Intriguing Nonfiction: The Hermit in the Garden, by Gordon Campbell


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just this very minute, I stumbled upon an article at about the town of Saalfelden, Austria, which has one of the last remaining hermitages in Europe. Recently, the resident hermits left to return to their secular careers, and the town is seeking a new hermit. Among the job requirements is a willingness to live without heat, running water, or electronics of any kind, and to serve a listener to strangers who might want to stop by to confide in someone trustworthy. Applications close in March. Click on the link above to read this intriguing story.

Book review:

Sometimes it really is true that fact is stranger than fiction. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we generally refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history. You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the stately English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that some of these were not strictly decorative.  Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England.

Professor Campbell believes that during the Reformation, the ancient custom of religious persons, sometimes called hermits,  choosing to shut themselves away from the world for constant prayer and meditation came to an end with the dissolution of the great religious houses.   During the 18th century, it became fashionable among the educated and the elite to be “melancholy”, devoting time to the admiration of nature and the study of philosophy. Gradually, some began constructing small rustic cottages, to use as retreats for deep thinking, or, in many cases, to impress visitors with their erudition. It wasn’t long before the wealthy began to  hire men to live in their garden “hermitage”, pretending to be a reclusive but romantic part of the landscape. Although this book is a serious and impressive work of research, Professor Campbell injects threads of humor where appropriate, as when he describes the difficulties inherent in finding men willing to don rough robes, go barefooted, allow their hair, beards, and nails to grow, and, perhaps hardest of all, remain silent, for a period of seven years.

Much of the book is a survey of historic and modern “hermitages” in England, Scotland, France, and parts of Europe, many of which are illustrated. There are numerous extant sites that can still be visited, though they’re no longer inhabited; health regulations prohibit! It ends with some speculation about how the ornamental garden hermit morphed slowly into the ornamental garden gnome, helped along by Disney’s Grumpy, Sleepy, et al.

It’s probably safe to say that there is no  more extensive compilation of information on this topic than The Hermit in the Garden. It’s a valuable addition to the field of garden history, and has much to say, or imply, about Western Civ.

Last summer, I acquired  the perfect little  gnome for my own garden.

History News: 3000 Skeletons Unearthed Near Liverpool St. Station

Discovery News reports that construction crews working at the site of a new London Tube station have uncovered thousands of skeletons and more than 10,000 artifacts during excavations. The building site is located within the precincts of the infamous Bedlam “Madhouse”,  where the city’s first municipal cemetery was located and used from the 1560’s to 1738. Among the interments are Great Plague victims, and archaeologists are interested in  studying the bones to learn more about the evolution of the strain that repeatedly struck London. It is expected to take at least a month to complete the disinterments, and plans are to rebury the bones at a cemetery outside city. It is anticipated that a Roman road will also be brought to light. The results of this investigation, once analyzed, promise to provide a fascinating look at life in one of London’s oldest neighborhoods.

It’s a Mystery: The Fallen Angel, by David Hewson

The Fallen Angel (Nic Costa #9)Family secrets

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a teen, Rome detective Nic Costa was fascinated with the sensational story of Beatrice Cenci, a young woman who in the 16th century was executed for killing her abusive father. Now Nic, on “stay-cation” and thus off duty, witnesses the fall of Malise Gabriel from the scaffolding of his apartment, very close to Palazzo Cenci, Beatrice’s home. Nic comforts the dead man’s young daughter, Mina, and while the Questura initially believes the death was accidental, they gradually begin to suspect foul play. The press gets hold of the story, and soon all of Rome is wondering if history is repeating itself. Nic can tell that Mina knows more than she’s saying, and he sets out to find out if she’s been the victim of incest.

Just as John Connelly’s Harry Bosch has embedded his life into the heart of Los Angeles, the life of David Hewson’s Nic Costa is enmeshed with that of Rome. In The Fallen Angel, Mr. Hewson seamlessly weaves Rome’s ancient stories and locations into a taut, engrossing tale of murder and retribution. In Rome, beauty and squalor, innocence and evil, often stand side by side, a truth Nic recalls as he and Mina take a tour of the locations at which the Cenci story played itself out. The ghost of Galileo also has a role here, albeit a smaller one. At heart, The Fallen Angel is about evil, which has been continuously present in the world at least since Rome was founded.

Highly recommended.

History News: The Lost Colony of Roanoke

Excerpts from :

“A mayor in north Devon is attempting to help rewrite American history by proving that people from his small port town settled in the US 30 years before the Pilgrim Fathers set sail.

At the centre of the saga is the story of the “lost colony”, a tale better known in the US than in Britain. In 1587 Sir Walter Raleigh organised a colonial expedition of settlers including a governor, John White. Powell said it was thought that the fleet set sail from Bideford on 8 May and reached Roanoke Island, just off the coast of what is now North Carolina, in July.

Friendly relations were established with the Croatoan Native Americans, and the fleet sailed back to England. The following year a new fleet was preparing to return to Roanoke when it was diverted to fight the Spanish armada. When White finally returned in 1590 the settlement was deserted, with no sign of a struggle or battle.

