Medieval images of carding, spinning, and weaving

This miniature or painting comes from a French translation of a text written by the fourteenth century Italian author, Boccaccio. The text is entitled Concerning Famous Women, and this specific copy of the text was made for Philip the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy. The manuscript now in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris (Fr. 12420) was given to Philip on New Year’s Day of 1403 by an Italian merchant by the name of Jacques Rapondi. The specific miniature opens the text devoted to the Roman queen Gaia, the wife of King Tarquinius. While illustrating Gaia’s attention to domestic occupations, the miniature can be used to give us insights to the workings of medieval industries. Here the miniaturist has represented the different stages in the production of cloth with the combing and carding of wool at the bottom right and the spinning of the wool above. Gaia is at the loom weaving the wool. The production and marketing of cloth played a central role in the economic resurgence in the later Middle Ages. Italian merchants like Jacques Rapondi gained great prosperity through the selling of cloth produced in Italian towns like

Florence and his native Lucca to aristocrats of northern Europe. Study of the cloth industry reveals the clear subdivision of production into separate specializations. The industry depended on the coordinated efforts of these independent specialists. To work collaboratively was clearly essential.

Remarkable American Women: Sarah Josepha Hale, Founder of Our National Thanksgiving

This week I posted an article about the authorship of Mary Had a Little Lamb, (link) attributed to of Sarah Josepha Hale. Today I read another article about her crusade to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday, to be celebrated annually on the same day by all the states. In a campaign that lasted  two decades, Hale wrote countless letters and editorials to congressmen, governors, and five sitting Presidents. At last, in October, 1863, Abraham Lincoln became convinced by her argument that a new national holiday would help to unify the country in the aftermath of the Civil War. Until then, the only other holidays celebrated across America were Independence Day and Washington’s birthday. Lincoln set the new Thanksgiving event on the last Thursday of every November. This date held until 1939, when President Roosevelt, in order to extend the Christmas shopping season, changed it to the second to last Thursday in November. Ultimately, in 1941, Congress made the change official.

by James Reid Lambdin, 1831

Mrs Hale also wrote editorials proposing a menu containing foods available at the original Plymouth Thanksgiving dinner. But her exceptional career was influential in many other realms. Born in 1788, she rose to become one of America’s first woman writers of note.  Northwood: Life North and South, one of the first successful books to deal with slavery as an integral part of its plot, was published in 1852. She produced numerous recipe books and poetry compilations, and served as editor of the widely popular magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, for forty years. Hale advocated for education, physical fitness, women’s rights,  the preservation of Mt. Vernon, and the building of the Bunker Hill Monument, for which she raised $30,000.

The remarkable Sarah Josepha Hale, a woman far ahead of her time,  died at the age of 91, in 1879.

Historical Fiction: The Burning Time by Robin Morgan

The Burning Time

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Author Robin Morgan is a well known international feminist. In The Burning Time, her first work of fiction, she draws upon medieval court records to relate the life of Lady Alyce Kyteler, the unconventional mistress of Kyteler Manor near Kilkenny, Ireland. During the 14th century, Christianity was accepted by the Irish, but many of them blended their new religion with aspects of the old “pagan” earth religious traditions. The pope sent an emissary, Bishop Richard Ledrede, to Ireland with the mission of rooting out and punishing heretics.

Lady Alyce was a woman ahead of her time, one who flouted the pretensions of nobility. Alyce treated her serfs with dignity, developed her skills as a healer, followed the ancient calendar, and led celebrations of holidays such as Lammas and Samhain. When Ledrede visited her offering to restore her to the church and save her soul, she strongly rebuffed him. Although Alyce marshalled assistance from her influential relatives, Ledrede was able to bring charges of witchcraft against her.

This plot should/could have been a compelling one, but Morgan spoils things by turning her novel into a polemic with dialogue. Alyce is portrayed as a sort of Joan of Arc, and her serfs, who play a relatively large role here, are worshipfully enthralled with her. As for Ledrede, he comes across as the ultimate misogynist bigot who takes out his resentment over being sent to this backwater upon his victims.

