Category Archives: History

The silent ancestors

Ancestors of not doing your dirty laundry in public.

Ancestors of lying about where the bruises came from.

It isn’t nice to talk about that. It isn’t polite. It isn’t appropriate. Don’t mention it.

The ancestors who said ‘what will the neighbours think’ and felt it was more important to put on a good show for strangers, than to deal with problems.

Ancestors of keeping up appearances, too proud to ask for help.

It is better to fail and suffer privately than to let anyone know you are struggling. You make sure your hungry child looks clean and tidy, and is polite.

The ancestors who said keeping up appearances meant not speaking about what was done to you. The parents and grandparents of other people’s silence.

Don’t bring shame on us. Don’t embarrass us.

The ancestors for whom the abuse of a female body was a source of shame, not of anger. And you wouldn’t draw attention for fear of hurting the girl’s chances of marriage, and you’d never talk or deal with what had happened that hurt the girl.

Ancestors of not rocking the boat and not making a fuss.

Ancestors of this is not for the likes of us, know your place and be quiet.

We do it my way, because I said so. It was good enough for my family. It’s good enough for you.

Ancestors of do not draw attention to yourself and do not ask for more than you are given.

We don’t talk about nasty body things, or sex, or disease, or pregnancy. We are the ancestors of having no words for these things that are good, or kind, or helpful.

 

Ancestral stories aren’t always made of large, easy to spot drama. Often the most dangerous things are the things we were not allowed to talk about. We pass on stories about the stories we are not allowed to tell. Sometimes the encouragement to silence is subtle. Sometimes it is brutal, loud, and either way it is destructive. Breaking the silence is never easy, but is often vital.


Ancestral Pie

Both of my grandmothers made pies. No doubt for women of their generation, this was a much more normal thing to do. Their pie-making was distinct and individual. My paternal grandmother had been in service. She made shallow cheese and onion quiches/flans with a light, crumbly pastry. She may have made other kinds of pie for non-vegetarians, but I never encountered that. My maternal grandmother made deep pies with a heavy, brown flour crust. They were mushroom and onion pies, with cheese on the top, and sometimes tomatoes. I don’t recall her ever making any other kind of pie.

I too am a pie maker. I make the kinds of pies that I’ve been told are ‘proper’ pies – i.e. that have a crust on the top, or a potato top. I make fruit pies. I also make the kind of pies that are egg-based and untopped. I defend my right to call these pies – my grandmother called this a pie and I choose to use my ancestral baking language!

My pies are very different from the pies of my grandmothers. Like my maternal grandmother, I favour the deeper pie and the brown flour. However, I have inherited cold hands from my paternal grandmother and this gives me a pastry texture closer to her baking style. Unlike both of them, I will cheerfully put anything in a pie. I don’t have a standard pie I make, I like to mess about with pie form.

We live in a culture that tells us that to express your identity through the medium of pies, you choose your brand. You choose from a narrow selection of fillings someone else has put together. Of course as with every opportunity we are given to purchase our identity through products, there’s not much range in it and precious little joy.

A pie made at home is inescapably an expression of self. What ingredients do you pull together? What shape of pie? What decorative features (if any)? Do you make a small selection of pies, or do you experiment wildly? Do you make sweet pies, or savoury pies, do you make them moist on the inside or do you favour a firmer, drier middle? The pie that you make for yourself, is a personal thing.

One of my grandmothers was neat and precise, and this came through in the shape of her pastry. One of my grandmothers was much more rough and ready, and her pastry was the same. Neither of them spent ages doing fiddly lattice tops or cutting out leaves, or hearts for decoration. I do, sometimes.

My pie making comes from their pie making, no doubt. It comes from eating their food. I am more influenced by the grandmother who let me be in on the process. I don’t know what kind of pie making traditions either of them had from their mothers, and grandmothers, but I bet there was something. Most of our ancestors are unknowable to us as individuals, but when we pass down this kind of thing, we pass down something of them, too. There is no fixed ancestral pie, but there’s something to tap into, and I suspect that holds true for a lot of other things as well!


The Consolation of History

I have read a fair few books about history and pre-history. There’s not much logic to it, my knowledge is patchy and random. My main interests are in radical history, and the lives of ordinary people. There is consolation to be found in reading history, and I’m feeling that keenly at the moment.

When you read about the lives of ordinary people – in any place or time, things are invariably a bit shit. Sometimes things are devastatingly shit. I read, and I wonder how anyone kept going in face of that. How people kept pushing for rights in face of tyranny. But they did, and when you look at grander sweeps of time, even as individual movements have often failed, there is a bit of a progress narrative and on the whole ordinary people have slowly gained more rights.

When I feel daunted and overwhelmed, I remind myself about my ancestors. All those ancestors of radical thinking who tried, and failed, and tried again. I remind myself that many, many people in history and pre-history have faced the end of their culture, their civilization, their people, their world. When I feel really grim about the state of things, I remind myself that many others have been here before me and I am not facing anything new. This helps me keep a sense of perspective.

The timescales of pre-history are good for perspective, too. We are a tiny, toxic blip in the history of humanoid life. Other humanoid species have fallen away in the past, it may be our turn now. Nothing is forever, including us.

We repeat history, whether we’ve studied it or not. We are not so very new. We are no cleverer or wiser than the people who went before us. As a species we seem able to learn some things very quickly, but the important lessons elude us – how to live well, how to live sustainably, and what purpose to make of our lives.


On Writing Historical Fiction

A Guest post from Laura Perry

Fiction is an interesting beast. It’s imaginary but also real. You can take a real-world setting and make up characters to go in it. You can make up the world as well, if you like, though some portion of it needs to be relatable to the reader, perhaps in the form of some of your characters being human.

Either way, the intersection of the real and the imagined creates the spark of the story. I’ve written two novels set in the known world, one in Central America and one near where I live in the southeastern US. Both had magical aspects to the story, and one had magical/supernatural characters as well. Still, both novels take place in the current time, in the world I’ve spent my whole life in. It’s familiar territory, in a sense, a world I share with my readers.

Then I decided to write historical fiction. That turns out to be a different beast altogether, with its own set of issues.

My novel is set on the Mediterranean island of Crete, among the ancient Minoans. They were a Bronze Age culture that flourished from about 3000-1400 BCE. Now, the Minoans are a subject I’ve studied for years. Decades, even. But when I started writing this book, I discovered just how much I don’t know, how much no one knows about the details of daily life and religion in ancient Crete.

So I filled in the blanks with educated guesses. That’s what every author does when they’re writing historical fiction. And I feel the weight of every one of those guesses, because there’s a thing that happens with any kind of historical fiction, whether it’s in the form of a book, a television show, or a movie: people take it as actual history. You’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t) how many people get their history more from television than from the books they were supposed to read in school.

So this book took me a long time to write. That was partly because the story is heart-wrenching and I felt like part of my soul was being ripped out with each chapter. But it was also partly because I had to weigh every detail, consider every possibility as I built the world the action takes place in. I’m sure I’m wrong about some of it; that’s just how history and archaeology are. More information comes to light later on and we recognize our mistakes.

But in the meantime, I’d like to remind everyone that historical fiction is just that: fiction, even if it is framed with known facts and archaeological evidence. Historical fiction is a marvelous romp through another time and place, via the imagination of the writer. So enjoy it for what it is: a story about humanity, about the issues we’ve all faced through the generations. Some things never change.

 

Find out more about Laura’s Minoan novel here – : http://www.lauraperryauthor.com/the-last-priestess-of-malia

 


Peterloo, 200 years on

Two hundred years ago today, St Peter’s Fields in Manchester – now St Peter’s Square, was the site of a massive protest.  Some 60,000 people gathered in a peaceful pro-democracy, anti-poverty rally. Their circumstances were desperate and starvation was a real threat.

In response to this, local magistrates read the riot act and set armed forces on the assembly, killing some and injuring hundreds. The name ‘Peterloo’ was chosen to echo Waterloo – then a fairy recent battle. For more of the history visit http://www.peterloomassacre.org/history.html

One of the things we’ve been told in the run up to the UK ‘government’ being set on no deal brexit, is to expect civil unrest. This is likely to be the consequence of hunger, as we have nothing in place to enable us to deal with creating hard borders. Food, medicine and toilet paper from abroad won’t be so available, and the consequences will be ugly for many people. Push so many people to the edge and trouble is likely.

And what does our inglorious leadership propose to do for the hungry masses when the time comes? Send in the army to put down any misbehaviour.

We were one of the richer countries in the world when desperate, hungry people gathered in Manchester 200 years ago. Much of what was creating the hunger then was that our laws made bread prices too high for the poor to afford. Those laws served the rich landowners growing grain. We remain one of the richer countries in the world, and we remain a place where ordinary people go hungry. Which to me means that how we measure ‘wealth’ is clearly wrong. I want a definition of wealth that has more to do with everyone’s wellbeing and less to do with the riches of the few.

A nation that turns its army on its own people is a nation that has failed. A nation that lets its people go hungry is a nation that has failed. The right are keen to talk about patriotism, but anyone who is happy to see their neighbours suffer, go hungry, die for lack of medicine, and the like, for the sake of a political idea, has no love for their country. A country is not some abstract idea, it is a group of living people. When you don’t see those living people as inherently worth taking care of, there is no national identity. There is no community or collective co-operation at a national level. How anyone can identify as a proud nationalist, and not connect that pride to the wellbeing of all is a mystery to me.


Folkloresque and Picturesque

I’m currently reading The Folkloresque – a collection of essays edited by Michael Dylan Foster and Jeffrey A. Tolbert. Reading Paul Manning’s chapter on pixies in the Victorian era brought something into focus for me – the similar ways in which Victorian picturesque and folkloresque work.

The picturesque is the process of making a landscape into something to be consumed. It can mean artistic depictions but it can also mean knocking down peasant cottages to make a more pleasant view, or building a fake ruin. It’s the process of making charming landscape walks with lovely views that you can enjoy only a short distance from your large country house. It turns the living landscape into scenery for amusement. Anyone poor living in this landscape had better be quaint and appealing, or there is no place for them.

Folkloresque productions of the period take the same approach – focusing on what’s charming and delightful that can be taken from the place and sold to people for money. As with the land, the stories are made to confirm to what the money wants to buy – we are to have charm, and whimsy and something nice for the children. The people whose stories these were of course get no money from the sale of them, get no kudos for carrying them and won’t be named in person. If any of those ‘simple rural folk’ made their stories up, no one wants to know – it does not suit the Victorian folkloresque agenda. We don’t really know what the relationship between the people sharing folk tales and the folk tales really is, because the people themselves are vanished from the story landscape as much as they are from the picturesque landscape.

There is no place in the picturesque or the folkloresque landscape for the people who live, work and tell stories there. They are simply something to exploit – for their labour and their raw materials. Other people take the money. Other people get the kudos for collecting, or for improving the view. Knock down the cottage in which the storyteller lived because it isn’t pretty enough to be seen from your windows and claim the stories as your own. It’s much the same underlying logic.


Mixing your seeds

“You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed” Leviticus 19:19

For context this is in the bit of the Bible that is often cited as justifying homophobia, but which also tells people not to mix cotton and wool in their clothes, not to eat shellfish and that crossbreeding cows is wrong.

In the normal scheme of things, people only bother to tell people off for things they are actually doing. Many things about historical Pagans have been inferred from stuff Christians were complaining about and official pronouncements to stop that kind of thing. So perhaps we can reasonably assume that pre-Leviticus, people were mixing their seed.

I recently saw a film called In Our Hands – https://inourhands.film/ which is all about food and resilience. The idea of mixing seeds came up there – if you have different types of seed, you have more resilience to climate uncertainty. There’s a better chance something will survive to provide you with a food crop as different plants favour different conditions.

It struck me, that not mixing your seeds therefore reduces resilience. It makes you more vulnerable to climate, to famine, to disaster. A people who are more vulnerable in these ways are likely to be more persuaded that they need God on their side. People who can take practical measures to keep their communities viable don’t need belief in the same way. You might want to honour deities, but you won’t feel so dependent on their whims. You won’t read punishment and judgement into every bad harvest if you’ve got a cunning system that largely avoids bad harvests in the first place.

We’re big on monocultures.

We’ve replaced God the judgemental father with the almighty power of the corporations who sell seed, fertiliser, herbicide and insecticide. These are corporations that have a pretty literal power now to damn us all to hell. Our future as a planet depends on saving our insects, revitalising our soil and having enough diversity to survive. Which makes it a good idea to start asking why we ever thought monocultures were such a good idea in the first place…

Does our monoculture habit trace back to Levicitus? Were we doing something more diverse prior to that? I don’t know, but I do know there are aspects of farming – like big fields full of a single crop – that we’ve come to take for granted. We need to start asking questions about other ways of doing things and the potential benefits.


The Folk Process

In a living, oral tradition, material changes. Each person who tells a story or sings a song will add something, or leave something out. It’s easy to see this in action as there are so many songs that share features. They may have the same tune and chorus but different verses. They may tell the same story, but with a different tune and words. Sometimes you do it to keep the language contemporary. Sometimes you do it because what rhymes in one accent doesn’t in another.

