A last few things beyond Burnley, getting more to where history, narrative, memory, theory mesh in Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman. Where she pulls off all that she promised in her opening and more. Where she cracks open the contradictions. This is rather more full of fragments I loved, most with their headings to give more a sense of the flow, than any sustained narrative. She does it so much better and you should just go read it immediately. But I still feel like sharing the fragments.
I open it a little out of order maybe, but with one of my favourite quote about the Labour Party, a biting quote, one to relish in this period when I feel that once more the betrayal stings fairly sharp and new.
I grew up in the 1950s, the place and time now located as the first scene of Labour’s failure to grasp the political consciousness of its constituency and its eschewal of socialism in favour of welfare philanthropism. But the left had failed with my mother long before the 1950s. (7-8)
Labour should read more I think.
The Weaver’s Daughter
I cry now over accounts of childhoods like this,
weeping furtively over the reports of nineteenth-century commissions of inquiry into child labour, abandoning myself to the luxuriance of grief in libraries, tears staining the pages where Mayhew’s little watercress girl tells her story. The lesson was, of course, that I must never, ever, cry for myself, for I was a lucky little girl: my tears should be for all the strong, brave women who gave me life. This story, which embodied fierce resentment against the unfairness of things, was carried through seventy years and three generations, and all of them, all the good women, dissolved into the figure of my mother, who was, as she told us, a good mother. (30)
The lesson redefined:
What was given to her, passed on to all of us, was a powerful and terrible endurance, the self-destructive defiance of those doing the best they can with what life hands out to them. (31)
But we can do better now, can’t we. Can cry and rage at the structures of assumptions surrounding class, men keeping women in their places even as they thought they were helping. Can acknowledge how many of those structures have changed, the new freedoms we have through the struggle of earlier generations. But there still remains so much stigma, though it might not be voiced so clearly as this:
I found a reference written by the local doctor for my mother who, about 1930, applied for a job as a ward-maid at the local asylum, confirming that she was clean, strong, honest and intelligent. I wept over that, of course, for a world where some people might doubt her – my – cleanliness. I didn’t care much about the honesty, and I knew I was strong; but there are people everywhere waiting for you to slip up, to show signs of dirtiness and stupidity, so that they can send you back where you belong. (34)
A Thin Man
On a father, and the shifting silhouette of men. I could not stop thinking about this paragraph when I first read it, still remember it and overlay a different vision of city streets sometimes when I am out walking.
When I look in the mirror, I see her face, but I know in fact that I look more like him. A real Lancashire face. He was a thin man. I knew his height, five foot ten, but he never seemed tall; he shrank in later years to not much above my height. The silhouette of men has changed completely since the 1950s, and it is this above all else that has altered the outlines of city streets; not the shape of the buildings nor the absence of trams and the growing sleekness of cars, but the fact that men no longer wear hats – broad-brimmed felt hats, tipped slightly over one eye. (49)
The desire for things…
I love the respect this offers for lives of such hardship, leading to such constrained desires. Looking ahead this is surely again our future.
But here, on the other side of the Atlantic, there is no language of desire that can present what my mother wanted as anything but supremely trivial; indeed, there is no language that does not let the literal accents of class show, nor promote the tolerant yet edgy smile. (113)
And this brings us back to politcs, to the drives underlying who people listen to, and how they vote.
Women are the shadow within modern analyses of working-class Conservatism, and theories of deference have been wedded to ideas about women’s isolation from the workforce, and from those formative experiences that produce class-consciousness in men, in order to explain their position.37 Yet my mother was not ‘isolated from industrial culture’38 in her growing years; indeed, the argument here has been that it was a political and industrial culture that helped shape a sense of herself in relationship to others. The legacy of this culture may have been her later search, in the mid-twentieth century, for a public language that allowed her to want, and to express her resentment at being on the outside, without the material possessions enjoyed by those inside the gate. But within the framework of conventional political understanding, the desire for a New Look skirt cannot be seen as a political want, let alone a proper one. We have no better ways of understanding such manifestations of political culture than they did in Burnley in 1908, when they used to say dismissively that ‘a motor car or carriage would buy a woman’s vote … at any time’.39 (121)
And this most poetic distinction between her own reality and that of her mother due to the welfare state:
I think I would be a very different person now if orange juice and milk and dinners at school hadn’t told me, in a covert way, that I had a right to exist, was worth something. My inheritance from those years is the belief (maintained always with some difficulty) that I do have a right to the earth. (122)
The last section I loved centred around a story from Mayhew about a young girl selling watercress he meets and speaks to. In comparing Mayhew’s reporting of her narrative to Freud’s own storytelling, well, it says so well what the issues are with both:
Using these two accounts, we may suddenly see the nineteenth century peopled by middle-aged men who, propelled by the compulsions of scientific inquiry, demanded stories from young women and girls; and then expressed their dissatisfaction with the form of the narratives they obtained. (130)
Slam, right? But at least the form of Mayhew’s work allows something of people’s own voices to come through. We think. It feels so. In comparing these upper middle class Freudian stories with the little watercress girl’s, Steedman writes:
In the little watercress girl’s account, the baby was both a source of love and affection, a means of play and enjoyment (she spoke of the warmth of a small body in bed at night, the pleasurable weight of her baby sister on her hip, the smiles of infancy); and at the same time the baby was also a source of income and adult praise for earning that income. The baby represented economically what the watercress seller had been in her turn, when she was a baby, and what she was now to her mother: a worker, a good and helpful little girl, a source of income. In this situation her labour was not an attribute, nor a possession, but herself; that which she exchanged daily for the means of livelihood, for love, and food and protection. It was in the face of this integrity of being that Mayhew felt undone. (136)
The little watercress girl who gave me the following statement, although only eight years of age, had entirely lost all childish ways, and was, indeed, in thoughts and manner, a woman. There was something cruelly pathetic in hearing this infant, so young that her features had scarcely formed themselves, talking of the bitterest struggles of life, with the calm earnestness of one who had endured them all. I did not know how to talk with her. …
It will, honestly, bring you to tears this life. The question is how this can exist in the same world with all these other lives that have usually been at the centre.
In the narrative terms that Freud can be seen to have laid down in ‘Fragment of an Analysis’, the little watercress girl is a person in mental health, in possession of her story. But it is the story itself that does not fit: all its content and its imagery demonstrate its marginality to the central story, of the bourgeois household and the romances of the family and the fairy-tales that lie behind its closed doors: no different culture here, not a place where they have forty-three terms for the eagle and where a woman cannot be conceived of as a swan; but the arena outside the gate, the set of metaphors forged out of the necessary and contingent relationship between all the big houses and the Clerkenwell rooms in which the child grew up. The marginality of her story is what maintains the other’s centrality; there is no kind of narrative that can hold the two together (though perhaps history can): an outsider’s tale, held in oscillation by the relationships of class. (139)
and then this
She was free, and she was not free. Her father didn’t matter he didn’t represent any law: he was just a ‘father in law’. The law, the distant functioning world, was the gentleman who stopped her once in the street, not to pity her, but to ask why she was out so early, and who gave her nothing. It was the inexorable nature of the market, the old women wholesalers, some kind, some not. She was free; she was hungry, meat made her feel sick, she was so unused to it. She had integrity; and she was very poor. Her matted and dirty hair stood out wildly from her head, she shuffled along to keep the carpet slippers on her feet; her life slipped away into the darkness, as she turned into the entrance of her Clerkenwell court. (139)
You love this little girl, and she breaks your heart. Steedman reaches for something here and brushes it with her fingertips. I’m not sure quite what it is, but it feels so important and something that I too have reached for.
I know that the compulsions of narrative are almost irresistible: having found a psychology where once there was only the assumption of pathology or false consciousness to be seen, the tendency is to celebrate this psychology, to seek entry for it to a wider world of literary and cultural reference; and the enterprise of working-class autobiography was designed to make this at least a feasible project. But to do this is to miss the irreducible nature of all our lost childhoods: what has been made has been made out on the borderlands. I must make the final gesture of defiance, and refuse to let this be absorbed by the central story; must ask for a structure of political thought that will take all of this, all these secret and impossible stories, recognize what has been made out on the margins; and then, recognizing it, refuse to celebrate it; a politics that will, watching this past say ‘So what?’; and consign it to the dark. (144)
Steedman, Carolyn (1986) Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. London: Virago.
I loved the storytelling as much as the theory-making in Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman, and to tell the truth the two seem to effortlessly intertwine. I imagine the writing of it was far from effortless, of course, and as I said in part 1 on this wonderful book, this is a tour de force that few could accomplish so well. It is also a most moving glimpse into the past lives of the women who lived just a few miles from where I sit writing now. She writes:
My mother’s story was told to me early on, in bits and pieces throughout the fifties, and it wasn’t delivered to entertain, like my father’s much later stories were, but rather to teach me lessons. There was a child, an eleven-year-old from a farm seven miles south of Coventry, sent off to be a maid-of-all-work in a parsonage in Burnley. She had her tin trunk, and she cried, waiting on the platform with her family seeing her off, for the through train to Manchester. They’d sent her fare, the people in Burnley; ‘But think how she felt, such a little girl, she was only eleven, with nothing but her little tin box. Oh, she did cry.’ (30)
The eleven-year-old who cried on Coventry station hated being a servant. She got out as soon as she could and found work in the weaving sheds – ‘she was a good weaver; six looms under her by the time she was sixteen’ – married, produced nine children, eight of whom emigrated to the cotton mills of Massachusetts before the First World War, managed, ‘never went before the Guardians’. 2 It was much, much later that I learned from One Hand Tied Behind Us that four was the usual number of looms in Lancashire weaving towns. 3 Burnley weavers were badly organized over the question of loom supervision, and my great-grandmother had six not because she was a good weaver, but because she was exploited. (31)
Running through it is this sense of fabric, of fashion, of the cut and weave of things we wear and the pleasure we find in them. They are things we want, we feel good in as much as things that mark our place in life. So many parts of this reminded me of two dear friends who had been pattern makers and seamstresses in LA’s garment industry. Both exploited in very similar ways. Both would occassionally touch a sleeve and give it a price, run a finger along something with admiration.
From a cotton town, my mother had a heightened awareness of fabric and weave, and I can date events by the clothes I wore as a child, and the material they were made of. Post-War children had few clothes, because of rationing, but not only scarcity, rather names like barathea, worsted, gaberdine, twill, jersey, lawn … fix them in my mind. The dream of the New Look must have taken place during or after the summer of 1950, because in it I wore one of my two summer dresses, one of green, one of blue gingham …(31)
And a view into the factories still hard at work in the 1950s:
Sometime during 1950, I think before the summer, before the dresses were made, I was taken north to Burnley and into the sheds, where one afternoon my mother visited someone she used to know as a child, now working there. The woman smiled and nodded at me, through the noise that made a surrounding silence. Afterwards, my mother told me that they had to lip-read: they couldn’t hear each other speak for the noise of the looms. But I didn’t notice the noise. The woman wore high platform-soled black shoes that I still believe I heard click on the bright polished floor as she walked between her looms. Whenever I hear the word ‘tending’ I always think of that confident attentiveness to the needs of the machines, the control over work that was unceasing, with half a mind and hands engaged, but the looms always demanding attention. When I worked as a primary-school teacher I sometimes retrieved that feeling with a particular clarity, walking between the tables on the hard floor, all the little looms working, but needing my constant adjustment.
The woman wore a dress that seemed very short when I recalled the picture through the next few years: broad shoulders, a straight skirt patterned with black and red flowers that hung the way it did – I know now – because it had some rayon in it. The post-War years were full of women longing for a full skirt and unable to make it. I wanted to walk like that, a short skirt, high heels, bright red lipstick, in charge of all that machinery.
This was the first encounter with the landscape of my mother’s past. (32)
Who could not love such a view in the world of capable, beautiful women at work? But a world of complexity, limits and everyday cruelties as well. These religious divisions I find so hard to understand but more importantly I suppose, the role of women in speaking them.
At the back of the house, through the yard to the lane, the lavatory was perched over another stream; you could see the water running past if you looked down. In this back lane I played with another child, older than me, she was four: Maureen. She was a Catholic, my grandmother said, but I could play with her, she was a nice little girl, but they weren’t like us: you could tell them by their eyes. It was the women who told you about the public world, of work and politics, the details of social distinction. My grandmother’s lodger, the man who was to become her third husband when his wife died ten years later, stayed self-effacingly in the background as she explained these things. Anti-Catholicism propelled my mother’s placing of herself in a public sphere. A few years later she often repeated the story of Molly, her best friend at school, the priest beckoning to the Catholic child from over the road, furtively passing a betting slip; the strain of the penny collections at church with a dozen mouths to feed at home. (33)
And I wonder how all of this fits with the older histories of Burnley and Pendle Hill, have been reading Ainsworth and cannot quite make it match.
She talked to me about witches, now and often before. The one book she carried from her childhood was Ainsworth’s Lancashire Witches, in an edition of the I 830s. She’d walked by Pendle Hill she said, to dances in the 1920s, by the place where Mistress Nutter met her fellow witches, and where the witches were later burned. I found the book in the house after her death, remembered my terrified reading of it at the age of ten, convinced that the mere opening of its pages brought the devil forward. (140)
Nor does it match my immense love of Lowry, and I resonated with this puzzling over what hs paintings meant to those tiny figures who hurried through streets to the mill.
As I went out, past the shrouded furniture in the front room (things made ready these ten years past for the move that never came), I saw hanging over the mantelpiece a Lowry reproduction that hadn’t been there on my last visit. Why did she go out and buy that obvious representation of a landscape she wanted to escape, the figures moving noiselessly under the shadow of the mill? ‘They know each other, recognise each other,’ says John Berger of these figures. ‘They are not, as is sometimes said, like lost souls in limbo; they are fellow travellers through a life which is impervious to most of their choices … ‘ Perhaps, as this commentary suggests, she did buy that picture because it is ‘concerned with loneliness’, with the ‘contemplation of time passing without meaning’,5 and moved then, hesitantly, momentarily, towards all the other lost travellers. … Where is the place that you move into the landscape and can see yourself? (142)
That last line gives me shivers.
We come to a beautifully detailed history/political economy of Burnley — again a return to the landscape, the context, the material surroundings of town, home, work, income, the complexities of divisions between skilled and unskilled, I have put that at the end. It feels indulgent to have copied it so wholescale but I did. But first a short section drawing from this particular history of liberal Burnley that would make of it a seat for political radicalism — I didn’t know.
Political radicalism, defined as both ‘a vision and analysis of social and political evils’, developed in the period 1770-18 50. ‘It was,’ observes Gareth Stedman-Jones, ‘first and foremost a vocabulary of political exclusion whatever the social character of those excluded. ’29 Its rhetoric framed the demands of the Chartist movement, and as a tool of political analysis and a language of political expression, it became more and more the proJ’erty of working-class people as the century advanced. (118)
Radicalism asserted the rights of the individual in conflict with privilege, privilege being seen particularly as the twin-headed hydra of Church and aristocracy. Its notable feature as a means of analysis was that its rhetoric allowed the tracing of misery, evil and unfairness to a political source, that is to the manipulation by others of rights, privileges and money rather than attributing such perception to a shared conciousness of exploitation. It was a coherent device both for understanding the ordering of the world in a particular way, and for achieving that understandmg without direct experience of exploitation, or of a particular organization of labour, or of the viciscitudes of the labour market. This is by way of contrast with theories of classconsciousness which often do draw on such personal and direct experience, though not a lways explicitly. 32 (119)
she notes then, that for all of its place in radical history, there remains much untouched:
Burnley is a much-investigated town, and a great deal is known about political movements within it and the shaping of its political allegiances. However, two factors have been left out of the story so far. The first is any reckoning with the presence of so lage a number of women in workforce, except as adjuncts to the male story of trade unionism, or in terms of a developing suffraggette movement. The second mission factor is any discussion of how a political culture might affect children growing up within it. (120)
I end this second post with my typical self-indulgence, copying wholesale Steedman’s own short history of Burnley. One of my housing apprentices was from there, worked there. I went twice to meet with her in the glorious times before lockdown and quite loved it, though like Rochdale and Wigan it shows all the rough edges of austerity-driven desperation. I love this history of it, and the thought that I will carry it with me when I go back, especially the idea of Burnley as a ‘Radical hole’.
In the late nineteenth century, Burnley, by way of contrast with neighbouring Blackburn, still possessed a local landowning gentry which played a prominent and traditional part in local life. 15 The most important local family were the Roman Catholic Townleys (the bluebell wood with the little stream, where I remember her last day of happiness, was Townley land), but there were others too, and their social presence in the town prevented the rise of an industrial middle class to gentry status.16 The social rulers of Burnley were then, the traditional ones, figures of the conventional class romance; and this conservative romance and its representatives were distanced from the culture and politics of daily life: Burnley was known as a “Radical Hole” a Liberal dominated mill-town where land and business kept their distance.’17
Cotton owners remained distinct from the town’s social elite, and this separation of trade from land provided a free arena for economic enterprise.18 The establishment of a weaving business was in any case a smaller and cheaper undertaking than the setting up of a spinning shop, and since the 1850s in Burnley it had always been feasible for a cotton worker with savings to set up on his or her own. A local economic practice, which was the easy availability of rooms to rent with power for machinery thrown in and the much-publicized facilities for saving in the town – for ‘getting on’ – made the possibility of rising part of its social and political landscape. 9
Beneath the traditional form of social government represented the separation of land and trade, a less rigid social structure pertained in Burnley when it is compared with other cotton towns. It is the argument of one historian of the town that this ‘fostered greater, not less discontent, as inter-group comparisons and a wider range of reference groups became adopted’. 20 Yet within this framework and within a social structure that allowed for individual advancement and the telling of social fairy-tales about people making good, the Burnley working class at the turn of the century seems to have shown a greater division between skilled and unskilled workers than was usual in cotton towns. This separation showed itself in the low incidence of residential contact and marriage between the two groups. 21 Burnley, then, in the early decades of this century, presented the picture of a culture in which individual aspiration and success were allowed to express themselves within the broader setting of a traditional form of local government.
The town expanded rapidly at the end of the nineteenth century, later than the other cotton towns, with the population more than doubling between 1871 and 1891.22 Any family established during those years and maintaining a household into the new century, as did my greatgrandmother, would have experienced a cycle of depression and boom. Many of my mother’s uncles and aunts left the town for Fall River, Massachusetts, between the two severe depressions of 1903/4 and 1908/9, and my grandmother, age twenty-two and five-months pregnant with my mother, married my grandfather during the good year of 191 3. Burnley experienced a final period of boom at the end of the First World War, before entering catastrophic recession in 1921.23
Through all these fluctuations in the economy, Burnley women worked: in 1911, 56 per cent of females over ten years of age were at work, most of them in the weaving sheds.24 Work at weaving was understood as a source of pride for women, and Patrick Joyce has speculated of Burnley that ‘the principal threat to the [male] weaver was perhaps that to his family authority, in work and at home … ’25 Yet, as has already been indicated, there were many ways in which gender divisions were maintained within the factory (particularly by the simple device of men tending a larger number of looms than women) and men received more money for work that was f ractically identical to that of their female fellow workers. 2
My mother’s experience of households largely supported and maintained by women was given dramatic emphasis by the death of her father at the Somme in 1916. The depression of 1921 and its aftermath changed the climate of expectation for working-class girls in the town: like many in her age group my mother did not do now, in the late 192Os, what she would have done ten years before, and go into the mill on leaving school. Her own mother stopped working in the sheds at this time because there was very little work to be had. (115-117)
Steedman, Carolyn (1986) Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. London: Virago.
I so enjoyed The Classic Slum, wish very much I could have met Robert Roberts. Funny that I remember buying this book in North Hollywood in my favourite used bookshop, the Iliad. Over a decade ago. I was curious about just how LA compared, those far away days now of tenant organising filled with rats and roaches and chinches and slumlords and lead poisoning and amazing amazing people still in my heart. Maybe I didn’t actually want to think more about slums just then. Never got around to reading it, never expected I might work in Salford, come to know it so well. Though it is not the Salford that Roberts described of course, not the Salford of the Lowry paintings I love so much. We have left that behind.
I left all my books behind there too, in LA, left almost everything. I only occasionally miss any of it, maybe simply because I have managed to collect new shelves upon shelves piles upon piles of books. I missed this though. Had to order it again, another copy of the Classic Slum, an orange binding rather than blue this time. He writes as his place of beginning:
This is a book made much from talk, the talk first of men and women, fifty or more years ago, of ideas and views repeated in family, street, factory and shop, and borne in mind with intent! The corner shop, my first home, was a perfect spot for young intelligence to eavesdrop on life. Here, back and forth across the counters, slide the comedy, tragedy, hopes, fears and fancies of a whole community: here was market place and village well combined… Then, and for long afterwards, I mixed with people, adult in Edwardian and Georgian days, who had lived out their time in ghettos spawned by the industrial revolution. Many among them, shrewd and thoughtful, could not only recapitulate experience, they knew how to assess its value in relation to their lives. Men discussed, argued, reminisced: I listened and remembered. To them all, many long gone now, I am indeed greatful for what they taught. (9)
I love this opening so much.
Roberts was born in Salford, grew up in these streets ‘behind a general shop in an area which, sixty years before, Frederick Engels had called the ‘classic slum’, I grew up in perhaps an ideal position for viewing the english proletarian caste system in its late flower’. (13)
I keep his chapters, so much thought goes into organising thoughts, ideas, memory. Yet I realise as a reader I often don’t even notice, I will do better. This is, as always, a hodge podge of what I found most interesting in excruciating detail. Part 1.
We start with class, and quoting Engels himself? From several decades before Roberts’ birth.
All Salford is built in courts or narrow lanes, so narrow, that they remind me of the narrowest I have ever seen, the little lanes of Genoa. The average construction of Salford is in this respect much worse than that of Manchester, and so, too, in respect to cleanliness. If, in Manchester, the police, from time to time, every six or ten years, makes a raid upon the working-people’s districts, closes the worst dwellings, and causes the filthiest spots in these Augean stables to be cleansed, in Salford it seems to have done absolutely nothing.
This is saying a lot if you’ve read all that he says about Manchester.
I am always fascinated by understandings of boundaries, communities, where a neighbourhood ends and another begins. Especially here in the UK and Europe where a weight of history sits so much more heavily on the urban form and how people understand their place within it and how that connects to the rest of the world. Roberts writes:
Every industrial city, of course, folds within itself a clutter of loosely defined overlapping ‘villages’. Those in the Great Britain of seventy years ago were almosy self-contained communities. Our own consisted of some thirty streets and alleys locked along the north and south by two railway systems a furlough apart. About twice that distance to the east lay another slum which turned on its farther side into a land of bonded warehouses and the city proper. West of us, well beyond teh tramlines, lay the middle classes, bay-windowed and begardened. We knew them not. (16)
And ah the details, the familiar environmental justice issues raised by the presence of industry and pollution, both industrial and animal.
Over one quarter of a mile industry stood represented by a dying brickworks and an iron foundry. Several gasholders on the south side polluted the air, sometimes for days together. Little would grow; even the valiant aspidistra pined.* We possessed besides two coal yards, a corn store, a cattle wharf and perhaps as closed an urban society as any in Europe.
In our community, as in every other of its kind, each street* had the usual social rating; one side or one end of that street might be classed higher than another. Weekly rents varied from 2s 6d for the back-to-back to 4s 6d for a ‘two up and two down’. End houses often had special status. Every family, too, had a tacit ranking, and even individual members within it… (17)
The footnotes, as they so often are, are brilliant. On aspidistras
*To encourage the Adam in us our local park sold ‘garden soil’ at a penny a bucket. At home, expending twopence, we once trried a window box ‘for flowers’ in the back yard. A few blooms struggled up then collapsed. ‘So!’ said my mother, loud in her husband’s hearing, ‘you can raise a child, it seems, on coal gas, but it does for geraniums!’
And footnote 2 on land ownership — curious to me though why ownership should be relegated to a footnote, surely it is part of the crux of the matter? And to all that happened later.
*The railway company which owned most of our streets kept its houses in a moderate state of disrepair. Two workmen haunted the properties, a crabby joiner and, trailing behind him with the handcart, his mate, a tall, frail, consumptive. This pair were known to the neighbourhood unkndly as ‘Scrooge’ and ‘Marley’s Ghost’. (17)
I love the workmen. I confess, though, I really struggle to understand the depths of self-imposed hierarchy that I have seen described elsewhere — Morrison in Tales of Mean Streets writing about East London most memorably, but that is not the only place. It is such an ugly head to rear up, and it saddens my heart.
The real social divide existed between those who, in earning daily bread, dirtied hands and face and those who did not. …
These division could be marked in many public houses, where workers other than craftsman would be frozen or flatly ordered out of those rooms in which journeymen foregathered. Each part of the tavern had its status rating; indeed, ‘he’s only a tap-room man’ stood as a common slur. (19)
I might start using ‘he’s only a tap-room man’ though, I rather like the phrase when mis-applied. These distinctions of skill, wage and dress were as present among women. Carolyn Steedman writes of fashion and class with such heart-breaking eloquence, but here it is in different form.
Many women and girls in the district worked in some branch of the textile industry. Of these, we accepted weavers as ‘top’ in their class, followed by winders and drawers-in. Then came spinners. They lacked standing on several counts: first, the trade contained a strong Irish Catholic element, and wages generally were lower than in other sections. Again, because of the heat and slippery floors, women worked barefoot, dressed in little more than calico shifts. These garments, the respectable believed, induced in female spinners a certain moral carelessness. … Clogs and shawls were, of course, standard wear for all. … So clearly, in fact, did headwear denote class that, in Glasgow, separate clubs existed for ‘hat’ girls and ‘shawl’ girls. (20)
Along with my ubiquitous people at the bottom of every hierarchy. I suppose the move to America rather than Manchester allowed us to be hat girls. Another footnote returns us to Engels on the Irish question:
Engels pointed out how, in the 1840s, the million or more britalized Irish immigrants pouring into English slums were depressing native social and economical standards. Little integration, however, seems to have followed upon the influx. Even up to the outbreak of the first world war differences in race, religion, culture and status kept English and Irish apart. The Irish poor, already of course deeply deferential to the Church, remained, in sobriety, even more than their English counterparts, respectful to the point of obsequiousness to any they considered their social superiors. (23)
In sobriety might be the key phrase? Still, this saddens me of course, surely there was some smouldering rebellion? It will not be found in these pages, nor anywhere in these streets. At least not at this time he describes. There are some fantastic descriptions of Marxists though.
The class struggle, as manual wokers in general knew it, was apolitical and had place entirely within their own society. They looked upon it not in any way as a war against the employers but as a perpetual series of engagements in the battle of life itself. … Marxist ‘ranters’ from the Hall who paid fleeting visits to our streets and insisted that we, the proletariat, stood locked in titanic struggle with some wicked master class. We were battling, they told us (from a vinegar barrel borrowed from our corner shop), to cast off our chains and win a whole world. Most people passed by; a few stood to listen, but not for long; the problems of the ‘proletariat’, they felt, had little to do with them.
Before 1914 the great majority in the lower working classes were ignorant of Socialist doctrine in any form, whether ‘Christian’ or Marxist. (28)
There is sadly no footnote about the Hall from whence these ranters emerge. But there is a tragedy of a message of hope and fury not coming through.
Meanwhile, though the millenium for a socialist few might seem just around the corner, many gave up struggling. The suicide rate among us remained pretty high. (29)
This chapter resonated so brilliantly with so much I have been reading — climate change, sustainability, the need for us (the Western, more wealthy us who have lots of stuff now) to give up a great deal of our things, our consumption and desire to possess. But also with the more abstract relationality of things, object oriented ontology and etc. My own childhood where possessions were so few and so precious.
The social standing of every person within the community was constantly affected by material pressures, some of the slightest, and the struggle for the acquisition and display of objects seened fiercer than any known in Britain now for cars, boats or similar prestige symbols. For many of the lowest group the spectre of destitution stood close; any new possession helped to stifle fear.
To stifle fear. What a shiver. I know that is part of the appeal of buying new things for me, even with destitution left far behind.
One scrimped and saved to get a new piece of oilcloth, a rag rug, the day at Southport, a pair of framed pictures — ‘Her First Singing Lesson’ perhaps, with ‘Her First Dancing Lesson’. Pictures, in a society far from wholly literate, were especially esteemed.(32)
A list of material possessions that seem, as he says even from his time of writing, ‘pathetically modest’. My grandparents had some of these pictures.
I sit in such comfort. Nothing like this, though the damp of this old Victorian row house gives me some inkling of how terrible and cold cold cold damp and cold it might have been.
In general slum life was far from being the jolly hive of communal activity that some romantics have claimed. They forget, perhaps, or never knew of the dirt that hung over all, of the rubbish that lay for months in the back alleys, of the ‘entries’ or ginnels with open middens where starving cats and dogs roamed or died and lay for weeks unmoved. They did not know those houses that stank so badly through an open doorway that one stepped off the pavement to pass them by. That people stayed scrupulously clean in such surroundings–and many did–only proves the tenacity of the human spirit. (49)
Governors, pastors and masters
Ah, the patriarchy.
Round parents the houshold revolved, and little could be done without their approval. Espoecially was paternal consent needed. In compensation, perhaps, for the slights of the outside world, a labourer often played king at home. (50)
Another kind of hierarchy, male from top to bottom.
He notes the preference of ‘vagrants’ (when did we shift terminology from vagrant to homeless?) for prison rather than the workhouse, and unsurprisingly that the numbers of those sent to prison were in proportion to those unemployed
The Common Scene
This then, forms the common scene of 1900-1910. It is so grim, from every angle. The ‘1906 Board of Trade figures showed half the women in industrial Britain earned under 10s for a week’s work of seldom less than fifty-four hours’ (76). A world of endless work and its reward only enough for bare life. Charity stepping insultingly into the void, and so ‘The Ladies’ Health Society’ goes along visiting women together with the ‘Sanitary Society’ to sell carbolic soap and powder. Women who often wrote and described all they saw like Margaret Harkness and Maud Pember Reeves, and they are valuable records I suppose, but leave a bad taste. They would not write this way.
So our neighbours, and many like them, in this ‘thrice happy first decade’ fought on grimly, certainly not to rise, but to stave off that dreaded descent into the social and economic depths. Under the common bustle crouched fear. In children — fear of parents, teachers, the Church, the police, and authority of any sort; in adults — fear of petty chargehands, foremen, managers and employers of labour. Men harboured a dread of sickness, debt, loss of status, above all, of losing a job, which could bring all other evils fast in train. (88)
And despite all of this workers still strike. To have strikes shattered by troops recently returned from fighting in Egypt and elsewhere. For Empire. How far removed this feels from Empire and yet it is at its heart.
Food, Drink and Physic
To return back to this role of Empire, yet another brilliant footnote
Some families who dealt with us had male members (all unskilled workers) who had soldiered in the outposts of empire during the late ninteenth century and after. Their experience seemed to have gained them litle beyond a contempt for lesser breeds, a love of family discipline and passion for hot pickles. (105)
Not much of physic though, and a very different attitude towards death.
Knocks, bruises, ailments one accepted stoically enough. Death, after all, called often. Children made a common habit of visiting a house wgere someone had just passed away to ask reverently to view the body, a request that was never refused. one friend of my youth boasted of having seen thirty-seven corpses over a wide area. (124)
So much unrelenting poverty. But all on the cusp of a change.
Roberts, Robert ( 1990) The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century. London: Penguin
Seeing the city as a work of art is a curious way to view a city, I found it an interesting exercise. This book represents quite a masterful look at London, Paris and Vienna, with a splendid raft of photographs, illustrations and quotations. To the greater or lesser extent that I know them, they are all cities that I love. Perhaps the best way to document just how Olsen thinks of cities here is to give a view of the table of contents – you can see that he gets through quite a lot.
THE CITY AS LUXURY 1Urban Virtue and Urban Beauty THE CITY AS MONUMENT 2The Monumental Impulse 3The Remaking of London The Vision of Splendor, 1811-1825 • Disillusion and Disgust, 1825-1837 • The Victorian Alternative 4The New Paris Paris before Haussmann • Paris Remade, 1852-1870 • Paris after Haussmann, 1870-1914 5The Vienna of Franz Joseph Vienna in 1857 • The Creation of the Ringstrasse 6The Process of Urban Embellishment THE CITY AS HOME 7The Building and the Dwelling: The Family and the Individual • London • Paris Vienna 8Inside the Dwelling: The Public and the Private • The London House • The Paris Flat • The Viennese Wohnung 9Social Geography The Town as a Map of Society • London • Paris • Vienna 10Villa Suburbia London • Paris • Vienna 11Working-Class Housing: Scarcity, Abundance, and Domestic Values THE CITY AS PLAYGROUND 12London: Hidden Pleasures 13Paris: The Garden and the Street 14Vienna: Display and Self-Representation THE CITY AS DOCUMENT 15Architecture as Historical Evidence 16The Beautiful: In Search of a Nineteenth-Century Aesthetic • London • Paris • Vienna 17Architecture as Language: Representation and Instruction 18The City as the Embodiment of History
Exploring the City as Art also, of course, means really as ‘high art’. I find that just a little tiresome, as I do of this ongoing debate that tires me of cities as good or bad, beautiful or ugly — there are a number of binary debates rehearsed in here. But useful to give his summary here:
The city as a work of art? Surely not. The city as wasteland, perhaps, or as battleground, or jungle. The city as manifestation of all that is rotten in society, festering wound in the body politic, foretaste of hell in which brute force tramples the weak underfoot, corruption feeds on innocence, gluttony mocks hunger, unprotected virtue submits to triumphant vice. From Juvenal to Cobbett, from Saint Augustine to Jefferson, poets and moralists, publicists and philosophers have subjected the city to righteous abuse. In more measured language, the modern scholar approaches urbanization as a pathologist tracing the course of a disease. Defenders of the city usually justify their position on economic rather than aesthetic grounds. They see the city as infrastructure, to be judged by the efficiency with which it facilitates the creation and distribution of wealth. To both attackers and defenders, the city is the product of vast, anonymous forces, not an individual creation. Any beauty it might possess would be incidental to its real nature, any visible structure one imposed by historical necessity rather than artistic intent.