What I found most annoying was the frequent use of the term Wiccan, the use of which has not been documented to before the early 20th century. I did finish this book because I wanted to know the outcome, but in places, I had to roll my eyes….


Historical Fiction: Illuminations, by Mary Sharratt

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Few of us today understand the lives of anchorites, individuals who for religious reasons chose to live in a sealed room, with only a hatch providing contact with the world at large. In Illuminations, Mary Sharratt presents a fictionalized biography of one of the most famous anchorites of all time, Hildegard von Bingen. As a child growing up in early medieval Germany, Hildegard experienced frequent visions, a dangerous trait in the eyes of church and society. As a result, her mother “tithed” her to the church as companion to Jutta von Sponheim, a girl from a noble family who chose to become not merely a nun, but an anchorite.

Sharratt chronicles the stages of Hildegard’s life, from those miserable early years of forced confinement, to her fight for the opportunity to live as a normal nun, to her founding of her own religious community. In the process, her visions continued and grew in intensity, to the point that they dictated her choices and created her reputation as a genuine and revered mystic. Sharratt’s prose, at times luminous and at times decidedly down to earth. She has managed to convey a sharp sense of Hildegard’s personality and spirit, relying upon primary sources, especially the brilliantly illuminated manuscript in which she recorded her visions. Her Hildegard is humble, yet not afraid to employ flamboyance to achieve her goals. She did not hestitate to criticize hypocrisy and abuses of the church to which her life was bound, which caused her enormous difficulty. But she remained unbowed, and in her more peaceful, contemplative periods, she composed exquisite music to accompany the divine office.

Today, Hildegard is often regarded as a proto-feminist, but as portrayed in this book, she is more a proponent of self-actualization and justice. She is also called St. Hildegard, but her canonization has not yet taken place; that will occur October 7, 2012. I’m not certain exactly what she did to earn that title (it has been speculated that her visions were manifestations of migraine aura), but her life was extraordinary and her story deserves to be told as eloquently as Sharratt has done.

Bad Girls: Rose O’Neal Greenhow

Born in 1817 in County, Maryland, Rose O’Neal married the wealthy Virginian Dr. Robert Greenhow and, living in Washington, DC, rose to prominence as a leading socialite. Known as “Wild Rose”, she had eight children, only to be widowed in 1850.

Born in 1817 in In her role as popular hostess, Mrs. Greenhow developed many political and military contacts, and when the American Civil War erupted, she was uniquely positioned to serve either North or South as a spy. Rose chose the Confederacy, and began supplying her southern contacts with important obtained from her friends allied with the Union.

Among her greatest accomplishments was the ten-word secret message she sent to General Pierre G.T. Beauregard which ultimately gave him the crucial information needed to win the initial battle of the war, First Bull Run (Manassas). Jefferson Davis himself credited her with the victory.
Allan Pinkerton, head of the detective agency and of the federal government’s new secret service, became suspicious of Greenhow, and had her arrested and her home searched in August. Enough evidence was found to warrant placing her under house arrest. Even under guard and confinement she still managed to gather and pass information to the Confederate espionage network, using such techniques as secreting messages within the hair of her visitors. Rose was then imprisoned with her young daughter, also named Rose, at the Old Capital Prison.

Nevertheless, her success at espionage continued. Finally, she was exiled to the Confederate states where she was received warmly by President Davis and given an official mission, to tour England and France as a propagandist for the Confederate cause. While in London, Mrs Greenhow published her memoirs, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington, which became a best seller.

During the course of her travels was received by many members of the nobility, including Queen Victoria and Napoleon III, and even became engaged to the Second Earl Granville.

In 1864, after a year abroad, she boarded the Condor, a British blockade-runner, to sail back home. Just before reaching her destination, the vessel foundered during a storm near Wilmington, North Carolina. In order to avoid the Union gunboat that pursued her ship, Rose fled in rowboat, but the little boat capsized and, dragged under by the weight of the gold she received in royalties for her book, she drowned.

