Friday, May 28, 2010

Ursula Sontheil (1488 - 1561)

Ursula Sontheil
1488 - 1561


I was born Ursula Sontheil in 1488 in a cave beside the river Nidd in North Yorkshire, England, but the world knows me as Mother Shipton.  Close by was an ancient well with supposed mystical powers.  I was reputed to be hideously ugly and I am credited with today's images of a witch who is ugly with a pointed nose and warts. 

I married Toby Shipton, a local carpenter, near York in 1512 and told fortunes and made predictions throughout my life.

The first publication of my prophecies, which did not appear until 1641, eighty years after my death, contained a number of mainly regional predictions, but only two prophetic verses -- neither of which foretold the End of the World, despite widespread assumptions to that effect.

I prophecied the Great Fire of London.  The Royal family were heard to discuss my prophecy of the event.

The most famous of my prophecies foretells of many modern events and phenomena. The most famous of my books contains over a hundred prophetic rhymed couplets in notably non-sixteenth-century language.

Quite who I was or what exactly I said not definitively known. What is certain is that my name became linked with many tragic events and strange goings on recorded all over the UK, Australia and North America throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

Many fortune tellers used my effigy and statue and many pubs were named after me. Only two survive, one near my birthplace in Knaresborough and the other in Portsmouth where there is a lifesize statue of me above the door.

There is a small moth native to Yorkshire named after me. It seemingly bears a profile of a hag's head on each wing.

I predicted the fates of several rulers within and just after her lifetime. I envisioned the invention of iron ships, and then the destruction of London, and even the end of the world.

Here are some of my predictions:

Carriages without horses shall go,
And accidents fill the world with woe.
Around the world thoughts shall fly
In the twinkling of an eye.
The world upside down shall be
And gold be found at the root of a tree.
Through hills man shall ride,
And no horse be at his side.
Under water men shall walk,
Shall ride, shall sleep, shall talk.
In the air men shall be seen,
In white, in black, in green;
Iron in the water shall float,
As easily as a wooden boat.
Gold shall be found and shown
In a land that's now not known.
Fire and water shall wonders do,
England shall at last admit a foe.
The world to an end shall come,
In eighteen hundred and eighty one.

Mother Shipton's Cave

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wordless Wednesday - Nun in Rome




Monday, May 24, 2010

Saint Catherine de Ricci

Born as Alessandra Lucrezia Romola de' Ricci in 1522 to a wealthy Florentine banking family.  She later changed her name to Catherine when she entered religious life. 

Her father, Pier Francesco de' Ricci, was one of an old and respected family of bankers and merchants.  Her mother of the Ricasoli family — died when she was a small child, and she was brought up by a devoted stepmother, Fiammetta da Diacceto.

Fiammetta soon took notice of her step-daughter's extraordinary inclination towards holiness — particularly for solitary prayer — and did her utmost to foster and develop it

From the time she was an infant, she demonstrated a great love for prayer.  When she was six years old, her father placed her in the convent of Monticelli in Florence, where her aunt, Louisa de Ricci, was a nun.

After a brief return home, when she was fourteen, she entered the convent of the Dominican nuns in Tuscany and joined the nine nuns there who were devoted followers of Savonarola, a friar who reined Florence with terror.  
Domincan Convent of San Vincenzo in Tuscany 

Girolo Savonarola

Alessandra there found the spirit of religious fervour high enough to satisfy even her ideal; and, after some difficulties with her father, she entered the novitiate, was clothed in 1535 (taking the name of Catherine), and professed in 1536.   Both during her novitiate and for four or five years after profession, she was subjected to humiliating trials from the community, owing to their misunderstanding of some of the high supernatural favours she received; but her holiness and humility eventually triumphed.

Before long, she was chosen Mistress of Novices, then subprioress, and at twenty-five years of age she became perpetual prioress.

The great "Ecstasy of the Passion" occurred to her for the first time in February, 1542, and was renewed every week afterwards for twelve years, when it ceased in answer to the prayers of Catherine herself and the community.  The fame of it was bringing so many people of every rank and calling to Prato that the peace and strict observance of the convent were suffering.  Her sanctity was so admired, she drew the attention and friendship of Alexander de Medici, Duke of Florence. 

