Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time

A lady with claws

The other day, I was at the dentist. I detest going to the dentist, no matter how much I like the actual dentist. My dentist is a charming man who entertains me with anecdotes from Paris while he drills. Doesn’t help much, but at least he tries. Anyway: the single upside with going to the dentist is that the waiting room has a very varied selection of magazines. So while I was waiting I came upon an article about the Lioness from Brittany. The article made me smile and remember a very enthusiastic history teacher when I was in fifth grade. Mrs Miller was a big fan of spicing up her lessons with plenty of human interest, and the story of the Lioness from Brittany (or La Tigresse Bretonne, as Mrs Miller always called her, seeing as Mrs Miller was French which led to a somewhat alternative take on The Hundred Years’ War in general and Henry V in particular) comes with a huge dollop of drama. You haven’t heard of this feline lady? Not to worry, as I feel she deserves some airtime here on my blog—after all, I have a thing about strong women who flaunt convention and carve their own path through life.

Today’s protagonist was born around 1300 in France, more specifically in the Vendeé to the wealthy nobleman Maurice Montaigu de Belleville and his wife, Letice. The baby was christened Jeanne and at the tender age of twelve she was married to Geoffrey de Chateaubriant who was all of nineteen. Two years later, she gave birth to her first child, a son, to be followed by a daughter some years later. If she gave birth to more children, these must have died young as there is no record of them. So far, her life had been nothing out of the ordinary. Nor was the death of her husband in 1326 an unusual event. People died all the time back then. Come to think of it, they still do. Anyway: Jeanne was not destined to remain a widow for long. Already in 1328 she remarried, but a year later that marriage was declared null and void by the pope, maybe because by then Jeanne had met the love of her life, Olivier de Clisson.

Now, there is some evidence indicating Jeanne and Olivier went years back. In fact, some say Jeanne gave birth to a daughter fathered by Olivier already in 1325, when she was still married to hubby nr 1. Rather unlikely, IMO—a child born to a married woman was automatically assumed to be her husband’s child. For a baby to be recorded as being fathered by another man, the mother would have had to come forward and admit to adultery. Seems like a stupid thing to do for a medieval lady.

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Clisson – photo by Cyril555, licensed under Creative Commons

Anyway: in 1330, Jeanne wed Olivier de Clisson, a well-off Breton who swept her off to live happily ever after with him at his castle in Clisson. Soon enough, Jeanne gave birth to a son. And another. And another. First son died young, but as some sort of compensation Jeanne and Olivier also had a daughter. All in all, the Clissons were happy with each other. Thing is, the times were complicated politically – and that is putting it mildly.

In 1337, King Edward III of England officially claimed the French crown, this based on the fact that he was the grandson of Philippe IV. Obviously, this did not go down well with the crowned French king, Philippe VI, who was the nephew of Philippe IV, son to the rather impressive Charles of Valois. Now, at the time there were some regions which we would call French that were pretty much independent. One such region was Brittany, which was of strategic importance in a war between England and France as it offered a lot of coastline for English ships to safely land English knights, men-at-arms and archers.

The situation in Brittany was somewhat messy: The previous duke of Brittany, Arthur, had married twice. In his first marriage, he had three sons, one of whom was named John and was recognised as his heir. In his second marriage he had yet another son, also called John but known to history as John de Montfort as he inherited the title of count of Montfort through his mother. One wonders why the same father would name two sons John, but maybe he had a special fondness for this particular name.

When Arthur died, his eldest John inherited as John III. This John detested his half-siblings and expended a lot of energy on trying to get them branded as bastards. Didn’t work. As John III had no children of his own, his younger brother was his obvious heir. This John III didn’t like, so instead he chose his niece, yet another Jeanne as his designated heir. This Jeanne was married to a certain Charles de Blois who was delighted at the notion of becoming Duke of Brittany.

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John de Montfort entering Nantes

In 1341, John III died – after changing his mind and naming his half-brother as heir. Too late. Charles de Blois claimed the dukedom on behalf of his wife. John de Montfort was not about to give up his patrimony without a fight, and soon enough he had Edward III in his court, while Charles de Blois had the support of Philippe VI of France. The stage, as they say, was set for a very long and very bloody conflict…

The local nobility took sides. Olivier de Clisson seems to have supported Charles de Blois. His brother, Amaury de Clisson, supported John de Montfort. Olivier was ordered to help defend the city of Vannes against the English. In 1342, Vannes fell to the English and Olivier was captured. He was subsequently exchanged for Ralph Stafford (a gentleman whose rather high-handed marital exploits you can read much more about here) and a ransom. A suspiciously low ransom according to Philippe VI who suspected Olivier might be in cahoots with the English and John de Montfort.

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Olivier and his Breton buddies being executed

The French king had a devious side to him. In 1343, a treaty was signed by Philippe VI and Edward III, creating a bit of a breathing space in the ongoing war. To celebrate, Philippe organised a major tournament and Olivier, together with some other Breton lords, was invited to take part. Turns out there wouldn’t be much jousting for Olivier. Instead, he (and several other Breton lords) was arrested, dragged off to Paris where he was tried by his peers and sentenced to death. Early in August, he was beheaded, his body displayed in a gibbet and his head sent off to adorn a spike in Nantes.

In France, such a public display of a nobleman’s body was not the done thing. Besides, there was no evidence of Olivier’s guilt. Contemporaries were therefore not impressed by their king’s actions, with quite a few expressing concern an innocent and loyal man had been murdered on the king’s say-so.

Back in Bretagne, Jeanne received the news of her husband’s death. She took her two surviving sons with her to Nantes to show them their father’s head, and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like for her (and her boys, at the time seven and five) to see her husband’s head displayed as a trophy. Something snapped in Jeanne. There, in front of her beloved husband’s decapitated head the forty-three-year-old widow swore revenge: King Philippe would live to regret having murdered her husband.

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Supposedly, this is Jeanne.

First, Jeanne sold everything she had of value—likely the lands had been attainted, but what she could sell, she sold. Then she armed herself (legend says with a huge axe), hired several men-at-arms and began her own personal war on the French. Supposedly she attacked a couple of castles, slaughtered the garrisons (she left one or two alive as witnesses) and openly declared her support for John de Montfort—and Edward III.

After this initial killing spree, Jeanne bought three ships (probably with financial support from the English) that she painted black and fitted with crimson sails, and began to wreak havoc on the French. This was not a pirate out for spoils. Jeanne targeted French ships to kill, exacting a grisly and bloody revenge for the death of her husband. She participated herself in the killing—or so the legend says—using that big axe of hers to lop of the heads of whatever unfortunate Frenchmen she captured. French nobles could expect no mercy, no matter that they promised huge ransoms. The Lioness of Brittany was not interested in gold: she wanted blood.

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Battle of Sluys

The French had nothing with which to fight back—at least not initially. After all, the French had lost most of their fleet at the Battle of Sluys in 1340, and Philippe was beginning to feel the pinch of being constantly at war: he simply did not have the money or the men to outfit a new fleet.


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Charles de Blois being captured

In Brittany, it seemed Charles of Blois had finally managed to gain the upper hand. By 1345, John de Montfort was dead and most of his supporters had no choice but to make their peace with Charles. However: Charles did not inspire much loyalty among the Bretons—especially not after slaughtering huge numbers of civilians when he took the town of Quimper. And when the English defeated the French at Crecy and went on to capture Charles of Blois in 1347, the de Montfort cause revived somewhat.

Not that Jeanne cared. She’d helped the English transport provisions over the Channel in preparation for Crecy, but otherwise she preferred to expend her time on her favourite pastime: murdering Frenchmen. However, her luck could not hold for ever, and somewhere around 1346-47 the French managed to sink her flagship. Jeanne and her two sons ended up drifting around for days. Her younger son died of exposure before they were rescued and she decided to send her surviving and eldest son, Olivier, to England to be raised in the household of the English king. After this, she went back to her pirating and would continue to be a scourge on the French until 1356 or so.

After thirteen years as a pirate captain, Jeanne had apparently had enough. Her husband’s death had been avenged many times over and her eldest son was safe in England where he was a close companion of John de Montfort Jr. At well over fifty, she was probably tired of living on a cramped ship. Or maybe it was more a case of wanting to spend time with her new hubby, an English gentleman called Walter Bentley. Whatever the case, she settled down in the Breton town of Hennebont with her husband, the castle in which she lived situated right by the sea.

In 1359, Jeanne died. She would therefore never know that her eldest son was destined to become the most famous Clisson male, ending his life as Constable of France and the richest man around. But that, as they say, is another story. Besides, I’m not entirely sure our Jeanne would have been pleased by her son’s change of sides. For her, Philippe VI had permanently killed any loyalty to France when he unjustly beheaded her husband.

