Thursday, 20 November 2014

Piers Plowman and the Black Death by Ann Swinfen

I’ve recently been given the beautiful Folio Society edition of William Langland’s Piers Plowman, which has set me thinking again about the poem and its context. 
I’ve been intrigued by Piers Plowman – rather oddly – since an early age. When I was nine, I attended a P.N.E.U. school, where the history books we used were the Piers Plowman series, which featured the same image on the front cover as does the Folio edition.

At that age I was just developing my passion for history, reading historical novels, visiting Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon, and for the first time experiencing that shiver along the spine that comes when we feel suddenly directly in touch with the past.

It was a very good school history series, although there was not a great deal about Piers Plowman in those particular volumes, apart from a few quotations, as the period we were studying covered the Neolithic through to the Romans, but my fiction reading at the time took me into the mediaeval period. Proper study of Piers Plowman only came later, in student days and, ultimately, in lecturing on the poem to university students.

An aspect of the work which I sometimes feel is not emphasised enough is the context of the contemporary English society in which it was written – the horrific aftermath of the Black Death, or the Great Pestilence, as it was known at the time. Piers Plowman is a fascinating work, as much for the vivid picture it presents of fourteenth-century English life as for its passionate – and often angry – moral message.

Written by William Langland soon after half the population of England had been wiped out by the Black Death in around seven months, the narrative poem takes a long hard look at what is wrong with society. It is in the form of an allegorical dream vision, set initially in the Malvern Hills. The dream vision was a literary genre quite common at the time (Chaucer, amongst others, also used it), and although this structure is no longer familiar, the social satire and the quest for a decent life are literary genres familiar to everyone since the Greek and Roman period down to the present day. One of the joys of Piers Plowman is its robust and detailed portrayal of contemporary life, and some of its unexpected twists. One of my favourites is the wicked Rose the Regrater. Rose is a retailer, that is, she buys wholesale, then resells at a profit. In the fourteenth century this was considered a crime and a sin. Heavens! What would happen to the world economy now if we still held the same view?

Shipton-under-Wychwood Church

William Langland is believed to have come from Shipton-under-Wychwood in Oxfordshire, a village I knew well in my student days. Don’t you love that village name? I believe ‘ton’ derives from ‘toun’, a large working farmstead, so Shipton was probably a large sheep-rearing farm or cluster of farms at the edge of Wychwood. And I think we can guess the derivation of the latter!

At the time William was writing, those who had survived the Black Death of 1348-9,  were having to come to terms with a violently changed world. He was probably a child or very young man at the time of the pandemic and would have had vivid memories of it. The population was now thin on the ground. Whole villages were inhabited by nothing but ghosts. Towns were full of empty, decaying houses. Plague pits, where the dead had been tumbled hastily into mass graves, still scarred the outskirts of every town and village. Suddenly there was no longer the peasant labour force to cultivate the fields, so that much of the agricultural land must have reverted to a wasteland of scrub, thistles and bracken. Flocks of sheep must have become feral. Landowners could no longer depend on their bonded labourers to work their lands and tend their flocks and herds, nor on their tenants (now mostly dead) to pay their rents. Moreover, the plague returned three more times before the end of the century, killing even more of the population. In 1361-2 alone, another ten percent of the population died.

Those labourers who survived discovered that they could demand higher wages. They could leave their masters and seek better conditions elsewhere, or move to a town and take up life as a free craftsman. It led to a huge social upheaval and an unprecedented movement of population.

Above all, those who had experienced the plague must have thought the end of the world had come. The afflicted often died alone and unshriven. Social order broke down. With family, friends and neighbours dying all around them, it would have seemed to a devout fourteenth-century population that God was determined to destroy mankind. There was no cure for the plague. It struck at random – wicked and worthy alike. Imagine how terrifying it must have been.

So it’s not surprising that a work like Piers Plowman should have been written a couple of decades after the first visitation of the plague, examining what was wrong with society. (Why, after all, had God chosen to inflict this terrible punishment?) And searching for a path to a good Christian life. (So the punishment would not return to destroy the survivors.)

