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The Animals of Cottage and Castle Pigeons, Doves and Squab

Pigeons, Doves and Squab: for food, sport, communications, and as icon

Pigeons: those annoying fowl who strut about underfoot in most cities, have been living cozily with mankind since at least 3,000 BCE, providing food, sport and communications services for most of that time. First, “pigeon” and “dove” are the same thing, though multiplied into numerous “races” by mankind’s interests in the creature as food, as messenger, for racing or just for their beauty. Manmade dovecotes dating back 5,000 years have been found in Mesopotamia and Crete, and doves are included in the ritual menu for an Egyptian goddess.

The fact is squab, fat baby pigeons, are quite delicious – and a delicacy that could be enjoyed as readily by the medieval English cottager as by the king. Humble thatched cottages are often pictured with a structure pierced by large holes tucked under the peak of the gable – that’s a dove cote. On the inside there would be a cabinet door opening to a set of compartments, each with an opening to the outside: pigeon holes. The cottagers would merely open the door and take out the plump, fattened squab. Feeding needs would be minimal as the parent birds could forage for themselves, although a scattering of grain would help.

Dove cotes for the aristocracy were much larger, free standing structures and the wealth of a lordly household might be judged by the magnitude of the dove cote. Square or beehive shaped, made of wood or stone, these arose with gallery upon gallery of pigeon holes accessed on the interior through a well-way and a ladder. Since one squab usually would serve one person, grand dinners required a cote that could withstand massive raiding.

To make Squab and Pork Pie circa 1380

10” uncooked pie crust, 1 squab plucked, cleaned and cut in 8 pieces, ½ cup flour seasoned with salt and pepper, 2 tbsp oil (chicken fat would be good), 1 lb lean ground pork, 2 eggs, ¼ cup raisins, 10 prunes minced, 1 tsp light brown sugar, ½ tsp ground ginger, ¾ tsp salt, 3/8 tsp saffron, ½ tsp ground anise, 1 tsp ground fennel, ½ tsp. ground cloves.

Bake pie crust at 425 degrees F for 10 min. and let cool (if in a hearth’s oven, test temp by placing arm in oven. If hair is singed off  it’s warm enough.) Dredge squab in flour mixture and brown in oil or fat until golden. Separately, combine remaining ingredients and spread 1/3 of mixture in pie crust. Distribute squab pieces evenly on top. Use remaining mixture to cover squab and fill pie shell. Bake at 375 F for 35 min. (your hearth oven may have cooled down to that if you’ve left it open, but keep a good fire going in the hearth.) Pork must be browned throughout. Serves 4-6.  From Richard II’s Book of Feasts, adapted for modern cooking by Lorna S. Sass and published as To The King’s Taste, Metropolitan Museum of Art publication, 1975.

Since ancient times the ability, indeed compulsion of pigeons to return to their homes has been used for conveying messages. The Greeks and Romans used pigeons extensively for fast communication over long distances and impassable terrains. Oddly, there is little mention of the use of pigeon messengers in medieval and Renaissance Europe though in the Arab world the breeding and use of pigeons remained extensive, and by the 12th century there were organized pigeon communications systems for Islam. It’s unlikely that Europeans failed to make similar use of the birds that were certainly in abundance among them. Pigeons are recorded as used extensively in military operations as recently as World Wars I and II.

The method of course is to take the bird away from its home roost, then attach a rolled up message to the bird’s leg or into a pocket strapped to the bird’s breast or back, and let the bird loose. Small cameras can be attached to a bird’s breast. The birds will fly hundreds of miles but find their way home in a matter of hours or a day. No doubt as a consequence of this messenger service, birds have been bred for speed, and the sport of pigeon racing is ancient. Average speed over a distance of 500 miles is about 50 mph, but speeds of as much as ninety miles per hour have been recorded, and distances of as much as eleven hundred miles. In modern use, they carry memory sticks and are far less subject to interception than are electronic communications.

There is yet another aspect of the dove, its role in religion. Doves were an acceptable sacrifice in ancient Egypt and Judaea. But, most strikingly for European history, is the image of the white dove as the third member of the Trinity: as God the Holy Spirit in company with God the Father and God the Son, Jesus.  What is it about doves that could prompt this association?

I’ve raised some very beautiful albino ring necked doves and so can write from direct observation of their behavior. It is the male who is the loving and cherishing father. The female lays her eggs and considers her job done. It’s the male who nestles and broods the eggs, and when they hatch it’s he who keeps them warm and regurgitates his own digested food into their open mouths.

As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins writes,

“…the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

A Fable of Mud (a short story)

