Thursday 13 December 2012

Books for Four Seasons 2012

As Christmas approaches it is time to review four of my favourite historical novels of this year. I have chosen four that are set in the seventeenth century and each of these absorbed me during 2012.  Again, I have selected one for each season.


The Bleeding Land by Giles Kristian
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I have just finished reading The Bleeding Land by Giles Kristian. This fabulous un-put-downable historical fiction tells the story of three siblings from the Lancashire gentry and their fate during the first years of the English Civil War. Giles Kristian is writing a trilogy so the Bleeding Land ends shortly after the battle of Edge hill in 1642, instilling in a reader a longing for the next book.

When civil war breaks out between the king and his angry Parliament two brothers from a royalist family fight on opposing sides. Mun, his royalist father and their friend Emmanuel fight for King Charles whilst Tom, though not exactly Parliamentarian and a religious cynic, fights for the rebels.

A horrific event in the opening chapters of the novel sets Tom's personal motivation in progress. On an historical level the actual incident illustrates  mob mentality and how this was, and still is, manipulated by those with power. A key personal factor driving Tom's story is revenge. The characters in the book are superbly realised and we see political and domestic events through each of their experiences. Whilst Mun and Tom are fighting Bess, their pregnant sister and their mother defend their estate as it is besieged by Parliamentary troops who aim to requisition it.

The Bleeding Land is a superb action story told through beautiful and clear writing. It is a thrilling narrative with excellent plotting and, importantly, the characterisation cannot be bettered. The interaction between the characters and how their actions impact on each other and the story is what makes this book stand out. It is impossible not to feel engaged with each of the protagonists. Accurately researched history is embedded in the story's narrative and revealed through their narratives and through scene setting which is extraordinarily atmospheric. Every location from London with its busy and gruesome head studded London Bridge, the claustrophobic nastiness of the lanes around Southwark, the countryside with its threatened villages, the frozen wintry woods and the hills of Lanchasire and Warickshire are all settings that reflect the sorrow of this war. Like the people who inhabit this story they are troubled places. The English Civil War is not much written about, at least, not well. This novel is without doubt one of the best I have ever read set in the period. And it has integrity. So, move over, Bernard Cornwall. Giles Kristian is more than your match as a writer of brilliant adventure historical fiction.


The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff

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The Rider of the White Horse is an old classic which I first read as a teenager. Because I thought I might write about the period, after writing Hastings from a woman's viewpoint, I picked it up from Amazon marketplace in the spring. This novel, written in 1959, is the story of Sir Thomas Fairfax's marriage and the narrative of the English Civil War told from his point of view and also that of his courageous wife Anne. Anne followed her husband's army for three years just so that she could be there for him. Again the landscape is beautifully depicted and the torn threatened villages are places that once tranquil become part of the war's theatre. Again, I was drawn to the characters and into an alien world where I could still recognise human emotions of love, anger, revenge and loyalty to mention but a few that permeate fabulous historical fiction. Again, I felt immersed in the little details of that foreign era.


The Apothecary's Daughter by Charlotte Betts

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During the summer I had to revisit The Apothecary's Daughter by Charlotte Betts as I was submitting my MPhil thesis in the Autumn. I had chosen this novel as an example (in one of my chapters) concerning how romance tempers realism in historical fiction. The Apothecary's Daughter is set in the 1660s during the plague of 1665 and the fire of 1666. Susannah, an apothecary's daughter, has unusually for the times, the freedom to pursue her talents as her father's apprentice. But, she cannot establish herself as an independent apothecary. After her father remarries she accepts a proposal of marriage from a handsome scoundrel interested in her dowry. And so a story is set in motion with a Cinderella type heroine who after thrilling events does find love and independence.  Bett's detailed depiction of the period and her psychologically developed characters allow her to write about seventeenth century London with realism. She thus recreates the illusion of an alien historical world along realist principles and successfully locates our interest in Susannah's fate within this world. Betts filters the shocking abnormality of the effects of the plague on the inhabitants of the city through a selection of interesting, very human and engaging characters.   She uses authentic detail to draw us into her historical world. The novel has a strong emotional pulse and I found it a page turner.


John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

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The story of John Saturnall, opens in 1625 with echoes of witchcraft and mob violence. As John and his mother flee their village to live hidden in ancient woods in a remote corner of England John Saturnall learns the recipes of a secret timeless feast. After his mother dies John, now an orphan, is taken to Buckland Manor, the ancestral seat of Sir William Fremantle. There, he is put to work in its subterranean kitchens. There, life is ruled by a fierce master cook who is impressed by John's gift of smell, his mysterious heritage and his talent for cooking. So, of course, John moves from the lowliest job scrubbing dishes to cooking fabulous menus for the great house.  He soon meets Sir William's daughter,Lucretia, a girl who is imaginative and headstrong. She insists on fasting. John's personal destiny is set in motion as it becomes entangled with persuading Lucy to eat, falling in love and the looming English Civil War. On the eve of the war, a marriage is made for Lucretia and the story takes further twists and turns. Then, as the dark winters of the war grip hold and the mansion is threatened by puritan militia, the story teases the reader into wondering where, when and how this skating rink of a narrative will come to rest.

The characters who inhabit Norfolk's story are absolutely engaging, original, quirky as people can be, multilayered, and who always possess, to lesser or greater degrees, universal human traits of ambition, jealousy, a sense of duty, honour and the need to love and be loved. At times I felt I had entered a new Gormenghast. Yet, this novel is no fantasy. Rather, it is rooted in folk traditions that penetrated the seventeenth century consciousness. Importantly, too, for the lover of the historical novel, it is firmly set, with realism, against a fascinating history, the course of the English Civil War, its aftermath and how it impacted on the lives of a small gallery of real and imagined characters. Norfolk's characterisation is totally faithful to history and the story itself is written with fabulous imagination, a perfect combination. I found the point of view of a chef a brilliant perspective on these great events and at all times felt myself present at the Battle of Naseby or in the woods or at the manor as Saturnall cooked up rabbits and woodland foraging for the vanquished cavalier leaders. The civil war was notable for inhabitants of a manor or village following the local magnate's sympathies without question. That was where their loyalty lay. But this novel is also a love story and an extremely unpredictable one too and it concludes long after the civil war is ended.

So what historical novels are you reading? I would love to know so that I can read them too?

The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath (a novel about Edith Swanneck, Harold's handfasted or common-law wife) will be published by Accent Press in 2013.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Midwinter in the Eleventh Century

In the December drawing of the Julian Work Calendar the nimble little figures that labour month by month are flailing, winnowing and taking away the produce of their harvest in baskets of fine woven wattle. The medieval Calendar is dedicated to work and prayer and its message is that you must labour as unquestioningly as you worship God. November was the time to cull animals that could not be fed during the winter, to preserve meat by salting it and the time to stack firewood. December was the time for threshing. And, of course, a time for celebration as it was, for all, the mid-winter Feast.

Julian calendar: page from the “Julius Calendar and Hymnal” [Credit: © The British Library/Heritage-Images]
The Julian Work Calendar

Chopping wood in January, Add. 24098 f.18v, 1520-1530
Midwinter ( pic. accredited to the BL)

January shows pictures of the ploughman handling massive oxen just as if they were enormous machines. This energy helped produce the food that fed the medieval English man throughout the year. Their often hard life is depicted in an old Anglo-Saxon poem entitled The Fortunes of Man. The poem is a meditation on fate in which the author examined the different destinies that a child of this period might encounter as he grows into an adult. Although life was filled with hazards it could offer joy as well. In the poem, there is a wish list of sport, easy money and feasting and drinking. Just as the year turns the question hangs in the air, which way will an individuals life turn. Will it be to tragedy or to happiness. Wyrd or fate was a significant concept for the eleventh century Englishman or woman.

