Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Curves and Corsets by Julie Summers

'Wartime fashion? Was there such a thing? Is there enough to write a book about it?' That was my immediate reaction when I was asked to write a book for the Imperial War Museum about wartime clothing and clothes rationing. I thought it was rather a flippant topic and was not sure it should be taken too seriously. How wrong I was. After two years intensive research I understood that it was far from trivial. By the end of the Second World War the government had control over every aspect of people's lives, from the length of men's shirts to the width of a gusset in women's knickers. The resulting book Fashion on the Ration tells the story of how fashion and clothing was an issue from the top to the bottom of society and the democratisation of fashion as a result of clothes rationing and mass production has had an impact on the way we view clothes and fashion today.

A Ministry of Information photograph encouraging
young women to dress well and show defiance

When I give a talk about wartime fashion I listen with fascination to memories from audience members who recall parachute silk dresses, Make-Do-And-Mend shirts, thrice darned stockings and coats made from blankets. Some people remember the era with pleasure and tell me about how they loved their Liberty bodice or their Land Army uniform. Others recall patched jumpers and empty department stores. But almost everyone has something to say about underwear. I suppose it is the most intimate detail and it is endlessly fascinating. There is something that is very ingrained in the collective memory about wartime knickers, bras and, above all, corsets.

A child's Utility Liberty Bodice 1943
There is almost a whole chapter devoted to corsets in Fashion on the Ration because it was a topic that exercised not only women who wore them but the civil servants in the Board of Trade who had to guarantee their supply. And it was no easy job. Over 18 million women wore corsets in the late 1930s but wartime production dropped to just 9 million a year and this was the cause of much heartache, not to say irritation. The reason is simple: corsets were made up of three important constituent parts, all of which were necessary for the war industry. Metal was needed for aircraft production so the stays were replaced with compressed cardboard, with disastrous results. Cotton supplies dropped during the war as world cotton prices rose and the number employed in the cotton spinning and weaving industry fell by thirty percent. Rubber became a rare and precious commodity after the fall of Singapore in spring 1942 as the Japanese held the majority of the world’s rubber supplies in the Far East. Finally, the expert corset makers, with their highly skilled workforce of machine operators, often switched to making parachutes, to which their expertise and equipment was ideally suited. As a result, corsets were in short supply and what was available was often very poor quality.

A corset designed by Berlei for the Women's Armed Forces had a
handy pocket for loose change as girls in uniform could not carry 
handbags and their pockets were easily picked in the blackout
One young mother, who had just given birth in the summer of 1944, wrote a furious letter which was published in Time magazine in which she took the Board of Trade to task, even naming Hugh Dalton, the then president, in her diatribe: ‘There should be no false modesty about this very essential article … After the birth of my second child the sight of my figure enclosed in a utility corset nearly paralysed me. True, it caused a certain amusement to my family, but I didn’t feel funny, only ill and unhappy … I found that the boning at the front consisted of three pieces of compressed cardboard. I defy even the most pugnacious cardboard to do anything but follow the shape of the figure it encloses … A band of infuriated housewives should force Mr Dalton into a utility corset and a pair of the best fitting utility stockings he can buy. I would add a saucy black felt hat for which he had to pay four guineas and a pair of those ghastly wooden-soled shoes. He should be made to walk one mile, then stand in a fish queue for an hour. By the end of this time his utility stockings would [droop] from knee to instep in snakelike coils and twists. His corset would have wilted into an uncomfortable, revolting mass of cotton and cardboard. He would find himself supporting the corset, instead of the corset supporting him. May I suggest this would be a very speedy remedy?’

This glorious image may raise a smile but it was a serious matter and many women, who had been used to the support of their pre-war Berlei or Spirella corset felt uncomfortable and very aggrieved. The women’s fashion magazines did their best to advise women on ways of keeping their corsets in good order and they encouraged young women to learn to do without by practising core body exercises.

Fashion on the Ration was not just a story of utility corsets, grey Forces bloomers and austerity designs for skirts and coats. There was another side to the story which I had not expected to find and this was the significant role played by the haute couture houses in designing fashion for the export market. The appeal of export sales was that it brought in much-needed currency and over the period of 1938 to 1946 fashion exports rose from £98,000 to £507,000. Paris, as the centre of the fashion world, was out of the picture from 1940 until the liberation of France in 1944 and London was quick to take its place. Shows were organised for South America, South Africa and the USA with designs by Molyneux, Hardy Amies, Digby Morton, Norman Hartnell and Bianca Mosca rising ‘phoenix-like…from our dustsheeted London life.’ So popular were British designers that they had major shows in America, South America and South Africa over the course of the war.

A Utility dress designed by Digby Morton

The government was quick to realise how useful the high-profile designers such as Norman Hartnell, Dibgy Morton and Edward Molyneux were both for the export but also for the home market. In 1942 the Department of Trade introduced the Utility Clothing Scheme that ran alongside the government's austerity programme that limited the length of men's socks, the number of pleats in women's skirts and the design of children's underwear. In a move of exceptional emotional intelligence it commissioned eight of the country's top fashion designers, including those three giants named above, to design eight garments each for the Utility Scheme. The press was delighted and so was the public. Women on the street could be dressed by the Queen's designer for 30 shillings rather than 30 guineas.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Queen Victoria's first railway journey by Janie Hampton

