Philobiblon: January 2005

Monday, January 31, 2005

Going travelling soon?

If so, you might want to read this book review on H-Travel. The book is about the encounters between souvenir sellers in Sumatra and Western tourists, and sounds like many a scene that I've seen.

In fact as I write, eight masks, from eight countries look down from the wall at me. Those are Indonesia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, China, Tibet (although bought in India), Egypt, Thailand and southern India. I know they're tourist "tat", but they're still evocative!

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Sex in Roman art

A lot of what I read is about gender issues, sexuality and similar, and an email exchange off-blog recently made me think about why these are valuable beyond simply the information they contain. Studying these areas provides a continual reminder that other cultures, other times, other people don't see the world in the same way you do and make you realise the unthinking assumptions that underlie anyone's world view.

Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100BC - AD 250, by John R Clarke certainly does that. It examines artistic representations of sex in Roman art, rejecting in general a reliance on texts, invariably written by elite males, and tries to use the details in the art, its nature and distribution, to get at an understanding of how other Roman groups saw sex.

One possible reaction was laughter, although a very different laughter to the embarrassed titters of a school group when sex-ed comes around. So the famous Pompeii Priapus has an apotropaic function at the entrance to the passageway into the house, to ward off the Evil Eye.

Since a small penis was considered beautiful, a large penis, as with a dark skin, blonde hair, deformities and other departures from the Roman ideal, was a cause for mocking, powerful laughter. (For the Romans compassion for difference or disability was not an admirable characteristic.) ""Art from both the Hellenic and Roman period frequently represented dwarfs, hunchbacks, or people with enlarged heads; such use of malformations in art for the sake of comedy is quite common". (p. 238)

Talking about a similar figure from the Timgad Northwest Baths, of a macrophallic Ethiopian: "Levi points out that in antiquity people believed that atopia or unbecomingness dispelled the Evil Eye, ... as well as normal beings represented in indecent attitudes, making vulgar gestures or noises ... Laughter is the opposite pole of the anguish produced by the dark forces of evil". (p. 131)

Priapus is also seen often, for the same reason, at crossroads.

So that was perhaps the main reason for "unbecoming" depictions of lovemaking, a category that would not correspond in any way to our classifications, or indeed, as Clarke points out, our ideas of "explicitness" or "soft-core/hard-core". Priapus was "nothing core".

Clarke argues that the Suburban Baths at Pompeii, where containers for clothes left by customers were identified by a series of explicit little paintings, provide an escalating scale of Roman shock. Pretty bad was anything that affected the purity of the mouth, particularly for men. "It was the organ of speech and above all the organ of public oratory. Social interactions also focused on the clean mouth, since it was customary for social equals to kiss when greeting each other ... In invective literature, the worst possible insult is to accuse a man of fellating another man, and the worst possible threat against a man is that of forcing him to fellate someone." Even worse was providing the same service for a woman. (p. 224)

A male accepting penetration was even worse, although there was no shame in being the penetrator. (Much like in many Middle Eastern cultures today.) The most extreme painting in the baths has five participants combining all of these, supposed, on Clarke's reading, to provoke helpless laughter.

But sexual depictions could also have other readings. Clarke suggests that the paintings in many of the Pompeii villas, up to the richest, often mixed more or less indiscriminately with non-sexual images, were simply reading sexual art as part of the expected range in an educated, discerning collection. As the gift of Venus, sexual pleasure was something a rich person might expect to enjoy in abundance.

Even in the famous Pompeii Lupanar (brothel), he argues the depictions of sex, usually read as being indications of services offered, are actually depictions of luxurious aristocratic lovemaking in a place where nothing like that was on offer. "The profile of the sex-for-sale business that emerges is one of freedmen buying slaves (both male and female) specifically for use as prostitutes.... The range of prices for these prostitutes' sexual services varied from 2 asses (the cost of a cup of common wine) to 16 asses."

The paintings are also a reminder that the Romans had almost no concept of privacy as we understand it. Clarke argues that in the famous Warren Cup, the young servant boy looking out of the scene probably represents the viewer, but in other cases servants are shown in rooms where lovemaking is occurring, going about their business and ignoring the sex. He argues that this is again an indication of luxury - the servants, usually young and beautiful, adding to that.

This is not a very readable work (anyone looking for titillation will be seriously disappointed); the author is setting out a detailed academic arguments, but I found it well worth ploughing through, for the understanding it gives for ancient objects that are still treated with discomfort, disdain, and even disgust, in academic contexts that should know better.


I might note as a postscript that the book presents some lovely examples of Victorian utter misreadings, some of which persist until today. So a room with a painting of a couple on a bed on one side and on the other showing three women is interpretted as "on the right a woman consults a female panderer; on the left she gets her wish - a male prostitute. At best, this interpretation rests on flimsy visual evidence; at worst, it reveals Victorian notions that prostitution must be at the root of any representation of a man and woman enjoying sex." (p. 105)

Similar the House at IX, 5, 16 at Pompei... August Mau supposed that "the four erotic paintings of room ft (a fifth is destroyed) could be put only in a room of a building where sex was for sale. He implies that no decent person would have such pictures in his bedroom. Mau's construction of 'decency' for the Pompeian owner and his guests is, of course, highly suspect. As a 19th-century Christian gentleman of the Victorian period, Mau was the product of an acculturation with regard to sex that could find even the glimpse of a woman's ankles 'indecent'." (p. 178-9)

Scholarship since then has, I think, in general greatly improved, although I'm rather less confident about popular understanding.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Surviving as a shop-girl

Just found a fascinating new e-text, Making Both Ends Meet: The Income and Outlay of New York Working Girls, by Sue Ainslie Clark and Edith Wyatt, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1911.

It presents a good argument to be thankful for living in the 21st century:

"Lucy Cleaver, a young American woman of twenty-five, ... had entered one of the New York department stores at the age of twenty, at a salary of $4.50 a week.

In the course of the five years of her employment her salary had been raised one dollar. She stood for nine hours every day. If, in dull moments of trade, when no customers were near, she made use of the seats lawfully provided for employees, she was at once ordered by a floor-walker to do something that required standing.

During the week before Christmas, she worked standing over fourteen hours every day, from eight to twelve-fifteen in the morning, one to six in the afternoon, and half past six in the evening till half past eleven at night. So painful to the feet becomes the act of standing for these long periods that some of the girls forego eating at noon in order to give themselves the temporary relief of a foot-bath. For this overtime the store gave her $20, presented to her, not as payment, but as a Christmas gift.

The management also allowed a week's vacation with pay in the summer-time and presented a gift of $10.

After five years in this position she had a disagreement with the floor-walker and was summarily dismissed.

She then spent over a month in futile searching for employment, and finally obtained a position as a stock girl in a Sixth Avenue suit store at $4 a week, a sum less than the wage for which she had begun work five years before. Within a few weeks, dullness of trade had caused her dismissal. She was again facing indefinite unemployment.

Her income for the year had been $281. She lived in a large, pleasant home for girls, where she paid only $2.50 a week for board and a room shared with her sister. Without the philanthropy of the home, she could not have made both ends meet.

It was fifteen minutes' walk from the store, and by taking this walk twice a day she saved carfare and the price of luncheon. She did her own washing, and as she could not spend any further energy in sewing, she bought cheap ready-made clothes. This she found a great expense. ...

After giving practically all her time and force to her work, she had not received a return sufficient to conserve her health in the future, or even to support her in the present without the help of philanthropy. She was ill, anæmic, nervous, and broken in health."

This month's acquisitions

I have been reasonably restrained this month, but did splash out at the OUP sale, which produced the following bargains:

* England: an archaeological guide, Timothy Darvill, Paul Stamper and Jane Timby, which reminds me that one of these days I must get to Grime's Graves in Norfolk, which are not burial places but Neolithic flint mines. Worked between 3,000BC and 1,900BC, there are traces of at least 350 shafts spread over nine hectares, the guide says.

"Calculations suggest that 1,000 tons of overburden was removed to create a single shaft, which yielded approximately 8 tons of nodular flint. The exploitation of the mine could have been undertaken over a period of two to three months by a workforce of 15 to 16 people. If all the flint won from the mine was converted into axes in an efficient manner something like 10,250 blades could have been produced; even at worst over 6,000 axes could have been made. The whole site may have produced between 2.5 million and 5 million axes during its working life." (p. 232-3)

That's what you call an industry, at a time well before you'd expect to be using the word.