So lived and died La Tigresse Bretonne, a lady who brought home just how dangerous a woman can be when sufficiently riled. And frankly, thinking about her did serve as an adequate distraction while my dear dentist went at it with his drill. After all, if she could survive her excessively exciting life, then I can live through a visit to the dentist. Maybe.

Treason on Twelfth Night

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Henry claiming the throne

On October 13, 1399, Henry of Lancaster was crowned king of England. There was just a teensy-weensy problem: the king he succeeded wasn’t dead. Instead, Richard II had been forced to abdicate.

Henry and Richard were cousins, their common grandfather being Edward III. Richard became king as a child and grew up to be a firm believer in royal prerogative. He surrounded himself with favourites whom he showered with offices and wealth and this led to a conflict with a group of his barons, the so called Lords Appellant which included dear cousin Henry and Richard’s uncle the Duke of Gloucester. The Lords Appellants did away with Richard’s favourites and curtailed his power significantly. Richard nursed a grudge against these lords for over a decade after which he struck back, ordering the murder of his uncle and exiling Henry as well as denying his cousin his huge inheritance. Did not go down well with Henry—or with Richard’s other barons who realised that if he could cheat his cousin of his lands, then he could cheat them as well. So when Henry returned to England in the summer of 1399, stating that he only came to claim what was rightfully his, he met little opposition. Rather the reverse, people being rather sick of Richard and his high-handed personal rule. A few weeks after landing at Ravenspurn, Henry had effectively taken control of England – and of Richard, who was now his prisoner.

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Henry IV presenting the captive Richard (in red) to the Londoners (Jean Creton)

There was little love lost between Henry and Richard, but Henry went out of his way to treat his dethroned cousin with courtesy and does not seem to have known just what to do with him. Killing an anointed king was out of the question—Henry is one of those rather likeable medieval grandees who seems to have had a well-developed conscience, plus he was genuinely devout. While Henry felt obliged (and to some extent entitled) to usurp Richard’s crown to safeguard his own life and that of his sons, that was as far as it went. At first.

The problem with deposed kings is that they’re not exactly grateful for having been allowed to keep their head. They also remain a focal point for those determined to oppose the new king—not necessarily because they loved the previous king, but because causing unrest can be quite lucrative.

The first few months as king were happy months for Henry IV. He brimmed with self-confidence as he went about the business of securing his realm. He established good relationships with Parliament, retained most of Richard’s administrators and in general went out of his way to assure people he intended to be a good king, a king who took counsel and listened to Parliament.

It was therefore in a good mood that Henry IV retired to Windsor Castle with his sons to celebrate Christmas – his first Christmas ever as king. At the time, the unhappy Richard II was held at Pontefract Castle, albeit in some comfort. Henry must have felt he had everything under control – the realm, his people and the former king.

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John Holland and John Montacute (BL, MS Harley)

Ha! Henry was in for a surprise. Already in mid-December, a group of conspirators met. They included John Holland, half-brother to Richard II and Earl of Huntingdon , John’s son Thomas, Earl of Kent, John Montacute, Earl of Salisbury,  Thomas le Despenser, Baron Despencer, and Edward of Norwich, Earl of Rutland. These men had benefited from Richard’s largesse and considered Henry a usurper (which he was). There were other men present, such as Thomas Blount and Ralph Lumley and a certain Richard Maudeleyn who in looks was an eerie double of Richard II. The meeting was held at Westminster abbey, whose abbot was in on the conspiracy as was the ousted Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Carlisle.

henry tournamentThese men were determined to rid the world of Henry IV, and indirectly the new king had handed them a golden opportunity in that he was holding a tournament at Windsor on Twelfth Night. A perfect way of gaining access to the king with arms, and the plan was relatively simple: the various earls were to call on their retainers and pull together a sizeable force of armed men. This rebel army was to muster as discreetly as possible at Kingston while the conspiring lords, together with a smaller force, were to ride for Windsor on January 4th, gain access to the unsuspecting king, murder him, his sons and the new Archbishop of Canterbury (I’m guessing this was a condition imposed by the ousted Archbishop, who very much wanted to regain his see, no matter how bloodily). Once all these foul deeds were done, they’d order their army to ride forth to seize a number of important towns. As King Richard was nowhere close, it fell to Maudeleyn to dress as the king and stir the English people to rise on behalf of their former king.

Successful conspiracies depend on two things: not including too many people and that the involved peeps don’t spill the beans. In the case of this particular conspiracy, there were quite a few magnates involved. One of them, Edward of Norwich, was Henry IVs cousin and as the plans were set in motion it appears he got cold feet. While dining with his father, the Duke of York, Edward supposedly told him about the plot. His father was horrified and convinced Edward to tell Henry.

There is another version of how Henry found out, involving a tender-hearted prostitute who’d spent one night with a man loyal to one of the rebel lords. A talkative fellow, this man told her all about the plot and the next night, when she shared her bed with a man loyal to Henry, she was so affected by the thought that maybe her most recent bedfellow would die during the upcoming rebellion that she told him everything she knew. Hmm.

Edward was never punished for participating in the conspiracy—in itself an indication that he was the one who blew the whistle on the others.

Whatever the case, the moment Henry found out, he acted with impressive speed. In a matter of hours he’d swept up his sons and was riding madly for London, making a wide detour so as not to run into the conspirators and their armed retinues who at that same moment were riding to Windsor to set their plan in action. At some distance from the city, Henry met the mayor of London who was on his way to warn him that something was afoot—why else had 6 000 armed men assembled at Kingston?

Once his sons were safe in the Tower, Henry decided it was time to deal with the rebels. He closed all ports, issued writs ordering the arrest of the rebel lords and called up the Londoners to ride with him, offering good silver to all those that would ride with him. Come morning, Henry was ready to act.

First, he sent Edward to inform the rebels that the king was riding towards them with a huge army. (Yet another indication that Edward must have had one foot in each camp, the king using his hapless cousin as some sort of spy) As a consequence of this information, the various rebel lords rode hell for leather for their own lands, hoping to inspire their people to join in the rebellion.

Thing is, Richard wasn’t a popular king. He’d overtaxed his people, was considered rather shifty and with little genuine interest in his subjects. Henry, on the other hand, was popular. Here was a man who gladly spoke English, who wanted to rule with Parliament, who hoped to bring back the halcyon days of good king Edward III. (Not that those days were all that halcyon, at least not for the common man and woman, but nostalgia is not exactly a modern invention). To the shock of the rebels, the people rose against them.

Richard Maudeleyn was captured in London—and hanged. John Holland tried to flee the country in a small boat, was blown back to the English coast and ended up in the custody of Henry’s mother-in-law. This impressive lady had no qualms about transporting John to Pleshey Castle and handing him over to a mob which promptly beheaded him. Thomas Holland and John Montacute were captured in Cirencester. They too were beheaded. Thomas le Despenser tried to flee the country by boarding a ship in Cardiff but the crew refused to help a rebel and transported him to Bristol where he was summarily executed. Other leading rebels were rounded up and brought before Henry at Oxford Castle.

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gruesome death – such as Thomas Blount’s

The king chose to personally act the judge and most of the frightened and desperate men brought before him were pardoned, very much in line with Henry’s magnanimous character. Twenty odd were beheaded and half a dozen were condemned to die the full traitor’s death, one of these being that Thomas Blount who’d been present at the first meeting in December. And whatever one may think about this gent, he had his fair share of courage. As he was watching his entrails being burned before him, he was asked by one of his guards if he needed a drink. Thomas Blount politely declined the offer, saying that he did not know where to put it…

Henry IV The National Archives Illumination_of_Henry_IV_(cropped)The Epiphany Rising was a major failure, but it was to have dark consequences. Henry had been brutally reminded of just how insecure his hold on the crown was and felt compelled to act to safeguard himself and, more importantly, his sons. There are indications that already on January 6th he sent a trusted retainer north to Pontefract with the order to kill Richard should the rising garner support. As we’ve seen, there was no support, but killing Richard was no longer quite as anathema to Henry as it had been some months ago. In fact, he’d probably come to the conclusion that Richard’s death was a prerequisite for political stability.

On February 14, 1400, Richard died (at least officially) The standard story is that he starved to death, some saying it was self-starvation (because the rising failed and he despaired of ever seeing the world outside again) some saying he was denied food so as to ensure he died without any marks on his body. Sadly (as I like Henry IV much, much more than Richard), IMO things point to the latter. The Epiphany Rising made Henry a murderer and the burden of guilt was to haunt him for the rest of his life.  Uneasy indeed, did his crowned head lie…

A Toast to St Sylvester

Today is New Year’s Eve. Most of us perceive this as a very secular holiday, best celebrated by drinking champagne, going a tad maudlin while singing Auld Lang Syne, and cheering madly as the sky lights up with fireworks just as the clock strikes midnight.