There’s a natural selection process in stories as well. For example, there are many older versions of the Cinderella story, and they don’t all have glass slippers. For some reason, the glass slipper was a detail/innovation a lot of people liked, and it stuck.

Every traditional piece was at some point first created by someone, or perhaps by a small group. The idea that we can’t create new folk material seems mad to me – this is where folk material comes from. If it is only allowed to be stuff from the past, what we have are museum exhibits, not a living tradition. I have nothing against museums, but I am reluctant to take living things and pin them to boards so that we can all look at them more easily and agree about what their real and proper form should be. And this is why folk gatekeepers drive me a bit nuts.

I’m aware of a number of 20th century folk songs that are sliding into the tradition. If you are most likely to hear a song sung by a floor spotter, if you picked it up from your granny, the name of the writer may have fallen off. I’m aware of several 20th century songs already experiencing folk process, with variations of the words and tune occurring. This is good, as far as I am concerned. This is living tradition.

Sometimes it is important to change the song. Simply changing the singer can be powerful, and some songs suddenly sound queer, for example, when you get the right person singing them. Were those songs queer before? They might have been, we don’t know. As there have always been queer people, I think it’s a good thing to have older songs reflecting that.

The idea that you can ‘pollute’ tradition by adding ‘fake’ things to it mystifies me. Adding to tradition is… tradition. There’s a natural editing process here. If an addition is good, and works, it’ll become part of the tradition – as with those glass slippers. If it doesn’t catch on, for whatever reason, then that’s fine, too. There are many singer songwriters working in the folk style whose material won’t endure. For a song to survive, it has to be sung by other people. It becomes folk because of the ways in which other people sing it, adapt it and keep it alive.

Folk purism is, from my perspective, the unreasonable practice of killing folk tradition in order to pin it down in a fixed shape and own it. The whole point of folk is that it is not the property of a single person, and it is not for one person to say what it means or how it should be. Folk is of the people, by the people, for the people – it is collectively owned and anyone who wants to has the right to mess about with it. that’s what makes it the way it is. Folk is not re-enactment. It isn’t backward looking and it isn’t all about the past.

This blog was brought to you by me being cross about someone on Twitter yesterday. Here’s what was said in regards to a post about Hopeless Maine ( a project very much inspired by folklore)

“Isn’t this that made up faux folklore?”

“That feels like a rather important distinction that shouldn’t be forgot. So many people viewing this hashtag aren’t experts and it’s extremely disingenuous to have faux folklore just mixed in on the #FolkloreThursday tag. It muddies the waters and potentially tricks neophytes”

Get your hands off my living, breathing tradition. It is not a butterfly for you to pin to a board. It is not something you get to define, or own, or tell other people how to do. All folklore was once faux folklore, until people adopted it – that’s what the folk tradition is.

 


The boar-hunt – excerpt from The Grail

This is an excerpt from Simon Stirling’s The Grail, which I reviewed here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2018/04/29/the-grail-relic-of-an-ancient-religion-a-review/

The Annals of Tigernach list four battles for the year 594:

 

The battle of Ratha in Druadh & the battle of Áird Sendoim.  The slaying of the sons of Áedán i.e. Bran & Domangart & Eochaid Find & Artúr, in the battle of Circhenn, in which Áedán was the victor, & the battle of Corann.

 

The first two battles were closely linked, the battle of Áird Sendoim (‘The Headland’, near Peterhead, ‘on the coast of Mordei’) being immediately followed by Arthur’s ‘Unrestrained Ravaging’ of Morgan’s Tillymorgan hill-fort.  The Annals of Ulster described this as the ‘battle of Ràth in druaid’ (Early Irish ràth, a ‘residence surrounded by an earthen rampart’).  It took place in the ‘Sorcerer’s land’ (Early Irish drui – a ‘Druid’; genitive druad).  Morgan was considered ‘skilful’ (medrod) by the Britons, which would imply some level of Druidic knowhow – including, no doubt, the art of raising a ‘ghost fence’, such as that which Geraint fatally crossed above the sands of Cruden Bay.

The Arthurian legend of Culhwch and Olwen recalls that ‘when Arthur had landed in the country’ in pursuit of the fearsome king-turned-boar, Twrch Trwyth, ‘there came unto him the saints of Ireland and besought his protection.’  There were Irish monks at Old Deer, just west of Peterhead.  Arthur then went ‘as far as Esgeir Oerfel’ – the ‘Cold Ridge’ of the Grampians – ‘where the Boar Trwyth was with his seven young pigs.’

There followed three days of fighting, after which Arthur sent in his interpreter to parley.  Morgan’s spokesman vowed that he would yield nothing to Arthur: ‘“And tomorrow morning we will rise up hence, and we will go into Arthur’s country, and there we will do all the mischief that we can.”’

Morgan escaped with Gwenhwyfar, quite possibly in the Chariot of Morgan the Wealthy (Car Morgan Mwynfawr), which became one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain: ‘if a man went in it, he might wish to be wherever he would, and he would be there quickly.’  Arthur, meanwhile, sought to block the arrival of any hostile reinforcements from his half-brother’s Highland kingdom.

The evidence for this move on Arthur’s part is the presence of an Arthur’s Seat (Suiarthour in 1638; now it is just Suie) at the head of Glen Livet.  This was the channel, on the eastern edge of the Highlands, through which Gartnait’s warriors might have hastened to Morgan’s defence.

What happened next was hinted at by Myrddin:

 

I predict a summer of fury,

Contention of brothers,

Treachery out of Gwynedd:

The lofty exile and the good-pledge [i.e. ‘hostage’],

The tall one [Gwenhwyfar] from the land of Gwynedd.

Seven hundred-ships from Saxon-land,

Blown north by the wind;

And in Aberdeen they confer.

 

Morgan’s ‘Saxon’ allies – the Angles of Northumbria – sent seven ships, each carrying 100 men, to supplement his Miathi spears (Geoffrey of Monmouth later bumped this up to ‘eight hundred ships’).  Arthur almost certainly spied these reinforcements from the hill of Bennachie in Aberdeenshire (an Arthur’s Cairn – Arthouriscairne – was recorded there in 1595), having paused at Percylieu (perc-y-llew, the ‘Lion’s Perch’; rendered as ‘Preseleu’ in the Culhwch and Olwen legend) en route to the coast.

The Gododdin were with Arthur, meaning that Lothian was barely defended.  Morgan and his supporters saw their opportunity to race south and seize Manau (Stirling) and the Edinburgh capital of Lothian.

The tale of Culhwch and Olwen recounts the bloody pursuit of the Boar-King from the ‘Cold Ridge’ towards the ‘Vale of Manau’ (Dyffryn Amanw).  Morgan’s spokesman had sworn that they would ‘go into Arthur’s country’ and there do ‘all the mischief that we can.’  And so Morgan, with his Saxons and his Picts, made for the crucial bulwark of Manau Gododdin.

Arthur and his battered war-band followed them into Angus.

 

Find out more about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/grail


Tommy Catkins – a review

Tommy Catkins is the new novel from Stephen Palmer, whose Factory Girl Trilogy I was very taken with. It’s a story that mixes history and fantasy, and does not encourage you to feel confident about what’s real, and what’s delusion brought on by trauma.

The central character – Tommy – is a massive enigma. The odds seem good that his name is not really Tommy Catkins at all. He’s lied about his age. He doesn’t remember a lot of what happened to him. He doesn’t know if he’s mad, or too afraid to go back to the trenches. He doesn’t know if what he sees in the puddles and river are real, or manifestations from his own broken mind. In some senses he’s an everyboy, all the kids who signed up to fight in the First World War, and who paid with their minds and bodies. There are hints about a personal background, but we’re never allowed to see it, we can only wonder. The story keeps us very much on the outside of his experiences, which of course we are bound to be, because we weren’t there, and we don’t understand.

For me what was most interesting about the story is the way is catches shifts in mental health understanding. Up until the First World War, mental anguish was often treated as a female issue – hysteria – and not taken very seriously. The impact of shell shock on officers and men alike changed public and medical attitudes to the issue of trauma. We went from shooting men for cowardice to taking their broken nerves seriously. The novel explores some of the appalling methods that were attempted as ‘cures’ and the pressure to get sick men back to the front. The idea that mental anguish in face of experience might be the root cause, not a physical reaction, is something the book explores.

This isn’t a comfortable read. It’s a haunting and deeply uneasy book that won’t offer you tidy solutions. If you’re looking for uncomplicated escapism, this isn’t it, but it is a book that can speak in some unsettling ways to that urge for escapism.