Sunday, 4 January 2015

Stephen's Light - E M Almedingen

E M Almedingen was born and privately educated in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), Russia.  She asked permission to leave the country and  arrived in London in 1923 with sixpence in her pocket.  She was a medieval scholar, and I found this at a book warehouse for £1.  Love those serandipidous finds!
 Stephen's Light: E. M. Almedingen
  If you know nothing of the Hansiatic League (or Hansa), here's a tiny bit of information from Wikipedia:  The League was a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns that dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe. It stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland during the Late Middle Ages and early modern period (c. 13th to 17th centuries).
The League was created to protect economic interests and diplomatic privileges in the cities and countries and along the trade routes the merchants visited. The Hanseatic cities had their own legal system and furnished their own armies for mutual protection and aid.

Sabrina is the only child of a Hansa merchant, a dealer in cloth, in Europe  at the time of the Wars of the Roses in England.  His house (the Stephen's Light of the title) is the biggest in the city, for it also includes the "shop" -although that is really a room for trading, rather than the shop as we know it today. Sabrina has been educated by nuns, and is now betrothed to a travelling trader from the French town of Troyes - the betrothal arranged by her father.  Just two weeks before the marriage is due to take place, he absconds with a young nun from the convent across the water - the very convent where Sabrina was educated.

Without marriage to look forward to, the only other place for an unmarried daughter is the convent, except the nuns turn down her father's request to take his daughter (the family are not nobility, merely trade), and so Sabrina asks her father if she may learn the family business instead.  Grudgingly it seems, he agrees, to the confusion of her mother who cannot contemplate the girl sitting in the counting house alongside her father.  But it is not long before she shows her true mettle, wheeling and dealing for better prices with the best of them.  Meanwhile, on the island across the water, the internal politics of the nuns proves a real eye opener!  Convents at that time in that part of the world were peopled by rich women, unmarried women who were sisters and daughters of titled persons, who brought huge dowrys with them.  They dressed in expensive cloth, they had their own lapdogs, they wore religous but huge stone-studded jewelry, and they were constantly using the law to up their income by suing for one reason or another any one they thought had slighted them.  They ate better than the peasantry too, rich foods as befit their station.  Interesting concept.

Sabrina does learn the business, and when her father dies suddenly, after a stroke at breakfast one day, she finds herself having to call on inner strengths and take on the business completely,  Something new to the town and the League; but not altogether new, as Hansa members had certainly heard of women merchants in the City of Bristol, England, including one Alice Chester, who with her son had done so well that she had a huge shop with a hall above it.  How she digs deep to stop the city rabble attacking the nuns on the island, and how she comes to terms with her life makes a fascinating historical novel - written back in the 1950s to suit young adults.  It is rather old fashioned, but worth the reading for all that.