Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Venice in Autumn- City of Dreams

If New York is the city that is so good that they named it twice then what does that make Venice?

The view from the Campanile of San Giorgio Maggiore

The Grand Canal from the Accademia Bridge

La Serenissima, Queen of the Adriatic, City of Water, La Dominante, City of Masks, City of Bridges,The Floating City, City of Canals and Venezia. The multinominal champion of cities. Venice, the dream city, the city that if left unvisited will leave a lacuna in any traveller's cultural history. 

St Mark's Square reflected on the San Giorgio Vaporetti Stop

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs:
A palace and a prison on each hand
The Centro Storico is home to less than 60,000 residents who host an annual influx of 20 million visitors. Venetians seem inured to the wonder around them. They seem content in the knowledge that their home is the citta per eccellenza and they consider the rest of the world as merely 'campo', an outland. 

Local Graffiti of an Outlander
Outside Cafe Florian
"Streets flooded. Please advise" Telegram to his Editor from Robert Benchley.
A Night at the Opera
Seeing and being seen at La Fenice.

You will rarely meet a Venetian in Harry's Bar or Cafe Florian, except perhaps, during the deep night when the exhausted incomers have wearily decamped to their hotel beds. You will perhaps spot the Venetians if you venture to Teatro La Fenice for an opera or to Teatro Goldoni to see a play. In these cultural oases, in their Italian finery and jewellery, they gather to be seen as much as to see.

During our last visit the goddess Fortuna smiled on us and allowed us the pleasure of attending a performance of the Globe Theatre's production of The Merchant of Venice at the Goldoni. Tickets were a steal at around 22 Euros and with a long run under their belts the cast gave a flawless performance. Jonathan Pryce ( 'as seen in' Brazil, Tomorrow Never Dies, Evita, Glengarry Glen Ross and currently in BBC's Taboo, as the DVD blurbs burble, )  was particularly Shylockian playing opposite his real life daughter Phoebe as Jessica,the daughter of Shylock. Father and daughter and the Merchant IN Venice, a double whammy.

Many a time and oft in The Rialto you have rated me..

Teatro Goldoni in the rain

Taking a richly deserved bow

Apart from the Temples, Churches, Galleries, Museums and Architecture, Venice has myriad other pleasures. Getting lost in the labyrinthine alleys away from the signposted arteries to the Rialto and St Mark's, stumbling upon obscure piazzas, visiting the outer islands such as Torcello and San Michele the burial place of Ezra Pound, Stravinsky and Diaghilev, supping inexpensive Aperol Spritz while savouring a variety of gorgeous chichetti in a canalside bar, these just a few of the pleasures of Venice.

Spritz for two
The piazza of Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore
Shop window display, St Mark's Square
Everyone has noticed the Venetian taste in shop displays, which extends down to the poorest
bargeman who cuts his watermelons in half and shows them, pale pink,with green rims against
 the green side-canal, in which a pink palace with oleanders is reflected- Mary McCarthy

 As John Ruskin wrote, 'And now come with me, for I have kept you too long from your gondola: come with me, on an autumnal morning to a low wharf or quay at the extremity of a canal, with long steps on each side down to the water, which latter we fancy for an instant has become black with stagnation; another glance undeceives us, -- it is covered with the black boats of Venice'.

Che bello, che magnifici, che luce, che colore!

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Footwear in Paintings by 'Old Masters'.

Recently, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to visit art galleries in Venice, Haarlem and in The Hague. I focussed on the costumes, hats and shoes worn by the figures in the paintings. As I wandered through the galleries' Medieval and Renaissance sections peering at shoes, I was amazed at how modern they were. Twenty-first century designers could copy many of the shoes, boots and sandals shown in the following photographs. Just look closely at the pictures because they are footwear we might wear today. Don't they speak about a universal desire for fashion? Apparently, through the ages we have loved well-crafted and beautifully coloured footwear as well as simply serviceable shoes.

Accademia, Venice
We begin with naked feet ( above), perhaps in need of a new pair of sandals.

Too fancy?

These look more comfortable

Now for the shoes I noticed. These pairs appeal.

The following examples of footwear were painted during the fifteenth century. They look comfortable, a far cry from long pointed toes that were a fashionable addition to a courtier's wardrobe during the Fourteenth century.

The fabulous boots shown below also appeal to my twenty-first century taste, especially the green and red boots.

