Historical Fiction: Beheld, by TaraShea Nesbit

My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ of 5

Was there a murder on the Mayflower? Maybe. But without doubt, a murder did occur in Plymouth Colony, ten years after its founding. That crime is the vehicle upon which TaraShea Nesbit builds a story that blows America’s long standing myths about the “godly” Pilgrims clear out of the water.

Nesbit’s two protagonists are women, Alice, the wife of Governor William Bradford, and Eleanor, married to indentured servant John Billington. On a daily basis, all must grapple with a myriad of unfamiliar dangers as they try to establish successful lives in a strange new environment. In spite of the pious religious ideals espoused at the meeting house, the identical socio/economic tensions that existed in Europe continue to cause tremendous strain in the new world. Bradford is responsible for allocating land allotments to all colonists, and does so with an uneven hand. With every new wave of incomers, tensions multiply, and when the elites conspicuously fail to assuage them, the first murder of a colonist by a colonists occurs.

The story plays out in alternating chapters, essentially mini-autobiographies, narrated by the educated, refined Alice Bradford and the working class Eleanor Billington. In spite of their status difference, as women, each of them is virtually powerless in this society, as their experiences make clear. Through their words, we watch conflicts take root that grow so innate that they continue to dominate America today.

Nesbit’s research for her novel appears sound and deep, and her prose is evocative. Read this short but compelling book, and watch the the cloying myth of the noble and selfless puritans finally shatter.

Historical Fiction: The Secret Supper, by Javier Sierra

 

 

 

My rating: 4 of 5 ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

 

The Secret Supper is  a mystery that involves my favorite topics, Renaissance art, Italy, religious history, symbols, codes, and conspiracy theories. It’s fashionable to bad-mouth The Da Vinci  Code on literary and religious grounds, but I enjoyed both book and movie, and I don’t rely upon novels to formulate my religious beliefs. The plot of the Secret Supper is in the same genre, focusing on DaVinci’s  other masterpiece, the Last Supper. Although much of the outstanding  art of the  Renaissance  was commissioned by the church to illustrate its orthodox teachings, many painters used artistic license to express ideas of their own. The Last Supper was highly controversial during its own creation, and The Secret Supper suggests what  some of those less mainstream ideas might be.

Chief inquisitor Agostino Leyre is dispatched to Milan to discover whether persistent allegations of heresy concerning Leonardo’s work are true. Father Agostino takes up lodging at the very monastery where The Last Supper is being created, but before he can launch a proper investigation, he must first solve a cryptic riddle that was provided by the accuser, the mysterious Soothsayer. Large segments of the story therefore involve learning about signs, symbols, codes, and numerology, during which the narration devolves into tutorials about hidden secrets and meanings.  The slower chapters are relieved by action sequences involving street scenes and  nefarious murders. It came  as a surprise when the history of the maligned Cathor religious movement became central to the plot, in quite a credible way. Less successful were the portrayals of Leonardo as having purely mystical intentions, and of a young Sforza countess as a direct descendent of Mary Magdalen.

Recommended for readers who enjoy complex mysteries and  intellectual puzzles, but not those who are super sensitive about religious dogma.

Folklore: Fall Equinox/Harvest Home

In 2019, the autumnal equinox occurs September 23, when the sun will cross the equator and head towards its lowest point of the year in December (Northern Hemisphere). On that date, the sun will rise exactly in the east, shine for 12 hours, and set exactly in the west. Everywhere on earth will experience close to 12 hours of light and 12 of darkness. Exact times vary from place to place  due to light refraction and other factors. This is the date on which the sun enters the sign of Libra, the balance, an appropriate symbol of this astronomical event. Because the earth wobbles  a bit on its axis, the date of the equinox varies slightly from year to year.

