Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Catalonia looking forward, by Carol Drinkwater

This month, on 9th November, six weeks after Scotland voted to remain a part of Great Britain, ‘a self-determination referendum’ was held in Catalonia. The citizen participation process on Catalonia's political future was originally the 'Catalan Independence Referendum' but was rebranded as a 'popular consolation' after the original was suspended by the Constitutional Court of Spain.
The Catalonians who voted, expressed by a whopping eighty/twenty percent majority their preference to be self-determining.
This result did not surprise me one bit. Last year, I was caught up in a demonstration in Barcelona and no one could deny the massive turnout and the fervour.

                                                                    Catalonian Flag

Four weeks ago I was in Sitges with my husband as participants at a Mediterranean documentary film festival. We attend MEDIMED every year and make an outing of it, driving along the coast from our Olive Farm outside Cannes, crossing the border into Catalonia, through Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, and landing up for five days in the port city of Sitges. I have a very soft spot for this city with its beautiful Baroque cathedral where I attended the sung Saturday evening mass celebrated in the local Catalan tongue, which is a romance language and quite similar to our own Provençal. In Sitges, indeed all over Catalan, menus, road signs, notices are all written in Catalan and I have great fun trying to see how much I can decipher or link back to the Langue d’Oc.

                                                 Iglesia de Sant Bartomeu i Santa Tecla

The seventeenth-century cathedral Iglesia de Sant Bartomeu i Santa Tecla is perched on the Baluard headland and overlooks both the Mediterranean, the town, its esplanades and beaches. So identifiable is it, both from land and sea, that the locals refer to it as ‘La Punta’, the point. Even if attending a service is not of interest to you, the interior of the church has some splendid artwork and an organ dated 1699, movingly played on the night I attended mass.

Steps from the church stands the Palau Maricel where the doc film festival was held annually until last year. Since which time the building with its elegant white façade has been closed for renovations. The palace started life as the hospital Saint Joan Baptista in the fourteenth century. It was rebuilt in 1911 and newly designed by the engineer and artist Miguel Utrillo who transformed it into a private mansion for the American art collector and philanthropist, Charles Deering, who owned works by amongst others El Greco and Murillo. Today, the building is owned by the Barcelona Council and operates as a museum and the Historical Archive of Sitges. While the museum has a vast collection of art from medieval to modern, the neighbouring palace is separate and is used for cultural events. In this sumptuous building, four years ago I stood in the Blue Room, one of its ornate salons, almost Arabesque in decor, and pitched the films of The Olive Route to a very hard-crusted professional audience!

For those of you who might want to look further into the magnificent and very diverse artwork of Sitges and Catalonia, I have discovered a magazine La Xermada. One of its issues is dedicated to the influence of certain dates within Sitges history:1914, for example, (when the Palau Maricel was almost completed). It also talks of the birth of the movement, Noucentisme, which sprung up in Catalonia during the first two decades of the twentieth century as a counter movement to “the excesses” of Modernism. I confess that Noucentisme is new to me and I am only now, since our most recent visit a few weeks ago, learning about it. (If anyone reading this can teach me a little about it, I would be very grateful to hear it.)

The Catalonian coast was an artist’s haven at this period with notables such as Miro and Dali living and working here. Gaudi, too, who refused to speak Spanish and would only communicate in Catalan.

Set back from Plaça Baluard lies the old town, a treasure chest of stunning architecture and dazzling plantlife growing up and around the buildings. During the eighteenth century, many residents of Sitges took the ‘American Route’, which is to say they sailed to Cuba to make their fortunes on the island’s many plantations. When they returned they invested their money in the construction of mansions. One of these families was the Bacardi clan. The town is a dazzling collection of Art Nouveau and Modernista homes, many of which are now hotels. Take a stroll along the esplanade, Passeig de la Ribera, and you cannot miss the fine and colourful display.

I first visited this city in 1962. In 1962, Spain was still living under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco who ruled Spain as a totalitarian state from the end of the Spanish Civil War until his death in 1975. It was a long bleak road for the nation and by the time my parents and I arrived by car from England a fair proportion of the population was close to starving. Tourism was a very new business. The country had been cut off from international aid and exchange for many years. So desperate were some of the farmers and rural peoples, that they sold off their coastal farmlands for next to nothing to foreigners who began building beachside villas and resorts. It is from this decade that the Costa Next to Nothing mentality was seeded.

The Spanish Civil War and the ensuing decades of Francoism is a huge subject and not one to attempt to address in a page such as this. Many great writers have written on the subject, including the obvious and essential early war tomes: Laurie Lee’s As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning, the works of Federico Garcia Lorca who was murdered beneath an olive tree by the nationalists outside the small and rather haunting town of Viznar, ten kilometres from Granada. His body was left at the roadside, perhaps thrown into a mass grave but, as far as we know, never found or retrieved... I have written at length about the impact of the Spanish Civil War followed by the decades of Francoist rule on Spain’s olive oil culture in The Olive Tree.

From pre-Rome to the present day, Spain has been a major supplier of olive oil. Today, the Spanish are the world’s leading producers of olive oil, much to the chagrin of the Italians!.

But I digress. Sitges, Catalonia. 1962. I was an adolescent and quite possibly had never heard of Franco and most certainly knew nothing of this city’s, this region’s ceaseless and very brave fight against the nationalists. In fact, in the 60s, this beach town became famous for ts counterculture, the artists who resided there or visited during the summer months. But we were just visitors looking for sun.

I remember my father asking our waiter about the meat we were being served and the shock he expressed when the waiter replied ‘Ee-aw, Ee-aw’.
‘Donkey!’ spluttered my father in disgust and immediately took to his bed.
No doubt the people of Sitges back then, would have been grateful for a plate with a juicy steak on it. No doubt our waiter’s family must have fallen to their knees in gratitude for their young son’s modest pay packet. The first days of tourism. I also remember going to mass with my mother at Sant Bartomeu and how surprised we were to find that a christening service was under way. Not one child was being baptized but dozens, queues and queues of infants swathed in white being carried along the aisle. Only later did I learn that the people were so poor, families couldn’t afford to pay the priest to baptise their child so they waited until there was a group of newly born and then together they booked the padre’s services.

