Saturday, 25 October 2014

SEX AND MONEY AGAIN by Eleanor Updale

A few months ago I was on about the great 19th century cad, Henry Cust, who lived high on the hog, and is said to have left descendants in cradles all over upper-class England.  Well, it turns out that he was a mere amateur. I have just stumbled across the Master, who died in 1861, the year Cust was born. Step forward Richard Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, otherwise known as the Second Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, born into a life of wealth and promise in 1797.

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Before inheriting his dukedom in 1839, he held a variety of titles, was MP for Buckinghamshire, was Briefly, in Peel’s second administration, Lord Privy Seal, and was awarded the Order of the Garter.  

© National Portrait Gallery, London

He was a butt of the cartoonists for his politics:

© National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Yet Richard (as we will call him for the sake of brevity) spent a great deal of time abroad, mainly collecting art treasures for his grand houses in London and elsewhere, notably the fabulous palace he inherited at Stowe.

Stowe House in the mid 19th century

By a chain of family marriages through the 18th century, and even before 1819, when he took as his own bride a Scottish heiress (Lady Mary Campbell, daughter of the Earl of Breadalbane) Richard was related to almost everyone who was anyone, including royalty back to the Plantagenets and, in the world of politics,the Pitt and Gladstone families. None of the links (even to the earlier Dukes of Buckingham and to the first Chandos dukes) was exceptionally strong, but they were very many. Richard had his elaborate lineage depicted in this grand armorial banner showing 719 quarterings of the dynasty.

His lifestyle was lavish, and founded on a talent for persuading people to lend him money.  The trouble was that he was very bad at paying it back, and the interest mounted up.  
It was no help when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert came to stay at Stowe for several days in 1845, running up yet more bills.

Queen Victoria departing from Stowe - Illustrated London News
By the 1840s, the Duke was in serious financial trouble, and In 1848 he found himself having to sell off the contents of Stowe House in one of the greatest auctions ever seen.  

The auction took twenty-nine days between August and October 1848, and raised £75, 562 4s 6d. - a fabulous sum at the time, but a mere dent in his debts of more than a million pounds - perhaps a billion in today’s money.

The editor of the (best-selling) catalogue, Henry Rumsey Forster, wrote an introduction that captured the glee felt by many of his contemporaries at Richard’s downfall:

The desecration to which the ancestral halls of the Duke of Buckingham have been subjected, has been regarded almost as a national disgrace; and Rumour has, accordingly been busy in assigning causes for the event, and denouncing the imprudence which is presumed to have occasioned it...Yet, if all the imputations which have been so freely indulged in were well founded, it cannot be denied that the penalty has been, at least, adequate to the offence.  The “household gods’"of the ancestral home of the Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos have been shivered to fragments, which can never again be reunited.

The wonderful paintings, marbles, furniture, tapestries and china are indeed scattered across public and private collections today, though the twenty-one thousand bottles of wine have probably been drunk by now. The armorial banner, which had cost Richard £400, was sold for thirty-two, and ended up decorating the lobby of a hotel in Tunbridge Wells. Forster's edited catalogue, with details of who had bought what, and for how much (or how little) was a physical emblem of disgrace for the whole Grenville family.
But worse was to come.  And once again it was all Richard’s fault. Society gradually became aware that after thirty years of marriage he was being publicly imprudent with a woman called Henrietta Parratt, the middle-aged wife of one of the Clerks to the House of Lords. The couple were spotted by reporters riding around in a cab with no apparent destination. Edward Parratt was not prepared to put up with humiliation by ‘a pathetic empty-headed woman who had been swept off her feet by the attention of a great nobleman’, and everybody knew it.

On Sunday 7th January 1849, the young Benjamin Disraeli wrote to his wife after an exhilarating conversation in Brighton with the exiled Austrian leader, Metternich.

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Disraeli was after Metternich's endorsement for his campaign for the Tory party leadership, but the two also talked at length about the state of European affairs. Disraeli ended his letter with a reflection on the Duke’s:

The Duke of Buck’s female case is going on, I hear; the husband being injured, brokenhearted, disconsolate, alas, determined to get rid of his wife, now the Duke is ruined.  What a vexatious climax to his catastrophes.

London was electrified by the scandal. Edward Parratt sued the Duke for ‘Criminal Conversation’ with his wife.  He won the case, and was awarded £2,000 in costs and damages, along with a divorce.  But Richard’s charm was still working.  Fellow members of the Carlton Club paid the bill. Henrietta Parratt was denied contact with her children and fled to Paris to await her lover.  Of course, he never turned up.

Meanwhile the Duchess had had enough. In early 1850, she was awarded a divorce in the Consistory Court.  She spent the next ten years fighting legal battles to get back the money her father had settled on her when she married.  There was no hope, and she eventually went mad. 
The woman who had once entertained the Queen was completely cut out of polite society. I could find no surviving pictures of her.

The 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos died in 1861, a bankrupt living at the Great Western Hotel in Paddington.  He had spent his last days writing about his earlier travels in search of artistic treasures. A year later, his former wife was dead too. It was all over.

The Times had summed up the public view of Richard Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville on Monday, August 14, 1848.  As the fabulous auction approached, it described him as 

a man of the highest rank, and of a property not unequal to his rank, who has flung away all by extravagance and folly, and reduced his honour to the tinsel of a pauper and the baubles of a fool”.

