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Thursday, 20 December 2012

Simples and Treacles – botanical secrets of 17th century England

I have loved researching 17th Century botany and herbs for my novels, The Lady’s Slipper and The Gilded Lily. For both of them I have had to research the botanical beliefs of a society that relied on native plants for a good many things, including medicine, cleaning agents, and home-manufactured goods such as cloth. One of my characters is a “cunning woman”, a person skilled in folk medicine. She has no daughters and is looking for someone to whom she can hand down her vast store of knowledge. Remedies were passed down orally, and the plants used were readily and commonly available to a populace which was mostly illiterate. Because little was written about it, evidence of these remedies is most often to be found in kitchen manuals because cooking and medicine were so closely related.

The difference between folk medicine and the “official” medicine was largely that folk medicine used plants that occurred naturally in Britain and had not been brought over from abroad. Official medicine drew on metals, chemical compounds and herbs and spices imported from other countries, such as the Mediterranean or Arabia. Physicians could charge more for their exotic-sounding imports, which by dint of their strangeness appeared to offer more appeal.

In the 17th century many Folk remedies were “simples”, ie a single species of plants used as a cure or palliative, whereas apothecaries mixed perhaps thirty or more of ingredients for their “treacles”. Venice treacle, given by Thomas Sydenham to Lady Sedley in 1686, contained more than 70 ingredients including:

wormwood, orange peel, angelica, nutmeg, horseradish, scurvy grass, white horehound, centaury, camomile, and juniper berries. All infused in 5 pints of sack!

And what was this medicine for? A headache.

Servants probably made do with feverfew leaves, and were probably better off for it. So in one of my books the middle-class Thomas Ibbetson is given a ‘drench’ (Pouring a vast quantity of liquid medicine into the throat) which worsens rather than cures his condition. In the 17th century, the richer you were, the more likely you were to die of the treatment rather than the disease. Mercury and antimony were common remedies, as was copious blood-letting to release stagnant humours.

17th century herbalists such as Gerard, Pechy and the Puritan, Culpeper, were immensely influential in their day, and there was much cross-over between the medicinal and the domestic. For example Culpeper recommends the leaves of the Alder tree for burns, but also for attracting fleas. The leaves were strewed on the ground to attract the fleas, and then the whole lot could be swept out and disposed of. Culpeper’s Herbal is one of the few 17th Century books still in print today.  I can also recommend Nicholas Woolley’s book about Culpeper, The Herbalist.

Napier’s History of Herbal Healing says that nettles were used as a pot herb in the Spring, but also its fibres were used in weaving instead of flax, to make tablecloths, sheets and even shirts! It was used medicinally to treat anaemia and as a general tonic, and also to dye the hair as it produced an intense yellow dye. With interest in ‘green’ products today, nettle fibre is again being used to make clothing.

Along with the practical uses of plants was a vast body of mythological lore, both superstitious and religious. Ideas such as that making love under a Rowan tree was a certain cure for infertility, were common. So the herbs themselves were used in a broad rather than a narrow context, embracing the physical, emotional and spiritual being of the user. Many people believed in the “doctrine of signatures” of Paracelsus. This suggests that each plant bears a physical sign, placed there by God, of what it should be used for. So the small bulbs of celandines should be used for piles, because that’s what they look like.

In The Lady’s Slipper, Alice Ibbetson is an artist fascinated by painting wild-flowers, the lady’s slipper being a rare wildflower with medicinal properties.

In The Gilded Lily the plants are used as a beauty aid by Ella Appleby, a serving maid who becomes obsessed with her appearance and the glitter and glamour of Restoration London.

Nettle blouse!

Many 17th century beauty preparations involved common plants. One for a fair complexion is to “take wilde Tansy and lay it to soake in buttermilke.” I haven't tried this yet, but I probably will.For more recipes I can recommend The Artifice of Beauty by Sally Pointer.

This post was first written for the Hoydens and Firebrands blog, why not visit them  - a great site about the seventeenth century.

Monday, 10 December 2012

The King's Carver

CONGRATULATIONS to Susan who is the winner of The Lady's Slipper picked out of the hat today!
Many thanks to everone else who stopped by my blog and made the effort to enter, wasn't it a great idea of Amy's. Hope you might have won something in the other draws.

A short post today as I'm one of the stops on the Fantastic Historical Fiction Holiday Blog Hop.


Top Pick! Swift's eye for detail and language augment this atypical debut. Compelling and intriguing, this is a well-told story full of wonderful prose and surprising events. It's a vivid addition to the genre.
--RT BookReviews
To win a copy of my debut novel THE LADY'S SLIPPER please leave a comment below. 
Giveaway Open Worldwide. Don't forget to leave an email address. One extra entry if you follow this blog, and another if you tweet my post.

As for the Historical Holiday Blog Hop - Just look at the fabulous prizes you can win! Click on the banner above to follow the other blogs on this hop.Historical Holiday Blog Hop Grand Prizes - $25 Amazon or Barnes and  Noble Gift Card - Prize package(s) from SIXTY historical novels. 

Grinling Gibbons - such a wonderful name - was the "King's Carver", in the Restoration period and was famous for beautiful carved wood decoration for St Paul's Cathedral, the Palace of Windsor, and the Earl of Essex's house. Legend had it that his carving was so fine that the wooden pot of carved flowers above his house in London would tremble from the motion of passing coaches.

Walpole later wrote about Gibbons: "There is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers, and chained together the various productions of the elements with the free disorder natural to each species."

Grinling Gibbons was introduced to Christopher Wren by the diarist John Evelyn who spotted him at work and was impressed by his talent. He was able to make wood appear to flow and move and was thus one of the master carvers of the Baroque style. More information about this seventeenth century sculptor in wood can be found at wanderings in eden
 or in the book, The Work of Grinling Gibbons by Geoffrey Beard
A Man's cravat, carved in lime wood by Gibbons,
courtesy of the V&A Museum
I love comments!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Temptation of the Restoration

The seventeenth century in England had a lot going on. First there was the English Civil Wars where brother fought brother over the division between King and Parliament. Secondly, there was the Plague. And then there was the Great Fire of London. All of these events took a massive toll on human life. 84,830 men were killed in the Civil Wars, 70,000 more died in the Plague. The Great Fire of London destroyed most of the familiar old Tudor streets. What’s more, the beheading of King Charles I had a huge impact on England’s psyche. There was a sense that the governance of England hung in the balance – that the old order was subject to change, and that nothing could be relied upon. It is hardly surprising that at this time, astrologers predicted doom and destruction to come.

Yet the period just after King Charles II was restored to the throne, known as the Restoration period, was one of unrestrained celebration and entertainment. There was a mere five years between 1660, when Charles arrived back in London to fanfares and jubilation, until June 1665 when the first impact of the Plague deaths hit London. I was fascinated to write about this period, a time eclipsed by the bigger events of the century, sandwiched in between the dark days of Cromwell and his Puritan rule, and the dread disease that ravaged the country.

This was the time in which I set The Gilded Lily – a time of surface optimism, but with undertones of unease beneath. The two sisters, Ella and Sadie Appleby, on the run from the Law, escape their rural village hoping for a new and better life in London. This was a quite different City of London from Tudor London where the Queen aimed for political expansion and gripped the nation with a firm hand - looser and more reactionary.

Lely - Nell Gwyn
Very much as London in the 1960’s was known as the “Swinging Sixties” and heralded a new era of sexual exploration, 1660’s London was a city of new fashions, of theatres, entertainment, lavish food and a renewed moral freedom. The King gathered his “Merry Gang” around him, the wits, the rakes, the young bloods, such as Buckingham and Rochester. Their sexual exploits fuelled the gossip of the nation, as Charles went through no less than thirteen royal mistresses, and probably a few more undocumented liaisons besides. Men dressed like peacocks in ribbons and bows, women’s d├ęcolletage drifted ever lower. An actress like Nell Gwynn could come from nothing yet make her fortune at court.

In The Gilded Lily, Ella, the bolder sister, has her sights set firmly upward on handsome Jay Whitgift, the son of a pawnbroker, who in turn is fixed on moving upwards to enter the coterie at Court and buying himself a baronetcy. If you have seen the film, The Libertine, with Johnny Depp, this is the sort of society in which Jay Whitgift moves, and to which Ella aspires.  I modelled Ella partly on paintings by Gerrrit Von Honthorst, a 17th century Dutch artist, who painted Courtesans and women of the lower classes with clarity and detail.

 Sadie, the more timid sister, finds the size of London terrifying. London in these times is owned by the young – many older people lost their lives in the Wars, there is a feeling that life is short. Death by burning is the penalty for those, who like Sadie and Ella, have stolen from their employer. Writing the story through Ella and Sadie’s viewpoints was eye-opening. In an age of conspicuous wealth there is always the flip-side, and Restoration London is no exception. Poverty and the accompanying criminal underworld lurk just beneath the surface, and I enjoyed researching these. London is well-documented at this time, and I spent much time poring over old maps to find where they might have lived. Blackraven Alley, where I placed their lodgings, was later destroyed by the Great Fire of London.

I encourage anyone interested in this period to explore a little further by reading: The Daling Strumpet by Gillan Bagwell – a lovely account of the life of Nell Gwyn, The Apothecary’s Daughter by Charlotte Betts or Year of Wonders by Geraldine Green, two very different books about the Plague, As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann about the English Civil Wars, and Restoration by Rose Tremain - insights into Charles II and his court. Please feel free to add to my list!

Today there are reviews up for The Gilded Lily at One Book at a Time and at The Eclectic Reader. Giveaways are running at both. 
This post first appeared on The True Book Addict Blog.- A great blog with the feature 'this Day in History.'

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Celebrating the Missing Maidservants

Camille Pissarro 1857 The Maidservant
As you know, I like to write fiction about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. No Kings and Queens for me, but the hidden, often unseen, lives of the ordinary people. The missing maidservants so often ignored by historical biographers, but loved by historical novelists as the ideal witnesses to great historical events. With this in mind, my post on recommended books featuring feisty maidservants is over here at One Book at a Time along with a chance to win The Gilded Lily. Why not go over for a look to see which books I've chosen? Have you any historical fiction books you would recommend featuring interesting maidservants?

Below: A Woman and her Maidservant feeding a Pancake to a Dog.
by the Dutch artist Gabriel Metsu (1629-1667)In The Gilded Lily Sadie and Ella cook pancakes or griddle cakes in this way, although their surroundings are not nearly so lavish!

Below: Lady with her maidservant holding a letter by Jan Vermeer

Below: My favourite - The Chocolate Girl by Jean Etienne Liotard

The story behind the commissioning of this painting sounds like a fairy-tale romance. The girl in the portrait, Anna Baltauf, worked as a maidservant in one of the Viennese chocolate shops which had become hugely popular during the 17th and18th centuries. She had little chance of good marriage as her father was too poor to give her a good dowry, however in the summer of 1745, a young Austrian nobleman - Prince Dietrichstein - came into the shop. He fell in love with the Chocolate Girl and asked her to marry him, despite objections from his family As a wedding present to his 'chocolate girl' he commissioned this portrait of his wife wearing the maid’s costume she was wearing when he first set eyes on her. Is this true? I guess we'll never really know.
Ella Appleby from The Gilded Lily would have loved this story. It was what she dreamed about for herself! Sadie, her sister, would have gently told her to stop dreaming and to deliver the tray to the customer before the chocolate went cold.

Maidservants spent a lot of time fetching and carrying, but also a large proportion of their time cleaning - here is an interesting post about buttermaking and cleanliness in 17th century. Food for thought!

Monday, 3 December 2012

What to do with Snow

Today you can find the latest review of The Gilded Lily on Luxury Reading, a site dedicated to books of all varieties; fiction, non-fiction and childrens. A treat for bookworms and bibliophiles - and if you don't know the difference between a bookworm and a bibliophile, pop over and be enlightened.
There is still a Giveaway for The Gilded Lily open too at the Lit Bitch along with an interview about my writing process.

Meanwhile here are some photos taken during our severe winter in the UK in 2009. Probably not as severe as the Little Ice Age of the 17th Century, but it still took us all by surprise, and provided me with real snow through which I could imagine the scenes of snowbound London in The Gilded Lily.

I remember at that time (2009) there seemed to be an interest in sculpting figures sitting on town benches. I loved these - they are very evocative - something about their ephemeral nature expresses the human condition really well. They are strangely meditative in their white snowy stillness and tell their own story by their solitude or togetherness. Enjoy!

Two snowmen chill out in St James's park after a night of heavy snow on February 2, 2009 in London, England. Heavy snow has fallen across parts of England leading to major disruption on roads and to public transport services. Forecasters have warned of the most severe snow for six years.