Wednesday 30 March 2011

Taking the P**s - The Strange History of Urine.

Aristotle - sporting a fine head of hair.
Following on from last week’s post on “Toilets and Timid Women” I thought I’d write about the positive side of urine.
For centuries people have used urine for its medicinal purpose – I kid you not! August people such as Pliny (the Roman author) advocated treating burns, ear pus and head sores with urine, whilst Aristotle, (the Greek philosopher) reportedly rubbed urine into his scalp as a treatment for baldness. (Perhaps it helped his baldness, but did it make him any friends?).

Marcius Cato - was the smell of urine causing him to pull this face?
 The Roman senator and soldier, Marcius Cato even prescribed eating cabbage, to make superior, health giving urine since apparently cabbage,
 “Surpasses all other vegetables”.
Cato even advises
 “Bathe a baby in it [cabbage derived urine] and the child will never be weakly”
“Splash your eyes with it and you will see better.”

            There are countless stories of urine being used to treat infections, skin sores and clean teeth, but this is actually not as mad as it sounds. Take for instance the troops in the trenches during World War I. It was noticed that soldiers who urinated once a day on cuts and scratches, were less likely to develop infected wounds. This backs up work by a 1906 pathologist, W James Wilson, who demonstrated that, the main constituent of urine, urea, inhibits bacterial growth.
            During the 20th century scientific studies continued and even as recently as 1992, doctors at the Royal Free Hospital, London, showed urea has definite anti-itch properties and can be used to help skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.

            Which leads us nicely onto today’s conversation point. Urea is widely used in the modern cosmetics industry. Urea is an excellent skin moisturizer; it binds water, minimizes loss and plumps up skin. The synthetic version of urea, carbamide, is a constituent of most skin creams, foundations, cleansers, shampoos and hair conditioners. So the question is: which do you prefer – A nice pot of scented moisturizer, or a bottle of stale urine…. (Not a trick question by the way!) Does it make you look afresh at your skin products?

Sunday 27 March 2011

Toilets and Timid Women.

Now as you might have gathered, I’m a fan of the Regency. However…and it’s a big but…I wouldn’t want to live there. The reason (or one of them…) the lack of flushing plumbing! I couldn’t be doing with chamber pots, closed stools and ceespits…give me u-bends and Armitage-Shanks every time.
I suspect I’m not alone in this, and neither, so it seems, am I alone in the confusion over what to call a toilet. Apparently there is a world wide reticence to say the word ‘toilet’ or ‘lavatory’ in public.

I love this story of an English lady in the 1930’s, who was accosted at a party by a drunken man, wanting to know where the toilet was. Her icy reply was;
‘On the left of the entrance hall you will find a door marked ‘Gentlemen’. Disregard the warning, go right in and you’ll find what you want.’
In England the reluctance to say the word toilet, led to a litany of euphemisms including;
WC (water closed), bog, jakes, loo, powder room, heads and convenience.
In the early 20th century the more polite amongst us might have asked about
“the geography of the house”
“To use the cloak room”
And this shyness is nothing new. There is a biblical reference to “the place where one cover’s one’s feet” and in 1653 Richard Codrington wrote in ‘The Mirror of History’ of “the stool of easement”. The Danes, almost poetically ask for “The place where the King goes alone,” and in a similar vien the French for “Where the king goes on foot.”
A Stone Toilet.
In Wales it was the ‘ty back’ or ‘little house’, in reference to an outside privy. Indeed, one American entrepreneur, Lem Putt, who became known as ‘the champion privy builder of Sangamon County’ had theis sage advice about where to site an outside toilet.
“Put her in a straight line with the house, past the wood pile. I’ll tell you why. Take a timid woman; if she sees any men folk around, she’s too bashful to go direct out so she’ll go to the woodpile, pick up wood and go back to the house. On a good day you’ll have the wood box filled by noon.”

Yep, indoor six inch diameter, flushing plumbing every time please!

Wednesday 23 March 2011

A Fashion for Bad Language.

Elegant costumes...but not elegant language.
I don’t know about you, but I find women swearing somehow much more offensive than men. Perhaps it’s because women are the gentler sex and discouraged from testosterone driven competitiveness, but surprisingly, in the 18th Century it seems bad language was tolerated from women.
As one observer in the 1700’s wrote;
“Good round oaths are often heard from the lips of gentlewomen, who are quite familiar with the slang of the sportsmen and the stable.”
And rank was no bar as shown in this story about the Duchess of Marlborough.
One day the Duchess called on the Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, but neglected to leave her name. When his Lordship queried the manservant who had answered the door, as to who had called, the bemused footman’s reply was;
“I couldn’t find out who she was, my Lord, but she swore so stiff she must be a lady of quality.”
The fashion for Bomabzine...or 'Bum-be-seen.'