© National Portrait Gallery, London

National Portrait Gallery Picture credits:

Richard Grenville, 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos
by Richard James Lane
lithograph, circa 1825-1850
8 in. x 5 5/8 in. (202 mm x 143 mm) paper size
Given by Austin Lane Poole, 1956
Reference Collection
NPG D22454

The House of Commons, 1833
by Sir George Hayter
oil on canvas, 1833-1843
NPG 54

Allsham versus Evesham (Richard Grenville, 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos; Sir Charles Wetherell)
by John ('HB') Doyle, printed by Charles Etienne Pierre Motte, published by Thomas McLean
lithograph, published 26 February 1831
NPG D41045

Demolishing a Prude
by John ('HB') Doyle, printed by Alfred Ducôte, published by Thomas McLean
lithograph, published 5 March 1834
NPG D41240

Auction Extraordinary, that is to say, an Extraordinary Auction
by John ('HB') Doyle, published by Thomas McLean
lithograph, published 23 March 1830
16 1/4 in. x 11 1/4 in. (412 mm x 286 mm) overall
acquired Unknown source, 1900
NPG D40993

Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield
by Harry Furniss
pen and ink
9 in. x 8 1/2 in. (229 mm x 216 mm)
Transferred from National Portrait Gallery Reference Collection, 1994
Primary Collection
NPG 6251(4)

Richard Grenville, 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos
by John Porter, after John Jackson
mezzotint, published 1841
NPG D32299

Friday, 24 October 2014

GUESS WHO - or the debate over the Radegonde mural in Chinon. By Elizabeth Chadwick

In 1964 an interesting an intriguing discovery was made at an ancient chapel in Chinon dedicated to St Radegonde. The story goes that a piece of plaster fell off the wall and revealed a mural of five mediaeval figures - two of them crowned - riding out to hunt.  The discovery having been made in the Angevin heartland and the figures appearing to date to the 12th century caused a stir among historians and art historians.  The original finder, Albert Heron, thought that the figures represented among others King John, his wife Isabelle of Angouleme, and her second husband Hugh of  Lusignan. Debate as to the identity of the riders has continued ever since, with the most popular vote (to judge by biographical book covers and photographs in said books) identifying the lead crowned figure as Henry II and the middle one as his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine with sundry other family personages suggested for those surrounding them.
Ever since setting eyes on this mural, I have  found it curious that so many people believe the middle crown figure to be Eleanor of Aquitaine, even while I can see their reasoning. She is always linked with her husband Henry II and they are larger-than-life personalities who automatically loom large in people's minds. St Radegonde was an important Saint in the territories held by Eleanor of Aquitaine, so of course the reasoning goes that it must be her. But without actual names written under the figures, it can only be guesswork - and perhaps flawed guesswork at that. 
 How do we know the lead figure is Henry II?  We don't; it's another assumption, but the circumstantial evidence points that way because we know from contemporary evidence that Henry II was red haired,  The mural is at Chinon which is solidly in his territory and the figures clearly date in terms of the style of their clothing to the 12th century.  Since Richard the Lion heart was also a redhead, it might be argued he is also a candidate for the rider on the white horse.
The 'Henry II' figure detail from the
Chinon mural

Alison Weir thoroughly debates the issue in her biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine. She believes the lead character is Richard because 'Richard's effigy at Fontevraud shows him bearded, whilst Henry II's is clean-shaven. Given the special relationship between Richard and his mother, it follows that the crowned woman is Eleanor herself.'  I beg to differ, While Henry's effigy at Fontevraud does indeed show him beardless, Weir has ignored the detail that Gerald of Wales portrays Henry in life as bearded - see illustration below, drawn from life more or less.
There may be many reasons for Henry's non-beard at Fontevraud. Perhaps to show how dignity and power has been stripped from him in death - a sort of emasculation. Richard I's 13th century tomb effigy for his heart burial in Roeun cathedral is also beardless.