* Oxford Archaeological Guides: Southern France, Henry Cleere

* The Enigma of Easter Island, John Flenley and Paul Bahn

* The Renaissance Bazaar: From the Silk Road to Michelangelo, Jerry Brotton. The blurb says it "explodes the myth of the European Renaissance as a founding moment of cultural superiority; it was the time when East and West encountered each other as equals". Sounds like it should be a good companion to the Turks exhibition.

* A Land of Liberty: England 1689-1727 Julian Hoppit (because I'm unable to resist a cheap reference book).

* Agnew Bowker's Cat: Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England, David Cressy. (More on this soon.)

Purchased elsewhere:

* Behsharam (Shameless), a play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, bought as a small gesture of solidarity for the author, whose latest production was stopped by Sikh religious protests. A Guardian review of this play here.

* North Korea: Another Country, Bruce Cumings, because having been there around 10 years ago, I want to catch up on the latest.

* Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, by Susan Jacoby, because it would be nice to think there was one.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Madly busy

... so just a couple of quick offerings:

Since Alexander the Great keeps popping up, I'll note an interesting website, "Beyond Renault", which looks at fictional representations of him after you-know-who. (Hat-tip to The Little Professor.)

And since I'm in this part of the world, I have to mention a fascinating post on Rhine River about Catalhoyuk, the famous Neolithic settlement in Turkey. It suggests the village/town was not a place you'd want to spend your holidays.

On a feminist note, Picturing Women "explores how women are figured, fashioned, turned into portraits, and told about in words and pictorial narrative". The online version of a gallery show, it has some fearfully vicious images - check out particularly the caricatures. Some can be sent as e-postcards. (Hat-tip to Scribbling Woman.)

Finally, some advice from Mark Twain: "Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years the candidate may look upon his circumstances with the most implicit confidence as a sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for." (From the Freelance daily newsletter)

Thursday, January 27, 2005

The conquest of Constantinople

The second part of the RA Turks exhibition that particularly took my fancy was the gallery dedicated to Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople. It is one of those cases when you realise turning your historical lens around 180 degrees produces interesting thoughts. Usually, of course, we are thinking about 1453 as the end, final and definitive, of the "Roman" empire, but what happened was the expansion of a culturally rich, booming empire across an important psychological point.

The commentary says that with the city repopulated with a multicultural, multi-ethnic mix, it resumed its place as a great cultural centre.

There is evidence of this in display of a few of the books that Mehmet commissioned, written in Greek, Latin, Arabic and Persian. Notable is a gorgeous map of Europe (pretty accurate) based on Ptolemy's Geography, by a Greek scholar who had converted to Islam, and two histories, one by another Greek Kritoboulos and the other by one of Mehmet's secretaries, Turstan Bey, both of which compare the Ottoman Sultan to Alexander the Great.

The Turks at the Royal Academy

They've arrived. No, I don't mean the Turks, but the hordes of visitors at Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years: 600—1600 AD. It was like a rugby game in there today, albeit a very polite one.

But the exhibits, if not perhaps the exhibition, deserve the attention.

I only had an hour to spare, and so concentrated on two sections. Doing it in parts, if you possibly can, is undoubtedly the way to go; the span is so broad, the flood of empires of which you've never heard before (or at least I certainly hadn't) so overwhelming.

I learnt that the people called the Turks first appear in history in the 6th century AD, when they established ties with the Western Wei dynasty (535-51) in China. They are, on the Silk Road, at the very crossroads of the world, as is made clear in rooms two and three, where all of the exhibits are religious, but pick your religion. There's Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity*, Manichaeism, Mazdaism (a local form of Zoroastrianism), and some of the carved stone statues (used as gravemarkers) look distinctly animist to me, although that's not specifically mentioned that I saw.

Marking graves with stones was one of the characteristics that continued through centuries and religions. I was taken with a humble gravestone, a triangular lump of basalt worked only on one side to produce a flat surface. It was scratched, almost graffitied, with a Nestorian cross, and the label said "identifies the deceased, a Turkic maiden, and her death year, 'the year of the dragon' using a 12-year animal cycle adopted by the Turks".

(NOTE TO CURATOR: we want names! This maiden wasn't anonymous when she was buried, why should she be now?)

It is displayed with several similar gravestones, and a note that many of these were found in Semirechye (modern Kakakstan and Krygyzstan). I will confess I was unaware of a country of the former name and I only got eight Google hits - is it maybe a quasi-autonomous republic of somewhere? They weren't clear. Anyone who knows, please comment! (If it is a country, is this a record minimum for Googling?) (ADDITION: I meant Kakastan - sorry I realise this wasn't very clear!)

One of the similar gravestones, from 1302, is dated "according to the era of Alexander the Great", showing how his influence lingered in the region, as I'd previously learnt at the Musee Guimet.

Opposite were some stakes of a form that I've never seen before. Carefully shaped into an octagonal cross-section, up to a metre or so in length, covered in writing (Uighur), they seem to have been driven into the floor of temples to record the contributions of benefactors. One temple in Khocho seems to have been entirely founded by a woman, but again, no name is given!

This delightfully eclectic period seems to have come to an end in the late 900s, when there were mass conversions to Islam and significant migrations.

I said the exhibits were great, but sadly not so the exhibition. Perhaps it is showing signs of the internal wrangles at the RA - the people-flow seems very badly arranged (objects that can be seen from all sides only have labels on one, crowding everyone together), the print on the labels is far too small, so the RA visitors, who aren't on average on the young side, were almost pressing their faces up to the surface to read them, and the explanatory panels so packed with names, dates and times as to be almost incomprehensible - a dictionary reference rather than an explanation.

Still, the objects are wonderful - go anyway!

*There's a great deal on Nestorian Christianity in China on this site.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Surprise, surprise ...

Julia Gillard has withdrawn from the contest for the leadership of the Australian Labor Party. That'll teach her: next time she'll put apples in the fruit bowl, (except of course that kitchen photo will pursue her forever).

Lenny Ann Low says: "There are times when even the most cynical of us have unavoidable patriotic, lump-in-the-throat moments ... "

Ah, no.

But if you want to be cheered up, particularly is you are a sub-editor (copy-editor for Americans), check out The Onion for Someday, I will copy-edit the great American novel.

History in perspective

The first essay in the Yourcenar collection on which I posted yesterday is a comparison of the state of Rome as recorded in the Historia Augusta (which covers the second and third centuries AD).

This site, which has the - almost - complete set in Latin and English, rather unkindly describes it as a "mockumentary".

Yourcenar would agree with that conclusion, but her main point is, for her, a rather conventional one, that the "decline" of Rome in this period is being mirrored as she writes: "We have learned to recognize that gigantism which is merely the morbid mimetism of growth, that waste which makes a pretense of wealth in states already bankrupt, that plethora so quickly replaced by dearth at the first crisis ... that atmosphere of inertia and panic, of authoritarianism and of anarchy, those pompous reaffirmations of a great past amid present mediocrity and immediate disorder, those reforms which are merely palliatives ... The modern reader is at home." (Pages 22-3; written in 1958 - and boy could she write)

But what did take me was the reflection she makes about how today's times might be seen not as something new, but merely as an extension of Roman times "... Hitler waging his last battles in Sicily or in Benevento like a Holy Roman emperor of the Middle Ages, or to Mussolini .. strung up by the heels in a Milan garage, dying in the 20th the death of a third-century emperor." (pp. 21-2)

It left me musing about how a historian in 3,000AD, or 4,000AD, assuming of course that there is any such creature - and the way we are going with the environment it may well have a carapace and lots of legs, so think a bit differently to we do - might sum up the history of the world before the time it gets interesting, the last millennia or two for her. (Much as I skipped over the Hittites and neo-Hittites in Syria a couple of days ago.)

Of course the themes would depend on this creature's own concerns; she might want to do decadent decay, if she thought her own society was decaying, as did Yourcenar, or she might even want to do Victorian era-style growth towards a glorious present.

But it is salutary to think how unimportant most of the things that we anguish over today would be, and to consider what elements of today's politics and society might be thought important.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Piranesi, a man of many parts

I've always thought of Piranesi as a sculptor; when I look several times a week at the giant, spectacular, if rather ugly "Piranesi vase", which towers above your head in a riot of decorated marble in the Enlightenment gallery in the British Museum, that's perhaps not surprising, but I'm learning from Marguerite Yourcenar that he was primarily, and probably most importantly, an artist and engraver.

He produced "coffee table books" (no they hadn't invented "coffee tables" then, but it describes their nature - something that was a status symbol as well as a beautiful text) - that sold to the same clients as bought his "restored" sculptures. (Sometimes so restored there was only a tiny fraction of ancient material involved.)

