Monday, May 31, 2010

Sarah Dunant Interview at Reading the Past

Be sure to check out this interview with sixteenth-century maven Sarah Dunant over at Sarah Johnson's historical fiction blog, Reading the Past. Lots of salient observations from both interviewer and interviewee!

And the Winner Is...

The winner of Mary Sharratt's novel DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL is....


Linda, please send an email to juliannedouglas05 [at] sbcglobal [dot] net with your full name and mailing address. I will forward the info on to Mary's publicist, who will send out your copy of the book. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Thanks to all who entered!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Return of the All-But-Queen

Today, after an absence of two hundred and thirteen, the remains of Diane de Poitiers, Henri II's favorite, returned to the funerary chapel at her château d'Anet, where she was originally buried at her death in 1576. Jean d'Yturbe, the present owner of the château, related to the press that how in 1795, a mob of revolutionaries desecrated the chapel and pried open the tomb. Diane's body, which had been embalmed, disintegrated when it contacted the air, prompting the revolutionaries to flee in fear. Two village women collected the bones and buried them in a grave in the cemetery next to the village church. The bones were found during excavations at the cemetery in 2008. Thanks to the lock of hair that one of the women had cut and preserved and which was passed down from generation to generation by the occupants of the château, scientists were able to identify the bones as those of Diane.

The bones were brought back to the chapel today amid much pomp and circumstance. The coffin traveled on a horse-drawn cart accompanied by elected officials and the family and guests of the present owner of the château all attired in sixteenth-century garb. A noted historian provided a eulogy; a rector from the cathedral of Chartres conducted a prayer service over the remains.

The château hosted a Renaissance fair to celebrate the occasion. The schedule of events listed artisanal demonstrations, games, fencing, archery and falconry exhibitions, jousting, and period music, dancing and play-acting throughout the day. A banquet, followed by a Renaissance ball and fireworks, concluded the evening. Despite the gray and gloomy weather, the activities were a resounding success, according to a commenter who attended them.

A fine spectacle for a woman who definitely knew the importance of public image. May she finally rest in peace.

[Many thanks to author Catherine Delors, who first alerted me to this event in a most interesting article on her blog, Versailles and More.]

Friday, May 28, 2010

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"J'aime ce qui me nourrit:
le boire, le manger, les livres."

"I love that which nourishes me:
drink, food, books."

Étienne de la Boétie (1530-1563), French judge and writer

[Translation mine]

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Yesterday saw the publication of an exciting new novel of particular interest to lovers of the Renaissance: C. W. Gornter's THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI (Ballantine). Publisher's Weekly calls the book "A remarkably thoughtful interpretation of an unapologetically ruthless queen." Gornter describes the book on his website:

At the age of fourteen, Catherine de Medici, last legitimate descendant of the Medici blood, finds herself betrothed to the King Francois I’s son, Henri. Sent from her native Florence to France, humiliated and overshadowed by her husband’s life-long devotion to his mistress, when tragedy strikes her family Catherine rises from obscurity to become one of 16th century Europe’s most powerful women.

Patroness of Nostradamus and a seer in her own right, accused of witchcraft and murder by her foes, Catherine fights to save France and her children from savage religious conflict, unaware that her own fate looms before her—a fate that will demand the sacrifice of her ideals, reputation, and the passion of her own embattled heart. . .

From the splendors of the Loire palaces to the blood-soaked battles of the Wars of Religion and haunted halls of the Louvre, this is the story of Catherine’s dramatic life, told by the queen herself.

I will be participating in Gornter's official blog tour, which begins on June 1. On Friday, June 11, I will post my review of the book and host a giveaway. The next day, June 12, I will run a guest post the author wrote specifically for Writing the Renaissance about the relationship between Catherine and her father-in-law François I. Be sure to join us! In the meantime, you can watch the book's video trailer.

Now let me get back to reading. Poor François just died and Catherine's husband, Henri, has become King of France...

Friday, May 21, 2010

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Perduto è tutto il tempo
Che in amar non si spendi."

"Lost is all the time that is not spent in loving."

Torquato Tasso (1544-1595), Italian poet
Aminta (1573), Act I, scene 1

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Henri IV's Assassin

Interesting post by author Catherine Delors on the assassination of Henri IV in 1610. Was his assassin, Ravaillac, a crazy madman or part of a larger conspiracy? The mystery remains unsolved to this day. The comments following the post are particularly interesting, so be sure to read them.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


I'm not one for witches; I usually shy away from books with a paranormal bent. So I have to admit I was a bit hesitant when Mary Sharratt asked if I'd be interested in reviewing her new novel, DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2010). However, Mary's pitch sounded intriguing and I'd heard good things about her previous novels, so I swallowed my reservations and accepted her invitation.

I'm certainly glad I did. WITCHING HILL turned out to be one of the most mesmerizing books I've read all year.

Sharratt's novel dramatizes the story of the Pendle witches, a group of women and men tried and condemned for sorcery in 1612 in Lancashire, England. The trial is well documented in contemporary accounts strongly biased against the accused. Sharratt's achievement lay in bringing to life the maligned, dehumanized figures of the accused sorcerers without turning the novel into a glorification of witchcraft. She successfully recreates the early modern mindset that embraced the supernatural unquestioningly, yet portrays events and circumstances in such a way that the modern reader can easily discern the natural, probable causes that triggered them. Against a backdrop of poverty and intolerance, she sketches a touching portrait of three generations of women whose love opens them to a world of wonder and sustains them through the horrors of betrayal and unjust death.

Elizabeth Southerns, a poor beggar woman known by the nickname Demdike, narrates the first half of the book. Widowed, Demdike struggles to support her family on pittances paid for day labor. Her life changes the evening a beautiful youth, Tibb, enters it. With the angelic demon's help, Demdike becomes a "blesser" capable of curing sick livestock, healing ill children, and helping the barren conceive. Ever fearful of being named a witch, she never meddles with curses and only uses her powers for good -- except for the few times she allows her loyalty towards her childhood friend, Chattox, draw her into dangerous waters, with ultimately tragic results.

Demdike's daughter Eliza treads her mother's path for a time, but once her husband dies -- cursed by Chattox, Eliza believes -- she rejects the cunning craft and adopts the Protestant faith. Eliza's daughter Alizon, who narrates the second half of the novel, desires nothing more than to be a normal girl with a normal family. She resists her own nascent powers as long as she can, though she feels guilty spurning the aging Demdike, who wishes to train her as a healer. But when a peddler Alizon encounters suffers a stroke as she rebukes him for his rudeness, he accuses her of cursing him. This event snowballs into a veritable witch hunt that sweeps Alizon's family and friends into prison and through a sham trial whose outcome is a foregone conclusion.

Sharratt's characterizations are marvelously rich. Demdike, a joyful, generous soul who loves the simple pleasures of life and sorely misses the Catholic feasts and village festivals of her youth, completely belies the stereotype of the dour, evil sorceress. She fully believes in the presence and action of her familiar spirit, the handsome Tibb, although she tricks herself into believing that consorting with him is not as dangerous as it might seem. Alizon's desire for normalcy adds particular poignancy to her friendship with Nancy, a daughter of the lower gentry, and to the suffering she endures when subjected to the taunts and scorn of the village children. Alizon regards the cunning craft with equal parts fear and disdain; she witnesses its power at work in her family, yet senses that natural causes might contribute to its successes and failures. The novel brims with skillfully developed secondary characters, from the jealous and downtrodden Chattox to Alizon's wily half-wit brother Jamie to Alice Nutter, the Catholic noblewoman who shelters outlawed priests and continues to aid Demdike's family despite the danger the relationship poses to her own. Weaving intricate relationships between characters from all levels of local society, the novel explores the wearing effects envy, fear, and poverty have on the bonds of friendship and gratitude.

Most interesting to me is the link Sharratt posits between cunning craft and Catholicism. The novel takes place during the Elizabethan and Jamesian eras, when the old faith has been outlawed and Protestantism has stripped life of the comforts and consolations of Catholic feasts and practices. Many of Demdike's blessings derive from Latin prayers and both she and Alizon remain as true as they can to the old faith. Yet I never felt that Sharratt equated Catholicism with witchcraft; rather, she showed, in a very convincing fashion, how remnants of the old faith, forced underground and severed from the corrective counterbalances of clergy and doctrine, could be corrupted as they were passed down or misinterpreted by those who had no direct experience of them. The novel made very real the cultural and affective void that imposed Protestantism must have made in the lives of significant segments of society, a void that witchcraft was readily seen to fill.

It was a joy to read a novel that succeeded on so many levels, from the richness of the characterization to the beauty of the language to the authenticity of the era it evoked. I heartily recommend DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL as a well-written and thought-provoking look at the effects of the Reformation on the lives of the lower classes and have added it without hesitation to my list of favorite historical novels.

Mary has graciously offered to send a copy of WITCHING HILL to one of Writing the Renaissance's readers. If you would like to enter the drawing, please comment with your e-mail address below before 11 pm PST on Sunday, May 30. I will draw one entrant at random and forward the winner's name to Mary's publicist. Good luck!

If you would like to learn more about Mary Sharratt and her other novels, please visit her website.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Renaissance at Cannes

The sixteenth century is making a splash this year at the Cannes Film Festival.

Veteran French director Bertrand Tavernier has entered his first film in twenty years in this year's Palme d'Or competition. Reuters calls La Princesse de Montpensier, set in 1562 during the Wars of Religion, "one of the finest costume dramas in a long while." Based on the eponymous novel penned by Madame de Lafayette in 1662, the film tells the story of a young noblewoman "torn between passion, duty, companionship and ambition, each quality personified by a different man" (Variety).

Critics seem generally pleased with Tavernier's efforts. According to Variety, the film has "both beauty and brains, and offers a portrait of renaissance life -- complete with ethics now utterly alien to a contempo mindset -- leagues more accurate than most historical epics." However, the review goes on to say, this accuracy might be the film's fatal flaw, rendering the film too intellectual for the masses outside France.

I hope they try us. I'd love to see this!

Click here for a photo gallery; here for three short clips. The film will be playing in France this summer. Anyone who gets the opportunity to view it, please come back and let us know what you think!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Death of a National Peacemaker

Today is the 400th anniversary of the political assassination of King Henri IV, who ruled France from 1589-1610. Henri brought the Wars of Religion to an end by converting to Catholicism to assume the throne and then granted the Huguenots freedom of worship. The Telegraph gives a brief cameo of this charismatic--and aromatic--leader. Henri's recent biographer, Gonzague Saint-Bris, suggests that were he alive today, Henri would have his work cut out as a religious peacemaker in a France debating its national identity. Saint-Bris calls Henri the "roi copain," the "buddy-king" who worked tirelessly to reunite the country and restore the economy, dressed unpretentiously, slept in barns as he traveled the kingdom, liked to eat well and dallied extensively with the ladies. According to Saint-Bris, Henri was the only king who would have made a good president of the Republic: he was popular, democratic, tolerant, and close to the people.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Il vaut mieux tomber dans les mains d'un médecin heureux que d'un médecin savant."

"It's better to fall into the hands of a lucky doctor than a learned one."

Bonaventure des Périers (1510-1544),
French poet and humanist
Les nouvelles récréations et joyeux devis (1558)

[Translation mine]

Friday, May 7, 2010

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

It's still Friday here....

"I hold that the perfection of form and beauty is contained in the sum of all men."

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)
German painter, printmaker, and mathematician