Celebrating New Year’s Eve on December 31st is a relatively modern invention. Okay, okay, maybe that should be re-invention as already the old Romans considered January 1st as the first day in a new year. However, what the Romans thought was mostly forgotten by medieval times, and accordingly New Year tended to vary. In most European countries, March 25th was celebrated as the New Year, usually through religious processions in honour of the Virgin who was visited by the archangel Gabriel on this date & told she was to give birth to God’s son in nine months. Was she thrilled at the thought? Scared stiff? Probably the latter, I suspect. God gave this young woman quite the burden to carry…

Back to New Year: Other than March 25th, there were some countries that felt March 20th was a better option. Or Easter (which was a bit of a challenge, seeing as Easter is a moveable feast). Anglo-Saxon England leaned towards December 25th. In brief, there was little consensus in this matter, but whatever the opinions might have been about the New Year, most Christian countries celebrated December 31st anyway. Why? Because it was the feast of St Sylvester.

I bet most of you haven’t heard of St Sylvester. As a child, I lived in Colombia where very many people referred to New Year’s Eve as “San Silvestre”. There was also a tradition of cracking an egg in a glass of water and analysing the resulting pattern to see what sort of year next year would be. This had nothing to do with Sylvester – I suspect the gent in question would have frowned on such superstitious practises – but it was quite fun, as was the tradition to eat exactly twelve grapes at midnight unless you wanted to end up all unloved in the New Year.

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Constantine & the cross (Raphael’s studio)

So who was this Sylvester, you may ask. Well, the man in question was a pope—and a saint. He became pope first, and sat in St Peter’s chair for a couple of decades in the fourth century. He was a contemporary of Constantine (you know, the Roman Emperor who saw a blazing cross in the sky with the flaming Greek words Ἐν τούτῳ νίκα which translated to Latin meant In Hoc Signo Vinces or In This Sign Thou Shalt Conquer, thereby convincing Constantine it was about time he embraced the Christian faith. Whether this is true or not, I leave up to you, dear reader, to decide for yourself. Let’s just say that an alternative – and more credible – version has it that Constantine didn’t convert to Christianity until he was on his deathbed)

At the time, temporal power was very much the top dog. The Roman Emperor may have chosen to convert to Christianity, but as far as he was concerned, he had more clout than the pope. Full stop. Until dear Sylvester, popes tended to be of the same opinion: power belonged to the emperor, conscience and spiritual supremacy to the pope.

If we’re going to be quite honest, we don’t really know much about Sylvester. Yes, we know that he lived through Diocletian’s horrific persecution of the Christians, we know he was elected pope in 314, we know he didn’t participate at the Council of Nicea but approved the various decisions taken there. But no matter who Sylvester really was, it’s the legend surrounding him that permanently shifted the balance of power. You see, some centuries after his death, Sylvester became the poster boy for the all-powerful church. All-powerful as in “if you don’t behave, you’ll have to come crawling to Canossa and beg the Holy Father for forgiveness”. (Curious about Canossa? Look up Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor in the 12th century)

Now we don’t know what sort of relationship Constantine and Sylvester had. Did they chit-chat over a game of chess? Did the pope and the emperor spend quality time together while considering just how to divvy up the power between them? Hmm. I suspect they moved in different circles, one of them constantly defending his empire, the other slowly but safely expanding the influence of the church.


Sylvester & Constantine

Whatever the case, by the early sixth century a legend was spreading whereby Sylvester cured Constantine of leprosy using baptismal waters. Some variants have Constantine asking Sylvester to approve him taking a second wife. Sylvester said “no way” and as Constantine insisted on doing as he pleased, God decide to teach him a lesson, ergo the leprosy. No matter the reason behind his affliction, Constantine was appropriately grateful and to really show the world just how grateful, he acted the pope’s groom, walking beside the mounted pope while leading the papal horse. Constantine went one step further, proclaiming to the world that Sylvester as the pope was primus inter pares among the various leaders of the early Christian church. Probably didn’t go down well with the Patriarch. It is also highly unlikely that Constantine did this—it all smells of propaganda, even more so when one considers it was written centuries after both Sylvester’s and Constantine’s deaths.

The purpose of the above legend, described in the Vita Beati Silvestri—and of the eighth century Donation of Constantine, which promoted itself as being the true story of Constantine’s conversion—was to validate the papal push for supreme power led by a gent named Gelasius, elected pope around 496 AD. Gelasius was of the firm opinion that he, as pope, was king of the heap, while all the various emperors and kings of the time were not. After all, God had appointed the pope (somewhat indirectly, but still) while secular rulers relied on bloodlines or the power of their sword to get them to where they wanted to be.

Undoubtedly, the pope had a lot of power during the medieval period—especially prior to the papacy being moved to Avignon, when effectively the pope became dependent on the French kings, something peeps like Philippe IV of France were glad to use to their own advantage. After all, a pope blessed William the Conqueror’s attack on England. A pope had Fredrik Barbarossa crawling on his hands and knees. A pope called for the crusades. A pope could give and withhold dispensations to wed. It was a pope who divided up the world between Spain and Portugal in the so-called treaty of Tordesillas (the self-same pope that fathered a number of children, kept one of the most beautiful women around as his mistress and in general believed in sucking the marrow out of life as our time on earth is short and God alone knows what happens after death. I think Constantine would have liked this pragmatic and venal pope)


Sylvester, killing a dragon

In the times of Sylvester, popes led a somewhat more retiring existence. But our man of the day is remembered as being the first link in the papal chain that would eventually exert enormous influence—and power—in Medieval Europe.

Personally, I won’t be thinking all that much about Sylvester tonight. I will be thinking of the year that went and the year to come. I will think of the people I love, the people I’ve lost. I will toast in champagne hoping that 2018 will be a better year for our world than 2017 was. And to you, my dear readers, here’s a heartfelt wish that 2018 will be a good year for you, a year where someone will give you a hand when you need it, cheer you on when you surge ahead. But hey, whatever you do, don’t forget to eat those twelve grapes at midnight. After all, a year without love would be a very, very dreary year!

Happy Christmas!

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In difference to preceding generations, we live in the age of globalisation. Most of us have gadgets in our homes produced on the other side of the world, we wear clothes made in India or Bangladesh, we eat fruit and vegetable and fish that has been transported from very, very far away. That’s how we can eat tomatoes in winter, avocado all year round and munch our way through a bowl of scampi.

Globalisation also impacts our cultures. I recall the first time I travelled to China on business. The adverts that stared down at me from various billboards promoted stuff I’d never heard of before. (And in Chinese characters, which sort of added to the exoticism) Western food chain eateries were few on the ground and the music blaring from the radio was in Chinese, however modern the beat.

Some years later, and the adverts were for Gillette, McDonald’s, KFC, BMW. The music playing on the radio was no longer exclusively Chinese. In fact, most of it was in English. Not necessarily a bad thing, but how does this affect the local culture? Actually, how does it affect culture, full stop?

Sometimes, I fear we’re mistaking consumerism for culture. Take Valentine’s Day, until recently not much of a thing in Europe. Now we are bombarded with adverts suggesting we buy gifts and flowers and chocolate (yes please) for our loved ones on February 14. But in those countries where Valentine’s is an imported holiday there are no cultural roots to link all these gifts to, no traditions of homemade Valentine cards to somehow mitigate the “buy, buy, buy her stuff if you love her” message.

In Sweden, we’ve seen an upsurge in Halloween celebrations in the last decade. We’ve never celebrated Halloween. We’ve celebrated All Saints, a religious holiday when we’ve visited the graves of our dead and lit a candle for them. These days, we don’t do that anymore. We carve pumpkins into toothy grins and embrace artificial spiderwebs (and spiders), decorating our homes in orange and black. Not because it is part of our cultural identity, but because it is part of the new “global” culture, disseminated through various shows/movies & social media and eagerly spurred on by all those who make money on selling us yet another celebration.

These days, we even have a major Black Friday craze here in Europe. Not because we’ve suddenly started celebrating Thanksgiving, but because the commercial powers that are recognise yet another opportunity to make money. And we, dumb consumers that we are, fall for all those special offers, buying stuff we probably don’t need or much want. Most of us have too much stuff and too little content in our lives.

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Tomorrow it is Christmas Eve, and for the last four weeks or so, we’ve been in the grip of Christmas shopping. From every store blares Christmas music, most of it of the Anglo-Saxon kind. Very little of it is traditional – rarely does one hear Oh Come All ye Faithful, while José Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad seems to be on constant repeat. I suspect up-beat music stresses us into buying more stuff, the spiritual message of Christmas (God sending us his Son to deliver us all from evil) submerged by the “All I Want for Christmas” varieties which focuses on the presents. As I write this, the television in the background is informing me I can still buy my Christmas presents—at a bargain price, as this particular store has already started its After Xmas sale. (Most illogical: if it is an After Xmas sale, then how can it start before Christmas?)

