Friday, March 27, 2015
We’ve often visited them, those cold stone ruins, the freezing spiral stairs leading nowhere, and we stand in awe while gazing up into empty rubble as the bitter winds whip along the battlements. We imagine life in such a place, and how daunting it must have been. Of course Norman castles were built principally as fortresses, but for several hundred years they were also the homes of nobility, attended by a host of their servants, guards and others of varying station and importance who resided within those soaring stone walls. So what must it have been like?Share
What we can no longer see, but what was the truth long ago – is that those stone walls were fully plastered inside, sometimes even painted with sweeping murals of mythic battle scenes and heroic tales. Exposed stone was not the fashion then that it is now. Those great vaulted ceiling beams were often carved and painted, and the draughts were further excluded with exquisite and colourful arras, rugs and tapestries hanging on the walls. Inglenook fireplaces blazed with huge fires, aromatic burning logs or sometimes charcoal, while pages kept those fires burning high. The floors, beautiful old flagstones at ground level and wide wooden boards on the higher levels, were warm with rich patterned rugs from Turkey and additional rush matting. Window seats were often padded and settles were cushioned or covered in rugs. Furniture could be sparse by our modern standards, but most seems comfortable enough. Those glorious four poster beds, for instance. At first they were roped bases attached to a wooden frame and heaped with huge feather mattresses. Above was a canopy (tester), often rich in velvet and tassels, which not only looked beautiful but also helped collect the tumble of any small scurrying creatures which might make their homes amongst those high roof cavities.
After all, the lord and his lady didn’t want a family of spiders, mice droppings or beetles landing on them in the middle of the night. The canopy caught falling dust and dirt, insects and cascading cobwebs. And the bed would certainly be warmed within, by placing a hot brick from the fire between the sheets, then piling on blankets, soft eiderdowns and elaborate covers.
A little later the bedposts and accompanying curtains also became fashionable. These beautiful curtains could be pulled at night, not only shutting out draughts and increasing the warmth, but ensuring privacy. Many literary fictions enjoy telling us how the assassin crept into the lord’s bedchamber at night, killing or abducting him while he lay vulnerable and alone. The trouble with these stories is quite simply – if he was important, he wouldn’t have been alone. There would have been a whole bustling throb of servants, pages and attendants sleeping on truckle beds or pallets within the room, and guards outside the door. For instance, the title ‘Gentleman of the Bedchamber’ meant exactly that and such a gentleman (usually of considerable importance himself in order to be offered such a position) slept on a small narrow bed within the chamber of the king – ready to answer any summons, dress him and undress him, and generally guard him. There would be quite a collection of servants sharing the room and completing varying tasks. So, should the lord who owned the great four-poster want to take his wife or mistress to bed, privacy was out of the question. At least he could close the curtains. Cocooned within the velvet shadows, he could do what he wanted unseen and try to forget that those beyond the hangings could still hear every word and every gasp.
There is some argument about the possible use of rushes on the floor. This doesn’t just apply to castles. Ordinary homes – where the owners could certainly not afford the highly expensive rugs from the east – used – it is said – piles of loose rushes, herbs and reeds on the floors. I have my doubts about this. Why would a whole host of dirty reeds seem either attractive or necessary? They would simply make it far more difficult to sweep the floor, and although they might discourage some insects, they would probably encourage others. The rushes would collect whatever was dropped, including dog excrement, and that would make it horrendously unpleasant for anyone to walk over. Besides, women wore long skirts and sometimes even trains to their gowns. This would make it a complete farce to trundle through a spread of reeds – collecting them beneath your skirts as you walked. So I tend to believe that these rushes were not lying loose but instead were perhaps woven into mats and rugs, if used at all. Some health-associated herbs were probably scattered at times of illness and when the lady was about to give birth. Herbs might also perfume any otherwise less than savoury smells.
There is one problem with dismissing the old story of the rushes on the floors. And that is the word ‘threshold’. This actually means that the threshing – i.e. rushes, straw and reeds – was kept within by the door and doorstep – in other words – held the threshing from falling loose. Hence the modern meaning of the word. So no assumptions concerning history are ever quite as simple as we’d like them to be. (Read more.)
Thursday, March 26, 2015
In the words of the Greyfriars Chronicle of London, a contemporary document: “This year was a cook boiled in a cauldron in Smithfield for he would have poisoned the bishop of Rochester Fisher with divers of his servants and he was locked in a chain and pulled up and down with a gibbet at divers times until he was dead."Roose's crime, the legal method of his condemnation and finally the form of punishment create a bizarre chain of events that, in a more modern age, might well have raised questions of motive in several parties, including that of Henry VIII. Although there is no question of who did the killing, this is still a tantalizing Tudor murder mystery, and reveals some of the peculiarities of the early modern age, when laws existed and homicide was considered a heinous crime, but there was no trained police force nor forensic science. (Read more.)
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
In Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell delves into the aesthetics, evolution and multifaceted meanings of fashion in France from the 1770s through the revolution and its aftermath.Share
The book is separated into four distinct parts (Court and City, New and Novel, Fashion and Fantasy, Revolution and Recovery) and each part is further distinguished by chapters covering different aspects of fashion that fit under each part's theme. All four parts of the book are also supplemented by a short introduction that introduces the themes of each section.
In "Court and City," for example, Chrisman-Campbell discusses Marie Antoinette's penchant for fashion as well as her influence on the burgeoning fashion industry; the part also discusses the rise of "petite-maitresses," a term designated for women who were devoted to keeping up with the latest fashions, however rapidly changing or ridiculous they might be; and finally the role of the marchande de modes, such as the famous Rose Bertin, without whom the evolution of late 18th century fashion may not have been possible.
My favorite aspect of the book is Chrisman-Campbell's abundant use of various contemporary sources in her text. She quotes and analyzes material from fashion magazines, newspapers, memoirs, letters, revolutionary pamphlets and other sources; these sources give great insight into how fashion was viewed on a commercial, social and even personal level by the people who were directly impacted by it. I also greatly appreciated Chrisman-Campbell's insights into subjects that are not typically discussed in books about this period, such as chemise gowns and the chemise a la reine, the status of fashion for French emigres who fled during the revolution, extensive details about mourning fashion and its social customs, and the wave of "Anglomania" that crept into French fashions in the 1780s.
Fashion Victims is filled with gorgeous contemporary paintings, engravings,and illustrations as well as photographs of existing 18th century garments. The image reproductions are high quality and provide an excellent companion to Chrisman-Campbell's text. More important than the images, however, is the text itself. Fashion Victims is not just a pretty book: it is filled with interesting, insightful and in-depth scholarship by Chrisman-Campbell, who discusses everything from the details of elaborate court dresses to the scandal and acceptance of chemise a la reines to elaborate mourning customs to some of the strangest coiffures, like those made to celebrate smallpox vaccinations. (Read more.)
In his vastness and mobility, Chesterton continues to elude definition: He was a Catholic convert and an oracular man of letters, a pneumatic cultural presence, an aphorist with the production rate of a pulp novelist. Poetry, criticism, fiction, biography, columns, public debate—the phenomenon known to early-20th-century newspaper readers as “GKC” was half cornucopia, half content mill. If you’ve got a couple of days, read his impish, ageless, inside-out terrorist thriller The Man Who Was Thursday. If you’ve got an afternoon, read his masterpiece of Christian apologetics Orthodoxy: ontological basics retailed with a blissful, zooming frivolity, Thomas Aquinas meets Eddie Van Halen. If you’ve got half an hour, read “The Blue Cross,” the first and most glitteringly perfect of his stories featuring the crime-busting village priest Father Brown. If you’ve got only 10 minutes, read his essay “A Much Repeated Repetition.” (“Of a mechanical thing we have a full knowledge. Of a living thing we have a divine ignorance.”) (Read more.)
Via Joshua Snyder. Share