In October 1864, Rose was buried with full military honors in the Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington. Her coffin was wrapped in the Confederate flag and carried by Confederate troops. The marker for her grave, a marble cross, bears the epitaph, “Mrs. Rose O’N. Greenhow, a bearer of dispatches to the Confederate Government.

Historical Fiction: Accidents of Providence, by Stacia M. Brown

Accidents of Providence

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Seventeenth century London. Apprentice Rachel Lockyer has been arrested for the murder of her newborn child, reported by her own mistress, the glovemaker Mary du Gard, who saw her burying the baby in the woods. Thomas Bartwain, criminal investigator for the city, reviews the evidence in the case, which he calls “open and shut”, but he can’t shake the strong sense of unease that dogs him when he submits it for indictment. Rachel will not speak in her own defense, refusing to admit she was pregnant, to identify the father, and to state whether the infant was live or still born. Charles I has recently been executed, and the state of the law has becoming as unstable as the new government that replaced the king’s.

Stacia M. Brown has, remarkably, produced a first novel every bit as compelling as The Scarlet Letter. At heart, Accidents of Providence is a love story, one of illicit, irresistible, unshakable love. But equally central are the questions of morality, sexual equality, fidelity, friendship, and ethical courage that plague Rachel and her lover, Mary du Gard, Bartwain, and all the other people involved in each of their lives. To read Rachel’s story is to live, vicariously, in interregnum London, the story’s vividly evoked background. It is to ponder the moral questions that dog each of the characters. It is to feel the horror of a public execution. Rachel is a strong woman who has the strength to die for what she believes, while those around her equivocate. Accidents of Providence is a highly literate, unforgettable piece of outstanding historical fiction.

Watch This: The Help


New college grad Skeeter Phelan comes home to Jackson, bent on starting a career as a writer. Her friends welcome her back, but Skeeter’s changed in ways that they have not.  For one thing, Mississippi in the 1960’s was a hotbed of racial segregation, and Skeeter’s no longer comfortable with that. Her first summer home, she observes the way her friends (mis)treat their black maids, and, gradually, convinces some of the maids to talk to her about their lives, about which Skeeter knows very little. Soon, she has a publisher interested in compiling those interviews into a book.

The Help is written and directed by Tate Taylor, who elicited fine performances from his primarily female cast. Viola Davis, as the maid Aibilene, is the lynchpin that holds the story together, showing depths of carefully modulated  dignity, strength, and emotion in her dealings with employers and friends alike. The other standout is Jessica Chastain,  who plays the  white trash bombshell who snagged the town’s most eligible bachelor and is shunned by everyone but Skeeter. Her ability to project vulnerability and honesty without pathos is awesome. Bryce Dallas Howard, in the thankless role of beautiful, dyed-in-the-wool racist and social leader Hilly,  personifies the ugliness of the racial situation with aplomb. Emma Stone represents those looked their consciences square in the face and took up the banner in the civil rights movement, and as Skeeter, shows how much courage was necessary in that dangerous environment.

The Help  has taken a lot of critical flak from folks who have an ax to grind about how it presents the issue of segregation. But, first and foremost, The Help is a movie, based upon a novel,  not a sociological treatise. It’s intelligent, thought provoking entertainment.  It shows how things were, and in many cases, still are, and if it brings awareness to the minds of people who weren’t yet born during the 60’s, it’s done its job.

It’s a Mystery: Defensive Wounds, by Lisa Black

Defensive WoundsA plethora of suspects

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A defense attorneys’ conference has invaded the Ritz Carlton, where the young daughter of forensic scientist Theresa MacLean works at check in. In the midst of the conference, a serial killer suddenly decides to act upon the recommendation “First, kill the lawyers.”  Three of them are targeted in quick succession, left naked and trussed up with their heads bashed in, each in a different part of the Ritz. The cops hate all three of the victims, for their skill in springing the very same criminals the police work so hard to put away. While collecting evidence, Theresa is horrified to learn that her daughter’s new love interest, also a hotel employee, was accused three years ago of bludgeoning to death a beautiful female classmate. Because he was acquitted, she can’t convince her to avoid him.

