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George Orwell

After diarising the phony war with details of eggs, premature frosts and seed prices, George Orwell has finally decided to start writing about the war. It seems to be Dunkirk and the threat of imminent invasion that persuaded him to to turn his attention from the back garden to world affairs.

The first few entries for May 1940 have been gripping. Orwell’s description of the return of the British expeditionary force and the demeanour of public life on the eve of the blitz gives an impression of immediacy that’s difficult to capture in the selection and summary you need to practice if you’re trying to write history.

In my view, history’s at it’s most engaging when it’s written in the style of a good op-ed column: the reliable (but slightly gossipy) assessment of a morass of detail.

Still, I have to admit that it’s the detail – especially the human detail – that has always attracted me to history as a discipline (it is, after all, a Humanity). Compared to a diary, or a pile of personal letters, reading the secondary literature is a bit like listening to the muffled shouts of your neighbours as they fight on the other side of a thick wall.

Gammadia I, originally uploaded by Nick in exsilio.

This one, from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna shows saints Polycarp, Vincent, Pancras and Chrysogonus.

However, it seems to run counter to the claim that the gammadia are Greek letters. Here we’ve got C A L I. While C could be another form of Σ, L is an unambiguously Latin letter.

By the way, I promise that the sleeves of the next six martyrs don’t bear the letters F O R N I and A.

Women of the imperial court, originally uploaded by Nick in exsilio.

I’m ambivalent about historical approaches that urge us to look for the “silences” in the evidence – the voices that are suppressed, the data that’s overlooked.

On the one hand it seems a license for “would have” history – the tendentious story-telling that moves deftly from probabilities, possibilities and plain don’t-knows to flights of fancy about how things “would have” been.

On the other hand, I can’t deny that sometimes I find myself reading around a topic and wondering: is that all there is to say or why don’t we know more?

A few years ago I read Margaret Sanderson’s wonderful biography of Cardinal David Beaton Cardinal of Scotland: David Beaton, 1494-1546. I was struck not just by his long term and fairly public partnership with Marion Ogilvie (they had eight or nine children, as far as I remember) but also the fact that she was an assertive property owner, litigator and protector of her children’s interests.

This made me wonder why we never get to read history from the perspective of priestly “concubines,” who had been on the wrong end of ecclesiastical legislation since the 11th century, but had survived all the same, often quite publicly, as one of those unwanted facts of western church life.

There’s plenty written on clerical concubinage as such, and there’s quite an industry of publications on nuns, clerical marriage in the emerging Protestant churches, and on women who were Protestant reformers in their own rights.

But, as far as I’m aware, we never get to hear from the concubines. I’ve never even found anything written on how they were regarded. For example, was Marion Ogilvie the object of censorious whispers and sideways glances, or was she accorded the same dignity as the wife of a noble and the holder of a high office of state?

I was reminded of these ruminations in the weekend when I read this article in the Guardian: Italian priests’ mistresses speak out.

I’m glad they’re speaking out, and i hope we hear more from them.

I also hope we one day hear  from or of their illustrious predecessors.

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