Sitges today is famous for being one of the gay capitals of the world. It is another expression of the region’s tolerance and acceptance and a strike against right-wing Catholicism. We stay at the Hotel Romantic, a three-star establishment in the old city, but a very unusual one. The hotel has been in the family for generations, houses a vast collection of paintings and ceramics and is an opportunity for gleaning first-hand history. The present proprietor’s father fought against the Republicans and was sent to prison but freed, unharmed, when the nationalists marched into Barcelona and took Catalonia. The Catalan president, Lluis Companys, fled but was arrested in France by Gestapo agents, returned to the nationalists and executed. This was the beginning of Catalan as a forbidden, an underground language. The region's culture and tongue were outlawed.
Senor Sobrer i Barea, the son of the Hotel Romantic’s proprietor at that time, wrote this:

‘ “Our war” as the older folks called it bled Spain. Barcelona crawled dustily in time ... The Church triumphant paraded its gold and silver crucifixes and Host holders in medieval splendour through our city’s streets. Catalanists spoke softly and fed their spirits with the spite of jokes about Franco and the crumbs of hope for an invasion from France or the Soviet Union or Outer Space or Utopia. Poble Nou felt even greyer. Winter nights were longer than ever in history as consumption of electricity was restricted to a few hours a day…’

Pablo Casals, or more accurately Pau Casals, the eminent cellist and conductor, fled his beloved Catalonia when the nationalists took control. He swore then he would never return to his village, nor to Spain, until Franco had been deposed and democracy reinstated. He took refuge across the border to France, to Prades. Later he settled in Puerto Rico where he died at the grand age of ninety-six. His tragedy, and the same for Pablo Picasso from Malaga who had taken the same oath, was that he died before Franco. A mere two years earlier. He never set eyes on his homeland again after 1939.

                                                     Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937

When I was beginning my travels for The Olive Tree, making my way south through Spain towards Morocco, I visited the Phocaen-Greek ruins of Empuries on the Costa Brava coast north of Barcelona. There I found what was then a modest white hotel set in the Bay of Empuries, feet in the water. I stepped in for lunch. The menu was, of course, in Catalan, nothing in Spanish. The owner who I talked to briefly was a distinguished-looking local gentleman, all his staff were also locals. They spoke Catalan between them. The menu proposed only local dishes. I was trying to trace some of the words back to the Phoenician tongue. For a short while, Empuries was an entrepot for the Phoenicians and they set up fish-salting factories close by. I was scribbling, working, enjoying a glass of cava, which is a Catalan not Spanish bubbly wine although it is also produced today in other parts of Spain. As I lifted my head from my notebook, I tuned into the music playing on the DVD player. Pablo Casals. It was no coincidence. I understood then that I had not yet reached Spain. I was in Catalonia.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014


At a recent book festival, a panel of illustrious 'literary' writers won their spurs as diplomats. The event was being filmed, and the camera swung round to reveal a beaming young woman, barely more than a child, her arm thrust into the air, desperate to ask a question.
An adult alongside, presumably her parent, was even more aglow with pride. And the question was?
You’ve guessed it:
“I am an aspiring writer (pause for exchange of smug smiles with parent). Where do you get your ideas from?”
Of course, the only honest answer would be: “Listen, honey, if you have to ask that, there’s not much chance that you’re suited to this writing game.” But I’m glad to say that none of the literary titans on the stage yielded to the temptation to deflate a youthful ego in public. No one said, “Did your Mummy tell you to ask that?” Nor did anyone challenge the girl about whether she wanted 'to be A Writer’ or to write - the former being a far more common ambition these days.
One or two of the panel blethered on as best they could to fill the time until it was decent to call on another questioner. But there was no mistaking the looks of bored exasperation that passed between the others as they dodged the ball.

I couldn’t help wondering whether there is a literary equivalent of the song “Don’t Put Your Daughter On The Stage, Mrs Worthington.” Do let me know.

Just for fun, here are some suggestions for how Miss Worthington might find ideas for her first novel - to show her how they can come from anywhere, and why you don’t need to agonise about seeking them out [as any normal child would say: 'well, derrr’].
Indeed they can come from the least promising places, as I found when I went to take photos to illustrate a post I wrote here a couple of months ago.
I came across this ugly memorial, oddly positioned on what used to be part of the Napier University campus and is soon to become an over-developed modern dormitory for the very rich.

It’s not a great work of art, I think you’ll agree, and the wording shows every sign of having been agreed by a committee. But what a plethora of novels might come out of it. Let’s work our way down from top to bottom.

The bare facts of WK Burton’s life give you a timeframe, and plenty to look up on the Internet. Why is this memorial 'Dedicated with Deep Gratitude’? Even if you don’t stick to the actual facts of WK’s career, that's a good start to the search for a story, if ever I saw one.

You might want to build your plot around how and why, despite his obvious personal accomplishments, a man might still be seen - long after his and his parents’ deaths - primarily as their son. What scope that provides for creating a character who feels he can never live up to the triumphs of his family, or perhaps was motivated to do great things himself to fulfil his parents' aspirations for him. WK's own history might suggest that he deliberately carved out a life independently, playing to his personal enthusiasms and strengths in defiance of their hopes and expectations (indeed you might want to reflect on that from your own perspective, as you get older, Miss Worthington).

John Hill Burton - WK's Father
If you look into the actual details of his parents’ lives you will open up myriad possibilities for characters and settings. Following his father’s career as a biographer will take you into the world of the 18th century and the Scottish Enlightenment, opening up the life and works of the great philosopher, David Hume.

Hume's statue in Edinburgh on Referendum day
But why is WK's mother also named on the obelisk? Look her up and you’ll find that she grew up in high-flown legal circles, studied sculpture, promoted the education of women, and went as a nurse to the Crimea. She and her husband were friends of Conan Doyle. If you can’t find ideas there, Miss Worthington, you really should give up. And that’s before you find out that WK’s sister was a well-known artist, studying and exhibiting all over Europe.

We move down the memorial, and suddenly we're in Japan and down the sewers.

 It’s not just because the sewers of London feature so heavily in my Montmorency books that I see massive potential here.

Then look at this. The memorial really is the gift that keeps on giving.

That skyscraper - all 225 feet of it, was home to shops, an art gallery and a concert hall. What a wonderful setting for a novel. Add to that the closure of it’s revolutionary elevators ‘for safety reasons’ and the damage done to it in the great earthquake of 1894, and it would be amazing if you were still scrabbling around for plot ideas.

And there’s more.

 Some of his most famous pictures date from the 1891 earthquake. Here’s just one.

If you can’t build a story around that, Miss Worthington, you are in real trouble.

But also a respecter of Japanese heritage...
There are plenty of Japanese websites that can help you out here - each of them laced with small details that might spark off a completely unrelated tale.

Even this dull inscription at the very bottom of the stone could inspire you to write something lively. The clumsy reference to the committee might set your mind racing.  How about starting a story with the meeting of a memorial committee - even using the structure of the arguments at their meetings to shape whatever you choose to write? It looks as if hours were spent coming up with the leaden wording on the memorial - and yet apparently no one foresaw that rainwater running down the metal portrait would discolour the stone below. Ha ha.

