Archaeology News: UMass search for the Original Village at Plymouth

Many visitors to  Plymouth Plantation do not realize that this recreation of the pilgrims’ first village lies about three miles from its actual site in what is now downtown Plymouth. An archaeology team from UMass Boston is currently searching for evidence of the wooden palisade that surrounded the fort and the houses that surrounded it. Although most of the evidence unearthed so far dates from the 19th century, the hope is that some 17th century artifacts will turn up. But the main goal is to find the remnants of  the first houses and of the post holes the supported the walls built around them to protect the settlers. According to the article in the June 21 issue of the Boston Globe, the dig is part of a multi-year site survey and excavation leading up to the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing. The map posted here is from the same article, which can be found in its entirety here .

History News: Two New Portraits of Shakespeare

Discovery News writer Rosella Lorenzi has posted an exciting article about the two portraits shown above. According to Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, a professor of English at Mainz University, Germany, the one on the left shows Shakespeare as he was experiencing his first successes on the London stage, around 1594. The one on the right depicts him around the age of 50,  relaxing at home in Stratford. These two newly authenticated discoveries increase the number of known likenesses of the Bard to six. For more information, see the original article here, where you can also find images of the other known portraits.


Historical Fiction: Prophecy, by S.J. Parris

Prophecy (Giordano Bruno, #2)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

1583 is the year of the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, prophesied to be the moment of Queen Elizabeth’s downfall. Now in London following his perilous adventure in Oxford (Heresy), Giordano Bruno is residing in the household of the French ambassador, planted there by Walsingham to learn information about attempts to restore Mary Stuart to the throne, and Catholicism to England, via intervention from the Duke de Guise of France. There is much apocalyptic angst among the populace, stirred up by the many pamphleteers hawking mystical versions of what is to come. When two Maids of Honor are viciously murdered, with strange signs carved into their flesh, the court is thrown into great consternation and dread. Bruno is charged with discovering who might be behind these crimes, which are considered treasonous. Soon he is himself in great danger, knowing not how to distinguish friend from foe, and he fears that Elizabeth herself is indeed the target.

Prophecy unfolds at a very stately pace, with Bruno spending much time contemplating and concocting theories. During this too-lengthy sequence, Parris does a creditable job of evoking the spirit and conflicts of the times and the maze that was London. It is not until the final quarter of the novel that the real action begins, and when it finally arrives, the conclusion is rapid, almost forced. The true culprits emerge as something of a surprise, and there are enough ends left untied to merit a sequel. Heresy, book 1 in this series, served as a fine intro to the engaging, down to earth, sometimes hapless character, Bruno, and his exploits; let’s hope the third one moves along at as brisk a pace as the first.

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History News: Slave Quarters in Massachusetts. Who Knew?!

The Royall House (above left) and Slave Quarters (rear) in Medford, was built by Isaac Royall, a trader in rum, sugar, and slaves.

This evening I came across a fascinating article about the Royall family estate in Medford, MA, right near Tufts University. While there are many 18th century house museums in New England, I do not know of any, other than the Royall mansion, that has actual slave quarters. Since we teach a slavery program at the Webb-Deane-Stevens museum in CT, my attention was immediately snagged by this article. Slave quarters in New England? It was customary for  owners here to house their slaves – generally between 1 and 5, since there were few large “plantation” type properties – within their own homes, usually in the cellar or attic. Building separate “slave quarters” was simply not economically practical.

I can’t wait to visit Royall House and Slave Quarters. Find the detailed article about this important site here.

Historical Fiction: The Bones of Avalon, by Phil Rickman

The Bones of Avalon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are few Elizabethan figures more infamous and mysterious than John Dee, the Virgin Queen’s personal astrologer. Author Phil Rickman imagines a young John Dee, and sends him to Glastonbury, reputed resting place of King Arthur, on a secret quest. Rickman ups the ante by making Dee’s cohort none other than Robert Dudley, the queen’s favorite suitor. It isn’t long before a kidnapping, a gruesome murder, and a blossoming love affair make this quest a perilous one.

Any novel set among the ruins of a famous abbey and Glastonbury Tor would promise intrigue, magic, and mystery, but throw in solid historical research, brilliantly drawn characters, skillful plotting and evocative period detail, and you’ve got a winner. Not since Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett) have I encountered as dastardly a villain as the one who holds dominion here, and the touches of the paranormal, never over the top, add to the aura of eeriness. Phil Rickman never fails to deliver, and The Bones of Avalon is one of his best.

Recommended for fans of first rate historical fiction, first rate mystery, and first rate writing.

