Winter Reading Challenge 2022

Good morning and a happy Monday to you all! I know, I know, Mondays aren’t really known for great cheer, but we can find something pleasant to talk about, right? In my case (and many of yours) this very often involves books! Today is no exception, and as I type this, I’m still a little giddy about our local library’s Winter Reading Challenge for Grownups that I am participating in. I’ve also joined another challenge earlier in the year and will for sure be writing about this—it’s pretty fantastic for its own reasons.

Today, though, the library. As some of you also know, my son, now 18, has been going to the library since he was two weeks old – it’s practically been his second home. He doesn’t go now as often as he used to, trying as he is to figure out how to juggle his more adult responsibilities (university, work, friends and associated activities, etc.). But I was a little excited to see him get into the choices I’ve been working through for this library reading challenge, which is set up in the form of a bingo card. 

With five rows of five columns per, each box has a category and participants choose a book that fits,as you can see in the image above. My choices for the first row are:

The Spiritual Poems of Rumi

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J.K. Rowling)

The Year of Miss Agnes (Kirkpatrick Hill)

The Printer’s Apprentice (Stephen Krensky)

The Cricket in Times Square (George Seldon)

Each time you finish a row, you color it in, write down your titles and submit to the librarian, who gives you a small prize. (I believe they have bookmarks and a mug.) Naturally, your bingo can be horizontal, vertical or diagonal. Additionally, each completed bingo row also acts as an entry to a prize drawing. If you complete all twenty-five squares, you are also entered into the Blackout Drawing. (I have no idea what the prizes are for these two contests!)

Oh, did I mention that this is for books read in between January 24 and March 7? Ha ha! Yeah, I have most of my choices picked out, but this has already changed a few times and may change again. I really want to try to fill in all twenty-five squares but am not entirely sure this will happen. But I’m plugging away! I’m a bit bummed that my January book for my other reading challenge can’t count, as I finished it on January 23!!! Well, that’s part of what makes it a reading challenge, hey? I also had a slight delay as I didn’t learn about this until about a week or so in.

But! I have an advantage re: timing because, having recently been sick, I’m spending a lot of time at home resting after work, so the reading gives me something to do and the time is a bonus! So, maybe I can pull this off after all? Well, we have yet to see, but it will be fun anyway, especially as the Harry Potter book above is also part of a reading challenge between my son and me as we aim to read the whole series this winter. We also re-read it in 2020, which was something we turned to when the world was pretty much shut down.

Speaking of the world being shut down: I think most of us would agree it was not fun at all. With rare exception, people really need people, if on varying levels, and the shutdowns have really cast a pall over societies across the globe. They did a lot of damage short- and long-term. Our own library was closed for I think over a year. (I forget exactly how long, but it was a very long time.) So I am really grateful for this particular contest because it’s a fun way to get re-involved in a community activity at a pace – reading and meeting up – that works for each person. 

I’ll be writing more about the books I choose, where they are in my history and where they might lead me to moving forward. You can see the actual challenge here to see the actual details they lay out, as well as the three different bingo cards participants could choose. (I chose number one.) You may even be inspired to organize your own reading challenge!

Book Review: How to Survive in Medieval England by Toni Mount

2022-2-13: Added note: One of our two winners has not responded and it has now been a week since the drawing. Unless I hear from the second winner this evening, I will be doing another drawing in the morning. Comment for your chance to win in the event of a new draw. Congratulations to Roslyn, our first winner, who has responded! Per the publisher, Roslyn’s copy should be en route!

How to Survive in Medieval England
by Toni Mount

This useful guide is a vital accessory when you next visit the Middle Ages. How will you manage without your mobile phone, internet or social media? When transport means walking or, for the better off, horse-back, how will you know where you are or where to go? Where will you live and what should you eat?

 What if you fall ill or are mugged in the street?

 All these questions and many more are answered in this new self-help guide: How to Survive in Medieval England comes with top-tips to make your visit to the Middle Ages much more fun; have a go at preparing medieval dishes and learn some new words to set the mood for your adventure.

 PLUS unique interviews with the celebrities of the day, from a successful business woman and a condemned felon, to a royal cook and a very controversial King Richard III.

 Have an exciting visit to medieval England but be sure to keep this book to hand.

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Comment below for the chance to win a free copy of Toni Mount’s

How to Survive in Medieval England

(More info at bottom!)

At last! Not only someone who takes my ideas about time travel seriously, but also an author who creates an entire book about the experience! OK, well, the writing of How to Survive in Medieval England had nothing to do with me, but I was pretty excited to learn about it nonetheless. From author, history speaker and teacher Toni Mount, this handbook is a fantastic resource not only for those interested in the journey and requiring sound advice, but also re-enactors, history buffs and those who want to know more about ordinary people of the Middle Ages. The volume being a great candidate for dividing up by categories, this is exactly what Mount does: there are ten illustrated chapters with the ins and outs, dos and don’ts of medieval life, from warnings regarding the utmost necessity of work, to health and medicine, awareness of religious beliefs, food, clothing and more. The author also considers the perspectives of her readers: some will want to assimilate, and so need to know what is and isn’t done, while others are strictly observers and just don’t want to be set ablaze for sorcery. Whatever your reason for passage through time, this is a book to keep close by even after your return, given its sheer repeat readability and delightfully laid out subject matter.

Mount’s presentation is smooth and alluring, in large part thanks to her often wry and humorous approach. This is the sort of topic that not only can get away with, but almost seems to need, the author’s presence. Many other books that set out to talk about ordinary life in the Middle Ages maintain a disassociation from their authors, and that hurts the experience because the topic becomes dry, even boring. In this case, however, the author provides a conversational quality that includes readers, and her style is casual and accessible.

Having said that, there is much more that keeps us attached to the book, including the sidebars with informational bits and bobs and interviews with natives to the age, some “superstar” famous and some less so. No matter which class of people, Mount has to ensure a respectful distance—not just physical—from this era’s inhabitants for, as you will see for yourself once you obtain a copy of How to Survive in Medieval England, their personalities are not only significantly more formal, but also a bit standoffish; some of today might even say rude. These portions are perhaps the most magical because, as observers to her conversations with those in the know, we get to watch what is almost two simultaneous discussions: one in which she plays her role expertly, and another in which you recognize the wink wink sort of nuance, as if the author is saying, “Yes, we don’t talk this way amongst ourselves but, you know, this is how they do it, so just listen and learn.” We can almost see her suppressed smile as she converses with those we meet and gain insight into how they operate.

It is clever on the author’s part that the sidebars mentioned above—which appear as Did You Know? and Top Tips—also often maintain the style of interpersonal communication we sense in the interviews. Consider this Top Tip:

Each Did You Know? not only provides the edification we all seem to crave about medieval times, but also with fascinating angles not often covered in other texts. These truly are the everyday, whether ordinary or weird. The author also dispels some myths we have been taught, all while making this such an accessible and smooth read for us that it is easy to forget the massive amount of research that went into preparing this volume.

