30 March, 2006

Roman water infrastructure in post-Roman Britain. Part 1: Roman infrastructure

Reviewing Pompeii and the astonishing engineering in the Roman water supply system serving the Bay of Naples prompted me to ferret out my notes from when I was researching Roman water supply in Britain. This was turning into a long post even by my standards, so I've split it into two. Conveniently, it more or less divides along the lines of 'evidence' (part 1) and 'interpretation' (part 2).

Roman Britain never had the magnificent aqueducts found in Roman Gaul, such as the Pont du Gard serving Nemausus (modern Nimes) (the top row of arches carry the aqueduct channel; scroll down the page for close-up photos) or the aqueducts serving Lugdunum (modern Lyon) with their sophisticated closed siphon systems for crossing deep valleys (I remember being fascinated by the models of these aqueducts when we visited the Musee Gallo-Romaine in Lyon on the way back from the Alps, and wishing I had enough French to buy the French-language survey publication. This description of the Gier aqueduct will give you an idea; the idiosyncratic English needs a little concentration but it's well worth it), or the aqueducts serving Rome itself.

This probably reflects at least three major factors: climate, terrain and degree of urbanisation. In most districts of Britain, water can be relied on to fall out of the sky on a regular basis and the water table is within reach of wells, so there would be less need to bring water long distances from mountain sources to arid plains. On the whole, Britain doesn't have the deep gorges and valleys of the Massif Central in France, so aqueducts can be routed unobtrusively round contours and don't need spectacular arcades. Roman Britain was never as urbanised as Roman Gaul or Italy, and even the largest British cities such as Londinium (modern London) and Verulamium (modern St Albans) never reached the size of major Gallic cities such as Lugdunum (modern Lyons) - which was a lot bigger than Paris at the time, as the museum in Lyon is keen to point out. Thus, there would have been less need for massive infrastructure to bring large quantities of water to major population centres.

Nevertheless, there is evidence of sophisticated water engineering from several towns in Roman Britain. Perhaps the most spectacular is the water-lifting apparatus excavated in London in 2001 (4th paragraph of the ‘City’ section in the link). Two large timber-lined wells were discovered, each containing a chain of wooden buckets that lifted water continuously from the well to a nearby cistern, from which it could have been used to supply the nearby baths and/or distributed across the city. I saw a Time Team TV programme on this discovery soon after the excavation and it was suggested that the bucket chain could have been powered by a treadmill, either human- or animal-powered, and could have supplied enough water for several thousand people. Tree-ring dating dated the first well to AD 63 and showed it had partly collapsed in AD 71. The second well was dated to the early second century (possibly a replacement for the first?) and appeared to have been damaged or destroyed by fire in the late second century.

Archaeological excavation in Colchester has shown that the Roman town had a pressurised water supply from its earliest days. Wooden water mains consisting of straight sections of bored-out log connected by iron collars have been found. A ‘water-works’ excavated in 1928 had a room (or tank?) that would have filled with water and some indication of a lifting system, perhaps a water wheel (or a bucket chain like those in London?) to raise water to a header tank for distribution. Surplus water flowed out of the tank down a large overflow drain, about 2 feet high judging from the sketch, and into the town ditch. The water source is thought to have been a timber aqueduct that came in over the city walls, but this is not known for certain (Crummy 1997).

In York, environmental analysis of the silt in the Roman sewer system excavated under modern Church Street found large amounts of tree pollen from mixed deciduous woodland, including species that generally favour limestone soils, and pollen from moorland plants such as heather and pine. This pollen is unlikely to have come from the city itself, and is consistent with a water supply brought in by aqueduct from upland areas some distance from the city (Buckland 1976). The report suggests one aqueduct coming from a well-wooded area with moorland on higher ground nearby; I wonder if there might have been two aqueducts from different locations, one from moorland and one from limestone country? No traces of an aqueduct have (yet) been found at York, but as noted above, British aqueducts don't need dramatic arches for crossing dramatic Mediterranean gorges. Where identified, Roman aqueducts in Britain were typically large ditches containing a ceramic or concrete water pipe, laid along natural contours so that the water flowed by gravity. Such a structure wouldn't be obvious above ground and is only likely to be discovered if someone happens to dig in just the right place. Lead water pipes in stone-lined trenches, and a substantial stone street fountain, show that at least some of the Roman city had a piped water supply. Timber-lined Roman wells have also been excavated in York (Ottaway 2004).

