Fascinating Details of Medieval Manuscripts

Over the last several months, I’ve been working my way through Christopher De Hamel’s book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World, and I just finished reading the final chapter today. I’m not a medievalist – I’ve often found books on medieval history that I’ve been exposed to are very focused on warfare, religion, and the history of “Great” men, which are fine topics of study but of less interest to me. (I recognize that there are other focusses of medieval scholarship but as I haven’t made a particular study of this time period I’m less aware of others – please feel free to recommend books / works you think I’d like!) As such, my understanding of the time period was sort of “flattened”, in that I couldn’t really distinguish much between the early and late medieval periods, aside from a general sense of changing fashions and art styles, and a knowledge that there was a lot of wars and politicking.

However, de Hamel’s book really gets at the heart of what I find particularly interesting about any period of history: the lived experience of people, and what the materiality of surviving artifacts can tell us about their lives. This book does describe the contents of the manuscripts under discussion (dating from the late sixth century Gospels of St. Augustine to the Spinola Hours from nearly a thousand years later, 1515-1520), but more than that, the author delves into amazing detail about what we can learn about the medieval world and its people from the materiality of these books. What can we learn about the book from the “hand” that wrote it – and what can we determine about their identity? What about little oxidized pinpricks that indicate a long since removed metal clasp? In what ways were books made in different regions made unique by the materials available and the local education of their makers, and in what ways were these far-flung places actually connected, by culture, education, or traded goods? What details can we glean that tell us a bit about the books history: where it was made, why it was made, and where it’s been for the last 1,000 years before it popped up again unexpectedly in the mid-1800s? The way he describes the minutia, it very much is a form of historic detective work.

I also really enjoyed how the author always described the experience of seeing the book in the archive where it rests today. This is a researcher who has consulted so many manuscripts over his life time things like the feel and weight of the parchment, the smell of the book, and the nuances of the writing, ping things in his brain, where he can draw connections to texts he consulted decades before. As he says on multiple occasions in the book, you don’t really get a sense of some of what he’s describing from a facsimile or a photograph, but he does his best to try. I really felt like I was walking along with him as he visited these archives, sitting beside him at the consultation table and leaning over his shoulder as he pointed out nifty details.

I want to share a few choice passages with you today that really spoke to me and made me want to learn more. I hope that you too pick up a copy of this book and delve into the world of medieval manuscripts!

On the Book of Kells (late eighth century): “Newcomers to manuscripts sometimes ask what such books tell us about the societies that created them. At one level, these Gospel Books describe nothing, for they are not local chronicles but standard Latin translations of religious texts from far away. At the same time, this is itself extraordinarily revealing about Ireland. No one knows how literacy and Christianity had first reached the islands of Ireland, possibly through North Africa. This was clearly no primitive backwater but a civilization which could now read Latin, although never occupied by the Romans, and which was somehow familiar with texts and artistic designs which have unambiguous parallels in the Coptic and Greek churches, such as carpet pages and Canon tables. Although the Book of Kells itself is as uniquely Irish as anything imaginable, it is a Mediterranean text and the pigments used in making it include orpiment, a yellow made from arsenic sulphide, exported from Italy, where it is found in volcanoes. There are clearly lines of trade and communication unknown to us.”(124-5)

On the Morgan Beatus (mid-tenth century): “The Morgan Beatus is written in the script known to paleographers as Visgothic minuscule. To explain it, we need to go back to the origin of Latin writing in ancient Rome. There were two distinct classes of script common in Roman antiquity. The first of these were high-grade display capitals, such as the letters ‘S.P.Q.R.’ on classical monuments, easily legible to us, and rustic capitals in books, as imitated in the Leiden Aratea. At the other end of the scale were rapid cursive hands – ‘joined-up writing’ as children call it – used on papyrus for administrative documents. At the simplest level – it was a bit more complex in reality – Roman capitals evolved over the centuries into unicals, and eventually (through subtle and gradual mutations, as in genetics) descended into modern European letter forms, including those used in this book. The cursive, however, was exported outwards with imperial bureaucracy into the Roman provinces, where it bred independently into the many local variants of handwriting, such as the strange-looking spidery Merovingian minuscules in France, Alemannic miniscule in western Germany, and so on. These were then swept away by Charlemagne in the early ninth century in a deliberate programme of standardization of script throughout his vast dominions, substituting the famous ‘Caroligian’ or ‘Caroline’ minuscule. Only on the outer fringes of Europe, beyond the reach of Carolingian authority, the tenacious descendants of Roman cursive managed to live on, like prehistoric animals still surviving in some fictional valley isolated from the outside world. The best-known of these living fossils are Beneventan minuscule in southern Italy and up to the extreme fringes of the eastern coast as far as Croatia, and Visgothic minuscule in much of Spain and Portugal. The fact that such scripts endured, against the trend, even into the eleventh and twelfth centuries, tells us a great deal about the cultural frontiers of contemporary politics.

A detail from the Morgan Beatus, showing Visigothic miniscule. 095, MS M.644, fol. 40r.

“Visgothic minuscule, which has nothing to do with the illiterate tribal Visgoths other than a shared association with pre-Muslim Iberia, is beautiful and calligraphic and exasperatingly difficult to read. It is filled with flowing ligatures inherited from Roman cursive, such as the joined ‘e’ and ‘r’ resembling a single letter. The lower case ‘a’ is open-topped like ‘u’, and ‘s’ looks like ‘r’, and ‘t’ rather like a modern ‘a’. Reading Visgothic reminds me of being a child on the first days of the summer holidays. One would scamper painfully in bare feet across the road and over pebbles on the beach, feigning ease and non-chalance; by the very end of the holiday, it was truthfully no hardship at all. Early next summer it was agony all over again. Stare at an impenetrable page of Visgothic minuscule in despair, struggle letter by letter, and by late afternoon, usually just as the library is about to close, it becomes at last surprisingly legible; next morning it is quite unreadable once more. This might explain partly why Beatus had such limited circulation outside early-medieval Spain.”(209-10)

On the Morgan Beatus (mid-tenth century): “The second volume opens on folio 150 with the storia from revelation 11:17-10. The first picture shows the Antichrist – his face vindictively scratched by an outraged reader (long ago, I hope) – chopping the witnesses into nasty blooded pieces…”(218)

Detail of the antichrist with his face scratched out by a reader, from the Morgan Beatus.