Piranesi was very much of the artisan class, although he was ennobled by the Pope in 1767. Yourcenar is interesting on the way in which he did not regard himself as an "artist" in the prima dona-ish way that is often regarded today.

"To the last he docilely follows custom, which consists in numbering on the plates each part of the structure, each fragment of ornament still in place, and making certain explanatory notes in the lower margin corresponding to them, without it ever occurring to him, as it certainly would to an artist nowadays, that these schoolbook specifications or engineering diagrams might diminish the aesthetic or picturesque value of his work." (p. 98)

Yourcenar (writing in the Sixties) notes that about a third of the structures Piranesi recorded did not survive, and many more had been significantly modified or "restored" in unsympathetic ways. His work is thus a hugely valuable record of what has been, only relatively recently, lost.

He did, however, have an "artistic" side, expressed in the curiously modern-feeling Imaginary Prisons (1745). Supposed to have been done while he was suffering from a fever (quite likely malaria), they have a haunting, frightening insanity reminiscent of the late Goya.

Yourcenar says they are unlike anything that came before, but presage much to come. They "may well be one of the first and most mysterious symptoms of that obsession with torture and incarceration which increasingly possess men's minds during the last decades of the 18th century. One thinks of Sade and the dungeons of the Florentine villa in which his Mirsky imprisons his victims ... both express that abuse which is somehow the inevitable conclusion of the Baroque will to power." (p. 118)

The prints are here. See also an essay by Aldous Huxley on the Prisons etchings, and a piece on a modern exhibition they inspired.

(The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays, Marguerite Yourcenar, Trans. Richard Howard, 1980)

Monday, January 24, 2005

Women can't win ...

... particularly female politicians. Julia Gilliard is vying for the leadership of the Australian Labour Party. But her kitchen looks too empty. That obviously rules her out then.

This story, while still dwelling on her single, childless condition, at least manages to say something about her politics.

If you need cheering up after that, check out this pleasant little essay in response to that inevitable question when a woman reaches a certain age: Are you pregnant yet?

A sample: "Is there any carbon-based life form who wouldn’t rather be relaxing in a café with a warm, spicy cup of tea than scraping pudding from the ceiling or having someone claim they’ve ruined their life?"

Saturday, January 22, 2005

A miscellany

Not yet on top of my inboxes at the end of the week, but I thought I'd share a few gems I've found thus far.

First up today's Oxford Dictionary of National Biography character of the day is Mary Carleton (nee Moders), better known as the "German Princess". That last was the role she played in life, and on the stage. From humble beginnings, she learnt the manners, the language and the skills to pass herself off as aristocracy, and when finally exposed, having escaped a bigamy charge, she played herself upon the stage. Were she alive today, she'd undoubtedly be on I'm a Celebrity ... And, probably, her story would also end badly, although not on the scaffold.

A review of Phillip Taylor's Goddess on the Rise: Pilgrimage and Popular Religion in Vietnamprovides a glimpse of the rise of the "the Britney Spears of the Vietnamese religious world", the goddess Ba Chua Xu, the "Lady of the Realm".

An interesting thought, perhaps, for cross-cultural comparisons: "The author further elaborates on this popularity in the context of Vietnam's late socialism that is marked by a thriving, urban-based economy. To the same extent as the vibrant markets are dominated by commanding women, the world of spirits, with whom a significant number of them enter into a symbolic, reciprocal relationship of support and indebtedness, is predominantly inhabited by female deities."

An announcement introduces Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton's Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History, which sounds like fascinating attempt to tell the history of the colonialism around the world (including Ottoman and Han) from a gender perspective.

"Discussing subjects as diverse as slavery and travel, ecclesiastical colonialism and military occupation, marriage and property, nationalism and football, immigration and temperance, Bodies in Contact puts women, gender, and sexuality squarely at the center of the "master narratives" of imperialism and world history."

Finally, and I take no responsibility if this damages your wallet (it has already done mine), Oxford University Press is having a direct sale, with many books 75 per cent off. If you are in Europe or the Middle East it is here, America here. I don't know about Australia, Asia or other parts.

Friday, January 21, 2005

More of Roman Syria

al, originally uploaded by natalieben.

The top picture here is from the astonishing Serjilla, a wine village that seems to have just been abandoned in the 5th century. (Economic collapse or environmental change are two of the theories).

It just looks like the people upped and walked away - they might only have been gone 50 years: it's almost spooky.

Warwick Ball (see reference) below reckons this "cafe" looks like an Australian Outback pub, and he's right. Stick a tin roof on it, and it could still function as such.

The picture below is all that remains of the final pillar of St Simeon Stylites. (Originally about 21m.) The story goes his ascetic practices attracted so many pilgrims he started living entirely on a pole to get away from them. Unsurprisingly this only attracted more attention. So he built the pillar higher, which attracted more attention, etc ...

There's a lovely 5th-century account of his life here. Tennyson also left a (lengthy) comment on his life.

The industry that grew up around him is clearly evident in the huge church (Qal'at Sema'an), which boasts a walk-through baptism chamber at the entrance, and the town that served it, Deit Sema'an.

The wonders around Aleppo

al2, originally uploaded by natalieben.

This isn't usually a photo blog, but having stirred up memories of Syria I thought I'd share a few more pics, since there's not a lot else around about the wonderful area.

The photo on the left here is the Roman tomb, standing out in the middle of apparently nowhere, of Aemilius Reginus (the inscription is still clearly legible). The pillars stand beside a simple cave entered by steps.

I've only found one web reference to the name, here, in, I think, Arabic. (WHOOPS: update, just realised that this is Hebrew!) Found through this Google search. Anyone know what it says?

The picture beside it is one of the wonderful Christian pyramid tombs at al-Bara. My diary notes that this one was about 10m square, and contained a very solid undamaged sarcophagus. My textual guide, Warwick Ball (Syria: A Historical and Architectural Guide, the best book that I found) says these are 4th to 6th century AD. I've never seen anything like them anywhere else in the world. Has anyone?

A little more on Al-Bara.

Friday's feline foto

feline, originally uploaded by natalieben.

When I stumbled across a collection of photos from the Syrian leg of my Middle East trip, gosh, nearly six years ago now, although it seems less, I found this perfect feline to follow the Friday cat blogging tradition. I don't remember the name of the ancient site, but know that it was one of the many neo-Hittite cities outside Aleppo.

((AN UPDATE: having dug out my diary the name of the city is Ain Dara and it is not neo-Hittite but Aramaean (1,300BC to 740BC). Goes to show you shouldn't rely on memory.))

If you are into archaeology, Aleppo is a place that you have to go. The concentration of ancient sites around the city must be among the greatest, if not the greatest anywhere, and the state of preservation of many of them is astounding. (And Aleppo itself is brilliant: it smells of coffee and cinnamon, and the covered market really does take you back in time.)

Our guide (from the wonderful colonial-era and hardly changed - although I don't believe there are bed-bugs now - Baron Hotel), would just wave a weary hand as another obvious tel (remains of ancient city) loomed now on the left, now on the right: "oh it is just another neo-Hittite city". (c. 1,300BC to 700BC).

This lovely lion was on one of the few that has been (in part) excavated, and shows you what wonders must still be under the ground.

A short introduction to the Hittites.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Wandering women

Always nice to discover new prominent women in an unexpected area, so I was pleased to explore the story of two Indian mystics, Mahadeviyakka and Mirabai, introduced on my email book group.

Mahadeviyakka follows rather closely that path of Christian saints, of suffering for her beauty (somehow "saints" are never plain, as I've commented before), but she eventually becomes so with god and nature that (like many male devotees) she walked around naked, covered only by her hair, although this attracted somewhat more attention than the men got.

Her response:

"Fools, while I dress
In the Jasmine Lord's morning light,
I cannot be shamed --
What would you have me hide under silk
and the glitter of jewels?"

Mirabai is rather nicely labelled in one essay as the rebellious Rajput. After an arranged marriage she refused to submit to her in-laws' rule, and after her husband and then father-in-law died she set out as a wandering mystic. A solid-looking bibliography.

I'm not big on poetry, but I am rather taken with hers. Try the lovely The Wild Woman of the Forests.

The more things change ...

cartoon, originally uploaded by natalieben.

I was taken with this cartoon in the Winter edition of The Historian (from the Historical Association.)