As the book progresses, Mount’s instructions and information also bring us to awareness of the changes taking place within medieval England, that even amongst themselves there were differences between peoples and the eras in which they lived. After all, 1154-1485, the time range covered and a period of over three hundred years, leaves quite a bit of room to move about! She also shows us that in many ways we aren’t as different as we often seem to believe. The Middle Ages had thieves and con men; people kept records of what decedents left and to whom; and, as referenced above, knowledgeable medicine. Like us, they did not know all there is to know about the human body, but they worked diligently to understand and make discoveries, and without their trail breaking, we might not know what we do nowadays. We often tend to think we are better and smarter than those of the Middle Ages, and it can cut when we find out we aren’t. There are parallels, even up to this very day, of Roger Bacon’s advice about gathering information:

I have always said that learning about our ancestors (whether they come from this particular region or elsewhere) enables us to learn about ourselves, and Mount brings us through a fascinating array of medieval circumstances that, perhaps oddly, perhaps not, resonate with us as people. We see a picture of fifteenth-century bra and briefs, for example, found in Austria’s Lengberg Castle, and can’t help but wonder about the woman who once wore them. Would she be embarrassed that we have her undergarments on display? Or would she be, if even only a little, pleased they were discovered so us people of the future could know her times were “civilized”? That in their day they had items and ideas as modern as could be achieved at the time? That they had nice things too.

Also through word etymology, poetry and ways people found to have fun, Mount guides us through medieval England in a manner unlike any book on the topic I have ever read before. Packed to bursting with fascinating facts and stories of the lives of those who paved the way for ours, we see strangers, certainly, and also ourselves, but above all we recognize the humanity in those we don’t know but want to. Because people of all ages have been curious, I daresay there would be some, I hope, who wish to meet us as well.

In this way, Mount brings people together, dispelling myths and providing background for some of the “absurd” beliefs or actions of the Middle Ages. People generally had reasons for what they did and, once we understand what they were, a lot of the weeds are whacked away, even if we also are aware that beliefs evolved over time, paving the way for our own. I admire that the author achieves this without making fun of medieval people, but also without sacrificing who we are to better appreciate the lives they lived.

About the Author

Toni Mount is a history teacher and a best-selling author of historical non-fiction and fiction. She’s a member of the Richard III Society’s Research Committee, a regular speaker to groups and societies and belongs to the Crime Writers’ Association. She writes regularly for Tudor Life magazine, has written several online courses for www.MedievalCourses.com and created the Sebastian Foxley series of medieval murder mysteries. Toni has a First class honours degree in history, a Masters Degree in Medieval History, a Diploma in English Literature with Creative Writing, a Diploma in European Humanities and a PGCE. She lives in Kent, England with her husband and has two grown-up sons.

How to Survive in Medieval England, along with her many other books, is available at Amazon and Amazon UK. You can also find Toni Mount at Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Two readers will win a FREE COPY of Toni Mount’s How to Survive in Medieval England ~ to join the fun, simply comment below and you’re automatically in the drawing! No purchase necessary and please remember to leave contact information in the event you are the winner! Paperback copies for US and UK based winners, e-copies elsewhere. Drawing will be held Friday, February 4, 2022.

 
A courtesy copy of How to Survive in Medieval England was provided
for the blogger in order to provide an honest review.
 
Congratulations to Roslyn, who has responded to my message; your copy of How to Survive in Medieval England is en route! I hope you enjoy the book and find it helpful if you re-consider your stance on making the trip to the Middle Ages! 
 

(2022-2-13 @ 16:06 AST) I have not heard from our second winner, so if I receive no word in the next 12-15 hours, I’ll be doing a new drawing. In the event of no word, contest will be considered open and I will choose another winner. Comment for your chance to win! If you have already commented, you need not do so again to be in the drawing, though you are free to!

(2022-2-14 @ 10:30) I am so happy to announce that our second winner has contacted me and her book shall be on its way shortly. This concludes our business and the contest is now closed. Congratulations to our winners, and many big thanks for everyone’s participation, including and especially that of Toni Mount, who wrote this fabulous book, and Pen and Sword History, for your sponsorship. 

Happy Valentine Day, All!!!

My Tottering TBR: Reading Roundup (November 2021)

It’s been a strange year for reading. At the start of 2021, I’d wanted to focus on my neglected bookshelves to accomplish finally reading a batch of books I owned but hadn’t completed. (One would actually be a re-re-re-re-re-read, but I’d been keen to pick it up again so many times.) I tried to balance this with a boatload of other books—either purchased, already owned or borrowed from the library—that I was consulting for multiple projects I have in my head and outlined on paper. Now, as the year begins to draw to a close, I started to assess what I’ve read through the last ten months, though, truthfully, recognition was dawning back in about September, and I found I was rather disappointed. I had chosen twenty-one works and thus far had finished only one.

There is a part of me that laments the numbers: at one time I read an average of about sixty books a year, and last year I read eighteen. While this isn’t a thrilling development, it isn’t really the prime focus of my dissatisfaction. What is also shows up in the results of what I have been doing this year with books: the sense of having learned something valuable about or within life; possessing new takeaways that enrich time here on the planet, for myself and others; that I grew in appreciation for what and who came before, the events that shaped them and how they shaped events. Well, the one book off my 2021 list that I managed to read, Michael Jones’s The Black Prince, did move me, and I will be taking the experience along moving forward. So perhaps I should be focusing on this and not whinging so much about what I didn’t achieve.

I suppose it also isn’t true that I didn’t make any gains within the disorder of this bloc of time, and through the last week or so especially, did advance in a manner that isn’t dependent upon actual reading, though there was lots of that involved. The gist: for over a year I’ve been stymied by trying to move back and forth amongst the aforementioned multiple projects – not because that was my goal, but rather I simply couldn’t focus. Lockdown, etc. has not made me more productive, just life more chaotic, and while I read  a fair amount, I finished few of the works I picked up. At some point, something snapped, or it may be more accurate to frame it as a few pieces finally fitting together better and the dawning realization of how absurd this pathway was coming into sharper relief.

The upshot: I have put away all research type books for any projects except the one I had to consciously decide to focus upon. It’s my first step in getting a handle on this mess, and the next is to try to ignore all the other beckoning works until I’ve finished reading the one I have out. I know I cannot read all my research books cover to cover, but I will do for some, and two of these are included on my current list of reading. It’s an exception to my newly-imposed one-at-a-time rule, but this particular author is a favorite, and these two items also are two I’ve been wanting to read for a very long time. It’s a work in progress, but I did tell myself to look through both briefly and make a decision about which to aim for first, then stick with it.

My 2021 list was not organically developed, and I suspect that was part of the problem, though it’s also true that such compilations don’t always necessarily need to be, nor can they. With this in mind, the list that follows is a genuine mixture of what developed on its own and at least two I picked out with deliberation. The rest may be found here.


The Weaver’s Tale (Kate Sedley) – The first book in this series, Death and the Chapman, came by way of recommendation and I loved it. Roger the Chapman, former monk and itinerant peddler who occasionally speaks of, and meets, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, looks into a disappearance that leads him down a dangerous road amidst the hustle and bustle of medieval London. His self-effacing personality, intelligence, fallibility and humanity combine to create a character I want to follow, especially given his perceptions of the duke and place within history to provide such firsthand accounts, up close as well as at a distance. I am looking forward to continuing Roger’s journey of solving mysteries as we both witness how he grows into the role (there are a number of more installments yet to come) and the world in which he operates.

