As I Rode Out One Morning

As I rode out one morning
I saw a white rose in bloom.
I leant down and stole that white, white rose
From its place by an ancient tomb.

I gave the rose to a lady fair
Where she sat in the Garden of Love
With at her side a unicorn
And a golden hawk on her glove.

As I rode back that evening
I saw a rose red as blood.
I left that rose to bloom and die
Where it grew in the garden of God.

Ibn Khaldoun

A note on Abdelrahman ibn Khaldoun, who appears as a character in this novel.

An Islamic historian and sociologist, ibn Khaldoun was born in Tunis 1332 and died in Cairo in 1406.

His family was of the Tunisian elite, and he received a thorough education. He served at several courts in the Maghreb (north-west Africa), and was twice imprisoned. While in seclusion in what is today’s Algeria from 1375- 79 he wrote his famous Foreword (muqaddama), the first volume of his celebrated Universal History.

In 1382 he received a chair at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, acting as a judge and a teacher in Islamic law.

His fame was so widespread even in his own days, that he was received as an honoured guest with the Tatar ruler Tamerlane in 1400.

The Universal History is a central source for the history of north Africa, and the Berber people. But it is his Foreword, where he outlines his philosophy of history, where he underlined that dynasties have a tendency of lasting for a period of three generations, where after a new dynasty wipes out the old one.

Behind this is the theory that the first generation of a dynasty still holds on to the hard and demanding life of the countryside, the second generation is the one picking up the culture, while the third generation degenerates, and picks up all commodities from urban life.

The weak third generation had to a large degree lost its capacity to defend itself, and was therefore an easy victim when a new rural dynasty arose.

Ibn Khaldoun lived in a time of changing dynasties, and some of the most famous, like the Almohads and Almoravids, had lasted about one century, or three generations. Needless to say, they did not look kindly on ibn Khaldoun and his theories.

Ibn Khaldoun saw a strong connection between social change, and the climate and the level of economic activity. Societies were held together by social cohesiveness, and according to his theories religion served as a strengthening factor.


Kanti Burns’ Review of “Wrong Way Round the Church”

The title drew me to this novel immediately. It is from one of my very favourite poets, Dorothy Nimmo, and the whole stanza runs:

So go as the sun goes, wise daughter, go clockwise;
wrong way round the church is another kingdom, the price
of walking alone is a sword-blade slashing the instep.

In 1374, in the still very Moorish south of Spain, a girl is sold into slavery. After various adventures including a shipwreck, two years in a bordel in Cuenca and an encounter with a lamia, she is freed by her new master, a rich Moor whose life she has saved – but on condition that she takes with her the mysterious young slave-girl Malika and returns her to her home which (from what Malika tells them) seems to have been somewhere in the north of Spain or the south of France.

First, though, they make their way back across Andalucia to the village near Cartagena where Maryam grew up, and there she meets an elderly Scottish knight, Sir Farquhar de Dyngvale, come in search of her late father, who was himself a Scot in exile. He takes her under his wing and they head north together, first in search of Malika’s family, then, she hopes and dreams, to Paris.

My own favourite parts of the book are, first, Maryam’s recollections of her childhood by the Mar Menor, a ‘little sea’ in the south-east of Spain, where her Moorish grandmother, Sebah, taught her to dance and she studied all kinds of arcane subjects with her ‘uncle’ Rabbi Yacoub, while the rest of the time she spent swimming in the sea, all alone.

Secondly, the period they spent in Avignon, when they had left Spain behind, and Maryam found herself for the first time on the run from the powers that be, which in Avignon, then the seat of the Popes, meant the Church, and the Church meant the Inquisition. Going “wrong way round the church” indeed!

There are scenes of sex and violence, but no more so than in most books set in that period. Life was like that. (When wasn’t it?!) But there are also scenes such as those where we meet secret Cathars in the north of Spain and Blanche, the anything-but-orthodox ex-Queen of France, in Avignon, which bring home to us some of the most mysterious and tantalising aspects of the late Middle Ages.

Wrong Way Round the Church is one of those stories you read fast the first time, then later, at home now in this very different world, you read it again and this time you savour it to the full.






Wrong Way Round the Church – the Blurb

A MEDIEVAL MYSTERY: Mariana in Spain and France. Who – and what – is the young slave-girl that Mariana takes on responsibility for and agrees to try to restore to her home and family?

Though the third to be written, this is actually the first episode, chronologically, in the on-going story of Marian MacElpin, better known as Mariana de la Mar (heroine of The Devil is a Woman and The Undeparted Dead) who started life in Spain on the shore of the Mar Menor (the Little Sea) as her grandmama’s “little dancer”, and her papa’s “little thinker”, and in the Mar Menor as old Pedro the fisherman’s “little mermaid”; and how she came to be the woman she was, a lady who could pass as a whore. Or should that be (many thought so) a whore who could pass as a lady?

Others noted how educated she was. In Avignon, Queen Blanche of France, who never took her for a lady, says she “talks like a student of theology and comports herself like a courtesan”. And St Catherine of Siena, whom she also meets in Avignon, takes her for a runaway nun. “You certainly speak like one,” Catherine tells her.

Whore, nun, lady. Nobody was sure. Except, of course, her father’s friend, Sir Farquhar de Dyngvale, but he was a gentleman of the old school. To him, there was no question about it: she was the Lady Marian MacElpin, daughter of Sir Andrew MacElpin.

But all this is in the future. When the story opens in October 1375, Sir Farquhar has just arrived back in France after a lifetime spent fighting as a Christian knight in Outremer. Rather than head north at once to his native Scotland, he decides to turn south in search of his old friend Sir Andrew, last heard of in Spain. He knows, of course, that it might be too late, that Andrew might be dead, but has no idea that Andrew left behind him a daughter who was abducted from her home following her father’s death, spent two years as a prostitute in a bordel in Cuenca, and is now a slave in a harem in Granada.

Later, Farquhar appoints himself Mariana’s guardian (she needs no guardian, she protests!) and accompanies her when her search for the family of the young slave-girl entrusted to her care takes her to a clandestine Cathar community in the north of Spain, and from there to Avignon, then the seat of the Popes of Rome.

But Avignon is “a town without pity, charity, faith, respect, fear of God,” (as Petrarch put it shortly before his death in 1374), and there Mariana suddenly finds herself, for the first (but not the last) time, on the run from the Church and the Inquisition.