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Saturday, December 29, 2018

Cantigas in the Air


Yours truly with a facsimile of the Codice rico of the Cantigas de Santa Maria.
It's an enduring infatuation. 
What a year it's been! One of the most surprising accomplishments I can count in 2018 is that I took part in my second radio interview. Dr. Debra J. Bolton interviewed me about the beloved Cantigas de Santa Maria for her music-filled Christmas-day broadcast. As well as introducing me and my cantigas work in a flattering fashion, Dr. Bolton managed to make my responses to her questions seem coherent even though I was suffering from the vestiges of a cold and overwhelmed with the enthusiasm of thinking about these stories and their art and music.

Mostly it's a lovely show because of the variety of cantigas recordings you get to hear. I'm honored to have been a part of this celebration of multicultural wisdom and joy.

The show will be rebroadcast on December 30 at 9 a.m. United States Central Time. You can listen from anywhere via the High Plains Public Radio site.

If time zones are an issue for you like they are for me, check out the handy dandy Time Zone Converter. Tune into hppr.org at 9 a.m. on December 30 for hours of cantiga enjoyment.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Seven Noble Knights in Search of a Home, Again

Seven Noble Knights will always belong in Salas de los Infantes... 
The steps between completing an excellent novel and becoming a published author can be painful and confusing, and frankly, most authors would rather skip them and get to "the good parts." The ones I'm thinking of include researching and querying agents and publishers, receiving multitudes of unhelpful rejections or brushoffs, wading through contracts, and waiting, waiting, waiting.

In the case of my Seven Noble Knights, I experienced all of the above plus an evisceration that ended up vastly helpful to the complete rewrite of the beginning of the novel.

When Seven Noble Knights was accepted for publication, it felt like my writerly dream come true--with all of the trepidation something like that can cause. (I read somewhere that writing long fiction is the most cognitively complex task known to brain researchers. Input from all directions! Is it any wonder that every moment of a writer's life is fraught with mixed feelings? This is not a profession for wimps.)

It turned out to be a long journey from acceptance to publication. I'm thinking about this now because this week, my contract with Bagwyn Books has been terminated and I've received the publishing rights back. Which is to say, Seven Noble Knights is again an unpublished manuscript.

The contract came to an amicable end based on mutually recognized issues at Bagwyn that have nothing to do with my novel. I'm pleased to have the rights back under auspicious circumstances. All the options are open, which is ideal and also scary.

It also feels like starting over, but it's really not. Seven Noble Knights has already debuted to critical praise from the Historical Novel Review and thrilled at least two book clubs. I fulfilled my dream of giving a reading and doing a signing at the Harvard Book Store. Seven Noble Knights has rubbed elbows with the Book Doctors, countless luminaries at the Historical Novel Society Conference and the Tin House Summer Workshop, and was the focal point of a lightning-fast radio interview.

My options include researching and approaching more agents and/or publishers, or redoing the launch and publishing myself, or letting it rest for a while until the time is right. I'll definitely consult with a few of my writer friends who have gone through something similar (rights reversion is not uncommon in the volatile publishing industry) before I make a final decision.

So there you have it. Seven Noble Knights will soon be unavailable for purchase. It's an end that promises an even brighter beginning.

Hold onto your bloody cucumbers! Great things are on their way!



Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Salas de los Infantes: Where the Seven Noble Knights Lived

Seven Noble Knights and the crest of Salas both
tell the legend in their own colorful way. 
Photos in this post 2018 Jessica Knauss unless otherwise noted 
In 2015, mere days before I got the long-awaited and welcome news that my epic novel Seven Noble Knights had been accepted for publication, I visited Salas de los Infantes for the first time. Salas is the home territory of the heroes of the saga, and I was thrilled to see their legend so alive in the world.

Yours truly with humidity hair and the Culture Palace
on the site of the seven noble knights' house
Photo 2015 Stanley Coombs 
My husband and I explored the town and had a lovely meal, but the church where it was said the skulls of my heroes were laid to rest was shut tight. I was too shy to tell the lady in the town hall what I was really looking for in Salas.

