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Category: Essays

Christmas at Kenilworth from Montfort the Revolutionary

by Katherine Ashe

A grand feast was prepared for Twelfth Night, January sixth. The three soaring arches on each side of the hall were swagged with holly. At the Countess Eleanor’s whim, a swag was hung upon the great mural of the Montfort red lion rampant painted on the broad white wall behind the dais. The Montfort lion revelled in a collar of green holly leaves for Christmas. Simon raised his eyebrows at this liberty taken with his heraldry, but when the Countess offered to remove it, he let it remain. A large bough of mistletoe was found in Kenilworth’s woods and brought with high honor as an emblem of good fortune for the year to come. The hall’s floor was strewn with rushes from the Mere, with dried sweet woodruff, rose petals, costmary and verbena scattered liberally. “With all the villeins coming,” the countess’s Lady Mary remarked, “some good scents will be needed.”

Indeed the villeins were coming. The lord’s feast at Christmastide was the high point of every village calendar, but in its fullness it had been foregone at Kenilworth, due at first to debts, and then the lord’s absence. It was the countess’s thought that this old English ritual should be renewed.

Although the plenteous supply of beef, and all the beer that they could drink, was much anticipated, the villeins were in a stir to welcome their lord home with entertainments fitting to the day. They practiced their country dances, and those with drums or pipes made din of twitters and thuds long after vespers.

At Kenilworth’s bake shed in the inner courtyard, puddings steamed in iron cauldrons. Somewhere in those puddings’ lurked one hard bean that would crown some low person the king or queen for a day. Twelfth Night was Epiphany on the Christian calendar, the day of the arrival of the Wise Men at Bethlehem, but it was also the ancient feast of the Lord of Misrule.

It happily chanced that the Montforts’ return and rest, and readiness for entertainment coincided with Twelfth Night perfectly. Simon had never seen this English way of celebrating. His yuletides at Kenilworth, since he and the countess had received the manor as a wedding gift from King Henry, numbered only five, sober years mostly with young Prince Edward in residence and the Montfort finances strained. The villeins had their feasts of beef and beer from the steward’s hands, and nothing more occurred. It was with some uneasiness that the earl learned of the wild nature of the English festival in full cry.

Before dawn on the morning of January sixth, the squeal of slaughtered pigs and low of oxen at the knife filled the outer yard. Great fires were stoked and spits built to roast the beeves and hogs for the villeins’ feast. Pies of pheasant and partridge already lined the bake shed’s shelves. Beside them lay eels from the Mere, spiced, bedded in minced chestnuts and cased in pastry coffers. Tarts filled with custard and rose hip jam, or minced chicken and almond cream; and pommes dore: round gobbets of minced veal baked in a golden crust, stood ready to be served to the noble family. The finest tun of Bordeaux wine was hauled up from the tower’s pit that was the wine cellar. Trubody, the countess’ major d’omo who traveled where his lady went, had the tun set on a frame and fitted with a spigot. Sampling the wine, he found that it had not lost its savor, it was fully eight years in the barrel.

At the center of the hall a brazier was set, its fire blazing to drive off the winter chill. Early the villeins began to arrive: husbandmen in their wives’ kerchiefs and shifts, or with makeshift turbans and their faces smeared with soot as blackamoors. Wives in their husbands’ drawstring drawers, swaggering, a kitchen knife or poker stuck into a strip of leather serving as a belt. The village scapegrace came wrapped in a coarse brown robe tied at the waist with a piece of string. He rolled his eyes heavenward and clasped his hands in prayer in the pose of a friar. Twelfth Night was the holiday when all roles were reversed.

The villagers laughed raucously and pointed at each other’s transformations. Eventually they took their seats on long benches at the trestle tables set up along the walls of the hall. The table on the dais was extended, its mismatched boards and trestles masked by fine white linen drapery. Every chair that could be found was brought, for there were more dining at the high table this day than ever before. The villeins, early in their places, smiled shyly at Lady Mary as she checked her arrangements and was satisfied.

At noon the bell in Kenilworth’s tower was rung and the Montfort family assembled at the high table: the earl and countess at the center, with Peter de Montfort by the countess; then all the children, in precedence by age, were seated. Even young Amaury was there, come from Oxford in his black scholar’s robes. He rose and gave the solemn Latin prayer that let the feast begin. The Countess Eleanor took her husband’s hand as it rested on the tablecloth, and pressed it. He looked to her and smiled, his look warm with deep happiness and only the slightest tinge of restiveness about what this topsy-turvy festival of their folk was going to bring.

