Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Theater, in England as in ancient Greece, originally was an expression of religion. Scholars pin the beginning of English theater at about 960 and identify the Quem Queritis as the first play. An Easter presentation, it's an enactment of the Three Marys coming to Jesus' tomb and finding the Angel. A priest, dressed in white, sat on the church's altar as three enactors approached: monks or priests dressed as women, or, in a convent, nuns played the Marys.
Here's the whole text of the play: “Quem queritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae?” “Whom do you seek, o Christians?” The women respond, “Ihesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o Coelicolae.” “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, o Celestial.” He replies, “Non est hic: surrexit sicut preadixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro.”
“He is not here: He has risen, as he predicted. Go, announce that he has risen from the tomb.”
That's the whole thing. The play was soon adapted for Christmas, the seekers coming to Christ's manger. The great popularity of such enactments led to their proliferation, but in the thirteenth century Pope Innocent III banned the clergy from performing or permitting such enactments within the church building itself.
Church performances merely moved to the porches and outer steps or to freestanding stages in public marketplaces, where they were displayed on feast days and performed by honored members of the parish. Interestingly, women seem to have performed the female roles, although, when professional theater developed in the 16th century, female roles were performed by adolescent boys and women were banned from the stage.
Early on these theatricals took two forms, scripted enactments and tableaux or “living pictures.” We know of an Adam and Eve in Paradise tableau from its mention in the Chronica Majora, which tells us that in January, 1236, King Henry III's wedding procession passed through the play's Gate of Paradise, complete with nearly naked Adam and Eve greeting him and his bride, and no doubt shivering in the snow. This play apparently was leant to Henry's festivities by Saint Paul's Cathedral.
The mouth of Hell was particularly popular, possibly also for its theatrical nudity of both sexes. Somehow the fact that the people don't move seems to have made nudity in tableaux acceptable.
Separately, the London Guilds began their own forms of theatricals. The guilds, which were religious as well as mercantile and craft organizations, produced plays and tableaux of their patron saints. These, in contrast to the performances belonging to the churches -- these last called Mystery Plays -- have come to be known as Miracle Plays. Less is know about the early development of the tableaux as they had no scripts and the ledgers that would have recorded their costs probably were lost in the various conflagrations London suffered.
The guilds' theatricals were mounted on what are now referred to as pageant wagons, which were paraded through city streets during religious festivals. There are abundant illustrations of the later pageant wagons: sometimes quite elaborate vehicles with settings as backdrops for costumed players frozen in poses associated with each guild's patron saint, or enacting a significant moment in the saint's life. Occasionally the saint's “play” was combined with a tableau of the Life of Christ, as in the case of the pageant wagon below, where the Nativity is pictured at the back of the wagon, guilds' saints at the front and on the sides.
Simultaneous to the flowering of the tableaux were the guilds' Miracle Plays, centered upon the guilds' various patron saints.
As the tableaux were becoming more elaborated, so were the Mystery Plays dealing with scenes from the New Testament. The Coventry cycle consisted of ten plays depicting the life of Christ. Here is a Christ being judged by Pontius Pilate.
The York Cycle apparently consisted of forty-eight plays. The plays continued as popular entertainment during appropriate church holidays until they were banned in the late 16th century.
By then a variety of Mystery Play had developed that suggests a bawdy forerunner of Shakespeare's scenes designed to appeal to the “groundlings.” The surviving Second Play of the Shepherds of the Wakefield Cycle serves as an example. Here the central characters are a husband and wife, Mac and Gill, who are thieves. Three shepherds come to Mac's cottage searching for their stolen lamb. Mac tells them his wife has just given birth and mustn't be disturbed, but the shepherds find their lamb wrapped up as the “new born” in Gill's cradle. After punishing Mac by tossing him in a blanket, the shepherds return to their flocks, and an angel announces to them the birth of the Savior in Bethlehem. To a modern sensibility this takeoff on the Virgin Birth of the Lamb of God is rather stunning, and perhaps explains in part why the Mystery Plays eventually were closed down.