Advances in DNA mean that scientists might be able to link people from Bideford (and elsewhere – Powell is not saying all the settlers were from the town) to descendants of lost colonists.”

If this attempt is fruitful, it may provide proof that the settlers did not perish, but joined with Native Americans when their seminal colony failed to provide them with the sustenance crucial to survival; one more piece of the puzzle regarding its fate that has tantalized historians for centuries.

Historical Fiction: The Lady Elizabeth, by Alison Weir

5.0 out of 5 stars The girl who would be queen

Historian Alison Weir weaves her considerable knowledge about the early life of Elizabeth Tudor into an enchanting novel about the girl who would be queen. Born into the most powerful family in the land, the upbringing of the daughter of Henry VIII was anything but a bed of roses. Deprived of anything resembling parental love, officially designated a bastard, and caught up in the deadly impasse over religion, it is a wonder that Elizabeth survived to fulfill her destiny.

Weir’s Elizabeth is strong-willed, observant, intelligent, and a natural born scholar, a mixture of humility and assertive self confidence. She learned early to mistrust the  motives of those around her, to  think for herself and rely upon her own wits and instincts. She also learned from mistakes, both her own and those of others. Weir’s Elizabeth is a survivor, in a circumscribed world full of pitfalls and danger, and although she does have her fears, she does not give in to them.

The audio version of this novel is ably read by the talented Rosalyn Landor, who has a well modulated voice and is adept with accents and characterizations. Listening to the story brought a degree of drama and reality not possible on the printed page. Highly recommended.

Historical Fiction: The Other Queen, by Philippa Gregory

3.0 out of 5 stars The obsessed

The Other Queen is a chronicle of the captivity of Mary, Queen of Scots, told in soliloquy by three of the book’s characters. As the story begins, Mary has become a “guest”, per order of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, of the Earl of Shrewsbury and his new wife, Bess of Hardwicke. Each of the narrators has his/her own obsession.

The Earl, George Talbot, is the latest in a lengthy succession of lords who are heart and soul the King’s Men (or Queen, as the case may be). His primary motivation in life is the preservation of his honor. George willingly undertakes this assignment, but, from the moment his eyes alight upon Mary, he falls under her spell.

Bess, George’s wife, is a thrice widowed, self made commoner, who amassed a small fortune by marrying well and managing her own finances with the eye of an eagle. Bess is reluctant to undertake the expense of maintaining Mary in the style she requires, but, hoping for honors and riches from Elizabeth, she agrees. To her, economic security is paramount.

Mary Stuart, deposed Queen of Scotland, is thoroughly dismayed by her plight, but singlemindedly and sadly, blindly, she clings to her royal privileges and expectations.

The saga of Mary’s downfall is a melancholy one, and perhaps author Gregory was attempting to inject some fire into her recounting. The soliloquies, however, come across as diatribes, each of the three speakers ranting endlessly about their circumstances and personal desires. Their personalities do come across to the reader, but the constant restating of their views does little to propel the plot and much to diminish reader interest. Secondary characters are treated as so many shadows. As usual, Gregory has done a creditable job with her research and historic accuracy, but as a novel, The Other Queen falls flat.

History News: The Face of Copernicus

This is truly fascinating. Copernicus died at age 70 in 1543, and scientist now say they have found his grave  and have reconstructed the features of his skull. The way they acquired his DNA is especially interesting.

image provided by the Kronenberg Foundation in Warsaw on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2008,

WARSAW, Poland – Researchers said Thursday they have identified the remains of Nicolaus Copernicus by comparing DNA In this image provided by the Kronenberg Foundation in Warsaw on Thursday, Nov.from a skeleton and hair retrieved from one of the 16th-century astronomer’s books. The findings could put an end to centuries of speculation about the exact resting spot of Copernicus, a priest and astronomer whose theories identified the Sun, not the Earth, as the center of the universe.

Swedish genetics expert Marie Allen analyzed DNA from a vertebrae, a tooth and femur bone and matched and compared it to that taken from two hairs retrieved from a book that the 16th-century Polish astronomer owned, which is kept at a library of Sweden’s Uppsala University where Allen works.

The reconstruction shows a broken nose and other features that resemble a self-portrait of Copernicus, and the skull bears a cut mark above the left eye that corresponds with a scar shown in the painting.

Copernicus was known to have been buried in the 14th-century Frombork Cathedral where he served as a canon, but his grave was not marked. The bones found by Gassowski were located under floor tiles near one of the side altars.

Watch this: The Tudors

3.0 out of 5 stars Pretty period piece

I would never expect the powers that be at Showtime to produce first rate historical drama. That is not what they do. Showtime is in the business of slick entertainment, and that’s exactly what they’ve given us in The Tudors. With the exception of PBS and, at times, The History Channel, it is fatuous to count on the entertainment industry to teach us history. And this series is overburdened with blatant historical inaccuracies.

Viewed as mere entertainment, however, The Tudors is a success. It’s got visual impact, conspiracy, treachery, sex, arrogance, and power plays. And beautiful people in all the important roles. Television so often offers so little in the way of compelling programing that this series is a welcome way to while away a rainy evening. But for true Tudor history, find a good book.