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Archive for the category “Relationships”

In Memoriam – of graveyards and mothers

A recent survey here in Sweden has concluded that a majority of Swedish people feel we should spread the ashes of those that have died in the great outdoors. A gust of wind and what little remains of a human after cremation would soar upwards, spread and eventually settle back on the ground.

No need, according to this survey, for headstones. No need for a little plaque engraved with the name of the recently deceased. Just this anonymous letting go and then the living can get back to their daily lives, the hole left behind by the deceased filled in by other things, other people.

20180406_180235I like walking in old churchyards. I stroll from headstone to headstone, read the names and the dates. In doing so, I remember that they once existed, even if they’re people I never knew nor have any connection with. When it comes to my own dead, I don’t have any headstones to visit. The lease on my great-grandparents’ plot was not extended in time, and one day my mother got a letter informing her that as there had been no extension, the remains of my great-grandparents and my maternal grandparents had been dug up and reburied in the common memorial grove. She took it rather badly. Even more so when we drove all the way up to her hometown to discover just how depressingly anonymous their new resting place was. Still, at least they had their names there.

My mother died recently, so the whole issue of headstone/plaque vs anonymous resting place has been up for discussion. We didn’t have a choice: my mother had left instructions and wanted her cremated remains to be put to rest anonymously in the same grove where my father’s ashes were interred twenty years ago.

20180406_180453Those that rest in this grove do so without names. Their ashes come in cardboard boxes and are buried by the churchyard staff so that no one knows exactly where their loved ones’ ashes ended up. It is a beautiful and peaceful place, a circular space bordered by a hedge and with a couple of very old trees that strive upwards to the heavens. It’s a stone throw’s distance from one of Malmö’s central squares, and so here the dead are surrounded by life, by the sound of laughter and music, of buses and cars. They may be anonymous, they may be forgotten, but somehow they’re still part of life. I like that. My mother would have liked that.

Us human beings are on this world for a very short time, and if we’re going to be honest, very few of us leave a legacy behind. Most of us are born, live and die in obscurity—which does not mean we don’t live life in full. It just means we’re like most people: too unimportant in the overall context of things, no matter how important we are to those that love us and are loved by us.

As we wander through old churchyards we may think all those who died in the past ended up with an engraved stone commemorating their existence. That is not true. Only those who could afford a mason could commission a headstone, and that means many, many people ended up in unmarked graves. In times of epidemics, war and disaster, people were buried in mass graves. No one carved their names on a headstone. They were simply gone.

Obviously, for those most affected by a death there is no need of a headstone to keep the memory alive. Children remember their parents for most of their lives, Grandchildren may remember their grandparents, but go one generation further down the line and there are no memories. There may be stories, little anecdotes shared from one generation to the other, but these are not necessarily representative of the person in question. It’s a bit like with history in general. We study the information that comes down to us and try to build a cohesive picture of the man/woman who lived ages ago based on entries in rolls and charters. However, what we get are details—not necessarily the truly important details—round which we try to recreate what that person might have been like.

mamma simone-martini-angel-gabriel_u-l-o2ohx0It is difficult to lose someone close to you. Losing a parent brings home that there is no IF about death, it is only a WHEN. Yes, we know that rationally, but we don’t feel it until it actually happens. With my mother’s passing, I am the eldest person in my original family. Reasonably, that makes me next in line. Not an entirely pleasant thought.

What is also difficult is handling the cocktail of emotions. It is especially difficult when the presumption is that as a daughter and a mother, my mother and I were very close and loving. Don’t get me wrong: I loved my mother and I am sure she loved me. But that does not mean the relationship was an easy one. In fact, for most of my adult life I have lived under a burden of expectations I have never quite lived up to, and that is very draining.

We are all a product of our lives and my mother was no exception. From the horizon of a fifty-plus woman, I can understand why she was as demanding as she was, her constant need for affirmation and attention a consequence of a difficult adolescence. I can understand that now, but I couldn’t quite understand it as a young woman when I mostly felt that no matter what I did, my mother was not entirely happy with me. She felt alone and abandoned. I juggled four children, a full-time job and a home, and still invited her over for dinner every weekend. But she was lonely all the other days as well and I went about with a constant burden of guilt.

Guilt is an interesting emotion. It steals so much energy that somewhere along the line it starts morphing into resentment. Years and years of not being quite good enough led to a certain distancing—it had to, as it hurt too much at times to be accused of being self-centred, of never having time for my mother, the person I owed everything to as she had given birth to me.

My mother’s last few years were bad years. She suffered from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and this is a cruel, cruel condition, leaving the afflicted constantly short of breath, constantly in a state of air-anxiety. Every breath is a conscious effort, every movement is a challenge. We did what we could. We tried to show her that we loved and cared—because we did, of course we did.

We wished she would let go, because with each day her suffering increased, but my mother was not a quitter. She clung to life with everything she had. She loved life, was worried that the alternative wouldn’t be much fun. So she fought tooth and nail to stay alive, she breathed and breathed and breathed, she looked at us with panic in her eyes and breathed some more.

Talking to her about death and an eventual afterlife was not an option at this stage. She was too scared, too angry. And yes, she took it out on us—as we all take things out on those we trust the most.

It was almost—no, I must rephrase—it was a relief when the doctors concluded there was nothing more to be done for our mother. Instead, she was transferred to palliative care.
“What do you think your mother would say if we asked her what she wants?” the doctor asked me.
“My mother?” I shrugged. “She wants to live. Don’t we all?”
“Her body doesn’t. Not anymore,” the doctor said. And as our mother was no longer all there, the doctor made the decision to stop with all invasive treatments and instead to help her die with dignity.

My mother died at home. She died wearing her favourite nightdress, lying in her own sheets with her favourite painting on the wall in front of her. For the last four days of her life there was no pain, no air-anxiety. There was only peace—and resignation. I believe she died feeling safe. I hope she felt she was being called home and that in those last moments she could give thanks for a long and fulfilling life.

mamma b79e66fca0cf0d38dbbe12df843a2e40Now my mother lies in an anonymous grove. In summer, the wind soughs through the trees, through the flowering shrubs. In winter, frost crackles in the grass and in the deep, deep winter night, the stars are like miniature diamonds in the distant sky. Where she is right now, I do not know. I hope she is at peace and that if there is an afterlife, she has run effortlessly through the rolling pastures into the arms of her waiting man.

Reminiscing in the Tower

When I was a child, I lived in South America. I attended an English school, learnt to read and write in English, sang English songs and studied English history. In third grade, I had a teacher named Mrs Miller who was charged with teaching us about The Hundred Years’ War as well as with starting us in French. Mrs Miller was also in charge of the dreaded deportment classes, where tomboys like me barely scraped through. To this day, I still don’t know why it was so important for me to learn how to make roses out of crepe paper, or why it was imperative for a young girl to walk about with books on her head, sit down & stand up with those books on her head. On the other hand, I never slouch, so maybe…

Don’t get me wrong: there was plenty of Latin America in my life as well, all the way from TV shows such as Topo Gigio, Esmeralda and Papá Corazón (aaah) to salsa and cumbia and frijoles con arroz, empanadas and arepas.  But mostly it was school and Mrs Miller, to be followed by Mr Carey and Mr Wilmshurst – teachers I will never forget. I really wanted to be English—or at least British. I wanted to go to boarding school in England (too much Mallory Towers), I wanted to be part of a nation that had brought forth such men as Harold Godwinson, Richard I, Edward I and Edward III. I had a serious crush on all four of them, but I wanted to marry Henry Grosmont, the Duke of Lancaster. Unfortunately, he was very dead. In fact, all my heroes were very, very dead.

These days, I realise it was history I was falling in love with—more specifically, British history. Since then, I’ve gone on to discover the deliciously spicy history of present day Spain, of France under the Capets, of my own country Sweden. But my first love is, and will always be, British history up to 1690 or so.

My parents weren’t all that much into history, but when I was twelve, my father took me to London via Casablanca. Just him and me for a week—a most unusual occurrence. And while we were in London, we went to the Tower of London. It was love at first sight, even if I was very disappointed at discovering there no longer was a lion pit.

Tower princes-in-the-towerWhile not a history fan, my father was more than willing to listen to me as I told him about this king or that king. I think it was the first time I truly impressed him, and as the hours passed and we’d not got beyond the Salt Tower I was worried he’d hasten us along, but he didn’t. He asked questions, he asked for more details. He stood to the side as this very young me had an intense discussion with a Beefeater about the fate of the two little princes purportedly murdered by their uncle, Richard III. Afterwards, he told me I needed to become better at separating wishful thinking from the actual facts.

Some years later, 75% of my family moved “home” to Sweden. My mother was worried we were forgetting our Swedish roots (we probably were) and I think she’d been homesick for Sweden for years. My father remained behind in South America, promising that next year he’d come home to us. It took eighteen years before he did, and then he died a few years later, still relatively young.