How much of this infrastructure survived into the post-Roman period and for how long? See part 2.....

Buckland PC, The environmental evidence from the Church Street Roman sewer system. York Archaeological Trust, 1976.
Crummy, P. City of Victory, Colchester Archaeological Trust, Colchester, 1997.
Ottaway P. Roman York. Tempus Publishing, 2004.

28 March, 2006

Ingeld's Daughter

Those of you who expressed interest earlier may like to know that the full text of Ingeld's Daughter is now available for download in PDF format on my website.

Following the discussion on place names, a map will be forthcoming in due course, but as drawing isn't my strong point it's likely to take me a few weeks.

As ever, any comments you care to make, whether on format, content or anything else, will be most welcome.

26 March, 2006

Pompeii, by Robert Harris. Book review.

Published 2003. Edition reviewed, Hutchinson 2003, ISBN 0091779251.

Pompeii is a thriller set in the Roman city of Pompeii, at the time of its destruction by the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Pliny the Elder features in a cameo role, and the other main characters are fictional.

Attilius is an aqueduct engineer transferred from Rome to the Bay of Naples at the height of a drought, sent as an emergency replacement for the previous engineer who has mysteriously disappeared. While trying to repair the vital aqueduct that provides drinking water to the towns around the bay, Attilius comes into conflict with a shady property tycoon, the freed slave and self-made man Ampliatus. Attilius discovers a financial scandal that puts his life in danger, and finds himself drawn to Ampliatus’ daughter Corelia. Meantime, Vesuvius is restless and the coming eruption will eclipse all previous concerns.

I liked a lot of things about this book. The central character, Attilius, is a sympathetic figure, a decent, honest, practical man whose primary concern is to keep his aqueduct working. I found it a refreshing change to have an engineer as the hero of a thriller, rather than a spy, a detective or a military type. Attilius’ job and the structure of the water system are integral to the plot and, as far as I know, historically accurate. I also liked the focus on the commercial and financial aspects of Roman society. There is a real sense of Pompeii as a bustling boom town full of people on the make. Corelia has a mind of her own, and her romance with Attilius fits within the social conventions of the time.

The thriller plot is well-constructed and rattles along with never a dull moment, but what lifts this book beyond the ordinary is the superb description of the Vesuvius eruption. Robert Harris prefaces each chapter with a quotation describing the geophysics going on in the volcano at the time, and his account of events matches what I know of the science. Unlike an earthquake, which is over in minutes, the eruption went on for over 24 hours. People had no idea what was happening or how (or, indeed, if) it would end, and had to make choices about what to do. Should they run away? How, with the roads clogged feet deep in shifting pumice? And where to? What about their property and belongings? Or should they stay and try to ride it out, with flat roofs collapsing under the weight of ash and pumice? If you’ve ever read accounts of the eruption at Pompeii and tried to imagine what it would be like in a city with the houses buried in ash to first-floor height, or tried to visualise the awesome destructive power of a pyroclastic flow, this book brings it vividly to life.

There are a few things that I thought didn’t work well. A few gratuitous sex scenes add little if anything to the plot, but are easily skipped. The volcanic cataclysm sweeps the rest of the plot aside and renders the corruption and financial scandal irrelevant, which may make some readers wonder whether there was any point to inventing the scandal in the first place. I personally didn’t mind that, because Vesuvius would have interrupted all manner of lives and events.

I found Pompeii a fast, easy read in modern prose and with modern dialogue, free of glaring anachronisms (none that annoyed me, at least). I happen to like this style, but some people may dislike it as too ‘modern’. I should perhaps also warn that there are a few uses of modern expletives. The characters are immediately recognisable as sympathetic or not, and on the whole there is not very much complexity or character development. I didn’t find this a problem, but some readers may consider the characters to be one-dimensional.

A rattling good yarn that will also painlessly teach you a lot about volcanology, first-century Pompeii and Roman water engineering.

Pompeii is the only historical novel I know of to have attracted the attention of the Guardian’s splendidly satirical Digested Read column. You can read his take on it here.

By pure chance - believe me - BBC2 is showing a one-hour documentary on Pompeii at 9pm on Friday 31st March (if you happen to live in the UK).

23 March, 2006

Place names in historical fiction

There are two basic approaches to place names in historical fiction; either use the modern names of places, or use the names from the relevant period (where known). Since many British and European place names are quite old, for novels set in the fairly recent past there may be little if any difference between the modern name and the period name and no difficulty arises. But for novels set in a more distant past, when the prevailing culture and language were different and the period names have since been replaced (sometimes more than once) and bear little resemblance to the modern names, there can be a dilemma. Which approach is better for the reader?