       The Land between the Great Waters was in decline, though a decline so recent that its inhabitants could barely sense the apex from the gentle slope of its failing hegemony. Gallantly, or wickedly, the mountains, forests and the sweeping pastures of its many regions had been wrested from their primordial rulers not so many generations earlier. A wise warrior had been the Land’s king but a mere decade before, and all the world had made a jealous nodding of the head toward his dominance. But now his son, the wittol, bound by the surreptitious chains of his conniving seneschal, lolled in the White Palace while the blood of his people stained the sands of foreign satrapies.           Invaders, warlike from the start, the Neapores had first spread their ways to each corner, each shore and valley of the Land, destroying all the ancient folk who would offer resistance. Necromancers were their priests, and their religion was the transubstantiation of all substances to gold. At this unholy practice they already had excelled. But then a great discovery was made, a substance which could be transformed into the likeness of all other things, a substance of more worth even than gold. And yet it was no more than mud.         Fine silks no worm had ever spun could glitter with more jewel-like brilliance and more airy lightness than ever before. Gauzy curtains, robes that tantalizingly revealed the form beneath, heavy draperies and rich stuffs could make the poorest wight within her modest hovel able to afford the splendor that had dazzled only eyes in kingly courts before. The tough hide of beasts, which had been worked to suppleness in ages past for sandals for the pacing feet of peripatetic philosophers, or boots for climbers of the rock-strewn, craggy mounts, was now replaced by the magic of the mud. Crystalline seeming bottles that, unlike crystal, never shattered and were so light as to weigh hardly more when filled than the weight of their contents, were called into existence by the necromancers of the mud. The very timbers of dwellings and all in the dwellings, medicines and foods were crafted from the mud. Such was the genius of the mud’s magicians, for, by making everything out of the substance they controlled, they gained complete power, not only over matter, but over life itself.         All that the necromancers made they made at first cheaply. By intent, first they made the poor dependent upon their largesse. Then gradually, as the making of the more costly and less useful articles of the old fashioning became abandoned, they controlled everything for everyone, except for a few rich, sentimental renegades who still favored the “natural” substances. But they were forced to pay dearly for such stubbornness.        But we move forward in time too fast. In the early years the mighty mud had not revealed its protean nature. That was only teased from it by learned incantation, sorcery and, above all, alchemy. No, its first manifestation was both glorious and ominous. It glowed with brilliant gusts of flame. The first sorcerer who harnessed it with magic spells and vases made impervious, tempered its flames to a softened glow to drive away night’s darkness. But soon other magi found its bursts of fiery violence an inspiration, and confined the refined essence of the mud in small prisons of steel where, transformed to a million toiling mechanisms, it was made to turn wheels, powering vast mills and swift chariots.         Again, of course, the magi saw to it the magic of their mud and its attendant devices were less costly than the age-old mechanisms they replaced. The stately horses which had given the Neapores their strength for all the millennia past were no longer bred, except again by wealthy sentimentalists. And even the wealthy, they most of all, were susceptible to the allure of greater speed and strength that the refined mud made available to them.        Decades went by. The prevalence of the mud, and all the magi made from it, had spread quickly beyond the Land between the Great Waters. Geomancers elsewhere called up from the greedy inspirations of their brains new and finer mechanisms, substances and creations, all dependent on the elixirs derived from the mud. Magi over the entire planet became focused on the extraction and the uses of the mud.        From whence came this mud? For it was of a special nature not to be found everywhere. Tapped by narrow delving wells, it sprang and surged up from the depths of time, from death, decay and all that was most sinister deep within the planet’s foetid crevices where life had flourished once and died and decomposed in foulest stench and been healed over by the rising crusts of scabrous rock and sand. Needling into those foul grooves of life’s failure in far antiquity, the magi had released the putrefaction and, in the innocence of their greed, had made it their god: the Creator of all they had, the motive force of all they did, the source of all their power.         But their god knew from whence it came. It did not serve them but to spread a deadly blackening over the small planet that was the home of all that was alive, the floating, isolated sapphire sphere that hung and spun its beauty and its fragile richness in the vastness of eternity and nothingness.        Barely waking to the knowledge of the suffocation they, and all they ruled, were suffering, the magi, governed by the wittol king and his wicked seneschal, clung still to the source of their power, and warred to gain control of new sources of mud.

The blue planet grew black and died.

Writing Montfort

I began research on Montfort in 1977. By 1985 I had the first draft completed, at approximately 1,500 pages.  There were a few fairly recent academic biographies on Simon de Montfort; I chose to frame my work as a novelized biography for the greater freedom of informed speculation as to how his life progressed from one known event to the next. But, when offering it to publishers, I encountered the then idee fixe among historical novel editors that the central figure must be a woman. My advisor, Dr. Madeleine Cosman, founder of the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the City University of New York, laughed “We just call him Simone de Montfort. The fact of the matter was that there was no woman in a position to plausibly tell lMontfort’s story. To preserve the integrity of my work, in 2009 I turned to self-publishing with a firm called Booksurge. While negotiating with them they we\re acquired by Amazon for its subsidiary CreateSpace. Thus Montfort The Early Years was the first book contracted for by CreateSpace as we know it. 

Withdrawing  Montfort from circulation among publishers who had a viewpoint regarding history so different from my own (I could appreciate their intention of bringing forth women when men had so dominated history, but I could not embrace this program at the expense of truth, I continued my researches. I broadened my investigations to include international politics and economics, religious beliefs and practices of the period, domestic life at all social levels, and I read the books that Simon read as indicated by the books’ covering letters from his Franciscan friends. This gave me enlarged insights into the causes and consequences of the known events and entailed considerable, ongoing rewriting.

During this same period, 1987 to 2000, I ventured into other forms of writing: for stage, film and radio theater, founding The Jefferson Radio Theater at Public Radio stations WJFF and WVIA.

Truth, History and the Historical Novel

How “true to history” is an historical novel – or a scholarly history for that matter? There is the question of egregious license, where the writer for the purposes of art deliberately fictionalizes an event, as when Dorothy Dunnett credits her fictitious character, Francis Crawford of Lymond, with France’s conquest of Callais from England in the reign of Henri II. But what of the historical novelist who is using her medium as an exploration of what might have happened in the past?

