Last week, I came across an article that suggested that reading a book for a second time can offer mental health benefits. My first thought was, "Oh, this is great! I'm not crazy!" I said this because I've re-read certain books more than once a year--some since I was a child.(And with any luck I've benefited mentally in the process...) This got me thinking about why I read certain books again and again, and the impact that some of those books have had on me. Some offer the comfort--and delicious anticipation--of a well-trodden path (Pride and Prejudice, Anne of Green Gables, Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, and now, Harry Potter). Others offer the dream of a different world (The Time Quintent by Madeleine L'Engle, and now, The Hunger Games), or tugged at something in my being-- (For example, I can see now that Little Women and The Little House books directly contributed to my desire to be a teacher).Reflecting now, however, I think the book that may have had the biggest impact on me as a historian--and as a writer--was The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958), by Elizabeth George Speare. Set in late seventeenth-century New England, this Newberry winner tells the story of Kit, a hoity-toity miss from Barbadoes, who accidentally defies convention, ruffles the Puritan community, and comes to be accused--and tried--as a witch. Richly drawn characters, simple but elegant writing, and a delicately plotted narrative make this book, for me, a model for powerful storytelling.Even more importantly, sitting down with this book--even as an adult-- makes me feel like I am sitting down with a friend. I'm curious--what books comfort and inspire you? Are there books that you seek out, to re-read and enjoy again? What makes you want to read a book again? (I'll read your comments when I finish re-reading my book...)
Quick! What do these celebrities--Will Smith, Elizabeth Taylor, Tina Turner, Monica Potter, and Bradley Cooper--all have in common? Hint: It's something medieval....
Each bears the last name of a medieval/early modern occupation. (Smith and taylor/tailor are self-explanatory, but a turner operated a lathe, a cooper made barrels, and a potter, well, potted).
I was thinking about this--how many early modern guilds are still represented in surnames today--as I was doing research for my second novel, From the Charred Remains (2013).
I had come across the occupation of “cordwainer.” Cordwainer? I knew this was an occupation, like a tinker, or a wainwright (wheelmaker) or a hooper (another name for barrel-maker), but I have to admit, I never thought to look this one up.
The cordwainer crest
Any guesses?..... No?
Well, it turns out a “cordwainer” is a shoemaker.
The term originated in medieval Cordoba in Spain, a region controlled by Muslims who excelled, among other things, in the production of high-quality specially-tanned leather. (See the goats in the guild crest?)
cordwainers at work
The French referred to those who made shoes from this leather as cordonnier, which became “cordwainer” in England (you know, after that little Norman invasion of England in 1066).
According to the website for the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers--yes, the medieval guild still exists today as a charitable group!—the cordwainer must be distinguished from the cobbler. The cordwainer only worked with new leather, while the cobbler could only work with old. (Indeed, cobblers could get in a lot of trouble if they were found with new leather).
mmm...leatherless cobbler pie
And the more important question of all? What does any of this have to do with blueberry cobbler? (Only that early American settlers used to make pie from any foodstuffs on hand-- cobbling it together as a cobbler would piece together shoes...Maybe Will Smith likes blueberry cobbler too, I don't know.)
What do you think? Do you know of any surnames--celebrity or otherwise--that have an interesting history?
Chaucer--the man knew birds
I'll leave it to other writers to focus on the fascinating, but much contested, history of Valentine's Day.
They can sort out how the medieval Church may have appropriated the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia (already being held in mid February); decide whether Valentine, a third century Bishop, had indeed been beheaded for holding secret marriages; and debate whether as a saint, he truly restored a blind woman's sight. (And for goodness sake, will we ever agree whether Valentine really signed his final letter with these immortal words: 'From your Valentine?')
These questions are important--after all, an entire industry depends on these re-purposed, glossed-over events to thrive. But, for me, the history of Valentine's Day would be nothing without the birds and, of course, the buns.
some really smart birds
First, the birds.
I've seen repeated many times this story that medieval people believed that birds mated on February 14. It doesn't help that Chaucer seemed to confirm this belief in his fourteenth century Parliament of Fowls, "For this was on St. Valentine's Day, When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate."(Birds, apparently, were smarter than people. Despite all the calendar changes--from Julian to Gregorian--that confused ordinary people, birds could figure out when February 14 was).
caraway buns--the makers of romance?
So, of course, with birds, must come buns...
Logically, then, if you believed that birds mated on Valentine's Day, then it's only rational to eat as birds do. Thus, many people ate buns with caraway seeds on February 14 too, hoping to entice a mate. (Am I the only one imagining people sitting around with their pints of ale, taking turns pecking at buns on their own and other people's plates...?) So this year, why not forgo the chocolates, and bring on the seeds?! And here is a traditional caraway seed bun recipe, in case, like me, you've never made such a thing in your life. So long as you don't say "Romance is for the birds!" (Sorry, couldn't resist!) I'm curious, though, does anyone still eat these buns on Valentine's Day? And other than chocolate and candy, does anyone have any traditional Valentine's day food?
Anne Bonny, pirate, defying convention
Hearing all the talk about piracy recently makes me think of my own days as a pirate.
No, I was no Mary Read or Anne Bonny, two eighteenth-century women who disguised themselves as men in order to serve on a pirate ship. (But seriously, how cool were they? For several years they plundered and stole with the best of them...although of course they were publicly tried as pirates--and for defying conventions for women).
But in the 90s, I did pull a short stint aboard the Golden Hinde, the museum replica of Sir Francis Drake's ship that circumnavigated the globe, currently dry-docked in the Thames, near London Bridge.
Golden Hinde (with an "e"!) in London
During the week, I was a tour guide--ahem, costumed educator--for tourists and school groups, while on the weekends we ran pirate parties and living histories. We dressed in sixteenth-century sailor garb, which is not as glamorous as you might think.
(In fact, once when I was taking my 'tea break' outside the nearby ruins of Winchester palace, a tourist offered me half a sandwich. Yup, she thought I was homeless.)
Despite being a certified landlubber, I learned about ratlines, scurvy, gun drills and barber surgery (so gross, but so cool), swabbing the deck (much less cool) and a little tiny bit of nautical stuff, like turning the capstan, moving the yardarm, and of course some random pirate ditties. I was even hoisted once along the yardarm by the master rigger, a nauseating experience that gave me nightmares for some time.
I got to talk about weevils, "powder monkeys" (the boys who carried gun powder would sway with the listing ship, looking like monkeys) , and the origins of such phrases as "loose canons" (cannons had to be secured on gun deck), "batten down the hatches" (that one's literal still, right?), and "freeze the balls of a brass monkey." (The last not so naughty as you might think).
The best part? We all had to take turns on ship watch, sleeping in Francis Drake's own captain's cabin, while St. Paul's Cathedral gleamed across the Thames. Easily one of the most gorgeous views in London.
(The crew and I also spent a lot of time playing sardines among the barrels, and 'tippling down the hatch' but that's entirely another story.)
For me, it was a bit of a lark, something wonderful to support me while I worked in London's archives. And Bankside--where the Golden Hinde and Shakespeare's Globe are located--came to feature prominently in Monster at the Gate.
I always wondered, though, what it would have been like to have been a real pirate--to have run away from home; to have shunned tradition, convention and stereotypes.
Although maybe a few days living among rats, weevils, sickness, and 70 other unwashed bodies might have cured me of that romantic impulse. (Not to mention I think I'm a bit adverse to violence and plundering). But what do you think? Could it have been the pirate life for you?