Beyond all that, you could look ahead. The land around this memorial is soon to be a building site. The obelisk might be moved, accidentally or deliberately lost, or be scraped daily by the Chelsea tractors of the new residents, taking little darlings like you off to school. It could become the focal point of a story set in a world far removed from engineering, photography, Edinburgh, Japan, or anything to do with WK Burton and this particular lump of stone.

All I have been doing, Miss Worthington, is showing how anything, be it a memorial, a shop sign, a scribbled note, a soft toy, a photograph or a fish pie might set your novelistic juices running. An idea is only a starting point. Writing fiction is about letting your imagination run. Some of us enjoy rooting our books in fact, and restricting our flights of fancy to things that could plausibly have happened in a particular era or society, but you don't have to do that.
I could have said much, much more. I might have told you what I would write about having seen this apparently dreary monument —but, Dear Miss Worthington, you are going to have to wait to read that in print.  And you might be waiting a very long time, because I have plenty of other ideas.

Monday, 24 November 2014

KING JOHN AND THE CHARTER OF RUNNYMEDE: Some lecture notes. by Elizabeth Chadwick

I'm doing a spot of multi tasking for my feature this month -  I'm posting some notes from an informal lecture I gave on  the 22nd November concerning King John and Magna Carta.

My lecture had a different slant in that I had been asked to give it to to the committee members of  NARES The National Association of Re-enactment Societies, a body that sets safety and professional standards for re-enactment groups. The talk took place in The Crow's Nest at the top of the National Motorcycle Museum just outside Solihull - what an interesting venue!

It won't have escaped anyone's attention that in 2015 we celebrate the 800th year since the signing of Magna Carta by King John at Runnymeade. With this in mind, the various medieval re-enactment socities are going to be very busy throughout the season it was thought it would be useful for someone (I was volunteered!) to give a half hour talk on the basicis.

Having been  a member of re-enactment group Regia Anglorum for 23 years, and also with my author hat on having written several novels about the reign of King John,  I was asked to give a brief overview to the re-enactment community as they plan next year's shows.

I thought it might be useful to post my piece here for posterity and to reach a wider audience as
 a resource/aid to further individual research.  So here it is:

KING JOHN AND THE CHARTER OF RUNNYMEDE: A talk given by Elizabeth Chadwick to the National Association of Re-enactment Societies on 22nd November 2014.
Magna  Carta 1215. Held in the British Library.

Magna carta was signed on the 15th of June at Runnymede near Windsor in 1215. King John was 49 years old at the time and had been on the throne for 16 years. He was forced to submit to the demands of a vocal party of his barons who were in rebellion against him. The Magna Carta or great charter was a document of 63 clauses aimed at limiting royal authority and establishing the principle that the King was subject to the law, not above it. It was originally known as The Charter of Runnymede and only became known as Magna Carta when it was reissued by William Marshal in the name of John's youngest son Henry III in 1217.

Two of its most famous clauses, numbers 39 and 40 have been enshrined in constitutions throughout the world including that of the United States of America. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950 also used these clauses and are the ones that will be most in evidence over the coming year's events.

39. No free man shall be taken, or imprisoned, or disseized, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way harmed - nor will we proceed with force against him or send others to do so - save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.

40. To none will we sell, to none deny or delay right or justice.

Obviously these clauses have been adapted to the times and cultures of ensuing generations and don't always have the same meanings as they did then. For a start the 'free man' wasn't aimed at the run-of-the-mill population, many who were bound to their Lord and the land, but to the barons whose interests these clauses served. For example:

'Heirs may be given in marriage, but not to someone of lower social standing. Before a marriage takes place, it shall be made known to the heir's next-of-kin.

No man shall be forced to perform more service for a knight's fee or other free holding of land than is due from it.

So in other words, the first clause, was a protest about John selling off marriages to reward, bribe and sweeten men he desired to cultivate and bring into his affinity. In the second, the protest was that the king was demanding work above and beyond what was in the original contract!

 . Having set his seal to Magna Carta, John immediately reneged on it and had himself absolved of the deed by the Pope. The barons (who had known he would renege), continued in their rebellion, and for a while it was almost as if the charter had never been sealed at all. However, Magna Carta, was reissued after John's death with more success (and several tweaks) by the Regent William Marshal, and then again in 1225 under Henry III, by which time it had been substantially rewritten.

But how did this charter come about? How did we come to this place?

King John: there's a name to conjure with. He often gets a bad rap, justified in my opinion. W.L. Warren in his excellent biography of John sums him up thus:

It seems clear that he was inadequate to the tasks confronting him as king. Even in his achievements there was always something missing. He subdued nations to his will, but brought only the peace of fear; he was an ingenious administrator, but expedience came before policy; he was a notable judge, but chicanery went along with justice; he was an able ruler, but he did not know when he was squeezing too hard; he was a clever strategist but his military operations lacked that vital ingredient of success - boldness. He had the mental abilities of a great king but the inclinations of a petty tyrant.

The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, completed within 10 years of John's death says:
'But all the time the king's pride and arrogance increased; they so blurred his vision that he could not see reason. Indeed, I know for a fact that as a result he lost the affection of the barons of the land before he crossed to England.'

And on his deathbed, William Marshal said to John's nine-year-old son Henry III: 'and if it were the case that you followed in the footsteps of some wicked ancestor and that your wish was to be like him, then I pray to God, the son of Mary, that he does not give you long to live and that you die before it comes to that.'

He earned himself the title of 'Softsword' when he lost Normandy. Compare that to his brother Richard the 'Lionheart' who earned his own title at the age of 19, or his half brother William 'Longsword', Earl of Salisbury. In his own lifetime, John was neither liked nor respected.

