Monday 12 November 2012

The Hole in the Wall by H.M. Castor

Thisbe by John William Waterhouse (1909)
(via Wikimedia Commons - public domain)

Twenty-something years ago, when I was an undergraduate, I was lucky enough to play Hermia in a touring production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was great fun, but by far my favourite part of each performance was sitting on stage in Act V and watching the mechanicals’ performance of their play-within-a-play, Pyramus and Thisbe. (The story in its original form is a tragic one but, as Shakespeare intended, the mechanicals in this production made it eye-wateringly hilarious.)

Pyramus and Thisbe live on either side of a party wall, and – since their love is forbidden in Montague-and-Capulet style – they rely on a hole in that wall through which to communicate.

Snout, as Wall:
In this same interlude it doth befall
That I – one Snout by name – present a wall.
And such a wall as I would have you think
That had in it a crannied hole or chink,
Through which the lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe,
Did whisper often, very secretly.

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V Scene I)

I wonder if it’s my fond memories of Snout and this chink that led to my attention being snagged by another hole in the wall – a real one – mentioned in an ambassador’s dispatch dated December 1533. Here, we are deep in the period of Henry VIII’s ‘Great Matter’: Henry has married Anne Boleyn, while Catherine of Aragon – his spurned and determinedly resistant first wife – has been forced to live in exile from the court. Now the Duke of Suffolk has been sent to Catherine to order her to move to what she considers a less salubrious house. She refuses. Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador, recounts what follows:

The Commissioners [Suffolk and his colleagues] remained six days at the place, that they might lock the house door and take away the keys, also that they might hear whether the Queen [Catherine], through the dismissal of her servants, the threats and the manifold bad treatment she was undergoing would not change her mind; but seeing her constant and unmovable, they caused all the baggage to be packed, got litters and hackneys ready, and made other preparations for the journey. The Queen, however, on the morning of that day, locked herself up in her room; and when the Commissioners came to fetch her, she spoke to them through a hole in the wall, and said, “If you wish to take me with you, you must break down the door.” But they dared not…

(Translation of despatch dated 27th December 1533, emphasis mine. Calendar of State Papers Spain, Dec. 1533.)

This hole in the wall has, in the past, puzzled me slightly. Today, a hole in a wall would be an alarming thing – a sign of a major structural problem, perhaps, and certainly something unusual. Though Catherine considered her accommodation unbefitting for her status, it must be said that her standards were of the highest – she was still living in some state, and this was not a tumbledown or semi-derelict house. Hence my puzzlement. But then – oh joy! – I came across a book containing what amounts to nearly a whole chapter on holes in walls: Locating Privacy in Tudor London by Lena Cowen Orlin. And I discovered that holes in walls were a much greater feature of Tudor life than I had imagined.

Locating Privacy is a brilliant book and its analysis of what the concept of privacy meant in this period is fascinating. The very act of seeking privacy, for example, could be seen as sinister. Life was lived cheek by jowl with one’s fellows, whether because of crowded housing conditions (for those of lower status) or because of the convention of being attended by servants at all times (for those of higher status). The mutual surveillance that resulted was seen to a certain extent as natural and even desirable.

To many… privacy seemed a menace to public well-being. It threatened to deprive people of knowledge to which they thought they were entitled and about which they felt a sense of social responsibility. From this point of view, peepholes are significant not only as evidence of failed construction techniques, poor materials, bad repair, or accidental effects, but also as instruments of resistance. They restored the old communal conventions of shared knowledge and mutual surveillance. Any newly erected boundary could be breached by a defiant chink or cranny.

(Locating Privacy in Tudor London, Orlin, p.192.)

Partitions between different living spaces, Orlin shows, were often intended to be markers of boundaries rather than providers of privacy. In the overcrowded, subdivided, many-tenanted London houses occupied by the working classes, any desire for privacy might be overshadowed by other, more pressing concerns – such how to avoid having your neighbour’s waste-water channel flowing directly through your bedroom, or how to live with the problem that the communal cesspit could only be emptied by its contents being carried through your living quarters.

Orlin cites numerous recorded instances in which, to see into a neighbour’s house, a person had to do no more than lift a painted cloth. Even in less jam-packed situations, Orlin shows that internal walls were often insubstantial, no thicker than wainscoting, and that the flexibility this gave was seen as an advantage when tenancy arrangements changed.

Some peepholes might, straightforwardly, be key or latch holes. Wattle-and-daub walls and half-timbered walls might lose lumps of clay, and cracks and holes could of course be due to subsidence, poor construction or nearby building work.
In other cases, timber for partitions had knotholes, or had been recycled from other places and was often “pocked with peepholes” made by old nails and such like. Timber partitions might warp or shrink. And sometimes partitions were on purpose not built right up to a chimney, for fear that the timber would catch fire; a cloth would be used to cover the gap. Other gaps in walls were made specifically to carry waste water through a building to the outside – cases were known where these openings were big enough for burglars to get in through them, or apprentices (keen on escape from their masters) to get out.

In grand houses, too, holes might be included on purpose in a wall’s construction. An enclosed gallery running along the upper part of a great hall (an enclosed version of a minstrels’ gallery, in effect) was often provided with squints into the larger room below. Sometimes, the desire for a symmetrical pattern of windows on the house’s façade – designed without accommodating the interior floorplan of what might be an older building behind it – resulted in a window being placed just where an interior wall abutted the facade. In such a case, so that the interior wall was not visible from the outside slicing the window in half, the interior wall might be made to stop short of the window, creating a gap big enough to put your head through from one chamber to another. Another reason for a purpose-built gap in the wall might well be to let in light to an inner chamber or passageway.

Squint in the screen at St Peter's Church, Cassington, Oxfordshire
Photo copyright John Salmon
via Wikimedia Commons, license under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license

In this context, the common pre-Reformation practice of having squint-holes in a church’s rood screen to enable kneeling worshippers to see the elevated host takes on a different feel: what seems to us now perhaps an odd way of overcoming this spatial problem, back then must have seemed absolutely normal – just another instance of a hole in a partition. And we can see just how normal this idea was from a legal case presented to an ecclesiastical court in the early seventeenth century, involving accusations of adultery. The witnesses were asked:

Was the door or window open? Or did he or she see such acts through any hole or open place of the wall? How many open places or holes were there in the wall? How big was such place where he or she peeped…?

(Locating Privacy in Tudor London, Orlin, p.190.)

Sadly there is no way of knowing precisely what kind of hole in the wall it was through which Catherine of Aragon communicated her defiance to the Duke of Suffolk in December 1533. But Lena Cowen Orlin’s excellent book has made me realise that this mode of communication, though perhaps unusual for a queen, was unlikely to be a novel idea either to readers of Chapuys’ dispatch or, indeed, to Elizabethan audiences watching ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.

Bottom, as Pyramus:

I see a voice. Now will I to the chink
To spy an I can hear my Thisbe’s face.


Professor Eric Ives (1931-2012)

Prof. Eric Ives (left), with (l-r) Nicola Shulman,  Brother Peter
(a resident of the Lord Leycester Hospital, Warwick) and me

I would just like to say how saddened I was to hear of the death, in September, of Prof. Eric Ives, at the age of 81 (read an obituary here). Acclaimed by David Starkey as the author of the best academic biography of Anne Boleyn, Prof. Ives had the gift of writing both accessible and deeply scholarly works. His The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn is utterly brilliant, and I would also highly recommend the controversial and fascinating Lady Jane Grey: a Tudor Mystery, and The Reformation Experience, the latter published only this June. I had the great good fortune in May this year to take part in an event in Warwick chaired by Prof. Ives – the first time I had met this longstanding scholar-hero of mine. I was nervous beforehand about giving a talk in his presence, but he made the evening a delight: he was extraordinarily generous and friendly, and a skilful chair to boot. What a lovely man – as well as a great expert – the world of Tudor history study has lost. May the books he has left behind be appreciated for many generations to come.

H.M. Castor's novel VIII - a new take on the life of Henry VIII - is published by Templar in the UK, by Penguin in Australia, and will be published by Simon & Schuster in the US in 2013. It is currently longlisted for the Carnegie Medal and the UK Literary Association Book Award.

H.M. Castor's website is here.


Carol McGrath said...

I am so sad a bout Professor Ives. I agree and used his biography of Anne Boleyn in my thesis. This post is the best I have read in weeks and the book on privacy will be high in my purchase list. It also explains suspicions re Ann Boleyn as she closed doors and most likely sought privacy. It fits with a concept of universality that harks back to Catholicism etc during the medieval period. Food for thought indeed.

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you for that - an excellent start to the week!

Natalie said...

A wonderful post Harriet! It's funny that you mention this book on privacy, as I was looking at it just the other day and wondering if I should purchase it. You've helped make up my mind! Thank you again for a very interesting post. Natalie

Cathleen Ross said...

Thank you for the fascinating post, Harriet. I loved your discussion on the concept of privacy. It will be very helpful for the work I'm doing.

Laurie said...

Great post, Harriet. And a lovely reminder of the mechanicals' casting call and rehearsals, always my favourite moments in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Jessica Hart said...

I've read Lena Orlin's book too. Fascinating. The whole concept of privacy in the Tudor period is a really interesting one, I think.

Thanks for a very interesting post.

Sally Zigmond said...

How fascinating. I love the way you have linked all these fascinating facts about sixteenth century England and taught me so much in such a short space not just about this period but how people's ideas of seclusion and privacy have evolved. I will be on the look out now for more historical holes in the wall. (Funny how it has come to mean a machine to dispense cash.)

Hunter said...

Sorry, I can't get the comments box to open properly in the Competition page. Here is my entry:

I nominate Justinian I (Justinian the Great) for the following reasons. History records ambiguously. The Wars of Justinian and Secret History, both by Procopius, paint very different pictures of a guy who is thought of as a saint by one church.
His wife, Theodora, and his general, Belisarius, are both fascinating characters in their own right. Justinian tried to restore the Roman Empire to its former glory. I’m not saying that was a good thing but it shows he had hutzpah. You can visit the beautiful Hagia Sophia in Istanbul which he had built (choosing a scientist and mathematician for an architect) and he did a huge amount for women in his legal reforms.

Mark Burgess said...

Fascinating post, Harriet. I find the attitude to privacy (or lack of it) in previous ages one of the most difficult to assimilate. Those communal garderobes - help!

adele said...

I played the mechanical who played Thisbe! In the Dream in a college production that went to Stratford. We're talking 1965 or so. We stayed in caravans in the grounds of the Alveston Manor Hotel.

But that's not what I wanted to say. I wanted to say: fascinating post about privacy. Marvellous stuff.

Lucy Churchill said...

Thank you for this interesting article which brought another aspect of the past to life, and your lovely footnote about Eric Ives too.

Ann Turnbull said...

What a fascinating post! Just thinking about all those peep-holes and cloth-covered gaps in walls makes me want to start writing. This is definitely a book I will buy - thank you for alerting us to it.

H.M. Castor said...

Thank you, Dianne and everyone else too, for your lovely comments, from communal garderobes to Midsummer Night's memories! Hugely appreciated.

Leslie Wilson said...

Really interesting and thought-provoking! It just shows that the past IS another country.

Richard Majece said...

I suppose it's really interesting for students. You can read if you need to write a research after reading this article.