Monday, 29 August 2016

This Mortal Coil by Fay Bound Alberti

Our August guest is Fay Bound Alberti, who with join us next year as a History Girl, posting on the 15th of the month, alternating with Marie-Louise Jensen after Y.S. Lee leaves us in November.


About Fay


Dr Fay Bound Alberti is a writer and historian specializing in Britain and Europe, 1500-1950. She has published widely on the histories of medicine and science, gender, the body and emotions. Dr Bound Alberti co-founded the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary College, University of London where she remains Honorary Senior Research Fellow. Other areas of interest include early modern illness and disease, the history and ethics of cosmetic surgery, the relationship between mind and body and gender politics – now and in the past. Fay’s most recent book is This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016)


I’ve always been interested in the body, and how we talk about it. When I was eight my mother explained to my brother how they had been connected in her womb through their combined umbilical cords: ‘mine attached to yours’, she said, which didn’t sound quite right to me. I could sense the determination in her words though, the sense of ownership involved in explaining their physical bond. At secondary school my sex education lessons, brutally indifferent to feelings, resolved that physical conundrum, but not the sense of wonder by which we – wriggling in embarrassment on high wooden stools – tried to imagine what lurked beneath our skin. At university, I learned how long men and women had been trying to understand the human body; to account for the gift of life as well as the those ‘thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.’ (Hamlet, III, I, 1755) To this end Shakespeare was our ‘contemporary,’ at least according to Jan Kott; his characters experiencing their physical and emotional worlds as dramatically as we do. 

18th century allegorical depictions of the temperaments formed by the four humours: melancholicus. By: J. D. Nessenthaler. Credit: Wellcome Library.  

But there’s the rub. We experience the world differently from Hamlet. Our bodies are not viewed the same today as they were in Shakespeare’s time. Across seventeenth-century Europe came the arrival of tools like the microscope by which people could know the workings of the body through the only sense that came to matter: sight. The four humours that had explained health, disease and even personality for thousands of years fell from grace, though humoral treatments like ‘bleeding’ continued into the nineteenth century. The ‘mortal coil’ described by Hamlet, the political and social world we inhabit, was also transformed – the rise of democracy and secularism in the West and the end of the ‘great chain of being’ (a hierarchy that kept us all in check) giving rise to individualism and the modern, introspective self. Today it is the brain, not the heart, that is the centre of our feelings, memories and identities, though the symbolism of the heart survives. 
Valentine Card, 1928. Credit: Wellcome Library.
How did the brain come to dominate? Here as elsewhere, philosophical change accompanied technological and scientific change. The French philosopher René Descartes moved the soul from the heart, which had recently been confirmed as a pump by the English physician William Harvey, to the pineal gland, located behind the eyebrows. Mind and body were torn asunder; in time, ‘mind’ (which once described soul), simply meant brain. From the nineteenth century, scientific medicine gave rise to new ways of viewing the body through measurement and comparison. New norms were created. Gender and racial differences were etched into the fabric of our bodies – into the shape of our skulls, the structure of our skeletons, the thickness of our skins. Scientific medicine provided new rules to follow, new versions of the truth that were not driven by the imagination, folklore or symbols. But like any other narrative, it was a product of its time, creating stories that rationalised racism and sexism. 

Descartes: The Nervous System. Diagram of the brain and the pineal gland. From De Homine (1662). Credit: Wellcome Library.


Through a series of case studies into the history and meanings of the skin, fatness, the female breasts and genitals, the tongue and the skeleton, This Mortal Coil considers how we have invested each of our body parts with meanings that reveal the needs of culture, politics and society. Thus seventeenth-century women’s tongues were so dangerous in an age of political uncertainty that the ‘scold’s bridle’ was needed to keep them in check. From the nineteenth century, when the industrial age privileged efficiency, being ‘fat’ represented waste and inefficiency, heaping moral outrage on the (increasingly lower-class) obese. In the 1950s the possession of small breasts was redefined as a psychiatric problem, easily fixed by a new type of medical practitioner: the cosmetic surgeon. Today the threat of the female genitals, a source of terrifying power for Shakespeare as for Freud, is contained by language: how much safer is it to see the vagina as a ‘birth canal’ rather than a source of untamed physical pleasure? 
Belgian Iron bridle that fitted over the head of a woman sentenced for being a ‘scold’.

Portrait of Leicester jail keeper Daniel Lambert, (1770 –1809), once the fattest man in Britain and celebrated (not shamed) for his size. Credit: Wellcome Library.

Transparent, jelly-filled breast implant. Credit: Wellcome Library.

Metaphors matter because they shape our worlds, whether depicting the brain as a computer or the pubic hair as a lady garden. Illness is a battle we fight against invaders: we win or we lose, we live or we die. In conventional medicine we are divisible into separate systems and organs. There is no soul or immaterial essence. Yet many of us still believe in one. The heart might be a pump that beats 120,000 times a day, sending blood, nutrients and oxygen around the body. But some people maintain heart transplants move more than an organ, transferring the personality, habits and memoriesof the donors. Today the separation of mind and body suggests we can take control of our physical shell, disciplining it through exercise or cosmetic surgery in search of that perfect ideal. We regard our bodies objectively, as though distinct from the self that lives in our brains. Yet the incidence of mental illness is increasing. As is the demand for whole-body treatment. We are arguably more dis-eased about our bodies than ever before.