The historical novelist, like the academic historian, must (if he or she is earnest) work from a very few categories of information: legal documents, eyewitness accounts, newspapers, chronicles, diaries, journals and books by historians and biographers.  Let’s have a look at them.

Legal Documents:

Courts generate masses of documents every month and have been doing so for seven to eight hundred years in much of Europe, longer in Rome and in China. How much can these documents be taken at face value? I’ve received notice of a class action suit against AT&T for an event that took place so long ago that it’s about to tip over the Statute of Limitations. Where there aren’t Statutes of Limitations, court documents may churn along their slow way for decades and longer – and are not to be trusted as indicators of current events. Similarly with letters – which display not only a lag in time but may contain as much misinformation as gossip over the garden fence.

Some documents, such as medieval charters, tell a few reliable “truths” — the attached seals tell us who actually was present to witness at the time. But the purpose of a charter? It’s timeliness? What the surrounding circumstances were in its being granted? These issues usually are unmentioned, and if they are they tell us nothing of the influences, favors or punishments that lie behind the document’s issuance.

 So much for unquestioning reliance on legal documents and their dates. 

A vast amount of collateral material of the period is necessary to give some indication of the back ground and significance of a document, but the document itself may tell no more than an oyster’s shell tells whether there’s a pearl inside.

Reports from eyewitness accounts:

We know how two people viewing the same event will give different reports. But when there are many witnesses, all in agreement…?

I was serving on a Murder Grand Jury. It was an open and shut case for indictment for attempted murder of a uniformed Transit Police officer. There were eyewitnesses: the two plain-clothes policemen who tackled, subdued and arrested the accused with smoking gun in hand, the nurse standing beside the victim, the numerous doctors, nurses and patients who rushed to look out the windows as six shots blasted the hospital quiet zone. And the victim himself, who showed up in court with his arm in a sling – not the result of this incident.

It was a remark from the nurse witness that prompted the jury to ask for further evidence, to seek the job record of the accused and to hear his own account of the event – an unusual proceeding for a New York City Grand Jury. The nurse, describing how the accused stood while firing, struck a pose, feet apart, both of her hands as if on a gun held directly in front of her “in standard police” posture, as she said. Really? How did she know this was “standard?” (This was before police procedurals on TV.) It soon came out that she was the accused’s wife and he was a police officer in New Jersey.

It’s not required by law for a wife to testify against her husband. What was going on? We dug deeper – and heard from the accused. He told us he suspected his wife was having an affair and had gone to the hospital where she worked to ask her about it. As he left his parked car he saw her coming out of the hospital with a Transit Police officer and kissing him on the lips. At which the accused said he shouted “Hey! You!”

The Transit Patrolman could read his accoster’s name on his volunteer fireman’s jacket and immediately reached for his gun. At which the New Jersey policeman began shouting for help while firing – in an attempt, he said, to keep the Transit Policeman from being able to reach his gun. (Shouts for help were verified by the policemen who tackled him.)

This seemed implausible. Then the accused’s work records showed he was the top marksman in New Jersey and one of the top marksmen in the United States. There was no indictment for attempted murder. Only for his carrying his service revolver (required in NJ) into New York.

So much for the reliability of eyewitnesses. And of court documents, if an investigation is less fortunate than this one was.

Newspapers, diaries, journals and chronicles:

Some people read The New York Times, some read The New York Post and some read the Daily News: some like Fox News and some like CNN. It’s a commonplace that the media all have spin. The reader chooses what he or she prefers. And so it is with the material available to the historian. And the historian chooses according to disposition, philosophy, politics, and considerations of the marketplace.

From delvings into these sources, deeply or shallowly, written histories are fashioned.

Every historian is a scholar very much steeped in the ideas of his or her own time – which will skew choices and interpretations. A post-Hegelian/Marxist view has informed much of late 20th-21st century scholarship with an aversion to the “great man” theory and a need to demonstrate that great movements evolve out of the people over extended lengths of time. The impressive works of J.R. Maddicott are a prime example.

Royalist sympathies have informed much of English historians’ works. Yet there are individuals who express the divergence of feeling in their time. The foremost 13th century chronicler Matthew Paris was fiercely anti-Vatican and critical of monarchy. His contemporaries, Walter of Guisborough and John of Oxford, were committedly royalist.

An historian chooses which sources to follow or give greater weight depending upon the point of view he or she intends to support.

There is the current feminist bias. What girl, growing up just a few years ago, wasn’t dismayed to find that men seemed to have done everything? There’s been a concerted effort to rectify that imbalance. Many women who were significant in history have been discovered. Many writers have enlarged the activities and effects of certain women of the past – out of a sensitive perception of their contributions or, on occasion, out of a desire to fit the policies of a publisher. In the world of trade publishing since the last quarter if the 20th century feminism has been a strong influence in both histories and historical novels. And rightly so – the imbalance was intolerable for a world in which women have achieved so much freedom from the domestic limits that bound most women’s lives in the past.

Much the same may be said of the flow of writings on topics of the Third World and Minorities. It’s a wholesome restoration of balance if readers are to have some scope of understanding of a rapidly uniting world.

But no writing is free of the slant – indeed of the needs – of its time.  “Truth” is not the issue. Objective truth is never a possibility in delineating the complex actions of mankind. Nor even, reliably, in describing the small, everyday occurrences that leave a paper trace.

