Anna Belfrage

Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time. Welcome to my world!

Of mummies in tartan

Urumchi Scottish_soldiers_in_service_of_Gustavus_Adolphus,_1631-cropped-

One of the earliest depictions of men in kilts (early 17th c, mercenaries in Gustav Adolf’s armies)

Say “tartan”, and most people think of Scotland – and of kilts. The word conjures up images of stalwart warriors, dressed in skirts as they charge the English soldiers of centuries long gone by. Not necessarily historically correct, and no matter just how dashing Mel Gibson looks in a kilt, I can assure you William Wallace never wore one. Never. The kilt, you see, is a 16th century invention, which is why all those books set in medieval Scotland and with a bare-breasted kilt-wearing gent on the cover are not only a tad cliché, they are also historically wrong. There: felt wonderful, to get that off my chest!

From what one can read on the internet, the combination of a tartan skirt and a hairy male knee is about as close to heaven as one can get, and while having nothing against kilt-wearing men – I find them both handsome and ruggedly male, as they walk about in their swinging garments with God knows what underneath – I do not necessarily consider hairy knees to be a “die-for” vision.

Urumchi Hallstatt Natural History Museum Vienna

Fragment, Hallstatt Tartan (National History Museum, Vienna)

Neither here nor there, as this post is supposed to be about tartan – or plaid, as some Americans say. Tartan is not a Scottish invention. I know: quite a shock, isn’t it? Nor is it an Irish invention, which would otherwise be a logical conclusion, as the Scots originated in Ireland. Ancient Celts – from which both the Irish and, by association, the Scots, are descended – were known for their love of tartan, further borne out by the finds in Hallstatt, Austria. Hallstatt is believed to have been the heartland of the Celtic culture back in the 8th century B.C., and the prehistoric burial grounds, as well as the old salt mines, have turned up quite a number of bits and pieces in tartan – skilfully woven twill cloth with horizontal and vertical stripes of different colours.

For us modern people, it is difficult to fully comprehend the effort that went into making clothes in the past. Most of us wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a plain weave or a twill weave, we never consider the work that has gone into the garments we so casually pull off the rack to wear, and we are incapable of darning and mending – well, beyond sewing on a button or two. (Hems, IMO, can be handled with staplers in a crisis, which is probably why my hubby has a hard time keeping a straight face when I say I’d like to learn to embroider. I would, actually.)

Anyway, our truly ancient forebears did not need to worry about hems or buttons. The cave dwellers used skins to cover themselves with, and given the general conditions in which they lived, this was a smart choice. But I bet you that already back then, someone was decorating their skins with whatever they could find, transforming a shapeless garment into an individual fashion statement.

Millennia rolled by, and people learnt to farm. In Egypt arose cultures where clothes were definitely of importance, but given the heat, the thinner the better, and so the Egyptians concentrated on linen and cotton, on light colours to reflect the glare of the sun. I am sure the skilled Egyptian weavers would now and then decorate the products from their looms with a contrasting line in red, or blue, but to go as far as a colourful tartan, that they did not.

To the north of Ancient Egypt, a nomadic culture still survived. On the large Eurasian steppe, that endless roll of grasslands that extends from modern day Ukraine to China, people had for generations lived as herdsmen, leading their flocks from one new grazing ground to the other. Belongings were transported in carts, entire tribes travelled together as their flocks moved south or west or east. Home was not a permanent residence, home was what you could carry with you, and so fabrics became important, the quality of your textiles shouting to the world just how successful you were.

Textiles don’t do well over time. They rot, they get degraded to rags, end up thrown in the fire. As a consequence, only rarely do we find any remnants of the clothes worn by people who died thousands of years ago – unless they were buried in very dry conditions, such as the Andean altiplano or the Tarim basin in Central Asia, home to the Taklamakan desert, the most arid place on earth. And it is to this rather inhospitable area that we must go to find the oldest known tartan specimens in the world.

For very many years, the Eurasian Steppe was considered a one-way street. The Huns, for example, came from the east and moved west, causing destructing and chaos as they went. Some centuries later, and it was Djingis Khan, leading his Mongol Horde from east to west. Only relatively recently have we begun to realise that some migrants went the other way, travelling from west to east. Some of them apparently ended up in the Tarim basin, developed a flourishing culture that survived for several centuries before they disappeared, floating off without leaving much of a trace – except for two things; documents in a now extinct language, and the Ürümchi mummies.

URUMCHI QizilDonors

Tokharian princes, 500 or so A.D.

Some of these mummies are old. Very old, well over 3 000 years. They are also remarkably well-preserved, having been buried in almost perfect conditions – nice and dry. Astoundingly, the mummies seem to be Caucasian – very strange in Chinese Turkestan, where the predominant population is either Chinese or Mongol. But the mummies have blond hair, they are tall (very tall) and fair-skinned, they have high-bridged noses and round eyes. Interestingly enough, this tallies with descriptions in ancient Chinese texts, referring to a neighbouring people of great height, with fair or red hair and deep-set blue eyes. These Nordic hunks hung around in one form or other until somewhere midway through the first millennia A.D. They were called Tokharian.

Urumchi mummies of Urumchi

From “Mummies of Ürumchi”, E.W. Barber

Although the mummies have been found in various locations within the basin and vary in age, they all share one further common feature; the high quality of the woven textiles they were buried with, many of them with a tartan pattern. Even more intriguing, the tartan patterns uncovered in Chinese Turkestan resemble not only those of the old Hallstatt culture (bi-coloured twill weave or three coloured plain weave) but also those of Scottish tartans (multi-coloured twill), which are not found anywhere else. So, are we looking at very ancient Scottish emigrants? Or are these people the ancestors of present days Scots?

Let us take a step back. Tartan patterns are generally restricted to woollen textiles. To make wool, one needs sheep, an animal that was domesticated well over 8 000 years ago. At the time, the sheep wasn’t woolly, it was hairy, more like a goat. It was bred for its meat, but with the passing of years and a conscious breeding effort, the hairy sheep became a woolly one, so that about 4 000 B.C. we had our classical white fluffy animal (and those of you with a more than passing acquaintance with sheep will know that rarely are they fluffy – or white).

A_sheep_in_the_long_grass

photo: Michael Palmer (photorasa.com)

Suddenly, there was a lot of wool. Spindles were invented, and looms were adapted to handle this new material, rather different from flaxen thread/yarn. Plain weave was replaced – or complemented – with twill weave (in which two threads of the warp are looped together by the weft, with an offset between the rows, thereby creating a diagonal pattern that runs through the fabric) Twill had the advantage of allowing for a tighter weave, thereby making the resulting cloth warmer. All of this leading-edge development – from flax to wool, from plain weave to twill – seems to have happened in present day Turkey or thereabouts, a remnant of twill having been found in a 3 000 B.C. grave in central Turkey.

At the time, Anatolia and the Caucasus was a veritable melting pot for humanity. Innovations were made at an impressive speed: domesticated horses, carts, woolly sheep, woollen textiles. All these novelties were shared between the peoples, probably using some sort of proto Indo-European language. And then, for whatever reasons – maybe they fell out, or maybe the grazing became restricted, or maybe some of them just wanted to see the world – began the exodus from the Caucasian heartlands, with some going east while the majority went west.

Our Ürümchi mummies – or their ancestors – obviously went east, while others of their tribe chose to go the other way. Maybe they went to Hallstatt, Austria and the salt mines, where they would develop into the people we call the Celts. Our voyagers on the eastern road carried with them an Indo-European language. (As late as in the 6th century A.D., a people in the Tarim basin spoke Tokharian, an Indo-European language that has a clear resemblance to the Celtic languages – sort of wow, IMO) Those long-dead travellers also took along a love for their tribal tartan patterns, a love so strong that it would survive the long, slow trek across the endless Eurasian steppe. While none of this is conclusive evidence, I believe the mummies of Ürümchi were, in fact, a side-branch on the Celtic tree.

urumchi Kilt&SporranSo where does tartan comes from? I guess it sprang out of love for colour and textile, a silent ode to the world that surrounded the weaver. Maybe she had her eyes captured by the spectacular colour of a winter sunrise, when the muted purplish grey of the receding night is shot through with strands of glowing pink. Maybe she was entranced by the bright green of new leaf, against a backdrop of brown rocks. Or maybe she was trying to capture all those elusive colours that live in the wind. Or maybe she was daydreaming of a time when good-looking hunks would swathe themselves in colourful tartan and little else. 

These days, all that remains of the people who went east are those desiccated mummies, elegant, tall people who towered well over six feet, men and women alike. And those that went west, well they’re just as dead, just as gone – but the tartan they brought with them from the Caucasus is still going strong. Imagine that: something as fragile as a fabric surviving through centuries of time. I guess we can conclude multi-coloured stripes just never go out of fashion, right?

If you want to read more about the Ürümchi mummies and their fascinating textiles, I strongly recommend “The Mummies of Ürümchi” by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. (This post was originally posted on English Historical Fiction Authors bloig, albeit it has been modified)

Blurring the lines

Someone once told me that a man lives his life in neat little boxes, and either he is busy dealing with one box or the other, but rarely does he do two boxes at the same time. It’s called  compartmentalisation, which is why – as per this person – men are so good at ignoring the dirty dishes when what they want to do is watch TV. They are in their “TV box”, and the dishes simply don’t fit – which does not mean they won’t handle them later, when they’re in their “let’s tidy up” box. Chances are by then their frustrated women will have taken care of them…

As per this person – obviously a man – women have never caught on to this mental box thing. Instead, we are all over the place, clearing away the dishes while wiping baby’s mouth AND watching TV. It’s called multi-tasking. And sometimes, I do wish I had a sequence of neat little boxes into which to order my life rather than attempting to do it all at the same time.

public-sleeping-child

Exhausted – and sleeping peacefully

Leaving aside the discussion whether this is a gender issue yes or no, multi-tasking is exhausting. My minds boggles with planning laundry, food, work, while at the same time clearing up the kitchen, drenching the orchids and considering whether I need to wash the windows or how exactly I should present my re-structuring proposal to my client and mentally drafting a new post. This post.

Of late, I have noted that doing many things at the same time has a seriously negative impact on my concentration. A relatively new development which I put down to my new glasses, while hubby says it is age related. But then, he adds with a tender smile, so are the glasses. It’s one of those moments when the multi-tasking me is torn between wanting to kiss him and slap him. I do neither. Instead I go back to griping about my bi-focals while whisking the eggs together for an omelette.

Since some months back, I have the luxury of spending most of my time writing. Ok, so I have finished three books, edited two, started another, but seriously, compared to the output I achieved while I was working full time and writing, that isn’t so impressive. And the reason behind that is all this multi-tasking – my lines are getting blurred.

In fact, since I stopped working, I am always working – if that makes sense. Unfortunately, all the time I spend at my computer does not necessarily result in any output worth keeping, and this is because I write a bit, slip off to do some FB stuff, go back to writing, get an e-mail notification and hurry over to read the mail, go back to writing, remember I haven’t done my tweet rounds, and…You get the picture, right? And on top of this, I water the flowers, keep the kitchen polished, take the dog out for walks and keep the laundry hamper empty. Since I stopped going out for work, I have assumed the lion’s share of the responsibility for the daily chores – probably because I feel a need to be “really useful” as opposed to stringing words together into sentences.

What also happens is that because I am “always” writing, my brain groans and whinges, telling me all this creativity is killing it.
“What creativity?” I say. “Look, we’ve only done 900 words today.”
“Not my fault,” brain protests. “It wasn’t me who got distracted into that tangential excursion into the history of the Aztecs.” Brain scowls. “You don’t WRITE about the Aztec people.”
“No but…” I am interrupted by an FB notification telling me an FB friend has commented on my post. Brain groans in protest as I rush off to see.
“Right: where were we?” I ask once I’m back with my brain.
“No idea,” brain mutters. “Somewhere in the Milky Way? Nowhere close to where you should be at any rate.”