Ultimately, This Mortal Coil explores the stories we tell about the body. It does not demonise modern medicine. Nor does it suggest that we were all better off when we lived, like my mother, in a pre-modern world of imagination where we could each lay claim to our bodies without the intervention of science. But this book does ask whether the decline of holistic views of the body, that saw our minds, bodies and emotional worlds as part of a functioning, social whole, has done us a disservice. For surely we are more than the sum of our parts.


 Fay Bound Alberti This Mortal Coil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).


Sunday, 28 August 2016

Women's History by Julie Summers

Sometimes when I am asked what I write I say: ‘I write about people who get themselves into difficult situations and, by and large, get themselves out of them again.’ That usually gets a positive reaction. If, however, I say ‘I write social history about the Second World War and especially women on the Home Front’ people’s eyes tend to glaze over and they move to another part of the room. Same books, different packaging.

So today I thought I would share a little bit of what I do and why. I write because I love it. I can’t think of anything else I would rather be than a writer. I’ve always wanted to write, ever since I was a little girl. I used to make up stories and tell them to my toys and later to my friends. I even used to write stories for my boyfriend in airmail letters when I was living in Vienna and he in London. We’ve now been married for 29 years, so the stories can’t have been too bad.

However, in the end I wanted to write about real people, not ones I had made up in my head. I find that the lives people lead are fascinating. There is no such thing as a typical person or a ‘normal’ reaction and that is what began to interest me. I was working in the art world but found myself more drawn to the artists themselves than to their work. I wanted to know what made them tick. I remember interviewing the sculptor Anthony Caro and his wife, the painter Sheila Girling, about their lives together as artists. Tony told me that it was Sheila who chose the colours for his early sculptures because she had a better eye for colour than he did. I was tickled pink by that, especially as no one had ever interviewed them together before, so the question was not one he had been asked. I like titbits like that. They are just a little quirky.

Anthony Caro's Early One Morning 1962 

When I am interviewing people for my non-fiction books I don’t use any type of recording device because that can be off-putting. I just ask questions and take notes. The interviews generally last about 45 minutes to an hour and in that time I get perhaps three or four sentences I can use, but those are usually gems. For example, I was talking to a lady called Jean Hammond whose story is told in Stranger in the House. Her father was in a German POW camp and when he came home, she told me, they never ate a meal indoors. They sat in the garden or, when it was raining or snowing, under the porch wrapped in blankets. She said it in a matter-of-fact way as if that was perfectly normal. But it was a new one on me. I asked her why and she said she never knew. She imagined it had something to do with his POW experience but as she was a child when he came back she just accepted it.

Jean Hammond with her two grandmothers c. 1940

In researching and writing Jambusters I constantly found women replying to my request for interviews with ‘oh, I won’t have anything interesting to tell you.’ When someone says that my ears prick up and I think: ‘oh, you don’t, do you? Well I think you’re wrong…’ And more often than not they tell me some glorious detail. A woman in an Oxfordshire WI remembered her father coming into the kitchen where members of the Produce Group were making vast quantities of jam. One of the ladies was complaining that she was wasting precious jam as she could not get every last drop from the bottom. So he took a wooden spoon outside to his tool shed and half an hour later returned with a spoon that had a flat side and a sharp point. This was ideal for scraping the jam off the bottom of the pan and everyone was delighted with the design. Needless to say it was copied. I find other gems in diaries, memoirs and in odd collections of notes in the Imperial War Museum archives. It was there that I found Mr Fagg, who worked in the Board of Trade in the war, supervising coupons and taking responsibility for the width of the gusset of women’s knickers, the amount of metal in over-sized corsets and the length of men’s socks. You literally couldn’t make it up. He is one of the key players in Fashion on the Ration.

William Buller Fagg in his Home Guard uniform 

I also found one of my favourite facts of all time at the IWM. Lord Nuffield, the great car maker and generous philanthropist, supplied all the women’s services with sanitary towels for the entire Second World War. These things were new-fangled and very expensive and he knew the young women in the services would not be able to afford them or indeed get guaranteed supplies. It was an act of immense generosity and far-sightedness on his part and no one knows about it. Except you do now! They were known as Nuffield’s Nifties. Writing women’s history is not always easy. There are a few of us who do it: Jane Robinson, Janie Hampton and Midge Gilles to name three I know well. We sometimes find it hard to get taken seriously by male historians who write about grave matters like tanks and planes and battles and generals with handlebar moustaches. In a list of the top 50 historians published last year there were just four women and of those I was the only one who writes about women.

Women are at the heart of my next book, too, but this one contains explosions and secret codes, radio operators and stealth. I wonder how that will be received?

Saturday, 27 August 2016

History Exercise in a Hammock by Janie Hampton



This month I offer readers tips on how to get fit, ready for all that calorie-burning reading of history books that you plan to do this autumn. At the end of August you are tired from your holidays. You need to get your mind and body ready, but slowly and gently. Back in the 1980s Jane Fonda put us all to shame with her 'Feel the Burn' exercises. Now, with my patent Hampton History Hammock system, we can all stay fit, practice history and keep cool.
This Swedish lady by artist Anders Leonhard Zorn fell asleep in 1882 .
Will she wake in time for her History Exercise?
The hammock is a historic device, designed for people of all ages, shapes and temperaments. A hammock cradles and supports the back, neck and especially the brain. Hammocks help to relieve stress brought on by computers, stacking dishwashers and taking holidays.

Choosing the right hammock is crucial: it must be long enough to lie straight out in, and wide enough not to fall over the edge. Cotton hammocks are better than netting, which allows bits of your body to bulge through, leaving strange patterns on exposed areas. If the cotton is organic you will also feel smug, which  probably increases your intelligence too.

Attach your hammock to one or two strong trees. It should hang no more than 4 inches above the ground at the lowest point, when you are in it. This ensures that should it collapse, you don’t have far to fall. If you don’t have any trees, do not attach to a wall without a full survey – walls are inclined to bury people alive.
Always lie in the hammock in the direction that gives the best view. This should be away from guilt-inducing objects like the washing line, the shed with the lawn mower or your study with that half-read book waiting in it.
Before you start, place beside your hammock:
A book, quite a heavy one with very long words printed in small type.
A glass of iced water.
Optional bowl of strawberries.

Now for some action: Sit in hammock with legs together outside. Lift legs up and into hammock, and out again, keeping legs together. Do this once or twice, ending with both legs in the hammock. Try and remember the date of the Norman Invasion. Don't try too hard. And, rest. 
This lady in a hammock painted by James Tissot in 1879 had the right idea.
She is in the middle of the first exercise. Image courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library.
 Warm up exercise: Lie down and feel every bit of your body go floppy. Think beautiful thoughts as you watch the clouds. Can you see an old man emerging? Does this remind you of the date of Napoleon's death? And, rest.

Oblique tummy stretch and underarm flattener: Keeping your legs straight, lean forward and touch your toes. If you can’t reach your toes, just wave at them, and say 'Hello'. Lift your arms up straight, and move them back over your head.
Do this a few times quite slowly. Or just do it once. Think of a number. Is it the same number as Henry VIII had wives? And, rest. 

Knee and bottom toner: Lift one bent leg and then the other leg up slowly. Pull back towards your head. Stop the moment it might hurt. Imagine you are a horse accompanying a Crusader. And, rest.

Waist curl trimmer: Pull knees up, and rock them from side to side. Roughly when was canned food first eaten? And, rest.

Groin and inner thigh strengthener: Bend knees. Pull legs up together, and then flop them apart. Wave your knees apart and together very slowly. Who first used chloroform during childbirth? And, rest.
This young lady has not read the instructions –
the Hampton History Hammock system
must always be carried out on your own. No man may help you.
Beating gravity with triceps stretch: Lift arms in the air and try to pull yourself up by grabbing the air with your hands. Admire the pretty patterns that the leaves make in the tree above you. What year was  an aeroplane first flown solo across the Atlantic? And, rest.

Nutritional exercise for energy boost: Without moving your body, allow arms to flop out of hammock. Wave them about until you make contact with the strawberries. Lift bowl of strawberries up and place on stomach. Now exercise your fingers: lift one strawberry at a time and place in mouth. Work those jaw muscles hard until the strawberry has disappeared. Repeat until bowl is empty. Think about the date when South American strawberries were first eaten in Europe. And, digest. 

This Wife of a British Colonial Officer should not have made these men carry her while she exercises. She should remain in one place, with her hammock attached to two trees.
Improved toner control for hamstring and bottom: Raise your legs in the air, and over your head, and touch the hammock behind you with your toes. Do this backwards and forward, very slowly. Or don't do it at all. Think of a year when Brazil won the World Cup. Just one will do. And, rest.

Warm-down exercise or biceps curl: Now lean out of the hammock and pick up your book. With bent arms, lift the book above your head and close your eyes. How many books are in the British Library? Lower your arms, and open your eyes. Lean out of the hammock, and place book on the ground. And, rest. And rest again.

Advanced cool-down exercise: Swing legs out of hammock and place feet either side of glass of water. Grasp glass firmly with both feet and lift back into hammock, tip glass towards face. Which year did Captain Scott reach the Antarctic? And, rest.

Final exercise to boost your will power: Get out of hammock, and return indoors. This requires considerable determination and commitment. It may take at least an hour to achieve and become more difficult with each Hampton History Hammock session.

In case of rain – do all exercises in your swimming costume.

Only do each exercise for as long as you feel like, and do not exceed 30 seconds. All these exercises require a positive attitude. Be persistent and you will succeed, possibly in time for the autumn.

To ensure success, make a graph showing how relaxed you have become. You can waste even more time by keeping a diary about your time spent in the hammock. Then, in 100 years your great grand-daughters can publish it. 
This luscious lady in pink by Irish painter John Lavery certainly knows how to relax.
She may even be learning some history at the same time.
Answer to questions: 1832; 8; 1810; Queen Victoria; 1927; 1714; 1958,1962, 1970, 1994 & 2002; 150 million; 1912.
Janie Hampton will demonstrate the Hampton History Hammock system of exercises on alternate Mondays, by appointment. 

Friday, 26 August 2016

The Novel that got Away by Sarah Gristwood


It’s the writer’s equivalent of the dress you can’t quite fit into - but, if you lose a few pounds, then maybe . . . Every author has that back-of-the-wardrobe box of unwritten stories; the ones you can’t quite bear to throw away. But we’re always being urged to de-junk our lives, aren’t we?

So let’s accept this is one historical novel I will never write - I would have called it The Valois Bride. Good title, do we think? A bit old fashioned, maybe?