Fast forward three eventful years. Seven Noble Knights had been published to critical acclaim, and I returned to my characters' home territory with that validation and a new sense that life is too short for shyness. I was resolved not to let something as stupid as not asking for what I wanted keep me from seeing the casket with my heroes' skulls and donating a copy of Seven Noble Knights to the city.

Salas's beautifully historical town hall in the Plaza Mayor with a certain novel 
I led my mother to the town hall and found, I think, the same lady I had spoken with in 2015. My mother witnessed all of the following silently, and I wonder if her lack of Spanish made me seem like I knew what I was doing.

Even with a big American smile to hide my nerves, I still had to ease into what I perceived as the riskiest part. I asked about the church with the skulls, which is the main parish church in Salas and a reasonably popular tourist pilgrimage. The lady gave me a thorough run-down of what numbers to call and where to walk if I couldn't reach anyone on the phone. She thought her tourism work was done, but I took a dose of when-am-I-ever-coming-back-here with a dash of I'm-holding-this-book-and-what-will-I-do-with-it-if-I-don't-say-anything, and said, "I'm an author, and my novel about the legend of the seven noble knights has been published, and I'd like to donate this copy to the city."

Sole of a warrior's shoe excavated at the site of the seven noble knights' house!
Dinosaur Museum, Salas de los Infantes  
The answer was surreal in its unexpectedness. "You have to go to the Dinosaur Museum and talk to the guys there. They'll flip out! Even though it's in English." (Dialogue approximate.)

There are worthy dinosaur exhibits at the Dinosaur Museum, too. 
After much more encouragement I hardly needed, my mother and I walked a few steps to the other corner of the Plaza Mayor to the so-called Dinosaur Museum. As we were to find out, this museum actually contains artifacts from all of Salas's history and prehistory, something for everyone. We entered to find two men at a chaotically creative reception desk. I screwed up my courage again, this time with a little more of a calling card.

The Culture Palace ensures the land where the
seven noble knights lived is always usefully occupied.  
"They tell me at the town hall that I should talk to you. My novel about the seven noble knights has been published, and I'd like to donate a copy to the city." I held the bright-red book out and hoped my face wasn't the same color.

Their reaction was an author's dream come true. You would've thought they'd just won the lottery. They took my darling Seven Noble Knights and leafed through it as if it were made of gold. "They really looked like they wished they could read English," my mother told me later.

The stained glass in the Culture Palace illustrates
the giant battle in Chapter VIIII
"You've got to get in touch with a seven noble knights scholar," they said. "He's a teacher, like you, not in Salas, and he's written an extensive history of Salas and is cataloging all the artistic representations of the legend. Here's his email. While you're here, step into our Culture Palace. It's on the site of the seven noble knights' house and has a really cool stained glass window. And have you seen the ark with the heads in the Church of Saint Mary? You can't miss it."

"That's exactly what I was hoping to do next."

They let us see the museum for free and proceeded to make numerous phone calls to see if the priest was around, or a dean, or a sacristan, or anyone who could open up the church and tell us a little of the history. They gave me leaflets, brochures, and pamphlets about Salas, a program detailing a 2011 conference about the legend at which I recognized the names of many medieval Spanish literature scholars, and maybe half a million copies of the poster pictured. I'm meant to give copies to my friends, and I will find a few worthy recipients. I wish I had the resources to mail posters to fans of my book! I adore the poster because it's a graphic representation of some key moments in the saga. The fourth cartoon is so similar to the way I imagined the scene in Seven Noble Knights, it gives me chills.

They also told me that only a week from the date we were there, Salas was having its "legendary" seven noble knights festival. Events included children's activities, world cuisine, medieval dancing, jugglers and stilt-walkers, high tea, a craft fair, Bulgarian dancing, and the pièce de résistance7i, a rock opera based on everyone's favorite medieval legend.


It's hard to describe the beautiful feelings it gives a proud author to see other artistic representations of characters she adopted as her own. I never expected this phenomenon to be so agreeable. I almost wish all my books were based on beloved folklore.

Unfortunately, the festival was to take place during my mother's visit, and we already had hotel reservations and big plans for those dates. I hope they do it again next year, when I'll be ready.

Santa Maria de Salas and Seven Noble Knights 
Many minutes later, the wonderful cultural ambassadors at the Dinosaur Museum told us we should head to the church. They'd found a sacristan who knew a ton of history and was in town that day to show it to us. Before we left, they said Ridley Scott should pick up Seven Noble Knights and make an epic movie. Not the worst idea I've ever heard.

Santa Maria's main door bears the enigmatic legends
"Misfortune befalls the house of one who swears" and
"The curse of the mother burns and destroys children and house from the roots."  
In 2015, I admit to being less than impressed with the outside of the church. Its tower, though imposing, doesn't look like it jealously guards the skulls of the seven noble knights.

Notice the niche built into the left side of the altar. 
Inside, however, it's balanced and harmonious, with elegant Gothic curves and ornate altarpieces of a unified aesthetic. The good-natured, studious, and ridiculously young sacristan, Isaac, turned on the lights and pointed out the historical interest in altarpieces and richly embroidered cassocks, appropriately building up to the show-stopper.

What we've come to see.  
In 1579, it's said someone found a wooden box in the wall of the church with eight skulls inside and an inscription outside claiming they had belonged to the seven noble knights, Diego, Martín, Suero, Fernando, Rodrigo, Gustio, and Gonzalo, and their tutor Muño Salido. Paintings on that box served as inspiration for the modern town crest.

Isaac opened the grille so nothing would separate me from my beloved characters. It was so much more beautiful than I imagined, or had even seen in photos. Although small, the ark reassured me that the legendary history of this lovely town was being properly honored.

The current ark was made in 1924 with medievalist red velvet, golden metal flourishes, and a large keyhole. Isaac suggested something could be seen through the keyhole, and I put my eye right up to it, but of course it was too dark to make anything out.

I was able to tell Isaac something he didn't know: The ark was last opened in 1974 during Salas's one-thousandth anniversary celebration.

"Oh, before I was born," he said.

"Me, too," I hurried to add. (Just barely!)

The Latin inscription on the plaque reads, "Here, piously maintained for a long time, eight heads of the noble lords of Castile 'the seven noble knights of Lara' and their tutor are treasured."

And I will treasure these moments in Salas in my memory. My heroes' home is my spiritual home.

Suggestive sarcophagi in the churchyard 
In loving memory of Stanley Arthur Coombs.


Monday, April 2, 2018

Zamora's Medieval Treasures: Holy Week 2018

Easter Sunday in Zamora
Photo 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón
All year, I was puzzled as to why Spring Break here in Zamora occurs after Easter. The week before, Holy Week, is so full of activities, I thought, why wouldn't people focus on them rather than going to school? It turns out, they did just that, and now I fully understand: we all need this week of vacation to recover from Holy Week!

It was the best Easter of my life, unlike anything I've ever experienced. I got swept up immediately, after my first procession, to a degree I never would've expected. I didn't think I could love Zamora any more than I already did, but as I learned from my husband, love is infinite. My love for Zamora kept growing with the sense of community, the excitement, the beauty, and the deliciousness. 

Below, highlights of a mind-blowing week in pictures (click the F icons to go to the original posts) and videos (click play), and to conclude, a tempting look at some of the special foods of Zamoran Holy Week. As you'll see in the photos and videos, much of it has a strong medieval flair, so even though it happened this week, I'm counting it as a time-travel experience and one of Zamora's medieval treasures.

March 22 - Passion Thursday




March 23 - Friday of Sorrows


The first full, dressed up procession of Holy Week on the Friday of Sorrows takes the Cristo del Espiritu Santo, which is the oldest image to be taken out in procession, from the thirteenth century,  and therefore my favorite, from Espiritu Santo to the Cathedral and back again. Scroll to 15:45 to hear the wonderful chorus!



March 24 - Passion Saturday



March 25 - Palm Sunday




March 26 - Holy Monday




Elsewhere in Zamora, possibly the best vocal experience of Holy Week, the Brotherhood of the Christ of the Good Death sings "Jerusalem, Jerusalem" in the Plaza de Santa Lucia on Holy Monday night. Forward to -19:31 to listen.



March 27- Holy Tuesday



Elsewhere on Holy Tuesday: Christ of the Via Crucis and Our Lady of Esperanza meet and say farewell before continuing to their separate churches. Scroll to -11:11 for the big action.


March 28 - Holy Wednesday




March 29 - Holy Thursday




March 30 - Holy Friday




March 31 - Holy Saturday



April 1 - Easter Sunday




How can anyone keep going like this for more than a week? The answer lies at least partly in the food of Holy Week.

These beauties are aceitadas, roughly translated as "oilies." Crisp and toasty, a beautiful balance of sweet and hearty, with the welcome presence of the taste of olive oil, somehow never overwhelming, I had these cookies at school before vacation, at a friend's house while not gawking from the balcony, and finally bought this box at La Tahona del Pan on Amargura Street.

For years, I'd been hearing about torrijas, a special Easter food Spanish people look forward to all year. I looked all over Zamora for a bar or a bakery that could make them for me, but ended up having to use a recipe and make them at home. It's not a service-industry food. Easter Sunday, I had my special bread and the other ingredients, and drum roll please...

They're pretty much French toast. This bread had cinnamon and lemon juice already. I soaked the slices in milk (probably a way to moisten old, hard Spanish loaves), then bathed them in egg, and fried them up with olive oil, as you do in Spain, and they turned out delightful. Lots of pots and pans to wash for breakfast, though.

Finally, how does a Brother or Sister of the Congregation of Jesus the Nazarene hold up for six or seven hours of procession on the morning of Holy Friday starting at 5 a.m.? By taking a break at the Avenue of the Three Crosses that includes sopa de ajo (my favorite, wonderfully simple Castilian garlic soup) and something called dos y pingada, which sounds a lot like a cuss word. The dos are two eggs, and the pingada is rustic toasted bread and at least three different kinds of pork, to include ham, loin steak, chorizo, bacon, anything you can think of, depending on which restaurant you end up at. Everyone, even people not in that brotherhood, likes to get in on the dos y pingada action around Easter.

Here is the dos y pingada I ended up with at Cafe Brasilia on the Avenue of the Three Crosses: eggs, toast, ham, loin, and morcilla (black pudding). As emotionally drained as I was after watching the final procession on Easter Sunday, after eating this dish, I could've kept going for another week. 

I will never forget my first Holy Week. Thanks for coming along with me! 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Zamora's Medieval Treasures: Holy Week

The monument to the Merlú (an important Holy Week rite)
welcomes visitors to Zamora's Plaza Mayor.
Photo 2017 Jessica Knauss 
I was raised in the American secular/Protestant tradition, so when Spanish people ask me about Easter, I tell them it's a single day when we bite the ears off chocolate rabbits. (I briefly lament how unimportant Easter has become in Awash in Talent, Part III.) On the other hand, when I ask Zamorans about Easter, they usually launch into thirty minutes to an hour of rapturous memories and excitement for this year's processions, ceremonies, and music with strong recommendations about which events not to miss for any reason.

Zamorans participate in a mock funeral procession for the Burial of the
Sardine, Ash Wednesday. Absurdity to kick off Lent.
Photo 2018 Jessica Knauss 
This is the first time I will be in Spain for all of Semana Santa (Holy Week). (Yes, Easter lasts a lot longer than one day in Spain.) I was laid low by what I hope is my final bad cold of the year during Carnival, though I was able to see the Burial of the Sardine, the final nuttiness before the strict sobriety of Lent.

The Brotherhood of the Holy Burial was
founded in 1593.
Photo 2017 Jessica Knauss 
Honestly, Lent in Zamora hasn't seemed that dreary. It's at least partially because everyone's so stinkin' excited about Holy Week! I had to find out more about the origin and meaning of these celebrations! My research included talking to Zamorans, library books that are, for the most part, poems in praise of Holy Week, and a visit to the Holy Week Museum. This is how beloved this "week" is: Holy Week lasts more than one week! It begins on the Thursday before Palm Sunday, known as Passion Thursday, and continues through Easter, and I've even had some inklings that it might go on through the Monday or Tuesday after.