On the Morgan Beatus (mid-tenth century): On the art of this manuscript, which has been described by other scholars as unsophisticated, especially compared to pieces like the Book of Kells: The “downright strangeness of the pictures may have had a practical purpose. The monastic method of studying the Scriptures was to read a sentence or two aloud, and then to think about the text word by word, looking slowly for multiple layers of meaning. It was called ‘lectio divina‘. That meditative rumination was itself an act of devotion. If the monk could gaze at the page and memorize it, then this slow pious reflexion could continue in his mind long after the original manuscript had been closed up and put away in its box in the cloisters. Passages of plain script, maybe especially in Visigothic minuscule with little word-division, are difficult to envisage afterwards, but pages with complex illustrations as dramatic and as unsettling as those here are impossible to erase from memory. Their naivety is a benefit. The brilliance of the colour and the startling narrative drama have real value. They served as a mnemonic device to enable reflexion on Revelation to continue among many readers at once, at any time of day or night.”(224)

On the Carmina Burana (first half of the thirteenth century): “Since Latin was the language of international literacy, versus composed in France were just as understandable in London, Cologne, Rome or Salzburg, at least by educated men. When the poems had lost their context so far that they had been reduced to dance songs in which women participated, however, extra verses were sometimes added in the German language. Many of the earliest records of vernacular languages of Europe are associated with women, who were at that time genenerally less Latinate than men. About forty of the love poems of the Carmina Burana have refrains in German, in the same metre as the Latin. These were probably supplied when the songs were used as rounds, with the different languages to be sung simultaneously by male and female voices. About a dozen other poems in the manuscript are partly or entirely in German. This is extremely early in the survival of any vernacular literature. Some German verses in the Carmina Burana are addressed to women, doubtless in the guise of admirers supposing that their suits might be more successful if the lady understood what was being asked of her. Examples are “Süziu vrouw min …”, ‘My sweet woman …’, imploring her to enjoy the darts of Venus, and “Selich wip, vil süziz wip …”, ‘Lovely lady, most sweet lady …’, describing how the writer has sent her a love letter. Others are set in the voices of women themselves, addressed to men. There is a charming poem on folio 72r in which a woman is whispering to her lover who has secretly stayed all night, “Ich sich den morgen sterne brehen …” (‘I see the morning star breaking …’), urging him to slip away without being seen. . . . In one famous five-line verse in German in the Carmina Burana the protagonist gladly offers to sacrifice the wealth of the entire world to lie in bliss in the arms of the queen of England. In fact, in the manuscript itself, the scribe originally wrote ‘king of England’ – “chunich van engellant” – which was crossed out and later altered to ‘the queen’ (“diu chunegin”). It seems to be in reality to make better sense as the wish of a woman, speaking German. The formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1122-1204), queen of England 1154-89, was an unlikely object of male fantasy, but her son, the dashing Richard the Lionheart, was unmarried and nearby, a prisoner in Austria in 1192-4. This would furnish a plausible date and general locality for the composition of the German text.
“It is generally accepted that the manuscript of the Carmina Burana was not compiled at Benediktbeuern itself, but probably somewhere further south in what is now Austria, then part of greater Bavaria. The script has pronounced Italianate features, as often in Austrian books, and the smooth pages have a southern feel to the touch, unlike the more suede-like texture of German parchment. (This is a judgement impossible to make from a photograph, or while wearing gloves.)” (367-8)

On the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre (second quarter of the fourteenth century): “The original owner, however, was not a friar or nun, and her identity is not in doubt. About twenty margins include little vignettes of a queen kneeling in prayer, wearing a gold crown and a cloak lined with ermine, sometimes with a manuscript open in front of her. Elsewhere she kneels in the illuminated initials. Sometimes she appears within miniatures themselves, witnessing first-hand the Scourging of Christ and venerating the Virgin and Child in their actual presence. Many of the prayers in the text are adapted for exclusive use by a woman, as we can tell from words that have gender-specific endings in Latin. Examples are “… ut michi indigne peccatrici ancille tue” (‘to me your unworthy sinful servant,’ all feminine forms), “… concede michi famule tue” (‘grant me your servant’, where a male petitioner would have been “famulo tuo”), and the prayer upon receiving Communion, “Domine non sum digna …” (‘Lord, I am not worthy …’, the female form of the adjective). By extreme good fortune, the woman is actually named. This is in a prayer to the Virgin Mary which happens to include a plea to ‘intercede for me, your servant, Johanna, queen of Navarre’, or, in the original, “ut intercedas pro me ancilla tua Johanna navarre regina”. These precious words are on folio 151v, easy to overlook in the middle of a page of text.”(391)

On visiting the Visconti Semideus (c. 1438) in St. Petersburg, which is all about tactics of medieval warfare: “The first hurdle is the immensely complex application for a Russia visa, for which one has to list, among many other things, every school and university attended and every job one has ever had, with dates and contact names and telephone numbers, and every country one has visited in the previous ten years, with dates. Any involvement with politics or armed conflict, at any period of one’s life, has to be declared. There are clearly issues that are sensitive. For the stated purpose of my purported visit to Russia, I toyed for a moment with writing ‘gaining access to government department to inspect manual on armaments and military strategy’ but instead I put ‘tourism.'”(472-3)

On the Visconti Semideus (c. 1438): “The text describes how to advance on the city, with God’s help, bearing shields and catapults and bringing constructions to be moved up against the walls, and what I take to mean bombards or cannons (literally ‘roaring bronze’), with flamethrowers, slinging machines, and other instruments of war. Many terms for siege machinery are listed – “tormentis, fundibulis, scorpiis” and others: my little Latin dictionary simply defines each one as ‘catapult’ but there are evidently subtle differences known to military specialists.”(491)

References

De Hamel, Christopher. Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World. New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2016.