Two Roman-set books I’ve recently reviewed, The Little Emperors and Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, take the latter approach and use Roman place names, with conjectural place names invented by the author where the actual period name is not known. Conversely, Julia by William Napier (review forthcoming in due course), also set in Roman Britain, uses modern place names throughout. In his introductory note William Napier says he chose to use modern names because a modern reader would not know where the places are if he used period names, and would therefore have to stop and look them up on a map.

Which interested me. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped reading a story to look up a place name on a map, unless I was already getting bored. I trust the author and/or the characters to tell me what I need to know about the geography to follow the story; e.g. if the place is a strategic fortification, or a long way away, or over difficult terrain, etc. I may well go and look up the places on a modern map later, but for me a strange name doesn’t break into the flow of the story at all. Whereas a modern name really throws me. Whenever a modern name like London, York or Boulogne appears, the picture I get in my head is always modern City office blocks, York Minster, or the Speed Ferries cross-channel ferry dock, respectively. I have to consciously stop and think ‘No, no, this is Roman, it looked different then’. Period names like Londinium, Eboracum or Gesoriacum at least keep me in the right time period and don’t jolt me out of the story, even if I don’t recognise their location.

Which approach do you prefer? Are unfamiliar period names an unecessary barrier to the reader? Do modern names jar you out of the story?

21 March, 2006

The warrior heroine in cover art

In the comment thread, Susan Higginbotham said, "The Boudica novels I see in the bookstore here (Scott?) all have a minimally clothed hot-looking babe on them who seems to be pondering a modeling career rather than rebellion."

This comment reminded me irresistibly of Terry Pratchett's observations on the warrior heroine in a certain kind of novel, so I went and looked up the quote. Here it is:

....this particular hero was a heroine. A red-headed one.

Now, there is a tendency at a point like this to look over one's shoulder at the cover artist and start going on at length about leather, thighboots and naked blades.

Words like 'full', 'round' and even 'pert' creep into the narrative, until the writer has to go and have a cold shower and a lie down.

Which is all rather silly, because any woman setting out to make a living by the sword isn't about to go around looking like something off the cover of the more advanced kind of lingerie catalogue for the specialised buyer.

Oh well, all right. The point that must be made is that although Herrena the Henna-Haired Harridan would look quite stunning after a good bath, a heavy-duty manicure and the pick of the leather racks in Woo Hun Ling's Oriental Exotica and Martial Aids on Heroes Street, she was currently quite sensibly dressed in light chain mail, soft boots and a short sword.

All right, maybe the boots were leather. But not black.

Riding with her were a number of swarthy men that will certainly be killed before too long anyway, so a description is probably not essential. There was absolutely nothing pert about any of them.

Look, they can wear leather if you like.

--The Light Fantastic, by Terry Pratchett.

If anyone else is a fan of Terry Pratchett's Discworld, or is curious about it, you might like to know that BBC Radio 4 has just finished a 4-part dramatic adaptation of Small Gods and made it available on the Listen Again service. Small Gods is one of my favourite Discworld novels and the adapter has done a good job.

18 March, 2006

Testers wanted

The first four chapters of Ingeld's Daughter are now available for download on my website. I've put them up in PDF format, so you have the option to read online, save the file to your computer and read offline at your leisure, or print out a hard copy if you don't like reading on screen.

I've put up two PDF files in different layouts. The print-friendly layout is intended to minimise the amount of paper you need and will print out with two pages of the book side by side, approximately like the layout of a double-page spread in a standard paperback. The screen friendly layout is optimised for screen reading; if printed out it will print with one page per sheet approximately like the layout of a large print book.

I'd be grateful if some of you could try it out and tell me how it works. What I need to know is:
1) Which layout is most useful to you?
2) Does the print-friendly layout print out neatly on North American Letter paper? (I've tested it on A4)
3) Is the download time acceptable over a dialup connection? I expect the later sections of the book to be longer, about 2-3 times the size, and would that also be acceptable over a dialup connection?

And any other comments you care to make, on format or content, are always gratefully received.

16 March, 2006

Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, by Joseph E Roesch. Book review

Robert Hale, London, 2006, ISBN 0-7090-7958-3
Website at www.boudica-roesch.com for more information and to contact the author.

