Bosom Buddies

– or, let’s talk about tits.

As I have been banging on about of late, I’m upping my 17th century game and I’m doing marvellous things with my everyday wardrobe.

This morning I slipped on a lovely olive green and white print blouse and my first thought was – ooo, low-slung tits, girl, pull ’em up a few notches. How unflattering. How dowdy. How –

How right for the shape of the blouse and the design period?

Convo I often have with a mate who is similarly built, but why would I aspire to have two rock-solid semi-spheres clamped to my ribcage, unless I happen to be involved in 1770s re-enactment? What with – as one Regency fashion commentator described – the “disgusting fleshy shelf”?  See this lady here with her low-cut bodice – a lady of ample chest, by the look of her – is she rocking the teetering titties, or are they sensibly secured?

(c) Valence House Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Occurs to me that the eye of the beholder is so wretchedly attuned to what we consider beautiful now, that anything that doesn’t conform to the right shape, regardless of size, looks wrong to us. We often see tavern-wench bodices, even when we should be working Lady Fanshawe’s discreetly low-cut charms, because we think up-and-at-’em is the look that women must have aspired to.

(Do we? Should we?)

This is me starting a revolution, right here, right now. The discreet charm of the boobs-goisie. Lower-cut and flatter. (Surely we’re not thinking that mature ladies might be represented as having aspirational mature figures, instead of fake porn-star tits?)

Have it!

But Is It Authentic?

A sort of conflation of ideas whizzing about today.

A conversation about 17th century re-enactment over on Facebook – about being too authentic, becoming intimidating, becoming contemptuous of those who don’t count stitches, or who use wool-blend fabrics. Now for myself, as an author, I consider re-enactment as research for my writing and vice versa. Thomazine’s snapped stay-bone in Imperfect Enjoyment – I’ve done that. (I still have the scar, too: I had to wear the things for the rest of the day, and it didn’t half bleed.)

I haven’t belted anyone in the face with the guard of my sword, but I have considered it. I digress.

And I admit it: I’m one of the stitch-counters. And what I find is increasingly it fills me with a horrible inertia. I have linen to make s new jacket, but I need silks to embroider it. Embroidery silks aren’t good enough: I need silk thread. I need metal spangles. I need – I need – I need.

And till I have, I do nothing.

Actually, I made a conscious decision with my polychrome coif, and my spangled jacket – not to make them period-correct, but to make them touchable, holdable. Hundreds of pounds worth of metal spangles on a jacket, and I’m going to let strangers pick it up, stroke it, hold it up, try it on? Or keep washing my coif after a couple of hundred grubby little fingers have stroked the ladybird or opened the peapods? But that’s what they’re for – to be touched and delighted in, not just admired from a distance. That was what the originals were for: to be worn and used and to give pleasure to their wearer as well as the people who saw them.

It’s the same with my new wardrobe: I want wool, I want silk, I want…I want to not start till I have all the things, rather than to use things I have that are not quite right.

My first thought in the authenticity debate was that it’s necessary, because what’s it for, otherwise? But I’m not sure now. I think it’s more the desire of the moth for the star, than a desirable outcome. I think I could spend my whole life not wanting to do better, but wanting to do nothing. Waiting for the perfect set of circumstances – all the aces, metaphorically, in my hand – before the time is right to do anything at all.

And then you get to be dead, and all the time is used up, and it’s never happened. That book half-written in your head but never started, that jacket you loved…all gone.

Carpe diem.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (Except In Oliver Cromwell’s House)

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In my wanderings throughout the internet I came across this splendid gem on a website called “The Foods of England”. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if it were true?

“There is a curious story that roast veal in Orange Sauce was Oliver Cromwell’s favourite dish, and that when no oranges were available, his wife Elizabeth used beans instead, saying something along the lines of “You should have thought about orange sauce before you declared war on Spain.” This tale is told at Cromwell’s House in Ely, in ‘Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine’ by William Carew Hazlitt (1902) and may originate in a spurious little cookbook titled ‘The Court and Kitchin of Elizabeth, Commonly Called Joan Cromwel, the Wife of the late Usurper, Truly Described and Represented’ published in 1664.”