In appearance if anyone is going to represent him on the field and wants to be realistic, let me say we don't know a great deal, but we do have a few telling snippets. Chronicler Gerald of Wales tells us that he was a little smaller than average height but not greatly so. His older brothers Henry the Young King and Richard were tall. Geoffrey his third brother (died 1186) and John were not. We don't know his hair or eye colour. We do know that he was very fond of wearing a black leather belt, because it is mentioned in his chamber accounts and that he was accustomed to wearing it - as in it was a favourite. He also wore jewels around his neck. We don't know what kind but we do know he wore them because he lost them the paid the person who discovered them a nice reward, and again that went through the accounts, as did a chaplet of flowers to his mistress. We know that he bought in some ornate jewelled staffs, and again these are paid into his chamber. 'The 4th July at Marlborough. Note that we received in our chamber at Marlborough, on the Saturday next after the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul one staff ornamented with 19 sapphires, and another with 10.
We know he had tunics lined with green cendal (a form of lightweight silk) and that he bought a black dress lined with saffron coloured cendal for Susanna, one of his mistresses. We know he had a 'ruby-red robe lined with green cendal.' And one of a russet colour lined with ermine. We also know that he clothed his huntsmen in blue and green, and his stewards in black and brown, so the servants were colour-coded!
This is a Victorian reproduction of King John's effigy at Worcester Cathedral.
It's in the V&A and shows the embellished jewelled neckline of John's tunic to good effect
You will sometimes hear people say that many of his problems stemmed from Richard's spendthrift ways in bankrupting England to pay for his crusade and then his ransom. It's true that was a big and difficult financial drain on the country, but it didn't bankrupt England by a long chalk. John was still able to spend four times more than Richard raised for the Crusades in preparing for his own war to regain the Angevin lands across the Channel. The annual expenditure for England in the year running up to the crusade came to £31,089. Once Richard had departed there was a steep drop to £11,000 a year. The ransom bit hard after he was captured and illegally imprisoned on his way home from the crusade - 100,000 marks was a lot to find, but found it was  A mark was approximately two thirds of a pound.

John meanwhile had been trying to take over the country and tell everyone his brother was dead. When it became known that Richard had in fact been captured and imprisoned by the Germans on his way home, John then tried to strike a deal with Richard's jailers to keep him locked up indefinitely (didn't work - where would John get the money from?). It didn't do a lot for John's reputation in people's eyes.

When Richard eventually arrived home, he magnanimously forgave John, rubbing salt into the wound by telling him he was a child who had been misled by evil men i.e. John didn't have the necessary backbone or manliness. All of which would have been taken on board by those standing around listening. Here they had a real king, and a pretend one who had turned out to be a scheming loser.

Back to the money. Richard went to war with France and the annual expenditure rose again to around £24,000 a year. John's revenues in the early years of kingship averaged £22-25,000 but then skyrocketed in 1210 to £50,000 and in 1212 rose again to £83,000. By 1213, as a result of interdict profits and tallages he gathered in a staggering sum for the times £145,000. There was still money to be had and have it John did. In 1207 he levied a tax of a thirteenth on everyone's movable goods, and for the barons this included all their bling. Many of them were having none of it and resorted to hiding their wealth in the monasteries who owed them patronage. The king would then send in his heavies to search these monasteries and confiscate the goods if found, and levy a fine. So as far as taxes being levied and taxes being dodged goes, nothing changes.
A single mark of silver - 13 shillings and four pence or 160 pennies.

Basically John did not have the respect of his barons as they had respected and trusted Richard as an energetic military leader with clear directives. John was more of a tunnel building sort of person. If he could take the convoluted route, he would. He was renowned for giving secret signals and dodgy handshakes which only he and his spies knew. He'd send one message that was open, and a second message in secret code that was only to be acted upon if the dodgy handshake was activated. Sometimes he forgot whether he'd attached the dodgy handshake command to a letter and then he had to send follow-up letters with more instructions.

Following the incident of being caught with his fingers in the cookie jar when trying to keep Richard incarcerated, John mostly behaved himself. Once he became king he started off reasonably well without too many difficulties, but within the first five years his reputation was going to to hell in a hand cart. Richard had had to ceaselessly fight against the French to keep a grip on Normandy and the Angevin cross-Channel lands - but he had been winning according to historian John Gillingham.

As an aside here, you'll often hear it said that Richard didn't care about England because he didn't spend any time there after he was king, and sold offices to the highest bidder in order to fund his crusades. I've even heard it claimed that he hated England, but that's nonsense. The bottom line is that we just don't know what Richard thought of the country. He was born here and he spent time here before he was king - as a child, as an adolescent, and as an adult returning for family meetings while his father was still on the throne. It is true that Richard's focus was Aquitaine because he was its dedicated heir. If all Henry II's sons had lived, Richard would not have had England but that doesn't mean he hated it. Many of his Administration staff were English and many of his key players - William Marshal for example. By contrast John is sometimes claimed to have loved England, but we don't know if that's true either. John was the first King thrown back on his English dominions because he'd lost Normandy and Anjou - but his rule in England certainly ended in tears before bedtime!

King John Stag hunting Early 14thc. British Library
John was not made of the same military stuff as Richard. He was good on the short campaigns it's true but wasn't a man for the long haul. He did score a terrific victory at Mirebeau where he rescued his elderly mother from being besieged by her grandson Arthur. Arthur was John's rival for the English throne and the Angevin Empire. He was the teenage son of John's deceased older brother Geoffrey and a huge thorn in John's side - he had a valid claim to the English throne and was French-backed.  However, at Mirebeau, Arthur was taken prisoner along with many other dissidents and the black legends began in earnest.

'When the King arrived in Chinon, he kept his prisoners in such a horrible manner and such abject confinement that it seemed an indignity and disgrace to all those with him who witnessed his cruelty.'   This is from the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal - an eyewitness source. It is often said that every reign  in the Middle Ages was full of violent barbarism perpetrated by its kings and we shouldn't judge by modern mindset. That is very true, but this is eyewitness mindset of John's life and times.

Arthur went to Rouen and was never seen again. Rumours hinted that John had personally murdered him while in a drunken rage and had his body cast into the River Seine. Whatever the truth of the matter we know for a fact that Arthur entered Rouen Castle in April 1203 and was never seen again. King Philip of France demanded that John produce him and when John could not it was the excuse Philip needed - along with complaints of John having denied justice in his court to his vassals, to invade Normandy. From the high point of that moment of victory in taking Arthur, John was now on the slippery slope. As town after town fell or yielded to the French, John retreated and eventually quit Normandy. This was seen as a humiliation and disaster especially as many of the barons had land on both sides of the Channel and had to make a choice as to what they kept and what they lost, and naturally John got the blame. The Lionheart have protected them. John Softsword had failed and abandoned them.

Smarting from his losses, John began raising money via aforementioned unpopular taxes to get an expedition together to regain his lost continental lands. To compound his problems his very able Archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter who had been an astute administrator with tremendous vision and drive, died. The man John would like to have appointed, John de Grey, Bishop of Norwich was not approved by the Canterbury monks who wanted one Stephen Langton for Archbishop. A huge argument ensued, that might well have gone the way of Becket. It didn't, but the country was put under interdict and sanctions by the Pope were imposed. Basically it meant the church went on strike and refused to perform its usual functions. So now people were lacking in the comfort and security of ecclesiastical routine, they were being taxed to the hilt, and had seen their king humiliated on the continent.

