Friday, October 15, 2010

The Forensic Reconstruction of George Washington, Part 1

Here's another post by guest blogger, Suzanne Adair

How is it possible to forensically create an accurate, life-sized figure of someone long dead without having access to the deceased's bones? The traveling museum exhibit, "Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon," features three life-sized figures of George Washington at the ages of 19, 45, and 57. To create these figures for the exhibit without exhuming Washington, the folks at Mount Vernon sought the expertise of Dr. Jeffrey H. Schwartz, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh. Schwartz collaborated with at least ten other experts.

Schwartz used a laser technique to scan the three-dimensional life mask, bust, and statue created by Jean-Antoine Houdon when Washington was in his early fifties. The associated computer program captured points and extrapolated them, allowed the team to morph the shape of Washington's face and body according to known physiological data about him at various ages. Schwartz also had access to the following for Washington:
  • His dentures
  • His surviving, unaltered clothing
  • Portraits from actual sittings (v. sightings)
  • Text sources such as letters and diaries that described Washington
GWDentures Several issues affected Schwartz's interpretation of Washington. Tooth loss and use of dentures affect the shape of the jaw and mouth. Tooth loss for the first president started when he was in his twenties. By the time he took his oath of office at age 57, he had only one of his natural teeth left in his mouth and used an uncomfortable set of dentures. This set of Washington's dentures is on display in the exhibit.

Also, Washington had contracted smallpox in Barbados when he was nineteen. No records have been found to indicate the amount of facial scarring that he endured from the disease. However, Schwartz believes that a scar visible on Washington's left cheek in some portraits was from smallpox and not the result of a tooth abscess, as sometimes theorized.
According to Schwartz, children of the 18th century were corseted from an early age, boys through about their fifth year. This permanently affected the spine's shape and the body's carriage. Shoulders of adult men were brought back and down. The curve of the lower back was accentuated, as was the belly. In this portrait of Washington, you can see those features.
What were the results when Schwartz and his team pulled all of this together? Check back here on Wednesday for a look at George Washington when he was 19, 45, and 57.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Georgian Secrets: Ladies' Undergarments During the American War of Independence

Suzanne Adair blogs at

She's Clio's guest today cross post blogging about:

Georgian Secrets: Ladies' Undergarments During the American War of Independence

Readers occasionally ask me what ladies of the late 18th century wore for underwear beneath those lovely gowns and petticoats. Did they wear panties? What made their hips so huge and their torsos look like tubes?

On Sunday 19 September, Louise Benner, the Curator of Costumes and Textiles at the North Carolina Museum of History presented the program "From Head to Toe: Clothing in 18th-Century North Carolina." A portion of her program included showing the audience the underclothing beneath the gorgeous polonaise gown that a volunteer named Gina was wearing.

For upper class and many middle-class women, undergarments consisted of the following:

* Shift. Ms. Benner's hand is on the sleeve of Gina's shift. The shift, later called a "chemise," was made of cotton, linen, wool, or silk, had three-quarter length sleeves, and reached to the middle of the woman's calf. Shifts doubled as sleepwear.
* Stays. In the picture, the stays are the greenish garment across Gina's midsection. Stays were heavily boned, usually with whalebone, to keep the torso erect and thus heavily restricted movement in the upper body. Stays also gave women's torsos that "tube" look.
* Panniers. Also known as side hoops, these were tied around the waist. Panniers made the hips look extra-broad beneath the petticoat and lower portion of the gown. If the gown and petticoat were made of heavy material, panniers would be constructed of metal to support the weight of the fabric.
* Pockets. Gina's right hand rests on a pocket, accessible through slits in her gown and petticoat. Women might wear pockets on both hips and/or embroider their pockets. Embroidered pockets could be worn atop the petticoat instead of beneath it.
* Stockings. Made of natural fiber like the shift, stockings were tied with ribbons just above the knee.

A woman such as a laundress who performed physical labor also wore a shift and pockets, but instead of stays and a gown, she wore a short jacket (also called a short gown) with some boning, usually pinned closed across the front. The jacket reached to just below her waist and covered the top portion of her petticoat.

Panties arrived on the underwear scene decades later.

Ms. Benner's presentation was part of a collection of lectures and free programs that supports the traveling exhibition, "Discover the Real George Washington: New Views From Mount Vernon." The North Carolina Museum of History is the only venue in the southeast to host this exhibit, which runs through 21 January 2011. Colonial North Carolina Family Day on 25 September, in which I will participate, is one of the supporting programs.

Monday, September 6, 2010

King Herod and Cleopatra's Daughter

cross-posted from

Though no ancient sources directly link the two monarchs, it’s difficult to write a novel about the life of Cleopatra’s daughter without referencing one of her mother’s bitterest enemies.

Herod the Great was Cleopatra VII’s rival even before her affair with the Roman Triumvir, Antony. As a Ptolemy, Cleopatra maintained a hereditary claim on Judea, but that wasn’t the only source of her conflict with King Herod.

To say that Herod’s personal life was a study in dysfunction is to put it lightly. When he entered on a campaign to rid himself of his wife’s relatives, of the Hasmonean Dynasty that preceded him, his mother-in-law found a sympathetic ally in Cleopatra VII. The Queen of Egypt tried to intercede on behalf of her friend, and apparently won Herod’s lifelong enmity as a result.

The feeling appears to have been mutual. Cleopatra would later demand from Antony that Herod’s whole kingdom be surrendered to her, but because Herod had been a loyal friend to Antony, he only stripped Herod of date and balsam plantations in Jericho and Ein Gedi.

The rivalry reached such a fever pitch that Herod is said to have considered assassinating Cleopatra, but was dissuaded by his advisors, who assured him that Antony would never forgive him. After Antony and Cleopatra’s defeat, King Herod went over to Octavian, asserting that he had given Antony the best possible advice: Kill Cleopatra.

Did the rivalry end there, or did Herod continue to fear the Ptolemies even after the famous queen took her own life?

Three of Cleopatra’s children survived the civil war: little Ptolemy Philadelphus, Cleopatra Selene, and her twin brother, Alexander Helios. As Ptolemies, all three could exert a claim over Judea, and because they were half-Roman, it might well have been feared that their claims might be supported against Herod if the political fortunes of Octavian should change. Even dead, Cleopatra and Antony still had their partisans, in Rome and elsewhere. Alexandrian cults like those surrounding the goddess Isis still held enormous political sway. If we credit the gospel of Matthew, then we also know that Herod was particularly threatened by children born under auspices and omens, which would have led him to be doubly wary of Cleopatra’s twins.

Given the portrait of Herod that has come down to us through the ages–namely that he was so power hungry and paranoid that he had his own sons put to death as rivals–it is difficult to believe that he ever viewed Cleopatra’s daughter with dispassion. Cleopatra Selene not only survived childhood, but went on to become Queen of Mauretania. Are we to believe that King Herod was not made uneasy to see his enemy’s daughter given more territory to rule than all the other client kingdoms in the empire put together?

Cleopatra Selene and her husband Juba appear to have had the implicit trust of Augustus, and did not need to make frequent visits back to the capitol to secure his good will, but Herod was less secure. Whereas Selene and Juba founded a port city and named it after Caesar, Herod commenced building two such cities, naming them both after Augustus. Whereas Cleopatra Selene and Juba appear to have worked in easy concert with their proconsular neighbors in Africa Novo, Herod was obliged to get permission for his military exploits, and overstepped on at least one occasion, prompting an angry letter from Augustus. Given these tensions, it is hard to imagine that Herod and Selene did not wish one another ill.

However, whether or not an active rivalry between Herod and Cleopatra Selene existed, the King of Judea was a pivotal contemporary figure in her life by which she must have measured most of her accomplishments as a client queen. That Herod comes down to us through history more well-known than Cleopatra Selene is partially a function of her gender, but also because her reign was one of relative peace and prosperity, lacking the big splashy family drama that marked Herod’s rule.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Troy and Women from Hollywood's Perspective

The movie "Troy" is now 30 minutes into playing out on AMC. Well done movie.