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History News: Abigail Adams’s Birthplace Reopens

Abigail Smith Adams, one of our most famous first ladies,  was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1744, to the Reverend William Smith and Elizabeth Quincy. The house in which she grew up and married has also had quite a history. Originally built on the corner of North and East Streets in 1685, it was enlarged in 1762, sold in 1788, torn down in 1838, and relocated and reconstructed twice. Today it stands again on North Street, close to its original location. Owned and operated by the Abigail Adams Historical Society, the building’s current restoration, and two year endeavor, is complete, and is set to reopen with a ribbon cutting on  June 29th. It will open to the public the following day from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Unusually for a house museum, this Birthplace is fully heated and air conditioned, which helps enormously with artifact preservation, and enables year-round programming.

For more information, visit the historical society’s newly designed website. 

Historical Fiction: New York, by Edward Rutherfurd

New York: The Novel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“I’m gonna make a brand new start of it, New York, New York”, sang Frank Sinatra and Liza Minelli in what has become the city’s anthem. As he did for England, Ireland, and Russia, Edward Rutherfurd has undertaken to relate the history of New York City in novel form. My favorite of all his works is Sarum, told the story of the evolution of Salisbury Cathedral, though his other titles are also well worth reading. From Manhattan’s earliest years to the decade following 9/11, Rutherfurd traces the experiences of the fictional Master family as New York grows in size, prominence, and status. Along the way, he deftly weaves in the stories and contributions of slaves, Dutch and English settlers, Native Americans, and members of the various immigration groups, all of whom have played such important roles in the making of one of the world’s greatest cities.

If the novel conveys a theme, it would be that of the ongoing effort to build a socially just community. The first third of the book, covering the period from the settling of New Amsterdam to the War for Independence, is perhaps the most compelling section, and the most detailed. From then on, the author is forced by the vast scope of his topic to skipping entire decades and eras in order to focus on what he views as the city’s most formative events, including the draft riots during the Civil War, the prejudices and struggles affecting each immigrant group as they attempt to assimilate, the Great Depression, and second half of the 20th century. His characters are well drawn, though in my view, the later Master descendants lack the depth and vitality of the earliest ones. Particularly vivid are the portrayals of Quash, one of the family’s slaves, and his family. And Rutherfurd successfully depicts that vibrant ambience of this crowded and multicultural place, only fourteen miles long and two wide, and surrounded by water and smaller islands.

Read the book and you’ll “want to be a part of” New York too.

Cats in Folktales – Puss in Boots

Puss in Boots is a very old European folk tale, known in many variations in many countries. The best known version is  that recounted by Charles Perrault in his 1697 collection of Mother Goose Tales in French. Basically, it is the story of a clever and magical cat who helps his poor master become rich by means of trickery. Folklorists believe that Puss in Boots originated as a tale in the oral tradition, and was first written down in Italy during the 1500’s.

Puss in Boots

Once upon a time a poor old man died and left his only three possessions to his three sons. The oldest boy got his mill, the second got his donkey and the youngest one got his cat.

The young boy was disappointed, and consoled himself by thinking he could always eat the cat. To save himself, the cat began to speak to him and struck a bargain: if the boy would give him a bag and a pair of boots, the cat would repay him by making him rich. The boy agrees, and the cat put on his new boots, grabbed his new bag, and went out to catch a rabbit. Carrying it in the bag, Puss in Boots brought the rabbit to the King in his palace, saying that it was a present from his master, the Prince of Carabas. After that the cat caught many more animals, and each time offered them to the King with the same message.

One day the King went for a ride in his coach near the river, and Puss in Boots, knowing this, told the miller’s son to go for a swim. While he was in the water, the cat hid his clothes, and then ran to the road and told the King that his master, the Prince of Carabas, was swimming when some thieves had stolen his clothes. The King wrapped the boy in a rich robe, and took him into his fabulous coach, seating him next to his daughter, the beautiful Princess.

Puss in Boots sprang into action, running ahead and threatening all of the farmers he encountered that if they did not tell the King that the all the fields belonged to the Prince of Carabas, they would all be chopped into pieces. Naturally, hearing this, the King believes the miller’s son is very rich indeed.

In reality, however, the lands were the property of a great and terrible ogre. Puss in Boots confronted the ogre at his castle, challenging him to prove the rumor that the ogre could turn himself into any animal he chose. Unable to resist showing off, the ogre changes himself into several different creatures. When he turned into a mouse, Puss in Boots pounced upon him and ate him up. As the King’s coach rolled onto the castle grounds, Puss in Boots greeted the royal party, presenting the ogre’s castle and all of his land as that of the miller’s son. The King was so impressed that he offered the boy the hand of the princess in marriage. So they were married and lived happily ever after. As for Puss in Boots, according to Perrault, he “became a personage of great importance, and gave up hunting mice, except for amusement”.