Many libraries and archives seem to have made available many of the manuscripts written about by De Hamel in his book. If any of the works described here or in his book intrigue you, go snooping on their website. Be prepared to go down a rabbit hole of zooming in on high resolution scans of these books!

Cover image from the Hugo Pictor manuscript from the Bodleian, including a detail of the earliest known labelled self portrait.

Historical Descriptions of Aurora Borealis: “those who did not see it missed a rare sight”

Earlier this week I was up early (5:45am or so) and I was able to watch the most amazing aurora borealis event I’d ever had the chance to witness. In person, they largely looked like grey-green wispy clouds with the occasional hint of purple or blue, but the colours really came out in the photos. I managed to take a few really decent photos with my phone on night mode, either with me bracing my arm against a tree or a picnic table for stability, or with a 5-second delay and then placed flat on a picnic table to be completely stable.

This display of course got my mind thinking about historical accounts of aurorae. I popped over to Peel’s Prairie Provinces, which has a large selection of entirely digitized, full text searchable, small town newspapers from what are now Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, to see how people described encountering the aurora borealis generations ago. Apparently, the feeling of people saying “oh my gosh it was amazing, let me describe it in detail” to those who slept right through amazing light shows is a traditional response.

AURORAL DISPLAY
The gorgeous display on Saturday evening of the beautiful aurora borealis seen in this district, is one which, though not often witnessed, will never be forgotten by the happy beholder. The electric storm (for such it is known by many) began about ten o’clock, and it seemed to centre in our Zenith, and then expand and radiate out from this centre to all the points of the compass, in ever changing shades and forms. There were displayed in the most beautiful and grotesque manner all the colours and shades of the rainbow. It was really such a profusion and richness of beauty and colouring which no wealth could purchase and no poet adequately describe, so in our humility, we will leave it to our considerate readers to imagine all the attractiveness of the scene which our poor pen has left untold.

The Calgary Weekly Herald, September 21, 1883. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

The Aurora
It is very seldom that the Aurora, or Northern Lights, look more splendid than they did yesterday evening just after darkness had set in. The sight was a magnificent one, the lights shooting far to the south of the zenith(?), and being all colors from a deep rose to a pure white. They shifted and changed their position constantly, at times only illuminating a portion of the heavens, at others spreading all over it. The sight was witnessed by numbers of our citizens, and the general opinion seems to have been that it is rarely – even in this district where the sight is not an uncommon one – the lights show out as magnificently as they did last night.

The Brandon Daily Mail, September 17, 1883. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

SPLENDID NORTHERN LIGHTS
Some Recent Displays of Aurora Borealis in the Far Northwest
The northern lights have been uncommonly fine and bright at Edmonton, N.W.T., for some weeks and the wise ones say that we shall have a long, sharp winter. Others hold that the aurora dances only when a cold spell is breaking up in the north and that we may expect mild weather so long as they are active. But whether the prophets say warm or cold, the people are sawing wood just the same and are not taking any chances. Last winter the mercury dropped to 40o below zero and the Edmontonians don’t propose to be left out in the cold in consequence of any northern lights.
The other night there was a remarkable outburst of polar lights that intensified until at 2 o’clock next morning, more than half of the sky was filled with them. A peculiarity of this display was that the arch was lifted so high and tilted, on our side of the earth, so far southward that it was seen not to be an arch but an immense circle, girdling the northern hemisphere, with its axis somewhere along the Mackenzie. In other words, the electrical core or magnetic pole, seemed to have shifted down until it was comparatively near us. . . . After keeping its place in mid-heaven for a time the band broke into clouds and receded toward the north.
A few nights ago an uncommonly brilliant display occurred, the celestial fireworks being visible during sunset. They lasted through the night and on the following evening were still there, showing themselves before the west was dark. Where the rays bunched themselves together the light was clearly intensified, and the still forest stood out against it in black silhouette. These rays frequently shot to the zenith and as they rolled together, formed beams of throbbing green light like that of the early gloaming in point of luminosity. It suggested indeed that the spear of Odin and the clubs of the frost giants were brandished above the domes of Walhalla in despair at the coming of Goetterdaemmerung; and, as if the fires of mundane destruction were alight already, there was a blood red glow at the northern horizon, a glare(?) as if the earth’s crust had been lifted out, and the boiling lava was surging out. For a time during the display portions of a double arch were seen, two segments of pale fire pushing out beneath the main arch, and afterward being absorbed by it. Frequently the lights assumed the form of drapery, a curtain thousands of miles long, and hundreds of miles high, spangled with stars, its green and blue and golden fringes flapping against the earth as it billowed(?) and tossed and rolled from side to side in the strain of gales blowing out of space, a loosened sail of the earth ship bounding – whither?

Qu’Appelle Progress, November 19, 1891. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Beautiful Display of Aurora Borealis
The heavens were illuminated last night with the most beautiful display of the aurora borealis it has ever been our experience to witness. About 9.30 in the northwestern sky appeared to mirror an immense fire and the apparent reflection cast a rich red hue over the heavens. This changed into the old fashioned northern lights with shooting rays from west to east. For a time the sky appeared to have cleared, but it was at 11.30 that the display reached its prettiest. At that time the whole sky was enveloped in a sea of loveliness which beggars description. From every corner of the horizon it was covered with a curtain that would make Joseph’s coat fade into insignificance. These flimsy curtain-like rays appeared to be gathered up in the centre immediately overhead and held by a large rosette of flaming red. From the centre the red faded into a soft cerise which, mingled with all the colors of the rainbow, created a setting which stood out as if defying the most skilled artist to paint anything half so beautiful.
The effect was wonderful and those who did not see it missed a rare sight.