Exactly 175 years ago this month, Queen Victoria, who had then ruled Britain for five years, was the first British monarch ever to travel by train. The first railway line in Britain had been opened in 1830, between the cities of Liverpool and Manchester, when Victoria was 11 years old. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, loved new inventions, and persuaded her to try this new form of transport.
On June 13, in 1842, the 23-year-old queen and her family took a horse-drawn carriage from Windsor Castle to Slough railway station, four miles away. There they boarded the royal saloon carriage, specially designed like a grand home. It had a padded silk ceiling, blue velvet sofas, matching silk curtains, fringed lampshades, fine mahogany wooden tables and thick carpets. The Times described it: "the fittings are upon a most elegant and magnificent scale, tastefully improved by bouquets of rare flowers arranged within the carriage." 
Imagine traveling from Slough to Paddington in this carriage!
The train was pulled by a locomotive engine powered by coal and steam, and took only 25 minutes to reach Paddington Station in West London. (Today the fastest journey from Slough to Paddington takes 14 minutes.) The engine was called Phlegethon of the Fire Fly class and had been built in 1840. A replica of the original Fire Fly is now at Didcot Railway Centre in Oxfordshire, just up the Great Western Line from Slough. On the footplate was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the famous engineer who had designed Paddington station, the railway line from London to Slough and the world’s first iron ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean the SS Great Britain. The young queen wrote to her uncle, King Leopold of Belgium, that she was ‘quite charmed by this new way of travelling’. However, the Queen worried that the normal speed of 43 miles per hour would affect her health, so she insisted that her trains never went more than 30 miles per hour. Later a signal was fitted to the roof of the royal saloon in case the Queen wanted to tell the train driver to slow down.
The next day The Times newspaper reported: "Yesterday Her Majesty the Queen, for the first time, returned from her sojourn at Windsor Castle, accompanied by her illustrious consort, Prince Albert, Count Mensdorf, & way of the Great Western Railway. The intention of Her Majesty to return to town by railroad was first intimated to the authorities at Paddington on Saturday afternoon, and in consequence preparations on an extensive scale were ordered to be made for the transit of the Royal pair from Slough to the Paddington terminus, which were carried into effect with the greatest secrecy."
Queen Victoria and her family of 11 children spent every summer holiday at Balmoral Castle, 500 miles north of London, near Aberdeen in Scotland. To travel by road from London to Scotland took several days by horse and carriage. But by train it took only one day, or a night sleeping on the train.
After Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria went even more often to Balmoral, always by train. The local railway station, Ballater, had a special platform long enough to accommodate the royal train made up of a locomotive, coal truck and up to eight carriages. Queen Victoria’s royal saloon carriage was the first in the world to have a lavatory. Another carriage had a fully-equipped kitchen and separate dining room. At night time, servants prepared the beds with fine linen sheets. Each sleeping compartment had hinged sinks that tilted into the panelled wooden walls. Next to each bed was a special hook to hang one’s watch, with a suede-leather pad to prevent the watch-glass from breaking as the train rattled over the points or swerved round corners. One carriage carried the servants – dressers, valets, footmen, maids and tutors. There were special carriages for the royal horses and another carriage for the royal luggage. The royal dogs went too, among them greyhounds, Skye terriers and pomeranians. Even the royal waiting room at Paddington station was designed like a palace with a marble fireplace, gold painted furniture and glass chandeliers.
Queen Victoria’s grandchildren ruled seven of the European monarchies, so dukes, princes and aristocracy often came from all over Europe to visit Balmoral Castle. The men wore Scottish kilts, and went shooting deer or grouse on the heather moors. Pony carts carried baskets of fine food and wine for picnic lunches, with special treats such as grapes grown in glass houses.
From The Home Alphabet Book, 1857 Dean & Son, London
In 1897 Queen Victoria had been on the throne for sixty years. After a grand procession through London for her Diamond Jubilee, she went by royal train to Balmoral. For this special occasion, the engine trains were not their normal black: from London to Crewe they had been painted red; from Crew to Carlisle, near the Scottish border, they were white; and from there to Balmoral they were red – all the colours of the British flag! By then trains could travel from London to Edinburgh in less than ten hours.
Queen Victoria's funeral train took the same
journey as her first trip.

Queen Victoria was 82 years old when she died in 1901 on the Isle of Wight. Her coffin was transported to the mainland by sea and then transferred onto a train to London. From Paddington in London it went by train to Windsor – the same journey she had made 61 years earlier. She was buried in the Royal Mausoleum in Windsor.

Queen Elizabeth II celebrated the anniversary of her great great
grandmother's train journey by opening the new electric
train line to Paddington on 13 June 2017.

Monday, 26 June 2017

THE LOST GIRL, by Carol Drinkwater

In just a few days time, my new novel THE LOST GIRL will be published.

I have already written on my HG blogs that the story is set in two time zones: post WWII in France and 2015 Paris and includes a few flashbacks to London in the 90s.

The Paris 2015 sections take place during the long weekend of the atrocious terrorist attacks of the night of 13th November 2015. Six locations were targeted. During that evening one hundred and thirty diners and concert-goers were murdered and another 368 injured.

How to research such an event? Last month I mentioned that I watched on national television the live progression of the attacks as they unfolded and as they were reported. It was almost unbearable viewing, exceedingly moving and distressing. I was in shock and crying. This is all very well but it needs precision to fuel a story. I am very fortunate to be a member of the BnF, the Bibliothèque National de France, in the thirteenth arrondissement of Paris. The National Library of France is a very impressive institution. If you are at all interested in the value of libraries and their functionality do take a look at their website.

The four buildings in the photograph make up the Bibliotèque national de France François Mitterrand. The bridge that crosses over to them is the Simone de Beauvoir passerelle.

In amongst all their facilities and events on offer, the BnF has a truly impressive mediathèque where members can watch filmed material and entire reels of news footage and much more. I took myself off to the audiovisual department where I ordered reams of footage of the weekend of 13th November and I spent approximately a month enclosed within the silence of their walls, watching over and over and over material from everywhere, shot at every moment. It included news items, special investigative programmes, sometimes Smartphone footage, speeches made by François Hollande, our President during that period.
During my research at the library, taking notes obviously, I began to create the timeline for the weekend. My fictional timeline began an hour or two in advance of the first terrorist incident at 20.16 pm on Friday 13th November 2015. 

Firstly, I began with facts, with real events. At which minute was President Hollande - who was in the audience for a football match at the State de France, which was one of the targeted locations - at which moment did Hollande learn of the first of the events? At which moment did play stop? When did Hollande hurriedly leave the stadium? How much later were the thousands in the audience allowed to leave the stadium and make their way to their homes? When did they all begin singing our national anthem,  La Marsellaise? A song of revolution, of victorious spirit and determination. Those voices of thousands resonated across parts of eastern Paris to other areas where attacks were underway. The singing was televised. The nation was there, singing in their homes, rallying to the call.

