Tuesday 11 December 2012

To Bring on the Flowers: Medieval Women Menstruating.

 It happened once a month for most of their adults lives. So, on a practical level, how did medieval women cope with menstruation and how was it seen by society in general?
                                                 Women in a fifteenth century Italian breviary

Firstly, it may be the case that a modern perspective underestimates the medieval woman by even asking the question “how did they cope?” Just as today, it was a part of life which routinely had to be dealt with; perhaps the average medieval and Tudor woman was more pragmatic about her bodily fluids in a world which contained less privacy and a greater emphasis on the functions of fertility. Was the monthly period considered a “curse” or in fact a blessing that marked an important transition to womanhood and the ability to bear children? Herbals make reference to the “flowers;” an image which has far more positive connotations of blossoming and growth than later, nineteenth century monikers, yet it is clear that women were self-conscious at the time of their menses and took steps to avoid detection. Menstruating women carried round nutmegs and nosegays to conceal any arising odours, as the corrosive power of the female reproductive fluids, transmittable through smell, constituted a real fear at the time. To stem a heavy flow, women were advised to take the hair from an animal’s head and bind it to a “green” or young tree; another “proven” remedy advocated burning a toad in a pot and wearing the powder in a pouch around the waist. If this failed, recipes using comfrey, nettle and blackberry, alongside the repetition of “magical” numerical formulae were suggested. This was mainly in response to social reactions, determined by the church, which defined the menstruating woman as unclean.

Church teaching encompassed a variety of beliefs in the unsavoury and potentially damaging nature of menstrual blood. It was a punishment from God that all women had to bear as a result of Eve's temptation, therefore pain relief was not allowed as cramping and suffering was part of the divine plan. Holy women, fasting and abstemious, often found that their periods stopped, which was interpreted more as a sign of favour than a response to their restricted diet. As a function of a wider cultural misogyny, these were disseminated in different degrees between parishes but included the ideas that women should not take Holy Communion during their time of the month and that couples should refrain from sexual intercourse during this time, as any children born to them would be red-haired and puny. Menstrual blood was also feared by men as a corrosive forces representative of female power. One belief stated that it could damage the penis on contact, or that men might unsuspectingly consume it in love potions! It had the power to turn new wine sour, make fruit fall from trees, kill bee hives, give dogs rabies and make crops turn barren. A child in a cradle could be poisoned by the gaze of an old, pre-menopausal woman, whose accumulation of blood would lead to poisonous vapours being given off by her eyes!  The overactive female cycle was also considered to play a significant part in the creation of stillborn or unformed foetuses or “moles.” There were some living and some dead moles, thought to occur when the man’s seed was weak, barren or imperfect; or that it had been choked through the abundance of menstrual blood. As one of a number of mysterious maternal excretions, including placentas, umbilical cords and birth cauls, the supposed “magical” properties of female blood were treated with suspicion by those excluded from the birth chamber.

 Medieval and Tudor surgeons did not fully understand the role that menstruation played in the reproductive cycle. Women were possessed of imperfect or inverted versions of male reproductive organs, with their cold and wet “seed” emitted to mingle with that of the hot, dry male, resulting in conception. The courses were understood to be the body’s method of shedding unnecessary, accumulated blood, without which, the womb would become overrun with fluid and could “choke” or “suffocate” a woman. Bleeding from a vein or any other part of the body was considered the same as menstrual bleeding, a means of removing the dangerous excess, meaning that the practise of barber surgeons opening patients’ veins was seen as a suitable cure for amenorrhea, or the cessation of the courses. Bleeding a patient was the most common way to treat this condition, to prevent consumption by body heat and the development of “mannish” characteristics. Among many beliefs regarding the female cycle, was that the failure to menstruate made a woman dangerously “masculine” and prone to many forms of madness and fits. Other remedies included hot baths, pessaries placed in the vagina or, for married women, intercourse. Trotula of Salerno wrote that a woman who failed to menstruate as the result of fasting should eat good food and drink to “give her good blood.” Women of all classes would have had recourse to herbal remedies too. The regularity with which commonplace books contain recipes to “bring on a woman’s courses,” suggest this must have been a common problem. The herb rue, drunk in the evening was supposed to be particularly effective, as were savin and mixtures of wine and hyssop. Shepherd’s purse, St John’s wort, Bishop’s weed and wallflower were all suggested and could be found growing wild, according to one medieval Herbarium. A 1476 medical text included recipes for inducing menstruation with a blend of soda, figs, garlic seed, myrrh and lily ointment, or else pulped cucumber flesh mixed in milk. These could be drunk or inserted into the vagina on pessaries of soft wool. Others suggested dates, hazelnuts and saffron.  Fine lines demarcated their administration: it was safe to drink rue in the evening but lethal in the morning.

  There is no doubt that the onset of menstruation marked an important stage in determining the transition from childhood to womanhood in the medieval and Tudor marriage stakes. The age of consent, set variously at between twelve and fourteen throughout Europe, appears commensurate with the arrival of the menarche. It was also a class-dependent issue, as a certain weight and percentage of body fat was required to trigger the first period. Young women of the upper classes, leading less physically active lives and eating a higher proportion of meat were considered by their contemporaries to commence their cycles earlier and bleed more heavily. Margaret Beaufort was clearly menstruating before her teens as she gave birth to the future Henry VII at the age of thirteen in 1457. Those lower class females whose lives were more physically active and diets comprised more vegetables started their cycles later, a fact which is borne out in the statistics relating to the age of marriage, although these are also determined by many other economic and social factors.