This cookbook was originally written by triumphant Royalists with a perverse sense of humour, intended to show Elizabeth Cromwell up as a frumpy provincial housewife, more fitted to life on a backwater country estate than at Whitehall – and just as a by the by, this was published in 1664, and she died in 1665, so I hope she thought it was as funny as I did. I love the idea of the Lord Protector of England’s foreign policy being dictated by what his wife wanted on the table, though. And oranges, believe it or not, are quite popular in 17th century cooking, although normally with capon or fowl rather than veal. Perhaps Mrs Cromwell didn’t like chicken?

The Good Huswife’s Jewll for the Kitchen (1594) suggests that Mrs Cromwell should… “take red wine, Synamon, Sugar, Ginger, the grauie of the Capon, or a little sweet butter: slice an Orenge thin, boyle it in the stuffe, when your Orenges be tender, lay them vpon your sops, mince some of the rynde and caste on the sops, and so serue them.”

To boil a capon with oranges, after Mistress Duffield’s way, …“take a Capon and boyle it with Veale, or with a mary bone, or what your fancie is. Then take a good quantitie of that broth, and put it in an earthen pot by it selfe, and put thereto a good handfull of Corrans, and as manie Prunes, and a few whole Maces, and some Marie, and put to this broth a good quantitie of white wine or of Claret, and so let them seeth softly together: Then take your Orenges, and with a knife scrape of all the filthinesse of the outside of them. Then cut them in the middest, and wring out the ioyse of three or foure of them, put the ioyse into your broth with the rest of your stuffe, then slice your Orenges thinne, and haue vpon the fire readie a skellet of faire seething water, and put your sliced Orenges into the water, & when that water is bitter, haue more readie, and so change them still as long as you can finde the great bitternesse in the water, which will be sixe or seven times, or more, if you find need: then take them from the water, and let that runne cleane from them: then put close Orenges into your potte with your broth, and so let them stew together till your Capon be readie. Then make your sops with this broth, and cast on a litle Sinamon, Ginger, and Sugar, and vpon this lay your Capon, and some of your Orenges vpon it, and some of your Marie, and towarde the end of the boylin”

There’s also a thickened version of Mistress Duffield’s recipe in the same recipe book, using egg yolks to thicken the sauce into a sort of Christmassy custard. I’m happy to say that Robert May in “The Accomplish’t Cook” gave a much plainer and simpler recipe: “Take slices of white-bread and boil them in fair water with two whole onions, some gravy, half a grated nutmeg, and a little salt; strain them together through a strainer, and boil it up as thick as water grewel; then add to it the yolks of two eggs dissolved with the juyce of two oranges.”

On the other hand, there’s mutton with lemons.
When your Mutton is halfe boyled, take it vp, cut it in small peeces: put it into a pipkin, and couer it close, and put thereto the best of the broth, as much as shall couer your Mutton, your Lemmons being sliced verie thin, and quartered, and Corrans, put in pepper grose beaten, and so let them boyle together, and when they be well boyled, season it with a litle Uergious, sugar, pepper grose beaten, and a little sanders, so lay it in fine dishes vpon sops. Jt will make three messe for the table.
This version sounds a little less – festive, sorry Oliver – but in the early 17th century (and earlier) sanders, ie sandalwood, was used for colouring rather than flavouring. It’s red, but I’d be inclined to replace with a little saffron, just to give it that slightly aromatic, musky taste.

So – apologies to the Lord Protector, but I’m with Elizabeth on this one. A much better use of oranges can be found:
Take your orenges, and lay them in water a day and a night, then seeth them in faire water and hony, and let them seeth till they be soft: then let them soak in the sirrop a day and a night: then take them forth and cut them small, and then make your tart and season your Apples with Sugar, Synamon and Ginger, and put in a peece of butter, and lay a course of Apples, and betweene the same course of apples, a course of Orenges, and so course by course, and season your Orenges as you seasoned your Apples, with somewhat more sugar, then lay on the lid and put it in the ouen, and when it is almost baked, take Rosewater and Sugar, and boyle them together till it be somwhat thick, then take out the Tart, and take a feather and spread the rosewater and Sugar on the lid, and set it into the Ouen againe, and let the sugar harden on the lid, and let it not burne.