These timings were essential. The emotional journeys of my characters were being influenced by the progression of events.

When did RAID eventually gain access into the Bataclan concert hall where 1500 concert-goers were being held hostage, many already murdered?
Who are RAID, the special police unit tasked with leading the French police in times of terrorism and other forms of serious crime?

History and fiction. 
My fictional characters were being brought into play during that month of research. A mother, Kurtiz, is praying for a sighting of her daughter, Lizzie, praying for a reconciliation with a the girl who disappeared from home and went missing four years previously. The daughter is attending the concert at the Bataclan. Or is she? Certainly, her father, Oliver, believes Lizzie is there and, carrying that hope in his broken heart, he too has purchased a ticket for the rock concert.
How could these two grieving parents ever have imagined that this night of what they prayed would be reconciliation would turn into one of bloodshed?

It became a business of weaving. Bringing together the reality and the fictional lives woven through the timeline. At which stage did Kurtiz visit one of the Paris hospitals? As she enters the hospital, in the novel, she sees the queues and queues of Parisians waiting to give blood, to do their bit to re-establish harmony within their damaged city. Hundreds of people standing in line on a freezing November night to help save the lives of others. These details make the difference. They begin to paint the picture of a city under attack. The responses of the individuals inhabiting the city.

I remember when I was travelling for my two Mediterranean Olive Route books (The Olive Route and The Olive Tree), I spent a fair amount of time in war zones, in regions under attack or where lives were being constrained by others. The West Bank, Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Al-Qaeda bombings in Algeria ... the most poignant memories for me were those of human kindness, the strength and indomitability of individuals. While watching all the footage of that weekend in Paris and its aftermath, interviews with music-lovers who had attended the concert and survived, others who had not attended but had lost a loved one ... etc. I was profoundly moved by the generosity of the human spirit. Not the hatred. I wanted my novel, THE LOST GIRL, to portray that. A tale of man's humanity to man. Not the opposite. In this case, the story of two women sharing their hearts with one another.

After the recent UK Manchester attacks, Facebookers were writing comments such as "this is like London during the Blitz, "Britain's stalwart spirit". True, yes, but in my experience this deep seam of humanity is not exclusive to Britain. I have witnessed it displayed all across the globe. The Parisian footage I watched over that month at the BnF confirmed that. #portesouvertes. Hashtag portes ouvertes. Open doors. If I had not engaged in such detailed research I might not have found the thousands of messages written by citizens. Open Doors. Our doors are open. 'Stay the night, we have beds.' 'We can drive you somewhere when the streets have reopened'. All public transport had been shut down. Roads were gridlocked. These tiny researched details - not always so tiny - contribute to the layers and complexities of a story. I am certain that every other History Girl will confirm this.

The sections of the book set during London in the 90s and early 2000s were the easiest for me to write because I was able to pick from my own experience. Years attending drama school (Kurtiz, my protagonist, trained as an actress before eventually turning her talents to photography, specialising in war photography). I had great fun and many nostalgic moments playing music I had listened to back in the 90s, looking through magazines to hit the right fashion notes. I was recalling a London, a city that had for a while been my home.

                                                    A street in Grasse, Provence, Alpes-Maritimes.

                                                          An old perfume factory in Grasse

The sections set after WWII involved a different kind of research. Masses of reading, watching old films, learning about the perfume industry in Grasse, the Perfume Capital of the World. Studying the mechanics of flower production when the flowers are destined for the perfume factories. The requirements, the demands involved. These sections of the novel, set in the south of France also take place at the Victorine Film Studios in Nice, which I have written about in an earlier blog on this site. The part that came for free for me was the scents and perfumes of Provence. The colours, the feeling of the heat on the baked earth. I have lived here - just ten miles from Grasse and overlooking the Bay of Cannes with its annual film festival - that I know the seasons well. They are imbedded within my own rhythms of life. I wake to the scents of jasmine and the May rose which is a vital ingredients for Chanel in its iconic Chanel No 5 perfume.
Provence of the late 1940s and the early 1950s is not so different to my Provence of today, not when I am writing about the cycles of nature.  The perfume of a rose is always the perfume of a rose.

So, two female protagonists - one in her early forties arriving from London, the other in her eighties who had spent her youth living near Grasse after the Second World War. A chance encounter in a bar brings them together over one harrowing weekend in Paris in 2015. Their stories become intertwined and criss-cross decades. The women, strangers and then friends, offer a new optimism to one another and undreamed-of futures. Their encounter brings, I hope, that golden seam of generosity, of humanity, that sits at the core of each and every one of us.

THE LOST GIRL, published 29th June. I really hope you will enjoy it.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Elections in Georgian England by Miranda Miller

   I’ve spoken to several friends who feel that there have been too many elections lately and that voting, far from being a privilege, is a bit of a bore. It’s worth remembering that in this country women didn’t get the vote until 1928, there was  no secret ballot until 1872 and until the Reform Act was passed in 1832 voting was a very different experience.

   You had to be a male freeholder with an income of at least forty shillings a year - about 250,000 men. Voting was by a show of hands and each man had to go to the Returning Officer and register his vote. If you lived in the country, as most people did, the local Squire could scrutinise the poll book to make sure his tenants voted the ‘right’ way. If necessary the candidate’s agent would take voters to the polling booth and bribe them with beer and beef.

   Elections could go on for weeks and were usually accompanied by riots, civil disorder, corruption and drunkenness. The local militia or troops were often called out to restore order. Until 1785, when the length of any single election was limited to fifteen days, a general election could take months. A candidate who was unsuccessful in one constituency could move to another as long as he was sufficiently determined and rich: elections were the stage on which great families acted out their rivalries and they sometimes spent as much as £100,000 to secure a seat.