I'm also enjoying Brad Pitt in his portrayal of Achilles. He's a haughty, prideful, resentful young man who bears no loyalty to anyone except, perhaps, to his mother. I like his representation in this movie because he breaks from the static, predictable character acting of all his other movies I've seen since "Thelma and Louise."

Also interesting in this story is finally being able to see all the Greek characters I've read about in mythology and history taking their respective places in time juxtaposed to one another. Things finally come together. Relationships are made clear. I'll probably take the next 1.5 hrs to watch this story play out so that I can see how the history goes with all the parts and pieces put together instead of a bit here and a bit there. These are not people who were scattered across time, mere puppets acting out some mindless tasks. These were people full of feelings, cares, fears, needs for respect and association. They had desires to attain great things in many ways.

One thing I'm finding fascinating in this representation, however, is that Pitt seems to be telling us that Achilles was gay. Of course the Encyclopedia Britannica Junior was going to contain a very sanitized version of his life. But nothing else provided that perspective. It appears one of his lovers was his "cousin" (whose name I didn't catch) but as the story progresses, that concept is downplayed in deference to his finding Briseis and ultimately developing care for her.

From a historical analysis I saw many years ago on a PBS program, there was a discussion of Greek moralities and customs. Because so much emphasis was placed on family and the sanctity of the union, the virginity of the bride, men were allowed homosexual relationships until they were ready to wed. Once married, homosexual relationships were forbidden and the marriage bed was protected from desecration. So also were the young women protected from premature awareness and childbirth too early for the development and successful delivery of healthy offspring. Dalliances were discouraged.

I'm also finding the portrayal of the women and their roles in the household (even if it is the court) is fascinating. There seems to be a lot of liberty and freedom in many ways. Whereas, the knowledge I've been given before seeing this is that women were still subservient but not as much as other civilizations. There's no representation of how women played a role in political strategy and decision making. But then, women were the minor characters in this story. This was a story about how one woman caused a war and the focus was on carrying out the war.

Still, this story says women played a very minor role in life and governing. Why have women been treated as mere public eye candy and baby bearers? They are so essential is bringing about developing our cultures, telling the stories, being in partnership with the work and essential in planning. Yet, here again, they are shown as being the minor characters and mere tools in carrying out the larger scheme of life.

As in my youth, I viewed this movie and got curious about the facts - which were real and which fictional. I don't have a wonderful encyclopedia now. I have my laptop and access to information on the Web. So I went to the story of Achilles that can be found on Wikipedia. Interesting how this movie dovetailed so well with the facts on the encyclopedia.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Month to Honor Augustus

cross-posted from

In 8BC, the month of Sextilis was re-named in honor of Rome's first emperor and we've called it August ever since.

In choosing the month to honor him, Augustus didn't choose the month of his own birth, but rather, the month in which he conquered Cleopatra. Augustus had his detractors, then and now, but it seems only right that we should take this month to celebrate his accomplishments.

Augustus put an end to the civil wars by ruthlessly eliminating all possible rivals. Once he was the unquestioned ruler of the empire, however, he was able maintain a period of relative peace and prosperity for the Romans that lasted more than two hundred years. This became known as the Pax Romana.

A superb administrator, he seems to have attempted to inculcate a love of peace in the Roman mindset that transcended the more traditional aspirations of war-booty and territorial expansion. What's more, unlike his predecessor, Julius Caesar, Augustus had a knack for recruiting men who would not only be useful to him, but also, loyal. Though Augustus wasn't talented on the battlefield, he befriended men of military brilliance, like his school friend, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa.

Order was the byword of his regime, and he used his authority as "First Citizen" to reform and stabilize the empire. He introduced the notion of publicly funded police and fire fighters. He maintained a standing army to defend Roman territory. He built an unprecedented number of roads and instituted public projects on a scale never attempted before, or perhaps since. He standardized taxation throughout the empire and he restored a great many temples.

Of his most enduring legacies was the effective political use of an appeal to traditional values to silence his critics. Augustus asked the Romans to reform their behavior so as to be in keeping with older and supposedly more simple times. He passed all manner of social legislation that directly interfered with the family lives of his subjects--laws on marriage, adultery, and social obligation. His attempt to transform Roman society was ultimately a failure: within a generation, the debauched days of Caligula were visited upon the Romans. However, the political notion of a culture war endures to this day.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The History of Bubble Gum

Bubble gum was invented accidentally in 1928 by Walter E. Diemer. Here's what Walter Diemer, an accountant at the Fleer Chewing Gum Company in Philadelphia.  In his spare time, he tried out new bubble gum recipes.  Many of them.  But it was his very last experimental batch that was unexpectedly, incredibly different.

It wasn't as sticky as regular chewing gum and it stretched with much ease and great elasticity.   He looked around and spotted a pink coloring, the only one available at the Fleer store rooms at the time.   

At the age of 23, young Walter was excited at his discovery.  To test it out, he took a five-pound glop of the stuff to a local grocery store.  He sold out the entire amount in a single afternoon.

                                                                Original Wrapper

Fleer, realizing their accountant was on to something big, quickly marketed the new gum as "Dubble Bubble." To help sell the new bubble gum, Diemer pent hours training the salespeople on how to blow the perfect bubble so that they could teach their customers.  Dubble Bubble remained the only bubble gum on the market until Bazooka hit the market after World War II.

DUBBLE BUBBLE, the first bubble gum ever and a strong classic property is now owned under the Tootsie-Roll Industries umbrella of popular candies in the Concord Brands collection. The popular bubble gum and its other brands include Razzles, Tongue Splashers, Nik-L-Nip, Wack-O-Wax, Cry Babies and many others.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How Did Cleopatra Really Die?

cross-posted from

The story of Cleopatra's death, as handed down to us by her conqueror, is that she killed herself by means of a poisonous snake. According to Suetonius, the stunned Octavian summoned snake charming Psylli to suck the poison from puncture wounds found on her arm. Later, she was depicted in a wax effigy during Octavian's triumph with an asp clutched to her breast and contemporary poets like Virgil also alluded to the snake as the instrument of her death.

It could be that they were all wrong. As Plutarch eventually admits, no one knows the truth of how Cleopatra died. Strabo may have actually been in in Alexandria at the time of her death, and he suggests that she may have put poison at the end of a needle. But none of the ancients seem to have favored the idea that she gulped down a poisonous mixture in the form of a drink, so modern claims that there was no cobra and that she drank a poison concoction must be eyed with at least a little healthy skepticism.

It's become fashionable to challenge the manner in which Cleopatra died and also to suggest that she may have been murdered or forced to suicide. It's even theorized that Octavian sent Dolabella to the queen with an elaborate story about how she'd be dragged through the streets of Rome for the express purpose of convincing her that killing herself was the only way to preserve her dignity.

Adherents to these theories point out that Octavian was a master propagandist who wanted to be rid of the queen and was willing to lie about how she died so as to ensure that he'd be held blameless. However, it seems that historians ought to base their conclusions upon more than a belief that Octavian was a liar.

A living Cleopatra was an enormous inconvenience to Octavian. He was undoubtedly better off with her dead than alive. However, it's equally true that there isn't a single ancient source that accuses Octavian of having killed the queen or having encouraged her to kill herself. In fact, Plutarch tells us that Cleopatra was researching painless forms of suicide long before Octavian stepped foot in Alexandria. Moreover, we're presented by an undisputed claim that when Cleopatra was first captured, she was already trying to kill herself with a knife. Even after she was disarmed by Gaius Proculeius, the queen thereupon stopped eating and allowed herself to succumb to illness until Octavian threatened her children. All of this happened before the much ballyhooed talk with Dolabella, and establishes a pattern of suicidal behavior.

