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The merry widows of medieval England….?

The above illustrations show two royal widows. On the left Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, mother of both Edward IV and Richard III. On the right an imagined meeting between Edward IV and the widow he was to marry, Elizabeth Woodville.

In this modern age, when we are striving to live longer and longer, it’s hard to imagine what it could be like in the medieval period if someone, especially a widow, lived on into their eighties. Oh, yes, some did. We are always told that medieval widows had much more freedom than other women, but that is questionable. Merry widows? Not necessarily.

The following is based on Medieval Women by Henrietta Leyser.

In the twelfth century, Maud be Bohun was widowed at the age of ten. She married again, but through her long life (she was an octogenarian) she retained the dowry she had inherited as a child. This was to the considerable dismay and disadvantage of her first husband’s family, who had to wait for her eventual demise. The same can be said of Margaret of Brotherton of Framlingham, who survived two husbands, four children and died in the same year as her grandson (17-year-old John Hastings, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, who was killed in a jousting accident at court of Richard II at the end of December, 1389).

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The seal of Margaret of Brotherton

 

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This late medieval carving of a woman’s head is one of five at Framlingham Castle that may be likenesses of the Mowbrays, Margaret Brotherton’s descendants

More about Margaret of Brotherton, see http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/histories/women-in-history/womens/margaret-brotherton/

During the long lives of such widows, their families and in-laws could suffer great hardship because the widows held large parts of the inheritance. The two ladies above were from aristocratic backgrounds, but those in lesser circumstances could cause penury! Mind you, even rich widows could find themselves forced into remarriage. They had to do all they could to stay one step ahead of forceful, unwelcome suitors. (see https://wordpress.com/post/murreyandblue.wordpress.com/27858) Or, of course, they could deliberately seek another marriage because of the protection afforded by a man. It depended on the woman, and was all a case of swings and roundabouts.

But under the Anglo-Norman and Angevin kings, widows had no choice in the matter, because they were in the gift of the king. Yes, really. Would-be suitors paid handsomely into the royal coffers for this gift of marriage to a particular widow of their choice! It must have been like selecting from a menu. Eventually, the coronation charter of Henry I contained promises regarding widows’ rights of dower and that they would not be forced into marriage. Then Magna Carta further supported the rights of these women, who were not to pay for their dower or be compelled to remarry. Empty promises, it seems, because the practice continued to fill the treasury. Of course, it could work the other way too, and a widow could (if she had sufficient funds) pay the king not to give her away. In either case, the king profited.

Then came the growing practice of holding lands in jointure, which gave widows greater financial security. Unfortunately for them, this also made them more desirable as wives. According to the Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionary, jointure is:

A – (1) : the joint tenancy of an estate; (2) : the estate so held

B – (1) : an estate settled on a wife to be taken by her in lieu of dower; (2) : a settlement upon the wife of a freehold estate (as in lands or tenements) for her lifetime at least to take effect upon the decease of the husband and to act as a bar to dower.

Yet another aspect of a widow’s trials came when they were urged in their late husband’s wills to “take the order of widowhood”. That is, not go into a convent, but to take a public vow of chastity. Failure to embark on such a course could result in the terms of the will severely reducing the widow’s income. The reason was not always male spite from beyond the grave, but could safeguard her and any children from a new husband who might not have their best interests at heart. Or whom she definitely did not want! Not so good if she wanted a physically loving relationship.

In the case of a third Margaret—Lady Margaret Beaufort—she was too powerful to be pushed around, and when it came to her final marriage, she took the public vow of chastity. A physical relationship cannot have appealed! She chose to marry Thomas Stanley, who presumably didn’t care if she was in his bed or not. A definite marriage of convenience and an alliance of great fortunes and power that was to cost Richard III his life when Margaret’s Tudor son usurped his throne. As you will see, Margaret and her boy were not high on the list of beautiful people. Sour pusses, both. Thomas Stanley, if this is a reasonable likeness, was better looking.

Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII and Thomas Stanley, who became 1st Earl of Derby

A medieval widow could therefore be caught in a vicious circle, and unable to rule her own life as she saw fit. That is something we just accept these days. Well, we do in the West, it is still very different in many other parts of the world.