It seems to me we’ve lost our way, somehow. For me, the weeks before Christmas should be about lighting candles to brighten the winter gloom while preparing for those few days when our family is reunited. Do I buy presents? Of course I do. But they’re not central to my Christmas and I rarely have a wish-list of my own. After all, I don’t need more things.

For me, the high point of our Christmas celebration is early on the morning of December 24 (In Sweden, Christmas Eve is the thing) All our children lie sleeping and hubby and I tip-toe around, lighting candles and preparing hot cocoa. We whip cream to go with the cocoa, heat the mandatory saffron buns and then, once we’re done, we crank up the volume so that the whole house echoes with “Hosanna, David’s son, blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord” (One of my favourite X-mas psalms). One by one, our children emerge, sleepy-eyed and tousled. And while they are all taller than me, all of them adults, in that precise moment they are all still my babies, for all that they have to bend down for me to kiss them Happy Christmas.

jul Carl_Larsson_Brita_as_IdunaI hope you all have someone to kiss this Christmas. I hope there are moments when you sit in the glow of candles and enjoy the peace and quiet of the winter night, a little bubble of golden light in a world that sometimes feels very scary and dark. With that, I wish you all a Merry Christmas. Or just Happy Holidays and a fabulous New Year. And when life gets confusing and difficult, may you all have a star to guide you, a little beacon to light your way!

Ode to the pea

There are a couple of words in the global dictionary that have Swedish roots. Ombudsman, for example. And smorgasbord – or as we say, smörgåsbord – which essentially is a the huge buffet us Swedes enjoy at Christmas.

Tables clad in red cloths are laden with several types of herring, just as many variants on salmon, smoked eel (big no-no these days: eels are an endangered species), mackerel, meatballs (duh!) ribs, sausages, mustard-glazed ham, smoked reindeer meat, potatoes, red cabbage, brown cabbage (normal cabbage prepared with syrup), kale, cheeses of all kinds, hard bread, soft bread and then, to top it all off, a huge selection of desserts, the primus inter pares being the cold rice porridge that is mixed with whipped cream and sliced oranges (we call it Rice a la Malta). There are some healthy alternatives, like the lutfisk (dried fish that is soaked back into shape for fifteen days prior to Christmas. The result is gelatinous and somewhat…umm…bland) but mostly this is a meal that requires a heroic approach to eating, the food washed down with schnaps and beer.

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Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters. The reality for most Swedes a century or so ago…

In Sweden, we consider the smorgasbord to be traditional. In actual fact, it is a relatively recent addition to our Christmas traditions. After all, until some decades into the twentieth century, Sweden was a very, very poor country, the majority of our population being either tenant farmers or workers in the traditional Swedish industries such as mining and saw mills. Wages did not stretch to much meat. Neither did they stretch to such luxuries as cheese or bread baked with wheat. The majority of our population survived on potatoes, barley and cabbage. Prior to the 18th century (when the potato was upgraded from suspicious tubular best fed to animals to a crop worthy of human consumption) it was cabbage – and peas.

So today, dear peeps, I give you the riveting history of the pea, this humble but oh, so important companion through the centuries.

I thought we’d start with the story about the princess and the pea. For those who’ve never heard of this famous literary combo, this fairy tale by H.C. Andersen is the story of a princess who had lost her way in life and so arrived bedraggled and wet at a castle, begging a bed for the night. Being without any useful identifying objects such as a crown, an ermine cape or a frog prince, she was naturally met with suspicion by her hosts, but the lady of the castle – and the mother of the potential bridegroom, a dashing prince – knew just how to verify if the wet little thing with curly hair down to her waist was a real princess. All she needed was a pea.

pea 452px-Edmund_Dulac_-_Princess_and_peaSaid pea was placed under 20 mattresses. The princess was then carefully tucked in (the prince hovered hopefully in the background, more than willing to offer a goodnight kiss. His lady mother told him to forget it: her precious son would not press his lips to anything but the real thing) Come morning, the overnight guest was black and blue all over, complaining mightily about the lumpy mattresses. The lady of the castle smiled. Their surprise guest was thereby revealed as a true princess, for only a girl of such rare sensibilities would have felt one itty-bitty pea through all those feather mattresses. Ergo, there was a wedding and a happily ever after.

As a child, I had major problems with this story. (I had problems with quite a few, starting with the rather obnoxious custom of kissing a frog to find your prince) In this case, I simply could not understand how a pea would survive being squashed under 20 mattresses. Peas in my world were soft and green. In H.C. Andersen’s world, they were mostly yellow and hard. In fact, for most of our species relationship with this versatile little legume, the pea has been dried and yellow, one of those must-have foodstuffs that ensured the household survived the winter.

It is difficult for us to imagine a world without potatoes – one of our staples. Or chocolate. Yes, I realise chocolate is not considered a staple, but for those addicted to the stuff it most certainly is. However you want to categorise chocolate, it wasn’t around until relatively recently. Nor were potatoes. Or orange carrots. Or tomatoes. Or popcorn. But the pea, ladies and gentlemen, most certainly was.

Peas Tokarski_Still_life_with_peaHumans have been eating peas for eons. Like many other legumes, the pea comes with the benefit of preserving itself – if you leave it to dry on its vine it will do just that, and instead of harvesting when the pods are juicy and green you wait until the summer is gone and pick the desiccated pods and the hard, yellow peas instead.

These days, most of us only eat the pea in its green variety – and chances are we’ll pull out a bag from the freezer whenever we feel inclined to produce a nice Crème Ninon or just have some peas with our wiener schnitzel (as an aside, a wiener schnitzel without peas is no wiener schnitzel) Some of us – notably those who live in the northern parts of England – enjoy consuming our peas as mushy peas, often served with fish and chips. Yes, I know mushy peas are made with dried marrowfat peas (which are greenish), and no, I’ll not share my little story about when I visited a plant that produced mushy peas – will put you off them forever…

The pea originates from the eastern Mediterranean area. In Georgia, they’ve been munching peas for over 7 000 years, and I’d hazard that originally the peas were eaten while green. Our distant ancestors lived a nomadic hand-to-mouth existence, so storing stuff was not high on the agenda. Over the years, the pea was domesticated and more and more it was grown for its dry fruit. Roman legionaries foraged for wild peas to complement their rations, as already the old Romans had a predilection for mushy peas. They just never got round to adding the fish and chips.

peas Peasants_breaking_breadIn the Middle Ages, green peas were a luxury item. Rich people served them to impress, a not-so-subtle reminder that they were rich enough not to worry about their food stores during the following winter. In general, a very small percentage was harvested while green, but in years of famine – and it is important to keep in mind that with depleted stores food was scarce until the next harvest, not just beyond the last frost – the poor and hungry were given leave to pick the peas while green so as not to die of starvation.

Other than the pea, people of the Middle Ages consumed huge quantities of cabbage and barley. Peas, cabbages, leeks and barley were all used to make various types of pottages – served with bread. It is estimated at least 50% of the daily calorie intake came from bread – baked with wheat in the more affluent/civilised areas of Europe, with barley and rye in the eastern & northern backwaters.

A pottage was essentially a soup. It varied in thickness depending on the means of the household. In poorer homes, the pottage could well consist of cabbage, herbs and a handful of crushed barley or oats to thicken it. In richer homes, a pottage could include meat and various vegetables. Sweet varieties included almonds and dried fruits, were thickened with eggs and eaten with a lot of lip-smacking.

peas courtesy Calle Fridén P2190020

Photo Kalle Fridén

The dry pea was excellent for making pottage – pease pottage. It had the benefit of being rich in nutrients and was relatively cheap. Add some thyme and garlic, and it tasted quite nice. Those higher up the financial hierarchy would combine their pease pottage with ham, those somewhat poorer would instead make their pease pottage very thick – when it became a pease pudding (similar to humus in texture) and was quite filling. Growing peas was a fail-safe way of ensuring there was food on the table throughout the winter.

There were other benefits to cultivating peas. They did not require pampering. Peas could be planted early in spring as they do not require high temperatures to germinate. They didn’t need much sun. They were easy to harvest and, as stated above, easy to store. That being said, there were a lot of superstitions about the planting of peas, such as the fact that they should only be planted during a waning moon and preferably on a Wednesday or Saturday as otherwise the birds might make off with the planted peas. Apparently, birds back then took the days of the week very seriously indeed.

