Curtmantle

Though my primary field is Tudor-Stuart history, occasionally I teach a more general English history survey which spans from Roman era to the seventeenth century. My biggest challenge in this course, which I am teaching this semester, is to refrain from settling into mere storytelling about the characters and exploits of a succession of colorful kings and queens. The students in this course are generally not history majors, and their knowledge and interest in history tends to be quite History Channel-ish, meaning that they are more interested in personalities than structures. I try to balance it all out, and for the most part I think I’m successful, but periodically I must slow down and simply consider the character and reign of a monarch in rather narrative fashion. Such is the case with King Henry II, nicknamed Curtmantle for the shorter French/Angevin mantle he supposedly wore, who was born on this day in 1133. It doesn’t matter how much I dwell on King Henry–they want more, and I’m wondering why? Of course the broad strokes and details of his life are dramatic–the rise to power in the wake of Civil War, his conquest and contests with Queen Eleanor, his family fights, his multi-front wars, the murder of Archbishop Becket in Canterbury Cathedral and the penitential consequences–I still think that it’s the popular characterization of Henry rather than the historical one that has captivated my students. Even though they’re far too young to remember Peter O’Toole in Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968), he is still their Henry.

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Peter O’ Toole in a publicity photograph for Becket (1964) and a still from The Lion in Winter (1968).

My students are so young they haven’t even seen or heard of O’Toole’s portrayal of Henry II, but when I ask them what they know about him, they describe O’Toole’s portrayal:  now that’s a powerful performance! Once again, we see that history is produced by film (sigh). But I think you have to go further back:  not (of course) to the actual era of Henry II, but to that which produced the characterization that inspired O’Toole’s performance. Henry became Henry because of his hand in martyring Becket, of course, but also because of his women: his wife Eleanor and his mistress Rosamund Clifford, the “fair Rosamund”. Henry’s struggles with the Church in general and Becket in particular appealed to 18th and 19th historians charting secular “liberation”, while their more romantic counterparts in the arts focused on the women: the Pre-Raphaelites in particular seem to have been obsessed with Eleanor and particularly Rosamund, featuring them both individually and together in mythical contest (based on an old fable alleging the Queen tried to poison the mistress). This is all very dramatic stuff, almost equaling the narrative of that dynasty of the (long) moment, the Tudors. I predict a Plantagenet comeback.

King Henry II

Henry II Thornycroft framed

Curtmantle chapbook

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Fair Rosamund 1916

Henry II as characterized by Alfred Crowquill’s Comic History of the Kings and Queens of England (Read & Co, c 1860) and Rosalind Thornycroft in Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon’s Kings and Queens (1932). A chapbook of folk ballads with Henry II and the Fair Rosamund on the title page, c. 1815-30, British Museum; Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund by Evelyn de Morgan, 1905, De Morgan Centre, London;The Fair Rosamund by John William Waterhouse, 1916, National Museum Wales.


Pieces of March

I’ve never seen them in person, but the celebrated frescoes by Francesco del Cossa representing March, April and May in the Room of the Months at the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara have still captivated me for years. They were painted by del Cossa in 1469-70 at the behest of Borso d’Este, the Duke of Modena and Ferrara, who is featured prominently in typical Renaissance fashion. The complex astrological and classical schemes in the murals keep me guessing, but it’s the details that keep me looking. Let’s look at March as a case in point.

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Francesco del Cossa, Allegory of March: Triumph of Minerva, c. 1469-70, at Palazzo Schifanoia and Web Gallery of Art.

The del Cossa murals have three sections: the gods above, the zodiac in the center, and the d’Este court below–but everyone looks accessible and interesting. In the case of March, triumphant deity Minerva, patroness of learning and crafts, is seated in her chariot surrounded by scholars deep in discussion and craftswomen hard at work (at least some of them–all while beautifully dressed and coiffed). These women–most particularly the Three Fates in the foreground– have received a lot of attention from Renaissance costumers and reenactors: even though they dwell in the realm of the Gods they seem quite grounded, by the details of their dress and activity–quite in contrast to those who occupy the realm below.

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The central section of the Allegory of March is the most mysterious: here we see the somewhat familiar Athena hovering over the ram Aries, with two oddly-dressed characters on either side. They are deccans, mediating spirits who ruled for only periods of ten days: a black man dressed in rags and a rather effeminate arrow-and ring-bearing young man (???)–what’s happening here? These guys could represent lots of things–fortitude, beauty, caution–but why the adrogyny, why the rags? The ragged man was so captivating to novelist Ali Smith that he inspired her Man Booker Prize short-listed novel, How to be Both (2014), told partially from the perspective of Francesco dell Cosso.