So, as I said at the beginning, the freedom of medieval widows is debatable. Truly merry widows were probably rather thin on the ground.

Two more medieval widows, in the regulation black and white

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Beauty tips from the Middle Ages, including how to get a huge, freckle-free forehead ….

 

Beauty tips

The following article is from here. It is a light-hearted look at the things our medieval sisters did to make themselves look beautiful:-

Longing to know how to hide your devil’s marks and dissolve your hairline? Step this way!

Strictly speaking, the Middle Ages extend from the 5th to the 15th century, but here, I’ll be focusing on the late Middle Ages. Best to clear that up and avoid any mishaps. I mean, imagine what a fool you’d look if you turned up to a 12th-century-themed party in 6th-century makeup. How your friends would laugh!

The late Middle Ages liked its maidens with high foreheads, long necks, sallow complexions and lacklustre eyebrows. Added to that, the babeliest of Medieval babes rocked low sloping shoulders and protruding stomachs. This might seem a touch… um… surprising, but in the name of fairness (both kinds) let’s give these ladies the benefit of the doubt and try to unravel their beauty commandments.

Hide your hair

It is a truth universally acknowledged that hair is sexy. So, naturally, it was seen as sinful by the Medieval Church, and decent women hid theirs with veils, nets, hoods and hats. In warmer European countries, women might get away with braiding since hot weather rendered head-covering a bit of a nightmare. Elsewhere, the only women who left their hair unconcealed were peasants, prostitutes and very young unmarried girls.

Hand in hand with the desire to hide hair was the belief that the higher the hairline the better. Many women resorted to potions of vinegar or quicklime to erode their natural hairline (often taking skin with it), whilst to keep foreheads as unsullied as possible, eyebrows were tweezed within an inch of their lives.

Unsurprisingly, all this hiding only made hair a more potent symbol of temptation, and most tempting of all was blonde hair. We know that women tinted their hair blonde with saffron, stale sheep’s urine, onion skins, or by spending time in the sun (often wearing a hat to maintain modesty, but with a sneaky hole cut in the top). Chaucer’s Virginia (from “The Physician’s Tale”), a “maid in excellent beauty,” has “tresses resembling the rays of [Phebus’] burnished sunbeams.” Whilst the Old Woman from the “Roman de la Rose,” a 13th-century French poem, advises: If (a lady) sees that her beautiful blonde hair is falling out (a most mournful sight)… she should have the hair of some dead woman brought to her, or pads of light coloured silk, and stuff it all into false hairpieces.”

Remove all distinguishing marks from your skin.

Pallor was preferred (as so frequently and boringly through much of history) and smooth skin was highly prized. In a darker turn of events, freckles, moles and birthmarks were often cited as the devil’s mark on those accused of witchcraft–blemishes left by a woman’s erotic entanglements with Satan.

Techniques used for reducing skin to a blank canvas include:

• To remove spots, lick an amethyst and rub the slobbery stone over offending areas.

• To remove freckles, boil oatmeal and vinegar together and smear it on. Alternatively, if you were out of porridge, you could use bull’s or hare’s blood.

• To eradicate redness, apply cucumber or strawberry juice.

• To soothe sunburn, use the squeezed juice of the waterlily.

The potency of all such unguents could be increased by the application of a plaster/band-aid made from sheep’s leather.

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Use enough makeup to keep your husband, but not enough to tempt the husbands of others

Just as women were encouraged to hide their hair so as not to lead men astray, excessive makeup was frowned upon. However, the views of Thomas of Aquinas show what a minefield makeup was.

On the one hand, Tom thought, yes, a woman should be allowed makeup in order to look her best for her husband, thus discouraging him from the sin of adultery. On the other hand, he cautioned: she should not make herself too pretty, thereby luring other women’s menfolk into an adulterous trap.

In terms of what was available to those willing to tread this very fine line, women could apply foundation, often lead-based, sometimes flour-based. Here’s a recipe from the 13th-century L’ornement des Dames:

Put very pure wheat in water for fifteen days, then grind and blend it in water. Strain through a cloth, and let it crystalise and evaporate. You will obtain make-up which will be as white as snow. When you want to use it, mix it with rosewater, and spread it on your face which has first been washed with warm water. Then dry your face with a cloth.

Eye makeup, despite being available since forever, simply wasn’t very fashionable. Most paintings and sculptures show women with pale, undefined eyes and thin eyebrows. However, we do know that women used to drop deadly nightshade into their eyes to dilate the pupils and make them appear bigger, which is possibly where the plant’s common name Belladonna, “beautiful lady”, comes from.

We know that a fair few women used rouge. Indeed, the 12th-century monge de Montaudon (monk of Montaudon) sang about statues in churches who complain that there is not enough makeup to decorate them “because of all the ladies who use rouge.” It was mostly made from ground plants (angelica or safflower), but the physician Gilbertus Anglicus mentions the effectiveness of brazilwood chips soaked in rosewater.

In terms of lip colour, similar rouge could be used, and also crushed berries to make stains. The 21st-century Lipstick Queen, Poppy King, named her famous Medieval lipstick in honour of the medieval trend for rubbing lemons on your lips to get a deeper colour.

I actually tried this myself and was amazed with the results. Sorry that these photos were so obviously taken in my kitchen, but that’s where the lemons live. I just cut one in half and squished it into my mouth, which was both yummy and effective; my lips look significantly more blood-filled, which is suitably medieval.

beauty tips - 3

Lip balm also existed, by the way. The book Secrets of Don Alessio Piemontese gives a recipe for “sweet smelling grease that will keep the lips and hands from chapping and make them moist and soft.” It’s made from suet, marjoram and wine.

I like the sound of wine-flavoured lip balm. I like the lemon trick, too. But I’ll keep my freckles and my hair, thanks.

beauty tips - 4

It’s so interesting to me that, in the age of Cara Delevingne eyebrows, St. Tropez tans and Big Sexy Hair, there’s a space in our beauty past like the Middle Ages. Just goes to show how subjective beauty can be.

Women were abducted in medieval England….

Stolen women

The above book, Stolen Women in Medieval England, by Caroline Dunn, is subtitled Rape, Abduction and Adultery 1100-1500. This subtitle is well earned, because all three activities become very tangled indeed in those records that survive of cases that reached courts.

The general impression the modern world has of medieval women is that they were “victims” of men who controlled everything in their lives. Whether it was their father, brother, husband, whatever, they were bullied into submission. Hmm, not quite. Many women back then knew exactly how to work the system. So that when we read of raids by armed men to abduct and force into marriage any woman who would bring wealth and property into the “bridegroom’s” clutches, things might not have been as simple and clear-cut as might seem.

Well, yes. A lot of this did go on, especially in the 14th century, when it was all too prevalent, but although there were many genuine attacks of this nature, there were also situations when woman, especially married ones, would connive with her abductor in order to escape from a husband she no longer wanted. Or for love of the supposed abductor, of course. And there were young lovers embroiled in elopements. But if it was a case of getting away from an unwanted husband, the deserted husband’s only course was to make legal complaint against the abductor, since he could not charge his wife with leaving him. Thus the charges had to be fairly stiff, leading to all these supposed instances of abduction and rape. A consequence of the husband’s legal move would be for the wife and abductor to claim to have been previously married, so the abduction was merely a case of the first husband claiming back his wife. Not easy to prove or disprove.

Once a marriage had taken place, and it had been consummated, it could not be undone. The Church frowned on such things, but did not annul the match, provided the exact words/vows had been uttered. These indicated what was called present consent. So, by publicly saying, e.g. “I marry you,” or “I take you” they contracted a valid marriage. Or, if in front of witnesses they said, e.g. “I will marry you” or “I will take you”, this constituted future consent, a form of betrothal, which, if subsequently consummated, became a validly contracted marriage. (Step forward Edward IV and Lady Eleanor Talbot/Butler!)

Another point I did not know before, was that when the word rape (usually variations of raptus) appears in records and rolls, it does not necessarily mean sexual rape as understood in the modern world. These rapists could also be mere abductors, whether with ill intent or if they were illicit lovers. So taking a woman and carrying her off would be termed rape in medieval records, even when sexual assault of any kind was not involved.

Those women probably most at risk of kidnapping were the widows, especially the wealthy ones. The taking by force of virgins was frowned upon, and outraged fathers/families could always disinherit the victim. Widows, on the other hand, possessed land and property of which a new husband would immediately gain control. For good if she had no heirs lingering from her late husband’s family, or just for her lifetime if there were step-children lining up to thwart him of hanging on to it. As you can imagine, these possible heirs would soon kick up if he tried! It didn’t stop the abductions, often by impoverished men, including knights, who wanted to improve their situation and fill their purses.

The above is just a brief summary and sample of the interesting facts to be found in Caroline Dunn’s fascinating book. The chapters have been well laid out and are easy to sort mentally, but there are so many footnotes that I for one began to boggle. Not because of their volume, but because their font was small. The author’s sources and references are amazing. Everything is accounted for.

This book is part of the fourth series of Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, and I do not hesitate to recommend it.

Medieval Hygiene: Practices of the middle ages.

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A link to an interesting article on medieval hygiene touching on chamberpots and privies, the usefulness of nosegays, laundry and makeup among other things.

 

A Guide to English Medieval Government….

Court of King's Bench - time Henry VI

Court of the King’s Bench Time of Henry VI

If, like me, you become puzzled or just downright confused by all the different offices, posts, departments and so on of English medieval government (many of which still exist today), then the site below is very helpful for clearing the confusion. After all, is it not bewildering to find that ‘in the king’s presence’ doesn’t mean he was present at all? “From the reign of Edward I, a Chief Justice of Common Pleas headed the panel of judges. Common Pleas was known contemporarily as ‘the Bench’ (banc), while King’s Bench was called ‘Coram rege’ (in the presence of the King – although the King was not actually present.)”

I recommend a dip into Medieval English Government by J.P. Somerville.

Why did lovers come to celebrate St Valentine’s Day….?

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How did St Valentine become the patron saint of lovers? The answer to that is the stuff of legends. One story has it that he was a peaceful man, as well as a great peacemaker, and while tending the roses in his garden, he heard a couple quarrelling violently. He cut a rose and went to mediate between them. When he gave them the rose, their love for each other returned.

lupercalia2

Another story is that he was chosen to be the patron saint of lovers because his day is close to the pagan feast of Lupercalia, a Roman festival of fertility. One thing is certain, by the time of Richard III, the giving of loving kisses and gifts was in full swing.

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Ford Madox Brown, 1845-1851

I think we should credit Geoffrey Chaucer with a large part in the promoting 14th February as ‘St Valentine’s Day’ as the ‘day of love’. There is a widespread tradition that on St Valentine’s Day all the birds chose their mates. “…for this was on St Valentine’s Day, when every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.”

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The Parliament of Birds by Carl Wilhelm de Hamilton (1668-1754)

Chaucer wrote a poem to celebrate the occasion, and called it ‘The Parlement of Foules’, or ‘Parliament of Fowls’. It was meant to be read out on St Valentine’s Day, and is believed to date from the year fifteen-year-old Richard II married Anne of Bohemia, also fifteen. Maybe it was written for the royal couple.

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The illustration above is of Richard and Anne’s coronation – he seems a little old for fifteen!

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti as Geoffrey Chaucer reading.

Whatever the truth, Chaucer created a symbol of spring love, with birds singing and twittering joyfully. Quarrelling too, with the royal and aristocratic birds of prey lording it over lesser birds. A full translation can be read at http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/English/Fowls.htm

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Danish love poems for Valentine’s Day

To know how medieval lovers celebrated St Valentine’s Day, look at http://uk.businessinsider.com/medieval-valentines-day-celebrations-2016-2?r=US&IR=T.

