Book Preview: Cartography and how it shapes the world. Part One.

Maps show a lot about the way we view the world, whether it is a modern map (even Google Maps) or a 14th century mappa mundi. Maps are not always intended to be accurate geographical depictions of landscape, to be used only for navigation. Of course that is the purpose of some maps, but some are symbolic and all maps illuminate (through what they include and what they don’t, how they are made and who commissioned them) the society in which they were created.

This is not going to be a typical post from me, covering a building, person, area or place. This post is going to examine (briefly) maps and what they can show us about the world, beyond geographical features. It is based around several books on cartography that I already owned as well as some new books on maps and mapping that were released at the end of last year, which I was lucky to be given for Christmas. With these additions my collection of books on maps and mapping is large enough to have a section in my library. In this post I’m going to focus on the general cartography books and part 2 will examine the more specific volumes.

So what sorts of books am I talking about? I currently own a variety and I have written about one before when I first started this blog. The Map Book was my first acquisition on cartography and helped to introduce me to the sheer beauty of maps.

You can see my book selection (including The Map Book) below.

Each of these books outlines something slightly different about cartography. Theatre of the World is the most comprehensive from a western perspective, though it is the least visual.

It is written by Thomas Reinerstsen Berg in Norwegian and I read the translated English copy. In fascinating detail it traces the very beginnings of map making (maps carved in stone) through to digital map making and Google Maps.

In this epic journey Reinerstsen Berg takes you through the classical cartography including the work of Aristotle and Plato and Claudius Ptolemy. Around the year 150 CE Ptolemy was working in the Library of Alexandria, drawing on older sources (Roman and Greek) and as many recent observations as he could to create a depiction of the world. He was drawing on sources that have long since been lost – many in the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. His work survived the destruction, mainly through copies, and was rediscovered in the 14th century and helped to shape later ideas about maps and mapping.

Reinerstsen Berg continues through medieval cartography some of which was less focussed on geographical depictions and more on the holy view of the world. An excellent example is the Hereford Mappa Mundi from 1300.

It depicts Jerusalem as the centre of the world, which for medieval christians it was, along with hundreds of towns, figures, animals and mythological sites. It is an illustration of the view of the world, rather than the world itself. It is also really lovely.

Reinerstsen Berg continues through time, highlighting the importance of the first atlas created in 1570 by Abraham Ortelius of Antwerp- it was called Theatre of the World. It was the conclusion of decades of work collecting the best maps he could find from geographers and cartographers across the known world. He redrew the maps himself for consistency and put them together in an atlas declaiming the importance of cartography for history and, in Reinerstsen Berg’s words, “for the first time, those who could afford it were now able to purchase the whole world, bound within a book” (127).

Reinerstsen Berg concludes with digital mapping and Google Maps and Google earth, which for the first time in the history of mapping have the capacity to create maps that show our world down to the tiniest detail. The problem with Google Maps is the same problem that has haunted all cartography; who controls the information included. Google Maps has the 70% market share of digital mapping and it fundamentally shapes how many people physically view the world in which we live. It is a free service, because businesses can pay to have their businesses displayed and it can collect information about users. The monetary nature of mapping and information provision goes right back to the early cartographers, maps are created (usually) at least partly to make money. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is one worth keeping in mind. Reinerstsen Berg’s book is extensive and really interesting. I only had two complaints. The first is that it is extremely Western civilisation focussed. He makes very clear at the start that he is writing about mapping from the point of view of his part of the world; Scandinavia. It does mean that there is lot more about Scandinavia that you would normally find in a general mapping history, which is actually really interesting. So as he is upfront about it, I have less of an issue. My main concern is the images. There are many beautiful and illuminating images of maps, but most are not in the section in which they are discussed, I found this quite dislocating.

Problems aside, Theatre of the World is an eye opening book.

The other two most general books are The Map Book (which I have written about before) and Visions of the World. Both are beautiful books which take an overall and very visual look at maps. The both make a chronological and thematic examination of maps throughout time. They both take a much more worldwide and less euro-centric look than Theatre of the World and they are both much more focussed on the beauty of the maps themselves. They cover everything from Indian mapping to mapping in mosaic in Jordan in 565 CE. The map below was created during the reign of Emperor Justinian.

In 1884 a mosaic map was discovered on the floor of the old church in Madaba. It is somewhat fragmented (the largest surviving portion is 10.5m by 5m) but originally it would have covered the entire width of the nave and depicted the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan river and Syria and parts of Egypt. The fragment you can see above is Jerusalem. The detail is incredible showing trees, fish, towns, animals and even the ferry to Jordan. It illustrates how the christians in Byzantium would have seen the Holy Land as it began to develop.

The Madaba Map is just one of treasures throughout both books. They also cover the detail of maps, looking not just at broad geographic maps, but maps of specific towns and areas. Both books make clear how political map making can be- often depending on who was doing the mapping and who was paying them to map. They are visual delights, with an immense amount of detail.

The final book I’m going to discuss in this post is History of the World by Map. This book is quite different to my other general sources. History of the World covers a general history of world through the rise and fall of civilisations across the world, but while it uses maps to do it, the book creates its own maps to explain the movement of civilisations. In its existence it shows just how useful maps can be and what they can illustrate beyond general geography. History of the World is also very impressive in its scope: covering indigenous Australians, imperial china, Africa, Polynesians, Mansa Musa and much more besides. it provide a fascinating window in which to compare what was happening in the same time in totally different parts of the world, both when they affected each-other and when they didn’t. Western centric histories tend to give the impression that the centre of the world was Europe and not much else was happening anywhere else. History of World gives an easily accessible depiction of how interconnected and vast the world has always been, as well as how much was happening beyond the narrow confines of Europe.

Part 2 will continue the story of cartography and my cartography collection, by considering the remainder of the books which all focus on more specific elements of cartography.

References:

The Map Book: edited by Peter Barber ISBN: 9780297843726

Theatre of the World: The maps that made history. By Thomas Reinertsen Berg ISBN: 9781473688629

Visions of the World: A history of maps by Jeremy Black. ISBN: 1840008342

https://archive.org/details/theatrumorbister00orte/page/n4

https://www.themappamundi.co.uk/index.php

Photos:

The pictures of the books are mine.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi is creative commons licensed.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Hereford_Mappa_Mundi#/media/File:Hereford-Karte.jpg

as is the Madaba Map

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/Madaba_Jerusalem_Mosaic.jpg

Urnes Stave Church in Norway

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Urnes Stave Church in Norway is probably the most remarkable medieval structure I have ever visited. It is aided in this status by the truly incredible surroundings.

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IMG_2139It is, however, its completeness as a 12th century wooden structure inside and out, and especially the carvings, which make it truly remarkable.

This is the first of what will be a series of posts on the history of Iceland, Denmark and Norway. I’m beginning with Urnes because of its uniqueness and because it is UNESCO World Heritage listed.

Urnes sits on eastern edge of the Luster Fjord. It was built around 1150. There had been churches on the site before, parts of which have been reused in the church you can see today. It is the oldest stave church in Norway and is so distinctive and so influential that its style has come to be known as Urnes Style when it is used in other buildings.

The name stave church comes from the large vertical load bearing posts which form the basis of the structure of the church. Essentially it is composed of a vertical rectangular frame. You can see a cross-section of Borgund stave church below, which gives you the idea of the interior structure necessary for a stave church (Borgund is a lot bigger than Urnes though)

IMG_2089There were once over 1000 stave churches in Norway, but now only 28 remain. Most were built between 1130 and 1350 though a few are later. The black death affected the construction of new buildings after the mid 14th century. The reason they survived, even though they are wooden, is because the wood is coated regularly in pitch to protect it from the weather (this is still done at Urnes). In the case of Urnes it has a stone foundation, which stops it rotting from the ground up. The previous church on the site was a post hole church, the holes have been found in archaeological investigations.

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Stave churches are not all the same, they are built along different lines and with different styles. For example you can see Ringebu Stave Church below

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Urnes is one of the smallest, but it is also the most lavishly decorated.

The carvings are truly incredible. They are an amalgam of Celtic, Viking and early Christian design. Some are extremely reminiscent visually of early illuminated manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells.

IMG_2105IMG_2106The carving above is the side door which is no longer used, but would most likely have originally been the main entrance. You can see a stylised lion in the carvings on the left. These carvings most likely come from the exterior of the earlier church and were reused in the current church. You can see the interior of the door below.

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Other exterior carvings from the earlier church include the post you can see below.

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The main entrance to the church is on the west end and you can see more medieval carving on the capitals and it is thought that the ironwork on the door might be original as well.

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When you look at the photos of the church from the front you will noticed that there is an odd flap open.

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This flap, along with some other panels, are usually closed to protect the delicate carvings beneath. I was lucky enough that when I visited it was open for a conference group and, while it is very weathered, it is still beautiful and thought to be medieval. IMG_2101

The timber the church is constructed of is largely pine with elements of hardwood. The turret on the church is not original, in 1702 it replaced an earlier one from 1680. The roof was also tiled at one point. The current shingles date to the 20th century when the church underwent careful restoration, when much of the protective cladding was also added.

IMG_2141IMG_2143Leaving aside the exterior of the church for the moment, the interior is just as if not more impressive.

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You can see that the floor in the nave is lower than the rest of the church, this was because there was an open space under the floor which was used for burials. It was discontinued in favour of the external cemetery in the 19th century at least partly because of the smell.

The ceiling is 17th century, originally it would have been open like the underside of a boat. The original windows would have been small and porthole like. As you can probably tell the interior has been changed quite a bit over the centuries, but there are still a lot of medieval elements. My favourites are the carved capitals on the columns which then rise up into romanesque wooden arches. These were quite possibly based on contemporary stone churches of the time and are certainly similar to stone churches I have seen in England and Ireland.

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Remarkably some of the medieval fittings have also survived: including the figure of Christ on the Cross with Mary and John which dates to the end of the 12th century

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A medieval candelabra

IMG_2126and the chandelier which hangs from the ceiling

IMG_2136The gallery you can see part of above the chandelier, and above the chancel in the earlier photo, was added later and sadly involved cutting some of the original columns and capitals.

The highly decorated altar and pulpit dates to the 1690s, the chancel was extended out in the early 1600s.