It reads: "Going out to tea in the suburbs. A Pretty State of Things for 1862. (From Punch's Almanack 1863.)

Update the wardrobe, and it would look perfectly at home in The Daily Mail, or the Telegraph or Times today.

The article that it illustrates is "Who's afraid of the Victorian underworld?" by Andy Croll, which looks at 40 years of historiography on the topic, which first swallowed uncritically the Victorians' own accounts of complex underground networks: "historians showed how Merthyr Tydfil, a booming Welsh iron town, possessed its very own criminal class. The 'China' district ... was replete with its own leaders ('Emperors' and 'Empresses'), kidsmen (real-life Fagans, bullies, Rodnies (juvenile offenders) and numerous 'nymphs of the pave' (prostitutes). (p. 30)

Then the view increasingly arose that those 'criminals' before the courts presented as dedicated thieves, garotters etc were simply members of the urban poor who stole when need and opportunity arose (p. 32)

Finally the approach developed that Victorian middle-class accounts told us about middle-class attitudes, but nothing more.

But now some works are trying to critically recover some "genuine" working-class material from the middle-class work. (It cites approvingly Heather Shore's Artful Dodgers: Youth and Crime in Early Nineteenth-Century London, 1999.

It seems the perfect model of a classic academic pattern, or indeed a political one. Funny how those positions look familiar - you could again find them in today's papers, matched to their varying political hues.

And lest we should feel in any way superior to those crinolined Victorians, there's a vampire panic raging in Birmingham now. (Pace London's garotting scare of 1862).

Although I'm not sure if any Victorian "criminal" was quite this politically sophisticated. As a metaphor for America's impact on the world on this inauguration day it could hardly be bettered.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

80,000 scribes

Catching up today with the December 24 Times Literary Supplement read a review of what sounds like a fascinating title: In Praise of Books: A Cultural History of Cairo's Middle Class, 16th to the 18th Century, by Nelly Hanna.

I hadn't realised that most of the Islamic world had refused for these centuries at least to accept printing, as a result of the reverence for calligraphy and the script of the Koran. Instead, according to the Bolognese scholar Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli, who had been a captive of the Turks, there were 80,000 copyists employed in Baghdad alone.

While the situation in Egypt regarding printing was the same, the cheap paper available there meant even hand-copied books were within the means of the "middle class". The review suggests that she finds female as well as male readers ... definitely one to put on the to-read list.

Also interesting: Domesticity and dissent in the seventeenth-century: English women writers and the public sphere, Katharine Gillespie, Cambridge University Press 2004.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

London Library: quick query

I wonder if anyone has any experience, personal or second-hand, of the London Library? The subscription is £180 a year, which sounds a lot, but looking at the effective monthly rate of £15 (only two or three books purchased on abebooks or Amazon) it starts to sound like good value. And it does look rather swish.

In return I offer an excellent little website that I discovered yesterday. It is on the Victorian Research Web, but is a listing by date of academic and similar lectures in London, nearly all free, on just about any subject you could imagine.

Listed on it for today was "The Scarlet Staine of Divinity and the King's worst enemy: Dr Wild and Mr Jekyll," an Institute for Historical Research seminar that I attended. It was about political campaigns by the Presbyterians during the Restoration (although I didn't know that when I started - it was one of my "lucky dips").

The Jekyll was John, father of Sir Joseph (the only web reference I found). A very well-connected man, whose wife I learnt kept a diary of his exploits during the Civil War, he was arrested during Monmouth's Rebellion (the area in which the talk intersected with my current interests) but immediately released after a petition to the King.

The Wild was the poet Robert, who Dryden recognised as the most popular in London.
His complaint about the nonconformist's postion in 1672 after the "declaration for liberty of conscience":

"We wou'd make Bonfires, but that we do fear
The name of Incend'ary we may hear.
We wou'd have Musick too, but 'twill not doo,
For all the Fidlers are Conformists too.
Nor can we ring, the angry Churchman swears
(By the Kings leave) the Bells and Ropes are theirs."

Checking out this took me to an interesting article: Making all religion ridiculous: Of Culture High and Low: the Polemics of Toleration, 1667-1673. Also found the Historical and Literary Chronology: 1659-1700.

This excursion into the 17th century followed a day spent a million or two years earlier, on the tools of early hominids - of which more in a week or so. I do love a bit of intellectual variety!

Long journeys

Jill Ker Conway, the subject of my last post, moved from the outback of Australia, which she left at age 12 to go to Sydney, where she went to school for the first time. (She's funny on the subject of "not understanding" what PE classes were FOR - in the Bush you got plenty of exercise anyway.)

She went (eventually) to a posh private school, where teachers, parents and pupils were split on whether the pupils were seriously studying, or just waiting for marriage (just as they were in my semi-posh private school in Sydney some 30 years later).

Next was the University of Sydney still, at least in the field of history, a humble colonial outpost, then on to Harvard. Along the way she'd done the obligatory tour of Europe (that is something else that hasn't changed), although in her case with her mother, during which time she learnt a healthy contempt for English snobbery, understandingly enough.

She seems to have an unfortunate almost hero-worship for America at the end of The Road from Coorain. I've already ordered the next volume of her memoir, True North, which takes her from Harvard, to Toronto, to the presidency of Smith College. It will be interesting to see where she ends up on that point.

She's obviously a brilliant intellect, yet there are so many points at which this chain could have been broken and she could have ended up yet another bored, frustrated housewife suffering from Betty Friedan's "the problem that has no name". There's part of a fair answer there to the anti-female head of Harvard University's claim that women don't get to the top because they lack "innate ability". (Doesn't he look curiously like a pig, by the way?)

I was trying to think of any people of whom I have read who've made longer journeys - temporally, socially and culturally - than Jil Ker Conway and I only came up with one, Pascal Khoo Thwe, author of From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey. A member of a hill tribe from Burma, he ends up, after a brief period at the University of Mandalay, fighting in the jungle against the government. Then, through the intervention of a don, he suddenly finds himself at Cambridge, studying English literature.

If I could find my copy I'd provide an extract; I really am going to have to have a total bookshelf reorganisation. Sigh.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Other times, another person

outback, originally uploaded by natalieben.

My resolution never to go into television journalism was formed early, when I went out drinking with a local TV newsreader. I had to run interference for her all evening in a nightclub, as drunken people who thought she was their friend because she was in their living room every night came to pour out their troubles to her.

Consequently, even though I'm sure my readers are a far more distinguished lot, I haven't got a picture of myself on this blog, but I reckon I'm safe enough posting this nearly two decade-only pic of me on a very good polocrosse horse who knew I wasn't a good enough rider for him. It was taken on a property west of Nyngan (western NSW).

And it does nicely illustrate for those who haven't seen it the sort of country that Jill Ker Conway describes growing up in, near Lake Cargelligo in western NSW, in her The Road from Coorain.

I mentioned previouslyher excellent advice on difficult partings.

This book speaks a lot to me on many levels - although I didn't grow up in the bush and am the next generation there's many echoes of my family in her circumstances - but what I want to talk about here is her view of Australian, specifically Sydney, society in the 1950s.

"The most interesting circle at the University [Sydney, then the only one] revolved around the philosophy and political science departments, and a small coterie of gifted faculty and students who were iconoclasts, cultural rebels and radical critics of Australian society. I liked their ideas, and enjoyed the fact that their circle also contained journalists and serious writers about Australian politics." (Interesting distinction made there!)

She complains, however, that in this group it was obligatory to reject "bourgeois conventions" of sexuality by sleeping with many different people, and that the women were doing all of the housework, childcare, etc, while the men did all the fun and glory-generating stuff.

"I came to see that their position of isolation from the mainstream of Australian society was an unhappy and paralyzing one. There was no social group on which cultural radicals could base a program of action in Australia. ...We might spend all the time we liked discussing McCarthyism in the United States and the antidemocratic tendencies of Catholic Action in Australia, but there was no one waiting for our pronouncements ... My radical friends were isolated and alientated, more like a religious sect within an uncaring secular society than their models, the European intelligentsia who labored intellectually in a world where ideas mattered. (p. 220-222)

Funny, or I might say tragic, how that reflects Australia in 2005. There were patches of advances, in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, but my impression of Australia now is that it is closer to the Fifties than any of those better decades.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

So French, so practical

Apparently in the 18th century French, or at least, Parisian, society had a very practical method of dealing with illegitimacy, and stopping girls and women seeking abortions. Louis Sebastien Mercier, chronicler of the city, reports midwives would house girls in their apartment, each living in a screened-off area so that they could talk to but not see each other.