 At the other end of the age range, the onset of the menopause appears to have been much earlier than today. Patterns of births to upper class women suggest that this happened in the mid to late thirties, having been brought forward by frequent childbirth. Catherine of Aragon’s menopause came in 1525/6 when she was 40, after six pregnancies, but many of her contemporaries who bore in excess of ten children did not reproduce after around the age of thirty-five. For many, death rapidly followed, when they were in their late thirties or early forties. Mary Rose, Henry VII’s younger sister bore four children, between the ages of twenty and twenty-seven and died a decade later. His elder sister Margaret fared better, bearing her seventh child at the age of twenty-six and surviving for the same number of years again. Elizabeth of York, Duchess of Suffolk bore at least eleven children, between the ages of eighteen and thirty-six. The final cessation of the monthly period and arrival of the menopause would have left women more vulnerable to certain illnesses then, just as it does today.

  Returning to the purely practical aspect of menstruation, women of all classes needed some method of absorbing blood flow. Well into the twentieth century, the age-old “rags” were used, torn and stuffed between the legs, although they were dependent upon the use of some form of girdle of underwear to hold them in place. Trotula refers to wads of cotton being used to clean the female genitals, inside and out. Certains types of moss were also used to absord the blood flow from wounds and may well have also been used by women to staunch their flow as well as filling for washable cloth pads. Other recent suggestions have included cloth tampons, anointed with honey and oil, with a tie around the thigh. The traditional red coloured petticoats, worn next to the skin under many layers of skirts may have owed their existence in part to a desire to minimise and absorb stains. Those engaged in manual work or physical activity must have had some way of ensuring their rags or pads remained in place. The discovery of a very modern looking pair of pants in an Austrian castle in 2008 suggests that such support was available, although the nature of medieval and Tudor undergarments still leaves many questions unanswered. Perhaps some women did retire for physical or religious reasons, for the duration of their menstruation, considering themselves unclean or incapacitated. For others, there was little choice but to carry on and put their trust in whatever remedies were available to them. The secret washing of “rags” and numerous customs regarding the nature and odour of menstrual blood imply that periods were a mixed blessing for the medieval and Tudor woman. They were an important rite of passage in an era which placed a high value on fertility yet they were also a source of shame and inconvenience. Typically though, this paradox fits much of the historic female experience, with women encouraged to define their bodies through masculine eyes and to lose ownership over their own natural functions. Medieval and Tudor women did not record their experiences of their “flowers;” they are referred to, often euphemistically in medical texts, yet for females of all classes and a range of ages, it was simply a necessary part of life upon which their society depended.



Sunday 11 November 2012

Saturday 10 November 2012

Bring up the (Animal) Bodies: Martinmas Day.

The modern world remembers November 11 for marking the end of the First World War, but celebrations on that day were nothing new: in fact, the date had been an important one in the calendar for centuries. Commemorating the life of St Martin of Tours, a fourth century Roman soldier who converted to Christianity, it became known as Martinmas, the “blood-month” when across medieval Europe, animals were slaughtered for the winter. It was one of the last opportunities to eat fresh meat before the rest was dried and salted, as “Martinmas beef” and marked a final spree before the forty day fast of advent.  Legend has it that Martin’s hiding place was betrayed by the cackling of a goose, so goose suppers were common. Often an ox was killed and the meat given to the poor, whose patron St Martin was, in memory of his martyrdom which supposedly saw him “carved up” like an animal. St Martin was also the patron saint of tavern owners and wine growers, so it was traditionally the day that the new wines were tasted after harvest. It was a significant turning point in the farming calendar, which dictated the rhythm of so much of medieval work and ritual, after which winter had formally begun. Providing the harvest had been successful and the animals healthy, it must have been a time of plenty.  However, the weather on the day was taken to be an indication of the harshness of the season to come and the medieval peasant knew that hard times were coming.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

When breast wasn't best: Breastfeeding in Medieval and Tudor England

                                    "Caritas" by Lucas Cranach the elder, early C16th

 The medieval manuscript “Le Chanson du Chevalier du Cygne et du Godefroid du Bouillon” tells the story of the eleventh century Count Eustace and his wife Ydain, Yde or Ida, who bore him three sons. She was considered unusual for insisting on suckling her babies herself: “never did Countess Yde…suffer that one of her sons… should be suckled by a waiting-woman.” When one boy was fed by another as she attended Mass, she suffered an extreme physical reaction: “all her heart shook” and she fell on a seat in pain, gasping her heart and calling herself a “poor leper.” Then, trembling in a rage, with her face “black as coal with the wrath therein” this “saintly and devout” Countess shook her son until he vomited up his feed. Today, this might be considered abusive; then, it was an example of the behaviour that led to her canonisation! However, not all medieval and Tudor women responded in this way. Yde’s was a fairly extreme reaction and completely atypical of most of her contemporaries’ experiences. Much of the surviving evidence suggests they were keen to pass on their newborns to wet nurses as soon as possible.
Gerard David, Rest during the Flight to Egypt, ca. 1515, Museo del Prado, Madrid
 Breastfeeding in medieval and Tudor times was usually considered an inconvenience. While the nobility and upper class women’s primary function was to produce healthy children, preferably sons, it was not their responsibility to nourish them. That was the job of lower class females. One reason was that medical advice warned against intercourse during lactation, as it “troubled” the milk and might result in a new pregnancy which could cut off the milk supply to the detriment of an existing baby. The church advised against it. Another primary motive for this was the rapid restoration of a woman’s fertility. Breastfeeding provides natural protection against pregnancy by delaying the onset of the menstrual cycle, usually for between six months and a year. The first milk, or colostrum, was initially thought harmful to a child but this did not deter lower class women who tended to follow medical opinion that babies should be fed immediately, for about a year. Also, it was free and convenient. Parish records taken from eight towns and villages in Essex between 1530 and 1600, indicate that the average conception interval between siblings was nine months, supporting the theory that among these poorer families, babies were being breastfed by their mothers. In Little Clacton, few babies were conceived during the months following a live birth: the most common interval was between seven and twelve months, rising to between one and two years. Only around three percent of all conceptions in this group took place under three months since the mother’s lying-in, although the record gives no indication of social class. This small percentage may have represented to local noble families. At South Ockenden, a similar pattern emerges, with subsequent conceptions occurring most between two and three years, then between seven and twelve months: in only two cases out of 114 live births, did conception take place in less than three months. This contraceptive effect is ironic given religious teaching about the adverse effects of copulation during lactation: in reality, many couples appear to have taken advantage of it.
Francois Clouet, mid C16th- possibly Henri II's mistress Diane de Poitiers
 For Queens, the handing over of their baby to a wet nurse was not a choice. It was expected that they would resume their duties as soon as possible. Anne Boleyn was unusual in her desire to feed her daughter Elizabeth herself, considering children a blessing: “the greatest consolation in the world,” although even she had to give way to the pressure of her role and Elizabeth was set up in her own establishment at Hatfield. It was common for royal babies to live in completely different palaces from their mothers. Queens and noble woman also had significant duties to perform in terms of the management of the family estates, particularly in the absence of her husband; this could involve everything from domestic management, to receiving local supplicants of visitors, to the defence of her property, as the letters of Margaret Paston prove in the middle of the fifteenth century. Two of Henry VIII’s wives, Catherine of Aragon and Catherine Parr acted as regent in Henry’s absences during his French campaigns.