Fall is the time of harvest, and in Europe, the equinox was a period of celebration known as Harvest Home. Numerous megaliths and tombs, such as Stonehenge, built in prehistoric times, were organized around the solstices and equinoxes. However, much technological knowledge was lost over the eons, and in the middle ages, since most peasants weren’t able to do astronomical calculations, the date of the festival was set to September 25, which the Church named Michaelmas. Various traditions sprang up in different countries. Modern misconceptions aside, there is no evidence that human sacrifice was ever a part of Harvest Home traditions. But there were many mock sacrifices involving effigies of various sorts.

from Eastborne Lammas Festival

Probably the best known of the effigies was a large wicker figure of a man, in England called John Barleycorn. Based on mythologies in which the the god of night conquers the god of day, John Barleycorn represented the spirit of the fields/summer/light, which was believed to reside in the last sheaf cut. When the harvest was done, the wicker figure was burned in symbolic sacrifice amidst great rejoicing. Everyone knew that they had not seen the last of him, because, if all went according to natural plan, he would return in the spring. The traditions of making “corn dollies”, little figures made of wheat or barley, is closely related. The Harvest Queen, or Kern Baby, is made and bundled by the reapers who proclaim, ‘We have the Kern!’ The sheaf is dressed in a white and decorated with colorful ribbons depicting spring, and then hung upon a pole (a phallic fertility symbol). In Scotland, the last sheaf of harvest is called the Maiden, and must be cut by the youngest female in attendance.

Other historic symbols of the season include apples, gourds and melons, and cider, beer, and wine. Sometimes a loaf of bread, shaped as or marked with a wheat sheaf, is baked using the last of the harvested grain.

In the rhythm of the seasons, putting up the harvest led to a time of rest and plenty, before the onset of winter. It was a time for beginning new leases, resolving accounts and paying the annual dues.

Updated 9/26/19

Historical Fiction: Green Darkness, by Anya Seton

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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I first read and enjoyed Green Darkness years ago while working my way through the novels of Anya Seton. Like most writers, she penned a single masterpiece, The Winthrop Woman, a brilliant piece of historical fiction. Having discovered my copy of Green Darkness at the back of a bookcase, I decided to give it another go, as it’s set in one of my favorite places and eras, late Tudor England.

Seton is skilled at recreating historical times in her books, and GD is no exception. That was the most impressive feature of this novel. With respect to characterization, it can’t hold a candle to The Winthrop Woman’s remarkable Elizabeth.

The protagonist here is Celia Marsden, the theme is thwarted love, and with religious zealotry and doctrine of reincarnation driving the plot, the experiences of 16th century Celia are replayed in the life of 20th century Celia. 16th century Celia is by far the most colorful of the two, and as she is unrelentingly headstrong and self absorbed, she is the creator of her own fate, about which we have a strong inkling from the opening chapters.The 20th century reincarnation of Celia is more mature and reasonable, but also less compelling. As important to the story is the physician, a wise, learned, and compassionate man who plays a large role in the fates of both women, and it is fun to figure out which other historical characters have counterparts in the future.

Though occasionally melodramatic, Green Darkness held my interest throughout, and while I enjoyed this “reincarnation” of the novel a bit less than the first time around, I’m glad, nevertheless to have revisited it.

 

Do you believe in reincarnation?

Plymouth 400th Anniversary

Well, it’s almost here. 2020 will mark the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower on Cape Cod. Most of us connect this event with Plymouth, Massachusetts, but the ship first made landfall near what is now Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod. I’ve visited both Provincetown and the recreation of Plymouth Plantation many times,  am looking forward to the upcoming commemorations and festivities planned by many different parties, including the New England Genealogical Society, the town of Plymouth, the Wampanoag tribal nation, and the countries of England and the Netherlands.

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Here’s what’s on the schedule so far over the next year, according to the Boston Globe:

 

April 17, 2019: Opening Ceremony at the American Ancestors headquarters, Boston, 10 a.m.

American Ancestors and the New England Historic Genealogical Society will host an opening ceremony for the commemoration at its headquarters, 99-101 Newbury St. headquarters. Festivities include the “launch” of a Mayflower replica and the unveiling of the “Wampanoag Legacy Art Installation,” according to a statement.

Also opening that day is the “Origins & Legacy of the Mayflower,” a multi-media exhibit which “considers the back stories of the Mayflower passengers — where they came from in England and what is known about their ancestry,” organizers said.