The pope and the Church he headed had also begun to fall into disrepute from the time of the removal of the papal court to Avignon in 1309. Now some began to question whether God’s displeasure lay with corruption in the Church. The papal schism of 1378 damaged the reputation of the Church even further.

Although the narrative standpoint in Piers Plowman is nominally mediaeval Catholicism, there are the seeds here of the new, questioning movements which would lead eventually to Protestantism. John Ball, one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt, appropriated the name ‘Piers Plowman’ in his writings. Piers, of course, represents the ‘common man’, Everyman, one of those peasants whose status in society was profoundly changed by the devastation of the Black Death. 
John Ball encouraging the peasants
The first plague years in England were 1348-9, the following outbreaks occurring in 1361-2, 1369, and 1374-5. Piers Plowman was written somewhere around 1370 or a little later. The year 1378 saw the papal schism. The Peasants’ Revolt took place in 1381. 
Richard II meeting the peasants

The Lollard movement for the reform of the Church originated in the middle of the same century, in the same circumstances of plague, and its most famous leader, the theologian John Wycliffe, was driven out of Oxford for his ‘heretical’ views in 1381. His translation of the Bible into the vernacular (1382) circulated amongst reformers until the Reformation, despite being banned, and it influenced the Authorised Version produced in the reign of James I, as well as the later translation by Tyndale. The whole second half of the fourteenth century was a crucible of radically new ideas that would have been unthinkable just fifty years before.

John Wycliffe

So, although there is certainly no evidence that William Langland was a Lollard, his writings reflect the major upheavals in social and religious thinking of the late fourteenth century. Although we tend to associate the beginning of the modern world with the coming of the Tudors, its earliest roots lie in the extraordinary events and new ideas which arose during the late fourteenth century, more than a hundred years earlier. They are articulated above all in Piers Plowman, a new kind of literary voice for a new era.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

‘Sister of the more famous William’: some reflections on the life and career of Caroline Herschel by Christina Koning

With comets very much in the news these past few days, following the spectacular success of the Rosetta mission, I’m been thinking some more about Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), the first professional female astronomer, and the subject of my 2011 novel, Variable Stars. Between 1786 and 1797, Herschel discovered eight comets - one of which (35P/Herschel-Rigollet) bears her name. There is also an asteroid (281 Lucretia) named after her, as well as a crater on the Moon (C. Herschel). During her long life - she lived to be 97 - she was also responsible for cataloguing over 2,500 nebulae, an achievement for which she was awarded not one, but two, gold medals. She fraternised with the most eminent astronomers of the age, and was described by one of them, the German astronomer Karl Felix Seyffer, as the ‘most noble and worthy priestess of the new heavens’. She was, in a word, something of a superstar.

With so starry a C.V., it may seem surprising that Caroline Herschel is not better known, but in spite of her achievements, she remains a relatively obscure figure. The reason for this is not hard to find. For, remarkable as it was, Caroline Herschel’s life has been largely overshadowed by that of her brother, William - discoverer, in 1781, of the planet Uranus. As William Herschel’s assistant and amanuensis, Caroline might also be said to have contributed to this discovery, and to others that followed, such as the discovery of infra-red radiation. However, the fact remains that, when her existence is acknowledged at all, she is often dismissed as no more than a diligent ‘helpmeet’ - a facilitator of scientific discoveries, rather than a discoverer in her own right.

So who was Caroline Herschel? Born in Hanover in 1750, the eighth child of ten, to an impoverished musician and his wife, Caroline can hardly have been said to have had an auspicious beginning. Smallpox, at the age of four, left her (as she laconically remarked) ‘totally disfigured’; an outbreak of typhus, some years later, nearly killed her. Her childhood was harsh – denied the musical education from which her brothers benefited, she was assigned the role of household drudge, terrorised over by her elder brother, Jacob. And yet her memories of this grim time were not entirely unhappy. In her journal, she recalls a winter’s walk with her father:

I remember his taking me in a clear frosty night in the street to make me acquainted with some of the most beautiful constellations, after we had been gazing at a Comet which was then visible…
A significant moment, no doubt, for the future astronomer.
Rescued from her unrewarding existence by her brother William, who was then working as Director of the Bath Choir, the twenty-two year-old Caroline found herself in England. Here, at William’s insistence, she was to train as a professional singer. From this time on, she divided her time between practising ‘5, 6 hours at the Harpsichord’ every day, and assisting her brother in his new enthusiasm – for astronomy. Over the next few years, Caroline built up a considerable reputation as a soloist, often singing lead soprano in one of the Handel operas or oratorios, which were then all the rage. But her musical career was not to last. With the discovery, by William, in 1781, of what turned out to be a new planet, ‘Georgium Sidus’ (Uranus), the Herschel siblings’ peaceful existence in Bath came to an end. Overnight, William became internationally famous, and was conscripted by George III to act as his personal astronomer. Caroline, much against her will, was obliged to abandon her music ‘to be trained for an assistant Astronomer’. In this capacity (she wrote)
I was to sweep for Comets, and… write down and describe all remarkable appearances I saw in my Sweeps…
adding wryly
But it was not till the last two months of the same year before I felt the least encouragement for spending the starlight nights on a grass-plot covered with dew or hoar frost without a human being near enough to be within call…
The telescopes used were enormous - twenty-foot Newtonian instruments with twelve-foot mirrors, mounted on specially constructed wooden scaffolds, with ladders to enable the astronomer and his faithful assistant to scramble up and down at will. They needed frequent adjustment, and this was not without its hazards. One night, working, as was usual, in the cold and dark, Caroline was badly injured when attempting to carry out such an adjustment. William, who was perched on a ladder at the front of the telescope, shouted an instruction to his sister to alter the position of the instrument. In running to obey his command, Caroline slipped on a patch of melting snow, and fell onto one of the iron hooks tethering the guy-ropes attached to the scaffold. It ‘entered my right leg about 6 inches above the knee,’ she wrote, with typical sang froid. ‘My brother’s call, “Make haste!” I could only answer by a pitiful cry of “I am hooked!”…’ 
Fortunately, she recovered from the injury - whose effects, in those days before penicillin, were perhaps mitigated by the extreme cold. And those late-eighteenth century winters were very cold indeed. It was not unusual for the ink to freeze in the inkwell on Caroline’s desk, in the hut where she sat, each night from ten or twelve until three or four in the morning, recording the night’s observations.
In spite of the discomforts (and occasional hazards) of her new life, Caroline soon became as enthusiastic about star-gazing as her brother. Provided by William with a purpose-built ‘sweeper’ for detecting comets, she began at once to find them.
I have calculated 100 nebulae today
she wrote in her journal on 1st August, 1786
and this evening I saw an object which I believe will prove to morrow night to be a Comet…
It did indeed prove to be a comet. Caroline wrote that evening to the Royal Society, to announce her discovery. And for a brief but heady period, she enjoyed the fame which had, up until then, been her brother’s exclusive preserve. Not only the President and Secretary of the Royal Society, but also Lord Palmerston, and later, the King and Queen, came to the Herschels’ home at Slough in order to view the comet. The novelist Fanny Burney was also present on one of these occasions. ‘The comet was very small,’ she wrote, ‘and had nothing grand or striking in its appearance; but it is the first lady’s comet, and I was very desirous to see it…’
Nor was this the last such excitement Caroline’s new life as an astronomer was to offer. While her brother occupied himself with building still more enormous telescopes - a forty-foot monster was constructed in the grounds of the house in Slough, in 1787 - Caroline got on with what she was good at, which was finding comets. Here is an account of Caroline’s working practises, as described in a letter written in 1793, by Nevil Maskelyne, a great friend of both the Herschels:
I paid Dr & Miss Herschel a visit 7 weeks ago. She shewed me her 5 feet Newtonian telescope made for her by her brother for sweeping the heavens. It has an aperture of 9 inches, but magnifies only from 25 to 30 times… being designed to shew objects very bright, for the better discovering any new visitor to our system, that is Comets, and any undiscovered nebulae. It is a very powerful instrument, & shews objects very well… The height of the eye-glass is altered but little in sweeping from the horizon to the zenith. This she does in 6 or 8 minutes, & then moves the telescope a little forward in azimuth, & sweeps another portion of the heavens in like manner. She will thus sweep a quarter of the heavens in one night.
The Astronomer Royal’s admiration seems to have been reciprocated. In August 1797, a few years after the visit described above, Caroline found her eighth - and, as it turned out, final - comet. After a night’s observing, and no doubt very little sleep, she saddled a horse and rode the thirty miles from Slough to the Royal Astronomer’s house at Greenwich, in order to ensure that Maskelyne would be the first to hear of her discovery. Glimpses such as this give one a sense of the extraordinary determination of the woman. Her journals and letters also reveal a dry wit. Replying to a letter from Maskelyne, in which he had praised her work on the Index to Flamsteed’s Catalogue - another of her by no means negligible achievements - she said: 
Your having thought it worthy of the press [that is, of publication] has flattered my vanity not a little. You see, sir, I do own myself to be vain, because I would not wish to be singular; and was there ever a woman without vanity? Or a man either? Only with this difference, that among gentlemen the commodity is generally styled ambition. 
Caroline was still only in her early forties. She was to live for another fifty years. For her work in producing the Index to Flamsteed’s Catalogue, she was to be made an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835 - one of the first two women to be so honoured (the other was Mary Somerville); although it would be another eighty years before Girton’s Annie Scott Dill Maunder would be elected the first female member of the RAS. Although she was never to marry, Caroline enjoyed close friendships with some of the most fascinating men and women of the age. She was a devoted sister, and an adoring aunt to her brother’s only son, John - who also became an astronomer, and whose cataloguing of the southern skies completed what his father and aunt had achieved in the northern hemisphere.        