Chartres Cathedral window showing Winter


The Anglo-Saxon year was punctuated with feast days attributed to Saints. The most significant of these was the Christmas Feast. This feast was also an important communal act which reinforced social bonds and provided the occasion for the discussion of and dissemination of important information. Moreover in addition to a wide range of home-produced foods and drinks at the mid-winter feast, a noble family might have access to spices, herbs, wine, oils, fruits and nuts from abroad. Trade routes stretched from the Baltic to the Indian Ocean. Imports included coriander seeds, pepper and oil. Bede is recorded as having bequeathed lavender, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, coriander, cardamon, galingale, ginger, liquorice, sugar and pepper to his fellow monks on his death. So a Christmas or New Year's gift may have included exotic spices and Christmas fare may have contained surprising exotic flavours. By the end of the period, the court, and other large households, appear to have secured suppliers of pepper. 10 lbs of pepper was paid at Christmas by subjects of the early medieval King Ethelred as part of a toll. By the eleventh century, pepperers were organised and established. Pepper was widely used to season omelets, in wort drinks, in honeyed apple dishes whereas we might use cloves.

Medieval Saints' Days illustration

Winter clothing is described in an old English poem called The Seafarer. The seafarer's feet were so pinched by cold that he felt shackled by chains of ice. In Aelfric's Colloquay the ploughman is very aware of the difference between his outdoor life and the comfort experienced by his lord. His boy's voice was hoarse from the cold and shouting as he urged on the plough oxen.  They needed clothing to keep out the rain and the snow and so the main material for wet-weather wear was leather. These garments included boots, ankle leathers, shoes and leather trousers. The leather maker in the Colloquy proclaims that 'no-one is willing to go through winter without my craft.'  However the majority of Anglo-Saxon garments were made of wool, black, brown and white wool, spun, woven and dyed.


The King travelled around his estates with great worldly displays of daily rejoicing and feasting. Several hundred people would travel long distances to the king's winter feast. And closer to the estates that spread throughout the countryside, workers entitlements varied, but a perquisite might be feasts such as Christmas, Easter as well as harvest, ploughing and haymaking feasts. The mid-winter Christmas feast was a special occasion enjoyed by all, labourers and nobles alike and it is recorded that the major festivals of the church were to be celebrated on the pain of excommunication. The Rule of Chrodegang stated that two or three drinks could be taken in the room with the fire but this rule also cautioned: 'however great the gladness, see that drunkenness does not prevail.' Yet, Christmas then as now was a special celebration. The Penitential of Theodore excused penance for the priest who drank too much on a saint's celebration feast, or at Christmas! And after all there is Lent to come before winter is out and a long cold lean season ahead. I have written about The King's Christmas Feast of 1065 here
St Nicholas

St Nicholas came later but he is always associated throughout Europe with Christmas. I love the richness of the stained-glass window painting above and could not resist including it here.

In the Liverpool museum there is a walrus tusk from the eleventh century that has been carved with two cheeky sheep peering out from below the manger of the Christ child. There were English early medieval superstitions attached to the twelve days of Christmas. For example wind on the eleventh of the twelve days meant that all cattle will perish. If the mass-day of mid-winter fell on a Sunday 'sheep shall thrive'; if on a Tuesday , they were imperilled, but if the mass-day of mid-winter fell on a Saturday 'sheep will perish.'
Pinned Image
A December picture from a calendar in A Book of Hours

I write about the dramatic events of King Edward's mid-winter feast at Westminster in 1065 in my novel The Handfasted Wife, the story of Edith Swanneck, to be published by Accent Press in 2013.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Lagos, Henry the Navigator and The Algarve Writers.

Lagos is one of the prettiest, relaxed ports on the Algarve. Some time ago I had bid on the rental of a gorgeous five bedroomed villa to support cancer research at our village charity auction. Consequently we washed up close to Lagos in October 2012. I used the second week of the rental to invite some of my writing friends to use it as a writing retreat. They seized the opportunity to write in this beautiful place and, believe me, it was difficult to extract them from the villa. The writers became lost in its magic and in their writing. Here, they discovered their own private nooks and passed long candle-lit evenings  dining under the stars. We shared writing tips, publishing information and extracts from very different works in progress.

evening view from the villa
and on the morning walk by a lagoon to the beach
and the shell fisher

Sue, Carol, Grace , writers at leisure


When my friends did eventually emerge from the privacy of our villa they explored Lagos and its rich history. The area to the west of Lagos contains secret towns and villages set amongst unfrequented beaches off the regular tourist tracks. These hidden places possess an interesting history which casts back to Henry the Navigator and the very early years of the European Trade Triangle.