Seagrave, Steward-General for all of the Montfort estates, led the first course with the customary boar’s head wreathed in herbs. He presented it to Simon, slicing off the jowls and serving them to the countess and the earl. Then dainty dishes followed to the dais. Richard de Havering brought in a brace of geese with chestnut stuffing set round upon its silver platter with the pommes dore. Trubody held a platter of minced trout. Simon the cook and Ralph the baker came with the coffered eels and a blood pudding reeking with the pungent scent of thyme.

Henry Montfort carved for everyone at the high table. Young Simon poured the wine. The countess herself cut the trencher loaves.

Handy, Garbage and Slingaway, the kitchen boys, brought in great platters of beef for the villeins at the long tables, while the footman Gobehasty poured beer into the cups, pitchers and tankards that the villeins had brought with them.

When all the dishes at the high table were sampled, Havering gave a nod of special honor to the village reeve. The stout, flush-faced reeve stood up from the head of his table and with his horn blew a rough facsimile of a fanfare, signaling for the second course of feasting to be brought.

So it went, round after round through five courses until night came. Every villein was drunk and sated with more food than he or she ever had consumed before.

Young Eleanor collected the sops for the alms bowl. As quickly as she gathered them, her youngest brother, Richard, fed them to his little terrier underneath the tablecloth. At Eleanor’s protest, the countess’ almoner, John Scot, slapped the toddler’s chubby hand. Richard gave vent to a piercing scream, and went on crying till his brother Guy took him upon his lap and told him a tale of the Welsh war. Guy and his two elder brothers, eighteen, seventeen and sixteen years of age, already were men, living on their own as fighting soldiers. The younger children, brought up in Paris or traveling with their mother, hardly knew them. Richard stared at Guy in awe.

Far from the celebration fading into torpor as the feasting ended, it was now time for the high merriment of the Lord of Misrule. The puddings were brought out in which, somewhere, the magical bean lurked. Everyone but those at the high table had a slice.

It was Slingaway, the kitchen boy, whose tooth cracked the hard bean. He fetched it from his mouth with a triumphant grin. From somewhere came a crown of grass and reeds and it was set upon his head. The reeve ushered him up to the dais, to the earl’s side.

Simon, at ease now and merry from much wine, had no notion of what was happening. The Countess Eleanor whispered under her breath, “Slingaway has won your place, my lord. We must obey him as if he were you for the rest of the night.”

Slingaway posed with great hauteur by Simon’s chair.

Simon saw his lowest servant mimicking him rather well. He laughed and vacated his seat. Leaning with his back against the wall, his arms folded, a broad grin on his face, he watched with much amusement to see what the kitchen boy would do.

With a deep bow to the Countess Eleanor, Slingaway took his seat, his chest thrown out, his shoulders down, his neck stretched high as it would reach. He thrust his head back with a pensive frown, twisted his face into a squint, scratched himself and muttered loudly, “A pox upon hair shirts!” — bringing a roar of laughter from the long tables.

Young Simon snickered but his brothers looked uneasily to their father, fearing he would take offense. Simon was laughing heartily.

Now the Lord of Misrule stood. “Let there be dancing!” he announced.

From beneath the tables, where they had been stowed, assorted musical instruments were brought forth: pipes, drums and a home-made harp. The drums rattled out of rhythm, but everyone was far too drunk to care. Two pipers squeaked like manic birds. And then the music took on form, a fast, sprightly scattering of notes above a clear, swift drumbeat.

The Lord of Misrule rose from his throne again, turned and bowed to the Countess Eleanor. He bowed so low that his nose struck his knobby knee. But with a gesture admirable in grace, he held out his hand to her. She arose, curtsied to him, and taking his beer-scented hand, let him lead her to the center of the hall to begin the dances. The flaming brazier was carried to one side, and now the opened space was filled with village folk circling, bending, bouncing, laughing in gay time with the drums.

Young Eleanor grasped her young cousin Peter’s hand and led him to join in. The village reeve placed a holly wreath on Peter’s head, an ivy wreath on Eleanor’s, and the two led out the line of village children jumping, circling, joining hands and laughing till their sides hurt. Stumbling, jostling, shaken from his shyness, Peter led the dance faster and faster. Eleanor went whirling to her father, who was watching the merry mayhem with a broad grin. Her curling dark hair tangled in her ivy wreath, her eyes shining, her breath coming in gasps, she asked, “Have you picked a husband for me yet, Papah?”

“Not yet,” Simon said in mock solemnity.

“Then I won’t marry anyone but Peter!” She was off again, whirling flirtatiously with the boy she chose as her betrothed.

Tiring of her wild gigue with her kitchen boy, the countess came and joined her husband, by the wall.