So: it is time for Caroline Lucretia Herschel to come out of her brother’s shadow and take her rightful place in the history of science? I certainly think so - and I can’t help feeling that the extraordinary events of last Wednesday might never have happened at all had it not been for the pioneering efforts of Caroline Herschel and others like her - the unsung sisterhood of science.    

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Remember, Remember... Celia Rees

I apologise for writing about an event that has passed but History Girls can't choose their dates. On November 5th, I was in Lewes, staying with my old school friend Charmian, invited to witness the phenomenon  that is Bonfire. Not Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes night. Just Bonfire. 

When I was a child, Bonfire Night was one of the highlights of my year. Preparations began in September, collecting wood for the bonfire, rummaging through the rag bag for bits of clothes to make the guy.  We lived in a far less controlled and PC world back then, when children could build bonfires and buy fireworks and we would go round for weeks before the great day, letting off bangers and arguing about which ones made the best bangs. The bonfire would be constructed in the back garden, the guy perched on top. Dads would light the fire and when it was going well, all the conkers we'd collected would be thrown on to fizz and pop. Then the fireworks would be let off as we waved sparklers and munched on sausages, baked potatoes and parkin. Fire and feasting. As a child, I had no idea that I was taking part in a tradition that went back and back, before the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes failed attempt to blow up Parliament, before All Hallows Eve, to the Celtic Festival of Samhain and probably before that to some ancient time when people first built fires to drive back the encroaching darkness of the waning year.  I did not know about any of that then but I knew it felt special.

This year, at Lewes Bonfire, I had that feeling again, of excitement, of  spectacle, of the wonder and terror of fire. Bonfire is always held on November 5th, unless that date falls on a Sunday, not the nearest convenient weekend. Always the date itself. Lewes is divided into a number of Bonfire Societies: Cliffe (who do things with burning tar barrels and still burn effigies of the Pope), Commercial Square, Borough, Southover, South Street, Waterloo. The names refer to areas in the town and each Society has its own bonfire site where they have built a huge bonfire and will eventually let off spectacular fireworks. The territorial  nature, the year round preparation, the fierce pride and competition, the level of obsession, the feeling that this is only for Lewes people, that the 40,000 visitors are interlopers, reminded me of Siena's Palio.

