Thursday, 23 February 2017


Minnesota women's march against Donald Trump. Fibonacci Blue, wikimedia
In 1987, I cut a single strand of the wire fence at Burghfield Royal Ordnance Factory, and was arrested and charged with criminal damage. I defended myself on the grounds that Burghfield was manufacturing nuclear weapons and that I was acting to prevent a crime (the defence of necessity, the crime being the possible annihilation of millions of people). This was at a time when the stationing of Cruise missiles on British soil was seen by many as a threat to our survival, escalating the risk of nuclear war (and indeed, accidental nuclear war did once happen.) I was convicted, of course, though Reading magistrates were both respectful and sympathetic.

I wrote about this action in the newsletter of a Christian community we were then part of, the Othona Community, and one member took strong exception to my action, writing a letter attacking me and comparing me to Hitler and Mussolini. I've often wondered what he based that on (he didn't explain) but I think he meant that I was trying to undermine the democratic process by using direct action. I should have been content with the ballot box, and my pointless vote in a safe Tory seat.
I'm on the left, in a paper 'radiation suit.'

I don't feel I was trying to overturn the democratic process, but only to use the law to argue that nuclear weapons were contrary to international law, a belief I still hold. Unlike Hitler or Mussolini, I did not mobilise thousands of thugs to beat up political opponents, or abolish democratic institutions, murder people, or sack them en masse or herd them into concentration camps.

However, I've been thinking about this, because I keep reading on Facebook threads, and hearing from US Presidents on Twitter, the idea that one shouldn't protest at all in a democracy, but should accept that 'we won.' Also that 'you lost.' Of course, a majority of US voters did not choose Trump, but a narrow majority of voters did cast their votes to leave the EU (one of the contexts in which I encounter this assertion). 'The people have chosen,' we're told, though in the case of the EU it doesn't seem to me as clear as it does to the Daily Mail or Theresa May exactly what they chose.

Consider this idea, though, that if the majority have chosen a particular course of action (or President, though that's the electoral college), the others should pipe down and abandon their principles.Should they?
Democracy is the will of the people, this theory states, and opposition is treachery towards the people (which is why the Mail was baying for the High Court judges' blood on the issue of Parliament deciding whether to Brexit or not).

However, democracy means that there is an opposition. In our own country, it's even deemed to be Her Majesty's Opposition. Jeremy Corbyn is not thrown into the Tower, but invited to the Palace and made a Right Honourable. A victory in an election does not give the winning party the right to occupy all the seats in Parliament. Even in autocratic times, monarchs had to get their policies through Parliament, though sometimes they locked the members in till they'd done what was required of them, and of course Parliament was far less representative than it is now.

Radical Whig Charles James Fox; plenty of people wanted to shut him up.
The British constitution (and this IS a historical issue, for it goes back a long way), is based on the idea that whatever choices are made at any one election can be reversed at the next one. Does one therefore abandon one's ideas till there is a chance of another election? Of course not. What we're being told about Brexit is that it's a once for all decision, done and dusted. But that completely contradicts the nature of democracy. Even in the era when the vote was restricted to property-owners, so we really had an oligarchy rather than a democracy, Whigs alternated with Tories, and when one side was in Government, the other side were on the cross-benches, putting their point of view.

Another aspect of democracy is lobbying. Not pure, maybe, but it happens. Interest groups make representations to government. These may be business groups, they may be charities, or professional associations, or campaigning groups. My husband, who is an environmental consultant and Vice President of the Chartered Institute of Wastes Management, regularly goes to Parliament to address a special interest group, which is attended by many MPs across party lines. This is another practice which goes back a long way; and I see mass demonstrations as another form of lobbying, particularly since they are seldom events all of their own, but are usually underpinned by hours of hard work, writing to MPs, leafletting, petitioning (even back in the '80s), programmes of public information through Press and nowadays social media. This was the case with women's suffrage, with the campaign against child prostitution or the compulsory and abusive medical examination of any woman deemed to look like a prostitute, which Josephine Butler campaigned against.

photo: Women's Library
There is nothing about traditional democracy that suggests it's a crime to inform the electorate. Some might think it's necessary for democracy to work properly, particularly when there is a vocal and often misleading tabloid press, funded by big money and, many would argue, dedicated to spread propaganda that suggests the tyranny of the market is the only way to organise society.