As for the historical novel: the novelist attempts to bring to life from the written page to the imagination of the reader an idea of how events may have happened. The choice of those events is selective at the outset. The novelist marshals the sources: histories, biographies, journals, chronicles, documents. Each of those sources has its own “spin.” And the novelist makes choices among them for the shape of the story she or he is moved to tell. On this always shifting sand the novelist imposes a form, and gives it life.

If the reader finds that form congenial, convincing as a story, and with some insight of worth that the reader can embrace, then the novelist’s purpose is served. The “truth” of what happened in the lives of people who actually lived in the past can never be captured, and to suppose that it can is naïve. To complain that a writer has not followed the path of another writer and therefor is in error is to fail to understand the process by which “histories” are made.

Radio Theater

The Richest Woman in the Western World
Mini-series performed by the Jefferson Radio Theater company

Portrait of Eliza Jumel
The Richest Woman in the Western World Portrait of Eliza Jumel at the time Charles Dickens visited her in New York. She was bringing up her niece, training her in the feminine wiles with a boy for practice. Eliza inspired Dickens to write Great Expectations, but she was far from the jilted spinster Dickens imagined. The cobweb festooned dining room she proudly displayed to him preserved the memory of the dinner party she gave to Joseph Bonaparte.

Born in a brothel in Providence, Rhode Island circa 1776, Eliza Jumel, nee Betsy Bowen) arrived in New York City as the unwilling temptress in a blackmail scheme – from which no less a person that Aaron Burr freed her.  Leaving a brief acting career, she married wealthy French wine importer, Stephen Jumel and went on to nearly rescue Napoleon after Waterloo, cornering the New Yrk City real estate market which indeed made her the richest woman in the western world, then, in her 90th year raising her own army to make herself Empress of Mexico. And it’s all true.

Being Murietta
Mini-series performed by the Jefferson Radio Theater company

It’s California in 1849.  Nineteen year old Joaquin Murietta, his brother Jesus and his bride Carmella venture from their family ranches near Los Angeles to try their luck in the gold fields. When Jesus is accused of stealing a horse and is hanged by the rough Gringoes, and Carmela is gang raped and commits suicide, Joaquin swears vengeance. Bilingual and a master of disguises, he seeks out and destroys his enemies – and every bandit in California takes his name. The California Rangers, led by Captain Harry Love, are created to take him “dead or alive.”  

Mini-series performed by the Jefferson Radio Theater company

In 1644 the Hackensack band of the Lenape Indians were massacred by Dutch soldiers on the beach at Hoboken. This is the story of David deVries, Patroon of the Dutch West India Company, who had coe to live among the Lenape and had wedded chief Oratam’s daughter. But the Dutch were trading guns for furs to the Mohawk who sought to dominate the Lenape. When the Nanuet Lenape fled to de Vries for help and followed him as he crossed the Hudson to Governor Kieft’s office to stop the dangerous trade in guns. But an old Lenape woman had stolen peaches from Kieft’s garden and he had a particular hatred for the “savages.” Locking deVries in his office, he sent his troops across the river to the beach where they slaughtered the Indians, men, women and children.

A Life for Love
Mini-series performed by the Jefferson Radio Theater company

Based on the life of Ashe’s grandmother’s elder sister, Mabel. Jose Astrada Palma, a law student at Columbia University in 1903, fall in love and elopes with Mabel Jacobs. In Cuba, as her mother-in-law is unwell, Mabel becomes the hostess in the Presidential Palace I Havana, and a particular friend to the Roosevelts. But when Astrada Palmas is no longer in office the family move to their ranches in Mananillo and Oriente Province. Dinner is as formal as in the palace, but with an open beam thatch roof above the fine china and crystal. Mabel has a gun placed at her setting and shoots snakes off the rafters .

With Jose and his father away for business much of the time, Mabel, given morphine by her doctor for her headaches,  becomes addicted.  Lonely, she has an affair with a young American engineer building the railway – until Jose, arriving unexpectedly, rides his horse into the bedroom and dismisses the American with a bullwhip. After that, Jose takes her with him when he goes to Havana or New York. But in New York, obtaining her morphine is difficult – until she meets a neighbor in her apartment building, 15 year old Bert Magee. By the time Bert is 16, Mabel is divorced from Jose and married to Bert. Mabel is 35. And her brother-in-law must find a job for Bert suitable to the husband of a woman accustomed to the presidential palace in Havana. Soon Bert, bright, very handsome and looking older than his age, is vice-president of Kanosha Close Crotch Men’s Underwear Manufacturing (one cannot make this up.)

Money Radio
Half-hour fund raiser comedy performed by Bill and Beverly Taylor of the Jefferson Radio Theater company

When amateur volunteers take over the task of fund raising for a Public Radio station mayhem ensues. The script was derived in part from a questionnaire to on air hosts eliciting their bloopers.

A fund raiser ad lib from Annie Hat:  So you take your sweetie out to a restaurant and spend a hundred dollars, and the next day what do you have to show for it?

A typo on an event announcement:  All are welcome to the bookkeepers fair and don’t forget to bring a queen in a bottle.

The Christmas Angel
From a short story by Peter Wynne
performed by the Jefferson Radio Theater company and used for two successive years for NPR Playhouse’s Christmas broadcast

In the bar of a decrepit hotel near the Hudson River five old men make a half-hearted attempt to celebrate Christmas – until one of them recounts the story of a poor neighbor’s child who found and brought home what he believed was an injured angel – and the whole little town learned what true faith is.

