Saturday 30 September 2023

History keeps changing - writing The Fortune Keeper

 By Deborah Swift

I was really interested to read this week, that the coded letters of Mary Queen of Scots have just been deciphered by modern computer scientists and decoders. Undoubtedly this will give us hitherto unknown insights into what we know about her and her life. Historians and historical fiction authors may need to change their views depending on the new evidence.

A similar thing happened to me when was writing the last book in the trilogy of books about Giulia Tofana, a woman who was renowned for inventing the poison Aqua Tofana, and was supposed to have poisoned six hundred men in Renaissance Italy. (See my Aspects of History article Poison and PowerI had already uncovered through my research that Giulia Tofana was probably an amalgam of three women, and not the single entity of legend.

Three women, not one

The mother, Theofania d’Adamo was executed for the crime of poison on 12th June 1633, but her daughter, Giulia (known as Tofana) survived. The third person in this triumvirate of poisonous women was Giulia’s daughter, known as Girolama Spara. Until recently very little was known about the daughter so as historical novelists do, I fictionalised her birth, assuming she was a blood daughter of Giulia Tofana and her (also unknown) husband surnamed Spara. I wrote about this before for Aspects of History

About half way through writing the third novel in the series, from the point of view of the daughter, new evidence arose about the women in Giulia Tofana’s family. In an old library archive in Italy, an American academic had unearthed the real-time transcript of the murder trial of Giulia Tofana’s daughter, Girolama Spara, (also known as Gironima Spara) and published it. The document was originally kept under lock and key by the Pope at Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo, and from there ended up in the State Archive where it lay uncatalogued and undiscovered for generations. You can find the document translated by Monson at the end of this article.

History evolves

Of course I trawled through the new information, discovering with growing concern that my fictional view of events differed widely from this new evidence. I was shocked to discover that Girolama Spara was a step-daughter, and not a blood daughter at all, and that Giulia Tofana had been married twice.

The ledger was in a poor state of repair, but Professor Craig A Monson had painstakingly resurrected it and translated it into modern English. The truth is less glamorous than the plot I had in mind for these characters, so what should I do? The past is both fixed and mutable. The two previous books were fixed, already out on shelves and readers were enjoying the story. The new information meant that I would need to be open to bending, or changing, the third book.

Would readers care? There are many schools of thought on this – on how accurate historical fiction should be, and it is debated endlessly by historians and novelists. From my point of view I was obligated to finish the story I had set up with the characters remaining consistent within the series, yet also to incorporate the new information. The rules I set for that world needed to remain in place so that the reader feels they are in a real and secure locale, no matter where the story went.

Whatever character I create can never be the real person. Anne Boleyn has had hundreds of interpretations of her character. The events I describe can never be ‘true’, just as contemporary witnesses to any crime will have different views. A novel can’t be ‘accurate’, just as someone trying to depict my life of yesterday could never be accurate, even with all the iphone technology and photography available now, and if my diaries were in front of them, because life is too complex to render completely. What I hope to achieve in my novels is a tantalising whisper of what it might have been like to inhabit another era.

History continues to fascinate

It is exciting that at last we know more about the actual trial and details of the life of Girolama. She is nicknamed Mia in my book, because having a similar name to her mother Giulia, she was often confused with her, and this led to many errors of attribution. Many of the crimes assigned to Giulia actually belonged to Girolama and vice-versa.

I used maps, academic articles and transcripts of primary sources to complete the book, as well as the translation of the trial documents by Professor Monson, and I like to include historical notes at the end of my books to make it clear where (for the moment) the historical evidence is pointing.

Is The Fortune Keeper a true re-telling of Girolama Spara’s life? Definitely not. Will it take you on a journey into the heart of a young woman in Renaissance Venice? I hope so. 

You may be interested in:

The Black Widows of the Eternal City: The True Story of Rome’s Most Infamous Poisoner by Craig A Monson

Coded Letters of Mary Queen of Scots


Buy the Book –





Pictures of 17thC Venice, The Ridotto gambling hall, and the fight on the Bridge of St Barnaba in Venice, all from Wikipedia.