Yet with rare exceptions, such as Ireland before the Viking invasions, the civilizations of the past have regarded cities as neither shameful nor inevitable, but as deliberate creations, worth making sacrifices to build, maintain, and embellish. (3)
I do quite love the idea of city as deliberate creation — what after all is the point of urban planning if not that (though I know I know it is so rarely that…) In the end I find viewing London-Paris-Vienna through the eyes of Art and Architectural History (and this very specific view of Art and Architectural History capitalised) enriches other views (as annoyed as I sometimes became reading it, being a great lover of bottom-up histories rather than this necessarily top down one, which as Olsen says by necessity excludes industrial cities such as Sheffield given such a focus on ART and ARCHITECTURE, but aside from all my annoyance still to some degree a useful exercise…). He writes of London:
Here both individual and national extravagance were at worst forgivable, at best laudable. Whether such extravagance took the form of an afternoon spent purchasing frivolities in Bond Street or the erection of pinnacled monuments along the Embankment, London offered possibilities of conspicuous self-indulgence and significant display that would have been out of place in an industrial city. To grasp the meaning of such self-indulgence, such display, the techniques of the economic historian are useless, those of the social historian inadequate. The art historian and the intellectual historian are better qualified to illuminate our understanding of cities that, like London, transcend in both aspiration and achievement the merely practical and utilitarian.
While waiting for the results of the refined analysis such specialists may engage in, we can perhaps achieve cruder but still valuable insights by using our eyes and by finding out how people in the century before 1914 themselves perceived London, Paris, and Vienna. (6)
And thus we begin. This book is quite full of splendid detail, almost too much so, it is impossible to capture or blog properly. I’ve pulled out a little for each city of London – Paris – Vienna separately, but here try to give just a sense of how Olsen compares them.
City As Monument
The nineteenth was the most historically minded of centuries, the one most aware of itself as participant in a continuing drama. It possessed at the same time, unexampled means for giving material expression to that awareness…London, Paris, and Vienna had long contained monuments. Only in the nineteenth century did they try to become monuments. (9)
I like that distinction, I confess. Olsen continues:
Although the inner core of each city bore uncomfortable witness to its medieval origins, suburban extensions during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries showed a degree of order and decency that occasionally rose to monumentality.
What failed them from doing so completely? The ‘enforced poverty’ of English monarchs subject to Parliament’s unwillingness to pay out. For the Bourbons and Habsburgs, ‘another instance of their unwillingness to interfere with private interests and individual rights‘ (10-11).
The concluding chapter (The Process of Urban Embellishment) sums the monumental argument up (I am also enjoying reviewing these geographies in my mind and how they resonate or not with my own experiences of walking these cities, such a pleasure during this time of lockdown):
first London, then Paris, and finally Vienna attempted to turn them-selves into monuments in the course of the nineteenth century. London, between 1811 and 1837, remade itself along the line connecting Regent’s Park with St. James’s Park and Trafalgar Square; Paris, between 1852 and 1870, cut great swaths across itself, north to south, east to west, and diagonally, planting trees and flowers wherever it could; Vienna, beginning in 1857, turned a fortified zone into a ring of pleasure. The three programs shared a number of characteristics: they resulted from the initiative of the central government; depended for their success on the attraction of private investment by speculative builders and developers; were intended to make royal or imperial residences more prominent; created public parks; mixed public and private buildings, ecclesiastical and secular purposes, residential and commercial uses; used architecture mainly in the classical tradition (broadly defined); put up monuments of national, imperial, dynastic, or cultural significance; built wide streets both to facilitate traffic and to serve as fashionable promenades; and combined aesthetic with social and sanitary motives. London and Paris incorporated slum clearance in the preliminary demolitions; in Vienna no destruction of residential or commercial property, slum or otherwise, was necessary.
And a note to self on the distinctiveness of Vienna — which does indeed feel different and I think in the end in great part because of this:
One peculiarity, indeed, of Vienna is that it has never indulged either in the cutting through of percees or in systematic slum clearance as these operations were carried out in London and Paris. (82)
Yet these had nothing on the great motorways and ringroads of the following centuries.
The City as Home
The two dominant institutions of the nineteenth century, the two focuses of loyalty, were the family and the nation-state. … Between the late Middle Ages and the end of the eighteenth century there had developed, through western and northern Europe, a belief in the values of individualism, privacy, and domesticity. (89)
Thus, he argues:
The dwellings of London, Paris, and Vienna illuminate the respective attitudes of the three societies toward domesticity, familial affection, privacy, and individuality. (90)
Been reading a lot about homes, how they’ve changed over the centuries (like Judith Flanders, Witold Rybczynski, my favourite from Alison Blunt and Robyn Dowling) so nothing here was too revelatory, though I loved the architectural drawings of buildings and almost laughed out loud at this:
The English were convinced that nowhere were domestic virtues better or more extensively cultivated than in England. Paris certainly, and Vienna so far as they knew about it, seemed on the whole more suitable for extramarital adventure than for sober family life. (90)
This goes without saying
The major difference between them being that English cities tend to be made up of ‘small dwelling houses’ while the other two ‘large blocks of flats’. (92)
But this I hadn’t known:
And this — almost all London buildings beginning life as residences, true of most houses between the City and Hyde Park:
And even while Parisian middle classes loved their flats, still there remained some of these:
And then there is Vienna — where not a single medieval home still exists. It is now palaces of the aristocracy and blocks of flats for the rest.
How can we read social geographies through architecture? Broadly speaking, he argues that medieval homes had everyone living and undertaking work and other activities in the same space and this slowly transitioned into single family homes partitioned with each person and activity separated and assigned space, servants separate from family, more public spaces separate from private. Just so cities went from such a mix to more segregated subdivisions. London, due to being larger and more technologically advanced with its embracing of domesticity and privacy took this further earlier than either Paris or Vienna.
This of course could only proceed so far until modern transport, and the spaces for workers, servants, carriages and horses and such even in the wealthiest of neighbourhoods were no longer required. I love mews though have only known them in their gentrified incarnations. This lovely illustration shows all they were before becoming additional luxury residences.
While the English perceived class distinctions to be fewer in France, Olsen hedges that it was only slightly less in Paris than in London, especially after the 1850s and 60s, but always a distinction between left bank and right, interior and the working class suburbs. Still, in London and Paris the geographies of wealth and fashion did shift to some extent. Of all three Vienna remained the most stable: prosperous aristocratic neighborhoods remained so, and there continues to be ‘a marked decline in social prestige as one moves from the first Bezirk (City and Rigstrasse) to Vorstadt…to Vorort’. (151)
Also housing signaled slightly different things in each city:
The customary English way for a rich City man to insinuate himself, or rather his descendants, into the governing class was to purchase a country estate and set himself up as a landed gentleman. No London mansion, no taking of a house in Grosvenor Square, would serve to expunge the mercantile stain. In Vienna residence in the City, far from being incompatible with a noble manner of living, was essential to it. The Ringstrasse, though attached to the City, imitating it in its architectural forms, and surpassing it in physical magnificence, never succeeded in equaling it in fashion and prestige. The French aristocracy transferred itself to the Marais under Louis XIII, to Saint-Germain under Louis XV, and—if it could afford it—to the Champs-Elysees and beyond during the Third Republic; the Viennese aristocracy, once established in the Altstadt, stayed there.
I sit and try to remember what it felt like to wander these cities, to travel at all. Olsen continues on Vienna:
It would be wrong to exaggerate the social inferiority of the Ringstrasse. It served rather as the concrete expression of the admission to the ruling classes of both individuals and broader social groupings, who expanded and enriched the older governing class just as the Ringstrasse zone expanded and enriched the older City. The Ringstrasse united new aristocracy with old, money with birth, ability with rank, the arts and scholarship with politics and administration.-3 It represented what was healthiest about the last period of the Habsburg Empire: its openness to talent, new ideas, and new artistic forms, whatever their origin; its cosmopolitanism, its respect for learning and achievement, and its refusal to be shocked by the unconventional. (154)
This is obviously not the place to look for solid descriptions of working class housing, but there is this:
The paucity of reference to the working classes in this discussion of the city as home may suggest that privacy, intimacy, and domesticity were qualities too expensive for them to afford. With respect to the housing available to them in Paris and Vienna, and to a considerable extent in London, this may very nearly have been true: when the normal family dwelling consists of a single room, with perhaps a small separate kitchen, discussing the impact of degagements and subdivided, specialized areas makes little sense… As for neighborhoods segregated by social class, the luxury of choice of district was a middle-class privilege: the workers moved to whatever places economically stronger groups chose to avoid.
Studies of working-class housing before 1914, local and national, normally stress its inadequacy—overcrowded, overpriced, and insufficient—and note the failure of the free market to produce enough new housing to keep up with the growing population, much less bring average standards up to a level of decency. The most optimistic estimates show a degree of improvement far less than any overall rise in living standards.1 But as one reads the dismal accounts the nagging objection emerges: conditions everywhere could not be worse than they were everywhere else. And the testimony both of contemporaries and of the buildings themselves suggests that for the working classes as for the middle classes, standards were higher in London than in Paris, in Paris than in Vienna. They were high enough to enable a significant minority of London’s working classes to imitate middle-class patterns of behavior, much as the middle classes were shaping their own lives according to their notion of aristocratic manners.
There is also some reference to the economics of it all, which I appreciated:
Contributing more to differentials in cost were the local building codes, most stringent in Vienna, least in London. The flimsy, jerry-built construction practiced by London’s builders, of which contemporaries were forever complaining, did enable them to build and sell more cheaply and allowed house owners to make reasonable profits from lower rents than would have been conceivable in either Paris or Vienna. The mild English winters and the willingness of the English to endure cold indoors permitted builders to make little provision for insulation or other than primitive heating arrangements.
The nature of the London building industry, in which large numbers of small undercapitalized speculators were able to coexist with giants like Cubitt and William Willett, meant that there were always those willing to plunge into housing development whatever the economic climate. They went bankrupt with monotonous regularity, leaving rows of carcasses to be finished by the next generation of hopeful speculators, but the houses ultimately got built. The syndicates and companies that were responsible for building Paris and Vienna were not above over-estimating the market themselves, but on the whole they behaved more rationally and cautiously and hence built more in response to than in anticipation of demand.