The_Scream

Me, my brain & all my invented people…(Munck)

“Your brain is right, you know,” one of my characters chime in. My turn to groan as all those invented people in my head suddenly spring out of their various nooks and swirls, all of them looking at me with something akin to mild exasperation.
“Hi Alex,” I say, trying or a smile. “Look, I know I’ve promised to get all that stuff regarding you and Matthew and Samuel and Shoshannah and Rachel down on paper, but…”
“You’re squandering time,” she interrupts. She taps at my keyboard. “Nose to the grindstone, honey. But only one grindstone at the time, okay?”
“Err…” I say, and Matthew appears beside her. Have I ever said he has the most amazing eyes, this invented man of mine – well, Alex’s man, obviously – all greeny gold?
“We’re not getting any younger,” he reminds me. “And look at poor Kit – you’ve left her hanging there with that swine Godfrey, and Adam is beside himself, and…”
Damn. So I have. Poor, poor Kit, and from the look in Adam’s eyes, he is considering whether to disembowel me slowly or roast me on a spit. His large hand closes on the hilt of his dagger, eyes like shards of ice boring into me.
“And what about us?” Helle Madsen shoves her hands into her jeans. All shapely legs and taut bum, she has the men in my head looking her over, first and foremost her companion through time, Jason, and his lurking shadow, Sam. “Can we please be released from this limbo of not knowing just what you’re going to put us through?” Her eyes widen as blood blooms on Jason’s chest, as he sags to the ground, seeping red staining his hair and face. Oh dear: yet another mess of my creation.

“See?” my brain says, and my characters fade away into the background of its murky interior. “They depend on you, Anna. All of them.” My brain sighs. “You blew life into them. You see them through the choppy seas to harbour. That is your obligation.”
I suspect this is not the time to tell my brain my last two nights have been spent making the acquaintance of new leading man, Robert…

Other than discussing this with my brain – and yes, I am fully aware that is me talking to me – I also talk to my breathing, living dear ones. Unfortunately, the majority of them are men.
“I don’t quite see the problem,” says eldest son. “You have things to do, you do them one after the other.”
“Yes,” says middle son. “It’s not as if I break off midway through a complex genetic algorithm to go and cook supper.” Well, seeing as I wouldn’t recognise a genetic algorithm if it bit me, this passes over my head.
“Make a list,” youngest son suggests helpfully. “Then do them one by one, not all at the same time.”
Lists? I shiver. Lists are terrible things, black on white of what you’ve achieved and what you’ve failed to do. I turn to my daughter for support and receive an irritated snort. Her life, she indicates, revolves round lists – at least at work. Well then…

(c) The Fitzwilliam Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Monet – and yes, I can sit under those trees

On a more serious note, I have concluded it is time to organise my life in boxes. One box is called Social Media and will no longer be allowed to swell like a happy amoeba over all the others. There are the various boxes labelled Work in progress, and then there’s one called New writing projects. That’s where Robert is patiently waiting, stretched out under a tree and wrapped in his heavy cloak. Another box is labelled Household, and I stick cleaning windows and wiping kitchen cabinets in that one. And finally, there’s a box labelled Nothing which defines the time in which I do absolutely nothing. I must admit to being rather daunted by this box: what, I’m supposed to sit under the flowering trees and twiddle my thumbs? My brain laughs. “Do nothing?” it says. “Close your eyes, honey and come along for the ride!”

I am un-blurring the lines, people. I am using mental boxes. Does that mean I’m becoming more like a man?
“I bloody well hope not,” says hubby, pressing a kiss to my nose. “But just in case, let’s put in a box labelled Release the inner woman.”
Huh. As if she needs releasing!

Lady of the Day – meet Alison Morton

INSURRECTIO-general-bannerToday I welcome Alison Morton to my blog, this both to celebrate the recent launch of her fifth book, INSURRECTIO, but also because I rather enjoy chatting with Alison, a lady with strong opinions and a huge dose of sarcastic wit. Plus she drinks tea, which is always a major plus with me. Okay, she doesn’t ONLY drink tea, but then who does?

And just like that, let us start with the interview:

Having just read the fifth book in your excellent Roma Nova series, I reflected on the fact that time-wise the fifth book is the second – the events in books 4,5 and the upcoming number 6 all predate the events in 1,2,3. Was this intentional, or did the urge to tell the back-story grow on you?

In INCEPTIO, the first book set nominally around 2010, the Great Rebellion that nearly destroyed Roma Nova had occurred twenty-three years before, but it had a long reach for most Roma Novans over thirty; characters in PERFIDITAS, the second book, are haunted by it and its consequences swoop back with a vengeance in SUCCESSIO.

While I was drafting the first three, but more so in SUCCESSIO, I became intrigued by the heroine Carina’s clever and no-nonsense grandmother, Aurelia. There’d always been an air of self-containment about Aurelia, a bottling of the past. Her public role was well-known, but there was something in her private life that was shut away. What part had Aurelia played in the lead up to the rebellion and after it? How was her story tied up with that of Caius Tellus, the traitor who’d grabbed power? The only way to answer these questions properly was to write Aurelia’s story as a young woman. Book 4, simply titled AURELIA, came out last year. But that was only the start. I had to tell the whole story of the rebellion, or ‘insurrectio’.

Alison_LBFAnd while we are on the subject, were you aware from the beginning that you had a series on your hands?

Not really, I was only planning one book! Halfway through, I realised I had so much story to tell that I needed at least one more, then I needed a resolution for the deeper issues raised in INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS, so SUCCESSIO emerged. Each book is a separate story, but readers may enjoy a richer experience by reading all of them.

In Aurelia and her granddaughter Carina you have endowed the literary world with two strong, brave women. In between, we have Aurelia’s daughter – and Carina’s mother – Marina, an entirely different creature. I would love to hear a bit more about Marina and your reasoning behind making her so frail – at least in contrast with her mother and her daughter.

Marina coughed and wheezed her way through childhood, giving Aurelia terrible moments of anxiety. As a result, Aurelia is very protective of her daughter. Marina’s open sunny nature is completely without guile and Aurelia worries whether her daughter will develop the strength of character to survive the complex world of adult life. When Marina is twenty, she still has a childlike, rather flighty personality. I made her an otherworldly, fairy child in order to be a complete contrast to the practical, tough and focused Aurelia who, although she loves Marina to the depth of her soul, is often bewildered by her daughter. Apart from allowing the reader to see Aurelia’s compassionate side, Marina’s character demonstrates the diversity of Roma Novans – they’re not all ‘amazons’. But Marina shows unexpected strength under moments of extreme stress in INSURRECTIO, and in her determination to be with her love.

Do you think the fact that Marina was something of a “disappointment” to Aurelia – no matter that she loves her daughter to bits there is a lot of frustration between the lines – affects Aurelia’s future relationship with Carina?

I think Aurelia is anxious about how Carina may have turned out, especially as she was brought up on the other side of the world in a society with a significantly different value system. This is why she sends Conrad to the EUS to find out. When Aurelia meets Carina on her arrival in Roma Nova at Portus Airport, she is as nervous as Carina. Would Carina be like Marina and need constant protection or was she made of sterner stuff?

Roma Nova seems a fascinating place  – please tell us a bit about it!

Well, the article by Claudia Dixit for the Sol Populi’s travel section is a great introduction. Claudia’s a bit of a gossip, but a good journalist.😉 Roma Nova started off as a survivor colony at the dusk of the Roman Empire. Many senatorial families worshipped the traditional gods, something the Christian emperor Theodosius was determined to stamp out on pain of death. So twelve families led by Senator Apulius fled north into the mountains in AD 395; their descendants toughed it out for sixteen centuries. There were only four hundred exiles at the beginning and they settled on land owned by Apulius’s Celtic father in law. By purchase, conquest and alliance, they expanded to absorb the neighbouring settlements which appreciated these new Romans’ determined will to survive. And in the 20th and 21st centuries, they retain core Roman values and the same robust attitude. You can read a fuller story here:

I am especially fascinated by the matriarchal aspect of the Roma Nova society. What made you decide to present us with a nation ruled by women? What are, in your opinion, the pros and cons of matriarchy contra patriarchy?

With the collapse of the Roman system and the Great Migrations of peoples across Europe, the new colony struggled to survive. At first, women ran the families, worked the land and traded while the men defended the colony. But in the end, there weren’t enough fighters so sisters and daughters had to put on armour and wield swords along with their brothers and fathers, thus earning them the famed equality of Roma Nova. Women, especially senior and more experienced ones hold social and economic life together in Roma Nova. Their co-operative nature and track record of results via negotiation fit them for the Roma Nova model of ruling by consent. Although women head families, and descent of name and property is through the female line, men are not disadvantaged, so Roma Nova is ‘matriarchy-lite’. And patriarchy? Well, we see the results all around us…

In INSURRECTIO, the entire Roma Novan way of life is endangered by a violent coup. A society that has for centuries functioned based on notions of equality is taken over by a gang of thugs, highlighting just how fragile the political structures can be. Similarities to historical events are evident, but do you think something similar could happen in countries with established democratic traditions such as, e.g. the U.S or France? Are those of us who live in functioning democracies too complacent?

Yes, we are probably far too complacent. Look how low the voting turnout is these days; people don’t want to make the effort to participate. We don’t focus on all the good things we enjoy unconsciously, but spend time whinging about marginal matters.
Apart from Yugoslavia, which was a vicious tribal war of dissolution, there has been no war between nations on the European mainland for over seventy years. This is odd, given past history. Although crises such as in 1983 and 1989 threatened to break that peace, the first was averted and the second resulted in the demolition of totalitarian government in Eastern Europe. Remember, too, there has been no general need for universal military service for two generations.
We tend to poke fun at demagogues, although many of us are appalled at how easily and irrationally they capture people’s emotions and fears, such as across the Atlantic at present. Attributed to American abolitionist Wendell Phillips (sometimes, mistakenly, to Thomas Jefferson) and quoted by Winston Churchill, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”.

In INSURRECTIO, Aurelia finds herself in a position where the lives of others depend on her submitting to one humiliation after the other – a most unfamiliar position for this proud and brave woman. How did you go about writing these scenes where Aurelia acts so out of character?

With difficulty! I think we’ve all been in a situation in our working lives where we’ve had to buckle down to an uncongenial boss, so I magnified that feeling ten times and threw in a bucketful of malice.

You leave the readers with something of a cliff-hanger in this book. How long need we wait for the next one?

Well, the story is resolved and all the characters are where they should be at the end. But for the future? Sorry, no clues at present, but be assured, I am drafting Book 6. It will probably be out next spring, but possible before.

What are your plans after having finished Aurelia’s story? Will we see more of Roma Nova – and have you ever considered writing a book about the founding of the colony, back when the Roman Empire collapsed?

Ah, you must be telepathic! Yes, I’m going back to AD 395 to tell the young Apulius’s story, how he captured the heart of the fiery Celtic princess Julia Becausa and of how he and Mitelus stole but in a way saved Victory. After that, who knows? Only Juno and she’s not telling.

Well, that is a book I am already looking forward to reading:) Thank you, Alison for visiting!

********************

My review of INSURRECTIO:

This is the fifth in Ms Morton’s books about Roma Nova, and the second featuring the adventures of Aurelia Mitela, and like all the previous books, Insurrectio offers quite the exciting ride, this time with the decided dark undertones of a bloody insurrection within Roma Nova itself.

Ms Morton’s Roma Nova is a fascinating place – as always, the author brings her imagined country into vivid life, whether it be the back allies of the capital or the harsh beauty of the countryside – and in particular because of its matriarchal society. In Roma Nova, blood lines and power passes from mother to daughter, albeit that men play an equal part in events. Not all men are happy with living in a country that is such an anomaly compared to the rest of the world, and one such man is Caius Tellus, the unscrupulous villain of Insurrectio. Charming, handsome, determined and gifted with far more than average intelligence, Caius is determined to upend the normal order of things – and, if possible, avenge himself on Aurelia for perceived wrongs.

Soon enough, Roma Nova – and Aurelia – are fighting for their very existence, and the book closes with the outcome as yet unresolved, leaving me more than eager to get my hands on the next book of the series.

Ms Morton delivers yet another fast-paced story with quite the cast of characters, all the way from our heroine Aurelia to the evil hazel-eyed Caius. My one objection would be the ease with which people who have known Aurelia all their lives come to believe the lies spread by Caius – surely anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with the Countess Mitela would know she would never, ever, bend knee to Caius voluntarily!

About the book:

Insurrectio - High Res AW.indd‘The second fall of Rome?’
Aurelia Mitela, ex-Praetorian and imperial councillor in Roma Nova, scoffs at her intelligence chief when he throws a red file on her desk.

But early 1980s Roma Nova, the last province of the Roman Empire that has survived into the twentieth century, has problems – a ruler frightened of governing, a centuries-old bureaucracy creaking for reform and, worst of all, a rising nationalist movement with a charismatic leader who wants to destroy Aurelia.