            These are amongst my favourites. Note that they are mid-sixteenth century

If you lived during the Medieval period you might go on a pilgrimage. In this case, you will have staff and hat as well as wearing comfortable shoes. You would most likely collect a few pilgrim badges to pin on your hat as souvenirs, and possibly as proof of your piety.

My latest novel, The Woman in the Shadows, is set in London, during the early 16th century. It will reach bookshops August 2017. Whilst writing this novel, I researched textiles in art, looking for beautiful fabrics and clothing in paintings from the Medieval and Renaissance Era discovering, as I examined a painting, that there is much to learn about late medieval and Renaissance fashion from the 'old masters'.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Women at the Time of Conquest

The Battle of Hastings 1066

This year is a special 1066 anniversary. Recently I was the co-ordinator for The Historical Novel Society Conference in Oxford. I also spoke on two panels, one of which was about medieval women. My angle was how life changed for women after the Norman Conquest as well as what happened to the noble Godwin women and other female survivors.

A possible image for medieval woman

A major difference post Conquest was that women's legal rights changed. We discover the earliest written law codes of the Germanic kingdoms (post Roman Empire) in the Anglo- Saxon law codes, found in Bede's Ecclesiastical History, and made by Athelbert of Kent in the seventh century. They were written in the vernacular. In these we find that women may be abducted but cash payments settled the outcome. Sexual encounters were not condemned. They were priced.

An early medieval woman's will

Many marriages of Anglo-Saxon women were political arrangements designed to establish connections. Interestingly, Anglo-Saxon women held land in their own right and wrote wills. My first medieval heroine, Edith Swan-Neck, King Harold's handfasted wife was an heiress who owned land in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Essex and Kent. After Conquest, these lands reverted to the crown and most found their way into the possession of the Breton knight Alan of Richmond who abducted Gunnhild, Edith's and Harold's daughter, from Wilton Abbey- or did Gunnhild elope willingly with him? The abduction happened some years post Conquest. And, Count Alan was, after all an important personage, William the Conqueror's second cousin. These lands made him very wealthy.

From a Church capital

Women were a commodity before and after Conquest. In truth, pressure was always put on them to marry as their fathers and brothers wished but, at least, before Conquest they could own title to their own land. After 1066 women could be heiresses, but during the later twelfth century it became common to divide estates among heiresses from a family in equal shares. A price was fixed for an heiress and they became wards. Ward-ships were bought from the crown by rich and powerful barons. The girls married whom the guardian chose and he chose according to the best price and alliance offered. Women were passed on as property rather than owning it.


Primogeniture and a new attitude to illegitimacy are part of changes in inheritance that swept through Europe during the eleventh century. Children had not been barred from inheritance if they were illegitimate in Anglo- Saxon England. Illegitimacy was not even a bar to Kingship. After Conquest this changed.  Being a woman was a bar to ruling in her own right. Henry I tested this. He chose his daughter Matilda to follow him as Queen but according to the deep seated notion of primogeniture and attitudes towards a queen in sole command, this was unacceptable and civil war followed. Matilda was never accepted as Queen. For a time her cousin, Stephen ruled, followed by her son, Henry II. Primogeniture dictated that the nearest eldest male son inherited, usually the eldest son, and he got all. He was responsible for his sisters' dowries and his mother's third portion. That left many second and third sons without inheritance. They became fighting knights or churchmen. Girls were given a dowry and a portion and forthwith married off.

The Church, which was the whole circumference of one's whole world, personal and universal,  during the Middle Ages, had a terrible attitude towards women. Either they were Eves dragging men into sin or they were Madonnas to be respected as nuns or mothers of children (born into wedlock of course). 

Younger sons often became mercenary knights

There was still a possible future for women, however, in the new Europe and in England during the medieval period. They did as widows inherit a third portion but they were soon married off again and lost that. If they were married to a tradesman in the increasingly growing towns during medieval times, they could follow his trade. Most wives of tradesmen were involved in their husbands' businesses in any case. Some guilds accepted them but it was still hard to survive as a trader in a man's world.

The Church dominated the lives of all people

It was not until the sixteenth century that a queen ruled England and the second Tudor queen ( not counting Lady Jane) was one of the greatest monarchs who has ever ruled England.

The last novel in the Trilogy 

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Ill-fated Marriages in Literature

I often think that my favourite novels do not depict marriages in a happy light. This, of course, allows the writer to explore tensions and create jeopardy in the story. It permits the writer to be forgiving. I have selected a few of those ill-fated marriages where I think the author does this well- all rate highly amongst my favourite books.