Elisabeth de Valois

In December 1559, the 14 year old Elizabeth de Valois arrived on the Spanish frontier to marry King Philip II of Spain – a man twenty years her senior, and twice a widower already. We all know a version of the story from Verdi’s opera Don Carlos, itself based on Schiller’s play - though some of us (forgive me) remember it better from Jilly Cooper’s novel Score!. That set Cooper’s trademark Rutshire rumpy-pumpy against the shooting of a film version of the opera; and its trick of making the Spanish royals into Britain’s present day royal family - and the Inquisition into the tabloid press - worked rather well, actually.

There is no historical truth in Verdi’s fantasy of Philip’s son Don Carlos’ spying out the wedding party on their way to Spain, and there falling in love with the French princess destined to become not his bride, but his stepmother. Of Elizabeth choosing duty over love to make peace between their countries . . . Though she would called Isabel ‘de la Paz’, actually. And it’s true Elizabeth had originally been destined for the son rather than the father but, hey, that was tame, by the standards of the royal marriages of the sixteenth century.

Verdi's Don Carlos

But the real Elizabeth seemed more than content with a husband who was after all in a worldly sense the catch of the century, while Philip’s son and heir would soon be spiralling downwards into his brutal madness. The teenage bride awoke a response in her dour husband, and the extravagant chit who never worse the same dress twice was nonetheless allowed, just six years later, to represent Spain in official negotiations with her own formidable mother, Catherine de Medici.

Philip goes down in English history as a dutiful but essentially uncaring husband to his previous wife Mary Tudor, but when Elizabeth was giving birth, he sat by her bed clutching her hand through every pain. When Don Carlos died in 1568, incarcerated and insane, Elizabeth wept for two days, but ten weeks later she herself was dead from another childbearing, still only 23.

She was survived not only by Philip, but by two other women whose voices I might have used to tell her story. One of them was the Italian painter Sofonisba Anguissola, invited to Spain by Philip and given rank as a lady of Elizabeth’s court. The other was the Princess of Eboli, with her beauty and her patch over one eye. In Verdi’s version, she is Philip’s mistress and an arch manipulator. In real life she was a schemer indeed - widow to Philip’s first great minister, Ruy Gomez (more than twenty years older than she), whose intrigues only mounted after his death - but one who loved and mourned Elizabeth sincerely. Her involvement in a scandalous political murder saw her spending the last ten years of her life under house arrest in one of her castles from where, looking back (yes, cue a time-honoured writer’s device here!), she had no doubt her memories.

Sofonisba Anguissola self-portrait


So why won’t I ever write it? One reason is, I don’t know enough. My limited experience of writing historical fiction (and my far larger experience of writing historical fact) has shown me that the former is more demanding, in many ways. You don’t just need to know the great political events against which the character is placed - you need to know what someone of that age and rank, in that day, would have done when they go out of bed each morning. The sixteenth century court equivalent of switching off the radio and shoving a piece of bread in the toaster . . . And I don’t, for sixteenth century Spain, quite simply.

Could I research it? Maybe - though factual information on that kind of detail can be quite hard to come by. And the trouble is that with Spain, I don’t even have a gut feeling for the rhythm of the seasons or the way the light falls on the landscape - the things that don’t change through the centuries. Research might hack it, for a story set in England, or any country I know well. But I suspect the research would lie dead on the page if I were to write about a place still truly foreign to me.

The other reason is that I know too much. The real Elizabeth is making a very minor - but her mother Catherine de Medici a major - appearance in the non-fiction I’m currently writing: Game of Queens, about the chains of women and power running, from mother to daughter through the sixteenth century.
Catherine de' Medici


So I know about the stream of self-revelatory letters Catherine sent across the border to and about her daughter in Spain: I know that the last of them, a maternal warning as to what should be done about her daughter’s increasing weight, arrived only after Elizabeth’s death. I know that when the two met for that summit meeting, as queen regent of France and queen consort of Spain, Elizabeth would have felt the tug of loyalties known to so many a princess, between her natal and her marital country. ‘How Spanish you have become, my daughter’, said Catherine to Elizabeth, coldly.

I know that as a child in France, Elizabeth was set to sleep in the same room as that other little girl newly arrived at court - her future sister-in-law, Mary Queen of Scots. I’ve read the letters Mary wrote after Elizabeth’s death - distraught not just by the death of her old playfellow, but by the loss of a possible ally, who might have persuaded King Philip to help the Scots queen in her long English captivity.

Of course I’d love to explore these things further - but I’m not sure fiction is the way, for me. Of course anyone who were writing a Valois Bride would have read up on all this and much, much more - but I’m not sure I’d be able to get past the huge rock of facts I’m still discovering, to let the fiction fly free.

Though mind you, the madness of the historical Don Carlos did in the end lead him to an obsessive crush on his step-mother . . . Hmm. Maybe I was a bit quick to jettison this one, actually.

Thanks to Sarah Gristwood for this post. Carol Drinkwater will be back on 26th September.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Royal Free Hospital by Miranda Miller






   This hideous 1970s concrete building has loomed over Hampstead Heath for as long as I can remember. Last month I spent a lot of time in it, visiting my daughter and her new babies, and started to wonder about its curious name.

   In 1828 William Marsden, a young surgeon from Yorkshire, found an 18-year-old girl dying on the steps of St Andrew's church Holborn because she couldn’t afford admission to a hospital. The only way for the poor to obtain free treatment was to be personally recommended by someone who subscribed to that hospital. She had been refused admission to three hospitals because she had no subscriber's letter, so Marsden cared for her himself until she died two days later.