They would tell relatives, friends and neighbours that they were spending time in the country. The midwife would take the baby to be adopted or to a foundling hospital.

The only problem in this comfortable tale is that this service was expensive, so available only to the bourgeois and above. (p. 27)

These babies would, apparently, be joining many others. Some have calculated that 40 per cent (!!) of all children born in 18th-century France ended up in foundling hospitals (p. 20)

From: The King's Midwife: A History and Mystery of Madame du Coudray, by Nina Rattner Gelbart. See below.

Great woman, great book

midwifemap, originally uploaded by natalieben.

I think I've already found one of my books of 2005, The King's Midwife: A History and Mystery of Madame du Coudray, by Nina Rattner Gelbart.

Above is the map assembled by the author (from ten years of research, primarily in French provincial archives) of the travels of Mme Coudray (1715-1794), who after more than a decade as a leading midwife in Paris move to the countryside and, seeing the horrific state of ignorance and mutilation of women and babies that was occurring decided to fix the situation.

Through skilled, persistent campaigning, she won support and funding from the king (and she had to keep fighting to retain it). She was utterly realistic about her work, developing a "machine" that modelled a baby and womb so that ill-educated or uneducated countrywomen could learn by feel what was needed in normal, or abnormal, births.

Unlike her contemporary in England Elizabeth Nihell, she was not explicitly feminist, prepared to work with and adapt to the surgeons and male midwives then trying to take over the profession (and educate them, when they were prepared to listen).

Having developed this programme, she then took it to all the parts of France that would accept her, as the above map indicates, at a time when it was customary to make a will before embarking on a journey, and the experience could only be described as an endurance test.

The effects she had can be illustrated from a survey in 1786 of medical services around the country. Of the 6,000 midwives whose answers survive (many have been lost), two-thirds had been trained by Mme du Coudray or one of the surgeons that she had trained in her method. (And she is the only trainer mentioned by name. p. 250)

Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, she was after all the "royal" midwife, she died in unknown circumstances while in the hands of the agents of the Revolution, but her "niece" (any blood relationship is unclear), Mme Coutanceau, who she had trained but who became more explicitly feminist, managed to carry on the work from Bordeaux, where she established and ran a birthing clinic that helped the poor and trained midwives.

(Almost nothing on the web: there's a picture of the only surviving machine and reviews of the book here and here.)

Saturday, January 15, 2005

The re-revisionist view of George III

A fascinating Historical Association talk today at the British Museum on George III and the King's Library, by Robert Lacey. The revisionist view of George is that he wasn't really mad, just ill, porphyria, and there is an attached claim that he had assembled his huge and expensive library of (finally) 65,000 volumes with the intention of it ending up as the property of the nation. Lacey disputes the latter, with what seemed to me persuasive evidence.

The key points (as I understood them):

* His will of 1770 (the one that seems to have been probated - although it is impossible to be sure, since monarchs' wills, unlike any others, remain secret - nice to live in a democracy) left the books explicitly to his son, the future Regent and George IV, then a "promising" little boy.

* Several unsigned wills drafted in 1808 (when he knew what his son was really like), that the King meant to sign but was prevented from so doing by illness, directed that the books "should be enjoyed by our son and heir ... and after his demise ... by the person entitled to the Crown."

* The young George bought the collection of the British Consul in Venice, Joseph Smith, of fine "high-class" books at about the same time as the Thomason collection of Civil War pamphlets. The latter he immediately gave to the then British Museum, the former he kept for himself.

When George III died, his indebted and profligate son actually tried to sell the whole lot to Czar Alexander of Russia, through the Russian ambassador's wife, the lively Princess Lieven, but pressure from politicians, including the much-maligned Lord Liverpool, forced him instead to give it to the nation (probably in a trade-off for grand building schemes at Windsor Castle and Buckingham House).

(The "old" royal library, built up from the time of Edward IV, was given to the Museum by George II, who very definitely wasn't the bookish sort; the "new", post-George IV one, was willed by his brother, William, in such a way as to ensure it has to remain in the royal family. Mischievous thought: Wonder what would happen to it if Britain became a republic?)

The first-ever female ruler ...

... well, at least the first we'll probably ever know much about, was, I learnt today, Merneith (lots of other spellings possible) of what we call the first dynasty of the united Egypt, about 3,000BC. The clinching data about her role, according to the British Museum display (room 64), and the gallery talk speaker, is a seal found in 1988 that amounts to an early kinglist.

It runs Narmer (well-known from the famous palette, although the unification of the Two Lands is now thought to have been largely a gradual process, rather than one great war that he won, which was the story when I first read Egyptology), Djet, Merneith and Den (her son, who may have led campaigns as far afield as Palestine).

Although it is less confident than the speaker today, this site contains most of the information known about Merneith. Some other, non-ruling queens from the period are also known, at least by name.

I learnt that the first palettes were used to grind eye makeup for the statues of the gods, but they gradually became both more elaborate and purely ritual items. One in the gallery shows what may be an early step in the direction of hieroglyphs, with a picture of a shrine beside one of a two-headed bull (known to be an early god), which probably identifies it.

Generally, however, from our current knowledge hierogylphs emerge very suddenly, but already in a highly sophisticated form, about 3,200BC (although this date is currently the subject of fervent debate), what we call the start of early dynastical Egypt. This indicates there must have been several centuries of gradual development in a form that has not survived.

The movement from the "early dynastic" period into the Old Kingdom comes with the sudden explosion of the use of stone, particularly for building, and the pyramids. It was only during the First Dynasty that Egypt practiced human sacrifice, with the king's servants being killed to serve their master in the afterlife. The speaker suggested this died out fast because the next king found he lacked vital skills in his court as a result of the practice.

Friday, January 14, 2005

History for today

Having come home after less than a week away, cleaned out the spam, and been left with more than 700 email messages (yes I do belong to too many lists), blog reading has been a bit slow, but I have to point to an excellent post from Sharon at Early Modern Notes about the history of attempts to use the law to repress women's "deviant" sexuality. She was spurred on by the grotesque proposed legislation in the US state of Virginia that has been widely discussed on Feminist Blogs, but really it is a piece of history that all women should know, and remember when confronted with restrictions on their reproductive rights.

She's also put up History Carnival No 1, a broad and fascinating roundup in which (declaration of interest) yours truly has a modest part. I haven't had time to follow all the links yet, but it looks great.

Items particularly relevant to women's history include War, women and waffle (on a subject very close to my heart, and I hope one day wallet), Happy Birthday, Zora Neale Hurston and An English lady in 19th-century Wales.

On literary history, Today in Literature's person of the day is Emily Hahn, an unfairly forgotten early proponent of "new journalism", who started life with a degree in mining, became the concubine of a Chinese poet in Shanghai, worked with the Red Cross in the Congo, was an environmental pioneer, and wrote more than 50 books. There's lots more even; she really has a CV. (That link will only work for a couple of days - don't miss it!)

On another note altogether, I had to laugh at a headline on UK politics in yesterday's Libération Brown-Blair : deux hommes et un seul fauteuil (two men, one armchair - a perfect summary). I pause, however, to think of its missing correspondent in Iraq, Florence Aubenas.

The flower index

Now back in London (sadly, except for the joy of being able to touch type on an English keyboard again), but time to gather a brief report on yesterday's lovely stroll around the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris's premier place of eternal rest. To plot a course around the mini-city of the dead, I decided to track down every woman marked on my map of famous graves. (No, I didn't succeed - it did eventually get a bit too depressing.)

In visitor popularity, as judged by flowers left, Edith Piaf was a definite winner among the women, well ahead of Oscar Wilde, although the real forest of blooms was for Allan Kardec, a spiritualist whose reverential society is here).

The graves

1. The women on whom I don't have to comment further:
Colette (interesting that she is the only woman on the map sufficiently identified by the one name, while many of the men need no such qualified)
Edith Piaf
Gertrude Stein
Heloise (and Abelard) - although this can't have been where they were first buried.
Sarah Bernhardt
Maria Callas

The women of letters and arts
(Comtesse) Marie d'Agout (Marie Sophie Catherine de Flavigny, d. 1876), who wrote under the pseudonym Daniel Stern - as is acknowledged on the grave. She has a very grand tomb halfway up the hill with a portrait sculpture.

She wrote a well-regarded history of the revolution, played an active part in politics, particularly in the 1840s, and ran a salon, although she is best known as a long-time mistress of Lizt (of course). There's an excellent English outline of her life here, including a short bibliography.