Redcliff Review, August 9, 1917. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

NORTHERN LIGHTS FINEST SEEN HERE
Bishop Newnham Says Aurora Display Brightest Since 1870 in West
The northern lights witnessed in Edmonton last Thursday evening played havoc with the telegraphic wires all over Canada and resulted in big delay[s] in telegraphic business according to city telegraphic men.
The display was one of the finest ever witnessed in the west. Bishop Newnham of Prince Albert, who is a great student of this phenomenon, says it was the most striking that he has ever seen.
In a statement to the Canadian Press he says:
‘The only time I have seen anything like it was in 1870, when, during the Franco-Prussian war, Paris was besieged by the Germans. I [saw] that from London, England, and many people were under the impression that Paris was being burned.’
Bishop Newnham says that the aurora Thursday night was of a bright red color similar to the reflection of a gigantic fire. The news dispatches indicated that the aurora was visible in England and probably aided a German aerial raid.

The Edmonton Bulletin, March 11, 1918. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
The Edmonton Bulletin, March 8, 1918. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

A few tales of historical spooks for you this All Hallow’s Eve

Déjeuner dans le trou de la Sorcière (Forêt noire)/ Breakfast in the Witch Hole (Black Forest), a print from 1854. Image from Gallica.

One of the books that’s been on my shelf for a while is Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson’s hefty work The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys. It’s almost an encyclopedia of folklore from across England, peppered with references to the primary material from which they draw these little snippets of lore. Here are a few I thought you would appreciate, writing this as I am on All Hallow’s Eve:

Knutsford, Cheshire: There are two explanations for the name of this town, both mentioned by its historian, Henry Green, in the 1850s. One is that there was once an old woman who sold nuts for her living, and when dying asked to be buried with a bag of them under her head. This was done, but she found this pillow so uncomfortable that, after turning over in her coffin and finding the other side no better, she one night clambered out of her grave, emptied the bag, cracked all the nuts against her gravestone, and ate them – all but one, which she dropped without realizing it. She then refolded the bag to use as a pillow, got back into her coffin, and has slept there peacefully ever since. But a fine hazel sprouted from the nut she dropped on her grave. Henry Green, telling this tale in 1859, says that there really had been a tree growing from a grave here; by the time he was writing only its shattered stem remained, but he himself had once plucked a leaf from its branches, which was seen as ‘an undeniable witness’ that all this was true.(81)

Crowcombe, Somerset: It was believed in Somerset (as in several other regions) that anyone who kept watch in a church porch at midnight on Midsummer Eve or Halloween would see the wraiths of all those fated to die in the parish in the coming year entering the church for their own funeral service. (641)

Pinkney Park, Wiltshire: In a niche overlooking the main staircase of this house . . . there is a skull, thought to be that of a woman; traditions about it were told to the local writer Kathleen Wiltshire in the 1970s. There are also marks said to be irremoveable bloodstains on the floor of one room, and a woman’s handprint on the door of another; according to the traditions, the story behind all that is two sisters in the family loved the same man, so one murdered the other, out of jealousy. . . .
the skull is said to have been there for centuries, despite many attempts to remove, smash, or burn it, from which it invariably returns unharmed, as is the normal case with stories of this type. Legend used also to claim that it would fall to dust of its own accord when the last Pinkney died and the house and estate passed into other ownership, but the property did in fact change hands several generations ago, without affecting the skull at all.(792)

Black Heddon, Northumberland: M.A. Richardson’s Table Book (1842-5) includes an account, sent him by Robert Robertson of Sunderland, of the haunting sixty or seventy years previously of Black Heddon, near Stamfordham, by a supernatural being known as ‘Silky’ from her predilection for appearing dressed in silk:
“Many a time, when any of the more timorous of the community had a night journey to perform, have they unawares and invisibly been dogged and watched, by this spectral tormentor, who at the dreariest part of the road. . . would suddenly break forth in dazzling splendour. If the person happened to be on horseback . . . she would unexpectedly seat herself behind, ‘rattling in her silks.’ There, after enjoying a comfortable ride; with instantaneous abruptness, she would. . . dissolve away . . . leaving the bewildered horseman in blank amazement.”
At Belsay, a few miles from Black Heddon, there was a crag under the shadows of whose trees Silky loved to wander at night. At the bottom of the crag was a waterfall, over which an ancient tree spread its arms, amid which Silky had a rough chair, where she used to sit, rocked by the wind. Sir Charles M.L Monck, of Belsay Castle, had carefully preserved this tree, still called ‘Silky’s seat.’
Horses were sensitive to Silky’s presence and she seemed to take pleasure in stopping them in their tracks, so that no manner of brute force could get them moving. The only remedy was ‘magic-dispelling witchwood’ (rowan, mountain ash). . . .
Silky is described as ‘wayward and capricious.’ Like many bogeys, she revelled in surprise. Women who cleaned their houses on Saturday night, ready for the Sabbath, would find them next morning turned upside-down, but, if the house had been left untidy, Silky would put it straight.
Eventually, she abruptly disappeared. People had long surmised that she must be the restless ghost of someone who had died before disclosing the whereabouts of her treasure. Supposedly, about this time, a servant, alone in one of the rooms of a house at Black Heddon, was terrified by the ceiling giving way, ‘and from it there dropt, with a prodigious clash, something quite black, shapeless and uncouth.’ The servant fled to her mistress screaming at the top of her voice, ‘The deevil’s in the house! The deevil’s in the house! He’s come through the ceiling!’ IT was some time before anyone dared to look, but finally, the mistress, stouter-hearted than the rest, ventured into the room and found there a great dog or calf’s skin – filled with gold. After this, Silky was never more heard or seen. (549-50)

Canewdon, Essex: Canewdon was once notorious for its witches, a reputation linked with the tall tower of Canewdon church, of which, says Philip Benton in his History of Rochford Hundred (1867), ‘A tradition exists, and is believed by many, that so long as this steeple exists, there will always remain six witches in Canewdon.

