Category Archives: history

Tracy Chevalier, The Lady and the Unicorn

LadyandtheUnicorn

I am that strange person who did not like The Girl with the Pearl Earring, but loves the rest of Tracy Chevalier’s work. This goes true for her The Lady and the Unicorn, which I just finished tonight. To be honest, I started it tonight too. A story of the creation of the famous Unicorn tapestries, now housed at the Musee de Cluny, in Paris, it is that good.

If you read other reviews of this book, you will find that their authors can’t resist the chance to use “tapestry” metaphors when describing Chevalier’s skill. “A deftly woven tapestry,” “not a stitch is missing,” they write. However, this attention to the book as the fully-realized production of a single person, an “author,” seems to miss the exact point Chevalier is trying to make about artistic creation. Nicholas des Innocents, the painter who designed the tapestries, is at the heart of her book, and it is he whom a modern audience would credit with being their “author.” But the story is designed to show us how these wonderful examples of the fifteenth-century art of weaving are in fact the product of many, many hands and brains and sources of inspiration. Chevalier reveals to us, not only the contribution of the designer and the members of Brussels atelier that weaves the tapestries, but the the role of the patrons who debate over the design; the merchant who acts as go-between, hiring the designer and arranging for his work to be made a reality; the women who serve as muses; the servants who care for the house so the work can be done; the English wool workers who ship their cloth to Ostend; and even the unappealing Jacques Le Boeuf, smelly because of the urine used to fix the woad that gives the beautiful blues to the tapestries.

It is easy to suppose that Chevalier sees her own creation as an author in the same light. The fantasy is of an author who toils alone and creates a book as a pure, solitary act, the work of her brain transmitted through her hands onto the page. The reality is that Chevalier’s book had as many hands in it as the tapestries themselves: an agent and an editor and maybe other readers who suggested revisions and made comments at an early stage (Chevalier thanks a long list of people in her acknowledgements), and closer to publication, there was a copyeditor and proofreader. Someone designed the cover (actually, his name is Richard Hasselberger — it is on the back flap of the dust jacket — and it is a very nice cover indeed) and took the author photo (Jerry Brauer) and created the layout and chose the type face and given that this novel followed the huge success of Girl with the Pearl Earring there was probably a substantial group in charge of publicity and promotion. And we can add to this list the booksellers who hand-sold it, the librarians who recommended it, and all the people who reviewed it. All of these were needed to make The Lady and the Unicorn what it is. And none of this takes away from Chevalier’s work.

Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Curse in the Colophon

UnknownSo many friends greeted my acquisition of this book with so much excitement that I thought a review was in order now I have finished reading it. For those that you don’t know, Edgar Goodspeed was a Theologian and New Testament scholar at my very own Divinity School at the University of Chicago, getting his degree from there in 1898 and teaching there between 1900 and 1937.   Goodspeed was responsible for building up the manuscript collection that now bears his name at the university, a collection of New Testament manuscripts and papyri. How could I resist a book by another novel-writing colleague?

Especially a book devoted to the hunt for medieval manuscripts, a hunt that bears striking similarities to his own real-life acquisitions. For while he was a New Testament scholars, the materia for the study of the Greek New Testament is manuscripts copied in the Middle Ages. In his story, the first-person hero and narrator of the tale is assisted by the as-intelligent-as-she-is-beautiful Letitia (“Tish”) in a hunt for a cache of manuscripts hidden, after the fall of Constantinople, revealed by a curse found in the colophon of a manuscript being studied at the University of Chicago. It is a a sea-borne quest in which the scholars are assisted by wealthy American patrons to reach the monastery of Selime where they find the treasure they seek behind a trapdoor in a tomb: Byzantine regalia, and relics, and, best of all, illustrated manuscripts.

