Sunday, 29 March 2015

The Trials of Buying an Owl in Victorian London

Long story short, today I happened upon a copy of “A London Year” [*] a compilation of diary and journal entries reflecting London life in yester year. It seemed natural to turn to today’s date, curious as to the entry. It turned out to be a lively tale of one-up-man ship (or reverse snobbery – I’ve yet to decide) about owls.

The journal entry dates from 1881 and was made by a gentleman with the grand name of Mountstuart Grant Duff. This day 134-years ago, Duff dined at his club, the Athenaeum, with two friends. He recounts a conversation whereby one friend claimed you could buy anything and everything in London. 

Determined to be underwhelmed the other friends reply was:
“Really? Well not everything. I wanted to buy an owl the other day …and I had to send to the country for that.”
“Had you? Then come with me to Leadenhall market, to-morrow.”

The following day the two men went to Leadenhall and walked up to a livestock stall. Inquiries were made of the stallholder, and when asked if he had owls for sale the man replied:
“No sir, not today, this is Wednesday. Tuesday and Fridays are the days for owls.”


All of which left me slightly worried about where the owls came from and what they were used for. Hey ho. Anyway, broadening out the topic let’s take a look at some of the folklore associated with owls. Indeed, in popular culture of the day (late Victorian times) many people actively disliked the bird as they thought it an omen of death.

“When a screech-owl is heard crying near a house, it is an indication of death on the premises. When a barn-owl alights on a house, hoots and then flies over it, an inmate will die within the year.” Trevelyn (writing slightly later in 1909)

And an owl was also a bad omen for livestock
“…a cow will give bloody milk if it is frightened by an owl, and will fall sick and die if touched by it.”  Folklore 1874
Night owl - etching by Harrison Weir

Suspicion of owls had a long history, as recorded by Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls written around 1380:

“The oule eke, that of deth the bode bringeth [sic]”

Indeed, in India it is an insult to call a person an “owl” because it implies they bring bad luck with them. One can only speculate why the poor owl came by such a bad reputation, perhaps it was because of their silent flight and that eerie nocturnal cry.

And finally, it seems there was no term recorded for a group of owls until the 1950s! The credit for the most commonly used collective ‘a parliament of owls' was first used by CS Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia.  It seems CS Lewis adapted the expression from Chaucer’s poem, referenced above, called a Parliament of Fowls. The Narnia books were so widely read that Lewis' term seeped into popular usage.


[*] A LondonYear. Compiled by Elborough & Rennison. Publishers: Francis Lincoln Limited.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Rags to Riches: The true story of Elizabeth and Maria Gunning


In 18th century Georgian high society, a well to-do-lady aspired to catch herself a titled husband. With fierce competition from other, equally ambitious debutantes to attract the eye of an eligible bachelor, interlopers were discouraged and frozen out of society. Which makes the story of the Gunning sisters, Maria and Elizabeth all the more unusual.
Elizabeth Gunning, after her marriage 
The two sisters were genteel nobodies: the daughters of an Irishman with neither money nor connections, and yet they did have one attribute in abundance – they were great beauties. When they were old enough, they worked in a Dublin theatre to help boost the family income. This was a potentially disastrous move for their reputations because most actresses were considered harlots. However, they survived the risk and were invited to a ball at Dublin castle.
The story goes that they had no money for ball gowns. But the theatre manager, Tom Sheridan, came to the rescue and leant them the Juliette and Lady Macbeth costumes to wear. Once at the ball they made such an impression on the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland that he granted their mother a reasonable pension.
Elizabeth Gunning

Mrs Gunning used the money to take her daughters to England, and their house in Huntingdon. They attended local assemblies, and created such a sensation that word of them spread ahead to London.
With a reputation akin to that of a modern celebrity, the sisters entered London society feted as beauties – and took it by storm. This was unusual for the day, where manners, breeding, grace, and connections dictated how ‘beautiful’ a lady was. But more than that, they did the unthinkable and completed a rags to riches story by snagging aristocrats for husbands.
Elizabeth again

In 1752, after a whirlwind romance, Elizabeth married the Duke of Hamilton, and went on to bear three children. When he died in 1758, she still attracted noble interest and remarried a Marques, who then inherited a dukedom. Elizabeth was a favourite at court and became a lady for the bedchamber for Queen Charlotte, during George III’s reign. She died at the age of 57, quietly in her bed.