Friday 15 September 2023

The Caryatids: The (Ancient) History Girls by Caroline K. Mackenzie

The ascent to the Athenian Acropolis.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

If you have ever climbed the steep steps up to the Acropolis in Athens, you will hopefully agree that the arduous ascent is worth every breath, as you reach the stunning collection of 5th century BC temples built as a celebration of Athens’ might and power. An earlier temple housed on the Acropolis had been destroyed in 480BC when the Persians invaded Attica. The story goes that following this destruction, the Athenians swore the oath of Plataea, vowing never to rebuild the Acropolis so that it would serve as a permanent reminder of barbaric impiety. However, under Pericles, general and statesman, an ambitious building programme resulted in the magnificent monuments which still stand today; a giant pro-Athenian billboard, you may say.

Even if you haven’t visited, you might have seen the Acropolis on the news this summer. Hoards of overheated tourists, panting and sweating, were adamant that the soaring temperatures and fierce sun would not prevent their pilgrimage to the Parthenon. The Parthenon is the most famous of all the temples on the Acropolis but just to its north, in its shadow, is a temple which has long intrigued me, not least because of the statues of women in its south porch.

The Parthenon (right) and the Erechtheion (left).
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

This temple is known as the Erechtheion and was a replacement for the old temple to Athene Polias (‘Protectress of the City’) destroyed by the Persians. The building was started in 421 BC but most of it was completed between 409 and 406 BC. It probably housed the old cult statue of Athene, but it was also a temple for the cults of Erechtheus (hence its name) and Poseidon. Erechtheus, the only semi-offspring of Athene, was an Athenian hero and all Athenians claimed to be descended from him.

The breath-taking view across Athens with the Erechtheion in the foreground.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

The Erechtheion was the most sacred spot on the Acropolis, and indeed in Athens as a whole. It recalled the complete history of the city. Here, according to myth, Athene and Poseidon competed with each other to become patron of the city. The location preserved the sacred proofs ('martyria') of the contest: the olive tree bestowed on the city by Athene (an olive tree still stands there today) and the marks from Poseidon’s hurled trident and the saltwater spring that sprung up after he struck the rock of the Acropolis. This competition is depicted on the west pediment of the Parthenon.

The uneven terrain on which the Erechtheion was built.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

The temple also housed the grave of King Kekrops, a mythical king of Athens who had the head of a man and the body of a snake. Due to the various sacred sites, as well as the uneven terrain, the architecture of the Erechtheion is unlike any other. It had to incorporate space for each deity and hero (including altars for each) and this determined the layout and size of all its rooms. It is unusual as it has an asymmetric shape and is built on different levels.

The olive tree beside the Erechtheion. 
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

The south porch faces the Parthenon and here stand six Caryatids, statues of females acting as columns. The Caryatids are massive figures (appropriate to their function). They have clinging drapery, a feature of much Greek sculpture, known as ‘diaphanous’ drapery (or, to quote one of my former lecturers, ‘The wet T-shirt competition’ look). Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology, Sir John Boardman, describes the Caryatids as having an ‘emphatic set of hips and legs that look forward to the yet richer styles of the later century’.

The caryatid porch of the Erechtheion, on the Acropolis, Athens.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

‘Architects should inform themselves about history’ according to Roman architect and writer, Vitruvius, in his De Architectura (1.1.5). He goes on to say that someone might ask why an architect has replaced columns with ‘marble statues of long-robed women, which are called Caryatids’. Vitruvius explains that Caryatids are so called because during the Persian wars, the Laconian city of Caryae was one of those Greek states which sided with the Persians. After defeating the Persians, the Greek allies turned on Caryae. They murdered the men; and enslaved all the women, regardless of individual women’s social background. The architects of the time symbolised their shame by creating ‘Caryatids’: statues of the women bearing their heavy load. Thus, their punishment was to be publicised forever.