   This experience touched Marsden so deeply that he decided to open a hospital that would be free to all: “no ticket or recommendation from a subscriber is necessary to be provided …poverty and disease alone are the wretched qualifications.” He set up a small dispensary, which soon expanded and provided thirty beds, at 16 Greville Street, Hatton Garden. At first it was called the London General Institution for the Gratuitous Cure of Malignant Diseases but the name was soon changed to the London Free Hospital.









   In 1832 "King Cholera" arrived in England for the first time and killed about 6,500 people in London. It was thought to be spread by a "miasma” or bad smell in the atmosphere, a theory supported by leading figures in public health, including Edwin Chadwick and Florence Nightingale. “Thus did the fatal disease rise like a demon bent on destruction; it took its course, not heeding mountain, sea nor clime; death was its object, man its victim, and the uttermost ends of the world its destination; wherever its cold hand was extended - the people died .... Death struggled with time itself, and gnawed the moments that separated him from his victim. “  



   The London Free Hospital was the only London hospital to treat victims of the cholera epidemic, as other voluntary hospitals in London refused to admit patients with infectious diseases. Five years later, when the new young Queen Victoria became patron of the hospital, she changed its name to the Royal Free Hospital in recognition of this courageous policy. A few years later the hospital moved to larger premises, the former barracks of the Light Horse Volunteers in Gray’s Inn Road.

   Marsden’s beloved wife, Betsy-Ann, died of cancer and Marsden resolved to research the causes of cancer, classify tumours and find new treatments. In 1851 he set up another small establishment in Cannon Row, Westminster. At first this consisted only of a dispensary where palliative drugs were prescribed but it gave Marsden the opportunity to study and research the disease. It grew into the Brompton Cancer Hospital, now the Royal Marsden Hospital, on the Fulham Road. It was remarkable because it was the first purely cancer hospital in the world and because patients were treated for free.

Marsden campaigned passionately to change medicine and the medical establishment resented him. He attacked quack doctors and said many patients had “fallen into the hands of ignorant and needy empirics who drug them with pugnacious medicines so long as their money will hold out and then discard them, often in a worse state then at the start”. His enemies were delighted when it turned out that his apothecary and one of his surgeons at the Royal Free Hospital were selling Frank’s Specific Solutions, a quack remedy for VD. Both were sacked but there was an embarrassing scandal.

   In the 1870s the Royal Free became a teaching hospital. The School of Nursing was started and in 1895 it became the first hospital to appoint a female almoner, forerunner of the modern social worker, whose job it was to care for the non-clinical needs of patients. Female medical students had access to clinical practice on its wards. Astonishingly, the Royal Free was the only hospital ( apart from a short period during the First World War ) to accept female medical students before 1947.  The Royal Free also became the first hospital in England to have an obstetrics and gynaecology unit and by 1934 the mortality rate in the maternity wards was 2.8 per 1,000, the lowest in London.

    During the Second World War the hospital was bombed. In 1942 William Beveridge’s report recommended that “Medical treatment covering all requirements will be provided for all citizens by a national health service.” On the inception of the National Health Service in 1948, the Royal Free joined with several smaller hospitals including the Children's Hospital Hampstead, the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, the North-Western Hospital, Hampstead General Hospital and the London Fever Hospital in Liverpool Road to form the Royal Free Group.


   The Gray’s Inn Road site was too cramped and it was decided that there were too many teaching hospitals in central London. Plans to replace the Royal Free Hospital with a new building on the site of the Hampstead Fever Hospital in Lawn Road were drawn up and the present incarnation of the Royal Free Hospital was officially opened by the Queen in 1978, a hundred and fifty years after Marsden found that girl dying in a doorway.

We all love our NHS, perhaps even more so now that it is menaced by politicians who don’t think anything ought to be free.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

ELEANOR OF AQUITAINE: Going the Distance by Elizabeth Chadwick




It is now four and a half years since I was contracted to write three novels about the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine - THE SUMMER QUEEN, THE WINTER CROWN and THE AUTUMN THRONE. I chose to write about Eleanor in the same way that I choose to write about all my subjects. I  become interested in them, and that interest will sometimes develop into a full blown curiosity that only a more in depth exploration will satisfy. 'Who were you really?' I ask myself, and then I set out on a voyage of discovery.

With Eleanor there were already many biographies and novels in circulation and I had enjoyed reading several of them especially Sharon Kay Penman's marvelous fiction series of books about Henry II and the rise of the Angevin 'Empire.'
Eleanor had also appeared in secondary and cameo roles in many of my own novels and as a result I had conducted a certain amount of surface research into her background, which had contributed to my deepening curiosity.

Articles online tend to stress what a 'kick-ass' feminist she was, way ahead of her time in all she did. Leading her first husband a merry dance and meddling in French politics for example.  Galloping off on crusade dressed as an Amazon and sleeping with her own uncle. Holding courts of love in Poitiers.  Scandalously marrying the young Duke of Normandy after having slept with his father and then being imprisoned by him for encouraging her sons to turn on him when she became insanely jealous of his mistress Rosamund de Clifford.