For obvious reasons, my relationship with my father was never close. Too many years of only seeing him a couple of weeks a year, too many years of feeling abandoned by him. There he was in South America, here we were trying to cope in a country both my sister and I found unfamiliar and unwelcoming. (Swedish teenagers are about as warm and cuddly as teenagers everywhere…) Plus we had to cope with our mother’s obvious disillusion with the country she’d always painted as paradise on earth. Things had changed in Sweden during all those years we lived in South America, and our mother was as much of an outsider as we were.

Tower 450px-WhitetowerlondonStill, whenever I visit the Tower of London, I think of my father. I recall how he and I were chased down a street in Casablanca by people begging for Mr McQueen’s signature (he was an eerie double of Steve McQueen). I remember playing in the Caribbean surf with him, shrieking with joy as he threw me to land several metres away in the water. I remember the beautiful sword he made me, complete with a matching shield sporting Richard I’s arms. I recall those few heart-to-heart conversations we had when I was an adult, and how delighted he was by all his grandsons. All of that I remember as I stand on the old cobbles of the Tower, with ancient walls on both sides. Maybe that’s why I always go there whenever I’m in London, wishing to recapture that perfect day I spent here with my father, so very many years ago.


A shallow nomad


Genghis Khan with a yurt in the background

Had I lived back in the times of Genghis Khan, I would have been one of the Mongolian wives protesting loudly whenever the horde packed up and moved on.
“Leave my yurt alone,” I’d have told the fearless Mongolian warrior who was the father of my children. “Seriously, I want to put down roots, ok? You know, il faut cultiver son jardin and all that.”

I guess my nomadic husband would just have laughed. He lived for the roaming across the steppes – as did all the Mongolians. Except for me, had I been around. I like living in one place. I like sleeping in the same bed every night. Which is why it is ironic that, as of today, I have three beds I can call my own. In three different locations.

This my most recent bed addition is due to work. I start a new, exciting job tomorrow—I’ll be commuting on a weekly basis—and I’d go crazy if I didn’t have something more permanent than a hotel to spend my evenings/nights in. So despite not having one single nomadic bone in my body, here I am: three homes. Home with a capital H is the apartment in Malmö – the one with hubby in it. This is also the address the tax authorities consider my home, and we all know that if the tax authorities say something, it is useless to disagree.

Then there’s the country house – which also comes with a capital H, seeing as every rock, every piece of timber in that place calls out to my soul. And then there’s here, in the new place. As yet, this is home with a very lower case h. Especially after the last 24 hours of excitement involving an exploding microwave oven, beeping hubs and non-working dishwasher/washing machine. Also, it takes time for a place to become home – or maybe it’s a question of what it contains…

nomads-20170113_143024For me, marking a space as my home has always been related to unpacking my books. Once the book cases are up, once I’ve dusted and sorted my babies, Anna is finally in place. Yes, I want a pic or two of my kids, it’s important the two pictures my dad painted are there, but mostly it’s my literary treasures, from Kristin Lavransdotter, through Gösta Berling’s Saga, Strindberg’s collected short stories to Somerset Maugham, my Anthony Burgess books, all my historical fiction books all the way to Miguel Cervantes, Vargas Llosa and García Marquez.

These books are pretty well-travelled. They smell of old dust, of the occasional close encounter with damp. Now and then, I find a fragile sheet of paper stuck between the pages, and some of them are heavily annotated in the margins. Some are falling apart—more or less. My Tolkien books have so much scotch tape holding their spine together, I can no longer read the titles. The same goes for my Sharon K Penman books. Doesn’t matter: I recognise them anyway. In the dark.

nomads-20170115_155102Obviously, I can’t take all my books from Home to home. That would make Home home, and I do want Home to remain being Home. So I compromised and took a couple of books with me. That helped a bit. They look a bit pathetic, standing to one side of my little bookshelf, but I comfort myself with the fact that there is room for more books. Then I went out and bought myself a new teapot-slash-thermos. That helped a bit more, as did the matching mugs. Then I bought some candlesticks, added candles, and the new place was at least a home. And I stand revealed as something of a materialist, don’t I? Things. Is that what makes a home?

I think most of us would say no. And yet all of us have homes full of things. Ah, some would say, but my things come with memories. Sure they do – some of them. My books, for example, are all tied to the memory of reading them – in some cases several times. But the lamp I bought at Ikea because it was quirky, my new teapot-slash-thermos (very pretty, crap as a teapot: form over function, peeps), the roasting pan I bought some weeks ago because the old one was simply old—they are rather a consequence of that materialistic gene, I fear. And I don’t want to be a materialist. It makes me feel shallow. Oh, God: a shallow materialist—what can possibly be worse than that? Oh, right: being a nomad.


Mongols doing some amassing

Mind you, nomads can also be materialistic. Take, for example, that Mongolian yurt back in the 12th century, one of the many yurts following the Mongolian horde west across the steppe. This was glamping before glamping had been invented, as yurts were much more than a tent. It had walls and a door and a roof. It had carpets and pillows and furniture and, in some cases, even a floor. And as the Mongolians conquered, they amassed belongings, showing us that materialism was going strong already back then.

Come to think of it, materialism has always been going strong. Us humans have had an urge to collect things since our cave-living days. Initially, because one never knew just when that piece of flint or length of rawhide might come in useful. Over time, because he who had three flints was considered much better than he who only had one. Phew. I need not worry about being shallow—I am merely acting on instinct—which is why, of course, I just HAD to buy new satin sheets for my new apartment.

Despite the sheets and the candlesticks and the odd books, it will take time for my new home to become Home. You see, the truly fundamental part is missing: my man. And not a thing in the world can compensate for the fact that when I go to bed tonight, I’ll go to bed alone.

The death of democracy as we know it?

Rarely do I post about other things than history, but for once I’m going to go a bit political on you. Bear with me – and if you don’t, welcome back in 2017 when one of my first posts will be about a medieval Spanish king and his passionate love for a woman who probably never existed. 

In the very distant past, the Ancient Greeks pioneered an innovative approach to ruling their world. In the city state of Athens, all citizens (and we need not complicate things by discussing who were and who weren’t citizens) had an equal say in who should lead their city. Political campaigns were run to collect votes for this or that candidate, and on many issues the citizens voted directly – as is still done in the Swiss cantons.


Such democracy requires that a) the people with the right to vote exercise this right b) that the voters inform themselves as to the alternatives. It also requires an element of altruism, in that those that have need to recognise that in a democracy they might be required to share their wealth. After all, if you offer universal suffrage, somewhere along the line the impoverished voters will feel entitled to tax to their benefit, i.e. higher taxes on those that can afford it to pay for—as an example—public schooling. Which in turn leads to higher level of education, more wealth, more political interaction. Welcome to the welfare state, people!

If we’re going to be really, really drastic, we could argue that democracy in itself is a precursor to a milder form of socialism, creating a society in which the downtrodden can aspire to better lives than their parents, a society in which the gap between the minority very-very-rich and the majority not-at-all-rich is not quite as huge as it presently is in various democratic countries. Obviously, those who belong to the very-very-rich don’t always embrace this development. Therefore, the very-very-rich (and the closely related “establishment”) don’t always have a vested interest in pushing people to exercise their voting rights—rather the reverse, actually. And seeing as the poor and weak are often too poor and weak to fight for their own rights, you end up in situations where a substantial minority of all voters don’t vote. It’s too much of an effort to register, it takes too much time, thereby denting income.

Once the voter has claimed the right to exercise the right to vote, it is time to inform oneself. I imagine in Ancient Athens this was a question of going to debates, of listening and asking questions of the various candidates. In our modern democratic world, information was until recently gathered through reading newspapers. These days, many people have neither the time nor the inclination to read lengthy articles debating various sides of complex issues. No, today voters are happily misinformed by going for the simplified social media versions—of everything.

The problem with such information is that it is rarely complete. Or true. From the perspective of a future democratic world, 2016 has not been a good year. It is a year in which flagrant untruths have been blatantly used to garner votes – and even worse, the voters have swallowed these falsehoods. Why? Because they haven’t done their homework – or they don’t care. They have allowed themselves to be misinformed and are thereby not taking their duties as voters seriously.

Take, for example, the debate preceding Brexit in the UK. Those who represented the leave side happily spouted lie after lie – starting with the huge lie re how much money they were going to channel to the NHS (The UK National Health System) once the UK was freed of the chains of slavery binding it to the EU. When people objected to these lies, they were waved off as “experts” – and who on earth wanted to listen to an expert? Er…

It is symptomatic of just how uninformed the UK voters were that on the day AFTER the election – i.e. when it was already too late – the single most googled term in the UK was “what is the European Union”? Bravo, dear voters: you really did your homework, didn’t you?

