Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Tromenie: a Breton Pardon with Gaulish Roots

In my humble opinion, Brittany is one of the loveliest areas in France. I offer as evidence my only picture of Locranon, a town with bodacious hydrangeas.

The Breton peninsula is particularly Celtic, being the land of the Veneti, Osismi, Coriosolites, and other tribes of Caesar's day and before, and being repopulated in the 5th century or so by people from Cornwall.

Brittany has a lot of Catholic processions and fests, called Pardons, but one--the Tromenie--dates back to the Celtic times before Caesar. The Tromenie takes place on the second Sunday of every July, outside the village of Locranon--a place which you may have seen in A Very Long Engagement. The idea is to walk the route of St. Ronan, who founded Locranon.

Pilgrims walk to a little chapel where St. Ronan's supposedly lived and have an open-air Mass.
That's the Petitie Tromenie. Here's a pretty comprehensive site with its history, some music, and lore. It's documented to have gone on since the 11th century, and since St. Ronan lived several centuries before that, my guess is that the practice is much older.

Every six years, though, folks make the Grande Tromenie--a map of that route is on the site, at the bottom of the page. The next Grande Tromenie will be in 2013. These 19th-century postcards show the area--it hasn't changed all that much.

The Grande Tromenie route follows a much longer path from the village well to a clearing called Le Nemeton. That word--Nemeton--is Celtic for temple (that's pretty well documented, even though a lot of the Gaulish language is lost). Twelve markers are passed during the seven and a half mile circuit, representing the twelve months of a lunar calendar. Or, if you prefer the Catholic version, the markers are twelve stations of the cross. It's anyone's guess whether a sacred walk was made yearly during the B.C. years, but I wouldn't bet against it. I was told that some of the markers date to pre-Roman times.

When I went looking for links, I was surprised to find this 1959 article from Time Magazine, describing the Tromenie. An abbreviated version of the legend of St. Ronan and how the walk started, and what the author saw in 1959, is very interesting.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Judith Merkle Riley Dies

One of my favorite authors, and someone local to my former home in Claremont has died after battling cancer for years. It's sad when anyone dies, but espcially a writer. Fans know that there will be no more wonderful, intricate stories forthcoming.
Judith Merkle Riley's historical novels were published from 1989 to 1999. My favorite, The Oracle Glass, is at left.

I heard her speak at an Inland Empire area bookstore in 2003 or 2004, and bought a book. For book lovers, is there any thrill greater than stumbling across a writer that's new to you, but that has several books published? To find not just one, but several magical realms waiting to be visited?

Her last book was The Master of all Desires, and Nostradamus himself was a featured character in it. Both books mentioned here are stand-alone tales, not part-one-of-a-series or anything liket hat. I may be in the minority, but I'm getting to the point where "Series" is a code word preparing me to accept formulaic plots and escapes with no real thrills.However delightful a first book is, knowing there's a second installment takes the freshnes out. You know the hero will survive to star in future adventures.

I digress. The point of this post is simply to say that I am saddened that Judith Merkle Riley is gone.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Irish Historical Works Online

Here's a nifty website called CELT: the Corpus of Eectronic Texts. Texts are all of Old Ireland, from the 5th century onward. Want a sample? Here's how the first two entries in the Annals of Ulster translates into English:

U432.0Kalends of January sixth feria, fifth of the moon, [AM]4636. AD 432 according to Dyonisius.
U432.1Patrick arrived in Ireland in the ninth year of the reign of Theodosius the Less and in the first year of the episcopate of Xistus, 42nd bishop of the Roman Church. So Bede, Maxcellinus and Isidore compute in their chronicles.

This incredible collection of texts from the 5th through the 20th century is a result of intense scholarly work done by the Department of History and the Computer Center of the University College Cork.

What's online, in English and other languages? Annals of the Four Masters, Annals from all over Ireland, the History of Nennius, the Cáin Lánamna (the Law of Couples, dating back to about 700 A.D.), lives of saints, travelers' descriptions of Ireland through the centuries, old tales of Finn and other heroes... so very much, right at your fingertips.

Thank you, UCC. If I ever bury myself in Celtic history again to write a follow up novel, I will be pouring over this treasure.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ancient Herbs 'n France..s

A bow to Respighi in the the title.

When you get sick, you seek out the person who can make you better. Today, that may be the clerk at RiteAid, but before the 20th century it was very often someone who knew plants and made medicines from them. In Death Speaker, my novel of ancient Gaul, the heroine is raised by a woman who heals with plants, so I had to do a bit of research on them.

The pretties on the right are Aconitum, aka Wolfbane. If you know your Harry Potter you know it's poisonous. Information on it and how it works on the human body is all over the internet. A decent place to start is here at, but there are plenty of other spots as well.

Not surprising that poisonous plants are well-covered on the net, is it? Death is sexy. We love that stuff. There's even a TV show on SPIKE called 1000 Ways to Die. The commercials turn my stomach so I won't include a link.

But even finding information on non-lethal plants--like this comfrey--gets easier every day, as herbalists, nurseries, and agencies in every state and country put their plants online. When I check several sights and they all agree on a how a plant grows and how it affects people, I'm pretty comfortable using that information.

Oddly, I didn't rely on books on herbs, mainly because there's so much dis-information around. Isn't that weird--I used to trust the printed word implicitly. But I've seen many books on "New-Agey" topics, like herbs and healing, which went into rituals and folklore...yet when I tried to learn more, I found nothing at all that could support the book's claims. No other books, websites, experts--nothing.
So if a book claims that a plant was once used to cure headaches, for example, but no other book or expert or website backs up that claim...well, maybe the author vetted their information, maybe they didn't. Maybe they just repeated something they heard anecdotally, and maybe they got it wrong.

If I've got a headache, I want something I KNOW will knock it out. And if my character has a headache, I figure she wants the same thing. So I try to find it for her. It's the least I can do.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Geography, 2000 Years Ago

Some musings about writing a historical novel:

One of the most difficult things to figure out in an ancient setting is the geography. The further back you go, the more things change. Seas rise and fall, rivers change course, beaches erode, hills get carved up by miners...stuff happens.

Of course, the good part about that is the further back you go, the less likely it is that someone may call you out on a mistake. ("You idiot! That lake is manmade--no one would have stopped there before 1972!")

My novel is set in France, 2000 years ago. France is unique in that it--more than most countries--has tamed its rivers. Who knows how the Loire ambled along in the BC era?  Well, there may be a few scholars of the esoteric who know, but not many. How about the beaches near Carnac? What were they like? And the fields, what sort of flowers would have grown wild there?

I did as much research as I could. Maybe I over-researched, but I think that's better than not doing enough. I even found a little book in a university library that was written for American soldiers in WWI, explaining in general terms the lay of the land in France. What a jewel that was! 

One thing I did learn was that the seas have risen over the past two milennia. Archaeologists know it. The many islands off France and other countries in Northern Europe have higher shorelines than they used to. Some disappear entirely, and yet there are carvings and structures that indicated they were used once, maybe 3000 years ago when the seas were lower.

An annotation on Caesar's Conquest of Gaul clued me into the fact that the Netherlands and Belgium and other coastal areas were more marshy than they are today.

The bottom line is that you do your best, which is the bottom line for almost everything in writing, isn't it?