Allegory of March Zodiac figures

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Allegory of March Smith Cover

Leather commemorative binding of Ali Smith’s How to be Both by Derek Hood, featuring pieces of the March mural and a famous letter from del Cossa to Borso d’Este asking for more money for the commission–when he was rebuffed, he left Ferrara for good: Begging to recall to your highness, that I am Francesco del Cossa, who made those three fields towards the antechamber entirely by my self: so if you, your Highness really don’t want to give me more than 10 bolognini [pennies] per square foot, I’d be losing 40 or 50 ducats…..I’ve got a name these days, and this payment leaves me on a par with the saddest apprentice in Ferrara…and I’ve studied, I study all the time, and I’ve used gold and good colours at my own expense…and done the whole thing in fresco, which is really advanced work……

I’ve got a name these days: a nice expression of Renaissance confidence in achievement, and attitude! Del Cossa places us firmly on the ground–and in his own time–in the lower register of the mural where we see Duke Borso reigning under a very impressive loggia as his subjects go about their March-appropriate activities: the courtiers hunt and the peasants prune. Obviously there’s some damage here, but in the upper left hand corner there’s a perfect vignette of daily life: while men prune grapevines atop an impressive brick foundation (Del Cossa’s father was a mason) we see dogs chasing March hares, who look like they’re definitely going to get away.

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From Fast to Feast

Today, a national holiday of Wales based on its association with the Welsh patron Saint David (c. 500-c. 589), affords yet another opportunity to explore one of my favorite themes: the secularization of saints’ days. This is a touchstone in several of my courses and a subject I’ve returned to here again and again: on Halloween, St. Nicholas’s Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and even the feast day of the lesser-known St. Swithun. There’s no question in my mind that one of the most basic tasks, and most popular consequences, of the Reformation was the transformation of the Christian calendar. This transformation was dramatic: Saint David appears to have been one of the most ascetic of saints (a bold claim, perhaps too bold), forswearing beer and meat in favor of water and bread seasoned with a few grains of salt and herbs, yet today his day is celebrated with parades and cupcakes embellished with Welsh dragons and daffodils, and the leeks which became more particularly associated with him over time.

Saint David's Day

Saint David's Day cupcakes

British School, A Celebration of Saint David’s Day, c. 1750, National Museum Wales, Cardiff; Dotty Cupcakes, Cardiff, featured here.

The most revealing illustration of this process occurred during the Elizabethan era, when the Queen–or her advisers and followers and assorted hangers-on–rather deliberately emphasized the coincidence of dates shared by Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary: September 7 (Elizabeth’s birthday and the Eve of the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary) and March 24 (the day on which Elizabeth died in 1603, and the Eve of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary). Moreover, the “Queene’s Day”, November 17, the day of which Elizabeth acceded to the throne in 1558, achieved the status of both a national holiday and a religious holiday over her reign. And thus the Virgin Queen and “the cult of Elizabeth” (a phrase first used by Sir Roy Strong) emerged. There’s no agreement that the feast displayed below represents an early celebration of the Queene’s Day, but I like to think that Joris Hoefnagel’s iconic painting Fete at Bermondsey (c. 1569-70)–one of my very favorites– does just that.

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Joris Hoefnagel, A Fete at Bermondsey. Copyright The Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House

The Last of Frozen February

Never have I been so excited for the arrival of March, generally the muddiest month! February has simply brought us too much: snow, ice, hassles, damage, cancellations, time indoors. I’m clearing out my cache of February pictures today with the hope that March will mean the last of all this, but I might be too optimistic: there’s still feet of snow on the ground and cold weeks ahead. But nevertheless I am moving on–the days grow longer, the sun seems stronger, spring break is right around the corner and garden catalogs are stacked high by my bed.

Either end of frozen Chestnut Street, and in the middle:

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The horizontal space of a Salem snowbank: the distance from the granite curb to the middle of the street:

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Carving out frozen spaces for recycling bins:

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Icicles around town:

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Casabella Covers

For the most part, I think I’ve been pretty productive during this snowbound February, but I’ve also frittered away a fair amount of time: reading not very scholarly books and searching through some of my favorite databases for anything that might catch my attention: images, fonts, ideas. I love magazines about architecture and interior design, so I browsed through digital collections of twentieth-century publications and found several that intrigued me, not so much for their content (traditionalist that I am) but for their striking covers. Magazine covers are so boring now (with the exception of the New Yorker and a few other titles): there’s no abstraction or design, just a literal representation of what’s inside. This was not the case in the mid-twentieth century, when the images and letters of design magazines like Casabella seemed to (literally) leap off the page. La casa bella, a monthly magazine of “radical” modern architecture, commenced publication in 1928 in Milan and is still published today. Its first covers are pretty sedate, but in the 1930s (about the same time that the title was changed to Casabella) they get quite a bit more interesting, reflecting not just what’s inside but their time. Here’s a portfolio of images from 1929-73, all taken from the magazine’s current website.

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Casabella 1930

Casabella Covers 1932 collage

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Casabella Covers from 1929, 1930, 1933, the 1950s, 1963, 1969 & 1973.


Hip (-Hop) Hamilton

It seems to me that from time to time one of our Founding Fathers emerges from the pack, to glow just a little brighter in a blaze of adulation. Certainly John Adams had his time a few years back, singled out by David McCullough’s book and the HBO series; more recently “Sexy Sam Adams” emerged as the hero of the History Channel’s (or as most historians refer to it, the Hitler Channel) Sons of Liberty miniseries, sponsored, of course, by Sam Adams beer. Now it’s all about Alexander Hamilton, the star of a namesake, sold-out musical on off-Broadway. Hamilton, written, directed and starring Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, is based on Hamilton’s rag-to-riches life, as charted by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, set to a score that sounds far more lively than that of 1776.

Hamilton the Musical

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Hamilton Poster

I don’t find the spotlight on Hamilton, or the success of Hamilton, even remotely surprising. After all, I live in Alexander Hamilton world: the first thing I see every morning when I wake up is Hamilton Hall, the c. 1805 assembly hall named after the Federalist hero/martyr, and the sign boldly attesting to that fact. And even if you’re just familiar with the outline of his life you can understand that it would make for a good story: illegitimate Caribbean orphan sent to New York, student, lawyer, lover, soldier, author, first Secretary of the Treasury, victim of a duel. Fill in the details and you’ve got a blockbuster!

Alexander Hamilton 1957 Rand McNally Ad

Hamilton Batman Bill

Hamilton Birthday Card

Hamilton Vodka

Hamilton updated: 1957 Rand McNally ad; defaced $10 Batman bill; Alexander Hamilton birthday print by A5/Day; Alexander Hamilton small-batch Vodka.


An Executive Mansion

For this Washington’s birthday weekend, I am thrilled to be able to feature photographs of the ongoing restoration of the Joshua Ward House, where our first President stayed when he visited Salem in the Fall of 1789. I featured the house in a previous post, where you can see historic photographs and read some of its history, but I was not able to access the interior at that time. Since then, the house has been purchased and is presently being transformed, with great attention to detail, into an inn. I have no name or link yet, but will certainly revisit this project: my strong impression is that the owner wants to pay homage to the house’s namesake builder, the worldly merchant, successful distiller, and every-hospitable Joshua Ward, and dispel its dubious haunted reputation forever. Even though it’s right around the corner from my own house, I am booking a room as soon as it is opened: the very room where President Washington slept, restored to all of its former glory.

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Washington on horseback 19th C

As I had never been in the house and long desired to, my expectations were…great, and I was not disappointed. Even in its present state, a work site, it is beautiful both in its entirety and its details. Seeing it so exposed made it even more beautiful perhaps: layers of paint being sanded off, ceilings opened to the rafters, pocked beams everywhere, doors on the floor. It seemed both vulnerable and stalwart to me, especially as I looked out the windows (of George’s second-floor bedroom, of course) and thought of all the things this house has seen: water and wharves when it was first built in the 1780s, then a filled-in busy downtown, then a huge Gothic fortress-train depot, then nothing because commercial structures blocked its view, then a notorious traffic-clogged “plaza”, now a mixed picture of preservation and poor planning. The Joshua Ward House has weathered all of these developments and is standing by, nearly fully-equipped, for future ones.

First floor: looking out at Salem; famous entrance hall and staircase; soon-to-be inn tavern room; front and back fireplaces.

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Second Floor: more of the famous staircase, Washington’s bedroom, opposite (southeast) bedroom, entrance to the back of the house.

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Through, back, up: stairs, second and third floor bedrooms, the attic.

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Details, details:

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Pieces of the past (even the relatively recent past):

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Some orientation: Jonathan Saunders’ c. 1820 map of Salem (house marked by * ) and Sidney Perley’s 1905 map, both from the Boston Public Library; the Ward House in the mid-20th century, obscured by billboards and facades, and today.

Salem 1820 Saunders

Salem 1905 Perley

Ward House Billboards

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