Sunday, 30 June 2013

Cannibalism at Jamestown

(Studio EIS / Don Hurlbert)

In early May 2013, the news hit the wires that cannibalism had been confirmed at Jamestown. A skeleton of a fourteen-year-old girl had been unearthed. In August 2012, the girl's skull, lower jaw, and leg bone were found among those of a horse, dogs, and squirrels. With hacks and breaks that more resembled what someone would do when butchering livestock, the remains had the telltale signs of ax and knife cuts.

While the information is extraordinary, it really isn't as shocking of a find as the news authorities have led us to believe. Among the colonists, the winter during 1609-10 was regarded as the "Starving Time." George Percy, a prominent member of the original Jamestown settlers, wrote about men, women, and children eating horses, dogs, cats, rats, and mice. He also mentioned starving colonists digging up corpses. One man killed his pregnant wife, cut out the unborn child, salted her and ate her. For his crime, he was burned at the stake.

The Starving Time had been brought on by a combination of poor planning, in-group fighting, and dependence on England and the Native people for supplies. At the time, the colony had approximately 200 colonists. Another influx of colonists arrived later in 1609 (the exact date is unknown), which set off class wars. One of the ships, the one carrying the supplies, was lost at sea.

(Smithsonian Institution / Don Hurlbert)

John Smith was a commoner and refused to give up his leadership role. He sent groups both up and downriver before being mysteriously wounded and returning to England in October. When George Percy assumed command, he sent another group downriver to build a fort, which left approximately 120 colonists at Jamestown. By May 1610, only 60 colonists remained.

Not all of these people starved to death. Some were killed by the local Indians. The Paspahegh tribe was their nearest neighbor. The colonists had done much to make enemies of them--by stealing their land, food, etc. Is it really any wonder they would fill the colonists full of arrows when they used the latrines (which were unwisely built outside the fort)? Yet, "many" of the colonists ran off to join the Indians.

So yes, cannibalism did indeed exist during the Starving Time, but the press release sensationalized the first forensic evidence of an already known circumstance.

Kim Murphy

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Legend of Lorna Doone

Statue of Lorna Doone at Dulverton, Somerset
Lorna Doone by Richard Doddridge Blackmore was published in 1869, a romance set in and around the East Lyn Valley area of Exmoor. The story is so much of a part of the heritage of Devon and Somerset, there are those who insist that outlaws called Doone actually lived on Exmoor in the 17th Century long before Blackmore’s novel was known.

Exmoor and Dartmoor were remote and inaccessible spots in the 17th century, which provided effective hideouts for fugitives and outlaws. Set between Devon and Somerset, neither authority wished to take responsibility for the actions of the outlaws who lived there. Survival was as harsh as the penalties for highway robbery, cattle and sheep stealing etc necessary for a man to feed his family. Children raised there would grow up into half wild savages, mistrustful of anyone and thus hostile to strangers.

Blackmore's father, the Reverend John Blackmore, was the Curate in Charge. Following the death of his wife and sister-in-law from typhus, he accepted a curacy firstly in Culmstock in 1826 and then Ashford, Nr. Barnstaple in 1835. Richard’s Grandfather was Rector of Combe Martin and Oare, his uncle was Rector of Charles, a little village on the fringe of the Moor, and Richared often stayed with both of them so he probably heard stories of these 'tribes' from childhood.

In 1865, before he began to write Lorna Doone, Blackmore came to Lynmouth and stayed at the Rising Sun Inn, using it as a base of his research, and invented ‘Doone Valley’, which did not exist. However, since his death, the area around Lank Combe on the west bank of Badgworthy Water has, by common consent, been dubbed the Doone Valley, and is now unofficially marked on some maps.

John Ridd kills Carver Doone
R D Blackmore never claimed his story was based on historical fact, but he used elements of local stories. One village he was reputed to have spent a great deal of time in, was Chagford in Devon. Thus it would not be unreasonable to assume he heard the following tale of a tragic bride and used it as a plot device for Lorna Doone.

In 1641, a girl named Mary Whiddon of Chagford jilted her lover for another man. The rejected man brooded in a deep black sulk, his envy turning to a malicious hatred for his former love and her new swain. Each day he verbally and openly maligned Mary, until in the end the village’s sympathy turned to apathy.

On the 11th of October 1641, Mary planned to marry her new love. On that day, the bride made her way to St Michael’s, a small moorland church, where the villagers clapped and cheered her arrival. The ceremony proceeded without a hitch and the couple walked back down the aisle and onto the church steps.

Suddenly a shot rang out striking Mary, who crumpled in a heap on the steps, her white wedding dress stained with blood from a small hole over her heart. Her fiancé gathered her into his arms, but unlike Lorna Doone, Mary was dead. Everyone knew who had committed the murder, but legend does not say what happened to him, nor does his name or the name of her widowed husband survive.

Stories vary as to whether this happened at the altar or outside the church but the tradition is that any girl married from Whiddon House, as the Three Crowns used to be known, will meet Mary’s ghost. Mary was buried in the chancel of Chagford Church where the following epitaph is carved on a stone slab set into the floor that reads:

"Mary Whiddon, daughter of Oliver Whiddon, who died in 1641
Reader, would'st though know who here is laid,
Behold a matron, yet a maid
A modest look, a pious heart
A Mary for the better part
But dry thine eyes, why wilt thou weep
Such damselles doe not die, but sleep."
Newly-wed brides often lay a flower on Mary’s tomb after signing the register in St Michael’s Church.

Below is a link to one of the more detailed alternative history for the Doone Family, written in 1901 for the West Somerset Free Press. Ida M. Browne (Audrie Doon)  claimed to be a descendant of the Scottish Doones who settled on Exmoor in 1620. It has it’s detractors, but it’s an engaging story and worth reading

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Private Life of Peter the Great

Everywhere you go in St. Petersburg and Moscow you come across statues of Peter the Great, tsar of Russia, born in 1672 and died in 1725. He strides across the Russian landscape, which he shaped, dragging it out of a feudal society of petty fiefdoms and overlords towards the great empire of Catherine the Great.

Peter’s military and civil achievements are well recorded, so I thought I might devote this article to some of the lesser known aspects of Peter’s personal life.

Tall, handsome…a man’s man…is how history records Peter. He was reputedly 6’ 7” tall and indeed based on the boots kept in the Armoury in the Kremlin – they would come up to my waist!  

What the many statues and portraits fail to record about Peter is that he may well have been a sufferer of Marfan syndrome – a genetic disorder of the connective tissue. Sufferers of Marfan’s syndrome tend to be abnormally tall with long, slender feet and hands.  A wax effigy of Peter taken on his death bed is still in existence and using that as a model, a statue of Peter the Great as he may well have actually looked has been made and sits in the centre of the Peter and Paul fortress in St. Petersburgh. The long limbs, big body and tiny pin head, all typical of Marfan, is not how we generally envisage this great Tsar of Russia.
The "real" Peter

A sufferer of Marfan syndrome can experience a range of medical problems – skeleton, eyes, cardio pulmonary. Peter the Great suffered ill health all his life, dying at the age of 52 from a gangrenous bladder (OUCH!). Of course legendary stories pursued him to his end and it is said his bladder problems were exacerbated by his efforts to rescue drowning sailors from a shipwreck. There is no historical basis to that particular story. A quirky sense of humour also seems to be present in many Marfan sufferers and scattered through the gardens of Peterhof are “little surprises” (as my guide described them) – garden benches and paths that suddenly squirt water at unsuspecting strollers.

Sit on this pleasant bench in Peterhof at your peril!

Peter came to the throne in what I would call unusual circumstances, but given Russian history, there is probably nothing unusual about it. At the age of 10 he was declared joint Tsar with his older half brother, Ivan with their sister Sophia Alekseyevna as regent. In the Armoury in the Kremlin the joint throne of the two young Tsars can still be seen. Behind the seat there is a box where Sophia would sit and feed the young Tsar the responses that were required. Ivan was known to be frail in both mind and body and the wit and intelligence of some of his responses astonished the courtiers and ambassadors.

The situation suited the young Peter who used his time in learning shipbuilding and warfare but at the age of 17 he had tired of Sophia’s dominance and intrigues and learning of a plot by her to have him overthrown and herself declared Tsarina, he escaped and gathered a force of his own adherants around him.  Sophia was arrested and as was the fate of many royal women who crossed a Tsar, she was sent to a convent where she died 6 years later. Peter continued to rule with Ivan until Ivan’s death in 1696.

In 1689 Peter married Eudoxia Lopukhina, a marriage arranged by his mother to strengthen ties with the powerful boyars. She gave birth to the Tsaravich Alexei but her other children did not survive infancy.  (Alexei was to die under torture, accused of conspiring against his father).  The marriage was a dismal failure and in 1696 Eudoxia (you guessed it!) was sent to a convent.  She became caught up with the conspiracies of her son and her imprisonment was hardened. Only on the ascent of her grandson Peter II, did she return to Moscow and established a court of her own, dying in 1731.