The Little Fir Tree
From a short story by Peter Wynne performed by Carmela Ross

It’s Christmas Eve in the forest and all the animals and trees are preparing to welcome the birth of the Christ Child – all except a little fir who weeps because she has no present to give; and her tears, freezing in crystals, transform her into the first Christmas Tree.

Montfort The Early Years; The Royal Wedding Progress

Montfort The Early Years 1229 to 1243 (Montfort The Founder of Parliament)
Montfort The Early Years 1229 to 1243 (Montfort The Founder of Parliament)

As petitioner for the office of Steward of England, Simon de Montfort was made responsible for organizing the very lavish winter festival celebrating King Henry’s wedding progress. Excerpted from Chapter 6 of Montfort the Early Years. Buy Now on Amazon.

The Royal Wedding Progress

Henry III and Eleanor of Provence were wed in Canterbury Cathedral. Archbishop Edmund Rich performed the marriage rite. Then the combined royal entourage went on to Rochester where Henry and Eleanor spent their first night.

Snow, sleet and frigid wind swept the road from London to Rochester all through the night. In the blast of the gale, by the whipping lights of torch-flames, oxen dragged wagons laden with folded tents, trestle tables, barrels of serving vessels, kettles, costumes, firewood and foods for the feast. Hogsheads of wine loomed through the snow-swirled air, rocking on their carts toward the vintners’ designated spot along the royal wedding party’s way. Gaily painted pageant wagons lumbered, their wonders cupboarded behind their folded panel doors. Men, women and children, the guild and parish players, trudged beside the wagons, bundled and huddled against the freezing night.

Simon, with the help of his squire Peter and steward deMesnil, directed each arriving caravan to its appointed place at the roadside, and allotted each arriving group its location in the fields for tents and supplies.

Through the bitter night the Londoners came in hundreds, then thousands. Not only the performers and the cooks and servers of the feast arrived, but everyone from nuns and priests to jugglers, pickpockets and cutthroats. All wanted to see the royal bride and the winter festival. London emptied to populate the road.

As the long, cold night went on, a new city grew in the fields. Masses of people clustered by bonfires that blazed in orange streams into the dark, sleety wind. To keep spirits high among the circles of frost-chapped faces in the firelights, troubadours sang songs of ancient loves, of beauties whose love-glances never died: Helen and Isolde, Guinevere and Blanchefleur.

Morning opened with a sky of infinite bright blue above a world encased in ice. The road, swept clean by the night’s wind, was like a band of polished silver. Trees glinted in the sunlight; their branches, sheathed in crystal, scattered rainbows from each prismed twig. The stubble in the fields was white as winter fur.

The encampment of Londoners, a long dark smudge on the white landscape, swarmed like a hive. The sleepless cooks and players made their last preparations. Scents of wood-smoke and of dainty dishes wafted in the icy air. Seamstresses sewed last-minute repairs. Guildsmen unpacked and counted silver serving vessels while apprentices tied swags of evergreens to litters that would bear the feast.

Simon was everywhere, like a general seeing to the readiness of his troops before battle. He checked the cook sheds, the teams of bearers and the pageant wagons’ readiness. As he went his rounds, suddenly the noisy clatter of the camp was broken by the blaring of brass horns. Above the curve where the road crested a distant hill bright pennants were fluttering.

The cooks began to ladle their hot victuals into silver chargers.

Players hurried to their places on the pageant wagons. Saint Laurence climbed upon his grill of painted flames. Saint Lucy, in a flutter of nerves, searched her pockets for her eyeballs. Saint Sebastian adjusted the arrows piercing his breast. Saint George’s dragon was stoked until its three nodding heads belched flames as well as smoke. And Hellsmouth roared with flames so hot the miserable parishioners who played the Damned could shed their cloaks and stand in their thin under-shifts. Theirs was a pageant usually performed in summertime.

The Royal Progress came on with banners of red, blue, yellow, white and black with splashing fringes of gold. Heralds and flag bearers in the red and gold livery of Plantagenet blew horns, beat drums and held aloft a forest of flags that snapped in the brisk wind. The lords of England followed in fur cloaks and pheasant-feathered hats, their horses caparisoned in satins with heraldic embroideries and fringes to their hocks.

The Londoners swarmed toward the parade. Jugglers tossed fruit to the riders and danced over ropes of sausages. Guild masters, in their finest fur-lined robes and jewels, bore holly-swagged litters heavy with silver vessels heaped with rich, rare foods: pimpernel and lark pastries; sugared flawns; black puddings squabs in wine pies filled with salmon and with luce; and boars bursting with plums and apricots.

Cherub-faced apprentices served as cupbearers with brimming beakers of hippocras and mead. The Master of the Vintners hurried with a litter of cups and ewers from the guild’s “Fountain of Cana” where the wine had frozen in arches and cascades like the buttresses and pinnacles of a fanciful cathedral made of crimson ice.

At the side of the road the pageant wagons displayed their saints. The child Saint Philomel climbed to the top of a living pyramid of angel acrobats costumed in white robes and goose-feather wings. Saint Michael, in gold armor, brandished a silver sword and held aloft a torpid snake. Saint Margaret, her face blackened and bloody, her skirts painted with flames, stood in a huge cauldron with her shivering arms uplifted joyously. Saint Lucy thrust out her hands, each holding an eye. Saint Magnus knelt before a sturdy, leather-aproned butcher who hacked at the saint’s neck with a gigantic wooden axe. Saint George, in silver helm and suit of mail, battled his fire-spewing dragon as its flames melted the frozen earth to mud beneath his feet.