Secret beaches
Alison, Gail and Denise, writers in the Algarve


Henry the Navigator was born in 1394 and died in 1460. He is attributed with the early development of European exploration and maritime trade with distant continents. Prince Henry was the third child of King John I of Portugal and John of Gaunt's daughter Philippa of Lancaster. He conquered Ceuta the Muslim port on the north African coast and as a consequence became fascinated with Africa. He was, for instance, intrigued by the legend of Prestor John and he aimed to expand Portuguese trade into parts of the continent that had not been as yet explored. To this end he was responsible for ports along Portugal's south west coastline, one of which is in Lagos. In the fifteeenth century ships in the Mediterranean were too slow to make long voyages far south along the African coast or west into the dangerous and uncharted Atlantic ocean.

Henry the Navigator's Fort in Lagos
The Navigator
One of his ships

Chapel in the museum at the fort


 Men feared the great western ocean thinking that if they ventured too far they would be devoured by sea creatures. Henry directed a new lighter ship to be built. He called it the caravel. It could sail further and faster. He also developed a town and very important fort on the Sagres Peninsula located at the south westernmost point of Iberia. (see pictures further on). He sponsored voyages as far as Guinea along the coast of Africa bringing back to Lagos numerous African slaves and trade.

This skeleton is in the museum associated with the Slave Trade
The Cathedral in Lagos opposite the Slave Market

Henry the Navigator attracted navigators and map makers to his fort at Sagres and other buildings along the Algarve that are now attributed to him. These places were not observatories and navigational centres in today's sense, but even so his map makers were responsible for charting the west coast of Africa. Ironically he ransomed Portuguese subjects who had been enslaved by pirate attacks on Portuguese villages and who would be sold in African Slave markets. In turn he brought Africans back to Portugal where he claimed that he was converting his captives to Christianity. It was a violent action, associated with the darker aspects of religious fervour and political shenanigans. There is no doubt that the slave building in Lagos opposite the Cathedral still retains a very sorrowful atmosphere.

 fourteenth century vessel

Lagos provided a suitable harbour from which slaving expeditions left. The voyages were made in tiny ships like the caravel which was light and easy to manoeuvre.  Using new lighter ships the Portuguese passed the southern boundary of the Sahara and rounded the Cap-Vert Peninsula. As a consequence more slaves and gold arrived in Lagos. From 1444-1446 at least forty ships sailed from Lagos and so the first private mercantile expeditions began. By 1462 the Portuguese had reached Sierra-Leone. In 1498 Vasco da Gama was the first sailor to round the Cape of Good Hope and sail from Portugal to India.

Another of the Navigator's forts near Sagres

Celebrating a western sunset
Witch making damp where the sun sinks at the westernmost point

One of the fascinating visits we made in this part of Portugal was to the furthest point west where the sunset lingers for ever in the memory. With the grandeur of that moment when the sinking sun melts into the sea it is possible to imagine the sense of wonder that must have possessed those early navigators as they contemplated the mysterious and frightening ocean.

And the Port of Lagos in October 2012


Saturday 10 November 2012

King Harold's Daughter

Gunnhild Godwindatter was the youngest daughter of King Harold II who lost his kingdom to Duke William of Normandy in 1066. Around this date, possibly before it, Gunnhild was at Wilton Abbey. After the Norman Conquest many heiresses took refuge in abbeys as King William encouraged inter-marriage between English and Normans. It was one way that made the take-over easier and it often gave unmarried Norman knights the opportunity to claim legal tenure to English lands.