As the plot unfolds, Theresa is constantly worrying about her daughter, and just as constantly learning new information that points to several likely perpetrators, all with ample motive and opportunity. But finding hard evidence to connect any one of them, in a crime scene in which hundreds of people come and go every day, is like searching for the proverbial haystack needle; in this case, however, think fibers and hairs rather than needles. Theresa is an engaging protagonist, one who is smart and diligent, but nevertheless makes mistakes and sometimes finds her personal life intruding into her professional one. This is less a who-dunnit than a forensic procedural, and while it’s possible to foresee who the killer is, there are enough zigs and zags in the end to allow for a few surprises.

NB: This book was sent to me via Goodreads’ First Reads Program. I am happy to be able to provide a favorable review, which is not always the case with books provided to me.

Modern Lit: Life Sentences, by Laura Lippman

Life SentencesHer Father’s Daughter

didn't like it it was ok liked it (my current rating) really liked it it was amazing

Memories are notoriously unreliable, and it’s often said that no two witnesses observe the same event the same way. In Life Sentences, best selling memoir writer Cassandra Fallows is about to learn those lessons the hard way. Because she wrote about her childhood in Baltimore, and she now lives in New York, Cassandra never anticipated coming into contact with friends she hasn’t seen in more than 30 years. Then she reads in a newspaper about one of them, a woman named Cassie who was imprisoned for nearly a decade for contempt of court, for refusing to talk about the disappearance of her infant son. Cassandra sees a new book in this topic, and returns to Baltimore to research the case. Along the way, she discovers that truth can be a slippery thing to pin down, and is shocked at the resentments held by those who were included in her memoir.

The characters in this book are intensely real, strong willed and full of contradictions. The plot is a “talky” one, in which most of the “action” consists of driving and dining, with a bit of sex thrown in. For a fifty year old woman, Cassandra remains as self centered as a teenager, and her sense of ethics is a shifting one. Race plays a tremendous role in the story, in which most of the characters are African American, and Cassandra is white. Political chicanery is also an important theme. Author Lippman is superb at portraying relationships, as she continues to prove in her novels.

In the end, Cassandra does pin down some truths, about her parents, about Cassie, about her school friends, about herself. Does she begin to outgrow her narcissism? Probably not….. As the title of her memoirs shows, she is “Her Father’s Daughter.”

Historical Fiction: The Tenth Gift, by Jane Johnson

The Tenth GiftInterwoven patterns

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Better known as fantasy writer Jude Fisher, Jane Johnson tries her hand at historical fiction with The Tenth Gift. The two protagonists are embroiderers, separated by four centuries, but there’s no time travel in this tale. Julia Lovat’s married lover, Michael, has dumped her, hoping to ease the pain with a parting gift, a 17th century needlework book. In addition to patterns, “The Needlewoman’s Glorie” contains a sort of diary, written by Catherine (Cat) Tregenna in 1625. The Tenth Gift takes place now, with Julia setting off to “find” Cat, and also in 1625, when Cat is swept away into the adventure of a lifetime.

Julia’s antagonists are her own conflicted emotions about Michael, Michael himself, who wants his book back, and the dangers she faces when she travels alone to Africa on her quest. Cat’s are more daunting; hers come in the form of Barbary pirates, who capture her and more than fifty of her neighbors as they attend Sunday services, to sell into slavery. Cat’s story is the more compelling one, being more dramatic than Julia’s, but each woman must come to terms with who she is and what she wants, and finally to identify what is most important in her life. Set in Cornwall and Morocco, this novel contains plenty of historical detail, and is based upon actual events, though the main characters are fictional. I enjoyed the story, but somehow, since it never truly mattered to me what happened to Cat or Julia, reading it was more intellectual exercise than breathtaking saga.