Henry II complete with beard.  Illustration by
Gerald of Wales who knew him.
So, having dealt with that matter, let's assume that the lead figure is indeed Henry II. So who are the four figures following him?  Weir believes like many others that the crowned middle figure is Eleanor and that the young woman riding at her side may be either Berengaria of Navarre who was Richard's wife or Eleanor and Henry's daughter Joanna, Countess of Toulouse. She also believes that the two young men behind Eleanor are her grandson Otto of Brunswick, and possibly Arthur Brittany, or John. She thinks the mural may have been painted in 1196 when Eleanor was in residence at Fontevraud.
A couple of ideas she refutes are the opinions of historian and Israeli professor Nurith Kenaan-Keder, who said in an article dated to 1998 that the mural either depicts King John with Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabel Angouleme or else that it is Eleanor being led into captivity by Henry II 1173/74 and being accompanied by her daughter Joanna and two of her sons including Richard to whom she is giving a falcon as a symbol of passing on ducal power. I agree with Alison Weir that neither of these theories stands up to scrutiny.  A mural of Eleanor being led into captivity would hardly be a subject for the wall of this chapel.
Studying the mural myself and being au fait with 12th century costume, it seemed to me that all the figures in this mural are male. Only men that pin their cloaks high on the right-hand side. No woman ever does.  I have been collecting manuscript images of the cloak fastenings of men and women of the 12th century for some time and I have not found a single one of a woman with a right hand shoulder pin. It doesn't happen. Nada, nope, no. They just don't dress like that.
Queen with open cloak, king with the standard shoulder
pin on his cloak. I could show you dozens of other such images
So the figure that is sometimes mentioned as Joanna, sometimes as Isabel of Angouleme, isn't female at all. And the crowned figure in the centre isn't female either. But he is still an important personage. He has a wonderful fur-lined cloak of the kind only seen on high nobility, and he has his crown the same as the lead figure, although I have been reliably informed by historian Henk T'Jong (who is a mediaeval clothing expert and agrees with me that these are all men)  that this headgear is in fact  representative of jewelled fur hats - still very high status!
So if we rejig our ideas of who these figures might be, it  becomes a lot less messy. The foremost figure on his fine white horse is Henry II and he is leading out his four legitimate sons on a hunt. There's his eldest son the Young King wearing the other jewelled hat and flashing his fur-lined cloak to further emphasise his status. He was crowned in 1170 during Henry's own lifetime to absolutely secure the succession. So you have two Kings in the picture. The slighter, more youthful figure at young Henry's side is his younger brother John. There's around 11 years difference between them. When their father had suffered a serious illness in the early 1170s, he charged his eldest son with taking John under his wing and caring for him should the worst come to the worst which young Henry had agreed to do. So this may well be symbolic of that bond. The two figures following behind are Henry II's second and third sons Richard Count of Poitou and Geoffrey Count of Brittany. Those little caps with the stalks that they are wearing, are very indicative of young 12th century high status men about town. The Falcon itself on 'Richard's' wrist may or may not be symbolic of an act of homage.
I've recently read  Inventing Eleanor: The Mediaeval and Post-Mediaeval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Michael R. Evans published by Bloomsbury academic. He has something very interesting to say about the Chinon mural. Leading art historian Ursula Nielgen wrote a detailed study on the mural in 2004:  'Les Plantagenets et la chapelle de Sainte Radegonde de Chinon: un image en debat.'  Nielgen suggests that all five figures are men and that there is nothing in the hairstyles or figures of the supposed 'women' that differentiate them from the 'male' figures. She postulates a date the rebellion of 1173/4 when the family had been reconciled all except for Eleanor. That makes total sense to me given what I know of Henry's personality. I have seen it said that the Eleanor figure has longer hair, but I have seen plenty of examples of men with that length of hair, and the leading Henry figure is not short of a lock or two, so that argument doesn't hold water.
My conclusion is that these figures are male, Eleanor of Aquitaine has absolutely nothing to do with it. They depict Henry II and his four sons, not only riding out to the hunt, but riding out into the future, the pater familias leading his heirs.

Mural photographs courtesy of John Phillips. 
Elizabeth Chadwick is working on a trilogy of novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine. The Summer Queen and The Winter Crown have been published and she is working on The Autumn Throne.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

HOW TO REMEMBER THEM? by Leslie Wilson (contains an image which may cause distress)

 I received this cardboard poppy in the unsolicited post in late September, from the British Legion. It invited me to write a message on it, so it could be placed in Flanders Field to 'remember with pride the sacrifices that hundreds of thousands of British and Commonwealth Service men (sic) made..' and 'to remember the thousands who have laid down their lives for our country since then.'

To be fair, the covering letter does also mention servicewomen. You can read for yourself what the envelope says:

But were the dead really 'the bravest of the brave? I don't think so. They were the sacrifices to modern mechanistic warfare, sent out to walk, well-spaced apart, across No Man's Land, while the enemy fire hammered them. For most of them, there was no opportunity for courage, and even those who won VCs spent the rest of their lives trying to forget (something which has been movingly depicted by many of my co-contributors to the Stories of WW1 anthology.) But let a man who experienced it speak here.

What passing bell for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them, no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires. 
Wilfred Owen, Anthem for Doomed Youth

My English grandfather didn't fight in the war: his heart condition forbade it, but my uncle by marriage, Edgar, did - he survived Gallipoli, and his wife, my Aunt Molly, told me about his bad nights, sweating, and muttering in his sleep: 'They're coming! They're coming!' I had forgotten this, till I began re-reading my father's autobiographical fragment for a future blog. As I have said before, my German grandfather was a teenage soldier and two of my great-uncles on the German side were killed; my uncle Leo's head, brutally blown off at Verdun, leers at the myths of heroism. 
The British Legion poppy card says 'for all those who fell' - but is that what they truly mean? What will they think if I write Leo Kolodziej on it, 'killed fighting for Germany at Verdun'? Will they include it, or throw it away? Everywhere else, it is stressed that the intention is to honour British and Commonwealth soldiers.Why cannot we remember those who fought on all sides, especially this year?

I was on a British Airways  flight to Hamburg a few years ago, and it was the 11th November, and 11am was just after take-off. So the captain came on the air and said we would observe the 2 minutes silence 'for British servicemen.' This was a flight to Hamburg, for God's sake! What would it have cost him to include all the victims of war? If you visit the exhibition of the incineration of Hamburg at the ruined St Nikolauskirche, you will read that Operation Gomorrah was the deserved result of German aggressive militarism. I would take a slightly different view. I think two wrongs don't make a right, and I contest the ethics and even the effectiveness of the bombing of civilians.What had the small, half-Jewish Wolf Biermann,* for example, done to deserve the terror of running across melting tarmac with his mother, to escape the walls of flame? What had all the children done who didn't make it out? I do not apologise (warnings notwithstanding) for posting the following dreadful image, from Dresden (which was full of refugees at the time of the incendiary raid). This is what air-raids do.