She corresponded with St. Philip Neri and, while still living, she appeared to him in Rome in a miraculous manner.

After a long illness she passed away in 1589.  The descendants of her community still inhabit the convent of San Vincenzio (now commonly called Santa Caterina), and there her body still reposes. Her feast is kept on the 13th of February.


Friday, May 21, 2010

The Love Story of Abelard and Heloise

The love story of Abelard and Heliose has endured as one of the famous and popular love stories of all times.  It is the tale of a French philospher named Peter Abelard (1079-1142), one of the greatest thinkers of the Middle Ages, but because his teachings were controversial, he soon was accused of heresy.

Heliose ( 1101- 1164) was a well educated niece of a prominent cleric named Canon Fulbert.  It was through Canon Fulbert that Heloise and Abelard met. 

In 1117 Abelard went to live at the house of Canon Fulbert of the Cathedral of Notre Dam as a border.  The moment he laid eyes on Heloise, he was intrigued by her beauty and intelligence.  He wanted to get to know her more so he convinced Canon Fulbert to let him tutor Heloise. Abelard was twenty years her senior.

The two fell in love and before long, Heliose found herself pregnant.  Abelard wanted to marry Heloise even though he would lose his job.  But Heloise refused his suit, citing that their marriage would impede his work because it would bring disgrace upon him. But Abelard refused to give up.  After much persistence, he convinced her to marry him in secret.  Heloise gave birth to their son.  Abelard hated keeping his marriage and new family a secret and he longed to tell Canon Fulbert regardless of the risk to his career.  Yet, he kept the secret.  Canon Fulbert somehow learned about their marriage.  Enraged that Abelard has ruined his niece, Fulbert sent some unsavory men to break into Abelard's quarters and castrate him. Once he recovered, in humiliation, Abelard entered the Abbey of St Denis and took his vows as a monk.  Heartbroken, and knowing in her heart that she wanted no other man, Heloise left her son with her sister and became a nun, despite Abelard's protestations. In her convent, she rose in rank due to her literacy and ability to manage.
But even monastic life couldn't keep the two lovers apart.  In 1132 they began to communicate with each other again, face-to-face. 

Abelard soon discovered monastic life to be an unhappy, austere one.  Although he remained as a monk, he   resumed his profession as a teacher and lecturer. Abelard founded a Beneductine monastery and chapel known as the Oratory of Paraclete in Ferreux-Quincey, France. He left the Abbey of Saint Denis in 1121 and joined the Abbey at Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys, near Vannes, Brittany, and became their abbot.  Abelard gifted the Oratory of Paraclete to Heloise who became its prioress .

Abelard spent the last months of his life under the care of Peter, the Venerable of Cluny. After his death he was buried at Paraclete, the chapel he founded and loved.

 After her death, Heliose was buried beside Abelard. They lie together in a single tomb.

The love letters they exchanged throughout their lives endure and are treasured as examples of exquisite French Literature.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wordless Wednesday - Boboli Garden Florence

A view within Florence's Boboli Gardens. I can envision the grand ladies of their time strolling through these beautiful gardens in their elaborate and colorful gowns. What a pretty picture.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Vestal Virgins of Rome

In Ancient Rome, the vestal virgins were virgin female priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. It was their job to maintain the sacred fire of Vesta. 

This duty was a great great honor and granted the women many privileges and honors.  They were the only female priests within the Roman religious system.

The discovery of a "House of the Vestals" in Pompeii made the vestal virgins a popular subject in the 18th century and the 19th century.  The objects of the cult were essentially the hearth fire and pure water drawn into a clay vase.

A Roman man by the name of Numa Pompilius introduced the vestal virgins and assigned them salaries from the public treasury.

He stole the first vestal virgin from her parents.  More vestal virgins were added later.  The women became a powerful and influential force in the Roman state.  

Numa Pompillius

The chief vestal oversaw the efforts of the vestals.  The last known chief vestal was Coelia Concordia in 380. The College of Vestal Virgins ended in 394, when the fire was extinguished and the vestal virgins disbanded by order of Theodosius I.