Maria Gunning

Her sister, Maria, was more controversial. She was renowned as being tactless, but for some reason this amused the haut ton and it added to her popularity. Also in 1752, Maria married the Earl of Coventry, but it seems he quickly tried to clip her wings. Whilst on honeymoon in Paris, he reportedly publically wiped her face with a handkerchief, when she wore rouge at dinner after he had forbidden it.
Maria, Countess of Coventry

However, his aversion to Maria wearing cosmetics was strangely prophetic. A woman famed for beauty, she did everything she could to preserve that image. This meant wearing the heavy makeup that was fashionable in some quarters. But unfortunately that makeup contained lead and arsenic which slowly poisoned her. She was caught in a vicious circle, because the symptoms of poisoning included skin breakouts and redness, which undoubtedly meant she applied yet thicker layers of cosmetics.
Maria's mirror.
It was this very mirror Maria looked in to apply her makeup

Her continued use of makeup signed Maria’s death warrant and she died at the tender age of 27. A rags to riches story, which unlike Cinderella has a sad ending.






Sunday, 15 March 2015

Mothering Sunday or Mother’s Day?

Here in the UK, today is Mothering Sunday. I know in the US, Mother’s Day happens on a different date, but until now I hadn’t realised the subtle difference between the two.

The Origins of Mother’s Day
Whereas Mothering Sunday has its roots back in the 17th century, Mother's Day was first suggested in 1907 by a schoolteacher from Philadelphia. Apparently, Miss Anna Jarvis wanted to honour her own mother and by extension mothers everywhere. After a vigorous campaign to get the day officially recognized, Congress did so in 1913 – with the date set as the second Sunday in May.

In Britain people latched onto the American idea and it gained the support of many influential people including the Queen. Mother's Day was set in August, however, enthusiasm for the event faltered and it quickly fell out of vogue.

Mother’s Day vs Mothering Sunday
In the UK there was an upsurge in interest around the time of the Second World War, because of American servicemen stationed on these shores. This time commercialism started to rear its head and the day gained more momentum, but got tangled up with the quasi-religious celebration of Mother’s in lent (Mothering Sunday). In the end, under the influence of the Church of England, Mothering Sunday won out – and is the day we celebrate to this day in the UK.

The 17th Century and Mothering Sunday
Which brings us back to this weekend. Traditionally, Mothering Sunday is said to have come about when young people (usually young women who had gone into service) tried to get back home to share a family meal. The custom seems well established by the mid-17th century.
Every mid-Lent Sunday is a great day in Worcester, when all the children and godchildren meet at the head and chief of the family and have a feast. The call it Mothering-day.
Richard Symonds 1644

The date for this happy reunion was the fourth Sunday in Lent, known at Mid-Lent Sunday. It seems the tradition started in the west of England, as spread over time to the whole of the country.
In the same way you have turkey at Thanksgiving, so special foods became associated with the day. These include veal, rice pudding (!), frumenty, and simnel cake. Speaking of which – take a look at what I had for breakfast today, courtesy of my eldest son…..There’s a lot to be said for Mothering Sunday!


Sunday, 8 March 2015

A Mutation of Thrushes

This weekend there’s a hint of spring in the air. The sun is shining and birds are singing – albeit from bare branches. So in this series of posts about unusual collective terms, it seemed appropriate to write about birds.
A song thrush
A Mutation of Thrushes

With their fawn-coloured speckled breasts, thrushes are such pretty birds. It seems odd then that the correct term for a group of thrushes is a ‘mutation’. This term goes back to a belief held in ancient Roman and Greek empires, which was still current in the middle ages – and even later.
“It’s a recognized fact amongst naturalists that thrushes acquire new legs, and cast of the old one when about ten years old.”
Letter to Science Gossip, published in the 1800s.