She was, I think I might say not too anachronistically, a feminist. In "Essai sur la liberté" she wrote "Les lois qui retiennent le sexe féminin dans l'asservissement ou l'infériorité sont des lois inintelligentes, restes de la barbarie." (My - inexpert - translation: "The laws that keep women in slavery or in an inferior condition are stupid, and founded in barbarism.")

Countess Anna de Noailles
(1876-1933) a writer and poet from an exotic Greek and Romanian aristocratic background, of course the patron of a salon. And she certain has the looks for these roles. Extracts from poems (in French) here and an outline of a book (in English) on them.

Mme de Senonnes, subject of a famous painting by Ingres, who seems to have also been a salon type?

Rose Bonheur, (1822-99), a celebrated painter, particularly of animals, and a character who is said to have had special permission from the police to wear trousers in public - an excellent biography here. A list of her works here.

The political campaigners

Marthe Richard, a spy during the two world wars, (and maybe a former prostitute - so some sources say) who used the influence of that claim to service to campaign, successfully, for the closure of Paris's official brothels in 1946. There's a short, not very good, article here. And a piece on the continuing debate here.

The performers
Mlle Georges, considered the greated actress of France in the 1830s and their environs. She starred in Dumas's Christine, about the Swedish Queen (among many other parts) and features in anecdotes about him. As is classical for the time she was also a courtesan, her conquests including Napoleon, Talleyrand and Wellington.

Alice Ozy, who has a lovely mini classical temple on one of the main avenues, housing incongruously a Madonna and child, was the one of the most prominent of the women's graves. It describes her as an actress and musician. She was romantically linked for a while to Victor Hugo and the artist Théodore Chassérieau, among others. There's a painting of her here.

Jane Avril (1868-1943), a dancer who was locked in a lunatic asylum by her mother but escaped to become a cafe dancer at the Moulin Rouge. When you see Toulouse-Lautrec's portrait you'll recognise it immediately.

Mlle Lenormand, (1722-1843), after whom a certain type of tarot cards was named, indicating how she made her fortune.

Germaine Dulac (1882-1942), a film director who was important in the development of the theory of the auteur. She also wrote about the cinema.

Ginette Niveau (1919-1949), whose tomb bears the image of a violin, is widely described as a legendary performer. She was buried with her brother after both died in a plane crash in the Azores.

Lise Topart (1927-1952), a film actress who was killed in a plane crash in 1952.

Nicole Berger (died 1967), a film actress killed in a car crash.

Sylvia Montfort (1923-1991), an actress: a list of films here.

Marguerite Jamois, actress and director of Théatre Montparnasse.

Eleonore Duplay, stage and screen actress.

Marie Dubas (1894-1972), a singer.

Women for whom I couldn't find information:
Beatrice Dussane
Mme Sans-Gene

It'd be nice to complete the set; more information welcome.

Whew - I hadn't really thought about what I was taking on when I started that! (Had I been doing the men I probably would, however, have had seven or eight times as much work.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Filling in the gaps

Off the subject of women of Paris today and on to Asian history, at the spectacularly wonderful Musee Guimet. Very sensibly in the Forties they brought together the elements of several Asian collections in Paris to make a remarkably complete picture. To get the same in London you'd have to go to half a dozen museums.

There is also material from French colonies and French areas of interest that I've not seen elsewhere. (It is a bit like reading Le Monde and suddenly discovering Francophone Africa, which usually hardly gets a mention in the English-language media.)

There is some lovely stuff from and near Pondicherry, including "kammals", fish vertebrae carved into discs that were used to enlarge earlobe piercings. Some of these have also been found on the Palatine Hill in Rome, dating back to the second century BC. Certainly Rome knew the area well by a few of centuries later - Ptolemy called it "Poduke".

But the piece de resistance in my eyes is the collection from Afghanistan and northern India, covering from the Bactrian period (after Alexander the Great) right through (there's a wooden idol "a knight and his female assistant" from the &çth century utterly unlike anything I've seen before, on the lefthand stairs). This is largely the result of excavations in the Twenties.

This truly was the meeting place of the world: the great Indian monarch Asoka issued his treaties in Afghan territory in Greek, while the Milindapanha contains a dialogue between the Greek King Meander and the Buddhist sage Nagasera;

Han expansion forced the nomads of Central Asia west, and the Yuezhi people, who in would create the wonderful hybrid Gandhara culture, including the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, took over. From Begram, near Kabul, just one area are Greco-Roman bronzes, glasses fro, Alexandria; Chinese lacquers and Indian ivories. And the kings had three titles - in Indian; Iranian and Chinese, just to make sure.

Truly the meeting place of the world.

And it made its own unique items, particularly astonishing delicate glasses, including "flacons icthyomorphes" - fish-shaped flasks with delicate fins and tails. Again I've never seen their like before - and I couldn't find a single picture on the net.


Well today I learnt a new French word, that for blog. It is "blog". I think the academie is fighting a losing battle. That from an article in Le Monde about music blogs, Avec les blogs, les mélomanes tissent leur toile . The headline seems a bit harsh, and a bit odd, "weaving their canvases", but maybe that's just the cyber vernacular in France.

Yes there are lots of links in there, many in English if it matters, but I haven't followed them up: music just sounds like noise to me. Yes, I know I'm a philistine.

I've noticed other intrusions, particularly the unlovely "fixeur", an English noun with a French ending, referring to a journalist's all-around helper, "c'est a dire 'arranger'". (No I'm not game to put French quote marks in there, since they are like HTML brackets and can't imagine what Blogger would make of that.)

There was also a big piece in Sunday's Le Monde about how MSN Messenger is sweeping France, "entirely changing social life". Well looking at the Rue de Abbesses tonight it certainly doesn't seem like it.

But what I really want to know is: why do you have to use the shift key to get a full stop ...... not to mention the question of why Q is in the easiest spot on the keyboard to hit, the location of the English keyboard A?

Monday, January 10, 2005

More women of Paris

Anne of Kiev, queen of Henri I (1031-60), coming from a supposedly even more backward area, complained to her father, Yarolsav the Great that the "the houses were gloomy, the churches ugly and the customs revolting". (p. 7)

But life was looking up by 1314 when three married sisters were living in a castle-come-palace, the Hotel de Nesle, on the Left Bank where the Academie Francaise stands today. (Its location is noted on the walls.)

Two, at least, were having a merry time carrying on with their gentlemen in waiting, until they got caught. The men were very unlucky - skinned alive, castrated, then disembowelled, while the women had their heads shaved, were publicly paraded, then jailed in miserable conditions. One was suffocated, so her husband could remarry without complications, the other was lucky enough to end up in a convent.

The third sister, Jeanne, would go on to become Queen, and again live in the Hotel de Nesle. She was supposed to have watched from her tower for incautious but likely looking Sorbonne students wandering past, then, "having exhausted their virility" (nice way of putting it), would have them sown in sacks and cast into the Seine to drown. (p. 60) Sounds like a good tale for gullible country students. More here.

On a lighter note, welcoming Louis XI into the city in 1461, the organisers ensured that after five noble ladies had made a speech of welcome, at the fountain of Ponceau, "three handsome girls took the part of sirens, all naked, and you could see 'their lovely breasts, round and firm, which was a very pleasant thing' and they warbled little motets." (The dirty old man in Andre Maurois, quoted p. 70)

Later, the mistress of the Marshall Vicomte de Turenne, Genevieve de Longueville (a very different character to the last of that name) is supposed to have egged him on to take up arms against the king (Louis XIV). She was also heard to say: "I don't enjoy innocent pleasures." (p. 119)

She set the scene for many who were to follow. (And no I haven't even gone into the great age of the salon.)

But tomorrow if the weather is good I'm hoping to find the grave of the intrepid balloonist Mme Blanchard, brought down in 1819 on her 67th ascent, when her craft was brought down by a festive firework. (p. 476)

(From Alistair Horne's Seven Ages of Paris: Portrait of a City.)

Wonderful Paris

Posting from Paris, and remembering how much I love it in January - yes it might be a bit chilly, and some of the restaurants closed, but it is the best time of year - minimum tourists, just locals wandering along atmospherically misty streets.

I've spent the day strolling my favourite haunts - I'm staying in Montmartre, walked down to the Pompidou Centre (my 24-year-old self thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen and I've retained that affection), across the Seine to my favourite Cafe Glamis, wonderful view of Notre Dame but surprisingly unspoilt - lots of Parisiens resolutely ignoring the view, and then through the Marais to the Place des Vosges.