Whether or not leaving the EU will be good or bad for the UK remains to be seen. And maybe the result would have been the same even if the voters had read up on the facts beforehand. What worries me is how the debate was run, just how blatantly some of the so-called leaders lied – and how gullibly the voters sucked it all up. If voters can’t be bothered to truly inform themselves about something as important as leaving a union which has as its prime purpose to safeguard peace and democracy in Europe, it doesn’t bode well for the future. If voters decide to ignore the “experts” in favour of the populists, then the voters are not living up to their side of the bargain, which is to exercise their vote AFTER they’ve informed themselves. Not the other way around.

After Brexit came the presidential election in the US. Yet another example of one lie atop another, with one of the candidates making sweeping (and untrue) statements about everything from crime rates among immigrants to President Obama’s citizenship. One long, endless string of lies, and most of them were easy to fact-check—but the voters chose not to. Instead, the voters elected Mr Trump, who had he been a wooden doll would have had a nose long enough to scratch at the moon.

In both the Brexit election and the US Presidential election, truth was clearly unimportant. People, it seemed, didn’t care about the lies. Some of these lies went on to become “truths” simply by being repeated so often. Some UK citizens seemed to truly believe the EU ran their country. It doesn’t. The UK is governed by its government and its Parliament. Always has been. In Mr Trump’s case, it became a truth that 17 million illegal immigrants had to be deported, seeing as they were more or less single-handedly responsible for crime in the US. Er…It was also a truth that Ms Clinton was going to jail should Mr Trump win. Er…Plus, of course, it is a “truth” that Mr Trump won an unprecedented victory. He didn’t. Ms Clinton won the popular vote with close to 3 million votes.

Even worse, both the US election and the Brexit debate quickly degenerated into a “we vs them” discussion. “We” were the group presently being addressed – “them” all the others. “We” were the victims, “them” the perpetrators of everything from globalisation to increased violence. Often, “them” were Muslims. Or immigrants. Defining immigrants as “them” in a country like the US is preposterous, as ALL Americans, bar the Native Americans, are per definition immigrants. That is what has made the US into the strong, vibrant country it is. Embracing diversity is what makes a country great, people. And yes, welcoming immigrants and refugees comes with huge challenges, but blaming them for everything that is wrong is not exactly the way to handle it, is it?

The truly worrying thing about the “we and them” debate is that it can be tailored infinitely. In one discussion, the “them” are Muslims – all of whom are potential terrorists and should therefore be deported back to where they came from, no matter that they were born and bred in Leicester. In another, “them” are the LGTBQ community – after all, they’re not like the wholesome heterosexual “we” are they? Next step, “them” are the immoral little sluts who opt for an abortion rather than giving birth to an unwanted child. Scary stuff, people, especially when the voters no longer bother about informing themselves, thereby taking the statements made about “them” at face value.

So how could populists like Mr Farage, Mr Johnson and Mr Trump carry the day? Have voters become lazy? Stupid? Don’t they care about democracy anymore?

A democracy only works if it is built on an element of trust. I elect you to represent me and my interests – and if you don’t do that, I’ll not elect you next time. However, over time people have lost faith in their representatives – nor does there seem to be much difference between one party or the other. Which is why, I assume, only 50% of the US voters bother to vote.

In the US, Mr Trump picked up considerable votes among the white, formerly middle-class, voters who have seen their relative wealth eroded over the last few years and had little reason to believe the “establishment” would do anything to help them. After all, the establishment rarely does. Ironically, Mr Trump is a member of the privileged elite which rarely shows any inclination to share, so I’m not exactly holding my breath…

Maybe 2016 should be a wake-up call to all those who profess to believe in democracy – despite its inherent weaknesses. Maybe it is time to face up to the fact that in the perception of the voters, the politicians no longer serve the voters’ interests: they serve their own. Fertile ground for populists who exploit the disgruntled…


Maybe it is time to remember that our forebears fought for the right to vote. To them, the principle of governing themselves was so important they were willing to risk imprisonment—even death—to defend it. In non-democratic countries throughout the world, people still fight for their right to make their voice heard, but we, the blasé citizens of the western world, we can’t really be bothered, can we? After all, being a responsible citizen in a democratic country requires more than surfing the internet and liking the odd post. Much, much more. Like getting off our backsides and going to vote – after we’ve informed ourselves. Mon Dieu, as the French would say. Let’s hope they say more than that next year, thereby relegating Marine le Pen and her non-inclusive, divisive politics to the margins of history.

St Lucia: the saint who lost her eyes and found the light


Note the eyes on a stalk!

This is a post I wrote some years ago, but seeing as St Lucia’s day is an annually recurring event, I’ve decided to review, rewrite somewhat and republish ….taa-daa….today, seeing as it is December 13. Again.

For most Swedish people, Christmas sort of starts on December 13.  Today we celebrate St Lucia’s day, and I would argue that for very many Swedes, this day comes in top three under the category “traditional feast days”. Why? Because of the light. St Lucia is celebrated when winter is at its darkest. Eight days to go until the midwinter solstice, until the year finally turns. Prior to switching to the Gregorian calendar December 13 WAS in actual fact the shortest day of the year.

Anyway: this time of the year, we rise in darkness, we prepare breakfast in darkness, we drop our children off at school in darkness, we arrive at work in darkness. There is a glimmer of daylight from mid-morning until mid-afternoon, but by four (at the latest) we are back in darkness. Christmas comes as a necessary break in all this black, allowing us to light candles and huddle round the gasping little flames.

And then there’s St Lucia. luciaThis is the day when Swedish children don long white nightshirts, the girls use red ribbons or lengths of tinsel to belt the shapeless garments, the boys don’t. Instead, the boys wear white conical hats, decorated with golden stars, and in their hands they carry rods to which a big golden star has been affixed. These are the “star boys”. Most of the girls carry a lit candle in their hand, and one lucky girl carries a crown of lit candles on her head – she is the Lucia. From personal experience, I can tell you it hurts when the hot candlewax drips onto your scalp, and still most Swedish girls desire to carry that flaming headgear at least once in their lives.

So, dressed in white, carrying candles and stars, the children form into processions and start to sing. Songs about how Lucia will drive away the dark, how in the darkest hour of midwinter a Holy Child was born. Songs about believing that one day, soon, the light will return to earth. Most apt, let me tell you.

img_0214In general, the Lucia festivities take place around seven o’clock in the morning. Proud parents, younger siblings and other relatives sit in the darkened rooms, whispering to each other. There is a smell of newly brewed coffee, of gingerbread biscuits and the traditional Luciabuns, bright yellow with saffron and studded with raisins.

From the corridor comes the sound of shuffling feet, of suppressed giggles, and then, at last, young voices break out in song. The Lucia enters – slowly, given her candles – and her handmaidens follow while the star boys come in last. The gloom of the room is lit by this procession of light, and in their benches people smile and nod (mothers wipe their eyes. Mothers do that a lot when their kids perform), most of them mouthing along with the songs. Saint_Lucy_by_Domenico_di_Pace_Beccafumi

So why St Lucia? Why is a Sicilian saint so revered in  country she definitely never visited or even had heard about? It’s all about the eyes, people. For those that don’t know, St Lucia was a young, very pious woman, a firm adherent to the newfangled Christian church. It might strike us as odd to reflect on the fact that there was a time when Christianity was considered nothing but a weird sect – very weird, what with this propensity to meekly accept the tribulations of life on earth while aspiring to come to heaven after death.

I dare say St Lucia’s widowed mother tore at her hair and moaned in desperation when her adolescent and impressionable daughter wanted to consecrate her virginity to the Christian church, deciding to give away her dowry to the poor. Not at all what St Lucia’s ailing mother wanted for her pretty daughter, and so she arranged a marriage with a young man from a wealthy – but pagan – family.