Horrified when her daughter is brutally attacked in a demonstration turned riot, Aurelia tries to rally resistance to the growing fear and instability. But it may already be too late to save Roma Nova from meltdown and herself from entrapment and destruction by her lifelong enemy.…

Buy links

About the author:

AM LBF_0053_smEven before she pulled on her first set of combats, Alison Morton was fascinated by the idea of women soldiers. Brought up by a feminist mother and an ex-military father, it never occurred to her that women couldn’t serve their country in the armed forces.

Busy in her day job, Alison joined the Territorial Army in a special communications regiment and left as a captain, having done all sorts of interesting and exciting things no civilian would ever know or see. Or that she can talk about, even now…

But something else fuels her writing… Fascinated by the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain), at their creation by the complex, power and value-driven Roman civilisation she started wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women.

Alison lives in France with her husband and writes Roman-themed thrillers with tough heroines, potters around the garden and drinks wine. (And tea, Anna adds)

Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site, or on her Facebook author page  or why not on Twitter ?

 

A king, a famine, an epithet

Back in the good old days, kings were elected rather than born to the ermine. Okay, so I’m talking the really, really good old days, well before our distant ancestors had left their pagan beliefs behind, a time in which being the king was not only a secular but also a religious role.

Obviously, being king came with its perks even back then – why else would anyone want to become king? – but there were some aspects to this ancient kingship that were rather disturbing. Especially if you were the king. But more of that later.

Today, I’d like you to meet a king we know very little about – and this despite him not being from the really, really old times. But he was elected – albeit based on his parentage. At most, today’s protagonist is a foot-note in history. We do know he was Danish. We know when he died – maybe. We know who his daddy was, but there are some doubts as to who his mother was. Daddy was something of a ladies’ man, putting it mildly.

Other than that, we know his name. And that he had a baker’s dozen of brothers. And quite a few sisters. Plus, of course, we know he was the king of Denmark for some years.

Over the centuries, kings have often been given epithets. Richard Lionheart has quite a ring to it. Suleyman the Magnificent was obviously a dude with great dress-sense, Charles the Bold reasonably rode at the head of his army, and John Lackland was something of a failure – or a wronged son. And then we have today’s protagonist: Olof Hunger. Yes, I know: doesn’t quite have that royal ring to it, does it?

Olof Rekonstruction Jellingestenen Vikingeskibsmuseet, Denmark

The Jilling Stone, reconstructed. Photo: Vikingskibsmuseet, Denmark

So who was this man, and how on earth did he come about his particular epithet? Well, people, let us take a few steps backwards, more precisely to 965 A.D. when Harald Blue-tooth (and one cannot help but wonder, can one?) converted to Christianity. We know the exact date for this momentous event because Harald, not a man given to humility, erected a huge rune stone – the Jilling stone – to commemorate his christening. We know it was momentous because to this day a descendant of Harald sits on the throne of Denmark, so obviously God was more than pleased by the conversion of this heathen Viking king.

Harald had a son called Sven Forkbeard. No love lost there, as I hear it… Some even say Sven forcibly ousted his father from both Denmark and Norway. Mostly though, Sven is famous for being a gigantic burr up the English King’s arse, bringing over his eager Viking raiders to despoil England over and over again. At some point, Sven decided he might just as well take over England and while the Anglo-Saxons were less than thrilled at the prospect, Sven was not only a determined man, but a man possessed of an extremely efficient army. Plus it helped that the man facing him was Ethelred the Unready – his name says it all, really.

Anyway: Sven defeated Ethelred in 1013, proclaimed himself king of England and promptly died in 1014. The Anglo-Saxons exhaled in relief and Ethelred was yet again the undisputed king (hmm) of England. Except, of course, that Sven had not only spent his years conquering other nations; he had also found the time to make babies.

Olof H 800px-Knut_der_Große_cropped

Knut (?)

One of those babies was Knut (Canute) who invaded England in 1015, determined to make himself king of England. In 1016, he succeeded, partly due to his warmongering skills but just as much because Edmund Ironside, the heir to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, up and died.
Now, while Knut had been busy in England, his brother Harald had ruled Denmark and Norway. Also in Denmark was Knut’s sister Estrid, married to the by all accounts rather impressive Ulf Jarl. Harald died young, and soon enough it was Ulf Jarl who was acting the regent for Knut in Denmark and Norway, while his wife gave birth to several sons and daughters.

As an aside, at one time Estrid was proposed as the bride of Robert I of Normandy, which could potentially have led to her presenting the Duke of Normandy with a legitimate heir. Instead, Robert made his bastard son William his heir… Neither here nor there in this post, and by now I suspect you’re thinking this extended genealogy is starting to read a bit like the Bible, but please note the lack of “begat”.

Knut died too young – but that may just be my opinion. Once this strong and competent ruler died, his extended empire fell to pieces. In Norway, Knut’s son Sven Knutsson had been king for some years but was now ousted by a certain Magnus. In Denmark, Estrid and her son – yet another Sven – decided to join forces with Magnus in return for Sven Estridson being proclaimed the Danish de facto ruler. And in England, Knut’s other two sons squabbled over the throne. Eventually, both of them died young and without heirs, which was how the English crown ended up on Edward the Confessor’s head.

In Denmark, Estrid and her son bemoaned the sad changes in their status. Gone was the mighty Danish empire, instead all that was left was Denmark, and even here Sven Estridson ruled only on behalf of someone else. This did not please either Estrid or Sven. After all, was not Sven the great-grandson of Harald Blue-tooth? It irked them both to be subservient to King Magnus – by all accounts a nice chap, seeing as he’s gone down as Magnus the Good.

Olof Hunger Harald_landing_in_York_01

Harald Hardrada as per Matthew Paris – when he set off to invade England where he bit the dust

A golden opportunity arose when Magnus famous uncle, Harald Hardrada returned from his extended stay in Constantinople. Harald was as rich as Croesus, a veteran of wars all over the place, and quite determined he should be the king of Norway. Magnus did not agree. Sven Estridsson, however, decided to side with Harald, and faced with both his uncle and his false Danish jarl, Magnus had no option but to agree to share his kingdom with Harald.

In all this upheaval, Sven chose to declare Denmark independent and spent the coming two decades in constant warfare with Harald. Mostly, Sven Estridson got his arse whipped. Mostly, he fled to Sweden to lick his wounds. And mostly, he refused to give up. Eventually, Harald tired of all this and recognised Denmark as a separate kingdom. Sven Estridson had arrived, people. At long last, the family of old Blue-tooth had reclaimed the Danish throne.

Sven Estridson was quite the chick-magnet. He liked women, they liked him, and despite being a married man – and a devout Christian, friendly with none other than Adam of Bremen – he happily fornicated with a number of mistresses, which resulted in a nursery chock-full of babies, of which 14 were sons.

Olof Hunger svenestridsson3_517121daddf2b322d4b92af0

Sven Estridson as depicted on the pillar of Roskilde Cathedral which contains him…(Photo Per Erik Tell)

Sven doesn’t seem to have had any surviving children with his wife, but then there is some confusion as to this wife, who in some chronicles is Gunhild, daughter of the Swedish king, in others Gunhild, the widow of the Swedish king. It has been suggested that Sven first married Gunhild the daughter but that she died young and that he then hastily moved over to marry the mother – which would explain why the Church expressed serious disapproval. In fact, Sven was threatened with excommunication unless he divorced his wife, and being so devout he hastily did so. Gunhild was therefore returned to Sweden where she in the fullness of time founded a monastery. Sven returned to frolicking with his concubines.

Of Sven’s many sons, five were destined to become kings of Denmark, and the most famous of his sons is yet another Knut, older brother to our Olof. When Knut became king, he was determined to rebuild the Danish empire, i.e. re-conquer both Norway and England. Strangely enough, his people were less than thrilled at the thought, and even less at the substantial taxes Knut levied to afford such a venture.

Now, if Sven Estridsson was devout, Knut was even more devout. It was Knut who insisted the bishops should have a voice in his council, it was Knut who began the building of the Cathedral in Lund, it was Knut who ordered his days round his prayers. So, on one side he was a meek lamb of God, praying diligently for the well-being of his soul, on the other he was as ambitious as his forebears, eager to make his mark on the world.

Olof H Christian-albrecht-von-benzon,_the_death_of_Canute_the_Holy

Murder of Knut – Christian Albrecht von Benzon

No matter how people protested under the more than doubled tax-burden, Knut would not relent: the money was needed, and he would have it. At long last, this led to rebellion, and soon enough Knut was fleeing for his life. He took refuge in a little church, certain that no one would kill him on holy ground. Turns out he was wrong, and so Knut was killed while kneeling in prayer before the high altar.

Immediately, people began to proclaim Knut a saint – one of his brothers, Erik, proved quite the PR wiz and managed to whip up quite the fan-base. An anointed king to be killed while at prayers – a forceful image that had the pious weeping. The leaders of the rebellion were not quite as impressed and hastened to crown Knut’s next-in-line brother. Olof. Yup, here we have him. At last. It is 1086, and he has just been crowned king of Denmark, while already people were claiming that miracles were occurring at his recently deceased brother’s tomb.

Olof was no major fan of Knut or his hair-brained schemes, which was probably why he was so quickly acclaimed as king. In actual fact, Olof and Knut had never been on good terms, and it is likely Olof would have been among those protesting against all those taxes. At the time of Knut’s death, Olof was in exile – or imprisoned – in Flanders, where Knut’s father-in-law ruled, but that did not stop people from pointing finger at him and calling him a fratricide.

As to what Olof thought of his brother’s purported sanctity, we don’t know. What we do know is that his short reign was plagued by year after year of failed harvests, and the people of Denmark starved as they had never starved before. A sign from God, the priests said. This was God punishing the Danish people for killing that godliest of kings, Knut the Holy. Olof’s subjects believed in this, muttering that this was God telling them Olof was unfit to be king, a severe come-down from the saintly Knut. Plus, of course, there were the supicions that Olof had somehow been involved in Knut’s death.

Behind his back, they started calling him Olof Hunger, and they ate bark and grass, they ate more bark and still the crops failed. And failed. And failed again. In some places, people were heard to say it was time to go back to the old ways – the really, really old ways – where a king could be sacrificed to pacify the gods.

In 1095, Olof disappeared. Well, obviously he didn’t disappear as in ‘poof’ and he was gone, but we don’t know what happened to him.

Carl_Larsson_-_Midwinter's_Sacrifice_-_Google_Art_Project

Is this what happened to Olof? A willing  royal sacrifice (Carl Larsson, Midvinterblot)

Lurid legend has it that Olof was carried off and willingly allowed himself to be disrobed and placed on an altar, there to have his throat sliced open, his blood the price demanded by God to lift the curse of failing crops. Hmm. Very much hmm. But whatever the case, Olof was no longer around, and to this day no one knows where he was buried – or even if he was buried. This is particularly strange when one considers that all other Danish kings since Harald Blue-tooth are accounted for. All of them. (And the majority lie in Roskilde Cathedral, which, BTW, is well worth a visit) So maybe there is some truth in the story that says Olof’s body was cut up in parts and buried in various corners of his kingdom so as to wipe away the blood-guilt. Ugh. But, as Saxo Grammaticus puts it, “willingly he gave himself to loose the land of its bad luck and begged that all of the guilt would fall upon his head alone. So offered he his life for his countrymen.” Poor Olof Hunger, remembered only for a sequence of famines!

Strangely enough, no sooner was Olof gone, but the famines were gone as well. And as to Knut, in 1096 he became Knut the Holy. Imagine that: a taxman made a saint!
Addendum: some things run in families, they say, which may be why Knut’s son, Charles the Good, also was murdered while at prayers, in his case down in Flanders (he was never elected king of Denmark). Likewise, when Knut’s younger brother became king, he had a son whom he named Knut in honour of his uncle. This Knut was to become the first Duke of Schleswig-Holstein and was also murdered and canonised.

Never a pawn, ever a queen

Millais 1280px-John_Everett_Millais_-_Isabella

Millais – “Isabella” (question is, which Isabella)

Okay, I can’t resist her any longer. She’s played bit-parts in some recent posts, but today’s protagonist is of the firm conviction she deserves her moment in the limelight – by birth, if nothing else, seeing as the lady in question is rather fond of her bloodlines. So, having been browbeaten into submission, I give you Isabella of France.