The Erechtheion in the shadow of the Parthenon.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

Vitruvius’ theory, however, has not always received support among scholars. Some point out that the Erechtheion is not the first building to use female figures as columns: the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi (late sixth century BC) also has them. However, this doesn’t prevent the possibility that the meaning of their use was ‘reinvented’ in the fifth century. At the time, it could have been seen as a modern twist on an old custom. Vitruvius also tells us that the Spartans built similar statues as supporting columns in their ‘Persian Stoa’ (a roofed colonnade). The statues were dressed in Persian clothing. Thus, these were architectural victory trophies as Sparta had defeated Persia at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC.

Another interpretation of the Caryatids is that they are carrying the baskets used in the Panathenaia and are part of the procession. The Panathenaia was a festival celebrated annually in honour of the patron goddess of Athens, Athene. Every four years the Great Panathenaia was held, a grander version of the annual festival, and included an elaborate procession. The Caryatids, therefore, could be standing in readiness to serve the goddess. During the Panathenaia, the Erechtheion was the where the procession reached its grand finale and here the peplos was presented to the olive wood statue of Athene. The peplos is a rectangular piece of clothing worn by women, folded down from the neck and belted and tied or won at the shoulder but sleeveless. The presentation of the peplos to Athene is believed to be represented on the Parthenon frieze, on the central part of the eastern side, the side from which one enters the Parthenon.

Part of the Parthenon frieze (British Museum): the gods frame the presentation of the peplos scene.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

The capitals of the columns placed on the heads of the women ensure the weight of the roof and its forces are directed downwards. Their dresses are peploi (Greek plural of peplos), the vertical folds of which recall the flutes of columns. Their hair is thick and plaited and rests on their shoulders and back, which cleverly provides further strength to the structural weak point of the neck. We do not know the name of the sculptor but believe they are from the workshop of Alkamenes, pupil of Pheidias. Pheidias was the artistic director of the construction of the Parthenon and also the sculptor of Athene Parthenos (‘Maiden’) on the Acropolis and of Olympian Zeus at Olympia. This chryselephantine statue of Zeus was regarded by the later Greeks as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Other scholars believe that, as they stand above the grace of Kekrops, they represent mourners for this ancestral figure. If they do represent an above-ground monument for the tomb of Kekrops ('the Kekropeion') located directly below, then they were ‘choephoroi’: devotees who offered libations to the dead hero-king using the 'phialai' (shallow libation vessels) they once held in their hands, as known from ancient copies of these statues. In the building inscription for the temple, the statues are simply called ‘Korai’ (maidens). Caryatids was a name given to them in later years.

The Erechtheion was repaired shortly after 21 BC following a destruction by fire. In the 7th century AD, it was converted into a church, while under Ottoman rule (1458-1833) it hosted the harem of the Turkish commander. In 1803 the column at the northeast corner and one of the Caryatids (known as 'Kore C') were removed by Lord Elgin (of the 'Elgin Marbles' notoriety). The Museum Guide to the Acropolis Museum has something to say about this:

‘The abduction of the Kore, who was replaced by a pilaster, made such an impression on the enslaved Athenian people that they claimed thereafter they could hear the lamenting of the remaining maidens mourning the loss of their sister at night. However, this was not the end. In 1827 during the Greek struggle for liberation, the building was struck by a Turkish bomb that destroyed Kore F. The five remaining Karyatid [sic] statues (Korai A, B, D, F and F, the last having been restored from fragments, are today exhibited in the Acropolis Museum, while the sixth (Kore C) is in the British Museum.’