File:Fotothek df ps 0000048 Blick in einen öffentlichen Luftschutzraum mit 243 Leiche.jpg

View of a public air-raid shelter, with 243 corpses,
fourteen months after the bombing of Dresden
photographer Richard Peter (1895-1977)
Deutsche Fotothek, Saxon State Library/
State and University Library, Dresden
Bomber Harris  would have loved to cause a big firestorm in Berlin, but was frustrated by the layout of the city; the roads were too wide for the flames to leap across, and the buildings mainly made of stone and brick. There were small firestorms however, which few people survived.
And that brings me to what I dislike about Remembrance Day (apart from the rhetoric of 'heroes); it seems only to be about those who fought and those who were actively engaged in supporting them. But what about the civilian victims of war, world-wide? Who falls silent to remember them? Well, demonstrators, and Quakers. But officially, civilians don't count. Are the British Legion inviting us to remember great-aunts or grandparents and great-grandparents who died in Zeppelin raids, or family members who died in the air-raids of World War 2, even on the British side? Or the countless victims of landmines? They aren't, because they are a charity that works for British ex-service personnel - which is of course why they don't extend Remembrance Day to other combatants. I do think disabled soldiers get a raw deal, and deserve support. But the fact that Remembrance Day seems to 'belong' to the British Legion is questionable, to my mind, because of the excision of civilians. Do we need a second Remembrance Day for them, or is it possible to extend the day, make it more generous, and open the fund-raising field to those who support ALL victims of war?

I did send the poppy back, with my uncle Leo's name on it. I wonder if they will put it in the field?

*Wolf Biermann was an East German singer-songwriter. His father was murdered (and his body incinerated) at Auschwitz, with the whole of his Jewish family. I need not state the irony.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Beauty and the Beast by Kate Lord Brown

Today I have a puzzle for the HGs. I was recently asked to interview the curator of a new show at the Museum of Islamic Art here in Doha. 'The Tiger's Dream: Tipu Sultan' explores the life of the south Indian ruler and statesman (1750 - 99).

I only knew of Tipu in the context of the C18 automaton in the V&A which has fascinated/horrified many a child ('he's being eaten by a tiger! it plays music, too!'). Tipu earned his moniker 'The Tiger of Mysore' because he allegedly stabbed a beast. The exhibition in Doha shows a host of fine paintings and weaponry, all emblazoned with Tipu's signature tigers - he knew the power of a good brand symbol way ahead of Nike et al. He commissioned the automaton to celebrate the savaging of a British enemy by a tiger - and it was plundered as booty from the Palace of Seringapatam at the end of the fourth Anglo-Mysore War when the Brits finally defeated him.

At the heart of the exhibition are a sequence of paintings on paper - they are ink and gouached on rice paper, on a cotton backing. They have also been digitally 'stitched' together for the first time to show how the mural at Tipu's summer palace Daria Daulat would have looked in its original state.

The paintings depict the Battle of Pollilur, at which Tipu thrashed the British (with the help of the French). 7000 men were captured (and an 'unknown quantity of women' ...). The Tiger of Mysore was a man of his time - the battle was brutal, and his treatment of his enemies has been described somewhat euphemistically as 'controversial'. But Tipu is revered as a freedom fighter on home ground - (he was the first Indian king killed in battle defending his homeland against the British), and the mural depicts one of his finest moments, the victory of 1780.

The cycle of paintings preserves the design in its original state - the murals themselves have been defaced, and were at one time whitewashed in the summer palace. The design was originally on a long roll of paper, but at some point it was cut into sections. They are read left to right like a cartoon strip, and tell the story of the battle, rather in the same way as the Bayeux Tapestry. Interestingly, at some point a European hand has noted down the significant players of the battle in pencil on the paintings - so it is artistically and historically important. Some believe the author might be Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington.

No one seems to know exactly what the painting was for - in its original state, it was the same size as the finished mural. Was it a maquette for the finished piece? A trial run? There are no pin pricks on the paper, so it wasn't a rough sketch to plot out/mark up the wall. Was it propaganda - perhaps the design on paper was taken around to show Tipu's victory to people who wouldn't visit his private palace. I've not come across a scale design of this size and intricacy - it wasn't a sketch for the finished piece, but an exact replica on paper.

So, HGs and others - what do you think? Have you ever heard of something similar? What do you think Tipu's painting was for?

More information at MIA:                                       

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Ghosts on the Walls by Imogen Robertson

I have a thing about medieval wall paintings. That probably wont come as a great surprise to you. I also have a thing about the medieval marginalia as regularly tweeted by Medieval Manuscripts and Bibliophilia, but the wall paintings in churches have a special place in my heart. I think it's because they exist in the place they were created. They are part of the fabric of a community, a place and its people. This was art for the many not the few, and it’s impossible to look at them without thinking of the thousands of others who have looked at them before. 