Eleanor's popular biographers have encouraged many of these dubious points of view.  However, when I began digging, I came across other opinions from historians working more sedately in the background of academia, suggesting that the majority of these notions were anachronistic and at best on shaky ground.  The most forward thinking academics were also of the opinion that Eleanor was a woman firmly grounded in the 12th century culture of her own lifetime, and while formidable and intelligent she was in no way exceptional when set against other high-ranking ruling women of her period, and in some cases had less authority.  The Empress Matilda, for example, or Melisande of Jerusalem or Adela of Blois.  However, the voices of reason were being drowned out by the brash clamour of colourful scandal tales and by the desire people have to always choose the juicy story over the sometimes more prosaic reality.

As a writer of fiction I knew I had to pick my way carefully.  I had to find my Eleanor and make her as real as possible for me and for my readers.  I needed the spotlight I shone on her to contain both the drama and story telling that is the essential lifeblood of historical fiction.  I wanted to illuminate Eleanor's life from a different angle while maintaining integrity toward her and doing her justice.

As I read my way through various reference works on Eleanor, it became clear that what was known about her was actually not very much and that conjecture and imagination had so often superseded fact that it had become fact itself - until one began digging.  I found her variously described by her biographers as a saucy hot-blooded blond who needed her sexuality keeping in check (no evidence), a curvaceous black-eyed brunette whose figure never ran to fat in old age (no evidence) and a good-humoured green-eyed redhead (no evidence). An oft-cited portrait of her at Chinon turned out to be highly likely a man, very possibly her son, Henry, the Young King. She was also frequently misrepresented in books and online articles by images from a 14th century German work, the Codex Manesse, which has nothing to do with her. 
A queen from the German 14th century
Codex Manesse - often falsely  portrayed
as Eleanor
 Biographer Amy Kelly, coming from a literature rather than history background, among other dubious notions, had promulgated the whole courts of love theory which has now been discredited, although the idea remains dear to the hearts of popular history. Victorian biographer Elizabeth Strickland is responsible for Eleanor's reputation for gadding about on the Second Crusade dressed as an Amazon.  Her source for this scandalous happening goes no further back than 1739. There is no evidence for this story before that date, but it has come to be accepted by many as the truth. (See Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post Medieval image of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Michael Evans).
There is the matter of the scandal of her supposed affair with her uncle Raymond of Poitiers en route to the second Crusade when Eleanor demanded an annulment of her marriage from Louis VII.  I discuss the unlikeliness of this one on my own blog Living The History. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Raymond of Poitiers and the Incident at Antioch  She is also supposed to have slept with her second husband's father Geoffrey le Bel, but since the chroniclers concerned were hell bent on bringing the Angevin monarchy into disrepute and were notorious gossips, it would seem prudent to err on the side of caution in that assessment. Geoffrey is supposed to have warned his son off marrying Eleanor, but since Geoffrey and his father had been desperate for years to get their hands on Aquitaine, I somehow doubt that warning would have taken place.  Indeed, I suspect that Geoffrey would have been keen to see his son marry Eleanor the moment the annulment with Louis VII was announced.

Many of the biographies and online articles (especially the latter) tell us that Eleanor incited her sons to rebel against Henry II because she was enraged that he had taken a young mistress, Rosamund de Clifford, and was treating her like a queen.  Serioulsy?  Eleanor would raise an empire-wide rebellion, dragging her sons into a war with their father because she was jealous of Henry's philandering with a baronial nobody?   It's a bit insulting to promote the idea that a savvy, intelligent woman such as Eleanor was some sort of emotional harpy who would throw over an entire kingdom because her husband, already known for sleeping around, was carrying on with another woman. Would the same be said if she was male?  What about the political machinations that were happening at the time as Henry undermined Eleanor's  authority as ruler of Aquitaine and held their sons firmly under the thumb?  Might that not just have been more pertinent to the situation than a supposed jealous snit over a mistress?

The outcome of the rebellion was that Eleanor was kept under sometimes harsh house arrest for the next fifteen years before her release on the death of Henry II.  I suppose this is the point where she becomes her most 'kick-ass' as a widow with the powers of adviser, mother and co-ruler of Richard I's domains while he was absent on the third crusade.  Here there is not so much digression between the narratives of popular and academic - perhaps because Henry II is now out of the picture and Eleanor is no longer the young and beautiful heroine, prime territory for sex and scandal,  but an older lady with iron in her soul. The sex and scandal mongers now turn their gaze on her eldest son and begin the dance of whether or not he was homosexual (cue eye-roll).

One of the things that fascinated me about Eleanor and one in which she truly was ahead of our time, even if not her own, was the amount of energy she had and how indefatigable she was right up until her last days.  She died at the age of 80, which was a marvelous span in a period without life-saving operations and medication. Most octagenarians, even the robust ones, these days are swallowing a raft of tablets to keep them up to scratch.

Like many of the medieval aristocracy  Eleanor had a peripatetic lifestyle.  As a girl she would have been constantly on the move throughout Aquitaine with her parents. At 13 she married the soon to be Louis VII and shortly after their wedding in Bordeaux, travelled up to Paris. Then it was back to Poitiers and then a return to France where again, the court was constantly on the move. Around the age of 23, she set off for Jerusalem with her husband on the Second Crusade. This took them down through Germany, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) across the Bospherous, across Anatolia under constant attack, eventually to Antioch and then down the coastal strip to Jerusalem.  Eleanor and Louis returned home 4 years later via Sicily and Rome on what must have been one of the 12th century's most extreme military come sight-seeing expeditions. (Louis just loved his shrines).