Ever suspicious, John had a penchant for employing mercenaries to do his work both the aboveboard kind and the dirty stuff. They were more trustworthy in the long run as long as you paid them, but the barons hated and despised them. Hence clause 50 of the Magna Carta

"We shall entirely remove from their bailwicks the relatives of Gerard D'Athee, so that they shall henceforth have no bailwick in England;Engelard de Cygnes, Andrew, Peter and Guyon de Chanceles, Gyon de Cygnes, Geoffrey de Martin and his brothers, Philip Mark and his brothers, and Geoffrey his nephew, and the whole following of them."

John  then fell out with one of his barons, William de Braose. He claimed that de Braose, a man of widespread lands and power and originally in high favour with him, owed him a lot of money for those favours but was showing contempt by not repaying any of it. The sums John was demanding of de Braose were astronomical and it was obvious that it was an excuse to bring him down. Perhaps John feared him with good reason. He demanded hostages from de Braose but when his agents turned up at the family domicile demanding hostages, their mother, Matilda, said that there was no way she was giving any of her children up to the man who had murdered his own nephew. How was she in a position to know this?  Interestingly de Braose had been at Rouen in April 1203 and if anyone knew what happened to Arthur, it would be him. The reports of the death of Arthur can be found in a Chronicle titled the Anals of Margham.  Margham Abbey's patron was William de Braose... Make of that what you will.

John went after the de Braose family with a vengeance, especially Matilda and her oldest son. They fled to Ireland where William Marshal gave them succour for a while and then they fled again, heading north, but were betrayed and caught. Matilda and her eldest son was thrown into prison at Corfe and starved to death. When the bodies were brought out of the oubliette into which they had been cast, it was found that the son had bite marks on his arm where his mother had turned cannibal in an effort to sustain her own life. This was shocking beyond belief to John's nobility and almost not quite the last nail in the coffin.

The final twist came when John taxed everyone until they squealed in order to raise the money for a huge campaign to win back his Norman and Angevin heartlands. He put everything into that campaign. This was the huge push to put the French back in their place. Unfortunately for John things didn't go to plan and the Battle of Bouvines in July 1214 (still a day marked by the French even now) was an utter disaster for the English. It left John's continental policy in ruins; it left him with a massive bill for the ransoms of those who have been captured and sent him crawling back to England with his tail between his legs - 'Softsword' indeed - at least as far as the barons were concerned. Bouvines was the final jigsaw piece slotting into the landscape that led to Magna Carta. Had Bouvines been successful, then Magna Carta may never have come to be. In failing to defeat the French it led the English barons to tally up their discontent against John. What they saw was an inept king who oppressed them, ignored their advice for that of his favourites and mercenaries, who taxed them to the hilt and then wasted their coin and their prestige by losing the battles. A man who quarrelled with the church, a man who disparaged them and disrespected their women (he had a reputation for being lecherous with the wives and daughters of his barons) indeed murdered them if he thought they were becoming nuisances or knew too much. It all had to stop, hence the organised rebellion against him, and the putting together of the clauses of the great Charter.

So, where did those clauses come from? Did they just spring out of the heads of the ringleaders? Of Stephen Langton the Archbishop of Canterbury? Well yes and no. The barons who gathered to form a committee to tie down King John and commit him to these reforms looked back in history for their initial source. The rough draft of the Magna Carta was based on a document titled The Charter of Liberties which had been issued in 1100 at the coronation of John's great-grandfather, Henry I. Prior to Henry I's reign, there had been charters on which Henry had loosely based his own - promises by kings to work for the common weal, but Henry I Charter went a lot further than that and was laid out a series of 14 promises concerning his behaviours King.  Such as:

'If any of my barons or other men should wish to give his daughter, sister, niece, or kinswoman in marriage, let him speak with me about it; but I will neither take anything from him for this permission not prevent his giving her and that she should be minded to join her to my enemy. And if, upon the death of a baron or other of my men, a daughter is left as heir, I will give her with her land by the advice of my barons. And if, on the death of her husband, the wife is left and without children, she shall have her diary and right of marriage, and I will not give her to husband unless according to her will.' 

He also promises that he will take away all the bad customs by which the kingdom of England has been unjustly oppressed.

This document then, more than a hundred years old was the inspiration and working blueprint for the Magna Carta, with Stephen Langton at the head of the steering committee, John was loath and indignant to put his seal to such a treaty. He felt he was being very wronged and that his own liberties were being undermined. The moment it was sealed, he reneged on the deal. Some of the barons was so convinced he would renege that they rode off in the opposite direction and continued to make war. At this point John had  'sold' England as a vassal state to the Pope, and thus put an end to threats of excommunication and interdict. Instead, these were turned on the French who were intent on invading England and on the rebellious barons desiring to get rid of John.

The only real answer was for John to die, which he duly did, having lost the crown jewels in the Wash - as everyone has joked about for decades. He ended his life in Newark Castle in October 1216, the traditional cause of death is stated at a surfeit of peaches and cider, but that may not be the literal truth. Peaches were viewed in the Medieval table of humours as being cold and moist and could very dangerously put out one's internal fire and cause death. So it was a good way to explain a terminal stomach disorder. The same goes for Henry I's surfeit of lampreys.

John's body was borne to Worcester Cathedral. William Marshal became regent of England, responsible for the nine-year-old Henry III and for getting the country back on its feet, reunited, rid of the French, and solvent, all of which he more or less succeeded in doing before his death in 1219. With William Marshal at the helm Magna Carta could be reissued and tweaked to make it acceptable to all, and the rebuilding could begin. Not everyone was enamoured but people trusted and respected the Marshal and recognised a safe pair of hands, especially as under the latter's generalship the French were whipped twice, once at the battle of Lincoln Fair in May 1217 with the Marshal leading from the front, and then at the sea battle of Sandwich later that year when the Marshal watched from the clips. The force was with the Marshal, and unlike John, his light sabre was the right colour!

There has always been push and pull between ruling factions. Magna set out the interests and requirements of a disgruntled nobility, that weren't being met by a king they saw as being tyrannical and absolutist. Perhaps in a perverse way, we could say that King John is at the root of it the man responsible for the words enshrined in many of the world's democracies - countries he didn't know existed when he sat down under coercion to put his seal to a most historic piece of parchment.

For anyone wanting to read more on the subject, I would particularly recommend online  The Magna Carta project which contains enough detail to satisfy the most voracious of scholarly appetites. Magna Carta project
Reading wise - you can do no better at the moment than W.L. Warren's biography of King John. Next year, however in March, Marc Morris's new biography of King John is being published and that should prove well worth reading.