If you eat the same stuff every day, reasonably you’ll get tired of it. For generations, Europeans ate cabbage and peas, cabbage and peas, more peas, more cabbage. Which is probably why we no longer eat quite as much cabbage – or peas. And IF we eat it, chances are we’ll eat the cabbage shredded in a coleslaw (our medieval forebears would be quite horrified: eat it raw?) and the peas when they are at their greenest. We, in difference to our ancestors, do not need to worry about where tomorrow’s dinner will come from. We, unlike our ancestors, rather have the problem of having too much to eat around us. We, just like our ancestors, tend to have a predilection for all things sweet and fat – such foodstuffs were important in the distant past, when that extra layer of fat could well be the difference between survival or death – and green peas are substantially sweeter than the dried variety.

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Carl Larsson: Shelling peas

Still: to this day, that ancient dish the pease pottage still survives – although nowadays we tend to call it split-pea soup. What is truly interesting about pea soup is that it exists in most of the traditional European cuisines. The recipes are surprisingly similar – thyme, peas and broth – and accordingly the end result is always a creamy yellow thick soup that requires little in the way of extras to leave you agreeably full.

In Sweden, Thursday used to be the traditional pea-soup day. In fact, to some extent it still is – the determined Swede will always be able to find at least one restaurant in the vicinity that has pea-soup on its Thursday menu. The dried peas are left to soak overnight, and then they’re cooked in a rich ham-broth with plenty of thyme and served with mustard and pork sausage. Yummy. Even better, after the pea soup come Swedish pancakes with raspberry jam and whipped cream.

After such a meal – just like after a full Swedish smörgåsbord – the bed beckons. And I can assure you that should anyone see fit to place a dried pea or two beneath my mattress I will complain – loudly – about how lumpy and hard my bed is. I may not be a princess, but dried peas make uncomfortable bed companions. Trust me, I’ve tried.

Sifting through history for interesting ladies!

sharon rsz_img_5302 1Today I have the honour of welcoming Sharon Bennett Connolly to my blog. This is a lady with whom I share a common passion for all things medieval and I was fortunate enough to spend a day with her last year in Lincoln. Needless to say, we spent that time visiting Lincoln Castle and Lincoln Cathedral, a first for me, not so for Sharon. (And she’s been back there since, to judge from the pic)

Sharon has recently published a non-fiction book featuring a number of medieval ladies. Aptly named Heroines of the Medieval World, it introduces the reader to quite the gallery of personalities. (You’ll find my review at the bottom of this post)

So, I gave Sharon a virtual cup of tea (with a slice of virtual cake – comes with the benefit of zero calories)  and had her sit on the hot seat while answering some questions.

Why this passion for history?

I honestly don’t know. I have always loved history – I just can’t get enough of it. The stories and the mysteries are so compelling. I love the ‘what ifs’. And it is something that is everywhere – you can go to Scotland, France, Russia, Canada and there is history.

Have you ever wished you could travel back in time to say hello to some of your favourite medieval heroines?

I would love to – so long as I can come back, I wouldn’t want to live in the past. I like my creature comforts too much. But it would be nice to sit at a table with Agnes of Dunbar and Nicholaa de la Haye and find out what made them so formidable. Or Eleanor of Aquitaine’s daughters and ask them what they really thought of their mum and dad – oh, that would be so interesting.

If so, what would you take with you as a gift?

Now that is an interesting question. I think I would want to take them something practical, that we women find so useful today – maybe a decent sized handbag?

medieval loversWho are your three favourite medieval ladies and why?

There are so many! I have a soft spot for Nicholaa de la Haye, because writing about her on my blog gave me the original idea for the book. I admire Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror; I love the idea of this diminutive woman being treated as a partner by this great bear of a warrior. And she wasn’t afraid to defy him for the sake of her children. And Joanna of England, daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. She wasn’t always in control of her life, but she could put her foot down when she wanted to – such as when Richard I wanted to marry her to Saladin’s brother.

Do you have a special period you are particularly interested in?

Medieval, although it’s more the people than the period, for me. I have dabbled in the Napoleonic and Tudor eras, but always seem to go back to the medieval. However, I couldn’t specify a particular reign or century – it is more the stories and the characters associated with them, that I find fascinating.

Lincoln Cathedral or the York Minster?

Impossible decision – they’re both at the top, for different reasons. I’m a Yorkshire lass and York is something very special. But the refectory at Lincoln Cathedral do the most scrumptious cakes. (Totally agree!) I can spend a day in each of them and still not see everything.

I know you’re planning on writing a book about the women of the Conquest and I imagine Matilda of Flanders will be a pivotal character in such a book. What do you think of her husband, William the Conqueror? Was he a horrible baddie or is he the victim of a black legend?

I think it is never black and white. I’m from Yorkshire – and the Harrying of the North was a dreadful incident – but you can’t really hold a grudge for 1,000 years. William had his good qualities, he was a strong, able ruler and rewarded those loyal to him. He was also a loyal husband – there is no record of any mistresses and he seems to have prized Matilda as a wife, companion and ruling partner. He left Normandy in Matilda’s hands on a number of occasions and respected her abilities.

medieval woman w unicornWhile researching your book, what sources did you use?

Everything I could find. It is easier to research from home these days, so many contemporary chronicles, such as Froissart and Orderic Vitalis, are available online. I think I only ventured to the library a couple of times. I also have a pretty decent book collection myself – I always told the hubby they would come in handy one day, and I was right. I also found this great website from Columbia University, called Epistolae which has published the Latin letters – and their translations – written or dictated by over 200 women of the Middle Ages, ranging from Hildegard of Bingen to Adela of Normandy. It is a wonderful resource, giving a unique insight into these women.

I imagine you, just like me, run into the problem of contradictory stories: one version says A was murdered, another insists A rode into the sunset and lived happily ever after. What do you do in such situations? 

I like to present all the versions available, assess their validity and then explain why I have decided one may be more likely above the other. Sometimes there is just no way to decide which is true, so you just have to say you can’t decide, and leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions – luckily, I haven’t had to do that too often.

There are a couple of historical controversies that always cause a LOT of discussion: one of these is whether Richard III did away with his nephews yes or no. What do you think?

I think we will never know for certain, but the more I read about it, the more I think Richard had to be the culprit. He had the means – he was in charge; he had the motive – while they were alive, they were always a threat; and he had the opportunity – they were in his custody. I don’t like the way some people argue that Richard couldn’t have done it because he was too pious, and then say it must have been Margaret Beaufort because she was too pious. Excuse me? You can’t have it both ways. When the boys disappeared in 1483, Richard was the one who needed them out of the way. The Yorkists had already attempted to rescue them once, and he could not afford to have them free and attracting support to their cause. Henry VII did benefit from their disappearance, but 2 years later, rather than at the time. (Ha! I fear your answer will upset quite a few Ricardians… It’s very frustrating we’ll never know, isn’t it?)

Is there any event in history you would really, really want to change?

The execution of Joan of Arc. That was such a travesty. The poor girl was only 19 and was thrown to the wolves and devoured because she beat the English, almost single-handedly. When I was researching her, I came across all these comments about her on Facebook, saying she was mad and no saint. However, when you look at this teenage girl, leading armies and running verbal rings around her interrogators, you realise that, whether or not it was divine inspiration, there was something very, very special about her. No one deserves to be burned alive, Joan least of all.

Other than writing & reading history, what other interests do you have?

I love playing badminton, bike riding and the theatre. And exploring. During the school holidays, my son and I love nothing better than taking off for a day or two to explore new places. We love driving into the Pennines, or spending a day in York. On the last school holidays, we took a trip down to Hastings, research for me and exploring for Lewis – he re-enacted William the Conqueror’s trip when he landed on Pevensey Beach.

Christmas will soon be upon us. Do you have any special family traditions you would like to share?

We always put the tree up on the first weekend in December. When my son was born, I did start a tradition of buying a new decoration for the tree, every year. The idea was that when junior leaves home, he will have a full set of decorations for his tree. However …. I now don’t want to part with them, so I will probably get him a starter set from Wilko’s and keep the ones we’ve collected.

We also go to the annual village tradition of carols around the Christmas tree. It’s lovely. The kids have a great time, running around, catching up with their friends – and singing. Plus, there’s hot chocolate and mince pies afterwards. It’s a great village atmosphere.

Thank you for sharing this with us, Sharon. And should you ever want to pop by with a guest post, you are more than welcome!

sharon Lo-res jkt, 9781445662640 6About the author:

Sharon Bennett Connolly, has been fascinated by history for over 30 years now and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle. Born in Yorkshire, she studied at University in Northampton before working in Customer Service roles at Disneyland in Paris and Eurostar in London.
She is now having great fun, passing on her love of the past to her son, hunting dragons through Medieval castles or exploring the hidden alcoves of Tudor Manor Houses.
Having received a blog as a gift, History…the Interesting Bits, Sharon started researching and writing about the lesser-known stories and people from European history, the stories that have always fascinated. Quite by accident, she started focusing on medieval women. And in 2016 she was given the opportunity to write her first non-fiction book, Heroines of the Medieval World, which was published by Amberley in September 2017. She is currently working on her second non-fiction book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, which will be published by Amberley in late 2018.

