Fire Springs are greeting summer icumen in with a song! Ballad Tales is launched in June, featuring stories by editor Kevan, and by Anthony, Chantelle, David, Kirsty and Richard – that’s right, the whole Fire Springs kit and caboodle! You can buy the book here, and why not come to our launch events in Stroud on 9 June and in Bath 19 June?
That’s not the only new book: with his Awen hat on, Anthony is pleased to announce the publication of a new edition of Charlotte Hussey’s Glossing the Spoils– a collection of ‘glosa’ poems casting a contemporary light on passages from medieval epics and romances. Check out the Awen blog for lots of ecobardic content, too!
Two Fire Springs are out next week in Midsomer Norton as part of Bath Festivals – David and Richard are performing Outsiders and Outcasts on 25 May. Four Fire Springs are going to be performing with Gloucestershire goth legends Inkubus Sukkubus at St Briavels Castle for Midsummer – is it a good thing the night is short? Kirsty and Anthony will be telling Gloucestershire ghoulish tales, while Kevan and Chantelle explore the Celtic otherworlds… Further from home, Anthony will be taking part in Writing on the Wall, an immersive day of eco-poetry curated by Jay Ramsay as part of the Waterloo Festival in London, and Chantelle’s performing at Singing Together in Doncaster.
Anthony and Kevan are out and about on the blogosphere, too: On Anthony’s Deep Time blog are new pieces about Greg Bear’s Queen of Angels, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain, W.A. Harbinson’s The Light of Eden, and Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia. and Kevan’s Bardic Academic page has everything from the Bard of Hawkwood contest to writing fantasy!
On National Dragon Day this year – you might know it better as St George’s Day, the 23 April – two agents from DCHQ (Dragon Conservation Headquarters, not the Other Place) in Cheltenham Agent Green and Agent Krisa will be coming to the Museum in the Park, Stroud, at 3pm to teach dragon tracking and to tell dragon tales straight from the archives – and straight from the dragon’s mouths…
Here’s one of the stranger tales in the archives…
In the small village of Little Langford, on the banks of the River Wylye and on the edge of Grovely Wood, there once lurked a monster. It terrorised the village – it jolly well near destroyed it! But the question is – was it there at all?
The evidence for the tale was self-evident to the villagers. Why, it was carved on the very doorway of their church! There you could see the poor unfortunate maid who thought she’d tamed the beast dressed in her long skirts and there, about to engulf her, are the pointy teeth of the maggot. Carved in the stone below that is a hunting scene, and the villagers said that shows the beast being rounded up by the hunters.
The story is featured in my Wiltshire Folk Tales book, although there are other variants of the legend. Little Langford was one location that had alluded me when I was researching the book. I have to confess – we were put off by utterly torrential rain and spent the day in nearby Salisbury in the cathedral and coffee shops! However, on our way back from the Isle of Wight a week or so ago, we finally went. Little Langford is a very small village, and has been rather compromised by the railway that runs alongside both the road and the river.
The church is on the other side of the railway to the few houses on the road and, when you get there, appears to be dwarfed by its vicarage. In the church itself we found another version of the tale – this time the maggot, rather than being destructive, did some good in the world. It ate the maid, yes, but she was not an innocent girl but a lady who had wanted to deprive the villagers of their right to gather wood in Grovely Wood.
This wood gathering is a contentious business in the area. In the close by village of Great Wishford, the villagers had to enact a tradition to ensure their rights to gather. The laws concerning this go back at least to Elizabethan times, from when there are charters saying that a group of dancers have to go to the cathedral and be blessed. This used to take place in Whit week, and now – still – happens on May 29, Oak Apple Day. The day begins with collecting the wood – oak no thicker than a man’s arm, green willow and hazel wands – and raising the cry ‘Grovely, Grovely, and all is Grovely!’ All dressed up, the villagers proceed to Salisbury with their banners: ‘Unity is Strength!’, which I presume must go back to the 19th century when it was necessary to fight for these rights. Some branches are placed on the high altar and all is blessed. Then the party begins! So, you can see how excited the villagers might get to have this critical right, the right that gave them warmth through the winter in the firewood they gathered, taken away. But going to the cathedral and dancing is one thing – resorting to a giant maggot is another!
The story echoes many tales of unsuspecting people nurturing something that turns out to be a dragon – or, as they are often called in England, a worm. Now, worms and maggots, it could be argued, are fairly similar in looks, it’s most likely the maggot is really a juvenile dragon. Dragon stories are very rare in Wiltshire, but in next door Somerset there are many…
But is this really what’s going on? The tympanum has other interpretations, and may in fact represent another Wiltshire legend. If you don’t want to hear that it might not be the maggot – stop reading here!
One of Wiltshire’s key saints is St Aldhelm, a 7th century saint who studied at Malmesbury Abbey under the Irish monk Maildubh and at Canterbury, so learning both Roman and Celtic Christianity – he’s also featured in Wiltshire Folk Tales… I like Aldhelm for a particular reason. He was storyteller. Understanding that people can get bored when being preached to, he would liven up his performances with songs, and clowning – even juggling! It was his mission to raise the educational level of Wessex and he wrote songs to help ordinary people understand Christian stories. But there was one time when he couldn’t keep the audience. He was in a place near Warminster, and it wasn’t going well. So he set his staff aside to try some juggling, but then everyone started looking at the staff – it had taken root and flowered!
There are those that say that the tympanum shows St Aldhelm with his staff now become an ash tree. If you look closely you can see it’s a bishop – there’s his crozier in his hand, his mitre on his head, the correct garments underneath… The carving may have been done around the time of Bishop Osmund of Sarum (1078–1099). Osmund was a particular promoter of Aldhelm’s legend.
But it might also represent St Nicholas, the original Santa Claus, to whom the church is dedicated. You see the three dots in the pattern next to the maid/bishop? Those could represent St Nicholas’ emblem of three balls. BUT – there’s more! For you see, in his youth St Nicholas had an encounter with a dragon – one that marks him as a cuddlier, friendlier saint than our St George. Once, a town was being terrorised by a dragon, and Nicholas was brought in to help. Maybe the town’s folk thought he’d slay the beast, but instead Nicholas charmed it and calmed it so that it troubled the town no more … and they didn’t trouble it. So maybe those sharp zig-zags really are dragon’s teeth and the tympanum shows the moment where the saint calms the dragon down … just in the teeth of time!
If you’d like to hear the story of the Maid and Maggot, of St George and Dragon and more, then join us on Sunday 23 April at the Museum in the Park, Stroud at 3pm. Agent Green is really Chloe of the Midnight Storytellers, and Agent Krisa is me, Kirsty from Fire Springs.
To book simply give the museum a call on 01453 763394. £3 children, accompanying adults go free. And don’t miss out on our special Family Tickets – a steal at just £10!
Jordan, Katy The Haunted Landscape: Folklore, Ghosts and Legends of Wiltshire (Cromwell Press, 2000), pp. 20-21
I must confess a fondness for fauns. And for their shaggier cousins, especially the Urisk – described as a ‘rough hairy spirit’ it is thought to prefer the solitude of wild, mountainous places. Folklorists were careful to differentiate these from the more domestic Brownie. One cannot imagine an Urisk performing any household chores – they are as to Brownies as the Lynx is the domesticated cat. They are believed to gather once in a blue moon at the ‘Corrie of the Urisks’ in the Trossachs, as evoked in this poem by Sir Walter Scott:
Today we are straying far from our usual haunts to far stranger shores where slimy things walk … with spoons, upon the slimy land, to paraphrase a certain famous poet. We have a guest creature on the blog! I hope you will welcome this ‘Hopeless Thing’…
It happens that good friends of ours, Tom and Nimue Brown, have a new addition in their family … of books … and have offered up this and other strange denizens to walk (or crawl, or fly, or … move in other unspeakable ways) into the blogworlds of others. Here at Fire Springs Folk Tales we have had green children, shucks, dragons and other ‘exotica’ as the Greeks call these creatures – even when they are native to their shores – but never before has this entity set tentacle (or spoon) on the shores of England. However, I do wonder if the equally mournful figure of the merman of Orford would recognise them from his travels, or the sea serpent that lives off the coast at Pakefield… But they will never share their secrets…
This being is one of many, many strangelings in their gothically glorious graphic novel, Hopeless, Maine: The Gathering, published by Sloth Comics. If you want to investigate further (and I recommend you do!) you can find it here, available (alongside our books of tales!) at the Book Depository, as well as through your local book and comic shops.
Hopeless is a strange, gothic island off the coast of Maine, cut off from the rest of reality for the greater part. Hopeless Maine is also a graphic novel series, the peculiar child of Tom and Nimue Brown. Here’s a little taste of island life:
Spoonwalker: It isn’t easy being a soft, slow moving squishy thing on a cold, hard, hungry island like Hopeless Maine. This is why spoonwalkers have adapted to use stilts. It’s believed that early spoonwalkers made do with bits of twig and whatever else they could employ to get their unhappy bodies off the ground and moving at a swifter pace. The arrival of cutlery-bearing humans on the island caused a radical change. Why it is that spoonwalkers favour spoons over all other cutlery, is uncertain, but an unattended spoon is always at risk of night pillaging from these creatures. The spoonwalker can never have enough spoons, and will sneak into houses for the sole purpose of raiding cutlery drawers to satisfy its cravings for shiny metal. Wooden spoons are seldom taken.
Cooking instructions: can be fried, but better just have the tentacle as many diners find the mournful faces off-putting.
It’s a tough one, this. William Morris’s novella A Dream of John Ball paints a heroic picture of one of the most complicated and contested episodes in English history: the so-called Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. The main character, dreaming his way back to the 14th century from Morris’s dirty, depressed and over-populated London to a clean and well-kept Kentish village, discovers he has arrived at exactly the moment when John Ball, the excommunicate priest recently sprung from Maidstone jail by a growing body of rebels, arrives to preach and incite the locals to take up their weapons and march on London. The villagers are decent, happy to share what they have with the stranger, and all too glad to follow John Ball to bring down the feudal system and reinstate the primordial communism known by the first men and women, when there were no gentlemen. But was it like that?
I’ve been homing in on the Great Rising from two different directions. Firstly, this blog, and my all interest in Morris and his political messages, and secondly, from the book of Suffolk ghost tales I’m researching and writing at the moment. Suffolk was the original home of the hated Chancellor, Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury, and the county exploded into rebellion as Kent and Essex rebels were marching on London. These are dark tales. There’s no surprise that there are ghost stories associated with the rising. The rebellion in Suffolk, especially around Bury St Edmunds, Mildenhall and Lakenheath, was brutal, full of revenge, petty and great.
And that’s one of the problems, for me. This communist uprising with its noble aims of distributing the wealth to one and all was no such thing. Did John Ball even write his letters? The famous phrase, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?’ was in the common parlance. Did Wat Tyler taste power and have it go to his head? Did Jack Straw even exist? What then was going on?
Well, as with everything in life, it’s complicated. The 14th century was a tumultuous one – I remember reading when I was a teenager Barbara Tuchman’s magisterial (but now rather out of date) A Distant Mirror, which calls it a calamitous century. The Hundred Years War, the Black Death, revolt and rebellion, it was all kicking off. And yet, for many, in the latter half of the century, things had improved in southern England, at least. Much of the population had meat on their tables, wore better clothing, had the chance of better wages. The successive plagues had more than decimated the population, and so there were opportunities for those who were left. As you can imagine, landowners were not keen to face up to this. Parliament pushed through statutes that artificially suppressed pay. Not popular. Worse, the war with France wasn’t going well in the aftermath of the last illness of King Edward III and into the minority of his son, Richard II. And war was costly.
It’s a tough one, too, because I approve of taxation. Unlike Morris, whose ideas tended towards a stateless anarchism, my experience of living in the safe, peaceful society that has been Britain for the majority of my forty-plus years on this earth has led me to believe that a form of taxation that allows us to pay when we can (i.e. when we have an income) for things that we might need when we can’t – things like the our universal health care system, our free schooling, our state pensions, our welfare state, and, when I was young, for the fees and grants that allowed everyone to go to university, if they made the grade. And the peasant’s revolt is a lot about taxation, and not wanting to pay it.
But how much do you tax? And whom? There can be no doubt that a line was crossed by parliament. It was Simon of Sudbury who demanded the last and largest amount – £160,000 (a labourer was paid roughly 5p a day, just to contextualise that). Over a 3 or 4 year period a bewildering number of different taxes were laid on the country, and everyone, rich and poor alike, had to pay. There’s even an account of a sergeant at arms, John Legge, lifting girls’ skirts to see if they were old enough for sex i.e. had pubic hair, and were thus old enough to pay the tax, liable from age 15. Nice. The tax collectors turned up with bully boys, and corruption was rife. The burden of the later taxes fell hardest on the poor.
And people were already angry. Angry with successive wars, Angry with a venal church that cared little for the pastoral needs of the ordinary folk in their parishes. Angry with the continuing burden of petty rules and regulations, particularly for serfs, who were effectively owned by their landlord – they had to pay, for example, merchet, a kind of fine to get married, and owed time and produce to their lord. It must have seemed they got little in return for this bargain. More people were making their way off the land and into towns, and in the towns and villages too were itinerant preachers, ready to speak of a better way of being – as John Ball is supposed to have written, ‘Now pride reigns as prize, covetousness is held wise, lechery without shame, gluttony without blame, envy reigns with treason and sloth is in high season. God bring remedy, for now is time…’ To rise up? Yes.
But to rise as they did, looting and murdering? That’s what I find hard. There are moments of calm, such as when John Wrawe, in Suffolk, and his men, repair to an alehouse in Long Melford for a pipe of wine, and pay the landlord from their takings, Robin Hood style. But contrast that with the treatment of John de Cavendish and John de Cambridge, a king’s justice and Bury’s prior respectively. One waylaid and executed at Lakenheath, the other at Mildenhall, and their heads paraded around Bury for the amusement of the people. Then there’s the looting. Some of it reasonable – take the records and burn them, that’s a great way to start a new world order, as we are then, in theory, created as equal as we were when we were born. But much of the violence seems meaningless. It reminds me of the riots in Britain in 2011 after the trigger incident of a police killing. And again, the revengeful outpouring of hate and violence that erupted after Trump was elected. The people are angry. They will take revenge.
The times are more dangerous now, the stakes far higher. John Ball was a sort of left-wingish (if we can say such a thing of a medieval character!) populist. The populous were whipped into action all too easily because they had cause to be angry and had no voice. Then, the rebellion was put down hard. Nobody listened. The chroniclers vilify Ball and Tyler and the rest. They try to make people like Simon of Sudbury and John de Cambridge martyrs, and my goodness, these were not nice men they were trying to sanctify! But they were the establishment, and it had enough might to suppress pretty much anything, then. Does it today? Do we want to be able to? Do we want more surveillance? Do we want harsher laws to ‘protect’ us? No. So we mustn’t make the mistakes of the past. We must listen to those who are angry and find common ground, the common ground of our thoughts and the decency with which we all believe we are living our lives. And those who are angry need to listen, too. Need to see that revenge and violence against whoever the scapegoat might be – whether the establishment, or whether against a random ‘other’, such as the forty unfortunate Flemish clothworkers murdered during the Revolt in London – is not the way to make their own lives better.
And so, for once, if we are going to dream of John Ball, let’s make him a not rabble-rouser but a peaceable man.
An illustration of the priest John Ball on a horse encouraging Wat Tyler’s rebels of 1381, from a c. 1470 manuscript of Jean Froissart‘s Chronicles in the British Library.
John Ball by Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, 1938, image copyright Essex County Council
When Alfred Linnell set out to see what was going on at the protest in Trafalgar Square he can have had no idea what was going to happen. He might have expected some violence – after all, the previous Sunday had been pretty vicious, but the day was getting on and he was only going for a look. Once there, he saw that the mounted police were there before him, riding, it seemed, without a thought for the humans through whom they plunged. As they came closer to him, he added his voice to those shouting at them. The mounted police dove towards those shouting, while the police on foot started to drive the people away. People panicked and fled, Linnell among them. A charger knocked him down, and as he lay there looking up at the huge beast, it trampled him down, smashing his thigh. He was left there to lie in agony, even though there was a police ambulance nearby. Bystanders took him to the hospital at Charing Cross. Twelve days later he was dead.
The 20 November 1887 isn’t the more famous of the two Sundays in November when protesters took to the streets around Trafalgar Square. The previous Sunday, the 13th, 129 years ago to this day, has gone down in history as the first ‘Bloody Sunday’. Many were injured. Three died. But it was Linnell, a seemingly innocent bystander only lately arrived at the protest scene, who became the martyr for the cause. His death became a rallying point for the socialists and anarchists in London to join with the ordinary people and to mark a dark day in the way the police were allowed to treat people, how the law ran roughshod – literally – across the demands of those ordinary people. People who were still, in the main, disenfranchised and with few of the rights we take for granted today. Linnell’s death was a small stepping stone in raising public awareness to social injustice in the Victorian world.
Bloody Sunday came only two days after the execution of the four Chicago Anarchists. Their deaths acted as an impetus to galvanise the various groups of socialists and anarchists in London to protest – and there was a readymade protest group just sitting there in London waiting for them. The 1880s were the hard times in old England – the country was deep in the ‘long depression’, and there was mass employment. Many people came to London, but found the streets were not paved with gold. Only greater hardship awaited them – no benefits of any kind then, of course. Trafalgar Square had become a gathering place for the unemployed, giving speeches, organising themselves… But it wasn’t just them. There were supporters of Irish Home Rule protesting there as well, against the Coercion Acts. On 8 November protests were outlawed. This also galvanised the socialists, the anarchists, the radicals, who not only supported workers’ rights but also, critically, the right to free assembly and speech.
On Sunday 13 November more than 10,000 protestors marched towards Trafalgar Square. Estimates say that there were 30,000 people there that day. Waiting for them in the Square were up to 4000 police and troops – those latter armed. The protesters were marching into a trap. William Morris said afterwards ‘into the net we marched’[i]. Marching from Clerkenwell was the Socialist League, including Morris, Annie Besant, Eleanor Marx and others. There were speeches, there was a band playing. But it didn’t last.
Morris was walking in the middle of the crowd with Fabian playwright George Bernard Shaw, and, through some sixth sense, guessed there was trouble ahead. Pushing to the front he saw the police were there. Their banner was torn out of the hands of Mrs Taylor, despite her determination to keep it[ii], and the band’s instruments smashed.[iii] The police didn’t care if you were a man or a woman. They actually got hold of Eleanor Marx, but she managed to escape with only a whack from a truncheon and a blow to the head…[iv] Morris, in the thick of the action, said, ‘I shall never forget how quickly these unarmed crowds were dispersed into clouds of dust…’[v] Many of the protestors lost their nerve. Shaw says, ‘Running hardly expresses out collective action. We skedaddled … I think it was the most abjectly disgraceful defeat ever suffered by a band of heroes outnumbering their foes a thousand to one.’[vi] Morris didn’t run, but his words give a sense of his fear in that moment, ‘I found myself suddenly alone … and, deserted as I was, I had to use all my strength to get to safety.’[vii]
Morris pressed on, reaching the Square, where he found the police and troops in control. It was a rout. That night, the police sang Rule Britannia and shouted out ‘Hurrah’ all night. The Times reacted to the protest, saying, ‘It was … no serious conviction of any kind, and no honest purpose that animated these howling toughs. It was simple love of disorder’. It described the protestors as ‘howling roughs’ and ‘criminals’.[viii] Those who were there told a different story. Walter Crane said ‘I never saw anything more like real warfare in my life – only the attack was all on one side.’[ix]
When Linnell died the following week Crane and Morris came together to create a pamphlet to help raise money for his orphaned children. They were already in the workhouse. Linnell was poor, copying law documents for a very bare living, and when his wife had died he couldn’t keep the family together. The girl was in Mitcham, the boy, Harwich. Nobody even told them that their father was sick. What happened to them afterwards isn’t known. Did the pamphlet help? It includes a cover image by Crane and a poem by Morris set to music by Malcolm Laswson, and an account of Linnell’s life and death.
Linnell was given a grand funeral. A huge procession walked from the West End of London to the East, swelling to tens of thousands. On that drizzly December 18, it was dusk by the time they reached Bow Cemetery. Speeches were read by lamplight. Morris gave an emotional eulogy, including the words, ‘let us feel he is our brother’, and his Death Song was sung.[x] The verse at the top is from Morris’s poem.
This bald account of those three dramatic days may serve as a reminder of how hard the fight was to gain what we have today. The Chicago Anarchists, perhaps, went into the fight with their eyes open as to the danger. But Alfred Linnell? His two children, orphaned that day? We’re seeing the first queasy suggestions that these rights may be eroded away when we leave the EU. Maybe they won’t be. But I fear that it will be only if we fight for them once more. So, here is this, another memory that shows that once we did fight through, and having done it once, we know we can do it again.
[i] Fiona MacCarthy William Morris: A Life for Our Time (Faber & Faber, 1994), p. 568
[ii] EP Thompson William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (Spectre, 2011), p. 490
We’re all in shock today. Again. How many unthinkables can one take in a year? Today seems a triumph much of what’s wrong in the world: racism, sexism, hate-mongering, predatory sexual behaviour, unthinking capitalism, climate change-denying, intolerance, deliberate misunderstanding, lying etc. All those thing repressed can now, it seems, come to the fore. It is frightening. The future is a dark place now, and the positives gone out the window, despite media spin. It would be all too easy to retreat. I know I have been. As the US elections neared I cracked open my old Mercedes Lackey Heralds of Valdemar books. Why them? Well, they are moral fairy tales, in which reasoned thought to do good wins over the irrational and evil every time. I’ve read them many times. I now feel like clinging to them. I don’t want to watch or listen to the news. Everything screams: hide!
And it’s not just that. I’m tired. There are other, smaller fights, everyday fights, that have to be fought. From small, recognised injustices to the simple fight to put bread on the table and keep up with the pace of today’s life. I’m tired. I don’t want to fight.
And it’s not that. We’ve been hiding a while, haven’t we? We retreat into bake-offs, knitting, endless nature books about Britain, cosy nostalgic things. And these are good things, worth doing. But they are inward looking. Morris was inward, too, at first. He didn’t want to see outside his art, his deep and abiding passion for all things medieval that manifest in his designs and his poetry. The title of this blog comes from his great epic poem, The Earthly Paradise, 1868-70. He describes himself, in the same verse, as a ‘dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time,’. And I’ve felt that. Not that I’d want to really live in another time, but that I want to dwell in a dream of it. I’m a writer – so, like Morris, that’s part of what I do,. I dream in a fantasy world. After all, here I am writing a blog about a Victorian medievaliser!
But Morris decided to fight. He had a tipping point. Having been stalwartly uninterested in politics through his youth, but falling on the Liberal side of things, an issue in the mid-1870s opened his eyes. Once open, he could not again close them fully. In 1876 Europe was gripped in a crisis concerning Russia and Turkey (plus ça change!), and Morris was inspired by the words of the then leader of the opposition, William Gladstone, and his impassioned writing against the atrocities that the Turks had committed against the Bulgarians. Morris joined the Eastern Question Committee, he took his first tentative steps into fiery political writing. At the next election, Gladstone got in … and didn’t fulfil Morris’s hopes. But his eyes were open. He had to keep fighting. So he found another forum in which to fight.
And he used what he knew, what he could do. Okay, Morris was a famous poet. And he did what he did best. He drew upon his medieval roots and concocted an idealised, but still potent vision inspired by them. He wrote and wrote, and he lectured. He wrote novels that espoused his political thought. He tried hard to embody his theories. Maybe he failed, some of the time. But he fought. It didn’t stop him hiding a bit as well. Morris always had his obsessions – translating Icelandic sagas, calligraphy and illumination etc. etc.- and he could lose himself in that work as well as the ‘bread and cheese work’ of his design company, Morris & Co. But he channelled it, he made what he loved into the fight.
It’s hard to fight, and it’s hard to realise, as Morris did, that the fight is something that you can’t win, yourself, in your lifetime. But, like Morris, let’s not give in to hiding – let us strive to set the crooked straight. Stick to our ideals, and remember that to be idealistic is a good thing. Maybe then…