Anna Mons
Peter abandoned Eudoxia for the daughter of a Dutch wine merchant, Anna Mons.  Their relationship lasted twelve years, during which time he showered her with presents.  When he lost interest in her she became engaged to the Prussian ambassador Keyserling. Engraged, Peter had the pair imprisoned but eventually relented and allowed them to marry.

Catherine I of Russia
The great love of Peter’s life was Marta Helena Skowrońska, later to become Catherine I. Catherine began life as  the daughter of Polish peasants (her humble origins were later deemed a State secret). At the age of 17 she married a Swedish dragoon and was in Marienberg when it was captured by the Russians in 1702. After a mere 8 days of marriage, her husband withdrew with the rest of the Swedish troops and she never saw him again. Said to be a great beauty, she worked as a maid in the household of Prince Alexander Menshikov, favourite of Peter the Great, and it is there that the Tsar first laid eyes on her. Within days she became his mistress and in 1705 converted to Orthodoxy becoming  In 1705, Catherine Alexeyevna (Yekaterina Alexeyvna). They married secretly and she bore him 12 children. Only two daughters survived into adulthood – Anna who died in 1728 and her sister Elizabeth who succeeded her mother as Elizabeth I of Russia.  

Coronation dress of Catherine I

He adored her and she was said to be a woman of great good humour. As can be seen from her coronation dress which survives in the Armoury in the Kremlin,  although a great beauty in her youth, in adulthood and after bearing 12 children, she was inclined to stoutness.  Catherine herself succeeded Peter (who had named no successor), becoming Catherine I of Russia and the first woman to rule Imperial Russia, paving the way for three formidable women rulers to come - Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine II.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Guest Post - Suspect Women by J G Harlond

The Witches by Frans Francken II (1581 – 6 May 1642)

If my great-grandmother had lived in the 17th Century there’s a good chance she would have been named a ‘wise woman’. Great-grandmother Margaret was ‘fey’: she knew things. Take for instance the time she and her husband, who was a forester, took a few precious days holiday in a remote area of the Mountains of Mourne. During the night, Margaret woke with a start saying she must get to a poor woman who was giving birth. She dressed, hurried out into the rural black night and somehow located a lonely croft, where a woman she had never met was in labour – alone. Margaret, who had a large family of her own, delivered the child safely, and the family talked about it ever after. There were other incidents, but this on its own would have named her as ‘suspect’. How did she know? And how is it that I can answer questions about events I know nothing of or people I have never met? Actually I haven’t used a hand-pendulum for a very long time, it makes me too nervous. But it does explain my rather empathic interest in women accused of witchcraft, and why, when I was an English teacher, I tried to get adolescents to seriously consider Shakespeare’s use of the witches in Macbeth.

Let’s take these famous three – or four, if you count the doubtful inclusion of Hecate – as a starting point. Popular history tells us that in the early 17th Century Shakespeare needed to curry favour with King James, who had written a tract on witches in 1597, Demonologie. Knowing this, and apparently in an effort to emphasise James’ right to the English throne, Shakespeare opens his play on the wickedness of those who usurp a legitimate monarch with this famous scene:

Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

Why, I used to ask, are the women on the heath; what are they talking about; and who is Greymalkin? Well, I think they are on the heath because they had no place in the village. They had no home other than a remote hovel, and no means of feeding themselves except by gathering and begging. They were on the heath, well away from any local hamlet or  cultivated land, gathering berries to eat, bracken to burn . . . who knows, but they were there for a practical reason. These women are not welcome in villages because they make the inhabitants feel guilty (about not helping or housing them), and because they are accused by these same villagers as being the cause of anything from a bad harvest, to dry cows, to bringing about the death of an innocent child. 

Book Cover circa 1624
The three witches here speak in riddles and call to their cats or ‘familiars’. Lonely people talk to their animals; people who live alone talk to themselves. Women who are close friends or family often chat together in a manner that makes little sense to outsiders, and laugh in unison at things other people can’t see, or don’t find amusing. These women on the blasted heath are quite easy to explain: they are social outcasts, misfits, ‘other’. They are too ugly to have found a marriage partner; widowed and childless so they have no home or income; or mentally and/or physically infirm so local villagers fear them. They know each other well and offer mutual support in a friendless environment, and chatter to each other in riddles.
Here is Polanski’s version of the witches in the first scene of his 1971 Macbeth.