And of course all of these — the type, amount, cost of housing, building codes, climate etc — were co-constitutive of how people lived in it. Each impacted the other and I wouldn’t wager which was more important, but the large differences remain
If the nature of the London house, the layout of the London street, and the pattern of development that informed the Victorian metropolis encouraged withdrawal and seclusion, the structure of the Paris flat, the attractions of the Paris street, and the very nature of Paris itself called its residents out of doors. If the life of London lay hidden in its drawing rooms, inside its clubs, within the cozy subdivisions of its pubs, the life of Paris was there for all to see, and perhaps to join: in its promenades, its boulevards, and its streets. (185)
City as Playground
This is partly city as enjoyed by tourist. Interesting to note London as a city was very much lacking in hotels or restaurants. For men single or married, there was instead the club. Described by Cesar Daly (who I must read but seems like I must read him in French, yikes) as a way to enjoy the society of others without mixing with those of inferior social class. That sums up England rather beautifully.
Olsen quotes Henry T. Tuckerman on Paris, a very different sort of place:
We of England and America, instinctively revolve about a permanent centre, hallowed and held by the triple bond of habit, love, and religion. Not so the Parisians: Imagine … we dwelt in a kind of metropolitan encampment, requiring no domicile except a bedroom for seven hours in the twenty-four, and passing the remainder of each day and night as nomadic cosmopolites: going to a café to breakfast, a restaurant to dine, an estaminet to smoke, a national library to study, a cabinet de lecture to read the gazettes, a public bath for ablution…a thronged garden to promenade, a theatre to he amused, a museum for science, a royal gallery for art, a municipal ball, literary soirée, or suburban rendezvous, for society.39 (217)
Fun fact: The first raised foot pavement in Paris was in the rue de ‘Odeon in 1781 (Wow) but rare anywhere else until the 1830s. And yet, this view of Paris as a place where live is lived out of doors is ubiquitous, as in this quote from Philip Gilbert Hamerton (Paris in Old and Present Times). ‘The English have invented the house, the French have invented the street.‘
Vienna? ‘No city in Europe is better suited for a life of public self-representation‘.
The City as Document
This opens with a bit of a debate around history and architecture that I find a little stale,
An assumption underlying this book has been that a work of art is also a historical source, that the city, as the largest and most characteristic art form of the nineteenth century, has something to tell us about the inner nature of that century. (251)
The caption for the picture below: “A Parisian facade seems to be a drawing in stone, full size, literally an immense lithograph.” Rue de la Victoire 98. From Revue Generale de l’architecture 16 (1858)
This one is even better for Vienna: “If a street census were taken…they would certainly equal the population of a respectable market town.” Figurative sculpture on facade of Schubertring 9-11, Ludwig von Zettl , architect, 1865 (Kunsthistorisches Institut der Universitat Wien. Photo Johana Fiegl).
Architecture as Language
Just a few good quotes;
“The history of architecture is the history of the world,- proclaimed Pugin in 1843. “The belief and manners of all people are embodied in the edifices they raised.” [A. Welby Pugin An Apology… 1969]
1892 N. J. W. Westlake: “the higher architecture is . . . a language for the expression of thought. . . . In ancient times it expressed the ideas of the period in the idiom of the period.”
Pevsner: “…every building creates associations in the mind of the beholder, whether the architect wanted it or not. The Victorian architect wanted it.” [A History of Building Types]
From John Belcher’s presidential address to the RIBA in 1904, where he ‘made explicit a conviction implicit in historicist theory: architecture and its associated arts could convey the maximum of beauty, morality, and truth only if they combined to form a Gesamtkunstwerk‘:
Architecture must tell its tale; it has its message to deliver. Like a musical score it expresses a great deal more than meets the eye. . . . Architecture is the prose of inarticulate but beautiful thought and feeling. Sometimes it tells of the commonplace in life; rising higher it speaks of domestic peace and happiness; and yet again in more stately diction it sets forth the grander and larger purposes of life. It recounts the past, records the present, and holds up ideals for the future. But only when it is enriched from the sister arts of sculpture and painting can it tell the tale with the fulness of eloquence and power.
Olsen’s take, and a summary of the questions he tries to answer here:
What messages were buildings, cities, and other works of art expected to transmit? What meaning did they possess, what ideas did they contain? What can a city, in its capacity as a work of art, accomplish? What can art do, apart from existing in its own right? It can tell a story, or many stories. It can establish a mood. It can reinforce selected virtues. It can surprise and delight by unexpected juxtapositions of forms, textures, colors, and movements. It can soothe and reassure by repetition of familiar forms, textures, colors, and movements. It can stand for, or represent, ideas, qualities, institutions. English critics placed great stress on the expressive qualities of buildings, German theorists on their representational qualities. (285)
Olsen, Donald J. (1986) The City as a Work of Art: London – Paris – Vienna. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
I didn’t read the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili properly, eyes drooping amidst its turgid misogyny and lengthy OCD descriptions of classical architecture, sculpture and tits…I realised I had many better things to do. But I skimmed along, I liked the pictures (lol). Glasgow University Library has a great blog on it, they liked the pictures too:
Arguably the most beautiful book of the Venetian Renaissance… Published in 1499 by the renowned printer Aldus Manutius, this magnificently crafted volume is illustrated with 172 woodcuts by an unknown artist.
So…beautiful to look at, but some choice quotes of the reactions of others Glasgow University collected:
The overall literary merit of this work is debatable, and some critics have dismissed it as unreadable. Certainly it is written in an odd hybrid of Latin vocabulary imposed upon Italian syntax; this idiosyncratic language would probably have been as difficult for sixteenth century readers as it is today.
That’s actually pretty cool, if only the content merited it.
Liane Lefaivre, for instance, suggests that it is in many ways a nondescript example of ‘a highly stylized genre’. Professor Weiss, meanwhile, declared it to be ‘a serious runner up for the title of most boring work in Italian literature’.
IT IS SO BORING. But laid out rather beautifully as they say (on the right is an absurd statue that gets like two pages of absurdly erotic description — the priapic satyr? Yikes):
But I pulled out a few bits that weren’t totally boring, it does have lots to interest the gardener or aficionado of medieval clothing. I’d bought it on a whim from a used bookstore years ago, and thought after reading the Decameron (1353) I’d give it a go in this great time of lockdown.
It totally justifies some of Boccaccio’s ill will towards the Venetians.
Like Boccaccio too, it is obsessed with the ancients in all things, looking backwards always for inspiration. But being of its time, there are some choice passages on the plague, near the very end. The first book is Poliphilo wandering in a strange (yet strangely familiar) land. I liked the tiny second book stuck at the end which actually gives the history of Polia and Poliphilo the best to be honest.
These are the words of Polia, the object of the protagonist’s desire (it’s all in the name to be sure).
Very soon after this there occurred a great carnage affecting people of every age and condition. They were infected through the corrupted air by a contagious and deadly plague, and a great multitude died. Dreadful terror and alarm spread over the sickly earth, and people were struck by mortal fear. Everyone sought safety outside the city and took flight to the suburbs and country regions. Such a dreadful mass of people was exterminated that it was suspected that the fetid south wind had brought the plague from humid Egypt, where at the flooding of the turbid Nile the fields are strewn with a multitude of dead animals that putrefy and stink, and that these had infected the air. …
Ah Europeans, always blaming plagues on the dark continents and the whims of nature rather than commerce. She continues:
Due to my own frail and malignant fate, I found myself afflicted by a tumour in the groin. I besought the highest gods, on the chance that they would grant me recovery, while the spreading infection of the plague in my groin gravely weakened me. Because of this everyone deserted me, and I was left behind, except by my nurse, the kindest and best of women, who stayed to care for me and to witness my last breath and the departure of my spirit. Afflicted by the grave malady, raving and wandering, I uttered incoherent words and many a groan and lamentation. But turning inwards I did the best I could, and sincerely invoked the help of divine Diana, because I had as yet no notion of other gods and no religion but of this goddess. So I uttered many a single minded prayer in my trembling voice, and vowed myself to her cold and sacred chastity, promising in my tormented state that I would be her devotee and ever serve her religiously in her sacred temples, in strict continence, if only she would save me from this deadly contagion and sickness. (378-88)
Seems fair enough that after that she would then reject the advances of Poliphilo — also against him is the fact that he is possibly the most annoying, boring man alive, as his lengthy writing style proves beyond doubt. Sadly, he wrote the book, chose the ending, and this is clearly male wish fulfillment at its finest:
Then the fearless nymph turned to me, with her placid and charming presence showing every sign of kindness, and with a sigh uttered hotly from the bottom of her inflamed heart she spoke thus: ‘Dearest and best beloved Poliphilo, your ardent and excessive desire and your constant and persistent love have altogether stolen me away from the college of chastity, and forced me to extinguish my torch….it has cost me no small fire to keep it hidden and concealed in me, and so long suppressed. … A love so worthy should not be left unrequited and denied equal reciprocation and recompense; and consequently I am all prepared for your inflamed desires.
You may throw up just a little in your mouth here and yet it goes on
Look: I feel the fire of fervent love spreading and tingling throughout my whole being. Here I am, the end of your bitter and frequent sighs. Here I am, dearest Poliphilo, the healing and instant remedy of your grave and vexing pains. Here I am, a ready consort for your amorous and bitter suffering and a sharer in everything. Here I am with my profuse tears to quench your burning heart, and to die for you promptly and most devotedly.
And as proof of it, take this!’ She hugged me close and gave me, mouth to mouth, a luscious biting kiss full of divine sweetness, and also a few pearls in the form of tearlets, wrung by singular sweetness from her starry eyes. Inflamed from head to foot by her charming speech and by the mouth-watering and delicious savour, I dissolved in sweet and amorous tears and lost myself completely. Likewise the sacrificial President and all the others, moved with sudden emotion, could not contain their tears and sweet sighs (216-17).
Tearlets? Vomitous. At least she did try to get rid of him. I quite liked this illustration:
She’s refused him, he collapses, she drags him off to a dark corner of Diana’s Temple where he lies dead for a few days. This could have been an awesome feminist murder mystery, an early example of medieval noir.
But no. She had to change her tune, go back for him, bring him to life (of a kind) with her tears and kisses, and become a sacrificial sex doll of a woman.
That’s what counts for a plot.
There are also numerous monsters, this could have been a great medieval bestiary. I liked these drawings too:
But the skinks are too small, unicorns pull carriages and are consumed for dinner, and there is no mayhem whatsoever.
Instead this is mostly an ‘erotic’ yet somehow still boring tale of architecture, sculpture, gardens — and I love all three of these things and yet, god its boring. The illustrations are far and away the best thing about it. Here is one of the less boring descriptions of columns:
The reason that flutings were used for the temple of a goddess is that they represented the folds of feminine garments, while the capitals placed upon them with their hanging volutes indicated the braided hair of women and their ornaments. The Caryatids, which have a female head for the capital, were made for the temple of a rebellious people after their subjugation, because of their feminine inconstancy, whose perpetual memory was signified by columns thus constructed (49)
Thanks a lot.
I did like the sense of what the greatest possible imaginable luxury was of this time though, as well as menus for fine dining:
All the utensils or instruments at this supreme and splendid table were of fine gold, as was the round table in front of the Queen. Now a cordial confection was presented, which I think I am right in saying was a healthy compound made mostly of powdered unicorn’s horn, the two kinds of sandalwood, ground pearls in brandy set alight so as to dissolve them completely, manna, pine-nuts, rosewater, musk and powdered gold: a very precious mixture, weighed and pressed out in morsels with fine sugar and starch. We were given two servings of this, at a moderate interval and without drinking in between. It is a food for preventing every harmful fever and for dispelling all sorrowful fatigue.