   Why did they bother? Although MPs got no salary they had enormous influence. A rotten borough, with a tiny number of voters, could be used by a patron to gain unrepresentative influence in the House of Commons. One example of this was Old Sarum, a hamlet on a hill near Salisbury. the Pitt family owned it from the mid-17th century until 1802, when they sold it for £60,000, even though the land and manorial rights were only worth £700 a year. Many towns which had grown up recently, like Manchester, had no MP at all.

   Once elected to the House of Commons, an MP would be offered substantial bribes. The phrase `before you can say Jack Robinson' comes from the name of King George III's agent, who persuaded MPs to vote whichever way the king wanted with his ' golden handshake.' As the MPs went out to cast their votes, Robinson waited for them at the door, shook their hands and filled them with gold coins.

   Women who were educated enough to be interested in politics could play a part although they couldn’t vote. Westminster was of course an important constituency because of its position and also because it had more voters than anywhere else in the country. In 1784 there was an electoral battle there between Cecil Wray and Lord Hood, both Tories, and the Whig Charles James Fox. Fox was a very attractive man and a small army of glamorous women canvassed for him.

   In this satirical print from 1784 we see Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, canvassing a fat butcher who stands holding the duchess's left hand in his left hand, while he wipes his mouth on his sleeve and leers jovially towards her. Another butcher leans, knife in hand, grinning as he he says, "By George I'd kiss the Dutchess". The duchess has a fox's brush in her hat, inscribed 'Fox'. Behind her walk two ladies arm in arm, both wearing Fox favours. They might be Lady Duncannon, the Duchess’s sister, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s wife, Elizabeth. One of them turns her head to kiss an artisan wearing an apron while she slips a purse into his hand. Whether due to the support of all these fashionable women or his own charisma, or both, Fox won the election.

   This hand covered etching in the British Museum is anonymous. If the Georgians were unlucky in their politicians they were extremely fortunate to have wonderful satirical artists and I think they can tell us more than anyone about the corruption of elections at the time. These prints were public and hugely popular; people would crowd around the windows of the London print shops to gossip and laugh at each one as it was issued.

   In 1784 Rowlandson produced both this pro-Fox print, The Champion of the People, and also the anti-Fox print below, The Covent Garden Night Mare - he was quite happy to work for whichever side would pay him more. In the first, Fox wears armour as he fights the Hydra (representing the King's attempt to influence Parliament), with a sword and 'shield of truth'. English, Irish and East Indian supporters stand and kneel and in the background a group of men representing foreign powers dance around the 'Standard of Sedition'.

   This is a parody of Fuseli's famous painting, The Nightmare, with the sleeping girl replaced by a naked Charles James Fox. A demon is sitting on top of him and a dice table beside him reminds viewers of his outrageous gambling.

  Hogarth wrote that his aim was “ to compose pictures on canvas similar to representations on the stage. ... Let the figures in either pictures or prints be considered as players dressed either for the sublime – for genteel comedy, or farce – for high or low life. I have endeavored to treat my subjects as a dramatic writer. ...”. His four oil paintings ( later popular engravings), The Humours of an Election, illustrate an election in Oxfordshire in 1754 when the Whig candidate, the Duke of Marlborough, challenged the incumbent Tories. You can see the originals in John Soane’s Museum. In the first, An Election Entertainment, Tories are protesting outside a tavern where Whigs are hosting a wild drunken dinner for their supporters. The Mayor has eaten too many oysters and the Election Agent has been concussed by a brick thrown through the window.

   Here is the second, Canvassing for Votes. The inn is the headquarters of the Tory party, covered with signs satirizing the Whigs, for example: "Punch Candidate for Guzzeldown". The local Tory candidate is buying ribbons and jewels to give to two admiring girls on the balcony and at the bay window two men are guzzling the food they have been bribed with. In the centre a man is furtively taking bribes from two men at the same time while in the background a Tory mob is violently attacking the Whig headquarters.

   The third of the Hogarth series, The Polling, shows voters declaring their support for the Whigs (orange) or Tories (blue). Agents from both sides are using unscrupulous tactics to increase their votes or challenge opposing voters. The Tories are bringing a mentally disabled man to vote and a dying man is being carried in behind him. In the background a woman in a carriage with a broken axle is a symbol of Britannia.

   Here is the fourth of Hogarth’s great series, Chairing the Member. In a traditional ceremony, the victorious Tory candidate is being carried through the streets on a chair, led by a blind and ragged fiddler and surrounded by a disreputable crowd. The new MP is about to be dropped because one of the men carrying him has has just been accidentally hit on the head by a rural labourer who is fighting a Whig supporter, an old sailor with a bear. Frightened pigs run across the scene (the gadarene swine) and dishes of food are being carried into an elegant house where victory is being celebrated.

   I’m going to finish with this image by James Gillray, my favourite of all those wonderful eighteenth century satirists. In Election Troops, Bringing in Their Accounts, his 1788 hand-coloured etching, Gillray shows us Pitt’s “troops” marching on the “Treasury”. Pitt, embarrassed, disowns them: "I know nothing of you my Friends, Lord H------d pays all the expences himself - Hush! Hush! go to the back-Door in Great George Street under the Rose!" Pitt is handed the bill “For Puffs & Squibs and for abusing opposition.” A ragged newsboy holds a newspaper, The Star , and another bill for bribing “ Ballad Singers & Grub Street Writers.” Next to him a publican holds out yet another bill “For Eating & Drink[ing] for Jack Ass Boys.” Behind them three Foot Guards demand payment “For the attack in Bow Street.” One of them holds a bayonet dripping with blood. A ragged cobbler holds out yet another bill “For Voting three times” and next to him a female ballad-singer demands payment “For Singing Ballads at 5 Shill pr Day.” A sailor with a bludgeon holds out yet another paper: “For kicking up a Riot”.... you begin to see how it could cost a hundred thousand to acquire a seat in parliament.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

MEDIEVAL BRITAIN C.1000-1500 By David Crouch. An overview by Elizabeth Chadwick

The other day a signed copy of this beautiful book landed on my desk, courtesy of David Crouch, professor of medieval history at the University of Hull.
I think I have most of Professor Crouch's works on my book shelf.  The first one I bought was his biography of William Marshal (now recently in its third and updated edition) and I have since added many more.  David Crouch has an easy, conversational writing style that at the same time remains erudite.  He knows his history and does not suffer fools gladly.  He also has a dry and sometimes mischievous sense of humour.  For example, one of his sub-chapter headings is playfully titled 'One King to Rule Them All.'