As he watched their daughter, he took his wife’s hand again, his heart full of happiness. “She says she’s marrying Peter,” he laughed.

“She’s twelve. It’s time we thought of her betrothal,” Eleanor gently prodded.

“Perhaps,” he answered, gazing at the dance. He was not inclined to give it any thought just yet.

When the dancers, one by one, went back to the benches, their holiday energies spent, it was time for the village storyteller. He spun a tale of Hereward, then of Gamelyn and other ancient heroes of the English. He spoke in rhyming half-song till his hearers fell asleep.

It was full morning when the last of the villein revelers left Kenilworth’s hall. But the joy of the earl and countess’ homecoming lingered for weeks.

The Iconography of the Ivory of the Saints

The ivory diptych from which the Montfort series book covers are taken

In Catholic tradition saints, and Jesus, can be identified by an object, an animal or a situation that is associated with their history. The central figure in the righthand panel of the medieval bone diptych that I’ve used for the cover of my Montfort books shows the figure of a man wrapped in a cloak, displaying bare feet and holding a palm frond. It would be the figure of Christ of Palm Sunday, but the palm is also the image of a pilgrim, one who had traveled to Palestine. The bare feet signify a penitent, not really appropriate for Jesus. Simon was known to follow the commitments of a penitent and at his death was found to be wearing a hair shirt. The surrounding images of saints with their symbolic attributes may provide further clues to the identity of the central figure.

During the last years of Simon de Montfort’s life, a folk belief became wide spread that he was the Angel of the Apocalypse, or perhaps even the Risen Christ. The millennial theology of Joachim del Flor had predicted that around the year 1260 (using a base 12 system of reconning) a new, thousand-year World Age would begin. The New Millennium would see the dissolution of monarchy, and even of nations, as a unified world took form governed by universal democracy.

This belief was preached by the Dominicans and Franciscans until it was banned, yet their teaching continued sub rosa with dedicated followers especially among the common people of England. Simon de Montfort’s creation of Parliament was perceived as the opening move of this coming age and Simon himself came to be looked upon – worshipped by some – as the Angel of the Apocalypse. The civil rebellion that arose in his support was seen as the chaos that was to mark democracy’s beginning. By many, Montfort was believed to be the Risen Christ.

Simon himself seems to have ignored this cult which, as a devout and conventional Catholic, he must have considered heresy. He witnessed the violent uprising of people and treated it as criminal, doing what he could in his position of political power to make all violence subject to the courts of law. 

But the Crown, and the lords who were jealous of his power, took the commoners’ beliefs very seriously. After Simon’s death at the battle of Evesham, King Henry III made it a hanging crime to even so much as speak well of Montfort, far less to worship him. But at the spot where Simon died, on Evesham’s Green Hill, a spring came up that was believed to have miraculous healing waters. The Rishanger Chronicle, of the period, is an entire book-length record of the miracles performed by Simon de Montfort after his death. Worship of Montfort continued, but secretly.

Could the central image of the ivory have a double meaning as both Christ and Simon de Montfort? Several of the saints in the surrounding cells of the ivory can be identified and pointedly show a relationship to Montfort. And the lefthand panel, clearly carved by another hand and probably at a somewhat later date, shows an even clearer association with Montfort.

Each panel of the diptych is 4½ inches tall by 2½ inches wide, set in a hinged wooden frame of more recent, though very old, make.

The righthand panel, with the large central figure, shows the following images from the top to the upper righthand corner, down the right side, across the bottom and up the lefthand side. I’ve number these 1 through 8.

1. A crowned and bearded figure flanked by angels. God the Father.

2 A knight slaying a dragon: Saint George, patron saint of England.

3. A woman holding a chalice: Mary Magdalen bringing balm to Jesus’s tomb (?)

4. Crowned figure in kingly robes holding a staff and a ring: England’s Saint Edward the Confessor

5. Man with Cross and book. (Possibly Saint Paul, author of the Epistles of the New Testament? Martyred at the same time as Saint Peter, but most scholars hold that he was beheaded, not crucified.)

6. Woman with sword and a (spindle or ciborium). (A martyr, St. Catherine of Alexandria or Saint Lucy?)

7. Bearded man holding a small dog. (Saint Francis whose order taught Joachim’s millennial predictions and supported Montfort?)

8. Saint Peter with the Key to Heaven.

The lefthand panel:

 Upper cell, from left to right:

A crowned King with a cloak with fleurs des lis: Saint Louis. Simon de Montfort’s friend. (Saint Louis was canonized August 11, 1297 so this may date the earliest date of the making of this ivory, or King Louis was included for his famed saintliness and association with Montfort, before he was canonized.)