Contracts were signed, and the prospective bridegroom rubbed his hands with glee at the thought of increasing his considerable fortune with Lucia’s sizeable dowry. Lucia was less than thrilled, and managed to convince her mother to go to the nearby shrine of St Agatha and pray. While there, Lucia prayed for her mother’s recovery, and miraculously the chronic illness was cured (well, that is what normally happens at the shrines of saints, right?) Lucia was happy, her mother was happy, and Lucia succeeded in convincing her mother it was best to give away her dowry to the poor – a gesture of gratitude for the mother’s miraculous cure. The poor were obviously VERY happy at being the benefactors of so much largesse. Lucia’s intended bridegroom was very unhappy – pissed off, if we’re going to be brutally honest. After all, he had a signed contract that more or less made him the owner of all those jewels now being handed out to all sort of riff-raff. 478px-Lotto,_pala_di_santa_lucia_00

The bridegroom protested to the pagan authorities, who were most upset at discovering a subversive Christian in their midst. Lucia was dragged before the court and ordered to sacrifice to the emperor. She refused, setting that pretty mouth of hers in a stubborn line. (I’m guessing here. For a story to make it down close to 17 centuries, I bet you Lucia was quite the looker. Had she been ugly, no one would have bothered to record this story of woe – after all, some things never change…)

The pagan governor, Paschasius, waved his arms about and screamed a bit. Lucia lifted her shoulders in a resigned shrug. No matter what he threatened her with, she had no intention of sacrificing to a false god.
“False?” squeaked Paschasius, his voice floating into falsetto. “How false?”
“The emperor is a man, as fallible as you or I. There is but one God, and his son is Jesus Christ,” Lucia replied, her features acquiring a dreamy look.
This is when Paschasius pulled out all the stops, ordering his soldiers to take the young girl to a nearby brothel and there defile her. Nice guy, this Paschasius.

“You can try.” Lucia sat down on the ground. The guards heaved. The guards pushed.  The guards pulled. Little Lucia could not be budged, making one think of  “and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men,couldn’t get Humpty up again“, except, of course, that Lucia was a slender girl – a very pretty, slender girl. (Once again, I’m guessing. Maybe Lucia was a very pretty, very plump girl, nice and round, like. But generally, the heroines of these ancient stories aren’t – plump, I mean.)

The guards gave up. Paschasius grumbled a bit about having to skip the defilement part, but had his soldiers stack fire wood around the sitting girl.
“I’ll burn you alive if you don’t sacrifice to the emperor,” he said.
“Do your best,” Lucia said calmly, adjusting her hair. Tapers were brought and held to the wood. Nothing happened. Oil was poured on the wood, more tapers were brought. Nothing happened. By now, Paschasius was jumping up and down in frustration. Lucia just smiled. st lucia_sword

So far, the story is more or less the same throughout the ages, but sometime in the medieval times, someone decided the story needed some further spice, which is when the rather gory detail of putting Lucia’s eyes out were added. Paschasius, as per this version, seemed to think her eyes were adequate compensation for the sacrifice she refused to perform on behalf of the emperor. He was probably motivated by spite, what with not having been able to defile her OR get a nice, bright blaze burning around her. This uncooperative bonfire is also the reason why eventually Lucia was killed with a sword, blood staining her white linen dress – in both versions of the story. (And yes, this is a bit illogical: they couldn’t defile her or burn her, but kill her with a sword worked fine. As was poking her eyes out first…)

In the “let’s poke her eyes out” version, her eyes were miraculously restored to her body when her family set off to bury her – a gift from God, giving her the light of her eyesight back. The more cynical amongst us may consider this a belated gesture, what with Lucia already being dead and all that, but at least she was now buried with her beautiful eyes (blue, I think. No wait; she was Sicilian, right? A brilliant light brown, the colour of well-aged whisky). Anyway, because of this eye thing, Lucia became the patron saint of the blind, and what is more blind than man, stumbling through the eternal darkness of midwinter? Ergo, St Lucia was venerated on the day that traditionally was the darkest of the year, the midwinter solstice that as per the Julian calendar fell on December 13. Today.


I began this dark December day huddling before the TV, surrounded by lit candles as I watched the televised Lucia procession. Voices raised in song, a light that grew brighter as the Lucia approached, her handmaidens in tow. All the songs I know by heart – most Swedish people do – and once I was the Lucia, striding down a darkened church with candles like a fiery crown upon my head. Today we sing of the returning sun, of darkness that recedes as dawn grows brighter. No wonder us people of the north love our St Lucia, this harbinger of light in the pitch-black of a winter night.

As an addendum, I’d like to remind all those Swedes who walk about thinking that Lucia has to be blond and blue-eyes, that the original Lucia was neither blond nor blue-eyed. Chances are she had dark hair, dark eyes and a delicious olive tint to her skin. Just sayin’…

The good reasons behind strict courtship rules

MG 2014 posterToday, I turn my blog over to Maria Grace. She has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, but those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate in Educational Psychology. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

She has one husband, two graduate degrees and two black belts (which I find most impressive!), three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, six new novels in the works, attended seven period balls, sewn eight Regency era costumes, shared her life with nine cats through the years and published her tenth book last year. Phew: just reading that makes me exhausted, even if I keep even pace both on the sons and books front. No nieces, though…Anyway: without further ado I turn you over into Maria’s capable hands – did I mention she’s something of an expert on the Regency era?


I’m so excited to be visiting with Anna today. I love her blog and all the wonderful stories she tells. Often, she writes about the consequences and intrigues associated with arranged marriage.
I can’t say I long for a return to those days myself, but it is really interesting to look at what a tizzy parents went into when society moved away from the practice.

MG pnp-man-courting-woman Felix Friedrich von EndeUntil around 1780, arranged marriages were de rigueur. It made sense – more or less – considering that marriage was a business and often political arrangement. But then the Enlightenment happened and philosophers made a mess of things that were working perfectly well – more or less.

The pesky notions of reason and individualism over tradition got people thinking that perhaps personal preference should play a role in one’s marriage choices. That led to considering love and – ack! – romance as possible players in the field and that lead to something near panic for parents and anyone else who cared about social order and stability.

But never fear, enter the conduct literature writers to rescue humanity from itself. Authors readily offered advice on how to judge character, how to behave in public toward the opposite sex, how to attract the opposite sex, even the proper way to make or refuse an offer of marriage.

Out of this advice, strict rules for behavior during courtship developed. The rules safeguarded both sexes. Gentlemen required protection from being trapped into matrimony and ladies needed to be guarded from becoming attached to men who were not honest in their intentions toward them.

Arguably, the cardinal rule of courtship became to seek compatibility and friendship rather than romance, since the former might stand the test of time and could provide far more enduring and stable relationships than fleeting passion. Young men were counseled not to embark upon courtship lightly, and young women not to give affections too easily.

MG regency englandI cannot even understand how it is flattering to a man’s vanity, to gain the affections of a deserving and too credulous woman, whom he never intends to marry. He ought to lose more in his character for integrity, than he can gain as one successful in courtship. His manner of address, consisting of a visible attachment. While his heart is not engaged, is most detestable hypocrisy. And to say that he is not bound in honour, because he has subjected himself to no specific promise, is the highest aggravation of his guilt. Were he to act in the same manner in his common transactions with mankind, his character would be forever blasted. (Gener, 1812.)

A woman is often placed in a very delicate situation. She may be distinguished by a kind of attention which is calculated to gain her affections, while it is impossible to know whether the addresses of her pretended lover will end in a serious declaration. (Gener, 1812)

Female conduct manuals universally cautioned women not to be forward in their dealings with men or to encourage their advances. A woman must never confess her feelings until absolutely convinced of his intentions. Some went so far as to insist a woman must never look at a man unless he made the first advance.

Other rules to help squelch the possibilities of romantic passion included forbidding the use of Christian names, paying compliments, driving in carriages alone together, correspondence, and any kind of intimate contact.

Young, unmarried women were never alone in the company of a gentleman or at any social event, without a chaperone. (Who knew what kind of ideas she or he could get!) Except for a walk to church or a park in the early morning, a lady could not even walk without an appropriate companion. (Of course a potential suitor would not be appropriate!) Though a lady might drive her own carriage or ride horseback, if she left the family estate, a groom must attend her.

Millais The-Black-Brunswicker_John-Everett-Millais

Not the done thing…

Naturally, all forms of touching were kept to a minimum. Sakes alive, what kind of unrestrained behavior might that lead to? Putting a lady’s shawl about her shoulders, or assisting her to mount a horse, enter a carriage or climb stairs were acceptable. A gentleman might take a lady’s arm through his, to support her while out walking. But he must never try to take her hand, even to shake it friendly-like. If he did, she must immediately withdraw it with a strong air of disapproval, whether she felt it or not.
Conversations had to be extremely discreet leaving much to be interpreted from facial expressions alone. Even those were proscribed by many advice writers.

There is another Character not quite so criminal, yet not less ridiculous; which is, that of a good humour’d Woman, one who thinketh me must always be in a Laugh, or a broad Smile, because Good-Humour is an obliging Quality… . (The Whole Duty of a Woman, 1737)

Not surprisingly, it was difficult for either party to truly discern the feelings and intentions of the other. Only at the moment an offer of marriage was made could a man declare his feelings and a woman her own in return. This was arguably the desired effect and what makes it all sound so laughable to modern viewpoints.