Finally, there is the matter of Octavian trying to revive her. Certainly, Octavian was not above play-acting, but this would seem to fit the pattern of historical sources that tell us the queen's death came as a surprise to him.

Like Plutarch, I'll admit that no one knows the truth of how Cleopatra died. But the preponderance of the evidence still seems to be that she took her fate into her hands and ended her own life...quite possibly with the help of a venomous snake. And for purposes of a historical novelist, suicide by snake was good enough for Margaret George, so it's good enough for me!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Meanwhile, Back at the Pipeline

In my last posting, I introduced the concept of conflict and how a writer can't survive without one. In point of fact, each novel has many conflicts - some major and some minor. These drive the plot forward and make what we write interesting. Without conflict, there's no story. Want an example?

Go Fish

Take a short book that everyone read in high school: Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. You may have struggled to remain interested while the old man fought the fish. Page after page. That was one conflict: Man against nature. It was also man against himself: the old guy could have tossed in the hook, line, and sinker and decided to start out fresh in the morning. But he didn't.

Without that conflict the story would have read: "Old man takes young boy out on the ocean for a day fishing. Then they go home." Wow. Even Hemingway wasn't that sparse with the prose. With that in mind, let's go back to the Alaska Pipeline and seek conflict.

The Top Ten List

1. Michener would probably have begun with the creation of the universe, but we can start a bit later. Imagine the struggles the first explorers to this territory endured. Perhaps a fissure in the ice unseen by the team and which led to a difficult rescue of one of the essential team members.

2. The team gets lost in a whiteout and is in danger of death by exposure. Perhaps they find an ice cave but it's occupied by a rival team and murder and mayhem break out.

3. Once the find has been recorded, First Nations People object to the rape of the earth. Murder can ensue.

4. Environmentalists and oil company moguls clash over use of this fragile land.

5. Conflict arises within the ranks of the environmentalists over how to fight the pipeline.

6. Conflict arises within the ranks of the oil company over misappropriation of funds.

7. Two lovers murder her husband or his wife (or both)and use the setting to dispose of the body.

8. One of the team members is a deserter from a branch of the Armed Forces and success of the mission could expose his true identity. He works to sabotage the effort.

9. Environmental activists fight among themselves over creating a break in the oil pipeline to create support for their opposition to the project.

10. While digging for the pipeline, scientists uncover evidence of ......... (Fill in the blank)...

Just a few possibilities to mull over. Setting is so much more than time and place.

Friday, July 9, 2010


What's the Problem?

You might try to avoid conflict in your life, but if you’re a writer conflict is essential to your story. Without it you’ve got nothing. Blah. Zilch. Nada. The nice part about conflict is there’s so much of it about that you needn’t look to far afield to find some you can use.

Last month I journeyed way north, so far north that I managed to dip my fingers into the Arctic Ocean. That got me thinking about setting and that naturally led to conflict.

Driving from central Idaho to Prudhoe Bay is a journey of more than 3,500 miles and with each degree of latitude ticked off, the country grows wilder and less civilized. That’s a good thing to my way of thinking. Conflicts abound throughout the civilized or semi-civilized world, but once you get to meet nature in the raw, so to speak, conflicts become more elemental in both senses of the word. They’re more basic and they tend to involve the elements.

Back to Basics

Two basic conflicts come to mind here in the Arctic: Man vs. Man – although today that would also read Woman vs. Woman - and Man or Woman vs. Nature. Jack London used the latter conflict in the short story “The Call of the Wild” but the former intrigues with possibilities galore. Here’s just one.

Got Oil?

The Pipeline snakes its way from Prudhoe Bay all the way to Valdez, from coast to coast and bisecting the entire state of Alaska. Why? To feed the nation’s appetite for gasoline and other marvels of petrochemical science is the obvious answer. But the conflicts underlying this massive undertaking present a rich resource for the historical novelist.


I’m going to come up with a list of ten possible conflicts that could become possible story options. I’ll post these next time. In the meantime, why not come up with your own list and we'll see how they compare.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Classic Love Song

A lot of songs have been going through my head for the past week or more. Some of it is classical music but on it's face it wouldn't be classified as classical. Nevertheless, tonight I'm collecting them and storing them on my profile page so that they can live in a place where they can be remembered as classics and contrasted against other things that can be considered classic. They're also shared in this post as hyperlinks to YouTube. Right click any of the links and select your preference on how to open it so you too can experience the rendition of the recording.

One of the songs is by one of my favorite composers, Stravinsky! (No, but I can't remember his name right now. I'll say it in a minute.) "I Loves You Porgy," is the song. It's one of those classic love songs. The version that keeps going through my head is the very soulful one by Nina Simone. I found that one (actually, two versions by Nina) but I also found one version of it by "Billie Holiday. I Loves You Porgy

Now Billie is one of those singers who makes it difficult for me to listen to what's being sung. But people rave about her and her singing even now. (Her professional nickname is "Lady Day.") So I endeavor to listen and learn to appreciate whatever it is they're hearing and the concepts she embodies. Given what Bess is singing about, it seemed quite ironic that Billie Holiday should be singing that song.

She and Bess faced the same type of Sportin' Life who lured her down a dark, dangerous, and deadly path. Unfortunately, there aren't many who are able to travel that road without getting singed. Holiday became one of those tragic statistics of both the Road to Fame and the Road to Sportin' Life. It seems to be a classic story. But her quiet, innocent veneer was not a facade. It was more legitimate than anything else about her life.

What I saw as I watched the video was a woman who merely sang the words and notes, bereft of any emotions, bereft of any attachment to the meaning they hold. She was just quietly crooning a tune. That approach, however, was quite effective when I watched her sing the notorious "Strange Fruit." That song's theme is so horrific that most likely the only way to deliver it is with the same quiet innocence she employed. Anything else would be overkill. It has become a classic presentation.

Nina Simone's version haunts you. You hear the anguish, the woman's soul torn in twain for the man she loves compared with the man who brings her the symbolic love from which she wants to be torn.

Nina has two versions. One is from 1962 from 1962 which is an interpretation of not only Bess's song but a progression through several of the songs from the opera before moving into her love song. I didn't think I'd care for it. But as she moved into the close, it became a definite love song to Porgy, her strong vocals reaching out to her man as she promises him what she will do while they're together.

Overall, the version I still like best, the one that runs through my head tonight and is the symbolism of the dilemma that plagues Bess, is the one she sings in the single version (not the collage) of the classic love song to Porgy. I Loves You Porgy by Nina Simone It isn't Sportin' Life of which she sings, but what Sportin' Life has to offer. It's the craving that gets instilled in what he offers that becomes the irresistible magnet in spite of how strong her love for Porgy remains.

George Gershwin wrote the opera "Porgy and Bess," not Igor Stravinsky. They're amazing composers, each in his own right. While both are two of my favorite classical composers, they provide us with strikingly different perspectives of classical music as well as how it affects our thoughts and ideas.

I love diversity everywhere it's found.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Rashi, an 11th-12th Century Talmudic Scholar

By Nan Hawthorne, Random Biographies

The author of the first comprehensive scholarly commentary on the Talmud1, and considered the father of all that came after, Shlomo Yitzhaki (or "son of Yitzhak") was a French rabbi better known by the acronym Rashi (RAbi SHlomo yItzhaki). He was born in 1040 AD in Troyes, Champagne. His father, a vintner, was his first Torah2 teacher, but on his death Rashi found other scholars in both Troyes and Worms. The tradition in which he studied was rich in understanding of the meaning of the Torah and Talmud, paving the way for his own works that are both profound and accessible to beginning students.

At 25 he moved back to Troyes where he was made a part of the rabbincal court and later named to head it. He established a yeshiva3 there in 1070 that drew many disciples. In 1096 Mainz Jewish population was massacred by members of the People's Crusade, and Rashi wrote several Selichot4 mourning the slaughter. In addition seven of Rashi's Selichot still exist, including Adonai Elohei Hatz'vaot5, which is recited on the eve of Rosh Hashanah6, and Az Terem Nimtehu7, which is recited on the Fast of Gedalia8.