Does it bother you when women swear? Is it unforgiveable or excusable in certain situations, or is swearing not worth getting upset about? Share your thoughts (no obscenities please!) in the comments below.

Sunday 20 March 2011

How to Kiss...and Other Musings.

“A lover should not hold his bride by the ears in kissing her...”  
Henry Theophilus Finck. 1887

Kissing is not, as you might suppose, something that has happened since the evolution of man. Instead the historian St Pierius Wensemius claims it was ‘invented’ by a Friesian Princess. According to Wensemius kissing was;

“Unpracticed and unknown in England until the fair Princess Rowena, daughter of King Hengist of Friesland, pressed the beaker with her lips and saluted the amorous Vortigen with a little kiss.”

However it seems that kissing soon caught on in a big way since the scholar and monk Erasmus writes in 1499;

“If you go any place in Britain you are received with a kiss; if you depart …your are dismissed with a kiss; you return and kisses are exchanged…whenever you move, nothing but kisses.”

Apparently it was a practice Erasmus was fully in favour of;

“On my honour you would not want to reside here for ten years, but for life.”

However, the kissing was not always done well as the American writer; Henry Theophilus Finck writes in his book ‘Romantic Love and Personal Beauty.’ 1887.

“Kissing comes by instinct and yet it is an art which few understand properly.”
He goes on to write,
“A lover should not hold his bride by the ears, as appears to have been customary in Scotch weddings of the last century (1700’s)”
He offers some helpful advice;
“A more graceful way, and as effective at preventing the bride from getting away, is to put your right arm round her neck, your fingers under her chin, raise the chin and gently but firmly press you lips to hers.”
Then the ever thoughtful Theophilus offers some words of reassurance.
“After a few repetitions she will find out it doesn’t hurt and will become as gentle as a lamb.”

If Theophilus married, am I alone in feeling sorry for his wife?

The Kissing Camels rocks, Colorado.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Wife Selling in the 18th Century.

In 1553, clergyman Thomas Snowdell sold his wife to a butcher. After a decree by Queen Mary I, that any clergy who married during the period of Protestantism in the preceding reign, would be put out of their living, it was a straight choice for Thomas, once in which his wife lost out.
Indeed since a wife was her husband’s property and there were no laws against selling a spouse, it was not an uncommon occurrence (as described in Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge.’)
One shilling was an average price for a wife in the 18th century, as recorded on 31st August 1773 in the toll book of the Bell Inn, Birmingham where it is written;

‘Samuel Whitehouse….this day sold his wife, Mary Whitehouse, in the open market to Thomas Griffiths…value 1 shilling. Taken with all her faults.’

Smithfield Market as it appeared in the 18th century.
It was even noted with some alarm (or sarcasm?) in the Times on 22nd July 1797:

‘The increasing value of the fair sex is esteemed by several eminent writers to the certain criterion of increasing civilization…and refined improvement as the price of wives has risen at that market [Smithfield] from half a guinea to three guineas and a half [GBP 294 today!].
Smithfield Market in the modern day.

However it seems some husbands were a little too honest when trying to sell their wives, as was the case in 1832 of farmer Joseph Thomson and his wife of 3 years. He offered her for auction in Carlisle, listing her bad points as
Born serpent’ and ‘his tormentor.’
Amongst her better features he lists;
‘She can read novels, milk cows, makes butter and scold the maid…she is a good judge of the quality of rum, gin or whisky from long experience of tasting it.’
Thomson wanted 50 shillings (GBP 160 today) but accepted the knock down price of 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog, which apparently all parties were happy with!
A Newfoundland dog - a good exchange for a wife?
So, if you were going to trade in your spouse - what would you consider a good deal? Leave a comment below and let us know (if you dare!)

Sunday 13 March 2011

Why Black Cats are Lucky....

As the owner of a black cat, I think they are lucky, but over the centuries their reputation has run the full gamut from being sacred in ancient Egypt, to satanic in medieval Europe.
So where did it all start? How did black cats first get their reputation for bringing good luck?

Firstly, let’s go back four millennia, to 2,000 BC, and consider how rare black cats were. Wild cats were striped or spotted, to match the dappled sunlight. They originated either in forest environments as existed in the early history of North Africa, or Savannah type environment, which lead to more tawny colored coats. It was only a mutant allele, or gene, that led to the first solid coat colour such as pure black or white, and as they started to appear, in Egypt, black cats became associated with the goddess Isis.

Isis was the goddess of earth’s fertility and all living things (also the goddess of ships and sailors but more of this shortly.) She wore a black cloak, to symbolize night – which at the time was associated with calm and gentle love, rather than something demonic. The rare black cats were said to be the re-incarnation of Isis and became revered as sacred.

In Isis’ role as protector of ships and sailors, it was a logical step that black cats became the essential good luck charm on a sea voyage. Not only did they control the rodent population, but also invoked Isis’ good will on the voyage. To bring even more good luck images of cats were carved near the ship’s prow to please Isis. This superstition gained such strength that even as late as the 20th century, it was considered bad luck to sail without a ship’s cat, and a ship’s cat was mandatory on British Royal Naval vessels until 1975!

“A black cat I’ve heard it said,
Can charm all ill away
And keep the house wherein she dwells,
From fever’s deadly sway.”
Old English folk poem.

Wednesday 9 March 2011

Cats in Battle.

My midweek post is about ‘Cats in Battle’ and how cats helped the Eygptians win (and also lose!) a battle.
The first story is recorded by ancient historian, Herodotus. He writes about an attack on Egypt in 701 by the Assyrians. Now this invasion caught the Egyptians on the hop; they had become lazy and neglected to maintain a well-trained and armed fighting force. The pharaoh, Sethos, wept in despair at the very real fear that his country would be invaded and overrun. But one night he had a dream where the gods told him to be of good cheer and meet the enemy with courage.
            So Sethos did his best and raised a rag tag army of labourers, artisans and tradesmen. They marched to meet the Assyrian invaders and on the night before battle set up camp in fields close to the invading force. But during the night mice ate through the Assyarians bow strings and shield straps, such that in the morning and unable to defend themselves they fled. And the reason the Egyptian bow strings remained intact? They had taken cats with them to protect their food stores from vermin!
Modern day 'cat armour.'
            But in another story told by the military writer, Polyaenus, the outcome was very different. He writes of the Persian king, Cambyses, attacking Egypt in 525 BC. Now Cambyses knew that the Egyptians revered certain animals as sacred and so placed rows of cats, dogs and ibis in front of his advancing army. The superstitous Eygptian soldiers, feared to harm the sacred animals and refused to attack. In so doing Cambyses seized the advantage, and was able to take the city and then Egypt!

The Egyptian goddess, Bastet, nursing kittens.

Monday 7 March 2011

"More Power by Tears" - women's rites within marriage.

I am an independent woman of the 21st century; a veterinarian by day and author of historical romance by night. I married for love and carried on working, except for a short break when my two sons were born. But in Georgian England, until well into the Victorian era, things were very different and when a woman married she became her husband’s property. Any money or property she owned became her husband’s.

“…on marriage the husband and wife are one person in law….the very legal existence of the woman is suspended.”  Sir William Blackstone.

If they had children and the husband abused her such as the marriage broke up, it was the husband who had custody of the children. In law, a married woman was in the same legal category as wards, lunatics, idiots and outlaws!

Celeste Armitage, the heroine of my debut novel ‘A Dead Man’s Debt’ is determined not to marry for these very reasons. She longs to travel and determine her own future, which is impossible within the bonds of marriage; especially when it was the attitude of the day that parents decide on an advantageous husband for their daughter. Love had little, if anything to do with it as illustrated in Lord Halifax’s advice to his daughter:

“Marriage is too sacred to admit a liberty of objecting to it. You are therefore to make the best of what is settled by law and custom and not vainly imagine that it will be changed for your sake.”

Lord Halifax’s book ‘Advice to a Daughter’ first published in 1688, was so popular it ran to 25 editions, featuring other such gems as:

“Men…who are the law-givers…because they have the larger share of reason bestowed upon them.”


“Women…have more strength in your looks than we have in our laws, and more power by tears, than we have in our arguments.”

Is your blood boiling yet?

Sunday 6 March 2011

Best HISTORICAL ROMANCE 2010 - nomination!

As a new author it’s difficult to spread the word about your debut novel which is why I’m especially thrilled that “A Dead Man’s Debt” has just been nominated at The Romance Reviews in the category
I would really appreciate your votes –
Simply follow the link and scroll down to the ‘Historical Romance’ category.
‘A Dead Man’s Debt’ is at the head of the list – simply click ‘Vote.’

Thank you so much,
Grace x

Wednesday 2 March 2011

The Matter of the Dead.

The English parish church and graveyard is a scene that sums up rural English life. Entered by a lych gate you walk along a narrow path with graves on either side, to enter the church by a porch. Around the church the ground rises gently around it, a bit like a weight placed on a cushion. But have you ever wondered why old English churches nestle into the landscape this way? Is it a matter of centuries of subsidence, or is there some other explanation?

In truth it is not the churches that are sinking but the ground that is rising up.
The reason?
The dead are rising!
In previous centuries the typical English parish had around 250 to 500 people listed in its records. So for each century that passed, this meant around 1,000 to 2,000 deaths, the vast majority of whom would be buried in the parish church yard (plus stillborn babies and children who died in infancy who wouldn’t have been counted amongst members of the parish) So for an average Norman church dating back to the 1100’s, that meant that a conservative estimate of the number of burials in the church yard would have been 10,000 to 20,000.
In fact what is happening is that the church is on the original ground level and all those buried bodies add matter to the graveyard and which over the centuries raises the earth.