 The regular routine of breastfeeding would incapacitate an otherwise busy Lady and prevent this, thus it was passed to an appointed female, either a household appointment, or a woman in the vicinity. Many were recommended by word of mouth or already known to the family, often having recently borne their own child, although it had to be of the same gender as the nursling. Only the richest could absorb such a nurse into their own family unit or baby’s establishment: most were sent out of the home. In fact, during the first year of their life, most middle and upper class babies were sent out into the houses of strangers, whose suitability was judged almost entirely on their physical appearance. The nurse was considered able to pass on her characteristics to a child through her milk, so her diet was supposed to be good and wholesome, without too much garlic or strong foods; also she was to be of good, placid nature and healthy appearance, with clear skin and no visible afflictions. In royal households, tasters were appointed to check her food was not poisoned or too strong before she ate. Babies were often sent out of cities or towns into the more “wholesome” countryside. Parents sometimes contributed extra to support the wet nurse’s diet or lifestyle. The doctor John Dee made additional payments towards such essential items as soap and candles for those women suckling his children in the 1570s. Their vulnerability was also recognised: arrangements were speedily made for the transference of children from one place to another when illness or plague came close.
                                      Early C16th Cranach, from Larvik Church, Norway 

 Sadly, many cases are recorded in the parish registers of the death of such children, listed either by name or as “a nursling child.” In the parish of Good Easter, Essex, the burial of Henry Coot, a nurse child of Chelmsford, was recorded on April 18 1590 and that of Thomas Watt on 28 November 1596. “Dorrothe Person, a nurse child of London” was buried at Chelmsford on July 11 1550, while in the parish of St Mary Magdalene, Great Bursted, Essex, the burial was recorded of an unnamed nursling child in 1599 “being a man chylde of a saylors;” the names of the mothers and the village wet nurses are not listed. Deservedly or not, by Elizabethan times, wet nurses had a reputation for carelessness. Infant mortality was high anyway, with the first year of life proving the most perilous but it has been estimated that the death rate for babies sent out to be nursed was double that of those fed by their mothers. The reasons for this may be complex: poor diet, health and living conditions among the lower classes may be to blame, additionally, wet nurses may have been dividing their attention and their milk, between multiple charges. The stereotype of the exhausted or drunken nurse, falling asleep and “overlaying” a child during feeding, found much support in late sixteenth and early seventeenth century broadsheets and pamphlets, as did the trope of the wicked woman, murdering infants in her charge whilst continuing to be paid for their services.

 Undoubtedly, though, many wet nurses cared for other women’s babies diligently and with affection. Folklore remedies had advice to offer the breastfeeding woman; she should wear a gold or steel chain to stop milk curdling and to aid her milk flow, she should sip milk of a cow of a single colour, then spit it out into running water, swallow a mouthful of that water and recite a charm. Receipt books drew on local herbs and ingredients accessible in a domestic context to make poultices and dressings. Mallow and the bitter wormwood, also used for weaning, were considered most efficacious. If milk was lacking, or feeding proved difficult, babies were fed with animal milk, sucked from rags or through drinking horns. When a mother was unavailable, ill, poor, dissolute or deceased, the parish took charge of the infant’s nursing, drawing from what must have been a pool of suitable women: it was important though, that the child was supported at the location of its birth, for around a year. Boys were often suckled for longer than girls though, possibly even up to two years, as they were considered less independent. After the year had passed, such infants might remain with the nurse or else be placed in the parish. Many children retained affection for those who suckled or nursed them, later into life, remembering them with gifts or in their wills. During this time, they may have little contact with their birth family, returning to their parents’ home as a little stranger. Where such women were members of the household, they then became governesses or assisted in raising the children in other ways. Perhaps the most famous literary example is Juliet’s nurse, who has been a constant through the heroine’s fourteen years and appears closer to her than her own distant mother.
Joos van Cleve, The Holy Family, ca. 1515, Akademie der bildenden K√ľnste, Vienna
 In the past, the case has been made that this attitude towards breastfeeding was one of the contributing factors towards distance in parent-child relations in the past. This has been successfully challenged by historians, recognising that it is anachronistic to apply our pedagogical standards to the cultures of other centuries. In fact, medieval and Tudor parents would have considered themselves to have made excellent provision for their babies by arranging a suitable wet nurse and there are many cases, such as John Dee and his wife, of great care being taken to provide for and safeguard both. Modern attitudes towards breastfeeding may have changed but ironically, they put the twentieth century breastfeeding mother closer in experience to poorer women of the past.



