Sunday, 31 May 2015

Medieval Life: The Unsavoury Subject of Cat Skins

History is full of unsavoury details which are unpalatable to modern tastes. Recently I’ve been researching cats in history, and repeatedly bumped up against a particularly unpleasant truth. As an obsessive cat lover myself, I’ve debated whether or not to post on this topic.

But my deliberations led me to decide that writing this post might stir debate about why it’s acceptable for certain animals to yield up their skin for human use, but not others. Or indeed, to consider the wider debate about why it’s OK to eat some animals but not others…so here goes…

Queen Elizabeth II in her ceremonial robes
featuring finest Canadian ermine
The medieval world was very different to ours. Everything had a value, and cats were no exception. They earnt their keep as mousers, and occasionally got their paws under the table as pets. However, few things went to waste in medieval times, and for those unfortunate cats who weren’t prized as hunters or pets, they could sacrifice their skin to keep someone from a lowly caste warm.

The wearing of fur was an important way to keep warm, and the type of fur worn advertised your wealth. This wasn’t just about the purchase price of the fur, but about making sure people didn’t ape those above them in the social rankings. For example, sumptuary laws dictated that people under the rank of knight were only permitted to wear certain “lowly” furs, which include lamb, rabbit, fox…and cat.
An ermine - the preserve of Royalty,
unlike the humble cat
Indeed, the only type of fur nuns were permitted to wear was catskin or lambskin, whilst monks were permitted to trim their hoods with the pelts from cats, squirrels, lamb, or rabbit, which were all considered lowly animals and a way of reminding the monk they had renounced worldly goods.

The killing of cats for their skins was widespread and taken for granted, as shown in this quote by Bartholomeus Anglais, writing in 1398:
“The cat is often taken for his fair skin and slain and flayed.”

A telling detail from a painting by Herionymous Bosch, titled The Wayfarer, shows a pedlar carrying his basket of wares on his back, and from the pack dangles the striped skin of a tabby cat.  
Note both the ragged dress of the pedlar, and the tabby cat skin hanging from his pack

And in Germany, furriers had their own hierarchy with those at the top working with ermine and other costly furs. But when those lower down the rank wished to make a cutting insult they would refer to the colleague as a “cat skinner”, meaning the lowest of the low.

One uncomfortable question is to ask where these cat skins came from. Undoubtedly many were strays and in poor condition, hence the reputation for cat skin as a lowly fur. However, at times, domestic cats also fell foul of a pedlar with an eye to make quick money.
Records exist from 1268 in Paris when the going price was one pence for:
“…the skins of private cats of the fireside or hearth.”  
Henry VIII in robes trimmed with ermine.
Would you feel differently about the portrait if the fur was cat instead of ermine? 

Of course in medieval times life was hard and it was practical to use whatever resources were available in order to survive. So using animal skins, of whatever species, was necessary to stop people freezing to death.

As a cat lover, and a vegetarian for over thirty years, I understand why medieval people were so practical about the use of animal skins. Before you throw your hands up in horror, ask yourself are truly blameless? Why is it OK for one species to provide meat for the table (or leather for your shoes), but not another? 
Cat skins look best on the cat

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Medieval Monks, Marginalia, and Cats

Your job is boring and repetitive. You ache to express yourself. The only way you can do this is to wait until your supervisor isn’t looking – and doodle on your notepad. Well, this is equivalent to the medieval monks who laboriously copied out manuscripts by hand – and added small drawings of their own invention in the margins.
Cats will be cats
as in this marginalia illustration
Perhaps the cats that inspired these drawings in the margins (or “marginalia”), also kept the monks company. As the monks drew, so these felines worked alongside, keeping down the rats and mice. This was big problem for the monks because the vermin were attracted to the paper which they ate – destroying all that painstaking work. But the vermin were also bold, and climbed the desks where the scribes worked and stole their food.
“Most wretched mouse, often you provoke me to anger. May God destroy you!”
[Caption from a humours illustration of a Hildebert, a 12th century scribe, as he tries to catch the mouse that steals his cheese.]
Another cat doing what cats do.
Clearly this scribe was bored
But let’s face it many medieval monks did match the psychological profile of a typical cat lover as creative and intelligent. However, one writer was left his cat’s autograph when the cat stepped in ink and walked across the manuscript.
A cat with wearing what appears to be a
prototype jet pack

Perhaps another scribe who was perhaps less pleased by his cat’s “signature” was the one who returned in the morning to find a page soaked in cat wee. He was forced to leave that page blank with a message to the effect that nothing was missing but he’d learnt a lesson not to leave books out at night.
Medieval paw prints captured in ink

We know at least one Irish monk welcomed his feline companion. He even gave the cat a name, Pangur Ban, and wrote a rather sweet poem about him:

I and Pangur Ban my cat
Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delightful
Hunting words I sit all night
This scribe was not a cat lover by all accounts

What is interesting is that whilst cats were valued as mousers, they were also feared as devilish creatures. Indeed, cats were widely used elsewhere in medieval carvings and paintings, to tell ordinary folk cautionary tales of good and evil – where the cat was portrayed as a cunning trickster. Hmmm, I suppose cats have at least got their own back in the 21st century, with life on their terms. 
Widget- very much a 21st century cat

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Welcome, Regan Walker! Shopping on Oxford Street in Georgian London

Grace: I’m thrilled to welcome guest author, Regan Walker to “Fall in Love with History”. Regan posts on the subject of shopping, and contemporary accounts of what it was like to shop on 18th century Oxford Street. Enjoy!

I’m honoured to have read a preview copy of Regan’s latest release, To Tame the Wind, and I loved it. Let’s just say I’d rate Regan on a similar level to one of my favourite HR authors, Tessa Dare. And with 21 reviews to date, all of which are 5 stars, I'd say a lot of readers agree with me.

Anyhow, without further ado…over to Regan. 

Shopping on Oxford Street in Georgian London  
by Regan Walker

Shopping on Oxford Street in the late 18th century? Oh yes! You would have loved it.
Oxford Street from the Tyburn turnpike end.
Hyde Park to the right of the picture. 

Today, Oxford Street is a thoroughfare in the West End of London, but its origins go far back to the Roman roads. Between the 12th century and the year of my story, To Tame the Wind, 1782, it was variously known as Tyburn Road, Uxbridge Road, Worcester Road and Oxford Road. It became notorious as the route taken by prisoners on their final journey from Newgate Prison to the gallows at Tyburn near Marble Arch. Beginning about 1729, however, it became known as Oxford Street.

London’s population grew tremendously in the 18th century from about 630,000 in 1715 to 740,000 in 1760. It’s port, the London Pool on the Thames, was the busiest in the world. Much money was spent in building beautiful town houses, pleasure gardens, squares, museums—and shops. To venture into London’s streets was to brave pickpockets, cutthroats, bawds and bullies, not to mention mud and filth, stench from sewage and the black rain from the sea coal that was burned for heating. But on Oxford Street, where window-shopping had become a past time of the upper classes, things were better.

Though Sophie de la Roche, a German visitor to London in 1786, thought the houses in London were not so splendid as those in Paris, she raved about the shops on Oxford Street:
We strolled up and down lovely Oxford Street this evening, for some goods look more attractive by artificial light…First one passes a watchmaker’s, then a silk or fan store, now a silversmiths, a china or glass shop. Just as alluring are the confectioners and fruiterers, where, behind the handsome glass windows, pyramids of pineapples, figs, grapes, oranges and all manner of fruits are on show.
Contemporary map of Oxford Street

When my heroine in To Tame the Wind, Claire Donet, goes shopping with Cornelia, Lady Danvers, it is to Oxford Street where they browse the shop windows while Cornelia fills Claire in on the rather interesting origins of the hero, Captain Simon Powell.

While much negative could be said about the streets of London which were ever dirty and plagued by mud puddles, when it came to Oxford Street, Sophie de la Roche noted:

A street taking half an hour to cover from end to end, with double rows of brightly shining lamps, in the middle of which stands an equally long row of beautifully lacquered coaches, and on another side of these there is room for two coaches to pass one another and the pavement inlaid with flagstones can stand six people deep and allows one to gaze at the splendidly rich shop fronts in comfort.

Another visitor to London, de la Rochefoucauld, remarked,

Everything the merchant possesses is displayed behind windows which are always beautifully clean and the shops are built with a little projection on to the street so that they can be seen from three sides.

Of course he is talking about bay windows, seen in many shops today.

 At one time London shops displayed painted signs. There were roasted pigs and spotted lions, dogs and gridirons, which had no connection with the things sold in the shop. The signs posed problems, of course, making noise as they creaked in the wind and sometimes falling onto those shopping. In 1766, the signs were removed and to replace them and to tell shoppers what good were being offered, some shops displayed symbols of their trade, like the barber's pole, the grocer's sugar loaf, the golden arm holding a mallet (the sign of the goldsmith). Others put up their names and occupations on signs above their shops. Hence, Mrs. Duval the modiste in my novel (and an actual modiste of the time), though located on Bond Street, featured an spool of thread as well as her name painted on the glass.

One foreign traveler to London, after viewing the new signs, remarked,

‘Dealer in foreign spirituous liquors' is by far the most frequent.

Ha! Some things never change.

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               NY Times Bestselling author Shirlee Busbee


All Claire Donet knew was the world inside the convent walls in Saint-Denis. She had no idea her beloved papa was a pirate. But when he seized Simon Powell's schooner, the English privateer decided to take the one thing his enemy held most dear... her.


The waters between France and England roil with the clashes of Claire's father and her captor as the last year of the American Revolution rages on the sea, spies lurk in Paris and Claire’s passion for the English captain rises.

To learn more about Regan visit: 

Twitter: @RegansReview (

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The Cobbled (?) Streets of Victorian London

Summon a mental picture of Dickensian streets, and if you’re like me, images spring to mind of horses clattering across cobblestones. Actually, whilst cobblestones are an ancient innovation, Dickens would have been more familiar seeing “granite setts” on the better London streets.
The ideal road surface needed to be durable, easily cleaned (all that horse excrement!), non slip, and didn’t turn into a bog when it rained.

A street being repaved with granite setts

As London grew and expanded rapidly, the search was on for a road surface that could cope with the traffic. One answer was macadam. St James’s Square in the affluent West End was the first London road to use macadam. This is a mix of small granite stones pressed into a prepared surface. Huge, heavy rollers pulled by teams of twelve men were pulled over the surface, compressing it down. This worked well when done properly; however, contractors frequently cut corners to increase their profit margins.
Look closely and you'll see these are irregularly shaped
granite setts rather than cobbles
Their cost cutting dodges included using bigger stones (less effort required to mill them finer) and giving the artifice of smoothness by covering them with sand. First heavy rainfall and sand washed away, exposing a hopelessly irregular surface. Another problem was inadequate rolling flat, which meant the weight of traffic pushed the gravel to one side creating deep ruts in the road. Perhaps an altogether less obvious problem, was poorly laid macadam provide ammunition for the protestors to throw at police at times of disquiet.
With thanks to
Cobbles are rounder than than rectangular setts

Master engineer Thomas Telford, also in the 1820s, came up with the idea of granite sets. These were stone blocks measuring 11 by 13 inches, and 9 inches deep, set over level ballast. Even when laid correctly, this surface was too smooth and therefore slippery for horses. Labourers regularly had to hammer away with chisels to roughen the surface to give the horses hooves purchase.
Granite setts
But cutting hard stone to the exact size was an expensive and time-consuming process, and poorly shaped blocks or offcuts often found their way into the roads, providing ruts and holes for a horse to trip on.
The idea behind hardwood roads

A strange solution to the modern mind, but for a while wooden roads seemed the obvious answer. Wooden blocks were easier to cut than stone, and could be dowelled together in the factory, and assembled on site like a giant jigsaw puzzle. The surface was grooved so as to provide grip. Another huge benefit was the wood muffled sound, and was much less noisy beneath hoof or iron wheel. One contemporary reports:
“The shopkeepers stat that they can now hear and speak to their customers…even when their windows were open.”
The residents of affluent areas clamoured to have this new wonder road surface installed in their square or road, and by the early 1840s Regent Street, Oxford Street, and parts of Holborn had wooden roads.

However no one foresaw the rapid deterioration of a wooden road surface – especially one in high use. By 1843 they were in such a poor state that on one stretch, in just four days, 19 horses had slipped and fallen. Indeed, on hills, or in frosty weather the roads rapidly became impassable to equine traffic (at least it kept the noise down!)

Roads which had recently been paved with wood were torn up and resurfaced. Interestingly, a few wooden roads remained in places where quiet was desirable, such as outside the Old Bailey and the Central Criminal Court.

So what of the humble cobble stone? The word “cobble” refers to a rounded stone, of between 2.5 to 10 inches diameter. And before you ask when the Victorian’s invented cobblestones – they didn’t! That honour is a much older one and dates back to the Romans. Their preferred method of building a durable road surface was to use the lumpen strength and reliability of cobbles. 

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Quintessentially Victorian: the Crinoline

It is arguable that nothing is as quintessentially Victorian as the crinoline. You only need to see the silhouette of a woman wearing a crinoline to place her fashion in the Victorian period. Whilst the Georgian period went through a fad for ridiculously wide skirts, it is the 1850s and 60s that were the era of the hoop shaped skirt we call the crinoline.
The height of fashion in 1854

A balloon like skirt is so evidently impractical, how did such a garb come into being? The roots of the answer are found in that traditional essential garment for women down the centuries – the petticoat.

Much of the time people in earlier centuries were cold. There was no central heating, and a fire in the hearth doesn’t throw heat very far. The answer was to rug up with layers of clothing so as to insulate the wearer from the worst of the icy drafts and inclement weather.

Petticoats for Warmth
For women this meant wearing petticoats under their gown. Indeed, a white cotton petticoat was usually worn over the corset but next to the skin. The layer was a simple shape and unadorned, since it needed washing on a regular basis.
The satirical magazine "Punch"
loved to poke fun at the wildly impractical crinoline

On top of the cotton petticoat came a flannel one- again simple in shape but perhaps with some decoration. Interestingly, this layer wasn’t full length but stopped just above the knee. These two layers were considered basic for women not matter what their class.

Fashionable Lengths
Just as in the modern day hemlines rise and fall, in the Victorian period fashion was all to do with the width and silhouette of the skirt. However, wide skirts needed support to hold them out and show them off to best advantage. In the 1840s the solution was to stiffen the fabric of a petticoat. The cheapest way to do this was “cording” which was a process of threading string between concentric rings of stitching on a white petticoat.

Itchy and Scratchy
But as the decade progressed, the stiffness provided by cording was not sufficient to support the weight of ever-bigger skirts. This lead to a new innovation and fabric with horsehair woven in or a “Crin au Lin”. Stiff, spring, and light, an underskirt made in this fabric or a “Crinoline” could support a weighty skirt.
The diameter of some crinolines was a disabling 6 feet

Steel Cages (…a comment on women’s lives in general?)
Horsehair, however, is scratchy and to overcome this in 1856 the steel crinoline was invented. This consisted of steel hoops suspended by tapes. This formed a cage like structure that was considerably lighter (and less itchy) than the original horsehair item.

And finally….perhaps crinoline makers were in league with fabric manufacturers, because the cages themselves were relatively inexpensive (retailing at about a third of the purchase price of a gown) and yet required many yards of fabric to make a skirt to cover it.  

PS. Can you think of anything more quintessentially Victorian than a crinoline? Do leave a comment. 
PSS - "Hope's Betrayal" has been signed by a well-known publishing house. The book will shortly become unavailable, whilst it undergoes a "wash and brush up" - so grab your copy now or face a wait...
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Sunday, 3 May 2015

Victorian Life: The Health Benefits of the Corset

Fashions come and go, but in Victorian times one item of apparel that was considered ‘de rigeur’ by women of all classes was the corset. So much so that even women in prison or the workhouse, were supplied with corsets.

Part of the reason was that 19th century medicine held that women’s internal organs needed support. It was said that a woman’s midriff was weak and not up to the job of supporting her womb. Ironically, this was a self-fulfilling prophecy because the constant use of corsets weakened the abdominal muscles.

Waisting Away
Any muscle when not used, tends to waste away (waist away? See what I did there!) and the abdominal muscles are no different. Instead of having the female version of a six-pack, the Victorian lady had muscles equivalent in tone to a blancmange – thanks to the corset.
Indeed, if a Victorian lady left off her corset, she was likely to quickly feel vulnerable and tired, thanks to the lack of support – and hence confirming the reason for wearing one.

“Women who wear very tight stays complain that they cannot sit upright without them, nay are compelled to wear night stays in bed.”  Female Beauty – Victorian periodical
A x-ray from 1908 showing how
a corset compressed the lower ribcage

Upright Posture
Thus the corset also braced the back and helped a lady to have an elegant upright posture and bearing – something much admired at the time.

Warmth and Protection
A corset was said to protect the delicate organs such as the kidneys. The garment kept in the body’s warmth and hence saved the kidneys from catching a chill. Indeed, the corset provided a valuable windproof weather, against the vagaries of the British climate.
Normal anatomy on the left
Corset restricted anatomy on the right

The Corset Not to Blame
So how come the corset has such a bad reputation as an instrument of subduing women and stopping them from leading active lives?

Mainstream medical thinking was that corsets were good, but could be made bad when laced too tightly. Unfortunately, the latter is exactly what happened because society admired a trim figure with a tiny waist – which meant women used every tool at their disposal to obtain just that.

It was the 1850s and 60s that saw tremendous pressure building to produce a tiny waist. Not only that, but it was positively encouraged, especially for young women with a husband to snare.

A Smaller Waist than a Toddler
“When I left school at 17 my waist measured only 13 inches, it formerly having been 23 inches in circumference.”
This was because fashionable schools actively worked on reducing the waists of their female charges. This was done by equipping the girls with a series of ever-smaller corsets. Of course being so tightly laced they could not eat large meals, and were forced to peck at food like a bird. Indeed, the corset was only removed for one hour per week for the girl to have a wash.

Contemporary Concerns

And finally…at the time people had concerns about the damage done by over-tight lacing, but the problem was no one could agree on how tight was too-tight. And remember that in addition, there was a cultural perception that an uncorseted woman was one of low morals – and you begin to see the mountain that had to be climbed to find a women’s undergarment that was both flattering and healthy.