s) complaining about having a migraine or, as we’d say in Scots, ‘a verrie sair heid.’

Cartoon by George Cruikshank

My heid did yak yester nicht,
This day to mak that I na micht.
So sair the magryme dois me menyie,
Perseing my brow as ony ganyie,
That scant I luik may on the licht

My head did ache last night
And today I could not write.
So sore does the migraine hurt me
Piercing my brow like an arrow
That I can scarce look at the light

(Any errors in translation are entirely mine – and my Scots dictionary)

When Mary Queen of Scots returned to Scotland in 1561 she could barely remember her country’s language after living in France from when she was a small child. French was spoken amongst the nobles but Scots was the principle language and so Queen Mary learned to speak it rather than English.

John Knox, on the other hand, returning to Scotland just in time to make life difficult for Mary, had slipped into speaking English. He’d lived in Geneva for a number of years, where he led an English congregation and also wrote his many works in English, including The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. 

John Knox in full counterblast

There were two main reasons that contributed to Scots ultimately being considered as not ‘proper’ speak.

After the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when James VI of Scotland departed with all possible speed to wealthy London his language, certainly in papers and letters, becomes anglicised.

James VI and I

Here’s an extract from his Counterblast Against Tobacco… A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs…  Translated into Scots – ‘smokin’ is verra bad fur ye’. Perhaps a pity he didn’t use his kingly prerogative and ban tobacco at the time, but in any case he increasingly spoke English (no doubt with a good Scottish accent), so the upper classes did, and it rapidly became a sign of wealth, and standing, to speak English – and still is.

Scotland turned Protestant in 1560. A core component of Protestantism was that everyone should learn to read the Bible themselves rather than having the Latin version interpreted by the church. This meant that we needed bibles, and lots of them, quickly. Initially the Geneva version, which was written in English and published in 1557, was adopted. This was closely followed by the King James (sixth and first) version in 1611, also in English. Scotland soon had one of the highest literacy rates in the world – but everyone was learning to read in English, and not the Scots they spoke at home. And surely, the language you are communing with the Lord in must be the correct one to speak…

We did see a revival in the use of Scots in the 18th century, most famously exemplified by that charming philanderer Rabbie Burns, but it was more an entertaining curiosity for the wealthy than any genuine resurgence. Nevertheless Burns saved lots of songs in the vernacular which would likely have disappeared if he hadn’t written them down. 

Robert Burns

He’s probably most famous world wide for Auld Lang Syne (Old Times Past) sung at countless Hogmanay celebrations and then there’s Burns Night on the 25 January every year when the haggis is stabbed with gusto whilst being addressed in good Scots. 

In writing The Castilians I took the decision, since Bethia’s Mother had lived in England, that Bethia would speak an anglicised Scots although I do have some characters who use Scottish words, (I provide a glossary). Initially, I had far more Scots in it, but I did want the book to be read, and understood, widely. It’s always a balance…

Scots is the language of the Lowlands, Orkney and Shetland, and Northern Ireland (Ulster Scots) and even within that there’s much variation. The accent and some of the words used are quite different between say Fife and the Doric of the North East and then again Orcadian. 

But at least Scottish-speaking children didn’t suffer the fate of their Gaelic counterparts (Gaelic was never the language of Lowland Scotland). In the last century, children in the Highland and Islands were often beaten if they spoke Gaelic in school. I was fourteen before I first heard it, on holiday in the Western Isles. Thankfully Gaelic was saved in the nick of time, and is now more widely spoken. And as for Scots, well we’ve hung on tae it despite aywis being telt tae speak properly.

crabbit; scunnersome; drookit; gowk; oxters; guddle; midden; glaikit; besom

For more information on Scots see and also the Scottish Language Bill which the Scottish government is currently consulting on.