A monk with a wolf or dog holding a torch in its mouth: Saint Dominic. Dominic was Simon’s father’s partner (Simon de Montfort V) in the Albigensian Crusade. Dominic’s mother, when she was pregnant, dreamt of a dog or wolf with a torch in his mouth. Her dream was interpreted to her to mean that the child she was carrying would set the world afire with his brilliant preaching. Some interpret the name of the preaching Order he founded as Domini canes, the dogs of God.

Middle cell from left to right:

A monk being struck with a sword: Saint Thomas Becket. Murdered for attempting to curb the royal powers of King Henry II. (Simon curbed the powers of King Henry III and was killed by swords by the royalist faction.)

A man holding a heart and a stylus and being threatened by a serpent: Saint John the Evangelist, threatened by poison. (Most of the lords who composed The Provisions of Oxford, the format for representative government and curbing of the king, were killed by poison. It was Montfort who rescued the Oxford meeting’s notes and, from them, formed the representative government called Parliament. It is John who wrote of the Apocalypse which Simon’s followers believed he was bringing to realization.)

Bottom cell:

A monk with a book from which he appears to be teaching, with a bell (?) at the left edge; a monk offering a chalice: The book and the chalice are images of the scholarly and mystical foundations of Christianity. The bell may represent summoning to the teaching and faith. The small figure apparently holding up the upper two sections might be intended to indicate that teaching and faith are the foundations that support the Church and the saints depicted above.

The Millennium

June 20, 2012

The Millennium – a period of a thousand years in which peace, justice, the fulfillment of mankind’s hopes will be met? This idea has risen, submerged and risen again repeatedly in Western Europe and the countries effected by its cultures.

Repeatedly the notion has brought on wars, has transformed the entire economic and social structures of countries, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but nearly always at immense cost of human life.

Where does this animating idea come from? It’s associated with Christianity, but where does Jesus outline such a thousand- year project? He predicts that no stone of the temple in Jerusalem will remain one upon another within the lifetime of his immediate hearers.

And he was right. Rome battered rebellious Palestine into submission within the lifetime of many of those who saw and spoke to Jesus. His prediction was not a threat but an observation that his fellow Jews were eager to take on the forces of Rome that were far beyond their capacity to oppose successfully. No Millennium there.

But there is in the Lord’s prayer an invocation of something very like what those who long for the Millennium as a Golden Age, may have in mind: “Thy kingdom come, Thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” What better could one ask of life on earth?

Most references to mystical events in the future are derived from the Book of Revelations which is highly symbolic, after the manner of ancient seers. Here is the seedbed of violent apocalypse, the nursery of the struggle for the Millennium.

Much of medieval writing stored in the Vatican Library is exegesis of the Bible, and a large percentage of that focuses upon the writings of the Apostle John. Among those who wrote on the subject of the meaning of the Apocalypse was Joachim de Fiore, but his works were condemned by Pope Alexander IV as heretical.  In 2009 the Vatican seemed inclined to reaffirm that condemnation.

 But, unlike most of the writers of biblical interpretation whose work has not, or has, been condemned by the Catholic Church, Joachim’s writings have had a profound effect on mankind’s history from medieval times to today.

Mao’s revolution that transformed China, liberating it from a decrepit dynastic monopoly, drew much from the ideas of Christian missionaries who planted a radical notion of the equality of human beings and the possibility of a future in which the common people ruled.

Where the missionaries in China ceased to appeal, Karl Marx’s analyses of governments and economies took over with its offer of a way of life built upon “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”  No government has claimed to achieve full national communism, but only to be working toward that ultimate goal.

The experiments so far have been disasters. But China is evolving so rapidly now that what will be accomplished there is unknowable. And one might say that what is being achieved in China now is the result of liberation from the millennial ideal.

Both China and Russia have been engaged in apocalyptic and millennial ventures at immense human cost. How close they are to following in the path Joachim set out in the twelfth century will be seen. But first lets’ look at a couple more millennial experiments: Nazism and the French Revolution.

It’s precisely because the millennial idea, lying dormant in Western ideology, is so powerful that Hitler was able to tap into it and make belief in the Third Reich such an animating prospect for the German people – a highly educated population steeped in hundreds of years of European culture. Of all the disasters brought on by millennialism, Germany achieved the most ghastly.

The French Revolution: here we have some of the most literal derivations from Joachim carried to bloodshed.

The Jacobins, infamous for the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, acquired their name from their meeting place, the refectory of the Dominican Order on the Rue Jacob in Paris. That refectory had been the center for the teaching of Joachim de Fiore’s radical theology in the 13th century.

