Medieval Art: February in Les Tres Riches Heures

Medieval art is my favorite genre in the visual arts, and one of the most interesting forms is the illuminated book of hours. Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (literally: “the very rich hours of the duke of Berry”) is the most renowned book of hours ever produced. It is often referred to as le roi des manuscrits enluminés (“the king of illuminated manuscripts”), and it is one of the most important pieces of artwork in history. In terms of historical and cultural importance, it is certainly equal to more famous works such as the Mona Lisa, marking the pinnacle of the art of manuscript illumination. Today it is located at the Musee Conde in Chantilly, France.

Like most books of hours, the Très Riches Heures depicts numerous biblical scenes and saints, and the initial capital letters and line endings are lavishly decorated. But unlike most books of hours, this work includes landscapes (most well-known are the twelve miniatures for the months of the year), as well as unusual subject matter like the “anatomical man,” the garden of Eden, the fall of the rebel angels, and even a plan of Rome. To what extent the artists had a say in the subject matter, and how much was determined by the patrons, is unclear.

Desolate winter is dazzling in this landscape for the month of February. Snow blankets the countryside and chills a peasant bringing his wares to town with the aid of a donkey, while a farm family warms themselves in a wooden house. Pale light from a wan sky falls onto the whitened countryside. The starkness of the snow underlines planes and accentuates details, giving the landscape a particular sharpness. In the distance a village hides its snow-covered roofs between two hills. In the foreground, a farm is represented, its every element executed with meticulous care: the dovecote, heehives, cart, casks, sheepfold, a hare tree, the house and the wattled enclosure. Near the farm a young man cuts wood; in front of the dovecote a benumbed figure clutching a wool coat over his head and shoulders hurries home. A large fire shines from the wooden house in which two peasants immodestly warm their legs; looking more closely, it is possible to observe that they do not wear undergarments, a detail of interest to textile historians! The mistress of the house, elegant in a lovely blue dress, warms herself with more decorum. Linen has heen hung to dry on rods along the walls, and smoke curls from the chimney. The severity of winter is further emphasized by the birds huddled near the house, scratching for food which the snow makes it impossible to find elsewhere.

Additional information about this glorious masterpiece can be found at

and , from which these excerpts were taken.

Thriller: Cabal of the Westford Knight, by David S. Brody

Cabal of The Westford Knight: Templars at the Newport Tower
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The daVinci Code crosses the pond to Westford, Massachusetts, following clues about the secret Jesus/Magdalene bloodline hidden in Scotland’s and the Sinclair family’s Roslyn Chapel. Cabal of the Westford Knight is based upon legends concerning the infamous Templar Knights, a band of which is supposed by some to have arrived in what is now New England, more than a hundred years before Columbus. Cameron Thorne is a small town lawyer who grew up in the region, and in the course of ordinary business, he stumbles into a diabolical conspiracy by parties unknown. The Knights are rumored to have left a priceless treasure, and Thorne quickly learns that there are those more than willing to kill for it. He determines to reach that treasure, whatever it may be, before the conspirators can.

Author Brody weaves existing artifacts and places into a historical fiction thriller that expands from local legend to archaeological fact to world wide religious conspiracy. Westford Knight is a labyrinthine tale, dependent upon countless twists, turns and incredibly lucky breaks. Amply supplemented with photos, it invites the reader to consider the physical evidence and draw his/her own conclusions. Character development is sacrificed to the necessities of a complex, galloping plot, though there is a budding romance between Thorne and a beautiful, brainy historian. Together, the couple track down artifacts and draw some pretty spectacular inferences, all while dodging bullets and jumping off bridges. Brody’s writing is competent but extremely literal, and appears to have been thoroughly researched. For readers interested in further exploration on this topic, he maintains a couple of interactive websites, referenced in acknowledgments.

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life & Death, by Gary R. Varner

Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life & Death: Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Strangely Wrought Creatures is subtitled Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture. The first half of this slim volume (157 pages) discussing those two iconic figures, the gargoyle and the green man, which have been a feature in ecclesiastical architecture for more than a millennium. Quoting from his own research and that of others, Gary Varner speculates about the reasons for the inclusion of these “pagan” figures in most of Europe’s great churches and cathedrals, and about what they might symbolize (there are five times more green men in one English cathedral than images of Jesus!) He does the same in the book’s second half, where he covers such enigmatic creatures as dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and griffins, and others. The upshot of his study is that there is much disagreement about what these image “mean”, and why prelates would allow such carvings in a place of Christian worship.

The book is liberally illustrated with photos of strange creatures located on buildings old and new, primarily in England, France, and America. Why do twenty and twenty-first century folks find these images so compelling? Perhaps, Varner believes, because we long for connections to our distant past, and are influence by our embedded archetypal memories. This is a good overview for readers new to the topic, but for those with broader knowledge about it, there’s little new to be found in its pages.