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And to learn of ten great royal romances of the medieval period, try https://e-royalty.com/articles/the-ten-great-medieval-royal-romances/

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Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville

The oldest existing medieval Valentine love letter, from teenaged Margery Brews to John Paston, is revealed at http://www.historytoday.com/rachel-moss/medieval-valentine (and it is included in a very informative and interesting article about medieval Valentines by Professor Sarah Peverley at https://sarahpeverley.com/tag/medieval-valentine/

pastonletter-wl

And finally, if you fancy something light-hearted and a little silly, go to https://murreyandblue.wordpress.com/?s=right+royal

a-right-romantic-royal-reunion

 

Gloucestershire Wassail Carol

gloucestershire_wassailAs we take down our Christmas trees and put away our recordings of “Santa Baby,” perhaps some of the readers of the Murrey and Blue are preparing to stroll forth on Twelfth Night to sing the  charming “Gloucestershire Wassail” song for friends and neighbors this January 5th of the new year 2017.  This is the traditional day in which folks raise the wassail bowl and wish good health and happiness to all of mankind.  And it is followed the next day by the Epiphany when the son of God, Jesus Christ, is proclaimed to all the world.

I had never heard this particular carol until I purchased a cd several years ago called “An English Country Christmas” which included choral groups from The Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford to The Choir of Queens College Cambridge to The Oxford Girls’ Choir.  It also featured two soloists:  the folk singer Ian Giles and the sweet-voiced English soprano, Sara Stowe.  Her lilting rendition of the “Gloucestershire Wassail” – a carol of medieval origin but taken up by the Victorians – is sung acapella while punctuated by bells and Mathew Spring’s zitherlike hurdy-gurdy.  It  is so strikingly ethereal that I soon floated away on a magic carpet of music to the medieval court of Richard the Third on that last Christmas of 1484 before tragic circumstances brutally ended his reign and swept in the harsh, modern age of wolfish Tudors.  Surely, it was such a splendid Christmas of costume and dancing and thrilling music that scandalized the pious priests who either witnessed it or cattily reported upon it.

From what little research on the carol that I could find, the composition is a traditional one that was collected by the great composer Vaughan Williams in 1912.  Its lyrics were a delightful mystery to me but this stanza provided a clue:

And here is to Dobbin and to his right eye

Pray God send our master a good Christmas pie

And a good Christmas pie that we may all see

with the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.

Even a urbanite like me could surmise that Dobbin refers to a working horse and that perhaps all the other living creatures named are horses as well.  But then I came across the beautiful illumination above which clearly shows that the carol mixes horses with cattle.  Each of the animals’ body parts are wittily toasted – Colly and her long tail, Fillpail and her left ear and Broad May and her horns – which shows, even in medieval times, the English love and reverence towards all the beasts of the field.  And the song also pays tribute to the lord of the castle who receives gifts of beef, pie, corn and beer from his devoted people.

Returning once more to our favorite King, I’d like to think of him during a very different time – at home on a snowy evening in Middleham during the Christmas season, surrounded by family and friends like Francis Lovell, when he was still the beloved Duke of Gloucester and before the death of an errant brother would send his life into a tailspin.   A muffled knock comes to the door and he turns from his pretty wife and calls to his young servant to answer it:

Then here’s to the maid in the lily white smock

Who tripped to the door and slipped back the lock

Who tripped to the door and pulled back the pin

For to let these jolly wassailers in

For those who would like to hear Miss Stowe’s version, I include a You Tube link.  I hope it works but sometimes  copyright laws intrude on our enjoyment.  If it doesn’t work, I encourage everyone to go to You Tube and simply type in “Gloucestershire Wassail”.  It should come up like this:

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Was it Richard in need of a bath….?

Medieval-Bath

Sometimes one comes across fascinating nuggets of information, and I have just happened upon the following:-

“This barbour shall haue every satyrday at night if it please the Kinge to cleanse his head, legges or feet, and fort his shaving, two loves, one picher wine. And the ussher of chambre ought to testyfye if this is necessaryly dispended or not.” 

So, unless I am misinterpreting this, the king should be washed once a week, whether he needed it or not!

The book in which I found this is titled “Medieval Man” by Frederick Harrison (who was canon, chancellor and librarian of York Minster), published 1947. It is a fascinating little volume, packed with all sorts of information about mediaeval life and beliefs, and chapters on education, meals, stars, chronology, strange ideas (!), medicine, great households, play-acting, boy bishops, geography and maps, and history.

I suppose we should be thankful the above king was cornered once a week, for it could have been a lot worse. Once a month? Once a year? Now then, which king do you think the quoted passage refers to? Richard? Henry VII? Henry VI? No, it’s Edward IV!

 

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