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Cosmic Brides and the Dancing Dead

Latest sighting of women in the past: spirts honored in early Europe were willies -- girls and young women who died without giving birth and therefore donated their fertility to the good of the agrarian community. These willies spent "their nights and days dancing in the fields and forests" the way living girls did. Also honored was the Cosmic Bride.

 

Here are some great visual images and tidbits from The Dancing Goddesses by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.

 

"There existed a very special group: young women born into the clan who have died before having any children – hence not ancestors of the living but still belonging to the community. Most important, they have not used their natural store of fertility. So, people reasoned, if we're especially nice to them, they might bestow their unused fertility on us. Because unmarried girls in the living community spent much of their time singing and dancing together,  Read More 

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Katharine Tynan, Author of the Irish Renaissance

Always on the lookout for under-represented women, I have found Katharine Tynan in "The Irish Identity: Independence, History, and Literature" taught by Dr. Marc C. Conner, Washington and Lee University, The Great Courses Plus.

 

A prodigious writer, Tynan (23 January 1859 – 2 April 1931) penned more than 100 novels, five autobiographical volumes and several volumes of poetry, but is most frequently mentioned because of her substantial influence on William Butler Yeats.

 

"In sowing the seeds of the renaissance of Irish culture, Hyde, Russell, and Yeats were joined by another figure, the poet and novelist Katharine Tynan, a good friend of Yeats and a prolific author whose career spanned many decades. She was an important poet even before Yeats, having published two volumes of poems in the 1880s and more than a dozen books in the 1890s," Conner says.

 

Her poem 'Any Woman', expressed the centrality of the woman figure in Irish mythology."

 

"Tynan and Yeats met in 1885 and already she had formed a weekly evening gathering over literary conversational ideas, a sort of small literary salon of Dublin writers. She and Yeats soon became confidants and exchanged many letters over the years. As Yates emerged as a young poet, and then became a major poet...he would try his ideas out on Tynan, gauge her responses, and he formed many of his aesthetics of poetry through his correspondence with her," according to Conner. Wikipedia suggests that Yeats "may have proposed marriage and been rejected, around 1885."

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Why Nuns Make Great Characters in Historical Fiction

Recently occurred to me that...

A few great things about having nuns as characters in historical fiction is that:

  • It can be assumed that they are better educated than their neighbors and so capable of more. They could be one of the few in the story who could read a manuscript or a secret ledger. They can read edicts for the village, putting them in a position of power, and letters for the individual so they are privy to information that others won't possess.
  • They have been brought up to be leaders. They organize things and investigate/snoop/assist so there's an excuse for them being the center of attention, or one of the key powers in the story.
  • Nuns have more of their own agency and freedom to move about the village and surrounding area which makes it easier for her to move through the story, unencumbered.  They visit the sick and isolated, and so can be a conduit for information or communication from afar.
  • They are also protected by a level of sanctity that can lessen the chance of assault, because no one wants to write about that.
  • Nuns are excused from the typical social or sexual obligations women face with men and so can co-exist with men in a story without coupling up.
  • It is reasonable for a nun to be an orphan or a cast-off from her family, or at the very least 'stationed' away from her family, so you can get away with a truncated backstory. They have fewer resources to call upon (no father/brother/sister to come to the rescue) which can increase tension in the story and keep this character focused on/dependent upon the protagonist.
  • Her room and lodging can also be extremely sparse so there doesn't have to be a lot of description of decoration and dressing.

So, I think nuns are very handy.  However, the downside is that  Read More 

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"Unsung Heroes of WWII" Includes 3 Women in Resistance

In "Unsung Heroes of World War II" (The Great Courses Plus), Lynne Olson introduces us to three women who played pivotal roles in the resistance to the Nazis in World War II. Olson, a bestselling author of eight books, is the historian whom former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called "our era's foremost chronicler of World War II politics and diplomacy."

 

Here are three women who made Professor Olson's list:

 

Andree de Jongh

Known as Dedee, Andree de Jongh founded the Comet Line, the largest and most important escape line smuggling airman from behind enemy lines.

 

Dedee "worked as a nurse for British troops wounded in the fighting. Along with a group of friends and acquaintances, she began to smuggle injured British soldiers out of German-controlled hospitals and take them to nearby safe houses that she had set up. Not long afterward, she traveled secretly to Spain, which, during World War II, was a neutral country" and struck a deal to smuggle fighters through Spain to the coast where they would be flown back to England.

 

"The majority of Comet Line workers were women," Olson says. "Being part of an escape network was probably the most dangerous form of resistance work in Europe. German officials were keenly aware of the value of these airmen to the Allied bombing effort. If escaped line members were caught, they faced torture, the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp, and/or execution. It was particularly dangerous for the couriers—most of them young women, many of them still in their teens—who escorted the servicemen hundreds of miles across enemy territory.