But I have also been following around the women of Paris from Alistair Horne's excellent Seven Ages of Paris: Portrait of a City.

First up was Genevieve (sorry for lack of accents in this - struggling enough with French keyboard as it is), who might be called the "first Joan of Arc". When the city was threatened by 451 by Attila the Hun, the residents of the city were preparing to flee. He had already taken Cologne, where he was reputed to have massacred 11,000 virgins.

But Genevieve had a vision, extorting the residents: "Get down on your knees and pray! I know it. I see it. The Huns will not come."

She was right, although the wits of the time suggested it was because of an inadequate number of virgins in the city. Actually, Attila was off to deal with the Visigoths at Orleans.

She later, less successfully, led the fight against the Franks, and helped to convert Clovis, the pagan Frankish king. Dying at age 90 (an argument for a low calorie intake to prolong life - she had nearly starved herself to death in her youth) she was buried in the Parthenon, until her remains (and there can't have been much) were scattered in the Revolution.

Now she is remembered, although the site doesn't look very busy and I couldn't find a sign even explaining her 1920s statue, on the Pont de La Tournelle, east of Notre Dame.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Can this hat be retrimmed?

Ce chapeau peut-il etre regarni? My 19th-century French phrasebook contains this and similarly useful phrases.

I'm taking it with me to Paris today. It's too long since I've been - but I'm not sure I'll manage to work that hat into my conversations ....

Blogging probably won't stop - I fear I'm now officially addicted.

Trouvez moi un chauffe-pieds! (Get me a foot-warmer!)

Speculative history

I was up at the British Museum today, for a talk on the Greek and Roman gods, focusing on the Townley collection of classical sculpture. It reminded me of lots of tales that I used to know in my early teens - when I was very into the subject - but have now largely forgotten. I was posting on them earlier in the week, which pushed me to get out of bed in time for the talk.

What did take me most about the talk, however, was the comments on how in the early(ish) Roman empire there were four religions, all monotheistic or quasi-monotheistic, jostling for supremacy. Of course we know which won, but it is fascinating to ponder whether women would have been better off with one of the others.

It is easy to dismiss Mithraism; a religion very clearly aimed at, and popular with, soldiers, it held woman to be less than human.

The others were the cults of Dionysus/Bacchus, and of Isis.

What would a 20th-century Isisian world look like, I wonder?

This week's acquisitions

* The Road from Coorain, Jill Ker Conway, Vintage 1990 (first 1989), billed as " a woman's exquisitely clear-sighted memoir of growing up Australian" (out in the bush).

On a flick through I was very taken with the paragraph (as she is leaving her mother and her home for good: "I dreaded the parting but after some rough moments I learned that time manages the most painful partings for us. One has only to set the date, buy the ticket, and let the earth, sin and moon make their passages through the sky, until inexorable time carries us with it to the moment of parting." (p. 235)

* Dangerous By Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists, Susan J. Leonardi, 1989. (They include Dorothy L Sayers, who, as I've written elsewhere, is one of my favourite authors - I'm hoping for some more background on Gaudy Night.

* The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching physical Equality, Colette Dowling, Random House, 2000 - hoping for some good facts and figures; I think I've already got the arguments.

* The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays, Marguerite Yourcenar, (Trans. Richard Howard, 1980)

* Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut, Emily White, 2002.

So there it was, a busy, interesting but not excessive week, then I went up to the British Museum today, and discovered they have a book sale on ... So add

* Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century, Kim Sloan (ed) - well it was a half price paperback, it is a beautiful book, and useful for handling sessions.

* Antonia Augusta: Portrait of a Great Roman Lady, Nikos Kokkinos, 1992 - "the most powerful and influential Roman woman of her time. The daughter of Mark Antony, wife of Drusus, mother of Claudius, grandmother of Caligula and great-grandmother of Nero ... well I should know more about her.

* Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100BC to AD250, John R. Clarke, Uni of California, 2001. Can't think of an excuse for that one except it looked fascinating. ...

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Three degrees of separation

I posted recently on the term Alsatia, for the lawless area of London that had been the White Friar's monastery. It maintained the right of sanctuary for many years, first formally, then informally.

Then last night I put up a poem by Thomas Shadwell. It turns out that his most successful play was The Squire of Alsatia, about a young heir who falls into the hands of the villains there. One of the features that made it a success seems to have been its use of their "cant", local dialect.

Peregrine Bertie, writing to the Countess of Rutland, says: "It has been acted nine days successively, and on the third day the poet got 16l more than any other poet ever did. When all this is granted, there is nothing in it extraordinary--except it is a Latin song -but the thin reason why it takes soe well is, because it brings severall of the cant words uppon the stage which some in towne have invented, and turns them into ridicule." (From Thomas Shadwell: His Life and Comedies, Albert S. Borgman; New York University Press, 1928.)

This was the play that made the fame of the actress Anne Bracegirdle, in whom I have another interest.

It made me think, could you play the "Six degrees of separation" game with history? I rather think you could.

Female sexual desire? Of course

Since I first posted on the subject, I've been slowly working my way through a book of early modern bawdy verse; there's only so much innuendo and slapstick I can take in one sitting.

What has struck me is how many poems are entirely accepting in their accounts of female desire, be the characters sexually experienced women or "maids" (at least theoretically virgins). This is seen as an entirely natural, normal, expected aspect of life.

Two examples:

A Lady's Complaint
When I was young, unapt for use of man,
I wedded was unto a champion,
Youthful and full of vigour as of blood,
Who unto Hymen's rites full stiffly stood.
But see the luck: this gallant youngster dies,
And in his place an aged father lies,
Weak, pithless, dry, who suffers me all night
To lie untouched, now full of years and might,
Whereas my former man, God rest his sprite,
Girl as I was, tired me with sweet delight.
For when he would, then was I coy and sold,
Yet what I then refused, now fain I would
But cannot have. O Hymen, if you can,
Give me those years again, or such a man!

This seems to be by that prolific character Anon. Was it a female anon, one has to wonder?

I'd never come across the heavenly Hymen before, but yep, there is one such, of entirely respectable Greek ancestry, offspring of Aphrodite and Dionysus - of course - but curiously enough a male god, that of marriage. Priapus, his sibling, is god of lust. I should, however, have known because Hymen does appear in As You Like It.)

As I walked in the woods
As I walked in the woods one evening of late
A lass was deploring her hapless estate.
In a languishing posture, poor maid, she appears,
All swelled with her signed and blubbed with her tears.
She sighed and she sobbed and I found it was all
For a little of that which Harry gave Doll.

At last she broke out, 'Wretched!' she said,
'Will no youth come succour a languishing maid
With what he with ease and with pleasure may give?
Without which, alas! poor I cannot live.
Shall I never leave sighing and crying and all
For a little of that which Harry gave Doll?

At first when I saw a young man in the place
My colour would fade and then flush in my face.
My breath would grow short, and I shivered all o'er.
My breasts never popped up and down so before.
I scarce knew for what, but now find it was all
For a little of that which Harry gave Doll.

Thomas Shadwell, in Westminster Drollery, 1672
Another version appears in his play The Miser, of the same year, which is adapted from Moliere's L'Avare.

Poems pages 47-48 and 77, Lovers, Rakes and Rogues: A New Garner of Love-songs and Merry Verses, 1580-1830, John Wardroper, Shelfmark, 1995.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Females everywhere, but no women

Ever since I was young - from age five or six - I noticed how almost all of the certified heroes of society - their bronze forms on sturdy stone blocks - were male. Yet what I had failed to notice, until I read Marina Warner's Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form, was how many female figures there are in public spaces. Yet almost none show "real women" (although of course there was some anonymous women to act as the - male - sculptor's model, and often muse). Instead they are allegories: Victory, Justice, Charity and all of their sisters.

Warner says: "Although the absence of female symbols and a preponderance of male in a society frequently indicates a corresponding depreciation of women as a group and as individuals, the presence of female symbolism does not guarantee the opposite, as we can see from classical Athenian culture, with its subtly psychologized pantheon of goddesses and its secluded, unenfranchised women; or contemporary Catholic culture, with its pervasive and loving celebration of the Madonna coexisting alongside deep anxieties and disapproval of female emancipation.

"But a symbolized female presence both gives and takes value and meaning in relation to actual women, and contains the potential for affirmation not only of women themselves but of the general good they might represent and in which as half of humanity they are deeply implicated." (p. xx)

I'm not so positive, but her exploration of the use and abuse of the female symbol is absolutely fascinating and her subversive exploration of the world of traditional myth truly enlightening.