After this, everything was taken away in an instant: the fragrant violets were scattered on the ground and the table was stripped. No sooner was this done than the table was covered once more with a sea-coloured cloth, and all the servants were wearing the same. Then, as before, they covered it with fragrant flowers of citrine, orange and lemon, and then presented in vases of beryl (and the Queen’s table was of the same stone, except for the forks, which were of gold) five cakes or fritters made from saffron-coloured dough with hot rosewater and sugar, cooled and finely sprinkled with the same musk-flavoured water and with powdered sugar. (108)
That is quite a meal, though it’s health-giving benefits seem debatable.
I did love the illustrations of classical ruins:
Indeed, the classical motif runs throughout stretching back to Egypt — there are any number of obelisks in here. That was curious.
These ‘hieroglyphics’ are awesome too, a medieval reimagining of the scripts of earlier time.
I also greatly loved these views into homes — bearing out just how different medieval homes were to ours, how much more bare with their furniture along the walls:
But with massive beds (also, love this perspective, and look at the ducks pulling the carriage! Awesome.):
And CATS. Or is that a dog?
And I did, of course I did, love the illustrations of gardens. It is splendid in illustrating medieval gardens.
Particularly this knotwork patterned garden with a list of what should be planted there: cyclamen, myrtle, mountain hulwort, wild thyme, laurentiana, tarragon, achillea, groundsel, idiosmo, terrambula, hazelwort, wild nard, golden-hair. I would like to make one.
I couldn’t recommend you read it, but a good skim through the pictures — excellent.
Colonna, Francesco (or maybe not) ( 2005) Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream, translated by Joscelyn Godwin. London: Thames & Hudson.
Lockdown is very busy. Work, so much work. I don’t even know how I am getting through it, I am so full of sadness and grief, the losses in my family seem to grow every day. I thought Boccacio deserved a little more attention. I find blogging so soothing somehow.
I’ll start with this awesome paragraph, though it comes at the end. Boccacio at his best.
I suppose it will also be said that some of the tales are too long, to which I can only reply that if you have better things to do, it would be foolish to read these tales, even if they were short. Although much time has elapsed from the day I started to write until this moment, in which I am nearing the end of my labours, it has not escaped by memory that I offered these exertions of mine to ladies with time on their hands, not to any others; and for those who read in order to pass the time, nothing can be too long if it serves the purpose for which it is intended (801).
Take that ladies. I think I’m going to use this as the epigraph to my next novel.
So you are probably aware of the set up, the plague has transformed Florence. Pampinea urges her six lovely companions met by chance in a church to flee Florence, go to an estate in the country she knows where they will be safe. They are discussing amongst themselves how this is to be done when Filomena starts in.
Pampinea’s arguments, ladies, are most convincing, but we should not follow her advice as hastily as you appear to wish. You must remember that we are all women, and every one of us is sufficiently adult to acknowledge that women, when left to themselves, are not the most rational of creatures, and that without the supervision of some man or other their capacity for getting things done is somewhat restricted. We are fickle, quarrelsome, suspicious, cowardly, and easily frightened; and hence I greatly fear that if we have none but ourselves to guide us, our little band will break up much more swiftly, and with far less credit to ourselves, than would otherwise be the case. We would be well advised to resolve this problem before we depart.’
Then Elissa said:
‘It is certainly true that man is the head of woman, and that without a man to guide us it rarely happens that any enterprise of ours is brought to a worthy conclusion. But where are we to find these men? As we all know, most of our own menfolk are dead, and those few that are still alive are fleeing in scattered little groups from that which we too are intent upon avoiding…’
You can see why I might be somewhat sceptical of claims that Boccaccio is some kind of proto-feminist (made by this translator G.H. McWilliam, with whom I disagree to no small degree, but more of that later).
Luckily three young men join them in the church, and make this country retreat possible. But only with the help of their three man-servants, of course. Three maids. Not everything has broken down you see. Some still while away the time in music, dancing, napping, telling stories while others do the dirty work — if only they had been able to tell a story or two. We only hear from them once, a fight on the 6th day between Licisca and Tidaro, where she argues that women are never virgins at marriage, as it is untrue that ‘young girls are foolish enough to squander their opportunities whilst they are waiting for their fathers and brothers to marry them off…‘ (445). Ladies, virginity is not all its cracked up to be according to Boccaccio, even though your father/husband/brother/man-you-despise-but-who-really-loves-you are all well within their rights to kill you dead for bestowing it where you please. Do not worry about that at all.
I still enjoyed this book. Let that be said.
It almost feels a guilty pleasure, though, but without quite enough pleasure for that. Along with more than a few good stories, Boccaccio provides a string of tales to prove that men’s love for women should always be rewarded, that rape ends happily and can be quite enjoyable, that to the victor belong the spoils. Yet he also celebrates generosity, loyalty (sometimes), wit, intelligence, quick thinking and sexual desire in women. It is what redeems some of this, but does this a proto feminist make? Unlikely methinks.
It is sobering, too, to reflect on what I would have made of a world where the clothes on your back, the wealth in your pocket, the horse beneath you and the food in your stomach were all predicated on pleasing a patron. Most sobering. At some point I would have said f*&^ off and had to go live in a hovel. If I didn’t start and end there that is.
But I shall leave aside such thoughts as they would have applied to men only anyway, as women could be whores or marry well and little in between. Married at 15, you had little chance to shape your life and even in a hovel it seems to me I would have spent much time over the age of 12 fending off attackers. Widows though…widows seemed to have it the best. I think I would have enjoyed being a widow if I’d had a little money scraped together. I think marrying an old rich man close to death seems to be absolutely the best you could possibly do.
Anyway. Ten days, ten stories a day. Most are themed. Each ends with a poem sung to the company — these did not touch me as the stories did, I felt all the great distance of time staring at these little caring for their overdone sentimentality.
There is running throughout a constant anti-clerical theme that can be enjoyed as misogyny cannot:
The story I propose to relate, concerning the manner in which a sanctimonious friar was well and truly hoodwinked by a pretty woman, should prove all the more agreeable to a lay audience inasmuch as the priesthood consists for the most part of extremely stupid men, inscrutable in their ways, who consider themselves in all respects more worthy and knowledgeable than other people, whereas they are decidedly inferior. They resemble pigs, in fact… (205)
hard on clergy really, with so many men having only slightly more options than women in this medieval set up. Had I been a man without the great career of widow to aim for, I should have had to be in the clergy — books, wine, housing, abstinence non-essential.
Of course, Boccaccio also saves much spleen for Venetians:
as a last resort he moved to Venice, where the scum of the earth can always find a welcome. (303)
Though Rome gets a bit of a mention as well:
Not long ago, in the city of Rome — which was once the head and is now the rump of the civilized world… (385)
One of the most infuriating stories is told by Filomena — she’s pretty awful. I’m going to ruin this story but it is well deserved. A man is in love with a woman. She refuses him. Perfectly reasonable. He travels to a remote bit of forest and sees the ghost of a beautiful and naked woman running through the briars, chased by mastiffs nipping at her heels and eventually catching her and ripping her flesh. The naked woman’s sin? Refusing to sleep with this knight who loved her, who chased her, who committed suicide when she refused him and then she gloated. And then she died. And so this is her punishment, to run naked through thorns, to be attacked by dogs, to have her heart cut out by this knight who loved her — loved her? — and then he throws it to his dogs. And then she is resurrected to do it all again. The same time every day. The first man after watching all this and hearing the story brings his own love and a crowd of others to a dinner on the very spot, she sees it all and can refuse him no more.
…from that day forth the ladies of Ravenna became much more tractable to men’s pleasures than they had ever been in the past. (425)
I know I’m not selling this well, but as a window to a world it is brilliant. The 10th story on the 5th day that laughs at a husband and wife falling in love with the same man and the three heading off into the sunset — this is borrowed from a Roman story to be sure, but still, quite a surprise!
There is also this spoken there, from an old woman acting as a go between for the wife and the young handsome thing she hopes to have an affair with:
‘You must help yourself to whatever you can grab in this world, especially if you’re a woman. It’s far more important for women than for men to make the most of their opportunities, because when we’re old, as you can see for yourself, neither our husbands nor any other man can bear the sight of us, and they bundle us off into the kitchen to tell stories to the cat, and count the pots and pans. And what’s worse, they make up rhymes about us, such as “when she’s twenty give her plenty. When she’s a gammer, give her the hammer,” and a lot of other sayings in the same strain (435).
There’s plenty of the belief that our physical appearance, and any delicacy, beauty, intelligence, wit, all come from noble blood (lol). I suppose the belief in a divine order that we are born into as God wills was really a thing.
Fair ladies [says Pampinea], I cannot myself decide whether Nature is more at fault in furnishing a noble spirit with an inferior body, or Fortune in allotting an inferior calling to a body endowed with a noble spirit, as happened in the case of Cisti, our fellow citizen…This Cisti was a man of exceedingly lofty spirit, and yet Fortune made him a baker. (448)
There are sentences you will almost never find in stories of today, but Cisti gets to be a hero. There are a few stories of commoners. I particularly like this sentence:
‘Go now, with my blessing, and come back soon. And if you should happen to meet Lapuccio or Naldino, don’t forget to ask them to bring me those leather thongs for my flails’ (556).
There is a horrible, terrible vengeful story — eighth day, seventh story, Pampinea. It’s hard to keep track of who tells what as you read, but going back over this Pampinea is possibly the most misogynist of the lot. This is certainly the worst story, where a scholar is humiliated by the woman he wants to make his mistress and so tricks her into almost dying atop a tower. According to notes, this is thought by many commentators to be in part a self portrait, and supported by his later work Corbaccio, described here as ‘possibly the most violent anti-feminist diatribe in medieval literature‘ (854). Yowza, I bet that takes some doing. Leaving that aside for a moment, however, there is this amazing quote that I would like to lift completely clear from this context if I may, and just enjoy on its own merit:
Ah, what a poor misguided wretch she must have been, dear ladies, to suppose that she could get the better of a scholar!’ (588)
You get the feeling not everyone likes Emilia. Lauretta tells her as she gives her the crown:
‘I know not, madam, whether you will make an agreeable queen, but we shall certainly have a fair one.’ (644)
This, this was a bit poignant.
They were all wreathed in fronds of oak, and their hands were full of fragrant herbs or flowers, so that if anyone had encountered them, he would only have been able to say: ‘Either these people will not be vanquished by death, or they will welcome it with joy’. (648)
This can most certainly be read for enjoyment, a little at a time. I did very much love the informative footnotes, with the occasional footnote quite a bit lol. Like this one:
Dioneo’s suggestion of the possible reason for the ladies’ reluctance to discuss the topic he has prescribed, anticipating Freud, reflects B.’s intuitive understanding of the human psyche. (845, note 1)
He’s referring to the topic of tricks women play on their husbands. Honestly, what?
The next one (p 846 note 1) is more interesting, about the Italian fantisima which he translates as werewolf, ‘described by B.’s contemporary, Jacopo Passavanti, as ‘an animal resembling a satyr, or cat monkey (CAT MONKEY!), which goes around at night causing distress to people‘. Sadly, so sadly, there is no real cat monkey (nor even werewolf) in this story.
