Sunday, 18 December 2005

Count Fersen & Marie Antoinette Revisited

The English-speaking world long ago accepted a conventional view of Marie Antoinette. The eloquence of Edmund Burke in one brilliant passage has fixed, probably for all time, an enduring picture of this unhappy queen.
When we speak or think of her we speak and think first of all of a dazzling and beautiful woman surrounded by the chivalry of France and gleaming like a star in the most splendid court of Europe.
In the first place, it is mere fiction that represents Maria Antoinette as having been physically beautiful. The painters and engravers have so idealized her face as in most cases to have produced a purely imaginary portrait.
She was born in Vienna, in 1755, the daughter of the Emperor Francis and of that warrior-queen, Maria Theresa. She was a very German-looking child. Lady Jackson describes her as having a long, thin face, small, pig-like eyes, a pinched-up mouth, with the heavy Hapsburg lip, and with a somewhat misshapen form, so that for years she had to be bandaged tightly to give her a more natural figure.
At fourteen, when she was betrothed to the heir to the French throne, she was a dumpy, mean-looking little creature, with no distinction whatever, and with only her bright golden hair to make amends for her many blemishes. At fifteen she was married and joined the Dauphin in French territory.

There was also a tradition regarding the French queen. However loose in character the other women of the court might be, she alone, like Caesar’s wife, must remain above suspicion. She must be purer than the pure. No breath, of scandal must reach her or be directed against her.
In this way the French court, even under so dissolute a monarch as Louis XV., maintained its hold upon the loyalty of the people. Crowds came every morning to view the king in his bed before he arose; the same crowds watched him as he was dressed by the gentlemen of the bedchamber, and as he breakfasted and went through all the functions which are usually private. The King of France must be a great actor. He must appear to his people as in reality a king-stately, dignified, and beyond all other human beings in his remarkable presence.
When the Dauphin and Marie Antoinette came to the French court King Louis XV. kept up in the case the same semblance of austerity. He forbade these children to have their sleeping-apartments together. He tried to teach them that if they were to govern as well as to reign they must conform to the rigid etiquette of Paris and Versailles.
It proved a difficult task, however. The little German princess had no natural dignity, though she came from a court where the very strictest imperial discipline prevailed. Marie Antoinette found that she could have her own way in many things, and she chose to enjoy life without regard to ceremony. Her escapades at first would have been thought mild enough had she not been a “daughter of France”; but they served to shock the old French king, and likewise, perhaps even more, her own imperial mother, Maria Theresa. When a report of the young girl’s conduct was brought to her the empress was at first mute with indignation. Then she cried out:
“Can this girl be a child of mine? She surely must be a changeling!”
The Austrian ambassador to France was instructed to warn the Dauphiness to be more discreet.
“Tell her,” said Maria Theresa, “that she will lose her throne, and even her life, unless she shows more prudence.”

But advice and remonstrance were of no avail. Perhaps they might have been had her husband possessed a stronger character; but the young Louis was little more fitted to be a king than was his wife to be a queen. Dull of perception and indifferent to affairs of state, he had only two interests that absorbed him. One was the love of hunting, and the other was his desire to shut himself up in a sort of blacksmith shop, where he could hammer away at the anvil, blow the bellows, and manufacture small trifles of mechanical inventions. From this smudgy den he would emerge, sooty and greasy, an object of distaste to his frivolous princess, with her foamy laces and perfumes and pervasive daintiness.
It was hinted in many quarters, and it has been many times repeated, that Louis was lacking in virility. Certainly he had no interest in the society of women and was wholly continent. But this charge of physical incapacity seems to have had no real foundation. It had been made against some of his predecessors. It was afterward hurled at Napoleon the Great, and also Napoleon the Little. In France, unless a royal personage was openly licentious, he was almost sure to be jeered at by the people as a weakling.
And so poor Louis XVI., as he came to be, was treated with a mixture of pity and contempt because he loved to hammer and mend locks in his smithy or shoot game when he might have been caressing ladies who would have been proud to have him choose them out.
On the other hand, because of this opinion regarding Louis, people were the more suspicious of Marie Antoinette. Some of them, in coarse language, criticized her assumed infidelities; others, with a polite sneer, affected to defend her. But the result of it all was dangerous to both, especially as France was already verging toward the deluge which Louis XV. had cynically predicted would follow after him.
In fact, the end came sooner than any one had guessed. Louis XV., who had become hopelessly and helplessly infatuated with the low-born Jeanne du Barry, was stricken down with smallpox of the most virulent type. The body of the late monarch was hastily thrown into a mass of quick-lime, and was driven away in a humble wagon, without guards and with no salute, save from a single veteran, who remembered the glories of Fontenoy and discharged his musket as the royal corpse was carried through the palace gates.

This was a critical moment in the history of France; but we have to consider it only as a critical moment in the history of Marie Antoinette. She was now queen. She had it in her power to restore to the French court its old-time grandeur, and, so far as the queen was concerned, its purity. Above all, being a foreigner, she should have kept herself free from reproach and above every shadow of suspicion.
But here again the indifference of the king undoubtedly played a strange part in her life. Had he borne himself as her lord and master she might have respected him. Had he shown her the affection of a husband she might have loved him. But he was neither imposing, nor, on the other hand, was he alluring. She wrote very frankly about him in a letter to the Count Orsini:
My tastes are not the same as those of the king, who cares only for hunting and blacksmith work. You will admit that I should not show to advantage in a forge. I could not appear there as Vulcan, and the part of Venus might displease him even more than my tastes.
Thus on the one side is a woman in the first bloom of youth, ardent, eager—­and neglected. On the other side is her husband, whose sluggishness may be judged by quoting from a diary which he kept during the month in which he was married. Here is a part of it:

Sunday, 13—­Left Versailles. Supper and slept at Compignee, at the house of M. de Saint-Florentin.
Monday, 14—­Interview with Mme. la Dauphine.
Tuesday, 15—­Supped at La Muette. Slept at Versailles.
Wednesday, 16—­My marriage. Apartment in the gallery. Royal banquet in the Salle d’Opera.
Thursday, 17—­Opera of “Perseus.”
Friday, 18—­Stag-hunt. Met at La Belle Image. Took one.
Saturday, 19—­Dress-ball in the Salle d’Opera. Fireworks.
Thursday, 31—­I had an indigestion.

On her head she wore a hat styled a “what-is-it,” towering many feet in height and flaunting parti-colored plumes. Worse than all this, she refused to wear corsets, and at some great functions she would appear in what looked exactly like a bedroom gown.
She would even neglect the ordinary niceties of life. Her hands were not well cared for. It was very difficult for the ladies in attendance to persuade her to brush her teeth with regularity. Again, she would persist in wearing her frilled and lace-trimmed petticoats long after their dainty edges had been smirched and blackened.

Yet these things might have been counteracted had she gone no further. Unfortunately, she did go further. She loved to dress at night like a shop-girl and venture out into the world of Paris, where she was frequently followed and recognized. Think of it—­the Queen of France, elbowed in dense crowds and seeking to attract the attention of common soldiers!
Of course, almost every one put the worst construction upon this, and after a time upon everything she did. When she took a fancy for constructing labyrinths and secret passages in the palace, all Paris vowed that she was planning means by which her various lovers might enter without observation. The hidden printing-presses of Paris swarmed with gross lampoons about this reckless girl; and, although there was little truth in what they said, there was enough to cloud her reputation. When she fell ill with the measles she was attended in her sick-chamber by four gentlemen of the court. The king was forbidden to enter lest he might catch the childish disorder.
The apathy of the king, indeed, drove her into many a folly. After four years of marriage, as Mrs. Mayne records, he had only reached the point of giving her a chilly kiss. The fact that she had no children became a serious matter. Her brother, the Emperor Joseph of Austria, when he visited Paris, ventured to speak to the king upon the subject. Even the Austrian ambassador had thrown out hints that the house of Bourbon needed direct heirs. Louis grunted and said little, but he must have known how good was the advice.
It was at about this time when there came to the French court a young Swede named Axel de Fersen, who bore the title of count, but who was received less for his rank than for his winning manner, his knightly bearing, and his handsome, sympathetic face. Romantic in spirit, he threw himself at once into a silent inner worship of Marie Antoinette, who had for him a singular attraction. Wherever he could meet her they met. To her growing cynicism this breath of pure yet ardent affection was very grateful. It came as something fresh and sweet into the feverish life she led
Other men had had the audacity to woo her—­among them Duc de Lauzun, whose complicity in the famous affair of the diamond necklace afterward cast her, though innocent, into ruin; the Duc de Biron; and the Baron de Besenval, who had obtained much influence over her, which he used for the most evil purposes. Besenval tainted her mind by persuading her to read indecent books, in the hope that at last she would become his prey.
But none of these men ever meant to Marie Antoinette what Fersen meant. Though less than twenty years of age, he maintained the reserve of a great gentleman, and never forced himself upon her notice. Yet their first acquaintance had occurred in such a way as to give to it a touch of intimacy. He had gone to a masked ball, and there had chosen for his partner a lady whose face was quite concealed. Something drew the two together. The gaiety of the woman and the chivalry of the man blended most harmoniously. It was only afterward that he discovered that his chance partner was the first lady in France. She kept his memory in her mind; for some time later, when he was at a royal drawing-room and she heard his voice, she exclaimed:
“Ah, an old acquaintance!”

From this time Fersen was among those who were most intimately favored by the queen. He had the privilege of attending her private receptions at the palace of the Trianon, and was a conspicuous figure at the feasts given in the queen’s honor by the Princess de Lamballe, a beautiful girl whose head was destined afterward to be severed from her body and borne upon a bloody pike through the streets of Paris. But as yet the deluge had not arrived and the great and noble still danced upon the brink of a volcano.
Fersen grew more and more infatuated, nor could he quite conceal his feelings. The queen, in her turn, was neither frightened nor indignant. His passion, so profound and yet so respectful, deeply moved her. Then came a time when the truth was made clear to both of them. Fersen was near her while she was singing to the harpsichord, and “she was betrayed by her own music into an avowal which song made easy.” She forgot that she was Queen of France. She only felt that her womanhood had been starved and slighted, and that here was a noble-minded lover of whom she could be proud.
Some time after this announcement was officially made of the approaching accouchement of the queen. It was impossible that malicious tongues should be silent. The king’s brother, the Comte de Provence, who hated the queen, just as the Bonapartes afterward hated Josephine, did his best to besmirch her reputation. He had, indeed, the extraordinary insolence to do so at a time when one would suppose that the vilest of men would remain silent. The child proved to be a princess, and she afterward received the title of Duchesse d’Angouleme. The King of Spain asked to be her godfather at the christening, which was to be held in the cathedral of Notre Dame. The Spanish king was not present in person, but asked the Comte de Provence to act as his proxy.
On the appointed day the royal party proceeded to the cathedral, and the Comte de Provence presented the little child at the baptismal font. The grand almoner, who presided, asked;
“What name shall be given to this child?”
The Comte de Provence answered in a sneering tone:
“Oh, we don’t begin with that. The first thing to find out is who the father and the mother are!”
These words, spoken at such a place and such a time, and with a strongly sardonic ring, set all Paris gossiping. It was a thinly veiled innuendo that the father of the child was not the King of France. Those about the court immediately began to look at Fersen with significant smiles. The queen would gladly have kept him near her; but Fersen cared even more for her good name than for his love of her. It would have been so easy to remain in the full enjoyment of his conquest; but he was too chivalrous for that, or, rather, he knew that the various ambassadors in Paris had told their respective governments of the rising scandal. In fact, the following secret despatch was sent to the King of Sweden by his envoy:
I must confide to your majesty that the young Count Fersen has been so well received by the queen that various persons have taken it amiss. I own that I am sure that she has a liking for him. I have seen proofs of it too certain to be doubted. During the last few days the queen has not taken her eyes off him, and as she gazed they were full of tears. I beg your majesty to keep their secret to yourself.

The queen wept because Fersen had resolved to leave her lest she should be exposed to further gossip. If he left her without any apparent reason, the gossip would only be the more intense. Therefore he decided to join the French troops who were going to America to fight under Lafayette. A brilliant but dissolute duchess taunted him when the news became known.
“How is this?” said she. “Do you forsake your conquest?”
But, “lying like a gentleman,” Fersen answered, quietly:
“Had I made a conquest I should not forsake it. I go away free, and, unfortunately, without leaving any regret.”
Nothing could have been more chivalrous than the pains which Fersen took to shield the reputation of the queen. He even allowed it to be supposed that he was planning a marriage with a rich young Swedish woman who had been naturalized in England. As a matter of fact, he departed for America, and not very long afterward the young woman in question married an Englishman.
Fersen served in America for a time, returning, however, at the end of three years. He was one of the original Cincinnati, being admitted to the order by Washington himself. When he returned to France he was received with high honors and was made colonel of the royal Swedish regiment.
The dangers threatening Louis and his court, which were now gigantic and appalling, forbade him to forsake the queen. By her side he did what he could to check the revolution; and, failing this, he helped her to maintain an imperial dignity of manner which she might otherwise have lacked. He faced the bellowing mob which surrounded the Tuileries. Lafayette tried to make the National Guard obey his orders, but he was jeered at for his pains. Violent epithets were hurled at the king. The least insulting name which they could give him was “a fat pig.” As for the queen, the most filthy phrases were showered upon her by the men, and even more so by the women, who swarmed out of the slums and sought her life.
At last, in 1791, it was decided that the king and the queen and their children, of whom they now had three, should endeavor to escape from Paris. Fersen planned their flight, but it proved to be a failure. Every one remembers how they were discovered and halted at Varennes. The royal party was escorted back to Paris by the mob, which chanted with insolent additions:
“We’ve brought back the baker, the baker’s wife, and the baker’s boy! Now we shall have bread!”

Against the savage fury which soon animated the French a foreigner like Fersen could do very little; but he seems to have endeavored, night and day, to serve the woman whom he loved. His efforts have been described by Grandat; but they were of no avail. The king and queen were practically made prisoners. Their eldest son died. They went through horrors that were stimulated by the wretch Hebert, at the head of his so-called Madmen (Enrages). The king was executed in January, 1792. The queen dragged out a brief existence in a prison where she was for ever under the eyes of human brutes, who guarded her and watched her and jeered at her at times when even men would be sensitive. Then, at last, she mounted the scaffold, and her head, with its shining hair, fell into the bloody basket.
Marie Antoinette shows many contradictions in her character. As a young girl she was petulant and silly and almost unseemly in her actions. As a queen, with waning power, she took on a dignity which recalled the dignity of her imperial mother. At first a flirt, she fell deeply in love when she met a man who was worthy of that love. She lived for most part like a mere cocotte. She died every inch a queen.

One finds a curious resemblance between the fate of Marie Antoinette and that of her gallant lover, who outlived her for nearly twenty years. She died amid the shrieks and execrations of a maddened populace in Paris; he was practically torn in pieces by a mob in the streets of Stockholm. The day of his death was the anniversary of the flight to Varennes. To the last moment of his existence he remained faithful to the memory of the royal woman who had given herself so utterly to him.

"Famous Affinities of History" by Lydon Orr

Saturday, 29 October 2005

The History of Tampons

All of my female readers will know what I mean when I say that tampons are perhaps the best invention for women ever! (Male readers with sisters, live-in girlfriends and wives will also have a good understanding too of why I say this...). Apparently the ancient Egyptians first invented the disposable tampon - theirs was made out of papyrus, ouch! I did some research on the history of tampons and came up with the following interesting links:

Tampons through history

An essay on tampons in American history
The all-American tampon.

The Museum of Menstruation (and it's not only open for 4 days a month!) Fascinating!

And an interesting review of the aforementioned museum...

Saturday, 8 October 2005

Sex Trivia from Ancient Rome


To be the agressor during sexual activity was to be the one in charge, the honourable one. Thus the sex of the partner or the type of experience was not so much the issue as was the person who was doing the actual thrusting. This was an issue set in stone for the Romans, so much so that they had two different verbs to descibe vaginal, anal or oral sex; one verb to indicate the active and another the passive role in the act. This meant that the agressor would be the futuere, pedicare or irrumare, whereas the recipient of all this action was the crisare, cevere or fellare and could risk becoming an outcast of society.

The most humiliating punishment possible for an adult Roman male, was to be sexually assaulted. Statues of the god Priapus got this message across very clearly as they were painted bright red and possesed a huge and menacing erection. According to the Songs of Priapus the god would threaten anyone who stole crops or meddled with gardens (he was the protector of gardens) with the following: "I warn you, woman, you will be fucked; boy, you will be buggered; and as for the bearded man, he can give me his mouth!" says the god. And he continues: "This rod shall enter the thief's guts as far as the hair and hilt of my balls."

Similar punishment awaited a married woman's lover. The cheated husband was legally entitled to sodomize the man by force.

Friday, 7 October 2005

The Salacious Life of Casanova

Casanova - not the most handsome guy in the world...

Giacomo Casanova (1725-98) was more than just a man of the world. His manipulative charm enabled him to get round almost anyone. He even convinced the Pope to give him a dispensation to read pornographic books, which were forbidden by the Church. He managed to move around the highest aristocratic circles. Due to his extravagant lifestyle he was often in debt, and running away from angry creditors. He developed quite a reputation for seducing the ladies and so in 1755, at the age of 30, he was arrested by the Venetian Inquisition, charged with contempt for religion and sentenced to 5 years in prison. Of course, being Casanova, he could not stand for this and escaped from prison, and went on to travel throughout Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Holland, England, Poland, Greece, Turkey, Russia and Asia Minor, having numerous affairs on the way.

Casanova was said to know how to manipulate women's minds as well as their bodies. He would make sure he had captivated them psychologicaly, before moving on to the physical part of the affair. Although his 'love' was passionate it was short-lived and ended once he had sated his desire fully, at which point he would move on to another woman. I reckon nowadays he would be known as a cad.

Casanova's sex life was in no need of spicing up, as one can see from his memoirs too. He generally preferred one to one sex with women, had a penchant for anal sex and sometimes liked to have two women in bed simultaneously. He also liked going to orgies. Homosexual wasn't really his thing but he did have some such encounters. One of these was in Turkey with the then Turkish foreign minister, another was fondling the penis of the impotent Duke Maddaloni and the most important was an encounter with a Lieutenant Lutin in St. Petersburg, who apparently looked like a woman. In Casanova's own words: "...he took hold of me and, believing that he found he pleased me, put himself in a position to make both of us happy."

Monday, 3 October 2005

Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know

Lady Caroline Lamb & Lord Byron (from two separate paintings)

Life for the rich and fashionable in London during the Regency period (1788 to 1830), was extravagant and decadent. Marriage was mostly seen as a business arrangement, with fidelity being very low on the priority list for both sexes. The idea was that a woman's duty was to provide her husband with at least one male heir. That objective having been achieved, the happy wife was free to amuse herself with as many lovers as she sought fit to.

Lady Caroline Lamb was a typical example of the time. She was brought up in an environment in which all the adults were having affairs and many of her playmates were their illegitimate children. In her early teens she was married off to William Lamb, an ambitious politician and son of Lady Melbourne, ex mistress of the Prince of Wales. Two out of five of Lady Melbourne's children were rumoured to have been fathered by her lovers.
Not long after her marriage Caroline embarked on a series of affairs, which arose her mother-in-law's hostility towards her as she made no effort to conceal her liaisons. A contemporary account describes Caroline as "...a woman of society and of the world, the belle, the toast, the star of the day. She was adored but not content. She had a restless craving after excitement...she was bold and daring in her excursions through the debatable land between friendship and love."

In 1812 Caroline met Lord Byron. He was already as famous for his affairs with women as for his poetry. After first meeting him she wrote in her diary that he was "mad, bad and dangerous to know". A wildly passionate love affair ensued. Lady Caroline's diary entry would however prove to be almost prophetic as alas, for her Byron did turn out to be dangerous to know and their affair led to her downfall. Byron soon got tired of Caroline, characterizing her as wild and improvident as she would often cause scenes in public and was becoming increasingly possessive with him. At one point, he refused to see her and she disguised herself as a boy in order to gain admittance into his lodgings. Byron started feeling that her behaviour was making him look riduculous and so decided to put an end to their affair. In July 1813, he arrived at a party with a certain Lady Oxford and in everyone's presence ignored Caroline completely. This drove her to distraction and she frantically collapsed on the floor screaming, took some broken glass, tried to cut her wrists and then stabbed herself several times with a pair of scissors. She was carried out in a straight-jacket. Although she survived her wounds, her reputation in high society had been ruined.

Saturday, 1 October 2005

The Tyranny of the Benedictines

Benedict - the founder of the Benedictines

In around 500 AD a Roman noble called Benedict, decided he'd had enough of food, sex, drink and everything the good life in the city had to offer, took one of his servants with him and settled in the countryside. There he started to develop a reputation for mending broken pottery, which inevitable attracted many visitors to him and forced him to seek his solitude in a remote cave, up a cliff face. Every day someone would lower a basket a food to him. Benedict believed it was pretty much a sin to enjoy yourself, so he made sure his meal was very plain. Too much enjoyment he thought, was distracting us from thanking god for the gift of life. Soon, Benedict's views started to appeal to others who sought to follow his example. He therefore set up his own monastery where he wrote the famous Rule, his set of regulations for monastic life. The Benedictines had arrived in the world!
Benedict's community consisted of men who worked hard and prayed for the service of the Lord. His Rule states: 'We hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.' This was really a major understatement, as Benedict was a firm believer of unquestioning obedience. He says: 'For if the disciple obeys with an ill will and murmurs, not necessarily with his lips but simply in his heart, then even though he fulfil the command yet his work will not be acceptable to God, who sees that his heart is murmuring. And, far from gaining a reward for such wokr as this, he will incur the punishment due to murmurers..."
Benedict obviously didn't approve of murmuring, and he dissaproved of laughter so much that he had it banned. Furthermore, his monks were not allowed to speak unless they were given to permission to do so by their superior and were not alloweed to have any private possessions. Beds were regularly examined by abbots, to make sure nothing had been hidden. All aspects of everyday life for the Benedictine monks were strictly controlled, even down to what they should eat and when, what time they should sleep and how, what they should and should not wear etc. The Rule even stated that if a monk were to go on a trip outside of the monastery, he should under no circumstances relate what he has seen or heard in the outside world.

Sunday, 18 September 2005

A Poor Needle-woman

Henry Mayhew (1812-1887)

Life for the poor has always been difficult. In Victorian London, Henry Mayhew, a journalist and 'social investigator' delved deeply into the plight of the poor. He interviewed them and kept detailed trancripts of their accounts, thus giving us a first-hand insight into their world in hiw work London Labour and the London Poor. Below is a needle-woman's account:

"I cannot earn more than 4s. 6d. to 5s. per week - let me sit from eight in the morning till ten every night...and my clear earnings [after paying for coal and other supplies] are a little but more than 2s...I consider trowsers the best work...Shirt work is the worst, the very worst, that can be got...A mother has got two or three daughters, and she don't wish them to go to service, and she puts them to this poor needlework; and that, in my opinion, is the cause of the destitution and the prostitution about the streets in these parts...Most of the workers are young girls who have nothing else to depend upon, and there is scarcely one of them virtous...As [my daughter and I] sit to work together, one candle does for the two of us, so that she earns about 3s. per week clear, which is not sufficient to keep her even in food...My husband is a seafering man, or I don't know what I should do. He is a particularly steady man, a teetotaller, and so indeed are the whole family, or else we could not live. Recently my daughter has resigned the work and gone to service, as the prices are not sufficient for food and clothing."

Sunday, 11 September 2005

Saturday, 10 September 2005

Marcus Aurelius again...

"When another's fault offends you, turn to yourself and consider what similar shortcomings are found in you. do you, too, find your good in riches, pleasure, reputation, or such like? Think of this, and your anger will soon be forgotten in the reflection that he is only acting under pressure..."

"Let no one have the right to say truthfully of you that you are without integrity or goodness; should any think such thoughts, see that they are without foundation. This all depends upon yourself, for who else can hinder you from attaining goodness and integrity? "

"At every action, no matter by whom performed, make it a practice to ask yourself, 'What is his object in doing this?' But begin with yourself; put this question to yourself first of all."

Wednesday, 7 September 2005

Washing clothes Roman-style

Folks, don't try this at home!
The ancient Romans used urine to get their white tunics clean and bleached. Of course, the ammonia contained in urine was what did the trick. Fullers collected urine for this purpose. Clothing was immersed in the repugnant liquid and bleached white. Needless to say, the smell of urine didn't just leave the clothes once washed out with water and one can only imagine how even the most wealthy and notable Romans smelt truly 'pissy'. Combine that with the charming smell of fish sauce (a favourite with the Romans) and the stench would be unbearable to the contemporary nose.

Tuesday, 6 September 2005

Alchemists - the First Chemists

Alchemists believed that one substance could be canged into another. The Greek god Hermes was supposed to have started alchemy so it was called the Hermetic art and practised widely by the Greeks and Romans of the 3d century AD. When the Arabs conquered much of the East they developed the principles of alchemy even further and passed on to the medieval West via Spain.

According to Roger Bacon, alchemy is "...a Science teaching how to transform any kind of metal in to another...". It is not surprising therefore to find out that the main focus for the alchemist was to transform any metal in to gold. Because alchemists believed that everything in the world can be perfected they were attracted to the idea of making everything as perfect as it was in the Garden of Eden. Clearly their beliefs were strongly influenced by Christian thinking. Because they saw gold as being the perfect metal, they felt that all metals must be slowly changing into gold. Their intervention was seen as giving God a helping hand.

Monday, 5 September 2005

Enterprising Tudor Widows

In Tudor times widows were allowed to run their husbands' businesses and even train apprentices. Not all widows ran the business permanently - some only doing so for a year or so, while others remained in charge for several years. Within the period 1553 - 1640 seventy widows were left with the running of their late husbands' print shops and only twenty of them held on to them after 4 years, the rest having sold the shops. At that time widows represented one tenth of the publishing business.
Dionisia Holme from Beverley in Yorkshire, sustained her late husband's wool trading business for fifteen years and made a large profit out of it. Another, called Mrs Baynham, ran a business trading wool, wine and herrings as well as running a boarding house in Calais and acres of farmland.

Sunday, 4 September 2005

Oscar Wilde on Love & Marriage

Oscar Wilde as a young man

Oscar Wilde's liberal / anarchical views shocked Victorian society. This was sadly to be his downfall. Here is what he had to say about marriage and love:

"One should always be in love. That is the reason one should never marry."

"In married life three is company and two none."

"Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead."

See link below for more quotes from Oscar.

Saturday, 3 September 2005

"Captain Smith and Pocahontas..." - The True Story

"Captain Smith and Pocahontas, they had a very mad affair..."
Most people know this famous line from the song "Fever". How many though know the true story of Pocahontas? Click on link below to find out.

Thursday, 1 September 2005

Elizabethan Clothing

Elizabethan ladies underwear

You can dress an Elizabethan lady with your mouse here

And details of her outfit, right down to her underclothes...

Wednesday, 31 August 2005

Roman Women and their Hair

The very complicated hairstyles for women in ancient Rome, didn't really arrive until the era of the Flavian emperors, after AD 69. Until then the hairstyles were pretty simple, with the hair being parted in the middle, then pulled back and tied up into a bun. Small ornaments were sometimes placed in the hair, depending on the occasion.

As most Roman women had dark Mediterranean looks, fair hair was widely admired and coveted and therefore substances to lighten the hair were extremely popular. The most commonly used of these were Batavian foam and soap tablets from Wiesbaden or Mainz - made of goat fat and beechwood ash. They also used henna.

Tuesday, 30 August 2005

Chaucer and the Devils's Arse


Geoffrey Chaucer became one of the greatest figures in English medieval literature. He lived towards the end of the 14th Century and was Richard II's court poet. Satire was very much encouraged in Richard's court, so Chaucer was able to use his talent in order to talk of the corruption within the Church. He most famously wrote of a friar, who having been accompanied down to hell by an angel, commented with pleasure that he could not see any other friars there, assuming they were obviously all in heaven. The angel was very quick to correct him on that assumption and so he got hold of Satan and...

'Hold up thy tail thy Satanas' said he
'Show forth thine arse and let the friar see
Where is the nest of friars in this place!'
And ere that half a furlong way of space
Right so as bees come swarming from the hive,
Out of the devil's arse began to drive
Twenty thousand friars in a route.
And throughout hell they swarmed all about
And came again as fast as they may gone
And in his arse they crept in every John!

(From The Summoner's Prologue)

Not surprisingly, when Richard II was overthrown and Henry IV took the throne with the help of Thomas Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Chaucer dissapeared without a trace. To this day we do not know what happened to him.

For purists click on link for the real Old English version:

Monday, 29 August 2005

In Ancient Rome the Clothes Maketh the Man

Senatorial tunic

In ancient Rome, your clothes not only showed your status in society but also pinpointed exactly which layer of it you were positioned in.

An eques (knight) would be a man who was basicaly able to provide 400,000 sesterces to buy his way into this rank. To be an equastrian was to be next to the senatorial class, but not quite there, if you see what I mean. This man would wear a thick gold ring to indicate his status and his white tunic had a narrow garnet-coloured stripe on it, what the Romans called purple. This stripe was called the augustus clavus.
The top rank was of course the senatorial one. The senator's tunic, also white, had a broad Roman purple stripe on it, the latus clavus. His shoes had a crescent on them. The magistrate, although also a senator, even though he too wore a crescent, had slighlty higher soles in order to be distinguished from the others.

Another important indicator of status was the length of a man's tunic. The longer the tunic, the higher the status implied. A slave or soldier wore a short tunic, while a senator or knight wore his right down to his ankles and sometimes a little below them too.

See links below for more details.

Roman clothing

Men's clothing in ancient Rome

Sunday, 28 August 2005

Adulterated food in Victorian London

Copper cooking pans

Victorian food was notoriously adulterated. Probably the most widespread of these adulterations was the addition of chalk to bread, used to whiten it. As flour was expensive, many times the bread would have a fair amount of potato flour in it, as this was cheap. Alum would also be added. This enabled cheaper, inferior quality flour to be used in the process of breadmaking.
Of course bakers were known for kneading the bread with their bare feet and considering the fact that in Victorian times people were said to have washed their feet only every two or even three weeks, I would say this qualifies as adulteration of food.

In 1860 the Act for Preventing the Adulteration of Articles of Articles of Food and Drink was passed. However, this act was optional and it was up to the local authority to decide whether they wanted to comply with it or not. One can imagine this was not very effective. A contemporary account informs us that by 1869 nothing had come of it.

Cooking was done in copper pans, which in itself could be extremely dangerous, leading to severe cases of copper poisoning. Of course, to counteract this, the inside of the pan was lined with tin so the food would have no contact with the copper. The downside to this was the fact that the tin layer wore off quite easily with repeated use and cleaning. Of course, the well to do could afford to have the pans re-lined with tin when this happened, but the poor could not, a fact that presented dire consequences on their health.

Thursday, 25 August 2005

Seneca on Life


Seneca had a lot to say about life and in a letter to his friend Paulinus, he goes on to talk of those who are overcome by fear and therefore make their lives appear very short.

“But life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present and fear the future. When they come to the end of it, the poor wretches realize too late that for all this time they have been preoccupied in doing nothing. And the fact that they sometimes invoke death is no proof that their lives seem long. Their own folly afflicts them with restless emotions which hurl themselves upon the very things they fear…They lose the day waiting for the night and the night in fearing the dawn. Even their pleasures are uneasy and made anxious by various fears, and at the very height of their rejoicing the worrying thought steals over them: ‘How long will this last?’ This feeling has caused kings to bewail their power…”

Wednesday, 24 August 2005

What the Ancient Greeks Ate

The Parthenon, Athens, Greece

Here is a link to ancient Greek recipes, eating habits, etc:

Tuesday, 23 August 2005

Working Conditions - Past and Present

If you have ever thought you have the job from hell think again. Here's an interesting article on working conditions in late 18th and early 19th century Britain.

Working Conditions in Late 18th, and early 19th Century Britain.

And of course, althought not history (yet), I can totally relate to this one! :-)

Monday, 22 August 2005

Servilia Caepionis - Julius Caesar's Bold Mistress

Cato the Younger

Servilia Caepionis was the half sister of Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger. She married a fairly insignificant man and her son, Brutus grw up to become one of Julius Caeasar's assassins.
What she is most famous for however, is for being Julius Caesar's mistress. She was several years older than him but apparently he was very much taken with her and even bought her a priceless black pearl upon his return from the Gallic Wars.

Servilia was a very bold woman and did not behave like a typical Roman mistress. She did not wait around for him. If she wanted to see Caesar she would make this known to him. Actually, this led to their affair becoming public. One day when Caesar was at the Senate a messenger came up to him with an urgent letter. It ws of course a love letter from Servilia, but of course Cato the Younger (her hafl brother) did not know this. As Caesar attempted to read Servilia's letter discreetly, Cato saw him acting in a secretive manner and accused him of conspiracy. When Caesar explained that the letter was from his mistress, Cato refused to believe him and demanded to see proof. Amist the argument Cato snatched the letter from Caesar's hands and read it. We do not know what the letter actually said but a contemporary account tells us that Cato was taken aback with disgust and did not say anything more. Shortly afterwards Servilia was divorced...

Saturday, 20 August 2005

Marriage & Sex for the Victorian Middle Class Woman

Most middle class women during the Victorian era, married by the time they were 25, the ideal age to commit oneself to matrimony being 20. If they had not managed to attract a husband by the age of 30, they well and truly on the way to being left on the shelf, so to speak.

Marriage in the Victorian era, was usually very much a case of giving up the little independence a woman had in order to become her husband's servant. It was also a means of securing financial security. A writer The Magazine of Domestic Economy in 1843, writes: " sell one's independence for gold is repugnant to all correct feeling. It is too often done, notwithstanding that unhappiness is the secret or evident result. We are no advocates for improvident marriages. Love in a cottage is very delightful, but it must be a cottage ornee and if with a double coach house the love will be the more enduring."

However, the husband to be did not simply go into a marriage offering all material goods and getting nothing in return. "A gentleman will often give his daughter a dowry amounting to no more than his eldest son's future income for one year..."

The ideal marriage was one in which the woman stayed at home, taking care of it, and making everything nice for when her husband came back after a tiring day of earning the family's income. The perfect wife was not supposed to ever trouble her husband with talk of domestic troubles, or worries about the children; she was expected to deal with all that on her own and present an image of surrender, piety and sumbission to her husband / master. When and if he wanted to have sexual intercourse she would have been expected to make herself available at once, but of course she was never supposed to desire or even want sex. Oh no, the moddest Victorian lady was to be devoid of sexual needs - her own gratification was a completely allien and unheard of concept, even to her.

Until 1857 divorce could not be obtained without a private Act of Parliament, so marriage was pretty binding...

Wednesday, 17 August 2005

Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen

Menage a trois - Fersen on the top, Louis on the bottom and Marie Antoinette centre of attraction...

King Louis the XVI was not one of the most fascinating men in history. In fact he was rather boring, as the entries below from a section of his diary show.

Sunday, 13—­Left Versailles. Supper and slept at Compignee, at the house of M. de Saint-Florentin.
Monday, 14—­Interview with Mme. la Dauphine.
Tuesday, 15—­Supped at La Muette. Slept at Versailles.
Wednesday, 16—­My marriage. Apartment in the gallery. Royal banquet in the Salle d’Opera.
Thursday, 17—­Opera of “Perseus.”
Friday, 18—­Stag-hunt. Met at La Belle Image. Took one.
Saturday, 19—­Dress-ball in the Salle d’Opera. Fireworks.
Thursday, 31—­I had an indigestion.

Not only was Louis incredibly boring but he also had little or no interest in sex. It is not surprising therefore, that his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette soon saught to be fulfilled elsewhere. It is said that after four years of marriage the only intimacy between when Louis had given her a peck on the cheek. Hot stuff indeed...

So, when the young Swedish Count Axel von Fersen came to the French court, full of adoration for Marie Antoinette, it was not long before the two were lovers. The affair was intense. Wherever and whenever they could meet they did. Fersen was not yet 20 years old, his passion was ardent and he could scarcely hide it. They were crazy about each other...
When the Queen of France gave birth to a princess, tongues started wagging as the king's brother, the Comte de Provence, who hated her, made a vicious comment in church while the infant was about to be baptized.
The grand almoner, who presided, asked;
“What name shall be given to this child?”
The Comte de Provence answered in a sneering tone:
“Oh, we don’t begin with that. The first thing to find out is who the father and the mother are!”

In fact, a Swedish envoy had sent the following report to the King of Sweden:

"I must confide to your majesty that the young Count Fersen has been so well received by the queen that various persons have taken it amiss. I own that I am sure that she has a liking for him. I have seen proofs of it too certain to be doubted. During the last few days the queen has not taken her eyes off him, and as she gazed they were full of tears. I beg your majesty to keep their secret to yourself."

Fersen was horrified that his goddess should be subjected to such gossip and in order to protect her reputation he decided to leave and join the French army going to America to fight Lafayette. He went to great pains to protect his love's reputation, even spreading rumours that he was about to marry a young Swedish woman.

Marie Antoinette was devastated and unconsolable. Fersen was away for three years. Inevitably he was still to be by her side. In 1791 as things were looking tough for the Royal Family, he helped to smuggle the King, Queen and their children to Varennes. However this plan failed and the Royal Family were imprisoned. Fersen did all he could to help the love of his life but it was all in vain and in the end she was sent to the guillotine. Fersen lived on and returned to Sweden where he became a succesful statesman. His death was not pleasant; he was trampled and beaten to death by an angry crowd after untrue rumours were spread that he was implicated in the poisoning of the Crown Prince. It was June 1810 and he was 55 years old. Marie Antoinette was the only woman he ever loved, until the end.

Tuesday, 16 August 2005

Tiberius and Freedom of Speech


The Emperor Tiberius is not known for his support of democratic values. However, Suetonius has an interesting, if not amusing account of his attitude to people who said bad things about him or his family.

He was, moreover, quite unperturbed by abuse, slander, or lampoons on himself and his family and would often say that liberty to speak and think as one pleases is the test of a free country. When the Senate asked that those who had offended in this way should be brought to book, he replied: 'We cannot spare the time to undertake any such new enterprise. Open that window and you will let in such a rush of denunciations as to waste your whole working day; everyone will take this opportunity of airing some private feud.' A remarkably modest statement of his is recorded in the 'Proceedings of the Senate': 'If So-and-so challenges me, I shall lay before you a careful account of what I have said and done; if that does not satisfy him, I shall reciprocate his dislike of me.'

Monday, 15 August 2005

The secret meanings of Elizabethan salads

The Elizabethans liked to give secret meanings to their salads. Therefore, each vegetable / ingredient, was used to convey a specific message.
Here is a list of the most common meanings associated with some of the most widely used ingredients:

Asparagus: Renewing of love
Borage: You make me glad
Bugloss: I am pleased with you
Scallion: I love you not
Cabbage lettuce: Your love feedeth me
Bitter lettuce: I love you not
Olives: Your love annoyeth me
Rosemary flowers: I accept your love
Winter savory: I offer you my love
Radish: Pardon me
Strawberries: I am altogether yous
Raspberries: Come again

Sunday, 14 August 2005

More Thoughts from Marcus Aurelius

"Withdraw into yourself. Our master-reason asks no more than to act justly and thereby to achieve calm."

"Do away with all fancies. Cease to be passion's puppet. Limit time to the present. Learn to recognize every experienec for what it is, whether it be your own or another's. Divide and classify the objects of sense into cause and matter. Meditate upon your last hour. Leave your neighbour's wrong-doing to rest with him who initiated it."

"Fix your thought closely on what is being said and let your mind enter fully into what is being done and into what is doing it."

"Vex not thy spirit at the course of things; They heed not thy vexation."

Saturday, 13 August 2005

Dying Poor in Victorian London

Friedrich Engels

To live in Victorian London was very grim indeed, but to die there was a pretty nasty business too. Friedrich Engels, in his The Condition of the Working Class in England wrote about this in horrific detail, based on his experiences between November 1842 and August 1844.

"The corpses of the poor have no better fate than the carcases of animals. The pauper burial ground at St. Bride's is a piece of open marshland which has been used since Charles II's day and there are heaps of bones all over the place. Every Wednesday the remains of dead paupers are thrown into a hole which is 14 feet deep. A clergyman gabbles through the burial service and then the grave is filled with loose soil. On the following Wednesday the ground is opened again and this goes on until it is completely full. The whole neighbourhood is infected by the dreadful stench from this burial ground."

Friday, 12 August 2005

Marie Duplessis: The Ultimate Courtesan

Alexandre Dumas fils

On February 5th 1847 Marie Duplessis, the notorious Parisian courtesan, inspiration for Dumas’s Camille and Verdi’s La Traviata, died of tuberculosis. She was only 23 years old. Most of fashionable Paris showed up at her funeral. Charles Dickens was amongst the crowd who attended the funeral. He commented: “One could have believed that Marie was Jeanne d’Arc or some other national heroine, so profound was the general sadness.”

A year later, Alexandre Dumas the younger, wrote La Dame aux Camelias. Dumas had had an affair with Marie, between 1844 and 1845 and much of the story is based on this experience, so when the novel was published people read it as fact and not fiction. Their affair had been a subject of gossip amongst Parisian high society. The novel of course became extremely successful .

Of course the novel was rather far way from the truth. Marie Duplessis (borne Alphonsine Plessis) had a very unpleasant life. She did not die in the arms of her lover but alone and in agony. Born in rural Normandy, when she was around 13 years old her father sold her into prostitution. By the time she came to Paris she was 15 and started a career as a courtesan (a high class, well paid prostitute). Although she accumulated many of the trappings of status and wealth she died steeped in debts and all her belongings, even her pet parrot, were auctioned off in an effort to pay these off.

Thursday, 11 August 2005

The Invention of the Seven-Day Week & Related Trivia

As I have been asked about the invention of the seven-day week and when that was (the Assyrian's invented it by the way), please see link below, which provides lots of information on that and related issues.

Tuesday, 9 August 2005

Medieval Recipes

The followng links offer a rich variety of original, Medieval recipes. (these have been 'adapted for the modern cook'.)


Monday, 8 August 2005

Julius Caesar and his Calendar

In 45 BC Julius Caesar decreed a new calendar, based on the 365-da year as calculated by Sosigenes of Alexandria. However, Sosigenes's year had an extra quarter of a day to it so he cleverly added an extra day in the end of February for every fourth year, which was called bis-secto-kalendae. Caesar, via the Senate, also changed the name of the month of Quintilis to 'July' (in later years the month of Sextilis was renamed 'August' in order to honour Augustus).

In the 4th century AD Constantine the Great added the seven-day week to the calendar (he was inspired by the book of Genesis), while in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII adjusted the calendar, so it was from then on known as the Gregorian calendar.

Sunday, 7 August 2005

'Baby-farmers' in Victorian London

A Dickensian Life - Oliver Twist epitomizes the life of an abandoned child in Victorian London

A wealth of information on the lives of London's poor during the Victorian era, can be found in Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor. Contraception was not really understood or practiced in those days, so inevitably the poor would have children which many times they were not able to look after. Some were so poor they could not let their children out to play because they had no clothes for them. Thus we have the story of one mother, whose kids got out onto the street wearing nothing but some bits from an old sack. Parents were many times in prison, in the workhouse or dead.

The 'baby-farmer' was sort of like a baby-sitter but with a more sinister twist. While the parents or single mother worked, the children would be entrusted to the 'baby-farmer' to be looked after, for a fee of course. One tragic story tells of a mother who earning 6s and 3s a week making paper bags, put her baby in the care of one of these, paid her 4s and 6d , only to find out after a while that her baby had died because the carer was a drunk and did not look after the baby.

In the newspapers of the time there could often be found adverts such as this:

"Adoption: A person wishing a lasting and comfortable home for a young child of either sex will find this is a good opportunity. Advertisers having no children of their own are about to proceed to America. Premium £15"

Yes, for a fee of £12 to £15 these 'baby-farmers' would relieve the parents of all responsibility for the child. The newly 'adopted' children were usually disposed of as soon as was practically possible; they were either murdered or taken to some other part of London, where they were abandoned and left to fend for themselves.

Salaries & Wages in Victorian Times

The Victorian City of London

9s a week was a milk-woman's wage

10s 6d was what a dentist charged for 2 fillings

16s was the top wage of a woman operating a sewing machine

£1 per week was what the average coffee-stall keeper, general labourer or female copy clerk in the City earned

With £4 being the minimum cost of a funeral, life cannot have been easy for the above.

A live-in maid would earn £6 a year while a general servant would make £16 annually.
A full set of false teeth cost £21, which probably meant that all the above went about toothless...

A buttler would make £42 per annum while a clerk at the Post Office took home £90 a year.
Now, an Anglican parson could probably get his false teeth as he got £140 a year, whereas teh Governor of the Bank of England, with an annual income of £400 could afford a twelve coffin vault in Highgate Cemetary for £136 10s, if he saved enough.

A box in the The Royal Opera House was out of reach for most people as it cost £8,000, except for people like the Duke of Bedford, who saved £100,000 a year and Lord Derby, whose income was £150,000. However, the Duke of Westminster's annual income topped them all at a cool £250,000.

Saturday, 6 August 2005

Winston Churchill's Love Letter

Clementine and Winston after many years of marriage

Winston Churchill's letter to his wife Clementine below, really sums up the mature love which succeeds romantic love and passion in a long marriage.

January 23, 1935

My darling Clemmie,

In your letter from Madras you wrote some words very dear to me, about my having enriched your life. I cannot tell you what pleasure this gave me, because I always feel so overwhelmingly in your debt, if there can be accounts in love.... What it has been to me to live all these years in your heart and companionship no phrases can convey.Time passes swiftly, but is it not joyous to see how great and growing is the treasure we have gathered together, amid the storms and stresses of so many eventful and to millions tragic and terrible years?

Your loving husband (Winston Churchill)

Thursday, 4 August 2005

Tudor Love of Sweet Spiced Wine

In the last decade the English have developed a taste for wine and are now said to consume more wine than the French. In Tudor times however, wine was a favourite drink, especially a type of very sweet wine made in the Mediterranean, most notably in the Greek town of Monemvasia and certain parts of Cyprus. The secret was in the fact that the grapes, although ripe in the end of July, were not picked until September. They would then dry them out a bit for 3 days, after which they would squeeze the juice out of them, put it in jars, which were then buried. The contents would ferment and the end product would be an extremely sweet wine, which was very expensive.

The Tudors often liked their wine to be spiced, an example of which was Hippocras which had been drunk since the Middle Ages. The spices used were usually a mixture of ginger, cloves and to nutmeg, to which they would also add 4lb of sugar per gallon of wine.

Wednesday, 3 August 2005

More from Marcus Aurelius...

"When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it."

"To see the things of the present moment is to see all that is now, all that has been since time began and all that shall be unto the world's end; for all things are of one kind and one form."

"No one can stop you living according to the laws of your own personal nature, and nothing can happen to you against the laws of the World-Nature."

Tuesday, 2 August 2005

The Seductive Lady Hamilton

Lady Hamilton

Lady Hamilton was born Emma Lyon, in Cheshire, England on the 26th April 1765. As the daughter of a blacksmith she didn't have the necessary background to mix with polite society. However, she was determined to do so and so she polished up her act, changed her name to Emma Hart and went off to London. By 1782 she had already become notorious as the mistress to several influential men. A rumour even went round that she had had an illegitimate child with Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh. The girl was apparently named Emma Carew and sent off to live in Wales for the rest of her life.

She was living with Charles Francis Greville when he sent her to Italy to be the mistress of his uncle, Sir Wiliam Hamilton, in exchange for a cancellation of his debts. Hamilton was a diplomat. He fell for Emma and they were married in 1791.

After having become a close friend of Queen Marie Caroline of Naples, she met Nelson in 1793. Now Nelson was no handsome young guy. In fact he had lost his teeth, an arm, could hardly walk and was ravaged by bouts of coughing. It is said that when Lady Hamilton first saw Nelson she fainted. However, the two soon got on intimate terms with each other. Nelson was a war hero so Sir William Hamilton did not object to his wife lavishing her attentions on him.

In January 1801 Emma gave birth to Horatia Nelson Tompson and when her husband died in 1803 she lived openly with Nelson until his death in 1805. By 1813 she had spent all her inheritance and was deeply in debt. Nelson had left instructions to the government to look after Emma after his death, but these were ignored, so she died in Calais an alcoholic in 1815.

Monday, 1 August 2005

Saturday, 30 July 2005

The assassination of Julius Caesar

On the 15th March 44 B.C (Ides of March), Julius Caesar was assassinated. Suetonius, not surprisingly, gives us a detailed account of those events.

"As soon as Caesar took his seat the conspirators crowded around him as if to pay their respects. Tillius Cimber, who had taken the lead, came up close, pretending to ask a question. Caesar made a gesture of postponment, but Cimber caught hold of his shoulders. 'This is violence!' Caesar cried, and at that moment, as he turned away, one of the Casca brothers with a sweep of his dagger stabbed him just below the throat. Caesar grasped Casca's arm and ran it through with his stylus; he was leaping away when another dagger blow stopped him. Confronted by a ring of drawn daggers, he drew the top of his gown over his face and at the same time ungirded the lower part, letting it fall to his feet so that he would die with both legs decently covered. Twenty-three dagger thrusts went home as he stood there. Caesar did not utter a sound after Casca's blow had drawn a groan from him; though some say that when he saw Marcus Brutus about to deliver the second blow, he reproached him in Greek with: 'You too my child?'
The entire Senate then dispersed in confusion and Caesar was left lying dead for some time until three slave boys carried him home in a litter, with one arm hanging over the side."

Marcus Aurelius Observing

And some more from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations:

"Never allow yourself to be swept off your feet: when an impulse stirs, see first that it will meet the claims of justice; when an impression forms, assure yourself first of its certainty."

"Do not copy the opinions of the arrogant, or let them dictate your own, but look at things in their true light."

" Observe how all things are continually being born of change; teach yourself to see that Nature's highest happiness lies in changing the things that are, and forming new things after their kind. Whatever is, is in some sense the seed of what is to emerge from it. Nothing can become a philosopher less than to imagine that seed can only be something that is planted in the earth or the womb."

"Observe carefully what guides the actions of the wise and what they shun or seek."

Friday, 29 July 2005

Pliny's Love Letter

The following love letter was written in 108 AD by Pliny the Younger to his third wife Calpurnia, when he was 47.

"You cannot believe how much I miss you. I love you so much and we are not used to separations. So I stay awake most of the night thinking of you, and by day I find my feet carrying me (a true word, carrying) to your room at the times I usually visited you; then finding it empty I depart, as sick and sorrowful as a lover locked out."

Thursday, 28 July 2005

The History of Tuberculosis (TB)

Mycobacterium tuberculosis

We know that TB has been present since ancient times and has been one of the main causes of death throughout the ages. Examinations of parts of the spinal columm of Egyptian mummies from 2400 BC, show certain signs of the disease.

The official name for the cause of the disease is Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Throughout the centuries it has had many names. The Ancient Greeks called it phthisis (consumption). Around 460 BC Hippocrates identified the disease as the most widespread one of his time, noting that almost every case was fatal. He even advised his fellow doctors not to visit patients at the late stages of the disease as their death would be inevitable.
During the 17th century the first pathological and anatomical decriptions of the disease appeared. Sylvius in 1679, was the first to identify the tubercles as a characteristic change occuring in the lungs and other areas of the patients' body. The earliest references to the infectiousness of the disease appear in Italian medical writings of the time. The Republic of Lucca issued an edict in 1699 which stated that "henceforth, human health should no longer be endangered by objects remaining after the death of a consumptive. The names of the deceased should be reported to the authorities and measures undertaken for disinfection."

In 1720, the English doctor Benjamin Marten, was first to suspect that the disease might be caused by "wonderfully minute living creatures". He also warned against close contact with patients which would lead to spread of the disease.
By the mid 1800s the sanatorium treatment was being introduced (exposure of the patient to plenty of fresh air and sun). Dr. Hermann Brehmer was the pioneer of this treatment after he went on a holiday to the Himalayas and found that when he returned home he was cured of the disease.
In 1882 Robert Koch was the first to find a way to actually see the bacteria that cause tuberculosis. The enemy was now identified and the war could begin.
While sanatoria continued to spread like wildfire throughout Europe and the United States, significant progress was made. The invetion of X-ray in 1895 by Wilhelm Konrad von Rontgen meant that patients progress could now be monitored at a very detailed level. In the early part of the 20th century the BCG vaccine was discovered. This is still used today. The final and decisive breakthrough came during the middle of World War II, when streptomycin
was discovered and the bacterium which had plagued humanity for thousands of years could now be crushed...

Wednesday, 27 July 2005

Beethoven and his Immortal Beloved

Love letters always fascinate me. Here's one from Beethoven:

"Though still in bed, my thoughts go out to you, my Immortal Beloved, now and then joyfully, then sadly, waiting to learn whether or not fate will hear us - I can live only wholly with you or not at all - Yes, I am resolved to wander so long away from you until I can fly to your arms and say that I am really at home with you, and can send my soul enwrapped in you into the land of spirits - Yes, unhappily it must be so - You will be the more contained since you know my fidelity to you. No one else can ever possess my heart - never - never - Oh God, why must one be parted from one whom one so loves. And yet my life in V is now a wretched life - Your love makes me at once the happiest and the unhappiest of men - At my age I need a steady, quiet life - can that be so in our connection? My angel, I have just been told that the mailcoach goes every day - therefore I must close at once so that you may receive the letter at once - Be calm, only by a calm consideration of our existence can we achieve our purpose to live together - Be calm - love me - today - yesterday - what tearful longings for you - you - you - my life - my all - farewell. Oh continue to love me - never misjudge the most faithful heart of your beloved.

ever thine
ever mine
ever ours

Tuesday, 26 July 2005

Christine de Pisan

Christine de Pisan, was one of the most important figures in medieval literature. Most notably, she was the first woman to make a living from writing and is considered by many to be the first feminist in history as she was the first to denounce women’s inferior position in society.

Christine was born in Venice in 1364. Her father was an astrologer and when she was five years old he took her to live in France, where he became astrologer to King Charles V. Christine spent the rest of her life in France.
Due to her father’s privileged position at court, she was able to be socialise in court circles and was educated. At the age of fifteen she was married off to Estienne de Castel, a man who subsequently became the court secretary. Ten years later, at the age of 25 she was widowed and having no other means to support herself and her three children she turned to writing. It was a long shot but unlike any other woman of her time she became successful.

Christine wrote poetry and prose. She focused on love and the plight of women in society. Amongst her prose works the better known ones are ‘The Book of the City of Ladies’ and ‘The Book of Three Virtues’.

In 1415 she retired to a convent and in 1429 decided to write a biography of Joan of Arc, ‘Le Ditie de Jeanne d’ Arc’. Not long after that she died, but we do not know exactly when or how.

In a poem to her son, Christine offers her advice on life, love and the tribulations ahead:

"I have no great fortune, my son,To make you rich. In place of one Here are some lessons I have learned--the finest things I've ever earned.
Before the world has borne you far, Try to know people as they are. Knowing that will help you take The path that keeps you from mistake.
Pity anyone who is poor And stands in rags outside your door Help them when you hear them cry! Remember that you, too will die.
Love those who have love for you And keep your enemy in view: Of allies none can have too many, Small enemies there are not any. Never lose what the good Lord gave To this, our world too much enslaved: The foolish rush to end their lives. Only the steadfast soul survives."

Sunday, 24 July 2005

Books in Ancient Rome

A bucket of scrolls

Printing did not exist in the ancient world so books were all hadwritten. There was no such thing as paper made of wood pulp either, so papyrus was used, a sheet made of processed papyrus reeds which grew in the Nile region of Egypt. Papyrus was indeed one of Egypt's most important exports.
Papyrus was expensive and it came in several gradings according to quality. A encyclopaedia from around 70 A.D. lists these as:

Grade 1: the Emperor Augustus's own, the finest of all, favoured above all for letter-writing (these were 13-inch sheets)

Grade 2: His wife Livia's own (also 13 inches)

Grade 3: priestly, reserved for Egyptian sacred texts (10-inch sheets)

Grade 4: amphitheatre papyrus, amde at Rome in Fannius' workshop under the amphitheatre and extremely thin (9-inch sheets)

Grade 5: Saite, named after an Egyptian town with low quality papyrus beds (less than 9 inches)

Grade 6: Taeneotic, named after another Egyptian town, sold by weight, not quality

Grade 7: traders', no good for writing on, used for wrapping bundles of finer papyrus or other merchandise (less than 6-inch sheets)

As a nobleman, if you wished to borrow a particular literary work from someone, you would obtain the said scrolls and have your slaves copy them all.
The shape of the book we would recognise today was called a codex and was mainly used to bind documents and was not widely in use.
As for the scrolls, each individual one could not hold a large amount of text so a book would be conprised of a bucket of several scrolls, depending on the size of the work of course.

Saturday, 23 July 2005

Marcus Aurelius on Gossip

"Do not waste what remains of your life in speculating about your neighbours, unless with a view to some mutual benefit. To wonder what so-and-so is doing and why, or what he is saying, or thinking, or scheming...means a loss of opportunity for some other task."

Friday, 22 July 2005

Suetonius on Augustus's Looks and Phrase-coining

Augustus (aka Octavian)

Suetonius describes what Augustus looked like:

"Augustus was remarkably handsome and of very graceful gait even as an old man;but negligent of his personal appearance...body and limbs so beautifully proportioned..."

And he always had bad hair days?

"He cared so little about his hair that, to save time, he would have two or three barbers working hurriedly on it together and meanwhile read or write something..."

His countenance apparently had mysterious powers...

"He always wore so serene an expression, whether talking or in repose, that a Gallic chief once confessed to his compatriots: 'When granted an audience with the Emperor during his passage across the Alps I would have carried out my plan of hurling him over a cliff had not the sight of that tranquil face softened my heart; so I desisted.' "

And his eyes..

"Augustus's eyes were clear and bright and he liked to believe that they shone with a sort of divine radiance: it gave him profound pleasure if anyone at whom he glanced keenly dropped his head as though dazzled by looking into the sun."

And apparently he coined his own phrases...

"Augustus' everyday language must have contained many whimsical expressions of his own coinage, to judge from letters in his own handwriting. Thus he often wrote 'they will pay on the Greek Kalends' which meant 'never' - because the reckoning by Kalends is a purely Roman convention. Another of his favourite remarks: 'Let us be satisfied with this Cato!' - meaning that one should make the most of contemporary circumstances, however poorly they might compare with the past. He also had a favourite metaphor for swift and sudden actions: 'Quicker than boiled asparagus'."

Thursday, 21 July 2005

Career Women in 18th Century London

Jane Austen

It is probably surprising to hear that career women existed in 18th century London. In fact, they dominated the business of clothes (the rag trade, as we would call it), they ran schools, they were dentists and silversmiths, wrote novels (think of Jane Austen) and books on being a good housewife.

There were also some women who took to highway robbery.
An account from 1763 tells of how a gentleman and his wife were ambushed on Harrow Road. One of them "insisted the gentleman should do her a favour under a thick hedge". The highway-woman's partner apparently got jealous and took the gentleman's wife under the other hedge for similar purposes. While the highway-woman was being 'entertained' by her captive, she heard the ticking of his watch and demanded that he surrender that to her as well, which he did "with some reluctance".

Wednesday, 20 July 2005

Eating Beef in Restoration London

Beef was the preferred meat in Restoration London - at least if you could afford it.
The French Henri Misson, visiting England at the time, wrote:

"I always heard they were great fresh eaters and I found it true. I have known several people in England that never eat any bread and universally they eat very little: they nibble a few crumbs, while they chew the meat by whole mouthfuls. Generally speaking, the English tables are not delicately served...[they will have] a piece of roast beef; another time they will have a piece of boiled beef and then they salt it some days beforehand and besiege it with five or six heaps of cabbage, carrots, turnips, or some other herbs or roots, well peppered and salted and swimming in butter."

Sunday was of course the day when it was "...common practice to have a huge piece of roast beef of which they stuff till they can swallow no more and eat the rest cold, without any other victuals, the other six days of the week."

Of course buchers would not sell meat on a Sunday, the beef had to be purchased the day before. This meant that in hot summer weather the meat went smelly overnight. To delay the rotting of the meat, once brought home it would be dropped into a tub of brine (salt-water)

Below is a favourite recipe of the day:

"Beef Carbonadoed

Steep your beef in claret wine, salt, pepper and nutmeg, then broil it on the embers, over a temperate and unsmoky fire. In the meantime, boil up the liquour wherein it was steeped and serve it for sauce with beaten butter."


Monday, 18 July 2005

The Spit Boys

Henry VIII - excessive masticator

No, before you even think of it, this has nothing to do with spitting.
Meat was the main part of an aristocrat's diet in Tudor times. In Henry VIII's time, at Hampton Court Palace, there were about 1,000 servants or more, depending on the times of year (there were more in the winter). There was a strict hierarchy amongst the servants and so even kitchen staff were divided into ranks. Around two-hundred or so people worked in the palace kitchen. At the very bottom of the kitchen staff hierarchy were the so called 'Spit Boys'. Their job was to turn the enormous iron spits used to roast the large quantities of meat. Their job was arduous and painful as they had to do this for hours on end. The spits were over big open fires which emanated alot of heat. These guys were not boys though, as the sheer size and weight of the loaded spits meant that no mere 'boy' could do this. The term 'boy' was used in a derogatory way.
The spits were 2cm thick and almost 3 m long. There was a small alcove in which the 'Spit Boys' had to be in order to do their work, because the distance between them and the fire was the same as that of the meat and the fire. However, the high temperatures were almost unbearable and it is surprising that they were not called 'Cooked Boys'.
To make matters worse, they had to be fully clothed. They had to get up at 4am to prepare the fire and then work solidly for the next six hours. There were no toilet breaks and the 'boys' were strictly forbidden to urinate in the fire.
During Lent spit boys got to rest for a bit as nobody was allowed to eat meat during that time...

Sunday, 17 July 2005

Pornography in 1660s London

Samuel Pepys

There was no abundance of pornography in Samuel Pepys' London. If you wanted a porno book you had a long search to look forward to and when you eventually found it the likelihood would be that it was in French. Worse still, nine times out of ten it would not be illustrated. Only Aretino's Postures (the title says it all really) was equiped with explicit illustrations, although the British Library copy has had these omitted...
One of the most famous books of this kind was the L'Ecole des Filles which described all kinds of situations, whereas the Dialogue Betwwen Tullia and Octavia took the reader further, into the world of s&m, group sex and other such practices. Rare Verities even went so far as to describe acts of bestiality.

Samuel Pepys, not a man to shy away from the pleasures of the flesh, one day went into his bookseller's shop, where he saw a copy of L'Ecole des Filles:

"...I saw the French book which I did think to have had for my wife to was so bawdy and lewd..."

Apparently he was ashamed to be seen reading it in the shop but eventually, after 3 weeks he managed to get the courage to buy it, in plain cover of course. He read it on a Sunday and wrote:

"...a lewd book, but what doth me no wrong to read for information sake."

After having read it through and through he decided to burn it before his wife had a chance to read it.
Several years later, in 1688, a printer and bookseller were prosecuted and fined for this book.

Saturday, 16 July 2005

Abelard's Eloise on Marriage

Abelard and Heloise

Most have heard of the tragic love story of Heloise and Abelard - (if not then please see my post in the May archives, dated May 6th).

Heloise was unusually educated for a seventeen-year-old girl in the 12th century AD. Her favourite topic was philosophy. After she and Abelard had falled in love, she exchanged numerous letters with him on the nature of love, lost and the meaning of marriage (he wanted to marry her but she did not). Heloise was strongly opposed to the institution of marriage, arguing of "...the basic impossibility of combining marriage and scholarship...".

Heloise was greatly influenced by her Classical studies and she often expressed her disdain for the idea of a woman giving up her independence in order to enter into a profitable marriage. She wrote:

"God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.
A woman should realise that if she desires her husband more for his possessions than for himself, she is offering herself for sale. Certainly any woman who comes to marry through desires of this of this kind deserves wages, not gratitude, for clearly her mind is on the man's property and she would be ready to prostitute herself to a richer man, if she could."

No-matter what Heloise thought of marrigae, Abelard was determined to marry her and so convinced her to secretly marry him in St. Aignan's church...

Friday, 15 July 2005

Tiberius, Orgies and Debauchery


Suetonius has alot to tell us of Tiberius's sexual appetites. (The faint-hearted and sensitive should not read on).

"On retiring to Capri he devised a pleasance for his secret orgies: teams of wantons of both sexes, selected as experts in deviant intercourse and dubbed analists, copulated before him in triple unions to excite his flagging passions. Its bedrooms were furnished with the most salacious paintings and sculptures, as well as with an erotic library, in case a performer should need an illustration of what was required. Then in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this "the old goat's garden," punning on the island's name.
He acquired a reputation for still grosser depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe. For example, he trained little boys (whom he termed tiddlers) to crawl between his thighs when he went swimming and tease him with their licks and nibbles; and unweaned babies he would put to his organ as though to the breast, being by both nature and age rather fond of this form of satisfaction. Left a painting of Parrhasius's depicting Atalanta pleasuring Meleager with her lips on condition that if the theme displeased him he was to have a million sesterces instead, he chose to keep it and actually hung it in his bedroom. The story is also told that once at a sacrifice, attracted by the acolyte's beauty, he lost control of himself and, hardly waiting for the ceremony to end, rushed him off and debauched him and his brother, the flute-player, too; and subsequently, when they complained of the assault, he had their legs broken. "

Thursday, 14 July 2005

Ancient Roman Dress

I think the following website pretty much says it all on the subject. :-)

Wednesday, 13 July 2005

Tiberius Nero: The Father of Emperor Tiberius

Tiberius Claudius Nero was nothing like his suspicious, tyrannical son.

Born in 85 B.C. he was a member of the Claudian family. He was a supporter of Julius Caesar and after he had served as quaestor, Caesar sent him to command his fleet in the Alexandrian War. Tiberius did very well and the battle was won so when he came back home to Rome, Caesar made him a priest (do not think of Christian-style priests, this is more of a political position) and then sent him off to set up colonies in the Roman provinces, mainly Gaul.

After Julius Caesar was assassinated, Tiberius called an amnesty in order to stop senators quarelling with each other and was later made praetor.
As a supporter of Julius Caesar, he was on Mark Anthony's side and not Octavian's. His dislike for Octavian was about to get worse though. In either 43 or 42 B.C. Tiberius married Livia who was also his cousin (this may explain why Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero were all rather unhinged, so to speak, as they were all directly descended from his union with Livia).
Having Octavian as an enemy forced him and his young wife to live a life on the run for three years. When Livia got pregnant for the second time they decided to return to Rome with their 3-year-old son Tiberius (the future emperor). However, when Octavian met Livia all hell broke loose as he fell madly in love with her and wanted to possess her by any means possible. He made no point of hiding his passion for Livia and many scholars think she may indeed be the woman Suetonius says Octavian grabbed duing a banquet and dragged into a nearby room with great urgency. The account says the woman's husband was present at the banquet but obviously Octavian's passion was so great that he did not care about this at all. A while later, the woman is said to have emerged from the room in a dishevelled state and red with embarassement...

Poor Tiberius was now about to lose his wife. It is thought that Octavian applied pressure on him to divorce Livia because on the very same day the couple got divorced, Octavian married her. Shorlty afterwards, in January 38 B.C. Livia gave birth to her second son with Tiberius, Nero Claudius Drusus.

For 5 years until his death in 33 B.C Tiberius raised his sons on his own. When he died the boys were sent to live with their mother and stepfather.

Monday, 11 July 2005

The Duchess of Argyll and the Headless Men

1963 was a year of scandal for British politics. The Profumo case nearly brought the government down and as if that wasn't enough, Duncan Sandys, the son-in-law of Winston Churchill announced that he was going to resign because of some nasty rumours that had been spread about him. What where these rumours about?

Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, was the daughter of a Scottish millionaire. She was brought up in lavish surroundings and had all that she asked for. In the inter-war years she married a wealthy American stockbroker and several years later, during the war, she stepped into an empty lift shaft and suffered horrible injuries. Amazingly she recovered and was able to walk again. However, it was said that her personality had acquired a new trait; she had become utterly promiscuous. Her appetite was said to be insatiable. In 1947 she got a divorce. Shortly afterwars, she met Ian Campbell, the future Duke of Argyll. Margaret wanted a title and Ian needed her cash. The result was their marriage in 1951. Margaret embarked on numerous affairs, many of them simultaneously. The Duke became suspicious. In 1963 he went to her Mayfair flat, while she was away and serached her bedroom. There he found details of a multitude of affairs she had had and was having. She had written about them in her diaries apparently. As if that wasn't enough he also found a Polaroid camera and some photographs she had taken in her bathroom. They showed her wearing nothing but her pearl necklace while performing fellatio on a man. The photos showed him at different states of arousal and each one had a caption on it: "before" - "thinking of you" - "during" - "oh" - "finished", which are really self-explanatory. Upon searching even further, the Duke found more photographs of a man masturbating. The images were all headless.
The Duke of Argyll filed for divorce. In court, he stated the name sof 88 men whom he felt his wife had taken as lovers. The Polaroid photos were used as evidence of Margaret's promiscuous behaviour and Duncan Sandys was rumoured to be either one or both of the men in the pictures.

The Prime Minister persuaded Sandys not to resign and had him sent off to a Harley street doctor in order to have his pubic hair examined. The doctor concluded that Sandy's pubic hair was not the same as that of the man in the photographs. He was in the clear.

The 88 men were narrowed down to 5 and then requested to sign a visitors register. A graphologist was then deployed to establ;ish which one had written the notorious captions. The headless man proved to be teh American actor Douglas Fairbanks Junior, who was also married. Fairbanks never admitted he was the one but the Duke got his divorce. Margaret sank into poverty. Just before she died at teh age of 80, she told a friend: "Of course, sweetie, the only Polaroid camera in the country at this time had been lent to the Ministry of Defence." The said pictures had been taken in 1957 and at that time Duncan Sandys had been the Minister of Defence...

Sunday, 10 July 2005

Suetonius on the Death of Emperor Claudius


"Most people think that Claudius was poisoned; but when and by whom is disputed. Some say that the eunuch Halotus, his official taster, administered the drug while he was dining with the priests in the Citadel; others that Agrippina did so herself at a family banquet, poisoning a dish of mushrooms, his favourite food. An equal dicrepancy exists between teh accounts of what happened next. According to many, he lost his power of speech, suffered frightful pain all night long, and died shortly before dawn. A variant version is that he fell into a coma but vomited up the entire contents of his overloaded stomach and was then poisoned a second time, either by a gruel - the excuse being that he needed food to revive him - or by means of an enema, the excuse being that his bowels required relief and must be emptied too."

Suetonius on the Death of Emperor Claudius


"Most people think that Claudius was poisoned; but when and by whom is disputed. Some say that the eunuch Halotus, his official taster, administered the drug while he was dining with the priests in the Citadel; others that Agrippina did so herself at a family banquet, poisoning a dish of mushrooms, his favourite food. An equal dicrepancy exists between teh accounts of what happened next. According to many, he lost his power of speech, suffered frightful pain all night long, and died shortly before dawn. A variant version is that he fell into a coma but vomited up the entire contents of his overloaded stomach and was then poisoned a second time, either by a gruel - the excuse being that he needed food to revive him - or by means of an enema, the excuse being that his bowels required relief and must be emptied too."

Saturday, 9 July 2005

What Not to Wear, by Elizabeth I

A decree issued by Queen Elizabeth I in 1597 details what people should and should not wear. The decree is very elaborate.
For men:
"Her Majesty doth straightly charge and command that none shall wear in his apparel cloth of gold or silver tissued, silk of colour purple, under the decree of an Earl, except Knights of the Garter in their purple robes only.
None shall wear cloth of gold or silver, tinselled satin, silk or cloth mixed or embroidered with gold or silver, woollen cloth made out of the realm under the degree of a baron, except Knights of the Garter, Privy Counsellors to the Queen's Majesty."

As for women, Elizabeth felt that only countesses could wear cloth of gold or silver tissued, or purple silk, except viscountesses who were allowed to wear cloth of gold or silver tissued in their kirtles only.

Every rank had its own particular way of dressing, textiles that only they could wear.
The poor wore coarse woollen garments...