26 September 2016

Revolutionising 1066

1066 is the most known year in English history, and the most intriguing. Whether you support Saxon Harold or Norman William, it represents a key turning point: a year in which England’s historical story could have gone any number of ways – a year of ‘what ifs’. Turning the outcome of the Battle of Hastings on its head and considering other outcomes would be a revolution indeed.

What if King Edward’s great-nephew, Edgar, had been thought old enough to rule, and chosen as king? 
Edgar  Atheling was born in Hungary, the son of Edward the Exile, who in turn was the son of the legendary King Edmund Ironside. After returning to England when he was five or six, Edgar grew up with his sisters, Margaret and Christine in King Edward’s court. At the time of the king’s death, Edgar would have been fifteen or sixteen, too young and inexperienced to defend his kingdom. Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex was crowned instead.

But Harold only ruled for nine months and nine days until he met his historic end at Hastings. This time the Witan (the council of English nobles) proclaimed Edgar king but England was in chaos. By then the Normans were sweeping across south east England and no one could stop them. But if Edgar had been a few years older, perhaps Saxon England would have lasted longer…

What if the northern Earls Edwin and Morcar had defeated the Norwegian Harald Hardrada and King Harold’s brother, the rebellious Tostig, at the Battle of Fulford outside York in September? 
The battle was a decisive victory for the Norwegian army. The brother earls could have hidden behind the walls of York but instead they met the Viking army across a river. All day the English desperately tried to break the Viking shield wall but to no avail. York surrendered to the Norwegians  and Tostig, who claimed the earldom for himself, under the promise that the victors would not force entry to their city, perhaps because Tostig would not want his new capital looted.

During the battle, casualties were heavy on both sides. Some estimates claim 15% dead giving a total of 1650 (based on 11,000 troops being deployed in the battle. The mobilised power of Mercia and Northumbria was cut to pieces at Fulford.  The victorious Norwegian army retired to Stamford Bridge, 7 miles (11 km) east of York.

Because of the defeat at Fulford Gate, King Harold Godwinson had to force march his troops 190 miles (310 km), from London to York. He did this within a week of Fulford and managed to surprise the Norwegian army and defeat them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

But suppose Harald Hardrada of Norway had won the Battle of Stamford Bridge?
In reality, after the bloody Battle at Stamford Bridge, both Hardrada and Tostig along with most of the Norwegians were killed. The battle has traditionally symbolises the end of the Viking Age, although Scandinavian campaigns in Britain and Ireland occurred in the following decades, such as those of King Sweyn Estrithson of Denmark in 1069–70 and King Magnus Barefoot of Norway in 1098 and 1102–03.

Harald was King of Norway (as Harald III) from 1046 to 1066. As a 15 year old he had fought in battle. Prior to becoming king, he had spent around fifteen years in exile as a mercenary and military commander in Kievan Rus' and of the Varangian Guard in the Byzantine Empire. In Constantinople, he soon rose to become the commander of the Byzantine Varangian Guard, and saw action on the Mediterranean Sea, in Asia Minor, Sicily, possibly in the Holy Land, Bulgaria and in Constantinople itself, where he became involved in the imperial dynastic disputes. Harald amassed  great wealth during his time in the Byzantine Empire.

Once he became sole King of Norway in 1046, Harald crushed all local and regional opposition, and outlined the territorial unification of Norway under a national governance. Harald's reign was probably one of relative peace and stability, and he instituted a viable coin economy and foreign trade.

So perhaps he  would have been a harsh king for England but one which brought stability. With his trading and personal contacts, England may have prospered under him.

But before then, Harald would have met the force of William of Normandy as he journeyed south with his army….

And suppose...
What if Harold had defeated the Normans at sea?
What if Svein of Denmark had invaded or a neutral European political power had intervened?
What if William had died when he was unhorsed at Hastings or had been defeated at London Bridge in November?
What if the Bayeux Tapestry carries a hidden, secret meaning about the truth of 1066 – or a time  machine could alter the past?

The possibilities of turning 1066 upside down are endless with so many different outcomes. Do you have a favourite one?

A group of nine authors have explored some of those ‘what ifs’ in 1066 Turned Upside Down, a collection of ‘alternative history’ short stories, to celebrate the 950th anniversary of this incredible year.

Helen Hollick, author of multiple historical and pirate novels, including Harold the King
Joanna Courtney, author of the Queens of the Conquest series
Anna Belfrage, Historical Novel Society Indie Award Winner 2015, author of the Graham Saga
Richard Dee, fantasy author of Ribbonworld 
G K Holloway, author of 1066: What Fates Impose
Carol McGrath, author of The Daughters of Hastings trilogy
Alison Morton, author of the Roma Nova thrillers
Eliza Redgold, author of Naked, a novel of Lady Godiva
Annie Whitehead, who writes about Mercia and Saxon England
with a foreword by writer and actor, C.C. Humphreys
Cover by Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics.

The collection includes historical notes of what really did happen each month alongside the fictional re-interpretations, as well as authors' notes on what fascinates them about 1066 and why they chose to 'change' what they did. Each story has a few suggestions for 'discussion' points for schools, writer's groups - or just your own curiosity!

So where can you buy this fascinating collection?
Amazon Kindle  Nook  Kobo  iBooks

16 September 2016

New & Noteworthy: September 16

MJ Neary's novel WYNFIELD's KINGDOM has been republished by Crossroad Press and is available now at Amazon.com. Congrats MJ!

24 August 2016

The Arts: Frescoes as Medieval Mass Communication

Despite constant warfare and the threat of famine and disease in the Dark Ages, the people loved their art. It could transport them beyond their daily worries. Or reinforce the message of whoever paid for artwork and demonstrate the patron’s wealth.

In Carolingian times (eighth and ninth century Europe), frescoes were popular decoration for palaces and churches. An ancient art form, a fresco could start as a thick coat of sand mixed with lime and ferruginous clay. Then, someone applied a thin layer of lime atop that. A painter then created harmonious forms and applied color. For pigments, he used indigo, lazur (a blue from azurite or lapis lazuli), prasin (derived from a green mineral known better as pseudomalachite), and dangerous substances such as yellow arsenic, red lead, and mercury.

Painters were skilled craftsmen who emulated the ancients. These medieval artists held the first century BCE Roman architect Vitruvius in high regard, especially when it came to symmetry and proportion. Vitruvius believed the body was a model of proportional perfection, with outstretched limbs fitting equally well in a circle or square and architecture should imitate its beauty and harmony.

Painting a fresco was a tricky business and required stamina from the artist, working
nonstop to paint plaster in the hours it was still wet and the paint would take. Because the color was lighter when it dried, the artist had to anticipate how the color would turn out. If he made a mistake, he had two options: let it go or scrape it off, losing hours of work. Large frescoes, like those covering entire church walls, were often done in sections, so the artist had the additional challenge of making sure the colors matched.

The artist also followed certain conventions. A lord must bear arms. Apostles had certain attributes such as a bearded Matthew, a bald Peter, and young James and Zebedee.

The goal was not realism but beauty.

The results could be idealized scenes from history, daily life, the Bible, or ancient mythology. In a palace, those images could reassure friends and intimidate enemies. In a church, they could reinforce religious stories, especially useful when the faithful had no Bibles to consult or were recent converts from paganism.

Many early medieval people couldn’t read, but they could interpret the pictures on the walls.


Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne by John J. Butt

The Pigment Compendium: A Dictionary of Historical Pigments, Volume 1, by Nicholas Eastaugh

Wet-Wall Tattoos by Richard Maschal

Kim Rendfeld’s debut novel, The Cross and the Dragon, is set in the early years of Charlemagne’s reign. The story about a young woman contending with a jilted suitor and the anxiety her husband will be killed in battle was re-released August 3, 2016, in print and ebook formats. Her second novel, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, will be re-released in November. Connect with Kim on her website (kimrendfeld.com), her blog (kimrendfeld.wordpress.com), Facebook (facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld) and Twitter (@kimrendfeld).

19 August 2016

New & Noteworthy: August 19

Anita Davison's latest novel MURDER ON THE MINNEAPOLIS will be re-released by Aria (an imprint of Head of Zeus) in October 2016. This is the first in a series of five novels featuring the adventures of amateur sleuth Flora Maguire. The second book, MURDER AT CLEEVE ABBEY, is due for release this December, with the rest to follow in 2017. MURDER ON THE MINNEAPOLIS is now available for pre-order at Amazon.

To celebrate the re-release of THE CROSS AND THE DRAGON, Kim Rendfeld is holding two giveaways: one for a signed paperback for U.S. residents via Goodreads, the other for an ebook open internationally via her blog. See Kim’s post for details.

NOTE: Heather Domin's blog tour at Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours promoting THE HEIRS OF FORTUNE has been postponed due to scheduling conflicts. As soon as it is rescheduled, the new date will be announced.

17 August 2016

The Arts: Mozarabic Manuscript Illumination

Musicians from a Beatus of Liébana ms. from the first half of the tenth
century. Wikimedia Commons 

The complexity of the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages has led to many different terms to refer to the distinct sectors of its multireligious, multicultural society. “Mozarabic” originally referred to the Christians who were allowed to continue practicing their faith under Muslim government, and later expanded to include the Iberian Christians who lived outside those territories as well. The time frame remains strict: it describes Moorish political dominance, from the seventh through the eleventh centuries.

Christ in Majesty from a Moralia in Job completed in
Valeranica, 945.  Wikimedia Commons 
This time frame sets the characters from my Seven Noble Knights, which takes place in 974 and 990, squarely within the Mozarabic culture. I’m fascinated with the distinctive art of this culture because it’s the aesthetic my characters would have been surrounded by.

From a Beatus of Liébana completed in Osma.
Wikimedia Commons 
In the most abundant type of art, manuscript illumination, bright colors, almond-shaped eyes, elongated hands, and disregard for realism are the characteristics that most stand out for me. Perhaps the colors, bright enough to burn modern eyes, are the result of dim lighting in buildings with small windows. The lack of realism may have come about in part because the most popular work of literature at the time was a commentary on the Apocalypse, with all its fantastic creatures and events, by a monk called Beatus of Liébana.

The Monastery "de Suso" at San Millán de la Cogolla is a
rare example of Mozarabic architecture. Jessica Knauss 
It’s assumed that the driving force of Mozarabic art is a blending of older, revered Visigothic styles with adaptations from Arabic sources. However, it’s hard to trace the continuance of Visigothic style due to a general lack of surviving Visigothic sources. Much important architecture constructed during the Visigothic and Mozarabic periods no longer exists because in later generations it was demolished to make way for new styles. Although the Arabic inspirations in Mozarabic art are more obvious, they’re not easy to interpret. Some see a criticism of these borrowings embedded in the borrowings themselves because of the frontier nature of this art and the antagonism between the religions. Others prefer to think Mozarabic artists admired Arabic styles for their elegance as much as they admired Visigothic styles for their heritage.

The Ark of the Covenant in the San Isidoro Bible, 960.
Wikimedia Commons 
In The Art of Medieval Spain, O. K. Werkmeister illustrates that the Mozarabic attitude toward Arabic art sources seems to reflect the current state of the prolonged conflict. These monks were often working on the front lines and witnessed skirmishes and battles firsthand. The San Isidoro Bible of 960 illustrates Philistines riding in a style probably copied from Islamic art. In this way, the Bible story of intense fighting against frightening enemies became an allegory for the conflict the monks and lay people saw all around them.

From the Beatus of Liébana of Girona, 975.
Wikimedia Commons 
Fifty years later, the attitude seems to have flipped. A decorative casket Caliph Hisham II gave to his Sword of the Realm as part of a reward for conquering León was looted in a raid and brought back to a Christian church to serve as a reliquary for the bones of two Mozarabic martyrs. This reappropriation is the ultimate form of adaptation from Arabic sources. The casket could only be accepted as Christian at this exact moment in history, when the Caliphate of Córdoba was in decay and the enemy forces didn’t seem as threatening as before.

The Whore of Babylon in the Girona Beatus.
Wikimedia Commons 
Unique among European manuscript illumination of this period, the frontier monks nearly always left detailed colophons signing their work and stating the reasons and patrons for which it was made. Such signatures likely imitated the way artists claimed their work in the Muslim-governed territories, where artists had considerable social standing. It seems reasonable that the Mozarabic monks had similar artistic and cultural aspirations. Historians thank them for leaving such accurately self-conscious records.

From "Facundus" ms. of Fernando I and Sancha of Castile,
mid-eleventh century. Wikimedia Commons 
The Mozarabic monastic tradition wouldn’t last long after the rise of the Romanesque artistic style. The only example of work attempting to bridge the styles or to absorb Mozarabic sensibilities into international Romanesque are the manuscripts patronized by Fernando I and Sancha of Castile in the mid-eleventh century. For me, these manuscripts happily combine the old surrealism with a new, more complex control of contours. But there were no monastic centers that could juggle the two styles for long.

Noah's ark, painted in Urgell. Wikimedia Commons 
Nevertheless, Mozarabic art was no flash in the pan. Something essential about it, perhaps its severity or its emotional impact, has remained in Spanish art. Many commentators draw a straight line between the San Isidoro Bible of 960 and Picasso’s Guernica.

Jessica Knauss earned her PhD in medieval Spanish with a dissertation on the portrayal of Alfonso X’s laws in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, which has been published as the five-star-rated Law and Order in Medieval Spain. A driven fiction writer, Jessica Knauss has edited many fine historical novels and is a bilingual freelance editor. Her historical epic, Seven Noble Knights, will be published in December 2016 by Bagwyn Books, and she is working on the sequel. Her contemporary paranormal Awash in Talent is now available from Kindle Press. Find out more about her writing and bookish activities here. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, too! 

10 August 2016

The Art of the Decadents and the Bourgeois

By Laura Rahme

Francois Boucher’s The Chinese Garden

The downfall of the French monarchy during the Revolution of 1789 brought with it a new social order where art modes that were considered decadent and aristocratic were shunned.

Through Revolution, power and wealth flowed increasingly into the hands of the emerging bourgeoisie, a socio-economic group that had long aspired to the manner and graces of aristocrats, but who now sought to forge themselves a new identity, along with their own artistic sensibilities.

New styles emerged in dress, hairstyles, furniture, theatre and art.

Prior to the French Revolution, and ever since the reign of Louis XV, Rococo artists were the masters of the French art scene. This was to change.

Marie-Antoinette’s Art World

At the time of Queen Marie-Antoinette, before the French Revolution, paintings were lavish depictions of luxury, pleasure and the insouciance of a privileged class which did not reflect the majority of the population. Ordinary working class people were rarely subjects of these paintings.

Instead, aristocratic subjects are seen idling about in elaborate clothing without a care in the world. This was the time of Rococo art.

The Swing
Jean Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing (1767) denotes the carelessness and childishness of a young girl at play. Here, the aristocrats seem oblivious to the reality that the ordinary French person lives daily. This brand of art would have been odious to French revolutionaries given that as early as the 1780s, the price of bread was starting to rise due to poor crop yields, and the country’s debt was climbing.

The Lock
In The Lock (1777), Fragonard depicts a debauched noble class with perhaps a male making ready to corrupt his female companion despite her protests. The disordered bedroom and sheets allude to furious abandon, or even struggle, giving the onlooker a sense of forbidden erotic pleasures. This artistic style is in line with the libertine literature of the times, evoking themes from Le Marquis de Sade texts and Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the latter being hugely popular despite it being banned.

Portrait of Madame de Pompadour
In Francois Boucher’s portrait of Madame de Pompadour (1756), Louis XV’s chief mistress reclines on a sofa, dressed in a rich silk gown embroidered with flowers. Elaborate pink bows cascade down her corset, mirroring the perfect bow around her white neck. The great patroness of Rococo art appears regal and her encumbering court attire hints to her idleness and ease.

In the Rococo period, we also see decadence and immorality illustrated through Francois Boucher’ portraits. For example in his Brown Odalisque (1745), Boucher’s model is nude and tempts the onlooker with her exposed bottom.

Brown Odalisque
Boucher’s Léda et le Cygne (c.1740) dives with abandon into erotic perversion.  According to Greek mythology, Zeus transformed himself into a Swan to rape Leda. Yet the painting’s soft pastels and the lack of aggression implies yielding. Instead, the mood is languorous and Leda’s pose - lifting her dress - alludes to permissiveness.  

Leda and the Swan
Prior to the Revolution, almost all was permitted to aristocrats and they held rights over lower classes. In retrospect, the painting hints at the swan’s aristocratic embodiment with the rape of Leda recalling the suppression and abuse of the working classes who have no other choice. No wonder Boucher was in poor taste by the time the revolution began. Alas, despite his enormous talent, he remained unpopular for almost a century.

With these Rococo samples, it comes as no surprise that aristocrats were often seen as debauched and immoral. On several occasions, even Marie-Antoinette’s supposed sexual life and sensual pleasures were the subject of pamphlets and public scorn.

At the dawn of the French Republic, morality and discipline would need to be the focus of the new age if one were to distance oneself from aristocratic mores.  If a bourgeois wished to acquire symbols of stature, and ornaments for their home, they could not be seen as coveting the same frivolous art and perpetuating the same ideologies as aristocrats.

What style could a bourgeois possibly turn to?

Republican Scorn

With Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, the French mentality impassioned itself with noble ideals and moral rectitude. People became ‘enlightened’ and suddenly the excesses of the old regime with its implied hierarchies and light-heartedness were frowned upon.

According to Gamboni1, what irked revolutionaries was not so much the content of Ancient Regime paintings and images, but rather their symbolic representation.  While portraits of monarchs, members of the nobility and the Church were more directly attacked, any other work that these parties may have commissioned, possessed or displayed, were seen as symbolic of old power hierarchies and came under the revolution’s scorn.  Also to be wiped out or strictly discouraged were symbols of feudalism, superstition, toys and the ‘spoils of prejudice and arrogance’.

The terms pronounced when the city of Lyon’s buildings and monuments were destroyed leave no doubt as to the revolutionaries’ attitude: “In the name of the Sovereignty of the people…we strike with death this abode of crime whose royal magnificence was an insult to the poverty of the people and to the simplicity of republican morals.”

Discovery of Pompeii Ruins

In this sweeping social change, what, then, were accepted artistic symbols? What art forms were to be revered for their espousal of revolutionary values?

The answer to these questions were to be found in recent archaeological discoveries which had gradually brought upon an international change in the art scene.
That is, if a revolution had taken place in France, another revolution was burgeoning in the art world.

Earlier in the 18th century, the ancient Roman towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii had been discovered - in 1738 and 1748. These archaeological finds revealed gorgeous villas and a range of classical art from Greek vases to exquisite Roman murals. These discoveries newly inspired artists who began to experiment using Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece as models.

Europa riding the bull –
Fresco from Pompeii, 1
st Century AD
Antique style drawings, with their clean lines contrasted with the softness and airy touch of Rococo. The antique style was seen as representative of virtue while Rococo was coded as decadent.

Neo Classicism was born.

Juliette de Récamier’s Art World

Where Marie Antoinette had reigned supreme as Rococo graced French monuments and salons, after the French Revolution, it was the wealthy bourgeois socialite, Juliette Récamier, who became her Neoclassicism equivalent. 

Bust of Juliette Récamier -
Joseph Chinard, c.1801-2
A celebrity in her time, this wealthy banker’s wife heralded advances in furniture and dress style. Marie Antoinette had once commissioned Jean-Baptiste Pillement to decorate her Petit Trianon with his famed Chinoiserie style. No more. During the Neoclassicism period, socially accepted symbols included Ancient Egyptian lions and sphynxes, like those adorning the chairs owned by Juliette Récamier. The gracious hostess also owned an antique style bed with bronze-like ornaments and an x-shaped stool evoking Ancient Rome.

Styles in sculpture also reflected classical taste. In her time, Juliette Récamier was famed for her beauty and this marble bust depicts her as no less than the most gracious antiquity goddess.

Aside from being the subject of sculpture, Juliette Récamier also featured in a couple of paintings. One of these is her portrait by Jacques-Louis David, with a similar one painted by David’s pupil, Baron Gérard. In the latter, Juliette Récamier, the very spirit of Neoclassicism, is lying barefooted on an Etruscan chaise-longue, channelling the Greco-Roman vestal virgin with her simple white dress and up-styled hair.

Portrait of Juliette Récamier
by Baron Gérard (1802)
At the time, a journalist wrote, “Truth could go no further than this, she is so seductive to the eye and the imagination, that she gives off an impression of the ideal.”2 [translated from French]

Years before, Jacques-Louis David had produced equally ‘classical’ portraits, including this one of Madame Henriette de Verninac (1799), daughter of a minister and wife of a diplomat.

Madame de Verninac
The pose is almost identical to the one adopted by Juliette Récamier. Individuality seemed less important with this art form which was synonymous with patriotism, self-sacrifice and nationalism.

Jacques-Louis David - Art Dictator

Ironically, before the French Revolution, Jacques-Louis David had once been taught by sensualist Francois Boucher, and upon leaving Paris to study in Rome, had once declared, "The art of antiquity will not seduce me, for it lacks liveliness.” But times being what they were, even artists did well to reinvent themselves, if only for survival. Or was it only survival?  

During the French Revolution, David had joined the extremist Jacobins.  He not only voted for the execution of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette but he lent his support to Robespierre during the Terror…as France’s art dictator. His subsequent abolition of France’s Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was often interpreted as a reprisal for slights suffered in his youth.

Years later, under Napoleon, he would continue to direct his Neoclassicism talent into much propaganda.

Neoclassicism under Napoleon

Neoclassicism swelled to propagandist proportions during the First Empire, with Jacques-Louis David producing this well-known portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps. The painting is marked by austerity and discipline, both hallmarks of Neoclassicism, while still associating grandeur and fearlessness with Napoleon.

Napoleon Crossing the St. Bernard Pass (1800)
In a similar vein, David’s Napoleon in his Salon (1812) confers authority and power to Napoleon. The winged head of mercury is a Greek symbol of wealth, while the lion is an Egyptian symbol of a king’s power. Both further illustrate the furniture style of that period.  Meanwhile Napoleon’s poised stance, his uniform and sword combine to portray a man in control.

Napoleon in his Salon 1812
The Decadents and the Bourgeois

As seen, the French Revolution saw dramatic socio-political changes which precipitated drastic transformations in the art world and in the consumption of art. While the ‘decadent’ aristocrat favoured Rococo, at the end of the Ancient Regime, Neoclassicism had risen in importance. Neoclassicism was seen as aligning with the ideologies of the French Republic and for this reason was embraced and even championed by the bourgeoisie. Far from being a passive decorative art form, Neoclassicism served as a tool for advancing the interests of the French Republic and later of Napoleon.

  1. The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution, Dario Gamboni, Reaktion Books, 1997.
  2. Portrait de Juliette Recamier, Carnavalet Museum, http://www.carnavalet.paris.fr/en/collections/portrait-de-juliette-recamier-1777-1849, Accessed on 28 Jul 2016.
  3. Neo-classicism & The French Revolution, Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/public/page/themes/neoclassicismandthefrenchrevolution, Accessed on 28 Jul 2016.
  4. 18th- and 19th-Century France - Neoclassicism, National Gallery of Art, http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/features/slideshows/18th-and-19th-century-france-neoclassicism.html, Accessed on 28 Jul 2016.
  5. Rococo - Wikipedia
  6. Jacques Louis David - Wikipedia

All images from Wiki commons. 

05 August 2016

The Arts: Music from the Oud

By Lisa J. Yarde

Arabic oud
The oud or ud. One of the most popular stringed instruments meant to reverberate as if struck when played. It became synonymous with the music of the medieval Arabic world from the ninth century onward, but its origins aren't from the Arabs. From ancient Egypt and Greece, similar forms of the same type of instrument can be found. The Persian (modern day Iranian) barbat or barbud is one of the oldest version of what would come to be known as the lute in Christian lands and a precursor of the oud in the Middle East and the guitar in the West. The barbat has existed in Central Asia since at least the first century BC, where the first image of it occurred in northern Bactria, once comprised of regions in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. 
Persian barbat

The Persians adapted the barbat, carved from one piece of wood, covered in part with leather or some kind of animal skin. During the Islamic expansion of the seventh century, Arab musicians became aware of the instrument, which they called al oud meaning wood and specifically flexible or thin wood. Several kinds of wood have been used over the centuries; some chosen for their aromatic quality, like sandalwood but the beech, walnut, maple, pistachio, cypress, oak, cedar and pine trees have also been used in the creation of the oud.

The shape has typically remained that of a bowl or sound box connected to a short neck, with strings stretched from the lower half of the sound box across the body, which changed as the oud developed. The barbat's form revealed more of the neck than the oud. The slimmer, smaller body of the barbat's sound box became pear-shaped with a rounded, swelling back and a flat front surface in the medieval Islamic period. The body was pierced by two or three oval holes, rather than the one found in the barbat, often in an ornamental design. The oud began as a two-stringed instrument, but this evolved over time as well. Music from the oud also found further refinement in Spain through the musician Ziryab, discussed here in my 2011 article; he added additional strings. These are plucked with a plectrum held between the thumb and index finger, which sets off a deep but mellow, vibrating resonance when the instrument is played. There are pegs attached to neck as well. A maker of the oud, along with those who construct lutes, violins and guitars, is called a luthier.

Beyond the influence of Moorish Spain, other refinements to the oud occurred in Turkey during the Ottoman period and Egypt. Those instruments played in Turkey tend to be smaller than the Arabic version, with a lighter weight construction. There has not always been a great appreciation for the music of the oud. Over the centuries, some have condemned its soothing sound, as well as all other forms of music as sinful and a sign of indolence within society. As early as the Safavid period in 16th-century Persia and as late as 2003, religious fanatics have tried to forbid oud playing. Fortunately, today its music can still be heard all over the Middle East and in North Africa. 

A modern version of music from the oud from one of my favorite players.


All images are public domain, royalty-free. Oud (Bigstock from Shutterstock), Barbat (Wiki Commons) .

Video: Ahmed Alshaiba's cover of Adele's Hello, from YouTube

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 is completing a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two SistersSultana: The Bride Price, Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree, and Sultana: The White Mountains, 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 July 2016

Beyond Our Stars: Hanno the Navigator & the Phoenician Reliance on Astronomy

Goddess Tanit, Carthage
Modern day Senegal is said to be inhabited by a sizable Lebanese community, the majority, like my father and myself, being born there. These “African Lebanese” or “Senegalese Lebanese”, as they like to call themselves, are primarily entrepreneurs. They are deeply entrenched in Senegalese commerce and constitute a strong monopoly. 

The Lebanese have been established in Senegal for decades. Their presence dates from even before the Lebanese civil war of the mid-70s with some, like my grandfather, having arrived in the early 1930s, while others erred there on migrant boats under the misguided belief that they would be brought to America.

Regardless of their arrival date and of the deep anchor into a country they call their own, it would come as a surprise to most “Senegalese Lebanese”, to learn that thousands of years ago, their Phoenician ancestors had, long before they did, endeavoured to establish trade in Senegal.

Between 500 and 480 BC, the naval commander and King of Carthage, Hanno, sailed through the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar), contouring the African coast anti-clockwise, and is said to have reached the Senegal River. Hanno recorded his journey on a tablet which he placed in a temple. His record, later translated into Greek, depicted an expedition consisting of 30000 colonists and 60 ships.

Phoenician ship detail from 2nd-c.
sarcophagus - Sidon, Lebanon
Carthage-based Phoenicians like Hanno originated from the land of Canaan which today encompasses most of Lebanon, parts of Israel and Syria. What a remarkable coincidence that like their modern day Lebanese counterparts, the Phoenicians would have had an interest in exploring trade opportunities in Western Africa, with Hanno navigating past Cape Verde, round the Gulf of Guinea and potentially as far as Cameroon.

The Phoenicians were merchants and ship builders who dominated the Mediterranean Sea three thousand years ago. Their empire stretched from the city of Tyre in modern day Lebanon, to Carthage in modern day Tunisia, and their colonies included Cadiz in Spain, Cyprus, Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia.  In their times, they were the uncontested masters of the sea, trading as far as Cornwall in England. Their desire for trade provided an incentive for exploration and this went hand in hand with navigation.

Phoenician trade routes
It is acknowledged that the Phoenicians were the first Western civilization to have developed the art of navigation at sea. Their navigation skills were aided by a knowledge of astronomy - they are considered to be the first navigators to use the Pole star. The Phoenicians had learned to sail on a cloudless night, using the star, Polaris, as a reference for North. Polaris is a star in Ursa Minor, the constellation of the Little Bear. In those days, other cultures began to call this constellation “Phoenike” after the first mariners who employed it, the Phoenicians.

Use of Polaris allowed the Phoenicians to venture away from traditional routes that generally hugged the coastline, without fearing they might become lost.  They kept the North Star to their right (starboard), when they wanted to sail West and to their left (port side), when they wanted to sail East. Interestingly, the Phoenician word for East was Asu (sunrise) while for West, it was Ereb (sunset) - terms which have given us Asia and Europe, respectively.

Along with Polaris, the Phoenicians observed other stars, together with the sun and moon. To aid in their observation of the sky, most of their Mediterranean navigation took place between March and October, when weather conditions were more favorable.

The Phoenicians could calculate how far south they were by looking at the height of the midday sun or through the emergence of new stars and the disappearance of others in the sky. They knew that the sun was lowest in the sky at the winter solstice. They also knew that during equinoxes, the sun rose in the east and set in the west more precisely than at other times.

The Phoenicians of Carthage were highly dependent on sky observation for sea travel and ultimately for their monopoly over Mediterranean commerce. This reliance is best illustrated through their increasing worship of the Goddess Tanit.

Tanit stele, Carthage
Tanit was Carthaginian Sky Goddess who ruled over the Sun, Stars and Moon, while her consort Ba’al-Hammon was the God of the Sky. Her origin may have been either local, or harked from Ashtart (Astarte), the fertility Goddess of the Tyrian Phoenicians.  Starting in the 5th century however, Tanit became the chief deity of the city of Carthage - a patron goddess and oracle.  It is this oracle quality in particular, an allusion to consulting the sky for making decisions, which further underlines the Phoenicians’ reliance on astronomy for their successful endeavours.

Today the Lebanese merchants living in Senegal are no seafarers. In their daily business, they need not gaze upon the stars nor do they worship astral deities like their Phoenician ancestors once did. Still I can’t help but smile when I consider that their inherent love of commercial exchange and their presence in Africa remain strong.  

  1. The Amazing Astronomers of Antiquity, Houston Museum of Natural Science
  2. The Science of Navigation from Dead Reckoning to GPS, Mark Denny, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.