Sunday, 26 March 2017

A History of the World in 50 Novels: 48 - "A Man of the People," by Chinua Achebe

The country that we know today as Nigeria first fell within the sphere of influence of the British Empire in the late Nineteenth Century. The global suppression of the slave trade was a key priority for successive Victorian governments, but it soon became difficult to disentangle such noble political imperatives from more straightforward commercial ones: in 1886, the Royal Niger Company was established, under Sir George Taubman Goldie, with a mandate to ship palm oil, cotton, timber, ivory and beeswax back to the "mother country."

British stamps used at Akassa, Nigeria. HMSO (image is in the Public Domain).
The war canoe of King Koko of the Nembe, an antagonist of the Royal Niger Company in the 1890s. Daily Graphic (image is in the Public Domain).


The British administered its Nigerian territories (a Northern and a Southern Province, together with the "Lagos Colony") via a system of "indirect rule," with a relatively small number of English Residents" and District Officers, supported by a native elite of regional and village chiefs (Emirs in the Northern Province), who were granted educational and financial privileges in return for their loyalty.

Yoruba sculpture, satirising "indirect rule." Image: Tropenmuseum (licensed under CCA).


In contrast to many other colonies, including Kenya, Nigeria did not undergo a long and violent struggle for independence. Realising that the World had changed since the end of the Second World War, and that Nigeria, specifically, was unlikely to be susceptible to the influence of Soviet or Chinese Communism, the British authorities negotiated what was intended to be a smooth transition to independence and democracy. The only problem was that "Nigeria," as a geographical or political concept, meant little to most of the people who lived there. Loyalties operated on a far more local basis, and, when elections were held, most people voted for members of the same tribal elites that had held power under the British.

Linguistic map of Nigeria. Image: Hel-Hama (licensed under CCA).


A federal republic was proclaimed in 1963, but, in the elections that followed, different parties emerged to represent the predominantly Muslim Hausa and Fulani people of the north; the Yoruba people of the south-west; and the Igbo people of the south-east. Smaller parties were pushed aside, amid widespread complaints of corruption and intimidation, and those who had been elected by communities with very different priorities struggled to find common cause with one another.

The Nigerian military staged a coup in 1966, which was followed by a bloody civil war. A second republic, proclaimed in 1979, lasted only for four years; a third lasted for just a few months in 1993; and the fourth, declared in 1998, following the death of the military leader, General Sani Abacha, continues to this day, but has faced significant challenges throughout its nineteen years of existence.

The Nigerian Civil War (image is in the Public Domain).
Election in Nigeria, US Agency for International Development (image is in the Public Domain).


Chinua Achebe's novel, A Man of the People, published just weeks before the 1966 coup, is set in a fictional rural district of an unnamed African country, but it feels very like the Igboland in which its author grew up. An educated, idealistic and naive young man, Odili Samalu, is teaching in a village school, when it receives a visit from the Minister of Culture, his own former teacher, Chief the Honourable M.A. Nanga MP. Nanga takes an interest in Odili, and invites him to his home. A bright future n public service seems in store for Odili, but he soon learns the true price of patronage, and when, with a group of friends, he decides to challenge Nanga for his parliamentary seat, he not only discovers the corrupt and brutal underside of the politics of his country, but is also forced to confront his own motivations, and to ask whether he, himself, has not been compromised by the system that he set out to change.



"No one can deny that Chief the Honourable M A Nanga, MP, was the most approachable politician in the country. Whether you asked in the city or in his home village, Anata, they would tell you he was a man of the people. I have to admit this from the outset or else the story I'm going to tell will make no sense."

"My father was a District Interpreter. In those days when no one understood as much as 'come' in the white man's language, the District Officer was like the Supreme Deity, and the interpreter the principal minor god who carried prayers and sacrifice to him. Every sensible supplicant knew that the lesser god must first be wooed and put in a sweet frame of mind before he could undertake to intercede with the Owner of the Sky. So interpreters in those days were powerful, very rich, widely known and hated. Wherever the DO's power was felt - and that meant everywhere - the Interpreter's name was held in fear and trembling."

"The appearance of comparative peace which Max's house presented to me that morning proved quite deceptive. Or perhaps some of Chief Nanga's 'queen bee' characteristics had rubbed off on me and transformed me into an independent little nucleus of activity which I had trailed with me into this new place. That first night I not only heard of a new political party about to be born but got myself enrolled as a foundation member. Max and some of his friends having watched with deepening disillusion the use to which our hard-won freedom was being put by corrupt, mediocre politicians had decided to come together and launch the Common People's Convention."