Kore C currently in the British Museum (left) and a cast of one of her 'sisters' in the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge (right).
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

If you are wondering who the imposters are in situ on the Erechtheion today, they are simply replicas made from stone. The originals are made from the superior Pentelic marble. Versions of them can be seen as far afield as Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli and, in terracotta, in the porch of St Pancras New Church in Euston Road, London. The Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge houses a cast of one in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, removed from the temple in 1979. If you would like to get up close and personal with one of the originals, the Caryatid in the British Museum is tucked away in a rather modest location and is quite separate from the Parthenon Gallery. Whenever I have visited her, I have had her all to myself. The debate about the Parthenon sculptures and their possible return to Athens rages on and the British Museum has been in the news rather a lot recently. As to whether Kore C will be in London for much longer, who knows. I am taking some students to the British Museum later this month to introduce her to them, while I still can.

The porch of St Pancras New Church in Euston Road, London.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.


Boardman, J. (1985) Greek Sculpture: The Classical Period. Thames and Hudson.

Mitropoulos, A. (2017) Morrison T., Renshaw J. and Steinhauer J. Greek Religion and Democracy and The Athenians. Bloomsbury.

Pandermalis, D., Eleftheratou S., Vlassopoulou C. (2016) Acropolis Museum Guide. Acropolis Museum Editions.

Spivey, N. (1996) Understanding Greek Sculpture: Ancient Meanings, Modern Readings. Thames and Hudson

Caroline K. Mackenzie is the author of three books and is a private tutor in Greek, Latin, and Classical Civilisation. Caroline's online Classics Club meets weekly during term-time and is currently studying Virgil's Aeneid in translation. 'Learn Latin' meets fortnightly on Zoom.

Friday 8 September 2023

The Serpent of Division - review by Mary Hoffman



You might know Christina Hardyment from her books of popular sociology (Dream Babies; The Future of the Family; From Mangle to Microwave) or literary biographies (Malory: the Life and Tmes of King Arthur's Chronicler; The World of Arthur Ransome). She has also written more generally on Literature (Writing the Thames; Novel Houses: Twenty Famous Fictional Dwellings).

Now to add to this eclectic mix, she has started a trilogy of historical novels about Alice Chaucer. Medieval mystery has a special charm for the English reader from the popular cosiness of Brother Cadfael to the willing adoption of more challenging works like The Name of the Rose.

Alice Chaucer is a good choice for main character. The granddaughter of the poet, married three times, a staunch Lancastrian trying to keep her head after her last husband's murder, she was a landowner in her own right, a falconer of repute and a passionate reader and book collector. At the beginning of The Serpent of Division, she has quit her property in Wingfield in Suffolk for the palace at Ewelme in Oxfordshire, taking with her anything portable her carts could carry, to the annoyance of her only son John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk.

If the last rings a bill, I reviewed a biography of him and his father William, De la Pole Father and Son by Michèle Schindler here earlier in the year. Nothing in that suggested that mother and son were at daggers drawn but it is a reasonable interpretation for literary purposes, of which there are more to come.

Alice Chaucer's great passion was education and the building of schools and the one at Ewelme still stands:


Virtually nothing is left of the Manor or Palace but the parish church of St Mary's houses the tombs of Alice and of her parents Thomas and Maud. From the church, or God's house, a steep flight of stone steps leads down to a door to the almshouses Alice founded, still tenanted today by thirteen worthy occupants.


At the beginning of the novel, one of the bedesmen has died, unnaturally as it later tirns out, and must be replaced. As a candidate, the scheming Queen Elizabeth (Wydvile) is planning, aided by the villainous Harcourt brothers, to insert a spy into the vacancy, to bring back reports of Alice's Lancastrian sympathies and intrigues. Forewarned of the plan, the Duchess blocks the move with her own candidate, an ancient anchoress called Sibylla. She still gets Milo of Windsor foisted on her by the Harcourts and must be on her mettle to keep her secrets.

She is aided by a new maid, Tamsin, a teenage orphan from the village, who is keen to do well in her probationary month and is fiercely loyal to her new mistress. With characters called Tamsin, Denzil and Marlene, I wondered if Hardyment wasn't using too modern a nomenclature, but they are all surprisingly old, Tamsin from Thomasina, Denzil from a place name in Cornwall and Marlene a form of Magdalene long before a glamorous German actress made it popular in modern times.

