Wednesday, 26 October 2011

And So To Bed...

Have you ever wondered where the expression “hitting the sack” or “hitting the hay” comes from? Well this post will answer this and dwell on other bed-related trivia.

"Hitting the sack" it derives from the medieval version of a bed which was simply a sack filled with hay and placed on the floor. This mattress was also known as a “palliasse” from the French word “paille” meaning straw.

In medieval times, life was much more communal than it is today. Those who lived and worked at a Manor House, usually slept either at their place of work (kitchen, stables, et.c) or together in the great hall. As a sign of their superiority the blood family owning the manor house would sleep in an upstairs room adjoining the hall. This was called “the chamber” and the special servant overseeing this room known as the “chamberlain.” Often the Lord of the Manor would have a peep hole through which he could literally “look down” on his employees and check what they were up to in the hall below.

In the 17th century people were still accustomed to sharing beds. It was a sign of a child’s maturity to be invited into her parents bed. When the daughter of Lady Anne Clifford reached three, she was encouraged to leave baby-hood behind by wearing a whalebone bodice, walking without leading reins and sleeping in her mother’s bed. Sharing a bed was considered a sign of growing up and leaving the cot behind, rather than a regressive step as it's often seen today.

Expressions such as “you make an ill-bed fellow” originate from the custom of many people sharing one bed for warmth and security.  But even in a communal bed there was an etiquette to who slept where. In 19th century rural Ireland the eldest daughter lay closest to the wall, followed in age succession by her sisters, then the mother who lay next to the father, and then sons in age succession - in effect keeping the daughters as far away from interlopers as possible.

Earliest beds or “pallets” were akin to large wooden boxes with a mattress on top and could be pushed under other furniture when not in use. By Tudor times, bed design for the wealthy had moved on and the mattress lay upon bed strings. These were ropes laced up and down, and across, the bed frame. Under the weight of sleeper and bedding these ropes sagged and required regular tightening, hence the expression:

“Night, night, sleep tight.”

Interestingly, with the advent of four poster beds, as well as keeping in heat the canopy served a dual purpose of catching insects and vermin that dropped out of the rafters, since many early houses didn’t have ceilings separating the chamber from the roof.

16th and 17th century, the wealthy had feather mattresses. These were expensive - requiring around 50 lbs of feathers, and so largely the province of the well off. However some female servants were allowed to keep the feathers of birds plucked ready for the table, and collect them as a sort of dowry towards the creation of a marital bed.

And finally.

It was the Georgian’s who came up with the idea of bedroom doors opening inwards - to afford those inside vital seconds to compose themselves before public scrutiny. And the Victorian’s who segregated husband and wife to separate sleeping apartments. A lady’s own dressing room was also known as her “boudoir” from the French verb “bouder” - to sulk.

So how about you? Do you mind where you sleep or will any place to rest your head do?

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

A Quaint British Custom?

A Quaint British Custom?  - Driving on the Left.

            If you are planning to visit the UK and happen to come from one of the many countries that drive on the wrong side of the road, the following advice, direct from the Ministry of Transport, is for you:

            “Visitors are informed that in the United Kingdom traffic drives on the left-hand side of the road. In the interests of safety, you are advised to practise this in your country of origin for a week or two before driving in the UK.”

            This week’s blog post was inspired by reading an article about the origins of why the British drive on the left side of the road. Apparently, the convention for driving on the left dates back to medieval jousts and the dominance of right-handedness!

            During a medieval joust, two knights would face each other across the lists, gallop towards each other with the intention of unseating the opponent with a lance. Since most men are right handed, the lance was gripped with the right arm and balanced across the body so that the lance-head was angled to the left.

            However, to me this idea seems flawed. In the photo the horses pass left flank to left flank, but if this was translated to the road, the rider would be on the right hand side of the road - this calls for more research!

            It appears that in violent times, such as feudal Europe, since most people are right handed, swordsmen preferred to pass in the street with their sword arm (ie right arm) closer to any opponent ie walk of the left side. This also reduced the chance of the scabbard, which was worn on the left side of the body, hitting people, and kept the sword further away from felons.

            Added to that, it is easier for a right-handed person to mount a horse from the left side. With a sword worn to the left for right-handed access across the body, the right leg is free to swing unimpeded across the horses back. Obviously it is safer to mount and dismount on the edge of the road (ie the left) rather than in the middle of a stream of traffic (to the right)

            The continental custom for driving on the right was introduced by the Emperor Napoleon, who happened to be left handed . Since it was he who established the first road system across Europe he adopted right-hand drive.

            So why chose the right side of the road at all?

            In the US in the late 1700’s, large farm wagons were pulled by teamsters which involved several teams of horses hitched to one wagon. These vehicles had no driver’s seat but were controlled by the driver sitting on the left rear horse, so that his right arm was free to whip up the horses. Also, when sitting on the left he could watch to make sure he was sure his wagon was clear of oncoming wheels - and therefore kept to the right side of the road.

            Added to this, during the French Revolution (1789) driving on the right gained a boost. This was because the aristocracy travelled on the left, forcing peasants out of the way to the right. When the aristocrats were trying to keep a low profile, they to adopted the right side of the road!

            Don’t you just love history!!!

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

King Henry VIII - Fat or Fiction?

Henry with Jane Seymour, his third wife.

I thought it would be fun to compare Henry VIII, as created in TV series, The Tudors, with accounts of the real king.
 In his later life King Henry VIII was famed for being obese:

“ …[King Henry VIII] laboured under the burden of extreme fat and [an] unwieldy body.”
Edward, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury.

However chief executive producer of The Tudors, Morgan O’Sullivan was refreshingly honest about his attitude to Johnathan Rhys Myers portrayal of the ageing king:

“We still want him to be appealing. We don’t want to destroy his good looks. An exact portrayal of Henry is not a factor that we think is important.”

Henry VIII reigned from 1509 to 1547 and in his youth was evidently a very handsome man:

“His majesty is the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on.” Venetian visitor.

At 6 ft 2 inches he was tall, even compared the average height of a UK man today, at 5ft 9 inches. He was an active man who loved to hunt, joust, wrestle and play tennis but food played a prominent part at his court. In one year alone Henry’s court consumed 1240 oxen, 8200 sheep, 2330 deer, 760 calves, 1870 pigs, 53 wild boar and innumberable birds from swans to peacocks, fish and even whale, accompanied by 600,000 gallons of ale.

Food was used as a demonstration of England’s cultural superiority, a demonstration to visiting princes and foreign diplomats of her levels of wealth and luxury. But it was perhaps two factors that doomed Henry to his eventual morbid obesity: ill health which meant he could no longer exercise, and the death of his beloved third wife, Jane Seymour. Accounts suggest that after Jane’s death in 1536, twelve days after giving birth to their son, Edward, King Henry turned to food for comfort.

Studies of Henry’s suits of armour also speak of a steady increase in his girth:

1512    32 inch waist
1520    35 inches        
1545    54 inches
Jowly portrait by Matsys.

By 1544, a portrait by Cornelys Matsys showed Henry’s cheeks sagging with fat and eyes mouth mere slits in the blubber and by 1546 he could hardly walk and had to be carried around in special chairs called “Trams.” It was around this time that Henry, famously, had to be winched on and off his horse.

Henry died 28 January 1547, aged 55. His cadaver was placed in a lead coffin within a 6ft 10 inch elm chest and it took 16 yeoman of exceptional strength to manoeuvre the coffin.

Modern medical assessment suggest that at his death Henry had a BMI of 35 (normal 20-25) and weighed around 30 stones (normal for a 6ft 2 inch man is 13 stone) and was morbidly obese.

“Fat Henry sat upon the throne
And cast his eye on harm sir.
No, no Sir cook, I do propone
I think I’ll have the lamb sir.”
19th century nursery rhyme.
A romanticised version of Henry with the wife who outlived him.

But let’s leave the final word to The Tudor’s star, J. Rhys Myers himself. The actor made it clear he never intended to pig out to get into character.

“ …[actors] are not famous because they’re pug ugly.”

And he argued it there was no point selling historical drama featuring “… a big, fat 250 lb red-haired guy with a beard.”

Got to admire his honesty!

 So do you think JRM was right to go for glamour, or should he have bulked up?

A younger Henry with Anne Boleyn.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Nude or Prude? Victorian Attitudes to Nudity and Sea-Bathing..

I am currently researching Georgian and Victorian attitudes to marriage and after a particularly pleasing foray into a second hand bookshop, came home with a real gem - 'The Perfect Wife,' by Rona Randall.

Skimming through this book, a passage caught my eye, about Victorian attitudes to nudity. In short, in the Victorian bedroom nudity was to be avoided at all costs. Even sisters sharing a bedroom would stand back to back, and undress beneath voluminous night gowns. Indeed husband's often disrobed in an ajoining room to don his night shirt and didn't enter the bed chamber until his wife was safely attired in a billowing nightgown and frilly cap.

 With this in mind it came as a quite shock to also read that some early Victorians thought nothing of bathing nude in the sea! The invention of swimming costumes came as late as 1870 and before this the options were a bathing hut wheeled into the sea or to cavort naked in the waves. It seems the later was not as exceptional as you might suspect, and many preferred nude bathing! In the summer  months the correspondance columns of local newspapers were full of complaints about the;

'shameless seaside cavortings of loose women and unblushing men...'

However one naked bather, the Rev Francis Kilbert, was anything but loose morals. In his diary he extols the delights of nude sea bathing and somewhat innocently complains about,

'the detestable custom of bathing drawers that are now becoming de rigeur.'

It seems he created quite a stir at Seaton 1873 when unaware of the new requirement for wearing bathing suites, especially as;

'the young ladies strolling near seemed to have no objection.'

One newspaper, the Saturday Review, commented on the habit of some women activley seeking out male nude bathers;

'There they sit [women] happy, innocent, undistrubed - placidly and immovably gaze at hundreds of males in the costume of Adam.'

Who'd have thought!
Coming...November 2011

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Publish and Be Damned!

A contempory portrait of courtesan, Harriette Wilson.
Have you ever paused to wonder where the expression, "Publish and be damned" comes from?
In truth, I hadn’t thought about it, until I read the story of Harriette Wilson’s memoirs and the proverbial penny dropped.

In the 18th century Harriette Wilson was celebrated and adored amongst men - for Harriette was a courtesan. She was one of three prostitute sisters, banded together under the name of ‘the Three Graces.’

At a time when social etiquette was everything, Harriette’s attitude was:

“A fifty pound note is as good as an introduction.”
Frances Wilson's fascinating book on Harriette.
She was lively, extravagant and outrageous, and must have been like a breath of fresh air to some of the men who called on her services. She had many famous lovers whom she listed in order of rank:

“Dukes: Argyle, Beaufort, Leinster …..Wellington.
Marquesses: Anglesey, Bath, Hertford”

…and so on, working her way through Burke’s Peerage to the modest Esquires.
However when she fell on hard times, ever a woman of ingenuity, she channelled her formidable skills into writing an autobiography. She then sent copies of the manuscript to her high-born conquests with a note saying:

“Two hundred pounds by return of post, to be left out.”
Duke of Wellington, hero of Waterloo, commanding his troops.
One of the few men to resist this unprincipled blackmail was the Duke of Wellington, who reputedly scribbled:

“Publish and be damned” on the papers before sending them back. Accordingly, Harriette was less than flattering in her account of him in her memoirs.
The Duke of Wellington - looking slightly less heroic.
I leave you with a sample of Harriette’s style:

“Beautiful creature!” uttered Wellington. “Beautiful eyes, yours.”

Wellington was now my constant visitor – a most unentertaining one, Heaven knows! And in the evening, when he wore his broad red ribbon, he looked very like a rat-catcher.”

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Rules Not to be Broken.

It’s tempting to think that the 19th century was governed by rules. Even a simple thing such as moving around the house in company, had rules attached:

“The lady should be given the wall when descending stairs, but if merely passing from room to room, the man’s right arm should be offered to her.”

But rules abounded nowhere quite so much as hosting a dinner party.

“The direction of a table is no inconsiderate branch of a lady’s concern.”

There were strict orders of precedence to be obeyed, with the highest ranked in society commanding the most prestigious place at table. The lady of the house sat at the head of the table, with the gentleman of highest rank on her right, and the gentlemen next in rank to her left. This arrangement was mirrored at the bottom of the table for the gentleman of the house.

But the finer rules of etiquette were constantly changing.

“…what is considered the height of good taste one year, is declared vulgar the next.”

What a nightmare for the aspiring hostess!

“If a lady…be invited to take wine…they must never refuse; it is very gauche to do so. They need not drink half a glass, but merely taste of it.”

And at the dinner table,

“Ladies are not to dine with their gloves on, unless their hands are not fit to be seen.”

However servants were to wait at table wearing clean white gloves because:

“There are few things more disagreeable than the thumb of a clumsy waiter in your plate.”

It is hoped some rules never went out of fashion, such as:

 “Never use yor knife to convey food to your mouth, under any circumstances. It is unnecessary and glaringly vulgar.”

“Making a noise in chewing or breathing hard in eating, are both unseemly habits, and ought to be eschewed.”

“Do not pick your teeth much at table as, however satisfactory a practice to yourself, to witness it is not a pleasant thing.”

And finally, perhaps a piece of reverse snobbery in this piece of advice about family meals.

“At family dinners, where the common household bread is used, it should never be cut less than an inch and half thick. There is nothing more plebeian that thin bread at dinner.”

Thin sliced bread, plebeian indeed! Whatever next? Cucumber sandwiches with the crusts on? Heaven forbid!