 Before the bonfires are lit, the Societies, joined by societies from outlying towns and villages, parade through the streets bearing lighted torches and towing effigies which will be burnt. Many of the marchers wear smuggler uniforms, each Society sporting different coloured stripes. They are led by 'pioneers'  in fancy dress: monks, buccaneers, Civil War soldiers, Mongols, Ancient Greeks and Romans depending on the Society.  The differences and rituals are impenetrable to all but locals. The only thing that a visitor can do is stand back- well back - some of the marchers drop bangers and set off strings fire crackers while spent torches are thrown down to gutter at the spectators' feet - and enjoy the spectacle.

There is something wonderfully anarchic and atavistic about the parade, feet marching, torches flaring, the air thick with tarry smoke. Apart from Guy Fawkes, there are burning crosses for 17 Marian Martyrs, Cliffe still marches under a No Popery banner, effigies of Pope Paul V (Pope at the time of the Gunpowder Plot) are burnt. Not all the effigies are five hundred years old.  There are more topical targets. Vladimir Putin in a mankini was paraded this year and the Bonfire Societies still court controversy. An effigy of Alex Salmond caused a storm of protest on twitter. I saw this one being trundled into position earlier in the day. There were two apparently, one of them was blown up anyway, despite official assurances to the contrary. 

Once the parade is over, each of the Societies heads off for its bonfire site. The bonfires are lit one at a time until it looks as though the whole town is on fire. Then there are the fireworks, the societies competing with each other to light up the sky. 

As I watched it all, I felt as though I'd stepped back in to a different age, into a time of barely restrained wildness and excitement, a time lit by fire. Lewes Bonfire has had a chequered history, with a reputation for being riotous and unruly. The riots have been tamed into processions but there is still an edge of danger about it. Tom Paine lived and worked in Lewes and the county of Sussex has a long history of independence of spirit, of defiance and difference, going back to the Peasants' Revolt and Jack Cade. This spirit, still alive in Lewes at Bonfire, is best summed up by the Sussex watch words...

Celia Rees

Monday, 17 November 2014


November, so far, has been full of images of poppies, especially those symbolic ceramic poppies.  One Hundred Years.

However, my post today is about an earlier moment commemorating the dead.



All History Girls readers will surely know the children’s song “Oranges and Lemons”, listing the sounds of all the different church bells within the City of London, with the familiar opening line that echoes the ring changes of St Clements Danes church.  

Sometime, at the end of the First World War, the poet and writer Eleanor Farjeon chose those familiar bells as a subject for a poem, offering an explanatory foot-note which, for the purpose of this blog, is coming first.

“When the half-muffled City Bells rang out in Commemoration of the Bell-Ringers who fell in the war, the bells of St Clement Danes could not take part owing to a defect in the frame work.”

Finally, here is Farjeon's poem, commemorating a small moment of unwanted silence amid the aftermath of the Great War:


Where are your Oranges?
Where are your Lemons?
What, are you silent now,
Bells of St Clement’s?
You, of all bells that rang
Once in Old London,
You, of all bells that sang
Utterly undone?
You whom all children know
Ere they know letters,
Making Big Ben himself 
Call you his betters?
Where are your lovely tones
Fruitful and mellow,
Full- flavoured orange-gold,
Clear lemon yellow?
Ring again, sing again,
Bells of St Clement’s,
Call as you swing again,
“Oranges! Lemons!”
Fatherless children
Are listening near you –
Sing for the children,
The fathers will hear you.

The poem was chosen by Walter De la Mare’
for his 1923 “Come Hither” anthology, offered “for the Young of All Ages”.

Penny Dolan

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Review: All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

This is a big book – it’s one of those giant paperbacks, and it has over 500 pages. Yet Doerr uses language with the precision of a poet. To test this out, I’m going to open it at random and see what’s there. Here we go: He looks up. Suspended lamps, rows of spines fading off into dusty gold. All of Europe, and he aims to find one pebble tucked inside its folds. And again: All morning Etienne crawls along the attic floor with cable and pliers and tools her fingers do not understand, weaving himself into the center of what she imagines as an intricate electronic net.

The novel is set in France in the Second World War. It weaves together the stories of two characters, and it’s difficult at first to see exactly why they will come to meet. Except, of course, that here is a continent – a world – in chaos; so that unexpected juxtapositions might almost be expected to occur.

Marie-Laure LeBlanc is the subject of the first story. Blind from the age of six, at the beginning of the story she lives in Paris with her father, who works at the Museum of Natural History. He has constructed for her an exquisitely detailed model of their neighbourhood; each house, each street, each storm drain is there, so that she can learn it with her fingers and then apply her knowledge to find her way about the real city. Every day, he takes her with him to the museum, and some afternoons he leaves her with Dr Geffard, ‘an aging mollusk expert whose beard smells permanently of damp wool’. Geffard tells her about the reefs he explored as a young man, and he lets her handle the thousands of specimens he has: The murex Dr Geffard keeps on his desk can entertain her for half an hour, the hollow spines, the ridged whorls, the deep entrance; it’s a forest of spikes and caves and textures; it’s a kingdom. (This knowledge becomes important to her later on; nothing is wasted in this book.) When war breaks out and the Germans are about to invade Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee, eventually taking shelter in St Malo, in the tall, narrow house where her reclusive Uncle Etienne lives, cared for by his redoubtable housekeeper, Madame Manec.

Meanwhile, a white-haired boy called Werner Pfennig (who, we learn at the very beginning of the book, will also end up in St Malo), is growing up in an orphanage in a mining town in Germany with his sister, Jutta. Werner has an agile mind and capable fingers; he and Jutta are fascinated by radios, and he teaches himself how they work and constructs his own. He dreads the thought of working in the mines which killed his father, and when his unusual skill comes to the notice of the authorities, it seems that he may have found a way out. But in the Germany of the Third Reich, his education comes at a price; he sees terrible things and he fears that he is morally compromised.

It would be unfair to say any more about what happens to the two young people – but perhaps you would like to know that this novel ultimately offers hope: it suggests that goodness exists despite evil, and even emerges and develops as a reaction to terrible circumstances.

One of the many remarkable things about this novel to me is the way in which Doerr succeeds in recreating the detail and texture of life in mid-century France and Germany. It’s easy to take this for granted as a reader, but it really isn’t an easy thing to achieve. When I wrote Warrior King, my book about Alfred the Great, I did a lot of research before starting to write. But... after a couple of pages, Alfred needs to have a bit of a think before he decides what to say, so he reaches out for a drink. But a drink of what? And from what? What were cups/goblets made from in the 9th century? Metal, wood? What kind of metal? It’s those little touches, which you don’t even have to think about when you’re writing a contemporary novel, which trip you up so easily. So far as I noticed, Doerr doesn’t put a foot wrong. Here, for instance, he’s writing about what happens when the electricity supply in St Malo becomes erratic. Clocks run fast, lightbulbs brighten, flare and pop, and send a soft rain of glass falling into the corridors. How did he know that’s what happens? I would have thought the electricity would just flicker. You hardly notice such details, but they all help to create a completely authentic world.

This is a remarkable novel. There’s so much in it that I know I will come back to it and re-read it, and I don’t do that often.

Just one criticism, and it’s for the publisher, Fourth Estate, not the author. Usually, I find these large format paperbacks a pleasure to read. This one looks lovely, but it's incredibly difficult to handle, because the spine is so stiff that you can’t open the book properly, let alone get it to lie flat. Very annoying!

For more reviews, do pop over and visit my site A Fool on a Hill. It has reviews of books for children and adults.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

The Hávamál

by Marie-Louise Jensen

I have a copy of the Hávamál, which is a collection of 1,000 year-old poems translated as 'Sayings of the Vikings'. I found useful when I was writing my Norse stories Daughter of Fire and Ice and Sigrun's Secret as well as more recent younger stories.