Select Sources for this article
King John - W.L. Warren - Eyre & Methuen
The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal vol II  - translated and edited by Holden, Gregory and Crouch - Anglo Norman Text Society.
The Angevin Empire - John Gillingham - Hodder/OUP
A Description of the Patent Rolls in the Tower of London to which is added an itinerary of King John with prefatory observations.  By Thomas Duffus Hardy F.S. A.

Elizabeth's novel To Defy A King about one family's road to Magna Carta won the RNA Award for historical fiction in 2011.

Sunday, 23 November 2014


Disclaimer: this is only a small summary of what I saw in the exhibition at the British Museum, or of my reactions to it!

Photo: Superoniskop via Wikimedia Commons

The first thing I really noticed when I came into this exhibition was a video of the fall of the Berlin Wall on the 9th November 1989. I can still feel the intense, almost incredulous joy and sense of release of that event; having seen and loathed the Wall every time I had been to Berlin before that. As previous readers of my blogs here will know, my family come from a portion of Germany so far east that now it is no longer Germany and never will be again; but I had family members who lived and died on the wrong side of the wall, and so I never knew them. Moreover, I had read German at university, concentrating on literature, and there were places I had only ever visited on the pages of books; oh, I could have travelled to them, yet the Wall seemed to place them out of reach, in a different world, almost. I love the above photograph, because it shows a horde of little people, with small hammers, tapping away at the hated obstacle. I have a piece of the Wall in my study, chipped away by one of my husband's colleagues on the 9th November, perhaps in a scene like this. It looks so easy that one might ask: 'Why didn't they do it before?' but anyone who had seen the Wall, with its armed guards, its alarm mechanisms, its floodlighting, can give the answer to that. On the other hand, the people power to get it down had come from the numerous brave demonstrations on the eastern side, people armed with nothing but candles, wanting peace and real democracy, not the kind imposed on the so-called German Democratic Republic by Stalinist apparatchiks returning to Germany in 1945. I had forgotten that this was the year of Tiananmen Square, which makes you realise how dangerous the marches felt to those participating in them, and indeed, the armoured cars were there, the troops appeared, only - thanks to Gorbachev, I suspect, they weren't deployed.

photo: British Museum

This poster was also placed there: 'We are a people' a woman entering behind me translated, so I turned round and corrected her (because it seemed important) 'We are ONE people.' Which is what it meant.

And yet - inspiring though the poster, from the demonstrations in Leipzig, is, what the exhibition celebrates is the diversity and messiness of what it means to be German, something more defined by language than anything else, which would annoy those nationalists rightly lambasted by Simon Winder in Danubia, who want to prove that Europe can be divided into neat categories who never mix. It would also annoy some Austrians, but that is too bad. Taking my own heritage as an example; my mother was born in Zabrze in Upper Silesia; some of my grandfather's ancestors came from Austria as Protestant refugees from Tyrol, others from Bohemia, as it then was. My grandmother had a Polish maiden name and spoke Silesian, which was and still is, apparently, a Slav language with German accretions. Till 1946, when she was cattle-trucked 'back' to Germany, my mother lived in Silesia and in Graz, Austria. Till I was ten, in fact, I believed I was half Austrian. My mother then told me no; I was German, but I do feel very at home in Austria and can speak the language more happily than I can the language of North Germany, which (in its raw, ungentrified form,is not a million miles away from Flemish or Dutch.
This introduces a different aspect of the matter; that of language. Though to be German, in the past, was more defined by language than anything else (Walther von der Vogelweide, writing at the turn of the twelfth/thirteen century, uses the term 'tiuschiu zunge' for 'the German people', but zunge means tongue, therefore language), there is the diversity of the language to be taken into account. The version of German I speak is a rather gentrified kind of Alemannic German, which is spoken in most of South Germany, apart from the Rhineland, where Platt (Low German, or North German) is spoken. I learned to speak this as a child, incidentally, and thus had never any difficulty in Alsace, where they used to speak Rhenish German, though French, apparently, is gaining more and more ground. If that sounds complicated; well, it just is.
Because under the Holy Roman Empire (of the German nation), which lasted till the Napoleonic era, Germany was a conglomeration of smaller and larger units, duchies, electorates (whose rulers had the right to elect the Emperor), all of which had a degree of autonomy (is that the right word?) but nevertheless owed fealty to the Emperor. The extent of the autonomy was demonstrated during the Reformation, with some rulers becoming Protestants, others remaining Catholic, though the Emperor was definitely Catholic and in cahoots with the Pope in Rome, hence the Roman bit. There was a decision made (not always stuck to) that 'cuius regio, eius religio' which is Latin for 'whoever rules decides the religion of their domain.
This variousness persists in the form of what the Germans often refer to with rolled eyes as 'Die Länder!' ie, the federal states who all have their own ideas about how things should be done. The exhibition tends to regard German diversity as a very positive thing; the enlightened Berlin bureaucrat looking at the intransigence of a Bavarian ultra-conservative Parliament may have a different idea, but hey.. it works. And I personally think Britain could learn from it. If Scotland is not to have its independence, what about a federal Britain, with England itself subdivided?
However, possibilities for a federal Britain is this is not what this blog is about!
A kind of standard German was established, as the exhibition will tell you, by Luther when he translated the Bible, though I have also heard it referred to as 'stage German' and my mother used to call it 'High German,' but this is confusing, since 'High German' also means Alemannic German (or I think it does, any philologists who know better are invited to comment.) However, a Bavarian, speaking posh, will still be speaking a very different language from a posh-speaking Hamburg person.
What I really liked about the exhibition was the way in which it opened up to non-Germans the rich and amazing German culture, which particularly British people don't have much idea about. There were some things that were new to me - like the exhibition of different coinages struck (sometimes only symbolically) by all those different little dukedoms and principalities - when I saw them, it made sense, but to one brought up on the post-war Deutschmark and pfennigs, it seemed strange to see just how many different kinds of Talers there were. The several versions of Euros are nothing to it.

