Saturday, 30 April 2005

"The Piss of a Fox": Early Tobacco Addicts

Shortly after tobacco was first introduced in Europe, it was thought to be beneficial to your health. It was thought to cure a number of ailments and even take away bad breath, although a smoker's wife at the time told her husband: "It makes your breath stink like the piss of a fox!"

In England, smoking tobacco really cought on and by 1577 it was even being grown here. Tobacco leaves were smoked in clay pipes and by the late 1590s one could purchase pre-filled disposable ones suitable for one use only, much like we would get a disposable camera today. The used pipes were then habitually thrown away, many into the Thames river, where nowadays, enthusiasts of uncovering items from the past find them in abundance, immersed in the thick mud left behind by the tide.
A rather disgusting description of the smoking habits of the time gives us the picture: "...they draw the smoke into their mouths which they puff out again through their nostrils like smoke, along with it plenty of phlegm and defluxion from the head." Charming.
A Swiss medical student visiting London in 1599, was told that "the inside of one man's veins after death was found to be covered in soot just like a chimney...".

Interestingly enough, tobacco was much more popular than cannabis of opium, at that time. Cannabis was thought to be a good cure for ear-ache, whereas opium was used mainly to induce sleep. William Turner's instructions of how to deal with an overdose of opium is rather amusing: "For an overdose, make him vomit and administer a sharp clyster [enema] and wake him up by putting stinking things unto his nose".

Reference: "Elizabeth's London: Everyday life in Elizabethan London", by Liza Picard, published by Phoenix.

Friday, 29 April 2005

Double Adultery at Court

Athenais de Montespan was the mistress of Louis XIV. She was extremely clever, beautiful and well educated (which was something of a rarety in her time). Through her role as mistress, she managed to acquire more power than the Queen, therefore being refered to sometimes by historians as the true Queen of France.

Athenais came from an aristocratic family. At a young age she was engaged to a young man whom she was very fond of, an unusual circumstance for those times when arranged marriages were the norm. Unfortunately this man died just before they were to be married. Athenais then had the misfortune of being married off to the Marquis de Montespan, who was always having affairs and managed to get himself into enormous debt. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, but with a focused, ambitious mind and very good looks, she maintained an air of modesty and virtuousness beyond reproach, while she set out to be the King's mistress. Luckily she was already lady in waiting to the King's current mistress, Louise de la Valliere, so it was not difficult to displace her.

King Louis was an insatiable womanizer so he did not take long to notice Athenais. Pretty soon she was having an affair with him while at the same time remaining married to Montespan. This scandalized court and nearly led her to disgrace. She was so quick-witted and had such a powerful hold on the King, that she managed to get her way with alot. Through the years she had nine children, two by Montespan and seven by the King. She managed to get Louis to legitimize all seven of them. She was a patron of the arts (opera, ballet, literature and architecture) and

However, the King did have a roving eye and did not stop putting his fingers in every pie he could get his hands on, so to speak. When accusations of being involved in satanism arose, during the "Affair of the Poisons", she quickly fell from grace and the King's passion for her began to cool down significantly. She was eventually replaced by Madame de Maintenon, the governess to her own children...

Thursday, 28 April 2005

Deadly makeup

Nowadays it is fashionable and desirable to have a tan and people go to extreme lengths to acquire one, baking for hours under the sun or even paying interesting sums of money to be "microwaved" in a tanning pod. However, this passion for tanning was not always so. Indeed, up to the first quarter of the 20th century, tanned skin for a woman, was a considered ugly and not "the done thing". The ideal was to have a white complexion and women went to great extremes in order to achieve this look.

From Medieval times until the middle of the 19th century, white lead called ceruse, was used. The best ceruse was imported from Venice (considered best because it produced the whitest effect). It came in paste form and in order to be applied on the face women would mix it with water or egg-white. They would then apply it with the aid of a damp cloth. Of course, mixing it with egg-white produced the very unfortunate effect of the cracking of the makeup when a woman smiled, so we must therefore assume that dedicated wearers were either content to walk about with cracks on their faces or did not smile at all, like Elizabeth I.
Using ceruse though had other undesirable effects too. For one thing, after a few hours the lead would turn a unsightly grey colour. It also had a depilatory effect, therefore inducing the eyebrows to fall off, permanently, which led users to stick on fake ones made of mouse fur.

