Friday, 20 November 2020

Pandemic then and now (part 2)...


My current series of historical novels is set in the middle of the 14th century, a period (in)famous for its devastating plague. The events of the first novel occur just after the Black Death has passed on, and so don’t concern the plague itself but rather its consequences for a community that lost so many of its members. But I have recently published the fourth novel in the series, which, sadly, is at least partly “about” plague, which returned to England in 1361 (and many times thereafter).


I was still writing this fourth novel when the world was plunged into chaos by the arrival of COVID-19. Although it was unsettling writing about a pandemic when we were in the midst of one, it did give me food for thought, comparing the two events.


My last post on The History Girls blog, in May, related something of medieval people’s understanding of the reasons for the plague, focussing on the idea that “lewd” fashion, and indeed lewdness in general, might be responsible.


In today’s post, though, for what I think may be my last on The History Girls concerning plague, I thought I’d talk a little more about how medieval people responded to plague. It’s particularly interesting because there are a few fascinating parallels with our own responses to the 2020 pandemic.


In the 14th century, people had some curious (to us) notions about the causes of the disease. Death was of course everyday – accidents were commonplace, illnesses mostly incurable, and even untreatable, life generally subject to manifold risk. Medieval people had a tendency to credit adversity of any kind, be it the loss of a child, dead cows, a bad harvest, or the failure of the butter to churn, to God’s will or the Devil’s work.


Part of a mural in a church in Hrastovlje, Slovenia, painted at the end of the 15th century,
showing people of every rank and station being led by grinning skeletons towards a grave. 
National Gallery of Slovenia. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


We know well enough the medieval notion that the coming of the Black Death, or indeed any disaster, was the result of mankind’s sin. That was what the Church promulgated. However, even if this was the generally accepted view, ther were scientific explanations too. Various complicated theories about the movements of the planets were proposed, and also ideas that miasma, or foul air, was to blame. Foul air was thought to be a cause of disease in general, and plague was no different.


But, if medieval people had some notions of the cause of the disease (even if they were wrong), I imagine it was far trickier for them to work out how to deal with it.


Isolation, keeping oneself to oneself generally, was certainly understood. The value of social distancing, as we now call it, was recognised. The premise for Boccaccio’s Decameron (completed in 1353) is the isolation of a group of young people who flee Florence to escape the plague. And a 14th century French physician, Jean Jacmé, wrote in a treatise on the plague:


In pestilence time nobody should stand in a great press of people because some man among them may be infected” *

So close contact with a victim was to be avoided. People did go into “lockdown”, confining themselves and their families to their homes, only going out “if absolutely necessary”, presumably to fetch water, buy food, tend to their animals or manage their land.


But Doctor Jacmé had some other familiar-sounding advice. He advocated the washing of hands “oft times in the day”*, though he recommended using water and vinegar, rather than soap.


Touch, then, was certainly to be avoided, but another physician posited that looking into a plague victim’s eyes was also risky, on the grounds that disease could be transmitted via the “airy spirit leaving the eyes of the sick man”*, which does seem somewhat less than plausible. But something much more familiar is avoiding a victim’s “foul air” – the emissions resulting from coughing or even breathing. The “plague doctor” bird beak masks of later centuries hadn’t yet been invented, but I can well imagine that those who attended victims might have covered their nose and mouth.


The 17th century equivalent of a “hazmat” suit?

Though these sorts of beak masks weren’t used in the 14th century.

(Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel (Dr. Beak), a plague doctor in 17th century Rome.

Published by Paul Fürst (1608–1666) who was perhaps also the engraver. Public domain.)



What medieval people didn’t seem to know about, for I have seen no reference to it in the sources I have been reading, was the role of rats and fleas. Rats have long been implicated in the spread of plague, though some scientists now think the speed of spread was, in practice, too rapid and too far for transmission by rat flea alone to be viable. Others have it that the rat fleas jumped host to people, and then human fleas and body lice were infected, making it easier for rapid people-to-people transmission. Yet the situation is unclear. The World Health Organisation, speaking of the present time, says, “human to human transmission of bubonic plague is rare”. Yet, the 1361 outbreak was in the summer months, in which bubonic, as opposed to pneumonic, plague, was in principle more common. Whichever it was, it spread very quickly, and was undoubtedly hideous and terrifying.


Perhaps not quite the culprit he’s been made out to be? But not this cute either!
(Etching by W. S. Howitt, 1808. Wellcome Library, London. http://wellcomeimages.org. Public domain.)



And of course doctors in the 14th century really didn’t know how to treat the disease, though some undoubtedly thought they did. Some would probably have tried their favourite cure-all, blood-letting, or applied a variety of substances to the suffering body, from herbs and vinegar, to urine and excrement, none of which were beneficial. In my novel, I have a barber-surgeon lancing the buboes, a practice that wasn’t necessarily carried out in the 1300s, though it was a couple of centuries later. But I can imagine eager medieval surgeons trying various methods to save their patients, just as the university-trained physicians ceaselessly sought answers in the heavens. And, even in the 14th century, catching plague wasn’t absolutely a death sentence, for some people clearly did survive it – even people who had been close to, or even nursed, victims.