Perhaps it was this rather strange idea, or that thrushes moult and adopt thicker feathers for winter, which inspired the intriguing ‘mutation of thrushes’.

A wren

A Herd of Wrens

The collective term for that jolly little bird, the wren, is altogether more evocative of larger animals. However, ‘A herd of wrens’ is most likely derived from an ancient fable that was known to Aristotle and Pliny.

In the story the birds hold a meeting to decide who should be king of all the birds. They all agree the winner will be the bird who can fly the highest. The eagle flies much higher than all the others and jubilantly shouts, “I am king”, at which point the wren who had stowed away beneath his wing, pops out and flutters higher. The birds then agree that despite his small size, the wren’s ingenuity and daring do indeed make him worthy of the title- king of the birds.


The word ‘herd’ in the medieval context, was derived from the term for a group of male red deer – those considered king of the deer and most prized by royalty.

A turtle  dove

A Pitying of Turtle Doves

And finally, a pitying of turtle doves. This term first appears in a 15th century manuscript and relates to the association between turtle doves and sorrow. In turn this probably came about because of the birds’ plaintive  “Woo-woo” cry.

Prior to this, in the 14th century, the Book of St Albans refers to a ‘dule of doves’ – where the word dule came from the Latin, dolere, to mean sorry of grief.


However, if you’re a glass half full type of person, there is another term – ‘a truelove of turtle doves’, which reflects that these birds chose one mate and remain devoted to each other for life. 

Sunday, 1 March 2015

A Misbelief of Painters

My eldest son is working on the pieces for his final show of his fine art degree. Hopefully, this June he will graduate from art school and start earning a living as a professional artist. So it is with interest that I discovered the collective terms for a group of artists is a ‘misbelief’.
This is one of those terms (a ‘misbelief of artists’) that make me think there was more humour around in the Middle Ages than we give credit for. The term ‘misbelief’ derives from the need of an artist to make a living (son take note!) and flatter the sitter. Thus, the corpulent patron appeared more svelte, and thin, reedy, clients were gifted broader shoulders and sturdier chests.

The job of the artist was to flatter – in exchange for which a pleased patron would be more likely to give employment in future. This makes sense because human nature dictates that no one wants to be remembered by posterity as looking anything less than your best.
A skilled artist could conjure beauty where there was none, and rendered an image of the sitter as they wanted the world to see them. 
Perhaps one of the most famous examples, which also backfired, is Holbein’s portrait of Anne of Cleves.
Anne of Cleves, by Holbein the Younger

For those unfamiliar with the story, after the death of Queen Jane after the birth of Edward, King Henry VIII was now ready to marry again and on the prowl for his fourth wife. The ageing King still considered himself something of a catch, and whilst he understood the importance of making a good political match, it was a basic requirement that his future wife was beautiful.
Henry despatched his court painter, Hans Holbein, to paint portraits of the likeliest candidates. One portrait depicted a serene lady dressed in red and gold, looking ethereal and regal. Henry fell in love with this woman, Anne of Cleves, and married her. 

Unfortunately, the reality of of Henry’s ‘Flanders mare’ fell far short of the expectation raised by the portrait, he felt grossly misled, and the marriage ended in divorce.
Detail from the painting of Christina of Denmark
What perhaps is less well known is Holbein’s portrait of another princess, Christina of Denmark. She is shown looking dour and plain, dressed in mourning black. Not surprisingly Henry overlooked her as not attractive enough – a lucky escape perhaps.
What’s also interesting is that other portraits of Christina show her looking much more approachable and pretty. I can’t help suspecting she played the portrait game to her own ends, by putting forward an unappealing fa├žade to put Henry off!
Christina of Denmark as a girl
Anyhow, painters must find their own path and balance flattery with truth if they are to make a living. I suppose painting a realistic picture is all very well, but the chances are you won’t get repeat trade…then as now.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

A Game of Swans: A Short History

Last week we learnt the collective term for ladies is ‘bevy’, and maidens are a ‘rage’. This week we discover the collective term for a group of swans is: A game of swans. So, taking out inspiration from history (rather than grammar!) lets look further into the history of swan keeping.