This most recent work features the striking jewelled crown of Ann of Bohemia (or possibly Edward III)  on the  cover. museum information here.

The book itself (in my opinion) is aimed in the direction of history students finishing their secondary education and looking to take a degree in Medieval history, and perhaps new undergranduates who need to get themselves up to speed on the subject it matter.  It will also suit curious and switched on members of the general public who enjoy reading historical non fiction.  In content the work is a broad overview of Britain between the years mentioned in the title. Some reigns are covered in more depth than others.  Readers seeking a full analysis of the reigns of Richard the Lionheart or Henry IV will not find them, for example, whereas the reigns of John and Richard II receive more attention by contrast. Professor Crouch explains that he has been "deliberately selective, focusing on those events  which span the centuries and have a broader significance for Medieval life.'  Personally I would like to have seen Professor Crouch air his views in these areas, but I understand the constraints of word count, and also that the main narrative of the subject matter has to be kept on track.

The work is arranged in three major parts.

The Empire of Britain
Living in Medieval Britain
The Great Divorce.

Each part is then divided by clearly delineated large sub-headings with an overview.   The Empire of Britain for example has the headings 'A Century of Conquest 1000-1100' and 'Francophone Britain 1100-1217.'
Living in Medieval Britain has clearly numbered sub-headings dealing with - among others - monarchy, language, the state, the church, establishing the church, life experience, Material Britain.  Part 3 looks at redefining Britain, Scotland between 1306 and 1513, and dynastic struggles.  

All of these larger sub-heading sections are further divided up into concise but informative essays on particular subjects, all clearly numbered in progression.  So, for example,  Life Experience, number 9 in the progression begins with an overview. It's followed by a headed section on The Expectations on Women,  then the same for men. The Shape of the Family, Ancestry and Kingship,  Family Love,  Marriage, Sex outside Marriage, Sexuality, The Tyranny of Normalcy, The Widow, Medieval Childhood,  Life Expectancy,  Anxiety and Disease, Mortality Crises, Ageing.  Each section is discussed with examples cited from primary sources.

The end of each of these numbered sections features a post script and suggestions for key texts to be read as well as further reading. Also some end notes on quotations in the essays.  

It's all very clearly laid out and excellent for absorbing, not so much in bitesize chunks, as in satisfying but not over-filling small meals. 

The work is illustrated throughout with black and white photographs and maps.  There is a handy timeline at the front of the book to keep the reader on track with who was who and what was happening at a given time.  There is also a useful glossary at the end. 

Every part of the British Isles is covered and discussed both separately and in connection with the individual nations and territories. Again, not in great depth, but sufficient unto a clear overview leading to further investigation. 

I would recommend this work as a great addition to the bookshelf if you are in any way interested in Medieval history. It is lucid and set out in a way that makes the content easy to absorb. It's highly readable and occasionally raises a smile.  It also might challenge various mainstream preconceptions. Readers interested in the fine details of a specific reign may not find them here beyond the broadest brush strokes, but that is not what this book is about or intended for. Its aim is to point out the general trends taking place over time and to act as a launchpad into further reading.

Definitely recommended. 

Friday, 23 June 2017

The Apothecary's rose, by Leslie Wilson

It is in flower in my garden now, and on warm days and evenings it fills the air with scent. It is a healthy, beautiful rose, flowering only once, but profusely, over a long period. Fly sometimes appear on it, but it seems to shrug them off, and it never gets black spot, though it's grown in shallow, poor topsoil (though I do mulch it with compost and horse manure).
It is rosa gallica officinalis, the apothecary's rose, and its history in these islands goes back to the Middle Ages. As its name implies, it was used in medicine. Nicholas Culpeper wrote of it: “Red roses cool, bind, strengthen both vital and animal virtue, restores such as are in consumptions, strengthen.' In 1597, Gerard's Herbal suggested that the petals of red roses 'should be ground with sugar and used to "strengthen the heart and take away the shaking and trembling thereof".

Its origins are in Central Asia, but it was grown in many countries in the ancient world -Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome - not surprisingly, given its virtues and beauty, as well as its medicinal applications.It was used for medicinal purposes long before Gerard or Culpeper recorded its use in their herbals. It's also called the 'Provins Rose' because it was grown in this town in France, and the name 'rosa gallica' means 'the rose of Gaul', indicating its French origin; though Jenny Uglow, in her 'Little History of British Gardening', says the Romans first brought it to Britain and grew it in the gardens of their villas. The wild form is single; the ancient cultivar is semi-double, which means it is still of use to pollinators, and there is usually a  bumble-bee's eager rear end to be seen in the heart of many of the blooms throughout the day in my garden.

Shakespeare told the tale of the different contenders in the Wars of the Roses picking blooms to indicate which side they supported; the Yorkists picked white roses, and the Lancastrians red ones. The rosa galllica was the emblem of the House of Lancaster, as the rosa alba, the Great White Rose, was the emblem of Eleanor of Provence, and became part of the design of Edward I's Great Seal of State.I went to school in North Lancashire, and it was important, in the late 50s, that it was Red Rose country.It is still the official emblem of Lancashire.

My daughter got married in the Walled Garden at Cowdray, a venue that had personal historical significance  as my great-grandparents lived in Midhurst, and my grandmother was born there. But of course, the Walled Garden was the garden of the now ruined castle, and when the original manor was built, I should think it extremely likely that rosa gallica was grown in the garden, though I didn't notice it in today's walled garden. It might be there. However, the petals were there that day, as I brought a bagful of them from our garden to throw over her and her new husband. One of the things that impressed the ancients about the gallica was the ability of the petals to retain the scent, even when dried, which made it the rose of choice for pot-pourri, and then of course there were the medicinal applications. I opened the bag, before we did the petal-throwing, and let privileged guests inhale the scent and be enraptured.