You can connect with Sharon on FB or Twitter.

My review: 

Since some years back I have regularly popped by Ms Bennett Connolly’s blog called “History…the interesting bits”. Quite often, we’ve honed in on the same historical ladies and I have enjoyed comparing my (always rather subjective) take on these medieval ladies with Ms Bennett Connolly’s more objective approach.

In Heroines of the Medieval World, Ms Bennett Connolly has collected several of her favourite ladies under various headings such as “The Medieval Mistress” or “Women who ruled” or (my favourite) “Scandalous Ladies”. Geographically, her selected heroines span the European continent, from Spain to distant Kiev, but focus lies on English and French women, some of them nothing more than pawns, others brave as lions when defending what was theirs.

Ms Bennet Connolly’s passion and knowledge of the period and her heroines shine through in every word. This is an informative read, introducing not only each respective woman but also their family, their relatives and the people in their proximity that may have been affected by them. I particularly enjoyed the chapter with Julian of Norwich in which Ms Bennett Connolly speculates as to who this Julian really was, thereby underlining just how little we really know about these long-dead women.

This is not a book one reads in one go. Rather, it is a book best enjoyed chapter by chapter so as to allow all the information to properly sink in. Ms Bennett Connolly delivers all this knowledge in a driven prose, maintaining a nice balance between pace and information throughout.  For all those who love immersing themselves in the past—and in particular the medieval past—this is a must read.

Buy link, Amazon UK
Buy link, Amazon US 

Mother, queen, widow – meet the lady from Holstein


Mechtild, flanked by Birger and Erik

In one of Sweden’s oldest churches, the pride of place is held by a grave containing three bodies: that of Birger Jarl, the man who more or less hammered Sweden together, that of one of his sons, a.k.a. Erik Good-for-Nothing, and that of his second wife, Mechtild of Holstein. The tomb is decorated with a carved stone slab depicting the buried peeps. Interestingly enough, it is Mechtild’s likeness that takes up most of the space. Why? Because she was of much higher rank than Birger Jarl. She may have been a woman in a man’s world, but her contemporaries had no problem placing her at the top of the status pyramid. After all, Mechtild was a crowned queen, and for all that Birger Jarl was the effective ruler of Sweden for 20 years, he never became its king. (Two of his sons did. Another story.)

leonor medieval-betrothalIf we start at the beginning, Mechtild was born somewhere around 1220 in Holstein, her father being the count of Holstein. In 1237, she married Abel, a prince of Denmark who was also the Duke of Schleswig. Now Abel was not entirely happy being a mere duke. He wanted to be king, but his older brother Erik showed no signs of giving up breath any time soon. Add to this the fact that Erik was determined to expand his power base, reluctant to tolerate a too independent duke within his kingdom and it’s sort of obvious the two brothers didn’t exactly get along.

Anyway: while Abel was unhappy with his brother and more or less constantly fighting with him, his wife did her duty and gave him children, the two eldest being healthy sons. Probably made Abel crow with glee, seeing as Erik’s wife had so far “only” given him surviving daughters, the two sons having died young. In essence, all Abel had to do was wait, because unless Erik had a legitimate son, the Danish crown would pass to Abel upon Erik’s death.

bj3But waiting was hard, especially when Erik subjected Abel’s duchy to repeated raids. On one occasion, Erik’s attack obliged Abel’s little daughter, Sofia, to flee for her life in the dark winter night clad in only her linen shift. Abel gnashed his teeth and promised revenge.

What Mechtild thought of all this we don’t know. But I’m guessing she cheered her husband on when he defended her brother’s patrimony against the grasping Erik and I suppose the fact that Erik wanted to control Holstein himself put him far, far down on Mechtild’s list of “dudes I like”.

In 1250, Erik travelled to Estonia to sort out some issues. On the way home, he decided to pay an intimidating visit to Mechtild’s brother, the young count of Holstein. When he heard of this, Abel offered Erik to stay at his home in Gottorp.

According to the legend, what happened next was that Abel rather cryptically reminded Erik of the instance when little Sofia was forced to run barefoot through the woods to escape his men. Erik supposedly replied that he was rich enough to buy Sofia a new pair of shoes. Abel smirked. Moments later, a large party of noblemen entered the hall and grabbed hold of Erik. To be exact, there were twenty-four men, but whether they were required to hold Erik or whether they were there to hold the king’s men at bay is a bit fuzzy.

Where Mechtild was in all this, we don’t know. Was she watching from a shadowy corner as the king was bound and gagged and dragged out of her home? Did she hurry over to hubby and grab hold of his tunic while whispering “Is this wise?” Did she pump her fist in a “YES!” gesture? Or maybe she was more focused on the fate of her eldest son, at the time twelve or so, who was being held hostage by the archbishop of Cologne.

Erik was dragged onto a boat. When he recognised some of the voices around him, he realised he’d not be seeing the end of the night alive. Somehow, he managed to convey to his abductors that he wanted to be shriven before they did whatever they intended to do to him. “Fair enough,” the rascals said and arranged for a priest to talk to the bound king. Once the priest was done, Erik was rowed out on the Schlei and beheaded, his body and head thrown overboard.

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A rosy future indeed…

Abel always maintained he had nothing to do with this. Nothing at all. Nope, not him. He and the twenty-four noblemen swore an oath to that effect and Abel could thereby claim the Danish throne. He and Mechtild were crowned in Roskilde in 1250 and for a while there the future looked quite rosy. Except for all the grumblings along the line that the new king was “Abel by name but Cain by deeds”.

A year or so later, Abel was killed while putting down an uprising of rebellious peasants. Everyone saw this as a sign of divine justice. Prior to his funeral, his body was kept at Schleswig cathedral, but the monks woke to horrendous sounds and swore the dead king’s ghost was up and about at night, pacing back and forth like a caged bear in the confines of the cathedral.

This was not good. The monks therefore decided to haul the body over to Gottorp and bury it in unhallowed ground. For good measure, they also staked him to stop him from rising as an undead to plague the region. Didn’t help, as for a long time afterwards people claimed to have seen the dead king astride a white horse riding through the forest with a pack of glowing hounds.

With Abel gone, Mechtild’s situation was precarious, especially as her eldest son was still in Cologne. Abel’s younger brother, Kristoffer, claimed the throne and Mechtild did what many women in a precarious situation did: she entered a convent.

For some years there, Mechtild spend most of her energy defending the birth-right of her sons. Although the Danish crown had been taken from him, her eldest, Valdemar, was confirmed as Duke of Schleswig. He died in 1257 and Kristoffer tried to stop Mechtild’s second son, yet another Erik, from inheriting the duchy. This did not go down well, Kristoffer had to flee his opponents, took shelter with the bishop of Ribe who purportedly poisoned the king. All in all, Denmark during the late 13th century seems to have been an excessively exciting place…

Meanwhile in Sweden, Birger Jarl was consolidating his power over the country. Approximately at the same time as Mechtild wed Abel, he married princess Ingeborg, sister to the Swedish king Erik (I know, I know! Where medieval Spain is chockfull of Alfonsos, medieval Scandinavia just has an endless number of Eriks ) The marriage was fruitful, resulting in eight surviving children, albeit some would die as young adults. The son with whom Birger and Mechtild share a tomb was no more than twenty-five years of age or so, and based on the studies of his bones he suffered from some sort of debilitating disease, hence his nickname “Good-for-nothing”.

In 1254, Ingeborg died. Birger Jarl may have been in no hurry to remarry, but he was not yet fifty and by all accounts a vigorous man, so it is likely he was soon considering potential new wives. As he already had heirs a-plenty, he did not need to marry a fertile woman, but to further shore up his position he needed to marry a woman of some status. Which is why he was not averse to the idea of marrying Mechtild. She, on the other hand, sat in her convent and felt somewhat beleaguered. She needed help to defend her surviving son’s patrimony, and Birger Jarl was powerful enough to help her with that.

medieval lustNot, as we can see, a union based on sweaty palms, lust and thumping hearts, but in 1261 Birger and Mechtild were wed. Mechtild waved bye-bye to the nuns and embraced secular life again. I imagine she had her hands full with managing Birger’s household and his three youngest children, plus, of course, she was expected to lend lustre to state events by being adequately queenly.

Whether this was a happy marriage, I have no idea. I imagine both Birger and Mechtild were old enough to be pragmatic and value the respective benefits each brought to the other. Whatever the case, in 1266 Birger Jarl died and was interred in the abbey church of Varnhem.