Information board from Old Sarum. Click to enlarge.
Having divorced Louis and returned to Poitiers, Eleanor then married the young Duke of Normandy and future Henry II of England, 9 years her junior - and he had to be in order to keep up!  When he became King of England, Eleanor crossed the Channel with him and added that country to her map of lands where she had set foot.  During Henry's reign she was constantly on the move across the vast Angevin dominions that stretched from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees - or at least until she was caught up in a rebellion with her sons and Henry imprisoned her for the next 15 years.  That slightly curtailed her globe trotting, although later on in her house arrest she did journey between England and Normandy.  Perhaps her incarceration was a rest for her and gave her time to gather her strength and fortitude.

 When Henry died, Eleanor was released from imprisonment and was immediately back on the road, holding England safe until Richard arrived.  Appointed 'chairman of the board' during Richard's absence, she was herself absent for a time. She accompanied Richard to France to see him on his way, and then set out to Navarre to collect Richard's bride Berenguela, and bring her to his winter quarters in Sicily.   After a brief stopover in Pamplona, Eleanor and Berenguela crossed the Alps in midwinter on a horseback and on foot, with Eleanor now around the age of 65.  They would have spent Christmas Day in transit on mountain roads. Once over the Alps in the winter ice and snow, it was down to Rome and then across the straits of Messina to Sicily.

Barely had Eleanor arrived when she learned that her son John was making trouble back in England and Normandy and she had to turn straight round and head home.  Her respite was just 3 days.  Travelling between England and Normandy she kept an eye on matters, until the news arrived that Richard had been captured and held to ransom by the Emperor of Germany. Following a frantic flurry of money gathering to raise the ransom, she crossed the Channel again and headed to Germany, to Speyr to bring the ransom and fetch her son from captivity. By this time she was approaching seventy.  After this she tried to retire to a quieter life at the Abbey of Fontevraud which lay on the borders of Anjou and Poitou.  But the gentler times were not to last.  Richard died in 1199 and Eleanor, now 75, rushed down to Chalus in the Limousin to hold him in her arms as he died.  She then returned to Fontevraud to bury his body beside that of his father.

Her final son John came to the throne and she was requested to go to Aquitaine and take the homage of all of her vassals, which entailed travelling the region to do so. And then she was sent on a diplomatic mission to Castile to bring back one of her grand daughters who would then marry Louis, dauphin of France and hopefully cement an alliance/truce between the houses of Capet and Anjou.  So once more, she found herself, now 76, crossing mountains in winter, this time the Pyrenees, to bring back young Blanche of Castile to her marriage.  Eleanor did not go to Paris with her, but returned to Fontevraud, where soon after she suffered from a bout of ill health - which could well have been brought on by a mixture of grief and exhaustion.

There was one final journey. In 1202, threatened by warfare close to Fontevraud, she evacuated the convent and started down toward Poitiers.  However, when she stopped at the small castle of Mirebeau along the way, she found herself besieged by her teenage nephew Arthur, rival claimant to the Angevin throne.  Eleanor sent desperate word to John, who dropped his own campaign and rode like the wind to rescue her, arriving in the nick of time as Arthur's army were breakfasting on roast pigeon while Eleanor was barricaded in the keep.  Arthur was captured and the 78 year old Eleanor set free from her peril.  This was to be her final journey and adventure and she returned to Fontevraud and died there in April 1204.  It is thought that she had a say in the design of her own effigy and those of Henry II and Richard I, as well as the now lost effigy of her daughter Joanna.  If so, then she has portrayed herself reading a book - very likely intended to be of a religious nature, so even in death she is active, while her husband and son, lie  in state.  Since reading was often a communal affair and books read aloud, then perhaps Henry and Richard now have to listen to her for eternity! 

The majority of us will never pack in that much travelling or drama in our lives, and perhaps would not want to!  I am amazed at how much strength and fortitude Eleanor possessed. Her indomitable will is what I see as her true strength, right through to the core.  Yes, in the end a 'kick-ass' woman, but one of her own time and making and for whom I have the deepest admiration and respect.

The Autumn Throne is published in the UK by Sphere on September 1st and by Sourcebooks in the USA on October 1st.


Tuesday, 23 August 2016

August 1914: The Enemy Within? by Leslie Wilson







'Two Germans entered the tube at Belsize Park. While the train was in motion they conversed in German, but during the short periods of silence at the stations they relapsed into bad, gutteral French. Two young men, hearing a reference to carrier pigeons, broke their journey at Leicester-Square and followed the Germans through Coventry-Street to a café. '

I was given this brown scrap of newspaper by another Quaker; it comes from the archive of Edward H. Milligan, once archivist at Friends House, a man who has been a valued resource for anyone working on Quaker history for many years. He has recently moved from a house to a flat, and has had to pass on many of his impressive collection of books and documents, quite a few of which I have been lucky enough to acquire.

The zealous young men were hugely excited at the opportunity of catching German spies and fifth-columnists. Did they really hear the words 'carrier pigeons' (Brieftaube), or was the wish father to the thought? They might have been complaining about dust (Staub) for example, or mentioning that someone was deaf (taub). Or the word might have been used figuratively. (Note that the French had to be 'gutteral', a term of abuse against foreign languages that I don't get, since gutterals are just gs, ks, chs, js, etc, and English has plenty of them). One young man sat down to keep the villains under observation, while the other one rushed off to Vine Street police station to tell them what they'd discovered. He then returned, to find that the Germans were departing. The amateur detectives trailed them to Leicester Square, hemmed them in, and told them they were being watched. The Germans 'hurried on, hoping to get rid of us,' and when they saw police, tried to make their escape. Or so the young men told the police. The amateur sleuths 'marked the house which they entered, and informed the local police, who have the matter in hand.'

And all for the crime of talking German between themselves, and talking bad French at the stations.


WHOLESALE ARRESTS, proclaims another column. Two 'alleged Germans' who said they were Russians, were overheard by a teacher of German, 'talking suspiciously' in Conway, and were arrested. (They might well have been Russians of German ethnicity). In London, a German was arrested as a spy and the police seized 'several large deed-boxes' full of documents. The man was held, pending enquiries, at Moor Lane police station. The documents were maybe his business papers. Three supposed German spies were captured on the railway line at Maidstone.

German reservists were being 'arrested wholesale.' I wonder if they were really reservists, since the German reserve had already been mobilised by then, so why would 'a hundred and thirty Germans and Austrians' arrive on boats in the Mersey? Maybe the captains were staggeringly bad at navigation? Apparently many Germans were employed in the lace trade in Nottingham, and they too are described as reservists, and were being arrested 'wholesale.' I do wonder if any young men of military age were considered to be reservists.

Maybe someone has some information that could elucidate this for me?

What the last snippet does reflect is the number of Germans who had lived cheerfully and inoffensively in this country for hundreds of years up till the beginning of the war.The German Lutheran church, in London, pictured below, was founded in 1762.
German Lutheran Church, London, secretlondon 123

Like Friedrich Wilhelm Singer, pastor of the German seamen's mission at Shields, who was remanded on bail, charged with spying.

The language employed is interesting. TELL THE POLICE! urges a headline, describing how more enthusiastic citizens were informing the police about the whereabouts of German residents, who were required to register immediately, or pay a fine of £100 or be imprisoned for six months. The registration offices were the police stations, and the paper says that since the early morning they had been 'invaded' by foreigners making enquiries. So it was an annoyance (to the Evening News, at least) that the Germans and other foreign nationals were following instructions. The paper also seems to regard it as outrageous that many of the Germans were prosperous, and arrived in carriages and taxi-cabs (the implication being that they'd grown rich on payments from the Imperial intelligence agency?).

Spy fever was running high: telegraph wires were reported as being 'tampered with' by Germans, and also soldiers and sailors were said to have been accosted by Germans, eager to pump them for information about troop movements, warships and stores. There was a German who 'left England recently for Germany, who for some time served in a British regiment and obtained the rank of sergeant.' One wonders how much information he'd have gleaned, if he was a spy, serving in such a modest capacity.

There were also, apparently, armies of spies masquerading as commercial travellers. Clearly, there were German spies working in Britain at the time, but surely they'd  have had to be pretty stupid to employ such very visible agents.

In an incident that has spooky resonances of poor Jean Charles de Menezes's murder by the British police, a man 'of foreign appearance' was seen carrying an attaché case near the high level bridge over the Tyne in Newcastle. A patrol challenged him, but instead of stopping he began to run, got into a boat and pushed off. The patrol got another boat and gave chase, but 'as he still declined to stop' he was fired on and wounded. He was said to have thrown the attaché case into the river (or maybe it just fell in?) He died soon after he'd been captured. 'The authorities are very reticent', the paper says.

This story has come through two filters, that of the patrol and that of the newspaper. There are plenty of instances of modern shootings where the police account has been edited, shall we say? One wonders what was really going on there. Of course, the man could have been a quite ordinary thief.

At the same time, shopkeepers were jacking up the price of stores, and there were demonstrations against grocers and bakers in Hitchin; people were panic-buying provisions, though expressly told not to, since, for example 'mild-cured bacon does not pretend to keep like the old farmhouse kind'. People were buying a year's supply of potatoes, and also laying in butter; the paper advises against this, since 'the old-fashioned method of salting fresh butter and keeping it in jars is no longer followed. That last snippet demonstrates the usefulness for the nerdishly inclined historical novelist of reading old newspapers. So people were eating what my mother-in-law called 'sweet butter' at the time, rather than salted, which I grew up with and always supposed to be traditionally British. And anyone writing about the 19th century might like to know that salted butter was sold in jars. I wonder at what period specifically?Anyway, the uncertainty about food probably contributed to the general atmosphere of paranoia.

German missionaries interned at Alexandra Palace, Imperial War Museum
There were in fact around 50,000 Germans or Britons of German origin living in the country in 1914. German shopkeepers (even naturalised Britons) had their windows smashed in; Germans married to British women were marched off to internment camps, which were described by their inmates as 'veritable hell.'

People with German names changed them pretty quickly in order to avoid xenophobic abuse and violence; among them, of course, the Royal Family, who became Windsors instead of Saxe-Coburgs. Given that George V was the first cousin once removed of Kaiser Wilhelm, they might easily have fallen under suspicion.

What struck me, reading these ancient and fragile cuttings, was a resonance between the xenophobia and the outbreaks of racial and xenophobic abuse following the referendum result on June 23rd this year: sheer tribalism. One can only imagine the distress of all those people who had settled here and regarded these islands as their home, at what had occurred, and (because I am half German) I can imagine that many of them must have felt torn in half that their birth country and their adopted country were now at war and their neighbours suddenly hated them.



(The Evening News was part of Associated Newspapers by then, and was thus a sister paper to the Daily Mail.)


The painting of the German missionaries is the work of  George Kenner.