Travels in France, Part Two

Josephine’s boudoir in Malmaison

Pat here. I will attempt to stop drooling over French food this time and dive into a few of the historical places I actually went to see. (that’s a lie. I went for the wine and cheese but Josephine’s boudoir is worthy of a gawk or two)

Avignon papal palace
Papal Palace of Avignon

Our first major stop was Avignon and the pope’s palace. The original palace was begun in 1252 so the king of France could install his own pope. Later, as the political conflict in Rome became more violent, (really, one would think clergy would behave better) Clement V, of Gascony, fled there in 1309. Clement lived with the monks, but by the time Pope Benedict XII came along, the old building wasn’t sufficient for his safety. He began reconstruction of the old palace into a fortress with a cloister around 1334.

model of Papal Palace in Avignon
model of Papal Palace in Avignon

After 1342, under the next popes, an even grander palace grew on the site, taking almost the entirety of the papal budget. The conflicts in the church did not end when Gregory XI returned to Rome, ending the Avignon Papacy in 1377. The pope’s Avignon retreat was finally besieged in 1398 by antipapal forces. Eventually, as all things do, the palace deteriorated. In 1791, it was the scene of a massacre of counter-revolutionaries, whose bodies were thrown into the latrines. Much of what we see today is a restoration that has been going on since 1906. So much history in one magnificent building! This is why it’s impossible to blog about my travels. I dive down bunny holes.

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Historical Food Crazes

This is a cronut!

Nicola here. The latest food trend has passed me by until now but at the weekend I read about something called a “Crookie.” The crookie was preceded by the cronut and the cruffin, which for those readers like me who are clueless of food fashions, is croissant dough crossed with various other sweet foods: cookies, doughnuts and muffins. I haven’t tried any of them but I’m told they are delicious.

The fashion for trying out new things in food is as old as the human race, according to food historians. When the Romans came to Britain, they brought with them fruit such as grapes and figs and herbs including coriander, which must have been an eye-opener for British-Romano cuisine. More spices entered the British diet after the Norman Conquest of 1066, with cinnamon, cloves and saffron from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern trade.

Can you imagine the excitement in Tudor England when both tomatoes and turkeys appeared on the menu (though not necessarily at the same time?) The Italians had tried the tomato out first and weren’t too keen to start with, having munched on the leaves and pronounced them inedible (they are actually poisonous in large quantities.) Nor was the potato initially welcome. The Spanish introduced them in the second half of the 16th century. The Histoires de legumes by Pitrat and Foury states that the first written mention of the potato was a receipt for delivery dated 28th November 1567 when they travelled from Las Palmas in Grand Canarias to Antwerp. Sir Walter Raleigh brought them to England in 1588 but initially they were treated with suspicion and considered no better than animal feed. As one of my favourite meals is a baked potato with cheese, I can only be grateful that eventually they caught on. And where would we be without chips/fries?

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Life in a Roman Legion

Christina here. Do you believe in serendipity? I definitely do! I happen to be working on another book set during Roman times (although in Britain, not Italy) and guess what happened? The British Museum put on an exhibition about Roman legions! Although my hero is not a legionary, the villain is, so this was the perfect research opportunity and naturally, I had to go and see it.

The exhibition was called Legion – Life in the Roman Army – and it was amazing! A collection of fabulous artefacts, with plenty of backstory and historical information. Here’s a brief summary of what I learned, including my favourite exhibits:-

Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (63 BC – AD 14), ruled over a vast empire, based on military dominance. To maintain power everywhere, he created the first professional army of full-time career soldiers divided into regiments – legions. Together these consisted of approximately 150,000 male Roman citizens, plus an equal number of non-citizens in so-called auxiliary units. This vast army was incredibly efficient and well-trained, and for the most part invincible. Although not always – in AD 9 on the Danube frontier at Teutoburg Forest three whole legions (around 20,000 men) were completely annihilated by ‘barbarians’ (Germanic tribes)!

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The Sign of the Signet

Nicola here, and today I’m talking about a specific type of jewelry. Apparently, the signet ring is having a fashion moment. The popularity of TV shows such as One Day and Saltburn, where some of the main (male) characters have worn signet rings has drawn attention to it as a signifier of power and status, as well as an accessory.

The signet ring has been a considered a sign of wealth and status in British society for hundreds of years. A traditional one would be engraved with your coat of arms, family crest or initials. The picture shows the one that was given to me when I was born. I’m not an aristocrat but my parents thought it would be nice for me to have one. It’s tiny though, so it doesn’t fit me now, but it has a sentimental value.

The signet ring was originally designed not only to mark the wearer’s bloodline but also to seal documents with wax. The metal design would leave a permanent mark in soft wax or in clay and so was used on a multitude of legal documents. In its day, the stamp of a signet was considered more authentic than a signature, which could easily be forged. Seals were used as early as 3500BC and it was the Ancient Egyptians who attached a seal to a ring as a joint sign of prestige and legal power. The first signet rings were made from stone or from ivory but the Bronze Age was the beginning of the metal signet ring as we know it today. (The picture is an Egyptian Finger Ring from the Walters Museum.)

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Historical English Districts, Architecture, Furniture, and Carpets, oh my!

view of Sherborne CastleBecause I’ll be off to France in another month, I’m squeezing a blog in early, which means I haven’t really had time to think about it. As a result, you are the recipient of my Irish blather—which is more or less how I write. I’ll hope it all comes together by the end!

I have mentioned a time or two that Wycliffe Manor, (and that’s not it in the image but a similar effect, perhaps) the star of my Gravesyde Priory romantic mystery series, is an exclave of Shropshire. Now, I am no student of English districting laws. I do know map of England showing Worcestershirethat the shires or counties or whatever they were called changed regularly, most likely for political reasons. Just to show I am Not Making This Up, in the last 150 years, Worcestershire has had parts of its border modified to be included in West Midlands and Hereford and back again. According to Wikipedia, Worcestershire has the most exclaves of any other county (probably because of the above boundary shifts). There are exclaves of Herefordshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Shropshire floating about within its borders. One town, Tardebigge, has belonged to Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, and Worcestershire over the centuries. So I don’t feel the least bit guilty by giving the inhabitants of my manor permission to be utterly confused as to where they send their prisoners!

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