Shades of Indiana Jones. Only, not really. For while Goodspeed knows he has to add a few dastardly ruffians and menacing Greeks to his tale, he isn’t as comfortable with tales of high adventure as he is writing about the mundane frustrations and excitements of ordinary manuscript study. And that is the best thing about this book, from the perspective of this medievalist. We learn the virtues of using ultra-violet light over reagents to uncover text written in palimpsest, that is to say, text that has been over-written by another text. It is under the original cursed colophon that they find their clue to the location of the manuscripts they seek. They are thwarted by the demons that plague all of us: libraries with inconvenient opening times and backward equipment, jealous librarians who refuse to understand the crucial importance of our own personal quests, languages that need to be learned, transportation that must be acquired, and the religious agendas of those who are the custodians of the treasures the scholars seek to reveal. The final crisis comes, not at the hands of the enemies who have been dogging their every step (book dealers who *gasp* cut up manuscripts in order to sell their miniatures one by one), but at the hands of the customs officials who threaten not to let them remove their prizes from the country.

If you ever have had to sweet-talk someone in a language you don’t know very well to look at a manuscript you are sure will be crucial for your work, this is the novel for you.

TBR Pile

New Books --- Madrid 2013

New Books — Madrid 2013


I never posted my stack of books from this year’s used book sale, so by way of compensation, here is a photo of the damage I have done as of my second day in Madrid. All come from Marcial Pons, except the bottom one on Velazquez, which is the catalogue for the special exhibit I saw at the Prado yesterday.

Something from the Pick Reunion, August 2013

“I am who I am”
God to Moses in Exodus 3:14

Thomas asked me to say a little bit about Jewish life in Czechoslovakia in the seventeenth and eigtheenth centuries, and though I know almost nothing about the subject, I was able to find out a few interesting things. Our ancestors lived a life then that was very much like our images of the Eastern European shtetl, albeit less romantic than the Fiddler on the Roof. They were restricted as to where they lived, they paid extra taxes, spoke Yiddish, had no secular education, were limited in the professions they could follow, and were under the tyranny/loving care (depending on your perspective) of their rabbis who were both religious and social leaders.

I had always believed this changed with the emancipation of the Jews under Emperor Joseph and the internal Jewish Enlightenment that was a consequence of the broader European Enlightenment. At this time, there began a process of Germanization of the Jews of Bohemia. They were allowed to join the army, they were required to take German last names, and became part of a secular, German educational system.

But until 1848, Czech Jews were not permitted to live anywhere but a few restricted towns, and only the eldest son was permitted to marry, in a move designed to reduce the number of Jewish families in Bohemia. Only after this date did these things change and over the next fifty years, the lifetime of Leopold Pick, our family went from being something none of us could recognize to the people we know and knew: industrialists, forward-looking, risk-taking, embracing modernity and technology and science, internationalists, and embracing both Czech and German culture. Jews moved into German-speaking areas of Bohemia, and took on German culture, and later Czech culture, when the country of Czechoslovakia was founded out of the rubble of 1918. (Though as an older woman at a lecture once told me, “You know, the only people ever to call themselves Czechoslovakians were the Jews.”) Ruzena Bondy’s prayerbook, written in German with some Hebrew, but with her own writing in Czech shows how she moved between three cultures.

Our name shows traces of these three cultures. Early on it was written Pik (Czech). We know it as Pick (German). Jan told Thomas a story that it comes from a Latin acronym: Peregrinus Iudeae Confessionis (with the K added for pronunciation). This means, “Traveller/Wanderer of the Jewish Faith” — figuratively perhaps, the Wandering Jew. It matters less what its “true” etymology was than what his story says about himself, how he saw himself, and what he taught his sons about who they were. Under the Czech/German sound of the name, there remains a sense of being always Jewish.

Thomas also told me a story about Edmund Pick owning orange groves in Jaffa. In Israel in 2011, I had a chance to do some digging on the Israeli site dedicated to the restitution of Holocaust property, and I discovered Edmund had bought a share or shares in the Jewish Colonial Trust, set up to promote Zionism. With his right hand, he was starting a factory in Czechoslovakia; with the left he was investing in a Jewish state. In a very real sense, Edmund and then Jan knew they were Jewish and this knowledge enabled Jan to save his immediate family. The “Peregrinus” in his name reminded him that his destiny did not have to be in Bohemia.

Our ancestors were Jewish and Czech and German, and we too are products of all the cultures and traditions and strains that have influenced us, the people who raised us, and where we have been since. We are from Canada, Britain, Argentina, the United States, and the Czech Republic. We are Jews and Catholics and Protestants and atheists. We speak English, French, Spanish, and Dutch. We are not half anything or a quarter anything. We live freely and we don’t need Adolf Hitler or a bureaucrat in a government office or a rabbi in a black hat to tell us who we are. We are all of us who we are.

Picks August 2013

Picks August 2013

48th International Congress on Medieval Studies

…Or Kalamazoo for short. Just got back yesterday evening after missing it for the past two years. So of course I had to hit the book exhibits, hard. And I found some treasures, new and used. I got Bill Klingshirn’s edition of Caesarius of Arles: Life, Testament and Letters — not a bit too soon because I am teaching that tomorrow. I also got a translation of Aldhelm’s Prose works, and the poetry is coming in the mail, as is Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000. I found two books from my doctoral advisor, Jocelyn Hillgarth; one of his oldest, The Conversion of Western Europe 350-750, and his latest, The Visigoths in History and Legend. Kate Cooper’s The Virgin and the Bride, Susanna Elm’s Virgins of God (yes, you are detecting a research theme), Leah Shopkow,’s History and Community, another former teacher, Edouard Jeauneau’s Rethinking the School of Chartres, Matthew Bailey’s translation of Las Mocedades de Rodrigo — the Youthful Deeds of the Cid (because I am tired of taking it out of the library), and Bonnie Mak’s How the Page Matters — which has perhaps the best “medium is the message” cover ever — round out the total. But I am perhaps fondest of all of the tote bag I bought fro the University of Toronto Press. Look Ma, no horns!:

U of Toronto Press

U of Toronto Press

An Interview with Alison Pick

I am very excited today to be able to bring you an interview with my very own cousin, Alison Pick, about her most recent novel, Far to Go, published just recently by House of Anansi Press. It can be ordered from Canada, and will be released in the States by Harper Perennial in summer, 2011. Don’t sorry, I will be reminding you when it comes out in the States! Far to Go, inspired in part by the lives of my grandparents and my father, is the story of one Jewish family’s experiences during the lead-up to the Nazi occupation in 1939 in Czechoslovakia. Paul and Annaliese Bauer are affluent, secular Jews whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of the German forces. Desperate to save themselves, they manage to secure a place for their six-year-old son, Pepik, on a Kindertransport to England. Far to Go is also the story of how what happened to the Bauers is remembered by those who survived, and the stories that are told about them.

The events of 1938 and 1939 unfold through the eyes of Marta, the governess, a woman uncertain of her own origins.  Why did you decide to make her the viewpoint character?

Good question. Truthfully I can almost never remember why I did anything in a particular way, beyond the fact that it felt intuitively right. But the idea of an unreliable narrator was appealing. I often turn to Jack Hodgins’ ‘A Passion for Narrative,’ – my novelists’ bible – and I think it was his suggestion to view the main characters, in my case Pavel and Anneliese, through outside eyes. That said, through the process of writing Marta grew to become a main character herself. She is a liminal character, not Jewish but close with Jews (and, as you point out, unsure of her origins, so with the possibility of being one); not the mother of a child sent away but close enough to understand a mother’s perspective. She is both on the Bauers’ side and, if only accidentally, against them. I wanted this tension to work in concert with the plot so the reader wouldn’t be certain what they could trust. The desire to keep reading would be to discover how the story turns out but also how Marta—who is still young and naïve—resolves as a person.
Continue reading

Prop. 8 Falls

Marc Ambinder over at The Atlantic has an interesting and revealing list of the facts the judge found in making his decision. These are facts, not opinions — propositions for which the plaintiffs found evidence and the defendants could find no compelling counter evidence. Go over there and check them out. Don’t worry; I’ll wait. Now, how many of these statements could have been accepted as facts twenty years ago? Ten? Five?

There’s one that made me tear up a little:

5. Same-sex love and intimacy “are well-documented in human history.”

Thank you, John Boswell. Sometimes even a medievalist can have an impact that lasts beyond his death.

Historical Fiction Online

I know that a lot of people who find my blog come to it by doing searches for historical fiction of one kind or another. I think many of you might like to know about the discussion board Historical Fiction Online. Its audience is people who love to read historical fiction, and it is a great place to discover novels from all periods and places, and to enjoy spirited discussion about your favourites with intelligent fellow readers. Many of the contributors are prolific book bloggers so you can use it to find new places to spend time on the net. And there are also many well-known authors who participate in its forums (hey, authors read too and writers of historical fiction are its greatest fans) so you just might find yourself discussing your favourite book with your favourite author!

Eleanor and Raymond, part 2

Okay we’ve read the evidence. What can the historian, and the historical novelist, do with it? Let’s be both prosecution and defence and see what we come up with.

The main problem with the story, I think, is our natural aversion to a tale of incest and the way it conflicts with our sympathy for Eleanor. What might a prosecutor say? Eleanor was quite young at the time of the Second Crusade, about twenty six. In all likelihood, before she met him on a pier in Antioch, she had probably spent little to no time with her uncle, since he had been at court in England prior to his journey to Jerusalem in 1136. And by all accounts, he was quite a hottie, tall and good-looking.

More importantly, attitudes to what we would consider incest were very different in the south of France, where Eleanor came from. The church at the time was trying to push a very strict definition of marriage that excluded even quite distant relative from marrying. But in the south they practiced partible inheritance, meaning a family’s property would be divided between all the heirs (including women) when the parents died. This meant that a family’s holdings would be divided into smaller and smaller pieces — unless relatives married and kept the bits together. And Eleanor herself was the product of a union that would squick most of us out. Her father, William X of Aquitaine, was the child of Wiliam IX. Her mother, Aenor of Chatellerault, was the daughter of William IX’s mistress, Dangereuse.

Many of the later salacious stories abut Eleanor come from the pens of authors in England who had every reason to discredit her in support of their king, Henry II, once the two became estranged. But the two who report the story of Eleanor and Raymond had little reason to shred her reputation. John of Salisbury was English, but much of his career was spent on the continent. William of Tyre, who is most explicit about the accusations, was even further from the world of the English court.

I’ve discussed evidence. There is also some interesting “absence of evidence.” King Louis’s chaplain, Odo of Deuil, wrote a history of the Second Crusade meant to glorify his master. Surely it was intended to cover the whole crusade, but in fact it ends abruptly right before the French reach Antioch. And there is some evidence that passages about Eleanor have been expunged from it, to minimize her role.

What can the defence say to all of this? Simply this: The crusade was a failure. And the chronicles our historians wrote were not meant to be simple collections of facts; they were to be moral explanations that explained why the world was as it was within a Christian framework. Failure was expressed as God’s will and the consequences of sin. The notion that a prideful, arrogant, greedy, or lustful woman could bring down a kingdom was an ancient one and used often in medieval histories to explain reverses of fortune. Certainly there was something wrong between Eleanor and Louis, which came to a head in Antioch. But perhaps Eleanor was merely supporting Raymond politically, wanting to remain with her armies to help him in Antioch, while her husband preferred to go south to Jerusalem. Unused to a political women, perhaps the historians just assumed sex was involved because it fit their moral universe.

It is interesting to me that while most popular historians dismiss the tale of Raymond and Eleanor, the most recent study of the Second Crusade by an academic historian, Jonathan Phillips, gives it much more credence. People who write historical fiction often talk about “getting the facts straight,” and of course this is important. But what I hope I have shown in these posts, is that history isn’t only or even mostly about a set of facts. We have very few facts, much fewer than you would imagine. What we have is evidence. And it is in the interpretation of that evidence that the historian and the novelist create art.

Eleanor and Raymond

In the spring of 1148, Eleanor of Aquitaine arrived with her husband, King Louis of France in the county of Antioch, after a horribly traumatic journey through Asia Minor (what we’d call Turkey) which ended with the loss of most of the crusader army they had brought with them. They were met by Raymond of Poitiers, Eleanor’s uncle on her father’s side. He had come to Antioch years before, hinting he’d wed the widowed countess, Alice, and instead, to her great chagrin, married her daughter, and claimed the county in her name.

The story told of Eleanor’s time in Antioch, that she had an illicit relationship with Raymond, is not one that tends to find favour with readers. It seems too gossipy and too, well, icky. Eleanor has entered the pantheon as a brave, strong, independent women at a time when they were rather thin on the ground, and it is just not a story that we want to believe about her.

So what do her contemporaries say? John of Salisbury raises the alarm bell in his Historia Pontificalis:

While they remained in Antioch to console, heal, and revive the survivors from the wreck of the army, the attentions paid by Count Raymond to Eleanor and his constant, indeed almost continuous conversation with her aroused the king’s suspicions.

He goes on to say that when the king decided to leave Antioch, the queen wished to stay and use her army to help the count, and Raymond was more than happy to have her remain, if the king would give his consent:

And when the king made haste to tear her away, she mentioned their kinship, saying it was not lawful for them to remain together as man and wife since they were related in the fourth and fifth degree.

In other words she raised the idea of divorce from the king, based on their consanguineity.
John tells us more:

There was one knight amongst the king’s secretaries, Thierry de Galeran, a eunuch whom the queen had always hated and mocked, but who was faithful and had the king’s ear like his father before him. He boldly persuaded the king not to suffer her to dally longer at Antioch, both because, “Guilt under kinship’s guise could lie concealed,” and because it would be a lasting shame to the kingdom of the Franks if in addition to the other disasters, it was reported that the king had been deserted by his wife or robbed of her.

Thierry’s words about guilt under kinship’s guise are meant to imply a sinful relationship between Eleanor and her uncle, and John is well aware of the irony of her using her distant relationship with the king to escape her marriage and stay with Raymond. The king did tear her away from Antioch against her will , and the two hated each other ever more. John recounts that they went in separate ships when they finally left the Holy Land, and that Pope Eugenius did a spot of marriage counselling when they arrived in Rome, pushing them to sleep in the same bed. John was in Rome at the time, so would have been in a good place to hear all the gossip first hand.

William of Tyre, speaking abut the same events, is more explicit:

The queen readily assented to Raymond’s design for she was a foolish woman. Her conduct before and after this time showed her to be far from circumspect. Contrary to her royal dignity, she disregarded her marriage vows and was unfaithful to her husband.

William, too, writes of Louis’s departure from Antioch and raises the spectre of s sneaky, night-time escape:

By the advice of his chief nobles, King Louis hastened his departure and secretly left Antioch with his people. Thus the splendid aspect of his affairs was completely changed, and the end was quite unlike the beginning. His coming had been attended with pomp and glory; but fortune is fickle, and his departure was ignominious

John and William both wrote their accounts some years after the events they describe, though both were alive during the events they describe. William would have been about eighteen when Louis and Eleanor were in the Holy Land, certainly old enough to hear the tales. There is also some evidence that is exactly contemporary that, at the very least, demonstrates the king and queen were having serious marriage troubles. Abbot Suger of St. Denis was one of those left in France to take care of the kingdom while Louis and Eleanor were off gallivanting in the Holy Land. He wrote the following in a letter to Louis, responding to one that is now lost:

Concerning the queen your wife, we venture to congratulate you, if we may, upon the extent to which you wait to express your anger, if there be anger, until with God’s will you return to your own kingdom and see to these matters and others.

Hmm, something was certainly up. Can we be sure, reading this evidence, that we know what it was? Was Eleanor unfaithful to her husband with her uncle? We still need to place this evidence in context. In my next post, I’ll do just that and give some reasons why she may be guilty as charged — and some why she may be innocent.