Where this rhetoric of 'You are in a minority, so you should shut up,' comes from, is somewhere else, and there are sinister antecedents. Hitler, indeed, and Mussolini, and Stalin, all three of whom would have had me in a camp licketty-split for my mild act of civil disobedience. In Nazi Germany, everyone was told that the people 'das Volk', agreed with Hitler, and anyone who didn't was isolated, made to feel they were mad, demoralised. It's because of this that only those who had established existing networks (Communists, members of the Confessing Church, some Catholics, Quakers ) could achieve any act of resistance. I remember being driven along the motorway towards Berlin, going through the German 'Democratic' Republic, in 1972, and seeing a poster: REFERENDUM ABOUT (I forget what). ALLE SAGEN JA. (Everyone says yes). This was not a simple piece of campaigning or exhortation. It meant: You will say yes, if you know what's good for you. And these referendums were used to silence people, to validate the regime. You are alone, was the message, no-one else will think of dissenting.

Does majoritarianism trump (sorry, definitely a pun, alas) ethics and human rights? If a majority want us to murder people, to exploit other countries and steal their wealth, to lock dissenters up in prison, torture people the security services suspect of terrorism (partly because someone else has given them their name under torture), in the worst case, to annihilate an ethnic group because you hate them, should everyone go along with that? You alone have these crazy humanitarian views, the majority says, everyone else agrees that the Jews should be destroyed. Or the Armenians, or the Tutsis, or the professional classes (in the Cultural Revolution). Or that black kids should be shot down with impunity by whoever wants to, like Trayvon Martin, whose parents, protesting his murder, are pictured here.
Or civilians drenched in napalm and Agent Orange in the Vietnam war. It was Nixon, I think, who coined the term 'the silent majority' to silence protest about THAT.

Shall we follow Hitler and demonise those who stand out and follow their conscience? Do you prefer Adolf Eichmann to Bonhoeffer, the Scholl siblings, Oskar Schindler, Pastor Gruber who helped many Jews get out of Germany, Elisabeth Abegg who hid them in her homes; Maria von Maltzan who did everything she could to save lives, even those of animals who she certified unfit for combat? These people were, officially, criminals.

When I was one of the million plus who marched against the second Iraq war, Tony Blair told us that we shouldn't march because in Iraq there was no right to protest. If you take that statement apart, it says: We are going to war to implement regime change in Iraq. The current regime is wrong, because people aren't allowed to protest there. Nevertheless, it is wrong to protest here. WHAT??

photo: William M. Connolley: Wikimedia
But we don't go to war over human rights, or hardly ever. Instead, in the name of pragmatism and trade, we welcome mass murderers and heads of terror states to our country and the monarch entertains them at Buckingham Palace. Saddam Hussein was put into Iraq by the British and for years he was 'our bastard', so his despotism was OK.

I marched against the Iraq war because I believed the UN inspectors who said there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction (the ostensible reason for fighting), because I thought it would destabilise the region and encourage Islamic fundamentalism (it has), because I thought it was about giving the US and the West access to a lot of oil.

Critical though I am of our first-past-the-post electoral system, we have in this country an admirable tradition of free speech and freedom to express our opinions and find out like-minded people and allies. It isn't perfect, of course: we've had the Peterloo Massacre, the despicable clampdown on reformist organisations in the aftermath of the French Revolution and still more disgracefully, we failed to allow our colonies that freedom. Still, imperfect as it is, it has remained a vital thread of British political life up till the present day.

Democracy needs protest, as long as it is peaceful. To shut up if you haven't got what you wanted is the last thing anyone should do in a democracy, unless what you want is to abolish democracy itself.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Scents and Sensibilities: The Not So Smelly Middle Ages? By Catherine Hokin

Setting: one of the most important things for an author to get right. That might be the most obvious statement you read all day and no, you haven't stumbled into a 'how to write' blog but this balancing act of anchoring the reader fully in a time period very different from our own while not bludgeoning them to death under a tsunami of description is occupying a lot of my time with the current WIP.

One of the best ways to communicate a sense of place is through smell. The modern world is obsessed with fragrance: from beauty and cleaning products to the artificial bread that wafts through every supermarket, we walk through such a vanillery-bakery-flowery world that any slightly unpleasant scent feels like an assault. I am beginning to think that most of our Proustian moments will shortly be controlled by Airwick. The challenge for the writer, however, is that this most crucial sensory experience is the hardest to research and to replicate.

That the Middle Ages was a morass of stinking towns and villages filled with people whose body odours would have made a skunk weep is one of those history myths that gets peddled at school and repeated incessantly until it ends up on QI. Scrape under the mucky surface and things are rather different.