The Norman Conquest of England 1066

The most engaging story concerning English heiresses is that of Gunnhild. I suggest that she was already as a child being educated in Wilton Abbey in 1066. Her aunt Edith Godwin was patron of Wilton. Many noblewomen went there to learn embroidery for example.There was an embroidery workshop at Wilton where it is very possible that some panels of the Bayeux Tapestry were embroidered, though it was designed at Canterbury. Carola Hicks wrote on this subject with convincing argument. Aristocratic young women received an education there and it is not impossible that Gunnhild was originally at Wilton to learn reading and writing, languages and, of course, embroidery amongst other skills. Equally, Edith Godwin may have had ambitions for her royal niece. She may, according to historian and academic, Anne Williams, have hoped that Gunnhild would become a novice, take vows and aim for the top job, that of abbess. Then in December 1075 Edith, the widow of Edward the Confessor, died, too soon to realise possible ambitions for Gunnhild.

St Edith to whom Wilton Abbey was dedicated.

There are two lines of thought about what became of Gunnhild. It is recorded in Oderic Vitalis that Gunnhild eloped from Wilton with Alan of Richmond circa 1089-1090. In this story, Count Alan came to Wilton hoping to court and wed with Matilda of Scotland who was also there to be educated. Failing in this venture, rejected by one heiress, he found himself another heiress, King Harold's daughter Gunnhild. They eloped and married. Alan died circa 1092, although his death is also recorded as having been in 1089. After his death Gunnhild married his brother. Alan's brother, Alan Niger, inherited the Honour of Richmond. At this point Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, intervened and told her to return to Wilton and that if she did not Alan Niger would be dead within a year. His death is recorded as 1098.  Gunnhild did not return to Wilton after all and after Alan Niger's death a third brother, Stephen, inherited the Honour of Richmond.

An image of Alan of Richmond and of Brittany

However, there is another take on this story based on recent research. Richard Sharpe writing in Haskins Journal explains how Gunnhild probably eloped with Alan of Richmond in the 1070s. It is plausible. In 1675 a head tablet was discovered near the Norman west door of Lincoln Cathedral. It records the burial of a son of Walter d'Agincourt, Lord of Brittany and Branston in Lincolnshire at the time of Domesday. He, William, was born of royal stock and died while living in fosterage at the court of King William, son of William the Elder, who conquered England. The date given is 1093.

To Study and to learn to be a page.

The heirs of noble families were often drawn into the king's Curia for their education. William's father, Walter D'Agincourt, married a certain Matilda who gave gifts of land to the Cathedral. Most of what Matilda gave was, in fact, owned by Count Alan. Count Alan had vast lands in Yorkshire, Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire according to the Domesday Book. So how could she gift lands that he had title to unless, of course, Alan of Richmond was Matilda's father. The answer lies in the Anselm letters of 1093. This is a correspondence between Archbishop Anselm and Gunnhild on the subject and probably not concerning the first marriage but her second.

Lincoln Cathedral is Romanesque

Count Alan built up his lands but how is not recorded. He is buried at Bury St Edmunds. In 1086 his holdings made Alan the fourth largest landowner or rather lay tenant in England. Richard Sharpe suggests that Alan Rufus of Richmond may have died in 1089. Gunnhild had never professed but Anselm treats her in the letters as a lapsed nun. Her duty was to return to the cloister. In 1073 Archbishop Lanfranc had ruled that Anglo-Saxon women who had at the time of Conquest protected their chastity by retreating to convents, should make a choice to become professed nuns or leave the convent. Gunnhild may have left Wilton around the time of this ruling.

Domesday Book confirmed lands in 1085 and shows who held what in 1066

 Gunnhild's mother, Edith Swanneck, had lands which after Conquest, certainly by 1086, were attributed to Alan of Richmond. Land holdings were legitimised through marriage. If Count Alan married Gunnhild he would have legitimised his succession to her mother's estates. Count Alan's relationship with Gunnhild might have begun when he had received only a little of his great lands ie. before 1075. If they married in 1075 their daughter would have just about been old enough to have married Walter d'Agincourt by the late 1080s. Matilda could have received property from Count Alan, her father, lands that may indeed have come from her grandmother Edith Swanneck. These lands are, as stated above, in his possession by Domesday 1086.  The boy, William, who was buried by the west door of Lincoln Cathedral in 1093 was recorded to be of royal lineage. This means he could have been the great grand-son of Harold II who died losing his kingdom at Hastings. I have no real proof but Richard Sharpe's theory is appealing.
How I imagine Gunnhild, a courageous heroine.

