Yesterday I walked out of a production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice that was showing at our local cinema. It was the brilliant, “internationally acclaimed” production from the Globe Theater Company, directed by Jonathan Munby and starring Jonathan Pryce. But I walked out twenty minutes before the end because I couldn’t bear to sit through another minute after watching the utter humiliation of the Jew, Shylock, at the hands of his triumphalist Christian “opponents.” Yes, it was “just a play,” and a play I have seen many times before, but there was something frighteningly contemporary about what was playing out on the set, something which created a reaction in me that I had never experienced watching previous productions of this play.
A quick background: Shylock, a Jew in 16th century Venice, lends money to a merchant, Antonio, who in turns gives the money to his dear friend, Bassanio, so that the latter can pursue his love interest in a manner befitting a gentleman. Shylock hates Continue reading Hath not a Jew eyes?→
I first visited Brancion several years ago on a Pilgrimage through Burgundy. This ancient medieval village, tucked away on a hilltop above the valley of the river Grosne immediately captured my imagination. You enter by way of a covered stone gateway (the clatter of hooves on the cobblestones is still almost audible). To your right, and elevated above the village, stands the ruins of the 12th century keep with its later 14th century additions still more or less intact.
The views from its walls are spectacular and offer a clear view of the surrounding countryside – no enemy was going to sneak up on the lords of Brancion. But who were these lords who built this place? Continue reading Brancion – October 2 2013→
Cluny breaks your heart – at least it breaks mine. Traveling around France you become accustomed to seeing the destruction visited on Cathedrals, Churches, Abbeys and religious artifacts during the French Revolution (1789-1799), but in my view nothing compares with the loss of this once magnificent architectural and spiritual marvel of Medieval Europe, the greatest Abbey in western Christendom and Motherhouse of the Benedictine order. Little remains today of the glory that was Cluny, although you can still see the foundations extending from the remaining towers and running for nearly quarter of a mile parallel to the market square and streets of present day Cluny (now in part the site of the lovely little hotel de la Bourgogne.) Continue reading Cluny – October 2 2013→
The novelist Persia Wooley offers very sound advice when she suggests that a historical novelist should, whenever possible, visit the places she is writing about. Not only is there a good chance that this will provide additional material and inspiration, but also actually experiencing the terrain (one thing that time has probably not changed that much) can save the writer from a number of unfortunate mistakes that anyone who knows the area would pick up on immediately!
The ancient hilltop village of Vézelay has been a gathering place for Pilgrims since about 1040 C.E. when an enterprising Abbot declared that their Basilica possessed the body of Mary Magdalene – a great holy relic. Henceforth and until its decline two centuries later, Vézelay was not only a destination in its own right but also an important milestone on the road to Compostela and the shrine of Saint James in Galicia, which, after Rome, was perhaps the most celebrated pilgrimage destination in Europe – at the height of its popularity in the late 11th and 12th centuries, an estimated half a million pilgrims a year made the arduous trek across the Pyrenees to this holy site. Continue reading Travels in Burgundy: Vézelay October 1 2013→
The whole reason for this trip to Belgium and France was to trace the route my hero, Rohan de Brancion, would have followed in 1146 when he left his home in the hillside village of Brancion in central Burgundy and headed north for Ghent. After facing initial opposition, he (or rather others more persuasive than he) convinced his robber baron father, Lord Bernard de Brancion, to allow him, an illegitimate son, to undergo training to become a knight at the court of Lord Bernard’s powerful brother-in-law, Thierry, Count of Flanders. This in itself was unusual given Rohan’s base birth, but it was not unheard of – there were many famous early medieval bastards who rose to high positions – Duke William of Normandy, better known as William the Conqueror, was a bastard. Rules about these matters became more rigid in the 14th century, but still this was a pretty big deal for Rohan and would have put considerable pressure on him to prove himself worthy. Continue reading Travels through Champagne & Burgundy – September 30 to October 5 2013→
Most travelers (and movie goers) seem more familiar with Bruges than Ghent. For those of you who didn’t see the recent quirky movie with Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges, it gives you a pretty good idea of the place, although I offer this recommendation with a “violence and explicit language” warning (can’t remember if there was much explicit sex). Anyway since Bruges does not feature in the novel (at least so far), I will make this brief.
Looking for a good medieval battle site amidst 21st century suburbs is no easy matter I discovered – well, looking for anything medieval in this context. A general rule of thumb, in Europe at least, is to start by identifying the oldest church in the neighborhood, especially if the name of that church corresponds to the oldest known name of the village or district. Even if the church itself is relatively new, chances are, it sits on a medieval foundation and at one point in time was the center of life in a medieval village.
St. Peter’s Abbey stands on one of the highest points of the city in what used to be the village of Saint Peters (in the 12th century). Today, it lies in the heart of the student district of Ghent about a 15-minute walk from the center of town. Not much remains of the original Abbey founded in the 7th century by Amandus, a missionary sent from Aquitaine to Christianize the region, but it is still an impressive building consisting now mostly of an 18th century architectural superstructure with much earlier foundations and even earlier ruins – all well worth the visit (as always do not miss the crypt which is where you get the real sense of what an abbey, ancient church or cathedral was originally like). Continue reading St. Peter’s Abbey – September 26 2013→
Amazing – from my hotel window I can see five ancient churches and the famous Belfry tower of Ghent (Belfort) built in the 14th century to house a host of massive cast iron bells that would ring out a warning to the citizens of an impending attack or a fire blazing away in one of the districts (actually a far more frequent occurrence in the Middle Ages than attacks from enemies!). These bells continue to ring out across the city today every hour – charming when one is awake: not so much at midnight. Last night for example, Continue reading Ghent – September 26 2013 Part 2→