Rochester Cathedral

I was in Rochester a few days ago - nothing to do with the upcoming by-election, though I did dodge Nigel Farage on the pavement and heard a man saying indignantly to his friends, ‘it was the Huguenots that made Kent anyway!’ I was there for the castle, the cathedral and the bookshops. They are all excellent, by the way. I added to my collection of 'Highways and Byways' in Baggins Book Bazaar  and picked up a fantastic little book on hop pickers a bit further along the High Street, and the castle is still pretty intimidating, but my highlight was a partial 13th century wall painting of the wheel of fortune, featuring Fortuna herself and some scrambling  citizens. The best image I can find of it is here.

The painting survived because for centuries it was hidden from the reformation by a pulpit and when that was removed, it was discovered looking almost as fresh as the day it was painted.

I know where my wall painting thing comes from. When I got married a couple of years ago, Ned and I made quite a meal of the occasion and had three weddings. We had a legal ceremony in Peckham, our real wedding in a Sussex barn, and then another party the following week in Darlington, my home town.

We spent part of our between weddings week in Richmond, North Yorkshire (in a slightly dazed state and a damp cottage), and while we were there wandered down to Easby Abbey and the adjoining church of St Agatha where we saw this:

And these:

I went to Easby Abbey many times as a child, but perhaps because we always had the family dog with us, we never went into the parish church, so the paintings were a new discovery. It is a small church, and not very distinguished looking from the outside but it was built before the magnificent Easby Abbey, which now lies in ruins around it. The paintings are mid 13th century and are wonderfully preserved (whitewashed during reformation, rediscovered during Victorian restoration). They are extensive, but I like in particular these surviving Labours of the Month designs in the window splays. Were they portraits of individuals? I hope so. Anyway, as I stood in the chancel with my new husband they cast a particular spell. 

I haven’t become religious, but I find I’ve been visiting churches a lot more since then. I find them fascinating. Each one is a palimpsest; unique, made over generations as a reflection of the community around it and of those that have visited that community, scored by the times lived through. Standing there I felt like one ghost among thousands - the ghosts of those who had been there to worship, celebrate, mourn or just look, and those that were still to come. Our feet polishing the stones, our hands resting on the woodwork, we were like water moving over a riverbed. We were part of the movement of time passing through this still point. 

Many medieval wall paintings have survived reformation and restoration in churches and cathedrals all over the country. The best guide to the subject I’ve found is Roger Rosewell’s Medieval Wall Paintings. Looking at the book now, I find that illustrations of Rochester and Easby are on facing pages, which I find strangely pleasing. 

I highly recommend the book and I’ll end with a quote from it: ‘In a physical sense they [the wall paintings] belonged to every parish. They were part of its inherited tradition, its history, the kinship of men and women who worshipped beside them, before them and beneath them… They were a peoples’ art for a peoples’ faith.

Monday, 20 October 2014

BETRAYED, FORGOTTEN AND REVILED: The Lost Women of the Bible by Ann Swinfen

It is a truism that history is written by the victors.

Western history and culture have their roots deep in the Judaeo-Graeco-Roman tradition, and it is a strongly patriarchal tradition. Archaeological evidence points to earlier matriarchal cultures which preceded the pervasive patriarchal bias, but by the time written literature began, this matriarchal culture had been suppressed, pushed to the margins into folktale, superstition, and myth. The patriarchal principle had won the battle for social dominance.

And men wrote our history.

One of the earliest written records is, of course, the Bible. Assembled over several centuries it is not simply a testament of faith. The Old Testament is an historical record of a nomadic people’s wanderings over the Middle East and north Africa followed by their settlement in Judaea. It also contains a carefully preserved genealogy of families and tribes, and a collection of some of the world’s most memorable stories. The New Testament takes matters forward into the birth of the modern world and the foundation of Christianity. The world’s three great faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are all rooted in this extraordinary book, a book which has outsold every other and whose influence on our thoughts, culture, literature, and history is incalculable. Would our individual perceptions of ourselves be the same without this influence? Difficult to say.

Here I am not planning to look at the Bible as a religious work, but in those other three aspects: a history, a genealogy, and a collection of stories.

Where are the women?

Have you noticed how few ‘good’ women there are? By and large they are found in the New Testament. This reflected the kindlier, more humane face of the new dispensation. Women even played a major role in the early Christian church, preaching, travelling through Gentile lands spreading the word, and perishing for their faith in the Roman arena. Until, that is, the church fathers seized control of the church hierarchy and turned it into the mirror image of the male secular power of the time, the Roman Empire.

However, the majority of women in the Old Testament who are sufficiently honoured as to have their names recorded for posterity are ‘bad’ women. So bad, indeed, that their names have become by-words for evil. And how the authors rub their hands in glee over their horrific ends!

If you ask the average person brought up in our modern secular society (which still has its roots in the Christian tradition) to name women from the Bible, the answers will go something like this. From the Old Testament: Jezebel, Delilah, Eve, the Queen of Sheba, Ruth . . . er, Moses’ sister . . . was she called Miriam? A few might remember Judith, the heroine who slew Holofernes. The list is unlikely to extend much beyond that. From the New Testament: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, Salome. Some will recall that John the Baptist’s mother was called Elizabeth. Then there was that widow with her mite. What was she called? What indeed.