IMG_2127IMG_2131The paintings and figures you can see on the walls are also 17th century.

Originally there wouldn’t have been fixed pews, they were introduced after the reformation and the ones in Urnes are 17th century. The boxed pew you can see in the photo below was for women being brought into the church to be cleansed after childbirth.

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Urnes was probably built for the wealthy local Ornes family, but it was also a church used by the locals. It is an amalgam of styles as the needs of the church’s community changed. It is a testimony to the quality of construction that it is still standing today.

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In 1720 it was sold to local priest Christopher Munthe and it remained privately owned until the parish bought it in 1850. By 1881 it wasn’t needed any longer because the parish was reorganised and it was to given to the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments. The parish retained the burial rights in the churchyard and the right to hold services twice a year. This practice continues and Urnes is used by the local community for special occasions. In 1979 UNESCO included Urnes on its World Heritage Register

It met the three main criteria easily with UNESCO saying

Criterion (i): The Urnes Stave Church is an outstanding example of traditional Scandinavian wooden architecture. It brings together traces of Celtic art, Viking traditions and Romanesque spatial structures. The outstanding quality of the carved décor of Urnes is a unique artistic achievement.

Criterion (ii): The stave churches are representative of the highly developed tradition of wooden buildings that extended through the Western European cultural sphere during the Middle Ages. Urnes is one of the oldest of the Norwegian stave churches and an exceptional example of craftsmanship. It also reveals the development from earlier techniques and therefore contributes to the understanding of the development of this specific tradition.

Criterion (iii) : Urnes Stave Church is an ancient  wooden building and is outstanding due to the large-scale reuse of both decorative and constructive elements originating from a stave church built about one century earlier. It is an outstanding example of the use of wood to express the language of Romanesque stone architecture.

Urnes is truly astounding and for such a little church it certainly holds a lot of history.

 

References

Site visit 2018

Urnes Stave Church brochures

Urnes Stave Church Booklet

UNESCO Listing: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/58/

The photos are all mine.

Kells, County Meath

IMG_4212For a town with a population of not much over 6000 Kells has made an inordinately strong mark on Irish History.

It is best known as the original home of what is , arguably,  the most famous illuminated manuscript in the world.

But while the Book of Kells is truly incredible, and I’ll talk more about it later, Kells itself (especially the abbey) has its own fascinating history. I am also slightly biased as some of my family comes from Kells and the surrounding area. A plaque to one of my ancestors can still be seen in the church at the abbey.

This post isn’t going to cover the entire history of Kells, there’s simply too much of it. It will, however, look at the early history of the town, the Book of Kells, and some of the key buildings in town.

So to begin at the beginning.

There were possibly people in the area before, but the history of Kells as a settlement dates back to the 6th century, when it was a fortification of the High King Diarmait mac Cerbaill.  The site was gifted to Saint Colmcille who founded the abbey which remains today, though none of the exisiting building are contemporary.

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The second image is an etching from the late 1700s.

Saint Colmcille (known in latin as Columba) was born to the ruling family of present day Donegal. Still standing in Kells today is Colmcille’s cell which dates around the 10th century. It is too late to actually have been used by Colmcille and was in fact probably an oratory that may have housed his relics, with some sleeping accommodation for some monks. IMG_4260

In roughly 561 Colmcille travelled to Scotland as a ‘pilgrim for Christ’ and to convert the Picts. In 563 he settled on Iona and founded the abbey there. It went on to be one of the most influential in the area inspiring the foundation of other houses, including Lindisfarne. In the 9th century Iona was subject to fearsome Viking raids and they relocated most of the community to Kells in 804. It is agreed by most scholars that the Book of Kells originated in around 800 making it possible that it was originally made in either Kells or Iona. It was definitely at Kells by 1007 when the Annals of Ulster record it as being stolen from the stone church in Kells.

This is not the church we see today. From 808 to 814 a new church was built, though it was rebuilt after the Viking raid of 920 and most likely again after other raids over the years. By 1655 it was well and truly in ruins and it was used as a horse barracks by Cromwell. The current church dates to 1788.

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It is in St Columba’s Church that you can also see the plaque dedicated to my ancestor.

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However there are parts of the site that do date to earlier. Firstly the round tower. Round towers are honestly one of my favourite structures ever and I’ve visited quite a number. You can find out more about their history in this previous post.

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The Kells round tower dates to the 10th century and it is 90 feet tall without its roof, which would have been conical. Is has six floors and would probably have been accessed by ladders. There is still a lot of debate as to the purpose of round towers. It is possible that they were simply bell towers, part of the system of the call to prayer with the height made necessary by the size of the ecclesiastical sites. They may have also been symbols reaching towards the glory of God and illustrating the importance of the ecclesiastical site, conveying messages of spiritual and temporal power. There is also an argument, though currently thought of as a little less likely, that they were watch towers and were part of defence systems. They may have been built partly as a response to Viking and other attacks. The monks would have been able to climb in, store their treasures, burn the stairs to the door, keep the raiders out and possibly ring bells from the top of the tower to call for assistance. Essentially no one is absolutely certain as to their purpose. It is also plausible that there were multiple purposes, combinations of the possibilities listed above.

Kells Abbey also boasts three partly complete high crosses. There are between 60 and 70 high crosses remaining in Ireland (in varying states of repair), they are usually richly decorated often with biblical scenes and probably served as sermons in stone, telling the stories of the bible to the mostly illiterate population.

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The 9th century south cross depicts: the crucifixion, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the sacrifice of Isaac, Daniel in the lions den, the fall of man, the death of Able, Saints Paul and Anthony and the Evangelists.

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The 10th century west cross depicts: the entry into Jerusalem, the presentation in the temples, the miracle at Canna, the baptism of  Christ, Noah’s Arc and the fall of Able. There would have been more on the arms of the cross.

IMG_4253IMG_4254The 12th century east cross shows the crucifixion

There is also a north cross, of which only the stub remains and I don’t have a photo. In the town of Kells itself is the market cross, which unfortunately I didn’t see on my visit, so I don’t have a photo of it either.

The high crosses in the church yard were constructed in a time of great prosperity for the abbey and the town. By the tenth century it was the most important Columban abbey in Ireland. The downside was that as it was wealthy Kells became one of the most attacked towns in Ireland. In 951 a Viking raid was said to have carried off 3000 people and goods. By the 12th century Kells had been burned twenty one times and plundered seven times. These were not all Viking raids, several Irish kingdoms were also responsible. It was also not all raids. In 1152 the Synod of Kells was held and many laws were codified. It was in this period that the other treasure of Kells (apart from the Book of Kells) was probably made. the Crozier of Kells dates to the 9th 11th and 12th centuries and is housed in the British Museum.

By the time the Normans arrived in 1172 Kells (along with the rest of Meath) passed into the hands of Hugh de Lacey one of  Henry II’s barons and one of the key Normans in Ireland. A castle was constructed in Kells in around 1176, though pretty much nothing remains today. The town’s walls were constructed by de Lacey in the early 1170s. The Normans also founded the abbey of St Mary and the priory of St John again pretty much nothing remains of the buildings.

Over the following centuries Kells suffered and profited with the fortunes of both England and Ireland. It was burned a number of times and rebuilt, it was caught in raids and rebuilt. Today it is a small Irish town steeped in history and its greatest legacy and claim to fame is the Book of Kells.

I’ll be using two of my favourite books to discuss the Book of Kells.

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher De Hamel

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It is a fascinating dialogue with some of history’s most interesting illuminated manuscripts. De Hamel not only tells the stories of the manuscripts, he traces his own journey in accessing the manuscripts. It is a truly remarkable read.

The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan

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This book is an in depth examination of the Book of Kells and contains truly incredible facsimiles of much of the Book of Kells. The photos you’ll see below are my pictures of images in Meehan’s book, I apologise for the glare in a handful of them.

So, as I explained earlier the first definite mention of the Book of Kells was when it was stolen in 1007. The Annals of Ulster describes it thus:

“The Great Gospel of Colum Cille was sacrilegiously stolen in the night from the Western Sacristy of the church of Cennas. It was the most precious object of the Western Would, on account of its covers with human forms. The Gospel was recovered after two months and twenty nights, its gold [probably a shrine it was housed in] having been taken off it and with a sod over it.”

The Book of Kells remains a ‘treasure of the Western World.’ It is a national monument of Ireland, it’s included on the Memory of World list put together by UNESCO, it’s been on Irish coins, Irish stamps and its designs and scripts are synonymous with Ireland. Today it is housed in Trinity College library in Dublin and attracts 520 000 people to view it each year, of which I was one in 2012. You can see the viewing queue below

IMG_6389The Book of Kells was absolutely worth the wait, it is truly remarkable.

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But how did it come to end up in Dublin at Trinity College?

The Book remained in Kells until 1641 when Irish rebellion against Protestant settlers caused serious harm to Kells. The church would remain ruined for another forty years. It was decided the Book wasn’t safe there anymore so it was removed in Dublin probably in 1653 by the Governor of Kells Charles Lambert, 1st Earl of Cavan. Henry Jones the Bishop of Meath presented it along with the Book of Durrow to Trinity College. The Book entered popular consciousness in the early 19th century and at this time it was assumed that it dated to the 6th century and had been created by Columba. Queen Victoria was shown it as the book of Columba. In 1874 it was described as the oldest book in the world, which is definitely not true. The Queen’s visit and the Exhibition in Ireland generated even more interest and the Book became cemented in the consciousness of Ireland.

The Book of Kells is a manuscript of the four Gospels:

Matthew

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The opening page of this gospel is portrait of Matthew

Mark

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The opening page of this gospel is the four symbols of the Evangelists.

Luke

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The opening of this Gopspel is the word QOU N IAM

John

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The opening of this Gospel is a portrait of John.

The evangelists aren’t the only portraits in the Book of Kells. Other key biblical figures feature as well. Such as:

Jesus

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and Mary

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Along with others. It is reasonable to assume that originally portraits of Mark and Luke were probably also intended. They may have been lost over the years. The Book of Kells has been rebound at least five times. One of the most disastrous was the rebinding in 1826 by George Mullen. He trimmed the pages so he could gild them (losing decoration in the process), he painted some of the margins with purple wash and filled in all the natural holes in the vellum with new vellum.

