The Future of History

Friday, 29 May 2015

Shakespeare and the Ear of Corn

Well, it was pretty big news.  The face of Shakespeare discovered on the cover of The Herball, published in 1597 by John Gerard.  Certainly set the Twitterati a-flutter.

Do I think it's Shakespeare?  Truth be told, it's a bit difficult for me to apply my acid tests for determining whether a portrait is of Shakespeare or not.  The "dent" at the top of the forehead isn't visible, being hidden behind a laurel wreath and what looks like a curly fringe, and the left side of the face is so densely shaded that it's hard to tell if there's any drooping (ptosis) of the left eyebrow (a condition which Shakespeare appears to have passed on to his son).

That said, I think Mark Griffiths' arguments about the image are fascinating and fairly compelling.  And there may be a good reason to suspect that the image is indeed that of Shakespeare - not least of all on the basis of what he is holding.

The "Fourth Man", as Griffiths calls him, is a full-figure portrait of a rather handsome chap wearing some sort of Roman costume.  In his right hand, he holds (raised) a fritillary, which Griffiths convincingly relates to the "purple flower ... chequered with white" in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (1593).  In his left hand, the Fourth Man holds (lowered) an ear of sweetcorn.  Griffiths suggests that the appearance of this plant was inspired by the lines:

Oh let me teach you how to knit again
This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf.

from Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (published in 1594).  But that connection seems a little tenuous to me.

Griffiths does point out that the ear of corn which the Fourth Man (Shakespeare) is holding was an American crop.  The botanist John Gerard, who wrote The Herball, and with whom Shakespeare might have collaborated (hence the inclusion of his image on the frontispiece), had apparently grown and harvested maize.  This could only have happened, of course, after a few samples of maize had been brought back to Britain from America.  And this is why I think the image might indeed be of William Shakespeare.

In Who Killed William Shakespeare? I suggested that the 21-year old Shakespeare actually went on an expedition to Virginia in 1585.  This would have been shortly after his twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born, and so we are into the period known as his "Lost Years".  Shakespeare needn't have travelled as a mariner; Sir Richard Grenville, who commanded the expedition, liked to have music played loud and raucously when he was dining.  Shakespeare might have joined the expedition, then, as a musician.

The flagship, lent by Queen Elizabeth to Sir Walter Raleigh for the Virginia expedition, was the Tiger.  Years later, the Tiger crops up in Shakespeare's Macbeth.  The experiences of the colonists appear to have informed The Tempest, while the sea storm which very nearly wrecked the Tiger on the Virginia coast recurs in such works as Twelfth Night and The Winter's Tale.

There are other hints that Shakespeare might have been on that expedition.  Ben Jonson couldn't help satirising Shakespeare's acquisition of a coat of arms, joking in Every Man Out of his Humour (1598) that the "essential Clown" should have chosen for his motto, "Not without mustard" (Shakespeare's actual motto was Non Sanz Droict - "Not without right").  The "Not without mustard" line was in fact borrowed from the satirist Thomas Nashe, who wrote of a young tearaway caught up in a sea storm and threatened with shipwreck, begging the Lord to save him and promising never to eat haberdine (dried salted cod) ever again.  When the crisis had passed, the "mad Ruffian" added, "Not without mustard, good lord, not without mustard."

I've since discovered another piece of evidence.  In Shakespeare Rediscovered (1938) Clara Longworth, Comtesse de Chambrun, referred to a letter, dated 20 December 1585, which was sent to Queen Elizabeth I.  The letter was signed, "Your Majesty's loyal and devoted true servant, W. H."

W. H. is, of course, one of the great Shakespearean mysteries: the Sonnets were published in 1609 with a dedication to "the only begetter" of the sonnets, "Mr W. H."  In Who Killed William Shakespeare? I argued (after Phillips and Keatman) that "W. H." were the initials of William Hall, and that "Will Hall" was the codename used by Shakespeare whenever he did the State some service.

(Back to Thomas Nashe - who threw "brave Hall" into a pantomime he wrote for the amusement of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1592, at the same time as "Will Hall" was being paid for services rendered to the archbishop's priest-hunter, Anthony Munday, and Shakespeare was collaborating with Munday on The Book of Sir Thomas More.)

The letter sent to Queen Elizabeth by "W. H." in December 1585 therefore pushes the existence of this mysterious figure back to the beginning of Shakespeare's "Lost Years" period.  The letter writer described himself as a "man of judgment and action neither decrepit in body or in mind and whose present necessities crave to be provided for".  He complained that he had been blackballed or blacklisted by men of superior rank.  This all fits in with Shakespeare's biography, for the Shakespeares had been persecuted in Stratford by the more obsessive Puritans in the area - the Lucys and the Grevilles - not least of all because of their Catholic connections.  In marrying Anne Hathaway, whose family seem to have been Puritan, Shakespeare was making something of an effort to appear "honest" (in the Puritan sense of the word).  But he would still have been under suspicion and, indeed, the letter to Queen Elizabeth does mention certain "Papists" who were good patriots all the same.

The key element in the letter concerns the advice "W. H." presumed to give to her majesty regarding the planting of colonies in Virginia.  The Tiger had returned to London, after depositing the first hapless settlers in Virginia, just two months before the "W. H." letter was written.  And Shakespeare ("W. Hall"), as I have suggested, went on that expedition.  So he would have had some idea of what he was talking about when he wrote to Elizabeth I about colonising Virginia.

Which brings us back to the sweetcorn held by the Shakespeare figure on the cover of Gerard's Herball (1597).  Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis had been a huge success, so it would make sense that the totemic flower from that poem - the fritillary - was pictured in his right hand.  The not-entirely-realistic Roman costume would have established Shakespeare's stage credentials (as well as, perhaps, his Roman Catholic connections).  The ear of maize, however, needn't relate to Shakespeare's theatrical career or his poetry at all.  Its presence in the image might simply have recalled the fact that Shakespeare was one of the very first Englishmen to set foot in Virginia.  He had sailed there on the Tiger in 1585.

The sweetcorn is held downwards, as if to suggest the act of planting.  The planting of colonists in Virginia had been the whole point of the 1585 expedition, and the author of the "W. H." letter to Queen Elizabeth in 1585 also discussed the matter of planting colonies in Virginia.

In that respect, the ear of corn held by the Fourth Man on the cover of The Herball might be one of the best clues as to the Fourth Man's identity.  He was William Shakespeare, alias Will Hall, the man who went to Virginia in 1585 and, we can assume, brought some maize back with him.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Review of "The Grail"

Well, there's already been an encouraging comment - I suppose you could call it an endorsement - on The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion from the all-round Arthurian expert John Matthews:

"A brisk rattle through the well-worn paths of the Grail and King Arthur.  Some challenging new theories, applied with a kind of relish reminiscent of Robert Graves, make this a fascinating book."

I'd call that praise.  And now, this new review has just been published on the Radical Goddess Thealogy blog. 

Definitely worth a read!

Friday, 3 April 2015

Breaking the Mother Goose Code

A strange conversation on Facebook, the other day.

Somebody I sort of know had put up a post demanding that we all boycott Cadburys because they're selling "Halal Easter eggs".

Now, the idea of halal chocolate was a new one on me, so I thought I'd check it out.  What had actually happened was this: Cadburys had put up a page on their website, indicating which of their many products are "halal certified".  In other words, it's essentially dietary guidance - a bit like listing which Cadburys products are "Suitable for vegetarians".  There was nothing "halal" about any of it, just a page letting Muslims know which Cadburys chocolate bars and so on are okay for them to eat.

I pointed this out.  But, no, that wasn't good enough.  Because, apparently, Easter eggs are Christian and so, by making them "halal" Cadburys were pandering to the Islamists and helping to sell Britain downriver.

So I came back - no religious text, to the best of my knowledge, refers to chocolate eggs and no religion has a monopoly on them (let's face it, God neglected to let most of the world know that chocolate even existed until comparatively recently).  But I was wrong, it seems, because the word Easter in front of "eggs" makes them Christian, and exclusively so.  And I was apparently attacking my friend's religion, which was a big No-No.  And that's when I explained that "Easter" comes from "Eostre", a pagan goddess - which explains the eggs, bunnies, chicks and other Eastery thingies.  There's no "Easter" in the Bible, only Passover.

And there endeth the Facebook friendship.

Which brings me to the subject of this post.  I was very keen to read Jeri Studebaker's Breaking the Mother Goose Code - How a Fairy-Tale Character Fooled the World for 300 Years, partly because it looked interesting, and partly because my theatrical hero - Joey Grimaldi, King of Clowns - appeared in the first modern pantomime, Harlequin and Mother Goose; or, the Golden Egg, which did great business when it hit the stage at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in December 1808.

I wondered - just wondered - whether Jeri Studebaker might mention the Mother Goose pantomime in her book.  And I was not disappointed.  Jeri had done her homework.

The first part of Breaking the Mother Goose Code really does focus on the character of Mother Goose, drawing attention to the similarities between this alternately beautiful and grotesque figure and certain ancient European mother-goddesses, especially Holda-Perchta.  The second half takes the argument further, beyond Mother Goose herself, to examine the ways in which so-called "fairy tales" function as a kind of oral memory of the time when Goddess worship was widespread (and largely uncontested), and how these fairy tales - especially when shorn of their latter-day accretions - can be thought of as shamanic journeys and/or magical rituals and spells.

The idea, overall, is that patriarchy is a fairly new phenomenon.  And it's a stinker.  Whenever and wherever it appears, it pursues a sort of scorched earth policy.  But people - whole populaces - don't just alter everything they believe overnight because an angry man tells them to.  Those pre-patriarchal belief systems were natural and hardwired into our collective psyche.  In the face of barbaric violence and blanket intolerance, the old ways lived on - surreptitiously - and did so, partly, through the transmission of fairy tales.

I like this idea.  Mainstream history has been rather naughty, I feel, in taking such a dismissive and lofty attitude towards "folk" history (local legends, place-names, fairy tales).  Just because these things weren't written down till a late stage, doesn't mean that they don't provide us with important glimpses of ancient knowledge.  The Australian aboriginal sang the world back into existence with his song-lines, re-making the landscape by telling its stories, long before the White Man arrived to tell him he'd got it all wrong, and then make a slave of him.

Jeri Studebaker's research for this book is ample and impressive.  She really knows her subject and has gone into it in great depth, producing a book that is both readable and stimulating.  Hard facts mingle with interesting theories and speculations.  And nowhere, I feel, is Jeri at her best more than when she is taking a wrecking-ball to patriarchy.

The differences between patriarchy (recent, bloody) and pre-patriarchal societies (been around for ever, generally equitable and non-violent) are brought out in such a way as to illustrate, not only what a disaster patriarchal structures have been for the species and the planet, but what we lost when we allowed our more natural societies to be steamrollered by the maniacs of patriarchal thinking.  So many lives lost.  So much wisdom lost.  So much damage done.

In fact, Studebaker doesn't belabour this point, but chooses her examples carefully, citing experts in these matters.  Her argument - that fairy tales like Mother Goose represent a sort of quiet resistance, a continuation of pre-patriarchal values in a time of patriarchal thuggery - grows, little by little, from her near-forensic analysis of Mother Goose (Holda-Perchta) herself to the wider world of fairy tales and their magical methodology - until, in my case at least, I was convinced.  Strip away the Disneyfication, and fairy tales really can take us back to a pre-patriarchal age of equality and possibilities.

For an illustration of how disgusting and despicable patriarchal thinking can be, one has only to consider that online run-in with my "friend" over the matter of halal chocolate eggs.  The intolerance, the ignorance, the "I can attack anybody's religion if I choose, but nobody can attack mine!" attitude (even though nobody was actually attacking her Christian faith) and that vague sense of a call-to-arms, a sort of "Let's have another crusade" subtext, are all indicative of patriarchal thinking.  It is crude, divisive, and usually ends in tears.

Mother Goose and her fellows, as Jeri Studebaker shows in her rather wonderful book, can show us that it doesn't have to be like that.  The Golden (Easter) Egg has nothing to do with Christianity, and those who squabble over it - "I can have it, you can't!" - are infantile and deluded.  The Egg was delivered by Mother Goose, the Eternal Feminine, and we can all have it, if we're prepared to play the game.

Click here to go to the Moon Books page for Breaking the Mother Goose Code.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Gods of the Solar Eclipse

Naughty me.  I should have posted this a couple of days ago.

It's a post I wrote for the Moon Books blog, timed to coincide with last Friday's eclipse.

Click here to read it: Gods of the Solar Eclipse.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Mind Body Spirit

Just because you haven't heard a lot from me lately, doesn't mean I've not been busy.

Quite the reverse, in fact.  Interesting research trips to Oxford and Bristol for my biography of Sir William Davenant (nearing completion), lecturing at the University of Worcester, Shakespeare Tours and Ghost Tours in Stratford-upon-Avon, and a new project which I'm not going to tell you about.

But - hold your horses, folks, because it looks like there might be a fair few blog posts in the offing.  The Grail is out, later this month.  Indeed, a correspondent in Washington State has already posted a photo on Facebook showing his pre-ordered copy, which arrived by post today.  So it's kind of out there already.

And here's my first guest blog post on the subject, courtesy of the wonderful Mind Body Spirit Magazine.

More to come ...

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Grail ... coming soon!

The Grail ...

Paperbacks delivered to the warehouses.  Ebooks with the distributors.

Only a month till publication date.

Sunday, 4 January 2015


Hello, Happy New Year, and welcome!

It had occurred to me to write up a review of 2014 and the various things that happened last year - from publishing my first university paper on The Faces of Shakespeare to the publication, in September, of Naming the Goddess, in which I have an essay (tweet received this morning from Michigan: 'Loved your essay in "Naming the Goddess"! Great perspective.:)', plus appearances at Stratford Literary Festival and the Tree House Bookshop, lecturing at Worcester University and being a tour guide in Stratford-upon-Avon, completing The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion and writing Shakespeare's Son ('The Life of Sir William Davenant'), and so on.  But I didn't get round to it.

Instead, I'm going to preen myself a little over this, which my wife found online a day or two ago.  Seems there's to be a rather interesting-looking course on the 'Renaissance of the Sacred Feminine', to be held at Avebury in Wiltshire (good location!) this coming August.  Details can be found here.

If you click on the link and scroll down to the bottom section - 'Avebury/Wiltshire Reading List' - you'll see that the last entry concerns my King Arthur Conspiracy book.  Alternatively, I'll save you the bother by copying what they wrote:

The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish prince became a mythical hero
By Simon Andrew Stirling
First discovered during the Scotland adventure, this book is an indispensable read for anyone interested in the Arthur/Merlin/Avalon motif.  All the latest research.  It will expand your view beyond the emphasis on Glastonbury and Tintagel.

Now, seeing that made me feel really chuffed.  It also made me want to get in touch with the organisers and tell them that, actually, all the latest research is probably best found in The Grail, due out in March, but that it was very kind of them to say those things about The King Arthur Conspiracy (and might help with a few book sales), and if there was anything I could do to contribute to their intriguing course in August they had only to ask.

Didn't get round to doing that, either.  Although there's still time.

For the meantime, we're holding our breaths and crossing our fingers over the Beoley skull.  With any luck, there'll be some scientific investigation of that particular item before too long.  Maybe even a TV documentary.  I'll keep you posted.

And my Davenant book is coming on apace.  New discoveries about Shakespeare's relationship with Jane Davenant.  All good clean fun.  The manuscript's due to hit the editor's desk at the start of June.

There's another project in the wings, which I'll mention more about if things keep going smoothly.  All in all, 2015 has a very exciting feel about it.  I hope yours does, too.