Processional crosses give me a strong medieval vibe.
All photos in the Holy Week Museum 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
In the Middle Ages, the Church sought out ways to get the message to the lay population. How could regular people take part in a text-based religion when hardly any of them could read? In northern Europe, Passion Plays and Mystery Plays took hold because the people put themselves in the holy roles. These traditions survived the Protestant Reformation because there are no images involved, only flesh-and-blood people acting as obvious proxies.

Redención by famous float sculptor Mariano Benlliure, 1931
Holy Week Museum 
In Spain, lay people get involved in reenacting scripture using the images--sculptures and crosses--in their churches. The first evidence we have of Holy Week in Zamora comes from a thirteenth-century text written by Alfonso X's brother indicating that Zamorans had a tradition of "making presentation of Our Lord" on Palm Sunday. What does this mean? It's likely they were already doing what they did yesterday, which was this year's Palm Sunday: carrying a beloved statue of Christ through the streets of Zamora. The first such processions might have been as simple as some of the iconography we see in Alfonso X's Cantigas de Santa María: a church official carrying a small image with few adornments, surrounded by clerics and laity, probably singing and dancing.

Christ of the Lagoon, 16th century
Holy Week Museum 
Enthusiasm spread rapidly, and by the fourteenth century, the first cofradías (brotherhoods) were founded. These societies, first formed according to medieval guild occupations, are associated with a church, or more specifically with one of a church's images. On the appropriate day of Holy Week, according to whether they have a Virgin of Sorrows, a Crucifixion, or any number of other saints or scenes, it's the brotherhood's responsibility to take their image out in procession, normally on an elaborate float. The oldest such float I saw in the Holy Week Museum is from 1522.


Gethsemane with realistic leaves that rustle in the breeze
Holy Week Museum
During the busiest days, several brotherhoods can undertake multiple processions at any and all times of day. Most processions leave from their home churches, but some leave from the Holy Week Museum where the float is on display.

The Last Supper, 20th century
Holy Week Museum 
The floats, mobile works of art, can portray any and all Biblical scenes having to do with the Passion, and can have anywhere from a single half-sized statue to a crowded life-sized Crucifixion with thieves, Romans, and Mary Magdalene, to a Last Supper complete with table settings for thirteen. There is usually plenty of room on the sides of the float for candle holders and bouquets of fresh flowers. Some floats have evolved special features such as crucified Christs with articulated arms so that they can be taken from the cross and placed in a tomb. The floats must balance decorative exuberance with the width of the church door and the narrowest street on their processional routes as well as weight distribution.

Underneath the float, neck pads for the float bearers
Holy Week Museum 
Weight distribution is important because the floats are carried on the necks of the brothers (cofrades--women can do it, too, in some brotherhoods). The role of float bearer involves physical strength and sacrifice as well as anonymity because the most spectators will see during the procession are their well-shined shoes.

My WTF face upon discovering that some floats travel on wheels
Holy Week Museum 
Given what I know about float bearers, and the penitent interpretation I gave them, I was disappointed to find, in the Holy Week Museum, that some floats move along on wheels.

The costume of each brotherhood stands next to its float in
the Holy Week Museum. 
There are always more brotherhood members outside the float to accompany it along the route. Here we come to the most potentially disturbing sights of Holy Week. While one Zamoran surmised that because the images are often covered in gore, they might frighten children from other countries such as the United States, I think it's the cloaks and headdresses the members wear that are sure to strike the wrong note with an unprepared American.

Costume of the Brotherhood of the True Cross
Holy Week Museum 
The idea behind the brotherhood costumes was that the members are marching in penitence. If people in the street could see who they were, it would be like bragging, literally taking a "holier than thou" attitude. Therefore, many of the brotherhoods use capes to cover recognizable clothing, and a hood that includes a cone to disguise the wearer's height. A certain radical group in the United States understood the advantages of anonymity as they carried out their acts of violence and hatred and appropriated the costume without permission. Holy Week celebrants all over Spain don't have to change their traditional costume because one notorious group in a foreign country uses it for evil. Even knowing all that, some of the costumes are hard to get used to.

This brotherhood's costume is based on shepherds' cloaks.
Holy Week Museum 
On the other hand, some brotherhoods use cloaks derived from their original occupations in the Middle Ages and early modern times. They often have intricate embroidery, and anyone could say they're gorgeous.

Holy Week Museum
Some special roles in the procession, such as carrying certain crosses, are so desirable that a brotherhood member must put his name down before he's even taken first communion and might be allowed to fulfill that role when he's in his forties or fifties.

Holy Week Museum 
These traditions appear to have survived intact since the thirteenth century. However, Holy Week fell into neglect during the nineteenth century because of a statewide expropriation of Church possessions. It made a spectacular comeback at the end of the nineteenth century because of organizations like Zamora's Pro-Holy Week Society. This society runs the Holy Week Museum and provides all kinds of other support for Zamora's most convivial week of the year.

Veronica at the Holy Week Museum 
King Felipe II (a serious dude who reigned 1556-1598) admonished the Bishop of Zamora against the way Holy Week was being carried out at the time: "There is great disorder in the churches during processions and young people go about with too much ease and disrespect... At the temple doors, in the streets and plazas where most people gather, they spread out delicacies on boards to break the fast... When they come to watch the night processions, some take advantage of the dark to commit dissolute evils, so that these are the days when God is most offended."

A shop displays its Holy Week wares. Note the folding seat
for when you're waiting hours and hours for a procession to come by.
Photo 2018 Jessica Knauss
In spite of the royal warning, and its modern somber appearance, this spirit of fun has carried through to present day Holy Week. Every Zamoran I spoke with thought of it as a time to get together with friends they've had since forever to eat, drink, sing, and have a lot of fun. My anecdotal evidence indicates that a majority hardly treats it as a religious event at all.

Buy your kiwis and get the scoop
on Holy Week happenings.
Photo 2018 Jessica Knauss 
Hundreds of years ago, the Church was highly successful in getting the lay public involved in Easter. Holy Week turned abstract concepts into tangible acts people could witness with their own eyes and even participate in. One solid sociological theory suggests that community is built through shared ritual. Even if it's lost most of its religious significance, these community bonds are stronger than ever after centuries of wild enthusiasm for these group efforts.

Another shop displays its Holy Week wares.
Photo 2018 Jessica Knauss
The most touching phenomenon I've discovered about Holy Week in Zamora (declared international touristic interest in 1986, UNESCO world immaterial cultural heritage in 2015) again has to do with its many brotherhoods. In other cities, rivalries spring up between brotherhoods and tint the "week" with a competitive (in my mind, negative) streak. In Zamora, no such rivalries exist. Many people are members of multiple brotherhoods. This would be impossible anywhere else, I'm convinced. I'm so proud to be in Zamora for Holy Week. It's sure to be unforgettable.

Recruitment poster for one brotherhood
at a Zamora bus stop
Photo 2018 Jessica Knauss 
Happy Easter!


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Most Romantic City

Boston from Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge
Photo 2009 Jessica Knauss 
In 2008, my future husband, Stanley, was living in Boise, Idaho. The Universe arranged it so that his job required him to fly in and stay in a hotel in Boston four days a week. I was living in a Boston suburb and offering guided tours of my favorite American city.

2009 Jessica Knauss 
On February 13, 2008, ten years ago today, under a cold rain, Boston became the most romantic city in the world when I met the man who would quickly reveal himself as the love of my life. 

The photo includes some of the Fenway, Fenway Park, Comm Ave with
the Citgo Sign and Boston University, and some of the Charles.
2008 Jessica Knauss 
Here's to you, Boston, city of history, city of heavy accents, city of terrible drivers, city of true love. 

The Green Line is the United States' first subway.
2009 Jessica Knauss 

The teapot at Government Center really steams!
2009 Jessica Knauss 

The 'aba (Boston Harbor)
2009 Jessica Knauss 

At the De Cordova Sculpture Park
2009 Jessica Knauss 

On our wedding day with Boston Common, the Hancock Tower, and
Boston Harbor visible from the Top of the Hub. 
Stanley is gone. He left the physical world a year and a half ago. That's nothing in Boston, founded in 1630, 388 years ago. And 388 years can't hope to compare to how long our love will last. Even though only one of us is left, our love remains unbounded.