The French Revolution, in true millennial form, declared a new calendar, and the Jacobins inaugurated it with an apocalyptic time of fanatical bloodshed – to the point where they too became victims of their violence.

In a reach for something approximating  Joachim’s idea of a glorious Millennium, like the Nazis and communists after them, the Jacobins believed they were clearing the way for the next phase of history – a phase that was inevitable but somehow required their brutal midwifery to bring it into being.

Joachim never suggested that any action was necessary on the part of mankind for the three phases of history to march along to their fulfillment. The movement of history was God’s work. He had already accomplished two transitions, there was no reason to suppose He needed the help of finite, blundering mankind to achieve the third.

What were the three ages Joachim proposed?

The first was the Era of the Father, a period of a thousand years of tribal social order epitomized by Moses.

The second was the Era of the Son, begun at Jesus’s birth and epitomized by him. This was to be the era that saw the rise of the Church and of nations ruled by kings and it was to last until the year 1260.

Joachim based his calculation of the date on Revelations: 11: 3: “I will give power unto my two witnesses and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and three score days.” (He was writing at the end of the eleven-hundreds and didn’t expect to see this transition himself.)

The third, the Era of the Holy Spirit, was to see the disintegration of the Church, kingship and nations. A single world-order gradually was to come into being through the thousand year period which was to begin in 1260.

Government would be modeled after the custom in monasteries where the abbot was elected by the monks. The voters’ choices would be wise because the Holy Spirit would infuse each soul directly with divine wisdom and guidance.

Well, we haven’t reached that enlightenment yet, have we. But, interestingly, we have moved toward the technical possibility of a single world – through the evolution of the internet.

Teilhard de Chardin foresaw the process of divine motion in history as bringing on the no-osphere – a development of world-wide knowledge infused in mankind — and he foresaw it as a result of technology. Can one ask for a better definition of the internet?

One might say Joachim possibly wasn’t wrong — the fit of his view to the developments for mankind in the last thousand years may show self-fulfilling prophecy, or may not.

But if Joachim was right, and we do have a great age of a unified world at peace to look forward to, it’s not going to be achieved by class warfare and annihilations clearing the way for a way of life imposed upon everybody by an oligarchy or a dictator.

It will come as the past transitions have come: through a slow evolution that takes a millennium to be accomplished. And such a millennium is not made up of 1,000 years, but 1,260 years – according to Joachim.

From this vantage point in the twenty-first century it looks like it may be achieved through inspiration. Through invention. And who’s to say the myriad ideas, conceived in numerous heads, that have been transforming the world we live in are not the whisperings of the Holy Spirit? 

Soberingly, when I asked my friend who is a scholar medieval theology whether the year 2000 was going to bring in the Golden Age, she replied, “No. First there’s to be a hundred years in which all the devils of hell are let loose.” From the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001 to the present (I write this in 2021) it’s looking like this piece of medieval theology may be correct.

See:  Joachim de Fiore Expositio in Apocalypsim

And Norman Cohen’s The Pursuit of the Millennium Millenarians/dp/0195004566/ref=sr_1_sc_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1340238444&sr=1-1-spell&keywords=Norman+Cohne+The+Pursuit+of+the+Millennium

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 Montfort’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 were 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 as I saw it. 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 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 of 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.

The Montfort Lion

Simon's Death at Evesham - His shield is a Red Lion on White
Simon’s Death at Evesham – His shield is a Red Lion on White.
From the Chronica Majora written and illustrated by the monks of Saint Albans who knew Simon de Montfort personally and well.

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.

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

The heraldry 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.

Jews and Montfort

Simon de Montfort expelled the Jews of Leicester in 1231. It was in his youth and he was not yet Earl of Leicester. He found himself effectively leader of a mob attacking the Jews for their high interest rates in money lending. Montfort’s dealings with the Jews of Leicester were not on religious but on fiscal grounds. His spiritual advisor, Bishop Robert Grosseteste who was a friend of Jews and a scholar of Hebrew, had just established a home in London for displaced Jews; was there an element of his influence?  In any case, high interest rates were a life-long concern of Montfort’s, not antisemitism. In 1238 he was excommunicated for refusing to pay an inflated interest rate,

See Annales Monastici, ed. H.R. Luard, vol. IV, Chronicon Thomas  Wykes, p.148 and Annales Prioratus de Wigorna, (Worcester) p. 448 for Leicester. For excommunication debt see Archivesde la Chambre de comptes Lille, no. 671, p. 270 and Royal Letters, vol. II, p. 16.