Boudica, Queen of the Iceni is set in Britain in AD 33–62 and tells the story of the historical British queen Boudica and her rebellion against the Roman government of Britain.

Boudica’s story is well known, so there is no need to worry about giving away the plot. In AD 43 the Roman army successfully invaded Britain. The Iceni, a tribe based in what is now Norfolk and north Suffolk, voluntarily allied with Rome. In AD 60 or 61, Prasutagus, client-king of the Iceni, died and left his kingdom half to the then Emperor Nero and half to his two daughters. The tribe chose his widow Boudica (variously spelled Boudicca or Boadicea) as their leader. However, the Roman procurator, one Decianus, ignored the will, seized the Iceni kingdom for Rome and had Boudica flogged and her two daughters raped. This triggered a destructive revolt against Roman rule, in the course of which the Roman towns of Londinium (London), Camulodunum (Colchester) and Verulamium (St Albans) were burned to the ground and many of their inhabitants killed. The legacy of this destruction turns up regularly in archaeological digs in the three towns, visible as a dense red layer of burned debris. The revolt was bloodily suppressed by the Roman governor Suetonius in a pitched battle, and Boudica died or was killed. The main sources are accounts written by the Roman historian Tacitus about 40 years after the event and believed to be based in large part on the recollections of Tacitus’ father-in-law Agricola who was a junior army officer in Britain at the time. A second Roman historian, Dio Cassius, wrote another account in about 200 AD. Curiously (to my mind), there appears to be no mention of Boudica or the revolt in later Welsh sources such as the Triads, although there are references that can plausibly be connected to Caratacus (Caradoc), the British warrior who fought a guerilla war against the Roman army in the years after the AD 43 invasion. So the Roman records are the only documentation extant.

Boudica, Queen of the Iceni tells the story of Boudica’s life from early childhood to death, concentrating mainly on the period of the revolt. For me, one of its key strengths is its historical accuracy and attention to detail. The events in the story follow the accounts of Tacitus and Dio, with minor variations that are detailed in the Historical Note, and the imaginative infilling appears plausible to me. The material culture of Romans and Britons fits what I know of the archaeology, with some vignettes recreated in considerable detail. For example, the remains of a glass and pottery shop have been excavated on what was the main street of Roman Camulodunum. The glass had been stored on a shelf above the pottery and the heat from the fire was so intense that the shattered pottery was covered in drips of melted glass. In Boudica, Queen of the Iceni this shop (or one remarkably like it) is kept by a retired centurion. A few minor niggles; a Roman lady is described as wearing a toga, whereas I understand that the toga was a male garment; the Britons are regularly referred to as ‘Celts’ although the term was not used of British people at the time; and I’m not convinced that “one farm wagon, sawn in half and modified, would yield two war chariots”. The reconstructed chariots I’ve seen look purpose-built as two-wheeled vehicles and the British Museum reconstruction of the Wetwang (Yorkshire) chariot burial is a dual-purpose vehicle without the need for major surgery.

The novel presents a British religion centred on the worship of a central mother goddess, and makes Boudica the High Priestess of this religion for the Iceni, without drowning the story in New Age mysticism. It also shows feuding and rivalry between the British tribes, especially in the early part of the book, and makes a creditable attempt to show some of the Roman point of view as well as the British point of view. Some of the Roman soldiers in particular are presented as sympathetic characters, doing an unpleasant duty with strict military discipline, though the Roman politicians tend to come off rather less well (see below). The plot moves along at a fair clip and doesn’t meander or get bogged down, and there is some humour (it happens not to match my sense of humour, but that is a personal taste). The battles are quickly covered; if you don’t like lengthy battle scenes this will suit you very well. And although the book features both a warrior queen and a warrior princess, there are thankfully none of the sub-erotic undertones that are sometimes associated with such characters.

Very much to the author’s credit is the presence of a Historical Note, a character list and a glossary of place names indicating what is documented and what is invented. A website adds further information.

There were some aspects of the novel that didn’t work so well for me. Although, as noted above, the novel does avoid painting all the Romans as evil bad guys, there were scenes when the portrayal seemed to me a little heavy-handed. Decianus the procurator is shown as a greedy, violent, arrogant creep who richly deserves a sticky end - I had no problem with this, as it is consistent with Tacitus’ account. However, when Emperor Claudius is made to deliberately stop his triumphal procession to gloat over a little British girl who has just been trampled to death by a stampeding elephant, this is a little too much of the stage villain for me. It seemed to me that Boudica’s revolt could be amply justified without having to resort to this invented tableau. In places the writing felt a little ‘flat’ to me, despite the stirring events, and I found it hard to relate to some of the characters. This is a matter of personal preference.