Friday 26 October 2012

Sleep tight! Going to bed in Medieval and Tudor England.

Pillows were for girls, lying down was dangerous and invalids should nap standing up!

                                   MS images of the Birth of Louis VIII of France in the 1180s

According to medieval and Tudor beliefs about beds and sleeping, modern practices are opening us up to all sorts of spiritual and physical dangers. Between seven and nine hours of sleep were recommended but this depended upon individual body types; with all people categorised according to the Galenic four humours, too much or too little sleep could cause dangerous imbalances and lead to illness. Nor did children require more sleep: one late fifteenth century manual suggested seven hours was sufficient. This would roughly equate to summer time daylight hours, with an extra hour in the winter. In the mid Sixteenth century, physician Andrew Boorde was recommending two periods of sleep at night, with people rising briefly between them. This was also supposedly the best time to conceive children. Sleepers should lie first on one side then the other, in dry rooms to which snails, spiders, rats and mice had no access. All windows should be closed and a fire should be kept burning to drive away the pestilence and foul sleeper’s breath. Those who were ill or unable to sleep well at night should try to nap during the day, according to Boorde but this was best done standing up, leaning against a wall or cupboard.
                                          MS image of Philip IV of France in bed c1314

Medieval beds were comparatively simple. Peasants would literally “hit the hay” wrapped only in a cloak or single blanket; nor did most people have separate rooms for sleeping in. Actual bedframes were cause for much pride and passed down in wills to family or friends. In 1540, Margery Wren left her son Geoffrey a red and green bed canopy; apparently he already had the bed.  But this in itself was a sign of wealth, when the bed would have been the largest and most expensive possession in the house. Rich and poor alike took pride in this expression of their status and might save up for a bedstead for years. The Elizabethan traveller William Harrison reflected on past practices:
"... straw pallets, covered onelie with a sheet, under coverlets … and a good round log under their heads in steed of a bolster, or pillow. If it were so that our fathers or the good man of the house, had within seven years after his mariage purchased a mattress or flockebed, and thereto a sacke of chaffe to resh his head upon, he though himself to be as well lodged as the lord of the town, that peradventure laye seldome in a bed of downe or whole feathers; so well were they contended, and with such base kind of furniture..."

             Reconstruction of beds c1465 at the Walraversijde medieval village in Belgium

Four poster beds developed during the Tudor period. Before then, canopied and half testers were known in upper class circles, with their richly embroidered hangings made out of warm velvets and taffetas. Curtains were hung from the ceiling and beds were raised up on platforms or legs. The medieval merchant’s house in Southampton contains an impressive example of such a bed with hangings attached to the ceiling. All sorts of colours and combinations were used in the outer bedding and drapery; rich reds, greens, yellows and blacks being popular, along with cloth of silver and gold and many coloured tassels and fringes. Joanna of Castile’s book of hours of around 1500 includes a picture of a large bed draped and covered in emerald green. Edgings of fur were common to keep in warmth; ermine for the King and squirrel for the middle classes. Quilts were made from linen and padded with wool like the white and brown Tristan Quilt in the Victoria and Albert Museum, dating from 1360-1400.  Full scale tales and legends as well as Biblical and heraldic images were often depicted in embroidery as on this work. Wooden headpieces were elaborately carved, often with the owner’s coat of arms and personal motifs: the finest examples, made for royalty took months to make, such as the one Henry VIII commissioned for his bedroom at Whitehall in the 1530s. An inventory of wealthy gentleman Thomas Offley’s bedroom, made in 1582, listed a plain bedstead dressed with wool mattress, feather bed and bolster, white and red blankets, a green coverlet embroidered with letters and flowers, canopy and curtains of yellow and blue dyed canvas as well as a trundle or truckle bed for his servant. 
                                                The late Elizabethan Great bed of Ware

Mattresses were stuffed with whatever material was available, from feathers or wool, down to moss and rags; these were laid across a framework of tightly knotted ropes, which needed to be retied regularly as they were prone to sagging in the middle. Hence the expression “sleep tight.” The poorest slept on mattresses of straw on the floor; servants had simple wooden beds on wheels which were stored away out of sight during the day, often under the beds of their masters. Beds were warmed by placing a hot brick or stone from the fire among the sheets or copper saucepans full of coal, which evolved into the more familiar bedpan. Pillows or beres were considered unmanly, reserved for the old, young girls and pregnant women, yet there was also a belief that it was necessary to sleep propped up to prevent devils entering the open mouth and stealing away your soul. Real men rested their heads on logs!
 Green canopied bed from the Book of Hours owned by Joanna of Castile c1500, British Library

Clean white linen from Rennes was the most desirable material for sheets but this would need a lot of care. The usual method was “bucking”- soaking it in lye, made from ashes and urine to cleanse and whiten it. It was a lengthy and physically hard process, to scrub and wring out all the sheets several times over. For the richest, laundry women were employed but levels of hygiene would decrease significantly the further down the social scale. Washing was spread out flat to dry rather than hung, pictured lain out on Goodman’s field and Tower Hill on old maps of London. Lice were a common problem and only removable by regular washing and combing. Many people from all ranks of society were used to sharing their beds with lice but fleas were unthinkable and carried the stigma of uncleanliness and immorality.
                               The public occasion of Henry VII's death at Richmond, 1509
                                           Henry VIII on his impressive death bed, 1547

Beds were social places. The richest met guests and conducted meetings from them. Key events of birth and death had far greater public significance for royalty and the wealthy, often being witnessed by friends, family and interested parties, with privacy being far less common. Co-sleeping was very common, especially in inns where travellers were expected to share beds with strangers, each lying on their own half, with rules existing for being a considerate bedfellow. In the poorer establishments, sleeping arrangements consisted of a simple wooden bench with a rope hung horizontally about chest height. Travellers would cram along the bench and hang their arms over the rope for support; in the morning they would be cleared out and the area washed down. Other inns and monasteries offered simple straw mattresses with sheets, raised off the floor on boards or woven rushes. The most famous example of a large bed is that of the late Elizabethan great bed of Ware, designed to attract customers to the inn where it stood, referred to by Shakespeare and Jonson. Sleeping fifteen people at once, it is typical of four poster beds of its time in everything but its size. The most lowly servants slept communally in the Great Hall or in large servants dormitories, with men and women usually separated, although this did not stop determined wooers, such as Catherine Howard’s history proved. Beds were also places of courtship, with some communities allowing unmarried couples to practise “bundling”- spending time together in bed whilst separated by a bolster placed down the middle! Beds were often portable too, with those of royalty being dismantled and transported between palaces as they travelled, ensuring a good night’s sleep when they arrived. Who they might be sharing it with though, was quite another matter…

Saturday 20 October 2012

The King on Display ? It Remains to be Seen.

                  The Chiddingly Boar- Richard III's personal device, which helped archaeologists
                                                      locate Bosworth Field in 1999

  Leicester University archaeologists who recently uncovered what may prove to be the bones of Richard III, have taken the decision not to put them on display. For some, this will come as a relief, whilst others will be pushing for the remains to be photographed, filmed and ultimately put on display. In a press release of September 12, leaders of the dig confirmed the discovery of a well preserved male skeleton, displaying trauma consistent with a violent death on the battlefield.  The last Yorkist King’s valiant stand at Bosworth has become the stuff of literature and legend: more than five centuries later, the unearthing of his skeleton promises to prove deeply controversial.

Unfolding coverage of the site has generated huge excitement since the choir of the Grey Friars church was first located in August, consistent with the site of chronicler John Rous’ description of the King’s burial. All the signs look good. The bones have now been removed from their resting place and transported to the laboratories of Leicester University. While their delicate work continues, DNA evidence will not be available until at least December, some time after which, their identity will finally be confirmed. Predictably, there is huge interest in the findings. Various images of the dig have been published, including those of the press crowding around men dressed in late medieval armour. It is also possible to view online galleries containing other finds, such as tiles and pieces of masonry and to visit the site on heritage open days. The closest the public can get to the bones though, is to view the scraped-out hole where they were found, which now lies empty. Richard III is still missing in action.
                                           Site of the Grey Friars excavations in Leicester

 It's not as if the public have not seen human remains before. Regular viewers of popular archaeological and historical television programmes like Channel Four’s “Time Team” are used to seeing various skeletal remains being unearthed, removed and examined in situ. We see fragments of skulls, finger bones and pelvises gently lifted out and shown the consideration and respect by those involved. After all, as these popular archaeologists are quick to establish, these were real people, whose burials were carried out according to the religious sensibilities of the day. Their wishes must be respected. Such programmes also make clear that if there is any doubt regarding the dating of human remains, the local constabulary need to be informed.

This media exposure may be partly responsible for the frustration arising from Leicester University's decision. Their explanation, of the department’s policy of respect due to any burial regardless of identity, is unambiguous and understandable. It is in line with the best archaeological practise as outlined in a 2005 English heritage report. However, the issue does raise further questions regarding the morality and ethics of the handling of human remains and the question of public interest. For some, it seems to be a thorny issue as to whether bones which have been exposed, dismantled and physically removed from their grave, could be violated further by the taking of photographs. Does it make any difference to a dead man's bones, or his soul (consistent with his religious beliefs) if his image is captured in this way?
                    Late medieval reliquary made to hold a reputed tooth of St John the Baptist 

 One of the ironies is that in Richard III’s day, the skeletal remains and other artefacts of saints, such as hair, toe nail clippings and clothing, were widely displayed in churches and shrines. The authenticity of these highly prized items was called into question during the Reformation but for a late medieval Catholic, like Richard, they were invaluable for their devotional and healing properties. Richard would have seen and possibly handled such relics with great reverence. Of course, no one is suggesting that his body be made available for the masses to touch but its display would be well within a tradition he would understand. There is also the question of audience. In medieval times, a pilgrim may make a special journey, often hundreds of miles, specifically to see such an item. These days, pictures can be splashed all over the internet, world wide, in seconds. People are free to respond to them as they chose, in the safety of their own homes, rather than showing the proper respect that a tomb or shrine could command. So where should the line be drawn for the modern media?

Museum displays of locks of the hair of historical figures regularly attract interest but sometimes invoke a shudder of repulsion. Some people find it ghoulish to have these preserved. The hair of Mary Tudor and Katherine Parr, which has been kept inside lockets, may be of legitimate interest to students of the Tudor period, interested to verify written sources of those women’s appearances. However, given the Victorian passion for using hair in mourning jewellery, would those students be as comfortable with bracelets or even whole pictures made from woven human hair? How about hair pieces and wigs that use the locks of impoverished or dead girls? There does seem to be a subtle distinction in the use of the hair, depending upon whether it is displayed simply as a memorial piece, or if its purpose has been adapted to create a piece of art. Perhaps this is the line of sensibility where some people may find its use unacceptable. But then hair is dead. It can be cut from the body during life without causing harm.
                                     The hair of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's younger sister.
                                The hair of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII's sixth wife.

The ethics of displaying human remains have been pushed to the limit in the twenty first century. The Florida based “Bodies…the Exhibition,” which opened in 2005, caused much controversy by displaying real cadavers preserved by a rubberisation process discovered in the 1970s. Gunter von Hagens, the German anatomist behind the discovery, has been openly criticised for performing autopsies in public, such as the one in a London theatre in 2002. His “Body Worlds” exhibition, using rubberised corpses, met with significant legal challenges before and after it was shown in Manchester. Some people found it fascinating, considering it educative, while others were repelled and insulted. It is futile to reopen the old question of whether or not this is art. Art is whatever the artist or viewer perceives it to be and can be debated ad infinitum. What is important to remember, is that these people had given their consent. That may also be a defining factor: Richard has not consented to the exhumation and analysis of his bones. Yet there is no way he could possibly have anticipated these events, let alone the nature of the world, five centuries after his death.

                                              Victorian designs for mourning jewellery

                                              Modern hair jewellery- beautiful or odd?

 One example may highlight that the time scale is also a factor here. Think of the cases of Egyptian mummies in the British museum , which many consider to be acceptable family viewing, fascinating to see in all their glory. This may be because the robbery and destruction of their graves happened in the past and the damage has already been done. They are less connected with us, distanced by time and culture, whereas Richard is still a vivid part of English culture and subject to impassioned debate. Inevitably, his remains are rendered more controversial due to their royal status; after all, the Queen has refused permission for the reopening of the Westminster Abbey urn reported to contain the remains of the Princes in the Tower, discovered in the late seventeenth century.

Also, there is the question of whether we need to see these bones ? Or is it just that we want to ? After all, bones are just bones, aren’t they ? Actually, no. Not in this case, when they may provide critical visual evidence regarding the possible curvature of the King’s spine and manner of his death. Of course, we trust the archaeologists to make a full and truthful report of their findings but if books on the Princes in the Tower can include photographs of the skull of the nine-year-old Anne de Mowbray, wife of Prince Richard of York, can we not also expect these bones to be photographed for future publications ? There is nothing so inspiring for the student of history to get up close and personal with the past: such connections bring home the humanity of distant figures and rightly or wrongly, give the observer a thrill of association. Some may call this ghoulish, others may see it as legitimate interest.  Whilst it will be impossible to exclude those whose interest is purely voyeuristic, this must be balanced against genuine scientific education and archaeological ethics. If the bones are ever photographed or put on display, it must be done so with the respect and consideration that Richard's beliefs and rank deserve.
                         The skull of Anne de Mowbray, often featured in C15th history books

 While the decision taken by Leicester University not to make images of their discoveries public may disappoint, it is overshadowed by the larger question of the bones’ identity. The countdown to the DNA results and the passionate debates surrounding their reinterment has somewhat distracted focus from this issue. There is without doubt a valid educational reason for the remains to be seen but the employment of a children’s illustrator-style artist to recreate the scenes seems a little patronising. The Richard III society has, in the past few days, rightly given the Grey Friars excavation its Robert Hamblin Award for work of outstanding service. Open days, free to the public, have allowed those interested to view the proceedings and regular press updates have kept this story in the public eye. It only remains to be seen now what the outcome of the DNA test will be and how the bones, whoever they may be, are finally laid to rest.



Wednesday 3 October 2012

Rebuilding the King's body: Richard III's skeleton may speak for itself.



Hunchback ? Usurper ? Murderer ? Says who ? In the five centuries since his violent death on Bosworth Field, Richard III’s reputation has been hotly debated among academics and enthusiasts alike. Perhaps no other English King has caused so much controversy and elicited such a devoted following. Vastly polarised images of the last Yorkist monarch have emerged, from the caricature promoted by More, Vergil, Holinshed and Shakespeare, to the responsible King who took on the mantle of England’s rule amid tragic circumstance that left a permanent stain on historical record. One of the key areas of contention has been Richard’s appearance but eagerly anticipated new evidence may have light to shed in this area.
                                    Richard III played by David Garrick in the Eighteenth Century
The late medieval correlation between physical appearance and moral character has played a key role in shaping later interpretations of Richard. As the brother to the tall, blonde Edward IV and George, Duke of Clarence, Richard appears to have taken more after his father, being dark-haired and wiry. It may be significant that he had three older brothers yet was the first to bear his father’s name. Evidence for his supposed deformation has come from a variety of sources: the 1456 Clare Roll, written as a record of the Clare family’s ancestry, commented that the four-year-old “Richard liveth yet,” giving rise to assumptions that he was a weak child. However, in the context of an age when infant mortality was high, and demographers have estimated that approximately only half of babies born in the fifteenth century reached their fifth birthday, such a comment seems entirely appropriate, if not expected. He was then the youngest child in the family, whilst his siblings were considerably older. It was also meant to distinguish him his younger sister Ursula who had already predeceased him and the long dead ancestors of whose stories he was the culmination.

                                                 Laurence Olivier as Richard III in 1955

Rumours of his “monstrous” birth appear to have originated with John Rous, the chronicler of the Neville family into which Richard married. Critically, two versions of Rous’ Roll survive, giving a powerful indication of the way that historiography has shaped the individual to purpose and not always upheld the impartiality so desirable in modern scholarship. The first Roll, written before 1485, presents the King as a “good” ruler who champions the cause of the common man; however, after the arrival of Henry Tudor, Rous rewrites the past, introducing the first description of Richard’s “monstrous” birth. Now, the “good” King appears to have required a two year gestation period before being born with long teeth and hair. No suggestions of such a horrific arrival survive from the 1450s. It is likely that Rous was rewriting events to suit the new dynasty’s sensibilities, however it cannot be ruled out that earlier sources may have been destroyed or presented in a more flattering light to an influential family of the day. We do know that such “monstrous” births were considered to be reflective of the moral practices of the parents and omens of ill-fate. The Yorkists were famously superstitious, with Edward IV’s vision of the parhelion or three suns in the sky taken to be a prediction of the outcome of the Battle of Towton and subsequent direction of the Cousins’ Wars. Rous’ rewriting may have been an act of self-preservation. Polydore Vergil, Thomas More and Shakespeare exploited it for their own purposes and may or may not have believed it. The image of the hunchbacked King is hardly compatible with the reputation Richard established early on, as an impressive military commander. Equally, in his youth, one duchess described him as the handsomest man in the room. Modern technology has also enabled the x-raying of portraits that have clearly been doctored to show a raised shoulder and withered arm.
                                                        Kevin Spacey in the title role

 The recent excavations in a Leicester car park have reignited a debate which has never really died. Although the world will have to wait between eight and six weeks to discover whether these remains are in fact those of the lost King, the possible presence of scoliosis could be very controversial. After the extensive debunking of these supposed historical myths, it might turn out that Richard did actually have some form of curved spine after all. If this is the case, the implications for historiography- the attribution of meaning to written and pictorial forms of evidence – will be significant. Many current theories about Richard may need to be reconsidered. While all historians are aware that they are, by definition, dealing with imperfect surviving material, this case may really expose the difficulties of drawing conclusions from a few biased fragments. What picture of King Richard III will emerge from these excavations ? Whatever the DNA tests prove, it is to be hoped that the dig will encourage all those involved to reflect upon the nature of history and the importance of objectivity in attempting to uncover the “truths” of the past, if such a simple concept exists. Then, a new Civil War may well be fought over the burial of his remains.

My biography of Anne Neville, Richard's wife, will be published by Amberley in 2013.

Thursday 27 September 2012

Henry VIII: the Celibate Years ?


The romance of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn has endured in the popular imagination. Its details are well known, from the arrival of the young, unconventionally attractive Anne, with her foreign upbringing, through to the passionate letters he sent her at Hever Castle and their secret marriage six years later. Presenting himself as a lover in the chivalric tradition, as “Sir Loyal Heart,” Henry’s devotion to Anne before their wedding is unquestionable, as was his desire to father a son to inherit his throne, long after his first wife Catherine of Aragon had failed to bear one. But did that devotion automatically mean he did not look at another woman? As I have argued in my recent book “In Bed With the Tudors,” featured in the Daily Express (26/9/12- see link below), we are anachronistically applying modern standards of romance to the past if we think it does.

Catherine’s menopause occurred around 1525, the year of her fortieth birthday. Henry himself was five and a half years her junior and had already indulged in extra-marital affairs, most famously with Elizabeth “Bessie” Blount, who bore him a son and with Mary Boleyn. Anne’s older sister may have conceived a daughter by the King but the evidence for this is inconclusive. Such behaviour was expected at the time although, most often, men at court sought satisfaction elsewhere. Upper class men would not be condemned for seeking sexual gratification with lower class women, who were seen as more physically pleasing than their aristocratic wives. This made an interesting division, along class lines, of women who were primarily seen as for procreation and others who were purely for pleasure. Gentlemen of Henry’s court would have little trouble finding available females, either in the corridors of power at Westminster or Greenwich or Whitehall, or else in the brothels, or stews on the Southbank. Henry’s courtiers, in particular, Sir William Compton, helped facilitate his affairs, possibly arranging meetings in his London home. Henry also possessed a wealth of small properties and hunting lodges where such liaisons would have been easy.
 The behaviour of Thomas Culpeper is also explainable in this context. As the cousin and lover of Henry's fifth wife, Catherine Howard, Culpeper met his death late in 1541. However, he already had committed worse offences than possible adultery with the Queen. As a young man he had desired a woman he had casually encountered, then raped her when she refused him and murdered her husband. For this he was pardoned, which seems inexplicable to us now and difficult to accept as consistent with the teenage Queen's love for him. However, in the context of sexual relations between the classes, Culpeper's actions indicate a sense of entitlement to possess women of lower station no matter what. Happily, this does not seem to have been the norm. It is a case of modern sensibilities clashing uncomfortably with the realities of the past.

These sexual expectations were actually out of synch with the image Henry VIII desired to project. There appears to be a tension between the sexually active man and the ideal romanticised lover of jousts and court masques. He was notoriously secretive about his affairs, in comparison with other European leaders of the day, or perhaps because of them. His great rival Francis I of France was well known for his many conquests and his subsequent infection with the horrific syphilis. Henry, in contrast, tried to conceal the existence of his lovers and his encounters with them, making them harder to trace. This may have been out of respect for his first wife, who was greatly upset by Henry’s first affair with Anne, sister of the Duke of Buckingham early in the marriage while Catherine was pregnant. Henry did take a more modern approach to the women he slept with; his wives were chosen by romantic criteria, as he wanted a companionate partnership, rather than the union of dynastic expediency his parents had entered into. This did not place him above conforming to the sexual expectations of his era though. In a further departure from past tradition, his weddings were conducted in secrecy. He did not favour vast court celebrations, opting instead for simple and small occasions, often taking place early in the morning in the chapels of his palaces, with a few witnesses. The only exception was his ill-fated union with Anne of Cleves, which proved that such old-style arranged marriages were not for him.

When Henry fell in love with the entrancing Anne Boleyn in around 1527, all this changed. It would have to, if he was to make her his wife. At first, the pair was discreet but soon, Henry’s infatuation became obvious to everyone, including Catherine. The court held at Blackfriars examined the royal marriage but failed to provide the King with the decisive answer he needed; the Pope could not be more help, dreading Henry’s letters and remaining loyal to his aunt, who happened to be Catherine of Aragon. The Queen was removed from court in 1531 and rusticated to various houses in the country but refused to grant Henry the divorce he wanted. Henry and Anne’s liaison was the subject of rumour and gossip throughout Europe but it appears that Anne maintained his interest by withholding her affections, gradually realising she had the opportunity to become his wife, instead of just his mistress.

However, as I suggest in “In Bed with the Tudors,” (Amberley 2012), something about this doesn’t add up. Henry admitted to Cardinal Campeggio that he hadn’t slept with Catherine since 1526. Anne Boleyn did not submit to him until late in 1532.  It is really possible that Henry VIII was celibate for those six years? I think this is a ludicrous assumption, although historians have largely accepted this as fact. Although Henry was in love with Anne, this should not be confused with modern concepts of romance or fidelity. We know it was expected that men would have other sexual partners: at this time the marriage oath only required the fidelity of the wife. To condemn this as a double standard would be anachronistic and unrealistic. Clearly aristocratic women did have sexual relations for pleasure and many made second marriages based purely on affection, as in the case of Mary Boleyn. Many took lovers at court; some them may have slept with the King.

 Although Henry was in pursuit of a legitimate son, these six years represented a significant part of his dwindling fertility. In 1527, he could not have known how long the process would take but as the years passed, was he really true to the construct of romantic chivalry he liked to project and stay celibate all that time ? Considering that he used the motto of “Sir Loyal Heart” to profess devotion to his first wife, while indulging in affairs, it does not seem that romantic devotion necessarily precluded encounters with receptive women of the lower classes. He famously claimed that he was "a man like any other," so we should expect consistency in this area too. In 1537, while Jane Seymour was pregnant, Henry “claimed” a lower class woman he saw on one of his rides and rumours of illegitimate children dating from the period suggest an oral tradition of the King’s promiscuity. Even for Anne, Henry’s romantic veneer was soon tarnished.  Early in their marriage, when Anne was upset at Henry’s infidelity, he told her that she should hold her tongue as her betters had done. This suggests Anne was unaware of any liaisons Henry may have had in the years 1527-32, or that she attributed them to his frustration and hoped they would cease after the ceremony. These possibilities may dispel the romantic image of Henry’s court as projected in the popular imagination but it should not damage Henry’s reputation nor his genuine desire of Anne. It merely redefines concepts of loyalty and romance in line with sixteenth century standards, instead of twenty-first century ones.
Link to the Daily Express article, 26/9/12:

Friday 21 September 2012

A Hard Day's Night: Medieval Women at Work

The roles played by medieval women in society were many and varied. Socially, they were defined by their marital status and ability to produce healthy children, but it appears that many were engaged in useful work of the type more associated in the modern mind with their male counterparts. It is well known that women were involved in assisting childbirth and running the home but beyond that, their activities encompassed a range of tasks from the physical to the intellectual. The types of work undertaken by the medieval woman has often been underestimated but studies made by the economic historian Elieen Power, at Cambridge in the 1920s, began to challenge such assumptions. As part of my ongoing research in this area, I wanted to share some of the images I have found which give a flavour of the types of employment women were engaged with, alongside men.

It is difficult to differentiate though, exactly what status this work afforded women. It is quite likely that much of it was undertaken on an informal basis, as seasons dictated or as part of a family business: how many were considered professionals or received a salary outside the home is unclear. Midwives were one distinct female role and other waged women were engaged in the businesses of brewing and hospitality. Most were widows or married women, whilst the unmarried were to be found engaged in tasks such as spinning, cooking or sweeping within the home, although this was also done by the majority of women. Widows could inherit businesses and apprentices, whom they often went on to marry, or else could remain financially independent, even entering a few of the London guilds. Social class obviously played a key role in their labour. Leisure was a luxury: upper-class women also performed tasks in the home as various contemporary images and manuals make clear but these were directed more towards the luxury end of production, such as the making of special dishes and medicines, as well as the overseeing of accounts and organisation of servants and hospitality. Poorer women had little choice but to roll up their sleeves and help with the harvest or in the workshop.

There was a clear division between those working professionally and those engaged in labour within their own home about daily tasks, often alone.

Other women clearly accompanied their men to work, or else worked in close proximity with them where workshops were established within the home. This was common for many urban businesses, where the front room or ground floor of a house was given over to trade and the back, or upstairs (or cellar) was the family's living space.


It appears that groups of women collected together to engage in tasks such as spinning and weaving. This was more likely to have been for the benefits of their family, charity and friends rather than a collectively owned female business, as the manuscript images depict almost exclusively upperlcass women in this way, suggesting it was more of a leisure activity.


Other upper-class leisure activities included music:

Poorer women feature most commonly in the images of work outside, particularly engaged in harvesting or tasks to do with the seasonal cycle. The necessity of their involvement is highlighted by the presence of the heavily pregnant woman in the second image.

The lowliest appear in images of the most physical work, perhaps earning money in areas their social superiors had rejected:

A few appear to have penetrated what could have been considered traditional male areas of work: here, teaching geometry, sculpture, medicine, portraiture and writing.

There are so many manuscript images of women engaged in work during the medieval period that it was clearly an everyday occurrence for women of all classes. What they did and where and why, were factors determined by their status and need, but employment was clearly desireable even when it was not necessary. The involvement of women in male industries is apparent, although less well represented: the polarisation of "men's" and "women's" work was not as clear cut in the medieval period as might have been assumed.