Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Sun King's mistress: guilty or innocent?

Was the Sun King's mistress—Madame de Montespan—guilty or innocent of using Black Magic? This is a debate that has been going on for centuries. 

 Jean Lemoine is a French historian I admire greatly. I read his Madame de Montespan et la Légende des Poisons (Madame de Montespan and the Legend of the Poisons) eagerly, anxious to know the historian's verdict regarding the guilt or innocence of the Sun King's infamous mistress, Madame de Montespan (Athénaïs). Was she guilty of dealings in Black Magic, Spanish Fly, infanticide

Lemoine's thesis, interestingly, is no (or at least, not entirely). He argues that people were encouraged by Louvois, the Minister of War, to embellish their testimonies against Athénaïs.

What had the King's mistress done to earn such scorn? 
As with so many things in the 17th century, it was all about status and family. Athénaïs had blocked Louvois's attempt to marry his daughter into her family. Worse, she then arranged for her nephew to marry a Colbert instead. In doing so, she had publically thrown her favour to Louvois's arch-rival. 
When it was discovered that people were being poisoned, King Louis XIV put Louvois in charge of prosecuting the guilty. In essence, Louvois was put in charge of a witch hunt. How coincidental that a number of those brought before the tribunal were on his personal black list. 
I'm a writer of historical fiction, and Louvois delights me—he's a perfect villain.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

A 19th-Century Hoyden

Fellow Hoyden, Alison Stuart, has written an excellent blog about "The Gallant She-Soldier." To add to it, I'm going to take a slight break from the 17th century because I recently found an incredible story of a 19th-century hoyden. Unfortunately, I can't even tell you her name because the reporter in the 1863 Missouri Democrat article withheld it to retain her privacy. He described her in typical Victorian style, "... large lustrous dark eye... ruddy and fresh looking..." But from there on out, he let her tell her own story.

Even before the American Civil War, her story was far from mundane. She lost her parents at a fairly young age, and at fourteen she was married to a member of a minstrel troupe. Widowed after eighteen months of marriage, she was supported by her two brothers. Then, the war broke out, and both of her brothers enlisted.

Not knowing what to do with herself, she grew restless. She traveled to Baltimore to be near her brothers and became a nurse, caring for the sick and wounded. Before long, she got tired of being on the receiving end of "insults and ungrateful returns" from some of the recovered soldiers. An idea came to her, and she asked her brothers' permission to "dress in male attire and join their regiment."

Her younger brother brought her to some "rough places" for her to learn how to act more like a man. No one noticed, and she enlisted as the major's orderly. Shortly after, the regiment was sent to New Orleans. Her younger brother was wounded in a skirmish and later died. She had no time for grief. In the second assault on Baton Rouge, she received a "severe sabre cut on the right arm. A ball grazed one of the lower limbs, and a number passed through my clothes."

As a result, the inevitable happened. The major of the regiment discovered her gender. During the war, if a female soldier was discovered after she had proven herself in battle, she was often allowed to stay. So it was for this woman.

For the most part, she lived as any other soldier, doing her job as best as she could. Another man learned her identity and attacked her in an "out of the way place." Her would-be rapist failed to realize that a female soldier could defend herself. She shot him. "I meant to disable his arm, but he stooped... the ball entered his face and found its way under his skull-cap." Instead of being angry at him, she tended him until he was out of danger. He sent her a written apology "in such a manner that I forgave him."

Although the article is unclear as to how long she remained in the regiment, she continued working for the major until he resigned. When she went home on furlough to Michigan, she had every intention of returning to her brother. Unfortunately before she could get back, he died from a fever.

Alone and uncertain what to do with herself, she had a few non-military adventures before enlisting once again. In a familiar job as a major's orderly in Rolla, Missouri, she met a young officer from Iowa where she fell "desperately in love." He had no clue of her true identity until she finally told him. "The result was that we engaged to be married this fall."

I salute this 19th-century Hoyden, and truly hope that she lived a long and happy life with her Iowa officer. And rest assure, next time, I'll return to blogging about the 17th century.

Kim Murphy

Sunday, 17 July 2011

The Smuggler Squire

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark—
Brandy for the Parson,
‘Baccy for the Clerk;
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie—
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Rudyard Kipling

During the English Civil War, a new tax on domestic consumption, excise, was levied by Parliament to pay for the war. By 1660, this applied to chocolate, coffee, tea, beer, cider and spirits. All exports of wool were forbidden to promote the English wool trade, the penalty being the gallows for transgressors, or the ‘owlers’ as they were called due to the fact they worked at night. In 1688, the excise was extended to include essentials such as salt, leather, and soap.

Collecting taxes was a cumbersome and inefficient process with a hostile population where communication and transport links were slow and inefficient, so whole communities tended to become involved in the 'free-trade', as it was euphemistically known. The farm labourer helped carry goods inland; the parson bought cheap tea and wine; the local squire lent his horses for transport; the wealthy merchant obtained cut-price supplies of silks and lace; and at the very pinnacle of society, members of the gentry conducted foreign business through intermediaries involved in smuggling. In the West Country, some houses would have a bottle bottom set in the plaster below a gable end of the house to indicate the owners were smugger sympathisers.

Whilst researching 17th Century smuggling in the Exeter area, I came across a character named Thomas Coumbe, known as The Smuggler Squire. Born in Devon in 1620, he married a tall, auburn haired beauty named Bridget, who was much younger than himself and reputed to be a descendant of Sir Ralph de Blanchminster, a Cornish Knight who followed Richard Coeur de Lion on the Third Crusade.

Coumbe became a church warden in 1666, subsequently gaining great wealth from his association with the smugglers at Bude, the chief entry points being Bude Haven and Widemouth on the North Devon coast, where signal flares from could be seen by the smugglers at sea.

Sand was used in these days to break up the heavy loam of Devon before the employment of artificial manures. The Smuggling Squire made a weekly trip between Tavistock and Exeter on his sand cart, in which he hid tobacco, silk, brandy and wine.

According to old deeds, he owned land from "Sea to Sea", i.e. from Exeter on the South Devon coast to Bude on the north, a distance of 53 miles. He had a number of illegitimate children, to whom no doubt some of the farms were bequeathed. Described as:

a brown, hard, stern looking man with one blue eye, over the other he wore a patch having lost an eye in a duel, and regularly dressed in leather with a *bob wig.

How could I resist adding this colourful man to my story?

* The most popular undress wig was the shorter, bob wig originally worn by tradesman who could not afford the longer wigs. Bob wigs were also the standard wig worn by Protestant clergymen of the 17th Century

Monday, 11 July 2011

Women, Witch Persecutions, and Social Change, Part 2

"The Evil Wife" by Israhel van Meckenem, 1440/1445-1503
A woman, encouraged by a demon, beats her husband with her distaff.


By the latter half of the 15th century, the feudal agrarian economy was beginning to crumble, while the capitalist market economy was growing more and more powerful, as did economic competition between men and women. Men active in the market economy tried to further their interests by simultaneously excluding women from many professions and trying to marginalize the domestic economy by claiming that home-produced goods were inferior to shop-produced goods. The guilds also began excluding women. Feeling their livelihood threatened by the competition with wealthy burghers, who set up their own industries and arranged for peasants to manufacture goods for them, male guild members struggled to initiate restrictions for women in the guilds. In 1494 in Cologne, for example, women were driven out of the harness-making guild for the first time. (Rauer 108).

In addition, traditionally "female" professions such as medicine were being taken over by men; male doctors had grown popular among the wealthy classes and were now also making inroads on medical care for the lower classes, and even encroaching on the very traditionally feminine occupation of midwifery (Ehrenreich and English 15-16--please note that the scholarship of this particular text has been called into question). Now we see the beginning of the sexual division of labor: women were beginning to be pushed into the ever-shrinking domestic economy, while men attempted to make the market economy their exclusive domain. This trend not only effected women on a purely economic level, but it also had a profound effect on women's social and sexual status. "The contraction and redefinition of women's productive and domestic roles was consistent with changes in the ideology of sexuality" (Merchant 150).

The Renaissance also ushered in a new ideal of bourgeois womanhood. The domestic sphere of the housewife and mother was idealized by Protestant intellectuals such as Martin Luther. "Gott hat Mann und Frau geschaffen, das Weib zum Mehren mit Kinder tragen; den Mann zum Naehren und Wehren," the Father of the Reformation wrote, advocating strict gender roles. "Im weltlichen politischen Regiment und Handeln antugen sie [Frauen] nichts, dazu sind Maenner geschaffen und geordnet von Gott, nicht die Weiber" (Rauer 112-113). (God created man and woman so that the woman would bear children and that the man would provide and defend. In worldly politics and trade, women should have no part--God created and ordained men for this, not women.) It must, however, be pointed out that Luther's own wife, the ex-nun Katharina von Bora was a very strong woman, beloved by her husband, who addressed her as "Herrin," or "my boss." She took charge of their household finances, farmed, raised and slaughtered livestock, and brewed vast quantities of beer to support Luther and his theology students and keep their household fed. She was the sole woman to take part in Luther's otherwise exclusively male "table talk" discussions.

Despite the positive recognition of woman as wife and mother that took place in the early Reformation, the misogynist ideology of the Catholic Church, such as Thomas Aquinas's contention that women are by nature morally weaker than men, remained in both Catholic and Protestant Churches. Also, Renaissance humanism pushed upper class women into the narrow role of being well-educated but submissive helpmates to their scholarly husbands. In 1499, Konrad Reutinger extolled his wife as the perfect Renaissance woman:

habe ich als Gattin ein Maedchen heimgefuehrt . . . schamhaft, bescheiden, schoen, etwas erfahren in den lateinischen Wissenschaften, die nie von ihren Hausgenossen streit- order schmaehsuechtig gesehen worden ist . . . . Daher weiss ich dem besten und groessten Gott jetzt und in Zukunft Dank, der meinem Studium eine Gefaehrtin und Anhaengerin gegeben hat, die mir aufs innigste vertraut ist. (Ibid 133)

(I've taken a girl home to be my wife [who is] modest, docile, beautiful, with some knowledge of Latin that those in her household have never come to view as overly ambitious or aggressive . . . . For this I thank the best and greatest God now and always, that he has given me for my studies a companion and follower in whom I trust absolutely.)

The Renaissance also saw the birth of a brand new bourgeois motherhood ideal. In the Middle Ages, mothers were expected to take care of their young children, but the mother-child bond was not as glorified to an almost sacred institution and be-all and end-all of a woman's existence as it would become in later centuries. Also, childhood, as we now view it, did not exist then; children were treated as small adults. Children of the lower classes who survived infant hunger and childhood diseases were sent away from their parents as soon as they were old enough to find work as servants in the wealthier estates (Hoher 20).

In the second half of the 15th century, the Catholic Church was losing its authority, under threat by serious challenges and dissent that would soon take the shape of the Reformation. During this divisive time, the Catholic Church expressed a new kind of religious aggression in enforcing morality and a new fascination with the devil. The hedonism that had reigned in medieval plebeian culture was no longer to be benignly overlooked. Wifely obedience in marriage began to be emphasized more and more. During this period, a new genre of literature originated: the Devil Book, which concentrated on explaining how certain activities, such as dancing and drinking, were sinful. The general effect of these publications was to imply that the devil was everywhere (Midelfort 69). The Catholic Church's attitude towards witchcraft also changed quite significantly--the ancient code saying it was sinful to believe in witches was reversed; now Church officials declared it sinful not to believe in them. They argued that a new sect had developed, which even the Fathers of the Church had been unable to foresee (Chamberlin 137). In 1484, Pope Innocent and two German Dominican friars, Kramer and Sprenger, issued a bull against witchcraft in response to rumors of widespread witch activity in Germany. This bull granted the use of inquisitorial techniques in witch hunting. Although the late 15th century was noted for religious intolerance, it was also characterized by a "new carelessness in law" (Ibid 69). The use of torture was revived with the re-establishment of Roman Law. This resulted in a considerable escalation in witch persecutions: "Torture allowed accusations to proliferate to epidemic proportions, because once a witch confessed under torture, she would be tortured again to divulge the names of her neighbors seen at the Sabbat" (Ruether 102). In 1486, Kramer and Sprenger's Malleus Maleficarum was published. This highly misogynistic witch-hunting manual established the belief that women are by nature more prone to witchcraft than men: "Femina comes from Fe [faith] and Minus, since she is ever weaker to hold the faith . . . . Therefore, a wicked woman is by her nature quicker to waver in her faith, and consequently quicker to abjure the faith, which is the root of witchcraft" (Malleus 44). The authors of the book were also obsessed with the idea that the unquenchable carnal lust of women drove them to the devil: "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable . . . . Wherefore for the sake of fulfilling their lusts they consort with devils . . . it is sufficiently clear that it is no matter for wonder that there are more women than men infected with the heresy of witchcraft (Ibid 43).

As we have seen, women were beginning to be perceived as a threat to the new economic and religious developments. One cannot imagine that they were at all cooperative with the new infringements on the relative economic and sexual freedom they had enjoyed in the past. They would not submit easily to these changes--they would resist--and their resistance would make them a threat to the interests of the new order. In the arts and media of this period, women were constantly portrayed as domineering, threatening, lustful, violent, and powerful: a force that must be quelled. Village festivals of this period often had floats featuring wives beating their husbands, hurling refuse and rocks at them, and verbally abusing them. Numerous art works of this era, especially the works of Hans Baldung Grien and Albrecht Duerer, depicted the supposed disorder wrought by lusty women. Popular illustrations portrayed women beating their husbands with distaffs. Spinning was one of the occupations with which a woman could still make a decent living. The distaff symbolized her earning power and economic independence from her husband. These male artists interpreted woman's breadwinning power as something threatening, something she abused: her pride of being able to earn undermined her husband's authority. These women were not conforming to the new mold of wifely obedience that Church officials were stressing more and more. Thus, not only were women a threat to their husband's authority, they were also a threat to society in general.

One 1521 engraving by Urs Graf (unfortunately I could not find a jpeg of it to post here) depicts two young women savagely beating a monk who has probably molested them. In the Renaissance, women were portrayed as capable of violence, revenge, and self-defense. Urs Graf's women respect neither male nor religious authority; they assume the right to punish any man who tries to molest them. Hans Baldung Grien's engraving, "Aristotle and Phyllis," below, shows the legendary Phyllis literally making an ass of Aristotle. In all these pictures, women are portrayed as violent, crafty, and insubordinate. Their male victims are portrayed as pathetic, weak-willed fools for allowing themselves to be dominated by women. The message that I read into these art works is that women are trying to hold the upper hand. They will not allow themselves to be forced into the new "proper" feminine sphere. In order for women to be put in their place, men must assert their dominance. Thus, these male artists perceive women as a powerful, chaotic force that needed to be violently subdued. This violence against women would not be long in coming.

"Hercules among the maids of Queen Omphale" by Lucus Cranach the Elder: these women are emasculating the mighty Hercules by dressing him in a women's coif and pressing a distaff into his hand.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

The Ghosts of Marston Moor

Monument and Battlefield of Marston Moor

My current "work in progress" is a ghost story set in the 1920s, in the shadow of the Great War...a very long way from the seventeenth century but as I play around with the paranormal I thought I would do a blog on the spectral fingers that still reach out from the bloody and violent times of that century. So this month I am leaving South East Asia and returning to familiar ground, the English Civil War because as I write this on the 2nd July 2011, this date marks the 367th anniversary of one of the decisive battles of the English Civil War, Marston Moor in Yorkshire. 

People either believe in ghosts or not. I tend to the former camp, having worked in two supposedly haunted buildings and collected the first hand accounts of other who have encountered the spectral presences. Fortunately I am not one of those blessed or cursed with the sensitivity to see ghosts but I am conscious of atmosphere and often found myself in buildings or places that are heavy with such an oppressive atmosphere that I felt compelled to leave.

One of these places is the battlefield of Marston Moor, a desolate stretch of fields just west of the city of York between the villages of Long Marston and Tadcaster.  There is little to see there today except a monument and a couple of worn explanation boards but there is a heavy, brooding atmosphere over the place where 4500 men lost their lives in a few short hours.

The war in the north had swayed back and forth between the Royalist commanded by the Earl of Newcastle and parliamentarian forces under the leadership of the Fairfaxes. By mid 1644 York itself was under siege by the Parliamentarians and the King, desparate to retain control, sent his formidable nephew Rupert of the Rhine north to relieve the siege of York.  

The two armies met on the field of Marston Moor and sat facing each other all day. Only as the twilight began to descend  and Rupert had sat down for supper did the Parliamentarians begin to move. The battle was fought well  into the moonlit night between two evenly matched sides and became a battle the Royalists nearly won and the Parliamentarians nearly lost.  It is probably only the presence on the battlefield of an outfit of superbly trained and disciplined cavalry under the command of a Colonel Oliver Cromwell and the ill discipline of Rupert’ s cavalry that influenced the result.  

My own hero, Sir Thomas Fairfax, commanding the Parliamentary horse on the right flank found himself trapped by the terrain and wounded and finding himself surrounded by the enemy, he removed his sash and “favour” (the mark the different sides wore in their hats to distinguish them on the battlefield) and made  his way through the royalists to reach Cromwell and bring his men over to assist the beleaguered right wing. His brother and many of his men died on the field that day.

Newcastle's "Lambs" last stand
The Earl of Newcastle’s personal troops, known as his “lambs” for the white coats they wore, made the last stand for the royalists, having sworn to “dye their coats red with the blood of their enemies”. At the end of the night, the blood that stained their coats was their own. To a man they died where they fell.  When the fighting finally stopped, 4000 royalists lay dead compared to 300 parliamentarians and the north had been lost for the King.

In a place where such powerful emotions were expended, it is hardly surprising that there are many accounts of ghostly encounters. “ The most reported type of experience of ghost at Marston Moor is that of drivers having to brake suddenly for strangely dressed figure(s) stepping across the road, only to have them disappear as suddenly has they had appeared. Because reenactments of the battle are held occasionally, some witnesses think at first that some careless participant(s) of the show are responsible for the near collision. One man even reported how after he had braked, stopping within inches of the men, he was so angry he got out of his car to ‘have it out with them’. They had vanished though, “I couldn’t work it out and it puzzles me to this day, there was three of them, all dressed up with funny hats on. The road is clear on both sides for some distance so all i can think is that maybe they were ghosts.. there’s no other explanation” (see Haunted Battlefields)

But there is nothing quite so powerful as a first hand account. Watch this and make up your own mind!

PS:  CONGRATULATIONS to fellow Hoyden (and our webmistress), Anita Davison on the release of her new novel, THE TRENCARROW SECRET . While not one of her seventeenth century stories, all of us at Hoydens and Firebrands send their good wishes!