I have used this theory for my new book, The Winter Countess, working title. I have set the marriage and elopement a little later than the date posited by Richard Sharpe as 1072. I suggest 1075 after the death of Edith Godwin. It is a riveting story to work with, and, as ever, with historical fiction it is a question of  animating history and sometimes posing ideas that make the reader think about these possibilities. It is impossible to know what Gunnhild really thought or indeed what really happened. But it is a fascinating story that can reveal much about the secret lives of women in a time when women were shadows in a corner.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Marriage in the Eleventh Century

The domestic institutions of medieval society faced change around the year 1000.
The Church reorganised itself in a great reform movement and during the eleventh century tried vigorously to shape and direct secular society. It developed a canon law of marriage. The Church also successfully claimed the right to judge marriage cases within its own courts. The ages and the terms of marriage shifted. Although the changes were most visible in Italy they were soon evident throughout Europe. For example the Germanic ceremony of handfasting, a ceremony where the two parties agreed betrothal and marriage and the families of the bride and groom agreed the dowry and the groom's gifts to the wife, undergoes change. Before Gregorian reforms the marriage ceremony simply included the marriage contract, betrothal and a ring of fidelity which the groom placed on the bride's finger.This was understood as handfasting and the ceremony did not have to have a priest's blessing. Hands were often tied with ribbons and rings exchanged. The dowry was exchanged with an agreement in the presence of persons invited from both sides. After a suitable interval both bride and groom were brought to marriage vows.

His family and her family and the Church

And so canon law replaced the secular codes during the eleventh century. Before, fathers controlled the giving of son or daughter into marriage. Now with Church reform, consent alone was sufficient for a valid marriage. Now debate arose as to whether physical union rendered the marriage binding. It was a delicate matter which throws back to the issue of the marriage between Mary and Joseph which though a marriage was never sexually consummated according to the Church was, none the less, a marriage.

Italy and France led the way as the Church took marriage over but there was a great debate as to what made it a marriage.

Two notions existed in the religious debate concerning marriage. When partners expressed their consent the couple entered into a 'matrimonium initiatum' and the subsequent sexual union confirmed the marriage. The sexual union mattered. However, another view  emerged in France and this was that to marry the bride and groom only need express their consent in words of the present tense. A promise through words of the future tense was only a betrothal and not yet a marriage and could be annulled.  This doctrine from France was endorsed by pope Alexander III in the mid twelfth century so that the spoken consent  of the partners alone in the present tense made the marriage valid and binding even without sexual intercourse. This explains the great fuss over whether Ann Boleyn was, in fact, married to Harry Percy. Ann Boleyn did not even have to have had sexual relations to be considered wed. Therefore, Percy was questioned and sent away when Henry VIII expressed his interest.

Policy may have been outmanoeuvred by passion

The Church however insisted that the couple seek the blessing of a priest. The endowment of the bride 'in the face of the church' was principal proof that a legal marriage had been contracted. Failure to obtain the nuptial blessing, to endow the bride or to publish the banns of marriage were impediments that rendered the marriage illicit but not invalid. The marriage would stand but the couple could face penances.

Fathers made marriage contracts but never did the family have quite the same power as before the Church takes over

A father could not force a son or daughter into an unwanted marriage nor prevent him or her from marrying. A father, therefore, was helpless in the face of an elopement. The church doctrine was a blow to paternal authority in the medieval household. This also meant that a daughter could be treated as a marginal member of her father's lineage as patrimonial and kindred ties lessened. Women began to lose claim to a fair share with her brothers in the family patrimony. The dowry marked the limit of material support that a woman would receive from her original family.

There were elopements and if vows were said then the marriage held.

