Mary Wellesley


23 April 2019

Margaret the Dragon Slayer

In an 11th-century English life of Saint Margaret, or Marina, of Antioch, there is a moment when she gets the devil in what martial artists call a ‘submission hold’.


23 April 2018

A Load of Ballokis

I recently came across an image in a manuscript in the Bodleian Library that made me think of Gwyneth Paltrow. The image, from a late 13th-century medical compendium (Bodl. MS Ashmole 399), shows a woman, who appears to have fainted, being attended by a physician and servants. One of the female servants is wafting a burning feather beneath the patient’s nose. Another is extending a hand towards the patient’s genitals. She is receiving ‘odiferous therapy’, whereby strong-smelling substances were wafted under the nose and the vagina.


4 August 2016

In Pope’s Grotto

Underneath the A310 in Twickenham, in the grounds of Radnor House prep school, lies the grotto of Alexander Pope. It once looked out over the Thames, but now its view takes in the walls of the sixth-form art block and an astroturf sports pitch. But the magic of what Pope called his ‘shadowy cave’ is not lost. The grotto smells of flint. Its walls are encrusted with geological curiosities. There is a piece of basalt hacked from the Giant’s Causeway and there was once a stalagmite from Wookey Hole, supposedly shot down from the roof of the cave at Pope’s request.


27 April 2016

A Whisper of a Beard

Hieronymus Bosch painted clog ships, fish soldiers, armoured creatures with insect wings and scales gobbling human limbs. In the recesses of his paintings you might find a spoonbill, wearing a hooded cape, sitting down to a supper of bird-claw at a table set with white linen and pewterware. His picture of Saint Wilgefortis – usually in the Accademia in Venice, but currently on display at an exhibition in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the town where he lived and worked – is perhaps one of his least strange paintings. It shows a bearded woman being crucified.


24 August 2015

Pity the Seagull

Northumbria police have launched an investigation after a photo was posted on Facebook of a man apparently strangling a seagull. Councillors in seaside towns are considering using drones to kill seagull chicks in their nests. Although the numbers of most gull species in the UK are in decline, they have an 'increasing presence in urban areas'. The RSPCA is looking into reports that people in Cornwall are attacking gulls with fishing line. Meanwhile the birds have been accused of attacking people and killing pets, and in Namibia they've been spotted pecking out the eyes of baby seals, as if they weren't already hated enough.


23 June 2015

'Too Much Succulence'

I recently heard a couple of stories about health and safety suggestions made by children’s book editors. They are often along the lines of ‘we’re concerned that the character is in danger here,’ but breast-feeding was also a no-no in a book for eight to twelve-year-olds. The most famous editor as moral policeman is Thomas Bowdler, who in 1818 produced his Family Shakspeare [sic]. He was from a long line of Shakespeare sanitisers. A copy of the Second Folio now in the Folger Library in Washington preserves the often frustrated expurgatory efforts of William Sankey (signing himself Guillermo Sanchez), a 17th-century English Jesuit; the edition came from the English College in Valladolid. The pages are covered with Sankey’s redactions. What I like best about the book is the total absence of Measure for Measure. I wonder how much of the play he crossed out before giving up and ripping the whole thing out.


5 June 2015

History Man

A few days before telling Shami Chakrabarti to ‘shut up’ about the Human Rights Act, David Starkey gave a lecture on Magna Carta at the British Library. Asked his opinion on Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, he said that it was historically inaccurate and ‘lady novelists need a hero’. (Earlier this year he called the novel a ‘deliberate perversion of fact’.) To hear Starkey tell it, you’d think Wolf Hall was full of scenes of a shirtless Cromwell scything in the summer heat. His view isn’t only misogynist, but completely misses the point. It’s a bit like saying Shakespeare’s history plays are bad history.


15 April 2015

In Granada

In Granada late on Good Friday I watched a paso or float of the Mater Dolorosa making its ponderous way towards the cathedral. The life-size statue was dressed in a black and silver robe. She was swaying gently from side to side and looked like a beautiful beetle with the many legs of the men carrying her (the cuadrilla) sticking out from the black curtain underneath her. Their load was so heavy that they had to stop and swap out for a fresh crew every few hundred metres. The float was accompanied by a marching band, candle bearers, incense-bearers, the women wearing mantillas and black lace, the teenagers in chorister’s robes. Around the float were the nazarenos or penitentes who wear caperuzas – tall, tapering hooded masks – and often carry wooden crosses. The similarity to Klu Klux Klan garb is coincidental; the nazarenos’ hoods point symbolically towards the heavens.


14 February 2015

Chaucer’s Fault

Don’t like Valentine’s Day? Blame Chaucer. Saint Valentine was a third century Roman martyr. We don’t know much about him. There may in fact have been two Valentines, one a bishop from Terni, the other a priest martyred on the Flaminian Way, though they may also have been the same person. Or possibly neither of them existed. The two hagiographies conform to the usual pattern: vicious Roman leaders in conflict with unrepentant martyrs who keep the faith. But no mention of lovers.


23 July 2014

Hash-hogs

The hashtag was invented by Chris Messina, a programmer and open source advocate, in August 2007 as a way of flagging up the salient features of a tweet. He took the hash sign, which had meant ‘number’, and made it mean ‘important concept-alert’. The hashtag’s use in tweets has now developed a style and language of its own. They’re everywhere, punctuating Twitter and Instagram jokes, Facebook posts and other forms of communication. I like making stupid hashtag neologisms, but I’m probably not alone in feeling uneasy about the way they boil large bodies of information down to a couple of words. There is, of course, something brutally reductive about them, and the word ‘tag’ has overtones of criminality or pricing: available for search, available for purchase.