Some call her a she-wolf. Towards the end of his reign, her husband probably called her a treacherous, adulterous whore. And as to Isabella, she’d restrict herself to a Gallic shrug and say “I did what I had to do. For my son.” Hmm. Not only for her son…

We shall breeze through Isabella’s early years – no matter that she pouts in protest.
“But my Papa, mes frères?” she demands when it seems I intend to skip her precious Capet family. Sorry, honey: this is not about them, remember? It is about you.(And if you want to read up about her beloved frères, why not stop by here?)
“Ah, oui,” she agrees, shining up like a beacon. So, in summary, Isabella was considered the most beautiful of women, and yes she was splendidly attired when she married Edward II in 1308 at the tender age of twelve, and yes, she was upstaged by Piers Gaveston, Edward’s current male favourite.
“Upstaged?” Isabella sniffs. “Mais non. Piers was fond of me.” As was the king, to some extent. But the king loved Piers, this upstart baron who had the rest of the English nobles gnashing their teeth.

Royal 20 A.II, f.10

Edward II

Very briefly, Piers Gaveston was the second son of a Gascon minor lord. Piers entered Edward’s life when Edward was a young man not yet twenty, and an immediate – and some say unwholesome – affection sprang up between the two men. When Edward became king, he showered Piers with honours and offices, thereby alienating the other barons.
As this post is not about Piers, we will leave him to his fate for now but can conclude that ultimately the royal favourite was executed in June of 1312 – murdered, some would say – at the behest of the the barons led by Thomas of Lancaster.

Edward without Piers was an unhappy man. It was some consolation when Isabella presented him with a son and heir in November of 1312 and the next few years seem to have been good years for Isabella and Edward – she grew into her role as royal consort, and whether or not theirs was a passionate affair, there were more children. Things trundled along, the king never entirely happy with his barons, the barons never entirely taken with their king.

Enter Hugh Despenser, and the relative stability of the realm was a thing of the past. The barons cast but one look at Hugh Despenser – and his father – and shuddered. The Despensers were greedy for wealth, for land, for power, and once Hugh the younger had established himself as the king’s beloved favourite, all he had to do was snap his fingers to have his wishes come true.

At this time – around 1318 – Isabella was no longer a child. She was a mother, a queen, and was seriously disinclined to be shoved into the background by a new male favourite.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” William Congreve wrote some four centuries after these events, but yes, Isabella felt scorned – and she blamed Hugh Despenser. The barons wholeheartedly agreed, and when the king turned a blind eye to Despenser’s unlawful execution of one of Roger Mortimer’s Welsh clients, a Llewellyn Bren, things came to a head.

EHFA Wheel of fortune

That fickle wheel of fortune…

In 1321, the barons, led by Thomas of Lancaster, Humphrey de Bohun and Roger Mortimer, rebelled. The king was forced to exile his beloved Despenser – both of them. Enraged by this humiliation, the king plotted revenge. Some months later, he had managed to turn the tables on the barons. Mortimer ended up in the Tower, de Bohun and Lancaster ended up dead.

The Despensers were reinstated. The king was overjoyed. Isabella was not. Mortimer managed to escape to France, promising to return and claim what was his. Edward and Hugh shivered in dread at this threat, and England became a dark place where it sufficed with a whispered accusation of being a Mortimer supporter for a man to lose his liberty, if not his life. Isabella became increasingly isolated, living on the fringes of a court dominated by the royal chamberlain, Hugh Despenser.

It is doubtful whether Isabella and Mortimer were in cahoots already at this point in time. In my books, I have taken the liberty of suggesting they were – it makes for a better story – but nothing indicates Isabella had ever been anything but a dutiful wife. It is therefore quite incomprehensible why Edward, on Despenser’s advice, chose to deprive Isabella of her dower lands and the related income. In one move, he had angered and humiliated his wife.

Things took a turn for the worse when the brewing conflict between England and France over Gascony exploded into outright war. It was to a large extent Hugh Despenser’s advocated policies that led to the Gascony situation. It was assuredly because of the Gascony situation that Edward II exiled Isabella’s French retainers, many of whom had been with her since 1308. In doing so, he definitely pushed Isabella into the enemy camp.

There was nothing Isabella could do but bear it. No matter that she was a queen, she had little real power, and even less so when deprived of her income. But she did have her brains – and her looks – and somehow she lulled her husband into believing she had forgiven him – or at least accepted her reduced situation.

In 1325, England decided to treat for peace with France. Edward chose Isabella as his negotiator – as sister to the French king, she was an excellent choice. She was sent over to France with a household handpicked by the king and Despenser and negotiated a peace treaty which called for the English king to do homage for his Gascony lands. “I did my job,” she whispers in my head (yes, she spends a lot of time in my head). “But I vowed never to return to Edward – not unless Despenser was banished.”

Fat chance. Edward was utterly dependent on his beloved Hugh, which was why he listened when Hugh begged him not to go to France but send his eldest son instead. Hugh feared for his life should he be left behind in England. A correct assumption, I believe.

edward 220px-Isabela_Karel_Eda

Isabella, future Edward III and Charles of France

In sending his son, Edward effectively handed Isabella the sword upon which he would eventually fall. The heir to the English throne arrived in France invested with the Duchy of Aquitaine, which in itself generated an important revenue stream. More importantly, the prince’s hand in marriage could be bartered for men and ships. And finally, with the young prince at her side, Isabella could paint a potential invasion as a legitimate venture, intended to release the English from the heavy yoke of the Despensers.

By late 1325 it was evident Isabella had no intention of returning to her husband’s side – or of sending her son home. Instead, she was spending more and more time with Roger Mortimer and rumours began to fly. A match made in heaven, those two: ambitious, intelligent and ruthless when so required. Personally, I am convinced theirs was a relationship built on hot, searing passion – and I’m thinking Mortimer didn’t mind rubbing Edward’s nose in the fact that he was sleeping with the queen.

Some people seem to think Isabella was some sort of pawn. To me, it is apparent Isabella and Mortimer were equal partners – she needed his military expertise, he needed her and the prince to legitimise his actions. Besides, there was that constant, simmering attraction, that which had Mortimer heatedly declaring that he would rather kill her than allow her to return to the king. After all those years with a man who did not set her first, I believe it was a novel and exhilarating experience for Isabella to find herself swept off her feet by the charismatic Mortimer.

By betrothing her son to Philippa of Hainaut, Isabella acquired the ships and men required to invade England. In September of 1326 she landed in Suffolk, declaring that she – and her army – were here on behalf of her son, thereby making Prince Edward complicit in the rebellion that would ultimately cost Edward II his throne. I don’t think the young prince was all that happy about this – in fact, at fourteen he must have been terribly conflicted.

Instead of leading his army to meet the relatively small rebel force, Edward II fled west with Hugh Despenser. Isabella and Mortimer went after, and wherever they went, they were welcomed with open arms, the aggrieved people hoping this would spell the end of the Despenser terror. They rode together, Isabella and Mortimer. Side by side, they led their army in pursuit of the fleeing king.

EHFA 1024px-Bristol1326

Isabella before the walls of Bristol

In October, the queen and her lover arrived in Bristol. The older Hugh Despenser was behind the walls, but after a week he gave up – and was summarily tried and executed. In November of 1326, the king was captured. With him was Hugh Despenser Jr. Edward II was carried off to Kenilworth, Despenser ended up on a gallows in Hereford, dying excruciatingly while Isabella and Mortimer wined and dined in front of him.

Some months later, the king had been forced to abdicate – he’d be declared dead in September of 1327 – Edward III had been crowned, and Isabella and Mortimer confirmed as his regents. Isabella had also ensured she’d been more than compensated for her lost dower lands: her son, the new king, had been “encouraged” to grant her an annual income of 20 000 marks, equal to approximately a third of the total royal income. The lady was, putting it mildly, greedy. Note also that no equivalent grant – or anything even close to it – was made to Mortimer.

EHFA Isabella_and_Roger_Mortimer

Isabella – in armour – with Mortimer and her army

Over the coming years, Isabella and Mortimer did everything together. They travelled together, planned together, ruled together, disappeared for months at a time together. Peace and order was restored to the kingdom, capable administrators appointed throughout the realm. Except, of course, that some barons remained unhappy, chief among them Henry of Lancaster, younger brother to Thomas of Lancaster. Henry felt he deserved the role as regent. Isabella and Mortimer obviously did not agree. In late 1328, Henry rebelled, and quite a few flocked to his banner, disenchanted with the regents’ – and especially Mortimer’s – growing power.

The uprising was put down – ever the kick-ass lady, Isabella donned armour and rode side by side with Mortimer through the night to surprise Henry at his camp at Bedford. Lancaster had no choice but to submit. Mortimer and Isabella showed leniency, fining the participants rather than executing them for treason. It seemed the kingdom had finally found peace.

Except, of course, that the young king had no intention of remaining forever under the control of his mother and her lover. In this matter, Isabella showed a remarkable lack of perceptiveness. She should have recognised her own ambition in her son, seen how the boy grew into a young man – a man determined to be the perfect king, and perfect kings are rarely managed by their mothers.

When Mortimer tricked the king’s uncle, Edmund of Kent, into treachery – which led to Kent’s execution for treason – something snapped in the young King Edward. Partly, I suspect he feared that Mortimer – and loving Mama – had no intention of ever relinquishing their power. Partly, he was enraged at having been played as a pawn in the matter of Edmund. And so, our young king retired to his chambers and began to plot.

As described in a previous post, Isabella and Mortimer were ousted from power in Nottingham – quite the cloak-and-dagger stuff, involving a determined band of conspirators and a secret tunnel. Mortimer was dragged off to face trial and subsequent execution, Isabella was taken to Berkhamstead Castle, there to contemplate her manifold sins – or rather wise up to the fact that her son expected her to return all the lands and incomes she’d appropriated over the last few years. Not being stupid, she did just that – and in return she was granted lands and income equivalent to her dower, which left her more than comfortably off.

At the time of Mortimer’s execution, Isabella was thirty-five. In some aspects, her life was over, but soon enough she was a well-received guest at her son’s court. There must have been dark and dreary days when she missed her lover and the thrilling sense of power, but ultimately Isabella was a pragmatist. She’d had her days in the sun, and such halcyon days came at a price. When she died, in 1358, she chose to be buried in her wedding finery and with Edward IIs purported heart. A repudiation of Mortimer? Not necessarily – but Isabella was a Capet, the daughter of a king, the wife of a king, the mother of a king. Of course she wanted to be buried as a widowed queen!

To close this post without touching upon the fate of Edward II would be like baking a chocolate cake without chocolate. As we all know, Edward supposedly died in September of 1327 – some say murdered by Mortimer (and Isabella). I find it doubtful that Isabella would ever have countenanced murdering her deposed husband – or that Mortimer would have lowered himself to do so. In fact, I am not entirely convinced Edward II did die in 1327 – I am rather fond of the recent theories that indicate he lived abroad for a number of years. If so, maybe Isabella was one of those behind the scheme to smuggle her husband out of England and give him his freedom in return for his oath never to return. Maybe. Or maybe that’s me being romantic again. One of my major faults, they tell me…

Eating his pie in the sky

IMG_0091

Cold, but the chestnut is budding

Today was one of those nippy but sunny early spring days (at least here in Sweden) when the brightness of the day made it quite impossible not to be outside, no matter that you needed gloves and three sweaters and thick boots and a warm scarf not to freeze to death.
I did some mild gardening – which essentially means I eyed my roses but decided I dared not prune them yet and instead decimated all the ground elder I could find.

While I worked, I sang. As I was working, it sort of felt natural to sing working songs, which is why I did a rather loud, wordless rendition of the Russian National Anthem (seeing as it used to be the Soviet Union’s national anthem, and we all know just what a workers’ paradise that was, right? No. It wasn’t – see more here. But it is a beautiful, beautiful tune) before moving on to hum “You will eat, bye and bye, in that glorious land above the sky. Work and pray, live on hay, you’ll get pie in the sky when you die.” As I only know the chorus, I suppose it became a bit repetitive, and at some point my daughter groaned and wondered what on Earth I was singing.

“That,” I told her while straightening up from my bent over position, “is from The Preacher and the Slave, by Joe Hill.”
I was a tad worried she’d look totally blank – how many have ever heard of Joe Hill? – but my daughter spends a lot of her free time listening to podcasts about diverse historical subjects (I wonder where she gets that from) and so she nodded. “He wrote that?”
“He did. Set it to the tune of a Salvation Army hymn,” I replied. “They didn’t like him much for that.”

Truth is, not all that many did like Joe. At least not among the establishment. The workers he worked so hard to unite probably did like him – or at least respect him. Joe Hill was a man with a fiery dream in his heart, and such men are not always easy to like as they tend to be uncompromising and somewhat patronising towards those that “do not see their own good”.