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


Sunday, 19 March 2017

A History of the World in 50 Novels: 47 - "Earthly Powers," by Anthony Burgess

For more than a thousand years, through the Middle Ages and the Early Modern era, the lives of most people in Europe west of the Aegean resonated to the rhythms, chants, melodies, and prayers of the Roman Catholic Church. In cathedrals, abbeys, and parish churches, from the Arctic Circle to Malta, and from Poland to Portugal, bells, incense, and the words of the Latin Mass, coalesced to provide a fixed point in lives all too often disrupted by the uncertainties of plague, famine, and war. Although convulsed by the Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries; by the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution, and parallel movements elsewhere in the world; and by the advance of scientific rationalism and secularism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries; the Roman Catholic Church remains, to this day, one of the largest organisations in the World, with an estimated 1.27 billion members.

Saint Peters Basilica, Rome. Photo: Alberto Luccaroni (licensed under GNU).


In order to maintain its position, however, the Church has had to adapt. Until the unification of Italy in 1870, the Pope was a secular ruler, as well as a spiritual leader, controlling lands centered on the city of Rome itself. He retains the title of Pontifex Maximus, once held by Julius Caesar, but his territorial remit is now confined to the Vatican City itself, the result of a treaty between the Church and the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, which could hardly have failed to compromise the integrity of the Holy See. In the dark days of the Second World War, some clergy played a heroic role, sheltering Jews and other refugees from the Nazi and Fascist regimes; others collaborated enthusiastically; whilst many more walked a precarious tightrope between collaboration and resistance.

Souvenir of the Lateran Treaty of 1929 (pictured are King Victor Emmanuel III, Pope Pius XI, and Benito Mussolini). Image is in the Public Domain). 
The territory of the Vatican City, as defined under the treaty (image is in the Public Domain).


By the 1960s, with the physical and political reconstruction of Europe well underway, the Church was ready for reform. Pope John XXIII (reigned 1958-1963) surprised the Catholic world by summoning the Second Vatican Council, which would replace the Latin Mass with services in the languages of ordinary people; and sweep away many of the material trappings of Medieval ritual; whilst stopping short of the reforms that some of the most liberal commentators might have wished to see (married clergy, reproductive freedoms for the laity, an enhanced role for women within the Church). It continues to influence the shape of Catholic policy today: those who played prominent roles in the Council included the future Popes Paul VI, John-Paul I, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.

Pope John XXIII receiving Father James Alberione, an Italian priest credited as a pioneer of the Church's use of mass-media. Photo: www.paulus.org (reproduced with permission). 


The Second Vatican Council. Photo: Lothar Wolleh (Licensed under CCA).


Anthony Burgess's novel, Earthly Powers, spans the first eight decades of the Twentieth Century, including both world wars, and the years following the second. Its unreliable narrator is Kenneth Toomey, a revered English man of letters, thought by many to have been styled on W. Somerset Maugham. Toomey is homosexual, one of the first generation of gay men to have lived more or less openly as such, without suffering the active persecution visited upon predecessors such as Oscar Wilde.



Toomey's sister marries an Italian-American musician, Domenico Campanati, whose brother, Carlo, is an ambitious and reforming churchman, destined to ascend the Throne of Saint Peter as Pope Gregory XVII (he is not exactly a cypher for John XXIII, but there are clear parallels, including the broad timing of his reign). In the background however, is the darker figure of an American evangelist, Godfrey ("call me God, it's just an abbreviation, after all") Manning, with surprising links to the reforming Pope. The novel is a half-serious, half-comic, meditation on power, secular and sacred, set against the background of the world-changing events and vibrant literary personalities (Hemingway, Joyce) of the Twentieth Century.

"It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me. 'Very good, Ali,' I quavered in Spanish through the closed door of the master bedroom. 'Take him into the bar. Give him a drink ... Give his chaplain a drink also.'"

"Don Carlo's telegram had said he was coming for five days, but in fact he stayed well over a week. He had been gaining a reputation, I gathered, in the field of exorcism, and there was a tough job of exorcism to perform just outside of Nice. The Bishop of Nice had requested his services ... Don Carlo was said by His Grace to be the best man in Europe at fighting the devil, and this was meant very literally. The devil was no metaphor to some of these churchmen but a palpable entity, or rather a well-structured army of entities (hence the name Legion, as in British Legion), with the Son of Morning as generalissimo in charge of Belial and Beelzebub and Mephistophilis, as well as a large number of NCOs and privates eager to fight the bad fight and gain promotion. A lot of nonsense I thought at the time, but Don Carlo was ready to march in with the Rituale Romanum and, so to speak, knock hell out of these minor devils that had camped in the bodies of the innocent."

"On that early October evening in 1958 Carlo Campanti left my life and his ample flesh spilled over from the confines of memoirs into the arena of history. You know as much about Pope Gregory XVII as I. Henceforth I was to see him only blessing fatly in the media, kissing the feet of the poor, weeping with earthquake widows, treading the Via Crucis, embracing criminals and communist leaders, inaugurating the Vatican Council, which, under his leadership, his goading and coaxing and bullying, rather, was to modernise the Church and bring it closer to the needs of the people ... There were strip cartoons in which he was the hero. Kids in jeans and teeshirts sang songs about him:

Pope Gregory Pope Gregory
Free our souls from sin
Rescue the world from beggary
Let the light shine in."

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The Streets of Old Southwark: Winchester Palace

A visitor to London, walking along the south bank of the River Thames, from London Bridge towards Westminster Bridge, having explored the precincts of St Mary Overie (now Southwark Cathedral), emerges from Montague Close into what was once the private wharf of that priory, in which is now moored a replica of the Golden Hinde, the ship once commanded by Sir Francis Drake.

Beyond the wharf is Clink Street, continuing west, on entering which the visitor is confronted by the impressive remains of a Medieval building, the former palace of the Bishops of Winchester. On both sides of the river, the roads leading west from the commercial hub of the City were, in the Middle Ages, lined with grand houses, including the London palaces of provincial bishops, who frequently had business at the Royal Court, and in Parliament. Most were close to the river, since it was much easier to provision a great house from the water than to do so from the land. Winchester Palace is unique only in the extent to which it has survived.

The great hall of Winchester Palace. Photo: Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net, licensed under CCA: CC-BY-SA-4.0).
Winchester Place in c 1660, by Wenceslas Hollar (image is in the Public Domain).


The great lords of the Church in Medieval England were often the younger sons of leading aristocrats, sometimes with close connections even to the Royal family. The bishop who built Winchester Palace was Henry of Blois, the younger brother of King Stephen, and a grandson of William the Conqueror.

Henry of Blois, commemorative plaque, British Museum. Photo: Ealdgyth (licensed under CCA).
Henry of Blois, British Library, Cottom MS Nero DVII, f87v (image is in the Public Domain).


Henry had been educated at the great Benedictine monastery of Cluny, in Burgundy, a student of its abbot, the Venerable Peter, one of the leading theologians of his day, and the man who commissioned the first translation of the Qu'ran into Latin. For all his learning, however, Henry was unable to resist the lure of gaudy politics: during the civil war, or "Anarchy" of the Twelfth Century, he changed sides twice: supporting, first, his brother, Stephen; then the Empress Matilda; then his brother again; determined, it seems, to end up on the winning side. This, however, was impossible. There was no winning side: the war ended in stalemate, with Stephen retaining the crown during his lifetime; but to be succeeded, not by his own children, but by Matilda's son, the future Henry II, during whose reign the Bishop of Winchester's influence declined.

The Winchester Bible, commissioned by Henry of Blois, Winchester Cathedral (image is in the Public Domain).
Depiction of Hell, from the Winchester Psalter, commissioned by Henry of Blois, British Library (image is in the Public Domain).


It was a later Bishop of Winchester, William of Wykeham, in the Fourteenth Century, who enlarged the great hall of the palace, and added the rose window that we see today. William also served as Chancellor of England under Edward III; founded New College, Oxford, and Winchester College; and supervised major building works at Windsor, Dover, and Leeds Castles. In 1424, the great hall was the venue for the wedding banquet of King James I of Scotland, and the niece of the then Bishop of Winchester, Joan Beaufort.

During the reign of Henry VIII, Stephen Gardiner held the office of Bishop of Winchester. Like Henry of Blois, he preferred to remain on the winning side in political conflicts. An instinctive conservative, he had no enthusiasm for the Reformation, and disliked Thomas Cromwell, but he managed to remain in favour throughout Henry's reign. He could not do so under Henry's heir, the much more ardent Protestant, Edward VI, who had him imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Stephen Gardiner (image is in the Public Domain).


When the Catholic Mary I took the throne, however, she released Stephen, and it was he who crowned her in Westminster Abbey. Unlike many of the churchmen of his day, but like his predecessor, Henry of Blois, he did manage to die peacefully in his bed, in comfortable old age.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


Wednesday, 1 March 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: March

With Christmas behind us, and the spring not far ahead, the beginning of Lent focuses the mind on the preparations for Easter. Since Easter, unlike Christmas, is a movable feast, Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the six penitential weeks, falls sometimes in February, and sometimes in March. This year, it falls on the 1st March. For a large and prosperous Medieval household, Lent required practical, as well as spiritual, preparation: some foods had to be used up (all the smoked bacon and sausages that had been hanging from the rafters since the autumn); whilst others (smoked and salted fish, for example) had to be bought in. Some books of hours include charts on the basis of which the relevant dates could be calculated.

Chart for calculating the date of Easter, from the Hours of Charles d'Angouleme, late 15th Century, National Library of France. The artist is Robinet Teslart. Image: Cardena 2 (licensed under CCA).


During the six weeks of Lent, people were expected to abstain, not only from the consumption of meat, but also from sexual intercourse. Marriages could only be celebrated if a special license were obtained, and, in practice, this privilege was usually extended only to rich and powerful families. Shrove Tuesday, or Carnival, represented a last, riotous farewell to the long nights of winter carousing.

"The fight between Carnival and Lent," by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna. Image: Dguendel (licensed under CCA). In the foreground, a fat man, representing Carnival, sits astride a barrel; confronting a thin woman, representing Lent, who holds out two fishes. Behind them, the church (on the right); and the taverns and brothels (on the left); compete with one another for the attentions of the townsfolk.
Penitential flagellants, from Les Belles Heures du Duc de Berry, workshop of the Limbourg brothers, c 1409, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image is in the Public Domain). Such extreme mortification was often discouraged by the Church authorities, and it is difficult to imagine the Duke himself as a participant.


March is often depicted as a month for gardening: for planting crops such as onions, leeks, and greens, that would provide a welcome diversification of the diet in springtime. In wine-producing areas, the vines, not yet showing any leaves, are depicted in the process of being pruned in preparation. Lambing, which would certainly have continued from February into March, is rarely depicted, but ploughing often is -  a potent symbol of the beginning of a new cycle of agricultural labours.

March, from the "Golf Book," workshop of Simon Bening, Bruges, 1520-30, British Library Add.24098, f20v (licensed under CCA). In the foreground, a man tends his garden, whilst a woman looks on; behind them, men are felling a tree.
March, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, workshop of the Limbourg brothers, Musee Conde (image is in the Public Domain. A man ploughs the field in the foreground; whilst, behind him, vines are being pruned; the castle in the background is that of Lusignan (Poitou), one of many held by the Duke.
March, from the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, workshop of Jean Pucelle, 1324-8, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image is in the Public Domain). The man on the left prunes the vine-stock with a billhook, whilst the man on the right tips manure onto the ground.
Aries, from the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux (image is in the Public Domain).


Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Monday, 20 February 2017

The Streets of Old Southwark: Precincts of St Mary Overie

A visitor to London, walking south across London Bridge, will notice several landmarks competing for his or her attention. The highest construction in sight (unsurprisingly, since it is currently the tallest building in Europe) is Renzo Piano's recently completed "Shard," but, as its architect explained to a group of us at the London Architecture Biennale a few years ago, its glass walls were always intended to reflect images of one of the oldest buildings on the south side of the Thames, now known to Londoners as Southwark Cathedral (although it only became a cathedral in 1905).

The Shard and Southwark Cathedral. Photo: Dmitry Tonkonog (licensed under CCA).


Southwark itself has a claim to be London's oldest suburb, having been established by the Romans in the First Century AD. It may even have served, briefly, as the capital of Britannia, following Boudicca's destruction of Colchester and London in 60/61 AD. "Suthriganaweorc" (the fort of the men of Surrey) was subsequently fortified by King Alfred the Great against the Danes, and, in 1066, was defended against the forces of William the Conqueror, forcing him to take a longer route to the west, encircling London from the north.

The Borough and Bankside, 1658 (image is in the Public Domain). The curve to the west of the priory may reflect the line of the Anglo-Saxon defences.


The building we currently know as "Southwark Cathedral" stands on the site of a "minster," recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as being held by the conqueror's half-brother, Odo of Bayeux, and subsequently re-founded in 1106 as the Augustinian Priory of Saint Mary Overie. The footprint of the current building probably reflects that of the priory church of 1106, although it was substantially rebuilt following fire damage in 1212 and 1420. The Elizabethan chronicler, John Stow, interviewed Bartholomew Linsted, the last Augustinian prior, who told him of a tradition that a nunnery had existed on the site since the Seventh Century, although there is no archaeological or documentary evidence to support this.

Southwark Priory and London Bridge, by Claes Van Visscher (1616 - image is in the Public Domain).


Southwark Cathedral from The Shard. Photo: Kevin Danks (licensed under CCA).
The nave of Southwark Cathedral. Photo: Adrian Pingstone (Arpingstone), licensed under CCA.
Wooden effigy of a knight (possibly a member of the de Warenne family, 1280-1300), Southwark Cathedral. Photo: Amandajm (licensed under CCA).


The Fourteenth Century poet, John Gower, a contemporary and friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, had a house within the precincts of the priory, and is buried within. He served as poet laureate under both Richard II and Henry IV, and was remunerated, like the current incumbent, in wine.

John Gower, shown loosing an arrow into the world (a sphere consisting of land, air and water). University of Glasgow, MS Hunter 59 (T.2 17,folio 6v - image is in the Public Domain).
Wenceslas Hollar's "Long View of London," from a sketch drawn from the tower (image is in the Public Domain). Gower's house is likely to have been close to the river. 
The tomb of John Gower in Southwark Cathedral - the preservation of colour is rare in the context of English churches. Photo: Adrian Pingstone (Arpingstone) - image is in the Public Domain.


With the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, the priory church became the Parish Church of Saint Saviour (within the Diocese of Winchester), serving the growing population of Southwark, a district of theatres, bear-pits, and brothels. Those buried here included Edmund Shakespeare, William's younger brother, an actor who died of the plague; the Jacobean dramatists John Fletcher and Philip Massinger; and a chief of the American Mohegan tribe, Mahomet Weyonoman, who traveled to London in 1735, to petition George II for the rights of his people, but who succumbed to smallpox.

By the early Nineteenth Century, the church had fallen into disrepair. Restoration works were carried out by George Gwilt Jun (1818-30) and Sir Arthur Blomfield (1889-97), but were strongly criticised at the time for failing to respect the Medieval fabric of the building.

Southwark Cathedral, showing Nineteenth Century restorations. Photo: Paul Gillett (licensed under CCA). 


The "cathedral," as it stands today, may be something of a hybrid, but its tower, at least, is a landmark that Chaucer, Gower, and Shakespeare would recognise, one of the few fixed points in the shifting landscape of London's oldest suburb.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books may be purchased from Amazon.


Wednesday, 8 February 2017

From City to Metropolis: The Historic Boroughs of London

Over the past fifteen months, I have been exploring, with any who choose to follow me, the Wards of Old London: beginning at Newgate Street, in the Ward of Farringdon Within, back in November 2015; and ending at Fleet Street, in the Ward of Farringdon Without, in January 2017. This journey has taken us through all of the intramural and extramural wards of the City of London. There is, however, more to London than just "The City," and it is now time to begin a broader exploration of the Boroughs that make up the modern metropolis.

When Geoffrey Chaucer thought of "London," he would doubtless have had in mind "The City," an entity defined by already ancient walls and gates, with a Lord Mayor, a Guildhall, and a well-developed system of civic governance. From the window of his lodgings in Aldgate, he might have observed friars, knights and merchants leaving the City on their way to Colchester or Ipswich; and men of law, physicians and clerks entering the City, having journeyed from Norwich or Thetford. When he placed his pilgrims in Southwark's Tabard Inn, he would have understood that they had already set out on the road to Canterbury, the gates of the City shut behind them after the ringing of the curfew bell.

When William Shakespeare walked the same streets, the "London" of his imagination would have been an altogether bigger place. Whilst he may have lodged, worshiped, shopped, and had his shoes repaired in the City, most of his working life was spent beyond its limits, in the theatre districts of Southwark and Shoreditch. Samuel Pepys's London extended from Greenwich to Whitehall and Covent Garden; and for many modern Londoners, the metropolis is bounded by an orbital motorway, the M25, completed during my lifetime.

London from Space (the M25 is the outermost band of light. Photo: NASA/Cmdr Chris Hadfield (image is in the Public Domain).


The greatest expansion of the metropolis took place during the Nineteenth Century, and was observed by Charles Dickens in Dombey and Son:

"The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre ... Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood ... Babel towers of chimneys, wanting half their height ... fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling above nothing ... "

He was writing of the construction of the London to Birmingham Railway through Camden in the 1830s, but the "March of Bricks and Mortar" had begun before the railway age had been conceived, which is by no means to deny the role that the railways had in accelerating the process in the mid-Nineteenth Century.

"The March of Bricks and Mortar," by George Cruikshank, 1829 (image is in the Public Domain).


Throughout and beyond Dickens's lifetime, new metropolitan boroughs were established until, by the 1880s, it was clear that a new overarching system of governance was required. The London County Council was established in 1889, and functioned until 1965, when it was replaced by the Greater London Council. Abolished by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1986, the demise of the GLC left "Greater London" (an entity, the reality of which was, by then, recognised by virtually all Londoners) without a political framework, until the current Greater London Authority was established in 2000, under a directly elected Mayor (not to be confused with the Lord Mayor, whose writ runs, as in Chaucer's day, only within The City).



Spring Gardens, close to The Embankment was the headquarters of the London County Council from 1889 until 1921 (image is in the Public Domain).  
Old County Hall, headquarters of the London County Council from 1921 until 1964, and of the Greater London Council from 1965 until 1986. Photo: gailf548 (licensed under CCA). 
City Hall, headquarters of the Greater London Authority. Photo: Carlos Delgado (CC-BY-SA).
The Boroughs of London. Image: LondonMapper.


There are currently thirty-two London Boroughs (not including The City), so where to begin our exploration of them? For me, there can be only one answer to that question: let us begin by retracing our footsteps through The City to the junction I described as the "Crossroads of England", and heading south from there, across London Bridge, into London's oldest suburb: Southwark.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: February

In the calendar of the Medieval Christian year, the feasts of Christmas, the New Year, and the Epiphany, are followed by the far more austere, and, in many cases, even colder, weeks of February. There is just one last element of the story of Christ's birth to be marked, and, interestingly, it is one which frankly recognises the original Jewish context of the story. Candlemas, celebrated on the second day of the month, recalls the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, by Ambrosio Lorenzetti (1342), Uffizi Gallery, Florence (image is in the Public Domain).


Secular imagery associated with this time of the year often depicts the gathering and transport of firewood, and shows people struggling to stay warm indoors. People were heavily reliant on food stored during the autumn: whether grain & flour; cheeses & butter; smoked meats; salted fish; or orchard fruits & root vegetables stored in barrels. Many a family may have been spared from starvation by a supply of cheap and unappetising "red herrings" (smoked and salted for double preservative effect).

The Canterbury Calendar page for February: the man warms his feet and socks by the fire, whilst above him hang smoked sausages and meat (image is in the Public Domain).
Page from the Tripartite Mahzor, a German Jewish manuscript of c 1349 (image is in the Pubic Domain). The fishes represent the passage of the sun into Pisces: Hellenistic and Roman astrological ideas survived in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. 
February, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1412-1416, Musee Conde (image is in the Public Domain). The lady of the house warms herself by the fire, whilst a man outside, probably her husband, cuts wood. A peasant drives his ass or mule towards a nearby town, laden with firewood. The sheep are corralled in the yard, presumably fed on hay, and the ewes heavily pregnant. 
Landscape with bird-trap, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna (image is in the Public Domain). Hunting and trapping birds and small mammals was among the few means that most people had of accessing fresh food in the depths of winter.


Saint Valentine's Day, celebrated on the fourteenth of the month, became associated, in the late Middle Ages, with courtly love, not because the saint himself had any great credentials as a lover (if he existed at all, which many doubt, he was, as Bishop of Narnia, presumably celibate), but because of a story that wild birds begin their courtship in the middle of February. The earliest record of this tradition (and of any association of Saint Valentine's Day with romantic love) is in Geoffrey Chaucer's (1382) Parlement of Foules, although it is possible that he was drawing on earlier folk-beliefs.

" ... this was on seynt Valentine's day,
Whan every foule cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thenke may;
And that so huge a noyse gan they make;
That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
So ful was, that unnethe was ther space
For me to stonde, so ful was all the place."

The psalter of Bonne of Luxembourg, c 1349, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image is in the Public Domain). Bonne was the mother of Jean, Duc de Berry who commissioned and owned Les Tres Riches Heures. Birds were already a popular subject in art before Chaucer's time, their depiction often based on close observation. Those depicted above are (clockwise from top-left) the green woodpecker; hoopoe; great tit; goldfinch; and wood pigeon (that at bottom left is unclear - possibly a nuthatch). The artists are Jean Le Noir and his daughter, Bourgot, who worked first for Bonne and her husband, Jean, and later for their son, the Duc de Berry.


Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.