A Game of Swans

Swans have long been associated with royalty. This majestic bird is reputed to have been imported from Cyprus to England by King Richard I around 1189. This was widely held as fact until the middle of the 20th century when records came to light of an inventory of a feast served to King Henry III at Winchester in 1247.
An original register of swan marks
The banquet included 40 swans that had been collected from all over the kingdom, including Cumberland in the north, and Somerset in the west. Now the swans are not rapid breeders in the same way rabbits are, and it seems unlikely that the wild swan population was so diversely spread in such a relatively short space of time.
Swan marks
Whatever their origins, their elegance and beauty was laid claim to by royalty and ordinary folk were not allowed to own them. However, this didn’t stop illegal ownership. By the late 1450s it wasn’t unheard of for yeoman to steal cygnets to keep themselves.
Swan upping

In 1483 a royal decree was passed which stated that all birds belonged to the crown, unless the ’owner’ had been granted a special dispensation. In these cases the birds were marked with a ‘swan mark’ on the beak so as to identify them.

Each mark was registered, and the design was usually complex, perhaps incorporating part of the coat of arms of the nobleman who was lucky enough to be permitted to own the birds. It was during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign that the register of swan marks was at its largest with around 900 marks registered.
Swan upping on the Thames at Richmond

Of course, the birds had to be marked and this lead to an annual ritual of ‘swan-upping’. This involved visiting the riverbanks where the birds breed to catch the newly hatched cygnets and mark them.

A court proceeding from 1722 gives a glimpse into the ritual that was sometimes involved with swan upping.
“…agreed to go swan-upping on the first Monday in August…the court desired the Renter Warden would be pleased to provide a dinner, three six-oared barges to carry the company up water…”
Queen Elizabeth II attending a swan upping

With the passing centuries, people became more aware of the cruelty involved with permanently marking a bird’s beak. The RSPCA became involved in 1878 and as a result the practice dwindled and due to public pressure, stopped altogether. However, the correct term for a group of swans remains – as a ‘game of swans’.


Sunday, 15 February 2015

A Rage of Maidens and a Bevy of Ladies

‘Maidens’ is a delightfully old-fashioned word that sums up images of wholesome milk-maids blushing coyly when the handsome squire glances in her direction (or is that just me?) In the 15th century the change from girl to woman started at around 12 years of age, and represented a ‘perfect age’ in a romantic way. However, did you know there is a collective term for a group of maidens, and it is – a rage of maidens.
Hmmm.
Vermeer's milk-maid

Apparently, in this context ‘rage’ is a derivative of a 15th century word which means to romp –or play wantonly. (There goes the image of coy blushes!) Whether this is a reflection on the social attitude of our maidens is anybody’s guess, however, the 15th century was perhaps more realistic about a woman’s nature urges than society was just a couple of centuries later.
An aristocratic lady
So what of more mature ladies? The collective term for them is perhaps more familiar to us – as a ‘bevy of ladies’ – (a bevy of beauties?) This term can be traced back to 1702 and John Kersey’s New English Dictionary. The term ‘bevy’ was also appropriate for groups of roe (deer), quails, or larks. Along with these other delicate creatures, our bevy of ladies was upper class and refined.
It is oddly appropriate to group ladies with livestock, because in the 18th century a woman was indeed the property of her husband and used mainly for breeding – her role being to produce heirs.
Roe deer

There was a less poetic term for her less salubrious sisters in arms, those who were paid for providing pleasure for men, and it is ‘a herd of harlots’. In medieval times prostitution was rife but widely accepted. St Thomas Aquinas wrote:
‘If prostitution were to be suppressed, careless lusts would overthrow society.’
A detail from Hogarth's 'The Harlot's Progress'
Society had its own way of dealing with prostitutes, preventing their company from sullying respectable women, by confining them to certain areas. However, it was natural for the prostitutes to seek out trade where it was most likely to be found. Therefore they congregated around taverns, universities, and popular bathing houses, and calling them a herd is perhaps another way of marking them as livestock.