The Beloved Disciple: Following John to the Heart of Jesus (Beth Moore) – Another book I’ve wanted to read since some time and picked up because of my desire to know more about John the Disciple. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in love with Moore’s writing style and approach to readers, and other books beckoned me away. However, I felt a bit pulled toward it recently because I really do want to read about John, so decided to give it another go. Because I’m not planning to review it, I peeked at a few mentions online and saw that a few others felt the same way, but at least a few powered through and said they were glad they did. One reader spoke of a portion at the end with deep insight. The jury is still out, and we’ll see what a more patient reading might bring.

Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England (Annie Whitehead) – This author first came to my attention when I read her debut work, the historical fiction To Be a Queen. The novel tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of King Alfred the Great and one who was to prove a talented strategist in her own right. She appears in Women of Power as well, along with a number of others I look forward to being educated about. A glance at the table of contents alone informs readers that this is not a garden-variety book about forgotten women, not with chapter titles such as “Pioneers: Abbesses and Peace-weavers in Northumbria”; “Murder in Mercia and Powerful Royal Daughters” and “Serial Monogamy: Wessex Wives and Whores.” Having skimmed the book some I can see it is a bit on the academic side, which isn’t a deal breaker, though it does inform me on how to approach it and the breadth of information it surely must contain. For example, the chapters are arranged in categories rather than chronologically, which for me can be a bit challenging, especially if there are a lot of (unfamiliar) names, interactions and connections to solidify. But I’m game.

Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality (Edward Frenkel) – I picked this book up a few years ago and never got the chance to read it, but because it was a loaner from the library, it fell off my radar. That is, until I found one of many pieces of paper I know are strewn about my home, paper with titles and authors listed on them, written in a moment of haste as I aimed not to forget about the blurb I’d (then) just read. Upon seeing the title scribbled there I could instantaneously see in my mind the Starry Night cover and felt the love of math course through my veins, a love that grew during a required class about teaching mathematics. It hasn’t really developed a great deal – which may have something to do with a silly insistence of mine to read at least portions of physics books I don’t entirely understand – though the author may perhaps aid in this as he pairs math with his memoir of growing up Jewish in the Soviet Union, a nation that discriminated against him but failed to churn out in Frenkel the negative results of oppression. I’ve watched a couple of his videos; his demeanor is cheerful and love of what he does contagious. I have actually begun reading it—I’m up to “The Essence of Symmetry”—and for me it is at least partially an interactive read, as I physically move items while he talks about them. Not unlike reading battle scenes, aloud and effecting the described movements, it nevertheless conveys (so far) affection and joyfulness for the subject so many learn to fear. We’ll see!

The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself (Daniel J. Boorstin) – I first read this book at around age sixteen and it has never left my shelf. Opening with a history of how man came to measure time, it moves forward through centuries of investigation and discovery of the earth and the seas, natural science and society. Presented in chronological order, it is written with a deep appreciation for its subject matter, including the individuals who people it, as well as the readers who hold the book copies in their hands. Aptly named, I found through the years that I learn something new each time I read it, having absorbed other knowledge that links back to Boorstin’s work, gifting me the pleasure of recognition as I pour through the pages. As a sixteen year old, I naturally didn’t remember everything Boorstin talks about in The Discoverers, but it did open a new world for me, one every bit as fascinating and frightening as that the investigators found as they pushed boundaries in their quest to know more.


Lisl is currently working on a novel set in Anglo-Saxon England, and can be found at Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. She loves rain, the sea, ghost stories, poetry and Casablanca

Talk of Ghostly Tales on Halloween and Throughout the Year

Anticipating an anthology of ghostly tales currently on its way to my neck of the woods, I’ve been thumbing through other collections and excitedly thinking about what the new set will bring

It’s been a crazy last few weeks and Halloween, sorry to say, fell off my radar. Well, to be completely honest, I don’t really whoop it up as a general rule, but it can be fun to engage in some of the playful traditions, such as making scary (fun scary) treats or reading ghost stories.

Wait, who am I kidding? I read ghost stories at all parts of the year! While I don’t really care for some tales that people qualify as ghost stories – yarns that tend to fall, for me, more into the camp of horror, such as werewolves and zombies – I do love a haunting. However, I’m pretty much a coward when it comes to such things, and I don’t think I’d ever go into a dwelling with a scary reputation, for example, in real life. So to follow Algernon Blackwood’s Jim Shorthouse and Aunt Julia into number thirteen, an abandoned house that has experienced a series of hastily departing tenants, provides a thrill not unlike the one Jim himself feels, even after my having read the story dozens of times. There is also a fabulously funny haunting within Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost,” one whose poignant ending provides something of a map toward the reason why we are so drawn to them, even with their unknown qualities. They scare us at times, yes, but we also feel a sympathetic curiosity, not just to their current predicaments, but also the lives they once lived, and how they came to be within the same flux as ourselves.

Hauntings is on its way to my mail box!

There are, of course, so many varieties of ghost stories as well as how they are told, it would be impossible to pin down an exhaustive catalogue in a mere blog entry—surely a reflection of all the unique characters that live and have lived in our world. I’m very fortunate in that my exploration of this genre is enabled by my son, who likes to buy me books, recently having gifted me Chilling Ghost Stories, companion to another I own (and that he also brought home for me), Great Ghost Stories. They are indeed both chilling and great, some by masters such as M.R. James and Ambrose Bierce, as well as other, lesser-known authors. Also included and to be marvelously re-discovered are novelists and short story writers whose influence has waned in this century: Charlotte Riddell, Amelia Edwards, W.W. Jacobs.

It is a truism, within the discussion of ghost stories and tales of hauntings, that as long as humans carry on, the tales will be told. Modern stories may or may not reference or allude to histories that have settled within the collective or individual consciousness, but they do continue to link us to the world alongside ours, introducing thrilling perspectives and raising hairs. One such I had the opportunity to preview, within a setting I don’t often enter in the reading world—that of a mental institution—was Samantha Wilcoxson’s “Among the Lost,” from the newly published Hauntings. Wilcoxson and nine other authors “take you through a labyrinth of historical horror,” encountering such characters as a young psych nurse who encounters a mystery at her new place of employment; a tormented Roman general; and a Norse woman confronting a terrifying destiny. I am delighted to add that I will be reviewing this collection in the next few weeks (it is currently en route), so do stay tuned!

For those ghost story aficionados and others who simply cannot wait to get their ghastly tales on, Hauntings is available at Amazon and Amazon UK. I should add that Paula Lofting, the collection’s editor and the only contributor whose work I am familiar with, is on familiar ground, historically speaking. She writes about pre-1066 in Sons of the Wolf and The Wolf Banner, both of which I have read and reviewed. So it will be intriguing to see where she takes her storytelling skills within the ghostly plane, and what her co-authors also bring to the genre.

Happy Halloween, and see you back here soon!

Where Were You When…? – Remembering 1066

Nearly 1,000 years have passed ….

In October 2016 I began a series of posts in memory of 1066, arguably the most important year in the history of England. Interestingly enough, while I enjoyed history, this era was not always my favored, as it once seemed so complicated and intimidating; my memories of studying it in school were filled with details I didn’t really understand, or there were so many layered on top of each other they seemed to crush me.

Paula Lofting’s Sons of the Wolf persuaded me out of my comfort zone, the Wars of the Roses period, and when I began to see the era as populated by people rather than a series of dates (as I was able for the fifteenth century), plus the greater significance of exactly what had happened–what I only partially appreciated during my school years–I was hooked.

A couple of years after, I read Annie Whitehead’s To Be A Queen, which was poetry in prose and simply unforgettable. Whitehead’s examination of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, indeed the Lady herself, impressed upon me our great heritage of language, literature, spirituality and yearning for freedom–plus the willingness to fight for it. While I certainly admire other historical figures and groups, the Anglo-Saxons have to greater effect shown me the importance of remembering, thus this series for them and the freedom they fought to keep for us. Unfortunately, they did lose the most important battle and the end of their era arrived, but their legacy lives on.

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Today, five years since this series, we once again mark another anniversary of Hastings, so soon after Stamford and the great hope that Harold Godwinson would drive the invading Normans from English shores. Alas, it was not to be, and the years that followed birthed more stories and writings than most modern people have ever heard of, though it’s always a good time to look into our past: where we came from, who influenced us and, indeed, the invaders. Below are just a few pieces/works for or about this dramatic period that changed the course of history, and you can also find articles about Harold Godwinson and other 1066-related topics at Murray and Blue.

hastings
By image on web site of Ulrich Harsh via Wikimedia Commons (Click image)

950: 1066 Remembered, Book Review: Sons of the Wolf (Updated) (October 14, 2016)  Marks the Battle of Hastings, October 14, 1066

950: 1066 Remembered, Book Review: 1066: What Fates Impose (October 14, 2016) Marks the Battle of Hastings, October 14, 1066

950: 1066 Remembered, Excerpt: 1066: What Fates Impose (October 25, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Excerpt: Sons of the Wolf (November 5, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Blog: “Senlac Ridge” (Ian David Churchward) (November 12, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Book Review: The Wolf Banner (November 20, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Blog: “One Crown, Four Claimants” (G.K. Holloway) (November 25, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Poet Post: “Prayer to Woden” (Rob Bayliss) (November 26, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Excerpt: The Wolf Banner (December 11, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: Marching Toward 1066 (Annie Whitehead) (December 19, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Excerpt: 1066: What Fates Impose (December 25, 2016)

950 Intermission: Recording History in Film (December 31, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: The Bastard of Normandy v. the Golden Warrior (Paula Lofting) (January 16, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Book Review: Alvar the Kingmaker (January 23, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: Between Two Worlds (Annie Whitehead) (January 28, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: A Dynasty Denied (Rob Bayliss) (February 9, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Interview: Paula Lofting (B.R.A.G. Medallion Winner) (April 1, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: The Price of Love and Loyalty (Annie Whitehead) (May 13, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Interview (Glynn Holloway) (September 25, 2017) Anniversary of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, September 25, 1066

950: 1066 Remembered, Secrets Through a Tapestry of Time (October 14, 2017) Final installment, marking the Battle of Hastings, October 14, 1066

#iHeartAngloSaxons

Another series that may be of interest,

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen

Image of the Week: Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians (Blog that led to the series) (July 22, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Book Review: To Be A Queen (September 13, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Interview with Author Annie Whitehead and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians (September 20, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Guest Post: Invitation to the Past (September 27, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Excerpt: To Be A Queen (October 4, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Cover Crush: To Be A Queen (October 11, 2016)

#iHeartAngloSaxons

September 11: Don’t Look Away

Years ago, I read a book called A Noble Treason, which laid out the story of the White Rose, a group of German university students who wrote and illegally distributed anti-Hitler resistance leaflets around Munich. At its nucleus were Hans Scholl and Alexander Schmorell, later joined by Scholl’s younger sister, Sophie, and a number of others. Amongst others, the three were tried and executed for their activities, but the ripple effects of their efforts were felt both in and outside of Germany. Their story of working to protect the right to live the ordinary moved me so deeply I vowed to read the book, or something about this group, every year. I believed it was important to make this effort on a continual basis, to remember what they sacrificed for the benefit of those who were to come after, because remembering meant we could never let it happen again.

The World Trade Center in March 2001. The Twin Towers were the most famous portion of the complex, with 1WTC (North Tower), above, to the left of 2WTC (South Tower). Image courtesy Wikipedia.

In contrast, I almost never talk about September 11, and in twenty years have watched just one documentary—at the ten year mark. I have told my son (now eighteen) about that day, and there are such mixed feelings within me regarding his own absorption of it all: it is painful to see him struggle to understand our grief, to not be able to fathom the gravity of it all. At the same time, I envy him not realizing these feelings. No one wants their own child to know such pure, unadulterated heartbreak.

There is another reason why I didn’t tell my own 9/11 story, and that is because I felt as if I didn’t really have one. Who was I? I was not near any of the attacks when they happened, nor did I—as far as I am aware—personally know anyone who perished. And I certainly didn’t do anything of any great note. So when I heard people tell their stories, I held back because I feared anything I might say would intrude on the sacred space of their memories, and such trespass frightened me a great deal. To be honest, it still does. I don’t really know how much to say, and I am a little terrified of me coming out of all this, when none of this is about me. The only thing is knew for sure is how it felt, and so I suppose I did what most people do with pain: they bury it.

Tomorrow* will mark the twentieth anniversary of September 11, and as I have wondered in recent years about my role, small as it may be, in helping to keep my country free, so too did I begin to think about how useless my method of suppression might be. Was it doing anything for all the souls lost that day? Did my silence honor them, or threaten to erase them? Of course, other people know those I remember, even those whose names I never knew. I could let them talk; they probably know more than I do and people probably listen to them in a way they aren’t likely to my small voice. Right?

Well, that probably is true—and partly I am all right with this. I don’t mind it that the world doesn’t hear my voice all the time. But I did begin to feel a bit like a coward, an individual who relies on someone else to do something important, even if that one thing is but a link in a chain of events required for something crucial to happen. The crucial thing here is that I don’t ever, ever, ever, ever want anyone to forget what we lost that day—and how it happened. I want survivors and loved ones to know that strangers cared about them, shed tears for their lost people, and to this day bear scars in their souls that they pray somehow took away a little of the physical pain and mortal fear from those who faced down evil in 2001.

Collapse of the Towers as seen from the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

I also recently read an article about Florence Jones, one of the last people to make it out of the south tower, from the 77th floor, and who, until the tenth anniversary, never went to Ground Zero. In the piece, she recounts the excruciating experience of seeing men and women leaping out of the tower windows, as we now know, to escape the inferno that would otherwise consume them. “Florence has always said she didn’t look away out of sheer dignity for those who had no choice. She believed someone needed to bear witness to their suffering.” Though I admit that at the time I likely would have looked away, partly to avoid the sense of voyeurism and also because it is too terrible to see, I immediately felt a bond with her sentiment. I knew this understanding all those years ago when I swore I would not lose the memory of the Scholls, Alexander Schmorell and all those who put absolutely everything on the line for the sake of others. I want to do this for my own people now. I want to, I need to, bear witness to their suffering. I want to tell about what I saw in the hopes that at least a few people will see what I write here and tell some others, and in this way perhaps someone will always remember these people.


“In Russia,” a friend once told me after a friend of eleven years passed away, “people say that no one ever really dies as long as someone remembers them.”


I stopped in London, Ontario that night, even though I was not so far from the American border. I’d been driving for days and it was a good time to stop—early enough that I could enjoy a little time here, but  late enough that it wasn’t wasting time. I tooled around the city for a bit and then back to the hotel for the night. When I woke in the morning, it was to the sound of the TV—something I always did in hotel rooms to avoid the dead silence in the morning. I recognized the voice of Peter Jennings and it registered immediately that something large was occurring. For some reason, in my blurry, newly-awake moments, I thought they were discussing some military exercises, though I wasn’t quite focused enough to be able to think what they might entail.

Once I put my glasses on, my brain fog seemed to recede: Jennings usually had a serious look on his face, but today…something was wrong, really wrong. He was skilled at providing ongoing details while also filling in those just joining, and so I came to understand pretty quickly that one of the Trade Center Towers had been hit by a large aircraft. However, I don’t recall even contemplating the possibility of it not being an accident, though nothing could really swirl around in my mind for long because almost immediately I heard the horrified reactions of people witnessing what I came to learn was a second plane, hitting the other tower. Though I have not been able to find any video, in my memory Jennings declares that this certainly must be a terrorist attack, that there was no doubt about it anymore. He is talking on the phone with someone on the ground in Lower Manhattan, someone who goes into one of the Towers—perhaps the second one hit—to report on the situation, perhaps to help get people out?

Lower Manhattan seen from space on September 11, 2001. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

I don’t recall this entry or the journalist’s demeanor being anything like some of the embedded reporters later, people who catapult themselves up onto a platform from which they observe us, sometimes with disdain. This reporter, he gives me the impression now of a reporter on the beat, one who knows the grime of the city and works for his story. I am sad to say I don’t remember his name, though I will never forget him, because he is supposed to be calling Jennings back to report on interior conditions at the Tower, but before we get this call, the building collapses with the reporter inside it, and this is when I come fully awake and burst into tears. I am in shock and wave my hands in the air, trying to wrap my mind around the reality that someone whose voice I heard just moments ago has now been crushed beneath the rubble of a building more than 100 floors high.

I neither liked nor disliked Jennings, though today I would say his humanity was always evident, even though he always remained professional. For this I probably leaned more toward liking him, and then it did not escape me that the country I now found myself locked in—for I was locked out of my own—was the one he originally came from. I was to gain a great fondness for Canadians because no one had to tell them what they needed to do. They seemed to mobilize without instruction and sheltered perhaps thousands of stranded Americans. Even the hotel staff tried to do anything they could—I remember accidentally breaking the hair dryer as I rushed to leave, feeling an urgency that had no destination, and the housekeeper consoling me.

That was Tuesday and when I reached New York on Friday, I marveled at the absolutely gorgeous weather of the day. It didn’t mix with what had happened; how could something like this happen on such an amazingly beautiful day? Even more out of place were the trucks that rumbled through the streets, vehicles that reminded me of those where I came from, hauling snow to storage areas when it piled too high on the streets. But this was September and, of course, this was not snow they were transporting. It was debris and, had it not been for the smell, I could perhaps be persuaded it was only debris in the backs of those trucks.

The streets were lined with missing posters. It wasn’t just the families who were desperate; strangers lined up on sidewalks to look at the posters, as if memorizing the faces in case they saw any of the missing. Perhaps they were also looking at the faces, holding their breaths and hoping they didn’t see anyone they knew, because beneath everything, we all knew these people were dead. Worse, so many of them would never be found because their bodies, broken into millions of tiny pieces, perhaps some of those pieces ground into ash, rumbled past us in trucks. I remember making myself think it, articulate it in my brain, as if the shock of such a terrible set of thoughts would snap me out of something I thought I might be stuck in. But I functioned in numbness as I wandered around New York City, for what purpose I really don’t know.

The people were friendly. I’d been to New York before and had joked about how if you stopped anyone to ask directions, the person they were with would invariably interrupt to criticize the complicated or incorrect instructions. They might argue with each other and say something like, “What, I’m supposed to get someone lost? They go back to their home and tell everyone what jerks we are?” I loved how they asked questions: “You want I’ll get you a cab?” They weren’t quite so animated now, though they didn’t cry openly. In fact they were quite dignified and their pathways were orderly as they walked the streets, many, I suppose, continuing to meet work obligations. Some, you could tell, were watching crowds, looking for people. One hope was that someone had received a head injury and perhaps suffered from amnesia. They lived in hope because how else could you? How does one function, how does one move forward and what does one do when a loved one is gone, quite literally? They are late and they are gone, as if they just disappeared. Which, admittedly, is precisely what had happened. You could see the grief on the faces of people as they walked past, and that was a difficulty I hadn’t been prepared for.

“We will rebuild!” was a common refrain that I heard in 2001 – and they did. I visited One World Trade Center in 2018, a moving experience. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

And there were so many.

As the days went on, I continued to wander and eventually spoke with a few people, though the conversations were not defined by loss. Most of them, in fact, covered ordinary topics and questions about why I had come to New York City. Some urged me to take their mayor, Rudy Guiliani, up on his challenge to buy in New York, which would help bolster the economy. Others wanted to know my impressions and what I liked best. What struck me the most, however, was that they all maintained a demeanor of some sort, if this is what it could be called, that we had already been acquainted at some level, like people who knew each other, or of one another, but didn’t cross paths all that often. I could have been their kid cousin who didn’t know her way around.

It was a strange combination in those days, the ordinary and the terrible extraordinary that threw lots of strangers together to sort through a variety of different types of grief and searches. The strength of spirit was fairly amazing, and I’ll never forget that about New Yorkers. I don’t know if I’ve done them justice with my contemplation here, though I hope so. Twenty years on, some of the people I met may have passed, and I feel like I want to say, of them and their lost loved ones: “Know that they were. Don’t look away. See their ordinary and their remarkable and rejoice in it, for it is all remarkable.”


*Today, by this point in writing.

Top Ten Secrets of One World Trade Center

Winter is Coming: Cleaning and Contemplating

Musings on winter prep, memories from smell

and Cecily Neville on a trip into the mountains

Though we’ve had a spot of termination dust recently, winter otherwise isn’t really making itself known to us yet, at least not in a big way. At the same time, it’s pretty safe to say summer is a thing of the past, and to that end I’ve been engaging in a few activities to psych myself up for the long months ahead.

CLEANING IS NOT REALLY ANYONE’S FAVORITE, but for me it does have a bit of a soothing calm, if I do it methodically and without rush. I always do this first because even a small corner of chores from this angle sort of revs me up for more, and I get into the groove of moving outward from there, making sure the pieces fit together nicely. Once I start baking and cooking for the freezer, for example, I want to be adding my prepped goods to a space clean and ready to receive it. The same goes for the rest of the kitchen and, indeed, my home, which I will aim to shed of clutter and excess. Sometimes it can be tricky to decide what is stuff as opposed to valued pieces –and by valued I mean that they “bring me joy,” as Marie Kondo might say. Not too long ago I whisked everything off the tops of furniture in my living room (bookshelves, armoire, son’s desk hutch), power dusted and replaced only some of it. I should add that I wipe with a wet cloth, then dry. A duster, in my opinion, just moves dust around, and we have a lot of it here.

With the exception of books and perhaps some records, not a lot to be added to the living room – instead I did some removal and switching around. To this area I moved two of the six lamps Turtle gifted to me last Christmas, where previously they had all been bunched together in one corner, hung at varying heights. Below, the stripping of library markings from my book sale acquisitions continues. You can see my growing collection of Karen Maitland, Michael Jecks and Alys Clare works. I love beautifully colored and shaped jars, and the card, from Hastings, still brings me joy.

I won’t really be adding things to the rest of the house the way I do the kitchen, but some items are sure to come in. Books, for example, are a given, perhaps also a few new records. I have my eyes on a pine cone project I might do, and new sheets and towels are likely this winter, perhaps even a new comforter. (This last one I keep trying to justify.) The storage area in my laundry room, though I dislike cleaning it out, at least does surprise me most of the time, in that even when I don’t get rid of much, when I put it all back, looks better than it did before. It’s not unknown for me to go in there a few times in the days after just to look at it.

I WON’T START COOKING AND FREEZING lots of food just yet, especially if I’m trying to use up what remains. Still, the fall is a wonderful time to re-visit some of the medieval recipes I’ve played with in the past, such as a Medieval Sallat. Our “monsoon” season is now upon us and I love the sensation of working the salad in the kitchen with the door or window open to hear the pitter patter of rain against the roof. I enjoy the little bit of chill, a nice contrast to the Lumbard mustard I prepare. My son loves my pumpkin bread, so I’ll make a few loaves of these as well, and the smell is simply heavenly. I’ve always heard smell is the sense most associated with memory, and indeed the wafting pumpkin sensation always brings me back to the day when he, just a tiny guy of nearly three, was nowhere to be found one Saturday morning when we’d first moved into our house. I could still smell the spices in the air from the previous night’s baking, which he’d helped me with, himself wrapping the loaves in foil and leaving them on the counter to cool off.


Turnips, quartered | Parsnips, sliced | Beets, quartered

St. John’s bread (carob) | Almonds | Filberts

Cabbage, shredded | Large prunes | Figs

Dates | Golden raisins | Dried apple rounds

Dried, honeyed pineapple, cut in small wedges

Lumbard or sharp mustard | Brown sugar

Ingredients for Medieval Salad, with simple instructions on p. 185 of

Fabulous Feasts by Madeleine Pelner Cosman


I didn’t get the panicky feel people talk about when discussing missing children; perhaps I could sense his presence, but just couldn’t place it. I looked in every single room of the house, but only came upon him when I started looking into crannies, so to speak. Eventually I located him beneath our large kitchen table, loaf of bread in hand and ripping off chunks of it to stuff into his little mouth. His tiny face turned up to me and I laughed at the scene, crying out, “Oh honey, I’m sorry, you must  be so hungry!” It was instinctive but it also served to show him he wasn’t in trouble. He crawled out and up into my lap, curled into me as I sat at the table, and continued to eat some more of his “breakfast.” We sat there a good long while after he finished, cuddled up and quietly enjoying each other’s company on that November morning.

WHEN MY HOME IS ORGANIZED AND ORDERLY, my stress level is reduced and, indeed, I can even concentrate more effectively. One result is that when I leave and come back, I can more fully enjoy the tail end of whatever activity I’ve just returned from, which to me signals the real closing portion of it, as opposed to just leaving the place I’d been to. In the case of a recent jaunt, this will actually carry on into another endeavor at home—not, strictly speaking, a winter preparation or chore, and in fact a new pursuit, the seeds of which began with repeated mention of Annie Garthwaite’s debut novel, Cecily. Still, is bears the marks of one, given the prep and indoor nature of the rest of it.

So what is it? Well, after having seen all these mentions of Garthwaite’s novel, and it being about the mother of Richard III, I simply had to look into it and ended up ordering the work for my own Richard collection. I loved the vibrant colors of the cover and began to watch my mail notifications with a bit more enthusiasm. It was perfect timing to learn more about Cecily Neville, a strong, capable woman, the mother of kings who navigated them and herself through years of war and peace, both of which required action plans in the fifteenth century. With winter coming on and more reading time ahead, I gave a peek at the author’s website, which included the recipe for a “classic cocktail that celebrates Cecily’s complexity and strength of character.” It was perhaps the color that drew me in most—the color! So vibrant, like the volume’s own cover and, indeed, Cecily’s character. Of course, a bit of vibrancy in winter is a great little tool to have in one’s arsenal, non?

SO I DECIDED TO DO IT, though the hibiscus the Negroni recipe mentions wasn’t available here, and a friend and I decided to substitute fireweed petals—a nice little Alaskan twist (and seen above, sprinkled across the table). Personally, I think Cecily would enthusiastically approve of making something your own, even toss a Good on you! at the notion of embracing one’s own environment and acknowledging its part in what makes you, you. As it happened, the plans my friend and I made seemed constantly thwarted, re-scheduling becoming an annoyingly constant recourse. Then, a Wednesday arrived in which we were finally able to go up in elevation (the fireweed was rather picked out down in the city and surrounding area), and we did. When I met up with her, I also had great news: my copy of Cecily had arrived that very day! Serendipitous, she called it.

More serendipity occurred: On our way, we missed the exit we needed off the highway, so we simply took the next one, near to which is a back road that links the two. Slow is required, not only as it is a smaller road, but also since troops frequently use it. We didn’t run into the Army that day, but were happily surprised to come upon a black bear crossing the road. We both grabbed our phones, but somehow it just didn’t work. As for me, I was a bit excited and flustered, so the presence of mind to zoom in wasn’t there, and we had to carry on. “Perhaps we’ll see him on our way out,” Vita remarked. Mmmmm. Perhaps, I remember thinking, though I doubt it.

As it happened, we did! I couldn’t believe our luck when, as we ambled past the last of the greenery marking the road toward and away from the mountain, I spotted he who by that time I had named Randy. He had a small brown marking on his snout and he just struck me as…Randy. Even Randall if one was to be on formal acquaintance. This time we were prepared and managed to get lots of video. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to edit it—it’s a bit long—but I do have a still from it and will add the actual video once I have it all prepped. I love how the still came out—Randy looks sort of like a model, posed in transition with his foot dangling gracefully as he peers back at us, sitting not far away. Eventually he came closer, and I was surprised at how much noise he made walking through the grass. Vita aimed both phones, something I learned a few minutes later was actually rather difficult to do, while I had my finger at the ready, prepared to close the window if Randy got too close. But all was peaceful and eventually Randy himself ambled across the road and into the forest on the other side.

What would Cecily make of this? Since time travel is almost always on my mind, I contemplate what it might be like to have hosted her on our little jaunt, show her a little piece of our homeland. By Cecily’s time, bears were extinct on the British Isles, but I like to think she would not cower at the unknown quantity. I think she would be curious and enthralled. Perhaps she would even take the view, as we often do, that if we respect their boundaries and take care around them, they are not really the ones to fear. The army she would encounter on these roads would be what we call friendly, though her own experiences with armies might give her pause. Still, I feel she wouldn’t back down from the opportunity we set out for that day, and would have been an enthusiastic participant, especially once she learned about our plans and winter prep. I don’t yet know much about Cecily, but one trait I have always believed she possessed is curiosity.  