In the 1920s, it was likewise said that there were always six witches – three in silk and three in cotton (meaning three well-to-do- and three working women). Charlotte Mason, writing in 1928, says an old man then living in Rayleigh told her that one was supposed to be the parson’s wife, and another the wife of the butcher. He said that a Canewdon girl who had gone to keep house for his uncle at Woodham Ferrers was also one of the witches, and his uncle knew no peace after her coming there ‘for nothing in the house would keep still.’ (He is referring to the witch’s power of moving objects by telekinesis . . .) It was also claimed that a stone fell out of the church wall every time a Canewdon witch died. . . .

A well-known procedure for identifying the culprit when witchcraft was suspected was by heating a witch-bottle containing the victim’s urine and sometimes nail-clippings, ordinary nails, pins, and other items. Eric Maple, writing in Folklore in 1960, puts the proverbial number of Canewdon witches at seven, and says that an old woman told him she was present as a girl at one such ceremony.

. . . . a witch who stole a bell from Latchingdon church, on the other side of the river, tried to bring it back in a washtub, using feathers as oars. She was seen by a waterman, but she bewitched him into forgetting what he had seen by saying, ‘You will speak of it when you think of it.’ It was not until years later, when he heard the bells toll for the funeral of the witch, that he remembered. (251)

Edmondthorpe, Leicestershire: In the parish church of St Michael is the tomb of Sir Roger Smith of Edmondthorpe Hall. He died in c.1655 after two marriages, and both his wives are represented in alabaster effigy on the tomb. The left hand of Lady Ann has been broken and the wrist stained a dark red, perhaps by iron rivets used to mend it. The local explanation of the stain, however, is that Lady Ann was a witch who, as was the habit of witches, could turn herself into a cat. Her butler, trying to drive this cat out of the kitchen, struck it with a meat cleaver, wounding it in the paw. When the cat resumed its human form, the wound was plain to see in the corresponding position on the wrist of Lady Ann. At her death, this ‘wounded hand’ also appeared miraculously on her effigy.
And that was not all: as the result of this supernatural event, Edmondthorpe Hall gained an ‘indelible bloodstain’. The cat’s blood had fallen on a kitchen flagstone and the stain proved to be ineradicable. At some time between 1918 and 1922, the Countess of Yarborough, then living at the Hall, had the stone taken up because the maids complained that, however much they scrubbed, it would not come clean. The stone was removed to the workshop of J.W. Golling in the main street of Wymondham, Leicestershire, where it became the object of much curiosity.
The phenomenon whereby the wound inflicted on her wer-animal is transferred to the witch is known as ‘repercussion’. Many traditional tales of witches hinge on this belief.(419-20)

Potterne, Wiltshire: It is common in folklore to encounter tales about witches turning into hares. A more unusual experience was reported by a young man in the 1920s to the folklore collector B.H. Cunningham, who printed it in 1943. This young man said that when he was courting a Potterne girl he used to take her for a stroll along the lanes every evening after work. They were always followed by an unknown greyhound; he was convinced that this was the girl’s mother, keeping an eye on them. As proof, he told Cunningham how one rainy evening the dog ran ahead of them as they got near the girl’s home, jumped the garden gate, and disappeared; when they reached the house they could see through the kitchen window the mother standing in a tub, washing mud off her legs.(792)

A Glimpse into Two Canadian National Parks in 1919

I always seem to find the best gems while looking for something else. I was delighted to stumble across this 1919 promotional video about national parks in Canada on Library and Archive Canada’s youtube channel. Let’s take a closer look!

One thing that a lot of folks don’t realize is that national parks can in fact cease to exist. They need the support of visitors, staff, and federal funding continuously over time. This video shows shots of the now-defunct Buffalo National Park (1909 – 1939) in Alberta. After being decommissioned the land was passed to a different federal department and became Canadian Forces Base Wainright. (For a deep dive into the history of Buffalo National Park, check out Jennifer Brower’s book Lost Tracks. You can follow that link to download a free PDF of the book on Athabasca University Press’s website.)

(Another “lost” national park I want to know more about is Nemiskam Antelope Park, which only existed for about two decades in southern Alberta and was meant as an “animal park” to protect pronghorn. There were others, including Menissawok and Wawaskesy national parks, all in the prairie provinces, all defunct by the end of the 1940s.)

Anyway, it’s interesting to see film footage of the bison herds they had in Buffalo National Park, and a mention of supplementing the food they could forage in the winter with hay. That had to happen in part because of the limited range and overpopulation issues that ended up greatly contributing to it being shut down in the late 1930s. It’s also why there are now wood / plains bison hybrids up in Wood Buffalo National Park today – they sent over 6000 plains bison from Buffalo National Park up to Wood Buffalo National Park in 1922 to try to deal with the overpopulation issue without slaughtering a species that had so recently come back from the brink of extinction. So that one little detail hints at so much to come!

The video also shows yaks, and yak hybrids. Brower talks about these animals – it was a part of a series of experiments the federal government ran at the time. The idea was that yaks were in the middle of a continuum of evolution between “primitive” buffalo and “civilized” domestic cattle, and so by trying to hybridize bison and yaks they could see about jump starting evolution. The park staff also experimented with hybridizing bison and domestic cattle, creating “catalo”. Overpopulation and close encounters with yaks and cows are likely the ways that the plains bison became infected with cattle diseases such as bovine tuberculosis.

There’s also a shot of a warden feeding some affectionate female elk and I have to wonder if it’s the same warden as in this postcard from Buffalo National Park in 1920?

Image from Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

The video at that point moves on to Jasper National Park, which does in fact still exist. It’s interesting that some of the “must see” places highlighted in the video are still highlights of the park today: the beautiful administration building (now their visitor centre I believe?), Maligne Canyon, and Mount Edith Cavell. One interesting detail is that that section both begins with a shot of the train station and ends with a shot of a train. At that time, Jasper and Banff were mainly accessed by rail. I don’t believe reliable roads where built from Edmonton and Calgary until some time in the 1920s.