If we examine the many genealogies in the Old Testament, which can make parts of it very tedious for the modern reader, we have to ask: Where are the women? X begat Y begat Z ad infinitum, but only the generations upon generations of men are recorded. Who gave birth to all these generations? All these men had wives and mothers, but the women remain nameless, lost for ever in the mists of time. They constituted half the Israelite population, those women. They wandered with the men, living in tents, herding the sheep and goats, cooking over open fires, giving birth to their children and sometimes burying them. They fed, clothed and reared each successive generation of the nation, yet they are ignored as if they never existed.

Just occasionally one woman is glimpsed for a moment, usually because it is obligatory to mention her in order to clarify the links between families or tribes – for example Sarah, wife of Abraham [Genesis 11:29 ff.]. There is just a whiff here of the ancient matriarchal culture which still held sway at the time. Though Abraham is credited with elevating the strictly masculine Yahweh to pre-eminence in Israelite religion, the fact is that Yahweh was not the only god of those early Israelites, and he had a spouse, Asherah, equally powerful, equally exalted, the Great Mother, who was still being worshipped centuries later, when Hezekiah tried to suppress her cult around 700 bc.

Sarah’s granddaughter Dinah, only daughter of Jacob amongst his thirteen children by two wives and two concubines, also receives a tiny mention [Genesis 34]. Dinah achieves fame because she is raped by Shechem, a prince of the Hivites, who loves her and wants to marry her. In Genesis Dinah is seen as a victim and then disappears from the story as her brothers wreak a terrible and sadistic vengeance, betraying their own promise to the Hivites to forgive them and allow the marriage if the Hivites agree to be circumcised. The Hivites keep their part of the bargain, but are then slaughtered to a man by Dinah’s brothers. I’ll be returning to Dinah later.

In a slightly later period, the period of Judges, there was one remarkable woman, Deborah, whose historic deeds do earn a mention [Judges 4-5]. She was herself both a prophetess and one of the Judges, part civil, part religious leader, and that is remarkable in itself. She was also a military leader, which is even more surprising. With her general Barak she attacked and defeated the Canaanites, who were long-standing and aggressive enemies of the Israelites. The Song of Deborah [Judges 5] is one of those extraordinary things one encounters in the Bible, a paean of triumph and national fervour, a wonderful work of literature in its own right, like The Song of Songs, which is surely the greatest love poem in world literature. The Song of Deborah is possibly the earliest surviving example of Hebrew poetry and has been dated from linguistic evidence to the twelfth century bc.

Occasionally the Israelites encountered foreign women of power, like Pharaoh’s daughter who rescued the infant Moses. The most memorable, of course, was the Queen of Sheba, who came on a state visit to Solomon [I Kings 10:1-13 & II Chronicles 9:1-12]. Clearly she fascinated the Israelites with her beauty, power, and riches, as she has fascinated people ever since. Yet she and her country remain mysterious. And she is nameless.

In the earliest religions practised in the area, the Great Mother or the Earth Mother seems to have been the foremost deity. Statues of her appear all around the Mediterranean basin, far surpassing any images of male deities at the time. Women, who give birth and so perpetuate mankind, were reverenced. Yet all this changed. By the time the book of Genesis came to be written down, Eve had been named as the First Woman and, above all, the villainess who brought about all man’s suffering, his exile from Eden, his mortality, his monstrous fall from grace [Genesis 3]. It was her fault that women suffered great pain in childbirth. Convenient, that. The men of Israel could point the finger and say: It’s all your own fault for eating of the Tree of Knowledge. Interesting that we would have been better off, would have remained in Eden, if we had also remained ignorant. More of that later.

Eve’s villainy was of a fairly mild variety; she merely yielded to temptation. So did Adam, but he doesn’t appear to have carried so much of the blame. Later on in history we find some real, full-blown villainesses, of whom Jezebel and Delilah are the most notable examples. What strikes me about both of them is that they were foreign women of strong character who came from a different religious and cultural background to that of the authors of the Old Testament.

Jezebel [Kings 1 & 2] was a Phoenician princess, daughter of the King of Tyre and married to Ahab, King of Israel (the northern kingdom of the Holy Land), in what was clearly a dynastic and political marriage intended to cement an alliance between the two kingdoms. Israel was always keen to acquire access to good sea ports on the Mediterranean coast, while Phoenicia wanted an agricultural hinterland together with overland trade routes. Ahab and Jezebel had two sons, Ahaziah and Jehoram, who were the natural heirs to the crown. Under the joint rule of Ahab and Jezebel, the religions of both peoples were tolerated. This was the ninth century bc, before the worship of Yahweh was established as the approved religion of the Israelites. Ba’al, one of the gods of the Phoenicians (known by them as Melqart or Melkarth, identified by the Greeks with Heracles), was also one of the ancient gods of the Israelites. After the death of Ahab, his sons succeeded to the throne, but Elisha – leader of the Yahwehist faction – who had slaughtered 450 priests of Ba’al, now had the usurper Jehu illegitimately crowned. Jehu then murdered Jehoram, son of Ahab and Jezebel, as he fled for his life.