 

"The Comet Line would be the largest and most important escape line in occupied Europe. It would be credited with rescuing more than 800 British and American servicemen, getting them out of enemy territory and back to freedom.

 

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Babies Buried Under the Threshold

I swear sometimes I can read a 400-page book and discover only one visual or a single trivial oddity that captures my imagination and makes its way into a new novel. I won't tell you which of these fascinating facts is the one but here's what I gleaned from The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages, by Robert Fossier, (Princeton University Press, 2010)

 

Best facts first:

  • The fire or hearth went from outside the house to inside sometime between 900-1100 AD.
  • Last rites could be given by laypeople, even criminals, during the Black Death and early Middle Ages.
  • Children who died without baptism or were stillborn were buried under the threshold of the home to prevent demons from seizing it and turning it into a changeling.
  • Women worked salt marshes and salt pans in fishing villages, hard physical work to produce the salt required to preserve food.
  • Churchman San Bernardino of Sienna maintained that a fetus less than 40 days old could be aborted for reasons of health or poverty. Herbal abortion recipes were well known.
  • Wine was not kept from one season to the next. It was either consumed or destroyed.
  • Houses of prostitution were kept by the Church, noted here and detailed in my first book, A Herstory of Prostitution in Western Europe.  

Here are other gems:

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Fascinating New Look at Our Kindred Neanderthals

I'm heartened by the fact that we have been Homo sapiens for 200,000 years and that new evidence suggests that for 190,000 of those years we lived in communal, cooperative and egalitarian groups. No rulers, no class structure or private property, no gender disparities.

 

And I've mentioned before that there's great work being done to unravel the bias against/invisibility of women in the archaeological and anthropological records. 

 

Now there's fresh, startling evidence that Neanderthal culture was far more advanced that previously thought.

 

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020)

 

This book is written in a lively and entertaining style, is very serious about its scholarship while being entirely assessable and, as it was just released, contains all the very latest discoveries and some musings about Covid-19. (Also, thank you Ms. Sykes for including female scientists among your sources.)

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The Last Pandemic was Deadly Because of Press Censorship

The Chinese doctor who first identified the coronavirus was arrested for speaking out, eventually dying of the disease. And just in case you're still not a huge champion of a free press in America, here's an incredible example of what happened when the U.S. dabbled in its own version of 'just print good news': it contributed to the death of 50 million people in what was called The Spanish Flu.

 

Though the Spanish Flu started in Haskell, Kansas on an Army base, it was named after Spain because Spanish journalists "had more freedom and more courage to report the truth, and they were neutral during World War I." They were the first to report on the rapidly rising death rate, according to Jennifer Wright, in her breezy but graphic book on global pandemics, Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them. "A morale law had been passed in 1917 after the United States entered World War I. It stated you could receive 20 years in jail if you chose to 'utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the government of the United States.' This law seems unconstitutional,  Read More 

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Mystery of the Venus de Milo: She was Spinning

History books often described women as being "relegated" to spinning or embroidery, and one thinks of a woman in a fussy dress wasting time with an embroidery hoop. Elizabeth Wayland Barber in her book Women's Work: the First 20,000 Years, however, describes in great detail a world where the work of women – and trading skills of women -- ran the world economy, producing the world's most coveted, sold, and plundered product.

 

Cloth Drove the Global Economy

You have to remember that until recently, with the invention of plastic and the availability of metals, everything was made of either fabric or wood. Objects were wrapped in cloth, carried in a sack, and even wooden boxes were frequently lined with fabric.  Read More 

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Gems from Ulrich's Not-Well-Behaved Women

Self-Portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi

The phrase "well-behaved women never make history" was actually coined (as 'seldom make history') by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich  and can now be seen on T-shirts, bumper stickers and buttons all over the world. Here are some of the gems on unwed mothers, fighting women, unsung authors of the 1600s and other women you'll want to know from her book Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (Alfred Knopf, 2007). 

 

Unwed Mothers and Women in Court

"Although a quarter of English brides were pregnant at marriage, very few babies – roughly 2 – 3% – were born to unwed mothers. In most cases, a combination of social pressure and the threat of legal action forced people to marry. When they didn't, the law insisted  Read More 

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Christine de Pizan Honored by GCP

I'm always very excited to find in history courses references to Christine de Pizan, a woman in the 1300s who was the world's first feminist and first professional writer. IMHO, she is under-heralded and too frequently overlooked. My novel A Slender Tether (Fireship Press, 2013), dramatizes her difficult early years that were filled with grief, poverty, and thwarted ambition.

 

I'm drawn to her because of her hunger to write (which I feel in my gut), her struggle with ambition (a love-hate relationship I know well) and her feeling that she is a "raptor among bluebirds", socially unacceptable for her ferocity (a more autobiographical idea than anything I've ever written before.)

 

So when The Great Courses Plus included her in their (excellent) course  Read More 

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