In the two novels I have been writing women are affected by the changes brought to marriage during the eleventh century. Edith Swanneck was set aside by Harold II who made a political marriage in 1066 or thereabouts and could do so because the pair had been married in the old style of handfasting, a marriage not yet subject to Gregorian reform. Their daughter Gunnhild in the 1070s eloped or was abducted from a monastery/convent and married Count Alain of Brittany, possibly another handfasting if indeed there ever was a formal wedding of any kind. She was an inmate of Wilton Abbey under the protection of the Church. However, once Gunnhild eloped with Count Alain there was no recall, though later when after Count Alain's death she took up with his successor, Archbishop Anselm tried to persuade her to return to Wilton. She never did and her marriage seems to have stood.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Falconry, Lepers and the Angel

The medieval festival in the small Tuscan hill town of Montevettolini takes place in September for one day only. Montevettolini nestles in the hills about a half hour's drive from Lucca and dominates the hinterland a few miles south of Montecatini Terme. 
Signor Fruit and two veg
Wandering Troubadours
Some of the stalls with Tuscan hills in background

This annual medieval experience is a crowd drawing event; being a fortified hilltop town there is only one road in and one road out and both of these are hardly wide enough for an ox-drawn cart. Consequently on the day of the Festa visitors' cars straddle the olive tree lined verges for miles in both directions. One needs to arrive relatively early to avoid a strenuous uphill climb to the town gate.

Local produce

In the narrow streets it's hard to avoid the importunate lepers
....and the elvish maidens

and sirens
faintly anachronistic

We do find parking and after a short walk to the town walls we wait in a queue for the door in the great heavy gate to open and when it does the fierce gatekeepers clad in studded leather cuirasses and fully armed with sword and lance bark unintelligible questions at us in Italian. As visiting emissaries from a far-off foreign land we are closely scrutinised and eventually allowed passage. We drop a generous voluntary stipend in the basket by the gate to appease them and proceed to cross a temporal boundary.

Milord and Lady

The hat seller plies his wares
A deeply religious encounter

Another Acolyte is recruited

Once inside our twenty-first century world disappears and we are in the thirteenth century  jostled by jesters, pilgrims, crusaders, lepers, owl keepers, bee keepers, falconers and town dignitaries and merchants. All of Montevettolini participates in this richly concocted illusion accompanied by convincing actors and musicians who wander the streets with medieval instruments playing music not unlike that of Galicia or Brittany.

Mixing ancient dyes
The Seigneur (or Eddie Jordan?)
The wine flows "siphonically"
 The broad square adjacent to the town gate is flanked by medieval buildings. All modern signs have been concealed and evidence of our world is banished for the evening. In the main square there is a fascinating programme. As dusk descends we watch a falconry event as pigeons flee to safety in the tall church belfries when the hunting birds soar high. An Angel and one of his Apostles stalk the square accosting us innocents. Later as darkness falls town dignitaries gather for a grand candle-lit procession lead by an important crusading nobleman.

A Mage plays his devious tricks

The Grain Seller
The pesky lepers are persistent
 Small events occur in open spaces by churches. The musicians play and a maiden waits to be ducked in a pond if only someone can toss a small ball into the bulls eye net. The narrow streets are full of stalls containing beautiful crafts, wine, breads , mushrooms, foods, costumes, posies, circlets of flowers, hats and demonstrations of candle making, carving and stone masonry. We turn into a street by the walls and are suddenly accosted by moans, wails, groans and begging from a colony of lepers who desperately grab our legs. Around another corner we encounter a collection of owls.

My new BF, Signor Fruity and Two Veg.
Narrowly avoiding decapitation by falconry perch
 As the sun sets over distant hills in an enormous fireball we eat in the common hall. Our fare is basic but a substantial, even, some might claim, luxurious plate of beef and beans accompanied by a generous flagon of red wine.

Medieval Times

It's a hill town

When we finally exit the gate at midnight there is still a queue gathering to beg entry. Patiently the gate keepers ask their questions and allow them through when they make satisfactory responses. 
We make our way back to Lucca wondering if Medieval life could really have been that much fun....