I could also have done without the references to prophecies foretelling the coming of King Arthur. I figured out on page 3 that the heirloom sword Calabrenn was going to morph into Caliburn=Excalibur and really didn’t need it explained to me. Some character sensibilities seemed rather modern to me. The grisly human sacrifice described by Dio Cassius is presented as the work of a handful of violent drunks and is quickly stopped by an appalled Boudica, and a little Roman boy is horrified by a bear-baiting in the arena. Both these are possible; we do not know if Dio’s account of human sacrifice is accurate or what Boudica’s reaction was, and no doubt individuals varied in their reaction to blood sports then as they do now. I’m also not entirely convinced that the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age was really a utopia of equal rights for women as presented; though again, I don’t think there’s incontrovertible evidence that it wasn’t.

A well-crafted retelling of Boudica’s story with commendable attention to historical detail.

12 March, 2006

Historical accuracy in historical fiction

The subject of accuracy in historical fiction has recently come up in several forums I read. Susan Higginbotham has posted about it, it was mentioned in the discussion here about factors that attract and repel readers of historical fiction, Ian Hocking touched on the responsibility he feels towards the passengers and crew on the crashed aeroplane whose story he is telling in a new novel, and over on the Historical Novel Society message board several people have leapt to the defence of an Elizabeth Chadwick novel where a reviewer on Amazon.co.uk objected to the lack of ‘romance’ and commented “...this is fact but again this was a novel and not a research document.”

I value historical accuracy in a historical novel. Yes, it is fiction, and the noun trumps the adjective, as observed in a recent essay. But the adjective is there for a reason, to indicate that this is a particular type of fiction, and I feel it should not be ignored.

It seems to me there are different kinds of (in)accuracy in historical fiction:
- material culture (clothes, weapons, buildings, food, pottery, etc.)
- non-material culture (religion, folklore/myth, social structure, law, social roles and expectations, attitudes, values, trade links, language, politics, tactics, etc.)
- events (battles fought, won or lost; deaths; marriages; births; major natural disasters such as plague, storm or famine; lands/kingdoms changing hands; structures built or destroyed, etc.)
- character (the novelist usually has to create the character, but this should be consistent with what is known about the person and their actions (if anything), and consistent with the society and culture in which the character lived)

For what it’s worth, my personal view can be summed up as ‘evidence is sacred but interpretation is free’. Even in well-documented periods, there are usually many unknowns surrounding a historical person or event. In particular, character and motivation - those key cornerstones of story - are rarely known beyond any doubt. For example, it is known that Henry VIII broke with Rome, divorced Catherine of Aragon, married Anne Boleyn and then divorced and executed her. Those facts are not in doubt (and any novel that diverged from them would get very short shrift from me). But it seems to me there is plenty of scope for the novelist’s imagination in interpreting these facts. Henry can be portrayed as a selfish monster driven by lust; as a man who will sacrifice anything for a son, perhaps out of a sense of duty to secure the succession and avoid a repeat of the Wars of the Roses; as a man with an inferiority complex and a chip on his shoulder over having been born the second son and now determined to get his own way against everyone, including the Pope. And those are just the ones I thought of whilst typing this post; there must be many, many others. Similarly, Catherine can be portrayed as a saintly martyr, a loyal wife, a woman passionately in love with her husband, or a clinging shrew. Anne can be ambitious but naive, dazzled by the prospect of the crown and not understanding the dangers, insufferably arrogant, passionately in love with Henry and blind to all else, or a scheming heartless bitch.

Where some key facts are unknown, there is even more scope. Take the famous example of Richard III - it is known that Richard was crowned king in his nephews’ lifetime, that he was married to Anne Neville, that the boys disappeared during his reign and that he was defeated and killed by Henry VII in battle. But one can create Richard as evil incarnate (Shakespeare), as a sensitive hero traduced by history (Sharon Penman and many others), or as something in between; his marriage to Anne Neville can be presented as a romantic love match or a political alliance; and there are almost as many theories about what happened to the princes as there are theories about the Real King Arthur.

