ANNA BELFRAGE

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

Eternity is a long, long time – but we only have now

Spending time with second son is always something of an intellectual stretch, often ending with hubby and I staring at each other and wondering where on earth second son came from. Okay, okay: we know where he came from. We even have a pretty good idea just when he was conceived, but there was no sudden burst of stars at that critical moment, nor did his birth have us breaking out in song. It’s sort of difficult to sing and push at the same time, and hubby is tone-deaf and has too much self-preservation to risk humming as I was labouring. Whatever the case, second son is something of an enigma to us – he thinks so out of the box the rest of his family have a hard time keeping up.

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Lucas Cranach, The Tree of Knowledge

Second son is also one of those people who are constantly expanding their knowledge. For a light summer read, second son chooses “The Wealth of Nations” followed by an treatise on Chinese history. He is just as happy discussing details in Roman history as he is explaining the inexplicable world of genetic algorhythms to his mother, and as he not only reads a lot, but also seems to listen to hours and hours of obscure podcasts, he can bring up the most amazing topics over tea and cake. Like immortality.

In this case, it all started with a discussion about Elon Musk and his somewhat dark view of what the advent of advanced artificial intelligence (AI) may mean for us humans. As per Musk, AI & digitalisation will lead to a huge reduction in “simple” jobs such as driving cars, lorries, buses, trains, working on production lines & whatnot, and as a consequence a lot of people will lose their income. This is a view Musk shares with many, which is why there is an increasing discussion about the need of implementing some sort of citizen’s wage. I can just imagine how difficult it will be to get such a system in place. Plus, I’m not so sure human beings benefit from passivity.

Anyway, in the midst of this debate, we ended up discussing somewhat more theoretical concepts such as artificial intelligence taking over, the challenges of living in a world where more and more people would likely make it to a hundred. This is when second son stole the last piece of cake and casually said that soon enough, eternal life would be a possibility.
“Round the corner,” he said. “It’s just a matter of locking down the way our cells replace themselves.” Fortunately, it’s not exactly round the corner. There’s a huge gap between understanding that if we can only find a way to stimulate old and tired cells to continue replacing themselves we can live for ever to actually doing it. Phew.

I’m not sure eternal life is something to aspire to. Isn’t life as precious as it is precisely because it is finite? And can you imagine the tensions it would cause in society when all these ancient peeps insisted on remaining alive, thereby shortchanging future generations? Plus any “eternity treatment” would probably be very expensive, which means it would be a person’s wealth rather than their moral attributes that would decide whether they would live forever, yes or no. In the world we presently inhabit there are quite a few very rich people with exceedingly low morals who, I believe, would be more than thrilled at extending their lifespan to the detriment of humanity in general. Not exactly a scenario I find particularly palatable.

Second son shrugged. “The technology will be there at some point. Just as we already have the technology to tamper with the DNA of unborn babies.” Yeah, we do. And it is a great thing if such technologies can be used to eradicate genetic diseases. It is not quite as good a thing if those technologies are used to “enhance” those future babies so that they all develop into tall, athletic, handsome blue-eyed and blond people. Or brown-eyed and dark haired. Second son nodded in agreement before stating that nature had a tendency to balance things out.

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Photo Rsika (Creative Commons)

“Think of the banana,” he said, and I must admit my response to that was “Eh?”
“The banana,” he repeated patiently. “It used to be all bananas more or less were of a type known as the Gros Michel, but back in the 1950s, a fungus disease wiped out all Gros Michel bananas. A major catastrophe for the banana world, the result of all those bananas sharing the same DNA. If we start tampering with human embryos so as to make them fit one mould, chances are their DNA will also be very similar, which in turn would make the population very susceptible to certain types of epidemics.”
“Ah.”
“What we need to do is understand – or at least attempt to comprehend – just how radical the possibilities offered by new technologies will be – and start thinking about legislation to ensure all this new stuff isn’t misused,” second son continued.
“Would it be misuse to pay for eternal life?” I asked, visualising a number of men (yes, mostly rich white men with a narcissistic streak) sitting around sipping at some grossly expensive elixir.
“Probably not.” Second son stretched. “But the concept of eternal life and the reality of it are two very different things. Imagine living on and on while your friends die, your family dies, the world changes and no one can anymore understand your references to the music of your youth, or the events that shaped you.” He tapped his head. “That way lies insanity.”

I am prone to agree. While we may one day be able to tamper with our bodies so as to offer an endless lifespan, I’m not so sure our mental capacities would be as adaptable. Eternity is a long, long time to spend alive. Boredom would likely set in. Severe boredom, the type that makes you depressed enough to throw yourself in front of a train or off a house. If you live long enough, likely you’ll spend most of your time considering just how to stop living.

eternity Science_fiction_quarterly_195611Very many years ago, I was a big fan of Isaac Asimov’s short stories. One of them has stayed with me through life, and is a rather short thing called The Last Answer. It tells the story of atheist Templeton who dies of a heart attack and ends up as a cognitive presence in the hereafter, his only purpose being to think thoughts that will amuse The Voice, an ancient, immensely powerful intellect that can easily think up amusing things all on his own. So goaded is Templeton by the futility of this continued existence at  The Voice’s behest that he decides to think up a way to destroy it. Which is precisely what The Voice wants him to do… (Great short story, BTW, as is the companion piece, The Last Question)

I guess Asimov and I shared a common perception as to how horrible eternal life could be…

No, no eternal life for me – at least not here on earth. I wouldn’t mind several more years, though, just as I wouldn’t mind miraculously shedding like 15 kilos, growing a couple of inches and wake up to long, thick hair the colour of a rippling rye-field. Probably won’t happen, and I’m okay with that too.

IMG_0199But when it is time for me to go, I am sure there is something on the other side. (And yes, I realise I am being inconsistent here: but this would be another life, not an ever-extended life)  I must admit to hoping for gambolling lambs and green pastures, ever-replenished teapots and warm apple pie and an endless supply of Belgian chocolate. And hubby to hold my hand, but when I say that hubby just smiles and shakes his head, reminding me that he doesn’t believe in stuff like that. He is planning on returning as a bluebell.
“Or a lupin, seeing as you love them so much,” he says with a smile that grows softer when he sees the tears in my eyes. Eternity without him seems sort of pointless, actually. That makes him lean forward to kiss my brow.

Ultimately, all we have is now. As yet, there is no elixir that adds years to our lives, no magical rejuvenation that has us springing out of bed at eighty while feeling twenty-five. Tomorrow there may be, and humanity will collectively have to address the challenges poised by such an invention. But for now, grab hold of your life and savour it. Life is short, and no matter how many gambolling lambs may be waiting in the afterlife, only this life is a certainty. Live it to the full, people. Marvel at the world that surrounds us, walk barefoot through dewy grass, wade along the seashore under a starlit sky. And when you see a bluebell – or a lupin – stop for a moment and consider just how lucky you are. You are alive. Not bad, hey?

Brought to bed of a daughter? Try again!

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One of the things a medieval queen was expected to provide her husband with was a male heir – and preferably a spare. For a medieval king to have only female heirs caused a number of problems, primarily that of convincing the male barons to swear allegiance to a woman. Plus, from a purely dynastic perspective, whatever children the female ruler had would belong to their father’s house.

So when, in 1254, the heir to the English throne, Edward, married Eleanor of Castile, one of the expectations on the (very) young bride was that she ensure a continuation of the Plantagenet dynasty – a dynasty she herself belonged to through her great-grandmother and namesake, Eleanor of England. (Yet another young bride, this daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine married Alfonso VIII in 1174)

I’d have liked to present you with some wedding pics, but seeing as all this happened close to 800 years ago, there aren’t any. In fact, there aren’t any reliable likenesses of Edward and Eleanor. We know he was uncommonly tall. We know he lisped and had a droopy eye-lid. We know nada about her, but I imagine her as small – especially standing side by side with her lanky groom.

“Who is that?” Eleanor whispered, shrinking back behind a pillar.
“That?” Her maid peeked out. “Ah, that is your intended, my lady.”
“Him?” Eleanor pressed her cheek against the cold stone. So tall, so handsome – what would he see in her? 

As always when it came to royalty, the Eleanor-Edward union was political. Edward’s father, Henry III, needed to sort an ongoing feud with Eleanor’s brother, Alfonso X, and stop him from invading Gascony. And so, the fifteen-year-old Edward was sent off to Burgos, there to do his duty and wed the  Castilian princess. At least they met some days before tying the knot. Two tongue-tied teenagers peeking at each other on the sly, cheeks that heated when their eyes met. A shared smile, and then Edward was off to do other things (like being knighted by his future brother-in-law Alfonso) and Eleanor could go back to embroidering an elegant E on the shirt she was making for her soon-to-be husband.

The little bride, Eleanor, came with a good pedigree. Her mother, Jeanne de Dammartin, had once been considered by Henry III as a wife for himself, but due to political reasons this was not to be. Instead, Jeanne was wed to Fernando III of Castile (the future St Fernando) as his second wife.

The thirteen-year-old Eleanor not only had a saint for a father. She also came from a notably fertile family. Her mother had given Fernando five children, four of whom were sons. Her paternal grandmother, Berenguela, had produced five children during seven years of marriage. And as to her great-grandmother Eleanor of England, well she had presented her husband with twelve children – one every other year or so. However, very few of the sons survived – in fact, once the youngest was killed by a falling tile, the Castilian crown passed through Berenguela to Fernando. (More on Berenguela here)

With all these fertile females up her family tree, no one was particularly worried about the mandatory male heir. In the fullness of time, Edward’s new wife would surely present him with a healthy, squalling son.

valentine-dicksee-romeo-and-juliet-on-the-balconyAs an added bonus, the young couple seem to have taken an immediate liking to one another. This resulted in a stillborn (or dead shortly after its birth) baby in 1255, the first of sixteen (or at least fourteen) children. At the time, Eleanor was not yet fourteen, so I imagine this was a traumatic experience. There was a gap of some years – years in which the affection and love between Edward and Eleanor grew, making them almost inseparable. Whether or not there were miscarriages, we don’t know, but in 1261 Edward and Eleanor welcomed a daughter, Katherine, into this world.

Little Katherine died at three, and one year later, in 1265, Eleanor was delivered of yet another daughter, Joanna, who died some months later. I imagine that by now, Eleanor and Edward were beginning to become quite concerned. More than ten years married, and no living children – that did not bode well.

In 1266, little John arrived, and he was miraculously healthy. Prayers of gratitude rang in the royal solar, even more so when in 1268 yet another son, Henry, saw the light of the day. Two boys, albeit that little Henry was sickly. To round things off, a healthy daughter, Eleanor, was born in 1269.

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“Better leave them at home than carry them with us.”

In 1270, Edward took the cross. As a matter of course, Eleanor decided to accompany him, leaving her babies in the care of their grandmother and, in the case of the precious heir, their great-uncle. For a modern person, this seems somewhat callous: what sort of mother leaves her children to gallop off on adventure with her husband, hey? Well, first of all it is important to remember that royal children were quite often brought up in a separate household so as to give them some sort of stability. Being a medieval king – or royal heir – meant being constantly on the move, the entire court ambulating back and forth across the country.

Also, in the case of Edward and Eleanor, I do believe her first love was always her husband – he and his needs came first. And Edward seems to have been as genuinely in love with his wife, so maybe it was a symbiotic thing: he couldn’t go anywhere without her. Or maybe that is me being ridiculously romantic, seeing as we’re talking about a man with a very ruthless streak, as demonstrated by how he crushed the Welsh and attempted to subjugate the Scots. On the other hand, all men have multiple sides to them, and…Stop, stop, stop! Back to today’s topic – the quest for a male heir.

In 1271, there was a stillborn child. In 1272, while in Palestine, Edward and Eleanor welcomed yet another daughter, Joan. By then, they would have heard that their son John had died and what little joy they experienced at the birth of their daughter soured into fear when Edward was almost murdered. Clearly, they weren’t welcome in the Holy Land, and they set off for home. On the way, they learnt Henry III was dead. Edward was now king, and the pressing matter of a male heir became even more pressing – little Henry was not expected to live long.

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“Look, a son, an heir!”

In 1273, son number three, Alphonso, was born. A fine, lusty son, and Eleanor must have wept in relief. The little boy even survived his first few months, and it was therefore with great happiness Edward and Eleanor celebrated their coronation in 1274. By then, they’d been married almost twenty years, and even if little Henry died some months later, they did have their lovely Alphonso – and two healthy little girls. Does not seem much, given that Eleanor had given birth nine times. Nine. As she was only thirty-three, she could look forward to several more pregnancies. I wonder if there were times when this thought filled her with trepidation.

1275, 1276, 1277, 1279 – four pregnancies, four births, resulting in four little girls of whom two died. But at least Alphonso, this apple of his parents’ eyes, still thrived.

1281 – a little boy came and went like a shadow in the night. But still, they had Alphonso.

1282 – Elizabeth of Rhuddlan was born. A healthy child, and now there were five daughters – plus the precious Alphonso.

In April of 1284, a heavily pregnant Eleanor accompanied her husband to Wales.
Maybe you should stay at home,” he might have said to her, patting her on her swelling stomach. Not that he meant it, not really.
Stay at home? I accompanied you to the Holy Land – what is a jaunt to Wales compared with that?” she puffed, giving him a bright smile.

Royal 20 C.III, f.15So off they went, and there, in the building site that was Caernarvon Castle, Eleanor was delivered of a boy. A boy! Yes, a miracle baby, a strong little prince, and Eleanor smiled and wept as she presented her husband with the much-desired, if not so necessary, spare. After all, their sweet son Alphonso was now old enough to wed, and a marriage had been arranged for him with Margaret, daughter of the Count of Holland. For a little while there, everything was perfect in the Eleanor-Edward household. Until Alphonso fell ill, dying in August of 1284.

Alphonso lived the longest of all those children who died. Long enough for his parents to pin hopes on him, long enough to grow from an anonymous baby into an adored boy. And then, just like that, he died. It must have been utterly devastating. Yes, they had Prince Edward, but both Eleanor and Edward knew just what frail things children were – after all, with Alphonso they buried a tenth child. Even by the standards of the time, they were singularly unlucky as parents.

Eleanor was not to have any more children. After sixteen births, I guess she was worn out, and besides, her health was failing. So all hopes for a surviving male heir now rested on Edward, and even if he was a robust child, there were concerns that he too would die young.Just like with all her other children, on a daily basis, Eleanor did not see much of her youngest son. But despite not being with her son and daughters 24/7, Eleanor was a conscientious mother, ensuring her children were in good, competent hands. Did she love her children? I’d say yes – as much as she dared to. But no matter that she loved them, she loved her husband much more. It was with him she wanted to be, it was at his side she belonged.

In 1290, Eleanor died. Edward was numb with grief – so much so that for three whole days all royal business was suspended. But life goes on, and Edward had a duty to the crown – and his dynasty – to ensure there was more than one little boy in line to the throne. So in 1299, Edward married a second wife, the pretty and vivacious sister of the king of France. At the time, he was sixty and she was twenty – and fertile enough to present him with two beautiful and healthy sons.

In the event, these little spares would not be needed. In 1307, Eleanor’s last-born, Edward of Caernarvon, became king after his father. I daresay she would have been mightily pleased. She had done her duty by her husband and his family – she had birthed the next king.

A bouquet of ladies

In celebration of the International Women’s Day, I’ve decided to throw the doors of my blog—for the day known as my salon—wide open to some of my favourite historical ladies:

christina_queen_of_sweden_1644-1654_-_google_art_projectQueen Kristina of Sweden is a 17th century lady who was born so hirsute the midwives first declared her a boy only to then discover the babe was a girl. It is said they quaked at the thought of telling Kristina’s father the truth, but I am glad to report Gustav II Adolf was a progressive man in many respects, including being delighted at having a healthy daughter. Kristina’s mother was far from delighted: a daughter was a major, major disappointment in her book. Kristina became queen at the tender age of six, ruled in her own right from her 21st birthday or so, and abdicated at 28, sick and tired of all this queen stuff (Well, the fact that she was considering converting to Catholicism probably affected her decision. Being a Catholic in fiercely Protestant Sweden came with its own risks).

Isabella w Hugh D the eder & Earl of ArundelMy second visitor is Queen Isabella, born some 330 years before Kristina. The only daughter of Philippe IV of France (a.k.a. le Bel), Isabella is reputed to have been incredibly beautiful – and very well-educated. A smart mover and shaker, this is the lady who colluded with Roger Mortimer and deposed Edward II, Isabella’s not-so-loved husband. (At the time: prior to her falling out with hubby, she’d been more or less happily married to him for 16 years or so)

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Berenguela’s mum & dad

Our third visitor is Berenguela of Castile, daughter of Alfonso VIII and Eleanor of England, granddaughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Seeing as all her brothers died young, Berenguela ended up inheriting her father’s kingdom, abdicated in favour of her young son so as to appease the machismo of her Castilian nobles and proceeded to call the shots for the rest of her life—albeit working with her son rather than against him. It is to Fernando’s great credit that he always respected and valued his mother’s input.

Now that the introductions are over, let’s all settle in and get cosy. And no, you need not worry: I have not dug them up and dragged them here in all their decomposed glory, instead I am inviting them as they appear in my head, very much alive and kicking. That is one of the drawbacks of spending too much time with my nose stuck in history: these long-gone women are in many ways as real to me as some of the people I meet on a daily basis. Not so that I hold long conversations with them while waiting for my print-outs (actually, yes I do—but only in my head), but I invest a lot of time and effort in trying to recreate these ladies based on what historical records we may have.

“God, how you go on!” Queen Kristina of Sweden looks me up and down before throwing herself backwards into an armchair.
“Amen to that.” Isabella of France glides over the floor. “And really, Kristina, must you sit like that? So unladylike!”
“You’re not my mother,” Queen Kristina retorts, but straightens up all the same, hands patting at her curly hair before adjusting her lace collar. Isabella is an intimidating lady—even to a fellow queen—and she is also, as always, perfectly attired, a combination of kirtle and robes in various shades of pink complemented by a sheer veil and a mantel in embroidered purple.
“Byzantine,” Isabella informs me, smoothing at the rich cloth.
Christina_of_Sweden_(1626)_1667_attributed_to_W._Heimbach“Expensive,” Kristina remarks drily, shaking out her dark skirts.
“What can I say? I’m French, non?” (Mais oui. Isabella is as French as they come)
“You’re vain, child,” Berenguela of Castile cuts in. No pinks and purples for this rather daunting matriarch. Berenguela’s face is framed by veil and wimple, her clothes dark and unadorned.
“I’m not a child,” Isabella sniffs.
“You are to me. You’re married to my great-grandson.” Berenguela frowns. “You don’t treat him as respectfully as you should.”
“Edward?” Isabella snorts. “You expect me to respect a man who stole my dower lands? Who evicted most of my household? Who prefers the company of Hugh Despenser to mine?”
“He’s your husband. Where he leads, you should follow.” Berenguela looks down her nose at Isabella.
“Oh, as you did, you mean?”
“An entirely different matter! The pope annulled our marriage, and…”
“Right, stop it,” I interrupt. I gesture towards the table. “I was thinking we would have tea and cake while discussing the situation of women in your times and mine.”
“Tea?” Isabella asks, sniffing suspiciously at her cup.
“Cake?” Kristina sounds hopeful.
“The situation of women?” Berenguela sits down and shakes her head at the offered cake. “Has it changed, do you think?”
I almost choke on my tea. “I sure hope so. Woman is no longer subservient to man.”
“Hmm.” Berenguela shares a look with the other two. “I was never subservient to a man. I was a ruler in my own right.”
“As was I.” Kristina reaches for some more cake. “Raised to be a king, not some insipid female.”
“Who says females are insipid?” Isabella says. “Just because I was queen consort, doesn’t mean I didn’t wield power.”
“Oh, you did?” Berenguela murmurs, eyes on her cup. “I thought it was Edward and Hugh who did the wielding. In difference to me and Kristina here.”
“Well, at least my children aren’t illegitimate,” Isabella snaps.
Berenguela bristles. “They’ve been legitimized! Besides, who cares? My son is a saint!”
“So say all mothers,” Isabella snorted.
“Umm, in this case she’s telling the truth,” Kristina breaks in. “San Fernando is quite the impressive man.” She pats Isabella’s arm. “As is your son—well, he will be, once he’s grown up.” She shudders. “Though how on earth either of you could go through with all that giving birth stuff is beyond me.”
“No choice,” Berenguela says. “As you make your bed, you must lie in it.”
“Not anymore,” Kristina says. “In the here and now, women have the means to make the bed without the lie-in. I’m right, aren’t I?” she demands, turning my way.
“Yup.”
“And women can even have children without ever having had a man in their bed,” Kristina continues. “Sounds perfect to me – makes man redundant.”

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Edward II – hot stuff as per Isabella

“What, all work no play?” Isabella grimaces. “I like bedding with my husband. Well, I did until he stopped bedding with me. If only that dratted Hugh…”
“Maybe Eduardo thinks you’ve lost your looks,” Berenguela says, and Isabella grips her teaspoon as if considering just how to murder this Spanish Doña with it.
“If she’s lost her looks, I’ve never had any,” Kristina puts in. She shrugs. “Not that I care. I’ve never wanted to marry anyway.”
“Wanted?” Berenguela says. “I was never given a choice in the matter.”
“Neither was I, “Isabella puts in, and they share a look over the table. “That’s the lot of a princess, to marry as it suits her father and her country.”
“Amen to that,” Berenguela puts in, crossing herself hastily.
“Fortunately, by the time I was of marriageable age, my father was long dead, so I was spared the experience,” Kristina says, but she looks a bit sad, and I wonder if maybe she’s thinking of the love of her life, Cardinal Azzolini. (And yes, that was complicated)
“These days, no one forces a woman to marry,” I put in.
Berenguela raises her brows. “What about doing her duty to her family?”
“We don’t believe in stuff like that,” I reply. “Individuals first, you know.”
“How terrible,” Berenguela says. “Family is everything! Everything!”
Oui!” Isabella chimes in. “And the best family is the Capet family.”
“Silly goose,” Berenguela says. “You have my blood in your veins, much better than that diluted Capet stuff. We are family…”
“…I have all my sisters with me,” Kristina sings, and the three of them are out of their seats and dancing like crazy.
“I must hand it to these modern people, they do know how to write some good tunes,” Kristina gasps some minutes later, fanning herself with a book.
“And bake cake,” Isabella adds, nabbing the last piece on the plate.
“Would you prefer this time to your time?” I ask. “You know, a world of comfort, of hot baths and washing machines.”
baths medieval-bath-3-650x487“We have hot baths,” Berenguela points out.
“And who needs washing machines when there are laundry maids?” Isabella asks. Kristina and Berenguela nod in agreement. These overprivileged women have never as much as washed a sock – or darned a hole. They’ve embroidered for fun—well, not Kristina. Not her thing.
“But what about books? Education?”
“I am extremely well-educated, thank you very much,” Kristina sniffs. (She is. Horribly so)
“As am I. Private tutors, endless amounts of Latin texts…” Isabella yawns.
“Scripture. I know it in and out,” Berenguela says.
“Ah.” I nod. “So nothing tempts you in the here and now?”
“Of course, it does,” Berenguela says, “but we belong where we belong, with our families, our kin…”
“…our lovers, our ambitions,” Isabella fills in.
“…our misguided decisions and our regrets,” Kristina finishes.
“Regrets?” Berenguela asks.
“Oh yes. Being an ex-queen is substantially less fun than being the real thing.” Kristina gives a crooked smile. “But I guess we all have to live with the decisions we make—no matter in what time.”
Very true. And in my time, someone is banging at the door and asking where I have the latest ppt presentation. Time to leave this time transcending tea party and return to real life, a life sadly devoid of strong historical women.
No seas tonta,” Berenguela says. “We’re right here, with you. Now, if you explain what a ppt is, then maybe we can help.”
Er… Mind you, with these savvy ladies one never knows!

The perfection of imperfection

20170301_094357In my office, I have a mug from which I drink my tea. It’s a nice mug, handmade and in a dark, dark red – very much an Anna mug. It has an ear to hold it by, but when I drink tea, I like cradling the mug, hold its warmth in my hands. Whenever I do so, one of my fingers will automatically stray to the flaw in my mug: right at the base, there’s a point where the clay broke off or the mug was chipped between firing and glazing. About one centimetre wide, the imperfection has jagged edges. I run my finger back and forth over it – repeatedly. It is soothing, somehow.

While not all of you may have a tea mug like mine, I bet you’ve all had a loose tooth—or a cavity or a blister in your mouth, or a seed stuck between your teeth. And I bet all of you have run your tongue over whatever the defect may have been. The imperfection attracts, so to say.

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Perfection is rarely alluring. That picture-perfect home, in which the tassels line up in regimental order, the pillows are plumped just so, the tables and shelves are dustless—it comes across as stiff and cold. Life has not left its mark on the sofa cushions, there isn’t any indication of anyone ever having breathed and laughed—even danced—in this beautiful space. It doesn’t tell us anything about the owner—beyond them suffering from OCD—it is just a reflecting surface, anonymous and cold. Until we add a book turned upside down on the coffee table, a hoodie thrown in the sofa. An arrangement of tulips that is well beyond its best before date spilling pollen and faded petals on the floor. A plate with a half-eaten sandwich, the bread dry enough to crumble at the touch. Signs of life, of time passing. And life is rarely perfect, is it?

I suppose it is mostly a matter of contrast: we need the slight imperfection to appreciate the beauty that surrounds it. Or maybe it’s as simple as perfection being a bit boring. A slightly crooked nose in an otherwise picture-perfect face makes the whole more interesting, teases us with various scenarios as to why it is crooked.
A mole—essentially a defect—may instead highlight the lustre of the skin that surrounds it.
The uprooted tree that leans drunkenly against its soughing neighbour serves to underline that life is ephemeral—thereby making it more precious.
A rose in full bloom is breathtakingly beautiful – but it is already tainted by decay, a faint line of brown edging its perfection.

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Kintsugi – the art of making imperfections into perfection (Image Wikipedia)

In some cultures, the irregularities, the cracks, are appreciated. In Japan, broken porcelain bowls were often repaired in such a way as to highlight the crack, resulting in creations that are beautiful because of their defects, not despite of them. Sometimes, they fill in the cracks with gold, and what was broken and ugly is elevated to finest art. Maybe an approach we should learn something from, all of us who live in a world that is increasingly fixated on outward perfection, all the way from ourselves to our homes, our gardens, our cars.

It’s not as if anyone is perfect. No matter how hard we work at our exterior, we all have our warts, our hidden cracks. It’s what makes us human, what makes us interesting and unique. It’s what makes my tea mug mine. Its little defect is what sets it apart, makes it immediately distinguishable from other dark red tea mugs. I like that it is different – I like that I am different, that I am me, even if that is mostly due to my many imperfections than my (very) few perfections. Rephrase: it’s the sum of my imperfections that makes me perfectly me!

Below in the comments Gabriel has weighed in with a link to a beautiful poem about cracks and their consequences. The poem is by René François Armand Sully-Prudhomme (quite a mouthful), a French poet who was the first ever winner of the Nobel prize back in 1901. Anyway: I think the link may well get lost in the comments so I post it here instead and urge you to pop over to the site and read it. Very beautiful. http://www.onbeing.org/uncategorized/le-vase-brise-broken-vase/

 

 

A misunderstood misogynist? Meet John Knox!

I have a fascination with the Reformation. While we tend to simplify and see it as a spur of the moment thing caused by the sale of indulgences, the Holy Church has always had its fair share of people who have questioned its interpretation of scripture and its general approach to things. Such debates could be very vigorous. In some cases, they led to changes. In some cases, the person questioning ended up dead.

I any case, all this internal criticism came to a head in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century, and this time the division was too deep to be healed. Ergo the Reformation, which was not, as some think, one Protestant faction versus the Holy Church. Nope: it was many, many Protestant factions versus the Holy Church. One such faction were the Calvinists, and today I have invited Marie Macpherson to tell us some more about John Knox, Calvinist reformer of Scotland.

knox-marie-macphersonMarie was born in Musselburgh, has a degree in Russian and English and wrote her PhD thesis about Russian writer Lermontov. The rich history of East Lothian – especially the Reformation period – provided the inspiration for her first fictional work, based on the early life of the Scottish reformer, John Knox. Having read both the first and now the second of Marie’s books, I’d say what she doesn’t know about John Knox is probably not worth knowing, and so, with no further ado, allow me to turn you over into her capable hands!

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John Knox and the “Monstrous Regiment”

The question I’m often asked is why would I, a woman, choose to write about John Knox? Some may idolise the founding father of the Scottish Reformation as a saint – not something the iconoclast would approve of – but for many Knox is the fire-breathing, pulpit-thumping tyrant who penned that vitriolic anti-feminine tract, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

To be fair, this was not an attack on all women but aimed at the ‘unnatural’ rule or regime of Mary Tudor in England, with sideswipes at Regent Marie de Guise in Scotland and Mary, Queen of Scots in France. Neither was Knox a rogue male chauvinist in trumpeting the view that women were inferior beings: most men of the time agreed with him using scripture to justify their argument, though none were as vociferous as the fiery Scot. He not only wanted to depose the ‘three Marys’ but, if necessary, execute the tyrants. This was tantamount to treason.

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John Knox. Photo Kim Traynor, licensed under Creative Commons

But did Knox hate women? Surprisingly, the answer is no. In contrast to his abject hate and loathing of Catholic queens, Knox loved female company and formed several close relationships with women throughout his life. The twice-married father of five children was also quite the ladies’ man. The celibate Roman Catholic priest in the first half of his life made up for lost time in the second half. According to one source, “Whenever he made a journey he took around with him a certain number of women whom he used to satisfy his lusts.” Or, as someone at one of my talks remarked, “I never knew Knox was such a babe magnet.’ Needless to say, all this sheds a completely different light on Knox and contradicts his reputation as a rampant misogynist.

His relationship with his mother-in-law, Mrs Bowes, is particularly fascinating. Freed from the galleys in 1559, Knox was a pariah in Scotland but welcomed in England. Appointed minister in Berwick-upon-Tweed, he met Elizabeth Bowes, wife of the warden of Norham Castle. This middle-aged matron and mother of 15 children had been a devout Roman Catholic until the religious rug was pulled from under her. Inspired by his sermons, she developed a ‘crush’ on the charismatic Scots preacher. A religious hypochondriac, continually tortured by the devil with doubts about whether or not she was one of the elect, she poured out her heart to her substitute priest/confessor.

When she confessed to being guilty of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, Knox must have been horrified – until realising she had no idea what they were. After explaining that these consisted of pride, riotous excess, idleness that provoked filthy lusts, resulting in all abomination and unnatural filthiness, he asked, ‘In which of these, Mother, are ye guilty?’ Unfortunately her response is not recorded.

Nevertheless, their intimacy has led to prurient speculation. The notorious cupboard incident at Alnwick where Knox confessed, “In very deed I thought nae creature had been temptit as I was,” has been wheeled out as evidence of adultery. But this vision of Knox lurking behind the linen cupboard to snatch a furtive embrace with his ‘belovit mother’ has been dismissed as fantasy. To quash rumours, Knox wrote a letter to the faithful explaining that the cause of his familiarity with Mrs Bowes was neither flesh nor blood but entirely of the spirit. More likely, Mrs Bowes was a maternal figure, the soft feminine presence Knox craved in a male dominated life. Though he endured her outpourings with the patience of a saint, she drove him to distraction at times with her “fasherie and nuisance”. She sounds like the mother-in-law from hell – and a novelist’s dream.

At the age of 33 he married Mrs Bowes’s 16 year-old-daughter, causing accusations of cradle snatching to be flung at him. However, in an age when women frequently died in childbirth, it was quite common for an older man to take a young wife. More shocking was Mrs Bowes’s decision to abandon her husband and family and follow her daughter and son-in-law to Geneva. Nevertheless, Marjory proved to be the perfect wife for Knox, not only his dear bedfellow but his helpmeet and secretary. Calvin certainly approved, calling her “the most delightful of wives” and “a rare find”. In Geneva, she gave birth to two sons and her premature death in 1560 left Knox in “no small heaviness”.

Invited to London in 1552 as one of King Edward VI’s court preachers, Knox lodged with the Lockes, a family of wealthy London mercers. He forged an intense relationship with Henry Locke’s young wife Anna, an intelligent, educated woman who wrote poetry and translated Calvin’s writings.

Whether or Anna was, according to Robert Louis Stevenson, the love of Knox’s life, she certainly became a life-long confidante and correspondent and his letters give some insight into the private man. In stark contrast to the image of the bully and brute, they reveal his sensitive ‘feminine’ side’. Exiled in Geneva, he expressed thirst and langour for her presence: “Sometimes I sobbed fearing what should become of you”, he wrote, fearing for her life during Mary Tudor’s persecution. So much so that he invited Anna and her children to Geneva where their ménage-à-quatre dashed any hopes Knox may have had of living a quiet scholarly life. Did these domestic troubles drive the hen-pecked Knox to distraction and fuel the flames for his infamous tract?

knox-firstblastPublished anonymously in 1557, Knox’s First Blast was not only misjudged. Drawing howls of horror from all sides – including John Calvin – it was grossly mistimed. Despite his famous gift of prophecy, he failed to foresee Mary Tudor’s death in November 1558 or the accession of yet another queen – albeit a Protestant one.

Though Knox tried to mince his words, the young Queen Elizabeth I was not at all amused and refused his request for safe passage through England. When Knox finally arrived in 1559, Scotland was in the brunt of civil war and he took up the fight against the Regent, Mary of Guise. Her death in June 1560 heralded the triumph of Protestantism in Scotland.

In December 1560, Knox and Mary Stewart both suffered personal tragedies: the unexpected death of his wife, Marjory, and her husband, King François. Despite these common losses, the elderly widower and the young widow could not be more different and clashed in a series of famous meetings. The staunch Protestant believed the people had the right to depose an ungodly ruler while the devout Roman Catholic queen believed in the divine right of a monarch to rule. Thus she was furious when Knox dared to challenge her marriage to Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley.

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“Must he nag so?”

Neither was she pleased when, after being widowed for three years, 50-year-old Knox took another 17 year-old bride. Mary “stormeth wonderfully”, not only because he’d wed her distant cousin, Margaret Stewart, without royal consent but because it brought Knox into the family. Catholic commentators even accused him of having used the black arts to secure the match.

Whatever his secret, Knox managed to sire three daughters within six years. As well as fulfilling her role as bedfellow, Margaret acted as Knox’s secretary and PA. But the fact that, after his death, the merry widow wed Andrew Ker of Fawdonside who had held a pistol to Mary Stewart’s pregnant belly during David Riccio’s murder, suggests a more spirited character than Marjory.

knox-louise_rayner_john_knoxs_house_edinburghDespite his success in establishing the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, Knox became increasingly embittered in his final years as he realised that religion was not a priority for many of the lords reneging to the queen’s side. In November 1572, Knox died in his bed rather than atop a burning pyre, as he’d always feared, in James Mossman’s house, now known as John Knox House, on High Street. A plaque in the car park outside St Giles Cathedral marks where he was buried – perhaps next to his beloved, tragic Marjory.

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I rather like the idea of Mary, Queen of Scots, “storming wonderfully” 🙂 Thank you, Marie for this interesting post, and should you want to know more about Marie and her books, I recommend you visit her Amazon page. You can also connect on FB or Twitter.

As to her book, I recently read The second blast of the trumpet, and here is my review:

knox-2bott-book-covervWriting a book about John Knox comes with its own particular challenges—principally that of creating some sympathy for a man mostly remembered as a harsh and uncompromising reformer of the church. Fortunately, Ms Macpherson manages to do just that, presenting us with a complex character who is self-righteous and weak in turns, thereby inspiring the odd bout of tenderness

The book covers the period 1549 to 1559. It continues the story begun in Ms Macpherson’s first book, The First Blast of the Trumpet, and for the sake of clarity—and enjoyment—I recommend reading them in order.

Had this book been only about John Knox’s efforts to promote his religious doctrine, it could quickly have become boring. Luckily, there is an unfolding romance within, with Knox being struck with Cupid’s arrow the first time he claps eyes on little Marjory Bowes. Not that Marjory reciprocates his feelings – not initially – but over the years she develops a special fondness for this bearded and passionate man. As does Marjory’s mother. Ms Macpherson handles the resulting tensions with aplomb and a certain tongue-in-cheek, resulting in a very colourful Mrs Bowes.

Ms Macpherson is an accomplished writer. The prose is fluid, the historical details elegantly inserted, the descriptions vivid. All in all, this is an engaging read, my only quibble being the rather abrupt ending. I am looking forward to reading the next instalment in the Knox Saga!

A Catholic recusant in the court of Elizabeth I

In the aftermath of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg (and yes, I know it isn’t entirely certain he did nail them, but it makes for a forceful image, doesn’t it? Much more forceful than politely handing them over to the bishop) the people in Europe were to live through decades—even centuries—of religious confusion. The Holy Church fell apart, with some adhering to the old ways, some embracing the new.

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Edward VI, with his dying father Henry VIII in bed. An allegorical transfer of power

In England, Henry VIII chose to break with Rome and make himself head of the Church of England (this, as we all know, due to personal issues: he really, really wanted a divorce, and the Pope refused to give him one). At heart, Henry VIII was a Catholic, and the Church of England under him adopted some aspects of the Reformation but retained a lot of the colour, pageantry and rites of the Catholic Church. Things changed under Henry VIII’s son. Edward VI was VERY Protestant, and the Church of England developed accordingly, even if things were brought to a grinding halt when Mary I ascended the throne, determined to lead her subjects back into the welcoming fold of the Catholic Church. By then, things had gone too far. Too many of the English had embraced the reformed faith and had no desire whatsoever to return to the fold, no matter how welcoming.

In 1559, Elizabeth I ascended the throne. A Protestant Princess became a Protestant Queen, and no matter that she supposedly said she had no desire to open windows into men’s souls, Elizabeth ruled a country where Catholics were viewed with distrust. These recusants were potential papist spies, and then there was the infected matter of Elizabeth’s cousin and long-time prisoner, Mary Queen of Scots, who was a Catholic—with a claim on the English throne. No, it is safe to say that in the second half of the 16th century the smart thing was to be a Protestant. Especially if you were planning on a career at court—and a long life.

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Supposedly, Mary FitzAlan, Philip’s mother

After this somewhat lengthy preamble, it is time to introduce today’s protagonist. Philip Howard was born 1557, straight into the upper echelons of English nobility. His father, Thomas Howard, was the 4th Duke of Norfolk, his mother the heiress to the Earl of Arundel. Not that Philip ever got the opportunity to develop a relationship with his mother, as she died at seventeen after having given birth to him. The Howard family was a powerful family, descended from Thomas of Brotherton, Edward I’s son, through his impressive daughter Margaret. Philip’s Catholic great-grandfather, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, had been instrumental in helping Mary I secure her throne, but Philip’s father had been educated by Protestants and had turned his back on the “old religion”.

Thomas was a busy up-and-coming man and needed a wife. Accordingly, he didn’t remain a widower for long. Philip was presented with a step-mother, and over the coming years, the Howard nursery expanded with four more children. And then wife number two died as well. Thomas Howard married Elizabeth Leyburne, widow to a Thomas Dacre and mother of three little girls (and a son who died young).

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Thomas Howard, Philip’s father

Elizabeth was a devout Catholic, something that didn’t exactly thrill her new husband. When she lay dying, a scant seven months or so after the wedding, she begged to be allowed to see a priest, but her husband refused. Maybe he was distraught—Elizabeth had gone into premature labour, and the baby died with her—maybe he considered it too much of a risk to allow a Catholic priest to visit his home. Or maybe he was just being pigheaded.Whatever the case, poor Elizabeth died uncomforted. This time, Thomas didn’t marry again. Instead, he married his three sons to his three step-daughters. A complicated “let’s keep it in the family” game.

Philip Howard was twelve when he married Anne Dacre. This was also the year when his father was accused of planning to marry Mary, Queen of Scots. The Duke wiggled out of that one, but some years later he was back kicking his heels in the Tower, now accused of participating in the Ridolfi plot, whereby the plotters intended to supplant Elizabeth with Mary, Queen of Scots. The evidence tying Howard to the plot are somewhat tenuous, but in June of 1572 he was executed for treason.

At the time, Philip Howard was fifteen. His father’s vast estates were attainted and fell to the crown, but fortunately for Philip, his maternal grandfather left an impressive inheritance, and so he became the Earl of Arundel – not quite as fancy as being a Duke, but definitely better than being an impoverished lordling.

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The young Philip.

The Philip – Anne marriage was not exactly a bed of roses, at least not initially. Anne was devout, and her upbringing had her leaning towards the Catholic faith. The Howard family had its own sizeable share of Catholic recusants, but Philip was not one of them, and he wasn’t thrilled to have a wife whose religion could cause him major problems at court. After all, Philip intended to spend a lot of time at court, where he very quickly had become one of Elizabeth’s favourites.

Things, however, happened. Philip began developing an affection for his wife – and for her religious preferences. He witnessed a debate at the Tower between Jesuits and Protestants in the early 1580’s that definitely swung him in matters of religion but for some years more he sat on the fence. Not so his wife, who converted in 1582. When the queen found out, Anne was placed under house arrest, a whole year of solitude during which she gave birth to a daughter whom she promptly named Elizabeth. (For her mother, not her queen, I imagine)

The queen relented, Anne was released and rushed into her husband’s arms. No longer the foppish courtier of his early youth, Philip had developed a serious—and devout—side. The queen’s treatment of his wife had not served to deter him from conversion, instead it made him all that more determined to become a Catholic, just like Anne. Philip probably never had the intention of going public with his conversion, but he lived in an age where every major household had a bevy of servants, and quite a few of those servants also acted as informers on their masters, which was how Queen Elizabeth found out that her erstwhile favourite and second cousin had decided to become a recusant.

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Elizabeth I, not only queen but also head of the Church of England

Queen Elizabeth ordered Philip to be placed under house arrest. Unlike his wife, Philip chose to flee. One wonders why: did he have reason to suspect the house arrest would be permanent? That the queen would never release him? That he would be assassinated? The present mood at court was very anti-Catholic, so maybe his fears were warranted.
Whatever the case, Philip decided to flee to France, but was betrayed and captured at sea. He was brought back to England where he was thrown into the Tower in 1585, sentenced to pay a fine of 10 000 pounds and to remain imprisoned at the queen’s pleasure. His wife was ordered to leave London and retire to the country, and no matter how much Philip begged, the queen refused permission for his wife and newborn son to visit him. Not one of Queen Elizabeth’s better moments…

Things might have ended differently for Philip had it not been for his Spanish namesake. In 1588, Philip II of Spain ordered the Great Armada to invade England under the auspices of restoring the True Religion, thereby doing every Catholic in England a huge disfavour – including Philip Howard.

As we all know, the threat of invasion came to nothing, and the English people rejoiced. Not so Philip Howard, who was now tried for treason, for having prayed for the Armada’s success and for having been party to a plan to excommunicate Queen Elizabeth. (As an aside, it is somewhat interesting that the excommunication threat be brought up: as a Protestant Monarch, why should Elizabeth care about a papal bull excommunicating her? Shows just how ingrained the Old Religion still was…)

Of course, Philip was found guilty and was attainted. For the coming years, he lived in constant fear that this would be the day he was dragged out to be beheaded, but in actual fact Queen Elizabeth never signed his execution order – even if no one had the charity to tell him so. Philip spent his days in relatively comfortable captivity in the Beauchamp Tower, accompanied by a dog that he used as a go-between to other prisoners. But he worried constantly for his family, knowing full well the future of his children now depended on the fortitude of his wife. (Fortunately, Anne Dacre was one tough cookie, so she rose to the challenge admirably.)

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Philip languishing in captivity

Some of his despair shines through in the inscription he carved on the stone above the chimney in Beauchamp Tower. In a spidery handwriting it reads “quanto plus afflictions pro Christo in hoc saeculo, tanto plus gloriae cum Christo in future” which translates as the more affliction we suffer in the name of Christ in this world, the greater the glory at Christ’s side in the next. Not sure just how much comfort he could draw from that.

Interestingly enough, Philip Howard always had a “Get out of jail” card at his disposal. All he had to do was recant, embrace the Protestant faith, and he would be forgiven, his estates restored to him. But he never did. Not even when he lay dying and yet again begged the queen to allow his wife and children to visit him, did he ever consider denying his faith. It must have been a terrible temptation for the ailing man. All he had to do, as per the queen, was to attend a Protestant Service and he would have the joy of his family at his side and be restored to all his honours – and her favour. An hour or so of lip service, and he would be allowed to hold his wife’s hand one last time, lay eyes on his son and daughter. One measly service and he would buy his children an easier life, himself a respectable death.

Some people are an unknown quantity until life throws them into the fires of fate. Some emerge strengthened by the experience, some crumble to ashes. Philip Howard belonged to the former, which is why he refused to give in. In a last burst of inspiration, he had the following message conveyed to the queen: “Tell Her majesty if my religion be the cause for which I suffer, sorry I am that I have but one life to lose.” And so Philip Howard died, alone in his tower on a cold October day of 1595. He had spent more than ten years behind the walls of the Tower for the single sin of being a Catholic. I wonder if Elizabeth ever felt a sting of shame – she should, IMO.

After Philip’s death, the queen withheld the possessions that should rightfully go to his widow. But Anne was no milksop and she fought for her rights, for the rights of her otherwise impoverished children. So successful was she, that ultimately her son, yet another Thomas Howard, was restored to his title as Earl of Arundel. And in the fullness of time, this Thomas Howard’s descendants would yet again become the Dukes of Norfolk – which they remain until today – but that would have to wait another hundred years or so.
As to Philip, his body was first buried together with that of his father, executed twenty-three years earlier. But in 1624, his widow (who, as you can work out, lived a long, long life) had his remains transferred to Arundel, where they still lie.

Philip Howard was canonised by the pope in 1970.

The good, the bad and the ugly – a smorgasbord of pirates

hh-pirates-whole-series-2016Today, I’ve invited Helen Hollick to join me here on Stolen Moments. Helen is the author of many, many books, among which her books about Emma of Normandy and Harold II of England deserve a special mention. As do her wonderful books about the dashing pirate Jesamiah Acorne and his adventures in the early 18th century. I must admit to being somewhat addicted to the Seawitch series – and Jesamiah. Now, in difference to real pirates, Jesamiah is a “good” pirate. So far, he hasn’t tortured, raped, terrorised or otherwise intimidated his fellow men. Thank heavens for that!

hh-2-helen-mediumObviously, to write books about an imaginary pirate requires that you do your research. It is therefore not exactly surprising that Helen knows A LOT about pirates. So much, in fact, that she has now written a non-fiction book, Pirates: Truth and Tales, about these maritime bandits – most of them anything but good!

So, I now turn you over to Helen and her post about some not-so-nice men.

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Were there any good pirates? They might be a tad difficult to find, unless you go back as far as Ancient Greece when a pirate was respected and admired as a warrior figure; the word pirate comes from the Greek verb, peiran: to attack.

There’s no denying that pirates were thieves, murderers and rapists – the terrorists of their time, although during the seventeenth and earlier eighteenth century they were tolerated, even encouraged, by various Kings, Queens and Governments of England because they plundered the ships of countries which were enemies. Spain mostly.

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Favourite hunting grounds of the pirates

The handful of years between 1700-1722 was the Golden Age for these scurvy knaves of the sea. They might be dashing heroes in the eyes of Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp fans, but were darn nuisances to the Spanish and merchant traders. Funny how piracy, under the guise of legal privateering, was acceptable when it involved English ships with mostly English crews plundering Spanish treasure for the benefit of King and Country, but as soon as their deeds started hitting the pockets of merchants back home in England, the pirates had to go.

To be fair, trade between England and the American Colonies, pre 1700, was only on the cusp of exploding into Big Profit Territory – ergo uninteresting to those of piratical inclinations. Land such as Florida and the Carolinas had nothing to offer. Virginia beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains was unknown territory. The few plantations along the coast, Chesapeake Bay, easy-access rivers and on the islands of the Caribbean and Bahamas, yielded some profit, but not much.

To earn income from land, labour was needed. This was supplied by indentured servants – on the surface mostly (but not all) willing men and women who traded several years of their lives in return for the promise of land or payment; in reality, slaves, because the majority never received any reward except cruelty, poverty, and all too often, death.

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A Buccaneer (Howard Pyle)

Then, the wars with Spain, more or less, ended and for landowners and merchants, tobacco crops became a high source of income, along with sugar and cotton. Vessels carrying these products were just what a pirate wanted. These crops were highly lucrative but required cheap labour to tend them. Forget those poor indentured fools who succumbed to illness and heatstroke. They were replaced by black African slaves. And captured slave ships, for many a pirate, were wonderful because the cargo brought in a lot of money, and once the captured ship itself was cleaned and scrubbed – inside and out – it made a good pirate vessel, for slavers were usually designed for speed. The quicker the Atlantic crossing, the less likely the ‘livestock’ would die in transit.

The most famous ‘bad’ pirate, Blackbeard, had, for a short while, a splendid flagship which he renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge. He had ‘acquired’ her in November 1717 while she was being used as a French Slaver. We don’t know what happened to her cargo, but we do know the ship’s fate. Blackbeard ran her aground in 1718 off the coast of North Carolina, where her wreck was found many decades later in 1996.

Stede Bonnet was known as the ‘Gentleman Pirate’, so was he perhaps the ‘good one’? I personally am curious whether his name was Bonnet as in a lady’s hat, or Bonnay with a French-sounding twist to it? We will never know, except Bonnet (as in hat) doesn’t sound very piratical does it? Nor was he successful as a pirate. After messing things up several times, he was eventually captured and hanged. He had only turned to piracy to escape his nagging wife. Divorce, I feel, would have been an easier option.

Several notorious pirates fitted the category of ‘ugly’ – as in temperament rather than looks. (Although I would wager they were not especially handsome!)

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More Howard Pyle – pirates fighting

Among the worst was Edward ‘Ned’ Lowe. Born in London in 1690, he was a known thief. His younger brother was hanged for burglary, and Lowe himself fled to the Caribbean in 1710, probably to avoid a similar fate. He met a girl, married, had a child, the wife dying in childbirth. He tried to hold down a legitimate job, but losing his temper he killed a man, commandeered a ship and turned to piracy. He seems to have respected marriage and women, though, for when capturing ships and forcing men to join his crew, he never insisted that married men should join him. A ‘good’ man after all? Ha! Read on.

Lowe captured more than one hundred vessels and became feared for his cruelty and liking for torture. His favoured method of discovering where valuable cargo was stashed, or punishing someone who crossed him, or who had a face he didn’t like, was to place a slow-match (a rope fuse) between the fingers of bound hands and set light to the rope, which would burn slowly, roasting the flesh to the bone. Another favourite was to suspend his victims by the ankles from a yardarm and drop them to the deck, repeating the process until they died.

As an early form of bungee-jumping, this particular style is not to be recommended.

Then Lowe captured a Portuguese ship, the Nostra Seigniora de Victoria. She was carrying 11,000 gold Portuguese moidores, worth at the time around £15,000 (you can add at least one more zero to that today,) but rather than the treasure falling into pirate hands the ship’s captain heaved it all into the sea. In fury Lowe cut off the man’s lips and boiled them in water, then forced the unfortunate victim to eat them. Lowe then murdered him along with the rest of the crew. He was also said to have burned a Frenchman alive. Definitely not a nice man.

In 1723 he sailed to the coast of Guinea where he met up with a previous partner. The partnership lasted two days, Lowe was abandoned by his friend and most of his crew – they’d had enough of his ugly nastiness. He sailed off due south and was never heard of again.

I doubt many shed tears over his loss!

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Ugh! That Lowe character seems like someone best avoided at all costs. Thank you, Helen, for sharing his story with us. Too bad he sort of sailed off and disappeared – although I’ve heard there is an alternative version of his fate, whereby he was captured by the French and hanged. Good riddance, I say.

hh-piratesAs to Pirates: Truth and Tales, it has already received some great reviews. Like this one:

In this informative and comprehensive book, the author takes the idea of pirates and piracy. Interspersed throughout is the author’s impressive knowledge of historical detail and it is obvious that a great deal of research has gone into bringing this piratical guide to life. Skilfully blending historical facts with literary fiction, sometimes, the book reads as lightly as a novel, at other times, we come sharply back to reality with daring tales of mischance and menace, of lives ruined by too much grog and too many loose women, and which ended, all too often, dangled at the end of a hangman’s rope. Throughout the book, the author’s real life buccaneers nestle comfortably alongside their more colourful literary counterparts. I especially enjoyed seeing the author’s own pirate creation, Jesamiah Acorne, from The Sea Witch Voyages, come to vibrant life in his own much deserved chapter. However you like your pirates, be they real or imaginary, there is no doubt that Pirates: Truth and Tales, is a great dip in and out of kind of book and whichever page the book falls open at, you are guaranteed to find a fascinating snippet into the life and times of these colourful, and it must be said, decidedly, dangerous characters. (Jaffa Reads Too)

Should you want to know more about Helen and her books, I recommend you stop by her website or her blog, or on twitter, or on FB. See? Helen’s all over the place!

 

Falling forward – a reflection on evolution

The other day, I was listening to a radio programme about the deficiency of our basic design. “Our” in this case being us humans. It seems that the biped descendant of those very ancient primates that is modern human has as yet to fully master the challenge of walking without falling over.

Research has been conducted on young healthy people and their walking mishaps (the scientists have given up on the rest of us, unstable wrecks that we are). Turns out that even these prime specimens have a tendency to fall over. More than 50% report falling over on a regular basis – mostly due to stumbling over their own feet. Note that the participants were all sober, and the falling over incidents were not restricted to midnight walks through forests. Nope. Bright daylight, even ground beneath, and still our young and healthy representatives fell. A lot.

Maybe it’s not the two legs that’s the problem. Maybe it’s our feet. Maybe we, as a species, have been burdened with feet that stick out too much. The scientists disagree. There’s nothing wrong with our feet, they say. Instead, our overall stability would have been much, much better had we continued to walk on all four, dragging our knuckles along the ground. Not exactly a surprising conclusion.

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Moonlight Sonata, R.A Blakelock

Thing is, had we not dared to let go of the ground and rise on our (then) hind legs, we might have been less prone to falling, but we would also have been much, much dumber than we are today. Once primitive man lifted his eyes off the ground to view the world at large, to stare at the moon and stars above, something began happening in his brain, further stimulated by the fact that now that he wasn’t walking on his hands, he could use them for other things. Like making rudimentary tools. Or picking fruits and berries. (Or lice. Plenty of lice to pick off our ancient ancestors’ hairy frames)

Obviously, Homo Erectus was not aware of the “small step for man, huge leap for mankind” he represented. Here was a hirsute creature, standing on his two feet and regarding his surroundings from a sufficient height to discover threats before they discovered him – a good thing, seeing as our ancient forebears had little with which to defend themselves against, f.ex, a hungry leopard. I’m guessing this is where the tool development took off. Hungry leopard drops down on biped. Biped falls to the ground. Long fingers find purchase round a rock. Biped frantically hits hungry leopard over the head with rock. Leopard very surprised, lets go. Biped lives to see another day. Phew.

From rock to bash leopard with, progress was probably quick, all the way to that day when a very thin, very sharp sliver of flint was used to do some basic hair removal. “Oooo! Look at my legs,” cooed Mrs Homo Erectus, “all smooth and unhairy.” (I’m not sure we should be grateful to her, BTW) Somewhat more seriously, making tools had a huge impact on our intellectual capacity. It requires intelligence to fashion a lump of rock into something – specifically, it requires a vision, the capacity to see what it will be once it is done.

Our tool-making forefather had thereby moved into the realm of conceptual thinking. Once you can look at an unshaped lump of rock and think “hmm, that would make a great hand-axe. All I need is to chip a bit here, and there, and then…” the step towards considering the future, where we might come from and where we might end up, is not that big. Yes, Homo Erectus may have been a bit unsteady on the ground, but his brain was expanding at an impressive speed.

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Moonlight on the Fens by G Coulson

So when next you stumble over your own two feet (and no, it’s not the feet’s fault: that has been scientifically proven) remember that this is the very, very small price you pay for being able to crane your head back to look at the night sky and wonder about life on Mars. Or listen to a Beethoven symphony. Or lose ourselves in art by men like Blakelock and Coulson. Mind you, Homo Erectus would probably not have appreciated the art. Or the music. And he had never heard of Mars. But he was thrilled to bits at having survived that leopard attack!

Love unto death and beyond

Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark!
Here’s to my love!
(Drinks.)
O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die

And so Romeo brushed his lips against Juliet’s and died, preferring death to living without her. A very sad end, Mr Shakespeare, one that would not have gone down well with publishers of Romance, as such publishers (and such readers) much prefer a Happily Ever After, an alternative ending in which Romeo sits up and says “Nah, I was just kidding”, except, of course, that it wouldn’t have worked. Plus, the love story with the tragic ending is much more enduring than the one with the pink fluffy clouds.

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Don Afonso

Such love stories have been around since man first began telling stories – and sometimes, the story wasn’t a story, but rather a real-life drama. Like the tale I’m going to tell you today. I might as well warn you right from the beginning that there is no HEA. Nope. Not my fault, mind you. Instead, you should blame King Afonso IV of Portugal, except that he would tell you he did as he had to do to safeguard his realm. Or so he thought.

But let us start at the beginning, and to do so I think we must start in 1320, when the not-as-yet-king Don Afonso and his wife, Beatriz, welcomed a third son into the world. In difference to his brothers, little Pedro thrived, and Don Afonso could relax. He had an heir—at last.

Don Afonso did not only have sons—he had daughters as well, and the eldest, Maria, was married to Alfonso XI of Castile. An unhappy marriage, especially once Alfonso had clapped eyes on Leonor de Guzmán, thereby more or less abandoning his wife and their little son to spend all his time with Leonor and their children. Obviously, Don Afonso was very upset by all this, and he must have had days when he deeply regretted having given his daughter in marriage to such a cad. (I’m not so sure Alfonso XI was a cad: I think he just fell in love. More about all this and Leonor’s inevitable fate can be found here)

Even worse from Don Afonos’s perspective, Maria’s bridegroom had been married elsewhere when Don Afonso convinced Alfonso XI to wed Maria instead. This was sorted by Alfonso dissolving his first marriage. The jilted (and very young) bride, Constanza Manuel, had a VERY aggravated father, and so for years Don Afonso had been embroiled in a feud with Juan Manuel, Constanza’s father. However, as the years passed, Don Afonso and Juan Manuel found a common enemy in Alfonso XI: Afonso because of how his Maria was being treated, Juan Manuel because of how his Constanza had been treated.

The two fathers struck an alliance, and what better way to celebrate such an event than have Don Afonso’s son, Pedro, wed Constanza? Everyone—including the prospective groom—felt this was a good thing. Well, until Constanza and her entourage arrived in Portugal, that is. Because you see, among Constanza’s ladies was a certain Inés de Castro, and Pedro took one look and was lost, falling irrevocably in love with this beautiful Galician lady.

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Pedro and Inés

The marriage went ahead as planned. There must have been some affinity between the newly-weds, and soon enough Constanza was pregnant. But the woman Pedro spent his time with was Inés. It was with Inés he shared his dreams, it was in Inés’ ear he whispered sweet nothings, and poor Constanza was neglected and unhappy, albeit that she gave birth to three babies before she died in 1345, just six years after her marriage.

Don Afonso was anything but delighted with his son’s infatuation. First of all, he detested that his own son was treating his wife as shabbily as dear daughter Maria was being treated by her husband. Secondly, with Inés came her brothers, and Afonso didn’t like it, how Pedro fell under the influence of these Castilians. Thirdly, upon Constanza’s death, he worried that the little legitimate heir, Fernando, was puny and weak. What if Inés was to give Pedro a son, would Pedro prefer his lover’s son to his first-born?

The obvious solution to all this worrying would have been for Don Afonso to acquiesce when Pedro asked for his permission to marry Inés once Constanza was dead. But Don Afonso said no – he didn’t want to aggravate Constanza’s father, he felt Inés was well below Pedro, and he most definitely disliked the de Castro brothers. Instead, he proposed that his son find himself a new, royal bride. Not about to happen, Pedro told him. It was Inés or no one.