Rashi died on July 13, 1105, and was buried in Troyes. The site was lost, but was again discovered by more recent scholars and now bears a memorial to Rashi.
Rashi's commentary on the Tanakh9 — and especially his commentary on the Chumash10 — is the essential companion for any study of the Talmud at any level. Drawing on the breadth of Midrashic11, Talmudic and Aggadic12 literature (including literature that is no longer extant), as well as his knowledge of grammar, halakhah, and how things work, Rashi clarifies the "simple" meaning of the text so that a bright child of five could understand it. At the same time, his commentary forms the foundation for some of the most profound legal analysis and mystical discourses that came after it. Scholars debate why Rashi chose a particular Midrash11 to illustrate a point, or why he used certain words and phrases and not others. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi wrote that “Rashi’s commentary on Torah is the ‘wine of Torah’. It opens the heart and uncovers one’s essential love and fear of God."  Wikipedia13
His three daughters were also Talmudic scholars and married to the same. You can learn more in Maggie Anton's "Rashi's Daughters" trilogy: Rashi's Daughters, Book I: Joheved: A Novel of Love and the Talmud in Medieval France, Rashi's Daughters, Book II: Miriam: A Novel of Love and the Talmud in Medieval France, and Rashi's Daughters, Book III: Rachel: A Novel of Love and the Talmud in Medieval France.

Glossary and notes

1  Talmud:  The collection of ancient Rabbinic writings consisting of the Mishnah and the Gemara, constituting the basis of religious authority in Orthodox Judaism.  The Mishnah  is the first section of the Talmud, being a collection of early oral interpretations of the scriptures as compiled about a.d. 200.  The Gemara is the second part of the Talmud, consisting primarily of commentary on the Mishnah.
2  Torah:  The first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.  (Sometimes called the Pentateuch.)
3  yeshiva:  An institute of learning where students study sacred texts, primarily the Talmud.
4  Selichot:  penitential poems and prayers, especially those said in the period leading up to the High Holy Days, and on Fast Days. The Thirteen Attributes of God are a central theme throughout the prayers.
5 Adonai Elohei Hatz'vaot:  Selichot recited on the eve of Rosh hashanah.
6  Rosh Hashanah:  commonly referred as the Jewish New Year (literally translated as "head of the year").
7  Az Terem Nimtehu:   Selichot recited on the Fast of Gedalia..
8  Fast of Gedalia:  a Jewish fast day from dawn until dusk to lament the assassination of the righteous governor of Judah of that name, which ended Jewish rule and completed the destruction of the first Temple..
9  Tanakh:  Bible used in Judaism
10 Chumash:  a Hebrew word for the Pentateuch, used in Judaism.  (See Torah.)
11 Midrash/Midrashic:  a Hebrew term referring to the not exact, but comparative (homiletic) method of exegesis (hermeneutic) of Biblical texts, which is one of four methods cumulatively called Pardes. The term midrash can also refer to a compilation of homiletic teachings (commentaries) on the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), in the form of legal and ritual (Halakha) and legendary, moralizing, folkloristic, and anecdotal (Haggadah) parts.

12 Aggadic:  refers to the homiletic and non-legalistic exegetical texts in classical rabbinic literature - particularly as recorded in the Talmud and Midrash. In general, Aggadah is a compendium of rabbinic homilies that incorporates folklore, historical anecdotes, moral exhortations, and practical advice in various spheres, from business to medicine.


Glossary definitions primarily from The Free Online Dictionary.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Can the language of historical fiction ever be ‘authentic’?

One of the enduring debates among writers of historical fiction is: to what degree can we legitimately - or even intelligibly - use language or literary forms authentic to a given period?

Anyone who has struggled through Peter Ackroyd’s lusty archaisms in The Clerkenwell Tales (14thc) - or the crabbed typography of Hawksmoor (18thc) - might agree with Roland Barthes that fiction comes in just two genres: writerly and readerly.

The first is sipped slowly and savoured for its language tricks and droll conceits. The conjuror is visible everywhere behind his smoke and mirrors. The second is consumed at a gulp, then left behind on a deckchair as a tip for the beach attendant. If the former is published at all, it wins an obscure award from a little magazine and is remaindered within three months. The latter pays the rent.

Yet I firmly believe - although I cannot prove it - that a silent minority of erudite readers is now on the march. No longer will they suffer linguistic howlers, such as Anya Seton immortalised half a century ago in Katherine (1954). The novel has been rightly acclaimed for its attention to historical detail yet in a random sample of some 5000 words (pp. 41-53), I noted ‘scrawny’ M19, ‘coquetry’ M17, ‘chunky’ M18, ‘tawdry’ L17, ‘apoplectic’ E17, and ‘fiddlefaddle’ L16.

Granted, only a pedant would challenge such trivia. How else can an historical writer communicate with a modern reader, except in a modern idiom? (How otherwise could we write a novel set in ancient Rome? Or Ming dynasty China? Or the paleolithic era?) The reader tacitly accepts that the author must write from an atemporal perspective, separate from the period.

But reported speech is another matter, when a story is set in a relatively recent period of English history. I would contend that Seton’s use of the mid-19th century idiom ‘such a mollycoddle’ (p. 372) in 14th century dialogue - when the currency then of both ‘molly’ E18, and ‘coddle’ E19 is implausible - is a howler. This is just one of several examples.

If Katherine was a pantomime like The Other Boleyn Girl, it wouldn't matter. But Seton's work is, in all other respects, brilliantly researched. So the howlers show.

Is this mere hair-splitting? Does the reader really care if, for example, we put the term ‘mob’ (L17) into the mouth of a Shakespearian poet? Yes, I think that - increasingly - s/he does. An habituĂ© of historical fiction often becomes an expert in a given period. Howlers throw readers out of our story - and result in our books being thrown at the wall.

Of course, the ‘expert’ reader may be wrong. Dictionaries are fallible. They cannot attempt to record every word that was ever spoken or written so they can only guess at the date of its first use. For example, the OED credits Lewis Carroll with the coinage of the term ‘chortle’ (chuckle+snort) (L19). Yet a similar word ‘snortle’ (snort+chuckle) was in common use in the late 16th century. So, almost certainly, was the term ‘chortle’.

The few records that have come down to us, and their words, are the unrepresentative survivors of a massive shipwreck.

Yet... the author is not exonerated from the test of plausibility. If the reader detects a linguistic howler in our work (although the reader may be wrong), the illusion is shattered. When I had a character in my last Elizabethan novel abandon his ‘go cart’ to ‘jet’ about Europe, arrive in England by ‘bus’, take his ‘train’ to Slough, then leave his ‘car’ at Ivinghoe, some critics chided me for my anachronisms.

Nonsense! I was simply being faithful to the everyday language of the 1590s when such terms, surprisingly, were also associated with transport. The truly erudite reader, I felt, would have understood (and chortled). But s/he didn't. In the reader's view, I had committed five howlers.

Needless to say, most historical novelists don’t give a toss for this debate. If the story entertains, the supermarket book shopper - who wouldn’t know a solecism from a bogof - is satisfied. And novelists can pay their rent.

Alas, I do give a toss. In a silly quest for fidelity in period language, I once compiled a thesaurus. I took 799 modern headwords - eg. ‘fool’ - and linked them to some 6000 equivalent words and phrases from the 16th and 17th centuries. (You never know when you might need the term ‘noodle-pate’, if only for purposes of self-description.)

You can download my Little Lexicon of Jacobethan Words here without charge: The Lazy Professor. Of course, if you do, you will be at serious risk of having your next novel thrown at the wall. But for all the wrong reasons.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Women's Struggles and Sacrifices

It's a little after 3:30 PM here and I'm sipping the last quarter of my comfort mug of breakfast coffee. I finally succeeded, after three attempts, in actually arising and staying out of bed at 1:10 PM. The laundry still sits next to me in the over-sized bag I use to take it into the basement where the on-site laundry is located. It's been patiently waiting since it was organized on Saturday morning.

Yesterday I finally understood the symptoms. Sometime between one of my risings and about an hour ago, I started putting these dynamics together like rails on a picket fence. Parallels of women in history who strove against the odds and how they felt about their circumstances, the prices they were paying -- and still are. Some of those heroines were recorded and acknowledged for their efforts, some not. The totality of them are now my sisters, grandmothers, aunts, and cousins in time and women's issues and feminism. They are my predecessors and I am the predecessor of the ones who come after me who have not yet learned the lessons of the extra effort to be a notable woman for your value and efforts and how to be recognized and acknowledged, even by some small audience, for having allowed your cup to spill over.

Right now I understand the difference between the glass half full and the glass half empty. It is half full because it is constantly being replenished. Therefore, it is never depleted and is always in some state of being full. The glass half empty started as full (maybe even more than full) but is constantly being depleted. There's nothing or only drops that attempt to refill but it is insufficient.

Recollection of the story of Mary Wollstonecraft comes to mind, especially her last year, in light of the radical political philosophies she promulgated. She struggled and strove to get her manuscripts not only published but also be paid for her efforts so that she could survive as well as care for her child. One sacrifice after another she made. First, sending the child to another family so that she would not have to endure the starknesses, the want, and the deprivation of existence that loomed for her mother. Unfortunately, the child (Mary Bysshe Shelley) and especially her older sister did not understand the sacrifices and thought herself a monster who had been rejected. But even in her state of depression, she gave birth to such rich literary classics.

Recollection of those two also calls to mind the unrecorded and timeless histories of mistresses throughout the ages of slave masters. These women obediently gave their bodies to endless days of labor in the house only to find themselves gratefully giving their bodies throughout the night. They were grateful that those were the payments for not being thrown into the streets to fend for themselves with no means of support or else killed for failure to submit. At any rate, they were spared their lives at the cost of their souls.

Some remembered how to sing and did. Some remembered the beauty of their surroundings and sucked them in at every opportunity. Little things gave a bonus to watching the sun rise each morning and offer an Amen as it set at night. On occasions, the one of her heart held her close and poured his life into her loins; she had the joy of remembering that there really was Life and tenderness and grace and meaning to the constant struggle.

What would have happened and where would we be had those women said "No" to the oppression, "No" to the repression, "No" to the cruelty, "No" to the ridiculous, and "No" to the insidious? I dare say it would be like the night skies without the multitude of stars because we would have none of the heroines, sung and unsung, as our guide stones.
Hard was thy fate in all the scenes of life
As daughter, sister, mother, friend, and wife;
But harder still, thy fate in death we own,
Thus mourn'd by Godwin with a heart of stone.
(from "Wollstonecraft and Fuseli" by British poet Robert Browning and that by William Roscoe)

Yvonne LaRose, CAC

An Anglo Saxon Riddle

he people of Anglo Saxon England loved riddles. The telling and solving of these early interactive poems was a major source of entertainment for young and old around the campfire or fire pit, and luckily for us many such riddles were recorded in The Exeter Book. Here is just one of 91 such which you can find in Old English and Modern English at

Riddle 37

Writings reveal this creature's plain
Presence on middle-earth, marked by man
For many years. Its magic, shaping power
Passes knowing. It seeks the living
One by one, winds an exile's road,
Wanders homeless without blame, never there
Another night. It has no hands or feet
To touch the ground, no mouth to speak
With men or mind to know the books
Which claim it is the least of creatures
Shaped by nature. It has no soul, no life,
Yet it moves everywhere in the wide world.
It has no blood or bone, yet carries comfort
To the children of men on middle-earth.
It has never reached heaven and cannot reach
Hell--but must live long through the word
And will of the king of creation's glory.
It would take too long to tell its fate
Through the world's web: that would be
A wonder of speaking. Each man's way
Of catching the creature with words is true.
It has no limbs, yet it lives!
If you can solve a riddle quickly,
Say what this creature is called.

Riddle 71

I grew in the ground, nourished by earth
And cloud-until grim enemies came
To take me, rip my living from the land,
Strip my years-shear, split, shape me
So that I ride homeless in a slayers hand,
Bent to his will. A busy sting,
I serve my lord if strength and strife
On the field endure and his hold is good.
We gather glory together in the troop,
Striker and death-step, lord and dark lunge

My neck is slim, my sides are dun,
My head is bright when the battle-sun
Glints and my grim loving lord bears me
Bound for war. Bold soldiers know
That I break in like a brash marauder,
Burst the brain-house, plunder halls
Held whole before. From the bone-house
One breaks ready for the road home.
Now the warrior who feels the thrust
Of my meaning should say what I'm called.

Find the solutions at the very bottom of the right hand column on Nan Hawthorne's Booking History.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Weather and History

We've been slogging through an exceptionally wet spell, here in Idaho, and having noticed my mood has been going distinctly south more and more each day that there's no break in the rain, that got me to musing about the effect weather has on history. That's an exceptionally long introductory sentence, as I look it over, and it seems that the weather is having a draggy effect on my writing as well.

SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a recognized medical condition characterized by feelings of depression, malaise, and fatigue. It appears that lack of sunlight can cause a host of negative physical symptoms and the treatment is exposure to sunlight. Actually, there's a great deal more involved, but sunlight is key to regaining a sense of metabolical equilibrium.

However, too much sunlight can trigger another set of physical problems, ranging from sunburn to skin cancer. Again, it's finding the proper balance that seems to do the trick.

The Historical Connection

And now for the tie-in to history. What affects one individual also affects collections of individuals and when it's the weather that's the catalyst, people can get downright cranky. In fact, they can get rebellious.

July 4, 1776 - The signing of the Declaration of Independence and the beginning of the American Revolution.

July 14, 1789 - Storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution.

These two examples of the long, hot summers of rebellion make me wonder if the heat took its toll on the populace and one more hot day was the proverbial straw.

The Exception that Proves the Rule

Aha! You say. But what about the Russian Revolution that began in February 1917, eh? No problem there. Have you ever been in Russia in the winter? Dark days, no sunlight, and unrelenting cold and snow and ice and sleet. People were getting antsy. They knew what was coming and had to do something to get rid of the angst that was building up inside. No better way toward catharsis than toppling the government.

Anyhow, just a few thoughts on how weather may have been a silent (or not so silent) partner in some major historical events. Anyone have any other events you can link to Mother Nature?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Historical Fiction Doesn't Have to be Good For You

Cross-posted from

The May issue of SOLANDER asks why historical fiction doesn't sell as well as teen vampire books; I think part of the answer is to be found within SOLANDER's pages. Here, as elsewhere in the historical fiction world, the tone many writers take is akin to that of a cranky adult scolding young children to eat their vegetables and forego cake.

I was particularly struck by the Letters section in which HNS Member Barry Webb takes to task the writers of historical mysteries set in Ancient Egypt & Rome for being set "into a culture where detective style investigations didn't take place" and then goes on to criticize best-selling author Wilbur Smith.

I cite this not to single out Mr. Webb or to dispute his right to like what he likes, but to use his comments as an example of two unfortunate attitudes I'd like to discourage in my fellow historical fiction authors. First, we should approach history with far more humility. Second, we should avoid destructive attitudes that undermine the commercialism of the genre.

With regard to Mr. Webb's first point: that detective investigations didn't take place in ancient Rome is not a foregone conclusion. While it is true that the Romans didn't even have the equivalent of a police force until the Augustan Age and that the Romans were untroubled by murders that would demand explanation in the modern world, the fact remains that our own criminal justice system derives, in part, from the Romans. They did have trials. They were interested in justice. And most importantly, the ancient Romans weren't another species.

We are often struck dumb by the differences between our culture and theirs, when we ought to be humbled at how much we are the same. To insist that no person in ancient Rome could have had an instinct to solve mysteries in detective-like fashion is a profoundly presumptuous point of view--one that probably alienates readers and adds nothing to our understanding of history.

To the second point, there are all sorts of styles of historical fiction, and we ought not marginalize the flavors we don't prefer. I believe it's inherently destructive to the commercial prospects of the genre to imply that the novels of Wilbur Smith are somehow less respectable than those of Colleen McCullough because the latter hews to an enumerative style and the former combines epochs to create epic stories. Both of these authors have seen commercial success and I've enjoyed each of them; their audiences overlap. McCullough may have penned the most scholarly fiction written about ancient Rome, but there isn't a single page of that series that could compete head-to-head with Wilbur Smith on an emotional level. Wilbur Smith's River God enchanted a generation of readers who might not otherwise have ever picked up a book about Ancient Egypt, and he's to be commended for it, not condemned.

As writers its our job to serve up a literary banquet. Some of our guests are going to like asparagus and some of them are going to like sweets, and some of them are going to want some of each. If we want to make the commercial market more viable for historical fiction, it seems to me that we ought to encourage the diversity, not rail against it.

Historical fiction doesn't have to be good for us. It doesn't have to be filled with fiber. It's sufficient that it rouses an interest in the time period. That it teaches a little bit and inspires the reader to learn more. It is fiction. It is meant to fill in all the sweet spaces that history leaves blank. This kind of confection can't rot your teeth, so let them eat cake!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Valorous Service

Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr.

Who is this man? Why is he important to us in terms of history, especially on this day of observance of those who have died and served their country?

The man is Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr., a distinguished and loyal United States military man who began his service in the Spanish American War. After serving in both World War I and II, he was tapped as an advisor for the purpose of being a de-segregationist of the U.S. military during World War II in the European arena.

He had a colorful career and was among those referred to as the Buffalo Soldiers (a most notable group of Black military men) and ultimately reached the rank of Brigadier General.

During Black History Month and a few weeks thereafter, it was interesting to not only read but also see dramatic representations of the attitudes toward soldiers of color. Their determination to be among those on the front lines in combat while face the very real danger of being killed in the line of fire was palpable in every line of dialogue among the male characters. In each instance, be they Japanese, Native American, Hispanic, or Black, they were denied the privilege of offering their blood, their limbs, their very lives to demonstrate that they were just as loyal and just as American as their White counterparts. Maybe that was a good thing in light of the fact that it meant they were more likely to go home intact to their wives and families. But staying in the shadows didn't show the world, let alone the White comrades, their willingness to stand and be counted as just as accountable, just as brave, just loyal to their country.

These were the ones who because of their cultural backgrounds were able to develop strategies that confused and confounded the enemy while allowing the U.S. forces to gain the upper hand. They wanted the opportunity to be used to their highest and best in service to their country and to freedom rather than relegated to the status of background players and mere servants. They fought a double battle not only on foreign soils but also an enduring one at home -- to be recognized and allowed. What an irony that their combat was not only for life and freedom of those being persecuted by the enemy but also for the freedom to be, live, and fairly compete for their day in the sun against, of all people, their fellow countrymen of another color.

But let us return to the original question. Who is this man, this Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr.? He is the man who served his country through three wars and over more than 50 years. He is the man who was pivotal in beginning the disintegration of the walls of racial barriers in the U.S. military, making it possible for each man to hold his chest high in presentment of the salute because he was standing in valorous service and full representation of his country. And he is even more.

Yvonne LaRose, CAC

Friday, May 28, 2010

What Was It Like to Live in the Middle Ages in Europe

Jeanne Crain as Guebever in The Sword of Lancelot, clean, warm, dry, elegant, well-nourished, healthy, naturally beautiful, and having all her teeth.  That's what the Middle ages was like.  Not.

You know what it is like to go camping. How would you like to camp from the moment you are born to the moment you die?

1. You spend a lot of time outdoors because indoors there was very little light even at the best of times.

2. You are only warm and dry when the weather outside is warm and dry.

3. If something hurts, it keeps hurting until it heals. The efficacy of herbal medicine that you read of in historical novels is highly optimistic.

4. You break a tooth on the bits of millstone in the bread you eat.

5. You do not change your clothes very often at all.

6. You never go more than several miles from where you were born.

7. You do not hear about important events for weeks, months or even years.

8. If you do travel, you are out in the weather whether walking or on horse, If it rains you get soaked. The roads are narrow and muddy much of the time.

9. If you leave your loved ones or they leave you to live even a matter of leagues away, you hear very little if anything from or about them ever.

10. The food you eat is based on what is in season at the time or what could be preserved or stored. There is little variety.

11. You breathe in smoke from your fire day and night.

12. You probably have to deal with lice and fleas.

13. If you become pregnant you know you have a strong chance of dying in childbirth.

14. Just about everything you have you or someone in your family made by hand.

15. You never have any privacy.

16.  You are more likely not to know how to read or write.

17.  It is unlikely you have ever seen a book outside of a church or monastery and probably fewer than five ever.

18.  Depending on where you live you may or may not bathe regularly, but when you do, it is likely you are in wooden tub with slivers and air in the room is cold.  You would use a lye based soap if any.

19.  You start worrying whether your daughter is ever going to get married when she is fifteen.

20.  If you have any sort of disability, physical , sensory, emotional or mental, you will be lucky if you at least get to live at home and not be forced out to beg on the street.
The point of this list is not to disturb anyone's illusions, but simply to acknowledge differences that are easy to forget. It is likewise easy to forget that these conditions still exist in the world.

Feel free to add to this list.

Reprinted from Nan Hawthorne's Booking History.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Vestal Virgins

Reprinted from History and Women Blog.

In Ancient Rome, the vestal virgins were virgin female priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. It was their job to maintain the sacred fire of Vesta. 

This duty was a great great honor and granted the women many privileges and honors.  They were the only female priests within the Roman religious system.

The discovery of a "House of the Vestals" in Pompeii made the vestal virgins a popular subject in the 18th century and the 19th century.  The objects of the cult were essentially the hearth fire and pure water drawn into a clay vase.

A Roman man by the name of Numa Pompilius introduced the vestal virgins and assigned them salaries from the public treasury.

He stole the first vestal virgin from her parents.  More vestal virgins were added later.  The women became a powerful and influential force in the Roman state.  

Numa Pompillius

The chief vestal oversaw the efforts of the vestals.  The last known chief vestal was Coelia Concordia in 380. The College of Vestal Virgins ended in 394, when the fire was extinguished and the vestal virgins disbanded by order of Theodosius I.

The vestal virgins were committed to the priesthood at a young age (before puberty) and were sworn to celibacy for a period of 30 years.  These 30 years were, in turn, divided into three periods of a decade each: ten as students, ten in service, and ten as teachers.  Afterwards, they could marry if they chose to do so.

However, few took the opportunity to leave their respected role cause they lived luxuriously and marriage would have required them to submit to the authority of a man, with all the restrictions placed on women by Roman law.  On the other hand, a marriage to a former vestal virgin was highly honoured.

A vestal was chosen by the high priest from young girl candidates between their sixth and tenth year.  To obtain entry into the order they were required to be free of physical and mental defects, have two living parents and to be a daughter of a free born resident in Italy.

To replace a vestal who had died, candidates would be presented in the quarters of the chief vestal for the selection of the most virtuous.   Once chosen they left the house of their father, were inducted by the pontifex maximus, and their hair was shorn.  The high priest pointed to his choice with the words, "I take you to be a vestal priestess, who will carry out sacred rites which it is the law for a vestal priestess to perform on behalf of the Roman people, on the same terms as her who was a vestal on the best terms".

Their tasks included the maintenance of the fire sacred to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home, collecting water from a sacred spring, preparation of food used in rituals and caring for sacred objects in the temple's sanctuary.  By maintaining Vesta's sacred fire, from which anyone could receive fire for household use, they functioned as "surrogate housekeepers", in a religious sense, for all of Rome. Their sacred fire was treated, in Imperial times, as the emperor's household fire.

The vestals were put in charge of keeping safe the wills and testaments of various people such as Caesar and Mark Antony.  In addition, the vestals also guarded some sacred objects, including the Palladium, and made a special kind of flour called mola salsa which was sprinkled on all public offerings to a god.

The dignities accorded to the vestals were significant.  In an era when religion was rich in pageantry, the presence of the Vestal Virgins was required in numerous public ceremonies. 

They travelled in a carpentum, a covered two-wheeled carriage, preceded by a lictor, and had the right-of-way.  At public games and performances they had a reserved place of honor.  Unlike most Roman women, they were free to own property, make a will, and vote.  They gave evidence without the customary oath.  They were, on account of their incorruptible character, entrusted with important wills and state documents, like public treaties.  Their person was sacrosanct.  Death was the penalty for injuring their person and their escorts protected anyone from assault.  They could free condemned prisoners and slaves by touching them - if a person who was sentenced to death saw a vestal virgin on his way to the execution, he was automatically pardoned.   They were allowed to throw ritual straw figurines called Argei, into the Tiber on May 15 celebrations.

Site of the House of Vestal Virgins in Rome

Allowing the sacred fire of Vesta to die out, suggesting that the goddess had withdrawn her protection from the city, was a serious offense and was punishable by scourging.

The chastity of the vestal virgins was considered to have a direct bearing on the health of the Roman state. When they became vestal virgins they left behind the authority of their fathers and became daughters of the state. Any sexual relationship with a citizen was therefore considered to be incest and an act of treason. The punishment for violating the oath of celibacy was to be buried alive in the Campus Sceleratus or "Evil Fields" (an underground chamber near the Colline gate) with a few days of food and water.

Ancient tradition required that a disobedient vestal virgin be buried within the city, that being the only way to kill her without spilling her blood, which was forbidden. However, this practice contradicted the Roman law, that no person may be buried within the city. To solve this problem, the Romans buried the offending priestess with a nominal quantity of food and other provisions, not to prolong her punishment, but so that the vestal would not technically die in the city, but instead descend into a "habitable room". Moreover, she would die willingly. Cases of unchastity and its punishment were rare. The vestal Tuccia was accused of fornication, but she carried water in a sieve to prove her chastity.

Vestal sentenced to die

Because a vestal's virginity was thought to be directly correlated to the sacred burning of the fire, if the fire were extinguished it might be assumed that either the vestal had acted wrongly or that the vestal had simply neglected her duties. The final decision was the responsibility of the pontifex maximus, or the head of the pontifical college, as opposed to a judicial body.

While the order of the vestal virgins was in existence for over one thousand years there are only ten recorded convictions for unchastity. The earliest vestals were said to have been whipped to death for having sex.

The paramour of a guilty vestal was whipped to death in the Forum Boarium or on the Comitium.

The chief festivals of Vesta were the Vestalia celebrated June 7 until June 15. On June 7 only, her sanctuary (which normally no one except her priestesses, the vestal virgins, entered) was accessible to mothers of families who brought plates of food. The simple ceremonies were officiated by the vestals and they gathered grain and fashioned salty cakes for the festival. This was the only time when they themselves made the mola salsa, for this was the holiest time for Vesta, and it had to be made perfectly and correctly, as it was used in all public sacrifices.

Vestals wore an infula, a suffibulum and a palla. The infula was a long headdress that draped over the shoulders. Usually found underneath were red and white woolen ribbons. The suffibulum was the brooch that clipped the palla together. The palla was a simple mantle, wrapped around the vestal virgin. The brooch and mantle were draped over the left shoulder.

Learn more about women and their fascinating bios and histories at History and Women

Friday, May 21, 2010

Historical Figures in Historical Fiction


There’s a post over at Reading the Past which discusses the presence or absence of actual historical characters and events in historical fiction and whether the absence of them in books defines historical fiction or not.

I’m rather of the opinion that—going by the HNS definition—that it doesn’t make any difference whether there are any actual historical figures or notable events in the book or not. In fact—for every single historical book to have real life historical figures in it would actually be ludicrous, for it would mean if you were writing about ordinary people living their ordinary lives—say slaving away in the cane fields of America or grubbing a living in the sordid streets of the Potteries—to suddenly introduce a real historical person would be a huge jolt. I mean, look at even everyday lives today, how many people can say that they’ve met someone of note? (And I don’t mean a Big Brother third rate celebrity, but someone that history will remember, such as Nelson Mandela or Mother Theresa?

Granted there is a real life person in my second novel, Transgressions, the clever and charismatic Matthew Hopkins of Witchfinder fame. (Ignore the Vincent Price version puhleeze, that’s soft porn, just about).

But that wasn’t exactly a conscious decision to include him, image Jonathan just happened to be in the right place at the right time. And as for historical events, it would have been a little difficult to have two young men in 1642 NOT aware of the impending war. That being said, there is a true story which involves a farmer being asked if his land can be used for one of the battles and he said “Who’s fighting who, then?” (Communication not being a key aspect of the 17th century, and obviously not everyone knew about the war!)

But I don’t think it’s necessary at all to base your historical around real life events, or real life characters, and in fact its the stories that aren’t that I find most interesting. If anyone has read “The Boy I Love” by Marion Husband you’ll see that it’s just a story about people, living their lives. In the same gentle manner that many of A J Cronin’s books are written, or Cookson’s. image

To expect every book to be set around a historical event is also ludicrous. People always pick the same events too. I’d like someone to make a study of books written about the Titanic and add up how many people to date have sailed on the ill-fated ship. I would bet that her complement of passengers has increased by at least three-fold. I’m surprised she managed to get out of the harbour without sinking!

That being said – It always surprises me, with the enormous wealth of GLBT characters in history, that there aren’t more gay historical books about real GLBT characters.

So what do you think? Should historical novels all include famous people? Famous events? Or do you think that the little stories are just as important as the big ones?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Review: Duane Roller's Cleopatra Biography

Just when you thought everything that could possibly be written about the Queen of the Nile already had been, Duane Roller brings us a fresh new take. This scholarly work reads with the ease of a novel and even veteran students of Cleopatra will learn something new about history's most fascinating woman.

Cutting through the Augustan propaganda that has largely defined our contemporary view of Cleopatra as the wanton seductress and plaything of Roman generals, the book examines her skills as a linguist, diplomat, author, and naval commander. Roller does not portray her as a superwoman--after all, the Egyptian queen's plans did ultimately fail. But neither does he minimize her talents and accomplishments.

What emerges from the impeccably researched pages is a complex portrait of a woman who very nearly ruled the world. But lest we think she was all ambition, the book explains in detail that her first concern was always Egypt. Indeed, Professor Roller observes, "a failure to understand her essential needs was a constant misjudgment by the Romans."

In this book, we learn about Cleopatra in the context of the revolutionary times in which she lived as well as in the context of the legacy she inherited from her ancestors. But amongst the most enlightening revelations is a reference to Cleopatra's possible Egyptian blood and her relation to the priestly family of the god Ptah. It's become fashionable to dismiss Cleopatra's self-styled title of Philopatris and her learning of the Egyptian language as some sort of Egyptomania peculiar in a Greek queen. But if Roller's hypothesis is correct, then Cleopatra represented in her very person the merger of the Macedonian ruling class of Ptolemaic Egypt with the native people they ruled.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Mary Barrett Dyer (1611 - 1660)

Reprinted from History and Women Blog.