Great Nonfiction: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m familiar with the phrase “the Columbian Exchange”, but never spent much time working out all its nuances. Charles C. Mann takes up the topic in 1493. In a nutshell, the Exchange is the process through which the combination of old world and new world elements has interacted to form the global culture of today. Mann, not a historian himself, synthesizes a generation’s worth of research and literature into a lively, readable exposition on the political, cultural, and biological forces that were unleashed. Most such chronicles focus upon technology as the driving force in economic and social development. The Europeans, for instance, had superior weaponry and therefore easily conquered the New World’s indigenous peoples. But Mann argues that biological forces were much more influential in determining outcomes.

Opening with the first prolonged contact between cultures along the Atlantic coast, Mann describes how micro-organisms from the Europe, Asia, and Africa hitched free passage to the Americas, causing a myriad of problems that could not have been foreseen and were poorly understood at that time. The colonies nearly failed until a profitable commodity crop, tobacco, was established. It was a micro-organism that enabled an American victory in the war for independence, and other micro-organisms fostered the enslavement of Africans in many countries. Mann then moves on to the Pacific, where he looks at silver, corn, and piracy, and their effects on both sides of that vast ocean. His discussion of the food that enabled China’s population growth is particularly fascinating. Finally, he moves on to Europe and Africa, and provides an overview of the economy underlying the slave trade from the African point of view. Many men who were sold into slavery were prisoners of war, soldiers with military training, who put that experience to good use fomenting successful rebellions in Central America.

It’s daunting to review a book of this size and scope, so rich in facts and detail. But it’s not dry detail. There were streets in South America, for example, that really were paved, not in gold, but silver. Europeans “drank” tobacco, and had elaborate rules and rituals surrounding the practice. And that the influence of the lowly sweet potato has been enormous. 1493 is not a polemic or a sales pitch. It is a thoughtful, fair, and balanced tour de force with the power to change how we view the world.

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Embroidery by Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary’s first experience with embroidery and needlework took place in France, when she was married to Francois II, the Dauphin. Her first mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici was very skilled in the art as were most women in those days of the Renaissance. When she returned to Scotland, she would embroider while participating in her Council’s meetings, but until her period of imprisonment in England, Mary had little time to devote to needlework. During her first years of imprisonment, she spent many hours in the company of Bess of Hardwicke, her jailer’s wife, helping her to design new hangings for her properties. Mary drew her inspiration from sources such as emblem books, with their Latin double-meaning mottoes, natural history books, and fables, many published in other countries. Fluent in Scottish English, French, Latin, Greek, Italian and Spanish, she would have taken pleasure in translating those and playing with the words. The pictures below are some of her most famous works which were put together into a large tapestry known as the “Marian Hanging”, which contains 37 of her motifs. Many contain hidden meanings, some of which are explained below. The examples shown are by no means her only works. Mary also made a beautiful dress and night coifs for Queen Elizabeth, her rival, riding reins for her son James, bed covers, and many others.

A Byrd of America – toucan, probably Brazilian


Marigold turning toward sun

Latin inscription: “Non Inferiora Secutus” (Not following lower things). This motto, adopted by Mary as her own, was originally that of Marguerite, sister of Mary’s first husband.

Phoenix – rising from the flames. This was the impresa of Mary’s
mother, Marie de Guise, symbolising how she had created a new life for herself after being twice widowed.This was to become one of Mary’s favorite mottoes: In my End is my Beginning.

Delphine In the bottom left half of the Hanging appears a dolphin leaping over a crown, an allusion to her first husband, also known as the “Dauphin”.

Mary Stuart – Superimposed with the queen’s cipher, the royal crown, the thistle and the anagram motto “Sa virtu m’atire”.

Elizabeth and Mary – The letters of the names Elizabeth and Mary superimposed with a thistle, marigold and another flower at the side. The motto is “Virtutis Vincula Sanguinis Arctiora” (The bonds of virtue are straiter than those of blood). Another allusion to Queen Elizabeth.

Hand and Pruning Hook“Virescit Vulnere Virtus” (Virtue flourishes by wounding). Sent by Mary as a gift to Norfolk at the time of their marriage plans and most certainly intended to be a message to him: the unfruitful branch of the royal house (Tudor) would be pruned while the fruitful branch (Stewart) remained. Norfolk’s incentive for this marriage was to behusband to the heiress to England’s throne should Elizabeth die childless, which appeared likely.

Palm tree and tortoise – similar to a coin produced during Mary’s reign in Scotland, containing the messages: “Expurgat Deus et Dissipentur Inimici Eius” (Arise Lord and scatter thine enemies) and This was a direct insult at Darnley whose sole aim in life was to acquire the Crown Matrimonial. The design represents a tortoise (Darnley) climbing up a crowned palm tree (Mary).

A Catte – Large ginger cat (Elizabeth was a red head) toying with a mouse (Mary?). This is my personal favorite. I saw this, or one like it, at Holyrood House in Edinburgh.

If you wish to learn more about the cat and mouse game that ended with Mary Stewart’s execution, I can recommendElizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens, by Jane Dunn. Mary’s embroidery is the subject of The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots by Margaret Swain.