The marriage between Thea and Vladimir of Kiev in The Betrothed Sister was not easy but this couple come through difficulties and threats together to discover happiness in their lives. The marriage between Gunnhild and Alan of Richmond in The Swan-Daughter does not work out as she might have foreseen as she falls in love with another and he already loved another. That between Edith Swan-Neck and King Harold in The Handfasted Wife, whilst a love match was handfasted and he set her aside for another when he was crowned King of England. However somehow before his death on Senlac Hill they do find peace together and after his death she remembers him as her only true love.

George Eliot

Here are several ill-fated marriages in a few of the novels that I have enjoyed reading -

Dorothea Brooke and Edward Casaubon from Middlemarch by George Eliot

Well worth reading!

Dorothea Brooke, idealistic, young and beautiful, passionate, orphaned and intent on making something purposeful of her life accepts the offer of marriage from a fossilized, idealistic clergyman, Edward Casaubon. She plans to dedicate herself to this great man who spends his years  writing a key to all mythologies. The couple are clearly unsuited as is illustrated early in the novel on their ill-fated honeymoon. Dorothea had expected to be overcome by a food of feeling at what she saw in Italy but her husband reflects that his 'stream of affection' has turned out to be 'exceedingly shallow'. He has sensed that his new wife is not a protection against his sense of inadequacy but a perpetual threat and reproach. I like this novel's enduring subtlety and humanity. The other pairings in Eliot's novel are filled with traps as sticky as spider webs.

Lara and Yuri from Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

The Cossacks attack demonstrators in Doctor Zhivago 

Although this pair never actually married, they were an ill-fated couple. The story takes place at the time of the Russian Revolution. They are both married to others but come together briefly and subsequently are parted as political events overtake their lives. They have hidden from the world in Yuri's country retreat in the Urals. It is a poignant time as it is so short and because Tonya, Yuri's wife loves him and he has conflicted loyalties. In Doctor Zhivago the personal story is set against a sweeping political background. It is a passionate story with depth and understanding. This is one of my five favourite novels, beautifully and sympathetically written.

Tristram and Iseult told by Matthew Arnold

Image from Wikipedia

There is an emphasis in the tale of Tristram that love can be so extreme it ends up leading to death of the partners. Arnold's retelling of the story displays simple family concerns where Iseult of Brittany is an abandoned wife with two small children. Arnold suggests a retreat into the imagination and immoral love as an escape from reality. It is a classic historical romance with many twists, turns and stories within stories but it is one with an unfortunate ending. It is a most influential medieval love story and is on the surface a love triangle story between the hero, his uncle's wife and the uncle. A love potion was mistakenly given to Iseult on her wedding night and the tale's events follow consequences from this chance mistake. Tristram eventually marries another Iseult in this version but he cannot consummate the marriage because of his love for his original Iseult. He searches for her but dies of grief before she, too, searching for the love of her life reaches him. Soon after this, Iseult dies of a broken heart. The story has many different tellings, but whichever telling, it remains the classic story of an ill-fated relationship and, moreover, it illustrates very well how obstacles can inhabit a good story to thwart the successful conclusion of love between hero and heroine. 

Caroline and Faraday in The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

One of my favourite novels

In this tale, Faraday is a country doctor called to Hundred's Hall, a faded 18thC estate. He strikes up a friendship with Caroline Ayres, the unmarried daughter of the family. After a young girl is mauled by Caroline's previously gentle Labrador it seems that the house contains a malevolent energy. The relationship between Faraday and Caroline wavers between romance and friendship. They, none the less, plan to marry. On the night of their wedding disaster strikes. The haunting narrative in this novel and its constant tension plays out through the story. This story addresses insanity, poltergeists, and family secrets. The romance is haunted by a sense of developing dread and this I love! Gothic.

Claire and Henry in The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Portrait of woman with red hair.
The author dyed her hair red to say goodbye to Claire and Henry

A man and woman meet in a Chicago library and in due course they marry. However, Henry is a time traveller and is whisked away just before the ceremony. An older Henry falls back through the years to take his place. The writer uses Henry's time travel to illustrate a sense of slippage in a long term relationship, in that each partner views the relationship differently. I felt a sense that their lives were mapped out to the extent that the time of their deaths are told. It is a poignant novel exquisitely told and one can not help but feel sad for both Henry and Clare.  


Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Street in late medieval London- Trades and Noise

When did the medieval period in London begin and end? We assume that the medieval period began in England when the Romans departed circa 410 AD. However for the previous one hundred years the Romans had been withdrawing from England and they were using Saxon mercenaries to supplement the Roman army's reduced presence. The country continued to trade with the Empire. There was not a particular moment of change but the beginning of a reversion gradually to life as it had been prior to Roman occupation. This was the beginning of medieval England.

Roman London

Society did not suddenly change in 1485 when the first Tudor king, Henry VII succeeded to the throne after The Battle of Bosworth. Nothing much actually changed until the mid 1530s when the monasteries were dissolved and the English Church was reformed. These were events that did cause great social upheavals. This was the end of medieval England.

Medieval London was contained within a semi circular wall that was interrupted by in order west to east, Ludgate, Newgate, Aldersgate, Cripplegate, Moorgate, Bishopgate and Aldgate just north of The Tower of London. The River Thames ran from east to west completing the semi circle. 

Fourteenth Century Tower of London

My latest novel The Woman in the Shadows is set in London between 1514 and 1525. London is still a medieval city throughout the scope of this novel. London, itself, was a city of churches. It contained a greater number than any other city in Europe. There were more than a hundred churches within the walls of the old city. Sixteen of them were devoted to St Mary. The Church remained the single most disciplined and authoritative director of London's affairs until the Reformation. Church administrators were the biggest landlords and employers within and without the city walls. The city's saint was a seventh century monk who had ruled as bishop of London, Erkenwald. Even in the early sixteenth century the shrine of St Erkenwald was an object of pilgrimage to the successful lawyers of London. When they were nominated as serjeants of law they would walk in procession to St Paul's to venerate the saint.

Medieval London Bridge with shops, businesses and churches

 Daily life was marked by the ringing of bells that rang from the churches and monasteries marking the religious offices. The most important bells were the Angelus Bells. The Angelus was associated with the worship of the Virgin Mary. The bell was struck to remind busy citizens to pause their work at midday to repeat the angelus, a triple hail Mary beginning with the words 'Angelus Domini Nunavit Mariae', 'The Angel of the Lord said to Mary.' In fact, the Angelus became the best way to tell the time because it rang at Prime, six o'clock, midday which was Sext and six in the evening for Compline. It was different to other bells because it tolled nine strokes at three times keeping the space of The Lord's Prayer, the Pater, and an Ave between each tolling. So if you lived on a late medieval London Street you would constantly hear bells ringing. The bells of the church tolled the end of each trading day. There was a bell that rang at dawn so the city gates would be opened and one that rang around six in the evening in winter and ten in the summer for the curfew to begin. After curfew Londoners had to carry a lighted torch or they could be arrested and incarcerated until dawn.

Religion in Medieval London

All over the city. my characters would hear a constant din from the different crafts that were practised. The noisiest were metalworkers; the blacksmiths, farriers, pewterers, silver and goldsmiths, cutlers and bell founder all used hammers and contributed to the general clamour. I can only compare the activity to that of busy streets in an Indian city or in cities of the Far East.

Late Medieval London

In London there were two hundred fraternities in which craft regulation and religious observation were mingled. Guilds had acquired enormous economic power within the city by the end of the medieval period. The growth of craft guilds in medieval London cannot be distinguished from the parish guilds of the same neighbourhood. thus tanners who worked along the banks of The River Fleet for instance would meet at their fraternity in the Carmelite house in Fleet Street. According to Peter Ackroyd in his book London, three fraternities were recorded at in the church of St Stephen, Coleman Street during the late thirteenth century. By the early fourteenth century only citizens could belong to a trade guild. Aliens were not only foreigners but those who were not London's citizens.

Many tradesmen met for business in the church. Religious and social constraints emphasized the importance of honesty and good behaviour. The guilds had their rules. Good names must be protected and the guilds condemned those who broke public peace. It was as if the act of quarreling or being involved in disputes might be construed as sinful.

The Baker's Apprentice

Young people entered apprenticeships in late medieval London able to read and write. They were expected to be honest and to have learned manners. They were to be straight-limbed and free-born. And by the mid fifteenth century the children had to be born in England. Well-born recruits were preferred and parents of apprentices had to have properties bringing in 20s a year. The Lord's daughter, the baker's son, the children of London mercers, vintners or fishmongers were not raised at home for long. All of them were either apprenticed or they became attendants or servants in someone else's household. The best upbringing for a child was to send him out of the family to learn the ways  of the world and to be educated elsewhere. Young women were usually apprenticed to silkwomen, dressmakers or embroiderers. There are instances too of girls being apprenticed to butchers, bakers, cordwainers, drapers, grocers, apothecaries and surgeons. They could either remain single and practise as femme soles under London law after they married  and actually having a skill was an advantage in the marriage market. The apprentice term would end if marriage were offered and often the apprenticeship was only for four years, not seven, in practise although it was not legal. What a woman's apprenticeship was not, was as a stepping stone to an independent life as a citizen of London.

