Thursday, 23 July 2009

17th Century Funeral Practices

Funeral Procession of Charles I

Undertaking as a profession was virtually unknown in Europe before the 17th century. Some European cities demanded funerals simply in the name of religion, while in others it was the name of sanitation, and many funeral customs were based on pagan rituals.

• Mourning clothes were worn as a disguise so that returning spirits would fail to recognize mourners and thus confused, overlook them.
• Pagan tribes believed that the spirit of the deceased escaped through the mouth. They would often hold the mouth and nose of a sick person shut, hoping to retain the spirits and delay death. This may often have had the opposite effect.
• Wakes originated from the custom of keeping watch over the deceased in the hope that life would return.
• Feasting after a funeral began as offerings of food being made to appease spirits after a death.
• The ringing of bells and lighting of candles is to protect the living from returning spirits.
• The firing of a rifle volley over the deceased mirrors the tribal practice of throwing spears into the air to ward off spirits hovering over the deceased.
• Originally, holy water was sprinkled on the body to protect it from the demons.
• Floral offerings were originally intended to gain favour with the spirit of the deceased.

In the 17th Century, a passing bell was rung for the dead or dying: Nine rings for a man, six rings for a woman and three rings for a child - followed by one ring for each year of the deceased life.

A ‘searcher’, a person of ‘suitable moral standing’, was summoned to decide the cause of death. As they were not qualified in medicine, many suspicious deaths must have gone unnoticed. Details, including the cause of death, were recorded in the Bills of Mortality published for public record. Post Mortems were considered taboo. As it was believed little could be determined from them and to cut up a body was merely to satisfy the morbid interests of physicians, who were often equally suspect.

The house where the deceased lay until the funeral was draped with heavy black mourning cloths. All windows, mirrors, even bowls of water, were covered to prevent reflective surfaces from attracting the spirit of the dead and keeping him earthbound. Jewellery was hidden away and non shiny fabrics used for mourning clothes.

In 1660, King Charles II passed a law intending to promote the English wool trade that decreed all persons had to be buried in 'shifts, shrouds and winding sheets' made of woollen material, rather than linen, and free from ‘Flax, Hemp, Silk, Hair, Gold or Silver or other than what is made of Sheep’s Wool’. This Act, strengthened in 1678, remained on the statute books until 1815, although the very wealthy would prefer to pay the £5.00 for default as it was considered ill-bred to ‘bury in flannel’. Most people would buy highly taxed Irish linen instead. The shroud or winding sheet had to be made in one piece of material, tied and knotted at the head and feet, but not sewn.

Most coffins were of black painted oak, the interior covered with a thick layer of bran to soak up bodily fluids and to reduce the smell, especially in the summer. The deceased would lay in an open coffin, in a black draped room lit by candles.
Embalming was sometimes carried out, but this wasn’t common practice and mostly among the rich. In the case of Queen Mary II, who died of smallpox on Christmas Eve 1694, at the age of 32, this would have been necessary as she wasn’t interred in Westminster Abbey until March 6th 1695.

Funeral Cards to inform friends and relatives of the time and place of the funeral were sent out. Made of pasteboard with black edges, they bore illustrations of gravestones, skeletons and other gruesome images. In the 17th Century, this was not intended to be morbid or grotesque, but to remind the living that this is what mankind comes to, and that death was a serious business.

Wealthier families distributed mourning rings among friends and family, bearing the name of the deceased and the date of death engraved on them. Worn for up to a year after the death, these were usually fashioned from black enamel for the men and gold with a black band for the ladies.

On a mourning ring crafted as a memento of the Martyr King, Charles I, the inscription says, ’prepared be to follow me’.

Silk crepe scarves were handed out to the gentlemen to be worn on their hatbands for weeks after the funeral. Depending on the closeness of the deceased, some would tie these to their upper arms after a certain time had passed.

All members of a gentleman’s household, including the servants, were expected to wear full mourning for at least three months, bought at the expense of the deceased’s family. Wives could change into purple and white after six months, but some liked to wait for a year.


The funeral party walked behind a cart bearing the coffin to the burial site. Even Queen Mary's mourners walked to the Abbey, apparently an uncomfortable journey as there was snow on the ground and Westminster Abbey was unheated.

The ceremony was often carried out at night, supposedly to emphasise the seriousness of death, with the carrying of hundreds of torches. This also became an arena for the display of wealth, the larger the cortege and the more torches they had to line the walk, the richer the family.

Funeral accoutrements were very expensive and usually hired. A pall for the coffin, heavy silver candlesticks, the ornaments on the cart, even the handles on the coffin were rarely bought. Some of the torchbearers were not family at all, but security guards hired to protect these expensive items, there being a roaring trade in stolen palls and candlesticks.

If the family could afford it, the deceased had their own burial plot, even a tomb where other family members lay. In London cemeteries, space was at a premium and multiple burials were not uncommon. When the multiple plot was full, the grave would be covered and a new plot opened. Guards would be employed to ensure no one dug up a newly buried coffin to steal the deceased’s jewellery and clothes.

The tradition of returning to the deceased’s home for refreshment is an old one, although in the 17th Century this was for ‘wine and biscuits’. As with modern wakes, these sometimes deteriorated into drunken brawls when mourners imbibed too much of the free spirits on offer.

Acknowledgements to Maureen Waller and her book, 1700-Scenes of London Life

Monday, 13 July 2009


"To choose a good book, look in an inquisitor’s prohibited list. ~John Aikin"

My apologies for having missed my blog last month. My excuse is that I was travelling – enjoying one of our trips to the UK and France, Belgium and Amsterdam conducted at break neck speed with a husband who fancies himself as a competitor on the GREATEST RACE.
Grumbling aside, despite the flying nature of our travelling, it is quite extraordinary what we manage to discover on our travels and one little gem that stood out for me on this trip was the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp. This little treasure is a museum of books and printing (ah yes I can see a few eyes rolling) but far from being a dry museum of glass boxes, it is a world heritage site because the museum is in fact the actual home and printing works of the Plantin-Moretus family and is exactly as it was in the late sixteenth/seventeenth century.
The printing house was founded in 1555 by a Frenchman, Christoffel Plantin, who by 1575 was running a thriving business employee 70 people and 15 printing presses (two of the oldest printing presses in the world are still extant in the museum). The business was inherited by his son-in-law Jan Moretus and the business continued in the family for the next three centuries. The house printed not only in Latin but also in Greek, Hebrew and other languages, producing itself a bible in three languages (Greek, Hebrew and Latin).
As a home, it is a fine example of a seventeenth century wealthy businessman’s home. Many of the rooms are lined with gilded leather – a sort of seventeenth century wall paper, only affordable by the most wealthy. By far the most impressive part was the library – particularly for the seventeenth century, it is a phenomenal collection.

But the real interest of the museum is in the process (the craft) of producing a book. The original letter dies (and the business actually made its own dies) still in their wooden racks are to be seen. The wide range of letters and fonts (many still used today such as Garamond) in languages such as Ancient Greek and Arabic – in sizes from almost microscopic to full size makes you realise the skill of the typesetters who had to set the forms for the printing press. The illustrations were generally done by copper plating (a process very well demonstrated at another museum we visited – the Rembrandt Museum in Amsterdam). Many of the illustrations were done by Balthasar Moretus’ great friend and fellow resident of Antwerp – John Paul Rubens (whose paintings hang on the walls of the house and whose own house and studio can be visited in Antwerp).

To print a page, the form had to be individually inked and then put in the press, one sheet at a time. In another part of the house at two huge desks, the editors sat, red pens in hand. These men were not just editing. To do their job well they were language scholars and academics. The editing marks are the same as those used today by modern editors. Once the pages had been edited, the book could be printed, page after individual page. These were then wrapped and taken down to the shop to be sold in loose leaf form. If you wanted your book bound then you went to a book binder, a different trade all together.
When seen as an entire process, I came to realise why even after the invention of printing, books were so expensive and so valued. To possess a library even approaching the size of the one owned by the Moretus family, required enormous wealth. As a writer and a lover of books, it made me appreciate the importance placed on the printed word and the power of those words.
And the reason for the quote at the beginning of this piece? In a corner of the museum there is the Inquisitors list of banned books which included several printed by the Plantin-Moretus press. They nearly came undone, had it not been for some very quick work by Jan Moretus in securing the Catholic Church’s contracts!
If you find yourself in Antwerp with nothing to do in the afternoon, don’t miss this wonderful museum and tribute to the art of creating a book!

Click here For more pictures from this wonderful museum

Monday, 6 July 2009

Virginia's Other Cash Crop

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons
In the early 1600s, the colony of Virginia was on the verge of failing to make a profit until John Rolfe married Pocahontas to gain the secret of growing tobacco. But another important crop, often overlooked in history books, is a plant that has gained a bad reputation in modern times--hemp.

In 1611, Sir Thomas Dale introduced hemp to Virginia. The English navy depended on the crop, but the demand was far greater than the country was able to produce. Hemp was used for paper, cordage, fiber for linen, and of course, medicinal uses. The First Virginia Assembly encouraged colonists to grow hemp, and they received favorable reports from England on the superiority of the colony's crop.

The early years were hampered by shortage of seed and lack of skilled labor to separate the fiber from the woody part of the stalks to make cordage. In 1646, the Virginia Assembly commissioned houses to be built where poor children were taught to card, knit, and spin, thus helping the manufacture of linen. In 1665, the removal of import duties to England stimulated production further.

Less than ten years later, laws were enacted for each county to purchase and distribute hemp seed. Failure to do so resulted in fines. In spite of these encouragements, during the 17th century, hemp production tended to remain limited to self-sufficient farms, never really competing with tobacco until well into the 18th century, where the practice became so common that even founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp.

Hemp's importance went beyond cordage and fiber. Both industrial hemp and what's known today as marijuana are classified as Cannabis sativa, a species with hundreds of varieties. According to some sources, many varieties that were grown in North America have been lost. The East Indian variety (marijuana) of hemp was known as "bangue" in the 17th century from the Hindi word "bhang."

Culpeper's Complete Herbal
, first published in 1653, states that hemp, "is so well known to every good housewife in the country, that I shall not need to write any description of it." Besides pain relief, Culpeper advised the different portions of the plant to be used for various ailments, such as jaundice, digestive disorders, killing worms, flushing earwigs from the ear canal, and burns.

While hemp has become much maligned in recent years, Virginians of the 17th and 18th centuries held no reservations for making use of its quality fiber or legitimate medical uses.

Kim Murphy


Herndon, George Melvin, "The story of hemp in colonial Virginia." Doctor of Philosophy dissertation, University of Virginia, 1959.

Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper's Complete Herbal.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The importance of horses

One of the many things I love about Paulette Jiles's historical novels — Enemy Women and The Color of Lightning are the two I've read — is that horses play such an important role. Horses are always so present ... as was the case in the past. It is one of the reasons I'm attracted to history: I love horses (I have the privilege of sharing my life with a now elderly Thoroughbred), and I long to experience a world that was "peopled" by horses.

Although horses are no longer intrinsic to our day-to-day lives, they are still a part of our vocabulary. We "keep pace," "hit our stride," "get off on the wrong foot," "kick up our heels" and "feel our oats."

I'm surprised how little has been written about the historical horse culture, which is one reason I went to some trouble to find The Culture of the Horse: Status, Discipline, and Identity in the Early Modern World, a collection of academic essays edited by Karen Rabet and Treva J. Tucker (whom I consulted while researching Mistress of the Sun).

In the 16th century, a new type of horseback riding came into being. In Italy, the rediscovery of Xenophon's The Art of Horsemanship triggered a horsemanship renaissance. Schools teaching what we now call dressage opened in Italy, attracting noblemen from all over Europe.

Similar schools opened in other countries, and by the end of the century, the French could fairly claim to be in the forefront of the style of riding that came to be known as haute école.

Much of the impetus for this development was due to the change in warfare. With the advent of gun-bearing infantry and the mounted pistoleer, traditional fighting in armor became impractical. With the added problem of a peace treaty in 1598, French noblemen — who were defined as calvary warriorswere suddenly without a job, much less an identity.

By degrees, then (of course), the definition of a nobleman expanded to include a man's qualities and abilities, the most important of which was grazia — or grace. High on this list was grace on horseback, men who had mastered this new riding style. Nobility was no longer proved on a battlefield, but in demonstrating a profound unity with a horse.


Some other wonderful books on this subject:

Pluvinel, Antoine de. The Maneige Royal. J A Allen & Co Ltd; London; 1989. This is a beautifully illustrated large-format book.

Dent, Anthony. Horses in Shakespeare's England. J A Allen; London; 1987. This is a wonderful book with lots of practical details.

Xenophon. The Art of Horsemanship. Where it all began.