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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The last few posts have focused on feasts as they are happening, with no attention paid to how the feast came to be. That changes tonight, with a visit to the Great Kitchen of Stirling Castle. After an extensive refurbishment project, the castle reopened in 2011. My family and I visited it more times than I can count when I was a child, so it was the perfect place in which to celebrate Mum’s birthday after the reopening.
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Today’s post is inspired by my hearing on the radio, over breakfast, that today is National Letter Writing Day. I couldn’t decide between a letter from the First World War and a Victorian letter to Santa Claus. The former is on my mind because last year was the centenary of the war starting, with that famous cry of “Over by Christmas!”, and because of the stories of Christmas truces and football games in No Man’s Land.  Last year, to commemorate the centenary, the Royal Mail reproduced a letter written on Christmas Day 1914 by Second Lt Alfred Dougan Chater, of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders, to his mother.

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Second Lt. Chater’s letter, Christmas Day 1914. Photograph: Royal Mail/Simon Chater/PA, via the Guardian website.

The transcript is as follows:

“Dearest Mother, I am writing this in the trenches in my ‘dug out’ – with a wood fire going and plenty of straw it is rather cosy, although it is freezing hard and real Christmas weather.

I think I have seen today one of the most extraordinary sights that anyone has ever seen. About 10 o’clock this morning I was peeping over the parapet when I saw a German, waving his arms, and presently two of them got out of their trench and came towards ours.

“We were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles, so one of our men went to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.

This continued for about half an hour when most of the men were ordered back to the trenches. For the rest of the day nobody has fired a shot and the men have been wandering about at will on the top of the parapet and carrying straw and firewood about in the open – we have also had joint burial parties with a service for some dead, some German and some ours, who were lying out between the lines. Some of our officers were taking groups of English and German soldiers. This extraordinary truce has been quite impromptu – there was no previous arrangement and of course it had been decided that there was not to be any cessation of hostilities.

I went out myself and shook hands with many of their officers and men. From what I gather most of them would be as glad to get home again as we should. We have had our pipes playing all day and everyone has been wandering about in the open unmolested but not of course as far as the enemies line – the truce will probably hold until someone is foolish enough to let off his rifle. We nearly messed it up this afternoon, by one of our fellows letting off his rifle skywards by mistake, but they did not seem to notice it so it did not matter. I have been taking advantage of the truce to improve my “dug-out” which I share with S. McBain, the Scotch [illegible] an excellent fellow. We put on a proper roof this morning and now we have got a tiled fireplace and brushwood and straw on the floor. We leave the trenches tomorrow, and I shan’t be sorry as it is much too cold to be pleasant at night.”

The rest of the letter is not available for transcription, and only two words above caused me any trouble. It’s rather fascinating to get this glimpse into the day.

But I couldn’t resist including an example of a letter to Santa as well, because I remember how much time and effort I (with the siblings) put into those letters, and into Santa’s bribes drink and mince pies (plus a carrot for Rudolf). I’ve been reading such a variety of these letters today, for example at the Archives of Ontario and young Janet’s won the day because she seems to laugh rather sarcastically at the end about her Dad asking for a Cadillac. Do any of my Canadian readers remember Eaton’s store? I have high hopes for the Toyland being a cross between the Santa’s Grottoes in Elf and Miracle on 34th Street.

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"Girl Reading", by Katie Ward. Virago paperback cover (from Katie Ward's website)

“Girl Reading”, by Katie Ward. Virago paperback cover (from Katie Ward’s website)

This is Katie Ward’s first novel, and a wonderfully intricate work which would be impressive were it her third, or fourth, or whateverth work. It doesn’t come across as a story as much as it does a series of scenes all of are built around variations on a particular image – a girl or a woman reading a book. We move forward through time with each scene, from 1333 to 2060. I can’t properly describe the chapters as individual stories, as there is no real beginning or ending, just some time spent with the characters, frequently stepping in at the start, the middle, or the end of their stories, but never including all three such parts together. The woman reading is the shared experience, as expressed in the opening quote from Jung’s ‘Synchronicity: an acausal connecting principle’ (Collected Works, vol. 8):

You can never say with certainty that what appears to be going on in the collective unconscious of a single individual is not also happening in other individuals or organisms or things or situations.

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Empress Elisabeth of Austria in Courtly Gala Dress with Diamond Stars, by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, oil on canvas, 1865, Schloss Hofburg, Vienna. Image via Wikimedia Commons

I picked up Daisy Goodwin’s first novel, My Last Duchess (2011), primarily because it took its title from Robert Browning’s poem of the same name, which I had studied at school. I did in part judge her second novel by its cover, coveting the outfit worn by the model in Jeff Cottenden’s cover photograph, but my main reason for choosing it was the fact that one of its characters is the real life Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, Elisabeth, called Sisi (24 December 1837 – 10 September 1898), wife of Emperor Franz Josef I. Before reading this book, I knew Sisi only through her stunning portrait, by Franz Winterhalter (look left!). I have always loved this painting, and it is the reason why, knowing nothing else about her, I borrowed this book from the library. (more…)

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Ordinarily, as I get back on a regular blogging schedule, today would be Victorian Vendredi day, but as I’m getting ready to go on holiday in two days, time for blogging be limited.

Eglise Notre Dame de Calais (building started in the 13th century).

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This weekend, I will be departing on a magical mystery tour of Brittany. One of the main things on my list is the Bayeux Tapestry; I first saw it when I was maybe seven or eight, I don’t remember, but I’ve never quite forgotten it. I do however add it to the list of the material things and experiences which made me a medievalist years later. (more…)

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Given this post is more an announcement of future regular posts resuming, as opposed to an actual post in itself, I thought I’d post some of my favourite pictures of medieval angels – on the basis that they act as heralds, and so tie into the theme of announcing. (more…)

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