It’s been a strange year for all of us, and of course it’s not over yet. When I embarked upon writing the fourth novel, back in 2019, I could never have imagined how close to home the events I wrote about might seem. As the 2020 pandemic took off, I recoiled a little at that “closeness”. Yet, since then, I have welcomed the opportunity once more to compare experiences then and now, finding, as so often, that, despite the centuries between us, there is much that we share.


* Quotes are from The Black Death, translated and edited by Rosemary Horrox. If you’d like to read more about plague in the 14th century, I really do recommend it, for it has a wealth of fascinating detail, and uses contemporary texts to reveal the thinking of the time.


Friday, 13 November 2020

Fabulous Roman Facts By L.J. Trafford

Back in 2018, a very different world to the one we are living in now, a publisher asked me whether I would like to write a non-fiction survival manual about living in Ancient Rome. Part travel guide, part self-help book How to Survive in Ancient Rome was to feature 14 separate topics covering just about every aspect of ancient Roman life. 
I was charged with being ‘engaging’ and writing a book that was ‘lively’.

After pondering for a good 27 minutes, I accepted this challenge and set forth to find as many interesting facts about ancient Rome as I could possibly squeeze into a lean 50k words.  
I thought for my History Girls piece this month I would share a few of the gems I discovered whilst doing my research, because they are just too good to keep to myself.




FACT ONE
Eating cabbage before knocking back the vino will prevent intoxication.

So, Pliny the Elder tells us. Cabbage for Pliny is an all-round wonder drug, as he himself says, “It would be a lengthy task to list the good points of the cabbage.”
To summarise, cabbage is good for headaches, impaired vision, spots before the eyes, the spleen and the stomach. An application of pounded cabbage also helps heal wounds.
Oh and it is a cure for hypochondria as well, presumably for the reassurance that it can miraculously cure whatever ailment you think you have.



FACT TWO. 
Pet eels were all the rage.


An unadorned eel

The politician Marcus Licinius Crassus trained his eel to come when called & take food from his hand. He also adorned his beloved pet with earrings & necklaces like a 'lovely maiden'
Crassus was far from alone in being a lover of our aquatic friends. Fish ponds were all the rage and Romans could become excessively devoted to showing them off. Something that Cicero, who has clearly sat through one too many dinner party discussions on eel training, is most scornful of, calling them ‘fish fanciers’.
A term literally applied by Crassus to his lovely maiden eel.



FACT THREE
Rome's first king and founder, Romulus vanished into thin air. 
Romulus in happier days with his brother Remus.
Wellcome Collection.



Yes, King Romulus had been going about his kingly business when a mist descended and enveloped him. When the mist rose, he was nowhere to be found.
His close aides, who were with him at this time, came to rapid conclusion that he must have been spirited away by the gods. One even claimed that he had spoken to the ghost of Romulus who had told him he was fine and happy hanging out with the gods and that Rome should just get on with being fabulous without him.

Historian Livy raises the far more likely explanation that the close aides had killed the king, disposed of his body and come up with this ludicrously rubbish cover story to hide their actions.



FACT FOUR
The length of a Roman hour changed depending on the season


The Roman day was divided into 12 hours that started at sunrise and ended at sunset. Only, even the Romans couldn’t fail to notice that in winter the time between sun up and sun down was shorter than that during the summer. What to do?

Change the length of an hour depending on the season of course! In summer a Roman hour was around 30 minutes longer than an hour in winter. 
Globe identified as a sundial on a Pompeii Fresco
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Keeping on to a theme of measuring time.....



FACT FIVE
In the 263 BCE Rome was gifted its first ever public sundial by Sicily. This was proudly installed in the Forum. It took 95 years before anyone noticed the calibration was off and it had been telling the wrong time for nearly a century.

Which tells you exactly how little Romans were concerned with being places on time.


FACT SIX
To inject more impact into their eloquence, lawyers would hire an audience for their trials. 3 denarii per head would buy you a mob to applaud your finest points and shout 'bravo' at key moments.

Lawyers were not alone in hiring an encouraging mob, the Emperor Nero was at it too. He put together a team of 5,000 youths who accompanied him during his artistic endeavours and made sure he received his rightful adulation.
They had three different types of clap: the bees, the roof tiles and the bricks.
The roof tiles was produced by clapping with hands rounded like roof tiles and the bricks by clapping with flat hands (because bricks unlike roof tiles are flat). And the bees clap? Maybe it sounded like humming, maybe it was produced by a rapid clapping of the hands like the wings of that flying insect, maybe it was a clap with a sting in it’s tale. In short, we have no idea.
Photo by John Severns.