Joe Hill Gävle 7076

Gävle, late 19th c (Gävle stadsarkiv)

But let’s start at the beginning, which means we must travel back to 1879 and the little Swedish town of Gävle (or Gefle, as it was spelled then) These days, Gävle is mostly famous for having one of the larger coffee roasteries in Sweden and for having a huge Christmas goat made of straw put up in the central square every year after which everyone makes bets as to if the goat will survive the Christmas season or be burnt to the ground before by pranksters. Quite often, it ends up burnt to the ground… And as to why Swedish people have a huge straw-made goat as a Christmas symbol, let’s just say it harkens back to our pagan roots and leave it at that for now.

In 1879, Gävle was one of the busier towns in Sweden – a place where the timber that was logged further upcountry ended up at any of the various sawmills. It was therefore a town with a large blue-collar population, and it was to one such hard-working family that the stork delivered Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in October of 1879.

The family Hägglund was devout. Both little Joel’s mother Margareta and his father Olof did their best to instil the word of God in their numerous children – all in all, there were nine siblings, of whom six survived childhood. The Hägglund home rang with music: Olof had built an organ, and all the children were taught to play and sing. Soon enough, our musically talented Joel had not only mastered the organ, but also the violin, the accordion, the guitar and the piano.

Joe Hill Gävle Tegelbärare13508

Gävle workers (Gävle stadarkiv)

When Joel was nine, disaster struck. Olof died, and just like that, his children’s future was ripped from them. Joel had to quit school and start working, seeing first hand – I imagine – just how harsh the working reality was for the downtrodden and weak, such as him. Joel’s mother did her best to keep her family together, thereby working herself into an early grave. She died in 1902, and of her surviving children, two decided to leave Sweden behind and make for the United States. The dream of America as the promised land was still going strong at the time, and Joel and brother Paul were probably hoping to make it good in a matter of months, more or less shaking gold nuggets from the trees.

Once in America, Joel changed his first name to Joe. He also learnt English at record speed and was soon so proficient in his new language he could not only deliver speeches but also write lyrics in it. One gets the impression of a man who shed his Swedish identity and embraced that of his adopted country – albeit that Joe quickly realised this new land of his bore little resemblance to paradise. In fact, just like back in Sweden, workers had it tough. Long hours, low pay and – as depicted in that old song Sixteen Tons – an ever-growing debt to the employer for the necessities in life which effectively made the labourer something of an indentured servant: until the debt was repaid, he couldn’t leave, and his pay was too low to ever allow him to repay it…

Our Joe decided it was time someone did something about this. He wasn’t the only one to think so: all over the U.S., workers were uniting and demanding fairer conditions, something that was viewed with grave displeasure by their employers. Joe’s determined efforts to organise his fellow-workers had him fired and blacklisted which is why he took the name Joe Hill and moved to California where he became an active member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

This is when Joe turned his musical talents to supporting the cause. One song after the other was written – including The Preacher and the Slave – all of them with the intention of prodding the downtrodden and illiterate into some sort of action – preferably by becoming a union member. Joe believed in a society that allowed people to earn their living without depending on the charity offered by various organisations such as the Salvation Army. To Joe, it was simply a matter of ensuring fair pay – the wherewithal to build a decent life while alive rather than wait for potential rewards in Heaven. (Despite having grown up in a very religious home, our Joe tended towards a sceptical view of religion in general, seeing in it a tool for oppression)

Joe Hill The_Rebel_Girl_coverBy now, Joe Hill had made a name for himself – as had the IWW. Depending on what side of the fence you were on, you either applauded their efforts or derided them, arguing that IWW was working towards destabilising the “natural order of things”. More and more, though, the notion that people should be paid fairly was catching on, even among the middle classes.

In 1911, Joe Hill went to Mexico together with a rag-tag band of men who were determined to depose Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz and emancipate the working class. Despite close to six months in Baja California, this early attempt at a Worker’s revolution failed dismally, and instead in 1912, Joe Hill was back in the U.S., appearing in San Diego at a rally promoting worker’s right, popping up to British Columbia to support his fellow labourers while they went on strike, and then returning to California in 1913 to take part in the San Pedro dockworker’s strike. A hectic life, one could say, and wherever he went he left songs.

The 1913 strike in San Pedro had Joe ending up in jail – as per himself because the authorities didn’t like him. After a month or so he was set free, and towards the end of the year he decided to move back to Chicago – being a Swede, I imagine he had a lot of Swedish connections in this the biggest Swedish city outside of Stockholm.

The way to Chicago took him through Utah where Joe earned some money by working in the mines. He arrived at Salt Lake City and was invited to stay in the home of some friends, and there in January of 1914, he was arrested for the murder of two men.

What happens in Salt lake City, stays in Salt Lake City,” one could paraphrase, as it remains doubtful to this day what really happened in Utah on – I imagine – a very cold January day. The facts as we know them are as follows:
On the evening of January 10, 1914, grocer John Morrison and his son Arlington were shot dead. The son managed to discharge his weapon, injuring their assailant, this as per the testimony of a female witness who heard the fleeing man mumble he’d been shot.
That same evening, Joe Hill knocked on the door of a doctor and requested his help. He had a gunshot wound which he said he’d acquired while quarrelling with a man over a woman.
The doctor put two and two together, and so Joe was arrested, despite denying any charges. In fact, he argued he’d been shot while holding his hands over his head, and the hole to his coat actually supported that statement.

Joe_hill002

Joe Hill

Now this is where some say the entire Joe Hill trial was a major set-up, intended to rid the world of this loud advocate of worker’s rights. Hmm. The death of two people seems somewhat excessive to engineer if you’re going for a set-up, but maybe someone saw an opportunity and decided to frame Joe Hill. Except, of course, that he did have a gunshot wound, and throughout the trial he refused to produce witnesses to corroborate his alibi – an argument over a young woman. This, he said, he did to safeguard her reputation.

Joe Hill was found guilty on very weak evidence. No gun was found in his possession, the few witnesses could not identify him, nor were they certain his voice matched the one they heard. One of the witnesses initially even said “that’s not him!” but went before the jury to say he thought it was Joe he’d seen fleeing the scene…Besides, Joe had been shot – no matter that this had seemingly happened while he had his hands up – and how high was the probability that two men be shot on the same evening in Salt Lake City? (Seeing as four other men were treated for gunshot wounds that same night, quite high, it would seem…) Whatever the case, Joe Hill was found guilty and sentenced to death.

A furore broke out. Labour radicals, various sympathisers and academics, even the well-known daughter of a LDS president demanded that the verdict be overturned. Woodrow Wilson spoke up in behalf of Joe, as did the Swedish ambassador, and through it all, the Utah Governor refused to budge. The man had been tried, found guilty of murder and would die.

What Joe thought of all this is difficult to know. After all, he was still a relatively young man, only 36, and I seriously doubt he willingly designated himself as a sacrificial lamb, initially confident no one would find him guilty on such flimsy evidence. But they did, and somewhere during the long months between the verdict and the execution, he came to realise he wasn’t about to get out of this alive. And so, being Joe Hill, he chose to meet his death as a martyr for the cause of workers everywhere, being the one to yell “Fire!” at the execution squad.

Three bullets to his heart later, he was dead, and one of his colleagues at IWW, Bill Haywood, ensured Joe Hill’s final wish “Don’t waste any time mourning – organise!” was fulfilled. He also took care of Joe’s body, seeing as Joe had requested he be buried elsewhere, “I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.”

Since Joe’s death a century has passed, and as late as 2011 new evidence regarding his guilt or not turned up. It is a letter by a certain Helga Erickson who admits that Joe and another Swede were both vying for her attention, the conflict getting uglier and more violent by the day. Problem was Otto Appelquist – the other Swede – was Joe’s best friend. Anyway, in Helga’s letter she describes how she found Joe wounded and he told her he’d been shot by Otto – this prior to finding a doctor.

20150921_122431

My apple pie – Joe would have loved it!

Personally, the fact that Joe never seems to have resorted to violence previously – nor is known to have carried a gun – has me leaning towards him not being guilty. Whatever the case, the IWW and the subsequent massive turnout at Joe’s funeral in Chicago ensured he became one of the first martyr’s for the Worker’s cause in the U.S. Somehow, I think that would make him smile while he sits in the sky and eats that pie he was denied down here!

Joe Hill’s fate went on to inspire numerous songs, one of the more famous being The Ballad of Joe Hill, once sung by Paul Robeson but performed below by Bruce Springsteen. Yet another thing that would have made Joel Emmanuel Häggström smile.

Of a man and his wandering head

Oliver_Cromwell_by_Samuel_Cooper National Portrait Gallery

Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper (National Portrait Gallery)

Today, I thought we’d spend some time with a certain Oliver Cromwell. Well, to be quite correct, not so much with dear Olly himself as with his mortal remains. (I call him Olly, ok? Others call him Noll. I imagine he prefers Oliver when amongst casual acquaintances, and as to what his wife calls him in private, we will never know – the man just smiles) Rarely has a decapitated head seen so much adventure as Mr Cromwell’s did – not that I think Olly cared all that much. After all, he held the opinion that once the spirit had fled, all that remained was dust.

Oliver Cromwell is one of those historical figures who triggers a black-or-white response. Either you’re with him or against him, and all those rooting for the dashing royalists (futile: they lost) will mostly be against him, holding up the execution of Charles I as the prime example of just what a low-life Oliver was.

There is no doubt Oliver Cromwell has a lot of black marks against him – I would personally consider his treatment of the Irish to be far more reprehensible than the execution of an inept king far too enamoured of the concept of Divine Right – but there are other aspects to the man. No man rises to the heights Olly did without having considerable talents, and whether or not we buy into his religious beliefs (somewhat harsh, I would say) there is no denying Olly was a devout man – and a man determined to take up arms against what he perceived as the despotic rule of Charles I.

Cromwell's head Anthony_van_Dyck_-_Charles_I_(1600-49)_with_M._de_St_Antoine_-_Google_Art_Project (1)

Charles I, by Anthony van Dyck

Olly wasn’t the only one who disliked Charles I. Initially, he wasn’t even the leader of the Parliamentarian faction, but as the Civil War went from skirmish to battles, from polite crossing of swords to fields filled with blood and gore and screaming men, Cromwell worked his way methodically to the top, this very much because of his excellent command of his men.

After the king’s execution in 1649, the monarchy was abolished and replaced by a Commonwealth. Initially, Cromwell was one of many leaders, but over the coming few years he established himself as the effective ruler of the country, and as of 1653 he became Lord Protector. Depending on your biases, you may consider Cromwell as being a man dedicated to ensuring an inclusive and relatively tolerant regime, geared at returning permanent peace to the country, or as a bigoted dictator. I lean towards the former – albeit that, as stated above, I have certain issues with some of Olly’s policies.

In general, I find Oliver Cromwell an intriguing man – on the one hand a capable and ruthless general and leader, on the other a caring family man, whose letters to his wife breathe love and affection, even after thirty years of marriage. Driven, courageous, gifted with an innate understanding of tactics – both on the battlefield and on the political stage – Cromwell was also a visionary, and a man most concerned with the state of his immortal soul.

Much has been made of Cromwell’s religious fervour and his determined efforts to clamp down on all kinds of sins. Absolutely, this was a man who believed in upholding high morals and went as far as to banish certain customs (such as Christmas) to reduce the risk of sin. But he was also a man who believed firmly in “liberty of conscience” whereby man (and woman) should be free to worship as per their own beliefs – assuming, of course, that their beliefs fell within the overall umbrella of Protestantism.

In 1658, Oliver Cromwell died. He was magnificently buried in Westminster Abbey, next door, more or less, to Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. I imagine these royal corpses were less than thrilled with their new neighbour, but seeing as they were dead, no one asked their opinion. With Oliver’s death, the backbone of the Commonwealth sort of evaporated, and after a couple of years of general confusion, Parliament decided to invite Charles II back. Needless to say, our man Charles Stuart leaped at the opportunity.

Charles_II_by_John_Michael_Wright_or_studio

Charles II

Now, if you were Charles II, it would have been very, very difficult to endow Olly with any positive traits. After all, Cromwell had been one of the most vociferous proponents of executing Charles I, and it is hard to forgive a man for having condemned your father to death – or for having forced you to live as an impoverished exile for close to a decade.

To give Charles II his due, he did not return to his kingdom to wreak revenge on all those accursed Parliamentarians who had caused him, his family, and their loyal retainers so much grief. Instead, Charles II showed admirable restraint, issuing a general amnesty. Well, with one exception: the men who had sentenced Charles I to death – the so called regicides – were all to be subjected to being hanged, drawn and quartered.