Mary was married at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on 27 October 1633. In 1637 she supported Anne Hutchinson, who preached that God "spoke directly to individuals" rather than only through the clergy. She joined with her and became involved in what was called the "Antinomian heresy," where they organized groups of women and men to study the Bible in contravention of the theocratic law of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

On October 17, 1637, after nearly four years of marriage, she gave birth to a deformed stillborn baby, whom she buried privately.

Because she had sided with Anne Hutchinson in the Antinomian heresy, she and her husband were banished. They moved to Providence, Rhode Island.

Shortly thereafter, the authorities learned of the “monstrous birth,” and Governor Winthrop had it exhumed in March 1638, before a large crowd. He described it thus:

“It was of ordinary bigness; it had a face, but no head, and the ears stood upon the shoulders and were like an ape’s; it had no forehead, but over the eyes four horns, hard and sharp; two of them were above one inch long, the other two shorter; the eyes standing out, and the mouth also; the nose hooked upward; all over the breast and back full of sharp pricks and scales, like a thornback [i.e., a skate or ray], the navel and all the belly, with the distinction of the sex, were where the back should be, and the back and hips before, where the belly should have been; behind, between the shoulders, it had two mouths, and in each of them a piece of red flesh sticking out; it had arms and legs as other children; but, instead of toes, it had on each foot three claws, like a young fowl, with sharp talons.”

Winthrop sent descriptions to numerous correspondents, and accounts were published in England in 1642 and 1644. The deformed birth was considered evidence of the heresies and errors of Antinomianism.

In 1652, they travelled to England, where Mary joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) after hearing the preaching of its founder and feeling that it was in agreement with the ideas that she and Anne Hutchinson held years earlier. She eventually became a Quaker preacher in her own right.

Her husband returned to Rhode Island in 1652. Mary remained in England until 1657. The next year she travelled to Boston to protest the new law banning Quakers, and was arrested and expelled from the colony. Her husband, who had not become a Quaker, was not arrested.

Mary continued to travel in New England to preach Quakerism, and was arrested in 1658 in New Haven, Connecticut. After her release she returned to Massachusetts to visit two English Quakers who had been arrested. She was also arrested and then permanently banished from the colony.

From there, she traveled to Massachusetts a third time with a group of Quakers to publicly defy the law, and was again arrested, but this time, she was sentenced to death.

After a short trial, two other Quakers were hanged, but because her husband was a friend of the Governor, he secured a last-minute reprieve, against Mary's wishes, for she had refused to repent and disavow her Quaker faith.

Mary was forced to return to Rhode Island, then traveled to Long Island, New York to preach, but her conscience led her to return to Massachusetts in 1660 to defy the anti-Quaker law. Despite the pleas of her husband and family, she again refused to repent, and was again convicted and sentenced to death on May 31. The next day, she was hanged on Boston Common for the crime of being a Quaker in Massachusetts. She died a martyr.

Her execution is described by Edward Burrough in A Declaration of the Sad and Great Persecution and Martyrdom of the People of God, called Quakers, in New-England, for the Worshipping of God (1661).

Her last words before she died were: “Nay, I came to keep bloodguiltiness from you, desireing you to repeal the unrighteous and unjust law made against the innocent servants of the Lord. Nay, man, I am not now to repent. ”

After her death a member of the General Court uttered one of those bitter scoffs which prove the truest of all epitaphs, "She did hang as a flag for others to take example by."

A bronze statue of Mary, created by a Quaker sculptor, now stands in front of the Massachusetts state capitol in Boston; a copy stands in front of the Friends Center in downtown Philadelphia, and another in front of Stout Meetinghouse at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana.

Mary Barrett Dyer

1611 – June 1, 1660

Visit History and Women for more historical women's biographies

Monday, May 17, 2010

Ideas are Everywhere

I've been doing some thinking about how writers of historical fiction come up with ideas for plots. Often, the solution is as simple as opening the front page of the newspaper and scanning through the local stories. There's a great deal of stuff going on in the heartland of America.

It's a diminishing resource, too, as newspapers seem to be going the way of button hooks and the dodo. However, I've found some gems in the Classifieds. For example, here's one from the New Haven Register some months back: "For Sale. Wedding dress. Size 10. Never worn. Best offer."

What a writer could do with that.

Pick your time period. I'm partial to the WWII era, but it could work in a multitude of times and cultures. People that setting and you've got an angry father, perhaps a murdered finance or a jilted bride. A wartime romance that didn't come to fruition? The possibilities are endless.

Toss in a murder, some crime of various sorts, troubled family relationships, and you can have a historical worth reading.

How do you find your ideas?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Was Shakespeare a time-travelling computer?

This question is not as absurd as it may at first appear. For centuries, scholars have wrestled with the Shakespeare authorship question. How ever did the son of a Stratford glover, with limited education, emerge as England's premier wordsmith?
Attempts to uncover his identity as Bacon, Marlowe or Oxford have foundered because they rest upon implausibilities even more absurd than those which suppose Shakespeare to have been a polymath (with no evidence of a library) having unprecedented verbal skills. Indeed, they defy the 'coherence of probabilities'.

First, Bacon was far too busy with civic affairs to churn out - in his spare time - as many as four plays in a year, as Shakespeare attestedly did in 1593-4 and 1599-1600. 'Proofs' of Bacon's signature encoded throughout the works in anagrams are risible. The scripts never stayed the same from one play night to the next, as the many variorium editions of the Folios suggest. For an anagram to be decryptable, it must be encoded in a durable and published text. Shakespeare (or whoever wrote his plays) never showed the slightest personal interest in publishing his evanescent scripts.

Moreover, the modern Dan Brown craze for finding expedient cryptograms in everything - famously exemplified by Drosnin's lucrative The Bible Code - was laughed to scorn even in the sixteenth century (see Montaigne's Essais, 1580).

Kit Marlowe is a candidate even less plausible. He died on 30th May 1593 yet many of Shakespeare's most famous plays were not only produced up to nine years later but also some, like Macbeth and The Tempest, are indisputably grounded upon contemporary events unknowable to the 16th century Marlowe.

Only Oxford remains a feasible candidate, but he exhibited little wit or genius in those writings attributed to him. Nor have recent experiments in corpus linguistics managed to trace any similarity between Oxford’s writings and Shakespeare’s.

All textual quibbles aside, the clearest impartial evidence that Shakespeare was, well, Shakespeare comes from his close friend Ben Jonson. If someone other than Shakespeare had written the plays (perhaps a Marlowe recidivus lurking in the closet?), Jonson would have known it. So would Shakespeare's early paymaster, Burbage, and all the other major actors like Kemp. (Who fell out with Shakespeare and was not noted for his discretion.)

This hints at a massive conspiracy. Yet Jonson gives no hint of it in his candid memoires Discoveries, published 1640 and written in the 1630s, nearly twenty years after Shakespeare's death.

True, Jonson was a great trickster and he may well have felt some obligation to Burbage in the early 1600s to maintain the hoax. But it seems unlikely that he would have taken it to his deathbed, when most of its participants had passed on.

No. Shakespeare was Shakespeare. So how was he able to write so well?

BRUTUS is a software programme developed at MIT that already composes convincing short stories indistinguishable from those written by a human author, but without human mediation. It is not impossible that the recuperation of Love’s Labours Won is next on its agenda.


Just suppose some futuristic university English dept had encrypted BRUTUS into algorithms as small as a virus, and time-flown them back to 1585, and implanted them in Shakespeare when he first left Stratford to make his fortune in London? Time travel? I am not privy to the technologies of future English depts. Unethical? Not for English depts. Trust me. I know these guys.

Suffice to say, this simple explanation entirely clears up the authorship question. In fact, MIT patently acknowledges that its program wrote Shakespeare. Why else would the program have embedded in Julus Caesar the explicit clue: 'Et tu, Brute?'.

(When this article first appeared in, it provoked a flame war with The Shakespeare Fellowship, a tribe of fideistic scholars who profoundly believe in the divinity of Oxford. My apologies for cross-posting it here.)

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