This beautiful clock is now no longer in the cathedral at Strasbourg (or Strassburg, as it was once called) but the British Museum are lucky enough to have a reproduction of it. On the hour, angels sing (or rather, tinkle) and Death emerges to strike the hour, only then the figure of Christ comes out to banish Death.The clock's dials show the length of time till Judgement Day, a piece of German technology which could be pretty impressive, though when I joined a small knot of people to wait for twelve o' clock, we were disappointed. We got the angel song, but Death wouldn't do his stuff. I was lucky, for I had heard and seen an unscheduled strike of Death's hammer at about half past eleven. So I wouldn't be too sure about the projected remaining length of time for the world. However, what the clock awoke in me (it is there as a monument to German Renaissance humanism) was the memory of standing in various cities (Vienna, Munich spring to mind) waiting for the clock to strike twelve and music to play and little figures to emerge and process, or dance, or fight, or whatever else. Beside the clock were various German romantic landscape paintings, one of the Riesengebirge/Karkonosce/Krkonosce mountains, where my grandfather was born, a scene I recognised from going there a few years ago, one of the island of Rügen, a place I visited in 2003, partly because my mother used to have holidays on the Baltic coast, and partly because I had read about it in Fontane's 'Effi Briest.' It used to be on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, as was the Riesengebirge. There is also a painting by the wonderful Caspar David Friedrich of a German oak (Germans, like English people, view the oak as peculiarly their own). This oak has big broken boughs as well as green ones, it is an aged oak that has had a few lightning strikes, but still burgeons, and if it symbolised Germany in the 19th century, when it was painted, it is an even more appropriate symbol now. Friedrich is in any case a sublime painter, and it is worth going to the exhibition just to see one of his paintings. Even better to go to Dresden, or Berlin, where there are a good many of them.

The above carving of the four Gospel writers, by Tilman Riemenschneider, is another good reason to visit the exhibition. Riemenschneider is a wood-carver little-known outside Germany, but he was enormously productive and famous in his time. He was, as well as an artist, one of the mayors of Würzburg at the time of the Peasants' Revolt, and he and the rest of the town council opened the gates of the city to the rebels in 1525. He has thus been celebrated by the Left as a hero, for it was said that he was tortured, and as a result could never carve again. Whatever the truth about Riemenschneiders's fate may be, you can see from this sculpture alone that he was a genius with wood. It is an intensely powerful piece. I have seen many marvellous carvings in my life (mainly in Germanic lands), but this has to count as one of the most wonderful.

The Peasants' Revolt was the subject of a set of prints by the great 20th-century artist Käthe Kollwitz, who also dealt with the subject of the Silesian weavers' revolt, which I learned about through studying the Silesian author Gerhart Hauptmann's The Weavers at university. She is also pictured in the exhibition, twice, later on. Here is one of the images, a self-portrait.

Kollwitz's younger son Peter was killed early in the First World War, and I read through her moving and fascinating journal of those years to inform my ideas about that period when I wrote my contribution to Stories of World War 1. She travelled from a passionate nationalism, provoked by the war, to a heartfelt and agonised pacifism, which is powerfully expressed in her work. She was forbidden to work by the Nazis, and died before the end of the war.

This iconic, in every sense of the word, painting, is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who has in Germany the kind of status that Shakespeare has in England. A towering figure, he gained an international reputation with The Sorrows of young Werther, which is not my favourite of his works, but which was read with the kind of attention and disapproval as the Beatles music evoked in my childhood. Werther's eventual suicide (which, when I read the book, I hailed with relief, I am afraid) was supposed to have sparked copy-cat suicides all over Europe and was the voice of revolt against Enlightenment rationalism and the nascent Romantic movement. Jane Austen sniffed and wrote Sense and Sensibility, and if Marianne Dashwood hadn't read Werther I would be very surprised. But there is far more to Goethe than Werther. He went on to write novels, superb poetry, and plays, notably Faust, though there is some question as to whether Faust is in fact a play or a poem. I have seen the first part performed, anyway, and it works. Goethe was also a statesman, and a scientist; in fact his discovery of the intermaxillary bone helped Darwin formulate his theory of evolution, as it links us to other great apes (I think). He also formulated a colour theory, though Newton's won, and a plant has been named after him, goethea cauliflora, which is not (as you might think) a vegetable, but a rather pretty flowering thing. I was very glad to finally see the painting, which usually lives in Frankfurt, a city I have never spent time in.

Goethe had semi-divine status with my mother, and, like the Greek Gods, was thus allowed to get away with all kinds of behaviour and writing which she unhesitatingly condemned in lesser writers, such as the womanising by himself and by his characters, and his lack of conventional religious piety. In this, my mother was quite typical of members of the German 'Bildungsbbürgertum', a term very hard to translate, because though you can render it as 'educated middle class' this English term conveys nothing of the reverence and deep love of culture that goes with it.

The rhinoceros was made in the Meissen porcelain factory by Johann Gottlieb Kirchner, using as blueprint a print by Albrecht Dürer. Neither man had actually seen a rhinoceros, but I don't care about that; I adore this animal. It was made in the newly-discovered 'white gold' Saxon-crafted porcelain (the discovery of an alchemist who Augustus the Strong locked up till he had discovered the secret. Till then, actual porcelain had to be imported from China. So called 'Dresden' actually Meissen porcelain was the result. I visited the Zwinger porcelain museum in 2009, which was a wonderful experience for a person as obsessed with ceramics as I am. My husband bought a photography pass, so here are some other denizens of Augustus's porcelain menagerie.

photo: David Wilson
We were rather taken with the sad-faced lion. Meissen china is a taste I inherited from my mother, and I have bought a few pieces of the classic German/Czech/Austrian Zwiebelmuster 'onion design' a blue and white pattern derived from Chinese motifs. If I could afford a complete dinner-service of this, I would, and if I ever get rich I will..

It was off this pattern that Jenny, in Saving Rafael ate with her capitalist uncle Hartmut after he had winkled her out of juvenile concentration camp. He was rich enough to afford the complete dinner-service. I suppose my affection for the Zwiebelmuster (actually, the 'onion' is a pomegranate) demonstrates in my psyche some pretty typical but perhaps old-fashioned German middle-class aspirations - but to me it is just one of the loveliest and most elegant blue-and-white designs in the world.
I cannot possibly describe the whole exhibition in this blog; I wandered through a host of resonances, and the Germans I chatted to liked it as much as I did. However, with all this culture and greatness and technical know-how, you inevitably get to the question: 'How could a nation like this commit the Holocaust'? 'Death,' said Paul Celan, 'is a master-craftsman from Germany.'
My answer here is that nothing, apparently, not culture, not skill, not science or technical cleverness (well, certainly not the latter) apparently can stop human beings committing horrific actions. How is it that the tremendous cultural richness and ethical power of Islam has not stopped people committing atrocities in its name? And I did like it that neither the exhibition or the book took the specious line of suggesting that all German culture up till 1945 was corrupted by anti-Semitism and inexorably led up to Nazism. For all European culture was corrupted by anti-Semitism. The question of what makes humans commit such evils - or what might stop them - is one, at least, that Germans have thought about perhaps more thoroughly since then, and with more unsparing honesty, than many other nations. Like the Trümmerfrauen who back-breakingly picked up the rubble of bombed buildings, so that the materials could be recycled for new structures, 
above is a statue of one of them, made from ceramic fragments by Max Lachnit in c1945 - like these women, Germany has had to reassemble herself. I myself have gone through this psychologically painful and strenuous business of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, and I know of what I speak. What one finds when going through this process is connection to those parts of German heritage that are good; and that is what this exhibition gets across. Moreover, it does not come to a halt in 1945, but goes on beyond. And - though there have been problems and uglinesses following that night of 9th November 1989, though turbo-capitalism has surged ahead, though there have been frictions between East and West, there was that night, and looking back at it, I for one find tears of joy coming to my eyes. I am not ashamed of them. 
Do go and see the exhibition. It is well worth it.