Jasper Station, circa 1940. Postcard courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

So there you have it! A brief glimpse into two different Canadian National Parks in 1919.

Tongue-in-Cheek Camping and Hiking Advice from the 1907 Meeting of the Alpine Club of Canada

Who else is fantasizing about getting away from it all and running away to the mountains? I’m lucky in that I live in a national park (though in the stereotypically unmountainous province of Saskatchewan) so I have been spending a lot of time hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing, but there’s something about those mountains that are calling me. I’m sure to visit once travel becomes advisable once more! In the meantime, I’m doing historical background research on female artists and mountaineers active in the Canadian Rockies about a century ago, to support the Rockies Repeat art project and documentary. I’m trying not to get too rosy-eyed and nostalgic over the aesthetics and experience of being a tourist in the mountains in the early decades of the 20th century, because it wasn’t without its issues (not the least of which was an Imperial mindset and casual racism), but the enthusiasm that these men and women embraced the outdoor lifestyle is delightful.

In my archival investigations, I ran across this great souvenir newspaper from one of the first meetings of the Alpine Club of Canada, in 1907, and I was charmed by some of the very relatable humour about camp life. Here are a few of my favourite elements:

FASHION NOTES
The best kind of gloves to use when climbing are those belonging to your friend.


For hot-headed individuals, hats with holes throughout the crown are advised by our leading medical authorities.


Patchwork is rapidly growing in Dame Fashion’s favor. The crazier the better.


A great variety of shades are popular for the complexion, but perhaps the favorite is crushed strawberry.


INTERIOR DECORATIONS
The bare appearance of the ordinary tent-pole may be relieved by graceful drapings of knickers, sheets, hose, blouses, etc. In ordinary cases a large number of such garments are required to produce the most artistic effect.
The most handsome mantel drapings are composed of puttees [leg wrappings], preferably wet, which should be festooned at suitable intervals from the roof of the tent.


Graceful hanging pots may be made by tying ordinary climbing boots together and suspending them from any desirable point. Any plant may be grown in these, but the cactus is said to thrive best.

PERSONALS

A gentleman of the quill called at one of the ladies’ tents early on Wednesday morning, greatly to their consternation. He was soon after promptly killed and his body thrown in the river. It is understood his name was Mr. Pork. U. Pine, of Moraine Lake.

WOMAN’S PAGE By Lady Paradise

Dear Lady Paradise, when is it proper for a young gentleman to put his feet round a lady’s waist when glissading? Mollie.
Dear Mollie: Before doing this, my dear, you must be sure that you have been properly introduced by a Presbyterian minister, or, failing him, by the camp cook.

Please tell me, dear Lady Paradise, the proper etiquette in connection with the use of the rubber cup, when climbing. –Bill
Always give it first, Bill, to the lady who you know has the most chocolate concealed about her person.

Further Reading on the Experience of Early Travellers in the Canadian Rockies

  • MacLaren, I.S., Ed. Culturing Wilderness in Jasper National Park: Studies in Two Centuries of Human History in the Upper Athabasca River Watershed. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2007.
  • Reichwein, Pearlann. Climber’s Paradise: Making Canada’s Mountain Parks, 1906-1974. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2014.
  • Skidmore, Colleen, Ed. This Wild Spirit: Women in the Rocky Mountains of Canada. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2006.
  • Skidmore, Colleen. Women Wilderness Photography: Searching for Mary Schäffer. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2017.
  • Seton-Thompson, Grace Gallatin. A Woman Tenderfoot. New York: Doubleday, Page, and Co., 1900.

In an age before telephones or telegraphs, how fast did news travel?

One of the most fascinating history books I’ve read is the social / geographic / linguistic history, The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. He really effectively and evocatively demonstrates the effects of geography on the culture and language of France, shining a light on something that I never thought much about but which touched so many elements of French history and society.

For much of the history of that country, it was really hard to get around. There are few navigable rivers and the network of roads the country had were not very extensive and often were poorly maintained. As someone who lives in Canada and doesn’t think much of driving for 700km for seven hours to visit relatives a province away, even in winter, geography in an age before asphalt roads or motorized vehicles is a bit abstract and academic. For such a “small” country (I live in Canadian territory, so that’s most countries), France was hard to travel and easy to be isolated or to disappear.

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Stagecoach and travellers on their way to Puycerda, in Ax-les-Thermes in the French Pyrenees, second half of the 19th century. Image from the Gallica archive.
In the same way, I’m unused to delays in information due to geographical distance. If I, say, want to know the up to date results of an election in a different country, or where the latest confirmed cases of Coronavirus have been found, I can pull my smartphone out of my pocket and Google it. Boom, instantaneous information. (How accurate that information is, is an entirely different and concerning question that we’re still hashing out as a society, but regardless the point still stands.) 

We read about the events of the past – for instance, the developments of the French revolution – knowing the ending, the main milestones, in advance. We don’t have to wait anxiously for news. But how quickly would you hear about these things if you lived outside of Paris during the time period? There’s a fascinating passage in Graham Robb’s book discussing it:

Long before railways and the modern telegraph, news of important events could spread across the country at amazing speeds. The usual speed for an earth-shattering piece of news travelling over a hundred miles was between 4 and 7 mph. Le Havre heard about the fall of the Bastille (late afternoon, 14 July 1789) in the early hours of 17 July. In good conditions, Brest, at the tip of the Breton peninsula, was fifty-four horse-hours from Paris. Average speeds fell drastically on longer journeys, even on post roads, where horses and riders were relayed. Béziers – five hundred and twenty miles on post roads from Paris – heard about he fall of the Bastille almost seven days after the event (an average speed of less than 4 mph). Smaller towns might be closer in space but further away in time, unless a local inhabitant happened to bring the news. Vitteaux  – a hundred and sixty-five miles from Paris in the Auxois region east of Dijon – heard about the Bastille from a local tailor who travelled without stopping for two day sand two nights at an average speed of 3 1/2 mph. Even the high-speed messengers employed by groups of traders averaged only 7 mph over long distances.