There are admittedly plenty of stories of medieval people who did not regard hygiene as a priority. Isabella of Castile (1451-1504) reputedly only bathed twice in her lifetime, once when she was born and once when she married. King Louis IX (1214-1270) was described by the Russian ambassador to his court as stinking like a wild animal. They, however, were not the norm for their class: foul odours were associated with disease, low standing in the social order and moral corruption (based on the idea of miasma). Those who could avoid smelling revolting did.

At the height of the Middle Ages, bathing was a serious business. For the wealthy this would take place in tented wooden tubs lined with cloth; the better-off town-dwellers had communal bathhouses; the peasants made do with rivers in the summer and fire-warmed water in the winter. Whatever rank you were, de-lousing with salty water would probably feature somewhere in your life. Health manuals such as the Regimen Sanitatis (c.1308) contained dozens of rules for bathing at specific times such as pregnanacy and noted the importance of bathing for getting rid of dirt and grime beyond that which was visible: “if any of the waste products of third digestion are left under the skin that were not resolved by exercise and massage, these will be resolved by the bath.” As with medicine, herbs and plants were central to the process of sweetening the body for those who had access to them. Thyme and rose petals were widely used to perfume bath water, the body could be dried using sheets sprinkled with rosewater and then dusted (men and women) with a powder made from ground rice, ground orris root  (a violet smell favoured by King Edward IV) and fragranced with cloves or lavender. Bay leaves, hyssop and sage were used to make deodorants and sachets of lemon balm and dried rose petals could be slipped into clothes already boiled in water scented with orris root and stored in chests containing 'sweet bags' which held a mix of ingredients such as musk, citrus peel and marjoram. Finally a 'pomme d'ambre' (an apple of ambergris) filled with a fragrant paste could be attached to a waist belt and, once Arabic gums and essential oil distillation methods could be combined with the discovery of alcohol distillation in the early 1300s, a perfume with notes of mint and rosemary could be added to the mix. The notion of a court filled with walking pot-pourri bowls is rather hard to escape.

 Woodcut 1489
So, if the people battled the negative associations of fetid smells rising from their bodies, where does the notion of the smelly medievals come from? For that we have to turn to place. I have always been an urbanite but I think medieval England may have forced a love of the country on me. Wood smoke, days old pottage and damp over-close animals still seem preferable to the alternative. Medieval towns stank. Clearly sanitation was an issue: towns were cramped, pavements were rare and Roman drains were long forgotten although muckrackers were well-paid. Houndsditch, which runs through London's glossy financial district, gets its name from the amount of dead dogs deposited in it when it was a great open ditch running through one of the medieval  city's main thoroughfares. In the 14th century, Sherborne Lane in the east of the capital was officially known as Shiteburn Lane and every town had its equivalent, Pissing Alley apparently being quite a favourite.

 Fes Medieval Tanneries
The main problem, however, was not the disposal of human waste,  it was the industries and commerce that multiplied as the towns grew. Anyone who has battled down the narrow Shambles in York can imagine how disgusting this road must have been when it was the open air Great Flesh Shambles with a drain filled with blood and offal running down its centre. Even more noxious were the great tanneries which used copious amounts of urine, dog excrement and stale beer in their processes. The smell of the tanneries in Nottingham was said to be so terrible it even repelled rats although, on the plus side, this is credited for reducing the incidents of plague in the area.

Awareness of the links between filth and disease can be seen in the regulations that were constantly passed in medieval towns. Fines were imposed for throwing waste from high windows and dumping it in clean water sources and on butchers for failing to clear waste which attracted dogs and wild pigs. But, as town populations continued to rise, the battle became increasingly hard and raw sewage continued to flow into the Thames until the nineteenth century. The towns smelled bad and, by the end of the Middle Ages, it is likely that the majority of people smelled pretty bad too. The public bath houses had long been associated with sexual activity, the Stews in Southwark for example were largely regarded as a front for brothels. The Church railed against them in vain but attitudes to communal bathing began to change after successive outbreaks of plague and the new disease syphillis, which began to make its presence felt in the late 1400s. Taking a bath became a rather risky adventure.

So back to the balancing act. No one wants to read a seduction scene where the protagonists' body odour acts like extra characters but drowning everything in herbs seems like a recipe for a cliched dish. I'm off to Glasgow's West End streets to breathe in petrol fumes and ponder.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Several Very Large Fat Bears by Imogen Robertson

Study of a bear by Sawrey Gilpin
© The Trustees of the British Museum

I am, like most writers, often asked where I get my ideas from and I always say the research (which is true), but that can seem a bit vague and wafty, so I thought I’d give an example of how many great ideas one stumbles over, particularly if you have access the The Burney Collection Newspapers via the British Library. I’m looking at one newspaper, The General Advertiser published on Tuesday 21 February 1786. 1786 is when my work in progress is set by the way, but I’m not sure what will happen in it yet, hence the broad research. Annoyingly, I’m not sure any of the following will fit, but each of the following three fragments from the day deserves a novel of its own, so I hope quoting them illustrates the larger point. Finding ideas is not the problem, the work is deciding between them.