At the time, many of the 59 men who’d signed the execution order were already dead. Twenty of them, to be exact, including our Olly. Nine of the remaining 39 were to suffer  that most gruesome of deaths, a number fled abroad, and several were granted the mercy of having their sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

Three of those already dead were condemned to posthumous executions. One of these, unsurprisingly, was Olly. (One of the others was his son-in-law, Henry Ireton). While it may seem more than petty to disinter people and subject their remains to an execution, I suppose that Charles II felt there was a high level of symbolism in doing this.

Whatever the case, the whole thing was rather ghoulish. First, the bodies were disinterred. Due to his relatively recent death and a competent embalmer, Olly’s corpse was in better shape than the two other gents who were to share the gallows with him. Ireton had been dead close to a decade, and the other corpse belonged to a certain Mr Bradshaw who had presided over the court that had sentenced the former king. Bradshaw had only been dead for a year or so, but someone had screwed up with his embalming, so he probably smelled a LOT more than the other two.

Cromwell head Execution_of_Cromwell,_Bradshaw_and_Ireton,_1661

The “execution” of Cromwell – the heads are already on their pikes…

The remains were transported to Tyburn, still in their cerecloth wrapping, where they were “hanged” mid-morning. After some hours of swinging back and forth, they were then taken down and the executioner proceeded to hack off their heads. In Olly’s case, all that cerecloth required several blows with the axe before his head finally separated from his body. I imagine there was some weak cheering – the evil Protector had been justly punished.

In difference to Olly, who ensured Charles I was buried WITH his head, Charles II ordered that Oliver’s embalmed – and now decapitated body – be thrown into a pit, while his head was to be mounted on a spike and set to adorn Westminster Hall.

And here, with Olly’s bits and pieces rotting in a pit, the head slowly disintegrating on its spike, things could have ended – rather ignominiously. If it hadn’t been for that storm late in the reign of James II which toppled the stake upon which Olly’s head balanced, thereby sending the skull to crash land on the ground far below.

By some miracle, the skull did not disintegrate, and as per tradition one of the sentries – a former Parliamentarian – found the head, swept it into his cloak and carried it home. Some years later, said sentry died, and his daughter sold the head – by now not much more than leathery skin and some stubborn strands of hair attached to the bone – to an eager French collector. Here, at last, was a nice gory exhibit for his little museum.

At some point, Cromwell’s blood relatives heard of the exhibited head, and one of his indirect descendants bought his skull and brought it home to Huntingdon. Unfortunately for Olly’s head, some generations later another member of the family – something of a drunk wastrel – took possession of the skull which was now paraded around various pubs. By now, there was not all that much left of the so carefully embalmed features. Olly was missing an ear, people had gouged out keepsakes from his desiccated facial skin, and as to his hair, well… Apparently, stealing a lock from the severed head of Cromwell was something many wanted to do.

Eventually, the drunk wastrel – Sam to his pub mates – had gone through all his assets. The only single thing of value he had left was the skull of his distant relative. After signing one IOU too many, he no longer had that, his creditor a certain jeweller named Cox who walked off with something of a spring to his step, Olly’s poor head cradled in his arms. Why the jeweller wanted something as ugly as an old skull is beyond me – maybe he was an admirer of Cromwell. Or maybe he was gambling on the value of the head increasing.

Cromwell's_head,_late_1700sIn the event, Cox did make quite the handsome profit when he sold the skull in 1799. The eager buyers, a pair of brothers named Hughes, paid him twice as much as the original value of the IOU. Cox’s walk was, I assume, even springier this time round, and brothers hastened off to exhibit Cromwell’s head to the public. At the time, there were TWO heads exhibited as being Olly’s, and whatever we may think of him, he was no two-headed monster, so one of them was obviously a fake. As per the brothers, theirs was the real thing, but it was becoming difficult to prove.

The brothers died, the head changed hands yet again, this time ending up in the hands of a doctor Wilkinson. Our good doctor had the head examined and decided it had to be the genuine thing. For the coming century or so, the Wilkinson family hung on to the head, now and then showing it to specially invited guests. Somewhat macabre, IMO. “Want to join me for a nightcap and a peek at my skull?” is not a line that would have me skipping with eager anticipation…

In the 1930s, the head was subjected to a thorough examination by cranial experts. These specialists concluded that the head had belonged to a man in his sixties, had been trepanned after death – as required to embalm a body in the 17th century – and that several strokes had severed the head from the neck post-mortem. Not that many embalmed bodies would have been subjected to such treatment. Add to this the remnants of a moustache and beard, the depression left behind by a wart over one of the eye sockets, and it was considered more than likely this was, in fact, Oliver Cromwell’s rather battered head.

Finally, in early 1960 a certain Horace Wilkinson died and bequeathed the head to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Why this particular college, you may wonder, and the simple reason is that this was Cromwell’s college, back when he was young and eager, not yet twenty years old but already determined to make his mark on the world. After spending his entire childhood and youth in a household dominated by women – his widowed mother and seven sisters – college must have seemed a bright new world indeed, although Olly seems to have been one of those men who genuinely liked and respected women. Right: neither here nor there…

Cromwell's head 800px-Sidney_Sussex_College,_Cambridge,_July_2010_(01)

Sidney Sussex Chapel, photo Ardfern Creative Commons Attr

Anyway: the college decided the time had come to bury this rolling stone of a head, and so, more than three hundred years after his death, Cromwell’s skull was secretly interred, somewhere close to the chapel. No plaque marks the spot itself, but I don’t think that old skull really cares. It lies safe at last, hidden from gawking eyes and grasping hands. And as to Olly, I imagine he now and then pops by to check on what little remains of his remains, a gust of a chuckle escaping his soul as he considers just how hardheaded his skull must have been to survive all its adventures!

********************************

For those that want to know more about Cromwell’s head, I warmly recommend the entertaining – if at times fictitious – The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell – a memoir by Marc Hartzman.

On the road to Salt Lake City

SLC Gilbert Davis Munger - Great Salt Lake Utah and the Wasatch Mountains 1880

G D Munger – Great Salt Lake & the Wasatch Mountains

One of the benefits of working for a multinational company is that one gets to see a lot of places one might never have visited otherwise. Like Salt Lake City. Had it not been because of work, chances are I’d never have gone there – it sort of didn’t make my bucket list, no matter that I knew it was a city founded by Mormons back in the 19th century when everyone was persecuting Mormons. The tenacious forefathers of today’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) decided to go really, really far west, which is how they ended up in Godforsaken desert by a huge body of salt water.

wi23 George Martin SLC Ottinger (American artist, 1833-1917) The Great Salt Lake From The Foot of Ensign Peak 1864

G M Ottinger – The Great Salt lake

Not so Godforsaken, it would turn out. Once Brigham Young et al decided to settle in this arid wasteland they performed irrigational miracles, and soon enough the desert flowered. It still does, come to think of it, and Salt Lake City is not only a nicely green city, it is also one of those cities that is readily accessible to those that walk – assuming, of course, you can handle the heat. Hot enough to fry that proverbial egg – or so it feels when you’ve committed the mistake of going out for a walk around noon in July.

These days, Salt Lake City is a city pushing the million or so, and approximately 50 – 60% are practising members of LDS. Once upon a time, it was nothing but a plain of shimmering heat – and flies, because the Great Salt Lake attracts them in droves. When those first intrepid settlers crossed the daunting Wasatch mountains, they found a harsh land, the Ute Indian eeking out a sad hand-to-mouth existence.

But let’s take a step back, and try to understand just what it was that drove these men – and women – to undertake an arduous journey over unchartered terrain to start a colony in the back of beyond. The obvious starting point would be Joseph Smith, founder and first prophet of the Mormon church, but I actually think we need to look even further back, to the social tensions and unrest caused by the combination of the industrialisation and the end of the Napoleonic wars.

As a consequence of the industrialisation, people moved from the country to the cities, thereby severing their ties to the communities and customs that had regulated human life and interaction for centuries. Promises were made, a bright new world was there for the taking, and labourers came in their thousands to work in the factories – only to realise this new world of theirs was mostly dirty and harsh, endless hours spent working one machine or another. The wars at the turn of the 18th to 19th century created an increasing demand for more weapons, more cloth, and factories popped up like mushrooms.

And then, to quote Abba “at Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender”. The wars that had consumed such a huge share of the industrial output were over. Some factories had to close down, and when the men returned from the front it was to a world where there were no jobs to be found. Social unrest followed – in England, the Peterloo Massacre was a result of all this, the powers that were refusing to recognise the needs of the downtrodden.

SLC Hieronymus_Bosch_-_The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_-_The_Earthly_Paradise_(Garden_of_Eden)

Hieronymus Bosch – one vision of Utopia

When societies go through difficult times, spiritual movements thrive. Desperate people who cannot find what they need here, on Earth, turn more and more to God, hoping to find in Heaven what was denied them while alive. Others decide to take matters into their own hands, attempting to recreate perfect, egalitarian societies that emulate Utopia. And voilà, here – albeit in a very simplified form – you have the background for the Utopian movement that swept the world – and in particular America – in the 19th century.

Utopian movements were generally the brainchild of one very convinced – and convincing – person, who succeeded in attracting a number of lost and restless souls by promising them a new start in life. Some of these prophets were not interested in starting a new religion, they just wanted to create a community that lived by its own rules – like the New Harmony commune in Indiana, founded by a Welsh industrialist named Robert Owens. Others had religious overtones, such as the Amana Colony, led by the charismatic German Herr Metz, who brought his Christian flock with him from Germany to escape religious persecution and start anew, first in Buffalo, NY, and subsequently in Iowa.

And then we have the most successful of the utopian movements, namely the Mormon Church – the present day Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – which rather neatly brings us back to Joseph Smith, born in 1805. When he was about eleven, his family moved to Palmyra, NY. At the time, the American nation was in the grips of the global religious fervour sweeping the Western world – the so called Second Awakening – and various branches of the Christian church were proselyting somewhat aggressively. Joseph is described as being a seeker in his youth, but he was purportedly more than confused by all these preachers representing various denominations.

SLC images (2)

A revival meeting, H T Peters

Smith came from a devout family, and both his father and grandfather had experienced visions, so I’m guessing the fifteen-year-old Joseph took it in stride when God appeared to him in the woods, telling the adolescent to eschew all religious teaching but that contained in the Holy Book. The gospel, God said, contained the truth – the only truth. Not a controversial statement for a confirmed Christian, but it did give Joseph some spiritual guidance in the years to come.

Some years later, Joseph was visited by the angel Moroni – a new acquaintance for those only familiar with the angels of the Bible – and directed to a spot near his home where the angel said he’d find a book of golden plates containing the history of a lost American people. Initially, the angel did not allow Joseph to dig up the plates – and it was not until Joseph was twenty-two and married that he was finally able to unearth the buried treasure. The Book of Mormon had seen the light of day.

SLC 402px-Moroni3a07131u

Moroni, Joseph and the golden tablets

Very many people – 20 million, give or take – believe in the Book of Mormon. They genuinely believe that Joseph Smith found several golden plates engraved in a language akin to ancient Egyptian. They also believe that Joseph, guided by heavenly inspiration, translated these plates into English and published them. While the plates themselves disappeared once Joseph had finished the translation – Moroni took them back – as many as eleven witnesses have attested to seeing them. Personally, I remain somewhat doubtful as to the whole gold plate thing – nor do I find the Book of Mormon an easy read, the language cumbersome and repetitive – but undoubtedly many, many people find guidance in Joseph Smith’s publication.

The Book of Mormon is the story of one Lehi, who with his sons sets out on a journey across the ocean, guided by God. He arrives in present day Mexico, where the new arrivals establish a colony. Over the years, the previously so godly people divide into Nephites and Lamanites, fall into sin and war constantly with each other, and despite a visitation by Jesus after his resurrection, ultimately the descendants of Lehi destroy themselves, the whole story committed to the golden plates by Mormon, last scion of this ancient race. Well, second to last, as Mormon entrusts the plates to his son, Moroni – who, after his death, becomes an angel – and he adds a few final bits and pieces before burying them in northern USA.

Obviously, the above carried quite some resonance with the people of America, most of whom were descendants of colonists. Here was a religion rooted ON the American continent, and people were intrigued. Not everyone, seeing as Mr Smith did not have an unblemished record – he had supported himself as a treasure seeker and had even been hauled before the court for fraudulence – and many therefore saw this as yet another money-making scheme. Besides, the notion that the Bible was not the only God-given text did not always go down well, and so Smith and his acolytes saw no other option but to establish their settlements elsewhere.