When I go out there and put my nose to the blooms, or just stand there and let the scent waft into my nostrils, I am just the latest of people who, over the centuries, have benefited from this rose. I love it that it's so sturdy and vigorous and not at all a challenge to grow. It's survived for a long time, so why wouldn't it be tough?

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Museums, Doll Houses and Giant Scones by Catherine Hokin

I have recently started working on a project with the Glasgow Women’s Library as a Community Curator which is all a bit fab. I will be doing a post about the library shortly and, when we work out what it is going to be from the trove of delights in the archive, a preview about the exhibition we are planning in 2018. One of the many things we have been reflecting on as a team is what makes a museum memorable. From my own experience I know that you remember museum visits for all kinds of reasons which may having nothing to do with the exhibitions. My eventual refusal to leave the Barcelona FC museum because I loved it is remembered far less than my behaving like Kevin and Perry at the suggestion of going and the irony of the Dunbrody Ship and Famine Experience in Ireland having scones bigger than our heads will live on as a family folk tale.

Pritzker Military Museum
So to my own shared tale. In 2010 I found myself stranded in Chicago for a week following the volcanic eruption in Iceland. It was an odd experience, coming as it did at the end of a holiday: we were mentally adjusting to returning to everyday life (and physically adjusting – we were actually airborne on a plane that was sent back) and no longer felt like tourists. I was teaching at the time and had touched on the origins of photo-journalism with a class – the American Civil War (which I have always been obsessed with) was the birthplace of this so I decided to use my time to do some research, which was when I discovered the wonderful Pritzker Military Museum and Library. 

Once the staff recovered from their hilarity at my pronunciation of Antietam they fell over themselves to help me; once they realised I had an interest in women’s history, they pulled out a whole new set of photos and documents about the women who had fought in the conflict disguised as male soldiers. These women were astonishing. Not all cases could be documented but estimates suggest 400-750 ordinary American women actively participated, fighting as men. Writing in 1888, Mary Livermore of the US Sanitary Commission wrote“Someone has stated the number of women soldiers known to the service as little less than 400. I cannot vouch for the correctness of this estimate, but I am convinced a large number of women disguised themselves and enlisted in the service, for one cause or another, than was dreamed of. Entrenched in secrecy, and regarded as men, they were sometimes revealed as women, by accident or casualty. Some startling histories of these military women were current in the gossip of army life."

 Family Devotion: the ideal wife and mother
Choosing this active, masculine role was a step outside the social boundaries of the period which rigidly fixed the female role. The American Civil War lasted from 1861-65 and was fought to determine what kind of a nation it would be: the war’s coming challenged most of the attitudes that held sway across the country, including the ideology of domesticity that shaped the lives of men and women in both the North and South. In the antebellum period, life for women was shaped by a set of ideals American historians often refer to as The Cult of True Womanhood. As men’s work moved more into the external sphere of offices and factories, the household became more feminized and private, a haven in which ‘true women’ were encouraged to strive and build their husbands a comfortable home. Under this world-view, women were perceived as frail, subordinate and passive creatures with no interest in the outside world. The war changed all this and is seen by many as the first step towards emancipation.

From 1861 women were actively involved in the war effort on both sides, engaged in domestically-based work such as knitting, baking and fund-raising galas as well as the horrors of front-line nursing such as experienced by author Louisa May Alcott. For some women, however, even nursing, which remained strictly socially-controlled, was too small a step beyond the domestic sphere. The reasons they became soldiers were as different as the women themselves: for some it was freedom, for others it was patriotism, or more money than they could hope to earn in their narrow worlds, to follow their husbands or, simply, to have an adventure. One of the few women very open about what she was doing was Sarah Rosetta Wakeman who served with the 153rd Regiment out of New York and wrote to her strict family about her choice saying she was “as independent as a hog on ice.” The reasons differed but all broke the stereotype of how women should think and live.

 Jennie Hodgers
These women did everything the men did, including working as spies and fighting in some of the worst combat: at least four women were known to have fought at Antietam on 17 September 1862 which, with its 30,000 casualties, was the single bloodiest day in the conflict. They were rarely discovered: physical examinations were scant, uniforms were baggy and so many young boys volunteered that the lack of a beard was nothing remarkable. Jennie Hodgers fought the whole war undiscovered as Albert Cashier and then lived the rest of her life as a man. Sarah Edmonds, who served for two years as Franklin Flint Thompson and whose career only ended when she contracted malaria, was described by comrades as a “frank and fearless” soldier and was awarded a military pension for her services.

After the war ended the existence of these soldier-women became widely known, at least among the reading public. An 1866 publication, The Women of the War by Frank Moore, included a chapter on female military heroines and some women, including Loreta Valazquez who fought as Harry Buford, published their memoirs. The US Army, however, denied women had played any role. In 1909, in response to a query about women who had served, Adjutant General Ainsworth responded: “I have the honor to inform you that no official record has been found in the War Department showing specifically that any woman was ever enlisted…at any time during the period of the civil war. It is possible, however, that there may have been a few instances of women having served as soldiers for a short time without their sex having been detected, but no record of such cases is known to exist in the official files.”  This was despite the detailed records that existed, including examples of discharge on the grounds of ‘sexual incompatibility’. A poorly timed attempt to put women back in the doll’s house.

The women who fought were ordinary soldiers, not generals or commanders: they did not change the course of battles. They were not, however, ordinary women: they displayed revolutionary attitudes by refusing to stay in their socially-delineated place. It is heartening how many of their stories are now being uncovered after too long a period in which their role was denied or reduced to the activities of a few oddities and eccentrics. For anyone who wants to find out more, can I recommend She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers of the Civil War by Bonnie Tsui. And, if you are in Chicago, go to the Pritzker and lose yourself: they’ll welcome you with open arms.  

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

London Books by Imogen Robertson

Being a Londoner feels a bit tough this month. I’ve worked in Borough Market and lots of my friends still do, as does my husband from time to time. Now the horror of that attack has been subsumed by the nightmare of Grenfell Tower and as I write this, news is coming through of an attack on the Finsbury Park mosque. I’m not going to draw any historical analogies or share any platitudes about how London will carry on, but I will say this: I believe that the divide between rich and poor in this city is a greater threat to its health and character than any terrorist plot however tragic and grim those are. It is the diversity of the capital, the mix of nations, religions, and backgrounds, artists, opportunists, adventurers and refugees which has formed London's enduring appeal and is the corner-stone of its particular and particularly rich culture. I don’t think there has ever been a time when living here has been as precarious as it is now for the vast majority of Londoners. The empty luxury flats, the crippling rents forcing out middle and low income earners and the horrific squeeze on social housing is making us all poorer. Surely at some point we have to realise the greater good is not always compatible with maximising private profits.

These are some of my favourite books about London in all her messy glory to celebrate what the city is, and a reminder of what we could lose if we abandon the streets to the oligarchs and landlords. Two novels, three non-fiction, all brilliant.

This lyrical, deeply felt novel tells the story of another London tragedy. The novel explores the lives of the people of Walworth in 1912 and renders their voices with subtle care. It is rich with folklore and closely observes how tradition changes with the movement of people into the capital, and adapts, as they do, to the city.

Subtitled The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum, this is a remarkable history of a particular culture in place and time. Wise is a great historian, but also has a novelist’s eye for the telling detail, the particular incident, person or story which makes the general feel vivid and personal. This is the opposite of nostalgia and a study which does not patronise or smooth off the rough edges of a society on the margins, but brings it to full-bloodied life. 

A wonderful collection of traditions, histories, ghosts and legends from an expert in folklore. Bad behaviour in Mayfair, the Lion Sermon, the rose rent, Dogett’s boat race and the story of the first ‘pearly king’. Written with fluency and affection. 

One of the most important books on immigration and the growth and culture of Black Britain you can read. Vast in scope and scholarship and as relevant today as when it was published in the 1980s.  

A wild celebration of the multi-cultural mashup which is London and built on all sorts of strands of magic myth and folklore, it’s no surprise that these novels are favourites of mine. They are also witty, thrilling and kind which makes them a much needed balm. I suspect you’ve all read them already, but if you haven’t I envy you the delight in store. 

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Lost worlds, changed lives: life beyond the Black Death

I have always thought, perhaps along with many people, that, after the devastation caused by what we call The Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, huge numbers of communities, villages and hamlets, must have become deserted. But historians and geographers have known for quite a while now that this was not in fact the case, but rather, where medieval villages were “lost”, and they obviously were, it happened over a matter of centuries, not as a direct result of that terrible plague.
Danse macabre by Michael Wolgemut, 1493

But perhaps what happened in the longer term did have its genesis in the events of the fourteenth century, and I thought it might be interesting to examine how the change in the structure of the English countryside unfolded.

It is hard to imagine what it must have been like – indeed, felt like – to see a third to a half of all your family, friends and neighbours killed within the space of a couple of months, or maybe even only a few weeks.

In the fourteenth century, death was everyday – illnesses were mostly incurable, accidents commonplace, life subject to all manner of risk. Medieval people were “fatalists”, or rather they ascribed every disaster, be it the loss of a child, dead cows, a bad harvest, or the failure of the butter to churn, either to God’s will or the Devil’s work. People did not believe they were in control, so they might as well accept whatever occurred and get on with their lives. However, I am not suggesting that this means people were intellectually feeble, but rather that they remained resilient in the face of tragedy.

Nonetheless, how truly devastating it must have been to witness death on such a scale! You can imagine that survivors might have found it too grim a prospect to try and carry on in a place where the memories – ghosts? – of so many dead friends and family still lingered. Despite the fact that their families had lived there for generations, they might well have preferred to abandon their community for somewhere new, where they could start again.

Some chroniclers of the fourteenth century, such as Henry Knighton, a canon in Leicester, have suggested that many settlements were abandoned, as a direct result of the plague:
After the pestilence, many buildings, great and small, fell into ruins…many villages and hamlets became desolated…probable that many such villages would never be inhabited.
But, while you can easily envisage that whole communities would have been wiped out, especially small hamlets, where every member of the few families who lived there succumbed to the disease, in fact, according to what records show us, it seems that this happened only rarely.

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a period of relative growth and prosperity. Fair weather and successful harvests produced surpluses that financed the building and rebuilding of castles, cathedrals, monasteries and churches, and encouraged and created flourishing towns and expanding villages. Expansion and wealth meant a growth in population, which in turn meant a demand for more land to sustain it. As a consequence, some new settlements were created on more marginal land, including heathland and woodland areas, and, for example, on the higher downland of Hampshire. Assarting, the clearing of land to make new settlements, took place on the edges of the Forest of Bere, in the Soberton area, close to my fictional “Meonbridge”.

Chalk downland, Hampshire cc-by-sa/2.0© Oswald Bertram

The countryside around “Meonbridge”, the valley of the River Meon, being relatively close to Winchester, was probably quite prosperous. The area between Havant and Fareham, a bit further to the south, was highly productive in cereal growing. But prosperity was also growing on the back of an expansion in the farming of sheep, including in the areas around Winchester, to support that city’s thriving wool and cloth industry.

The Great Hall, added to Winchester Castle by Henry III 1222-1235

However, while England was a reasonably prosperous place by the end of the thirteenth century, the growth in population and the resulting pressure on land was already bringing inevitable poverty and, with it, unrest, particularly among the poor and landless. Then, by the second decade of the fourteenth century, increasingly poor weather brought a series of bad harvests, and with too many mouths to feed and too few resources, people began to show their vulnerability. Famine took hold and continued for several years. Cynically, one might say that it began to ease the strain of overpopulation, but it must have been seriously debilitating to soul as well as body, even to those resilient medieval fatalists.

Then, in 1348-50, came the worst plague in history, taking a much more dramatic toll on the population. Further outbreaks of plague occurred throughout the century (and indeed beyond, up until the 1800s), and it took a very long time for the population to even approach again that of the thirteenth century.