The first story is a suggestive fragment, the sort of thing I might use, but I can’t find any way to follow the real story. The second is worthy of a novel firmly based in fact and has an interesting stack of supporting documentation which can be followed via the internet but this is probably not a book for me, fascinating though the story is. The third is one of those oddities which can shed surprising light on a period, and though again, I’m not sure I’ll use it, it offers me a certain flavour of the time which is nevertheless invaluable.

So first, the fragment:

On Friday afternoon about dusk a very genteel dressed man was taken out of the Serpentine with several marks of violence  on his face, but he had no more than one farthing in his pocket. He was carried to Knightsbridge to be exposed to view. The Jury sat on his body on Saturday, and brought their verdict, Death by some unknown cause.

Definitely something to warm a crime writer’s heart there, this could be the opening paragraph to a novel. People better versed in archive delving might be able to find out more about the actual facts, I haven’t been able to do so. If anyone can find the coroner’s record or sift through the newspapers for more information, please do let me know what you find. 

On the same page is the starting gun for a novel or non-fiction work which I would love to read someday:

Friday last James Bently was charged on oath before Nicholas Foster Esq. with feloniously stopping Edward Tauplin… and feloniously taking from his person a bundle containing a large assortment of Bombazeen... 

This story, thanks to I could follow up, though the changes in the names don’t give you a lot of faith in 18th century journalism. You can read the whole trial here, but the summary is as follows, and I’m certain this is the same case.
JOSEPH BUTLER, Violent Theft > highway robbery, 22nd February 1786 
JOSEPH BUTLER was indicted for feloniously assaulting Edward Poulton, on the King's highway, on the 16th day of February , and putting him in corporal fear and danger of his life, and feloniously taking from his person and against his will, one linen handkerchief, value 6 d. sixteen yards of black bombazeen, value 40 s. a black silk gown, value 40 s. a black silk petticoat, value 20 s. the property of Martha Robinson , spinster. 
GUILTY , Death.
He was humbly recommended by the Prosecutrix to his Majesty's mercy.

Neptune wikipedia

Now, it seems that mercy was granted. Joseph is recorded (again, the record is via oldbailyonline) as being sentenced to transportation  for 7 years in early 1787. Thanks to a brilliant website called I know he reached Australia, but he only arrived in New South Wales on 28 June 1790. Joseph was a survivor of the Neptune, one of a fleet of three ships in which the convicts were basically left to rot in the hold for the duration of the journey. Of 1000 convicts some 300 died on the trip out. The death rate led to protests in Britain and after an unsuccessful prosecution of the captain of the Neptune, the system was reformed so private contractors carrying the prisoners were only paid for the convicts who got to Australia alive. Butler married and had children and is buried in Sydney. 

Then we have the third story, an advertisement:

Bears Grease
Its ancient use, known efficacy and established reputation down to the present time for the valuable purpose of strengthening and preventing the Hair from falling off the Head, or turning Grey, proves its virtue above spurious compositions daily offered to the Public to answer the same purpose.
Lewis Hendrie
Prefumer in ordinary to the Princess Royal…. Middle Shug Lane, Golden Square; begs leave to acquaint the Nobility and Gentry, that he has several very large, fat Bears, one of which he has just killed; that such as are pleased to have any of the Grease, will either call or send their servants to see it cut off the animal.
He has just imported from Paris…. 

Well, that rather stopped me in my tracks. Via the joys of the Burney Papers text search function I can tell you that Mr Hendrie had been killing bears to stop rich Londoners going bald since at least 1778. By June 1783 he was having his shop ‘greatly enlarged and new fronted’, perhaps to match the glamour of his shop sign, ‘a prodigious large Elephant’s tooth’ at the door which he mentioned as a way to recognise his establishment in March of that year. Just in case you accidentally wandered into one of the other bear killers' shops on Shug Lane. 

I’m not the first writer to have noticed Mr Hendrie:

I found this advertisement in Parker's General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer (London, England), Tuesday, April 1, 1783

This day is published… An Ode to Mr Lewis Hendrie &c… Principal Bear-Killer in the Metropolis

Rather brilliantly, ten days later the author advertises again to assure the public he means no disrespect to the other bear-killers in the capital, but regards Mr Hendrie as the original. 