FACT SEVEN
It was the fashion to drink perfume.

Perfume was extremely expensive in ancient Rome and so using liberal amounts of it was to demonstrate your extreme wealth. The Emperor Otho was said to have dabbed perfume on the soles of his feet, Caligula had his bathtub smeared with perfume before he would get into it and Nero's famous golden house squirted perfume from the walls onto his guests.
But the most ludicrous use of scent was those people who mixed it in a drink, so that their insides would smell as sweet as their outside.
Perfume bottle 1st Century CE.
Metropolitan Museum of Art


FACT EIGHT
There were penalties for not being married.

The Emperor Augustus brought in a set of laws designed to improve the moral structure of Rome, as well as increasing the birth rate. He offered a bonus for producing three children,
Alongside the carrot came the stick, you could expect to be fined if you were not married by the age of 20 for women and 25 for men. 

One man morality machine, Augustus
Wellcome Collection


FACT NINE
Slaves could be ludicrously expensive.

There are plenty of examples of Romans spending silly money on particular slaves. A man named Calvisius Sabinus spent 100,000 sesterces on a slave that could quote the entirety of Homer from memory. Which is mere horse fodder when compared to the slave that Sejanus, heard of the Imperial guard in the 1st century CE, sold. The eunuch, named Paezon (meaning 'boy toy') was sold by Sejanus for an alleged 50 million sesterces!  
This sum is so ludicrous that we have to suspect that the purchaser of Paezon had been menaced into it  by Sejanus. Or alternatively was very keen to buy Sejanus' influence.....



For more fabulous Roman facts check out my new book How to Survive in Ancient Rome





L.J. Trafford is the author of the Four Emperors series of novels which cover the fall of Nero and the tumultuous year that followed when four emperors attempted to rule Rome.
They are available on Amazon and other sites.








Friday, 6 November 2020

Food, Glorious Food! - Celia Rees

 My last post magically coincided with the publication of my first adult novel, Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook. That novel began with this cookery book. The kernel of the idea was sown when I found the book among my mother's effects. The book was stained, faded and falling apart. I could have thrown it out but I stayed my hand. 

 It had an interest of its own as a historical document. A book given away with gas cookers - does anyone talk about regulos now, or even know what they are? There's a section on Invalid Cookery, Barley Water, Beef Tea, Calf's Foot Jelly and it gives a taste (literally) of what people ate in the mid Twentieth Century that we tend not to eat any more. Recipes for Heart (Baked), Sheep's Head, Calf's Head, Brain Sauce. 

It is also a kind of time capsule. When I opened it, I found all kinds of recipes that had been clipped from newspapers and magazines, many of them from the Second World War. I spent a long time poring over these, fascinated.  This was a little treasure trove, a tiny historical archive that brought a particular time to vivid life. These were not facsimiles. They were of that time, faded and folded, carefully clipped from long gone newspapers: The Daily Herald, Daily News and Westminster Gazette and magazines that had disappeared decades ago. There were leaflets and pamphlets issued by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Ministry of Food, '"New Wartime Recipes" price 7/12d, post free'. DIG FOR VICTORY LEAFLET No. 10'.

They spoke directly of a time of rationing, scarcity, government departments devoted to managing food production and distribution and of the ingenuity of the individual householder in managing  the family, the ration, doing his or her bit to improvise, to add to the basic ration by growing as much food as possible, digging up the garden, tending the allotment. On a macro level, they illustrate the far sightedness of the British Government in protecting food supply and distribution in a country heavily dependent on food imports which were likely to be curtailed, even cut off by enemy blockading. The simple strategy of encouraging more home production while safeguarding fair distribution and coming down hard on hoarding and black market trading were important strategies in maintaining a healthy working population and adequate supplies for the fighting troops. 

Dig For Victory was no idle instruction.  

I found all this fascinating, but the most valuable finds were the hand written recipes slotted into the pages, on different stationery, in different writing. These were from the people who had handled and used this cookery book, swapping recipes as women did then and still do. Now, it might be a link to a page or a computer print out but the desire to share a favourite recipe is common to cooks. These recipes, swapped between my grandmother, aunt and my mother, were the only written connection that I had found between them. There was something here that I knew I had to write about. I carefully saved the book. It was now  a 'found' document of special significance. 



It was years before I discovered the key that would link to that initial idea and provide the inspiration for  Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook. The Radiation Cookery Book remained central to the writing of the novel. Hand written recipes, swapped between women, morphed into coded messages; the recipes in the Radiation Cookery Book providing the key to the code. I also found a use for all those newspaper and magazine clippings. My main character, Edith Graham, is a school teacher but she has an alter ego, the rather dashing cookery writer,  Stella Snelling. This allows her to lead a hidden life and I've  always loved hidden lives...






Celia Rees

Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook HarperCollins