It wasn't that I used anything from it directly in my writing. It was more that it gave me a sense of how the lives of the ancient Norse people were different to ours and also in which ways they were similar.
One of the ways their lives were very different was danger; especially danger of violent death. Thinking of Iceland, for example, as that is the Norse culture I'm most familiar with, there were clear laws and those who broke them could be sentenced to outlawry or fines. But there was no law enforcement, so if the guilty party failed to comply, his enemies would take matters into their own hands. Moreover, Viking tempers were quick and their sense of honour was strong, so feuds frequently arose.
Thus the Hávamál has a few warnings for observing personal safety:

Advice to a Vistor:

When passing
a door-post,
watch as you walk on,
inspect as you enter.
It is uncertain
where enemies lurk,
or crouch in a dark corner.

Famously, assassins would climb up in the roof space of doorways and drop down on unwary victims, killing them before they knew what had happened.

This gives such a flavour of the era. It is impossible to imagine in our lives today (in Europe anyway) having to inspect a doorway before walking in.

There are also warnings on quarrelling at feasts as feuds can follow and on guarding your tongue and carrying weapons when you leave home.
Then there are the sayings that are as useful today as they were in the days of longhouses and battle axes:

When to keep silent

Often it's best
for the unwise man
to sit in silence.
His ignorance
goes unnoticed
unless he tells too much.
It's the ill-fortune of unwise men
that they cannot keep silent.

There are plenty of warnings, too, about alcohol: "drink is a dangerous friend," and "ale unveils [the] mind." There is no doubt that foolish behaviour after drinking is a thousand-year-old issue at least.

Highly recommended for some insight into manners and etiquette of the times!

Friday, 14 November 2014

Eugene Bullard, Black Swallow of Death Catherine Johnson

Another WW1 story you might not have heard, that of  Eugene Bullard,  a young black man who found freedom and respect far from his homeland. I'd never heard of him until recently and  found there are heaps of parallels between his life and that of Mathew Henson,  a hero abroad but ignored in his native land. Bullard became the first ever black military pilot in 1916 and won the Croix de Guerre, but ended his life working as a lift operator in the Rockefeller Center.

Eugene Bullard

Eugene Bullard stowed away on a ship and ended up in Aberdeen. He said he witnessed his father's narrow escape from a lynching. He made his way to Glasgow and worked there for a while. Life outside segregated America held a whole load more opportunities for a young black man and he settled in Paris in 1913 and worked as a prize fighter and sometimes in the music hall. He enlisted in 1914 on the outbreak of war and joined the French Foreign Legion. His unit, the 170th Line Infantry Regiment were known poetically as L'Hirondelles de la Mort,  the swallows of death.
Regimental badge of the 170th

Seriously wounded at Verdun he joined the French Air Force and went first on gunner training and then as a pilot. He flew with other American pilots in the Lafayette Flying corps and shot down at least one German plane, eventually promoted to the rank of Corporal. When the Americans joined the war they organised for American pilots in the Lafayette Corps to transfer to the USA Air Force. Bullard, naturally, was refused on account of his colour.

Bullard had a row with a French officer and was punished by demotion to the infantry. He continued to serve in the 170th until the end of the war, his nom de guerre was The Black Swallow.

Bullard stayed in France owned his own nightclub, married a wealthy woman and was part of Jazz Age Paris, his friends included Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes and Louis Armstrong.

He joined up again for WW2,  but was seriously injured and fled to the States. However life for a black man in America was hard, he was no longer the celebrated flier and nightclub owner, he found work as a security guard and sometime interpreter for Louis Armstrong.

He suffered too in the Peeskill Riots in 1949, when a Paul Robeson concert was attacked by anti communist American veterans. Bullard was one of the victims, his attackers included Law Enforcement officers and even though the attack was filmed no one was ever bought to justice.

Bullard was not forgotten in France. In 1954 he  was invited to rekindle the flame that was lit on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior and in 1959 he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur. Bullard died in 1961 of cancer but it wasn't until he was dead that the USA recognised his achievement; he was posthumously awarded the rank of Second Lieutenant in the USA Air Force.

Catherine Johnson