Alice (Or Alyce as she is spelt in this novel) is beset on all sides: her great wealth, inherited in her own name from her three husbands, is a draw to anyone who might want to get their hands on it through marriage. Queen Elizabeth might marry her off to one of her young male relatives; she has form. That might feature in the later books as, although this one is named after the woman Hardyment sees as the real villan of the piece, Elizabeth has very few scenes in it.

If not by marriage, Alice might lose her property through being declared a traitor to the Crown; although her son John is married to the king's sister, Bess of York, the family's old sympathies are all with the previous king, Henry Vl, now languishing in the Tower of London. She has to keep on her toes and it doesn't help that she suspects members of her household of harbouring Lancastrian rebels at Ewelme while she has been away.

Alice's vison of a peaceful retirement in Oxfordshire, tending her garden, organising her library and looking after the school, the almhouses and God's house while occasionally hunting with her falcons or working at her embroidery was not to be easily won.

St Mary's "God's house" at Ewelme

While keeping various plates spinning, Alice also has a visit from a sculptor, John Massingham, to design her tomb - a practical rather than morbid pastime for wealthy people in the Middle Ages. Halfway through the book, Massingham (a real historical figure) comes to visit Alice with his drawings for her tomb. She had no intention of being buried with one of her husbands - certanly not the disgraced and murdered William, Duke of Suffolk, who was buried at Wingfield (or Hull, according to Schindler). And she had built the monument to her parents in God's house thirty years earlier.

Tomb of Thomas Chaucer and his wife Maud in Ewelme

Massingham's sketches are too flattering when it comes to Alice's effigy: "her face was perfectly proportioned, with a high forehead, a small fat pursed mouth and meekly downcast eyes. It looked nothing like her." Alice is having none of that and wants the face of her effigy to be drawn from life. It seems she got her way:

She wants a memonto mori cadaver carved underneath the tomb and gets that too:

Of course, Hardyment works back from the tomb to the conversation but it feels very authentic. These were dangerous times for those loyal to the house of Lancaster and Ewelme is beset by spies and murderers, not all successful. One death takes place in the peaceful cloister where the almshouses are; fortunately now the well has been filled in.

You might think that much-married Alice invokes her grandfather's creation of The Wife of Bath but Hardyment has invented another character to do that. Joan Moulson, a London bookseller, is as voluptuous as Alice is austere and, once they have got to know each other, they make good partners in crime.

I look forward to the next book in the trilogy. After all, Alice had nearly ten more good years to come.

[Pictures all author's own or Wikimedia Commons]

Friday 1 September 2023

'The Secret lies in the Thimble' by Karen Maitland

17th Century silver thimble
Photo: Llangefni

In my Jacobean novel Traitor in the Ice, one of my characters passes a secret note to another folded into a band and hidden inside a thimble. This method of passing secret or coded messages was frequently used in times of religious persecution during the Tudor period and probably for centuries before that, and was still being used during the 17th century English Civil War. A band of folded paper was easily concealed in a thimble, which, even in a room crowded with people, a woman could causally set on table for the recipient to pick up, or it could be slipped into a work basket. Even the decoration on the thimble itself could be used as a coded message.

But the practising of concealing things in thimbles has a much older origin and is linked to what the thimble has come to symbolise. 

Thimbles have been excavated from ancient Chinese sites dating as far back as the 206BC to 220CE, as well as from Roman sites, such as Herculaneum and Pompeii, buried when Vesuvius erupted in 79CE. 

Copper-alloy thimble ring c. 1400-1600
Found in East Sussex
Photo: Andy Stanley
The Portable Antiques Scheme/
The Trustees of the British Museum

In the Middle Ages, most thimbles made from brass or copper alloy and were used by men, women and children. For sewing coarse cloth, they used topless thimble rings, pressing the needle with the side of the finger, and for finer cloth and embroidery, they used bee-hive shaped thimbles. 