The writer of the Critical Review, or Annals of Literature thought the ode ‘in some parts very laughable’.

Mr Hendrie continued killing bears until his death in 1790. The bears didn’t get their revenge, I’m afraid, his death was occasioned by the bursting of a blood vessel.

I’ve read a lot about the 18th century in the last ten years, but I admit I never knew that barbers imported bears from America and Russia to fatten and then kill in their shops. In search of a little context I came across this magnificent book, The Georgian Menagerie by Christopher Plumb, which will I am sure tell me a great deal of other things which I didn’t know I didn’t know. Plumb says around 50 bears were killed in London by barbers and hairdressers every year, and offers some of the methods customers used to make the grease smell less unpleasant. 

What will I find in the newspapers for 22 February 1786, I wonder?

Monday, 20 February 2017

Medieval Hunting - by Ann Swinfen

Before I began to write the third book in my Oxford Medieval Mystery series, The Huntsman’s Tale, there was one area of research demanding my attention – what exactly went on at a medieval hunt? Most of us are familiar with images of medieval hunting, like the hawking scene from Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry:

And I suppose that we also know that the origins of more recent forms of hunting, on horseback, with a pack of hounds, must lie somewhere back in that remote past. Modern hunts have about them an aura of wealth and privilege, and those medieval pictures show the nobility in fine clothes, so it must always have been a pastime of the rich, mustn’t it?

Well, yes and no.

As I delved into the subject, I discovered that everyone, from king down to villein, hunted as a regular part of life. At any rate, every man, and quite a few women. The nature of the hunt and the type of quarry varied, but everyone hunted for food. Pursuing something as inedible as a fox would have seemed like madness, unless it was to protect farm stock from a predator. Deer and boar were the favourite quarries of the rich, but everyone hunted hares and rabbits (usually called conies), either on horseback or on foot, and every type of edible bird either with nets or birds of prey.

Two principal and invaluable contemporary books on hunting survive from the Middle Ages. The Master of Game, by Edward, Duke of York, and Le Livre de Chasse, by Gaston Phébus, Count of Foix.

Edward Plantagenet of Norwich, Duke of York, was a grandson of King Edward III, killed at the age of 42 at the Battle of Agincourt, where he saved the life of King Henry V at the cost of his own. His book, The Master of Game, is the first book in English on the subject of hunting, and is a translation – with additions and modifications – of Le Livre de Chasse:

Edward Plantagenet had served as Master of the Hart Hounds for his cousin, King Henry IV (amongst many other more obviously distinguished posts) and wrote his book between 1406 and 1413, dedicating it to the Prince of Wales, later Henry V. Gaston Phébus was obsessed lifelong with hunting, and wrote his treatise in the 1380s. He died of a stroke at the age of sixty, after an exhausting bear hunt. (All right, bears were a slightly more exotic quarry in parts of Europe. Wolves were also hunted as dangerous predators preying on farm stock, but by the late medieval period had almost disappeared from Britain.)

The hunting of deer was the outdoor sport par excellence in England, and was originally confined to royalty and nobility, hunting on horseback, with two main types of dog – tracking dogs, often a breed called lymers (and also precursors of the greyhound breed), and killing dogs, like the alaunt (a breed now extinct, which seems to have resembled mastiffs, and could be dangerous even to their own handlers).
Lymers now held back, alaunts released
Although a successful deer hunt would provide food in the form of venison, participants also viewed it as both a source of ‘delite’ and as a training for young men in many of the skills they would need in mounted warfare. Deer were hunted in forests, chases, and parks.

A ‘forest’ was not a synonym for a ‘wood’, it was an area usually belonging to the king which could include woodland, heath, and even marsh. A forest was reserved for royal hunting, or for those to whom the king gave a licence, and it was subject to strict forest laws. Those who lived within the boundaries of a forest had certain rights (usufruct), but could also be severely punished if they broke the forest laws. The term survives, for example, in the New Forest.

A ‘chase’ was a free liberty, and not subject to forest laws. However, as time passed, the right to hunt in a chase was granted more and more as a favour or reward to nobles, where the king then enforced forest laws. The term survives in Cannock Chase.

A ‘park’ was an enclosed area in an estate where a breeding herd of deer was kept for hunting, and belonged to the king, a noble, or an ecclesiastical body. Those in holy orders were not above enjoying the hunt, as Chaucer makes clear in The Canterbury Tales. Many deer parks survive to this day on great estates, some owned by the National Trust.

The kind of hunt which took place in a park tended to be different from the day long pursuit of quarry on horseback over often dangerous ground. The park was usually situated near a manor house or hunting lodge, where spectators could view the hunt. Often the hunters would be lined up – somewhat like the guns in a modern grouse shoot – and the deer would be driven past them by the senior huntsman and his assistants. As the deer passed, the hunters would aim their bows or crossbows and take down their quarry at far less risk to themselves.

Although a few notable women took part in the mounted hunt, it was more common for them to join one of these driven hunts. Even well into old age, Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed this form of hunting (as well as hawking).

Wild boar provided another noble quarry, although by the late Middle Ages they were becoming rarer in English woodlands. An adult male boar was a dangerous beast, which could kill a man, especially as the final kill was often by a man on foot. A boar spear had a crosspiece on the shaft, to halt the animal, for otherwise a boar was capable, even when speared, of running up the spear as it plunged into him, and killing the hunter even as it died.
Boar hunt. Note cross piece on spear
These noble hunts were large affairs, starting with an open-air meal, attending by ladies and other spectators as well as the hunters. For preference this was served in a grassy clearing beside a stream. The modern stirrup cup before a hunt is a vestigial survival of the original hunt breakfast.
Hunt "breakfast"
The hunt would be organised by the chief huntsman, a man of considerable skill, whose salary might exceed that of apparently much higher officials. Under him would be a large company of assistants and dog handlers with their animals. The hunters carried horns, which were used to sound various recognised signals (like a modern hunt). At the kill, a most complex ritual was carried out, to butcher the animal, reward the dogs, divide the venison according to established practices, and sometimes even leave an offering in the wood.

Hares were also hunted. Although they did not carry the cachet of the deer hunt, yet their speed, their cunning tactics, and elusiveness meant that they provided an exciting ride for the hunters. Nets might also be used.
Hunting hares with dogs & nets
Men of a lower class than those nobles granted the rights of the chase by the king did, nevertheless, sometimes manage to poach deer, for those who were unsuccessful in concealing their crime have left their names in the records of the courts. The names of those convicted occasionally include women. Famously Shakespeare was alleged to have poached a deer in the park belonging to Sir Thomas Lucy. There were also criminal gangs, not unlike modern organised crime gangs, who poached on a massive scale. Interestingly, they were often peopled by men of gentle birth, like the notorious Coterel and Folville gangs in the earlier part of the fourteenth century, and the gang led by Richard Stafford, known as ‘Frere Tuk’, a hundred years later. These were not the stuff of romantic Robin Hood legends, but thugs who terrorised whole communities.
Poaching. Nets were not part of a noble stag hunt
Landowners frequently held ‘rights of warren’, which meant they could build artificial warrens, in which rabbits were bred for the hunt, although this was almost more like a form of farming, rather than hunting. The conies brought in valuable income for their meat and especially their fur. They were also frequently poached by commoners, who did not need the elaborate equipment of the deer hunters. Some nets to cover the escape holes, and an agile ferret or small terrier would serve. This was a form of hunting – or poaching – often undertaken by women.
Women hunting conies with ferrets & nets
Commoners also used nets and traps to capture other types of game, including wolves and foxes which preyed upon farm animals, or when poaching deer.

Hawking was a sport for the rich. The birds themselves were costly, usually imported. Several dealers in birds of prey are to be found in the records, importing hawks of various types mostly from Arab countries of the eastern Mediterranean. And the expense did not stop there. Training a hawk to kill, but then return to the hawker’s hand was a long and arduous process, demanding weeks or months of constant attention and sleepless nights on the part of the falconer. The falconers themselves were skilled and highly paid specialists, so only the wealthy could afford trained birds.

There was also a very strict hierarchy as to who might fly which type of bird of prey, from gyrfalcons (only for kings) down to goshawks (for yeomen, if any could afford one). Ladies flew female merlins. The Boke of St Albans (1486) gives a comprehensive list, including some unlikely hawkers, but then medieval people did so love lists!

  • King: gyrfalcon (male or female)
  • Prince: peregrine falcon
  • Duke: rock falcon
  • Earl: tiercel peregrine (male)
  • Baron: bastarde hawk
  • Knight: saker
  • Squire: lanner
  • Lady: merlin (female)
  • Yeoman: goshawk or hobby
  • Priest: sparrowhawk (female)
  • Holy Water Clerk: sparrowhawk (male)
  • Knave: kestrel
  • Servant: kestrel
  • Child: kestrel

I think some of these may be taken with a pinch of salt. The last three probably refer to members of a noble hawking party who were allowed to join in, but probably did not own the birds. On the other hand, the clergy probably did.