The current binding was undertaken in 1953 by Roger Powel, many of Mullen’s additions were removed and Book of Kells was split into four volumes, one for each Gospel. The Book of Kells has had a hard life and it is remarkable that any of it has survived.

It is a symbol of a time of learning and culture. The detail is extraordinary as is the depth of colour, even in the pages that are predominately writing.

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The work is very Celtic, very much of its time. We have no hope of understanding what all the symbols and imagery would have meant to the people of the time. We can, though, appreciate it for its beauty and have the enjoyment of trying to understand the people who could have made something this exquisite.

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The Book of Kells will always be inextricably be linked with the town of Kells, as it should be. But as I hope I’ve shown, the Book is not the only worthwhile part of the history of Kells. This small Irish town has been at the heart of Irish history for centuries, it is well worthwhile being celebrated in its own right.

References:

Iona Past and Present with Maps by Ritchie 1934

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher De Hamel 2016

ISBN: 9780241003046

The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan 2012

ISBN: 9780500238943

The Antiquities of Ireland Volumes I and II facsimile copy 1982

ISBN: 0946198020

The Story of Kells by  Leo Judge

ISBN: 18724901070

http://www.heritagetowns.com/kells.shtml

The photos are all mine apart from the photo of the plaque and one photo of the church which are by Penny Woodward (used with permission)

 

 

Hanging Rock

Directly ahead, the grey volcanic mass rose up slabbed and pinnacled like a fortress from the empty yellow plain. The three girls on the box seat could see the vertical lines of the rocky walls, now and then gashed with an indigo shade, patches of grey green dogwood, outcrops of boulders even at this distance immense and formidable. At the summit, apparently bare of living vegetation, a jagged line of rock cut across the serene blue of the sky.

Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay pg 14.

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The story and the history of Hanging Rock will always be inextricably linked both with Joan Lindsay’s 1967 book Picnic at Hanging Rock and with Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation.

Hanging Rock is an extinct volcano just out of Woodend Victoria that last erupted about seven million years ago. It stands 711 metres above sea level and rises 100 metres above its surrounding plain. It is largely composed of volcanic mamelon. In this particular type of mamelon there was a very high soda content so when it got rained on it was eaten away into the distinctive shapes you see today.

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I have been there twice and until very recently, in fact so I could write this post, I had neither seen the film nor read the book. Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the film, the story of Picnic at Hanging Rock has seeped into Australian culture. The first time I went to Hanging Rock was nearly 11 years ago with my school. We were on a creative retreat and we had a day out to explore the rock. Naturally being a bunch of 17 and 18 year olds we spent most of the time climbing over as much of the rock as we could and running around shouting “Miranda, Miranda” thinking we were very clever.  If you haven’t read the book or seen the film, or aren’t Australian, the reference will become clear a little later.

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I went back a couple of weeks ago because I wanted to have another look. It is a place of great beauty and great history. I’ve never found it as haunting or mysterious as many do, but it is easy to become disoriented and lost up amongst the rocks which all look eerily similar once you lose your sense of direction.

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Ironically enough, on this visit I actually ended up leading two groups of people back down the rock because they couldn’t find the path. I can’t claim especial prescience, I just happened to have been watching where I had come from because I knew it could be tricky, but it still felt kind of appropriate.

The sense of mystery that hangs around  is largely because of the book and the movie. The story of the rock itself will always be linked with them, so I’m going to start there.

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay is at its most basic level a gothic novella, the story of a group of school girls who go on a picnic at Hanging Rock on Valentine’s Day in 1900 and three of them and one teacher don’t come back. It is however more than that. It is the story of the Australian landscape and the attempt to superimpose an European ideal onto it. It is a haunting mystery, it’s a story of friendship and obsession and it is one of the most evocative books I’ve ever read. I know it might sound odd to say that a book which is considered a classic is really very good, but too often for me I find that I read ‘classics’ and appreciate them for their craft but can’t come to lose myself in them. This was the complete opposite with Picnic at Hanging Rock. It helped that by accident I was reading a 1967 original edition. It not only has the most fabulous late 60s cover.

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But also the start of each chapter has a beautifully decorated letter, and each one is different.

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It is an involving, extraordinarily visually descriptive and haunting story that hangs around long after you’ve finished reading. And for the Miranda reference? Miranda is one of the missing school girls, the most perfect, the idolised one. There are a number of scenes in both the book and film where searchers are clambering over the rocks shouting “Miranda Miranda”.

This history of the book itself is an interesting one. Joan Lindsay wrote it over two weeks at her house in Mulberry Hill in Baxter Victoria and some of it came to her in a dream. There are large portions of the book that are based on Joan’s life, she went to a school quite similar to the one depicted in the novel and she also spent a lot of time around and at Hanging Rock in the early 1900s. She and her family were in fact staying in the area in 1900, when the book is set. Joan recreated the long hot late Victorian early Edwardian summers in Picnic at Hanging Rock.  She also refused for all her life to say whether the book was based on a true story or not. In fact she recorded in the forward :

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact of fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important. 

This blurring between fiction and reality is one of the most enduring aspects of the story and the lack of conclusion to the mystery, you never find out what happened to the girls, keeps drawing you back in. It has definitely defined the mystique of Hanging Rock itself. However there was a final chapter to the book, which Joan requested to be published posthumously, in which the girls disappearance is a supernatural event. Personally I prefer the conclusion of the original novel where nothing is really known and the reality is very blurred.

Joan Lindsay died on the 23rd of December 1984, but her work continues to live on and has settled as a mantle over the very stone of Hanging Rock.

Peter Weir’s film is a core part of the construction of the legend. While the book was known and appreciated before the film, it was the film which pushed it into a mainstay of Australian cultural history.

You can see the trailer below.

Weir’s film made the name of several well known Australian actors and in its depiction of the Australian bush and its eerie setting and soundtrack was ground breaking for the time. The most memorable part of the soundtrack was probably the pan pines. The dreamlike atmosphere of the film was created by placing bridal veils over the lens of the camera. The cast of school girls was largely amateur, which is one of the reasons there is so little dialogue. It was shot in six weeks, partly on site at Hanging Rock, but most of the scenes that were not actually on the rock were shot in South Australia. Joan Lindsay was involved in the filming and her house in Mulberry Hill in Baxter and her background as a painter was a strong influence on the film’s remarkable aesthetic. Once the film was released the story of Picnic at Hanging Rock became cemented in Australian culture (with Joan Lindsay besieged with letters and visitors and the media wanting to know what was true) and the narrative of Hanging Rock itself.

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The history of the rock itself is in many ways as interesting as the story of the novel and the film.

Hanging Rock has been an important site to the local Indigenous Australians for thousands of years. The Edibolidgitoorong, a sub-clan of the Wurundjeri, used it as a vantage point, for monitoring the weather, maintaining security of the area and probably for mediations and possibly initiations. The Wurundjeri people still have strong ties to the area and the rock. When settlers began to arrive in the area diseases like smallpox and the deliberate clearing of land for grazing and mining impacted the Wurundjeri very seriously. In 1863 everyone who was left in the area were rounded up and sent to the Coranderrk Aboriginal Mission, mainly as a result of conflict with local colonists. As with all of Australia, the land was very much inhabited before the arrival of the European settlers and colonists and as with much of Australia the indigenous people suffered greatly due to their arrival.

When the settlers did arrive the name “Hanging Rock” was not used originally. Hanging Rock is technically a nickname that begun to be used in roughly the 1850s and it comes from one rock that ‘hangs’ over the path to ascend to the top.

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It is officially called Mount Diogenes in line with the ancient greek theme of the surrounding area such as Mount Macedon, and Alexander’s Crown (which later came to be known as Camel’s Hump). These other names were largely bestowed by surveyor Major Thomas Mitchell, who is responsible for naming large portions of Victoria. I have written about him and his influence on Victoria’s Western District before and you can find the post here. 

The name Mount Diogenes first appears, however, on Robert Hoddle’s map of 1844. Hoddle is best known for laying out Melbourne’s grid and it is quite possible that he chose Diogenes to fit in with Major Mitchell’s slightly earlier naming scheme. Some people argue that Mitchell in fact named the rock, though it was out of his way on his journey south. Hanging Rock had one other name as well, Dryden’s Rock after Edward Dryden who leased the run that the rock sat on in 1837, he was one of the area’s first settlers. Whatever the past naming issues Hanging Rock had, “Hanging Rock” had become the common usage name by the mid to late 1800s.

There has been a settlement near the rock since the second half of the 19th century, at least partly fuelled by the railway coming to Woodend in 1861. The first settlers were pastoralists and squatters who leased and then later bought the land. No one ever lived actually on the rock but there were settlements surrounding it, boasting a hotel, church, recreations reserve and racetrack.

The racetrack has been in operation since 1880, when the inaugural Hanging Rock Cup took place. You can see it today in the photos below.

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Racing wasn’t the only social draw of the rock. Deciding to have a picnic on the rock was  a common occurrence. There was a picnic ground beneath the rock and picnicking on the rock itself in the 1800s was a common social activity for the time. In Picnic At Hanging Rock Miranda mentions a painting of “people in old fashioned dresses having a picnic at the rock”. The picture she is referring to is At The Hanging Rock by William Ford and it was painted in 1875. You can see it below

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From the National Gallery of Victoria:

https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/5568/

The is also plenty of evidence of people climbing the rock in the 1800s, including the graffiti you can see in the photo below.

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Despite its celebrity status through books and film today Hanging Rock remains surprisingly unspoilt. It still sits in its patch of pristine bush.IMG_0691And it continues to hold a fascination that goes beyond the book and the film. It is a truly majestic place.

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And has some of the most amazing views of the surrounding area.

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The walk to the top is absolutely worth it.

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References:

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay 1967

Beyond the Rock: The life of Joan Lindsay and the mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock by Janelle McCulloch

The Hanging Rock by Marion Hutton

Site visits 2007 and 2018

The photos are all mine.

 

From Page to Place

This post should really be called: Places I’ve been to because I’ve read about them in historical novels. I decided, however, that it was too long a title.

I’m stepping a little outside my usual milieu for this post, but in my summary for the blog it does say “lots of books” and I’ve been a bit neglectful on the book front. Basically I’m going to take you through some of my favourite historical books and then elucidate some of the history of the places they inspired me to visit. So this will be part historical travelogue and part book review.