But there were some genuinely good reasons for all of the restrictions. While philosophy did alter some perspectives about marriage, some things did not change. At the core, marriage was still a business arrangement, men and women each bringing their part to the matter. Real property, dowries and fortunes, trades, skills (including those of keeping house), social connections (of course those might be good or bad, just saying… ) and the provision of heirs were all very real commodities in the transaction. One needed to make sure that arrangements offered equitable compensation as it were, for all involved and no one, including the extended families, was being shorted in the exchange.

It light of all the fuss, modern minds might argue in favor of simply staying single and being done with it all. However, in the day staying single was definitely not a good alternative. Society did not look with great favor upon the unmarried adult. Spinsters were considered the bane of society, but bachelors were also looked down upon as still not having come into their own in society, not quite fully participating in adult life. (Vickery, 2009) A great deal rode on establishing oneself in a comfortable married state.

MG signing-the-register-by-edmund-leighton-blairIf this weren’t enough reason for anxiety, add to it that divorce was nearly impossible to obtain. It was entirely possible that one might have only one opportunity to ‘get it right’ as it were. Granted, widowhood was common enough, and some married multiple times because of it, but it probably wasn’t a good thing to count on.

No wonder parents were in a dither that their children might make a tragic mistake choosing a marriage partner. With so much on the line, can you really blame them for supporting rules designed to keep runaway passions at bay and encourage level-headed decision making?


Thank you, Maria, for that informative piece. Must say I feel relief at not having had to negotiate such convoluted courtship rules 🙂 Now, Maria does not only write posts, she also writes books – many of them Jane Austen spin-offs, and having read one or two I can assure you she does that very well. Her latest release is called The Trouble to Check Her, and here we have that disobedient sprite, Lydia Bennet having to handle the consequences of her reprehensible behaviour (well, as per the standards of the day) in Pride and Prejudice. As per the blurb:

MG The Trouble to Check Her MEDIUM WEBLydia Bennet faces the music…

Running off with Mr. Wickham was a great joke—until everything turned arsey-varsey. That spoilsport Mr. Darcy caught them and packed Lydia off to a hideous boarding school for girls who had lost their virtue.
It would improve her character, he said.
Ridiculous, she said.
Mrs. Drummond, the school’s headmistress, has shocking expectations for the girls. They must share rooms, do chores, attend lessons, and engage in charitable work, no matter how well born they might be. She even forces them to wear mobcaps! Refusal could lead to finding themselves at the receiving end of Mrs. Drummond’s cane—if they were lucky. The unlucky ones could be dismissed and found a position … as a menial servant.
Everything and everyone at the school is uniformly horrid. Lydia hates them all, except possibly the music master, Mr. Amberson, who seems to have the oddest ideas about her. He might just understand her better than she understands herself.
Can she find a way to live up to his strange expectations, or will she spend the rest of her life as a scullery maid?

Buy links:

Should you want to know more about Maria and her books, visit her excellent blog, Random Bits of Fascination, her other blog Austen Variations or her Amazon page.

Pulling the wool over Papa’s eyes

Marriage love Manesse1I have a good friend who has a most prosaic approach to life. On one occasion, we were discussing marriage, and my friend causally said that he was convinced a successful marriage had more to do with how you approached it than who you were married to.
“Eh?” I said, somewhat taken aback.
“I’m just saying I could probably have had as good a life with another woman – and you with another man.”
“I love my husband,” I said – rather stiffly.
“And I love my wife.” He smiled slowly. “But I could have loved another wife just as much.”
Well, the conversation degenerated into a heated discussion for a while, but by the time we’d finished our respective tea and coffee, I had to grudgingly admit he was right. There is no single Mr Right or Ms Right for any of us. There are multiple alternatives, and it is how we work with our relationship that will define its long-term viability – however unromantic that sounds.

Of course, most of us prefer to see marriage/relationships as something pink and fluffy. Us modern Western people are suckers for romance and therefore marry for love. Us modern Western people divorce each other when the love runs out – not an option only some generations back.

ISOTS launch picIf your expectations of marriage include sizzling passion and everlasting romance you will obviously be disappointed three years into your relationship when hubby clambers into bed with his socks on, mumbles “God, I’m tired” for the eighth night in a row, and turns his back on you. (Contrary to some beliefs, men are just as good as women at complaining about “headaches”) As a modern person who considers love and passion to be a mandatory ingredient in your relationship, chances are you’ll feel seriously short-changed. Chances are you’ll conclude the love is gone and so the relationship is terminated. Onwards and upwards to new, greener pastures… Good luck!

Historically, those new greener pastures were out of reach for most people. And if you belonged to the noble, wealthy classes no one would consider love a relevant aspect when discussing a marriage. Children – both sons and daughters – were useful assets to cement alliances and increase wealth. To us, this all seems very dreary. I am sure it could be, but I am also certain quite a few of these arranged marriages were quite happy. After all, it is all about expectations – and your approach to things.


Edward & Eleanor

One example of an arranged marriage that by all accounts developed into a strong, loving relationship is that of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile. They were wed for political reasons – Henry III needed to shore up his Spanish alliance – and no one was all that concerned about the feelings of the fifteen-year-old groom or the thirteen-year-old bride.In this case, the bride and groom took a liking to each other, and over the thirty-six years of their marriage were rarely apart – Eleanor accompanied her husband wherever he went. While fortunate in love, they were less fortunate when it came to their children. Eleanor was brought to bed of fourteen to sixteen children, of which only six reached adulthood, five daughters and one son.

His own happy marriage should have made Edward eager to consider such things as compatibility and potential for future happiness when arranging his daughters’ marriages. Not so much. Like his contemporaries, he used his daughters to create relevant alliances.

cr-GuillaumeVrelant-TheMarriageOfArthur-Guinevere 15th centuryOne of his daughters, Joan of Acre, he married off to Gilbert de Clare, earl of Hertford and Gloucester. The earl was one of the richest and most powerful men in England, and Edward hoped to tether him to the throne by wedding him to his daughter. That Gilbert was thirty years older than Joan was neither here nor there – at least not to Edward. What Joan thought of all this we don’t know, but Gilbert seems to have gone to some lengths to woo his young bride.

They were married in 1290 – the bride was eighteen, the groom pushing fifty. Five years and four children later, Gilbert was dead. Joan, however, had done her duty, giving her husband a precious son and heir as their firstborn.

One would have thought Edward would give his daughter a break: recently widowed and with four young children, maybe she could be allowed to find her second spouse on her own. Edward did not agree. Joan was still young and obviously fertile, which made her even more of a marital asset. Edward cast a beady eye over the prospective suitors and nodded approvingly at one Amadeus, Count of Savoy, a man more than twenty years Joan’s senior.

medieval sexJoan, however, had other ideas. A year or so after her husband died, she found herself attracted to a certain Ralph de Monthermer. Ralph was no great catch, he’d been one of Gilbert de Clare’s squires and had no major future prospects. But he was only two years older than Joan, young and fit, and I dare say she preferred the idea of wedding him to being sent off to please Amadeus of Savoy. Besides, it didn’t matter that Ralph was poor. Under the marital contracts drawn up between Gilbert de Clare and Joan, Joan was more than well off, Countess of Hertford and Gloucester for life.

Edward, unaware of his daughter’s infatuation with strapping Ralph, continued with his negotiations. A marriage date was tentatively set for March of 1297. Somewhat desperate, Joan decided to preempt her father, and after convincing him to knight Ralph, she married her newly-belted knight in secret. (No matter how in love, it seems Joan had certain standards: her husband had to be at least a knight. At least)

Royal,  f. 375 detail

To marry without the king’s approval was not wise. To marry without the king’s approval when said king was presently negotiating your marriage with someone else was more along the lines of crazy. I guess Joan felt she had no choice. What Ralph felt I had no idea, but there must have been moments when his guts tied themselves into knots. Edward I was not exactly known for his mild temperament.
Meanwhile, Amadeus expressed he was more than happy to wed Joan and Edward was thrilled at how the negotiations were proceeding, so I imagine he decided to inform his daughter that soon enough she’d be the new countess of Savoy.
“Umm,” said Joan, “thing is, I can’t marry him.”
“Don’t be silly, of course you can. You’ll take to your new country like a fish to water.”
“Err…Well…Papa dearest, promise you won’t be mad, but…umm…I’m already married.”

Explosion. Major, major explosion. It probably did not go as far as having Edward frothing at the mouth (so undignified!), but I dare say his droopy eyelid twitched like mad. In his rage, Edward stripped Joan of her lands and threw poor Ralph into Bristol Castle. This beautiful love story seemed headed towards a tragic ending – not that Edward cared. On top of having to deal with his rebellious daughter, he suffered the humiliation of having to apologise to Amadeus. The Count of Savoy, however, was not one to dwell on lost opportunities and I am happy to say he found another bride within some months. Whether the bride was as thrilled I have no idea, being yet another of those young girls of impeccable lineage married to a man decades her senior.