A marvelous attribute, curious is a delightful manner in which to approach life, perhaps especially winter, really with so many things to discover, even if much of it comes by way of performing the ordinary tasks of the season that, to many, can often be written off as sheer drudgery or tedious in character. Though I typically enjoy winter, it can be this way for me too at times. I hope to make this year different by more often finding the Cecily in me—not because I will be doing anything of great consequence to or for the world, but perhaps at least for mine. Finding things meaningful to life is one manner in which to build up ways to make a difference to others. The pieces fit together nicely, you might say.

And so in this manner I make my way toward winter, cleaning and contemplating, peering backward and looking to the future. It’s a little surreal to be fussing over ordinary tasks while the world seems to be turning upside down, and perhaps Cecily would be able to relate to this as well. But time marches on, and winter is coming. Summer is a thing of the past and the time to adapt is at hand.

Slideshow images: Cecily, fireweed petals and Negroni ingredients; Anchorage in the distance; Randy peering at us during a break from bulking up; fireweed petals soaking in boiling water; a sprig of mint leaf for good measure, just because it made a nice image; roughly half the bottle of gin poured into a glass jar with boiled fireweed petals added. They now will infuse for a few days.

Above: Portion of the Chugach Range.

All images courtesy Lisl Madeleine. Permission required to reproduce; while permission typically will be given, it must be acquired in writing. See Book Review Policies for email address.

Browsing Books: Searching for Merlin Edition

Day’s book has also been released under the title The Quest for King Arthur

My mother used to say that the passions we most care about come to us by accident. That certainly was true of my affection for Merlin, smaller stories of whom intrigued me through childhood as I learned of Arthur, as well as when a set of books my mother purchased—and I initially ignored—mystically beckoned, revealing to me not more of Arthur, but rather the wizard I really wanted to know. I’d never experienced anything like him—whether within words, my own imagination, or memories of a past so distant their familiarity still remained somewhat vague, though shimmering.

Not unlike that day all those years ago, something summoned me recently. I reached into our armoire and pulled out the box set of a television series, The Adventures of Merlin, my son and I had “discovered” about eight years ago. I’d had no intention of re-visiting the show, yet into the Xbox the disk went and drawn I was back into the saga of someone I was first entranced by as a small child. Catching me unaware, Merlin once more drew me close, reminding me of his presence, and perhaps that I hadn’t been paying quite enough attention. He had never been demanding before; perhaps it was my own guilt I felt. Whatever the case, I made plans to seek out more to either revitalize my awareness or add to it. I immediately broke out my unfinished copy of Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Quest for Merlin and made a weekend date with the library.

As it turns out, perhaps the best items are at other branches, though that remains to be seen; I’ve requested a few items and will assess them when they arrive. What I did obtain, though not exactly what I’d been hoping for, will at least get me started as I commence my next journey with Myrddin Emrys, whose misted path I hope might become clear and brightly colored.

The Search for King Arthur (David Day) – I’d actually borrowed this book before, and it is one of several from today focused on the king, but the only one in which Merlin has his own chapter. Of course, all the major characters receive one but, not having found precisely what I’d been seeking, this will perhaps best move me forward. Few volumes focus entirely and exclusively on Merlin, for he and the others are woven together in a complex of symbolism and extended metaphor, but it is certainly possible to pick through the threads and re-discover much of what has retreated to the backs of our minds.

Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth (Joseph Campbell) – Compiled from lectures Campbell presented over the course of his lifelong journey studying mythology and “the larger patterns and meanings revealed in these myths.” Containing metaphors for the human stages of growth, Campbell believed they exemplified the development of humanity and discusses reflections, from all over the world, on the stories.

In the Land of Giants: A Journey Through the Dark Ages (Max Adams) – Seemingly linked in theory to Campbell’s ideas, Adams’s volume is “[a] cultural exploration of the Dark Age landscapes of Britain that poses a significant question: Is the modern world simply the realization of our ancient past?” While it does not appear to speak at all of Merlin et al., except possibly in passing, I was attracted to the travel angle and the author’s focus within the locales of their ancient past. “Part travelogue, part expert reconstruction, In the Land of Giants offers a beautifully written insight into the lives of peasants, drengs, ceorls, thanes, monks, knights, and kings during an enigmatic but richly exciting period of Britain’s history.” For me, much of this excitement stems from the possibilities of understanding regarding these more ordinary people within the times we still speak of today.

Finding Arthur: The True Origins of the Once and Future King (Adam Ardrey) – Arthur is really from Scotland, Adams posits (a claim he also makes for Merlin); the victors wrote the story and that’s why Scottish Arthur has been erased and recast as an English Christian king. I’m pretty sure I have borrowed this book before but never got a chance to read it; today I picked it up because I’m certainly open to reading what’s behind his assertions, and I probably should. It is true, after all, that the victors write the history. I confess to having heard of this theory before but not really giving it much airtime. It sounds a bit fantastic and, truth be told, I’m a little concerned it will come off as conspiracy theory-type reading. At the same time, truth is stranger than fiction, so who knows? I probably shouldn’t worry about whether I end up agreeing or not, liking  it or not. It’s a dive into history, which is always fascinating. However, I may switch over to the Merlin volume instead, given my limited reading time and how I’m currently needing to divvy it up by topic.

Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (Guy Halsall) – My dilemma related to the previous book entry, and indeed the book itself, can safely be ignored, according to this author. He doesn’t call Ardrey’s book out by name, at least not in the blurb, but does discount works that claim to reveal “the truth” behind the “historical” Arthur, who is largely a figment of the imagination anyway. I am a little intrigued at what might be the truth that is much more fascinating, as per jacket description, though flipping through the book brought me to one page with the following sentence: “Unless some important new written sources are discovered, which is unlikely, the construction of a detailed narrative political historical account is quite out of the question and always will be.” This seems rather restrictive to me, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about history is that it often surprises us (perhaps because we fail to heed its warnings). It also reminds me a bit too much to Allison Weir’s assertion, in the opening pages of The Princes in the Tower, that we are unlikely to ever gain better evidence than what we already have regarding Richard III’s involvement (her “evidence” being laughably suspect, but that’s another story), and gives me a bit of an allergic reaction. Still, we’ll approach with caution and see where it takes us.

Mythical Monday: The Bewildering Basilisk

The Basilisk and the Weasel, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder. The cockatrice (pictured) became seen as synonymous with the basilisk when the “basiliscus” in Bartholomeus Anglicus’s De proprietatibus rerum (c. 1260) was translated by John Trevisa as “cockatrice” (1397). Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Pliny the Elder wrote about them. They were “little kings” to the Greeks and other reptiles avoided their fiery, deadly breath. The Roman poet Lucan described the particularly horrible venom of the creature, so fearsome it could travel like sound through the predatory weapon of a man and reverse the aim, killing not only the man, but also his horse. Seemingly straight from the pages of Sir John de Mandeville, the petrifying monster that could kill with a glance was said to be born of a rooster and incubated by a toad, and even today its terrifying, deadly gaze remains extant in our collective consciousness, in deeper layers though it may reside.