Later in life Montfort quelled the riot against the Jews of London (1264) although he had been out of the city on his way to rescue his own son Simon who had been captured by King Henry’s forces. It was Montfort’s commoner partisans in London who attacked the Jews. Montfort was forced to remain in London, abandoning his battle plan in defense of Parliament in order to protect the Jews.  At last he was forced to take the London mob with him to attack Rochester in his effort to keep the royalists from bringing in foreign troops to destroy Parliament.

 At Rochester, the mob of Londoners stole, raped and murdered the people of Rochester, including using the monk bell ringer of the cathedral for archery practice. Montfort withdrew his knights from combat and had them arrest all the Londoners found committing crimes. The following day, within view of the royalist forces, he had all those Londoners beheaded. The remainder of this rabble he placed opposite Prince Edward in the battle at Lewes where they were chased and slaughtered by the Prince.

Thus were the attackers of Jews treated by Simon de Montfort.

See Wykes, Annales, vol IV, pp. 140-1 and Annales of Dunstable, vol. III, p. 230 (London Jews; Flores Historiarum, p. 490, Chronicon de Bellis, Thomas Rishanger, p. 25 and Wykes, p. 146 for Rochester. For Battle of Lewes see Charles Oman, History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages, vol. I, pp. 424-30 and map.

At Rochester these same people who had attacked the Jews attacked the citizens of Rochester. Montfort had them seized and beheaded publicly at the foot of Rochester’s still  royalist-held castle. His establishment of Parliament, the model of all further democracies, is far more significant than his early participation as the most readily identifiable person in a riot that drove the community of Jewish money lenders from Leicester.

Katherine Ashe


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.

Remembering Celeste Holm

July 18, 2012

Celeste Holm (April 29, 1917 – July 15, 2012)
Celeste Holm (April 29, 1917 – July 15, 2012)

It must have been 1992 when I met Celeste. A mutual friend, Carmela Ross, high in years to be undertaking such a thing, was launching a new theater company. The party, on New York’s East Side in the neighborhood of the UN, was chatty, congenial, attended by prospects well enough heeled to possibly invest in the company.

I knew no one but Carmela and was lingering by the canapés table when a voice near the front door announced loudly “I have the flu!” As if plague had been declared, the whole body of guests vacated that end of the room. It was Celeste, making a theatrical but truthful entrance. She sat demurely alone. I went to sit by her, declaring, “Well, I’ve just had a flu shot.”

This was at the time when I had a radio theater production company, Jefferson Radio Theater, lodged at Public Radio Station WJFF-FM.  Like any producer, I ransacked my mind for what “property” I might have that could be of interest to this classic star of stage and screen who was quietly sniffling beside me.

Elegantly white haired, with an oval face as perfect as a Noh mask but with an impish sparkle, Celeste even in her depleted state was impressive. And I had a role for her – though there was no way in the world my little company could afford her. But, luckily, that thought never crossed my mind.

I had a little twenty-minute playlet called “Martha Speaks Up” a monologue of Martha Washington entertaining the officers’ wives at Valley Forge with the story of how she and George met and wooed. Martha, it struck me, was a perfect role for Celeste. And when I spoke of it, she seemed to think so too.

A few days later I delivered the play to Celeste’s Central Park West duplex, a dwelling that combined Hollywood grandeur with feminine, upper class East Coast flowery prettiness. There was of course the piano, where no doubt an array of “greats” had gathered and sung old Broadway favorites of their own creation. And there were portraits of Celeste, done by her artist mother who clearly was smitten by the beauty she had brought into the world. My favorite of the portraits showed only Celeste’s hands with a red ribbon or tassel.

A few days later Celeste called me. She loved “Martha Speaks Up,” but, rather than do it as a radio play – could I enlarge it to a television series for her? There was a producer at PBS who was looking for a “vehicle” for her and this might be perfect.

I had written “Martha” after reading James Thomas Flexner’s four-volume biography of George Washington. The thought of doing a thirteen-hour script on the First Couple was exhilarating, inspiring. Yes, of course I would do it!

Fortunately, I had a good friend in Virginia who was happy to have me come and stay for multiple extended visits. Jean Ryland Walker was a Walker of Walkerton and her family had been in place since the 1600’s.  She knew everyone, was related to nearly everyone, could provide insights into Tidewater culture and access to private homes that were old when Martha was a child. It took me three years to write “The Washingtons” but I had a grand time doing it.

In the meantime, Celeste and I got to know each other better. Celeste performed “Martha Speaks Up” at various venues, including the Boston Historical Society, and I wrote a monologue companion piece for her so that the two plays made a performance of suitable length.