Children of Saint George’s parish, dressed as monster pups, darted through the march to offer chalices of soringue of eels to King Henry, for eels were known to be his favorite dish.

Among the marchers, after the heralds, the flag bearers and the lords, came curtained, horse-borne palanquins with swaying golden tassels. Ladies peeped from the curtains to take the dainty foods offered by the Masters of the Guilds. Whenever a lady could be glimpsed, cries rose from onlookers, “Is that she?” The Londoners vied to catch the first sight of their queen-to-be, the beauty who had won King Henry’s heart.

The royal bailiffs, dressed in scarlet livery with golden lions en passant guardant, came next.

And then there was no question. King Henry and Eleanor of Provence rode side by side. In furs and cloth-of-gold the King of England sat upon a splendid chestnut destrier manteled in broad stripes of red and gold. His bride, in cloth-of-silver lined with ermine as white as the fields, rode beside him on a milk-white palfrey draped in midnight blue.

Eleanor held her head high, already a queen. She was sixteen, and everyone agreed her beauty beggared Hurle’s description. She had the luminous petal-pink complexion of her mother, Beatrice of Savoy. Her eyes were large and lustrous blue. Her forehead, like a fawn’s, was wide and round. She wore no veil; her hair, a treasure of bright golden curls, fell freely upon the shoulders of her cloak. But more than Nature’s gifts, a studied grace flowed in her every gesture. She was sensuous. In the arts of desire the lady was well schooled. She filled to the full the ideal of a people whose doctrine of love the Church declared perverse, lubricious and heretical. Henry was dazzled, madly in love.

The Montfort Lion

Chartres window of Simon de Montfort’s father
Chartres window of Simon de Montfort’s father

The family of Montfort had as their device a European lion rampant. Unlike the African lion, it has no mane; it’s similar to the American cougar. The Montfort colors were red and white, in the language of heraldry, gules and argent. Younger members of the family “differenced” their heraldry to distinguish themselves. The lion’s raised tail may be forked into two tails , “queue fourche” and the colors vary.

The arms of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, have been confused with those of his father since the 14th century. Earl Simon had a red lion on a white ground, his father, with the same name, had a white lion on red. The Earl’s heraldry is a lion rampant queue fourche, gules on argent.

The red lion on white, of Simon the Earl of Leicester, appears twice in the Chronica Majora: once in the illustration of an eye witness description of Montfort’s death at Evesham and once on a page depicting the arms of most of England’s great lords. 

Monastic chronicles were kept private, even secret, so that there could be no interference with the freedom of the chroniclers. Hence, the Chronica Majora was essentially unavailable until it was acquired by the British Library.

The Chronica is chiefly the work of Brother Matthew Paris of Saint Albans, the most highly regarded of the chroniclers of England in the 13th century. Saint Albans was a principal rest stop on the way to London from either Kenilworth or Leicester. Brother Matthew knew the Earl Montfort well, as attested by numerous personal accounts that could only have been told him by the Earl himself and a letter written to Simon by his nephew John from Germany. (This letter is the source of the term “Golden Horde” to describe the wave of invaders from the Orient, then sweeping eastern Europe.) 

Confusion arises because the only readily visible example of a “Simon de Montfort” arms was the rondel window at Chartres. There is no possibility that the window is intended to commemorate Simon the Earl  as he died excommunicate. And funding for Chartres’ windows was raised when Simon the future earl was still young and his father was enjoying a martyr’s fame in France.

Simon’s father was a hero of crusade in Palestine and leader of the Albigensian Crusade against that “heretical” movement in France. Pope Innocent III offered all the advantages of crusade in Palestine to northern French knights who need only ride south and suppress the “heretics.” The result was an utterly disordered flood of northern knights into the south of France and the burning of 6,000 Albigensians who had taken refuge in the church at Bezier. The slaughter was looked upon as so shameful that no one wanted to accept the responsibility of bringing the invading knights to order. Eventually, Simon de Montfort, the lord of Montfort l’Amaury in Normandy and the earl’s father, took on the leadership. He was accepted by the disorderly knights because of his reputation in Palestine; he had military triumphs for several years until was killed by a stone lobbed by a mangonel from the wall of Toulouse. The Vatican regarded him a martyr, the Church’s militant arm on a par with Saint Dominic who was sent to correct the Albigensians’ errors in theology.  It certainly is the Earl’s father whose image appears in Chartres.

In Ashe’s books it is the red lion on white that is used for the Earl’s heraldry. Nevertheless, it’s the father’s white lion on red that still is chiefly used to depict the arms of Montfort the Earl of Leicester and founder of Parliament.

An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe – an excerpt

An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe: with Poems and Short Stories by E. A. Poe
An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe: with Poems and Short Stories by E. A. Poe

When Poe was three-years-old, he watched his actress mother, Eliza, die of pneumonia. Originally a one-man play commissioned from Ashe by the New York City Parks Department/Historic House Trust, An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe is now a book available from Amazon.

I sat upon the floor, my back against the damp and dripping wall in that dark room hour after hour, quieting my little sister with her rag of gin. And watching my mother sleep.