But, for those mid-fourteenth century English men and women, the Black Death meant that, with far, far fewer of them, working people – the farming and labouring majority – were suddenly much more valuable, while land was no longer at a premium. The world had turned upside down, and things were going to – had to – change.

The shape of the countryside and its communities were perhaps most affected by two principal factors: the breakdown of the feudal system and a gradual change in farming practices.

Peasants harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks.
Queen Mary's Psalter (Ms. Royal 2. B. VII), 
fol. 78v (Public domain)
The old order, the system of lords and bonded tenants, had already begun to change. But when a third to a half of the tenants in a manor died in the space of a few months, it soon dawned on the tenants how valuable they had suddenly become, and also that the emptier world offered them considerable opportunities. Tenants became increasingly less prepared to submit to their lords’ wishes, such as forcing them to provide “boonworks” (unpaid work provided as partial “rent” for their tenancies) on their demesnes, or imposing constraints on their freedom of movement, and labourers were no longer willing to work for low wages, if they could get more elsewhere. The lords, if at first they resisted change, pleading with the government to help maintain the status quo, at length had to accept that change was happening and they could not stop it. Despite the government’s labour legislation, the 1351 Statute of Labourers, working people did not submit.

Some undoubtedly did leave the manors their families had lived in for generations, sometimes to receive better wages elsewhere, either on other manors or in the towns, sometimes to take up valuable land holdings on other manors, sometimes, perhaps, to occupy “abandoned” hamlets or villages. Despite the memories and ghosts, the draw of land was probably very strong and, like pioneers and settlers everywhere, they repopulated many initially deserted locations surprisingly quickly. The evidence from records does seem to suggest that, if hamlets or villages were abandoned, mostly it was only for weeks, months, or perhaps a few years. Some communities were invigorated by “fresh blood” and a determination among the incomers to succeed in the new window of opportunity. It is said that Winchester city could not in fact attract sufficient workers from the countryside to replace those it had lost because the opportunities of taking up abandoned land holdings were simply too attractive to pass up.

Even in the most tragic of times, some people – lord, freeman or bondsman – might respond in opportunistic vein. For every one who died in the plague, there was perhaps someone else who simply saw the availability of more resources. They were probably not actually grateful that the plague had given them these opportunities (to do so might invite some sort of divine retribution!), but the entrepreneurial spirit in those who would go on to make England prosperous again was perhaps released. In some cases, freemen or even wealthier tenants grew rich on the acquisition of land, eventually building holdings that would become the grand estates of later centuries. In contrast to the generally rather gloomy picture one has of the fourteenth century, in fact, in Hampshire at any rate, for some, there was a considerable expansion of fortune in the latter part of the century and beyond.

So, change in the structure of society was one concomitant outcome of the Black Death. Another was the change in farming practices.

Again, farming practices had already begun to alter, but the change accelerated in the century following the Black Death. The farming of arable land further declined. It must, after all, have been difficult to sustain such a labour-intensive form of agriculture with the availability of far fewer workers, both skilled and unskilled. Equally, with fewer mouths to feed, it was perhaps neither necessary nor worth the effort to maintain it on the previous scale. The growth of sheep farming was already happening, and the wool trade was thriving. With fewer working people available, farming sheep was undoubtedly easier to manage than arable. Evidence from the Winchester bishops’ estates shows that, by the mid-fourteenth century, a third of the arable land had ceased cultivation by comparison with a hundred years earlier. Presumably, the bad weather and poor harvests, and also a possible decline in soil fertility caused by poor husbandry, meant a move from arable to sheep was likely to prove more profitable, especially perhaps in Hampshire, where the downland was perfect for rearing sheep.

From The Luttrell Psalter, British Library.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Lords, freemen and tenants, any of them might make the change to farming sheep, anyone indeed who wanted to jump on the bandwagon of the burgeoning wool economy. In some cases, sheep presumably simply became a more important aspect of farming life in a mixed agricultural economy. But, in the worst cases, the change had a profound effect on the community, where a particularly acquisitive lord might turn his tenants out of their homes to make room for more pasture. Some “generous” lords might build cottages for the displaced tenants elsewhere, but others just pushed them out – they were simply not needed any more. So, in some cases, communities were indeed deserted through these actions, although in practice it did not happen all at once. For example, Lomer, a small community just above the villages of the Meon valley, did eventually die out through such a gradual change of land use, but not until the seventeenth century.

Certainly sheep farming did change the shape of the countryside. But other structural changes also had an impact, the creation of parks – “emparking” – being one of them. In the fourteenth century itself, these often took the form of hunting parks. However, in the next couple of centuries, one of the eventual results of some wealthy people acquiring more (and more) land was that their expanded holdings would one day develop into great estates. And owners of such estates wanted the trappings of their wealth, a great country house and a fashionable park to set it in, and they were again more than willing to evict their tenants to realise their ambitions. Again they might build them a new village outside the estate, but equally they might not. In the Meon Valley, the village of Warnford is an example of a village where the medieval settlement was moved to a new site, to be replaced by a landscaped park. The still standing church and the ruins of the manor house are evidence of the location of the original village. At Idsworth, a few miles to the south-east, a church stands in the middle of ploughed fields, showing where a community was once removed entirely in favour of a park for the owners of Idsworth House.

Idsworth Church cc-by-sa/2.0 © Roger Pagram
But much of this emparking and widespread eviction of tenants from communities came in later centuries. Famously, the poet Oliver Goldsmith wrote of it in his 1770 poem, The Deserted Village, where he bemoans the fate of a settlement destroyed by the ambitions of the landowner:
"The man of wealth and pride, Takes up a space that many poor supplied; Space for his lake, his park’s extended bounds, Space for his horses, equipage and hounds"
Although it seems clear that the Black Death did not directly lead to the long term desertion of villages, maybe what happened in the middle of the fourteenth century – the huge loss of population, the breakdown of the old way of life and the large scale move towards sheep farming – did at the very least accelerate changes that had already begun, changes that would, eventually, have significant effects on the shape of the English countryside.