History from
the Bottom Up

France, Part Trois

It’s Sunday and we’re at the airport, heading home. It’s been an amazing trip.

We left Lyon for Normandy on Wednesday. On the way, we stopped overnight in the Loire region and visited Chenonceaux, a Renaissance chateau that belonged to Catherine de Medici.IMG 2802 450x335 France, Part TroisActually, it wasn’t hers originally. Catherine’s husband, Henri II, presented it to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, which rankled Catherine to no end. After he was killed in a freakish jousting accident, Catherine wasted little time bunging Diane out of Chenonceaux. Catherine told Diane she would swap it for a different chateau, named Chaumont, but when Diane entered Chaumont, she found Catherine had had it redecorated with Satanical pentagrams as part of the motif, and Diane was so freaked out, she never returned to it.

On Thursday we visited the magnificent 12th century Abbey of Fontevraud, where Eleanor of Aquitaine is entombed. Here she is, next to her husband, Henri Plantagenet:IMG 2839 450x335 France, Part TroisTheir son, Richard the Lionhearted, is also entombed there, except that this is just one of three burial sites for him. His body was divided up and buried in three different places: his heart was sent to one place and his brain and guts to another.

At Bayeux, we visited the famous tapestry. It’s actually not a tapestry (which is by definition woven). It’s an embroidered cloth, magnificent to see in real life. Nine centuries old and 70 meters long, it depicts the events surrounding the Norman conquest of England and the Battle of Hastings, in 1066. At that battle, William, Duke of Normandy, aka William the Bastard (long story) defeated Harold, King of England, and William became known as William the Conqueror. And French became the official language in England for the next three hundred years.

BayeuxTapestryScene15 1 450x325 France, Part Trois

Naughty panel 15

You can see the whole panel here, but I made a beeline for panel 15, because I’ve always been curious about the two mysterious naked guys and was excited to see them in, er, the flesh. Medieval scholars have argued endlessly about this scene. Why is there a naked guy smoothing wood with a sharp, dangerously situated blade? And who is the woman in the main panel, getting slapped by the guy in the cape? And why is there another naked guy in the margin art, just below her? She’s one of only two women in the entire tapestry, and the embroidered caption says: Ubi unus clericus et Ælfgyva, which translates roughly as: Hey, look. It’s a clerk and Ællfgyva. According to the audio guide, Ællfgyva was Harold’s daughter and it’s Harold who is smacking her, because she got herself engaged to William. Or maybe it’s the other way around and she’s getting slapped by William for getting engaged to Harold. Some scholars think the second naked guy may just be a naughty joke thrown in by one of the embroiderers, or he may be her lover hiding under the floorboards, or the first naked guy may symbolize Harold in a precarious predicament and the second one is Harold boasting and acting—literally I suppose—too big for his britches, before he proceeds to get trounced by William later in the tapestry. If you have another theory, please let us know in the comment section.

On Friday we spent a somber day driving around Normandy, viewing the D-Day battle sites and cemeteries (both American and German) with our amazingly knowledgeable and lovely guide, Claire. Here she is with Jon:IMG 2907 450x335 France, Part TroisAnd here’s Omaha beach, one of the D-day landing sites, which is spectacularly beautiful, and haunting.IMG 2903 450x335 France, Part TroisI was surprised to see that it was open to the beach-going public, and that there were some people swimming there. But Claire said that WWII veterans she has toured have told her they’re glad that French people use the beaches recreationally, as it reinforces why they fought that day.IMG 2904 450x335 France, Part Trois

France, Part Deux

Bonjour again, this time from Lyon, France. We’re staying in an incredible sixteenth century building on a very narrow cobbled street in the old part of the city. Here’s the street–just out of the frame, on the left, would be the heavy oak door to our “hotel,” although it’s really more of a residential apartment, on the sixth floor. It’s awesome. And it has wifi. (Ah “l’ironie!”)

Can you see that there are a few street signs overhanging the narrow street? Maybe you can’t, but trust me—there’s a long wooden baguette signaling … Read more

Bonjour from Paris!

I’m in France for ten days with my history-teacher husband. On the itinerary are many places we’re both eager to see, including Lyon, some chateaux in the Loire Valley, the Bayeux tapestry, and the beaches and battle sites of Normandy. But Saturday was a special day for me. We visited the Paris sewers.

Yes, there is actually a museum devoted to exploring the sewers beneath the streets, of which Parisians get to be very proud. If you’ve read my Poop book, you’ll know that London was the first major city to build massive … Read more

Triple Tragedy

Credit: The National Trust

On Monday I blogged about this portrait of Richard Croft’s children—where Herbert, aged ten, is lying in the pose of Melancholy, in the background in partial shadow, due to his having died.

The children’s father, the 6th Baronet Richard Croft, has his own tragic story.

Croft was a doctor from an aristocratic family, and in 1817 he became the personal physician overseeing the pregnancy of Princess Charlotte, second in line, after her father, to the British throne. At the time, doctors could … Read more

Skeleton Suits

skeleton-suit Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga (1784–1792), possibly 1790s Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746–1828)

I have a new book coming out next February with National Geographic. Here’s the cover. The subject is fashion, namely, a history of the world through the lens of what people wore, and why. It’s in the final layout phase now. The layout phase has been so much fun, because I love, love, love to do image research. The one downside of image research is that it’s so easy to get sidetracked.

Here’s one story I … Read more


Today is the first full day of my annual writing retreat, on the beautiful shores of Lake Champlain, near Plattsburgh, NY. I’m here with a couple of dozen other children’s book writers. We’ll be spending the next several days writing in solitude, in a beautiful setting, sharing meals together that someone else cooks. This blog will resume next week!






Curve Balls

Torsten Bolten, (http://creativecommons.via Wikimedia Commons)

We’re in World Cup Soccer Frenzy mode in my house, and sad as it was to see the U.S. lose to Belgium on Tuesday, it was an incredible game. I am married to a former goalkeeper and have spawned two goalkeepers and a midfielder, so even though I’m not super knowledgeable about the game, I have lots of people around me who can answer my questions.

For instance, there was that unbelievable goal by Jermaine Jones in the game against Portugal. … Read more

It’s About Slime


This is hardly breaking news—in fact, the Greek physician Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC) was the first to herald the benefits, but did you know that snail-slime face cream is a hot beauty trend? Creams containing slug mucus have been flying off the shelves in far-flung places like Korea and South America.

According to this article (and many others), Chilean farmers noticed that after handling snails they were breeding for escargot, their hands felt noticeably smoother. The snail’s secretions protect its own skin from cuts and scrapes … Read more

Shipped Off


Chain gang convicts going to work near Sidney, Australia.
Prior to the seventeenth century, convicted criminals in Britain faced grim fates. Few went to prison—the Tower of London was reserved mostly for high class prisoners. Instead the courts relied on one of two options: physical punishment or death. And the latter option frequently held sway–there were 225 capital offenses on the books, including those for mild offenses like petty larceny.
But according to Peter Higginbotham in his fascinating book The Prison Cookbook, British officials hit upon … Read more

Dead But Not Gone

Yesterday in the New York Times there was an article about a growing fad in New Orleans and elsewhere for propping dead people in life-like poses. The idea is that loved ones who attend the wake may have one last look at their dearly departed sitting at their kitchen table, straddling their Harley, or standing with their hands on their walking cane, a hat tilted at a jaunty angle. One woman wanted to be seen for the last time standing over her cooking pot.

You can see the article here. It’s pretty creepy, isn’t it? But there’s actually a tradition … Read more

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