The vestal virgins were committed to the priesthood at a young age (before puberty) and were sworn to celibacy for a period of 30 years.  These 30 years were, in turn, divided into three periods of a decade each: ten as students, ten in service, and ten as teachers.  Afterwards, they could marry if they chose to do so.

However, few took the opportunity to leave their respected role cause they lived luxuriously and marriage would have required them to submit to the authority of a man, with all the restrictions placed on women by Roman law.  On the other hand, a marriage to a former vestal virgin was highly honoured.

A vestal was chosen by the high priest from young girl candidates between their sixth and tenth year.  To obtain entry into the order they were required to be free of physical and mental defects, have two living parents and to be a daughter of a free born resident in Italy.

To replace a vestal who had died, candidates would be presented in the quarters of the chief vestal for the selection of the most virtuous.   Once chosen they left the house of their father, were inducted by the pontifex maximus, and their hair was shorn.  The high priest pointed to his choice with the words, "I take you to be a vestal priestess, who will carry out sacred rites which it is the law for a vestal priestess to perform on behalf of the Roman people, on the same terms as her who was a vestal on the best terms".

Their tasks included the maintenance of the fire sacred to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home, collecting water from a sacred spring, preparation of food used in rituals and caring for sacred objects in the temple's sanctuary.  By maintaining Vesta's sacred fire, from which anyone could receive fire for household use, they functioned as "surrogate housekeepers", in a religious sense, for all of Rome. Their sacred fire was treated, in Imperial times, as the emperor's household fire.

The vestals were put in charge of keeping safe the wills and testaments of various people such as Caesar and Mark Antony.  In addition, the vestals also guarded some sacred objects, including the Palladium, and made a special kind of flour called mola salsa which was sprinkled on all public offerings to a god.

The dignities accorded to the vestals were significant.  In an era when religion was rich in pageantry, the presence of the Vestal Virgins was required in numerous public ceremonies. 

They travelled in a carpentum, a covered two-wheeled carriage, preceded by a lictor, and had the right-of-way.  At public games and performances they had a reserved place of honor.  Unlike most Roman women, they were free to own property, make a will, and vote.  They gave evidence without the customary oath.  They were, on account of their incorruptible character, entrusted with important wills and state documents, like public treaties.  Their person was sacrosanct.  Death was the penalty for injuring their person and their escorts protected anyone from assault.  They could free condemned prisoners and slaves by touching them - if a person who was sentenced to death saw a vestal virgin on his way to the execution, he was automatically pardoned.   They were allowed to throw ritual straw figurines called Argei, into the Tiber on May 15 celebrations.

Site of the House of Vestal Virgins in Rome

Allowing the sacred fire of Vesta to die out, suggesting that the goddess had withdrawn her protection from the city, was a serious offense and was punishable by scourging.

The chastity of the vestal virgins was considered to have a direct bearing on the health of the Roman state. When they became vestal virgins they left behind the authority of their fathers and became daughters of the state. Any sexual relationship with a citizen was therefore considered to be incest and an act of treason. The punishment for violating the oath of celibacy was to be buried alive in the Campus Sceleratus or "Evil Fields" (an underground chamber near the Colline gate) with a few days of food and water.

Ancient tradition required that a disobedient vestal virgin be buried within the city, that being the only way to kill her without spilling her blood, which was forbidden. However, this practice contradicted the Roman law, that no person may be buried within the city. To solve this problem, the Romans buried the offending priestess with a nominal quantity of food and other provisions, not to prolong her punishment, but so that the vestal would not technically die in the city, but instead descend into a "habitable room". Moreover, she would die willingly. Cases of unchastity and its punishment were rare. The vestal Tuccia was accused of fornication, but she carried water in a sieve to prove her chastity.

Vestal sentenced to die

Because a vestal's virginity was thought to be directly correlated to the sacred burning of the fire, if the fire were extinguished it might be assumed that either the vestal had acted wrongly or that the vestal had simply neglected her duties. The final decision was the responsibility of the pontifex maximus, or the head of the pontifical college, as opposed to a judicial body.

While the order of the vestal virgins was in existence for over one thousand years there are only ten recorded convictions for unchastity. The earliest vestals were said to have been whipped to death for having sex.

The paramour of a guilty vestal was whipped to death in the Forum Boarium or on the Comitium.

The chief festivals of Vesta were the Vestalia celebrated June 7 until June 15. On June 7 only, her sanctuary (which normally no one except her priestesses, the vestal virgins, entered) was accessible to mothers of families who brought plates of food. The simple ceremonies were officiated by the vestals and they gathered grain and fashioned salty cakes for the festival. This was the only time when they themselves made the mola salsa, for this was the holiest time for Vesta, and it had to be made perfectly and correctly, as it was used in all public sacrifices.

Vestals wore an infula, a suffibulum and a palla. The infula was a long headdress that draped over the shoulders. Usually found underneath were red and white woolen ribbons. The suffibulum was the brooch that clipped the palla together. The palla was a simple mantle, wrapped around the vestal virgin. The brooch and mantle were draped over the left shoulder.


Monday, May 10, 2010

The History of Cannoli

In The Godfather, Part I, the character Pete Clemenza orders the other guy in the car after a murder has been carried out to leave the gun and take the cannoli. While this line has been parodied and repeated a thousand times, what exactly is a cannoli?

A cannoli is a Sicilian pastry dessert that is an essential part of the cuisine of Sicily. They are fried, tube-shaped pastry shells filled with a sweet, creamy filling. These treats have a long and storied history and just as many variations.
 For traditional cannoli, the filling is made of ricotta cheese or even sweetened marscapone. This cheese is blended with a combination of vanilla, chocolate, pistachio, Marsala wine, rosewater, or any other of assorted flavors. In addition, the size of the cannoli varies as much as the filing's flavorings. The shell is made of flour, butter, sugar, and a number of other ingredients. This dough is then rolled into ovals and wrapped around a dough ring and fried. Following the frying process, the shells are stuffed using either a spoon or a pastry bag. The pastry can be as small as the finger-sized cannulicchi to fist-sized offerings from Piana degli Albanesi, a town near Palermo which has three languages, an Albanian dialect, Italian, and the local Sicilian dialect.

Cannoli originated in Palermo and the surrounding areas. They date to the time when Sicily was controlled by the Arabs. Historically, the pastries were made for the Carnevale, the festival season which occurs immediately before Lent. The festival is typified by parades and masquerades, something like Mardi Gras. It is thought that the cannoli might have been a fertility symbol during the season. Now, however, cannoli are enjoyed year round across Italy and in the United States.

Americans who love cannoli might be more familiar with variations of the original than the original. This is probably partially due to the modifications that were made to the recipes by Italian immigrants once they got to the United States. In many instances, crucial ingredients were less available in the United States than they were in Italy. This may be why most cannoli made in the United States rarely feature marscapone. Cannoli do still contain ricotta. In other areas, the filling may be a sugar, milk, and cornstarch custard without any cheese.

When buying or making cannoli, it is important to remember that they must be consumed quickly. If they are left to sit, the shell will absorb some of the liquid from the filling and quickly turn soggy and lose its crispness.

Ingredients for cannoli:

4 1/2 cups ricotta cheese
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/4 cup semisweet chocolate pieces, coarsely chopped
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup shortening
2 well-beaten eggs
1/4 cup cold water
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 slightly beaten egg white
Cooking oil for deep-fat frying
Powdered sugar


Combine ricotta, 1 cup granulated sugar, and vanilla. Depending on firmness of cheese, stir or beat till smooth. Fold in chocolate. Cover; chill. Combine flour, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, cinnamon, and salt. Cut in shortening till mixture resembles small peas. Combine eggs, water, and vinegar; add to flour mixture. Stir till dough forms a ball.

Divide dough in half. On lightly floured surface roll each half to slightly less than 1/8-inch thickness. Using a knife and paper pattern, cut dough into ovals 6 inches long and 4 inches wide. Beginning with long side, roll dough loosely on cannoli tubes. Moisten overlapping dough with egg white; press gently to seal. Fry in deep hot oil(375 degrees) for 1 to 2 minutes. Drain. When cool enough to handle, remove cones from tubes and cool. Cool tubes before reusing. Up to 1 hour before serving, fill cones using a pastry tube to force cheese mixture into cones. Sift powdered sugar atop.
Makes about 20 cannoli.

If you would like more information on cannoli or other desserts, please visit
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Friday, May 7, 2010

Mary Moders Carleton (1642 - 1673)

Mary Carleton
11 January 1642 - 22 January 1673)


Englishwoman, Mary Carleton, used false identities such as a German princess, to marry and defraud a number of men.

Her real name was Mary Moders and she was born in Canterbury, the daughter of a fiddler. She wed a young journeyman shoemaker named Thomas Stedman.  Together they had two children who both died in infancy.  Her marriage failing, she left Thomas and moved to Dover where she met and married a surgeon.  This soon resulted in her prompt arrest and trial in Maidstone for bigamy.

After the trial she travelled to Cologne where she entered into a brief, but torrid, affair with a local nobleman.  He bestowed her with many a valuable trinket as he pressed her for her hand in marriage.  He even began the wedding preparations.

Fearful of getting into trouble again, Mary snuck out of Germany, not only with all her precious gifts in hand, but also with most of her landlady's money.  She returned to England by way of the Netherlands.

By 1663, she was back in London and assumed the identity of the orphaned Princess van Wolway from Cologne.  She claimed that she was born in Cologne and that her father was Henry van Wolway, Lord of Holmstein and that she had fled a possessive lover.

With this guise, she met and married John Carleton, brother-in-law of the landlord of the Exchange tavern, one of her favourite watering holes.

Soon after their wedding, someone sent her husband an anonymous letter which exposed her lies.  Once again, she was arrested and brought to trial.

Her first recorded appearance was during that same 1663 trial.  Charged for masquerading as a German princess and marrying John Carleton in London under that name, she insisted that John Carleton himself had claimed to be a lord and was trying to extract himself from their marriage because he had discovered she had no money.  Divorce in those days was not only scandalous, but unheard of.  Both John and Mary produced and published pamphlets to support their own claims.  Lucky for Mary Carleton, the court believed her and she was acquitted.

Cashing in on her new fame, Mary wrote her own story entitled The Case of Madam Mary Carleton.  It is suspected she used a ghostwriter.  She also acted in a play about her life which resulted in numerous admirers all clamoring for her attention and all of which showered her with valuable gifts and jewels.  She eventually married one of those gentleman.  But in keeping with her character, she left him too, and took all his money, valuable, and keys while he lay in a drunken stupor.

Free once more, Mary took on the assumed identify of rich virgin heiress fleeing an undesirable suitor whom her father had arranged for her to marry.  To back up her story, she arranged for someone to send her letters that contained bogus updates of family news. Conveniently, her new landlady found the letters, read them, and initiated a match between Mary and her nephew.

Never one to hesitate, Mary immediately arranged for a new letter to arrive. This one claimed that her brother had died and left her his entire inheritance, which included her father's forthcoming inheritance. The letter further stated that her father now became even more determined to marry her to a suitor she detested. The nephew, her new lover, invited her to live with him, but Mary and her accomplice who was disguised as a maid, stole his money.

Over the following ten years Mary used imilar methods to defraud numerous other men and landlords, often with the aid of her maid. It was easy and she got away with it most of the time because many of the poor men she tricked were too embarrassed to reveal they had been duped. Even though she was accused many times, she was jailed only briefly.

Once, she was arrested for stealing a silver tankard. She was given a death sentence which was commuted to penal transportation and was put on a boat and sent to Jamaica. Somehow, after only two years she returned to London, again under the pretence of being a rich heiress. This time, she married a wealthy apothecary at Westminster. As was her practice, she stole his money too and left him.

In December 1672, she was captured by a man who was searching for his stolen possessions finally found her. Her trial began on January 16, 1673 at the Old Bailey. It was soon discovered that she had returned from penal transportation without permission. This fact, in addition to her other crimes, resulted in a death sentence. On January 22, 1673, she was executed by hanging.

Rumours about her life abound. At one time, it was said she had taken to masculine cross-dressing.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Wordless Wednesday - The Insignia of the Holy Roman Empire

The Orb, Scepter and Crown, insignia of the Holy Roman Empire
These precious objects belonged to Otto I in the 10th Century, and
were brought to Frankfurt for every imperial coronation.
Otto the Great is the son of Queen Mechthild and King Heinrich the Fowler, main characters in my current work in progress.