It’s a Mystery: The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett

The Lost Book of the Grail

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve gotta say, rarely have I come across a book so expressly tailored to my own particular interests. Put together a collection of ancient manuscripts,  a medieval English cathedral, the long lost relics of a saint, a sacred spring, a mysterious code, King Arthur, the lore of the Holy Grail, and I’m hooked. Charlie Lovett has produced a cracking good tale set in Barchester, the fictional town invented by Anthony Trollope, with a suitably nerdy protagonist, Arthur Prescott, who teaches for a living but lives for the joys he discovers within the  all-but-deserted  cathedral library. He has his few close friends and an obsession with the Grail myth instilled by his grandfather, who believed the Grail is hidden somewhere within Barchester. Arthur’s existence is predictable and ordinary until an effervescent American scholar, Bethany Davis, breezes into his circumscribed world, charged with digitizing the contents of his beloved retreat. After a somewhat rocky beginning, they find common ground in their love of medieval history. Arthur is heartbroken when the dean announces that the manuscripts will have to be sold off to finance much needed cathedral repairs, and feels driven to find a way to save the beloved collection. Luckily, Bethany, a whiz of a researcher, throws herself into the quest, which plays out with

Although flashbacks can be annoying in a novel, author Lovett seamlessly blends them into the modern tale, via well researched sequences that vivify England’s tumultuous religious struggles while providing  grounding for the facts and legends that Arthur pursues. While some of his adventures contain humorous elements, others are more serious, as he searches not only for a “treasure” to save the library, but for something deeper in which to believe.

Engrossing, delightful, and heartening. And highly recommended.

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Folklore in My Garden: St. John’s Wort

imageEach year on Midsummer’s Eve, when summer begins here in New England, I stroll around my garden searching for the little yellow blooms of St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum). I’ve never planted any. Around here it grows as a wildflower, and a few volunteers show up each year, in various places, sometimes the same and sometimes not. From the time of the ancient Greeks, it was considered to have magical powers to ward off evil and protect against diseases, and since early Christian times, the feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24,  has been considered the best day on which to pick the plant for such uses. Some sources have said the red spots appear on the leaves on August 29, said to be the anniversary of his beheading.

Other ideas stem from folk beliefs. The bright yellow blossom was associated with the sun, which made St. John’s Wort popular for divination and fortune telling. In Germany, for example, young girls dreaming about marriage in the coming year would pick a sprig in the evening; if it had not wilted by morning, her chances were good. The red juice from the crushed leaves was called Witch’s Blood, and made effective love potions. A poem translated from the German:

“The young maid stole through the cottage door,
And blushed as she sought the plant of power.
‘Thou silver glow-worm, oh! lend me thy light,
I must gather the mystic St. John’s Wort to-night;
The wonderful herb whose leaf will decide
If the coming year shall see me a bride.”

Similarly, it could foretell who in a family would die the soonest. Bringing the flowers indoors on Midsummer Eve would protect from the evil eye, ward off witches, promote good fortune, and prevent fires and lightning strikes.  (Guess I’d better bring some in tonight!) Placing a bunch beneath a pillow could banish nightmares, and in one case it rid a house of poltergeist activity! From an English poem:

“St. John’s wort doth charm all the witches away.
If gathered at midnight on the saint’s holy day.
And devils and witches have no power to harm
Those that do gather the plant for a charm:
Rub the lintels and post with that red juicy flower
No thunder nor tempest will then have the power
To hurt or to hinder your houses: and bind
Round your neck a charm of a similar kind.”

Be sure not to step on this plant, or a Faerie Horse just may steal you away. But perhaps you can avoid that fate by wearing a few leaves and flowers as a necklace.

Medicinally, noted herbalists used St. John’s Wort in ointments to heal deep wounds, bruises, and venomous animal bites. In infusions, it could dissolve stones in the urinary tract or kidneys, and  cure fevers, jaundice, gout, and rheumatism. It was also good for bed sores, lockjaw, and insomnia. Native Americans made use of St. John’s Wort against diarrhea, skin injuries, bleeding, and snake bites. In Europe, it has been used for centuries to alleviate nervous disorders, hysteria,  and insanity, and very recently, St. John’s Wort has been newly discovered as  a modern treatment for depression and virus infection. Today, there are many commercial preparations available as standard oils and liquid or powdered extracts. Now that researchers are taking this herb seriously for medicinal purposes, who knows what knew applications might be discovered?

 

 

 

 

 

Great Nonfiction:New England Nation, by Bruce C. Daniels

New England Nation: The Country the Puritans Built
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever wonder why America always has to “save the world”? Why the town meeting style of government has survived on the local level for 300 years? Why Americans are so intent upon personal independence? Why higher education is so important to us? And what about due process of law?
While world views and social standards have changed drastically since Plymouth was settled, our core values, those that show up time and again in protests, demonstrations, and speeches have remained the same. Historian Bruce Daniels explains how this came to be in his 232 page narrative, a witty, fluent explanation of how the Puritans thought and why they behaved as they did, for good or bad. It’s not always a flattering picture, but it is a comprehensible one. Worth checking out for any reader of American history and sociology.

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It’s a Mystery: The Fabric of Sin, by Phil Rickman

The Fabric of Sin (Merrily Watkins, #9)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s a mystery to me why Phil Rickman remains largely unknown in America, seeing as how he’s a very talented writer who combines the mystery, paranormal, and historical fiction genres like nobody else. His Merrily Watkins series, set in present day England, features a female vicar charged with being the “deliverance” (read “exorcism”) minister in her parish and its environs. Merrily has a daughter, a young teen in the earlier novels and a young woman in the latest, and a significant other, former rock legend Lol Turner, who play prominent roles in all her deliverance activities. Other colorful characters from the church and the village round out the cast. Rickman’s characters are always richly developed, whether they are pro-or-an-tagonists.

In The Fabric of Sin, the action is placed in the Duchy of Cornwall, the province of Prince Charles, who looms large in the background of this investigation. The Reverend Mrs. Watkins is called out to look into a frightening paranormal incident that took place at the Master House in remote Garway. The Duchy owns this ancient property, rumored to have been inhabited by none other than the Knights Templar, and wants to clear matters up so that its restoration can continue unencumbered. Merrily finds this easier said than done, since the church, the villagers, and the Duchy all have their own hidden agendas. As usual, Mr. Rickman incorporates authentic and vivid atmosphere, historical background, psychological suspense, and subtle supernatural elements to produce an engrossing set of mysteries and murders for Merrily to tackle. This is a series that never disappoints.

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Lorenzo Dow Raises the Devil

Quoted from Legendary Connecticut by David E. Phillips

Once there was this crazy preacher named Lorenzo Dow who was travelling in the northern part of Vermont, when he got caught in a terrible snowstorm. He managed to make his way to the only light he could see. After repeated knocking at the door of the humble log house, a woman opened it. He asked if he could stay the night. She told Dow her husband was not home and she could not take in a stranger. But he pleaded with her and she reluctantly let him in. He immediately went to bed, without removing his clothing, in a corner of the room separated from the main living quarters only by a rude partition with many cracks in it.

After he had slept for just a short time, the preacher was awakened by the sounds of giggling and whispering from the main room. Peering through a crack in the partition, he saw that his hostess was entertaining a man not her husband! No sooner had he taken this in, when Dow heard a man’s drunken voice shouting and cursing outside the front door, and demanding to be let in. Before admitting her husband (for it was he, returned unexpectedly), the wife motioned her lover to hide in the barrel of tow, a coarse flax ready for spinning, beside the fireplace. Once inside, the suspicious husband quickly sensed that his wife had not been alone, and demanded to know who else was in the house. When the quick-witted wife told him about the Rev. Dow, sleeping in the corner, he was not satisfied. After all, he was not so drunk that he would take his wife’s word for the identity of the houseguest.

“Well, now,” roared the husband, “I hear tell that parson Dow can raise the devil. I think I’d like to see him do it — right here and now.” Before the devil could shut up her boisterous husband, he had pulled the famous preacher from his bed, where he had pretended to be sound asleep. “Rev’rend,” he bellowed, “I want you to raise the devil. I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” Seeing that he would have to perform, Lorenzo finally said, “Well, if you insist, I will do it, but when he comes, it will be in a flaming fire. You must open the door wide so he will have plenty of room.” The husband opened the door. Then, taking a burning coal from the fire with the tongs, Dow dropped it into the tow cask. Instantly the oily contents burst into flame. Howling in pain from the fire which engulfed him, the flaming figure of the man hidden in the barrel leaped out onto the floor and, just as quickly, darted out the open door, trailing ashes and smoke. He ran down the snowy road as if pursued by demons. It is said that the sight of all this not only sobered the drunken husband immediately, but permanently cured his taste for booze. And that was certainly one of the Rev. Dow’s major miracles!

Crazy Lorenzo Dow: American original

During the 19th century, many an American mother named her new baby boy Lorenzo Dow, after a flamboyant preacher from Connecticut. The namesake of all these sons was born in Coventry in 1777, where he spent his youth much tormented by religious uncertainties. At the age of 21, he joined the Methodists, against the wishes of his father, and became a circuit preacher. The following year, Lorenzo traveled to Ireland as a missionary, and introduced to England the camp meeting system of the movement known as the Second Great Awakening.

Over the next 30 years, Lorenzo visited nearly all parts of the US, accompanied by his wife Peggy, and later, Sally. He quickly became famous for his eccentric dress and manner, and his sermons were always attended by great crowds (at times as many as 10,000), assembled in town halls, barns and open fields. He liked to appear in a town unexpectedly and announce that in exactly one year,

he would return to preach, and he always did. Skinny and unbathed, (lucky Mrs Dow) his long hair and beard were described as never having met a comb. He owned only one suit of clothing, and relied upon his listeners to replace pieces as they became too tattered. He carried nothing but a box of Bibles to give away. An ardent abolitionist, he was often run out of town.

Not surprisingly, there arose many stories about Lorenzo and his foibles and talents. Several are reproduced in the following posts.

Lorenzo Dow died in Georgetown, D.C. in 1834, having touched the lives of more Americans than any other man of his day.

dow

Folklore in My Garden: Rue

Ruta graveolens, perennial

“…there’s rue for you, and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays; O, you must wear your rue with a difference.” Hamlet, William Shakespeare.

Rue is one of the most ornamental herbs, with deeply cut, smooth leaves that are rather bluish. The flowers are a bright yellow and blossom from June to September. It is a hardy plant that can be relied upon to self-sow, if it likes the place in which it’s planted. This rue has been growing in my Connecticut garden for 20 years, requiring very little tending. Rue originated in Southern Europe and is one of the “bitter herbs.”

Rue has thousands of years of history in many different cultures. Known as Herb of Grace, Blessed Herb, Herb of Repentance, and herbygrass , it is considered a protective plant, and has long been used in medicine and magic. Early physicians considered rue an excellent protection against plagues and pestilence, and used it to ward off poisons and fleas. The hardy evergreen shrub is mentioned by writers from Pliny to Shakespeare and beyond, as an herb of remembrance, of warding and of healing. It was frequently planted by doorways to bring blessings to and protect against evil, and is one of the ingredients in the legendary Four Thieves Vinegar. Priests would dip rue in holy water to bless people and their homes, and some people carried or wore bunches of the plant to repel witches.
Once believed to improve the eyesight and creativity, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci regularly ate the small, trefoil leaves to increase their own. The legend of rue lives on in playing cards, where the symbol for the suit of clubs is said to be modeled on a leaf of rue.

It is a coincidence that the name of this plant is identical to and English word meaning “regret”. It is derived from the Greek word reuo, to set free, in recognition of its many historic medicinal uses.