The last little bit of trivia is that a chamber pot was ‘The distinctive sign for a doctor’s surgery, urine analysis being the most commonly used method of diagnosing ailments‘ (856).
Anyway, well worth a read, even in (or especially in) a time of pandemic.
Boccaccio, Giovanni ( 1995) The Decameron. 2nd edition translated G.H. McWilliam, London: Penguin.
In the face of its onrush, all the wisdom and ingenuity of man were unavailing…numerous instructions were issued for safeguarding the people’s health, but all to no avail. (4)
Boccaccio describes the Black plague then, the swellings in the groin or armpit, the spread of swelling, the blotches and bruises. From the time of the first sign of swelling you knew you would die.
I can’t imagine it. All that we know now of science and medicine and so this bubble we find ourselves in and the ambulances to take people away and the clean white antiseptic of hospitals and experts and antibiotics and you can still die and it is still terrifying…but not like then.
Against these maladies, it seemed that all the advice of physicians and all the power of medicine were profitless and unavailing (5)
But what made this pestilence even more severe was that wherever those suffering from it mixed with people who were all unaffected, it would rush upon those with the speed of a fire racing through dry or oily substances…
It did not just do so through direct touch, but through clothes and other objects handled by others. Some became more sober and abstemious and god-fearing, others hedonistic, satisfying all cravings. Laws broke down. Servants died or fled, breaking down some of the distinctions between people, women were no longer able to gather and mourn the dead. The bodies were left lying outside of the door of the home for collection to be buried in mass graves.
…it is reliably thought that over a hundred thousand human lives were extinguished within the walls of the city of Florence…Yet before this lethal catastrophe fell upon the city, it is doubtful whether anyone would have guessed it contained so many inhabitants.
Ah, how great a number of splendid palaces, fine houses, and noble dwellings, once filled with retainers, with lords and with ladies, were left bereft of all who had lived there… (13)
Thus the circumstances that lead seven young ladies to gather at a church. Pampinea says:
Here we linger for no other purpose, or so it seems to me, than to count the number of corpses being taken to burial, or to hear whether the friars of the church, very few of whom are left, chant and their offices at the appropriate hours, or to exhibit the quality and quantity of our sorrows, by means of the clothes we are wearing, to all those whom we meet in this place. And if we go outside, we shall see the dead and the sick being carried hither and thither, or we shall see people, once condemned to exile by the courts for their misdeeds, careering wildly about the streets in open defiance of the law, well knowing that those appointed to enforce it are either dead or dying; or else we shall find ourselves at the mercy of the scum of our city who, having scented our blood, call themselves sextons and go prancing and bustling all over the place, singing bawdy songs that add insult to our injuries. Moreover, all we ever hear is “So-and-so’s dead” and “So-and-so’s dying”; and if there were anyone left to mourn, the whole place would be filled with sounds of weeping and wailing.
And if we return to our homes, what happens? I know not whether your own experience is similar to mine, but my house was once full of servants, and now that there is no one left apart from my maid and myself, I am filled with foreboding and feel as if every hair of my head is standing on end. Wherever I go in the house, wherever I pause to rest, I seem to be haunted by the shades of the departed, whose faces no longer appear as I remember them but with strange and horribly twisted expressions that frighten me out of my senses. (13-14)
Our coronavirus is not quite like this. It is strange to know that it is all around us, to watch the numbers of the dead climb, to mourn. To hear accounts of places like New York where a friend of mine describes constant sirens, fear, a life more at risk for Asian features as attacks spread. To see the strange attacks here in the UK on G5 masts, this mad conspiracy theory but yet its components not mad at all in marking out the collusion of government and industry for profit without caring about human cost. I can’t look too hard at what is happening around us to be honest.
We have been in a bubble, my partner and I, still allowed to go outside though as of yesterday lockdown extended three more weeks. It will be more, how could it not be more?
And today my grief sits hot and unbearable in my chest, it is not the covid but the cancer, taking my aunt and there is nothing to do. No way to go. Impossible to travel to be present to say goodbye to grieve with family. I am not the first by any stretch to note the horror of this epidemic is the way it keeps us apart from one another, though if we are lucky we can drive by family homes, speak to them from the drive, press our hands against their windows. But not when they are an ocean away.
To travel such distance, always a privilege. It requires money or credit cards, the right to travel with a legal status and passport that permit exit, entrance, return. This should belong to all of us. The cost of its absence immeasurable.
I take refuge, as my family always does, in some level of dark humour. This is from the introduction to the Decameron:
…the sombre and frightening prelude which medieval rhetoricians regarded as an essential component of the genre of comedy to which the Decameron, like Dante’s great poem, was intended to belong. Both works, in fact, despite their obvious differences in form and subject-matter, respect the definition of comedy formulated for instance by Uguccione da Pisa in his Derivationes: ‘a principio horribilis et fetidus, in fine prosperis desiderablis et gratus’ (foul and horrible at the beginning, in the end felicitous, desirable and pleasing’). (xlii)
You don’t even need a translation for that. I rather love this idea of comedy, always have, but it seems even more necessary now. It makes me think of Stewart Lee, though he rarely gets around to the felicitous, desirable and pleasing. I love him for it.
It is visible for miles, perched precipitous, high on its mountain above fields golden with sunflowers. It is an incredible absurd sciencefictional thing. A flying saucer tethered to a grounding skysoaring shard of concrete.
It sits on earth of great significance, impossible beauty. Site of the last battle of rebel Hadzhi Dimitâr against the Ottomans. He received a fatal wound here, and it was for many years known by his name.
Between 1877 and 1878 a number of battles were fought here for control of Shipka pass, Russian General Gourko facing down the Ottomans, you look down on the monument itself from here.
Then on 2nd of August, 1891 the 1st Bulgarian Socialist Congress was held here under cover of celebrations of the deeds of Hadzhi Dimitâr. There is a monument to Dimitâr Blagoev at the turn off for the monument.
Some Nazis were killed here as well in 1944, and three partisans lost their lives in the ambush (though Bulgaria’s government under Tsar Boris III officially supported the Nazis until 1944). This massive 1981 installation was designed by architect Georgi Stoilov, as Richard F. Morton writes:
He lists both the Roman Pantheon and the sci-fi films of the 1950s amongst his inspirations for Buzludzha.
It was meant to symbolise all of this history as a museum and meeting space, but after decades of varying types and degrees of Stalinist rule, the fact that it was built with not-always-so-voluntary labour and subscriptions…it is not a thing I can love wholeheartedly. After it was abandoned in 1989 looters (rumored to include government officials) stripped what they could like the copper from the ceilings, smashed the red star thinking the glass to be rubies, pulled down concrete letters to leave them scattered across the grass.
All this and also the villain’s lair in Mechanic 2.
What it looks like today:
What it looked like once (this is borrowed from the best site by far about the monument, with an extensive history and many more photos, especially of the inside which you are no longer allowed to risk life and limb to see. Have a look!):
Beneath it sit this amazing sculpture of unity, two hands holding torches.
After arriving in Veliko Tarnovo, I looked at the book I was reading and there they were again.
We had to get a special tour out here as we didn’t have a car, but well worth it and we enjoyed it immensely.
We were almost a week in Sofia before heading towards Mount Vitosha for hiking…it had been so hot, and then stormy. We took the metro to Vitosha station then the 64 bus. Public transport here is a bit terrifying until you figure it out, this helped immensely unlike many another site, especially official ones.
It’s a short walk to Boyana Church, which was amazing. From the UNESCO site:
Located on the outskirts of Sofia, Boyana Church consists of three buildings. The eastern church was built in the 10th century, then enlarged at the beginning of the 13th century by Sebastocrator Kaloyan, who ordered a second two storey building to be erected next to it.
A schematic drawing of the church from the church website:
The frescoes in this second church, painted in 1259, make it one of the most important collections of medieval paintings. The ensemble is completed by a third church, built at the beginning of the 19th century. This site is one of the most complete and perfectly preserved monuments of east European medieval art.
The frescoes are amazing. We were lucky enough to be the only ones there for a short time — having walked from the bus there was no press of people, no time limit. The caretaker gave us some beautiful stories behind the depictions. Photos are not allowed and are in short supply on the internet, my favourite there is not be found. A poet, whose eyes watch you wherever you are in the church. They are vivid and very beautiful, what photos do exist do not come anywhere close to capturing them. But I recognised the crowns of these immediately that we had seen the day before at the National Museum of History where they have been copied and sit on display. This is Tsar Constantine Asen Tikh and Tsaritsa Irina:
From there we walked up the hill to find the trail up to Boyana waterfall. We weren’t quite prepared for an hour and a 45 minutes or so of steep uphill climb with little break to get there, the guide book might have been a little more explicit. But the woods were beautiful, the falls lovely, and we did have some cheese and wine to work off.
Coming back down we encountered these amazing creatures — Dryocopus martius — their calls are quite eerie in an almost silent forest. Apparently if you can imitate them they will come find you. If only we had known, we chased them down switchbacks through the trees but they caught on to our game soon enough.
The mountain now, and some of its wonders:
We were up and back in around two and a half hours, then walked down the hill to Cinecitta Osteria Italiana, who let us in despite being a little more dishevelled than the other guests and having no reservation. A delicious meal. Glorious day.
I’ve been wanting to read Oliver Rackham‘s History of the Countryside since my smallholding adventures. Now comes springtime, my upcoming birthday, finally a day to breathe after possibly the most punishing period of my working life…
I miss my blog so much.
Reading Rackham I am filled with such a glorious and enormous weight of knowledge, centuries of human activity intertwined with these myriad ecologies of soil, water, rock, flora, fauna. The ability (still untested of course) to better read a thousand years or more in the landscape. This is mostly just a collection of delightful facts which are rather better interwoven in the book. But this is much shorter.
First, this delightful thought.
Insights may also come at random from travels made, or documents read, for some quite different purpose. I went to Texas to discuss Cretan archaeology, and what I saw made me revise my views on hedges.
Another — the argument for history’s continuity over brutal violent change, the roller coaster of civilization and darkness we were once taught:
Many recent excavations reveal a gradual changeover with little apparent effect on the landscape; sometimes, as at Rivenhall (Essex), it is not easy to tell at what point the Roman Britons turned into Anglo-Saxons. The ecological evidence strongly favours continuity. When the curtain is raised by Anglo-Saxon documents, much of what we now regard as the ‘classic’ English landscape was already there, had already acquired its regional differences, and as far as we can tell was not new. It increasingly seems likely that, at least since the Iron Age, every inch of the British Isles has either belonged to somebody or has been expressly set aside for communal use. Not just main roads but wide areas of fields and lanes are Roman (or earlier) antiquities, and survived the Dark Ages almost intact. (xiv)
He divides the lowland English & Welsh landscape into Ancient Countryside and Planned Countryside, with various uplands (where I live now) — I find this transforms how I see countryside and England itself. So it’s not just a string of delightful facts after all.