Once her eyes opened, no longer like shining lakes but like the night, impenetrably deep, lost in visions that the dreamer only knows, of palaces and palanquins and dry, warm climes where Siroc winds evaporate the very leaves to brittle filigree upon the trees. Where water is congealed to jewels.

Not knowing me, she begged me for a drink of water as if I were a stranger by a desert well. I brought her water and she drank like one who has been parched by inward fire until seas of liquid cannot quench the flames.

Only once, after that, did her eyes open and she knew me. That once she turned toward me as I sat in my corner. She gazed at me and said, Eddy, love me always. Please forgive me!

I sat helpless through the night. I heard the fingers plucking at the scanty sheet, the rattle of the last breath bubbling through the throat as the lungs gripped in their last spasms. I sat, my baby sister in my arms, and wept silently so that I would not wake her.

In the morning mother lay like a sleeper made of wax, pale with a blue-gray tinge that seemed to me most beautiful. Most like the Juliet she played, bowered in roses on her tomb. But oh where was the friar with the potion that would wake her? I knew he would not come.

About “The Treasure”

About The Treasure, A screenplay by Katherine Ashe

The Nazis are invading France. In the middle of the night the priest at an obscure seminary in the Pyrenees gets a call from an old school friend, an official in the government of King Leopold – can the priest help hide the Belgian National Treasure?

Crossing the castle grounds to the convent that dominates his seminary, he rouses the Mother Superior and begs her help. After praying, she returns to the barred visitors’ room and “Yes. You can put it through the turnstile.” “Mother,” he admits, “it’s in four trucks.”

The radio, taken over by the Germans, advises town by town the hour the next morning when the German army will arrive. Resistance will be futile. At midnight the Belgian trucks roar through the tense town of Poyanne and heavy case after case, blazoned with the arms of King Leopold of Belgium, are loaded into the convent’s room for bee keeping supplies. In the morning the Nazis arrive. Their orders are to turn the convent into a Rest and Rehabilitation Center for the army – and to find the Belgian National Treasure.

“We have very old and fragile German princesses here,” the Mother Superior tells the commanding officer. “Your Fuehrer would not want them to be disturbed.” With this ruse the soldiers are kept out of the convent itself as the seminary and garden are taken over. For four years the Nazis remain. The nuns starve, shelter Resistance fighters and downed British pilots, and keep secret the flow of refugees who stream through nearby mountain pass on their way to freedom in Portugal.

This true story is told through the adventure of Denise, a teenager who planed to be a nightclub chanteuse or a dancer – or a nun. When refugees flood through her seaside resort town, followed by the invading Germans, she’s horrified by the cruelty and suffering she sees. In the night, with the help of her local priest, she flees to the convent in Poyanne, coming the very evening before the Treasure arrives. Earlier that day the convent’s wealthy, middle aged patroness, Gertrude, has come, announcing she has given all her wealth to a missionary in China so she can join the sisters in their holy poverty. The nuns now face starvation. They do all they can to force Denise to go back home but, sending her out in a muddy field in her cut down high heels, and giving her only a teacup of water to “bathe in” only makes the exuberant girl the more determined to stay. Twinned with the elderly Gertrude in their shared novitiate, Denise, on her way to becoming Sister Placide, threads a comic and heroic theme against the tragedy and violence of the war.

This story is written from interviews with the elderly Sr. Placide at her convent in Windsor, New York. unhappy at Poyanne, high spirited Sr. Placide wanted to become a hermit in Tahiti but her bishop had no intention of letting her loose in the world. When an American nun, Sr. Jean Marie, visited Poyanne, Placide enrolled her in her effort to make a new life elsewhere. With Jean Marie’s promise to be responsible for her, the two left for Canada, giving time for Placide to learn English. With Jean Marie’s inheritance they purchased land In Upstate New York and built their convent, Transfiguration Monastery.

The Death and Rebirth of Book Publishing

November 8, 2012

Since movable type brought an end to the copyist garrets and sweatshops of the Middle Ages there probably has not been a more profound change in the way books are created and marketed than is going on at present. That the major American trade publishers have failed to move with, or even lead the change is a bit like IBM missing the significance of the personal computer. But worse.

Let’s look at the history of American trade publishing since its apogee in the early-mid-twentieth century. Gentlemen publishers, aware that one must make money to keep a business running, published a certain amount of popular, hack work to pay the bills and yield a bit extra. With that extra funding (they weren’t paying high salaries to anyone – themselves included) they published books of exceptional literary quality that they knew would not have massive sales. They encouraged promising authors even though the dollars weren’t there and might never be. They warehoused books, developing long term sales and a groundswell of interest and acclaim for their unique authors. The books they published are the recognized classics of American literature: the works of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck… the list is long.

Then in the late 1960’s a delirium of hubris struck. Publishers championed revolutionary elements in the racial equality and hippie movements, putting into print such works as Eldredge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice  and Abbey Hoffman’s Steal This Book: semi-Marxist inflammatory works criticizing the status quo.

Cleverly, our government struck back at the publishing business, removing the tax right-off for the costs of book warehousing. This may seem a bit devious but it was a brilliant stroke, crippling the book publishing industry which then lived largely on the gradual sales of back-list books.

Publishing had to adopt a very different business plan. This change came at the time when the publishers and editors who had made American publishing great were aging. Some left in disgust, others sold out their companies to conglomerates that seemed better able to cope in this new fiscal environment. Accounting departments, rather than editorial, became preeminent. And the book publishing business plan came to be modeled after manufacturing.