Fortunately for Ralph and Joan, Edward calmed down. Besides, Joan was already pregnant, and several people urged him to be lenient. So in August of 1297 Ralph was released from Bristol Castle and reunited with his happy wife, by then big with child.

Joan and Ralph went on to have four children together. The relationship with Edward I was never to rise above lukewarm, but Ralph proved himself capable and loyal, qualities Edward valued. There is, however, a little anecdote regarding Ralph that I do not thing Edward would have appreciated: it is said that in 1306, while Robert de Bruce was at the English court, Edward planned to arrest the Scotsman. Ralph overheard something and chose to warn Robert by sending him 12 silver pennies and a set of spurs (and it is dead obvious that this means “Flee! Ride like the devil for home!”) Robert set off at speed, which is why he was around to crush the English at Bannockburn in 1314. Somehow, this little story has Ralph climbing high in my affections – and Robert obviously agreed, seeing as when Ralph was captured at Bannockburn he was invited to dine with Robert before being released with no demand for ransom.

Back to our heroine of the day: In 1307, Joan died, not yet thirty-five. Ralph would go on to marry again, this time the sister of a certain up-and-coming Hugh Despenser, Isabel. Interestingly enough, this was also a clandestine marriage. Yet again, Ralph would be on the receiving end of a king’s anger for wedding without royal permission, but seeing as this king was Edward II, I dare say his displeasure was easier to bear.

marriage loving-coupleJoan’s son with Gilbert de Clare died young at Bannockburn. Her sons by Ralph were not exactly long-lived either. And as to Joan’s many daughters, they would, just like their mother, be married off as it best suited the interest of their relatives – in this case the English king. In difference to their mother, none of them would contract a second marriage based on such an irrelevant aspect as love. Poor them.

“Trust me!” – a leap of faith

millais trust-me-1862

“Trust me” by Millais. But she doesn’t seem so inclined…

Trust is one of the more beautiful words in the English language. It is also a very fragile word. Just like respect, trust is hard to earn and easy to lose, and once broken, trust is difficult to repair.

To trust someone is to take a leap of faith. After all, you don’t know if the person you’ve chosen to trust will live up to your expectations – maybe your trust has been misplaced. But somehow, you make an assessment based on body language, voice, what the person says and how he/she acts. In some cases, it isn’t even a conscious decision – we just know (or think we do) that this is a person of integrity, someone who will never let us down. Many of us will suffer the disappointment of realising that the person who was so trustworthy in one situation will prove entirely unreliable when circumstances change. It is a painful insight: to have given your trust to someone and have it broken hurts.

Trust – or the breaking of trust – has played an important role throughout history. After all, deception is one of the older political instruments – instinctive, almost. Lull someone into believing in you and then, once they trust you implicitly, stab them in the back and destroy them. Very effective. Quite, quite immoral.

trust murder_julian_cesar_b“Of course, you can trust me. I love you as a father,” said Brutus to Caesar. Well, we all know how that ended.

“Trust me, my lord, my king,” said Dafydd ap Gruffydd, bending knee before Edward I. “I am your man.” But when it came to the crunch, Dafydd’s heart was with Wales and his brother Llewellyn – well, if we’re going to be quite correct with Wales and Dafydd – and so he betrayed his English overlord.
trust thumb_200__locationThumbEdward’s punishment was brutal. It is said Dafydd ap Gruffydd was the first nobleman ever to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Maybe it was the pain of broken trust that made Edward so vindictive.

“Of course I’ve forgiven you,” Swedish king Birger Magnusson said, arms wide open to embrace his two younger brothers. “Trust me, I am so happy to have you here with me for Christmas.” Some days later, the two young royal brothers were thrown into a cell and left to die of starvation. A righteous punishment in Birger’s opinion – his brother’s had betrayed his trust some years ago and taken him captive, obliging him to give up two thirds of his kingdom before they set him free.

trust DelarocheKingEdwardRichard, Duke of Gloucester, crouched before his nephew, the young Edward V, and smiled. “Trust me lad, I’ll not do you any harm.” But he did – if nothing else by appropriating the crown for himself. (No: I do not believe Richard killed his nephews) Of course, Richard himself was to pay the greatest price for misplaced trust, that day at Bosworth when the Earl of Northumberland held back his men and thereby allowed his king to be ignominiously killed.

“Trust me,” Pizarro said to Atahualpa. “Once your people have filled this building with gold we’ll let you go. You can go back to being the Inca, we will go back home.” Except that once the building was full of gold, Atahualpa was garrotted…

Trust me, that baby is not our brother, Princess Anne wrote to her sister, Mary. I bet they smuggled a foundling into the bedroom – probably crammed him into a warming pan. Whatever the case, I assure you that James Francis Edward Stuart is NOT our brother. Whether Mary believed her yes or no, it made for a convenient little lie. It also broke James II’s heart, that his elder daughters should be so cruel as to name his long-awaited precious son an impostor. As we all know, James II subsequently lost his throne to his eldest daughter. I don’t think he ever trusted her again.

Trust Miranda_en_la_Carraca_by_Arturo_Michelena

Miranda, awaiting death

The impassioned liberator of South America, Simón Bolívar was not above dirty tricks. In this case, it was a matter of ridding himself of competition. Francisco de Miranda was arguably the most famous Venezuelan alive – albeit that Venezuela did not exist – in the decades round 1800. He’d fought in the French revolution, had relentlessly demanded that Spain abandon its colonies in the New World. When present-day Venezuela freed itself – temporarily – from the Spanish yoke in 1810, Miranda returned, triumphant. Spain fought back. The fledgling republic was defeated.
“Trust me,” Bolívar said to Francisco de Miranda, before arresting him and handing him over to the Spanish. In return, Bolívar got a passport and fled to Curacao, Miranda was carried back to Cádiz, where he died in jail. Bolívar, of course, returned to defeat the Spanish.

trust Le_baiser_de_Judas_Heures_Charles_d'Angoulême_XVeAnd then of course, we have the ultimate breaking of trust – at least in the Christian world.
“Trust me,” said Judas Iscariot, widening his eyes. “Trust me Master, I would never betray you.” And yet he did, pressing the soft kiss to Jesus’ cheek that would lead to his trial and crucifixion. For his troubles, Judas received 30 silver coins – and a burden of guilt so heavy he hanged himself.

After all these examples, one wonders that there are still people around who do trust their fellow human beings. And that there are those who fully deserve that trust. But then, some people never break their word, do they? Kudos to them.

Some people would argue that there are times when expediency – or the greater good – call for some deception so as to move things forward. In such cases, the breach of trust becomes collateral damage, the price to pay for having sorted a situation that had all the signs of going from bad to worse. For an honourable man, the resulting guilt can be quite crushing. Take, for example, Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke. A loyal servant of the crown, a man trusted implicitly by the king – and his fellow barons – Aymer was given custody of Piers Gaveston after the barons finally succeeded in convincing – erm, strong-arming or brow-beating – Edward II to give his favourite up.
“We can trust Aymer,” Edward said to Piers. “He’ll keep you safe.”

trust cbb9a28fe107ddfab0bbba82438f3d82And Aymer did, but some of the other disgruntled barons were less than happy – they wanted Gaveston dead. Therefore, when Aymer slipped off to visit his wife, his fellow rebel barons took the opportunity to kidnap Gaveston and summarily execute him. Aymer never forgave them for the stain to his honour. The king never forgave them for murdering his dearest Piers. Things see-sawed back and forth, and then in 1321 Mortimer rebelled – this time in protest against the king’s new favourites, the Despensers.

Aymer de Valence was despatched to talk some sense into the rebels. He also pledged his word that should Mortimer submit, they’d not be killed. Roger Mortimer believed him. Aymer de Valence probably belived himself. The king, however, had other plans, and once he had Mortimer kneeling at his feet, he had him clapped in chains and dragged off to await execution. Mortimer escaped his captivity and lived to fight another day. Aymer de Valence, however, never quite recovered from this new blow to his honour. Aymer was a man who believed in honour, in trust. Twice, his integrity had been compromised by others. I dare say Aymer never again trusted his king.