And Celeste was intent upon the prospect of the Washington series. The producer at PBS faded and died so we went searching for a new producer. The search took the form of a performance of “Martha Speaks Up” at the New York City Parks Department Armory in Central Park. Several well known producers not only were invited but showed up.

The armory space turned out to be far from satisfactory with echoes and places where sound vanished, and the producers we were most hoping to interest told us they were looking for an “event” property – like “Titanic.” But the parks department people approached me and asked if I could write little plays like that for the various houses belonging to the New York City Historic House Trust – which is how I happened to write a monologue of Edgar Allan Poe. So the event was not without happy results.

And Celeste seemed to be nursing along a producer. I completed the script, sent it for the opinion of the leading expert on Martha and was waiting his reply when Celeste was offered a role in the lucrative television series “Promised Land.” So Martha was put on hold. Then, while shooting the first episode of PL, Celeste, required to dance with a gaggle of teenagers at the location’s high altitude in Utah in stifling summer heat, collapsed and developed congestive heart failure.

Ever the brave trouper, she not only completed the season but went on to do more seasons with PL. She attempted to bring me in as her writer but that couldn’t be worked out.

Before she’d gone off to Utah, I’d visited Celeste not only at her New York apartment but had driven her out to her little summer house in Hackettstown, New Jersey. In that rather shabby rustic setting that she greatly loved she told me somewhat of her life story, of her sons, one of whom was quite dear but was far away and the other with whom she had never gotten on well. And she told me of her husbands – Hollywood nightmare marriages, then her very happy marriage to fellow actor Wesley Addey. I never met him but clearly this was a marriage that gave her the companionship and love the other marriages had not.

Heading back to New York together, we stopped at a garden center and at the ShopRite grocery store in Chester. This is a vast, cool emporium with wide aisles providing vistas. And it was here I observed the “celebrity effect” in action. People came up to her, announcing – as if she didn’t know it – “You’re Celeste Holm!” and reaching a hand out at arm’s length to touch her shoulder, as if measuring the distance between themselves and fame.

One night, when Celeste was home in New York from Utah, I got a desperate call. She was frantic. She was considering throwing herself out the window. Wesley was dead. He had come down with a relatively minor problem and been taken to the hospital. Thinking he was in good hands, she’d left him – and in the course of a commonplace procedure he had died. She was certain that, if she’d stayed, the apparent mistake wouldn’t have happened, or he could have been saved. She blamed herself for his death.

I told her to sit tight and I would be right down. It’s a three hour drive from my house in rural Pennsylvania to New York City but I made it in just over two. Celeste, in a woolly robe, was sitting in the kitchen with a woman whom I took at first to be a relative – a not mentioned daughter? Diana Walker was as solicitous and able as the daughter one would have hoped Celeste had. 

We stayed with Celeste through the night, until a new shift came to help her through this agony of spirit. In the elevator, leaving with Diana, I found she, like me, was just a friend; she was a theater producer with her own company, The Manhattan Playhouse. She and I became good friends and some years later I gave her a puppy who was so pampered by her that she reconstructed a building she owned in order to provide him with a garden. If not Celeste’s perfect daughter, she was a determined and energetic friend.

Gradually Celeste recovered from the loss of Wesley Addey – and then she met Frank. She was coping with the congestive heart failure with medications so she was already somewhat depleted. She should not have been alone. There was a secretary/general factotum, but he was there only for working hours. Frank Basillio was a godsend.

I met Frank when he came bouncing into Celeste’s kitchen grinning like a boy with a big surprise. The surprise was his early arrival – just back from Teheran where he, an opera baritone with a blossoming career, had been singing. Celeste, in wonderment, had just been telling me about this young man who appeared to have fallen in love with her and who was now living with her – when he wasn’t booked to sing somewhere.

I was skeptical. A good looking young man less than half her age? A fortune hunter? Most likely, I thought.

Frank plunked down on a chair at the kitchen table and gazed at Celeste adoringly, then proceeded to detail why he was in love with her. Her wit, her loveliness, her habit of grabbing the pole of the awning at the apartment house front door and swinging around it like a kid (which I could well believe – Celeste did things like that, delighting in puncturing the impression of an elegant grande dame.)

I remained skeptical. Diana Walker was more so. But year after year passed and Frank was still there. From one health crisis to another he was there, becoming her devoted care giver. His career in opera, so promising before he met Celeste, faded. Whatever he could gain from this relationship, he was sacrificing his life to it – and clearly he was sacrificing his life to her. Celeste was very happy.

Where were her sons who should have been taking care of her? They were opposing Frank and doing all in their legal powers to see to it that the apparently mismatched couple would be miserable. They got control of Celeste’s finances and put the pair on an ‘allowance’ that barely covered the grand apartment’s rent, and the couple’s basic living expenses.