With no tax relief for warehouses costs, books now had to move like a product that might spoil. That this was the very opposite of the way to build a following for fine new literature was irrelevant. The bottom line and the survival of the company was what the corporate owners needed.

The effect in editorial departments was a wave of fear. For a new author to be accepted the acquiring editor had to justify herself by likening the book to a best seller. “This is the new Mary Higgins Clark, or Philippa Gregory.” For authors, it meant that if they did not tailor their work to fit the current marketing template they would not find a publisher.

This is not to say that ‘literature” ceased to be sought and published, but here too the acquiring editor had to show justification beyond a lame seeming, “I like it.” And here another element enters into the history of the decline of book publishing. Ironically, it was at the apogee of success of unique American authors that the subject of “creative writing” began to be a college staple.

Codifying an art form is always ill advised. American policy in the Cold War was to ridicule the Soviets for just such codifying in their suppression of individualism in painting, sculpture, architecture – the dictating to the artist that his work must not be purely individual expression but must speak to the masses. In the West’s efforts to be as unlike the Soviet model, uniqueness for its own sake was the criteria for acceptance in the taste-forming art galleries of New York. The results ranged from the dramatic, but fragile, splashed and caked canvases of Jackson Pollack to large, clear plastic garbage bags filled with – yes – garbage which the viewer was invited to observe rot, or rather, “to participate in Nature.”

But in academia this passion for individualism was being set in reverse. Successful novels were being subjected to analysis to derive “rules” for “creative” writing. That “rules” and “creative” are terms naturally at odds seems not to have been noticed. Thus three rules were derived: Write what you know, find your voice and show, don’t tell.

The first rule fostered an introspective literature well attuned to a culture entranced with psychoanalysis. The second produced some unreadable jargon, a rise in near obsessive vulgarity, and some lovely writing. In time, this striving for a uniqueness of voice would push the searching writer and editor into minority and ethnic subject matter; exotic settings conveniently came to take the place of uniqueness of voice. The third, which did address the craft of writing, morphed into a “showing” proclivity for vividly depicting sensational subject matter and abuse of the vulnerable.

Here the feminist movement found place to display the eons of abuse of women, and the distress of coming of age could be parsed by painful incidents and dangerous encounters. And the best of books, seeking inclusiveness, should be introspective, set in Asia or Africa in the voice of a troubled adolescent girl. What more could Literature ask?

The answer is, such well tutored “creativity’ isn’t creative at all: it is the work of earnest students or those desperate to please a well-schooled editor. This is not to say that there are not some honest books produced that just happen to fulfill the rules. But the yawning absence on the bookstore shelves of books that have nothing to do with any of these rules, books of untrammeled imagination and genius, gives the lie to the very notion that “creativity” can, or should, attempt to be taught.

The academic approach to the nature of books to be considered “good” has influenced two generations of would be writers and the editors who enable them to pass into the world of professionalism. Coupled with the preeminence of publishers’ accounting departments, the result has been decades of degenerating publishing as editors must justify themselves with imitations ad nauseum of best sellers and books that fulfill the “creative writing” classes and “inclusiveness”  shibboleths.

The post-Freud, post-Marxist, formulatized approach to book selection worked for a while, then began to fail as a new generation of readers, growing up after the Cold War, took little interest in minute self-examination or, surrounded by comforts and prosperity, failed to resonate to the cries of the abused.

Publishers became convinced there were few readers left, and shifted their selectivity toward supposedly ever useful how-to books and, for easy to buy gifts, ghost-written celebrity bios. The how-to books could originate in editorial meetings and be allotted to writers for hire; the celebrity bios offered acquiring editors the delights of expensive lunches with celebrities and the prestige of high-priced contracts.

To fill out the floor space of the big chain bookstores the Illustrated Book, which to the unconvinced eye is a comic book, was produced in sufficient quantity to fill up four aisles – in a deliberate reach to what publishers were presuming was an illiterate public.

There have been nay sayers. Jeff Bezos of Amazon was not convinced that serious readers were a vanishing specie. The success of his on-line book marketing may drive trade publishing and its partners the chain bookstores to extinction instead. His opening up of self-publishing through Amazon’s subsidiary CreateSpace is generating an entirely new industry. And this new industry, while serving an immense population of amateur writers, is freeing amateurs and professionals alike from the dictates of accounting departments and classrooms.

From the welter of new books being published by authors themselves, it may be hoped a new, fine and free literature will emerge; an immense new reading public already has been found and has the means to communicate its tastes and its “likes.”

For me, it meant refusing lucrative contracts from Random House, Viking and a string of publishers, beginning in 1985 and ending in 2008, with my agent Jacques de Spoelberche unable to find an editor to so much as look at my manuscripts. The problem: my book, Montfort, is a large historical novel about a man, and it’s neither a mystery nor a “war book” – the only acceptable categories then for American publishing of historical novels about men. I steadfastly refused to change my main character to a woman, as was repeatedly demanded by editors conforming to the current marketing rules. For me to do so would require doing ludicrous damage to the actual history my work explores.

Thus I found myself, by 2009, stepping into the world of indie publishing. Montfort The Early Years was the first book under contract with the newly merged BookSurge and Amazon affiliate that is CreateSpace. I’ve had something of an upfront seat for developments since then and have become a strong partisan of indie publishing.