Leaving aside all these wonderful historical examples, the issue of who to trust and who not to trust is as relevant today as it ever was before. We need to trust. We want to trust. It is a prerequisite to feeling that we belong, that we are safe. But in a world where a lot of the interaction takes place virtually – we communicate more and more via e-mail and text, less and less face-to-face and by phone – our brains lack some of the ingredients required to make a truly informed decision. We do not see the facial expression of the guy writing the Nigeria letter promising us millions if we just give him access to our bank accounts (although to fall for that one is sheer stupidity. No one gives away millions for free. No one). Nor do we note – and evaluate – how the person trying to sell us the best laptop in the world at a bargain price is fidgeting in his/her seat. We have no opportunity to register how eye-contact is avoided – or exaggerated – we cannot quite assess the pitch of voice or see the telltale blush that afflict some people when they lie. So we take a leap of faith and trust anyway. Quite a few of us crash and burn as a consequence…

In the world of business, trust is a very precious commodity. And generally, if you’ve broken it once, you never get it back. Plus, the business world is as full of gossip as any other human environment, and soon enough the company or person who broke trust will realise the word is going round. “Don’t trust them, they’ll rob you blind any opportunity they get.” Difficult to overcome – even if it is untrue. After all, broken trust is just as much about perceptions and undelivered expectations as it is about facts.

trust Lucifer and the SinnersThere is an element of grief in a relationship where trust has gone down the drain, which is why most of us will try to repair things, hoping to find our way back to how things used to be. That rarely happens. In the case of poor Aymer and his king, I don’t think theirs was ever a cordial relationship again. Brutus, of course, never had the opportunity to mend the fences with Caesar – I somehow think his efforts would have been futile. Jesus, I am sure, forgave Judas. After all, what was Judas but an unwitting pawn? Us humans, however, have definitely not forgiven him which is why Judas Iscariot, burdened with shame and guilt, lives forever in the ninth circle of Hell – as does Brutus – or so Dante tells us.

Over the course of our lives, we will be fortunate enough to meet some people we can trust – and therefore love. Little gems to hang on to, to polish and nurture. I am fortunate in that I have a best friend who would go to Hell and back again for me – as I would for her. I have children I trust implicitly, a sister who is always there for me. And then, of course, there’s the person I trust the most, the person I gladly entrust with my dreams, my hopes, my soul and heart: my husband. Since we met, very many years ago, he has never once let me down. Never. Am I a lucky girl, or what? Trust me, I know I am!

To my favourite damsel in distress

To my sister:

I cannot remember a day when you weren’t in my life. As I am the eldest, obviously there were such days, but it seems as if all my life I’ve had you beside me, a constant no matter what fate has thrown my way.

20151008_134404I do have vague memories of what you looked like as a small child: white-blond hair that was mostly cut short – our mother was a practical lady, and besides, none of us really had the hair quality to wear it long and flowing (still don’t) – big, big green eyes, fringed with lashes that were ridiculously long and as dark as your hair was light. You had knobbly knees. You were shy and easily intimidated by others. I, as your big sister, was happy to whack whoever hurt you – hard.

In difference to me, you were picky about food. Your preferred dish was fried eggs with ketchup. I sighed and looked away. You were always tagging after me, and while I now and then groaned and complained about this, I was mostly pleased. I climbed trees that were too high for you – you followed. I scrambled up to the five metre trampoline and jumped – you followed. Problem was you couldn’t swim…

I have no idea how many bruises and shallow cuts you got as a consequence from keeping up, but I will never, ever forget the concussion. You know, the time I tricked you into playing Tarzan, and you grabbed the low branch I suggested, hollered like Tarzan does, and…smacked straight into the trunk. I watched you dribble down the stem to collapse on the ground, and you were so still, so pale. We never played Tarzan again.

Joan_of_arc_miniature_gradedBut we played other stuff: I was the knight in shining armour, riding off to battle the evil Saracens or the nasty French (I was constantly an English knight), you were the damsel in distress, except you didn’t like the distress part, because even damsels could be brave, couldn’t they? I wasn’t so sure – you pointed me in the direction of Joan of Arc, and you were still a damsel, but a sort of kick-ass damsel, sweet and ladylike with glowing steel within.

You were generous to a fault. I gobbled down the Friday treat, you shared your remaining chocolate with me. Well, okay, sometimes I had to twist your arm a bit, which was why now and then our parents found sob notes on their pillow: ANNA WS MEEN TO ME.SHE TOK MY CANDI. (Spelling wasn’t your forte) Sometimes you told tales. “Mum, mum, Anna is playing with matches again. I think she’s burned off all her hair.” Any pyromaniac tendencies I may have had were firmly squashed by my mother after that…I guess I have to thank you, right?

We moved from country to country, and it was tough being the new kid on the block – much tougher than we ever let on to our parents, because kids are like that, aren’t they? Worst of all was returning to Sweden – we’d never lived there, had been fed stories by our mother of just how wonderful Sweden was. She missed her homeland – we stuck out like sore thumbs, products of warmer climes, different cultures. But at least we had each other. We always had each other.

Life has trundled on. We’ve had kids, experienced heartbreak and loss, lived through all those peaks and valleys that characterize a full life. And you’ve always been there. Like the damsel you insisted on being when we were children, you are still the sweetest person I know: generous to a fault, caring and considerate, you spread love in waves around you, rarely demanding anything in return. I am sad – you call. I am angry – you call, mostly to make me laugh. I am happy – you are there to share it. And when the going gets tough, then you, dear sister, whip out the honed steel and forge ahead, a knight in pink skirts – except you were never a fan of pink, but you get the picture, don’t you?

Today is your birthday. Obviously, I don’t remember your birth, but my life is full of memories of you – priceless little gems that twinkle and shine. You are my sister, my truest friend and most trusted confidant. You are one of the candles that light up my life, a pillar of strength whenever I need it.

Damsell in distress1920px-Paolo_Uccello_050With you at my side, we will continue battling dragons – a lady knight and an “undistressed” damsel is quite the awesome combo – we will cry and laugh, we will still eat far too much cake (After all, what is life without cake?) We will dance like crazy to old disco songs, take long walks that leave me huffing and puffing as you, my dear wannabe Iron Man competitor, set off at a pace that has me gasping. We will, I hope, have the opportunity to yet again gambol in the waves as we did like children, laughing ourselves silly when we played the dolphin game.

You and I, my dearest sister – always you and I.

Desde el fondo de mi corazón, desde los rincones más escondidos de mi alma – te quiero. Cuanto te quiero!

The Danish Lion – of Christian IV

Christian_IV_(Abraham_Wuchters)Okay, so as you all know by now, I am Swedish. If I may say so myself, a relatively international Swede, having lived and worked in various parts of the world, but when things come to a crunch I’m as Swedish as IKEA’s meatballs and pickled herring (although the Dutch would probably argue pickled herring is as Dutch as it is Swedish, and those IKEA meatballs, well…) Never mind: the point is that I’m Swedish, I’m a history nut and I have a particular fondness for the 17th century, a time at which Sweden and Denmark were constantly at war – in truth very much ”same old, same old” compared to previous centuries – and in which Sweden forced Denmark to a couple of very humiliating treaties. One could say that the Swedish Empire expanded at the expense of the Danes. And some of that expansion has remained under Swedish control ever since, notably the region I live in, Skåne (or Scania).

Anyway, despite my nationality, I have a lot of admiration for various Danish kings. One such king is the larger-than-life Christian IV, a man who lived life to the full, constantly bit off more than he could chew, and still managed to somehow swallow and get on with things. Plus, the man knew how to wear ear-rings, hair-braids and bucket-topped boots, having an instinctive flair that must have had women melting like butter atop a newly baked scone. (Which is probably why this king left behind an impressive number of children – more than two dozen, all told)

Christian IV was born in the 16th century, the result of the very happy union between his mother and father – this despite an age difference of 21 years. Unfortunately, his parents weren’t destined to live for all that long together – his father died in 1588, leaving the eleven-year-old Christian to become king. As an aside, while I have plenty of time for Christian IV, I have very, very little for his father. I simply can’t forgive Fredrik II for what he did to the Earl of Bothwell (see here). I know, I know; by now water under the bridge, but to chain a big, strong handsome man to a post and leave him to live out his days in the dark like some tethered beast – no, not done.

Boys are rarely allowed to rule their kingdoms – and as the proud mother of three boys I must express just how happy that makes me. Christian was guided by his father’s excellent counsellors, and in general his minority was a reasonably stable period. By the time our young king turned nineteen, he was considered capable to rule all on his own, and was therefore crowned in 1596.

Coronation_of_Christian_IV_in_1596Young and personable, newly crowned, he now set about fulfilling his royal duties by wedding Anne Catherine of Brandenburg. In difference to the uxorious bliss of his parents, Christian found little contentment with his wife, albeit that she dutifully presented him with seven children, of which three would live beyond childhood.

Anne Catherine was very devout. She was also a quiet woman who handled her husband’s infidelities with silence – such a handsome, virile king could not be blamed for leaping happily from bed to bed – and instead invested her time and energies in her children and her faith.


Christian, in his mid-thirties.

Christian IV was an energetic king, burning with desire to reform his country, making it better, richer and preferably larger. A true Renaissance prince, he thought big, had an interest in a number of matters, and in general attempted to pull his people up by their bootstraps and introduce them to Modern Time. His court rang with music –  the king himself danced like a god – he was passionate and creative, intelligent and determined. Like all kings of his time, he was mostly about Number One, setting his own best interests first at all times.