By Tudor times, the giving of elaborately decorated thimbles as a lover’s token or an occasion gift was well established. These were often engraved with initials, coats of arms, and mottos, or decorated with emblems in the forms of birds, flowers and animals. Queen Elizabeth bestowed thimbles studded with precious stones on her favoured ladies-in-waiting.

C. 1708, a child's silver  thimble
with machine made circular punch marks
Photo: Kult Adams, Bristol City Museum
The Portable Antiques Scheme/
The Trustees of the British Museum

In 1693, John Lofting, a Dutch thimble manufacturer set up a thimble factory in Islington, in London, England, before moving his production to Buckinghamshire to take advantage of water-power. He was able to turn out two million thimbles per year, such was the demand. 

But thimbles had become far more than tools for sewing, they had taken on symbolic meanings too. Traditionally, a ring, a coin and a thimble are baked into a wedding cake for guests to share. The person who gets a ring will find happiness. The one who gets the coin will become wealthy, but the one who gets the thimble with remain unwed, a ‘spinster.’ The same applied, if a girl was gifted three thimbles, presumably because that meant she’d had three suitors and had not settled for any of them. 

'First Sun' by Camille Martin (1861-1898)
Photo: Vassil
Museum of Fine Arts of Nancy

The more important meaning of thimble, though, was protection and good fortune. A thimble is one of the most common objects metal detectorists unearth in fields and gardens. Many were simply lost there. At harvest time, field hands often wore thimbles to protect their hands when binding straw, and women and children would join menfolk for the harvest, and continued to sew or mend while resting from the heat of the day. So many thimbles were probably mislaid. But some seemed to have been deliberately placed in the earth, and contain scrolls of paper, grains of cereals, hazelnuts, crystals, and pebbles, many found with scraps of cloth inside. Some of these clothes, of course, would have been rags used as padding to keep the thimble snug to the finger, but not all. 

Since thimbles symbolised protection, if a woman was anxious about a son going off to war, a daughter giving birth, or a lover on a sea voyage, she’d write their name on a piece of paper and tuck it into a thimble, which she’d then bury in the earth to protect them. If she couldn’t write, she’d use some scrap belonging to the person, such as a strip cut from a garment or a fragment of something they'd used, even a piece of a consecrated wafer from Mass.

Copper- alloy thimble c.1400-1600
Found on the Isle of Wight
Photo: Frank Basford, Isle of White Council
The Portable Antiques Scheme/
The Trustees of the British Museum

The thimble could also be used to protect the whole household from the plague, or as a prayer for a good harvest. So, while thimbles unearthed with a grain of wheat or corn in them can simply be the result of them being lost during harvesting, sometimes a grain of corn might have been put inside deliberately. 

Often too something red would be added – a red bead, rowan berry or red thread to keep what was inside safe, and ensure it couldn’t be taken by evil spirits to cause harm. In a curious blending of the two superstitions, some years ago, I was thrilled to be given two Victorian silver thimbles by an elderly lady, which were tied together by a red cord. But I was warned never to cut or untie the red cord or tie a third thimble to the cord, for fear of bad luck.

Right up until the 1940’s, the tradition was that if a wife of a famer or farmworker died, a strip of cloth cut from her dress would be stuffed into her thimble and thrown out on to the field where she had worked. If a corpse of a woman was proving difficult to get inside a coffin because of stiffness or size, it was said that if her thimble was cast into the coffin first, her body would follow easily.

A Nürnberg thimble
Cast brass 14th Century
Photo: Llangefni

So if you are lucky enough to dig up an old thimble in your garden, do check carefully inside it before you wash the mud out.

If want to discover more, a good starting point is thimbles ( It has a fascinating piece on the history of European thimbles, including why ‘Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. sent spies to Nürnberg to steal the secret of the thimble making,’ together with some excellent photographs of thimbles found in fields and gardens, dating from 12th century onwards to help you date yours.