Celeste went on appearing, giving performances. Sometimes irritatingly, as when the New York Philharmonic, advised by the Parks Department, contacted her when trying to reach me to book my Poe show for Poe’s centennial celebration. Instead of giving them my contact information, Celeste piped up with “I’ll do it!” And indeed she did. When I called her about another Poe event, she boldly announced “I did it!” Yes, if it was a chance to be on the stage, she took it – even from me.

Frank managed gala events for her: her birthdays, at theater restaurants where all her old friends of Broadway were invited. It was at one of these that their marriage was announced. The marriage split her friends into the approving ones and the condemning ones. I was among the approvers, seeing Frank as the care giver her sons failed to be. Most important – she seemed happy.

But that happiness was impaired. Law suits followed as her sons tried to make sure Frank would get nothing – now or when she died. And Frank and Celeste fought back. Frank remained with her, devoted in his care of her to the end.

It was a shameful attack that her sons made upon her life, her freedom of choice, and the one person who was willing to give up his life for hers.

Now that he’s alone, my hope is that Frank Basillio’s career can begin again. But Celeste’s friends were two generations older than producers who build careers these days.

If Frank was a fortune hunter – he gave more than he could possible ever have gotten. If he truly loved her, which I believe he did, then this is a strange and sad love story indeed.

Democracy, Progress and a Lost Chance in 1265

May 23 2012

I’ve recently returned from a conference sponsored by the Mortimer Society in the UK, the subject was “What if Simon de Montfort had won the battle of Evesham?” 

To those who haven’t gotten through the fourth volume of my book Montfort this mightn’t be an animating subject. But it is. For the history of Europe in any case. And indeed for all mankind.

If Simon de Montfort had won, there’s a chance that democratic government as we know it: the House of Lords and House of Commons, and elections by the common people might have persisted intact in England from 1265 onward.

What would that have meant? The theology of Thomas Aquinas probably would have been squelched.

Aquinas held that God’s Creation presents an immutable hierarchy, from God through the gradations of angels and saints to the Pope, then kings, then each member of the rest of humanity — who should properly be locked into the station in life into which he or she was born — and from mankind thence to the animals down to the lowliest worm.

It is this tenet that granted kings divine rights — power to do as they pleased so long as they didn’t offend the Pope.

Just possibly the French Revolution, inspired by England’s success, would have occurred in the early 14th century instead of the late 18th.  And all the revolutions that followed it might have come tumbling along by 1500.

The Wars of the Roses, battled between claimants to England’s throne, wouldn’t have happened. Being king wouldn’t have been such a tempting prize when the king’s actions were controlled by the Parliament.

Who would be king would be up to Parliament’s decision anyway — as shown by the English people’s government’s predilection for Protestant over Catholic candidates when a Catholic prince’s rights were plain as 1-2-3. (Charles, scorned as “The Old Pretender”.)

And the wars between England and France, so costly in lives and wealth, wouldn’t have happened in all likelihood. Or perhaps they would, but the excuses would have been a clear matter of trade dominance rather than genealogical niceties.

We’ve seen that people’s governments will surely go to war if it looks like a prospect for monopoly might be in it – be it monopoly of the wool processing trade, the Silk Route, petroleum or whatever is the dominant way to riches at the moment.

There is an intriguing aspect of history since the advent of governments guided by the vote of the people: that is the vast increase in competitive trade and what, in 19th century America, was referred to as “inventing a better mouse trap.” 

This urge to develop something new and more appealing to the shopper is the engine that has changed our world. Horse travel, by cart or astride, has been replaced by a worldwide fleet of internal combustion engines. And now we’re trying to replace those.

Communications no longer are dependent upon the footman you keep; the stranger who happens to be going from Joppa to Toulouse where you hope your letter from Palestine will be received; the ship that may founder on its way from you in New York to your business partner in Canton.

That wonder of orderly government, the Postal System, has been all but replaced now by the instant communications of the internet and email.

Might these developments not have occurred if monarchy had continued to hold sway? Monarchy thrives on old customs and traditions and has a vested interest in shunning the new.

We can see that in those countries where monarchy lasted late – monarchy curbed by elected government being the striking exception – the innovations that have changed the world did not take place.

If government by the people had lasted unperturbed from 1265 onward, would Nicholas Tesla and Bill Gates – no doubt with some other names – have brought forth their world changing discoveries by the year 1500? What would our world be now, five hundred years into further development?

Of course this isn’t what I spoke of at the Mortimer Society conference. I talked of Joachim de Flore and the Millennium – but I’ll write of that here next time.