Sunday, 27 January 2013

Carnival season in Venice

The start of the Venice carnival. Almost a scene invented by Fellini: torches flaring on the water;  beaked masks; gondolas carrying winged animals; enormous wheeled water machines; fantastic animals; mystery and drifting smoke in the darkness. The origins of the Venetian carnival are very old, even if in its recreated form it’s modern. Carnival was a time of celebration, of freedom from the restraints of your own social identity, of licence. A man or woman could become something else. Like all winter festivals it served a psychological function – here a release for people in this most constrained and self-disciplined of cities.

There was something grotesque as well as gorgeous in the spectacle. With the freedom came sinister overtones too: opportunity for anonymous crime – the blade slipped between the ribs by a man in a back street masked as a plague doctor, dangerous liaisons, gambling debts. The carnival – which traditionally lasted from St Stephen’s day (26 December) until Shrove Tuesday – also made the authorities nervous.  The wearing of masks became fiercely controlled, circumscribed with prohibitions – the spectacle and its liberties tested the boundaries of social control. But sometimes, after extraordinary events, such as news of the victory of the great sea battle of Lepanto in October 1571, the masks would be given an extra licence, shops would shut, prisoners let out of jail, and Venice would become again a fantastic and brilliantly coloured dream, a creation of the imagination unlike anything in the visible world.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

‘Sende som more canon bulletts’

Further on the battle for Painswick in the Civil War, following on from last week’s post. Someone sent me a copy of a letter from the Royalist commander, Sir William Vavasour, on the taking of the town. Seventeenth century English spelling is evidently more an art than a science and time has eaten holes in the original, which it’s a short, sharp request for some more artillery to flush out Parliamentary troops still holed up in the town:

My Lo(rd)
We have taken Painswicke, with ye loss of some men and ........ of much ......... the Rebells have possessed themselves of many Howses, wch wilbe taken in by canon, it must thearefore delyver yr Lo(rd) to sende mee 20 ...arelle of powdre more, with some hande granadoes and if you please to send a mortier peece, I shalbe able to doe his ma(jes)tye ye better servise and yr Lo will much obleige by it.
Yr Lo most humble servant
Will Vavasour
Painswicke 29th March 1643
I beseach yr Lo sende som more canon bullets

Today Painswick, my local small town, is a more peaceful place – an old church, still bearing the scars of this battle, a picturesque churchyard famous for its yews and crumbling tombs, and streets of stone houses built on the prosperity of the Cotswold wool trade.


Sunday, 13 January 2013

'To the right honourable the governor of this city'

One of the things that especially attracts me to history is reading first hand accounts – to hear people from the past speaking to us in their own voices. Yesterday, whilst our local history group was going through some archive material, we found a typescript of a record from the English civil war, fought between Parliament and the King Charles I. This is the petition from a soldier, John Barret, for aid from Edward Massie, the governor of Gloucester (a Parliamentary city), after the Parliamentary forces were put to flight by royalists  at the town of Painswick a few miles away, in March 1644.

The petition of John Barret, corporal in Captain Cotton his company, humbly sheweth:

Your petitioner was lately commanded out in the party went…in Painswick; and being put to flight, I was in the pursuit…taken by two of the enemy’s horse and six of their foot, of whom I was [knocked] down and left for dead; and having received ten wounds of them, [they] stripped me stark naked to the very skin; and ever since that time I have lain bedrid under the chyrurgion’s hands, and now, being able to rise, I cannot for want of clothes: therefore I beseech your honour that you would be pleased to take order that I may have some clothes (both linen and woollen) speedily that I may not perish for want thereof.

Your petitioner is in great want of firing, having received but two green willow blocks (that two men might carry) of the quarter-master since I was wounded.

Your petitioner received 7 wounds in the head, 5 of them through the skull, 1 cut in the back (to the bone) with a pole axe, his elbow cut off bone and all, his hand slit between the fingers, as Mr Paradine the chyrugion affirmeth, who hath almost cured them all, and very carefully and willingly he hath taken the pains to do it; how to satisfy him we know not; he was never the man that asked us a farthing.

And your petitioner shall pray…’

This hair-raising tale of terrible wounds and miraculous survival evidently had its effect, as the record goes on to record the governor’s response:

‘Captain Blaney,
I desire you to pay this petitioner 20s. to buy him clothes.

Edward Massie’

Twenty shillings – a pound – sounds like a tidy sum in the seventeenth century and there are lots of questions one might ask about this as a piece of evidence. Barret’s wounds sound so severe that his survival appears almost miraculous. Who took the trouble to rescue him from the battlefield? And did he exaggerate the extent of his injuries for maximum effect? At any rate it’s a wonderfully vivid account – and an authentic voice speaking to us across the centuries.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Stealing a theatre

Over Christmas I read 1599 by James Shapiro, a forensic study of one pivotal year in the life of William Shakespeare. I felt I was starting to read it in real time, as the book opens in London at Christmas time – on 28th December 1598, to be exact. It was a cold, snow-swept day. A group of armed men – carrying swords, daggers and hatchets – were walking with stealthy purpose through the muffled London streets. They were a troupe of actors, the Chamberlain’s Men, and the authentic weapons were the props from their bloodthirsty revenge tragedies, but they were being carried with serious intent. Amongst their number was almost certainly Shakespeare himself.

The Chamberlain’s Men were in deep trouble. They owned a wooden theatre – known, rather prosaically as the Theatre in Shoreditch, which they had been banned by the authorities from occupying. The ground on which it stood was leased from a landlord, Giles Allen, with whom they had fallen out. Without a theatre to play in their future was bleak – and there was a certainty that Allen would now claim the building's valuable timber for himself – but he was temporarily out of London for Christmas. Spotting a window of opportunity the actors decided to grab the theatre back, dismantle it and carry it away, whilst Allen was off the scene. They were armed to repulse any attempt to stop them. For Shakespeare, one of the shareholders in the company, this was a critical moment. The dawn raid had been undertaken in strict secrecy.

In a thick snow storm, and under the instruction of Peter Street, a master carpenter, they repelled all attempts to prevent them. By night fall, the enormous timbers of the frame, each a foot square and weighing half a ton, had been loaded onto wagons and wheeled away to a warehouse on the Thames. Allen returned to find an empty lot – and failed to regain the structure in a subsequent court battle.

The following spring, the Theatre was re-erected on the South Bank at Southwark, outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, and re-christened the Globe. And Shakespeare was writing furiously – new plays, new ways of seeing the world. 1599 saw Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet all brought to the light of day there, in a tumultuous year for England, London and the future of theatre.

"Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?"
Henry the Fifth

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Happy New Year

A dynamic approach to 2013. Thanks to Sidney, Hector and their human servants...