Note: the pictures included here date from the 15th to the 19th centuries. There are no know illustrations of the early plays.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
When we imagine the history of Great Britain we think of the separate classes of people -- peerage, gentry, the middling sort and the servants -- as being very static. To a large degree that was the case. Yet unlike many nations, in England some degree of upward mobility was possible (at least historically!)
James Cook, one of five children born to the wife of a Scottish farm laborer in Marston, Yorkshire, was not born a gentleman with title or income but he made the most of his talents and the most of his opportunities in life. Young James went to sea as a teenager, working aboard a collier out of Whitby, hauling coal from Newcastle. When the Seven Years War began Cook joined the Royal Navy where he rose to the rank of captain on his merit.
A self-taught cartographer, Cook's talents were put to use making detailed maps of Newfoundland in battles against France which gained him the recognition of his superiors and also the recognition of the Royal Society. He was given command of the Endeavour, a re-named converted collier sent on a secret mission to look for a lost continent and to observe the transit of Venus, a measurement needed to estimate the distance of the earth from the sun.
Captain Cook would command three scientific voyages of exploration across largely uncharted or poorly charted areas of the planet, making better maps and astronomical observations in great detail. He would not find the mythical continent geographers of the day thought existed -- nor would he find the Northwest Passage, but his explorations and his detailed charts were important to Britain, and the the entire Western World.
In the 18th century scurvy killed more sailors than did battles. Scurvy would not be fully understood until 1932 ascorbic acid was identified. Yet none of Cook's crew died from scurvy, in spite of prolonged voyages. Cook took a shotgun approach to prevention, ordering his crews to drink malt and spruce beer which he believed to have anti scorbutic properties. Although these particular substances are now known to have no real effect in preventing the vitamin deficiency, what probably contributed greatly to the relative good health of his men was Cook's insistence that the crew eat fresh, local foods at every opportunity (he was a "local-vore" way ahead of his time!) For a good scholarly article on 18th-century ideas of scurvy remedies see Brett Stubbs'
Captain Cook's Beer; the anti scorbutic use of malt and beer in late 18th century sea voyages.
For his contribution to the greater body of scientific knowledge Captain James Cook was inducted as a fellow of the Royal Society, a rare honor in those days for the son of a farm laborer to achieve.
By most accounts James Cook was a fair and humane captain, a superb navigator and cartographer, a dedicated explorer and an all-round exemplary naval officer. He was a husband and father of six children, though absent for years at a time.
Elizabeth Batts Cook, wife of James, lived into her nineties.
Cook's ships were not warships and with few exceptions they were welcomed by most of the Island Nations, who were quick to embrace Western friendship and technology. But on his third voyage and circumnavigation a string of misunderstandings and poor decisions led to a skirmish during which the famed navigator was killed by the Hawaiians. The event did NOT lead to war. On the contrary, the Kingdom of Hawaii remained on good terms with the British, incorporating the design of the Union Jack into their own flag.
Cook left a wealth of knowledge and an example for explorers that was not always followed during the colonial expansion to follow. Numerous memorials around the world have been dedicated to Captain James Cook, RN. Here are two, representing the beginning of his life in Yorkshire, and the end, half a world away in Hawaii.
In October of 1999, Bob and I had the opportunity of a lifetime. We signed on as voyage crew members aboard His Majesty's Bark Endeavour, an Australian-built replica of the famed Whitby converted coal carrier, for a three-week crossing from Vancouver to Hawaii. The Endeavour Replica is a floating museum that circumnavigated the globe twice, stopping at many ports along the way. She is now berthed in Sidney, Australia, where she occasionally circumnavigates the continent that Cook painstakingly charted.
Click here to find out how you can sail about HMB Endeavour Replica.
For more information about my experiences aboard HMB Endeavour please visit my website and my author's blog. Three weeks as an 18th-century seaman inspired my first historical fiction novel Star-Crossed, published by Knopf, and my second book Surgeon's Mate, published in 2011 by Fireship Press.
Monday, November 28, 2011
The giveaway runs through Sunday midnight PST.
‘Privy & Privation: A Handsome History of Health & Hygiene in Regaustenian* Times’ by Lady A~, Authoress of ‘The Bath Novels of Lady A~’ Collection.
Does the ‘drawing-room’ trap of Jane Austen’s Regency world lure you, time and time again, to the romantically alluring? How often have you positively dribbled over a delicious adaptation of one of her novels, dreaming of an escape to the elegant harmony of some great, green country estate to be waited on by scores of underlings and pursued by creatures with Osbaldeston cravats and ‘ten thousand’ a year? It is so easy to escape to that fantasy, is it not (?)—and is very probably why we do it time and time again, ad nauseam. Being an Anglophile with a number of self-confessed quirks, I must admit to another, I don’t ever think of the romance without considering first the privations of the English Regency. What really lay below the surface of all of that harmony? Indeed, what was it really like to live, love and ‘lolleth’ in a time when proper indoor sanitation and electricity were as far-fetched as a mission to Mars? Although some elite, modernist households did have bathrooms and ‘water closets’, Jane Austen’s cousin, Eliza Austen (née Hancock), very likely being one of them, the ‘luxury of piped water’ was just that, pure luxury.
Photo by Mjroots
Although Albert Giblin’s ‘Silent Valveless Water Waste Preventer’, a siphon-like discharging system, helped flush away waste woes rather woefully in 1819, the trend in homes, especially those in the country, was to have one’s ‘loo’ stashed under the bed in the form of a ‘potty’ (chamber pot) or, as in Jane’s Chawton Cottage, a ‘long-drop’ or privy with an (improved!) cesspit. The idea of suffering with any colonic disorder or, as Jane’s brother Edward so euphemistically called it, ‘Bowel complaints’—in such primitive conditions—quite defies decorum! I once spent some time with friends in their seaside cottage along the southern African coast and was treated to the joys of just such a ‘privy’—ooh! Ne’er again! Now swoop back 200 years and imagine what the poor servants had to face in their daily duties and what the area around the outhouses must have smelled like! Though they were often built a good deal away from the house, or had sweet-smelling herbs or shrubs planted thereabouts (e.g. lilac), there was little to ably mask the stench of these privies' overflowing cesspits. And when homes were privileged enough to have what resembled a ‘toilet’, the piping systems were often so ineffectual that even Elizabeth Bennet’s ‘country town indifference’ must have taken a dint from the resulting emanation of egregious fumes!
Personal hygiene was also quite a challenge and is evidenced, for example, in Jane Austen’s wincing remark about a common acquaintance’s very bad breath. From head to foot, what was one to do about being an appealing hero or heroine in the blood sport of Regency courtship? Dental hygiene must have been a topper amongst those concerns because how sweet could those stolen kisses really have been? Gentlemen, in particular, were known to overindulge in everything from spicy food to alcohol and the accumulation of such hedonism on their breath, combined with a popular indifference to full-body bathing, when coming to fraternize with the ladies, after dinner or supper, must have been dizzying indeed. Added to that, the odor of tobacco from their regular partaking in snuff (sniffing tobacco) might also have put the ladies in a swoon. In fact, if one had any fear of such malodorous maladies, it would have been better to hit on a dandy—a gentleman Georgian fashionista. Beau Brummel, a renowned dandy who once famously disparaged the Prince Regent over his rather ‘too-full’ figure, was generally acknowledged as encouraging his followers to a daily bathing regime and other practices of cleanliness. At least with a dandy like Beau the chances of a sweeter breath, ameliorated body odor, and the like, were greater on a scale of one to ‘phew’! Given that the dandy probably would have been at his toilette (the task of titivating one’s person) a good deal longer than any lady, perhaps, however, not as attractive in his raw appeal as the Regency ‘Buck’!
William Holland's Copper Bateau Bath
This brings me directly to the scene in the BBC’s ‘95 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Darcy arises out of a copper bateau bath as fresh as a dandy, but still quite manly, as he proceeds to keenly observe a playful Elizabeth outside (whilst drying off). I couldn’t help thinking how that scene must have been inserted deliberately to enhance the palpable sexual tension, but also to wipe away any concerns we modern lovers of Austen might have had over the personal hygiene of our fabulous hero. It almost goes to the quick of his character, doesn’t it? A metaphor to reveal all the superlative ‘spangles’ of Darcy’s progressive, heroic, noble nature.
That delectable diversion aside, the Bucks were a tawdry lot. Relieving oneself in a potty, placed right inside the dining room (behind a screen), following excessive bouts of after-dinner drinking, for instance, was just one of the less-than-hygienic practices for which the Bucks were infamous.
But this is not to say that, in the arena of hygiene, these fashionable hellraisers could not be very prettily rivaled by the ladies! Just as a combination of testosterone and primitive sanitation brought out the worst of robust male humanity, the gender of the fairer sex formed a rather lethal combination with similarly bad science. Indeed how was a lady to make herself attractive and feminine in trying to ameliorate the likes of rank body odor, rotten teeth and pock-marked skin? Unlike the lovely fresh gals portrayed in Austen’s novels, these distasteful realities, facing all Regency ladies, were prevalent detractors in the art of attraction.
Austen’s sister-in-law, Mary, for example, was badly scarred from a bout of smallpox; not an uncommon blight amongst the gentry who were just as susceptible to the disease as were their poorer counterparts. Thus, to combat what was quite naturally nasty, some rudimentary ‘innovations’ helped fill in the proverbial cracks for Mary, and gentleladies in general. In keeping with a trend to move away from the dastardly and startling effects of lead-paint powders to whiten the skin, foundations with natural and pearlized tints became the rage and palliative skin care was encouraged with the likes of ‘Gowlands’ (so memorably mentioned by Sir Walter in Persuasion). His reference too, to ‘rouge’, pink- (derived from safflower and alkanet) and red-tinted (derived from carmine) blushes, to spice up Lady Russell’s pasty colored cheeks, was also ‘trending’ in Bath at the time. And for the lips—‘Rose Lip Salve’ was a winner for plumping and adding color. Eyeliner, mascaras and eyebrow tint were becoming similarly fashionable, but were extremely garish thanks to their being invariably fashioned out of soot dust and oil—or even burnt cork! (At least this beat the rage of the Rococo era where rodent hide sufficed very well for false eyebrows!). All in all not much to beat a defacing brush with disease.
Napoleon Bonaparte's Toothbrush-The Wellcome Collection
But what then was a girl to do? Well, a lady’s ‘ring of confidence’ wasn’t anything much to fall back on, I assure you! Rotting teeth were dealt with upon an extraction-only basis, while tooth powders/gums, toothpicks and tooth-brushing (with unsanitary toothbrushes or sponges) were the only solutions to prolific gum disease; and chewing mint or comfits the only hope of alleviating the associated bad breath. Dentists of the English Regency were literally ‘smithys’ of the mouth and Jane Austen affirms this by declaring, quite candidly, that she would not have one look at her teeth ‘for a sixpence, or double it’!
Body odor was yet another ‘hum’-dinger in the Regency. Being a more problematic and sensitive condition for women, and because of the very ‘femininity’ that they strove to portray, sweaty armpits might have done very well for the sport-hungry Bucks, but the lasses wanted none of them. The solutions? Lemon juice was employed as an underarm deodorant, and, if there was a bath in the house, and one was lowest on the scale of genteel ladies present, that gal would find herself bathing in the (cold) dirty water used by several ladies before her; all while dressed in a linen tunic! Shampoos were comprised of rum, eggs and ‘rose water’, and when it came to the ‘menarche’ as Eliza Austen so delicately put it, sometimes a week’s confinement to one’s room with a ‘headache’ was the only solution to cope discreetly with monthly periods and the primitive, reusable ‘napkins’ (resembling rags) provided to stem them!
In retrospect, if any of we spoiled, self-confessed, modern 'Georgians' were to properly recapture the decided lack of hygiene of our Regency predecessors, the experience would, in Jane-speak, be nothing less than 'amazing horrid' (as evidenced in the marvelous Regency House Party)! So the next time you unfurl those delicious pages of Austen's most sparkling novel, you might dare to conjecture what Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy might really have looked and smelled like. Pride and Prejudice—zombies?
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Sunday, November 27, 2011
Scene 1 : 1770, London; Arabella sits down at her writing desk, extracts the envelope which she placed in the drawer earlier, and fingers trembling, inserts the paper-knife and cuts eagerly across the top of the envelope, pulling out the beautifully written letter and starts to read…’
My great (x4) grandfather Richard Hall’s pen knife (literally: knife for sharpening quill pens)
Fact or fiction? Almost certainly fiction, since the use of envelopes was almost unheard of at that time! Why? Because envelopes did not make a significant appearance until Rowland Hill’s reform of the Post office in 1840. Prior to that date only the very wealthy, or terminally stupid, would have used envelopes (which would have had to have been made by hand). The reason was that postal rates were fixed not by weight but by the number of sheets of paper. Why use an envelope, which counted as a separate sheet, when the address could be written on one section of the main letter, and folded into place? Known as ‘entires’ by modern collectors, these letters, usually of a single sheet of paper, would be folded into three, then the ‘wings’ tucked in at the back so that the address could be written clearly on the face of the entire. Unfolding it, the writer would then fill every part of the letter, often turning it sideways to fill in the inside of the wings. Once the letter was finished it would be sealed across the back so that the wings could not be opened up. The seal, made of wax, was known as a wafer.
One of the people called to give evidence to the Select Committee on Postal Reform in 1838 was the paper maker John Dickinson. He referred to ‘the new fashioned envelope with the four corners of the paper meeting under the seal’. In other words at that stage envelopes existed but were not in widespread use. The upshot of the parliamentary deliberations was that Hill’s proposals were largely accepted. Gone was the idea of the recipient paying for the letter. Instead the sender would pay a uniform rate of one penny. Gone was the need to count sheets of paper, or to frank the envelope, and the cost of delivery was drastically reduced because Hill was convinced that this would result in a massive increase in volume which in turn would bring down the cost to the Post Office of delivering each item.
Before long, in back offices up and down the country, it was customary for a clerk to laboriously cut out an envelope-shape on paper, using a tin template. He would cut through perhaps two dozen sheets at a time, using a craft tool or sharp knife. The cut-outs would then be passed to another clerk for folding, and then to another for the side triangles to be glued together. The result: an envelope which ensured that the contents remained secure, private, and protected from the elements. The first envelope-folding machine in this country resulted from a collaboration between Rowland Hill’s kid brother Edwin and Warren de la Rue in 1840 (i.e. almost immediately after the postage stamp was introduced, when it quickly became apparent that hand-made envelopes could not keep pace with the new demand). Various other people came up with design improvements, and by the mid 1850’s the modern envelope was being churned out by the million.
There is a rather nice story as to why Rowland Hill was so passionate about reforming the postal system. He explained to a parliamentary committee that he was inspired by the plight of a poor servant girl who was observed receiving a letter. Unable to pay the required fee of one shilling she turned the letter round in her hand for a few seconds before returning it to the postman, declining to accept it because of the not inconsiderable cost. Horrified that such a potentially valuable and important missive should go unread for the sake of twelve pence, the gallant Rowland dashed forward and paid the fee, expecting gushing thanks from the grateful servant. Not so, for she seemed not to care one way or the other. When challenged as to her indifference she replied that she knew who it was from and when looking at the marks on the outside of the envelope could quite readily work out the contents, and had no need to pay a fee. It reminds me of the time when phone calls from a public phone box gave the caller a chance to Press Button A or B –and in that time you could just about shout a brief message for free down the line before being cut off!
Addendum:The window envelope? Patented 1902 by an American (what else could he be) called Americus Callahan. And airmail? The first mail to be delivered by air was in January 1785 in a cross channel balloon flight from Dover to Calais, carrying a letter from William Franklin addressed to Benjamin Franklin’s grandson. The first aerogramme i.e. an envelope specifically designed for the purpose and which opens up to become a letter is surprisingly modern – it was first issued in Iraq in 1933.
Dickens, with Nicholas Nickleby (1839) and Thackeray in Vanity Fair (1848) both refer to the use the black edged envelopes as bringing news of a bereavement. The mourning envelope became part of the ritual of coping with death, and would be used by the family of the bereaved for up to 12 months (except for business letters which were always on plain white paper).
Mike Rendell does a blog, three or four times a week, on all matters linked to the Georgian era. You can also visit his website.