It won’t cover every place I’ve been inspired to see by books, but it will cover a good selection.

There also will be mild spoilers about the plots of the books, mainly because they’re historical novels and it’s a bit difficult to discuss the history they’re written about with out giving away some of the events they cover.

I’ve sorted them into medieval mysteries and historical novels and they’re listed in chronological order for the time they’re set.

Mysteries

Books: Sister Fidelma Series by Peter Tremayne 

At the time of writing this post the Sister Fidelma mysteries number 28 and Tremayne has been writing them since 1994. The mystery series is set, mainly, in mid seventh century Ireland. I say mainly because Fidelma does travel abroad occasionally. Fidelma  is a dalaigh, an advocate in the Irish system of laws that would come to be known as the Brehon laws. At the beginning of the series she is also a member or the religious community of Kildare. Fidelma is the daughter of Failbe Fland the king of Cashel, who died shortly after her birth. Her brother later becomes king of Cashel.  As well as being intriguing mysteries in their own right the Sister Fidelma series are also a fascinating window into the complex and layered legal system of Ireland in the 7th century and Celtic christianity. Celtic christianity is quite different to the Roman form which would become ascendant with time. For more information on the books and Sister Fidelma’s time, follow this link

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Place: Cashel, Ireland.

Fidelma is from Cashel and a number of the books are set in or around there, so naturally I looked it up. As soon as I did there was no doubt in my mind that I had to go there. It is one of the most incredible places I’ve been and is a favoured tourist destination in Ireland, so try to get there before all the buses roll up. The highlight for me is the 12th century Cormac’s Chapel with some truly spectacular surviving  wall paintings and a very early 12th century round tower both of which you can seen in the photos below.

I’ve written about the history of the Rock of Cashel before, so you can find more information here. 

Rock of Cashel

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Books: Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters

These books were the progenitor of the medieval mysteries genre. They were also one of my earliest forays into medieval fiction, when my mother gave them to me to read when I was about 11. For those who haven’t come across them, the Brother Cadfael books follow former crusader turned monk and herbalist Brother Cadfael predominantly in Shrewsbury Abbey. The books are set in the Period of Anarchy in England (1135-1153). In creating Brother Cadfael, Peters not only illuminates Wales and the Marches of the time, but has created one of the most human and complex characters to ever lead a medieval mystery series, as well as starting the genre. The 20 books were published between 1977 and 1994 and there is also a TV series starring Derek Jacobi. So enduring is the appeal of Brother Cadfael that Shrewsbury Abbey has part of a stain glass window dedicated to him (you can see it in the photos below). For more information on the books click here.

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Place: Shrewsbury Abbey

Shrewsbury was one of the definites on my list of places to go in the Welsh Marches. There actually isn’t that much left of the Abbey itself, which was once an entire complex, but the church remains reasonably intact. The Abbey of St Peter and St Paul was founded by Earl Roger de Montgomery in 1083. It was a Benedictine monastery. It survived as a complete abbey until, like many other religious institutions, the dissolution of the monasteries. By the time the dissolution of the monasteries act was passed in 1536 the abbey was 34th out of 602 monasteries in terms of wealth. Abbot Thomas Boteler was given a pension and so were some of his monks when the abbey was dissolved in 1540. The majority of the buildings were demolished and sold off, some of the church survived though. The nave was left standing while the rest was demolished and a new east wall was built. This is the church you see remaining today. In the photos below you can see the interior and exterior of the remaining abbey and you can see where the new wall was built after the remainder of the abbey was demolished.

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Books: Owen Archer mysteries by Candace Robb

The Owen Archer series is set in mid 14th century York, in the dying years of the reign of Edward III. It follows Owen Archer a one eyed Welshman who was in the army of the Duke of Lancaster until he was blinded and no longer able to fight. He is seconded to John Thoresby, the Archbishop of York, Chancellor of England and a worldly and devious man. Thoresby sends him to York to investigate suspicious deaths and so begins the 10 book, so far, series. Owen meets and eventually marries apothecary Lucie Wilton and deals with all manner of crimes and mysteries for the Archbishop. The books paint a beautifully detailed picture of 14th century York as well as creating a truly memorable collection of characters both historic and fictional. For more information see the author’s site. 

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Place: York Minster

The Owen Archer books were not the only reason I went to York, but they were a large contributing factor. I do not have the time in this post to write about the history of the whole of York however, so I’m going to focus on the Minster which features heavily in the books. The original Minster dates to 627, when it was built for the baptism of Edwin King of Northumbria, the site of this building is unknown. The majority of the Minster that you can see now dates to the 13th century and later. The nave was constructed between 1280 and 1350, the north and south transept between 1220 and 1260 and the east end and central tower between 1361 and 1472. It is still very much an active church and remains one of the great cathedrals of England. The photos you can see below are the exterior, the altar and part of the nave, the magnificent quire screen with reliefs of the Kings of England on it and the roof of the Chapter House vestibule which dates to the 1270s and 1280s. IMG_0702IMG_0708IMG_0712IMG_0723

Books: The Burren Mysteries by Cora Harrison

The Burren Mysteries are set in 16th century Ireland in the region called the Burren just out of Galway. They follow Mara, Brehon (judge) of the Burren as she runs her law school and deals with investigating crimes in the region. They illuminate the intricate Brehon laws of Ireland, like the Sister Fidelma books, and bring life to one of the most spectacular areas of Ireland. Mara is a sympathetic, but strong character and her world feels very real. There are fifteen books in the series, at the time of writing this post, and the mysteries themselves are very much key to each of the novels. They are usually complex and fit well with the rule of law of the time. The true stars of the series for me though, will always be the Burren itself and the fascinating, ancient and egalitarian legal system of the Brehon laws. For more on the series see the author’s site

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Place: The Burren, Ireland

This series was the entire reason I was intrigued enough to go to the Burren when I was in Ireland. It is one of the most beautiful and fascinating places I have ever been. The ground is largely carboniferous limestone, the top soil was stripped off by glaciers, and wild flowers grow in profusion through the cracks, called grykes. There is also a number of monasteries, ancient monuments, churches and round towers making it close to my favourite place in Ireland. It is truly beautiful. I have written about it before, specifically about Temple Cronan, so you can read more here

You can get an idea of the area from the photos below.

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Historical Fiction:

Book: The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Greatest Knight follows the early years of William Marshal. From his early knighthood in 1167 until 1194 with the return of Richard I from Crusade and the birth of Marshal’s daughter Mahelt. Marshal was involved in the majority of the important events for the English crown in the this period and lived a complex and fascinating life, remaining a man of loyalty and integrity.  The book covers Marshal’s life admirably and it was the novel that introduced me to Marshal in the first place. I went on to read every biography I could find on him, and to write my honours thesis on the man, but this book will remain important to me because it was where I first met him. For more information on the Greatest Knight and its sequels see the author’s site.

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Place: Marshal Sites.

The Greatest Knight introduced me to Marshal and led me to travelling to a great number of Marshal related sites. I am not going to go into detail about the life of William Marshal here. If you want more detail you can read my short piece about him here.

I have also written about his wife Isabel de Clare, from whom he gained lands, money and status here. 

For this post I am creating a visual diary of key Marshal sites, some of which I have already written about.

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Tintern Abbey in Wales, of which Marshal was a patron

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Chepstow Castle in Wales. Marshal was responsible for large portions of it and probably the doors in the photo above. For more information on the history of Chepstow Castle see this previous post here

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Pembroke Castle in Wales. Marshal was responsible for parts of it including the massive round tower you can see in the photos above. For more information on the history of Pembroke see this previous post

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Ferns Castle in Ireland. Marshal built most of it originally. For more information on the history of Ferns Castle see this previous post.

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Kilkenny Castle in Ireland. Built partly by Marshal. He was largely responsible for the early form of the round towers. There isn’t much of the medieval castle still visible.

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The Barrow River in New Ross in Ireland, St Mary’s Abbey in New Ross and one of the sections of the New Ross Tapestry.

Marshal founded the town of New Ross essentially so he could have a non royal controlled port in his lands in Ireland. He and Isabel de Clare were instrumental in the construction of St Mary’s Abbey. The panel of the New Ross tapestry depicts the storm which Marshal barely survived when crossing the Irish Sea in 1201. He swore to God that if he survived he would found an abbey. He did and it can be seen in the photo below. For more on Marshal, Isabel and Ireland see this previous post.

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Tintern Parva in Ireland.

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Hook Head Light house in Ireland, which was built on Marshal’s orders in the early 1200s as a landmark and to guide ships up to Marshal’s newly built port at New Ross. For more on the lighthouse see this previous post.

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Lincoln Castle. While Marshal had nothing to do with the construction of Lincoln Castle it was the site of the one of the most decisive battles in English history, which had Marshal at its head. In 1217 the young Henry III’s forces, led by his Regent Marshal who was in his early 70s, met with the forces of Prince Louis of France who was trying to take England. The battle was a rout and Marshal’s forces were victorious. It was the beginning of the end of Louis’ attempt to gain the English crown. There were so few casualties it was known as the Faire of Lincoln. For more on the battle and the history of Lincoln Castle in general see this previous post. 

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The Temple Church and Marshal’s effigy there.

The Temple Church in London is one of the few surviving actually medieval churches in London. It was built by the Knights Templar and it is deliberately round to mimic the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Marshal joined the order of the Templars just before his death and was interred in the Church. The effigy was damaged severely during the Blitz but thankfully enough survived and it was restored.

Marshal died well for the medieval period,  managing his death and ensuring all the right steps were taken. For more information on Marshal’s death see this previous post.

Books: The Welsh Princes trilogy (especially Here Be Dragons) by Sharon Penman

Sharon Penman is probably my favourite medieval author. Here Be Dragons, the first of her Welsh Princes trilogy, was the first book of hers I read. The Welsh Princes Trilogy were also the books that got me interested in Wales. They follow the final years of Wales as an independent kingdom or kingdoms depending on how you look at. They focus on North Wales and the princes in Gwynedd.