All photos not otherwise accredited are from the British Museum Press Office.

GERMANY: MEMORIES OF A NATION is at the British Museum till the 25th January

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Women Behaving Badly - by Kate Lord Brown

A question for you: do you have a certain type of woman who reappears often in your fiction, under the guise of different names and different faces? I was thinking about this famous quote this morning stuck in traffic:

'Well-behaved women seldom make history'

I realised although I'd seen it countless times on everything from bumper stickers to t-shirts, I didn't know who said it - there's an interesting post about that here.

The badly behaved characters are perhaps more entertaining, more fun to write, more memorable in real life as in fiction. They also shout the loudest. I was thinking of that quote because I'm in the early stages of a new novel, and just tuning in to the characters' voices - the one coming clearest and loudest through the ether belongs to an unconventional seventy year old woman last seen in a bikini wrangling a run-away goat. 

Colm Toibin recently published a fabulous book 'New Ways to Kill Your Mother' (not one perhaps to read when visiting family). It is a fascinating study of writers and their families, and the chapter on 'Jane Austen, Henry James and the Death of the Mother' looks at how often heroines are motherless, or wayward aunts are brought in as proxy-mothers. Perhaps this goes all the way back to children's literature too, thinking of books like the Narnia series or even Harry Potter. 

I think I am drawn to writing about wayward aunts. Thinking back to childhood, growing up in the middle of nowhere in the West Country, it was the village eccentrics I loved - the woman who used to design costumes for Fellini who plied me with killer G&Ts and lent me frocks for dances, or the woman who arrived from London, bought a Domesday listed cottage and a flock of sheep, had a sharp Louise Brookes bob and smoked black cigarettes. I like writing badly behaved women, the women who defy convention, and older characters who no longer give a damn what people think and wear purple (see a lovely recitation of 'Warning', below). How about you?

Friday, 21 November 2014

Americans in Paris by Imogen Robertson

The US edition from St Martin's Press

The Paris Winter came out in US on 18th November and as I was wishing it well, it struck me how many of my guides to Belle Époque Paris were, in fact, American. 

The practice of women artists coming to Paris to study was well established by the time my protagonist, Maud, makes her way over from England to study at the Académie Lafond (a fictional version of the Académie Julian). Abigail May Alcott Nieriker - younger sister of Louisa May Alcott - wrote a useful, if slightly bossy, guide to studying art abroad and how to do it cheaply in 1879. She includes notes on where to buy your colours and how to deal with rude Parisians. You can find it here.

I strained my French through the daily newspaper reports of  the floods of 1909, but the best description I found came from another American, Helen Davenport Gibbons. Her first book was The Red Rugs of Tarsus, which described what she had witnessed during the Armenian Massacres of 1909. After leaving Turkey she went with her husband to Paris. The book which resulted from her time there - Paris Vistas - is full of the sort of domestic details that are so vital to a novelist - what they ate, how they heated their apartment and how they got on with their landlady. It is also written with the sort of liveliness and verve that makes you wish you could sit down to supper with her. She writes about the floods, the initial excitement, then the growing fear with clarity and feeling: 

‘We saw strange sights that night, wooden paving blocks floating in a messy jumble; a few restaurants endeavouring to dispel the gloom with candles; soldiers with fixed bayonets guarding the inundated quarters. It was bitter cold and the glare of their fires was weirdly silhouetted in the rising waters, mingled with the shadows of deserted houses.’

I know nothing about Flora Adelaide Mclane Woodson other than the fact she wrote the breathless and delightful ‘Magnetic Paris’ under the name of Adelaide Mack. I think supper with her would be exhausting, but as a guide to what catches the eye in Paris, she is a genius. Her sentences run on in a sort of frantic dash as she describes the street life and street cries, the characters the food, the pets, the telephones, the markets and the way the fashionable Parisienne wears her make up.

When I went to France to walk the streets and wonder what MAud saw and felt, I had the luck to meet up with another American in Paris (and we did get to eat together). David Downie and his wife, the photographer Alison Harris have lived in the city for years. I came across David’s excellent book on the city, Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light  while I was doing my paper research, and when I found out he and Alison gave private tours of the city, I signed myself (and my husband) up. David demonstrated a writer’s eye in his choice of places to take us, and several scenes in the novel grew directly out of that day. 

Images from 'Magnetic Paris' 
drawn by Geo Desains and Charlotte Schaller
So why are all these great guides to Paris by Americans? I have my theories. I discovered when writing about the 18th century that often the most useful texts about a particular place are written by strangers. Strangers notice the differences, the small, subtle bits and pieces that give a city its sense of place (Royale with cheese, anyone?). The people who actually live there don’t notice this stuff. They concentrate on the things that are important to them, which may make for great literature but aren’t as useful to me. This is why the slightly crazed Flora Adelaide Mclane Woodson was a lot more useful to me than Proust. And there are cartoons in ‘Magnetic Paris’. 

What about books by British people living in France? Well, personally I think we are too close to France to see it properly. France is like a sibling we love, but also find rather irritating so a lot of popular books on France by writers from the UK are called things like ‘A Thousand Years of Annoying the French’. Davenport Gibbons and Woodson approach Paris with enthusiasm rather than mild snark, and that makes them much more useful. 

The Paris Winter, unusually for me, does have speaking parts for real people and one of those went to Gertrude Stein. Her book - 'The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas' was an invaluable guide to the art world of the time, and her salons, such as the one Maud visits in the novel, were an essential part of the Parisian art scene. I am not a great fan of her writing in general - I rather feel as Arthur C. Fifield did and expresses in this very famous rejection letter - God, I hope I never receive a rejection like that - but The Autobiography was absolutely vital, and having a scene set at her home at 27 rue de Fleures gave me a chance to have Maud encounter art which confused and challenged her.

So, with grateful thanks I raise my glass to The Paris Winter in America, and the Americans in Paris. 

The UK Cover from Headline

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.