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Category: History

Hunting with Birds

bonellis-eagle-stephenIn the sequel to ‘Reconquista‘ we meet a new character, a falconer.

In medieval Europe just about everyone hunted. Game was part of everyday food supplies and, in country areas, was sometimes, with fish, the main form of protein.  ‘The birds of the sky and the fishes of the deep are common property‘ was a commonly held belief, according to the 12th century John of Salisbury, though often not one shared by the landowners. Outside of the towns, all classes used birds in hunting and it was only the introduction of land enclosure ( at least in England ) and the development of accurate sporting guns which led to its decline.

We know that a hierarchy for hunting with birds existed, though it was probably the high cost of Falconerspurchase and training of the larger, rarer birds and of having the land to fly them on, which meant that these became the birds of the aristocracy. Kings and Princes were keen to protect their birds and their hunting rights.  Upon his accession to the throne of Castile and Leon in 1252, Alfonso X decreed that ‘no one may dare to remove either hawk or falcon or sparrowhawk from my kingdoms without my order‘.

History has many examples of ransoms, fines and rents being paid wholly or in part with hawks.  As late as 1764 the Dukes of Atholl were granted the feudal tenancy of the Isle of Man for a ‘rent’ of two white gyrfalcons, to be paid to WhiteGYrpaintingmonarchs upon their coronation. There is also a story that a medieval Bishop of Ely, whose hawk was stolen from the cloisters while he was preaching. He re-mounted the pulpit and swore to excommunicate the perpetrators of the theft.  The bird was returned.

Gyrfalcons ( falco rusticolus ), especially white ones, were much desired. When King Edward I of England sent a gift of four gyrfalcons to his brother-in-law, King Alfonso X in 1282, he apologised for their being grey  not white. The ‘Greenland’ white falcon was most prized, but falcons generally were considered royal birds – avis regia.

In the Rich Codex copy of the Cantigas de Santa Maria there is an illustration of Alfonso, out heron alfonsohuntinghunting with falcons (see right). Like many monarchs of his time, female as well as male, Alfonso was fond of the chase, seeing it as good physical exercise and preparation for warfare.  The connection between war and hunting has been maintained until relatively modern times – the Duke of Wellington, for example, included a pack of foxhounds in his entourage for war against Napoleon.

ImperialIberianEagleFalconry, it was claimed, by no less than the Holy Roman Emperor, ‘enables nobles and rulers disturbed and worried by the cares of state to find relief in the pleasures of the chase‘.  Mary, Queen of Scots enjoyed it and so did Catherine the Great. Incidentally, there is historical evidence of eminent women falconers, most famously in Japan, where the Masayori training method was devised by a woman falconer in the second century CE.

The eagle was, traditionally, the imperial bird, but was rarely used in medieval Europe, being very difficult to keep and train, though there are records of its use in Central Asia.  So I’m afraid I have stretched credulity a little by including a semi-tame Imperial Eagle ( aquila heliaca ) in the new book, together with a white gyrfalcon named Abyssa.

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Walking the Streets

jerezsept2016 I’ve just returned from Jerez, where it was thirty-two degrees and sunny – still Summer really.  So I didn’t get to go up to the mountains as I’d hoped, it was still just too hot, I’ll have to wait for cooler times.  I was, however, able to do some other research, mainly into specific places within the old town of Jerez and into timings – which will help with my writing of the sequel to ‘Reconquista‘.

The events of the next book take place over about a fortnight, but a lot happens in that time.  Just like the first book, the tale is told from the points of view of a number of characters so I jerezsept20163need to be specific about where each of them are and when (sometimes they miss each other, or avoid each other, by seconds). So I was striding around the narrow streets within the old town to work out approximately how long it would take to get from one point to another.  The street pattern may, in places, have changed since the 13th century, but the distances remain the same.

Anyone observing me would have wondered just what this middle-aged English woman was up to, consulting her watch and making notes before starting off again. Something nefarious perhaps, like planning a quick getaway after a robbery. Maybe it’s just as well that I didn’t attract the attention of the local Guardia Civil.

As usual I spent some time at the Alcazar, which is a lovely place to sit and write, although this time I did so outside in its orange grove or Patio de los Naranjas, overlooking the Cathedral of San Salvador.

jerezsept20162I drove out of town with a friend, which enabled me to look back towards the city and see what my characters would see as they approached it.  The topography is undulating and the old city was at a high point, but the gradient isn’t uniform, so parts of the walls are on a relatively flat surface, whereas elsewhere the land falls away sharply, especially from the Alcazar and nearby.

Anyone journeying from the coast to the west would see the towers of the Alcazar first, high up on its hill, whereas anyone approaching from the east would see the city walls rising out of a plain. Whether or not these vistas will feature in the final book I don’t know, but it was important to me that I knew about them.

The book is taking shape, though I’m only just half way through the first version.  Like its predecessor it will have three sections. I’m sticking with the classic ‘story of a journey‘ structure – characters set out, they journey, they come home.

Part One is ‘In the City‘ and Part Three ‘Returning‘, but I have not decided on the title for Part Two though I’m using ‘In the Mountains‘ for now. In this volume there will also be an Epilogue, showing what happens to the characters in the future. This should ensure that I won’t be tempted to write any more about them – the next book in the series will be set approximately two hundred and thirty years after the second.

Now, however, I must properly type up all those sections which I scribbled down on bits of paper when I was away – I didn’t, on this occasion, take my lap-top, something I’m beginning to regret.

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The idea that every story has a beginning, a middle and an end goes back to ancient times and the writings of Aristotle, the Greek philosopherdfw-ja-r-cover-3d-nologo.  The story I am now writing does too, but mine is complicated by being spread over two books – ‘Reconquista‘ and its sequel – and each of these also has a beginning, a middle and an end.

So, although there was a suitable end to ‘Reconquista‘, there were also unresolved plot lines.  At one level, therefore, much of what must happen in the sequel has already been decided ( although how each element is resolved is another matter ). Warning! If you haven’t read ‘Reconquista‘ what follows gives away some of its plot.

warning-843608_1280An example is, what happens to Don Reza?  At the end of the first book we assume that he is still being held captive in the mountains. Atta is desperate to rescue him. So one part of the plot must address this.  We already know, from what the cavalry lieutenant says to Nathan and Senor Thomas after their meeting with the King, that he has been ordered to tackle the bandits.  Logically then, this is a major grazalema6driver of plot and any ‘rescue attempt’ is likely to involve a number of our main characters, and quite a lot of jeopardy.

Similarly, we left Nathan living with the galley slaves, we don’t know what he’ll decide to do next.  Will he return home?  If he does, what sort of reception will he receive from his father?  If he doesn’t, what will he do? This is the most open-ended of the unresolved issues at the end of book one.

The other cliff hanger is, of course, Rebecca’s answer to Ben’s proposal.  This is the element which I am asked about most often.  Does she accept him? I am not going to tell. Sorry, you’ll have to read the next book to find out.

In addition, however, to these existing plot drivers there is also the historical situation to take into account, because this is an historical novel and includes real events. This is likely to generate plot.

KingAlfonsoOnce King Alfonso X was re-established in Jerez we know that he expelled its Moorish inhabitants and granted much of their property to his own followers.  The ‘Repartamiento’, a document drawn up at the time at Alfonso’s behest, tells us how the property was distributed, to knights and to their followers in turn. So the city is very different in the sequel, both physically, given the reconstruction after the bombardment, and in terms of its inhabitants.

This would be evident to the characters and must be factored into the story. How is Atta going to feel now, as one of the few Moors in Jerez?  And how would he react?  The changing circumstances are also an opportunity to introduce some new and interesting characters to add to those we already know.

By early spring 1265 King Alfonso was in Seville, ( see Giralda, below right, which would have been there at that time, just without the bell tower on top ) where he set about raising troops and money for a full-seville-656699_1280scale assault on the Emirate of Granada. The Emir also began gathering forces, from the Arab countries across the sea to the south, so both were preparing for a possible war. Both rulers considered themselves to be men of honour, both, at this point, considered the other was planning to attack.   A dangerous situation for the emissary of the Emir and his nephew in Jerez then, but also a chance for them to take part in real and important events.

So, when I take all these factors into consideration, I find that the plot of the sequel pretty much writes itself ( although there are some surprises too, as you might expect, which are new plot strands ). I, however, have to write the actual words, so I’ll say Adios for now.


20160618_124245_resizedI have just returned from the blue skies of Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, the city where ‘Reconquista’ is set, to grey old London town. I came back to vote in the EU Referendum, but I’m missing Jerez already.

There’s a lot of music in Jerez right now.  The city has a Conservatory of Music, there are lots of flamenco schools and there are concerts in many of the city’s old monuments, like the 13th century Alcazar and the monastery cloisters, as part of JerezView9the ‘Noches en Verano’ programme of summertime events ( the photo, right, was taken at a concert in the Alcazar ).  One of the town’s largest squares, Plaza Arenal, where the tournament takes place in ‘Reconquista‘, has a 20160618_122717_resizedbeautiful, old carousel in place, which plays music as it turns every day.

There was probably music in Jerez in the distant past too.  King Alfonso X ( The Wise King ) wrote songs himself, the music and the lyrics.  I heard some of these performed in the Alcazar last year.

The songs, or Cantigas, are about the miraculous interventions of the Virgin Mary Cantigas1in the lives of ordinary citizens, usually when they are in trouble or need her help, but sometimes to chastise them when they have been boastful or vain.  The King also wrote satirical songs which poked fun at people and love songs.  The Cantigas were written in Galician-Portuguese a ‘lyric’ language of the court, not Castilian, the everyday language used by ordinary people, but not Latin either. Most of the King’s writings were in Castilian, so that ordinary people could understand them.  This was quite unusual at that time ( though not in Spain ). Chaucer was one of the first English people to write books in English and his Canterbury Tales were very unusual when they were published in the 1380s, over a hundred years later.

The music is interesting, as are some of the instruments used to play it, in part because the lute or guitar-like instrument ( see illustration above ) has something in music-800582_1280common with today’s flamenco guitar.  Medieval Moorish influences are clear in the flamenco rhythms and music which you can hear in Jerez today. Have a listen to the video clip attached to this article – Lamento – about a flamenco performance earlier this year in Jerez, the influence is obvious.

drums-58550_1280However, the Cantigas were set to types of tunes well-known in the Middle Ages, such as the rondeau and the virelai.  They were played on a variety of instruments, like guitars, lutes, drums and other percussion, flutes and pan-pipes.  Sometimes the songs were unaccompanied. This type of singing, like the chants by monks in a church, is called a cappella, literally ‘of the chapel’.

20160619_183606_resizedBut when I was in Jerez last Saturday I saw a completely different sort of musical performance, this was a charity gala performance of Mary Poppins, entitled ‘El Viento del Este‘, in the Teatro Villamarta.  Everyone clapped and sang along to the songs and afterwards people ( of all sizes ) had their photos taken with the cast. Supercalifragilisticexpialidoso!

You can read more about King Alfonso’s songs and listen to one of them, called Strela do Dia, or Star of the Day here.

The Wise King

220px-Alfonso_X_el_Sabio_(José_Alcoverro)_01Although he isn’t well known in the English-speaking world, King Alfonso X, of Castile and Leon, is widely admired in Europe and the Americas.  He is known as ‘The Wise’ ( El Sabio ) and he appears as a character in ‘Reconquista‘.

So why is he called ‘The Wise’?

First, because he believed that a King should not just rule over his people, but also try to make their lives better. He wrote his ideas in the ‘Siete Partidos‘ or Seven Divisions of the Law, which set out how people should be governed, by a system of laws which applied to everyone, not just in favour of those who were stronger or more powerful. Very forward-looking for the time, these weren’t introduced during Alfonso’s lifetime –170px-Monument_to_Alfonso_X_El_Sabio,_La_Puebla_del_Rio he constantly had problems with his Barons, who wanted more power for themselves.  But it was eventually introduced in Spain and became part of the legal systems in the South American territories conquered by the Spanish conquistadors, including the lands, like California and Louisiana, which became part of the southern United States.

Also because he commissioned scientists, historians and other scholars to write works of science and literature. He was particularly KingAlfonsointerested in astronomy and astrology ( although the two were treated as part of the same discipline in Alfonso’s time ).  The learning of the ancient world, of Greece and Rome, had been lost to western Europe with the fall of the Roman Empire.  But their ideas and writings had been preserved in the East, translated into Arabic. Alfonso asked Moorish and Jewish scholars to draw this together and translate it into Latin and, where possible, into the language of the ordinary people.

So, much knowledge which had been lost became available again. One example was LibroDesJuegasAlfonXAndCourtthe work of a number of Islamic astronomers, based upon work of ancient Greek astronomers like Ptolemy. The King commissioned the Alfonsine Tables, tables of data which allowed astronomers to compute the relative positions of the Sun, Moon and planets.  They were in general use for over three hundred years. The Tables, along with other works, were circulated 220px-Alfonso_LJ_97Vwidely in Europe.

Alfonso was also considered wise because he believed that culture – music, art, poetry and architecture – was important in life. He wrote poetry himself, as well as commissioning works from others and was particularly fond of poems set to music. The Cantigas de Santa Maria or Canticles of the Holy Mary are four hundred and twenty poems set to music, some of which are ascribed to the King himself. We know that he also enjoyed writing love poetry and he enjoyed satirical verses as well.

If you want to know more about King Alfonso’s life you can read more here.  Or there are history books about him and his life.

Why is she called Rebecca?

Just one of the questions I have been asked. There were plenty asked during the launch event for ‘Reconquista‘ on Saturday.  Some of them are below, with answers.

Rebecca is a really feisty character.  Would she really have got away with what she did in the book in the real 13th century?

galleonRebecca is something of an anachronism, she is a bit ‘out of time’.  In the 13th century, women and girls didn’t have the opportunities which they have in 21st century Britain, to travel and have adventures. So I had to make her pretend to be a boy in order to allow her to do so.  She wouldn’t have been aboard ship otherwise.

Most girls from the town or city would be swot-up-1261538_1280mothers and housekeepers for their men-folk, rarely venturing out of their town.  If they were born in the countryside they would work the land.  But they didn’t have very much power, unless they were aristocrats, wealthy in their own right or widowed and rich. That’s not to say they couldn’t think for themselves.

Did the besieging army have all the weapons which are described in the book?

catapult-30061_1280 I am not sure exactly what weapons were used during the siege, though it’s safe to assume that a besieging army would have catapults or throwing machines of various types ( trebuchets and mangonels ).  Most soldiers wore leather armour reinforced with metal and chain-mail.  Full ‘suits of armour’ weren’t widely used until centuries later, even for the knights.

Foot soldiers often had little armour at all, just what they could scavenge from the trebuchet-890637_1280battle field.  They carried long knives and tall, pike-like weapons.  Cavalry was widely used, but not the ‘knight in shining armour’ variety; rather lightly armoured riders on fast, easily maneuverable horses carrying swords or scimitars or bows.

The English long bow which Thomas carries was in use then, but archer-299498_1280by individuals, not in the way it was used en masse as a battle weapon centuries later, like at Crecy or Agincourt.

Are you still writing for our nephew and god-son?

Not directly, although the book is dedicated to him ( and others ).

Did he like the original story?

He said he did at the time and, when he saw the final book, he remembered the characters from the earlier version, so something must have impressed him.

Is there any other character based upon someone real, who you know or know of?

Yes, my other god-son features in the book as Thomas of Whelmstone. He was actually training to be a surgeon at Guys Hospital at the time and it seemed right to include him in the book too, if my nephew god-son was one of the main characters. He’s a practising surgeon now.

Where do the characters’ names come  from? Why is Rebecca called Rebecca?

Some of the surnames, like Calamiel, Barruch and de Lisi are from Jewish records in Jerez of the time.  Al Mansuri and Delgado were both quite common names, then as now.  Nathan, Attalah and Juan, the first names of the three friends at the very start of the book all mean the same thing – ‘son of light’.  Others are typical names, though Rebecca is the name of my god-son’s sister and Ben is the name of my other god-son’s brother ( just so that I don’t leave anyone out )!

How do you know what characters look like, especially the ‘real’ ones?

King Alfonso X is shown in portraits of the time, but portraiture was often formal, LibroDesJuegasAlfonXAndCourtwith the Kings shown how the artist thought a King ought to look, rather than what they actually looked like.  Later statues show him with wavy hair, large eyes and clean shaven ( though he has a beard in the book, because his statue in Jerez has a beard ).

I have’t been able to find a portrait of Muhammed I.  Muslim leaders didn’t have their portraits painted in the same way as Christian Kings.  Nor can I find a portrait of the Governor of Cadiz, who was a real person.  So I’ve described how I think they might have looked.

Searching for a Past

I’ve recently returned from Jerez de la Frontera, the setting for ‘Reconquista‘ where I’ve been searching for remains of the Moorish period of the city.

PictureTranche2May12 050As readers of the novel will know, the story starts on October 9th, 1264, when King Alfonso X of Castile and Leon is about to storm and take the city. We know that the siege and the fall of the city happened.  We also know that Alfonso and the churchmen who followed in his wake, set about establishing Christian churches and institutions to replace those Muslim ones which already existed.

This included the church, now Cathedral, of San Salvador, the four ‘churches of the JerezJuly4Evangelists’ and the church of San Dionysio, all within the city walls and the Monastery of San Domingo just outside them.  But what is there to be seen, if anything, of the Muslim predecessors of these buildings?  And what other evidence is there of the city’s Muslim past?

cadizpanorama3One of the largest, most obvious Moorish monuments is the Alcazar or castle, found at the south western corner of the old walled city. Its walls, which you can see now, are twelfth century, built by the Almohads, a Berber tribe who took over Al Andalus once the Caliphate of Cordova had fallen.  Within the castle archaeological excavations have uncovered earlier walls and other structures, relating to the Ummayads and Almorovids, the first and second wave of invaders from the south.

It also contains the only surviving mosque within the old city walls, which became a chapel, the Cappella de Santa Maria, after the city was captured. Its minaret becameJerezView4 a bell tower, but the octagonal prayer hall remains and the fountain courtyard where ablutions would be carried out before worship.

The other major relics which cannot be ignored are the twelfth century city walls.  Although certain sections of these have disappeared completely, much of them remains – along the street known as Mura or Walls in the north and on the street called Porvera in the East. Here you can see the old battlements protruding from the backs of modern houses.  The people who live in the houses use the walkways as private gardens ( though they are also responsible for their up-keep and a twelfth century wall can be quite expensive to maintain ).

JerezCloisers3There are architectural relics of Moorish times within some of the Christian buildings which Alfonso sponsored construction of.  Like the monastery of San Domingo. This twelfth century foundation was built just outside the south-eastern walls on the site of a Muslim religious institution and, inside the cloisters which are open to the public, you can see the remains of a typically ‘Arab’ archway which belonged to the earlier building.

Sometimes the floor plans of the new churches give away their previous function; the cross-shape being superimposed on the underlying structure of the Muslim foundations.

What of relics within private dwellings? Many of the grand houses in Jeerz are palacio virey de laserna003much later than the twelfth century, though there are one or two. The Palace of the Viceroy Laserna, for example, which stands near the Alcazar, is recorded, under a different name, in King Alfonso’s Repartamiento, the book which lists who got given what after the defeat of the town. Now the ancestral home of the Duke of the Andes, its lower floor contains tile-work from the pre-Christian period.

So it is still possible today to find plenty of evidence of the Moorish city of Xeres.

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School’s Out

None of the main characters in ‘Reconquista‘ go to school.

board-597190_1280This may seem strange now, but, in the thirteenth century, most young people didn’t. They learned skills from their parents or relatives and were expected to work by the time they were ten or twelve, tending animals or helping in their parents work. Many couldn’t read or write, but then, neither could the adults.

Our male heroes were lucky, in that they lived in a city and in more settled times they would have attended a school. Nathan’s school would have been attached to the synagogue, which he would have attended with teenagers and slightly younger children.  We know this because he speculates that, given the exodus from the city, there wouldn’t be enough young people left to make up a single school class.  We horsehead-nebula-894256_1280also know that he used to bring his lessons home, to share with his cousin. They have studied the stars together, from the attic window in the house in Plateros.

Rebecca, as a girl, would not have gone to school at all. Girls didn’t. She is very unusual, for that time, in that she can read and write, most girls weren’t taught to do either. Only the daughters of the wealthy were taught at home with their brothers. All young women were expected to learn needlecrafts and cooking and how to run a house and a home, usually from their mothers. By the time a girl was fifteen, as Rebecca is, she would usually have been married for a year or more and probably have at least one child of her own.

Atta would also have attended school, not the same one as Nathan, but probably the madrasa, run by the Imams at the mosque. It was common in those times for educational institutions to be attached to religious ones.

As the son of a nobleman, Juan and his elder brother, Miguel, would have been educated at home, by a tutor or tutors. They would have learned Latin as well as the local languages.  Miguel, as the Delgado heir, would have to study how to manage the family estates, though it’s clear from what Juan has said about him that he spent quite a lot of time trying to get out of the more serious aspects of being the heir to enjoy himself in the less salubrious parts of the city. He is, we learn, well practised at playing dice and gambling.

knightMiguel also did military training, as did Ben Isaacs. The period was an unsettled one, with ongoing wars between the Christians and the Moors, local skirmishes between different city states ( called Taifas ) and repeated invasions from Africa. Young men would learn how to ride and to use a sword and a dagger, especially if they were from a noble family or a family with money.

So teenagers were never idle. They worked, or attended school and, even with the city under siege, they were required to play their part in the defence. Atta helps his father at the Hospital, Juan and Nathan act as messengers and Nathan helps in the forge. Rebecca has been looking after the Calamiel family since she was much younger.

It was a busy time for teenagers in 1264.

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