Despite its origins and early appearance, nowadays we perceive it most often as a snakelike beast that “does not impel his body, like other serpents, like a multiplied flexion, but advances loftily and upright,” just as the senior Roman naturalist wrote. From the illustration of a medieval bestiary, we are given a glimpse of what people in the past observed.

It looks almost ridiculous in its anger, especially with the tiny weasel chomping away at its breast. But our fear of snakes remains real, even if the basilisk confounds us with its reputation. Lacking the fantastic properties of dinosaurs, it also never became regarded, though, as a maladapted failure and, despite its fall into obscurity with the rise of science, the Harry Potter series’ resurrection of the beast hardly had to break a sweat to evoke familiarity. It is as if it lurked in the shadowy halls of our imaginations, our awareness both proving its mettle while also keeping it at bay. Pull the curtain aside and you wouldn’t see a tinkering imposter; it’s just that for centuries we preferred to treat our ancestors like children and dismiss their terrors. When the basilisk roared back into our world, we weren’t frightened yet we knew they were to be feared.

2014 cover image of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, courtesy Wikimedia.

Perhaps it is our historical and modern associations that keeps the loitering basilisk apparent to us despite its current relatively rare use in explicit form. From Christian tradition we see a basilisk being slain by a knight, or Michael, though more often demons are represented by snakes. Within medieval stories of alchemy links were to be found between wealth and basilisks, the ashes of which could transform silver into gold, emphasizing the connection between fiery evil and the sin of greed. Poets mention them, Dracula’s gaze engendered a similar fear, and a courageous mongoose in an Indian garden calls back the monster’s only natural predator, the weasel. But the mixture of their strange and unnatural appearance, symbolic of unholy alliance, remains in the shadows, perhaps more respectfully feared for what we do not see.


Sources
The Medieval Bestiary
Symbol Sage

 

Book Review: Fortune Like the Moon by Alys Clare

Fortune Like the Moon:

Hawkenlye Mystery Series Book 1

by Alys Clare

I really admire detectives, and of course I love the Middle Ages, so when I asked around about medieval mysteries, I was thrilled when my contacts really came through. Amongst many other recommendations, author Joanne Larner suggested Fortune Like the Moon, and I am so glad she did. I’ve been in a reading slump lately, thanks in large part to too much research intake without a break, and Alys Clare’s novel set in twelfth-century England went a long way toward pulling me out.

This is in contrast to another book I recently read and didn’t dislike, even am interested in pursuing the next installment, but felt dragged a bit and perhaps didn’t need to be up in the 400-page count that it was. I feared a little this dragging sensation with Fortune Like the Moon, aware it could be an unjustified association, but something about the book made me dive right in. It may have been the cover artwork that captured and kept my attention, or perhaps the epigraph, the words of which seemed to signal a faster-moving story and more rapidly-changing details to keep up with:

Oh Fortune!

Like the moon, changing,

Forever waxing and waning . . .

Indeed, it takes no time at all to get to the mystery to be solved: the first word in the book is “dead.” The opening sentence gives a visual and tells the who, what, when and where, setting us up immediately to seek the obvious remaining W—and does it with economy. As the story progresses, we learn more of its setting and circumstance. King Richard Plantagenet has just ascended to the throne of England, a country he knows virtually nothing about and whose language he barely speaks. Clare deftly provides brief background to the Lionheart’s family circumstances, including his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, a formidable woman determined to educate the English about their new king, who was to be perceived as humane and just, filled with wisdom and Christian forgiveness. To that end, she declares, in Richard’s name, an amnesty that frees all prisoners in English jails who had been awaiting trial or sentencing, though she is fully aware this could backfire, and badly. The aforementioned death, laid out in the novel’s prelude, leads to the predictable criticism of arrogant naïveté and the need for Richard to button this up quickly. Enter Sir Josse d’Acquin, an Anglo-Norman acquainted with this strange land (via his East Sussex mother) tasked with solving the mystery and, hopefully, setting English minds at ease about their new monarch.

Clare’s style is attractive and pleasing not just for her ability to economize, but also because it is so relatable, even in situations most of us would never find ourselves in. For example, when describing the murdered nun’s remains: “So much blood.” In the hands of another author, such a phrase might come off as sophomoric, but here it works, even when the perspective shifts from omniscient narrator to Josse, who frequently talks to himself, and then to the Abbess Helewise, whose wisdom is revealed in her awareness of false modesty’s trap as well as her willingness to recognize intelligence equal to or greater than her own. She and Josse get on so well, in fact, that I found the lack of conflict a bit disconcerting, though not entirely out of place. When would the king’s appointed investigator have to do “battle” with evil forces, and would those include Helewise? There is no doubt she is brilliant, but would the Abbess’s co-operation later be revealed as disguise of her true motive(s)?

A silver denier of Richard, struck in his capacity as Count of Poitiers. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. More on the Lionheart here.

Looking back at Chapter One, we see Clare’s use of circumstance to skillfully shape her characters. Richard, in a fit of temper, stubs his toe on a stone floor slab. Trying to massage the toe is ineffectual, since he is wearing his boots. His anger results in him lashing out, whereby the bishop he had been addressing steps back in haste, following which Richard gains control of his rage and carries on. Though it seems a curious event at first blush, it is not long after that we are able to use it as an opportunity to further assess the king’s character by way of a sort of compare/contrast when he first meets with d’Acquin. Josse, seemingly nervous, kneels in mud and sits in a puddle, the second of which the king initially remains silent about, likely to avoid acknowledging that Josse stands taller than himself. Having given the mercenary the once-over and determined him to have made an attempt at a smartness in appearance he does not naturally possess, he eventually alerts the man to the water soaking the hem of his tunic, though impatiently, whereas Josse’s awkward responses had been marked with respect.

In both instances we see Richard certainly behaving according to his station, but we also feel the hint of manipulation he employs, suppressing it only because he needs something, and frustrated at the requirement. Appearing separate from one another and with other scenes in between, the continuity of this illustration is smooth and well laid out. The only angle I question is of Richard stubbing his toe: if the boot is too thick to massage the toe, how could he have stubbed it? My own ignorance of footwear available at the time—I know very little of this Angevin era—may play into this, but even if it’s a legitimate doubt, it really doesn’t mar the attempt to provide Richard more rounding, and the dialogue is superb.

It also helps that the author includes a drawing of Hawkenlye Abbey, its various areas labeled for easy reference. It is what I refer to as “simple, not simplistic,” and laid out in such a manner that one could easily envision characters moving within the grounds. We get to know them in their daily routines and directed tasks, and Clare gives a real sense of her world as well as that which existed in the historical period. And, as earlier stated, she is able to tell a developed story without running it into excessive length.

Though the book is labelled on online sites as part of a trilogy, I am quite pleased to report it seems to have been successful enough to keep going, and now stands as a seventeen-book series. Given my pleasure at the genre, characters, story, dialogue, introduction to the historical period, continuity and, in this particular installment, setup of Josse and how he comes to be where he is—at beginning as well as end—that is a grand thing and I will definitely be reading more.