There’s an old crone in black, a childless woman in late middle age, and an unmarried wench who’s mentally unstable. Polanski’s witch scenes are somewhat extreme, but I think he probably comes as close to identifying who these women really were as the script permits.

I also used to ask my students to think about how poor, aging single women and elderly or infirm men survived before workhouses or social welfare; to consider how they kept themselves alive. Then I’d ask why so many of those accused of witchcraft were women. To us it may seem obvious, but to sixteen-year-olds in the healthy, wealthy western world it’s an eye-opener. Keith Thomas, in his book Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) says;

it is necessary to bear in mind that judicial records reveal two essential facts about accused witches: they were poor and they were usually women. (…) James I estimated the ratio of female witches to male at twenty to one. (…) Contemporary writers also agreed that witches came from the lowest ranks of society.

Lonely, elderly, infirm, malnourished women were easy to blame and they had no way to retaliate. People couldn’t or wouldn’t support them, and so consciously or subconsciously local communities wanted rid of them. Keith Thomas points out that witch trials during the 17th Century “included people from each social strata, but those condemned were overwhelmingly from the bottom of the social hierarchy”.

This leads me back to who was considered ‘suspect’. Apart from the reasons outlined above, I think society feared them primarily for their solitary ways. Any woman without a man - father, husband, son or brother - was suspect. A woman without a home or anyone to speak for her was suspect. Here’s Crook-back Aggie from my novel The Chosen Man, she is agonising over how to disobey her employer who

had as good as promised to protect her if – when – anyone accused her. Lady Marjorie understood: a woman as deformed as Aggie was always at risk.
If she hadn’t got a proper home and she had to sleep in the woods and beg a bite of food, people would lay all the crimes they could name on her. And prove them too. It’d take just one girl to see her picking berries or herbs, just one girl who’d lost her beau, or one woman who’d miscarried; one woman who’d be expecting and see Aggie’s crooked back and know her own child would be deformed – which was what had happened to her own mother – she’d be tried for a witch and burnt on the same day...

Crook-back Aggie, like Deborah Swift’s fictional wise woman Margaret Poulter, knows about herbs and medicinal plants. She also knows that if she loses her job this skill will be her downfall. As Keith Thomas says, “In a society more backward technologically than ours the immediate attraction of the belief in witchcraft is not difficult to understand. It served as a means of accounting for the otherwise inexplicable misfortunes of daily life”.

The adjective ‘inexplicable’ here is the key to perhaps all the cruelty and malevolence involved in witch trials. This is what led to Joan of Arc’s trial; her inability to explain her success as a charismatic leader in terms that grown men, soldiers and ecclesiastics (on the losing side) could understand. What people do not understand they fear.

However, centuries later, that which to many of us is inexplicable or uncertain is keeping fortune-tellers in business. I live in Spain, where every daily newspaper has at least one page of advertisements by women (and a few rather odd-looking men) offering their so-called skills with tarot cards or crystal balls. In this current period of severe unemployment, bad harvests and economic uncertainty fortune-tellers are doing a thriving business here. I do not understand the words of economists, I cannot grasp GDP or what is happening in banks, but if I wanted to I could seek comfort from the words of one of these wise women. And then, when what little security I have left is taken from me, when I realise her words were meaningless or have caused me greater problems than I already had, I could point my finger at that soothsayer and say ‘hex’.

If I were to direct a modern adaptation of Macbeth I’d like to introduce an alternative reading of the witches. In my version there’s a group of older women winding up a young man, who’s very full of himself, very eager and sharp-suited. They could be the cleaning ladies down in the basement of a high-gloss business premises; and he – let’s call him Mack - could be one of those New York ‘Mad Men’ or a London merchant bank executive. He’s gone downstairs because he’s after a huge account that will change his future and he knows Iris does the tea leaves. Iris is tickled pink. She and her pals have got him in their kitchenette where there’s a huge kettle steaming on the gas ring, and they’re pretending they can cook up a magnificent future for him in their cauldron. They’re having a tremendous time at his expense: “. . . oh yes, and an eye of a newt and a toe of a frog. What else shall we pop in Maud – a slice of tiger’s guts, baboon’s blood? You still got that bit of umbilicus . . .?”  

What I’ve always wanted to know is how those supposedly illiterate women on that blasted Scottish heath in 1606 knew about tigers and baboons in the first place.