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Historical Fiction: Morality Play, by Barry Unsworth

Morality PlayMorality Play by Barry Unsworth

Young priest Nicholas Barber is AWOL, having deserted his work as a scribe to taste the pleasures of spring. Now that winter has arrived, his solitary sojourn is less enjoyable and more dangerous. Nicholas encounters a troupe of traveling players on the road, and, since one of the actors has just died, is invited to join them. They carry the corpse to the nearest town, in search of a Christian burial for him, and while there, propose to stage a play to earn some much needed shillings. When their leader, Martin, learns about the murder of a young boy, he takes a daring step, quickly composing a play about this deeply disturbing incident.

Nicholas is the narrator of this tale, speaking in language very reminiscent of morality plays themselves. Never very brave, he makes an unconventional hero, one who ponders the experience of “playing”, the nature of pretending, and the relationship between actors and audience. Most of all, he immerses readers into the muddy, superstitious, and disease-ridden past (1390), in which survival is never a given, but cruelty surely is. At only two hundred pages, Morality Play is complex but terse, containing not a single detail extraneous to its plot.

Barry Unsworth died in 2012, having written seventeen historical novels, several prize winning. Ray Bradbury died the same day, and the Wall Street Journal wrote “Mr. Bradbury invented the future; Mr. Unsworth invented the past.”

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Folklore in My Garden: Angelica Herb

Angelica archangelica is arguably the most incredible herb in my garden. Here in eastern CT, it grows rapidly to the majestic height of 6 to 8 feet, and, if planted in semi shade, reseeds prolifically year after year.   It never fails to bring astonished comments from visitors. Care must be taken in thinning it out, because Angelica is biennial, and you don’t want to remove all the first year growth. A member of the parsley family, it was candied and put into fruit cake.

Angelica has been used medicinally for many centuries, and information about those uses abounds on the web.  Gerard the herbalist claimed that it “cureth the bitings of mad dogs and all other venomous beasts.”  It was also put to work against “poisons, agues and all infectious maladies.”   The Chinese variety is known as Dong Quai, and today it’s used widely in alternative medicine.

How did Angelica acquire its interesting name?  There are two different legends. The first says that the angel Gabriel appeared to a monk,  telling  him that Angelica is a cure for, and protection against, the plague. Another version indicates that this plant blossoms annually on the feast day of the Archangel Michael, September 29th. Maybe that happens in Europe, but in CT, my plants have long gone to seed  on that day.  All parts of the plant were believed effective against evil spirits and witchcraft, and was often worn around the neck as an amulet.  Angelica was held in such esteem that it was called ‘The Root of the Holy Ghost.’ In America it was used by the Iroquois and other tribes as Witchcraft Medicine, an infusion of smashed roots was used as wash to remove ghosts from the house.  Angelica is a traditional birthing herb,  used to help bring on a delayed labor and to help expel the placenta. And Harry Potter and his fellow wizards use it in all manner of spells and potions. What higher endorsement can there be?!

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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Historical Fiction: Grave Goods, by Ariana Franklin

Grave Goods (Mistress of the Art of Death, #3)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mysterious, mystical, medieval Glastonbury is the setting for Grave Goods, in which the female doctor and “mistress of the art of death”, Adelia, is ordered by King Henry II to examine the bones unearthed by the fire that destroyed the Abbey. Why? Because Henry wants the skeleton to be that of his illustrious predecessor, the once and future King Arthur. The Welsh keep rising up against Henry, and when it’s proved that Arthur is truly dead, will give up their quest to hold their land for Arthur rather than Henry. Trekking to Glastonbury is no easy task, and it provides the material for numerous subplots that vie for Adelia’s attention. Her personal story develops further also, as she reunites with the father of her young daughter, now the Bishop of Wells. Grave Goods is filled with medieval detail and atmosphere, and there’s plenty of danger to keep the action moving.

There’s been a strong trend lately to merge historical fiction with detective mysteries, and this is one of the stronger offerings in this blended genre. Though the plot is, of course, very important, this is a character driven series with vivid portrayals. Adelia herself is a “modern” woman with a first rate intellect and a good heart, very much her own person. And in this outing, she has a lot of decisions to make. Looking forward to the sequel in this well written and researched series.

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It’s a Mystery: The Faerie Hills, by Susan McDuffie

The Faerie Hills

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The year is 1373, the place, the tiny, island of Colonsay, in the windswept Hebrides. A lad named Niall, grandson of the MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, has failed to return after an afternoon outing with his foster brother. Niall was last seen digging around a faerie mound, searching for hidden gold treasure. Deeply worried, his foster father summons his nephew, Muirteach MacPhee, from a neighboring island, to lead the search for Niall. How could anyone disappear so completely in such a small place? As Muirteach investigates, he learns that the majority of Colonsay residents believe Niall was stolen by the faeries; Muirteach is more inclined to believe that this is the work of humans. Whatever the cause, the disappearance stirs up old clan rivalries, which threaten to erupt once more into feuding.