Given the infinite variety of stories that can be spun to connect the recorded facts and make imaginative sense of them, I’m at something of a loss as to why one would need to make up a better plot. Truth is so often stranger than fiction. A King of England who hired a pirate to abduct a noble maiden on her way to her marriage and carry her off to his castle? Absurd! Straight from an overheated romance! But Edward I did it, and according to Sharon Penman (Author's Note in The Reckoning) the bill for the pirate's services is still extant, worded in suitably diplomatic language.

I feel the writer has an ethical responsibility to represent real people, events and societies fairly. Even if the characters in the story are all fictional, the societies used as the background were real and should be treated with respect. Warts and all, but not just the warts. I also feel this applies to narrative non-fiction as much as it does to fiction. I’m probably more exasperated by a non-fiction writer who propounds a theory using a mixture of selectively presented evidence and speculative assertion than I am by a novel that doesn’t know what a claymore is.

The degree of historical (in)accuracy acceptable in a historical novel is clearly going to be a matter of personal preference, both for the reader and the writer. Like Susan, I would not advocate rules or anything that resembles censorship (not that anyone would listen to me if I did, of course). Diversity is all. But for diversity to be effective you also need accurate information, so that people can find what they want.

What I would like is to have some idea of the writer’s approach to historical accuracy before I start reading, to help me pick out books I want to read. Sometimes a book’s packaging provides the answer - it’s a fair guess that novels with covers like these are perhaps unlikely to have historical accuracy very high on their list of priorities (Thanks to Gabriele for the link). In most cases, though, it is not so obvious, and here I find the Author’s Note invaluable. The author can outline what is known, what is imaginative interpolation, and what has been altered from the known history. This allows prospective readers to make their own judgement on whether the approach to historical accuracy is likely to be right for them.

Such an Author’s Note also allows readers to judge whether they can learn some real history from the novel (as many people like to do with historical fiction), or whether the book is an entertaining story loosely based on history. In my view there’s room for both kinds and everything in between, but it seems only fair to tell the reader what they’re getting and how much trust they can place in the history.

In the UK, a company called Ronseal sells DIY wood treatment products with the advertising slogan ‘It does exactly what it says on the tin’, and the expression has made its way into popular culture. It seems to me that applying this approach to books, especially historical fiction, has considerable merit. Say clearly what it is, don’t pretend it’s something it’s not, and let the reader make an informed choice.

What do you think?

10 March, 2006


I now have a website at www.CarlaNayland.org, to house the more permanent items from the blog and my other writing. Feel free to take a look and let me know what you think.

And this poem Fable by John Ahearn made me smile this morning and may do the same for you.

08 March, 2006

Amongst the Medici. Radio review

BBC Radio 4 has been running Amongst the Medici, a series of three half-hour programmes about the Medici family and the Italian Renaissance, presented by historian Bettany Hughes. For some obscure reason Radio 4 has a tendency to schedule programmes like this in the middle of weekdays, when a substantial proportion of the population is at work or school. This used to annoy me immensely, until the marvels of technology came up with the Listen Again service and made all manner of interesting programmes accessible. All three programmes are available on the BBC website, and are well worth listening to.

Bettany Hughes is well known in the UK as a TV history presenter, having presented programmes for Channel 4 on the Spartans and on Moorish Spain, both of which were consistently good (I missed her programme on Helen of Troy, unfortunately). Have any of these made it to international TV or satellite channels? If you've encountered them, you'll know Bettany Hughes' style. The radio series is in the same mould, intelligent, informed, informative and interesting.

She draws analogies between the Medici sponsorship of great artists such as Michaelangelo and Donatelli and the art collections that grace the London offices of Deutsche Bank - arguably, the City merchant banks of today are the direct equivalents of the Medici bank. She points out that the 'Renaissance' (the label was apparently not coined until the 17th century, by a historian from Liverpool) rediscovered much of the classical world through Arab texts. The famous Medici library did indeed collect classical texts from monastic libraries all over Europe, but the texts had not been 'lost', they were filed, catalogued and preserved in the monastic libraries waiting for someone to come and take an interest in them. The Medici family were arrivistes and nouveaux riches, looking for a heritage to claim that was independent of the feudal landholders. Classical texts on power in Republican Rome were useful to people holding sway over the republic of Florence, and positioning themselves as inheritors (or reinventors) of the classical Roman world was a convenient image to project. Manuscripts were also highly valuable and could be used as collateral for loans (much as modern corporations occasionally use works of art as investments).

One thing I found especially fascinating was that many of the famous works of art now reverentially displayed in museums originally started life as domestic objects, such as a headboard for a bed. Not so much Great Art as trendy interior design. Most of the artists maintained large studios with armies of apprentices turning out painted furniture and domestic ornaments for sale, to pay the bills in between prestigious commissions. This meant that women, who exercised considerable power in the domestic sphere, were important buyers of art and arbiters of taste. The revival of classical pagan imagery was also highly selective, concentrating on the sexiest goddesses (Venus, Diana) and the hunkiest gods and heroes. (No surprise there, perhaps - pin-ups don't change through the ages). The Florentines apparently liked their interior design saucy as well as trendy.

And that's only a tiny fraction of the content of the three programmes. If you have even the slightest interest in Renaissance Florence or the Medici family, you're sure to find them fascinating. If you listen to them, or if you've already heard them, what did you think?

05 March, 2006

Why were folk-moots held outdoors?

This question was prompted by a recent edition of Time Team, an archaeology programme on UK TV in which a team of experts have to solve an archaeological puzzle in three days. Last Sunday they were at Eastry in Kent looking for the site of a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon royal hall. Documentary evidence records that Eastry was an administrative centre for the early English kingdom of Kent. Highborough Hill near the present-day village of Eastry has produced high-status (posh) finds such as high-quality jewellery of the right period. Aerial photography showed traces of some sort of enclosure on the hill. It was considered a likely site for a royal hall or settlement, because it was on a south-facing slope near a Roman road, which would have meant the inhabitants had easy communications, a good view for defence, and were in the sunshine and out of the wind. At this point a tingly feeling went down my spine, because in one of my novels I placed a royal settlement on a south-facing slope near a Roman road (for just those reasons) and called it ‘Highbury’. Had I inadvertently based ‘Highbury’ on a real place?

Excavations on the hill turned up a fragment of a high-status silver and garnet brooch dating from the right period, and some pottery from a cooking pot dated 450-850 AD. Plus later medieval finds. But no signs of any structures except a medieval windmill and a metalled road leading to it. (So ‘Highbury’ remains a figment of my imagination. Pity. But I was pleased that a group of professionals had come up with the same logical reasons for the site as I had).

The experts thought that the royal hall of Eastry was probably on the site of the present-day village, either under the existing buildings of Eastry Court (a manor house quite big enough to have covered the site of even a big royal hall like Yeavering in Bernicia), or in the part of the village where they were not permitted to investigate. They suggested two hypotheses for the finds on Highborough Hill. It could have been a ritual site, where offerings were made to Woden (a nearby village is called Woodnesborough, which they thought could derive from Wodensborough), or it could have been the site of the local folk-moot. The folk-moot or local assembly was an early English institution. It was held at regular intervals on a specific open-air site, and people from a defined area met there to settle disputes, debate important issues, show off, perhaps look for a marriage partner and generally interact and exchange news and gossip. The functions and workings of the early English folk-moot prior to the conversion to Christianity are not recorded, so it is not completely understood. I think of it as a cross between a parliament or local council, a county court and a fair. The Icelandic Althing, which is much better documented, is likely to be a close relative derived from the same sort of tradition, so I feel it is probably a reasonable model.

I thought the ‘ritual site’ hypothesis was the less convincing of the two, because they never mentioned any finds of weaponry. I would have expected that a site dedicated to Woden, god of war, would have had offerings of weapons deposited there. But perhaps one went to the ritual site and asked for the god’s blessing on one’s weapons, in exchange for an offering of food or drink that would leave no archaeological trace, or in exchange for the wife’s brooch? Who knows?

I preferred the folk-moot hypothesis. The descriptions of the Althing in the Icelandic sagas make it clear that people attended wearing their best clothes, and that accommodation was in temporary structures called booths. This seems to me exactly the sort of event where someone could drop a cooking pot or lose their best brooch, and where there would be no permanent structures visible on excavation.

But it made me wonder why folk-moots were held out of doors. It seems quite clearly established that they were open-air events. Why? Why not hold the assembly in the comfort of the king’s hall (which in the case of Eastry might have been just at the bottom of the hill)? I tend to the view that human behaviour usually has some sort of reason behind it, rational or otherwise, so what might it be? We discussed it over dinner and the washing-up, like you do, and came up with two ideas:

1. Perhaps it was thought important that laws were made and applied in the sight of the gods? This was a pre-literate society and laws, property rights, settlements, agreements all depended on a verbal oath sworn before witnesses. Perhaps the gods were considered to be witnesses too, and this gave the oath a special significance? There is some support for this in Bede’s story of King Aethelbert of Kent, who insisted on receiving St Augustine’s Christian missionaries in the open air because he feared that their magic could overcome him if he met them in a house (Bede, Book I Ch. 25). This might reflect a simple belief that magic could be ‘diluted’ in the open air (like smoke). It could also be interpreted as an idea that Aethelbert wanted to be outside where his gods could see him and perhaps use their power to protect him against magic.

2. Perhaps it was thought important that the folk-moot should be held on neutral ground, where the attendees were not under obligations of hospitality to a host? Hospitality was a powerful concept in early English society and conferred obligations on both the guest and the host. Perhaps if the moot had met in the royal hall, it would have been under some obligation to the king in his position as host, whereas if it met in the open air it was independent and recognised as such? It may have been important that the king could attend the moot but not preside over it.

I don't think these are mutually exclusive; if the folk-moot was thought to be held in the sight of the gods it might also be that the gods were considered to be the 'host', and the site chosen for the folk-moot might be one that was already associated with the gods in some way and used for ritual purposes.

What do you think? Do these sound plausible? What other explanations could there be?

02 March, 2006

The Heaven Tree, by Edith Pargeter. Book review

First published 1960. Edition reviewed, Warner Futura 1993, ISBN 0-7515-0473-4

The Heaven Tree is set on the English-Welsh border in 1200–1215, during the reign of King John. All the main characters are fictional.

Harry Talvace is the younger son of a noble family, schooled at Shrewsbury Abbey with his childhood friend and foster-brother Adam, son of a villein* stonemason. Returning home to manage the estate books for his father, Harry’s sense of justice brings him into conflict with the law and with his father’s rights over the villeins on the estate. When he and Adam are falsely accused of poaching, they flee to Paris together to work as stonemasons on the great cathedrals.

Harry’s talent as a mason and stonecarver is noticed by Isambard, a nobleman returning from crusade to his home in Shropshire on the Anglo-Welsh border. He takes Harry and Adam with him to build him a magnificent church, the Heaven Tree of the title. With them goes Madonna Benedetta, a Venetian courtesan and Isambard’s mistress. She is in love with Harry, but Harry has eyes only for his childhood sweetheart Gilleis. Jealousy, injustice and bitter feuds with the Welsh conspire to push Harry into another fatal conflict with feudal law.

For me, one of the key strengths of the book is its unhurried pace and rich, evocative writing. The landscape and society of the time come vividly to life on the page. Feudal law, and its harshness to the have-nots on the wrong end of it, is portrayed with an immediacy that is inevitably missing from studies of social history. Similarly, the author brings out the excitement and creative spirit that must have gone into raising the great medieval churches. I’ve looked at and admired the wool churches in Suffolk villages - some of them, like Long Melford, resemble junior cathedrals - but this book makes me feel I understand a little about the craftsmen who built them. Another strength of the book is its characterisation. None of the main characters is entirely good or entirely bad, yet their different personalities and social positions bring them into terrible conflict with each other and with the social norms.

Some things did not work so well for me. I found the beginning unpromising, with a rather dull account of Harry and Adam joshing each other under the disapproving gaze of Harry’s brother Ebrard (who then all but vanishes from the story). Harry’s conflict with his family and in particular the scene where they are unjustly accused of poaching made me wonder if this was going to be a conventional Robin Hood sort of story. But after about 70 pages, when the boys are on their way to Paris, it picks up and then keeps getting better.

I also found it a little hard to be convinced that everyone is so absolutely constant in love. The characters fall in love at first sight (sometimes even before first sight) and then remain in love thereafter, no matter if it be unrequited or if years of separation intervene. There are no ill-considered infatuations to be grown out of, no-one is ever in any doubt, love never withers or fades away, and the women in particular love absolutely selflessly, without a trace of jealousy or reproach. This hangs together because all the main characters experience love in this way; a heart is given in an instant and never changed. I don't think it quite works for me.

A rich, dramatic tale of love, honour, injustice, jealousy and the joy of creativity in feudal England.

Has anyone else read it? And does this review tell you the sort of things you'd want to know to judge whether you'd like to read it or not? If not, what else would you like to see covered?

*villein: feudal serf, tenant entirely subject to lord or attached to manor. Villeins were unfree and could not leave their lord’s lands without his permission. They had to work a certain number of days each week on his land or on his projects, which could be altered at his discretion, could be sold along with their land and had very limited rights.