Here Be Dragons  follows the life of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, known as Llywelyn Fawr (meaning Llywelyn the Great). He was a Welsh Prince from North Wales who united most, but not all, of Wales and held off the English.  You can find out more about Llywelyn in this previous post and about his wife Joan who was King John’s illegitimate daughter, in this previous post. 

The second book Falls the Shadow follows the end of Llywelyn and Joan’s lives and the life of their son Dafydd and Llywelyn’s grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. A large part of the narrative is also dedicated to the life and love of Simon de Montfort and his wife Eleanor of England (the sister of Henry III and daughter of King John). I’ve never written anything about the de Montforts, though I probably will at some point,  so I can’t provide an old post for more information. De Montfort has been credited with being the founder of the concept of the parliament and he led the barons revolt against Henry III. It is much more complicated than that of course, and he and Eleanor are both worth much more time than I can dedicate here. So to learn more about them at here’s a link to the Britannica article.

The final book in the trilogy is the Reckoning. I’ve only ever managed to read it twice because it depicts the fall of Wales to the English as well as the life of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd as he tries to fulfil his grandfather’s dreams of a united Wales. Like de Montfort I’ve never written about Llewelyn before, but you can find more about him here.

Penman brings the period alive and creates characters that are not only enduring, but who you really care about. The series is also helped by covering one of the most fascinating and sometimes unbelievable part of English and Welsh history. It was a time populated with many extraordinary people, but also a time of immense tragedy as a country fell. You can find out more about Sharon and her other books here.

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Place: Wales in general but several specific sites

While this trilogy inspired me to become interested in the history of Wales in general and certainly inspired me to go there, it would be a whole other post to discuss history of all of Wales. So I’m going to keep it simple and focus instead on a couple of places in Wales I would never have gone without reading these particular books.

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Llewelyn’s tomb in Llanrwst parish church

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Joan’s tomb in Beaumaris

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Conwy Castle. I visited this castle because it is an amazing example of late 13th century medieval architecture, for more on the castle see this previous post, and because it is on the site of the abbey where Llewelyn was originally buried. The town is also where a statue of Llewelyn stands, though it much smaller than it looks and smaller than it should be. You can see it below.

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I wanted to add in two natural rather than historical sites as well.

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Mount Snowdon. The photo is the view from the top. Penman describes the mountains in Northern Wales so evocatively that I had to see them. I was lucky enough to get spectacular weather when I took the train up Mount Snowdon.

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Aber Falls, known as Raeadr Fawr in Welsh. These falls feature in a particularly intense scene in Here Be Dragons. They are very close to Abergwyngregyn, a small Welsh town that was once one of the homes of the Welsh Princes. There is nothing left of the residence, but the waterfall is spectacular.

Book: Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

While this is a contemporary mystery it is the first book that introduced me both to the concept of history being written by the victors and the many arguments surrounding Richard III, so it is worthy of inclusion. If you haven’t read Daughter of Time do, everyone should if only so you can learn that history is not immutable fact.

Tey takes the unusual step of having her usual detective Alan Grant stuck in hospital with a broken leg. In his boredom, he begins to investigate the history of Richard III with the help of a young American student to do the leg work. The book looks at how the popular narrative of Richard III as a nephew killing villain has been constructed and Grant investigates until he finds what he sees to be the truth behind Richard III. I am not going to get into the Richard III debate here (though for the record I fall on the side of he probably didn’t kill his nephews but we can never really know) but regardless of where you fall in the debate, Daughter of Time is fascinating. It not only imparts a the history of Richard III and his period, but it deconstructs how history is constructed. In managing the latter in a readable, relatable and engaging way it is one of the most important books written.

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Place: Richard III’s grave and tomb

I was quite young when I read Daughter of Time, 12 or so I think, so while I was aware of Richard III and knew a little about him it was Daughter of Time which introduced me to arguments regarding the truth of his story and cemented my interest in the king. So while Sharon Penman’s Sunne in Splendour (a retelling of Richard’s life) also deserves credit, I’ve decided to list Daughter of Time as the main reason I went to Richard III’s grave and tomb in 2015.

I travelled especially to Leicester. I know both Richard’s burial in Leicester and the monument to him in the cathedral have their dissenters (there’s lots of articles about this, google it if you’re interested). I, however, found both the monument and Richard’s actual grave surprisingly moving. When I was there in 2015 the cathedral still had some work to do in providing information both about the cathedral and Richard III (though I’ve heard from other people they have improved substantially). The Richard III centre across the road was fascinating and a well realised tribute. You can see both Richard’s tomb in the cathedral and his grave in the photos below.

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Book: Henry VIII’s Shoes by Karen Wallace

This might seem to be an odd book to finish on. It’s a children’s book to start with and it’s actually set in the present day although Henry VIII does still feature. This however, for me, was the book that began my interest in history. It’s the story of a group of English kids who go to Hampton Court for a school trip, and find some shoes in the maze. They turn out to be Henry VIII’s shoes and then Henry himself shows up.. chaos ensues.

I was reading this as an eight year old when my grade 3 teacher (Mr Spaull) assigned a project where we could pick any historical figure we wanted. At my Mum’s suggestion, because of this book, I chose Henry VIII and the rest is literally history. I started with the Tudors and then moved back to the Plantagenets, read a lot of historical fiction and a bit of non fiction, studied history as much as I could at school, studied history at uni, did my honours degree in medieval history and ultimately ended up working in a history library (Australian history, but still) all because I was reading this book at the right time. So books and teachers can change lives, even in slightly unexpected ways.

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Place: Hampton Court

I’ve credited this book as the genesis of my interest in history, which is true, but in the spirit of this post it is also the primary reason I went to Hampton Court.

Hampton Court is probably best known for its association with Henry VIII. It was built by Cardinal Wolsey, but Henry took it from him in 1529. He expanded it greatly and was determined to make it a pleasure palace.

It wasn’t just Henry’s palace though. It was used by succeeding monarchs as well, including his three children. It was there, during the Hampton Court Conference, that James I commissioned the King James Bible. James’ son Charles brought an art collection, one which Oliver Cromwell admired  when he took over as Lord Protector of England. Charles II installed his mistresses there and William III and Mary II commissioned Christopher Wren to extensively remodel the buildings. Wren originally wanted to demolish the whole thing and start again but they didn’t have the money, so he settled for rebuilding the king and queen’s apartments. Hampton Court is now run by Historic Palaces. You can see photos of Hampton Court below.

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The photo above seemed to be a good way to finish. It’s taken in 2012 when I made it to the centre of Hampton Court maze, in a funny way I’d made it back to where I started my journey into history.

References:

Sister Fidelma and Cashel: 

Site visits 2012 and 2015.

Sister Fidelma’s time: http://www.sisterfidelma.com/fidelma.html

Brother Cadfael and Shrewsbury

Site visit 2012

Shrewsbury Abbey: http://www.shrewsburyabbey.com/A%20Rare%20Benedictine.html

Owen Archer and York Minster:

Site visit 2012

Candace Robb: http://www.emmacampion.com/books

York Minster guides.

The Burren Mysteries and The Burren

Site visits 2012 and 2015

Cora Harrison: http://www.coraharrison.com/burren.html

The Greatest Knight and William Marshal

Site visits 2012 and 2015

Elizabeth Chadwick: http://elizabethchadwick.com/knight/

The Welsh Princes and Sharon Penman

Site visits 2012 and 2015

Sharon Penman: http://www.sharonkaypenman.com/

Daughter of Time and Richard III

Site visit 2015

Henry VIII’s Shoes and Hampton Court

Site visit 2012

Hampton Court history: https://www.hrp.org.uk/media/1205/hcphistory_v1.pdf

The photos are all mine.

Mechanics’ Institutes

Mechanics’ Institutes are something that most people will be vaguely familiar with. They’ll have some idea of halls in country towns, possibly something to do with cars? But the concept of Mechanics’ Institutes is much more than this. This post is not intended to be an exhaustive history of Mechanics’ Institutes, but rather an introduction to the concept and the ideals, a little of their origin and a brief run through some examples of Mechanics’ Institutes that still exist today in Victoria, Australia.

To begin with, the term mechanics in this case has nothing to do with cars. In the sense that it was used in the early 1800s it simply meant ‘worker’. Sort of the equivalent of blue collar workers today.  The basic concept of a Mechanics’ Institute is usually a member owned and run group, set up by the community that provides self educational opportunities.  These opportunities were normally through lectures, entertainments and often through the provision of a lending library. These were institutions that were run for members, providing free, or largely free, educational opportunities at a time when formal education was for the wealthy and the clergy. The lectures were usually run in the evenings to allow workers to attend. These were not government run institutions, they were started by local communities and had no centralised control, which makes their prevalence and ongoing existence even more remarkable.

The first Mechanics’ Institute was begun in Glasgow in c.1800 with Dr George Birkbeck of the Andersonian Institute in Scotland when he gave a series of lectures to local workers. The lectures proved to be very popular and the Edinburgh School of Arts was formed in 1821 and the London Mechanics’ Institute in 1823.

The movement spread quickly to Britain’s colonies and they were extremely prevalent in Australia, which is where I’m going to be focusing. The first Mechanics’ Institute in Australia formed in Hobart 1827, but it wasn’t long before they reached Victoria. It is worth pausing here to note that these institutions weren’t always known as Mechanics’ Institutes. They usually were in Victoria, but in New South Wales School of Arts is the more common name. They have many other names though, from Athenaeum through to Temperance hall, through to Agricultural Institute. They all held to the same principle of the provision of opportunities for self education.

The first Mechanics’ Institute in Victoria Australia was the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institute, which was founded in 1839 and is now known as the Melbourne Athenaeum (the name was changed in 1872). Ultimately there were over 1000 Mechanics’ Institutes in Victoria at their peak, which is truly remarkable given that there was not a centralised organisation setting them up, though many did receive government funding. Most of these were in country towns and most held: a hall, a library, reading rooms, facilities for games and programs for educational activities. More than 500 remain physically, with the halls used by the local community. There are only a handful though that continue to operate as Mechanics’ Institutes. 12 are still operating from their original buildings, 10 have their original library collections, and four others  exist on other sites with their collections. Roughly 6 are still operating as a lending library service. There is even one that is still incorporated with its own act of parliament.

With this number of Mechanics’ Institutes there is no way I am going to cover them all, but I have visited quite a few and I thought I’d go through and provide a few photos and a bit of history on each of them. I am using the remarkable book These Walls Speak Volumes for the majority of the history for these sites, so if you want to know more get your hands on a copy. It covers all the Mechanics’ Institutes in Victoria. The below list is alphabetical and is only based on Institutes I have been to and have photos of.

Ballan Mechanics Institute. 

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Ballan Mechanics’ Institute. The institute was established in 1860, though the current building dates to 1887. The ‘new’ building was erected in 1887 because the previous 1860 site was not central enough. In 1894 the Mechanics’ Institute had 1680 books.  The building was fully renovated in 1922. Today the building is used as the local council library as well as being used by many community groups.

Berwick Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library. 

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Berwick Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library was founded in 1862, though the current building dates to the 1980s. Berwick didn’t have a substantial hall the way other Mechanics’ Institutes did, but they still hosted events. After the early 1900s the focus shifted to the library, a function it maintains to this day. In the 1980s Lady Casey provided funding for the construction of the new building which was completed in 1982 and the pre existing 500 year lease was extended. Berwick  holds the private library of Lord and Lady Casey as well as some of their art and an extensive general collection. It operates as a public library.  You can search their collection here. 

Briagolong Mechanics’ Institute Hall.

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Briagolong Mechanics’ Institute Hall was established in 1874 and still stands in its original building.  The hall was the first part built with the reading room and kitchen added in 1879, the third addition, including the stage, was opened in 1887. There were further additions as time went on including a 1999 addition which houses the Briagolong Community House. The library ran from 1874 for 90 years. The fact that a significant part of the original library collection survives intact is because the doors to the library were locked for some time and the books just left in there. You can see some of the remaining collection, which is housed in what was for a time the billiard room, in the photos above.

Bunyip Public Hall

bunyipThe Mechanics’ Institute dates to 1905, but the current building was built in 1942. The hall was used for everything from ANZAC celebrations to rollerskating. The hall burnt down in 1940 but it was rebuilt, as you can see it today, by 1942. The new building is built in greek revival style and is under the ownership of the council. Today it is used for everything from tai chi to playgroups.

Glengarry Mechanics’ Institute

Glengarry1Glengarry2The Institute was established in 1886 and the current building dates to the 1920s. Glengarry began as a library and was much used with hundreds of people visiting the library every year in the 1800s. When the new hall was opened in 1920, it was moved across the road, it was used as a library, a picture theatre, and by many local organisations. The hall had reached a fairly degraded state, on the outside, by 2013 and funding was raised to restore the outside including the hall roof which was in a perilous state. It is still used extensively by the community today.

Longwarry Public Hall

longwarryThe Longwarry Public hall, formerly Longwarry Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library, was established in 1886, and the first building built in 1889, though the current building dates mainly to the 1950s. Longwarry operated as a free library and lecture hall as well as being the home of the local brass band and health centre in the 1800s and early 1900s. The hall burnt down in the 1950s and the hall you see today was constructed, it was opened in 1953 with additions in the 1960s. In 2009 it was significantly upgraded including a new roof. It is still used by many community groups and an old time dance has been running every Monday evening and every fourth Saturday since, roughly, 1900.

Malmsbury Mechanics’ Institute

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Founded in 1862, the current building dates to 1876. This is the original Malmsbury building though. Due to various factors, including lack of funds and council involvement, the building wasn’t completed till 1876 despite the institute being founded years earlier. Malmsbury was still functioning as a Mechanics’ Institute in 1919, including a library, but by World War II the building had largely fallen into disuse and for a while it was used as a bank branch. The Shire now owns the building and it is the home of the historical society, as well as various community events.

Meeniyan  Hall

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Meeniyan Hall, formerly Meeniyan Mechanics’ Institute, was established in 1892, but the current building dates to 1939. The hall was never a library and it was mainly used for visiting entertainers and for music lessons. The building burnt down in 1938, but a new hall was built and opened in 1939. It was used for local dances in 1960s often holding as many as 600 people. It is currently used for a wide variety of community programs, including the inaugural Meeniyan Garlic Festival in 2017. The hall was the home of the Garlic institute and you can see the crowds attracted in the photo above.

Melbourne

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The earliest Mechanics’ Institute in Melbourne. The Melbourne Mechanics’ Institute was founded in 1839 and the current building dates to 1886. The original library, and collection of scientific specimens, was housed in rented accommodation. A permanent hall was built in 1842, but the programs offered including: entertainments, political and business meetings, social gatherings and church services proved to be so popular that it was decided that a bigger building was needed. The funds weren’t found until the 1870s and in 1872 the new facilities were opened, including a 100 foot long hall and significant space for the library upstairs. At the same time it was decided to change the name to the Melbourne Athenaeum. In 1886 the building was significantly remodelled, including the facade, which you can see today. In the early 1900s it was determined that a theatre was needed and the Athenaeum Theatre, built inside the old hall, was completed in 1924. The theatre is still very much in use today by acts from all over the world and is one of Melbourne’s most popular venues. The library is also still in existence and runs as a subscription library. You can search their collection here.

Port Fairy Library and Lecture Hall

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IMG_0463Founded in 1860 and the current building dates to 1865. A library was functioning in Belfast, as it was then known, as early as 1856 but an institute wasn’t officially formed until 1860. In 1864 land was granted by James Atkinson to build a library for Belfast and it has remained in the same position since it was opened in 1865. The Lecture Hall next door was also opened at roughly the same time. The library is now used as the public library, after 120 years of independent operation it joined the Corangamite Shire libraries in 1981. The lecture hall is used by lots of community groups including the local theatre group and the spring festival.

Prahran Mechanics’ Institute. 

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The Prahran Mechanics Institute was founded in 1854 though the building they currently reside in, a converted 1960s fabric factory, was not their home until 2015. The original building was in Chapel Street and is still owned by the institute, though it is rented out as shops.

The PMI started as a lending library and as an institute for education and lectures. Due to a dispute with the the Secretary/Librarian in the mid 1800s (he wouldn’t vacate the building and the roof of the institute was removed to force him to leave) and the neglect of another secretary/librarian in the late 1800s the PMI building was rebuilt onsite in 1900. However there was not enough space, so in 1915 they moved to High Street in Prahran, also starting the Prahran Technical School (this building can be seen in the photo above). In the 1980s a decision was made to move away from being simply a general collection library to being a library which specialised in Victorian history.

This specialisation continues today with the PMI holding a collection of over 30 000 books and being dedicated to preserving the history of Victoria. In 2009 space was desperately need for the rapidly expanding collection. So the PMI sought to end the 99 year peppercorn lease which allowed to Minister for Education to use the buildings that formerly held the Prahran Technical School, which was now being used by Swinburne University. The Minster agreed to relinquish the lease if the PMI sold their High Street building to Swinburne University. They did and moved around the corner to St Edmonds Road into a more modern building with the extensive space that the collection needed (you can see the exterior and interior of the new building in the photos above). The PMI is still functioning under its original rules and incorporation and is the only Mechanics’ Institute in Victoria which has its own Act of Parliament for its incorporation. It is run by a committee with four professional staff running the library. You can check out their catalogue here

Rosedale Mechanics’ Institute Hall

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The Rosedale Mechanics’ Institute was established in 1863 and the current building dates to 1874. Rosedale began operating in 1868 in rented premises and the original form of the current building was built in 1874 after being designed by William Allen. Rosedale was originally called The Mechanics’ Institute and Library and Scientific Association. It contained a surprisingly large hall, a stage, a supper room, several meeting rooms and a library. The stage was removed at some point and an extension with toilets added in roughly the 1950s. The hall was also extended fairly early in the process, you can see the addition in the photo above, and much later a floating ceiling was added. The hall used to house the public library, but it was moved. It is now home to the op shop and is used by community groups.

Stratford Mechanics’ Institute.

stratfordStratford2The Stratford Mechanics’ Institute was founded in 1866 and the current building was constructed in 1888. When it was originally founded Stratford lapsed very quickly and another attempt to form a Mechanics’ Institute was tried in 1874, which didn’t work either. However, by 1882 a committee was formed and the library was set up in the shire hall and books bought. By 1888 they’d built the existing hall. In the 1950s a spectacularly ugly addition was built on the beautiful 1800s facade. It mainly housed toilets. In the early 2000s, through fundraising and government grants, the hall was restored to its former 1800s glory. It is run by an active committee and is the home to many local events, including the parts of the Stratford Shakespeare festival.

Toongabbie Mechanics’ Institute.

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Toongabbie Mechanics’ Institute was established in 1883 and the building you see today was also constructed in 1883. It was a fascinating example of a two story weatherboard construction from this period. The second story was a 1890s rear extension. The hall contains a stage, where many local performances were held, and was home to a library. There are also a number of smaller rooms in the two story extension. It was used as the local Court of Petty Sessions and as a bank. By 1983 the building was in extremely poor condition and it had been suggested that burning it down was the best option. Thankfully the local community rallied and with government funding it was saved. Now it is used for everything from weddings, to school concerts, to old time dances.

Trafalgar Public Hall

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The Trafalgar Public Hall, formerly the Trafalgar Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library, was founded in 1889, though the current building dates to 1935.  The original hall operated as free library and it was rebuilt in 1908 when it became the home of the Naracan Shire. The hall became the focus of the community with traveling shows performing there and it was used as a library and a dance hall. The hall and all its contents were destroyed in a massive fire in 1934 and a new hall was finished by 1935. The new hall contained a bio cabin for the showing of movies. There was also a library, but by 1957 this had become a kiosk, and by 1964 a ladies toilet. The hall was used for everything from badminton to school concerts and is now the home of the local amateur dramatic society as well a number of other community uses including weddings and family reunions.

 

So that’s the end of my collection of Mechanics’ Institute photos and information. As I stated, this is by no means anywhere near all the Mechanics’ Institutes in Victoria and they can be found in other states as well as all over the United Kingdom and in Canada and America. As a concept they are a fascinating example of communities helping themselves and coming together. Even if many of the institutes themselves don’t survive today the halls are still very much at the heart of the community.

References.

Site visits, 2017, 2016 and 2015.

http://www.pmi.net.au/home/timeline/

http://www.pmi.net.au/home/mihistory/

http://home.vicnet.net.au/~mivic/

http://www.melbourneathenaeum.org.au/

http://www.berwickmilibrary.org.au/

These Walls Speak Volumes: A history of Mechanics’ Institutes in Victoria by Pam Baragwanath and Ken James ISBN: 9780992308780 you can borrow it from the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute Victorian History Library here library.pmi.net.au/fullRecord.jsp?recno=23726

 

The photos are all mine.

 

Disclaimer: I work at the PMI Victorian History Library.

The King’s Champion Part 2

I have written a previous post about my quest to discover the medieval origins of the position of King’s Champion. Rather than rehashing it, you can find it here.

So following the work I did for the previous post, I decided I needed more information than my collection of books and what I’d so far managed to find online could provide. So I headed for the State Library of Victoria. It’s one of my favourite places to do research and if you’re not familiar with it you can see the famous domed reading room in the photos below. I always work in here whenever I can because it has an extensive collection and the most amazing atmosphere. IMG_0695

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In the reading I’d been doing for my previous post many of the 1800s sources on the King’s Champion I’d found had been based on the work of William Dugdale. I decided he would be a good person to begin the next stage of my search with. Primarily to see if he had any references in his work that would let me track back further. I discovered he was a writer in the 1600s who wrote extensively about both baronial families and peerage. I also found that the State Library had a copy of his two volume work The Baronage of England or The Historical Account of the Lives and Most Memorable Actions Of Our English Nobility.  The first volume covers from the Saxons, to the Norman Conquest, to those who had their rise before the reign of Henry III. The second volume covers from the end of Henry III’s reign to the reign of Richard II. It was the first volume I was most interested in as it was this that later writers were referencing when discussing the Marmion family’s heritage.

I ordered both the books from the State Library. They are classified as rare books so I had to view them in the heritage reading room. Rare books is a wide ranging definition. A book can be rare due to age, or fragility, or a lack of copies in existence as well as other reasons. I was expecting an 1800s copy of the work as this is what usually happens. So I was delighted to find that what I’d ordered was actually a printing from 1675. This is one of the things I love about libraries like the State Library of Victoria. They have an amazing range of rare, fragile and obscure items but you don’t have to have any special qualification to access them. They are there for the use of all Victorians. All I needed to access these books was my library card. I was very excited as this is now my record for the earliest book I have ever held. It beat one from the mid 1700s I used for researching William Marshal during my honours year. The title page of Dugdale’s book can be seen below.

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The first volume indeed had the peerage of the Marmion family. It begins by saying that William I gave Robert Marmion the castle of Tamworth. The Domesday Book lists Tamworth castle as being in the hands of the king in 1086. William I died in 1087 so it is just about possible that he gave the castle to Robert Marmion. What is most interesting is the entry regarding the Marmion family and Scrivelsby, the manor which is now tied to the role of King’s Champion. It is only mentioned once and this is not until the narrative reaches Phillip Marmion who died in the 20th year of the reign of Edward I. In this case it is just a passing mention. Scrivelsby is listed as of one of the properties Phillip held by right of Barony on his death. You can see the passage on the page below.

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Dugdale does provide references as to where he is getting his sources. Unfortunately he does it in an abbreviated form, but doesn’t explain what the abbreviations mean. I am yet to work out exactly what the reference for Scrivelsby is referring to, but when I work it out I’ll track it down. The other telling thing about this book is the lack of any kind of reference to the Marmions as hereditary Kings Champions. This doesn’t prove that they weren’t of course, but it might mean that it wasn’t well known or considered especially important.

I also examined the second volume of Dugdale’s work, but there were no further mentions of the Marmions or of the Dymoke family, the family who inherited the title of King’s Champion. What Dugdale does give the reader is what seems to a be a reasonably accurate account of the individual Marmions in England in the Norman and early Plantagenet times. So it seems likely that whether or not they were official King’s Champions, or hereditary Champions of Normandy, that the Marmions were in England roughly from the time of William I. There is also a second Dugdale work that apparently does discuss the role of King’s Champion that I am hoping to track down soon.

Having determined that most likely the Marmions were in England in some form from the time of William I, I decided to try a slightly different track. I’d been looking into the household of the king because the King’s Champion is often mentioned in coronations alongside positions such as the Marshal. From work I’d done on William Marshal I knew that the Marshal is definitely an hereditary position and that it was certainly considered a part of the king’s household. So I decided it was worth having a look through one of the best records of a king’s household from the early Plantagenet period. The Constitutio Domus Regis is a contemporary account probably of the household of Henry I. The exact date is still under debate. It has thankfully been translated by S.D Church. The State Library has a copy which also contains the translation, by Emile Amt, of the Dialogus De Scaccario (the Dialogue of the Exchequer) which dates to the 12th century. I have gone carefully through the Constitutio and am unable to find any mention of the King’s Champion. I also can’t find any kind of regular payment to the King’s Champion listed in the Dialogus. Again this doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist in this time, it may just not have been included in these particular documents. It could also mean that if it did exist then it was much less formal an appointment than say the Marshal, and may have not had a day to day role.

Continuing on a slightly different track I decided that exploring the question from the point of view of the coronation itself was a good idea. Other sources I’d been reading referenced two books

1. The Coronation Book of the Hallowing of the Sovereigns of England.  By Jocelyn T. Perkins published 1902

2.  English Coronation Records  Edited by Leopold  G. Wickham Legg published 1901.

The State Library had copies of both. I began with The Coronation Book. While this text doesn’t provide  any revelatory new information it does cover the position of King’s Champion in later years in detail and provide some lovely little vignettes of the Champion’s role in the coronation.  For example John Dymoke entrance as the champion to Richard II. When he appeared at the coronation on his ‘mighty steed’ he was summarily told that he had come in at the wrong time and told to come back later when it was appropriate.

The Coronation Book  provides extensive discussion of many of the ceremonies that various Champions after the reign on Richard II were involved in. It doesn’t however provide any information as to the the role of the Champion before the reign of Richard II. What it does do though is give some lovely illustrations and photos. Some are non contemporary illustrations of the Champions performing their duties and others are of the Champion’s acroutements. They can all be seen below.

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The Manor of Scrivelsby  which is currently tied to the position of Champion.

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Some of the suits of armour worn by the Champions.

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The cups which are the official payment to the Champion for their service at the coronation.

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Sir Charles Dymoke James II’s Champion

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Henry Dymoke the Deputy Champion.

Henry Dymoke participated in George IV’s coronation because the Champion John Dymoke (Henry’s father) was a cleric and therefore apparently unable to undertake the role. The only other time a Deputy Champion was used was at the coronation of Richard II when the hereditary Champion was Margery Dymoke. Her husband John Dymoke undertook the role by right of his wife as she was a woman and as such unable to be to be Champion. [1]

Margery and John Dymoke actually raise a very interesting point which is briefly discussed in The Coronation Book. The coronation of Richard II is the first record we have of the Champion’s role in the coronation. It is also the period in which the Dymoke family took over from the Marmions as the Champions. The Coronation Book mentions that there was a case in the Court of Claims before Richard II’s coronation. John Dymoke argued his right to be Champion through his wife’s descent from Phillip Marmion and his possession of Scrivelsby. [2] When I found this I realised that this court case would be absolutely key because it would have to include an explanation of the rights of the Marmions to the position of King’s Champion. The Coronation Book  doesn’t really provide that much more detail, but thankfully the second book I listed above, English Coronation Records, does.

English Coronation Records in fact has a transcription and translation of the court case. It’s reasonably long and as such I won’t present it in full here. In summary John Dymoke and Baldwin de Freville both presented their cases to be the King’s Champion. Both of them were claiming the position of Kings Champion due to their descent, through marriage, from Phillip Marmion. Phillip was the last of the main line of Marmions and he died in the reign of Edward I. John held Scrivelsby and Baldwin held Tamworth. There were fierce arguments on both sides. In the end it was decided that as John had presented a better case and crucially because “several nobles and magnates appeared in the said Court and gave evidence before the said Lord Steward, that the said Lord King Edward and the said Lord Prince lately dead frequently asserted, while they lived, and said that aforesaid John ought of right to perform the aforesaid service for the said Manor of Scrivelsby.” [3] This last point is absolutely key because this is the point where the role of Champion is tied irrefutably to Scrivelsby itself rather than the specific family.

So through all this I have still failed to find definitive evidence that the Marmions were the hereditary Champions. It does seem, however, that they were certainly believed to be the hereditary Champions in 1367 at the time of Richard II’s coronation. Baldwin and John were both arguing on hereditary descent from the Marmions not specifically on the possession of their respective manors. Additionally no one in the court seemed to find this claim odd and several nobles seemed to feel that Edward III and Edward the Black Prince had discussed it, so it must have been a position that was known and understood.

I am still not quite finished with this. I’m hoping to track down the other Dugdale book in which he apparently discusses the role of the King’s Champion, as well as deciphering his abbreviation style. I am also going to look into the Marmions specifically, as it seems clear that the role was tied to their family not to the property of Scrivelsby until 1367. I am going to see what I can find out about their role in Normandy where they were supposedly hereditary Champions. If I find anything I’ll post an update.

[1]  The Coronation Book of the Hallowing of the Sovereigns of England.  By Jocelyn T. Perkins published 1902 p.151

[2] The Coronation Book of the Hallowing of the Sovereigns of England.  By Jocelyn T. Perkins published 1902 p.134

[3] English Coronation Records  Edited by Leopold  G. Wickham Legg published 1901. pp. 160-161

The photos are all mine.

A Fictional Feast.

As it is christmas today I thought I’d share with you an extract from the book I’m writing set mainly in 1185 in England. Due to length issues this scene is now unlikely to make it into the final draft, but seeing as a I did quite a bit of research into christmas meals I thought it might be nice to share it here. Just to be clear, this is fiction. The characters are fictional. This particular scene is set in Canterbury in 1184 and features my main characters siblings Marcus and Adele de Bernier celebrating christmas, after a long journey, with two family friends: merchant Peter de Vere and his wife Ela. Along with Peter’s noble cousin Gerbert de Clancy, the men he brought with him and other unnamed guests.

Once they had both paid their respects to Becket and prayed to him for success on their journey, Marcus led the way out of the cathedral past the church of St Mary’s of Queningate. As they walked back along the crisp Canterbury streets Adele watched everyone attired in their finery returning to their houses for Christmas feasts. She noticed the greenery that decked some of the houses and the feeling of festive warmth in the air as the wealthy of Canterbury vied to be the best dressed and the most splendid. She spared a thought for Joan and Emma, wondering what they would be doing to celebrate. Adele was glad to reach the de Vere’s house but she was tired and really wanted to just go and rest. She knew she couldn’t disappoint Peter and Ela though, so she painted a smile on her face and followed Marcus to the main hall for the Christmas feast. She sighed in appreciation at the roaring fire and settled down at the same table as their hosts. Adele was delighted to be able to spend more time with Ela and Peter, both of whom she was very genuinely fond of. Unfortunately this also meant that they shared a table with Gerbert de Clancy. Adele was seated next to him and being the only female on the table to whom he was unrelated she was the recipient of his wine sodden confidences and his clumsy attempts at seduction, but she had to pretend to be impressed. The food made up for it a little because Ela had spared no effort. Peter de Vere’s merchant contacts were evident in the quality of the offerings. The wine was Poitivan, brought across the narrow sea by an Aquitanian merchant friend of Peter’s. Adele soon discovered that if she plied Gerbert de Clancy with as much of it as possible he didn’t talk to her so much because he was too busy trying to sit upright.

Marcus watched Adele deal adeptly with Gerbert de Clancy, finished off his goose and turned his attention to a sublime chicken dish in which the chicken glowed golden from being rubbed with saffron. He sighed appreciatively as the chicken melted on his tongue. He looked around in delight at what was to come. This was a meal about wealth and prestige. The centerpiece of which was a boar’s head that was ceremoniously being carried in. It still looked menacing even in death and Marcus just knew that the stew made from the rest of the boar would be tender and delectable, so he licked his lips in anticipation. He watched a little apprehensively as the servers handed Peter the boar’s head on its great dish and Peter presented it ceremoniously to Gerbert de Clancy as the highest ranking guest, but as Marcus had feared he was too drunk to do more than just goggle at it in surprise. Just as Marcus was about to do something the servants stepped in adroitly and moved it carefully and quickly back in front of Peter. Crisis averted, Marcus settled back in his seat, his face warm from the fire and his stomach replete with wonderful food. Everything was all right in his world in that moment.

Finally de Clancy left Adele alone to boast drunkenly to the man on his right and Ela leant over and whispered to her. “There was no way we could have fed all of this lot,” she gestured at de Clancy’s men who were singing bawdy songs and quaffing the wine like it was cheap ale, “if it hadn’t been for de Clancy’s mother. Matilda is Peter’s half-sister and a good woman. When she found out her son was intending to foist himself on us for the Christmas season she made sure she sent one of her own cooks ahead of him along with two more of her own people and a supply of food.” She paused a moment, giving a signal to a server. “The cook she sent is an expert in subtleties.” As the spectacular sweets were carried in she added. “It’s almost worth putting up with de Clancy to have them.”

There was a hush in the hall, even de Clancy’s drunken retainers quieted, as three subtleties were carried in. As Adele admired the beautiful recreations of the nativity made in marchpane she couldn’t help but agree with Ela’s sentiments. Their beauty almost outweighed de Clancy’s oafishness. Then de Clancy knocked his wine over so it seeped onto her skirts and onto the rushes and suddenly she wasn’t so sure. She carefully wrung the ends of her skirts out, pushed away de Clancy’s clumsy attempts at an apology and, thanking God that her gown was the dark red of good wine and wouldn’t show the stain, returned her attention to the subtleties. The first was the Annunciation, with the Arch Angel Gabriel greeting the Virgin Mary with an Ave, the second was the shepherds watching their flock as the angel appeared to them, and the third, and the largest, was in the stable with Jesus watched over by Mary, Joseph, the animals, the shepherds and the wise men. There was applause and then they all settled down to eat. No one touched the subtleties because, although they were edible, they were so spectacular. Everyone turned their attention to the wafers, cakes and frumenty of which there were plenty. As they began to eat the sweets a singer came in with a harp and started a ballad. Adele was just settling in to what she recognised as the beginnings of Gormond and Isembart when it was interrupted by Gerbert de Clancy passing out face first into his bowl of frumenty. The singer waited as the only two reasonably sober men in the hall, Peter and Marcus, carried him out to his chamber. When the song was finished and dancing was about to begin Marcus and Adele pleaded fatigue and finally retired to their chambers.

 

Happy Christmas everyone.

An Illumination

Melbourne University has been running a fascinating exhibition on the history of illuminated manuscripts and it is now in its final weeks. As part of the exhibition the university has also been running lectures and workshops and I was lucky enough to attend one on parchment.

Both this talk and the exhibition itself gave me a fascinating insight into the world of illuminated texts. If you are in Melbourne it is absolutely worth a visit and will be running until the 15th of November.

The books in this particular exhibition are in the codex form. This form began in the the 1st century CE and by the 4th century had mainly replaced the papyrus scroll. Codexes are usually made from parchment, a fascinating material in and of itself. Parchment was made from the skin of animals, usually goats, lambs or calves although there were exceptions.

Parchment replaced papyrus for a number of reasons, one of the main ones was that production of parchment could be decentralised. It could be done anywhere where there were animals, whereas papyrus could only be made in a handful of places, such as Alexandria, where the materials were available. Parchment can also be wiped clean and re-used. Parchment was the mainstay of the codex also because it is really durable. Unless it gets wet parchment will last for centuries. Which is why many illuminated manuscripts survive today, despite the fact that they are hundreds of years old. Which is not something that can be said for even reasonably modern paper.

Codexes were not made up of one animal skin. Multiple animals were used and it is possible for researchers to discover an amazing amount from the skins in an individual codex. Everything from how many animals were used, to what type of animals, the age of the animals, the health of the animals, the tools used to do the work and even the region the codex was made in.

Parchment was made by first treating the skin of the animal with lime to remove blood, dung and organic material and to loosen the fat. The skin was then stretched over a wooden frame, kept under tension and scraped repeatedly with a curved blade as it dried to create a smooth writing surface. Finally it was treated with chalk to remove any excess oils and fats.

There were two more key processes to the creation of an illuminated book. The writing and the illumination itself. The text was written in iron gall ink, usually, a fascinating substance that was made with the galls created by one type of wasp on oak trees. This ink was responsible for pretty much all recorded western history for 1400 years. The fascinating video from the BBC below explains where these galls come from and how they were used.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p033dbrb/player

Aside from the text the other important part of these codexes is the illumination. The word comes from the latin illuminare and refers to the glow that comes from the decorations, especially the gold leaf.The tools and processes for illumination are actually quite similar to the process and tools for creating icons, something which I’ve written about before.

The illuminations were begun by drawing the outline with lead or ink, then the areas for the gold were painted with bole, a red clay, or with gum, then the gold leaf was applied to the surface and burnished. Finally other colours were added. The colours were made from a wide range of materials for example lapis lazuli for blue and madder for a reddish colour. The lapis lazuli largely came from Afghanistan and was highly prized. The materials were ground up and mixed with a binding material like egg white to give it viscosity and make it stick to the page.

Examples of some of the materials and tools can be seen below.

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The works created using these methods are stunningly beautiful.

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A leaf probably from part of a choir book, the illumination has been attributed to Joannes Zmilely de Pisek

Prague c. 1500

The exhibition holds a variety of codexes which cover the different purposes for which they were used. The use for codexes was largely religious in nature, not always but mostly, and this is what is represented in the the exhibition.

The codex has been part of church life for centuries, used both by clergy and parishioners. It wasn’t until around the 11th century though that codexes for specific services came together.  Around the 11th century the different texts used by the priest during Mass were compiled into the Missal.  An example of which can be seen below.

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Missal, Use of Rome

Catalonia Spain c. 1450

The other codex that came into being at a similar time is the Breviary. This codex held a compilation of the texts for the Divine Office. An example can be seen below

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Breviary, Use of Rome.

Associate of the Jouvenel Master (illuminator)

Bourges France 1460-1470

Codexes were not only for the use of clergy. Books for private devotion were also reasonably common. One of the earlier examples is the Psalter. As Psalter is one of the books of the Bible produced as an independent manuscript. It contains 150 songs of praise, thanksgiving and petitions to God and was used for private prayer. It wasn’t uncommon for Psalters to be personalised, with heraldry and often references to their owners. They were to an extent symbols of status. They also were often signposted with illuminations to allow the user to follow along, so to speak, with public worship. A leaf from a Psalter can be seen below.

Pslater

Leaf from a Choir Psalter (King David in Prayer)

Italy or Spain c. 1430

In the late 13th century a new type of personal prayer book began to become more popular than the Psalter. The Book of Hours was made up of devotions based on the Offices of the Breviary primarily the Hours of the Virgin. While the content of the Book of Hours varied according to the preference of the owner the Book of Hours commonly contained, along with the Hours of the Virgin, some of: the Office of the Dead, the Hours of the Cross, the Seven Penitential Psalms, the Litany of the Saints, short excerpts from the four Gospels, and prayers for particular saints. The Book of Hours usually opened with a calendar of the feasts of the Church year. Like the Psalter the Book of Hours was a status symbol and was thus richly illuminated and often contained references to their owners.  An example can be see below

Book of Hours

The Mildmay Master (Illuminator)

Book of Hours, Use of Rome.

Bruges, Southern Netherlands, c. 1460s

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the Rothschild Prayer Book. The Rothschild was created primarily in Ghent, but some pages were probably created by other artists in other Flemish centres and inserted into the manuscript in the main workshop in Ghent. As such it is a beautiful example of a coordinated undertaking from the hands of several masters. It dates to c.1505-1510 and is the culmination of centuries of development of the Book of Hours. Unfortunately it was the one thing I was not allowed to photograph. But the digital copy below can at least give an approximation of this work of art.

Rothschild

This by no means covers the entirety of the exhibit, but I hope it has given a taste of the truly beautiful books displayed there and the complex and intriguing world of the illuminated manuscript.

Reference: Visit to the exhibition and talk on parchment by Libby Melzer and Grace Pundyk.

For more information on the exhibition

https://events.unimelb.edu.au/illumination