An open house with programs and other activities will follow from 11 a.m. through 8 p.m.

June 2019/2020: “Heritage Tours” led by the New England Historic Genealogical Society

Two tours, one in June and another the following year, will take participants to the Netherlands and England, respectively, to trace the history of the Mayflower and the Pilgrims, from the town in Holland where some once lived to how passengers boarded the ship. More information is available on the society’s website.

April 24, 2020: Plymouth 400 Commemoration Opening Ceremony, Memorial Hall, Plymouth

Guest speakers, artists, and others will take part in a ceremony and spectacle “honoring the past and celebrating the future,” according to Plymouth 400. “VIP invitations” include national and foreign leaders.

 

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June and September 2020: “A New England Sojourn”

New England Historic Genealogical Society experts will lead two tours (three days each) to “historic sites in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts associated with the Pilgrims, including Plymouth, Provincetown, Boston, Duxbury, and elsewhere,” according to the society’s website. A tour itinerary is forthcoming.

June 27 and 28, 2020: Maritime Salute, Plymouth Harbor/waterfront

A regatta of wooden ships and other vessels will honor the original Mayflower journey, organizers say. Participants can also expect a seaside lobster dinner.

 

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Aug. 1, 2020: “Wampanoag Ancestors Walk,” Plymouth

People from the Wampanoag tribes of Massachusetts will lead participants on a walk while carrying placards of the names of the original 69 villages of the Wampanoag Nation, according to organizers. “Participants will pay homage to Massasoit and King Phillip and stop at designated sites to bless the spots where their ancestors once walked,” Plymouth 400 said. “The walk will conclude with a drum ceremony and reception.”

Sept. 7 through 14, 2020: Mayflower II visits Provincetown

The Mayflower II, a replica of the historic vessel, will arrive in Provincetown for a week of activities on Sept. 7, according to Provincetown 400. “During the visit, Mayflower II, will be part of the daily historical reenactments of the Signing of the Mayflower Compact in Provincetown Harbor in 1620,” organizers say. “These historical reenactments will enable the public to witness the history that happened in Provincetown waters in 1620.” A “Sunrise Toast and Bon Voyage” event is slated for Sept. 14, the day the ship leaves Provincetown for Plymouth.

Sept. 12, 2020: Mayflower II Gala, Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, Provincetown

A gala commemorating the signing of the Mayflower Compact, complete with food, drinks, and historical reenactments is planned, according to Provincetown 400. Additional information is yet to be announced.

Sept. 14, 2020: State House salute, Massachusetts State House, Boston 

A ceremony honoring the Pilgrims and native people of Massachusetts will be held on Beacon Hill and will feature the rare display of Gov. William Bradford’s journal.

Sept. 19 and 20, 2020: “Embarkation Festival,” Plymouth

The culture and arts festival will “honor the traditions, cuisine, and music of not only the original settlers and Wampanoag people but the diverse immigrants who followed and contributed to the fabric of American life,” Plymouth 400 said. International leaders, students, and celebrities will be invited to join.

Oct. 30 through Nov. 1, 2020: “Indigenous History Conference and Powwow,” Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater

Speakers and experts will discuss and highlight “the longevity and continuity of America’s indigenous people,” including their past and current contributions, organizers said. The conference will conclude with a traditional Powwow.

Nov. 20 through 25: Thanksgiving events, Plymouth 

A weeklong series of celebrations leading up to Thanksgiving will include concerts, a parade, and, among other festivities, a “Once Small Candle” ceremony, which will give the “One Small Candle Award” to someone “who has made a difference in many lives at a young age,” Plymouth 400 said.

Ongoing: “‘Our’ Story: 400 Years of Wampanoag History,” 

The regional traveling exhibit aims to educate others about key pieces of Wampanoag history. According to Plymouth 400, “This exhibition, created by a Wampanoag research and design team, travels regionally. The exhibit expands each year leading up to 2020 with new ‘chapters’ in the history and culture of the ‘people of the dawn.’” For more information, check out the Plymouth 400 website.

See the calendar of events in England.

See what’s planned in the Netherlands.

See festivities planned by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants.

I’m very excited – a childhood visit to Plymouth Plantation ignited my lifelong interest and involvement in history, US and otherwise, and I hope to attend some of these events. I admit to some trepidation over the tremendous crowds that are expected, and hope the organizers have some good crowd and traffic control strategies in the works. None of these sites are very large……..  but I’ll be there.
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The Edinburgh Witches Well

Back in June, I came across an interesting article on Atlas Obscura, featuring a little noticed spot, near the entrance to the grounds of Edinburgh Castle, where there stands a small drinking fountain. Between the 15th and 18th centuries,  hundreds of women, accused of witchcraft, were executed on this spot, close to what is now Ramsay Garden. Scotland’s King James VI was a devoted persecutor of witches, and during the satanic panic that gripped Europe during that time span, anyone could be accused of using dark magic. Most were women, though regardless of gender all were denied proper trials and subjected to burning at the stake, and in the later years, to hanging.

By 1894, the forward thinking philanthropist, Sir Philip Geddes, commissioned John Duncan to design a small fountain to memorialize the victims.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The small plaque explains the major design elements. Duncan was an admirer of Celtic art and legend, interests that are reflected in his use of dualism to highlight the opposites of good and evil and to show that every story has two sides. features a bronze relief of witches’ heads entangled by a snake, uses dualism to highlight the balance between good and evil and that each story has two sides. The relief displays two heads representing the accused.  There is the image of a Foxglove plant from the centre of which is a coiled snake intertwined around the head of Aesculapius, The God of Medicine, and his daughter Hygeia, the Goddess of Health. The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff known as a caduceus, remains a symbol of medicine today. Hygeia as the personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation represents hygiene. The Foxglove plant used medicinally can also be poisonous depending on dosage; and the image of the serpent imbued with wisdom is also acknowledged as evil. The symbolism of all represents good and evil. The years 1479 and 1722 are shown at upper left and bottom right, and two bolts in the upper corners show the Wiccan symbols of air and water. The hole below the serpent’s head dispensed water.

The trough is sculpted on three sides. The font displays flora with roots beneath the earth and branches above. The left panel depicts the evil eye with frowning eyes and nose; the words ‘the evil eye’ are written below. The right side depicts a pair of hands holding a bowl with the words ‘hands of’ written above the bowl and ‘healing’ written below.

I love symbolism in art and am very glad this monument is there to commemorate the terrible scourge of the witchcraft delusion. I do wish, however, that the plaque more explicitly condemned what happened there to all those innocent victims.  I also wish that I’d known about the fountain when we visited Edinburgh several years back.

 

 

Nonfiction Worth Reading: New England Bound, by Wendy Warren

New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most Americans know about slavery on southern plantations, and about New England’s role in achieving abolition. As school kids, most Americans learned about the horrors of plantation slavery, and were taught to take pride in the wisdom and perseverance of  the Northern states as leaders of the abolition movement. What we weren’t taught anything about was the institution of slavery in New England, where many Native Americans and the first Africans were enslaved within a decade of the founding of Plymouth Colony. More than a few studies of this topic have been published in the past decades or so and are gradually making inroads into the public’s awareness of this hidden history.  Wendy Warren’s meticulously researched new book is a welcome addition to the discussion.  Prominent 17th century families such as the Winthrops and the Mathers, and countless ordinary families either owned slaves, trafficked in them, or built their fortunes on the forced labor, deprivation, and pain of several thousand kidnapped individuals.

New England Bound draws upon such primary documents as court records, journals, and runaway slave notices to illustrate the breadth of this system in the context of the Triangle Trade. But more interestingly, the author has interpolated some of the ways in which the lives of those enslaved were impacted by the experience.  For example, Indian captives were locally available but proved to be difficult to manage because, being natives, they had recourse to a network of kin; for this reason, they proved less reliable than Africans, and most Indians  were sold/shipped off to the West Indies. Warren does a particularly effective job of presenting the  psychological effects of being ripped away from one’s family and social network  to an alien environment oceans away. Slave laws prevented the forging of new connections (families, networks of friends)  for these victimized people, whose sense of isolation must have been profound, whether they were island bound or working in a New England farmstead.

Writing in a flowing style, Warren provides much food for thought. She also looks into the earliest anti-slavery tracts, the very first written at the end of the century by none other than Samuel Sewall of Salem Witchcraft fame. Reading this book will forever change the reader’s conception of America’s first hundred years.

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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 Smithsonian.com 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.

Biography: Insubordinate Spirit, by Missy Wolfe

Insubordinate Spirit: A True Story of Life and Loss in Earliest America 1610-1665
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title of this study is a bit misleading. Yes, there is information on the life of Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett, but there is much more info on the 17th century Puritan experience in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York (Amsterdam). With respect to Elizabeth, there is a dearth of evidence about her day to day existence, and Missy Wolfe has unearthed a bit more with a few interesting personal letters and diaries written by “Bess” and her family, especially her eldest daughter. Especially elucidating are their exchanges with John Winthrop, Jr. who, as Ms. Wolfe described him, was a true “renaissance man”, scientist, medical specialist, political innovator, and man of reason. There are sections on the founding and development of Greenwich and Stamford, which came about only following lengthy wrangling between the English and Dutch over the borderlands between their respective colonies. In and amongst these sections, Wolfe manages to establish Elizabeth as an independent thinker who had the courage to resist conformity regardless of the personal hardships that the Puritan government visited upon her as a result.

Missy Wolfe is an amateur historian, and as such, she sometimes uses anachronistic language and repeats timeworn myths. Elizabeth, for example, didn’t “date”, and colonial women did not turn into torches because their home fires ignited their clothing as they worked over the flames. Still, there are things to be gleaned from this narrative, particularly in the many details about the Native Americans living in the Greenwich area during Elizabeth’s time there; Ms. Wolfe also provides information about some of the names in the town of today that are directly related to them. Pinpointing the location of her last dwelling site, on a promontory that stood above Hell Gate, is interesting as well. The author also fleshes out the personality of John Underhill, infamous for his part in the Pequot massacre. At the end of the book, she reports what is known about the lives of the descendants of the key figures in her narrative.

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CT and MA Early Fieldstone Grave Markers

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Eastham Cove Cemetery, Eastham, Cape Cod, Massachusetts

BENNET PAINE         
DYED MAY YE 30
1716 AGED 45
Y’s.

Eastham Cove is an ancient burying ground that contains the graves of three Mayflower passengers. The earliest burial dates from 1660.  It also has more than 16 fieldstone markers, most of which are no longer legible and therefore unidentifiable.

Bennet was the daughter of Major John Freeman (1719) and his wife Marcy (Prence) Freeman (1711). Eastham vital records indicate Bennet was the wife of John Paine. He died in 1731 at age 70. He is buried in the old section of Orleans Cemetery. Researchers indicate that John and Bennet Paine had 12 children.

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 Captain Nathan Hale Cemetery, Coventry, Connecticut

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LYETH THE BO
DY OF HANNAH
BUELL WHO W
AS THE WIFE O
F PETER BUELL
DECEASED FEB
20 1718

Hannah Wells Buell, born November 22, 1689, was the wife of one of the original settlers of Coventry, Peter Buell, whose name also appears on this stone. This is the oldest legible stone in the graveyard. Crudely shaped into a semicircle, it is the only example in town of the work of the Norwich Ovoid Carver, an early craftsman whose name remains unknown. Note how the words, “OF” and “WAS” are divided. Peter lived to the age of 89 and is buried nearby.

 

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Essex River View Cemetery, Essex, CT

PRATT

This undated stone bears only the single name, Pratt. There is a footstone several feet behind it with the same lettering. This is believed to be the burial place of Lt. William Pratt, one of the founders of Saybrook, CT, of which Essex was once a part. Lt. Pratt was born in England in 1609, and died in 1678.