Despite this, there are several well-attested examples of news travelling at much higher speeds. The arrest of the royal family at Varennes in the Argonne was known on the other side of France in Quimper at 7a.m. on 24 June 1791. On post-roads, Quimper was five hundred and forty miles from Varennes, which means that the news reached this remote and poorly served part of France at an average speed of almost 11 mph, maintained for two days and two nights. This is faster even than the news of the Battle of Waterloo brought by fleeing soldiers. At Villers-Cotterêts, the young Alexandre Dumas found their speed of a league and a half an hour (just over 4 mph) quite extraordinary: ‘It seems that the messengers of misfortune have wings.’

The century’s greatest expert on gossip and pre-industrial telecommunications, Honoré de Balzac, suggested that rumour could travel at about 8 mph. (pages 140-1)

The author then goes on to discuss the fascinating implications of such speeds, namely how they travelled, and how much we don’t know. It wasn’t all by riders swapping horses whenever they got tired. Messenger pigeons were used by some merchants, and there was apparently at least one occasionally used network of stationary messengers who would just shout to the next person a distance away to pass along the message. But the speed that rumours travelled defies expectations, especially as researchers have determined that they often seemed to travel independently of the main arteries of roads. Geography slowed them down, but nothing can stop the human hunger for more information.

Further Reading

Dramatic Photographs of Fighting Fires in Winter in Manitoba in the 1910s and 1920s

It has been a chilly few days here in the depths of north-central Saskatchewan, so I got curious about historical fires. After a quick image search on Peel’s Prairie Provinces (my favourite archive of western Canadiana, hosted by the University of Alberta libraries), I fell down a rabbit hole of postcards of dramatic photographs of the aftermath of fighting fires in the wintertime in the 1910s and 1920s. I don’t use the word “dramatic” lightly, either.

Predjama: the Slovenian Castle Built in a Cave

Yes, you read that right, this castle is built into a cave. Observe:

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Predjama Castle is an easy drive from the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana (or, in our case, a bus ride to Postojna Caves and then a quick taxi ride with a very informative man). If you’re travelling Europe and you think (as my sister and I did) that you’ve seen castles before, so you don’t need to see one more… Make a detour to see Predjama Castle. We’re so glad our Croatian friend encouraged us to go. It is incredibly unique and fascinating. Everything about it is designed for sieges and adapted for the cave environment.

It’s not just built beside a cave – the cave is an integral part of its structure. There are rooms and corridors that have solid rock for one wall. There are staircases between levels that are carved into cave passageways. The chimney in the kitchen is a natural hole in the cave. The cave ceiling actually overhangs some of the castle roof, offering further protection from the elements.

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As one of the interpretive signs says, it was really designed for a siege environment, not to be a pleasant place to live. There are actually runnels carved into some of the cave walls to direct dripping water. We were there on a rainy day and I think it was actually warmer outside of the castle, in the rain. I certainly get the impression it was continuously damp and miserable. Deeper in the cave, there’s a series of pipes and funnels designed to collect clean drinking water that had dripped through the cave ceiling, in case the other water sources were poisoned.

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There’s a whole section of the castle that was deeper in the cave. It would have been subdivided in the past, but because no one really wanted to live here past the medieval period, there are few records of what was actually there except the evidence left behind in the carved rock. There’s an extensive network of about 14 km’s worth of caves and it’s unclear how deep the livable spaces went.

According to the excellent audio-guides, there was a famous siege in the 1400s in which the Hungarians tried to defeat Erasmus Lueger, a sort of Robin Hood figure. His people could use the cave network to sneak out to surrounding communities and fetch supplies. He apparently taunted his opponents by tossing down fresh cherries at them; as they didn’t know about the cave system, this was baffling. Erasmus ended up losing the siege, however, due to a traitorous servant. The lavatory was a bit more exposed than the rest of the castle (likely so the, uh, leavings would drop directly in the stream below), and the servant lit a lantern when his boss was on the toilet, resulting in him being struck by a cannonball and killed.

 

Author Erin Kinsella Interviews Me About My Bison Book

I have talented friends! The ever-gracious and enthusiastic Erin Kinsella interviews me in this video on her YouTube channel about my book, Through the Storm: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story. Learn some nifty anecdotes from my research and the publication process with the federal government, why my book has two different titles (or four, if you consider the French versions), and some photoshop secrets about the cover!

There and Back Again: A Three Day Hike to Anahareo and Grey Owl’s Graves

Sometimes you trip over historic sites in the middle of a big city. Sometimes historic sites are just off of major highways. Sometimes it takes a bit of driving down dusty back roads where cell service can be spotty. Sometimes they’re a 20km one-way hike into the back country of a national park.

During the September long weekend this year, I made the journey to Grey Owl’s Cabin in Prince Albert National Park, along with Carol Crowe and her husband Joe, as well as some friends we made along the way. We hauled in our backpacks of gear, camping two nights overnight, hiking 40 km over three days, ducking around muddy terrain, tripping over roots, and crawling over and under downed trees. I don’t think I’ve ever pushed myself so much, physically, in my life, and now I hunger for more journeys like this. The landscape of northern Saskatchewan has a history, and if you know where to look, you’ll see the signs left behind by those who came before – and you’ll find the occasional historic plaque among the trees.

Grey Owl, also known as Archibald Belaney, was a famous author and conservationist who lived for a short while in Riding Mountain National Park and Prince Albert National Park in the 1920s and 1930s. An Englishman from Hastings, he is also infamous for adopting an “Indian” persona as he believed people would take his messages more seriously coming from that perspective.