20170728_150432Varnhem was a Cistercian abbey, founded by French monks who’d been sent north in the middle of the twelfth century. I’m not sure being chosen for this potentially dangerous expedition into the wilds of Sweden was considered a winning ticket, but spreading the word of God was worth the risk and so our French brethren made the long trip from la Belle France to the Swedish boonies. Their destination was not entirely uncivilised. In fact, Varnhem was built on a site very close to one of the earliest known Christian burial sites in Sweden. Here, people had been worshiping the White Christ since the mid eighth century or so.

When Birger Jarl died, Varnhem was the place to be buried in, several kings already safely interred under the floor. Birger had also been a major benefactor of the abbey which is probably why he was buried in front of the lay altar towards the western end of the church.

With Birger dead, Mechtild decided to leave Sweden. As she was actively disliked in Denmark she moved to Kiel where she would remain for the coming decades or so. In between ferociously defending her sons’ birth right to Shleswig (The three brothers succeeded each other, none of them leaving a male heir) she also worked closely with her brothers to secure Holstein’s independence. As all her sons predeceased her, she claimed Schleswig in her own name and gifted it to her brothers – and so Holstein and Schleswig became Schleswig-Holstein, a part of the world the Danes and the Holsteiners would fight bitterly over for centuries to come. If anything, this made her even more unpopular in Denmark. Not that she cared – she had no inclination to spend time in Denmark.


The carved head supposed to be Birger Jarl

In 1288, Mechtild died in Kiel. Her body was then transported all the way back to Varnhem in Sweden where she was interred beside her second husband and her stepson. And there she lies to this day, despite several attempts to move her and Birger to Stockholm. After all, the man who united Sweden and founded Stockholm shouldn’t be stuck in an obscure grave in an old abbey church… (Birger, obviously, was of another opinion)


The reconstructed face of Birger

Just to verify things, the grave was opened in 2001 or so. The remains were of a woman in her sixties, a man in his fifties and a much, much younger man unrelated to the female but closely related to the older male. A DNA analysis had the experts concluding that the older man was, in fact, Birger Jarl.  And on a closer inspection of his cranium, the bone-experts were delighted to discover Birger did, in fact, have a cleft chin – just like the stone head adorning one of the pillars in the church!

Beyond her tomb, Mechtild has left little trace in history. But once she lived, by all accounts a determined lady who fought for the rights of her sons and her brothers. Not at all a shrinking violet, IMO, more of a lioness defending her own.

When Christmas looms – of decorations, traditions and short stories

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Big, big thing in Sweden. In fact, it is probably the only Sunday of the year when our churches are full, the congregations adding loud and enthusiastic voices to psalms most Swedish people over the age of thirty know by heart. (The younger generation is a lost cause – they prefer other tunes)

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A whole table of woolen tomtes – Swedish somewhat more sinister version of the Christmas elf

By the time this Sunday comes around, most self/respecting Swedes will have decorated their homes. Not fully ( As an example, we don’t do trees until some days before Christmas) but there should at least be a poinsettia, some hyacinths, a number of paper stars, candles and a tomte or two. An evergreen wreath on the door is an added plus. Prior to decorating, a major cleaning operation should have taken place.

Now, Advent sort of kicks off the whirling pre-Christmas season. Us Swedes consume mountains of gingerbread biscuits in December, we drink glögg (hot spiced wine served with raisins and almonds) and bake. No Swedish Christmas without home-baked cakes, without a table that groans under the weight of the massive smorgasbord, containing everything from herring, salmon, ham, pork trotters, meatballs, sausages, three types of cabbage, potatoes, cheeses, bread, ribs, and rice-porridge mixed with whipped cream.


Yum yum – saffron buns

Normally, I would spend December baking. Fruit cake, Swiss rolls, saffron buns, gingerbread cookies, almond cakes, fritters. As I do every year I’d have tried to convince my mother it is high time she gives me her recipe for chocolate and hazelnut cookies. As always, she would promise to do so but keep on forgetting to do so. I’d be considering just how many types of herring I need to pickle and whether it was enough with gravad lax or did we need some smoked salmon as well. By now, I’d have ordered the ham and the ribs. I’d be making toffee and fudge and other goodies. This year, I’m not doing any of that. This year, Christmas will be healthy and very non-traditional.

It’s strange how deep-seated these traditions are, especially if one considers that they’re not much more than a hundred years old or so. If we go back beyond the 19th century, most Swedes were far too poor to eat anything but cabbage and porridge. Only the rich could afford meat for Christmas. Those further down the social hierarchy may have had a pig, but once the beast was slaughtered they sold the meat to buy cabbage and dried peas. (Okay, they may have kept the trotters & feasted on them)

julbock 2Likewise, we burn candles like crazy in December – every self-respecting Swede has an Advent candleholder for four candles plus we do like combating the midwinter dark by lighting as many candles as we possibly can. Our forebears likely didn’t have much more than rush lights, and the very, very cold and dark Swedish winter had them huddling together before their hearths while throwing worried looks at the dark outdoors. After all, everyone knew there were trolls and elves and gnomes in the forest and anyone foolish enough to venture outside after nightfall might very well end up on the troll’s dinner table.

Swedish fairy tales tend to be of the darker type. Rarely does the princess kiss the frog and reveal a prince, Rather she kisses the frog and dies or reveals a huge troll that wants nothing as much as to gobble her down, nicely served on a golden platter (even trolls have style). I suspect these tales reflect the mood of our forefathers, sitting cold and hungry in one-room abodes housing entire families, beasts and a generous complement of fleas and lice. There they were, sitting close together and what better way to pass time but to tell each other stories? Preferably stories that would keep the young ones from exploring too far into the wintry forests…

DD-Blog-Hop-notoptextI like telling stories. (Duh!) So while I will steer clear of all the foodie traditions this year, I am proud to announce that I am taking part in a short-story blog tour which starts today and runs all the way to Christmas. Maximum 2 000 words long, these little nuggets go very well with tea and cake. Or wine and olives. Or coffee and chocolate. And they’re not nuggets – these Diamond Tales are more like sparkling jewels, the entire collection hosted by the Discovering Diamonds review site. So why not spend 15 minutes each day from now to Christmas escaping into a little bubble of glittering escapism? Who knows, you may encounter authors you’ve not read before – always a good thing, assuming you like what you read 😊


A typical Swedish Xmas goat with a little “nisse” (elf)

Back to Swedish traditions: In Sweden, we have a Christmas Goat. Very strange, you might think, and there are various explanations as to why we have this fondness for Yule goats. One of the explanations has to do with the old feast day of Saint Nicolas on December 6. Tradition has it that on this day Nicolas would bring gifts to children and to show just how powerful this medieval saint was, he was often accompanied by a goat-figure named Krampus (originally representing the devil) whom Nicolas had on a leash to show that good wins over bad. Not that this was any truer six centuries ago than it is today, but we really do like hoping that the bad will be vanquished by the good, right? Over time, Krampus grew into his own: where St Nicolas would reward the good children, Krampus would punish or even carry off bad children.

After the reformation, St Nicolas was thrown on the scrapheap in Sweden. Saints were scoffed at (except for St Lucia) and instead of having a canonized bishop distribute goodies to the eager children on December 6th, the goat figure/ Krampus took over that role, becoming a mostly benign if stern figure who would reward the good children with presents while butting the bad children with his horns.

The goat was an established symbol here in Sweden loooong before Ansgar made it up here to christen us. Those of you who know your mythology will of course be familiar with the fact that Tor, god of thunder and war, rode a chariot drawn by two impressive goats. Long before St Nicolas & Krampus were household names, us Scandinavians celebrated the winter solstice with intense and wet parties that had as their primary purpose to ensure good crops and fertility in the year to come. One tradition was that the last of the sheaves harvested was saved until this midwinter event, at which time it was shaped into a rough representation of a four-legged animal. The resulting “goat” was used in various games but was also seen as a symbol for next year’s harvest, which hopefully would be better (or as good as) this year’s.

julbock 1These days, our goats are mostly decorative. And as we’re now officially in the Christmas season, my goat is already in place, candle and all. As to me, it is time to start clearing my throat and humming a few bars of the first psalm to be sung today!


Dead #otd: Roger Mortimer

There are a couple of death dates I know by heart: Being Swedish, I know the death date of Karl XII who died in Norway November 30, 1718 purportedly having been shot by one of his own with a button. Hmm. Since then the button part has been dismissed, but whether or not he was shot by a Swede who had had it with this very bellicose king we will never know. I also know the death date of Gustav II Adolf who sadly died on November 6, 1632. Note the month peeps, and then it may not be a surprise that another of those death dates I know by heart is that of Roger Mortimer, first Earl of March, who died on November 29, 1330. In other words, he died today – well, 687 years ago, but still.