However, the worst thing about ceruse was that it was deadly. It was absorbed by the skin and over the years led to lead poisoning, a very serious condition, symptoms of which can be found by clicking here .

For more information on the cosmetic habits of the past, follow the links below.

For more information on where lead can be found today, how we can still get lead poisoning and how to avoid it, click on the following link:

Wednesday, 27 April 2005

Public Lavatories in Rome

Public lavatories did exist in ancient Rome, but they were nothing like what we have today. For one thing, I am using the term 'public' in its most literal sense because there was no such thing as privacy. There were no cubicles to separate those making use of the facilities. The procedure was conducted in full public view. Moreover, it was considered perfectly normal for people to meet there, defecate and discuss the news and gossip of the day - discoursing from both orifices. Despite this openness the surroundings were extremely well decorated - who knows, perhaps in order to inspire the users. The lavatory seats were made of marble, around them there was a continuous flow of water, while above them one could often see niches with little statues of gods, heroes, etc. Sometimes there was even a fountain in the room. However, even at the imperial palace, where one would expect to find privacy in these situations, the lavatories had three seats, side by side.

Tuesday, 26 April 2005

The Legal Status of Women in Restoration London

Women in the Restoration period did not have an enviable legal status. At the age of seven a girl was considered old-enough to be betrothed, while at twelve it was legal for her to be married. Until the "happy" day of her marriage, a girl was almost quite literally owned by her father. If he should have happened to die at some point while she was unmarried, the next head of the family would take her on, (typically the oldest son or the uncle). Of course, marriage did not give her any more independence as she was then the "property" of her husband and legally her status had changed from feme sole to feme covert, while he was called her "baron". A feme covert was thus not allowed to enter into any contracts or even make a will, without the permission of her husband. The law of the time specified: "That which the husband has is his own" and "that which the wife has is the husband's". (How convenient all this was for the husband...).

Reference: "Restoration London: Everyday Life in London 1660 - 1670", by Lisa Picard, published by Phoenix.

Old London Bridge

"London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down..."
Have you ever wondered what the story is behind this well known nursery rhyme? Well, it may not be what you think.

Thoughts of London Bridge usually bring to mind Rennie's bridge, the London Bridge of the mid 1800s, which was sold to an American, dismantled and sent overseas bit by bit and put back together again. You would be justified for bringing to mind this bridge, with it's unusual history, but the one I am talking about has a much grander history.

The construction of Old London Bridge started in the year 1176. It took 33 years to build and was operational from 1209. It consisted of twenty arches and had on it buildings of 3 to 6 floors high, at various times. Yes, people actually lived on this bridge. There were houses, shops and stalls of all kinds - at one time 138 shops were counted on it. On the Southwalk-end side of the bridge the heads and quarters of traitors were prominently displayed on top of tall poles, no doubt as a warning to any new-comers entering the City from the Bridge. There was even a man who lived on the bridge, called the "Keeper of the Heads", who was responsible for re-arranging and adding to the gruesome spectacle. Old exhibits were thrown to the seagulls.

The most extraordinary thing about it is that it was in use for 622 years! There is no other bridge in the world that has been around for that long. It was almost like a fortress as its arches were so small that ships could not get past it and therefore gain access to the rest of the river. In 1831 a decision was made to replace it for a more modern bridge and so it was slowly demolished and replaced by Rennie's bridge. Hereby lie the origins of the famous London Bridge nursery rhyme.

The property on the bridge, as well as the tolls people had to pay to cross it, brought in much money over the years and since 1097 Bridge House Estates has accumulated so much money that it was able to fund the building of the rest of the bridges on the Thames. At present the Bridge House Fund has a portfolio of property worth well over £500 million.

Sex in Elizabethan London

In 16th century London sex outside marriage was widespread. Young men of well to do families were sent off to Italy to receive their "education" and bring back a variety of pornographic books. One of the most famous ones is one by the poet Aretino, who wrote a series of pornographic sonnets. To stimulate further the reader's imagination, the book was illustrated showing various sexual positions. There were plenty of English books with advice on the subject, such as Turner's Herbal, which contained many tips on the use of certain herbs for the purposes of evoking the lustful urges of man and woman. Talking of artichokes he says, "...this herb provoketh lust in women so it abateththe same in men", while saffron boiled in wine , except for repelling moths "keeps a man from drunkenness, but also encourageth into procreation of life" and leeks and onions were also said to stimulate the sexual appetite.
Shakespeare's plays are filled with cryptic references to sex. For example, in Henry V, while Katharine is doing her English lesson, she pronounces the word 'neck' as 'nick', which in those days held a very obscene meaning to it.

Prostitution of course was also very popular and as men have always been prepared to pay extra for having a virgin, the Elizabethans came up with a liquid, which once applied would draw the muscles / tissue very closely together and stiffen them up, thus giving the 'client' the impression of virginity. Henry VIII had closed all brothels in 1546 but his son Edward VI later had them re-opened. The South Bank was the most popular place for brothels, but they could also be found in poverty-stricken areas of Westminster and Shoreditch - even to this day parts of Shoreditch carry on this legacy.

Homosexuality however, was punished by death as it was thought to violate all natural laws. Those expected to be involved in this kind of activity were the Catholic priests, actors and performers of all kinds and of course the local Satanist, who would also profess to having achieved this act with a number of evil spirits...
John Donne reprovingly says of a young man: " rank itchy lust, desire and love, the nakedness and bareness to enjoy, of thy plump muddy whore or prostitute boy".

(Reference: "Elizabeth's London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London", by Liza Picard, published by Phoenix)

Monday, 25 April 2005

Ancient sweets

It is incorrectly assumed that the ancient Greeks and Romans did not know of the existence of sugar. The first reference to sugar is made by the Greek general Nearchus of Crete. He commmanded Alexander the Great's army in 327 B.C. and while he was in what is now known as the Punjab area, he came across sugar. Additionaly, Strabo, the Roman geographer describes "a reed in India [that] brings forth honey without the help of bees...". He also mentions sugar in solid form, describing it as "stones the colour of frankinsense, sweeter than figs or honey". The Greek naturalist and physician Dioscorides spoke of it as "...a kind of solidified honey, called saccharon [Greeks still call sugar sakharo or zahari] found in reeds in India and Arabia Felix, of a similar consistency to salt...". Indeed, it was thought that sugar was a type of salt and we see that even in Medieval times when it was sometimes referred to as "Indian Salt".

Despite the fact that the ancients were aware of sugar, they in fact preferred honey. Sugar was used occasionaly for medicinal reasons only. Roman sweets were called dulcia and were usually pastries made with honey. We can find detailed descriptions of these sweets in Apicius's cookbook, the only one of its kind from that era. Seneca alleges that Apicius had to commit suicide because he had spent all his money on food and the good life. Maybe it is difficult to see why when we read such recipies as dormouse pie. This pie consisted of meat from dormice which had been fed exclusively with figs, hence their flesh was considered to be a sweet. Amongst several such recipies, Apicius describes one in which a stuffed date is filled with nuts, pine kernels and pepper (a highly prized spice for the Romans), then rolled in salt and eventually fried in honey. Adventurous arcaeologists who have tried this say it is delicious. You can judge for yourselves...

Reference: "Sweets: A History of Temptation" by Tim Richardson, published by Bantam Books.


One of my readers has kindly sent me his thoughts on the Roman Emperor Tiberius. I have to say that my personal view of Tiberius does not coincide with this one, but I nevertheless felt that the writer has researched his subject well and his enthusiasm is almost contagious. For this reason I am publishing the essay below.

The writer wishes to be identified by the pseudonym "Light".

Once more, I find myself reasonably bored. So, in the interests of keeping me sane, I'm going to tell you a story...

This is the story of the Poor Oppressed Victim and the Big Bad Roman Emperor. Just to somewhat confuse matters, they're both the same person. Tiberius (or to give him his full name, Tiberius Claudius Nero; bit of a mouthful...) gets something of a shitty deal in the history books. He's now known (when remembered at all) as an Olympic standard sexual pervert and sadist. And I suppose there's a grain of truth in that, but in the interest of striking a blow (or taking a blow; any offers? Any at all?) for historical fairness and showing off, it seems only right to give the opposing view. And besides, with luck you'll find it entertaining.

So, Tiberius was born in 42 BC to Claudius Nero and Livia, a stultifyingly awful woman and poisoner extraordinaire. In attitude, she wasn't a million miles away from her namesake in The Soprano's. He was born in what would politely be called interesting times, and realistically called incredibly scary times. Three gentlemen named Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar had just finished using the Roman Republic as the battleground for settling their long running game of one-upmanship (it was really rather silly;
"Caesar, the noble Pompey has conquered the Greeks and Armenians!"
"Hah! I'll see those countries, and raise him...conquering Gaul and the Britons! How d'you like THEM apples, motherfucker? What say you Crassus? Crassus? Oh...some Syrians seem to have rinsed his mouth out with molten gold...").

Unfortunately, 3 other chaps named Octavian (or Augustus), Lepidus, and Antony enjoyed the game so much that they carried it on. Rome degenerated into a bloodbath, with high society and the foremost Roman Citizens being especially at risk from the mob (it was sort of like the prototype version "I'm a Celebrity; Get Me Out of Here!", with rather more worrying penalties than putting ones hand in a box of centipedes).

Each side attracted supporters, and each side took great pains to cause great pain to the other team. Unsurprisingly, living out the first years of ones life in constant fear of being A: Brutally murdered by the nobles of Rome, B: Brutally murdered by the people of Rome, or C: Being handed over by ones own mother to be brutally murdered instead of her, had rather an adverse effect on the young man. He became quiet, sullen, and surly; think of Kevin the Teenager in a toga and you've got the right idea.

Livia, being wonderfully devious, not only ended up on the winning side of the Roman Civil War, she married the captain of the winning team, the Emperor Augustus (aka. the bad guy from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra). Tiberius was now the Emperors stepson. Huzzah for him, you may think; time to relax, to try (and fail) to build up a wine cellar. However, there's nothing like not knowing whether today will be the last day of your life to put a total dampener on ones celebratory mood. Tiberius wanted a peaceful life out of the public eye and (more importantly) the public lynch mob. He had married a lady named Vipsania, to whom he was devoted, and was spending much of his time studying Greek mythology and literature. If, he reasoned, he made it clear that he had no ambitions beyond academia and raising a family, he'd finally be safe from the assassin's knife.

And if he had a mother who didn't make Margaret Thatcher look like Snow White, he may have been allowed to do so. Livia wasn't satisfied with being the Cherie to Augustus' Tony. She wanted to be the Hilary to his Bill. And she wanted to start a dynasty of Emperors that would guarantee her immortality (literally; she wanted to be made a Goddess in the Roman religion. Not even Thatcher ever went that far...). Guess who her only child was? Yup. So, despite the fact that she and her confidants had used him as the butt of insult after insult during his life, Tiberius found himself being used by his mother as a means to an end for the next 30 years.

Firstly, he was forced to divorce his beloved Vipsania and marry his stepsister Julia (of whom historical records show that she was the first person to have been the subject of the comment "I wouldn't say she was easy, but she had a mattress strapped to her back"). Then he was dragged from his books, and signed up to the army. On the plus side, his elevated status meant he commanded armies rather than fighting in the front line. On the minus side, he had to fight the inhabitants of the Balkans.

In what was an eerie foretaste of every century to come, the people of the Balkans were doing their very best to kill anyone and everyone who wasn't a member of their tribe. Tiberius showed himself to be a superb military commander via the medium of annihilating anyone who crossed them (though curiously, Tiberius' army was once trapped in a valley, and the enemy commander allowed him to withdraw instead of ambushing and destroying the Roman army. I rather thought that was the point of warfare...). However, in deference to the fact that Tiberius did NOT want to be there, he was a strict general who was harsh with his troops. "Let them fear me, so long as they obey me" was his maxim.

Meanwhile, back in Rome, Livia was keeping herself busy. Tiberius' stepbrothers, stepsisters, and anyone else who could be a rival claimant to the Empire succumbed one by one to the numerous cheese and arsenic parties thrown by the evil queen. Thanks to Livia, some were poisoned, some were starved to death, some were exiled, and still others were just plain, old fashioned murdered. The upper classes of Rome were slowly thinned out, and it was all done in the name of making Tiberius the Emperor.

He returned to Rome in the midst of this, where the plots and machinations resembled an Eastenders storyline with additional orgies and murders. He loathed Julia (apparently, he felt that the woman one returns home to shouldn't have vaginal scars and rectal stretchmarks...). He was also afraid for his life; Livia was not the only powerful person who wanted a specific candidate installed as Emperor. With the dark and fearful memories of his childhood still haunting him, the last thing Tiberius wanted was to be put in a position where he was the target for ambitious men.

So he asked Augustus for permission to retire from public life to Rhodes, where he intended to devote the rest of his life to books and studies. Augustus, who had never really like his grim-faced stepson (he used to make jokes about Tiberius' slow chewing movement; I suppose if the Emperor makes a joke then everyone finds it funny) was only too happy to send him away from Rome. Livia, naturally, was furious at this uncharacteristic show of defiance. As a petty revenge, she spread stories about Tiberius' supposed sexual perversions (just how bad does one have to behave to be considered a pervert in a society where orgies were a social occasion?!).

Rhodes didn't provide the sanctuary the Tiberius had hoped. He still feared for his life; now that he was out of the public eye he could be easily disposed of. And he found that the Greeks poked fun at him and his dour manner. After a few years of unhappy retirement, he returned to Rome and public life, a rather more bitter man than he had been when he left.

By this time, Tiberius was the only realistic heir to Augustus. Sensing this, Livia poisoned Augustus (he was ready for her and only ate food he prepared himself; she however was ready for him and poisoned some figs whilst they were still on the tree. What a bitch, eh?) and had Tiberius installed as Emperor. He became the one of the few people to receive supreme power who didn't want it. However, he had spent a lifetime acquiring grudges against those who made fun of him, those who questioned his intellect, and those who had looked at him in a bit of a funny way. He was to be Emperor for 23 years, and by the time he died, not one of those people whom he bore a grudge against had died of natural causes.

At first, he was a slave to Livia's will. He was Emperor, but she ruled. Gradually however, he weaned himself away from her control, and by the time of her death he was pretty much his own man. Although he never felt entirely safe at Rome, he began to appreciate the benefits of power. He also developed a rather fun sense of humour. He delivered every speech and every statement in a deadpan manner, but would intersperse them with surreal and bizarre jokes. No one was ever sure whether he was joking or serious, and people were afraid to do laugh in case it was the latter. I always imagine him to be a bit like Jack Dee at this point. Well, Jack Dee with the power of life and death over millions anyway. maybe it's just me that appreciates his sense of humour! He, however, found their uncertainty and subsequent insecurity hilarious .

In all of this time, the Empire remained secure and stable. He was a fair Emperor to the people (he castigated any governors who set their taxes too high), though the whispers and rumours started by Livia et al never really died away. After 12 years of his reign, he decided to go on a little holiday to the island of Capri. He never came back to Rome for the remaining 11 years he was Emperor. He felt completely secure on his island, and so in the lap of luxury and with absolute power at his disposal, he began to enjoy himself.

I don't doubt that some of the enjoyment was gained from shagging anything with a pulse. By this time, Vipsania had died and he felt no need to restrain himself. He also harboured a hatred of the Empire itself. He never wanted it, and it had ruined his life. But by the same token, it allowed him to get revenge on those who had wronged him (you wouldn't have liked to have been the Greek scholar who had insulted Tiberius back in Rhodes...) and it afforded him a measure of security.

That said, his paranoia was still ever present; a fisherman surprised him on Caprii with a huge fish that he had caught and wanted to present to the Emperor. Tiberius had him beaten with it (inspiration for Monty Python's 'Fish Dance'?), jabbed and poked with crab claws, then threw him off a cliff. All in all, he was not a man to get on the wrong side of.

When he died in 37 AD, he was a mess of contradictions. The paranoia that haunted him from his childhood was now being inflicted on others in the form of treason trials, which saw many innocent people die. He wanted desperately to be a good person, but the disappointments of his life led him to become bitter and twisted; he cheerfully had his own son starved to death, allowed two thugs (Sejanus and Macro) to rule on his behalf. Above all, he hated Rome and it's people. By this time his maxim was "Let them hate me, so long as they obey me". His final revenge on Rome was to adopt the fiercely insane Gaius Caligula as his heir. He said that he was nursing a viper for the bosom of Rome. Caligula's time as Emperor is legendary for it's cruelty and barbarity.

But still, I find myself pitying Tiberius. He wanted a quiet life and because he didn't get it, he made damn sure that no one else did either. As far as I'm concerned, that doesn't make him a beast. It makes him endearingly human.

And thus concludes probably the most whistle-stop treatment that the life of Tiberius has ever been treated too. Now what do I do to stave off boredom?!

I will no doubt as well have something to say about Tiberius, very soon.

Stays, the early 18th Century corset

Stays were the corsets worn by women in the 18th century. They were worn from infancy and were made of thick linnen onto which long, thin pieces of cane or whalebone were sewn vertically. This made the garment very rigid. The stays would end in a point, just above the abdomen and would be laced up at the back as tightly as possible. The garment was so tight around the waist and rib-cage, that movement and breathing was made difficult. (This explains why women fainted so easily..)

Stays would be worn over a white shirt-like garment, which was usually almost knee-length, (knickers had not been invented yet) and the skirt would be fitten under the bottom part of the stays, with the pointed part on the outside. The front panel was meant to be seen and so was often beautifully embroidered and colourfull. Over the skirt, another shirt-like garment would be worn, which would be open in front so you could see the panel and it would be tied to the stays with silk ribbons or just pinned on. This over- shirt would be the same colour and fabric as the skirt and it's hem reached the floor.

At dinner-parties and society events, it was quite common for ladies to pull their stays lower, so as to reveal as much as possible of their bosoms (and believe me, that must have been alot because in their normal position the stays almost revealed the nipple). In those days showing your 'tits' was clearly not scandalous but showing your ankles could have you removed from polite society! Times do change, don't they.

London's 17th Century "Dentists"

If you are dreading a trip to the dentist think again. In 17th century London you had very good reason to. In those days you would be seen to by a man called the "Teeth Inspector", who could be found in fairs and market-places. He had absolutely no academic qualifications and firmly believed that cavities were caused by a worm that made it's lodging in your teeth. If you had a very bad toothache he would usually suggest cauterising the offending nerve with acid, which would also kill both birds with one stone by destroying the tooth as well. If your toothache was so bad that you were howling with pain he might consider extracting the tooth via the use of several grotesque-looking instruments. All this "treatment" was administered in public view and one can say it was seen as a kind of spectacle for curious passers-by.

If you complained that too many teeth had been extracted over the years and you wished you could replace them, the Teeth Inspector had a solution for that as well. He would offer you false teeth made of ivory, bone or even wood. These would be attached to neighboring teeth with wires or silk thread. We do not know how effective these "teeth" were, or if the person was able to eat with them or not, but we do know they were much in demand. The King of France was said to posses a set of these teeth and that they were fully functional, (but of course the French were known for making better teeth than the English at that time). One could also opt for human teeth too, (after the Plague there was an abundance of teeth available in the market).

Sunday, 24 April 2005

Restoration London's surgeons

Restoration London is the period between 1660 and 1670. This period of history witnessed among other things, the Restoration of the monarchy with Charles II, the Great Fire of London and the building of St. Paul's Cathedral by the great architect Christopher Wren. Perhaps the most well-known document of the time is the diary of Samuel Pepys, which provides us with a wealth of information on the everyday life in London of that time. His diary spans almost a decade, from 1660 to 1669, when he had to stop writing because he was losing his eyesight.

Probably one of the most unpleasant times in a person's life in those days, was when they got ill and had to be treated by a surgeon. These were not to be confused with the doctors of the time who were called physicians. Chirurgeons (pronounced 'surgeons') were not especially learned and not regarded as gentlemen, unlike physicians. Their training consisted of a seven-year apprenticeship. They did not attend a university for this. They shared more similarities with barbers as the success of their career was principally based on their skill in using sharp, metal implements. Despite all this, successful surgeons were highly respected in society.

One of the most popular operations surgeons had to perform, was the cutting of the stone. The stones were usually kidney stones in the person's bladder and were apparently very common in the seventeenth century, probably because of the high meat content in the popular diet, as well as the fact that flower was often mixed with chalk (for a whitening effect). Samuel Pepys, in his diary, describes one of these operations as he had to endure one himself. He was only 25 years old at the time. Anaesthesia had not yet been invented, neither had the importance of cleanliness as a preventor of infection been realised. As a result, most people died of either shock from the horrific pain caused by the incision, sepsis caused by the use of infected instruments or both. A surgeon specialising in the removal of these kidney stones had to be extremely quick and dexterous. The patient was put to lie on a table, tied up and then the surgeon would make a quick 3-inch incision. He would have about 50 seconds to find the stone and remove it. The fact that Samuel Pepys survived this monstrous ordeal probably had alot to do with the fact that the table had been scrubbed clean before the operation by his cousin, and most importantly Samuel was the first patient to be seen on that day, so the surgeon's hands and instruments were fairly clean (instruments were not washed in between operations but only at the end of the day).

Intriguing information on everyday life in London at this period of time can be found in Lisa Picard's book "Restoration London".

Interview with Liza Picard.

Saturday, 23 April 2005

Marcus Aurelius's Meditations

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was born in A.D. 121 during the reign of the emperor Hadrian. His parents died young and he was subsequently adopted by his grandfather and at the age of 17 by the emperor Aurelius Antoninus, who was also his uncle and had no sons of his own. Marcus married the emperor's daughter, Faustina, who bore him five children out of which only one survived, the future emperor Commodus (the tyrannical, sadistic, cruel one we see in the film 'Gladiator').
When Aurelius Antoninus died, Marcus succeeded him and made Lucius Verus (another adopted son of the deceased emperor) his co-ruler. It was thus that for the first time ever there were two emperors ruling Rome. Their rule was marked by various natural disasters and also the invasions of Germanic tribes from the north. In A.D. 167 Marcus joined his legions who were fighting these tribes, in the Danube area. He was not happy there and to console himself wrote his thoughts down, which we now know as Meditations. On 17th March A.D. 180 he died of an infection in his camp.

Marcus Aurelius's Meditations see him philosophizing about issues concerning life and death. Here is what he has to say about fame:

"Expressions that were once current have gone out of use nowadays. Names too, that were formerly household words are virually arcahaisms today....All things fade into the storied past, and in a little while are shrouded in oblivion. Even to men whose lives were a blaze of glory this comes to pass; as for the rest, the breath is hardly out of them before, in Homer's words, they are 'lost to sight alike and hearsay'. What, after all, is immortal fame? An empty, hollow thing..."
(Paragraph 33, Book Four, "Marcus Aurelius: Meditations", translated by Maxwell Staniforth, Penguin Classics, 1964)

And some interesting one-liners:

"Look beneath the surface: never let a thing's intrinsic quality or worth escape you."

"To refrain from imitation is the best revenge."

"What is no good for the hive is no good for the bee."

(Paragraphs 3, 6 and 54, Book Seven, op sit)

Friday, 22 April 2005

Roman "ladies" in the morning

Women in ancient Rome, were allot fussier about their morning "toilette" than the men. (This would apply particularly to the rich ladies.) They would awake of course at the same time (sunrise or before). Like the men they would go to bed at night almost fully dressed. However, in the morning unlike the men who were practically ready to step out of the house like that, they would make several additions to their attire, which usually involved a colourful tunic, an elaborate fabric belt around the waist, jewellery (including bracelets, anklets, necklaces and earings).

Before the Roman matron was ready to do this though she would have to "put her face on". This consisted of applying what we would call make-up, only unlike modern make-up this was made of chalk, lead and other such unpleasant and unhealthy ingredients. The chalk and lead were used to whiten the skin, herbal dyes would colour the lips red and ashes mixed with charcoal were used to intensify the eyebrows and outline the eyes.

Of course, you may wonder when both men and women washed, as they didn't seem to do so in the morning. The men would go to the public baths (thermae) later on in the day, usually the early afternoon or evening, whereas the women would go to the baths in the afternoon at a time specifically alloted to them. Once the women had finished bathing and had left, the men were allowed in again. For obvious reasons there were no mixed baths...

Attending to her hair was a rather laborious task which if the lady was rich, was usually carried out by a slave girl who would often be chastized badly if she accidently caused her mistress any pain, did not produce the desired look, or did not manage to get the curls quite right. These unfortunate girls would often be screamed at, beaten with a leather strap or worse. Lucky was the girl whose mistress was bald as she would only have to apply a pre-styled wig to her head..
Hairstyles ranged from the simple to the outrageously elaborate and there are stories of ladies who had tier upon tier of curls piled up on their head so that they looked rather ridiculous. (One can only imagine what an arduous task this would have been for the unfortunate slave-girl...).

Thursday, 21 April 2005

Dangerous Barbers!

A Roman's relationship with his barber was crucial; the trimming of the beard was almost of religious significance and the utensils the barber used could be deadly with one accidental slip of the hand! Indeed, many were those who had their face sliced off due to the carelessness of their barbers! There was no use of softening lotion or soap; only water was used to soften the bristles. As a result the experience would often be painful. The poorer folk were known to spit on their shaving blade in order to "lubricate" it.

As soon as a young man had grown enough beard to have it shaven off he would be sent to the barber for an almost ritualistic acting out of this deed. The Emperor Augustus had his taken off whe he was 23 whereas both Caligula and Nero did it when they took the Toga Virillis. Nero had his shaved-off bits sealed in a gold box even! Of course all young men in Rome would then follow the same example (much the same as young people of today who immitate habits of celebrities...).

Wednesday, 20 April 2005

How Romans started the day

Ancient Romans did not like to stay in bed in the morning. In fact, anyone who did opt f0r a lie-in was treated with contempt and probably suspected of being a drunken lout!
Romans typically woke up every day at sunrise. The Emperor Vespasian in fact preferred to rise before sunrise and plan who and what he was going to deal with and see to any paperwork.

The Roman bedroom was a simple, small room, not made to encourage anyone to want to stay in it for longer than was thought necessary. It was very much a functional room in the sense that it was just a place for the Roman to sleep at night. The shutters were thick and dark and when shut left the room in absolute darkness, so as to encourage sleep.
And if you thought that was rather Spartan and strict, the Roman bed was no cause for celebration either. It was usually a simple wooden affair, more like a sofa. The rich may have had a mattress consisting of swan's down, whereas the poor would have to make do with a hay-filled mattress. A coverlet would be flung on top of that and that was basically it! (No comfy soft pillows to relax on!).

In the morning the Roman would get up at sunrise. Those with slaves would be awakened by the hustle and bustle of cleaning; noises of brooms clattering about, sweeping and wiping to get rid of any dust from the previous day! The poor would be awakened by the noise from the streets outside, as the whole city went about its daily business. "To be alive is to be awake" was a how Romans thought.

There was no such thing as having a wash, a bath or breakfast. No no, you just got out of bed, slipped into your tunic and flung your toga on, drank a big glassful of water (all in one breath) and you were ready for the day! (I'd rather have bacon and eggs myself...).

Mid morning was considered to be from 8am to 9am and at this time the Roman would make his way to the Forum to catch up on the news, gossip and maybe do some networking.

Tuesday, 19 April 2005

Fascinating History

Welcome to my Blog!

Posts on this blog will be dedicated to the strange, intriguing, interesting and sometimes fascinating aspects of how people lived their lives in past times. A particular focus will be Ancient Rome but other times and places will be explored too.

I hope you find these bits of information as interesting as I do! Stay tuned for my first post!