The queen mother, Jezebel, a strong woman of royal blood, was a danger to Jehu, so he and Elisha incited some of the court officials to murder her by throwing her out of a palace window and further dishonouring her by leaving her unburied body to be eaten by dogs. The fact that Jezebel dressed in her royal finery to confront her murderers has been vilified by the puritanical, but it reminds one of Cleopatra’s similar defiance in the face of political murder. If this were a modern crime novel, wouldn’t we expect the investigator to look a little more closely into the circumstances of her death, instead of simply accepting the official version which was put about by her political enemies who wanted to be rid of her? And as in the case of all murders, shouldn’t we ask: Cui bono? In whose interest was it to portray Jezebel in the form that has come down to us? She was painted as an evil woman by the usurping victors. (Common practice: compare the propaganda put about by Henry VII who had usurped Richard III’s crown.) Yet seen from the Phoenician point of view, their royal princess and her sons were the victims of a politically motivated coup d’état. An interesting footnote to her story is that Josephus [Against Apion 1:18] tells us that she was the great-aunt of Dido, queen of Carthage. A strong but unhappy lot, these Phoenician princesses.

If Delilah’s story [Judges, 16] had been written down by the Philistines, it would have been told from a very different angle. She would probably have been cast in the role of a national heroine, like the Israelite Judith, but one whose life ended in tragic sacrifice. Her origins are obscure. Her nationality is unclear. She was said to come from the Valley of Sorek or Soreq, which has not been identified. ‘Soreq’ means vine, and so is probably symbolic of Samson’s fall from grace. As a dedicated Nazarite, he was forbidden to drink wine or cut his hair. It’s likely Delilah was a Philistine, or had some connection with that country which, like Phoenicia, lay between the Israelite kingdoms and the sea. The tensions over access to the sea shaped Israelite politics for centuries. Delilah yielded to the temptation of the bribe offered to her if she discovered the secret of Samson’s strength. She was foolish and perhaps greedy, but may not have realised the magnitude of what she did. In any case, it ended tragically. The whole story reads like an allegory. The woman from the valley of the vine cuts off the hero’s hair, that is, Samson, through lust for a woman, betrays his vows as a Nazarite.

I’m playing the devil’s advocate here. Perhaps they were both evil women, but we don’t hear their side of the story. Consider a much more recent example, where we do know both sides. Jeanne d’Arc was a heroine to one of the political factions in her own contemporary France. To the opposing French faction – who handed her over to the English, then ruling a large portion of France – she was a dangerous insurgent (terrorist, if you like) and a witch. Nowadays she is generally regarded as a heroine, but that was not the universal attitude at the time, not even in France.

Ruth, however, is one woman from the Old Testament whom most people can name and whose story is both poignant and positive. In a time of famine, a family from Bethlehem flee to Moab: Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion, who marry the Moabite girls Ruth and Orpah. After the deaths of her husband and two sons, Naomi decides to go home and urges the two young widows to return to their families, who will find them new husbands. Orpah sadly does as she is bid, but Ruth makes one of the most famous pledges in literature:

Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God. Where thou diest, I will die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me. [Ruth 1:16–17]  

Together the two women make the perilous journey from Moab to Bethlehem, where Ruth gleans in the fields to support them both and is eventually married through Levirite practice to a kinsman of Naomi’s family, becoming the great-grandmother of King David. Even the Israelite author of her story – painting her glowingly for her conversion – seems to have recognised what it had cost her, this exile and loneliness, where she has to labour like a pauper in the fields and risk the attentions of reapers, until Boaz gives orders: ‘Have I not charged the young men that they shall not touch thee?’ The implications for a young foreign girl working in the fields are clear.

Enough about those women whose names are generally remembered. Perhaps the most intriguing of all, despite being the most elusive, are the nameless women. All those wives, mothers and daughters who are blocked from our view by an intransigent male presence. Sometimes they are mere shadowy ghosts, hovering in the background. Sometimes their existence is acknowledged through their husbands, sons or fathers. When Noah was selected to survive the Flood [Genesis 6-9], he took into the Ark, besides all those animals, his wife (unnamed), his sons (named: Shem, Ham and Japheth) and his three daughters-in-law (unnamed). Did he have any daughters? If so, no one bothers to record them. Now we have to ask ourselves, who did the cooking? Who provisioned the ship? Who packed the clothes, made sure there were blankets and cooking pots and fuel for the stove and a means of lighting it and a supply of fresh water? Did the men organise the animals’ feed? Or did the women do that as well? Nobody would have survived on that stinking ship for forty days and nights (and longer before they were able to disembark) without the women looking after the demanding problem of feeding everyone. When the ordeal was over, ‘God blessed Noah and his sons’ [Genesis 9:1].

But not the women.

Then there is the daughter of Jephthah [Judges 11:30-40]. Jephthah had made a vow that if God gave him victory over his enemies in battle, then ‘whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.’ When Jephthah does return home, it is his daughter who comes out to meet him ‘with timbrels and with dances’ – his only child. Submissively she accepts her fate, but asks for two months’ grace, so that she can go up into the mountains with her friends to ‘bewail her virginity’, as she will never live to have a marriage and children. When she comes home, Jephthah carries out his vow. In this brutal story, Jephthah is given the distinction of a name, but his daughter is not. Unlike Isaac on a similar occasion, she is not saved at the last minute. Interestingly, at the end of the story the author mentions that it was the custom that ‘the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gildeadite four days in a year.’ So although she remained nameless as far as the writer was concerned, she was not forgotten by the girls who came after.