Bishop beheading-650x387Opinions about Roger Mortimer are divided. I belong to those who see in him a man of great capacity and ambition who was ultimately corrupted by power. Alternatively, some of his more questionable actions were driven by fear: Mortimer was no fool, and the older Edward III became, the closer he knew the day of reckoning was coming, because Edward III was as capable, as ruthless, as ambitious, as Mortimer himself and would not tolerate being on a leash forever.

I have in a previous post told the story of how Edward, some weeks shy of eighteen, had Mortimer arrested, using the famous tunnels under Nottingham Castle to get to him. Mortimer was hogtied and transported back to London where he was walled up in a room in the Tower as Edward didn’t want a repeat of Mortimer’s famous escape from the Tower eight years before.

I assume they left a little hole through which to pass victuals, water and a chamber pot, because a month later Mortimer was condemned to death by the assembled parliament. He had no opportunity to speak in his defence, the king ordering him to be gagged and bound. In one way, Edward’s personal rule therefore began under the stain of illegality – an accused man had the right to answer charges brought against him.

As Mortimer was found guilty of treason (usurping the young king’s power could be considered treasonous I suppose, but at the same time it was Mortimer who’d secured the throne for Edward III) he could have been condemned to suffer that rather awful death of being hanged, drawn and quartered. Edward chose to go for the drawn and hanged version, and I suspect Mortimer shivered in relief. To die with dignity was difficult if you were first hanged until you were almost dead, cut down, castrated, disembowelled while still alive, and then mercifully killed by the separation of your heart from your body. Rephrase: not so merciful…

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Alternative A

On this day in 1330, Mortimer was drawn through the streets of London to Tyburn where he was divested of his clothes and hanged until dead. Mind you, by the time he reached Tyburn, his fine black tunic would probably have been in shreds – being drawn behind horses caused a lot of wear and tear.

HDQ harclay-man-drawn

Alternative B

Now, one thing I’ve always wondered is if Mortimer had his hands or his legs tied to the horses. There are medieval depictions of men being drawn either way, and I suppose that if it was by your legs, chances were your head would be badly knocked about. By your arms, you’d have the dubious pleasure of seeing the surrounding crowds as they catcalled and pelted you with whatever objects they felt you deserved, be it rotten eggs, stones, mud or the odd veggie.

My soon-to-come book In The Cold Light of Dawn will of course have to address this issue. I can reveal that I have made a choice of arms vs legs purely based on what works best for the specific scene I have in mind. “My” Mortimer (who now and then takes up a lot of space in my head – I’d say we have a close relationship after all these years reading up on him. He doesn’t agree, as he is still sulking at my refusal to go alternate history on him and change the events in Nottingham) has expressed a preference and I’ve decided to go with his choice. After all, the end result is still the same: a forty-three-year-old man standing naked and shivering as he offers a short speech before the noose around his neck is drawn tight and he is heaved up to die. Takes some time to die when you’re hanged that way as your neck isn’t broken by the fall…

Anyway: once I’ve recovered from the pang of grief I always feel on this date I will do what I usually do on this day (and on November 6. Not so much November 30 as I don’t rate Karl XII as much of a king. Weird man who indulged in such hobbies as beating bears with cudgels…) I will light a candle and hope Roger Mortimer’s soul is at rest.

(NOTE! This is a rewritten version of the post I was asked to write for the FB Group The History Geeks)

A reflection on moving, books and the digital age

We have recently moved. An exhausting experience which not only involves a lot of packing and unpacking, but also a lot of vacuuming, of running about like a headless chicken while wondering in which box you’ve packed the very important screwdriver without which you cannot reassemble the bed.

These days, most of us move several times over our lives. We may think that in this we are different from our forebears, but we’re not. While we have a preconceived idea that our ancestors were born, lived and died in the same place, the truth is that those with land—however little—probably stayed put, while the great majority (because let’s face it, the great majority has rarely been landed. Rather the reverse…) have moved due to work or a desire to better themselves. The ambition to make something more of ourselves, to leave our children slightly better off than we are, has been a driving force throughout the history of humanity and accordingly younger sons, excess daughters, unmarried sisters would have packed what little they had, waved bye-bye to their family and made for that constant lure: the city.

medieval-merchant-guild“Ha,” some of you may say, “that didn’t work if you were a villein, tied to the manor at which you were born.”
True enough: but medieval villeins had ambitious children too, or became disgruntled with their restricted life and many villeins escaped their servitude and made for the..taa-daa…big city. Once in a city, a villein who managed to avoid his master’s search parties for a year could claim his/her liberty.

Leap some centuries forward in time and in 1620 a group of very audacious people took this moving concept to a new level by setting off on the Mayflower to found a colony in the New World. Okay, so this was a novel concept from an English perspective. The Spanish would at most have raised an eyebrow, seeing as the more entrepreneurial among the sons of Spain had been crossing the Atlantic for some generations by then.

Those travelling on the Mayflower were not the first English people to set off to settle virgin North American territory. Since some decades back, Jamestown in Virginia was a (not so) flowering colony, afflicted by starvation, tense relations with the native tribes and an exuberant nature that just was too much at times. Plus there was a chronic woman shortage which further affected the general mood of the colony.

Further north, our intrepid Mayflower travellers came with wife et al, and I can but express my admiration for these women who left everything they knew to cross an unknown sea and land in an unknown world and somehow feel responsible for ensuring their babies (and hubby) would survive in this unfamiliar environment. They probably had more to worry about than where the dratted screwdriver might be hiding – leaving aside the fact that they’d never even heard of a screwdriver.

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Leaving it all behind…

That first trickle of colonists was to have many, many followers. Initially, those who took the giant step to leave everything they knew behind often did it for religious reasons. Being a Puritan in the first few decades of the 17th century wasn’t easy, ergo the trip over the ocean. Some decades later, those seeking a safe harbour would be Catholics escaping persecution in England by moving to Maryland. Over time, the majority of those braving the seas for a new life in an unknown world mostly came for economic reasons—like those escaped villeins who made it to the big city. Or because they needed to reinvent themselves.

Compared to the moves described above, ours is a pathetic little thing. We move from one flat to the other, at most a distance of three kilometres. I’ve not had to take traumatic farewells of people I will never see again, I am not facing an uncertain future. What I am facing, however, is an identity crisis. Why, you might ask. Dear reader, bear with me.

Of our total 32 boxes or so, 19 contained my books. (Hubby’s books have long since been relegated to the country house as “light reading matter”) I love my books. I’ve carried many of them with me for years and years and years and would no more part from them than chop off a toe. For me, putting my books back on their shelves is when the hitherto somewhat impersonal space becomes my space.

So this past weekend I started my book ritual. Many very well-loved tomes were carefully handled and placed on their shelves. I was distracted by the odd book that fell open to reveal a dog-ear or a little scrap of paper with faded scribblings I could scarcely decipher. I was happy in my book bubble, now and then breaking off to take a sip or two of my tea. And then I was finished and took a step back to admire my handiwork. Very nice. But it didn’t feel like it used to. Hmm.

Reader Fragonard,_The_ReaderIt took me some time to realise what was wrong. I am the victim of the digital age, people. You see, all those very loved books on my shelves, they are, with some exceptions, dated. Not dated in themselves, but dated in my reading experience. Since some years back, I read like 80% of all my books on my Kindle, and while there is space for my Kindle on my bookshelves there is no purpose in putting it up there, is there? Accordingly, my bookshelf no longer gives an accurate reflection of my present reading tastes.

“This is no longer me,” I said to hubby. Exaggeration: those books are a huge part of my reading persona, but they no longer reflect all of me.
“Silly,” hubby said, “you’re not a person who defines yourself by what you have on your bookshelves, are you?”
Err… I’ve spent quite some time thinking about this, and I am now worried that not only don’t my shelves give a correct representation of what I read and enjoy, but even worse: I may be holding on to my book babies out of some sort of intellectual snobbism. “Therese Raquin? Oh yes, I have it somewhere. Ah, Madame Bovary? Yes, my mother gave it to me on my sixteenth birthday. No, I never enjoyed 1984, but there’s a very well-read copy of Animal Farm somewhere.”
“A snob?” Hubby laughs and pulls out some of my books, of the very non-intellectual (but oh, so enjoyable) kind. “I think not. Now, run along and do something about the unpacked boxes in the kitchen.”

On a more serious note, I have always been the kind of person who has gravitated to other people’s bookcases, seeing in their reading matter a window into their souls. Come to think of it, the same applied to flipping through a person’s music collection. These days, music is on Spotify and books are on Kindle or the like. Oddly enough, this means that in some aspects we have become more private versus our friends while baring ourselves entirely before those who provide our selected reading, viewing and listening matter digitally. Food for thought, hey?

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