SLC Joseph_Smith,_Jr._portrait_owned_by_Joseph_Smith_III

Joseph Smith

Mr Smith was a charismatic man – and a handsome man, who attracted more than his fair share of female interest. He was also driven by the need to build a good society, a world in which those that had would gladly share with their less fortunate brethren. All in all, a commendable ambition, and it is no wonder so many people joined this fledgling church, even when it meant striking out into unknown lands to build a community centred round the teachings of God and Joseph.

The Mormons spent the first few years in a somewhat nomadic existence. Several years in Ohio (the first Temple was built in Kirtland) ended under something of a cloud in connection with a Mormon-run bank endeavour that went bust and after a detour through Missouri that ended rather violently in the so called Mormon War (and with Smith kicking his heels in prison for several months), Smith and his followers came to Nauvoo, Illinois, where an impressive town soon began to take shape – by 1844, it boasted 12 000 inhabitants, making it one of the more sizeable towns in the U.S.

No matter their community-building skills, the Mormons were often viewed with suspicion by other settlers who were wary of these people with their high ideals of setting the well-being of the group before that of the individual. Plus they were doubtful to this so called religion: was it not some sort of heresy to declare there were other holy texts than the Bible? And then there was the issue of polygamy.

To this day, you say the word “Mormon”, and people will say “aha, the polygamists.” This is wrong. Modern day Mormons do not hold with polygamy, have not done so since back in the 19th century. But is undoubtedly one of those things that stick in your mind, the notion of one man surrounded by a harem of wives.

As early as 1835, Smith reputedly denied charges of adultery by saying the woman in question was his wife – albeit another wife than his original wife, Emma. Over the years, there were incidents where other men accused Joseph of having designs on their wives, and in 1843 Mr Smith put in writing the revelations that made polygamy the norm for the members of his church.

SLC EmmaHSmith3

Emma Smith in 1844

Not everyone agreed. In fact, many of the members of the church were shocked to their core by the notion – both men and women. ( One of those very upset by this was Emma Smith – rather understandably, IMO) Besides, polygamy came with the major, major drawback of being socially unacceptable. The majority of the people living in the United States of America were horrified by a practice so att odds with what the established Christian churches preached, and soon enough forces were on the move to make it illegal to take multiple wives.

In one fell swoop, Joseph Smith had handed his detractors the moral weapon with which to persecute and hound his following, and hound they did, to the point that the Mormons felt obliged to fight back. (Just to clarify: Mormons were not meek and turn-the-other-cheek types. They were more than willing to take up arms in defence of their beliefs as would be proved in the Utah War in the 1850s)

In some cases it was a matter of internal strife, former close colleagues to Smith protesting volubly (and in print) against his various doctrines – including polygamy. Smith brutally squashed the protesters, and in the following aftermath Joseph Smith was arrested and locked up. Come dark, an angry mob broke into the jail and murdered Smith. The Mormon Church had lost its founding prophet – and acquired its first martyr.

SLC 800px-Brigham_Young_by_Charles_Roscoe_Savage,_1855

Mr Young

It was because of all this unrest, coupled with a determination to live their lives according to what they perceived as God’s will, that the Mormons, now under the leadership of Brigham Young (and yes, he had many, many wives) decided to go west – into Mexican territory. The so called Mormon Trail starts in Nauvoo and snakes its way across Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming, crossing everything from wide open plains to craggy mountains. Not exactly a Sunday jaunt, this was an endless toiling months on end – for many of the faithful a journey undertaken on foot with their belongings in a handcart. And at the end, as they finally crested the peaks of the Wasatch mountains, there was the promised land: Salt Lake City, shimmering in the heat and, as of 1892, with the golden statue of Angel Moroni atop the temple. For those who had travelled for months on end, fuelled by their faith, I suppose it must have been one of the more beautiful sights in the world.

SLC 1280px-Temple_Square_October_05_(8)_c

The Salt Lake Temple with Moroni atop the capstone

Thousands upon thousands of believers made the hard trek to Salt Lake City in the latter half of the nineteenth century. People from all over the world pulled up their roots and sold everything they had to move to the desert heat of Utah, there to participate in building a better place for themselves, their children and the future generations. They came with the word of God ringing in their head, they came with the Book of Mormon clutched to their heart. They came because they believed, because they hoped.

It was a harsh life. The desert flowered only due to perseverance and hard work. The heat was an issue, some years the crops failed, and on one occasion the entire Salt Lake Valley was infested by locusts – but from somewhere swooped huge flocks of gulls and ate them all. Over the last few decades of the 19th century there were also mounting tensions between the pioneering Mormons and the Federal government of the United States, which had annected Utah from Mexico.

Eventually, some sort of accord was reached – this is when the Church of Latter Day Saints abandoned polygamy and Utah became a member state of the United States – and today, the Temple Square of Salt Lake City is a tranquil oasis of white buildings, a lot of water and magnificent flowerbeds. If you are given to pondering the greater issues of life and the hereafter, this is an excellent place to do so, no matter your beliefs. And it is my very own personal opinion that no matter what denomination God holds to – and I dare say He has a pluralistic approach – He is on occasion to be found in the brightness of the Utah sky!

The earl, his repudiated wife and the lady of his heart

In previous posts I have touched upon the fact that most medieval marriages were arranged, often with little consideration for the feelings of those involved. This was true for both the groom and the bride, but in general we feel sorrier for the coerced bride than her husband, probably because men had the possibility of consoling themselves elsewhere – not an option for the well-born lady unless she wanted to be labelled a whore.

Arundel FitzAlan-29-2

Purportedly, Richard FitzAlan

Today, I aim to introduce you to a gentleman who was as much a marital prize as was his wife, namely Richard FitzAlan, son and heir to Edmund FitzAlan, 9th Earl of Arundel, and Alice de Warenne. There are uncertainties as to when our young hero saw the light of the day, some advocating 1306, others 1313. These days, the majority seem to lean towards 1306 – but given future events it would have suited Richard to put forward a later birthdate. More of that later.

Richard grew up in turbulent times. After the death of Edward I, the political stability in England went downhill, this due to the inexperience of the new king coupled with Edward II’s penchants for favouritism. Plus things weren’t made easier by a decade of bad harvests, the constant Scottish issue (to some extent sorted by Bannockburn) and the unrest on Ireland. And then, of course, there was the matter of Hugh Despenser, the king’s favourite from 1318 or so. Our Hugh was good at alienating the other barons, most of whom regarded him as a greedy megalomaniac – a characteristic he probably had in common with quite a few of his peers.

Anyway: Richard’s father had originally sided with the barons who protested against Edward II’s dependency on Piers Gaveston. In fact, the 9th Earl of Arundel took an active part in the rebellions that ended with Piers’ death in 1312. However, in the coming years the earl grew closer to his king, and by the time Despenser took centre stage, Arundel was firmly in the royal party. To further cement his position, in 1321 Arundel married his son and heir – Richard – to the eldest Despenser daughter, Isabel. The happy couple was fifteen (or eight, if we go for the later birthdate for Richard) and nine respectively.

Arundel illustration of marriageAt the time, the wedding made perfect political sense. Edward II was inordinately fond of Hugh, and whoever the king preferred ended up with the juicer appointments. Obviously, Arundel hoped that his son would benefit from his close association with Despenser. Nothing at the time indicated that Despenser would soon be out on his ear, and the king enjoyed ruddy good health, so his reign was expected to be long and happily dominated by Hugh Despenser.

What the newlyweds thought of each other was neither here nor there. I imagine Richard as sullen and angry at being obliged to marry a girl so much his junior. Isabel was probably intimidated by the adolescent youth – but her husband stood in line to becoming one of the wealthiest men in England, heir not only to the Arundel estates but also, through his mother, to the Earldom of Surrey seeing as John de Warenne, Richard’s uncle, was a victim of a loveless marriage and lived estranged from his wife.

The years 1322- 1326 were disruptive, with the king and Despenser fighting a losing battle against the growing opposition among the king’s barons. Having the queen, Isabella of France, side with the rebels did not help. Having Roger Mortimer and Isabella invade England with the young Prince Edward, heir to the throne, at their side, definitely nailed down the coffin on the Despenser -Edward II act. Suddenly, being married to a Despenser was not so much a good thing…

Isabella w Hugh D the eder & Earl of Arundel

Arundel & Despenser the elder submitting to Isabella

In November of 1326 both Arundel and Hugh Despenser met their deaths. Arundel was supposedly executed with a blunt sword – a cruel and extended death – while Hugh’s death was made into a gory spectacle. Young Richard was suddenly the earl – except that he wasn’t, as his father was attainted, and so Richard FitzAlan was hastily reduced to a nobody and was obliged to flee the country.

At the time, his wife Isabel was pregnant, and was delivered of a son in 1327. Being married saved Isabel from the fate of her three younger sisters, who in a cruel act of vengeance were forced to become nuns, this despite their youth (they were approximately eleven, nine and seven when they took the veil). It did not save her from being viewed askance – anyone related to Despenser was suspect, and Isabel’s mother, Eleanor de Clare, was held in the Tower while her older brother was under siege at Caerphilly Castle.

In 1330, Edward III took control of his kingdom. Mortimer was executed, Queen Isabella was relegated to the background, and Richard FitzAlan returned to England and petitioned the king for his hereditary lands and income. Edward graciously reinstated Richard as the Earl of Arundel in 1331, and one would assume our hero, by now all of twenty-five or so, would take the opportunity to further populate his nursery – after all, his wife was clearly fertile.

No such attempts seem to have been made. Nor does Richard appear to have been all that interested in his son, little Edmund. Instead, the new Earl of Arundel invested his considerable energies and capabilities in serving his king. A competent leader of men, Arundel proved his worth in war as well as diplomacy, and from 1334 and onwards, one office after the other landed in his lap. Being one of the richer barons in England and blessed with a well-developed sense of business which further increased his wealth, Arundel was also in a position to offer financial services to the king. Such loans did not generate any income – the Church frowned on usury – but they came with other rewards, such as the king’s support in various matters.

Arundel Battle_of_crecy_froissart

Crécy as per Froissart

Most of the 1330s Richard spent harrying Scotland on behalf of his king. Come the 1340s, and he was instead to be found in France, an active participant at Crécy. In between these martial endeavours, it seems Richard also fallen in love. Unfortunately, not with his wife…

The woman who had caught Richard’s eye was Eleanor of Lancaster. A widow in her mid-twenties, this lady came without the Despenser stigma. She was also the mother of a son, thereby indicating she was fertile. Perfect wife material – or so Richard thought – and it helped that he seems to have been genuinely in love with her. Problem was, Isabel was still alive. Very much so, in fact, and showing no tendencies to helpfully roll over and die anytime soon.

A man as rich as Richard could afford to set his wife up in her own household, far from his. I therefore imagine that Isabel and Richard rarely saw each other, and maybe they were both content to live their separate lives. Isabel may have resented being excluded from the heady life at court – Richard would have had no desire to parade his Despenser wife – but she was financially secure and the mother of Richard’s heir.  If her husband preferred the company of other ladies, there was little she could do but pretend not to notice, and at first his infatuation with Eleanor may have appeared as just an illicit little tryst. Soon enough, it became apparent that Richard had other plans for Eleanor.

medieval tender-embrace Guillebert de Mets

Guillebert de Mets – an amorous embrace

Eleanor was of royal blood (as was Isabel), her father the grandson of Henry III (Not so sure that is much to brag about, but still…) In the early 1340s, the earl of Lancaster was old – and blind – but he was a powerful magnate and he wasn’t about to tolerate his daughter living in sin, no matter how much she may have loved her paramour.  Richard couldn’t agree more.

So, in 1344, Richard FitzAlan petitioned the pope, asking that he annul his marriage to Isabel Despenser. More than twenty years after the wedding, he now admitted to having been coerced into it – both he and his wife had been too young to be able to consent – and that “by force of blows” he’d been forced to cohabit with her. Their son was not the result of a loving union, rather the fruit of an enforced bedding.
“Hmm,” said the pope, raising a sceptical eyebrow. This is when loaning the king all that money came in useful. Edward III added his voice to Richard’s, as did Lancaster, and soon enough the pope produced an annulment – and the dispensation Richard needed to marry Eleanor, seeing as she was Isabel’s first cousin.

Just like that, Isabel was no longer the Countess of Arundel. Instead, she was a woman who’d borne a child out of wedlock – a fallen woman, no less. What she may have thought of all this is unknown, but it doesn’t take all that much imagination to picture just how humiliated she must have felt. Unfortunately for Isabel, she had no powerful male relatives to fight her corner. She had no choice but to accept the settlement offered by Richard – six manors at her disposal for the rest of her life.