Christian was also obsessed with witches – a little hobby he shared with his brother-in-law, James VI of Scotland (and soon to be James I of England). It is interesting to note that here we have two young kings, well-educated men with more than air between their ears, and yet it sufficed to say the word “witch” and any common sense they had flew out the window, leaving them superstitious – and cruel.

Denmark did a lot of witch-burning in the 17th century. Many of those poor witches met their death due to their king’s avid interest in all things supernatural. In some cases, the king advocated torture, being of the opinion that witches had to be contained – no matter with what means. Once the poor wretch had admitted her sins, she (because it was almost always a she) was burned – thou shalt not suffer a witch to live and all that. The unfortunate woman would be tied to a ladder, offered a stiff drink or two, and, if lucky, someone would tie a bag of gunpowder to her back, ensuring she exploded before she burned. Ugh. Our Christian, however, insisted he was merely doing his Christian duty…

Other than with witches, Christian was also busy with warfare. In 1611, he declared war on that hereditary scum of an enemy, Sweden. A modernised fleet, a modernised army, and Christian carried the day against Sweden’s boy-king, Gustavus Adolphus, at the time no more than seventeen. I’m betting Gustavus Adolphus gnashed his teeth and promised revenge, but for the time being the ambitious Swedish king had no choice but to accept terms. With this feather in his cap, Christian could return to more pleasurable pastimes.

While zealous regarding his duties when it came to witches, Christian had a substantially more relaxed attitude when it came to such minor sins as fornication. Other than his long-suffering wife, he had at least three named mistresses, who gave him a number of illegitimate children. But when Anne Catherine died in 1612, the king was genuinely distressed – mostly because he hadn’t been a good enough husband to this loyal and devoted spouse. It is said that when the time came to close Anne Catherine’s coffin, someone suggested that the queen’s jewellery be removed first – the dead woman was adorned with the equivalent of a minor fortune. Christian shook his head. “They were hers. They stay with her.” (And to this day, they still do)

Henry VIII of England had his great matter with Anne Boleyn. Christian IV of Denmark was equally robbed of his senses when he first clapped eyes on Kirsten Munk in 1615. By all accounts, the young girl was lovely – and equipped with an impressive mother, Ellen Marsvin, who had no intention of sacrificing Kirsten’s virtue without adequate payment. After all, Ellen Marsvin came from one of the oldest – and finest – lineages in Denmark. An extended period of negotiation ended with Ellen made all the richer and Kirsten in a morganatic marriage with the king.


Kirsten and some of her babies

The pretty, plump Kirsten was to give Christian twelve children (well, eleven for sure; the twelfth was always considered a cuckoo by Christian). Kirsten was not the nicest – or smartest – of people. Besides, she had the bad taste of being jealous when Christian now and then went for variation in his bed. When upset, Kirsten screamed and yelled, she threw things, kicked things, tore things. She taunted the king for being old – and he was, compared to her. Plus, of course, he had other matters to deal with, principally the total disaster of his participation in the Thirty Years’ War.

This devastating, bloody conflict is often portrayed as being a fight between Protestants and Catholics. To some extent it was, but things weren’t that simple. Instead, one could argue this was a war in which the Holy Roman Empire, as represented by Emperor Ferdinand II, was attempting to take advantage of the political instability resulting from the Reformation of the previous century to expand its power base – and reclaim land lost to the heretics. This was something no one liked: neither the Protestant principalities and kingdoms, nor the very Catholic France. (Spain, of course, supported Ferdinand – if nothing else because the Emperor and the Spanish Hapsburg king were “like that”, related every which way.) Not that Ferdinand cared about public opinion, especially not initially, when his troops smashed through the opponents’ armies.

Catholic forces moved north, coming uncomfortably close to Denmark. Already in 1623, the Danish council proposed action. Christian procrastinated, worried that if he went to war, Gustavus Adolphus might stab him in the back. No longer a boy of seventeen, the king Christian had slapped down in 1611 was becoming something of a military celebrity. The Swedish king missed no opportunities to advance himself as a champion of the Protestant cause, and it was the fear of being overshadowed by this Swedish pest that ultimately tipped the scales for Christian. In 1625, he went to war, leading his 20 000 men or so south.

In August of 1626, the Danish army hit the dust, routed by John Tilly, loyal general of the Emperor, at the battle of Luttern. Even worse, that mad if brilliant general Wallenstein joined forces with Tilly, and suddenly half of Denmark had been invaded. Oh dear: Christian IV risked having no kingdom to be king of. No wonder he had little time for Kirsten’s tantrums. Christian IV had to swallow his pride and beg Gustavus Adolphus for help.

Together, the Swedes and the Danes managed to put Wallenstein on the back foot, and in 1629 Christian signed a treaty with the Holy Roman Empire. It gave him back Denmark – but it also explicitly forbade Christian to participate in the ongoing Thirty Years’ War. The hitherto so proud and successful Danish king returned to Copenhagen with his pride in shambles. It didn’t exactly help when he heard the rumours…

You see, Kirsten remained dissatisfied. Dangerously, Kirsten started to look elsewhere for bedsport, wanting someone younger and fitter and preferably entirely dazzled by her. (By now, she’d had eleven children over thirteen years, but this does not seem to have detracted from her attraction) She found what she was looking for in Otto – and when the king found out, he went spectacularly ballistic. Kirsten’s marriage hung by a thread. More importantly – at least from Ellen’s perspective – her mother risked losing her fat landholdings. Kirsten didn’t care as long as she could keep Otto in her bed – or so she said.


Ellen when young

Ellen decided to implement some damage control, so she invited the king to dine with her. What follows is decidedly weird. The king was not entirely happy visiting his mother-in-law, but was gratified by the fact that she so clearly sided with him, bemoaning the fact that she had a slut for a daughter. So Ellen served food and wine, she prepared her best bedchamber for her royal guest – and on top of this, she acted the procurer, presenting the king with the innocent Vibeke Kruse, previously one of Kirsten’s maids, but dismissed from her service because jealous Kirsten did not like how the king looked at her servant.

The king, apparently, had need of comfort. Vibeke was willing to offer him that. Kirsten was sent off to Jutland where she was kept under strict confinement. Vibeke had a couple of babies – but by now the novelty of babies had worn off for Christian, as he had well over twenty sons and daughters.

Instead, he concentrated on restoring Denmark’s financial strength after the debacle in the war. Being a smart man, he decided to do this by raising the Sound Dues (all ships wanting to enter the Baltic Sea had to go through Öresund, the Sound, controlled by Denmark. An excellent source of income, as per Christian). This measure made Christian very popular at home. Money came pouring in, the empty Danish coffers filled up neatly, and everyone was happy. Not. The Swedes were pissed off, as were the Dutch. Our elderly king (because by now Christian was fast approaching his sixty-fifth birthday) had a new war on his hands.

Christian_IV_by_Vilhelm_MarstrandUnder the command of the brilliant Swedish Field Marshal Torstensson, the Swedes invaded most of Denmark. All, it seemed, was lost. Christian IV was not about to roll over that easily. The king rallied his men, raised his armies, repaired his ships, and in general succeeded in stopping Torstensson from advancing any further. At the battle of Colberger Heide, the king himself was present when his Danish fleet intercepted Torstensson’s attempts to penetrate deeper into Denmark. Despite being wounded when a cannon exploded just beside him, the king refused to leave the deck until the Danes had won the day, thereby setting an example to his frightened and tired men.

Ultimately, it didn’t help. The Swedes emerged victorious, and Christian had to sign away substantial parts of his kingdom in the Treaty of Brömsebro in 1645. The last years of his life were clouded by constant conflicts with his son-in-laws, especially Corfitz Ulfeldt (For more about him,his spirited wife, Leonore Christine, and their adventurous life, see here). Familial harmony eluded him, his children by various women locked in constant feuds. Interestingly enough, when Christian lay on his deathbed, he asked to see Kirsten Munk, a woman he hadn’t clapped eyes on for close to twenty years. She did come, hurrying as best as she could, but by the time she arrived, her former husband was dead, and so the man who had been king of Denmark for fifty-nine years was laid to rest at Roskilde Cathedral (as have all Danish kings, more or less) in early 1648.


Christian – still with his braid

When he began his reign, Denmark controlled the Baltic Sea, when he died, that position of power had passed to Sweden. Christian’s son inherited a smaller kingdom, but he also inherited a veritable treasure chest of beautiful buildings, of art and culture. And, of course, there was Christian IV himself: larger than life, passionate and intelligent, he lived his life to the full. As should we all, IMO – every day, every moment. This, I think, is why I like him so much. Or maybe it’s that little braid of his – who knows.

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