Medieval Silk women

Friday, 4 December 2015

Women's Rights in Early Medieval Rus

The Ruirikid Dynasty ruled Rus lands during the eleventh century. This marks the early part of a Golden Age for the ruling cities Kyiv/ Kiev and Novgorod. These princes replaced many diverse local customs and created a Rus State that stretched from the Black Sea north of  Moscow and St Petersburg, which, if they existed at all then, were tiny hamlets. The ruling Ruirikid princes over the period of two centuries established a series of law codes known collectively as The Russkaia Pravda. These laws united various clans under the cultural and religious umbrella of the Byzantine influenced Russian Orthodox Church and established a common written language, Old Church Slavonic.
The Golden Gates of Kiev

The Princes controlled the judicial system to their own financial advantage. For instance, although vengeance was recognized as a legal response to crimes such as rape and murder, if the victim was a member of a prince's household the prescribed punishment was a fine, levied on the offender and paid to the prince. A portion of the fine went to the Church as well. Of course, for a woman's life the fine was half of that for the murder of a man.
Later Medieval Rus Princess

Women's property rights differed also. Women, like Anglo-Saxon women, could own property which they had received as gifts or as a dowry. If a woman's husband died and her sons inherited the estate, her sons had to arrange their sisters' marriages and provide their dowries. Noble daughters could inherit their fathers' estates and property if there were no surviving sons.
Later Medieval Rus Woman

 All women found protection in the law. At the end of the tenth century, relations and questions relating to family, and importantly women, came under church jurisdiction. Church literature divided women into 'good' women and 'bad' women. There were more of the latter, needless to say. Descriptions of the immorality of women were used as an excuse for setting forth an entire set of instructions on how men should avoid 'lustful' women. Women were admonished to be silent, to submit to God and to their husbands.
Map showing Kievan Rus Lands

Yet, feudal law gave women from the underprivileged social strata a modest role in society. If they were slaves and married a free man, they were set free; not so for the male slave who married a free woman. The honour of female slaves was protected. If they were raped, they were compensated, and if a slave was raped by a foreigner, she was freed. If a woman accused a man of rape, she would be protected by the law.

'If anyone kills a woman, he will be tried and if guilty pay a half-wergild, twenty grivney.' 
 But only half- is that fair?

The rights of women from all classes of society were severely limited. Women were less likely to serve as witnesses in legal disputes or in the drawing up of documents. Only ten per cent of land documents testify to women's rights. Even so, all women could defend their honour and property they owned independent of their husbands. Moreover, Medieval Rus possessed the institute of female guardianship at this time.
Nizhniy Novgorod- Did this Kremlin have a Terem?

Terem culture, that of the seclusion of noble women in their own part of a palace, is often dated from the sixteenth century. In fact, it most likely had its roots in much earlier traditions. Terem culture is being reassessed by historians. Separate living quarters for noble men and women were not unusual during the Rus medieval period, that dated from the tenth century. Elite women in Frankish culture also lived in separate quarters from their men. It is certainly now considered that the practice predated the Mongol invasions. The Mongols never segregated women. It is possible the concept and word Terem (not to be confused at all with harem) came from Byzantium to Rus lands long before the Mongol invasions. It is likely however that later Muscovite royal families strengthened this control condiderably over female members, maybe for marriage purposes which explains the highly developed Terem culture of the seventeenth century and the Muscovite era in Russian history. 

I have integrated some aspects of this research into the narrative of The Betrothed Sister. However, if you read it, do remember that my novel is fiction albeit researched as far it is possible with limited sources. Women's lives were hidden and largely went unrecorded during the Medieval period. All I could do was make a few, hopefully informed, guesses as to what Gita Godwinsdatter, the Anglo-Saxon princess encountered in the lands of the Kievan Rus. If anyone who reads this knows more about Terem culture in medieval Russia I would love you to comment here.

I am the co-ordinator for HNS Conference 2016  2nd-4th September in Oxford. Do look at: