Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What Is Truth?

Authors of fiction have to look for the drama, and invariably choose to dramatize the ordinary. It’s the necessary ingredient for fiction. After all, we mustn’t bore our readers, and a dull book is unlikely to sell. Everyday life tends to be fairly flat for most of us, and we read to escape that tedium.

But authors of historical fiction have an additional problem for we are also obliged to do our historical research, and discard the overly dramatic in favour of accuracy. I adore research, and I adore accuracy, and long ago I discovered that you can accept both without your writing ever becoming dull or dreary, for history is insistently fascinating. But one thing puzzles me. Why, oh why are we so addicted to those old enduring lies of history? Even when we are told – and have it proved over and over again – that some daft tale from the past is entirely untrue, we still hang on to it. The lies stick in our memory. Drama! So much more interesting than fact.

No, there were never such things as chastity belts. Actually in the medieval western world (as opposed to some of the east and Middle East) virginity wasn’t as important as we now like to imagine. Marital faithfulness was, of course – but there never was a single chastity belt hanging around on bed nobs. Such a silly and unworkable idea anyway, and for obvious reasons.

No, there never was any Droite du Roi either. That scandalously wicked idea claiming that dirty old lords in bygone days could demand the first right sleeping with any new bride anywhere on his estates, is utter nonsense. It never happened in England, (please don’t believe those films) and almost certainly never happened in France either. It’s a salacious fable.

No, Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake,” and Queen Victoria never said, “We are not amused.” Actually she was quite often amused– though that didn’t stop her being a terrible tyrant to her own family.

No, Napoleon was no romantic hero – no hero at all in fact – and the Borgias never did half the things they get up to on television. And no, King Richard III never had a hunchback or a withered arm – and quite probably he never murdered his nephews either. It seems an illogical and unlikely act, but we have no evidence whatsoever, not either way. And by the way, those old bones now residing in an urn at Westminster Abbey are 90% sure to be from a far earlier age and have no connection to the princes in the Tower whatsoever. They could easily have belonged to young Roman girls.

No, the Dark Ages weren’t in the slightest dark (except at night!). In fact they were gloriously light. The retreat of the Roman civilisation from England did not leave everyone quivering back into total ignorance and brutality, and there is enormous evidence to prove that stunning creativity and civilised justice were the more general result. Indeed, the Barbarians were not anymore barbaric than anyone else around at that time, most certainly including the Romans, and the Vandals didn’t vandalise anything anymore than anyone else.

No, not one single woman (or man) in England was ever accused of witchcraft and    consequently burned alive at the stake. Before the 15th century, witchcraft was actually an acceptable business of herbal medicines and foresight, sometimes prized and at the very least treated with tolerance. Nothing to do with Satan. To use astrology or any other mystical art for the sin of foretelling the king’s death or any other criminal behaviour was another matter and certainly punishable. But simple witchcraft was not. There were hideous burnings for the crime of heresy, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries (some also earlier) – but for witchcraft – NO. No Salem in Merrie Old England.

Sorry – but the Pilgrim Fathers didn’t sail off to America to escape religious persecution either. You could almost say they sailed off to America in order to instigate religious persecution. Well, perhaps that’s rather unfair, and they were exceedingly brave, zealous, and very clever sailors. But it was the religious tolerance in Britain they disapproved of and were busy escaping.

And – No – the dinosaurs were not some weird short-lived misbegotten creation – too strange to endure – which quickly went extinct. I was taught in school that the dinosaurs were a ludicrous and laughably unsuccessful deviation of nature. How silly! The dinosaurs evolved perfectly for their environment and their age – and that age lasted millions and millions of years – far, far longer than humanity has yet managed to survive. And by the way, some dinosaurs never actually went extinct. They evolved into birds. So many of us eat dinosaur for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. Do you like cranberry sauce with your roast dinosaur? Some of us even keep small clucking dinosaurs in our chicken sheds, though watch out for the foxes. Those wicked mammals will kill the dinosaurs if they can.

As for the Vikings? No, they never wore horned helmets, were brilliant boat builders, sailors and explorers, did as much trading as raiding, and went some way towards inventing our system of modern government. Well, the Greeks are credited with inventing democracy of course, but they certainly never extended all that democratic tolerance to all Greek citizens. What, give the vote to women and slaves? No way!

I could go on but I think I’ve made my point. So why oh why do we prefer to believe the myths rather than the truth? Is the truth so dull? Yet history is always a stunning tapestry of tales and insights, and can tell us so much in such an exciting manner. But history isn’t history if we don’t respect the search for truth. Even the dead surely deserve their stories faithfully told without using drama to fabricate personalities they never had, or actions they would never have contemplated. Although it may be hundreds of years since someone died, I still believe it very wrong to fictionalise that person’s life and write of them raping and murdering when no such evidence exists at all.

Then there are some who start off being interested in the truth but end up being far more concerned for their own reputations. It surprises me, for instance, that whenever a new historical fact is unearthed, or a past figure becomes ‘fashionable’ the emphasis switches. Something along these lines has occurred after the discovery of Richard III’s remains and place of burial in Leicester. Even amongst authors and the general public, there has now appeared a strange egotistical bias. It seems that those (it is claimed more women than men, though I find that a patronising assumption) who are fervently in support of vindicating Richard III’s reputation are now held up as soppy romantic females in love with a dead man. That could be partially true since it happens all the time. Some people want to marry serial killers – others have idealised every historical character I can think of – even those probably horrendously unpleasant such as Henry VIII, Napoleon, William the Conqueror and so on. But why does it matter? Aren’t we all entitled to our own little passions, however different to those of others? And personally I’d sooner come across some historically inspired loving, rather than the bitter hatred we so often see instead. And it has nothing to do with history. Why should we be irritated by the emotions of our modern neighbours, if we genuinely desire to study the actual truth of the past?

Now there are those who claim an interest in history yet have quite forgotten to research the facts at all. This is becoming increasingly true regarding Richard III. Some of us are so frightened of being categorised as pathetically romantic Richard-lovers dreaming of sleeping with a skeleton, that we quickly and loudly switch the other way. Some hold up every attempt at serious research as questionable if it dares to veer towards vindicating Richard III and suggesting that he might have been an interesting and decent man who is worth the study. Desperate to show themselves as ‘sensible’, they ridicule the positive discoveries and constantly announce themselves as interested only in the ‘real man’ who was, they shout, no saint. Well, my father was no saint either – but nor did he murder his nephews. This repetitive cry of ‘he was no saint’ simply makes no sense. Simply saying a man did not slaughter or illegally connive is not the same as calling him a sainted paragon. I personally don’t believe saints exist and if they did, they’d be terribly boring. This has nothing whatsoever to do with actual history. Can we please use common sense without being accused of sanctifying the object of our interest? And can we write about the search for the truth and the original subject of our interest – and not just endlessly denigrate the so-called Richard-worshippers of today.

I am interested in Richard III amongst many other historical eras and personalities. I therefore study and research the truth concerning those times. I am interested in that – not in altering my attitude to protect myself from criticism – nor do I think my own reputation is the point. Let’s be honest researchers, not egotistical self-protectors or strident hecklers of others with a different approach.

Yes, the truth matters. But there’s another side to history as well. Myth, fable and imagination. We don’t have to lapse into inaccuracy in order to write fiction. Imagination isn’t some awful twin of the dark-side. There is a wealth of glorious possibility out there amongst the probabilities and possibilities. Exploring the possible is not the same as inventing lies. Researchers after the truth do have a hard job since past documentation is often scarce and invariably biased. That leaves us gaps which we are free to fill in ourselves, as long as we use a little skill, common-sense, and dedication.

There are some truly wonderful books out there about Robin Hood, Odysseus, Merlin, King Arthur and a host of other semi or wholly mythical characters. We can be fairly sure these great personalities never existed exactly as they have been depicted in the old stories. But there is a very good chance that some element of genuine historical basis stands at the foundation to many myths. T.H. White’s incredible “The Once and Future King” inspired my love of history just as much as the castles, contemporary records and old manuscripts. My greatest inspiration was Shakespeare – and we all know how little actually accurate history he included in his plays. He was writing drama, not documentaries. I doubt any dramatist, however brilliant, would get away with the same amount of distortion today – but Shakespeare still brought history to life.

That leaves authors of fiction free to imagine – to be inspired – to delve and create. Let’s write what really might have happened – what we wish could have happened – what we genuinely think did happen. Just don’t let’s perpetuate those silly old lies, or purposefully invent something completely unlikely and unpleasant about someone who actually existed, can no longer defend themselves, and who deserves some respect for his or her own long passed actions and motivations.

Well, honestly, the truth is much more intriguing than the lies anyway. We won’t always agree about what actually happened – we can’t always know – and that’s fair too. It’s what makes history fun.    

B.G. Denvil

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The King's Shadow Is Now Available

I'm pleased to share with you that my latest book, The King's Shadow, is now available in print in Australia and New Zealand. It's a tale of "abduction, murder, and subterfuge". I hope you enjoy it!

Read Chapter 1 of The King's Shadow here.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

My ears hurt, swelling with the high reverberating squeal of a raptor – an eagle perhaps – or something even larger. Then I see it. It is vast, scarlet scaled and leather winged. It is a dragon, and it is looking for me. I am chased up a blackened and fire-ravaged mountain side. I can barely hold on for the hand-holds are few, and they are sharp. The rock cuts my palms. My feet slip as they search for balance. I dislodge small stones which scatter and cascade beneath me, tumbling down into the endless pit. The dragon’s eyes are immediately over my shoulder. Its breath burns my cheek. I turn. A sharp pain slices my hand. I fall.

It is another night and I am at peace. The world is beautiful. I am sitting in a glass baobab tree, and I am cradled by small pink flowers. I am not sure why the baobab tree is all glass but it made this choice and I have no objection. Within its strange bulbous trunk, I can see the reservoir of water. It is half full. Inside that little gurgling lake in the trunk are tiny fish – little dashing sparks of silver light which swim within the tree. I look down from my comfy perch in the leaves. The leaves are not glass, they are ferny and pretty, and the little pink flowers smell gorgeous. The colours are vivid and the perfume is rich, similar to the sweet lilac which I remember with such nostalgia from my childhood. I decide to stay where I am until it is time to wake up.

A few nights later I am climbing through an underground cave. It is extremely deep, and has become home to thousands of bats. But being night, the bats are out on the wing, searching for fruit and insects and mates. And perhaps for blood. I continue to climb through the series of lightless caves. There are stalactites and stalagmites, and they break off as I touch them, cold and damp. I am looking for someone and I know he is looking for me. I see eyes in the black shadows. But are they his eyes? Or someone else who also knows I am coming? Shall I risk going on further, or shall I wake myself up?

I have read many theories concerning the basis of dreams, where they come from, what they mean and why we dream at all. There are several theories about what different dreams actually mean, and quite a few varying theories about why we need to have such sleeping experiences. To be honest, none of these have ever entirely convinced me. Most of us know of the so-called Freudian phallic symbols and the other neat little explanations for our vivid night lives – but are these true and if not, what is?

I doubt those explanations, not because I have any scientific training, nor because I have any better ideas myself about the dreaming process. Certainly stress and worries can affect my dreams occasionally, but most of my night-adventures are not noticeably driven by simple day-time problems. All I know is that my dream life has always been one of the most inspirational aids to my life, my emotional stability, and my writing. I do not remember my dreams every single night, nor – when I do remember them – are they always inspirational. But more often than not they are deep, detailed, exceptionally vivid, and often wildly exciting.

I have sometimes dreamed of events which have later happened in precisely the way I originally dreamed them. I have also met old friends, and talked with members of my family who have passes. Sometimes a series of dreams will be repeated, or an adventure from one night will produce a sequel on the next. One year when I was much younger, I enjoyed a particular series of dreams which continued and developed over almost a hundred nights, finally growing into a most complicated plot with many consistent characters. I have other dreams which seem to be direct lessons, teaching me exactly what I need to know for a challenging position in which I had found myself. Other dreams actually appear to solve some question I have been trying to sort out – and most of all, many are simply glorious adventures which inspire my writing.

Certainly I have learned a lot from my dreams. For instance, I spent one night trudging through brambles and thorns, trying to get to the bright hypnotic light I could see far, far off in the distance. It seemed to take me hours and was hard going. I got there eventually, but when I arrived, I realised there was a much quicker path, had I realised it. There was a little hill and I could have climbed this in an instance, and arrived at the glorious light in just a moment or two. But on the other side of the hill, I couldn’t see the light. By insisting on going the way I could see and understand, instead of taking a leap of faith, I had expended a night of exhaustion. Patience, in other words, can make things happen quicker – and giving up can sometimes be another way of getting what you want.

Another lesson came in minutes when I went through a swing door and found a form of paradise awaiting me. I learned then that the door that opens on opportunity is actually the same door that has previously closed on something else.

Have I taught myself these lessons? Where do dreams come from and how important are they? And could I possibly be an author of fiction without the wild exciting inspiration that comes to me night after night after night?

I am by no means the only author, especially of fiction, who dreams in this manner. I have come to believe that this is a common form of direct inspiration. In dreams I meet my characters, I live through amazing events, and I generally wake with half a book buzzing in my head, pushing me to rush to the computer and start making notes. I walk dark cobbled medieval streets, I look through tiny windows barely visible in candlelight. The soaring stone of castle walls rise up before me. I wander the deserted desolation of a battlefield where the blood and the fallen weapons are still strewn across the tramples crops. After nights spent in this way, I am almost compelled to write!

Of course sometimes the inspiration is not so direct – but at the very least my dreams serve as a widening of the imagination, almost as if I have been taken swimming through tides of awakening – refreshed and inspired without quite knowing how. I am frequently far more awake in my dreams than I am when I actually wake up and have to face the day.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Torture of the Rack

Not far from me, soar the unexpected battlements of a small castle. Standing in the neat pastoral greenery of the Australian countryside, it is fairly easy to spot that this is a modern replica. Sadly there are not many genuine medieval castles in the Australian countryside! No – this castle is purely for children and tourists and I have played the tourist there myself. It is good fun, well made and well presented. Entertainment takes many forms.

But one aspect I actually found rather sad, for there is a large replica rack set up in one of the courtyards – the most common form of early authoritarian torture. Below this there is a torture chamber complete with gory exaggeration, magnified screams and oozing artificial blood. The children love it!

But in the past, the rack was all too horrifyingly real. There is no record of who originally invented this vile instrument, but there is documentation of its use back in Roman times. The exact dimensions were probably altered over the centuries but the basic method of use remained the same. The medieval design we now recognise consisted of a rectangular wooden frame with a large roller at one or both ends. Chained by his ankles to the lower roller, and by his wrists to the higher, the victim was gradually stretched as the interrogator or his assistant would turn the levers, forcing the rollers to turn contrary to the victim’s body.

The pain would be utterly excruciating as the chains or ropes pulled taut and then wound away over the rollers, possibly (if the prisoner persistently refused to confess) to the point of dislocating and finally breaking his knee, ankle, elbow, wrist and eventually even his shoulder and hip joints. The muscles and tendons would be torn beyond mending, and the victim would be crippled for life. Eventually the bones, cartilage, ligaments, muscles and tendons could all be entirely destroyed. But since he (or sometimes she) would undoubtedly talk and confess at some point during this relentless torture, he would then be executed anyway. Many could no longer walk to the place of execution, bend their knees, nor raise their hands.

As if this terrible agony was not sufficient, other abuses could be applied at the same time. Castration, the brutal extraction of toe and finger nails, and burning with red hot branding irons were all sometimes applied. When the sufferer fainted, he was brought round and forced to face his fate again. Certainly this brutality confirms that those employed to inflict such horrors were undoubtedly sadistic by nature. However, this awful pain was not actually considered simply as a punishment. 

At the time it was generally supposed that if a suspect of some serious crime refused to answer questions or acknowledge his sins, then he (or she) should be encouraged to do so by the use of torture. Fear and pain, it was believed, would enforce cooperation. No doubt this was frequently true. However, such agony as that produced by prolonged use of the rack would also force the victim to say anything and everything, whether true or not, in order to put a stop to the suffering. Clearly victims often implicated other innocent people in order to save themselves. 

But it is only recently that we realise the obvious – which is that information obtained under torture is by no means reliable.

This form of torture was more commonly used in France during the medieval period, but the rack was brought to the Tower of London in the mid 1400s by the 2nd Duke of Exeter who was Constable of the Tower at the time, and thus gave the rack its nickname, i.e. The Duke of Exeter’s Daughter. However, any use of torture was illegal in England during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, but was then legally permitted during early Tudor times specifically for the crime of treason. Those suspected of treason could, in this way, be ‘persuaded’ to admit their own complicity, and name their co-conspirators. 

Gradually this practise became more readily sanctioned and as the Tower turned from a royal palace and centre of diverse and busy occupation into a collection of dungeons with a reputation of dread and terror, the screams of the victims of torture grew more regular. As the Tudor reigns continued, so other methods of torture were also devised, and use of the rack became a frequent ‘deterrent’.

I researched the use of the rack and its terrible consequences for my recent novel ‘Sumerford’s Autumn’ and quickly realised the appalling possibilities of Tudor torture. What haunted me even more than the vile device itself, was the state of mind of someone who could invent such a device, the state of mind of someone who would willingly put it into practice – and finally the state of mind of the wretched victim, knowing what he was about to face. Indeed, sometimes victims were forced to watch the torture of some other accused prisoner first, with the expectation that what he saw would make him quickly confess rather than experience such agony himself. Yet the courage of some was phenomenal, and there were those who refused to talk even after hours of undergoing such cruelty.

The enforced dislocation of one joint after another must have been excruciating. I personally find it hard to imagine the sheer horror of both my knees being ripped apart at the same time. Nor can I easily visualise the methodical sadism of the torturer as he slowly rotated the lever, to further cripple the victim. I am haunted by those sounds echoing in the cold stone chamber – the creak of the cogs and wheels, the rumble as the rollers once again begin to turn, the jangle and snap as the chains pull suddenly taut, the murmured demands of the torturer and finally the agonised screams of the prisoner.

Perhaps pain was accepted as a little more inevitable in those days when few diseases were curable and everyday comfort was comparatively rare. Ordinary folk worked crushing hours at backbreaking toil, and there was no proper anaesthetic to help with the cut and slice of surgery and amputation, the pain of childbirth and the frequency of common accidents. Beyond all such average conditions, there was also battle, which was a matter of hand to hand violence involving intense brutality, enormous bloodshed and appalling suffering before death. Certainly the preaching of the church at the time was considered imperative, and devotion to God was an accepted principal of everyday life. Sadly however, the church itself was not beyond advocating violence. The earlier conflicts of the crusaders for instance, often shockingly cruel on both sides, were born from the beliefs of Pope Urban II in 1095, while the Vatican considered that heresy should be punishable by burning alive, and torture was authorised by the church itself during the Inquisitions.

But there was equally an understanding of love, empathy, kindness, care, generosity and loyalty just as strong as we have now. People in general were by no means stupid nor cruel by nature. So one cannot help wondering about the conscience of those who sanctioned and applied the use of torture themselves, while fully understanding its implications. 

So use of the rack continued, and was accepted right up until the 17th century. Copies of the terrible device still stand in many places, reminding us of the horrors once inflicted. Yet now I have researched the truth, it is definitely not something I will ever be able to laugh at, nor treat as amusing entertainment. I can only wonder at the dread of living in the past, when even an innocent soul might sometimes be faced with torture. Writing of such an episode in my historical novel ‘Sumerford’s Autumn’, I found quite a harrowing experience.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Medieval Christmas

Round about December, various venues in quite a few Western countries offer special entertainment, citing “A Medieval Christmas Feast,” and these can be great fun. I have nothing against them and I’ve attended a few myself over the years. But they rarely get it right. They don’t have the facilities for a really accurate facsimile, and few actually bother to do much research on the subject. It’s enough to fulfil the clichés. But the real thing was so much more impressive.
I shall therefore invite you to mine! Please consider that you’ve received the big invitation card – written on parchment of course – in wonderful medieval script with an illuminated ‘C’ for Christmas. So please – you’re my special guest – come with me.

It’s snowing, of course. The English countryside is white, and that unique winter hush covers the land all around. As the morning sun peeps hesitantly from behind the clouds, a pale golden gleam tinges the snow’s surface. The tiny footsteps  of birds, rabbits and hungry mice pattern the white with little black lines. Now your footsteps will add to this, as you come to the door of the manor house.

 The hall is huge, and looking up you can see the high vaulted ceiling, its beams painted and polished, and the enormous iron chandelier holding its mass of beeswax candles. They are all lit, twenty or more little glittering flames that flicker and whisper with every small movement. As the great double oak doors are swung open, so the wind gusts in and the candles blink and shudder. Then the doors close and everything is calm again.
Across the beams and twining around the struts and balustrades is a mass of rich green ivy. Sprigs of holly, their berries scarlet and glossy in the candlelight, are thrust through the joints, and just inside the doorway a wooden square, rough nailed, has been hung up. Here is twined the mistletoe, and the whole arrangement is called the kissing bough.

Come in, come closer to the fire. The massive yule log has already been dragged in from the barn outside, and is now ablaze across the huge inglenook hearth. This is not a tree just recently cut down for the occasion of course, although this is what is often related in Christmas tales of the past. You cannot burn greenwood, and such a huge log would need to sit in the barn for a year or two before it will burn well. Even so, it will smoke of course, and perhaps the chimney has a small back draught, but we must not be too fussy. After all, this is the late medieval and a little smoke is always useful for curing the bacon. Meanwhile the massive blaze helps light the hall as well as keeping it wonderfully warm, and the shadows chase each other through scarlet flame and hanging greenery.

Someone hurries forwards to claim his kiss under the mistletoe bough. He smiles, and takes you in his arms. This is an age when many people kiss each other on the mouth as a simple greeting, so this intimacy is not so shocking. You look the man over. His clothes are sumptuous and his black hair is glossy in the firelight. He wears mahogany velvet, with sleeves trimmed in sable, so long that they sweep the polished floor boards as he walks. His doublet is wide shouldered, short at just below the waist, and is belted in narrow leather. He wears a small embroidered purse on his belt, for no pockets are yet in use. Beneath his velvet doublet and showing at the neck which is a little unlaced, is a bright white shirt of pristine linen, and below the short waistline are his hose in soft wool. These are skin-tight, made in the new fashion where the knitted material is cut on the weft so that it clings to the man’s thighs and buttocks. Previous generations were doomed to wearing ill-fitting hose, often made as two separate legs each made from a single piece of material, so that wrinkles around ankles and knees were inevitable. What was worse, a man’s underpants were a baggy affair which often had to be laced up to the bottom of his shirt. But since all this was hidden beneath his long skirted tunic, only his wife or his mistress knew the worst. But now short doublets have revealed it all, so fashion has changed and a man is prepared to expose a good deal of himself. In order to preserve the final decency, he now wears a codpiece, a stiffened cup which fits neatly in the appropriate place. Virtual exposure behind, but only suggestion in front! He also wears jewellery – thumb and finger rings, and perhaps a huge golden collar which denotes his loyalties to his lord. A gorgeous creature indeed – who spends just as much time on his appearance as any woman.

 Now you have been welcomed by the host, and have warmed yourself by the fire, come and sit at the great feasting table which is already prepared. Depending on the number of guests there may be several tables, but never mind about the others – you are invited to the grand table beneath the gold tasselled awning, where the guests of honour will sit. I hope you have brought your own knife with you for cutting your meat. The spoon will be provided – but no fork of course. You will have to use your fingers instead – but it’s no free for all. Wash your hands first and mind your manners. Medieval table manners were quite strict. Put your napkin over your shoulder, use it to wipe your mouth and your fingers, and remember to be polite when tempted to take the last custard from the serving platter.

The food is, of course, amazing. There are three courses, and many different platters at each course. You are naturally not expected to eat it all. What is left, which should be a good deal, will be sent back to the kitchens first to feed the servants (well, you did expect a vast array of servants, I hope) and then to feed the poor, who will come to the kitchen door expecting to be fed freely and generously.

Hurry, the food is being carried in. Troops of kitchen boys in the household livery bear the platters, and four of them are needed to carry the weight of the huge platter of roast venison. Well, you didn’t expect turkey, did in you? After all, America has not been discovered yet. Venison and wild boar are the likely meats, for this is midwinter and farm animals are shut away safe in their barns. But the lord and his friends have been out on the hunt, and the carcasses are now hanging in the pantries. This meat has been slow spit-roasted over the huge kitchen fires, and it is now so tender that the meat falls from the bones, and the rich juices drip like warm dark honey as it is carved by the chief cook.

Christmas pudding is also served, but it bears little resemblance to the sort we would recognise now. Indeed, the original old English meaning of the word pudding referred to all the offal, intestines and other innards of an animal, including those parts not normally eaten. (Though medieval folk ate pretty much everything.) Hence the use of suet in steamed meals led to our modern use of the word pudding. So in medieval times the Christmas pudding included real minced meat along with a variety of herbs and spices, probably also including garlic and raisins. So help yourself, but please don’t expect to pour custard or cream over it.

Each course contains both sweet and savoury platters, but at the end you will be served with the greatest sweet dish of all – the subtlety. This is a huge and elaborate sculpture carried to the table by all the cooks, expecting the gratitude and congratulations of the guests. It has been carved entirely from sugar loaves, usually with enormous skill. It can be designed to represent something relevant to the occasion – and at Christmas this may well be a depiction of the nativity, complete with the farm animals, the manger and the shepherds as well as the baby Jesus, Joseph and the Madonna. The skill exhibited is an indication of the chief cook’s excellence, and is therefore a mark of status for your host. So remember to compliment him as well. And eat up. No diets here!

Since it is snowing, the windows are a flutter of crystal fantasy and outside is the magical hush of falling ice which swallows all other sounds. Because it is so beautiful, the lord has ordered the shutters to be left open. There are no curtains of course, so the pure glory of a white Christmas can be seen by everyone.

There has been plenty of entertain organised, so please do settle back now and enjoy yourself. Most of all there will be music. Medieval music may not be quite what you are used to, but I promise you will enjoy it. Try and pick out some of the unusual instruments – tabors, sackbuts, rebecs, shawms and gitterns. The jugglers and minstrels will appear more recognisable, but the mystery and miracle  plays and the mummings will seem somewhat more puzzling. The carols may surprise you too and there are certainly none you will recognise. Indeed, a few may shock you as they are full of innuendo and bawdy words but most carols celebrate the religious significance. There will be dancing soon and the music will continue until late. Candlelight on the twirling faces and on the velvet sheen of their flowing gowns, doublets and long fur trimmed sleeves, on the gleaming metal, pewter cups and platters, will all combine into a truly magical atmosphere.

The cups of course are all metal. No glass yet served this purpose except for the very, very rich. Standing glass cups from Murano (Venice) could be acquired for vast sums, but even the nobility used silver, pewter, tin – or even gold. Common folk used wood.

But there are no wooden cups here, for we are celebrating a Christmas in a great house. We are mindful of church ruling and Christian meaning and we say our thanks to God before each course. Of course much of Christmas tradition may relate back to less Christian times, but there is a very strong Christian influence now. The birth of Christ is a constant reminder, many of the plays follow religious themes, there will be Mass on Christmas Eve, and on the morning of Christmas itself. Some of the spices and drinks common to Christmastime certainly have their origins in pagan mid-winter festivals, and the whole idea of the Yule log is certainly ancient, but by now people have pretty much forgotten which is religious practice or originally pagan. 
The wassail cup will soon be passed to you – that large bowl, probably decorated with ivy or streamers, which you should already see being passed from person to person. Never mind about sharing germs – there was certainly no acknowledgement of germs in medieval times – so take a nice long drink from the communal cup. You will enjoy it. This is ale mixed with strong fermented cider and sometimes other fruits, with added spices and honey. It might be warmed initially, but it will be cold by the time it reaches you anyway.

There is certainly nothing boring about the food and drink being offered to you today for there are no over-fertilized crops, no chemically forced fruits, artificial manure, additives, manufactured sauces, and no hormone fattened meat. This will be as natural as Nature made it. And even with very little sugar and a limited use of salt, this food is going to taste delicious. Oh – and don’t worry about those silly stories modern people have told you about spices being used to disguise rotten meat in medieval times – that is all nonsense. The food is fresh and the spices are used because people think they are healthy (often true) and also because they cost a fortune. This proves your host’s status and generosity. Remember to thank him profusely. Oh – and don’t let those mistletoe berries fall into your platter. They’re horribly poisonous.

As well as dancing, there will be games after feasting, and many are a little suggestive. Blind Man’s Buff was popular, but the whole Lord of Misrule scenario is a now little exaggerated, however. It certainly existed, but was not as obligatory as storytellers nowadays seem to think.

Although I have invited you to Christmas Day celebrations, the season actually started on St. Nicholas’ Day, which is December 6th. Here is the conception of Father Christmas himself, although the figure in red we know today is strictly an American invention and quite recent too. Medieval gifts are not given until Epiphany which we usually call Twelfth Night on January 6th, celebrating the arrival of the three wise men who brought gifts for the baby Jesus. Of course, there are other important saints’ days during this period too – including St. Stephen’s Day which we know better as Boxing Day.

But you’re not getting another feast, I’m afraid. I only invited you to Christmas Day, so you can just go off home now. Modern life will seem fairly bland in comparison – but at least you can go to a clean flush toilet, wash your hands in hot running water, and settle down on your comfy cushioned sofa to watch a little television.  Shame about the supermarket food and no candles or roaring fire – but then – we can’t have everything.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Feline Felicity: Then and Now

Cats, first domesticated in Egypt roughly 10,000 years ago, are descended from the African wildcat and have probably become the most popular pet in the world since then. There is something wonderfully graceful about feline elegance, and adult cats also make extremely helpful companions since they have helped us keep our living quarters free of rats, mice and other pests for thousands of years, presumably the original reason for their domestication. In some civilizations cats have been worshiped, in others they have been reviled, but in our modern age they are both very much loved – and very much abused.

A friend of mine recently discovered three abandoned kittens, barely 4 weeks old. Being a cat-lover, she immediately adopted the kittens, and has been caring for them ever since. Whether these kittens were abandoned by the mother, perhaps herself dead or starving and unable to supply milk – or even thrown out by a cat owner unable to accept an unwanted litter – we shall never know. But now the kittens are thriving and are very well looked after.

It takes about 5 hours each day to feed, clean, cuddle, burp (who knew kittens needed burping?) and generally to look after these tiny creatures. They were too young to lap naturally so had to be fed every three hours through a syringe, and they even started by needing encouragement to relieve themselves, and be cleaned afterwards. Plenty of cuddles of course, since they were found half-starved and terrified – but then cuddling is the easy part.

My own two cats were originally found abandoned under a bush as well, but luckily were not quite so young and did not need such intense individual care! They were, however, small enough to carry around in my dressing gown pockets, one each side, while I did the morning housework. One is short-haired white, tiny and pure golden eyed. The other is a handsome tall and fluffy black and white – so it would not usually be obvious that they are brother and sister. It’s an interesting fact about cats, that one female’s litter may have several different fathers. 

The male is a fanatical football player. From a tiny kitten, whenever he hears me crumple paper, I find him sitting hopefully at my feet, gazing up at me. If I throw the little ball of paper, he will chase it and start his own game – one back paw kicking it between his own legs – for his front paws to chase. He seems to pretend that front and back are two different cats – acting as if surprised as he leaps off on the hunt to catch the errant escapee. All his own idea! The trouble is, I can’t resist those pleading eyes, and so my carpets are continuously littered with little balls of paper (foil is his favourite) which must seem rather weird to unsuspecting visitors! 

Of course, I shouldn’t be referring to my cats as male and female – they are a tom and a queen – and when there are several together (when next door’s tom pops in to play for instance) they form a ‘clowder’ or a ‘glaring’ – but I like the word clowder best. And no– they don’t have nine lives, but they are capable of amazing skills. Apart from excellent vision – even in the dark – with excellent hearing and sense of smell, felines appear to have a sense of navigation that approaches that of bats at night. This sensitivity covers their whole bodies, and enables them to know how large a space is by the movement of air currents – and must help enormously with those glorious leaps and bounds and night-time hunting.

Sadly because, like domesticated dogs, the females come into season several times a year and can produce large litters, cats have returned to the wild and turned feral in almost every country across the world. Not only does this lead to considerable misery for the cats themselves, often leading to disease, starvation and being mauled and killed by wild dogs, but also leads to the destruction of the local wildlife. Here in Australia many native species have been brought close to extinction because of feral cats and dogs, since the indigenous creatures are unused to such large predators, and have no natural defences.

Throughout European history, cats have been encouraged on farmlands where they keep
down the pests, and the farmyard cat nursing her litter in the hay barn is a common image from the past. However, a less cosy part of that same history was the regular destruction of those kittens, bundled in a sack and tossed into a water barrel to drown, keeping the farm from being overrun with cats. In the past, of course, there was no easy method of spaying or castrating animals, but now that the system is in place, it is so sad that this cruel practise of destroying unwanted litters often still occurs.

We all adore our pet cats, but we also admire the larger felines. The largest, the Tiger, is a magnificent symbol of majesty and beauty. However, the tiger is fast approaching extinction due to our own activities – the destruction of their habitat, and – even more grotesque – the poaching for body parts for use in Chinese medicine. There is a fashion these days for eastern medicines, and acupuncture certainly seems to have considerable backing. But it is less well publicized that some Chinese medicine encourages massive slaughter of wildlife. A tiger penis is supposed to help a man with his waning virility. Many other so-called medicinal benefits are about equally as valid.

But problems aside, there are still very few things quite so delicious as a small sleeping kitten, or watching two or three playing together. And when they grow older and curl up on your lap, then that is the perfect symbol of absolute comfort.