As to Isabel’s son, Edmund, the annulment made him illegitimate. The seventeen-year-old who’d grown up believing himself to be the heir to the Arundel and Surrey lands was now a bastard, with little to his name but what his father might deign to give him. Richard must have given Edmund something – as evidenced by the fact that Edmund went on to marry a younger daughter of the Earl of Salisbury – but it was probably a pittance compared to what Edmund had stood to inherit. I guess the father-son relationship never recovered… Actually, occasionally I wonder if there may have been question marks regarding Edmund’s paternity – how else to explain Richard’s callous treatment of his firstborn? Or maybe it was a prerequisite for his marriage to Eleanor, that the son from his first marriage be bastardised so as to ensure it was Eleanor’s children who inherited the titles. Whatever the case, poor Edmund and his mother were out on their ear.

Arundel Nabokob English Wikipedia 800px-ArundelTomb1

Photo: Nabokov, English Wikipedia

Richard and Eleanor went on to have a long and fruitful marriage. Soon enough, the pitter-patter of small feet echoed over the massive floorboards of Arundel Castle, as first Richard junior, then a further half-dozen of sons and daughters were born. I imagine Richard was content: his career flourished, his wealth increased exponentially – when he died, he was the richest man around – and he had both an heir and a spare. On top of all this, he had his Eleanor. By all accounts, theirs was a loving relationship – as demonstrated by the beautiful – and inspiring, ask Philip Larkin – memorial to them in Chichester Cathedral where they lie, side by side, holding hands through eternity. If we’re going to be precise, though, it’s only their effigies that hold hands – their bodily remains were interred in Lewes Priory.

Isabel never got an effigy. She sort of faded into obscurity. Despite determined efforts, Edmund never succeeded to his father’s wealth and title and died a bitter and angry man. He could, I suppose, comfort himself with that he, in difference to his much younger half-brother, died with his head still attached to his body. Somehow, I don’t think it helped.

El Manco de Lepanto – or how to be a successful writer with only one hand

Miguel Honoré_Daumier_017_(Don_Quixote)

Honoré Daumier – Don Quijote

Ask people what they know about Miguel de Cervantes, and they’ll say he’s the bloke who wrote Don Quijote. Tick. Some will go on to say he and Shakespeare died on the same day, April 23, 1616, thereby depriving the world of two literary giants in one fell swoop. This is not strictly correct, but I’ll give them a tick in the box anyway. If we’re going to be precise, Cervantes died April 22 and was buried April 23. Besides, in 1616 Spain had already adopted the Gregorian calendar since some decades back, while England was still using the Julian calendar. This means that when Shakespeare cocked up his toes on April 23 in England, this was May 3 in Spain, so no, they did not die on the same day.

What few people know is that Miguel de Cervantes led a life exciting enough to qualify as a novel as fantastic as the story of the somewhat demented hidalgo (Spanish for “son of someone of means”) Don Quijote and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza. In fact, Miguel de Cervantes was a man of action, who through his adventures and their consequences ended up too damaged to continue being a man of action, and so instead he turned to accounting – and writing. Most fortunate, I would add, as a world without Don Quijote would have been a poorer world. After all, where would we be without this honourable old fool who charged windmills while astride his bony nag, so ineptly named Rocinante?

But let us start at the beginning, which in Miguel’s case would mean going back to 1547. To be quite honest, we don’t know on what day he was born, but he was baptised on October 9, and as he was given the name Miguel it is assumed he was born on September 29, the day of St Michael.

Carlos I Jakob_Seisenegger_001

Carlos V – Tizian

At the time, Spain was growing into an impressive empire. Pizarro and Cortez had conquered the vast native empires of the Incas and the Aztecs, and further to that the present king of Spain, Carlos V & I, was also the Holy Roman Emperor, thereby controlling a sizeable chunk of Europe outside of Spain. The Spanish were destined to be the most influential people in Europe – or so they thought – buoyed not only be the gold that flowed in from the colonies, but also by their faith in God. Spain at the time was a nation afflicted with religious fervour – the relatively recent efforts to regain control from the Muslim Moors had left the Spanish somewhat more fanatic when it came to matters of faith than their European brethren.

Not that little Miguel cared one way or the other: as the second son of seven children born to a rather impoverished and deaf surgeon, Miguel seems to have spent most of his childhood on the move as his father attempted to avoid his creditors and find new employment. Miguel’s education was thereby sketchy at best, but it is thought he spent some time with the Jesuits. And then, in 1569, Miguel hastily left Spain. Very hastily.

Some say this is due to the fact that there was a warrant for his arrest. A Miguel de Cervantes had seriously wounded a certain Antonio Sigura – this we know, based on a legal document dated 1569. What we don’t know is whether this Miguel is our Miguel, but the dates match, and given Miguel’s future career it is not unlikely he knew how to handle a sword already as a youth. Whatever the case, Miguel ended up in Rome, kicked his heels and gawked at Renaissance art for a while, and then – driven, I imagine, by a shrinking purse – he showed up in Naples and joined the Spanish Navy.

At the time, Spain was at war. To be correct, Spain was almost always at war – a consequence of being a big empire is that your borders are extremely long and volatile. Ask the Romans… By 1570, the Spanish King was Philip II, and he was “only” the King of Spain as Charles V chose to bequeath the Holy Roman Empire part of his patrimony to his brother rather than his son. Mind you, there was more than enough of Spain as it was, what with Portugal, the American colonies, Flanders, Naples, and an assortment of little Spanish enclaves here and there.

Miguel EmperorSuleiman

Suleiman the Magnificent w a magnificent turban (Tizian?)

In 1570, Spain’s major headache was the Ottoman Empire. Under the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire had gone from being a disturbance in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, to being a force to be reckoned with, Ottoman ships controlling most of the Mediterranean. By 1570, Suleiman was dead since some years back, and his successor, Selim II, was neither as capable nor as determined as his father. Selim is often accused of leaving most of the actual governing in the hands of his Grand Vizier, but this may rather reflect the fact that Selim was less inclined to take part personally in battle than his father was.

Whether at Selim’s direct orders or thos of his Gran Vizier, In 1571, the Ottomans invaded Cyprus. At the time, Cyprus was on a downward slope, the previously so rich – and Christian – kingdom reduced to a couple of Christian enclaves.  The little Venetian colony of Famagusta held out bravely against the besieging Turks, but ultimately they stood no chance. Despite having been promised leniency if they surrendered, the unfortunate leaders of the Famagusta colony were flayed alive and then hanged from one of the Ottoman’s galleys so as to send the Christians a clear eff-off message. Didn’t work, one could say…

When news of the fall of Famagusta reached Italy, various European countries had already decided enough was enough. The time had come to teach the Ottomans a lesson, and under the leadership of Spain, the various nations who made up the Holy League prepared to strike back.

miguel John_of_Austria_portrait

Juan de Austria

A huge Christian fleet was put together, led by the dashing Juan de Austria, Philip II’s illegitimate half-brother, and sailing under a banner blessed by the pope. Upon hearing of the atrocities at Famagusta, the gigantic navy set off, and on one of those ships sailed Miguel de Cervantes, together with his brother, Rodrigo.

The two young men were eager for battle and the opportunity to distinguish themselves, and at Lepanto the Christian ships finally encountered the Ottoman fleet. At the time, Miguel was suffering a fever, but he refused to stay below deck, hastening to join his comrades in the bloody battle. Miguel himself was badly wounded, suffering two chest wounds and a permanent maiming of his left hand.

Miguel Lepanto_f1While the two opposing navies were more or less of the same size, the Holy League had twice as many guns as did the Ottomans, and it was the guns -modern technology, no less – that would prove decisive. I suppose the fact that the Ottoman galleys were powered by slaves – most of them Christian – might also have worked in favour of the Holy League. Whatever the case, the battle of Lepanto was a rout. Of approximately 250 ships, the Ottomans lost close to 200, of which 50 were sunk. The Holy League lost 17 ships in total. And the true winners of the day were all those enslaved oarsmen, who suddenly – and happily – were freed.

The Battle of Lepanto is considered something of a watershed in European history, not because of any permanent damage inflicted on the Ottomans – there wasn’t any, they were back in good form some five years later – but because the Ottomans stopped their expansion along the northern Mediterranean cost. None of this would have mattered to poor, injured Miguel. Having your hand shot to pieces in 1571 was more or less a sentence of death what with how primitive medical science was, but somehow Miguel survived, and some months later he re-joined his ship, insisting a non-existent left hand was no problem. None.

miguel Battle_of_Lepanto_1571 (1)

Miguel went on to prove he could manage very well with only five fingers, and after several years of further service he decided to return home in 1575, together with his brother. They boarded a galley named Sol and settled down to a couple of weeks of sun, sea and the 16th century equivalent of piña colada, both of them eager to return home to their family. Unfortunately for them, the Sol was captured just off the Catalan coast, and Miguel and Rodrigo were carried off to Algiers were they were sold as slaves. Because Miguel had letters addressed to Philip II on his person, his new owner assumed he was a rich man and decided to keep him imprisoned while waiting for the demanded ransom.

Christians held for ransom were kept in the bagnios – slave prisons. During the day they were set to work, at night they were locked in. Conditions were not exactly pleasant, but compared to being a galley slave, it was something of a winning ticket. Miguel decided to escape. His first attempt failed due to the guide he’d hired abandoning them after a day. Cervantes had no option but to return to Algiers, and was there fitted with manacles and chains and thrown into a dark cell. The second attempt involved a hidden cavern, fifteen nervous Spanish prisoners, and a Spanish ship, but it all failed due to a snitch. Miguel assumed all responsibility and spent the coming five months in harsh conditions. The third attempt – Miguel was nothing if not persevering – involved sending a messenger to Oran. The messenger was discovered, and Miguel was condemned to two thousand lashes – a death sentence. However, so many interceded on his behalf that the sentence was commuted. The fourth attempt at escaping Algiers was betrayed by a Spanish monk who was given a jar of butter as a reward. This time, the bey had had enough, and Miguel was already aboard the galley that was to transport him to Constantinople when his ransom arrived.

In 1580, five years and more after he was captured, Miguel de Cervantes returned to Spain. His valour at Lepanto did him no favours: Juan de Austria was dead, and Philip II had little love for the men who had fought for his brother. Besides, Miguel was deeply in debt due to the ransom, and after some years doing this and that (including getting married, but that didn’t work out), he finally ended up working as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Navy. An insecure position, and soon enough Miguel was in jail, accused of taking bribes – or giving bribes – of tampering with the accounts, of short-changing the peasants – or the navy.

It is while he was in prison in the late 1590s that Miguel probably began writing El ingenioso hidaldo Don Quijote de la Mancha. By then, he’d already published the first book in a planned six-book series, La Galatea – and as the lot of authors has not changed overmuch, he did not become rich enough to quit his day-job. In fact, Miguel de Cervantes led a penurious existence until 1605, when, at long last, he published the first part of Don Quijote. In a matter of weeks, it was apparent the world had seen its first bestseller. People loved the story, loved the writing, loved the characters.

miguel Don_Quijote_illustrated_by_Gustav_Dore_II

G Doré – illustration of “the captive”

Those that knew something of Miguel’s own life, surely recognised the story of “the captive” told right at the end: a man, captured by Ottoman pirates and carried to Algiers, there to be held in dismal captivity – ring a bell, anyone? Of course, in difference to poor Miguel, “the captive” in Don Quijote receives some compensation for his suffering in the beautiful Lela Zoraida, the Moorish lady who falls in love with the Christian captive and subsequently organises his escape and flees with him. A Happily Ever After long before the term was coined…

Being the author of a bestseller does not make you automatically rich – it makes your publisher rich. Miguel de Cervantes was to live out the rest of his life on relatively small means, but attracted sufficient patrons to allow him to write full time. Fortunate, as otherwise Don Quijote Part II may never have seen the light of the day.

miguel 800px-Cervates_jauregui

Miguel Cervantes as per J Jauregui – but we’re not sure this is the great man…

In 1616, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra died of diabetes. With him died one of the most original and gifted literary minds the world has known. And to this day, we don’t even know what he truly looked like. We do know, however, that he was immensely proud of the damage to his left hand, proof that he, Miguel, had taken part in the greatest naval conflict of his time. El manco de Lepanto, they called him – the one-handed man from Lepanto. How fortunate for us all it wasn’t his writing hand that got shot to pieces that October day of 1571!

Post Navigation

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 574 other followers

%d bloggers like this: