Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Symbolism of Gloves in the 17th Century

By Deborah Swift

In The Gilded Lily, Jay Whitgift, the dashing but dangerous man-about-town, gives Ella, my feisty maid, a pair of gloves. As I researched the sort of gloves that Ella might have worn I re-connected with the idea that gloves often had a symbolic meaning. Their unmistakable form, and their manner of taking on an individual’s body shape so that they appear to be part of the person even when they’re off, must be why they have attained such social and psychological significance. And this is why I chose them as an intimate gift.

Gloves were made mostly of leather, suede or kidskin, which would stretch to fit the hand. Black ones were worn at funerals, and those attending would be expected to wear them. Relatives of the deceased would often supply black gloves for the poorer members of the congregation for fear of the shame of un-gloved mourners.

Yellow was worn for hunting and blood-sports, and white at balls or social occasions, and for the aristocracy who could afford servants to keep them clean. Hands dressed in with pale kid gloves looked manifestly unacquainted with work, and this was desirable for the upper classes.

In the 16th and 17th century  women would go to bed wearing gloves filled with marigold cream to whiten and soften their hands. Glovers often scented their gloves - common perfumes were cinnamon or cloves, but the most costly gloves were scented with musk, civet, ambergris, and spirit of roses.

Eighteenth-century Irish "chickenskin" gloves were even thinner and smoother than kid. They were cut from the skins of aborted calves, and so fine that they came folded into the shell of a walnut.
Margaret Visser – The Way We Are.
Dents Glove Museum
chicken skin gloves so small they can fit in a walnut shell (linked to BBC article)
Not sure I like that idea, it sounds very grim!

As with a handshake, in the 17th century gloves meant faith in the transaction or confidence in the person, so transactions of land or property could be made by handing over the symbol of a glove.
The tradition of “throwing down the gauntlet”, has survived in language at least, where a knight might challenge another to a duel by casting a glove at his feet – the glove being a symbol of hand to hand combat. In my third novel, A Divided Inheritance, Zachary Deane is challenged to a duel in just this way.

Judges often used to wear gloves as a symbol that their hands were unsullied by the criminals they had jurisdiction over. Gloves "lined" with money were famous as formal bribes and judges and other high up members of society often received far too many pairs of gloves to use them all; for this reason, many fine specimens survive. These are often highly decorative, with gold braid, embroidery and sumptuous beading, as in this example. The poorer gloves, such as the ones Ella is given, that would be worn for warmth, rarely survive.
The wardrobe accounts for Charles I record the making of more than
1,000 pairs of gloves during a three-year period. Picture from the V&A museum
In the 16th and 17th centuries so much etiquette developed around them that men’s gloves in particular grew wider and more decorative as they were so often carried rather than worn. It was taboo to offer to shake a hand wearing gloves, or to accept a gift in a glove. Nor was it acceptable to remove them with the teeth. Approaching an altar in Church, men had to remove their gloves, and the right glove had to be removed when coming into the presence of a social superior as a mark of respect. The keeping on of your gloves indicated that you retained power by declining physical contact, whereas the removal meant you deferred to a higher position. Gloves were also to be put off when playing cards (to deter cheating, I suppose) or when eating.

From the symbolic use of gloves the custom grew up of presenting them to people of distinction on special occasions. For example, when Queen Elizabeth visited Cambridge in 1578 the vice chancellor offered her a

" a paire of gloves, perfumed and garnished with embroiderie and goldsmithe's wourke, price 60s." 

Up until quite recently women always carried matching handbags and gloves, like this picture from the 1940's - a style now only seen as a remnant at weddings, or with the royal family who, as befitting their perceived status, keep on their gloves in public.

In The Gilded Lily, Ella is delighted by her new gloves, which her sister Sadie dismisses scornfully as “trumpery”.

I originally wrote this post for  Grace Elliott's blog, thanks to her for allowing its second outing!

More information about the history of gloves can be found at

Deborah’s writing blog:
Twitter @swiftstory

Sunday, 19 May 2013

"Oh poo!" you say?

As I've no doubt mentioned before, I'm a big fan of Renaissance magazine. I devour every issue as soon as it arrives. It's largely intended for devotees of living history, specifically those who participate in Renaissance fairs. That aspect of the publication doesn't appeal to me, but their historical background and news items are fantastic. I end up tucking at least one article per issue into a research database (by photographing and emailing it to Evernote).

I dog-eared two articles in the April/May 2013 issue: one on the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in England (drool, some day I hope to go), and the other on that most secretive of topics—the privy.

I was taken aback by this remark by a travelling Italian priest in 1518:
"Whereas in Germany there are one or two tin chamber pots to every bed (in Flanders they are made of brass and very clean), in France for want of any alternative, one has to urinate on the fire. They do this everywhere, by night and day, and indeed, the greater the nobleman or lord, the more readily or openly he will do it."
I'd read of this practice — I have such a scene in my last novel, Mistress of the Sun, when a child is overtaken with the need to relieve herself — but frankly, I didn't think it so commonplace.

L'apres Dinee des Anglais
The French, in turn, are reported to have been horrified by the British habit of men relieving themselves at the dining table:
English gentlemen, known for their prodigious drinking habits, were wont to relieve themselves where they were – in the dining room, for instance, or in a common room of a public inn – where they did not always aim straight and true (as the young man at left), much to the chagrin and disbelief of French travelers, some of whom wrote about this unsanitary habit. (As reported in a review of the book Privies and Water Closets by David J. Eveleigh on the excellent blog, Jane Austen's World.)
Some details from the Renaissance magazine article that may show up in one of my novels:
"Night men"—who cleaned out the cesspits—were well paid, as much as skilled tradesmen. 
Refreshing a privy with juniper. 
One sometimes sees images of several privy holes all in a row. I have a friend who restored a house in Mexico, formerly a monastery. What's now their breakfast nook was once a three-hole privy. I suspect this was a social time. (Let's see this in fiction!)

Of course people would build their privy over a river or stream, but what to do in town? Some built a privy on a sort of bridge connecting two houses, emptying into an alley. (Gross.)

The wealthy, of course, often had more elegant solutions ...

16th century water closet
... when they weren't using the fireplace, that is. ;-(
18th century Nightcart Man. Illustration: Wikipedia
Coincidently, just this week there is a post on this subject — "Secrets of a Roman Sewer" — on the wonderful historical blog Wonders & Marvels. There is a great deal to be learned from "poo," but I'll leave it at that.

I know this subject seems like an unpleasant diversion from writing about a glamorous Hoyden or Firebrand, but when writing about such a person in fiction, one rather needs to know! As well, I confess: my husband and I had an outdoor privy when we moved to our log cabin in the country, decades ago. I think of it with great affection: as a mother of toddlers I would enjoy a quiet minute or two on what my own characters refer to as "the necessary."

Sandra Gulland

Coming in March, 2014: THE SHADOW QUEEN
"Truly magnificent and an absolute joy to read." — International bestseller, M.J. Rose
"Masterful." — Tasha Alexander, New York Times bestselling author of Death in the Floating City
"An epic feast for the senses." — Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator's Wife


Sunday, 12 May 2013

Bacon's Castle

Recently I attended a seminar on 17th-century architecture in Surry, Virginia. Bacon's Castle was built by Arthur Allen, a wealthy merchant, in 1665. It's the oldest documented brick building in Virginia, and one of only three surviving structures of Jacobean architecture (named after King James I of England) in the western hemisphere. Allen died in 1669, and his son Major Arthur Allen II inherited the property.

During the era, there was a bit of a stigma against native-born Virginians, and Major Allen was educated in England. He returned to his home and built English-style gardens and became a member of the House of Burgesses (elected representatives of the English colonists).

About September 1676, the house was seized by Nathaniel Bacon's men during Bacon's Rebellion and fortified. The men retained control of the house for over three months until their cause waned, but the occupation is how the house gained its name. Bacon never lived there, nor was he known to have visited.

For the seminar, I attended a slide presentation by Nick Luccketti on historic structures. Mr. Luccketti is an archaeologist for the James River Institute for Archaeology and had participated in excavations of Bacon's Castle in the past. He later sifted through a box of treasures, showing us some of the finds they had uncovered during their excavations, which included of all things a couple of 17th-century eggs among the pieces of jugs and wine bottles.

Ed Chappell, an archaeologist with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, led us on a tour around the house, pointing out the details of the unique architecture. A couple of the notable features include the triple-stacked chimneys, and the compass roses (a design that displays the cardinal directions) carved into many of the cross beams. As we went through the rooms, our guide pointed out where walls had been added during the 18th century.

My favorite room was a particular one with a distinctive 17th-century look. It had a larger fireplace than the modernized 18th-century rooms, a canopied bed, and opaque windows. The entire environment gave me many ideas for my upcoming novel, The Dreaming: Wind Talker. I also seemed to have been the only person in attendance scribbling away in a notebook throughout the seminar.

Kim Murphy

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Charles II-The Lady Who Might Have Been His Queen

Henriette Catherine of Nassau

No, not Frances Stuart, who refused the king’s advances and ran off with the Duke of Richmond. This lady appeared much earlier, when Charles II was in exile during the 1650’s.

Henriette Catherine was the second to youngest daughter of Frederik Hendrik of Orange  and Amalia of Solms-Braunfels. The House of Orange had already provided a bridegroom for Charles I’s eldest daughter, Mary, Princess Royal. One of Frederick and Amalia’s daughters, Louise Henrietta, had tentatively been suggested as a bride for Prince Charles, but she married the Elector of Brandenburg.

Around 1656, while staying in Bruges during his exile, Charles was attracted to the eighteen-year-old Henriette Catherine of Orange, who had already shown her strong spirit in refusing to comply with a betrothal her parents had made for her in infancy to a Friesian prince because of her ‘unconquerable aversion’ to him.

Henriette Catherine and Charles wrote to each other diligently with Charles using a code name ‘infanta’. He extolled the lady’s virtues and the contents of her letters to Lord Taaffe, and even ordered six pairs of gloves from Paris for ‘my best friend’. On Shrove Tuesday, Charles planned to eat pancakes and draw valentines with the women, while privately drinking ‘the infanta’s health. ‘For I cannot choose but say she is the worthiest to be lov’d of all the sex.’

When Cromwell died two years later, even the Dowager princess of Orange, Henriette Catherine’s mother and Mary of Orange’s mother-in-law, imagined that the penniless emigree courting her daughter would soon be reinstated as a powerful king. Charles himself was equally confident in his imminent return to England, and he issued a formal proposal for Henriette Catherine's hand.

His widowed sister, Mary of Orange disapproved of the match, as did the dowager Queen Henrietta Maria, who had embarked on a romance with Harry Jermyn, a liaison of which Charles fervently and openly disapproved. Despite the change of regime in England, there still appeared no sign that Charles was about to regain his throne.

Henriette Catherine’s mother, realised they had been too hasty, and Charles’ approaches were reconsidered. The following year, a new suitor was selected for Henriette Catherine, John George of Anhalt-Dessau and they were married in September 1659.

Charles was philosophical and told Lord Taaffe that his fondness for Henriette Catherine inspired in him a real wish for her true happiness and he would not interfere. Henriette Catherine married her prince and embarked on a happy thirty-four year marriage that produced ten children.
Frederick and Amalia of Nassau with their daughters
How different the history of England might have been had Charles married this Protestant, and fertile, Dutch Princess. 

Anita Davison is a Historical Fiction Author whose latest release, Royalist Rebel, is published under the name Anita Seymour by Claymore Press.