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Grey Owl feeding a baby beaver in Prince Albert National Park, circa 1931. Image courtesty of Peel’s Prairie Provinces, PC002622.

He married a Mohawk woman, who became known as Anahareo. Both lived in the cabin along with their daughter, Shirley Dawn, and several pet beavers.

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Anahareo and a pet beaver in 1928. Still from “Beaver People“.

I hiked in to see the cabin – and the three grave sites – with Carol. This was a personal journey for Carol, because Anahareo was her Auntie. We were going for a family visit.

I’d woken up early and was right at the park’s visitor centre at 7am when the building opened to register for our campsite. (On the long weekend we knew that the choice campsites would be snapped up quickly.) We three left the trail head parking lot in the late afternoon, and arrived at our campsite three hours and 6.5km later at Chipewyan portage at about sunset. That evening, there was a spectacular light show: the aurora borealis. It was the first time I’d seen it this season.

The next morning, we had a fortifying meal of pancakes with wild blueberries (gifted to Carol before she left by a relation). We probably lingered too long in the morning, but as a result, we met our neighbours at Sandy Beach campsite that afternoon. They continued on the trail with us to Grey Owl’s cabin that afternoon and evening. We hauled our gear to Sandy Beach, set up camp, quickly packed day packs, and continued.

We arrived at the cabin later in the afternoon, and immediately set to making a small feast: soup, plus wild blueberries. Carol and Joe made an offering to Anahareo’s spirit at her grave, and we were all able to take in the calm atmosphere at Ajawaan Lake. Loons called, and it was very still. We shared the soup with a few other visitors who made their way to the cabin while we were there.

There are two cabins at the lake: one where Grey Owl lived, and a second up a hill where Anahareo stayed. The lower cabin, famously, has a beaver lodge in it where their pet beavers lived. There are also the grave sites of Anahareo, Grey Owl, and one of their daughters, Shirley Dawn.

We left as it started to get dusky – we had resigned ourselves that we’d be hiking back partially in the dark, but didn’t want to rush away after hiking 20km to get to the site. We didn’t want to waste the soup, but it was balanced precariously on our small camp stove and at one point toppled, spilling out a lot of what remained.  (Later, Carol told me that when we accidentally spilled the soup, it may have been Anahareo’s spirit’s way of telling us to get back on the trail so we could get back to camp safely.) We cleaned up the fallen soup (partially because it was an animal attractant, but partially because we needed to burn the remainder back at camp), and headed on our way.

We hurried to North End, and made it there just as the sun set fully. We hiked the final three kilometres of the trail to our campsite in full dark. In retrospect: dangerous. We were tired, and there were many slippery spots and roots along the trail. We stuck together, however, and howled like wolves and sang to both keep our spirits up and to keep large wildlife away. I’ll never forget the eerie feeling of walking, feeling a bit floaty from exhaustion, along a trail that I half-recognized from earlier, flashes of the path visible in the bobbing light from my flashlight. I kept my light on the trail ahead of me, and dreaded flashing it into the woods surrounding me in case it caught the eye-shine of a bear. We rolled into our campsite at about 10:30pm, exhausted but triumphant.

The next day, we breakfasted, and then hiked back the remaining 13km to the trailhead. We were very tired when we got back to the parking lot, but in good spirits. We’d taken off our shoes at lunchtime, when we’d eaten sandwiches on a beach, and we only realized when we got to the vehicles that one of the reasons Carol’s feet hurt so much was that she’d taken some of the beach with her for the final 7km!

In all honesty, I’ve never been so physically challenged in my life, but I am so glad I went, especially with Carol and her partner. I made new friends and experienced a different part of the park that I never would have had a chance to see otherwise. It was amazing to get out onto the landscape, despite its potential dangers.

Truly an adventure.

If you want to make the journey yourself, here is my advice:

  • Know your fitness level and plan accordingly. Exercise in the month(s) ahead of time, make sure your shoes and your backpack are broken in. I recommend doing it over the course of two nights, so you can set up camp at the sites 7km or 13 km in, meaning you hike the remainder of the distance to the cabins with just a small day pack instead of hauling your large bags in 18km one-way to the Northend campsite.
  • If you decide to paddle in, leave early and plan to be delayed just in case. Kingsmere Lake can get notoriously and dangerously choppy with the slightest wind.
  • Pack appropriately. When you put everything in your bag, ask yourself: am I willing to carry you for 40km? There is such a thing as over-packing, particularly if you’re carrying them the whole way. Make sure you have the right layers for changing weather conditions. Don’t assume you’ll be able to make a campfire – check to see if the park is in fire ban, and if so plan to bring a small stove. Bring a knife, first aid kid, rope, extra dry socks (I brought twice as many as I’d normally need because there’s nothing better than finishing your hike for the day, setting up camp, and sliding into some fresh dry socks). Remember you’ll be packing out your garbage so bring small bags to put garbage in. I strongly recommend water tablets or a water filter, so you don’t need to haul in enough water for three days. Not sure what to pack? Consult AdventureSmart.ca.
  • Plan to be out for twice as long as you think you will be, just in case of injury or things taking longer than you plan. Plan to be out after dark – bring a headlamp, and/or a good flashlight, just in case.
  • Don’t forget your spirit of adventure!

Further Reading

  • Anahareo, Devil in Deerskins: My Life With Grey Owl. Markham, ON: Paperjacks Ltd., 1972.
  • Gleeson, Kristin L. “Blazing Her Own Trail: Anahareo’s Rejection of Euro-Canadian Stereotypes.” Recollecting: Lives of Aboriginal Women of the Canadian Northwest and Borderlands. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2011. (Link to free PDF of chapter at link.)
  • Beaver People“, a short silent film from 1928 about beaver conservation, including shots of Grey Owl feeding beavers in Quebec, and Anahareo wrestling and feeding one (at about 6:40).
  • Beaver Family“, a short silent film from 1929 about Grey Owl and Anahareo when they lived in Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba.