Dickensian Detective Work

Being a book collector, I always find it intriguing to discover some trace of a volume’s former owner. Usually, it’s in the form of a signed bookplate or a “Happy Birthday” inscription. Occasionally, I’ll find a bookmark, a shopping list or even a dollar bill within the pages. These are tantalizing clues. Who was David, to whom this copy of Barchester Towers was given? Did he enjoy the book? Did he even read it? And who in this day and age gives Trollope as a birthday gift, anyway? (I wish I had such a friend!)

Sometimes, you get just a little more than a glimmer of the old reader. Recently, I was able to positively identify a book’s former owner through the Internet, and what I discovered about him was quite interesting.

I have accumulated several shelves of books relating to Charles Dickens. Particular editions of the novels, Edwardian picture-book adaptations and books about his influence on social reform have all found their ways into my house.

However, perhaps my favorite Dickens book collection is my assortment of old travel guides. In Dickens’s London and About England With Dickens are favorites, as is a small guide to the places Dickens toured on his 1842 visit to Boston. I like these old books for the information they contain about my favorite author, but I also enjoy the glimpses of neighborhoods that have been modernized or demolished in the last few decades. So much the better if the books contain grainy photographs of falling-down city buildings that have long been bulldozed!

A couple of years ago, I ducked into a tidy and well-organized used bookshop in Harpers Ferry, W.V. Predictably, there were lots of books about the Civil War, but on a shelf near the front door was a row of Dickensian subjects. One caught my particular fancy: The London of Dickens by Walter Dexter. It was published by E.P. Dutton & Co. in 1924 and still had its original dust jacket. The book cost more than what I usually spend, but the delightful description on the cover promised “15 carefully compiled rambles.” Who was I to resist?

When I got home, I noticed that there were a few bits of paper stuck between the yellowing pages. They appeared to be shipboard messages of some sort, but I was tired, so I stuck the book with my other Dickens guides and left it for a rainy day.

A few months ago, that rainy day finally arrived. I discovered that there were actually five pieces of paper in the book. The first was a crumbly clipping from an ancient New York Times Book Review. It was a review of yet another Dickens guidebook, The London of Charles Dickens by E. Beresford Chancellor. That book is not yet on my shelf – I need to find it!

The next piece of paper was a stationery card bearing a Midtown Manhattan address. “My Dear Dr. Berg,” it read in a florid, authoritarian script, “This book is crisp, complete and correct. Yours sincerely, Hattie G. Frankel.” A cursory Google search on Ms. Frankel informed me merely that she was involved in a 1914 lawsuit involving bequeathed property, and that she owned an automobile in that same year. Obviously, though, she knew her Dickensian “rambles.”

The other three papers were marconigrams. Marconigrams were sent shore to ship and ship to ship by a wireless telegraph. The messages were handwritten in pencil on red and white paper. All three of these marconigrams were dated Aug. 16, 1924, and were “handed in” in New York. They were addressed to “Dr. A. A. Berg” aboard the Majestic, the largest ship on the sea in the 1920s and the jewel in the White Star Line’s transatlantic crown.

“Meant to introduce friend Tinsley May. Please meet her aboard. Bon voyage. Sam Levy,” read one. “Bon voyage and safe return to you and your brother. Hope you enjoy well-earned rest. Jaches,” said another. And the last one stated: “Greetings from us to you. Mary Rose, Dannie, Amy Goodinsky, Devore and Enoch.”

A quick search on the Internet led me to find a Tinsley May who lived from 1891-1974, but not much about Dr. Berg’s message-sending friends. That left Dr. Berg himself.

He was easy to find. Albert Ashton Berg was born in New York City in 1872 and died in 1950. A photograph in an online text of Colon and Rectal Surgery shows him as a rather dapper man with a high, starched collar, pointed beard and glasses. A long-time surgeon at Mt. Sinai Hospital, “he is credited with having performed the first gastrectomy for peptic ulcer disease in the United States,” the book says. Interesting enough, but a sentence further down really caught my eye. “Along with his brother, he amassed a library of 50,000 rare volumes of English and American literature.” Fascinating! One of the marconigrams had mentioned his brother.

And then I found it. There, on the New York Public Library’s website, I read information about the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. The collection was gifted to the library in 1940 by Albert, in memory of his brother. According to the website, “The original collection, confined primarily to Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, with selected highlights of English literature, numbered 3,500 items.” The collection includes rare and first editions of Dickens’ novels, as well as the author’s diaries and a prompt copy that he used for public readings of A Christmas Carol.

Now, when I crack open The London of Dickens, I think about Dr. A. A. Berg. A hard-working, pioneering, Dickens-reading New York surgeon taking a vacation with his brother to visit Dickens’ England. At home, they had thousands of books. Yet Hattie G. Frankel presented him with this volume, which he took onboard with him. Did he read the book, cruising in luxury across the wide ocean, planning his Dickensian rambles? I’d like to think so. After all, the first line of Walter Dexter’s preface reads, “This is a book for the fireside, or the deck-chair.”


Three Ravens and Two Crows

The prologue to Nick Cave’s novel And the Ass Saw the Angel opens with three crows, harbingers of the narrator’s death, just as the prologue itself is a harbinger of the grim and gruesome – yet brilliant – 300-odd pages to come.

“Three greasy brother crows wheel, beak to heel, cutting a circle into the bruised and troubled sky… These sly corbies are birds of death. They’ve shadowed me all mah life.”

The crows are there to pick at and devour the book’s protagonist, left dying out in the open.

The book was published in 1988, but this imagery is far from new. In fact, the corbies of Cave’s book are the descendants of a trio of big black birds that first appeared in print way back in 1611, in Thomas Ravenscroft’s songbook Melismata.

Doubtless, the ballad “The Three Ravens” is much older. Chances are, the sad song was already a well-known folk ditty when Ravenscroft wrote his rather genteel arrangement, adapting it for courtly tastes, rather than those of the farmstead.

However, the motif of the three ravens has a rather primordial feel about it. In myriad ancient cultures, ravens and crows (note: Ravens are members of the larger crow family. All ravens are crows, but not all crows are ravens.) have been the birds of death, of war, of violence. Odin, that fiercest of Norse gods, was never seen without one. Irish mythology assigns them to the Morrigan, the goddess of battle. And that big old Welshman, Bran the Blessed (not to be confused with Brian Blessed, another larger-than-life Briton) always had a raven about.

And what could be more disturbingly ancient than the unsettling imagery of a dead man about to be feasted upon by beasts?

I first heard this song in a concert by the Baltimore Consort, an early music outfit that used to play around here while I was growing up. It always stuck with me.

There were three ravens sat on a tree,

They were as black as they might be. 

The one of them said to his mate,

Where shall we our breakfast take?

Down in yonder green field,

There lies a knight slain under his shield.

His hounds the lie down at his feet,

So well they can their master keep.

His hawks they fly so eagerly,

There’s no fowl dare him come nigh.

Down there comes a fallow doe,

As great with young as she might go,

She lift up his bloody head,

And kissed his wounds that were so red,

She got him up upon her back,

And carried him to earthen lake,

She buried him before the prime;

She was dead herself ‘ere evensong time.

God send every gentleman

Such hawks, such hounds, and such a leman. 

Note: I have modernized the spelling of Ravenscroft’s text and removed the jolly chorus of “Down a down, hey down a down.” Also, a “leman” is a lover.

So here we have three birds (a male and a female and a third-wheel raven), whose efforts to eat the newly deceased knight are thwarted by the man’s loyal dogs and hawks. And along comes his pregnant girlfriend, who manages to drag him off for burial and who herself dies that day, either from grief or effort.

Sad song.

And if it’s too maudlin for your tastes, may I present the “Twa Corbies”? Sir Walter Scott, that bestseller of the early 19th century, and a main reason why some of you wear kilts at renaissance festivals, included it in his 1803 poetry collection, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Volume 3.

The version Scott published is darker and, in my opinion, leagues more interesting. I can’t bear to remove it from Scott’s dialect. If you have difficulties, read it out loud, and that might help you make sense of it. If you still can’t, I better not see you wearing a kilt at a renaissance festival.

As I was walking all alane,

I heard twa corbies making a mane,

The tane unto the t’other say,

“Where sall we gang and dine today?” 

“In behint yon auld fail dyke,

I wot there lies a new slain knight;

And nae body kens that he lies there,

But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair.

“His hound is to the hunting gane,

His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,

His lady’s ta’en another mate,

So we may mak our dinner sweet.

“Ye’ll sit on his white hause bane,

And I’ll pike out his bonny blue een:

Wi’ a lock o’ his gowden hair,

We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.

“Mony a one for him makes mane,

But nane sall ken are he is gane:

O’er his white banes, when they are bare,

The wind sall blaw for evermair.”

Well, well, well. Our raven couple has ditched that other bird, and here they are, successfully having their dinner sweet and – how economical! – gathering extra material for their nest.

The knight’s dogs? They’re off being dogs. The knight’s hawks? They’re off being hawks. These animals have no need for human sentimentality.

What about his lady? She’s already off with someone else. Maybe she’s coldhearted. Maybe she’s just practical (after all, it was tough for single women back then!). Maybe she even murdered the knight herself.

It’s hard to vilify the ravens here. They seem to have the most stable, civilized relationship of all the characters in the song. They’re looking out for each other, providing for their meal and for their future eggs. You can hardly blame them. Would that the knight’s friends have had such loyalty.

Francis James Child, who collected more than 300 English and Scottish ballads during the late 19th century and whose 10-volume The English and Scottish Popular Ballads is practically the bible for folk music aficionados, obviously preferred the former version. After all, he was a sentimental Victorian. He assigned “The Three Ravens” the spot of No. 26 in his type classification system. “Twa Corbies” he appended as a mere variant, disparaging it as a “cynical variation of the tender little English ballad.” It didn’t even get its own number.

Here’s a great, chilling version of this song recorded by electric folkers Steeleye Span (although a superior version also appeared on their excellent 1970 debut album Hark! The Village Wait):

The Saddest Saga: The Shrouds of Herjolfsnes

A few months ago, on a trans-Atlantic flight west that seemed to take forever, I looked out of the plane window to see a landscape of snow-covered, jagged peaks of monstrous size. It was a landscape at once both heaven and hell. The whiteness of the snow was sublime, and the sheer size of the mountains was breathtaking. But at the same time, it seemed the most inhospitable bit of land on Earth. There was nowhere that looked forgiving or welcoming to settlement.

This, I discovered, was Greenland.

On July 3, 1721, Hans Egede, a Norwegian-Danish Lutheran minister, landed on Greenland’s shore. He was there on a mission: to bring the Greenlanders back to God.

Erik the Red settled the island in 985, establishing a colony of Norse from Iceland. Greenland wasn’t so inhospitable then; along the shore, forests of birch trees and grassy hills were, indeed, green. This was due to what is now referred to as the Medieval Warm Period, roughly 300 years during which temperatures in the North Atlantic region were higher than they’d been for hundreds of years previous, and hundreds of years following (until, note, the 20th century, when temperatures rose to their highest levels in at least 2,000 years).

The Norse established three major colonies along the western and southern shores of Greenland. Although other peoples had settled there from North America from time to time, there is little evidence that there was anyone else living on Greenland at the time of the Norse arrival.

The Norse set about with that favorite European pastime, deforestation. They cut down the forests of birch trees and set their livestock to eat all of the grasses on the hills.

They also successfully harvested walrus tusks, which proved a valuable commodity back in Europe. Due to frictions with the Islamic world, the elephant ivory trade was jeopardized, and walrus tusks were a good alternative.

The Church moved in in 1126, with the establishment of a diocese and the arrival of a bishop. It’s estimated that at this time, as many as 10,000 colonists were living on Greenland; not too shabby.

The Inuit began arriving and settling in Greenland by 1300, and both groups seem to have ignored each other for the most part. The Inuit tended to remain to the north of the Norse settlements.

However, in the 14th and 15th centuries, the colonists became increasingly isolated. There was less of a demand from Europe for their goods; besides, the kingdoms back home were having their own difficulties. The Greenlanders were forgotten.

This worried Egede. He was concerned that these Norse colonists had not heard about the Protestant Reformation and were still observing Roman Catholicism… or worse: that they had returned to paganism.

Egede petitioned King Frederick IV for permission and ships, and in 1721, he arrived at Greenland hopeful of bringing Protestantism to this lonely outpost.

However, there were no colonists to be found. They had vanished. After 300 years of neglect, they were gone.

Egede turned his attention to the Inuit whom he found in Greenland and successfully converted them to Christianity, eventually becoming the island’s patron saint.

But what happened to the Norse Greenlanders? Theories abound: They starved, they refused to adapt to the Inuit way of life and became obsolete in this difficult climate, they took off for Vinland, they were killed by the Inuit, they were killed by European raiders!

We do know that in the 1400s, a Little Ice Age hit Greenland, and conditions must have become terrible. At some point in the mid-1400s, the Greenlanders either died or departed.

Not too many traces of Norse Greenland life are visible today. The most famous – and best-preserved – Norse ruin is the church of Hvalsey, now little more than a pile of stones. Certainly a testament to the unforgiving territory of Greenland.

The most interesting archaeological finds to come from the island were discovered in 1921, when Poul Norland conducted a somewhat emergency excavation of a Norse churchyard at Herjolfsnes, at the southern tip of the island. The shoreline was being obliterated by erosion, and the site of the colonial port, which had once been inland enough to have a cemetery, was being lost to the sea. (Indeed, if you check out the coordinates of the village site today, you’ll see that it’s now offshore.) The wind was exposing bits of bone, wood and, most tantalizing, cloth.

Not much clothing remains from the Medieval period. Cloth material (at the time, mostly linen, silk and wool) just isn’t resilient enough to last centuries, besides which, garments tended to be worn, cut up and refashioned until barely the threads remained. What tends to be left to us is clothing of special importance: that belonging to either the richest of the richest or the holiest of the holiest. Coronation gowns and liturgical garments. Ho-hum!

The site had been examined by archaeologists before, as early as the 1840s. However, many of the artifacts these 19th-century diggers found seem to have been promptly – and easily – lost.

However, Norland was able to identify as many as 200 distinct burials within the churchyard. For 500 years, these people – men, women and children – had lain buried in the permafrost. While only the bones of their bodies remained, their wool garments had survived in relatively spectacular condition.

There were more than 30 complete gowns or tunics, 17 hoods, six woven stockings and five hats. The hoods were generously cut to cover both head and shoulders and featured that most distinctive element of Medieval headgear: the long, trailing tail known as the liripipe. The gowns were constructed of multiple gored pieces, which would have allowed them to be quite formfitting and tailored to the torso, but flaring past the waist.

Except, these garments weren’t found worn as normal clothing. Instead, curiously, they were wrapped around the remains as shrouds. The gowns, which would have been worn floor-length by women and to about the knees by men, were made of woven twill cloth. They have been dated to the first half of the 15th century. The centuries in the soil have stained the threads black and dark brown, but there’s no reason they weren’t colorful when new. Details like pocket slits and buttoned sleeves indicate a level of craftsmanship and knowledge of mainland fashions.

How could the Greenland Norse colonists, separated from Europe by so much sea and fog, have a working understanding of mainland fashion?

An interesting theory comes from historian Robin Netherton. One of the last contacts made with the colonists was in 1406 by a shipload of wealthy Icelanders.  They had been to a party, but not just any party: a royal wedding in Norway. Perhaps they had all had too much mead, because on the way home they got disastrously lost and ended up, not in Reykjavik, but in Greenland. For a multitude of reasons lost to time, they stayed for four years.

Certainly, these wedding guests would have needed extra clothes. And since they had recently been among Scandinavia’s most fashionable, why shouldn’t they have told the local tailors all about these new – even French-style – fashions?

Poignantly, these somewhat stylish garments would eventually wind up literally winding up the remains of the isolated, forgotten and left-behind Norsemen.  Relics of a people who eked out a rough existence in a rough, worsening land. A people for whom wood was now so scarce that only the wealthiest could afford coffins.

More information:

Netherton, Robin, “The View From Herjolfsnes: Greenland’s Translation of the European Fitted Fashion,” Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Vol. 4.  Robin Netherton and Gale R. Owen-Crocker. Rochester: Boydell & Brewer, 2008. 143-171.  Print.


My Stone Tape

Before today, I might have described myself best as a history buff, without much thought. I like visiting old places. I like looking at old things. I like reading old books about old happenings.

But today, I made a list. I had been thinking about writing down interesting historical things in a blog, just like many other history buffs around the world, primarily for other history buffs to read or pretend to read.

I tried to make a list of the things relating to history that I find most interesting. Here it is:

  • Extant garments
  • Bog bodies
  • Folk songs
  • Folk tales
  • Cemeteries
  • Very old buildings
  • Pirates
  • Archaeological finds.

That really isn’t quite history (although all of those things have to do with history). If I were really into history, I would have listed battles, acts of Parliament and Congress, kings.

I’m not so interested in those things. What I am interested in (with the exception of pirates, which I can chalk up to playing Treasure Island as a kid), are connections with the people of the past. Things people touched. Things people wore. The remains people left. Vestiges of the past.

On Christmas 1972, the BBC aired a wonderful television play called The Stone Tape. It was written by Nigel Kneale, who remains known for his science fiction scripts. Unfortunately, here in the States, the best way to watch the film might be through YouTube installments.

The premise of the story is thus: The research team for an electronics company moves operations to a huge, neglected Victorian mansion. Jane Asher (of Beatles girlfriend fame) stars as the token woman employee who discovers that a particular stone staircase, in a long-abandoned storage room, has the ability to repeatedly project a tragic incident in which a 19th-century maid tumbled down the staircase to her death. The stones themselves are capable of storing data from the past, projecting them like any other recording medium. Those who are receptive can perceive this bizarre playback to different extremes. Some of the researchers hear or see nothing; some pick up the audio, but not the visual. However, Jane, who is admittedly neurotic to begin with, gets the full experience. In fact, she is able to dig back deeper into the stones’ recorded history, to their ancient use (cover your eyes if you don’t want a spoiler) as a prehistoric sacrificial altar.

Removing the trappings of horror, what if what I am really deep-down wanting in my historical interest is a sort of stone tape, a transmission from the past? Am I so interested in extant medieval garments because the history of clothing construction is interesting, because we can learn about what kinds of dyes, linens and wool were available, etc.? Or is it because I hope that, were I to come into contact with said garment, I would have a stone tap experience, perceive some sort of impalpable projection of life long ago?

I have no pretentions of really wanting to live in the past. I know that life back then (although you wouldn’t know better) was full of hardship and dire, shameful inequality. I don’t want to die in childbirth. Nor do I want a plague or a pox. And I don’t want to live as a serf.

Instead, I am interested in the connections with the past that exist today. Folk stories and songs that have been passed down for centuries and still retain a truth about antiquity. Buildings that have been inhabited by generations. Garments that people wore next to their skin that are intimate remnants of their lives. Men and women, preserved by peat bog, who closed their eyes to the sun thousands of years ago.

In this blog, I want to present some interesting bits of vestigial history. The detritus of everyday life that have remained on Earth for centuries, whether in material form or as songs and stories. Perhaps you’ll find them interesting.

As for the title of the blog, a “time slip” is the given name of one of the oddest of psychic phenomena, that of stepping briefly back in time. It reportedly happened to three British boys in 1957 (an excellent post about this is here). I don’t see how this could be possible in a literal way, but can’t we be momentarily transported in our imaginations?