Hamlets & small towns
Ancient isolated farms
Hedges mainly mixed, not straight
Roads many, not straight, often sunken
Many public footpaths
Woods many, often small
Pollard trees, if present, away from habitation
Many antiquities of all periods
Open field either absent or of modest extent and abolished before c 1700
Most hedges ancient
Many though often small woods
Non-woodland trees oak, ash, alder, birch
18th & 19th C isolated farms
Hedges mainly hawthorne, straight
Roads few, straight, on surface
Woods absent or few & large
Pollard trees (except riverside willows) absent or only in villages
Antiquities few, usually prehistoric
Strong tradition of open-field beginning early and last into Enclosure Act period
Most hedges modern
Woods absent or few & large
Heaths rare; little bracken or broom
Non-woodland thorns and elders
I quite love these, simple, quite obvious ways of reading the landscape and of course they explain so much. The ridge and furrow I loved — not as old as I thought, went tearing through ancient landscapes and over burrows and standing stones…maybe I don’t love them quite as much. I can’t decide.
He challenges accepted views of deforestation with two quotations, one from John Evelyn talking about the ways that the new voracious Glass and Iron-works have destroyed the woods and another from Defoe about the inexhaustible woods all around. He writes
Unfortunately many historians confine themselves to the written word or, worse still, to the literary world; they are reluctant to put on their boots and see what the land itself, and the things that grow on it, have to say. (6)
It turns out that most of the iron- and glass-works managed for hundreds of years on coppiced woods and that in truth, there was no great loss of woods at this time. The woods that were lost were lost primarily to agriculture. This is a constant theme, that it is all well and good to write histories of what people thought about the landscape, but ‘let us not confuse this with the history of what people did with the landscape, still less with the history of the landscape itself or of what the landscape did with people‘. (23)
He describes the Anglo-Saxon charters, the perambulations used to delineate the boundaries — they are amazing. He gives this example:
First up from the Thames along the merfleot [=boundary creek]; to the pollard stump; so to Bulung fen; from the fen along the old ditch to Cowford; from Cowford up along teobern [the river Tyburn] to the wide army-road; from the army-road to the old post-built St Andrew’s church; so into London fen; along the fen south to the Thames to mid-stream; along the upstream by land & shore back to the merfleot. (from the year 959)
The wide-army road is High Holborn, the fen around Fleet Street. These details give me such happiness, seeing old lines of water and earth beneath the city I know so well.
He talks of the rural maps of the 1860s and 70s, ‘which attempt to record every hedgerow tree and the details of every building…the zenith of rural mapmaking in Britain and perhaps in the world‘ (19). Notes the various traditions of preserving the boundaries, like Great Gransden where they dug a hole in a certain spot and held the Vicar’s head in it. There is so much to love about England.
There is also a real sense of how much has been lost by the rise of mass agriculture of the 1950s and 60s — he writes of four kinds of loss.
There is the loss of beauty, especially that exquisite beauty of the small and complex and unexpected, of frog-orchids or sundews or dragonflies. The loss of freedom [of highways, movement across the landscape]…The loss of historic vegetation and wildlife…the loss of meaning. The landscape is a record of our roots and the growth of civilization. Each individual historic wood, heath, etc. is uniquely different from every other, and each has something to tell us. (26)
All due to big agriculture, ‘the makers of chemicals, fertilizers and machinery‘. I sometimes worry about the touches of nostalgia to be found here, but he’s not wrong about this. He’s also quite entertainingly curmudgeonly. Like his footnote complaint about the historical accuracy of producers of historical films: ‘they do not allow Charles I to fly in a plane, but they do let him ride among Corsican pine plantations or Frisian cattle!‘ (31)
There is a list of extinct animals — the aurochs, sad they are gone, and wolves. Even sadder. But this is fascinating:
In Anglo-Saxon times, unpersons (!) and men on the run were declares wulvesheafod (wolves-head) and if caught ended on a wolves-head tree. (34)
Then there is this partial list of what Henry III had for his Christmas dinner — him wot finished off the last of the wild swine in England (his demands for immense amounts of all kinds of things we no longer eat recur throughout the book, though at times contrasted with similar if not such extensive demands of lesser gentry)–200 wild swine from Dean and 100 from Pickering–he ordered the last remaining wild swine, found in the forest of Dean, killed for a friend (what a friend!) in 1260.
The polecat was also known as the foulmart. Amazing. Except that it is not actually a cat, though it is cute and endangered.
There is also the remarkable information about rabbits, but I might do a separate post about them. I had no idea rabbits were so interesting.
Another fabulous footnote (though you know I disagree utterly):
The horse-chesnut, Aesculus hippocastanum, is quite unrelated (and poisonous) introduced in the sixteenth-century from Albania. It is still unmistakenly exotic and has not become wild. It is a sad example of a once glamorous species, associated with oriental romance and spectacle, being deprived of its meaning through being made the universal tree of bus-stations. (54)
God I know so much about woodland now. Also forests, which often had no trees at all, only deer. I know about coppicing, pollarding and all things brilliant about managing woods as a renewable resource. This chart, ah this chart:
The first evidence (he says in the world but I am not holding my breath) for woodsmanship — those amazing early Neolithic causeways across the Somerset levels, oak structures with underwood poles of ash, lime, elm, oak and alder. The causeways…my heart beats faster, wooden walkways across the fens now buried but how I wish I could have seen them.
Some lovely stuff about the local vernacular of building, the differing fashions not always dependent on local materials — thus Cambridge built primarily in wood (apart from the colleges) despite the presence of easily worked stone. He writes
‘The only generality is that, where a region has not much timber building, it will be urban…Timber was an architectural medium: a ‘wealth of exposed beams’ looked picturesque and expressed prestige; it was not necessary to hold up the structure’. (86)
And was of course plastered over again as fashion changed. He continues:
Most medieval buildings are made from large numbers of small oaks; ever timber, large or small, is made from the smallest tree that will serve the purpose. The carpenter chose trees of the sizes required and squared them up, usually leaving the corners rounded (‘waney’). Oaks, then as now, were crooked and carpenters made ingenious use of the irregular shapes into which they grow. This was from choice: carpenters could saw big oaks lengthwise into several beams when they had to….(86)
Again we return to errors of economic historians, who describe woods destroyed for fuel, particularly for the iron industry between 1550 and 1700. But it didn’t happen, they never touched timber trees only underwood, and drew this from their own woods managed over long periods of time. He even describes the ways that merchant ships were built of timber, but HM Navy preferred to scrounge from the wood-pastures. He writes ‘H.M.S. Victory, built 1759-65, is ingeniously put together from great numbers of the smallest, and therefore cheapest, practicable oaks (91).
The myth evolves from the big shift in rural society and economics — when wood became understood as primarily timber and not as energy. This shift, partly due to the rise of cheap coal, is is when the sustainable management and harvesting of woodlands shifted to purely timber production. And oh the damage that that has caused.
I hadn’t realised that most older woods will have earthworks along their boundaries, built to keep animals out and protect tender young shoots and leaves. These remain, though sometimes they have been overtaken by secondary wood expanding outwards and across the boundary. Things to look for I never knew to look for. And a splendid note: ‘(no Forest was complete without a resident hermit).’ (147)
We come to older ways of parceling out and working the land. Reaves…I had never heard of reaves, yet my love of Dartmoor is great.
Reaves tell a story of country planning on a gigantic scale: of an organization able to parcel out tens of square miles as it pleased, and which set its rules of geometry above the practicalities of dealing with gorges and bogs…(156)
They seem to have been in full use from the Bronze Age — and similar systems have been found elsewhere, including Nottinghamshire and Berkshire. Splendid.
This chart that shows how lynchets are created, some of them from the neolithic:
So after all the open fields, and the effect they had on the landscape aren’t quite as exciting as I once thought. Still, they do reflect a degree of collectivization of land and organisation of labour, which makes them really interesting. Rackham describes 7 cardinal features:
Divided into a multitude of strips, with each farmer’s strips distributed regularly or randomly throughout the field
These strips aggregated into furlongs and those into fields. All farmers grew the same crop in each furlong, each 3rd field left fallow
Animals of all farmers released to graze the stubble and the fallow field
farmers shared in labour of cultivating each others strips
Hedges few, and no enclosed circuits
Strips ploughed to form ridge-and-furrow
Regular meetings held to decide cultivation practices, fine dissidents
There is so much there to love.
Along with this diagram of how ridge and furrow are made:
Interestingly enough there’s no clear date for when it started. Some believed the Anglo-Saxons brought it with them, but there is apparently no evidence in Germany that it was in existence there earlier than in England. Some date it to after the Norman conquest. The largest concentration of them is at Uffington Scarp, and Rackham argues that attention to the Anglo-Saxon charters shows convincing evidence that the open-field systems existed at the time — and therefore this distinction between planned and ancient countryside already existed — through their descriptions though there is no specific reference to open-fields. He also notes that similar systems can be found in Scandinavian, Welsh and Gaelic cultures in the UK and French, Germanic, Slavonic and Greek cultures in Europe.
He writes ‘Open-field, with its rapid spread, has all the marks of a Dark Age invention.’ (178) I don’t know why, but wondering just how that happened gives me chills.
We go on to hedges. I love them. There is some evidence of the Roman management of hedges of hawthorne and occasionally they were given names in the Anglo-Saxon records (ealden hegestowe – old hedge-place). Lovely.
Not so lovely, the great enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries required so many plants it became a big business and initiated the founding of several nurseries. They mostly used hawthorne and only hawthorne for speed and cheapness, unlike earlier hedges planted with various trees and shrubs.
I love, of course, the knowledge that hedges can be dated fairly well by identifying the number of species of plant present there — from among a certain list of plants. Some have been identified as 1000 years old, with up to ten of these present. He gives a number of exceptions as well, so you always want your hedge to match clues from the surrounding countryside.
A wonderful chapter about individual trees, in farmyards, villages, woods. Trees with names. The splendid black poplar which I shall seek out. The long life of stag headed trees.
Another chapter on Elms — there are more elms than we have name for as they primarily reproduce through suckers but occasionally something new altogether is produced through seed. He writes:
Without the restraining influence of sex on evolutionary change, elms (like dandelions and brambles) have produced a multitude of different forms. The taxonomist, devising Latin names, cannot keep up with this process). (232)
I quite love that.
Highways — and not modern car-filled horrible highways, but the ways that people cross the land. He contrasts England with Greece and writes
The much more stable road system of Britain is partly the consequence of our climate and multitude of rivers, which require paths and roads to be structures and not mere routes; it also reflects English and Welsh, rather than Scottish or continental, attitudes to rights of way. The idea that ownership of land includes rights to keep the public off it and to be rude to well-behaved trespassers is partly due to the general increase in landowners rights in the last 200 years; but traces of this idea can be found in documents from earlier periods and in the landscape itself. (248)
Again, a fascinating mention of the wooden trackways across the Somerset levels, but not enough. A bit about Roman roads — like they weren’t all completely straight, just the ones the army was building. Though they are mostly straight, to be fair. I love the idea of traveling old roads.
A little about purprestures — or people building into roads. A little about the trenches of Roman roads and the trenches and open spaces built along medieval roads to stop the predations of highwaymen. All of these histories can be seen now in varying forms — primarily the alignment of current roads, fields and parish boundaries. The formation of heath, with its stripes and polygons, and of moors and grasslands.
The fact that moles were once called moldywarpes.
There is more documentation of villagers coming together to undertake the work of irrigating meadows — not as at home to water them primarily, but to carry fertilizer in the form of calcium leached from the springs. Curious. A whole section on ponds, dells and pits. I was losing steam a bit at this point, but when I next encounter such a thing I shall remember. Or know where to look. Like marshes, fens and the sea.
There is so much more of course, a splendid book.
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.