I can't in one post do justice to it all, but a few snippets.

* King Cecrops was asked to act as an arbiter between the quarrelling Olympian gods. Poseidon and Athena were vying for control of Athens, and having consulted an oracle he advised that every Athenian should vote for their preference. The result came out Athena's way, because all of the women voted for her and they outnumbered the men.

In revenge, the other gods decreed that women should lose the right to vote, and were no longer to be known by their own name, but instead as "daughter of ...." or "wife of ...". He is also given credit for ruling that children should be understood as offspring of their fathers, creating the institution of marriage. Quoting Pierre Vidal-Naquet: "In Greek eyes, Crecops' role here is that of a culture-hero, [who] brought the Athenians out of savagery into civilisation". (p. 120)

Interesting how far the story of the pre-existing matriarchy goes back.

* There was a theory in Victorian times that the Odyssey was written by a women, because its approach was seen as unlike the "military ethic" of the Iliad.(p. 101.)

*Athena's virginity ensures that Zeus can't be overthrown, since only her son could do that. She did have a "child", but one that was half-snake, because a would-be rapist ejaculated on her leg. (p.123). And we think moderns are mixed up about sexuality!

*Nike was the goddess of success, the embodiment of Athena in this form, without personal characteristics, but a separate cult for her developed in Hellenic times. (p. 128) She survived too into Christian times, as the Goddess Victory (with swanlike wings like Nike.)

"She appears in the emblem Sylvia Pankhurst designed in 1908 for Votes for Women, the weekly journal of the Women's Social and Political Union, as a suffragette angel in green and purple and white, blowing a trumpet with the bannerette 'Freedom'." (p. 143) Haven't seen that in any shoe adverts lately, however.

Anyway, this is a wonderful, complex, challenging but "un-put-downable" book. I couldn't recommend it more highly.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Don't be shy

Nominations are now open for the 2005 Bloggies, which are THE awards among the many, I'm reliably informed.

Here's a good chance to answer that: where are all the female bloggers? question.

As Feministe says (now there's a good nomination): "And don’t you forget about me. You know, because female bloggers don’t know how to promote themselves."

Yes I nominated myself for "best new". (You're allow to do that so long as you nominate at least three others as well - I plundered my blogroll and almost got to 20 nominations.)

Once you've done that, if the name Blinky Bill means anything to you, don't miss Barista's post, which includes The Magic Pudding for dessert.

Otherwise, on the subject of female authors (Dorothy Wall for Blinky), did you know today was the day that Fanny Burney, the "Mother of English fiction", died? (In 1840.) Thanks to Today in Literature. (This link will only work for a couple of days.)

And for those in any stage of a PhD, Claire is asking you to nominate how you plan to celebrate finishing ... a chance to exercise those pleasant fantasies, and procrastinate for a few minutes.

Those ancients weren't dumb

griffin, originally uploaded by natalieben.

Lots of bloggers are now compiling their "Best Books of 2004". I don't think I can manage that - just finding them all would take ages, and judging them, well... see you some time in 2006.

But I am going to put up a couple of posts on my most interesting surprising, "whow" books of 2004, one of which was The Fossil Hunters, by Adrienne Mayor, 2000, Princeton University Press.

Above is page 44, showing a reconstruction of the skeleton of a Protoceratops, a dinosaur that lived in what is now the Gobi desert. Below is a Scythian "griffin", placed into the same stance.

This very clear example is used to introduce the idea that the account of griffins was transmitted initially orally, by the Scythian nomads who found these skeletons, quite often whole, and sometimes with nests of eggs, in the desert, then written down by the Greeks.

But furthermore the Greeks and Romans encountered fossils for themselves and their texts "contain some of the world's oldest written descriptions of fossil finds, many of them first hand. Writers like Herodotus, Pausanias and Aelian tell us what they and their contemporaries thought, said, and did when they came upon bones of startling magnitude." (p. 52)

Mayor suggests that these discoveries - still being made in many parts of the Classical lands - provided the grounds for "myths" about enormous ancient heroes and great monsters.

So, in about 560BC, the oracle at Delphi told the Spartans they needed to find the bones of the hero Orestes before they could defeat their regional rival, Arcadian Tegea. Herodotus says that by chance a Spartan cavalryman stumbled across, then stole, the bones found in a "huge coffin", more than 10 foot long, containing bones of a matching size. The suggestion is that these were the remains of a mammoth, found in the 7th-century BC, when the cult of heroes had begun, and given the coffin burial. A century or so later they were rediscovered, and gave the Spartans the confidence to dominate the Peloponnese.

This led to a long-lasting "Panhellenic bone rush". (p. 111)

But in many cases finders and searchers understood they were looking at animal bones. Mayor argues the famous "Monster of Troy" vase in fact shows a fossil skull eroding from a cliff.
Image here.

This knowledge led the Romans to something approaching a theory of evolution. Lucretius, writing in the 1st century BC, wrote the nature produced "many monsters of manifold forms" and "bigger animals" in ages past, but these gradually died out when they could not find food or reproduce. "everything is transformed by nature and forced into new paths. One thing dwindles ... another waxes strong." (p. 216)

Finally, going far, far further back, it seems humankind always found something special in fossils: Jurassic ammonites were pierced for suspension by Cro-Magnons in France and a Pliocene gastropod was found in the Lascaux Cave in France; it must have come from either the Isle of Wight or Ireland - a treasured item. (p.. 166)

This is a frustratingly badly written and organised book - it cries out for a decent editing job - but it is well worth the irritation for the ideas and knowledge it contains.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005


This will soon not be an advert-free zone. Inspired in part by Steve Gilliard's fascinating post, which argues that blogging is the new, kinder, gentler dotcom boom, I've signed up for Google's ad programme and as soon as I've got the HTML sorted out you'll be seeing them, probably as a column down the left of the screen.

Comments welcome: I'd like to know whether you find them annoying, potentially useful or if you just don't see them. (Certainly when I read newspapers I seldom actually look at an advert.)

I also can't wait to see what Google is going to match up with some of my posts - I'm planning one on Zoroastrianism soon.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Painfully slow change

I've had a semi-reorganisation of the bookshelves over Christmas. (Soon there's going to have to be a total sort-out to make more space, but I can probably shove volumes in a few more corners before I have to take that drastic step.)

One of the books for which I was trying to find a place opened at the page about the efforts of Lucy, Countess Baldwin, wife of the British Prime Minister, to increase provision for pain relief in childbirth. (She was also instrumental in the passing of the 1936 Midwives Act, which created a paid national service.)

In 1929 she had set up the Anaesthetics Fund - there were others but this was the biggest (The term then covered both genuine anaesthesia and other forms of pain relief). "She believed pain relief was a democratic right, just like the vote. 'In Finland, that little progressive nation which was the first in Europe to give the franchise to women,' she liked to point out, 'they always give anaesthetics to women in childbirth."(p.42)

But "the common view, especially of men, observed the Public Health Committee of the London County Council in 1933, was that a woman would be doing 'something morally wrong' in evading the pain of labour."(p. 42) (Such a lovely teaching of the churches - the repayment for "original sin".) Of course the doctors were also opposed, because they thought that midwives' administration of drugs was trampling on their territory.

And it wasn't just men. Even after the Fund had distributed large amounts of equipment, much of it was going unused. In part this was due to problems of lack of training, and the provision that two trained midwives had to be present when it was used, but there was also resistance from women. "A key goal of her campaign was to eradicate the common assumption that women who accepted the benefit of anaesthesia did not care about their children." (p. 51)

However, by 1936 most voluntary and municipal hospitals, the later largely attended by working-class women, offered pain relief. Virginia Woolf wrote in Three Guineas: "Since chloroform was first administered to Queen Victoria on the birth of Prince Leopold in April 1835, normal maternity cases in the wards have had to wait for 76 years and the advocacy of a Prime Minister's wife to obtain this relief." (quoted p. 58)

However, about half of women still gave birth at home, and only about 20 per cent of them were given pain relief. There was still non at all in Scotland.

But by 1946 the public mood had changed. A survey then found the most common reason for dissatisfaction of treatment in labour was lack of pain relief. A survey in 1945 quoted one woman as saying: "Rich people don't suffer, why should we?" (p. 58)

It only took a generation.

From Ladies of Influence, A. Susan Williams, 2000, Penguin. There's astonishingly little about Lucy on the Web - yet another sign of how women disappear with astonishing speed from history.