In response, Don Afonso supposedly had Inés sequestered in a convent. That didn’t stop Pedro, who spent his days roaming the lands abutting the convent and sending his beloved letters in bark boats that he floated across a river that separated convent land from the rest of the world. Inés managed to escape the convent (or more likely, the nuns just let her go, not quite relishing their role of jailors to the mistress of the future king) and Inés and Pedro set up house together. In secret, of course.

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Pedro

Inés was not welcome at court, and accordingly Pedro was not much at court either, the rift between him and his father widening into a chasm. Even worse from Don Afonso’s point of view, Inés presented Pedro with several healthy children, among which were two little sons. Something had to be done to safeguard Portugal from potential civil war (or so Afonso thought, assuming Pedro would prefer his sons by Inés to his son by Constanza. Turned out Pedro didn’t) Desperate measures were required to put a stop to Inés’ influence over Pedro.

There are two versions as to what to happened that January of 1355 – or rather where it happened. As per the romantic legend, the desperate king and his three accomplices waited until Pedro was out hunting before descending on Inés who sitting by the fountain in her patio. As per other versions, Inés was detained in a convent, and the king and his companions visited her there.

Whatever the case, these visitors did not come bearing gifts. No, they came with steel hidden under their mantels, and their intention was to kill the Castilian whore and thereby free Pedro from whatever emotional bonds he had forged with Inés.

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Inés pleading for her life (Karl Bruillon)

Inés was with her children when the king burst upon them. She prostrated herself before Don Afonso and begged for her life, for the life of their children. Apparently, the king was sufficiently touched to depart, leaving his trusted men to do the dirty job themselves. There was no mercy for Inés. Instead, she was brutally killed in front of her children, the final blow decapitating her.

If Don Afonso had thought this foul act would have Pedro crawling back home, he had seriously misjudged his son (duh!) Pedro was enraged, his grief taking on teeth and claws that he turned upon his father. At the head of a growing band of armed men, he harried Portugal from one end to the other, and the civil war Don Afonso had so wanted to avoid became a reality as a consequence of his own machinations.

In 1357, father and son were reconciled – well, sort of. Pedro never forgave his father for his heinous deed, but a truce was reached. Some months later, Don Afonso died, making Pedro king of Portugal.

His first act was to arrest the men who had killed his beloved Inés (two of them, the third managed to escape) and had them put to death most horrendously. Legend has it that Pedro himself tore their beating hearts out of their chests, saying it was only fair that they should feel what it was like to lose their hearts, seeing as they’d robbed Pedro of his heart by killing Inés. Whether this is true or not is difficult to ascertain at a distance of seven centuries. What is undisputed is that Pedro had the two murderers executed.

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A dead Inés on her throne.

Pedro also announced that he had married Inés in secret before she died – contrary to his father’s wishes. There is no surviving proof of such a wedding, not entirely unsurprising seeing as it was a secret wedding, and to this day we only have Pedro’s word for it ever taking place. Don Afonso wasn’t around to object, and so Pedro proclaimed his wife posthumous queen of Portugal. As per the more lurid version of the Inés-Pedro story, Pedro decided to subject his nobles to one final humiliation: he had his beloved Inés disinterred and sat her remains upon a throne after which his nobles had to do homage to the corpse and kiss its hand. Hmm.

Whether the above somewhat macabre anecdote is true or not, Pedro did disinter Inés and had her reburied in state in the Alcobaca monastery. Their tombs stand close together, their effigies facing each other. And as a final gesture to his beloved woman, Pedro had both tombs inscribed with the following: Até o fin do mundo –Until the end of the world.

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Inés spectacular tomb

Let us start as we began, by quoting the words of the Bard, albeit somewhat paraphrased: For never was there a story of more woe, than this of Inés and her Pedro. And in difference to Romeo and Juliet, Inés and Pedro were real persons, people who lived and loved and hoped and dreamed – until that long gone day in January of 1355 when Inés was brutally hacked to death in front of her children. Sad, isn’t it? Which is why I hope that now and then when the church in which they lie is draped in darkness, they whisper to each other.
“Are you there?” he asks.
“Always,” she whispers back.
“Until the end of time,” they say simultaneously, and for an instant the air around their tombs shimmers with golden light.

The whole world in His hands

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The Holy family, Murillo

Lately, I’ve been pondering the word “Christian”. Not Christian as in “yes, I belong to the Christian faith”, more Christian in “I am a Christian” (with a lot of emphasis on the italicised word) , which, as far as I can tell, means the person in question goes to church regularly and studied his/her bible frequently. This in difference to those who are of the Christian denomination by rote, eg they were baptized as Christians but don’t have their lives revolving around their faith. Now, before I go any further, there are a lot of active Christians out there (some of which I count as dear friends) who are very good people – which is fortunate, seeing as anyone defining themselves as “Christian first” have a lot to live up to.

You see, if a person presents themselves as “Christian”, my expectations on that person are that they will live up to the most basic of Christian tenets, namely charity. These last few days, I see a lot of stuff being presented as being part of “Christian” values, but I see little indication of this being done out of an encompassing, altruistic endeavor. Stopping refugees at the borders has little to do with altruism, far more to do with promoting a “we” and “them” take on the world, as does pushing your own “moral” agenda down the throat of people with fundamentally different beliefs. As does pointing fingers at those among us who refuse to be defined by their gender in everything from who they have sex with to how they dress.

I don’t go to church regularly, nor do I read my bible all that often. I do, however, struggle daily with being a good person, even if at times that means sharing when I don’t want to, helping when I don’t have time. I try. Often, I fail. But I try—hard—to live as per the most important message in the New Testament, namely “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

ehfa-westminster-retablePlease note that others in the above sentence isn’t qualified. It doesn’t say “Do unto other Christians as you would have others do unto you.” Nor does it say “Do unto others who are like you as you would have others do unto you.” It just says “others”, which reasonably must be interpreted as meaning the entire human race. All of us, no matter race, gender or creed. It would seem Jesus really did believe in having the whole world in His hands.

So, now that we’ve established that “others” means others as in stepping-out-of-our-comfort-zone others, maybe we should analyse the rest of the sentence.

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. If you slip on a patch of ice and fall, you’d like someone to help you up, right? So it follows that if you see someone slipping, you should hasten forward to pull them back up on their feet. Life is not always a walk in the park. There is plenty of ice out there, metaphorically speaking. One very nasty patch of ice is called war, and at present the world has I don’t know how many millions of people fleeing their homelands and the life they’ve known—not because they want to, but because they have to. They’ve slipped pretty badly, one could say, and as good human beings, and definitely as a Christian, we have an obligation to give them a helping hand. After all, it could be us out there, stuck in a patched tent with UN rations the only thing keeping starvation at bay.

slide1When people are in need, it shouldn’t matter if they’re Muslim or Jewish or Hindu or walk about dyed blue, or wear nothing but a loin cloth. It shouldn’t matter if they’re young or old, if they’re male or female. They need help. It is part of basic decency to offer it.

When some among us choose to live in same-sex relationships, this is not ground for condemnation, no matter what Leviticus might have to say on the matter. By the time Jesus came round, Leviticus was OLD stuff, probably severely outdated even back then. Besides, how on earth can anyone purporting to believe in Jesus condemn someone for loving? A good Christian should, IMO, show toleration and respect. A good Christian should, once again IMO, defend every person’s right to find happiness where they can find it – as long as they do not cause anyone else harm. A good Christian should remember “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” and reflect on the fact that there could come a time when they’re in minority. Surely, they’d want to be respected and tolerated by the surrounding majority who chose to live/believe differently from them, right?

Had He not been resurrected, I think Jesus would have been spinning like a top in the grave, groaning out loud at all the people who take His name in vain. Because that’s what you do if you loudly proclaim yourself a Christian but lack in charity and compassion. Once in heaven, Jesus won’t be all that impressed by hearing about bible-reading and church-going. It’s the actions that count, and He’ll want to know about what you did, how you contributed to alleviate the suffering of those who have little – or nothing at all.

So if you’re going to present yourself as “Christian”, please do some loving. And caring. Be tolerant and supportive. Extend that hand of yours and help, no matter who it is that has slipped on the ice.

hand-20170205_142546Actually, all of this is valid no matter what you might believe in. So let me rephrase: be a GOOD person, okay? Or try to be. The world needs good people—now more than ever. It needs us to care, to defend those who are weaker, to stand up for everyone’s right to be treated with respect. It needs us to show some basic decency and remember that the human condition is a global condition. It needs those of us who’ve attended Sunday school in those distant days of our childhood to hum “black and yellow, red and white, they’re all precious in His sight” and remember that the similarities that bind us are far, far greater than the differences.
You are my brother/sister. Here’s my hand if you need it!

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