Commoners also caught birds, especially water fowl like ducks and geese, for eating, but used nets or sticky lime spread on branches, which trapped the birds’ feet. They might also shoot birds with bow or crossbow, using spaniels with their soft mouths to retrieve them, again much like today.
Spaniels, used for retrieving game 

Medieval hunting in all its variety is an enormous subject, its rituals of the kill alone requiring much study for young noblemen. It might seem a blood-thirsty business to the modern mind, but it was not undertaken purely as an enjoyable pastime. Certainly those galloping through a forest on a beautiful day and a lively horse would have enjoyed themselves, but the primary purposes were to obtain food, to train young men in skills for warfare, or to protect flocks and herds from predators – not unworthy goals.

Ann Swinfen

Sunday, 19 February 2017

A Lesser-Known Blitz by Katherine Webb

In May last year a friend of mine, and several hundred of her neighbours, were evacuated from their homes in the northern streets of Bath. The reason: the discovery of a five-hundred pound unexploded bomb beneath the playground of a school on Lansdown Road, leftover from World War II. A three-hundred metre exclusion was put in place at once, as the bomb disposal team sought to disable it. Eventually, they managed to move it safely to the Torr Works quarry, where it was blown up, 74 years after it had been dropped.

So, people who live near Bath certainly know that the city was bombed in the war, and I'd known it for some time - it was bombed as part of the Baedeker raids, so called, after the famous travel guides, because the targets were chosen for their cultural importance and beauty, rather than because of any military or strategic significance. Lately, I've been researching the Bath Blitz in more detail, for my next book, and it turns out I'd had no idea of the scale of the bombing.

Bomb-damaged Georgian houses in Bath

Across two weekend nights, from the 25th to the 27th of April, 1942, one hundred and fifty or so German bombers flew over Bath in three bombing raids, two the first night and one the second night. Hundreds of high explosives of various sizes, and incendiaries designed to start devastating fires, were dropped; the exact number will never be known - it is known that many fell into the River Avon, and were swallowed by the mud. One has to assume that they're still down there... The Baedeker Raids, which included attacks on Canterbury, Norwich, York and Exeter, were in revenge for RAF attacks on Rostock, the location of important German factories and shipyards. As well as dropping bombs and incendiaries, some planes dive-bombed to as low as fifty feet, and raked the streets with machine gun fire. The damage can still be seen today - notably in the walls of the old labour exchange on James Street:

Bullet and shrapnel damage in the walls of the old labour exchange

The idea of setting a book in the Bath blitz has been niggling the back of my mind for a long time, and as luck would have it I stumbled across this pamphlet a few years ago, at an antiquarian book fair in Bath:

Produced by the Bath & Wilts Chronicle and Herald later on in 1942, this booklet gives a great overview of the raids, and their effect on the city. It's also a wonderful snapshot of the language and attitude of the press at the time:

'Dr Goebbels may now weep his slimy crocodile tears over "the destruction of historical and art treasures in Luebeck, Bath and Canterbury... Did not Goebbels once boast, "When I hear the word culture, I push back the catch of my revolver"? 

The author, Mr Claude Wimhurst, goes on to describe the grit and spirit of the city, and, in a fine example of stiff upper lip, to declare that the purpose of the booklet is not to 'harrow feelings',  but to 'steel the hearts' of those fighting the good fight, and to serve as a warning to future generations of the horrors and modern warfare. A timely reminder, likely to be ignored, in these days of turbulent global politics. Nevertheless, the history of the raids is harrowing. Of course it is. Four hundred people lost their lives, over a thousand more were injured, and many thousands lost their homes. And whilst this is small number compared to the 32,000 or so souls who lost their lives in London, the human stories that come from those two terrible nights in Bath are every bit as heart-breaking.

Some of the dead from the first night's attacks were laid out in a temporary mortuary in the crypt of St James's church, only for the church to be hit itself on the second night, and badly burnt. In putting out the flames, the fire service inadvertently destroyed all the identification papers on the dead bodies, so that nobody knew who they were, and many had to be interred anonymously. On May 1st, 247 people were laid to rest in a mass grave.

Bath Blitz victims are laid to rest on May 1st, 1942

There are devastating personal histories, described in the Bath Chronicle booklet and in the statistics listed on the excellent Bath Blitz memorial website, At no. 3, Howells Court, William and Beatrice Rattray were killed along with their seven children: Christine, 7; Donald, 5; George, 13; Joan, 8; Pamela, 10; Shirley, 2; and William, aged 10. What an unimaginable scene. Sergeant Clifford Ford, a serving soldier, returned on leave to find that his wife, Emily, and their six children had all perished at no. 7, New King Street. A baby girl was found in the wreckage of one house, and taken to Bristol Infirmary, where she died. Of her, the Chronicle records:

'Who she was no one knows. All that can be said about this unknown child victim is contained in the following terse official description which has been preserved: "Age, about two years; hair, fair; eyes, blue-grey; division between top row of teeth; no other distinguishing features." '

One can only assume that whoever was looking after the little girl that night was also killed, and never identified. What a sad end to a tragically short life.

It's easy to spot the gaps in Bath's architecture where Georgian splendour gives way to some 1960s built block of flats or carpark. Often, buildings were not rebuilt until much later, and there is still a ruddy great bomb crater in the lawned centre of The Circus. The famous Assembly Rooms, which had been visited and written about by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, were badly damaged by an incendiary. They had only re-opened in 1938 after a £50,000 program of refurbishment, and the Chronicle laments that they probably can't or won't be rebuilt again. They were, however, and are now back to their original glory:

The tea room in Bath Assembly Rooms today

The same room shortly after the blitz

Other buildings were beyond saving. One of the oldest mansions in Bath, the Abbey Church House in Sion Hill, was destroyed. Mainly Tudor, the building had foundations dating back to 1138, when a leper hospital stood on the site. Another medieval leper hospital, attached to the Mary Magdalene Chapel on Holloway, was also damaged. Today, it's easy to see, on a walking tour of the city, where the gap left by a bombed-out building has been filled with something more recent - with varying degrees of architectural grace. It's as fascinating to me as peering behind the Georgian facades and finding the medieval, Tudor and Stuart origins of many of Bath's buildings.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to visit, and stood high on Beechen Cliff, in the south of the city, to have a virtual birds' eye view of the damage that had been done. There are familiar stories of making do, of mucking in and not being dismayed. I have always wondered how far that was genuinely the case, or how far merely a statement of intent perpetuated by the media. It must have been utterly terrifying, and the effects of that terror long-reaching in the hearts and minds of the survivors. But the city did mend itself. On April 25th, 2008, Willi Schludecker, then aged 87, came to Bath to lay a wreath during the annual memorial service to the Bath raids. Willi, who died in 2010, was one of the German pilots who'd flown on the raids.

Willi Schludecker, who flew more than 120 sorties for the Luftwaffe during WWII, in Bath in 2008

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Imbolc - Celia Rees

This is the time of Imbolc, perhaps the least well known of the four great Sabbats or Celtic Festivals that mark the turning points of the year. Traditionally dated to the 1st of February, it falls midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and signifies the point where winter recedes and spring begins.
Wheel of the Year, Witchcraft Museum, Boscastle by midnightblueowl 

St Brigid's Cross
I first came across Imbolc when I was researching the death of Charles Walton on 14th February, 1946. I've written about that on this blog before but one theory associated with Walton's unsolved murder was that it was a ritual killing, his blood spilt to bring new life to the land. That would imply a continuity of belief that reaches back to the Neolithic. In Ireland, certain Megalithic monuments are aligned to the Imbolc sunrise.

Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1480 – 1556/57)

I guess there is more than a bit of the pagan in me. I like the idea of ancient spokes of Celtic belief on the Christianised wheel of the year. In Ireland, Imbolc is celebrated as St Brigid or St Bride's Day, the mysterious 6th Century saint, who may, or may not be, the Christian embodiment of Brigid, the great Celtic goddess of healing, poetry and smithcraft. Also known as the Mistress of the Mantle, Brigid was the sister or virgin aspect of the Great Goddess and such a powerful pagan entity that some Christians have cast doubt on her namesake's sainthood and questioned whether there ever was a St Brigid, she is so obviously the goddess in another guise. 

In the Christian calendar, the 2nd Of February is marked as Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. The Feast of the Presentation is one of the oldest Christian Holy Days, celebrated since the 4th century AD. On Candlemas, Christians from many different denominations bring candles to church to be blessed.

Purification links Candlemas to the Lupercalia, the festival observed in Rome on 15th February to avert evil spirits and purify the city. In turn, some researchers have suggested that the Lupercalia is in some way connected to our celebration of St Valentine's Day. Whether there is a connection is debatable but it is clear that all these different celebrations and festivals clustered round the beginning of February mark a significant turning in the year's cycle. 

Spring is on the way!

Celia Rees