Most of the women I have been discussing occur in the Old Testament. However, in the New Testament there is this intriguing reference. When Jesus speaks in the synagogue in Nazareth, his neighbours, annoyed at his presumption, say: ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?’  [Matthew 13: 55-56] Once again, the sisters are nameless, although his four brothers are named.
If we turn to the Protoevangelium of James, we find that two sisters are indeed named there as Melkha and Eskha. Were they his only sisters? Matthew refers to ‘all’ his sisters. Perhaps there were more.

In recent years, some of these women of the Bible have begun to be rescued from obscurity. And one of the Old Testament stories in which a woman plays the part of a villain has been turned on its head.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has achieved worldwide fame, been translated into numerous languages, gained many awards and provoked considerable controversy. Set in a world parallel to our own, and moving in and out of other worlds, it has as its central character Lyra, a clever, unconventional, courageous and unruly girl whose destiny (whether she likes it or not) is to save mankind. The enemy is obscure but takes the form of a kind of ecclesiastical hierarchy. Pullman appears to be attacking not innate spirituality but the kind of organised religious bureaucracy which denies mankind intellectual and spiritual freedom. Thus Lyra becomes a latter-day Eve, who has eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, and is celebrated for it. Pullman is saying that eating the fruit of knowledge is what has raised mankind above the beasts and should never, ever, be seen as a fall from grace.

It is through knowledge, not ignorance, that mankind is redeemed, becomes godlike.

I’m not alone in wondering what really went on in the Ark. I’m taking the story literally here. Though we know there was never a flood which covered the entire earth, there is geological, archaeological and literary evidence that there was at least one major flood in the Middle East in ancient times. (Amongst other early references, it is mentioned in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.)

So there seems to be a germ of fact in the Noah story. Geraldine McCaughrean has taken the original text and developed it into the novel Not the End of the World, in which she explores the minutiae of daily life aboard the Ark: the stench, the fear, the illness, the growing tension between the passengers. The central character is a daughter of Noah, for, after all, who is to say that he did not have a daughter? This is no idealised version of the story. Above all it confronts the cruelty involved as Noah and his sons smash the fingers of their drowning neighbours who cling desperately to the ship, begging for their lives. Noah’s daughter is appalled by the whole experience and manages to rescue two children, whom she conceals amongst the animal pens. The five women on board, Noah’s wife, daughter and daughters-in-law, all play major roles in the novel. Often at loggerheads, at the last minute they are united in an action which defies the ruthless cruelty of Noah and his two eldest sons.

The story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob, has been turned on its head by Anita Diamant in The Red Tent, where she takes as her premise the idea that Dinah was not raped, but was in love with Shechem and wanted to marry him. The murder of Shechem and all his people by her brothers is seen as a preliminary to their attempted murder later of their brother Joseph, he of the coat of many colours. However, this episode involving Shechem occurs well into the novel, which starts by exploring Dinah’s upbringing by her four ‘mothers’ (Jacob’s two wives and two concubines). As the only girl in her generation, Dinah is instructed in all the female lore handed down from mother to daughter. It is a remarkable reconstruction of women’s lives, beliefs and everyday work in this early Israelite period, right down to their religious practices involving Asherah and other ancient goddesses who were still worshipped, although this was the period when monotheistic Yahwehism began to gain ground. In the latter part of the book, Dinah makes a new life for herself in Egypt, where her brother Joseph also famously made his mark.

Something which has intrigued me for many years is the real-life background to Jesus’s life. He did not appear on the public stage until he was about thirty – what was he doing in all those missing years? And what would it have been like to be part of his immediate family, a peasant family living in a village amongst the hills of Galilee? In particular, what would it have been like to be his sister? Those nameless sisters, brushed aside by history. One day Mariam, sister of Yeshûa (Aramaic for Jesus), simply walked into my head and started talking. I knew about the nameless sisters [Matthew 13: 55-56]. It was only later that I discovered Melkah and Eskah, but Mariam came to me complete with her name and I sensed she had been written out of history for some compelling reason. Fired up, I began to do research into the period and discovered that far more was known than I realised. I also needed to know about domestic life – houses, food, clothing – in order to understand the daily life of a Galilean peasant girl. One part of the story which has always baffled me was why Yehûdâ (Judas) would have betrayed Yeshûa. I read the recently transcribed Gospel of Judas. And then I realised that Mariam might have been betrothed to Yehûdâ, her brother’s oldest friend, while the ‘betrayal’ was the result of a painful but inescapable bargain between the two men. I brought these strands together in my novel, The Testament of Mariam. What has been remarkable has been the response, including astonishing warmth from men of the cloth, some of whom shared my mystification at the Judas story and said my version suddenly made sense of it. The novel has also been praised for depicting the important part played by women in the story.

 So: Where are all the lost women, the named, the vilified, the nameless?

In recent decades, both historical fiction and non-fiction have reached out to cover a much wider field than the traditional one of ‘great’ deeds performed by kings and generals. Interest is constantly growing in the lives and experiences of ordinary people. And once writers began to look at the majority of humanity, it became impossible to ignore the female half. Recent research by historians and archaeologists has brought to light a vast amount of detail about the daily lives of our ancestors, which has enhanced our perception of the past and made it possible to write about them with conviction and credibility. Those lost women of the past, so often neglected and ignored, are stepping out of the shadows and making their voices heard.