17 June 2016

New & Noteworthy: June 17

• To celebrate the release of her contemporary paranormal novel, AWASH IN TALENT, Jessica Knauss discussed its historical underpinnings with fellow U.H. contributor Kim RendfieldYou can read the blog post here. 

Michelle Styles' novel SUMMER OF THE VIKING has been released in Norway, Sweden, and France. Also, her novel TAKEN BY THE VIKING has been re-released in the UK as part of the "Forbidden Nights" anthology. For more information, visit michellestyles.co.uk.  

M.J. Neary's new novel THE GATE OF DAWN is now available for purchase at Amazon, and is receiving great reviews. Congratulations M.J.! You can get your copy at Amazon here.

Heather Domin is preparing a blog tour hosted by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for her novel THE HEIRS OF FORTUNE, scheduled to begin July 11. More information to come.

15 June 2016

African Servants in England

While researching my 17th century novel, it struck me how many aristocratic portrait paintings included a black child servant.  It made me wonder where these children came from, how they were viewed and treated in society, and what happened to them once they had outgrown being a pretty trophy for their masters?

John Blanke, The Black Trumpeter 1511
In 250AD, Rome sent a contingent of black legionnaires to stand guard on Hadrian’s Wall. When the Romans finally withdrew from England in the fifth century, the Germanic tribes replaced them, but no one knows what happened to this guard.

The Close Rolls of King John of July 1205, gives a ‘mandate to the constable of Northampton to retain Peter the Saracen, the maker of crossbows for the King’s service, and allow him 9 pence a day’.

Henry VII and his son Henry VIII both employed a black trumpeter named John Blanke, ‘the blacke Trumpet’, at a wage of 8 pence per day. He was depicted in the painted roll of the 1511 Westminster Tournament, [above] held to celebrate the birth of a son to Catherine of Aragon, who had arrived from Spain in 1501 with Africans in her entourage.

In 1540 Henry VIII employed a black diver to look for the wreck of the Mary Rose; but his name, and where he came from is unknown. 

In 1577 Elizabeth I issued an order for a ‘Garcon coate of white Taffeta, cut and lined with tincel, striped down with gold and silver … pointed with pynts and ribands’, for her ‘lytle Blackamore’. 

In Elizabethan times, masks of Black faces were considered fashionable, worn at court  functions and pageants. Members of the aristocracy were also known to paint themselves black, as 'nigrost' or as 'black Mores'. The character of the Black Moor also featured in Shakespeare's plays, and London street names, such as Black Boy Court, off Long Acre, and Blackamoor's Alley in Wapping, was an indication that black people were not an unusual sight in the city.

In 1555 John Lok reached Ghana on the John Evangelist, where he kidnapped the son of the chief and three others, brought them to England to be trained as interpreters. ‘Whereof sum were taule and stronge men and coulde well agree with our meates and drynkes’ but the ‘colde and moyst aire doth somewhat offend them’

The English believed that an Africans’skin colour was caused by the heat of the sun, therefore when one of the Africans married an Englishwoman who gave birth to a black-skinned child, it caused considerable astonishment. In 1578 George Best wrote that ‘I myself have seene an Ethiopian as blacke as cole brought to England who taking a faire English woman to wife, begat a sonne in all respects as blacke as the father’.

Anne of Denmark, James I's Queen
In 1584, the Duke of Leicester’s household records mention of a 'Mr Rawles blackamoore, XXs’. 
Sir Robert Cecil had a ‘blackmoor seruant’
Sir John Hawkins’ black page boy was named Samuel.

The King of Morocco’s ambassador arrived in England with a retinue of fifteen ‘Moors’ in 1600, and was given a warm reception by Elizabeth I. Nevertheless, they had trouble obtaining housing. When they did find accommodation, they lived alone and were ‘strangely attired and behavioured’, and reputedly slaughtered their own animals (presumably to fulfill religious requirements).

Francis Drake also had a black manservant called Diego, an enslaved man who defected from his Spanish masters during the raid by Drake on the town of Nombre de Dios. He advised Drake on the route taken by the Spanish carting gold and precious stones across the isthmus of Panama to Nombre de Dios. As a result, when Drake returned the following year, he was able to capture ‘the mule train laden with treasure’ and ship it to England, a cargo valued at £20,000. 

Drake named a fort he built on an island in the Gulf of San Blas ‘Fort Diego’. Sadly, while stopping for provisions and water on Mocha Isle off the coast of Chile in November 1578, Diego and another crew member were killed by unfriendly islanders.

Walter Raleigh’s page boy, aged about ten, whom he had brought from what is now Guyana, was baptised Charles at St Luke’s church in Kensington in 1597. Raleigh had brought two black men from Guyana with him; one entered domestic service in London and the other waited on him during the early years of his imprisonment.

Unfortunately, this toleration eventually turned to fear of an increasing black population in London, which lead to Queen Elizabeth I issuing a royal proclamation to arrest and expel all "Negroes and blackamores" from her kingdom. I wonder if her own little blackamoor was included in this edict?

Lady Charlotte Fitzroy 1674
This charming painting [Left]  is by Sir Peter Lely, principal painter to Charles II of Lady Charlotte Fitzroy, aged eight, the illegitimate daughter of Charles II and his mistress, Barbara Palmer, with her Indian page.

Dr Samuel Johnson's servant and valet, Francis Barber, attended a grammar school in Bishop's Stortford. He left Francis a £70 annuity in his will, and refused to let him go out to buy food for his cat, as he felt; 'it was not good to employ human beings in the service of animals'. 

This portrait of a black servant [below] shows the young boy was clearly a favoured companion, indicated by the fact that he is cup bearer, trusted and loved by his master’s lapdog.

Wealthy plantation owners sent their children to schools in England and would often send boy slaves to accompany them. The legal status of these people was vague, their arrival being tied to their English owner and their freedom depended upon whether or not they were Christian - although a man brought to a free country could not be anything but free - economics usually won over moral arguments and the trade grew. 

When these young boys reached their mid to late teens, they were sent back to Barbados to labour in the sugar plantations; a cruel end to a life of comparative luxury as a lady’s errand boy.  However, some remained in England as their masters and mistresses grew fond of them, often educating them in music, drawing and literature.

Pierre Mignard (1612-1695) in his portrait of Charles II's Mistress, Louise de Keroualle [below] shows the lady has the attributes of wealth and power: The pearls are symbols of purity, gold symbolises wealth and the black servant (with her slave collar) is a symbol of power.

Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth
The artists positioned black people on the edges or at the rear of their canvasses, from where they gaze wonderingly at their masters and mistresses, trophies to illustrate their owners' economic fortunes. They were often given Roman names, which accounts for the large number of Scipios, Plinys and Caesars buried in churchyards across the country. Anglicised names are rare and African names rarer still. 

Lady Grace Cartaret,  Countess Dysart 1753

Servants who ran away from their masters' houses were the subjects of lost-and-found ads in the press, and rewards sometimes offered for their return.  An advertisement for this house servant [below] was printed in a London newspaper in 1678.
'Africa' A Runaway

Africa had been living  with his master Arnold Pigeon, in Covent Garden. Described as wearing a livery coat with a reward for his capture being 20 shillings - then equivalent to two months wages for a servant. It is likely that he was recaptured, as a young black boy alone in a city would not have evaded capture for long. There were instances of Black slaves escaping to "safe houses" throughout the time of slavery such as one known as " Jerusalem " in East London.

Not all Black people in England were slaves, many worked as sailors, trades people of all kinds and in some cases as businessmen or musicians. Black writers played a role in the anti-slavery movement in England and famous 18th Century activists like Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were pivotal to the movement in speaking and writing from their personal experience of the horrors of the trade.

After 1772, the continuation of slavery in Britain was a rarity and often likely to attract legal and social hostility. This change in attitude was illustrated by the Somerset case of 1772 in which Somerset, a fugitive enslaved African, brought a case against his owner who was attempting to force him to return to the West Indies. Lord Justice Mansfield * ruled that it would be illegal to remove Somerset from the country against his wishes. This ruling formed the beginning of a much wider campaign against slavery.

My favourite portrait is this one Dido Elizabeth Belle, in which Dido's beauty and personality comes through so well in this delightful painting, as well as the close relationship she enjoyed with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. 

Dido was the natural daughter of Sir John Lindsay, a British Navy captain on HMS Trent, a warship based in the West Indies where she was born. Little is known about Dido’s mother, apart from that her name was Maria Belle, but Lindsay was the nephew of William Murray, Lord Mansfield* the Lord Chief Justice
Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Elizabeth Belle
Lord Mansfield and his wife were childless, so raised Dido at Kenwood House, Hampstead, along with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had also died.

Dido’s status in the household was commented on by several visitors; one said that her great-uncle Lord Mansfield "called upon (her)…every minute for this and that, and showed the greatest attention to everything she said."

Dido would not dine with the rest of the family, especially if they had guests, but joined the ladies for coffee afterwards in the drawing-room. As she grew older, she took responsibility for the dairy and poultry yards at Kenwood, and helped Mansfield with his correspondence - showing she was well educated as well as loved.

She received an allowance of £30 10s and was provided with pretty furniture, birthday and Christmas gifts and ass’s milk when she was ill. When Lord Mansfield died, he left Dido £500 in his will, and a £100 annuity, and officially confirmed her freedom.

Dido married a John Davinier in 1793 at St. George's, Hanover Square and had three sons: twins Charles and John, also baptized at St George's on 8 May 1795, and William Thomas, baptized there on the 26 January 1802. Dido Belle Davinier died in 1804 and was buried in St George's Fields, survived by her husband, who later remarried and had two more children.

National Archives
International Museum of Slavery
Blacks In Tudor England
English Heritage-The Slave Trade
Westminster Gov
Video about Dido Elizabeth Belle

07 June 2016

Slaves, damnati and freedmen in ancient Rome

In 161 BC, the Roman jurist Gaius wrote:
Slavery is a human invention and not found in nature. Indeed, it was that other human invention, war, which provided the bulk of slaves, but they were also the bounty of piracy ... or the product of breeding.

A cold, yet trenchant statement. As in many early societies, slavery in ancient Rome was a mixture of debt-slavery, slavery as a punishment for crime, born slavery and by far the enslavement of prisoners of war, especially during the Republican period. These concepts are a very long way from our modern experience and feelings; many of us find the notion of paid servants or even a hired cleaner uncomfortable. But enslavement was a standard practice from ancient to relatively modern societies.
Trajan accepting the surrender of the Dacians - many would go into slavery

An estimated 30 to 40% of the population of Italy were slaves in the 1st century BC, around two to three million people. For the Empire as a whole, slaves numbered just under five million, representing 8-10% of the total population of 50-60 million. Roman slavery was not based on race; slaves originated from all parts of Europe and the Mediterranean, including Gaul, Hispania, Germany, Britannia, North Africa, Syria, the Balkans and Greece.

Legal status
The Twelve Tables, Rome's oldest legal code, promulgated in 449 BC, makes brief references to slavery, indicating that the institution was of long standing.

Slaves were considered property under Roman law and had no legal personhood. Unlike Roman citizens, they could be subjected to corporal punishment, sexual exploitation (prostitutes were often slaves), torture, and summary execution. The testimony of a slave could not be accepted in a court of law unless the slave was tortured—a practice based on the belief that slaves in a position to be privy to their masters' affairs would be too virtuously loyal to reveal damaging evidence unless coerced. Over time, however, slaves gained increased legal protection.

Vernae were slaves born within a household (familia) or on a family farm. There was a stronger social obligation to care for vernae; many would have been the children of free males of the household. Often, but not always, they were freed on the master’s death along with their own children.

Roman slaves could hold property which, although technically it belonged to their masters, they were allowed to use as if it was their own. Skilled or educated slaves were permitted to earn their own money from commissions, tips, etc. occasionally saving enough to buy their freedom. Such slaves could often be freed in their master's will, or for services rendered. A notable example of a high-status slave was Cicero’s secretary, Tiro, who was freed before his master's death. Tiro was successful enough to retire on his own country estate, where he died at the age of 99.

Evolution of status
Several emperors began to grant more rights to slaves as the empire grew. Claudius announced that if a slave was abandoned by his master, he became free. Nero granted slaves the right to complain against their masters in a court. And under Antoninus Pius, a master who killed a slave without just cause could be tried for homicide. Legal protection of slaves continued to grow as the empire expanded. It became common throughout the mid to late 2nd century AD to allow slaves to complain of cruel or unfair treatment by their owners.

Work  - not all slaves were equal
Slaves worked in roughly five categories: household/domestic, imperial/public, urban crafts and services, agriculture, and mining.

Four female slaves dress the wife’s hair: 
relief from a family tomb from Neumagen
Household (familia): Epitaphs record at least fifty different jobs a household slave might perform including barber, butler, cook, hairdresser, handmaid (ancilla), wet nurse or nursery attendant, teacher, secretary, seamstress, accountant, and physician. A large elite household might be supported by a staff of hundreds. Although inferior to those of the free persons they served, the living conditions of slaves attached to an urban household were often superior to those of many free urban poor in Rome. Indoor household slaves likely enjoyed the highest standard of living among Roman slaves, next to publicly owned slaves. Imperial slaves were those attached to the emperor's household, the familia Caesaris. The senior male, the pater familias, held full rights over his slaves as over his family, and women slaves were frequently used for sexual services as a matter of course.

In urban workplaces, the occupations of slaves included fullers, engravers, shoemakers, bakers, seamstresses, mule drivers, and waitresses/prostitutes. Farm slaves (familia rustica) probably lived in healthier air, but their work was heavy and manual. The workforce of a farm would have been mostly slave, managed by a vilicus, who was often a slave himself.

Ploughman with a team of oxen, bronze
1st-3rdC Piercebridge, Durham (British Museum)
Tens of thousands of slaves condemned to work in the mines or quarries (damnati in metallum), worked in notoriously brutal conditions; they were convicts who lost their freedom as citizens (libertas), forfeited their property (bona) to the state, and became servi poenae, slaves by legal sanction. Their status was different from that of other slaves; they could not buy their freedom, be sold, or be set free. They were expected to live and die in the mines.

In the Late Republic, around half the gladiators who fought in Roman arenas were slaves, the remainder free volunteers. Successful slave gladiators were occasionally rewarded with freedom. However, trained gladiators with access to weapons were potentially the most dangerous slaves as demonstrated by Spartacus, who led the great slave rebellion of 73-71 BC.

A servus publicus was a slave owned not by a private individual, but by the Roman people. Public slaves worked in temples and other public buildings as servants to the College of Pontiffs, magistrates, and other officials. Some well-qualified public slaves carried out skilled office work such as accounting and secretarial services and were permitted to earn money for their personal use. During the Republic, a public slave could be freed by a magistrate's declaration with the prior authorisation of the senate; in the imperial era, liberty would be granted by the emperor.

Runaways and rebellion
"I have run away; hold me. 
When you shall have returned me to my master, 
Zoninus, you will receive a gold coin."
Romans were preoccupied, if not paranoid, by the thought of slave revolts which had more than once seriously threatened the republic; in 135–132 BCE (the First Servile War), in 104-100 BCE (the Second Servile War), and in 73-71 BCE (the Third Servile War).

Rome forbade harbouring fugitive slaves; professional slave-catchers were hired to hunt down runaways. Owners or hired slave-catchers would post advertisements with precise descriptions of escaped slaves, and offered rewards.

If caught, fugitives could be whipped, burnt with iron, or killed. Those who lived were branded on the forehead with the letters FUG, for fugitivus and sometimes had a metal collar with the owner’s name riveted around the neck.

Masters could manumit, or free, slaves and in many cases such freedmen went on to rise to positions of power and accumulate great wealth. Manumissio, which literally means 'sending out from the hand', could be a public ceremony performed before a public official, usually a judge. The owner touched the slave on the head with a staff and he or she was free to go. Simpler methods were sometimes used, with the owner proclaiming a slave's freedom in front of friends and family, or just a simple invitation to recline with the family at dinner.

Slaves were freed for a variety of reasons; for a particularly good deed done towards the slave's owner, or out of friendship or respect. Sometimes, a slave had earned and saved enough money could buy his freedom and the freedom of a fellow slave, frequently a spouse. However, few slaves had enough money to do so, and many slaves were not allowed to hold money. Slaves could also freed by a provision in an owner's will at his death. Augustus restricted such manumissions to a maximum of  a hundred slaves, and proportionately fewer in a small household. Educated and skilled slaves were regularly freed and the practice became so common that Augustus decreed that no Roman slave could be freed under the age of 30.

Rome differed from Greek city-states in allowing freed slaves to become Roman citizens. After manumission, a former slave enjoyed political and public freedom (libertas), including the right to vote, though he could not hold public office, state priesthoods, nor attain senatorial rank. A freed slave who had acquired libertas became a libertus (feminine liberta) in relation to his former master, who then became his patron (patronus).

Marble cinerary urn provided by Vitalis, a former slave of the Emperor and 
Scribe of the Bedchamber, for his wife Vernasia Cyclas,. 
On the last line, AUG.L denotes he was a former imperial slave (British Museum)
Children born to former slaves enjoyed the full privileges of Roman citizenship, for example, the Latin poet Horace was the son of a freedman, and served as an officer in the army of Marcus Junius Brutus.

Freedmen of the imperial families often filled key positions in the Roman government bureaucracy. Some rose to positions of great influence, such as Narcissus, a former slave of the Emperor Claudius.

Other freedmen became wealthy. The brothers who owned House of the Vettii, one of the biggest and most magnificent houses in Pompeii, are thought to have been freedmen. A freedman is recorded with having designed the amphitheatre in Pompeii. But a freedman who became rich and influential might still be looked down on by the traditional aristocracy as a vulgar nouveau riche as shown by Trimalchio, a caricature of such a freedman in the Satyricon.

For an excellent historical fiction around household slaves  in the first century AD you can do no better than Lindsey Davis’s Enemies at Home; an impeccably researched mystery which is clever and poignant at the same time.

03 June 2016

Slaves and Servants: Concubines in the Islamic World

By Lisa J. Yarde

The 19th-century Orientalist period in art history, and the accounts of the explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to Turkey,  once influenced knowledge on the life of concubines in the Islamic world.  I'm particularly fond of the artwork, much of which I've used in the debut covers of my Sultana series, but a common theme among the portrayals is often the image of a beleaguered woman trapped in uncertain circumstances and awaiting cruel fate. The terrified slave girl, shamefaced and paraded naked before strangers who prod and poke her to determine her suitability for sale or as a gift. Equally represented is the idle, languid slave laying around the harem or household with nothing better to do than await the summons of her master. Just as fanciful was the idea that the concubines engaged in nightly orgies with their master, blessed to have easy access to nothing but gorgeous women at his disposal. The truth about concubines in harems from Spain to the Middle East indicates a different lifestyle, governed by strict rules and offering other possible outcomes for ambitious slaves. For the most fortunate among such women, even those who began their career as captives, their lovers and eventual husbands, sons and brothers gave them access to power that might have seemed unimaginable upon their introduction into a new life.

From the Moorish era, there are the best-known examples of Subh who lived in 10th-century Cordoba, and the bitter rivals, Butayna and Maryem in 14th-century Granada. But how did women become concubines in the Islamic world? Religious customs allowed the conquerors to makes slaves of any person captured in warfare so that by the first century of the Moorish period in Spain at least 20% of the population lived in bondage. Slavery did not bar these women from conversion to Islam or manumission in the future. As the Arabs and Berbers went westward across North Africa and into Spain, they seized captives of every age. Pirates, particularly from the North African coast known as the Barbary also raided across the Mediterranean Sea, attacking France and Italy, and as far north as the English and Irish coastlines up through the 17th-century. Black slaves came from eastern and Western Africa across the Sahara. In 14th-century Morocco the ruler Abu Inan Faris, whose mother was described as a black woman, supposedly had a favored concubine, an English woman renamed Shams ed-Duna. 

Women became part of the tribute demanded by Moorish rulers, slaves prized for more than their beauty or potential sexual partners, as singers, dancers, and poets. The base price for most of the Islamic world seems to have been 1,000 gold coins or dinars for European slaves; very beautiful or skilled women commanded much higher prices. Most importantly for such concubines, the children they bore for their masters were considered free from their birth and the legitimate heirs of their fathers, or in the case of royal concubines, their sons might become future rulers.  In the 10th-century, Ramiro II of Leon, Garcia Sanchez I of Navarre and Count Fernan Gozalez of Castile each had the obligation to provide the first caliph of Cordoba Abd ar-Rahman III with sixty young women as tribute. Perhaps that means allowed Subh's entry into the harem of Abd ar-Rahman's son and successor, Al-Hakam.

Although no one knows her Christian birth name, Subh received her new name, which meant  'dawn' in Arabic, after her abduction from Navarre. She must have became part of the household of Al-Hakam by at least 965 based on the birth of her child. Sources indicate that it's almost a miracle she attracted the caliph's interest because he had been a homosexual for most of his life and had a male harem. Supposedly, Subh overcame this difficulty because her hair had been  cut short like a young man's and she wore trousers. Subh bore Al-Hakam's son Hisham in 966.  Ten years later, he ascended the throne as the third caliph after his father's illness, despite the attempts of one of Al-Hakam's brothers to rule. One of two official regents, Subh advanced the career of a minister from Algeciras, Al-Mansur ibn Abi Amir, who dominated Hisham's rule. There is also speculation that Subh took Al-Mansur as her lover. She might have come to regret this choice when Al-Mansur effectively robbed Hisham of power in 997 for the next five years. Nothing is certain about Subh's eventual fate afterward.

Of  the concubines Butayna and Maryam, there are other uncertainties. Each has been called concubine or wife interchangeably in the sources - if married, it's likely they would have converted to Islam. Both were born as Christians, but there's no indication of where these women came from or when they became part of the harem of Sultan Yusuf I of Granada. He had come to the throne at the age of fifteen in 1333 upon the assassination of his elder brother Muhammad IV at eighteen, himself a successor of a murdered father, Ismail I. As with Subh, the dates of the women's entries into Yusuf's household can only be assumed by the births of their respective first sons. Butayna, whose name meant 'one who possesses a young and tender body' bore her first son Muhammad on January 4, 1338, so she would have been part of the harem by the previous year at least. Later, she also had a daughter Aisha and possibly another son called Ahmad. Maryem, whose possible alternate name of Rim might have been transposed incorrectly from the original sources, had her son Ismail on October 2, 1338. This tiny detail about Yusuf's sons being born ten months apart led me to imagine a deadly rivalry existed between Butayna and Maryem in the third novel of the Sultana series. Latter events also suggest the vicious nature of their relationship.

Most of the sources agree that Yusuf favored Maryem over Butayna, as supposedly evidenced by Maryem's seven children as compared to Butayna's two or three. In addition to Ismail, Maryem became the mother of another son called Qays, and five daughters named Fatima, Mumina, Khadija, Shams, and Zaynab; while the eldest of these princesses isn't specified she becomes important in subsequent history. Most of the court ministers favored Muhammad as Yusuf's eventual successor, but there are indications that he would have preferred Ismail to rule Granada upon his death. Yusuf's end on October 19, 1354, occurred suddenly and as brutally as that of his elder brother and father; a slave stabbed him to death in the main mosque near Alhambra palace. Muhammad V ascended the throne, married his cousin and had a young son. In the interim, Maryem and Yusuf's eldest daughter had married her cousin. On August 21, 1359, over one hundred conspirators in support of Maryem and her son-in-law scaled the palace walls and overthrew Muhammad who fled into an eventual exile in Morocco. Not all the sources agree Butayna was with her son at the time, but none mentions her death during this tumultuous period. Maryem's eldest son became the ruler of Granada, but Ismail II suffered, too. Almost a year later, Maryem's son-in-law overthrew Ismail, executing him with his brother Qays and possibly Maryem.

Image result for magnificent century

Other examples of famous concubines who became the power behind in the throne of Islamic societies can be found in my 2010 UH article, Women Did It Better: The Reign of Women, which explored how the 16th and 17th-century concubines Hurrem, Nurbanu, Safiye, Kosem, and Turhan influenced the reigns of their lovers and husbands, brothers, and sons. Georgians and Circassians were the most common among Ottoman concubines, but Hurrem was likely Polish, her daughter-in-law Nurbanu came from Venice, and Nubanu's daughter-in-law Safiye was either Venitian also or Albanian. Kosem was born in the Greek isles and her daughter-in-law Turhan came from the Ukraine or Russia. Turkey is enjoying a resurgence of interest in the lives and loves of those women as concubines or eventual wives within the Ottoman royal harems through the production of two series, Magnificent Century and Magnificent Century: Kosem. Both are well-done and entertaining, more than historical figures in fancy dress, illustrating the roles of concubines who became more than they might have once dreamed. 


All images are public domain, royalty-free. All data from numerous sources researched during the writing of the Sultana series.

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of one of the first countesses of Leicester and Surrey, Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers before the Battle of Hastings. Lisa has also written five novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two SistersSultana: The Bride Price and Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree, where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. Her short story, The Legend Rises, which chronicles the Welsh princess Gwenllian of Gwynedd’s valiant fight against English invaders, is also available.

29 May 2016

Author Interview & Book Giveaway: Alison Morton on INSURRECTIO

This week, we’re pleased to welcome author and Unusual Historicals contributor, ALISON MORTON with her latest release, INSURRECTIO, the fifth in her popular Roma Nova series. On Sunday we read a tense excerpt, today Alison answers questions!

One lucky visitor will get a signed print copy of INSURRECTIO – this giveaway is open internationally. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post for a chance to win. The winner will be contacted privately by email.

Here's what INSURRECTIO is about...

‘The second fall of Rome?’
Aurelia Mitela, ex-Praetorian and imperial councillor in Roma Nova, scoffs at her intelligence chief when he throws a red file on her desk.

But early 1980s Roma Nova, the last province of the Roman Empire that has survived into the twentieth century, has problems – a ruler frightened of governing, a centuries-old bureaucracy creaking for reform and, worst of all, a rising nationalist movement with a charismatic leader who wants to destroy Aurelia.

Horrified when her daughter is brutally attacked in a demonstration turned riot, Aurelia tries to rally resistance to the growing fear and instability. But it may already be too late to save Roma Nova from meltdown and herself from entrapment and destruction by her lifelong enemy.…

**Q&A  with Alison Morton**

What’s been happening to Aurelia Mitela, the heroine of the last Roma Nova thriller, AURELIA?
Thirteen years after the end of that book our heroine, now senior imperial councillor and senator, has climbed the career ladder to assistant foreign minister. It’s hard work as you’d expect, but she loves it. Roma Nova’s government has a mix of traditional Roman elements such as a senate, an imperatrix – the ruler – with her imperial secretaries (equivalent to top civil servants) running the day-to-day administration. An imperial council of ministers heading specific departments give advice much like a standard Western cabinet. Aurelia is a leading member of this council; she’s at the centre of power.

At home, she is as much in love with her companion as ever and her daughter, Marina, has grown into a pretty young woman, scatty, but loving. What on earth could go wrong?

We’re in the early 1980s. What attracted you to this period?
INSURRECTIO follows the story of AURELIA which was set in the late 1960s. Aurelia Mitela’s nemesis, Caius Tellus, has been released early from jail in Prussia after serving 12 years of a 15-year sentence. The date was a matter of arithmetic! But the 1980s were the start of great technological as well as societal change. Although I work in an alternate timeline, I like to keep a flavour of a time that may be familiar to readers, even in a historical sense!

But there’s a huge trap with ‘young’ history; you think you know when things were invented or in use, but you don’t really. You can only recall the things directly relevant to you at that time, and then not accurately. So our old friend research is absolutely essential.

What’s behind the story of INSURRECTIO?
Although a standalone story, this is essentially Aurelia vs. Caius Part II.  I don’t want to spoil it for new readers of AURELIA, but let’s say that Caius isn’t best pleased with the way Aurelia keeps stopping his plans for domination.

We know from glimpses in the first three books in the Roma Nova series featuring Aurelia’s granddaughter, Carina, set in the early 21st century – INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO – that the Great Rebellion in the early 1980s was traumatic for Aurelia as a younger woman and Conrad as a small child.  We also know Caius Tellus was the instigator, but was it a power grab or something more personal? Are the two intertwined? Does Aurelia truly hate Caius himself or what he stands for? Is there an emotional and sexual reckoning between them? This is what I’m unravelling in this book…

Have you done any special research for INSURRECTIO?
Yes and no. I completed a masters’ in history in 2006, writing my dissertation on the experiences of young women during the Third Reich in Germany. The unexpected golden egg was the ton of research I already had in my hand when I started writing INSURRECTIO.

The politicised brutality and military expansionism of the National Socialist (Nazi) regime in 1930s and 1940s Germany is well known and exhaustively documented. Even today, we are fascinated by the seemingly unstoppable growth of their appeal. How could a cultured, highly scientific European society be gripped by a demagogue with a populist, nationalistic and often destructive message? Historians are still arguing about that one.

The ultra traditional, rather idealistic Ancient Roman view of women sitting at home, managing the household, weaving their husband’s clothes and producing children regularly that Caius so loves coincides perfectly with the Nazi ideological view of women’s place in our timeline. So when in INSURRECTIO Caius Tellus proposes to revert to traditional Roman male values and a ‘no women in the public sphere’ policy in Roma Nova, I had the perfect pattern in what happened to women during the Nazi Third Reich.

Caius wants to cancel women’s commissions in the military, dismiss all ranks, dismiss women police, civil servants, university lecturers, senators and make women hand over assets and business ownership to the nearest male relative. The women heading the influential Twelve Families of Roma Nova are to be replaced by men and the Families reduced to a charitable organisation. Women would only be able to hold servant and junior clerk jobs.

What’s in INSURRECTIO for the readers?
Both women and men say lovely things about the Roma Nova books and the age range of those readers is 16 to 87. I’ve noticed from reviews, comments and from talking to readers that they like clarity, snappy dialogue, plenty of interaction, enough description to set the story, but not so much it weighs the action down. Many women love the idea of women running things. ;-) Everybody seems intrigued by the Roman-ness and the egalitarian nature of Roma Novan society. Some readers want to book a long holiday there and even emigrate to Roma Nova permanently!

INSURRECTIO deals with dark concepts; a populist demagogue attacking a government headed by a weak ruler; the forces of irrationality gaining ground over fair-minded and well-meaning people who play by the rules; abandonment of the rule of law; reduction of women to chattels; deliberate alienation of people from each other; and in Caius Tellus an amoral power-grabber with a fragile sense of inner worth. But there are also courage, moral and physical; loyalty; honour; comradeship; resourcefulness; determination; and love.

And next?
I’m currently drafting the sixth book, intrinsically the story of how Roma Novans fought back against Caius. After that, I’m thinking of going back to the late fourth century and writing the story of Roma Nova’s foundation.

Thank you so much for joining me today and warm thanks to Unusual Historicals for inviting me to talk about INSURRECTIO.


INSURRECTIO - a taut, fast-paced thriller and I enjoyed it enormously. Rome, guns and rebellion. Darkly gripping stuff.” 

Conn Iggulden, author of the Emperor series

“Exploring the insidious spread of totalitarian ideals that undermine the social fabric of Roma Nova, INSURRECTIO is an excellent novel that builds to a fast paced, tense climax that keeps the reader on edge to the very end. Highly recommended.”
Elisabeth Storrs – author of the ‘Tales of Ancient Rome’ series

“Alison Morton's INSURRECTIO is a triumph of the imagination. She uses her forensic knowledge of ancient times to create a Roma Nova that feels utterly authentic, populated by genuine real life characters. Roma Nova is under attack from within by a merciless dictator and only Aurelia Mitela has the strength to face him. But even Aurelia's powers and principles are stretched by an enemy who seems to know more about her than she does herself. A brilliant helter-skelter mix of action and intrigue that hurtles to a bloody, heart-rending climax.”
Douglas Jackson – author of Gaius Valerius Verrens series

“Morton’s thrilling world-building is a masterclass in alternate history. You don’t just believe her version – you live every twist and turn.”
E.M. Powell – author of the Fifth Knight series

INSURRECTIO has been selected by the Historical Novel Society as  indie Editor’s Choice Spring 2016 and longlisted for the 2017 HNS Indie Award.

Where to buy:
INSURRECTIO is available as an ebook from Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, B&N Nook and as a paperback, author signed paperback and from other retailers.

Watch the book trailer:

Learn more about Alison Morton




27 May 2016

My Characters Lived In 14th-Century England - The Freedom of the Widow

By Blythe Gifford

After having written seven books set in medieval England, I still wrestle with one immutable fact.  Throughout this time period, a woman was always described in relation to men in her life.  She was a daughter, a wife, a mother.  And a woman’s “career choices” were three:  marry, become a prostitute, or become a nun.  Yes, women did work in trade and beside their husbands running estates.  We can find examples of strong women in any era.  But when you look at the societal structure for women at this time, there were few roads to independence.

Christine de Pizan, an Italian widow,
earned her living as a writer.

Interestingly, one of these was to become a widow.  It was, in some cases, the only time in a woman’s life when she might have an independent legal and financial identity. 

Certainly after a husband had died, a woman often remarried.  And though a woman tended to wait a decent interval before remarrying (long enough to make certain she did not carry any children by her deceased husband), a “wealthy widow” was an attractive target.  Not every woman had the choice of widowed independence and a poor widow, literally, was among the most down trodden in all of society, so poor, perhaps, that she was forced to drink water instead of ale.

But for a certain class of women, having fulfilled her duty to marry and have children, the death of a husband could open a world of opportunity not available to other women.  

Among those who gained opportunities were urban women in trade.  Although many guilds restricted membership to men, women typically worked beside their husbands.  In the event of a man’s death, a woman might keep the business running, and, often, the guild would turn a blind eye.  In addition, marrying a guild member’s widow could be a path to guild membership, giving a widow some possibility of choice over her next husband.

The situation was different for the nobility.  A noblewoman’s marriage typically included a dowry, designed to protect a woman should her husband die before she did, a common occurrence.  The children, typically, would inherit the major holdings.  The “dower lands,” would serve as a sort of insurance, providing for the widow during her lifetime and for any children not entitled to inherit their father’s property.

The Magna Carta gave widows the right not to be forced to marry.
Hence a “dowager,” which now has connotations of an aging woman, was simply a widow with some land of her own.  This term, and many others associated with this transaction, actually came into the language after the 13th and 14th centuries, but they described situations and statuses that occurred earlier.  A “dower” was, confusingly, both something the wife brought to a marriage and money or property the husband gave to the wife’s family.

And to make it more confusing, a "dowry" could also be wealth a woman brought to the marriage but was not necessarily allowed to keep in the event of her husband's death.
At any rate, after her husband’s death, with a little property of her own, a woman had a chance for independence that she could not achieve any other way.  Among the lessor known rights granted in the Magna Carta was the promise widows would not be forced to marry.  (This has been called “one of the first great stages in the emancipation of women,” by J.C. Holt in Magna Carta.)  As a result, many did not remarry, or chose to marry for reasons of the heart.  (They were, of course, supposed to have the approval of their feudal lord before wedding.)

In fact, in thirteenth century England, “independent noble widows were ubiquitous,” according to Linda Mitchell.  “They controlled large amounts of land, they frequently preferred to remain single, and they were fully capable of handling their families and their tenants with an iron fist.”  (“The Lady is a Lord: Noble Widows and Land in Thirteenth-Century Britain,” Linda E. Mitchel, Historical Reflections, Vol. 18, No. 1) http://www.jstor.org/stable/41298944

Of course, it was never that simple.  This dower property was supposed to stay with the widow, transferable to a new husband should she remarry.  Her husband was supposed to keep the dowry intact, but although it was “her” money, “he” had total control over it during the marriage.  And because we are talking, in some cases, about substantial money, other family members might not want the widow to take the property from the estate.  We have ample evidence of lawsuits over who had rights to what. 

The Wife  of Bath, Chaucer's famous widow.
And, as time went on, the laws and customs changed in ways that whittled away the opportunities for a widow’s independence.   Complex systems of land trusts and ownerships developed.  While some of them protected the holdings from being sold or taken away, the fact that the property was tied up in trust opened some widows to being pressured to “cash out” the holdings, often for a sum much less than their total worth.  By the fourteenth century, a larger portion of the dowry transferred to a prospective husband tended to be in cash rather than land.  This was wonderful for younger sons who needed income but more problematic for a woman who might find the money gone after his death[1] .  A widow might have been promised a percentage of the husband’s holdings instead of specific land.  But if the family wealth shrank during the marriage, that portion might not be all that had been expected. 

Of course, this summary generalizes across time and space.  Every situation was different.  But when we think of an independent widow in medieval England, we have as an example one of the most famous widows of medieval England:  Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who had been married five times.  While she is, as far as we know, fictional, her forthright, outspoken attitude may be a clue to the freedom that many women felt when they were free of the constraints of married life.

After many years in public relations, advertising and marketing, Blythe Gifford started writing seriously after a corporate layoff. Ten years and one layoff later, she became an overnight success when she sold her first book to the Harlequin Historical line.  Since then, she has published ten romances set in England and on the Scottish Borders.  WHISPERS AT COURT, a Royal Wedding story, was a June 2015 release from the Harlequin Historical line.  For more information, visit www.blythegifford.com

Author photo Jennifer Girard


 [1]The English Nobility in the Late Middle Ages: The Fourteenth-Century ...Givens-Wilson

My Characters Lived in Viking controlled Scotland

My characters (or rather my current set of characters) live in the Viking controlled Hebrides during the mid-9th century. This is when the expansion of the Vikings really took hold. It is when Norway, in particular, became unified, pushing many warriors out of their homelands. It is when the Vikings went and settled in Britain, and France as well as colonising Iceland. Because they did not use the Latin alphabet and were not as literate as the monks they were terrorising, we tend to a skewed view of the Vikings.

The Hebrides from wikicommons
The Western Isles which includes Islay were part of the Dal Riata confederation and closely allied to Ireland at this point.  To make things really confusing – the word Scot in this time period means someone from the Western Isles and Northern Ireland.  Until Kenneth McAlpine kills most of the Pict hierarchy at supper, and founds Alba, there isn’t really a Scotland. It isn’t until his grandsons become king that the word Scotland is used in the modern context.

While Kenneth McAlpin was causing turmoil on the mainland, the Vikings as they so often did in this period took full advantage and captured territory – namely Shetland, Orkney, and the Western Isles or Hebrides as well as the Isle of Man and parts of the west which are now referred to Galloway. Galloway means the foreign Gaels.  The area around Man and the Hebrides is often referred to as the Kingdom of the Isles. The kingdom of the Isles dates roughly from the mid-ninth century until it is broken up in the 13th century. It is sometimes referred to as the Southern Isles as the Northern Isles of Shetland Orkney were often under different rulers.

We know under the Vikings the Hebrides were ruled from the Isle of Man. The overlord of the King of Mann varied quite a bit. Sometimes it was Norway, others it was England, the Orkneys, Ireland or Scotland.  But go to Islay or Jura today and little besides place-names remain from that time. The Islay museum has only a few relics.

The references are often very shadowy as with much of Viking history. Because most of their structures were wood, little remains. Some archaeology has been done but because sites often had multiple uses over the period sometimes it can be very inconclusive. It is assumed that the buildings were similar in style to those found in Norway and Iceland. They were built around the idea of a great hall with other smaller buildings and workshops supporting the great hall.

The paps of Jura
It was a clash of two cultures in many ways. The Gaels had been Christian since St Columba in the fifth century. They had their own traditions such as the Celtic stone crosses and artwork. The Vikings were raiders and merchants. They were pagans and their traditions were markedly different.  However the Vikings were mainly men and they did tend to intermarry with the Gaels. These foreign Gaels or Gall-Ghaeil  tended to be Christian and follow the traditions of their mothers. But they also followed the profession of their fathers and became great seafarers and warriors.

A Celtic cross
To understand this time, you need to think in terms of sea roads and trade, rather than land travel. It wasn’t horses on roads so much as ships. Summer was the season for warfare. A farm planted his crop in the spring, and left his wife and slaves to tend it while he went to war during the summer. He would then return in time for the harvest and would over-winter on his land. In fact the 12th century warrior Somerlad, who is credited with driving the Vkings out of the Western Isles and founding the Clan Donald is a corruption of a Norse name meaning summer warrior or Viking. He was not some Gaellic hero but the product of the Norse-Gael ruling culture. He simply was able to wrest control of the Isles from the King of Man and became the self-styled Lord of the Isles. In short the Vikings did not leave the Western Isles but became part of the fabric of the society. They settled and adapted to their new homeland.

So my characters lived in a time of flux. When a man could carve a kingdom with the point of his sword and his sons could lose it just as quickly. They would have recognised the mountains and hills of Islay and Jura but little else.

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romances. SHe is currently revising her next Viking set romance which is set in Islay.  Her most recent Viking Summer of the Viking was published in the US and England in June 2015. It will also be published in Norway and Sweden in June 2016 and France. You can learn more about Michelle and her books on www.michellestyles.co.uk