As a historical novel, The Faerie Hills, has much going for it. Author McDuffie infuses her story with plenty of folklore and atmosphere, liberally sprinkling dialog with ancient Scottish vocabulary. While there is a glossary, a pronunciation guide would have been helpful. Muirteach is an intelligent, engaging protagonist, though most other characters are not as well developed. The budding romance between him and Mariota, who is learning to be a healer, provides some lighter moments, and among the more colorful characters are a witch and a grown-up changeling. There Where the book falls short is in the plot itself, which suffers from redundancy and very slow pacing. If you’re looking for a light mystery laced with strong historical and folkloric flavor, however, this fills the bill nicely.

At the Crossroads: folk beliefs and superstitions

Walking between worlds has long been a theme in human beliefs, superstitions, and folklore. Spirits, otherwordly beings such as fairies, demons, and ghosts are often reported at the boundaries and edges of this realm and the next. Burial grounds, certain days of the year (Halloween, All Saints, Midsummer, Midwinter, for example), the boundaries between cultivated and wild land,are just some of the places where the supernatural may be encountered. Death can be viewed as the ultimate boundary.

It was also believed the spirits travel best in straight lines. Burial mounds, stone circles and the like are often connected by “avenues”. Labyrinths, mazes, knots and tangles (Native American “dream catchers”) were thought to confound and impede their comings and goings., which may be why labyrinthine symbols are often discovered at neolithic burial sites. Crossroads, at the center of which one finds oneself on two roads at once, are such places. The symbol of the cross itself may represent this duality.

A crossroads, then, particularly one located outside of town, was a place where one could encounter ghosts and demons. On the Isle of Man, people would sweep the crossing place at midnight to keep it clear of them. Witches were thought to hold their sabbaths there. In some cultures, offerings were left to appease malevolent spirits. The choice of four separate routes was believed to confuse ghosts, keeping them bewildered until the light of day forced their return to the grave. For this reason, suicides and suspected vampires were often buried near these spots, and gallows were sometimes erected there.

“Corpse ways”, or paths along which coffins were carried to the cemetery, were often straight, but sometimes passed over a crossroads. At this point, the bearers would set the coffin down and exchange positions at the corners of the bier, possibly symbolizing the reversal of life by death.

To argue at a crosswords is a sure invitation to misfortune.

If you take a three-legged stool to a crossroads in Scotland on Halloween when the church clock strikes midnight, you will hear the names of those parishioners who will die in the coming year. But if you take an article of clothing belonging to one of the doomed, at throw it in the air while calling out their name, you can save them. Also, if you listen to the wind, you will hear your own fortune.

Magical cures could also be attained at crossroads. To get rid of warts, some folks in England would rub the wart with a few wheat grains that were then left at the crossing. To avoid the ague, close to midnight you could turn yourself around three times, drive a nail into ground at the center, and walk away backwards before the striking of the clock, which would enable you to stay healthy, but the poor unsuspecting soul who first stepped over the nail would come down with the ague.

In the deep South of the United States, crossroads were held to be places where one could sell his soul to the devil in exchange for the granting of a wish, often for musical talent.

Just a few thoughts to ponder next time you’re sitting at a red light at a crossroads.

Historical Fiction: Plain Jane, by Laurien Gardner

Plain Jane

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jane Seymour was the third wife of Henry VIII, and the one most ignored by historical fiction writers. In Plain Jane, Laurien Gardner rectifies that situation. The result is a rather simplistic picture of Jane’s time at court as lady in waiting to Henry’s first and second wives, and of her brief marriage during which she gave birth to the long awaited heir. Because Jane died shortly after producing the prince, we’ll never know how this third marriage would have fared.

Gardner does a creditable job trying to fill in the blanks that comprise Jane’s personal history, and the basic facts in her telling of events seem accurate. The plot is straightforward, and dialogue is realistic and free from glaring anachronism. Where this book falls short is in its characterizations of the main players. Anne Boleyn is the consummate other woman, selfish, arrogant, and demanding, with no redeeming features. Henry is an overgrown child, selfish, judgmental and petulant. As for Jane, it’s difficult to believe she could have risen so far had she been as simple and insecure as portrayed; hardly a page can be turned without her constant ruminations on her “plainness”, and she spends a full two thirds of the story huddling in one corner or another, embroidering, while all the other courtiers make merry around her. The exception to this pattern occurs after the royal marriage, when Jane begins to wonder whether she will be able to escape the fates of her predecessors, because although Henry proclaims his devotion to her, he his vindictive side begins to emerge. Toward the end, she feels a sense of sisterhood with Katherine and Anne.