Sunday, 24 April 2011

In praise of maids

The main character of the novel I'm writing now is relatively unknown. She was the daughter of a theatrical star and a maid to Madame de Montespan, the Sun King's mistress (the woman we all love to hate).

As part of her duties, she was required to have sex with the King when Montespan was out of sorts.

This is not one of the duties mentioned in The compleat servant-maid, a 17th century book by Hannah Woolley on the work of maids, and dedicated to "all young maidens."

I just obtained this invaluable guide for maid of all sorts: the Waiting-Gentlewoman, House-keeper, Chamber-Maid, Wet and Dry Nurses, House Maids (in "Great Houses"), Cook-Maids, Scullery-Maids, Laundry-Maids and Dairy-Maids.

Clearly: a lot of maids. "And they all hated me," claimed my main character Claude, defending herself against accusations of murder and other indecencies.

I adore leafing through guides of this sort; one learns so much:
Do not put any Soap on your Tiffany...
To clean Points and Laces: Take white Bread of half a Day old, and cut it in the middle, and pare the Crust round the Edge, so that you may not damage your Point or Lace when you rube them...

Plus essential recipes for taking away freckles and making teeth white "when very foul or black."

But nothing about sleeping with your employer's lover ... not one word. Much less what to do when you bear him a child or two. Tant pis. 

{Painting: Madame de Montespan in her chateau at Clagny, near Versailles.}

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Henry Spelman

In 1609, Henry Spelman, a boy of fourteen, sailed from his home in England to Jamestown. Within two weeks of his arrival, he sailed up the James River with John Smith where his indenture was sold to the paramount chief Powhatan. Basically, Henry's job was to learn the Algonquian language so that he could serve as an interpreter. Such exchanges were not uncommon, and the young boys served as messengers between the two cultures.

In the beginning, Henry was treated well until relations between the Powhatan people and the English disintegrated. A short time later, Henry returned to Jamestown only to be caught in the midst of the "Starving Time." When several Natives brought venison to the fort, Thomas Savage, another English boy interpreter, accompanied them.

Due to lack of food in the colony, Henry was ready to return to the Indians and went with Thomas. He took a hatchet and some copper, a metal highly valued among the Powhatan, and gave them to the paramount chief. The offering eased tensions, and Henry spent about a year and a half among the Natives.

When a local chief of the Patawomeck tribe visited the pararmount chief, Henry, Thomas, and another boy by the name of Samuel, returned with him, without informing Powhatan they were leaving. Thomas had second thoughts and returned, but Powhatan sent a message that Henry and Samuel were also to return. In the dispute, Samuel was killed, and Henry sought refuge among the Patawomeck, living among them for another year as a special guest.

In 1610, Captain Samuel Argall found Henry living with the Patawomeck. With Henry's knowledge of the language and culture, he helped the English and Indians trade. Later, Captain Argall kidnapped Pocahontas, Powhatan's favorite daughter. After she married John Rolfe, there was peace for several years. During this time, Henry served as an interpreter and freely mixed between the cultures.

Over the years, Henry made several trips to England. He rose to the rank of captain and married a Patawomeck woman. In 1619, Samuel Argall had risen to the rank of governor, and another interpreter accused Henry of speaking badly about him to then paramount chief Opechancanough. If he had been found guilty of treason, he would have been executed. Instead, he was convicted of a lesser crime and was sentenced to serve the governor as an interpreter for seven years.

In 1622, Opechancanough led an organized attack against the English, killing many of the colonists. In the aftermath, Henry attempted to renew an English alliance with the Patawomeck, but a year later when he agreed to take a group of men to trade for corn, in the area of present day Washington, D.C., his party was attacked by a group of Anacostan Indians. According to Chief Robert Green, of the modern day Patawomeck tribe, Henry had been mistaken for a Patawomeck himself. Henry's manuscript Relation of Virginia is the only written account by an Englishman who spent a great length of time living with Indians.

Kim Murphy

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Plague Doctors [Dottore De La Peste]

Introduced by 17th Century French doctors, this garb was used all over Europe during outbreaks of the plague. One belief was that the disease was spread by birds, and the bird-like masks could draw the plague away from the patient and onto the doctor’s clothes, which in turn protected him from the 'bad air'.

The beaked mask was made from bronze, its tip  filled with medicinal and aromatic herbs to ‘cleanse’ the bad air and cover up the stench of death and the  ruptured buboes. The doctor breathed through two small nose holes in the mask and placed garlic in his mouth and incense in his nose and ears.

The full-length gown was made out of thick material which was then covered with wax, with leather breeches, gloves and full length boots. Underneath the cloak, the doctor wore an elaborately prepared embroidered smock soaked in exotic preservative liqueurs, camphor oil and wax. Again, the idea was to isolate the doctor's body from plague-causing bad air. He also wore a wide brimmed leather hat which identified his status and carried a long staff to drive away anyone who came too close and help him communicate with the public as the elaborate headgear made speaking difficult, and the circles of glass or crystal set in the mask to protect the doctor’s eyes impeded their sight.

Caused by a bacillus called Yersinia pestis, symptoms of the plague are fever and swollen lymph nodes that appear in the armpit and groin. Contracted by either flea bites from carriers or inhaling airborne droplets containing the bacteria ejected by the victim in a cough or a sneeze. Bacteria can also enter through mucous membranes in the facial area.

Despite its macabre appearance, the clothing probably gave reasonable protection, and with herbs obstructing the breathing holes, the doctor limited his chances of exposure to airborne droplets containing the plague bacillus.

Plague bacillus could only survive for a short time outside the host, so there was a good chance the doctor would not become infected, although this protective shield was not sealed around the ankles, so did not keep out fleas.

The specter-like appearance of the costume was intentional, designed to communicate hopelessness. In a time when there when few people could read, the costume sent a powerful message: "Stay in your homes. There is plague in your neighbourhood. You may be dead in a few days."

Types of Plague

Bubonic: is the most common. A flea bite causes 'buboes', large, inflamed and painful swellings in the lymph glands of the groin, armpits or neck. 60% of those infected died.
Septicaemic: Caused directly by flea bites, the bacilli entered the bloodstream directly and was invariably fatal. Death occurs within 24 hours.
Pneumonic: The most deadly and usually fatal. It does not require flea bites to spread, but the bacilli reach the lungs causing severe pneumonia. The bacilli are present in water droplets spread by coughs and on clothing and is thus highly contagious. Death occurs within 3 or 4 days.
In all three types, internal bleeding causes large bruises to appear on the skin – hence the plague's name in the 14th century, the Black Death.

The London Plague of 1665

Plague first appeared in Britain in 1348, and the islands were never totally free of the disease. In 1663, it ravaged Holland, and in 1665, London saw its first case in St Giles-in-the-Fields in April. By the end of May, 11 people had been infected. The summer was unseasonably hot and infection spread across the districts of Whitechapel, Westminster and Southwark.

An exodus began. The nobility left the city for their estates in the country, followed by the merchants, and the lawyers. The Inns of Court were deserted and most of the clergy suddenly decided they could best minister to their flocks from a distance. The College of Surgeons fled to the country, and the king and his court decamped to Salisbury. The poor, on the other hand, were forbidden to leave London. Seen as carriers of the disease, they were turned back at the boundaries.

By June, the roads were clogged with people desperate to escape London. The Lord Mayor responded by closing the gates to anyone who did not have a certificate of health: which became a currency more valuable than gold, and a thriving market in forgeries evolved.

The plague struck swiftly. Victims died within days, in agony from fevers and infected swellings. With no cure, drastic methods were used to contain it. ‘Plague Orders' decreed that victims should be shut into their houses and the doors were nailed shut and marked with a large red cross. Nurses were hired to take in food and carry out basic care, and guards were set on watch to make sure that the sick (or their families) did not escape.
Rescued From The Plague by Frank Topham

In several cases, they carefully lowered a noose over the guard's head from an attic window and hung him, allowing them to break through the flimsy wattle and daub walls to escape. ‘Searchers’ were bribed to state that an area was clear of plague and that bodies collected for that night were from another street. In this way houses were not boarded up and people could leave. Therefore, while the plague map of London showed areas relatively free of infection, they may not have been.

To protect themselves, the trapped populace sniffed herbs and nosegays to drive out the bad air, fasted and prayed, while apothecaries did a brisk trade in preventative potions and religious and magical amulets. The Privy Council closed inns and lodging houses, and markets were cancelled and street stalls banned. 40,000 dogs and 80,000 cats were slaughtered. This last move actually made things worse, as the plague-carrying rats were now free of predators. By the end of July, more than 1,000 Londoners were dying each week.

Londoners who managed to escape the city were shunned, and letters were treated as if they were poisonous; scraped, heated, soaked, aired, and pressed flat to eliminate "pestilential matter".

The death rate escalated to 6,000 per week in August, and not until February 1666 did King Charles II returned to the city. Official records of the time were patchy, but approximately 100,000 people perished in and around London.

A remnant of the Great Plague is the nursery rhyme ‘Ring-A-Ring-A-Roses’. The 'roses' refer to the red spots that appear over the buboes, and 'A-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down!' recalls the violent coughing and swift death that accompanies pneumonic plague.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Mary Frith: The Original Roaring Girl

Behind Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s sparkling stage comedy, The Roaring Girl, (ca 1607-1610), was a real woman, the notorious Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse—a cross-dressing, hard-drinking pickpocket, fence, and Queen of Misrule.

The vintner bet Moll £20 that she would not ride from Charing Cross to Shoreditch astraddle on horseback, in breeches and doublet, boots and spurs. The hoyden took him up in a moment, and added of her own devilry a trumpet and banner. She set out from Charing Cross bravely enough, and a trumpeter being an unwonted spectacle, the eyes of all the town were clapped upon her. Yet none knew her until she reached Bishopsgate, where an orange-wench set up the cry, `Moll Cutpurse on horseback!' Instantly the cavalier was surrounded by a noisy mob. Some would have torn her from the saddle for an imagined insult upon womanhood, others, more wisely minded, laughed at the prank with good-humoured merriment. Every minute the throng grew denser, and it had fared hardly with roystering Moll, had not a wedding and the arrest of a debtor presently distracted the gaping idlers. As the mob turned to gaze at the fresh wonder, she spurred her horse until she gained Newington by an unfrequented lane. There she waited until night should cover her progress to Shoreditch, and thus peacefully she returned home to lighten the vintner's pocket of twenty pounds.

-One of the many merry pranks attributed to Firth in Charles Whibley's A Book of Scoundrels.

Born in London in 1584 to a shoemaker and a housewife, Frith was an uncompromising tomboy who disdained feminine clothing. Instead she sported a doublet and men’s breeches. She smoked a pipe and swore like a sailor. The original Jacobean Roaring Girl, she ran with a rough crowd, aping the lifestyle of the traditional Roaring Boys, young men who caroused in taverns before going on the streets to brawl and engage in petty crime. In 1600, at the age of sixteen, she was first indicted for thievery, stealing 2s, 11d.

By 1610, her reputation had inspired not only Middleton and Dekker’s famous play but many other works, including John Day’s 1610 drama, The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside. These works sensationalised her scandalous behaviour. Men regarded women who habitually cross-dressed as sexually riotous and out of control. Yet Frith herself claimed to be uninterested in sex.

She did, however, revel in her notoriety. In 1611 she performed at the Fortune Theatre in an age where women on the stage were unheard of and female parts in plays were performed by boys in women’s clothing. Frith, as always, appeared in breeches and regaled her audience by singing bawdy songs while playing the lute. Later in that same year, she was arrested for indecent dress and accused of prostitution.

In February 1612, Frith was made to do penance for her evil living at Saint Paul’s Cross, an open air preaching cross on the grounds of the old Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. Before the crowd she wept copiously and appeared very penitent indeed, although John Chamberlain later observed in a letter that he thought she only wept on account of being “maudlin drunk, being discovered to have tippled three-quarters of sack.”

In 1614, Frith wed Lewknor Markham in what appeared to a marriage of convenience, but she gave no signs of settling down. By the 1620s, she was working as a fence and a pimp, procuring both young women for her male clients and strapping young men to service middle class wives.

In 1644, records show that she was released from Bethlem Hospital after being cured of insanity.

An apocryphal tale goes so far as to claim that during the English Civil War, she robbed and shot General Fairfax, then escaped the gallows by way of a 2000 pound bribe.

However, her actual recorded death seems the least exciting episode in her long and colourful life. In July 1659, she died of dropsy in Fleet Street, London.

Read her fabulously embroidered biography in Charles Whibley’s A Book of Scoundrels.