And failing that, you can always use them to make marmalade – after all, everyone in the 17th century knows of the aphrodisiac properties of marmalade, don’t they?

A Garden of Earthly Delights

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There are times when you’re just in the right place at the right time.

It’s a funny thing. You might have noticed but most of me is pretty firmly rooted in the 17th century, almost all of the time.
I occasionally venture into the field of Dark Age re-enactment but it’s strictly domestic: half the time I’d be pushed to tell you what century I’m in, although I could probably tell you what I’m cooking while I’m doing it.
But anyway – I’m possibly less femme when I’m in Anglo-Saxon kit than when I’m in the 1640s, but, you know. That’s where we are.

And as you probably also know, for the last couple of years I’ve been rather idly working on a period herb garden. Which is coming on beautifully, thank you, and I think you’ve probably all heard about the various trials and tribulations of Russell Lovage, who came to me as a little sprout something like seven years ago and has refused point-blank to die on me ever since. (I’m very fond of Russell Lovage – yes, of course that’s why he’s called Russell, he is as grimly indestructible as the fictional version – and he has now rewarded me with a crop of little Lovagelings, most of whom will be going to loving forever-homes over the next few weeks.)
And I thought that was going to be it, that was going to be me swishing decoratively through the lavender bushes in a neat coif and a big skirt stooping to break a twig here and a leaf there, inhaling the scents of clove carnation and balm and considering my still-room….

And then someone asks if the re-enactment group we belong to want to be involved in planning and creating an Anglo-Saxon garden at Escot – Edcott, rather, I might say: the Anglo-Saxon village – to which the answer is HELL YEAH. I don’t love my fingernails that much.
It’s damp, it’s overgrown, it’s going to be hard work. I’m looking at a tray full of heart’s-ease – banwort, to the Saxons, and wild pansy to us now – that would love a new home in a shady wood, and obviously the Lovagelings, they could go feral out there. I’ve got woad seeds – though maybe they need to be renewed: I’ve had them for a while without the room to plant them.
I have visions of enough space to grow strewing-herbs: meadowsweet and woodruff and mint and costmary and probably fleabane to keep our little friends at bay when one is ankle-deep in rushes.
To be able to give our resident herbalist a sufficiency of exotic herbs to physic most ailments: tansy and feverfew for headaches and dill for colicky bellies and the nine herbs of power – Mucgwyrt, Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and Attorlaðe (identified as cockspur grass (Echinochloa crus-galli) by R. K. Gordon; partially defined by others as betony (Stachys officinalis) and Stune, Lamb’s cress (Cardamine hirsuta) and Wegbrade, Plantain (Plantago) and Mægðe, Mayweed (Matricaria) and Stiðe, Nettle (Urtica) and Wergulu, Crab-apple (Malu) and Fille Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and Finule Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Cooking and washing and beautifying herbs – the pot-herbs, marigold and soapwort and nettle for cordage and wrapping cheese -the vegetables, Good King Henry and fat hen and purslane and ramsons, all the forgotten green vegetables that would have heralded spring to people who lived on what they could store and grow.

What it’s not going to be is my lovely, mannered, 17th century herb-garden – which exists and is real. It is an actual thing and I go out and cut things from it to use, and it has lovely things in it like primroses and violets for candying, and gillyflowers for scent. I suspect that the Edcott garden will be a much earthier, and probably swearier place, where a whisper is not the sound of a silk skirt on the gravel but is more likely to be the sound of a grubby small child wondering if parental eyes are still on the ripe strawberries.
(I am told there will be pigs. There will also, I feel, be sage – and this is not an idle threat – the first snout that uproots my Lovagelings is likely to find itself stuffed with an apple and spit-roasted. Just, you know, saying…)

It’s going to be fun, and a voyage of amazing discoveries. That’s all what I’ddo, if anyone were daft enough to give me free rein. Fortunately they’re not or we’d be knee-deep in lovage and mint, and if anything happens at all I’ll be being restrained and encouraged by friends with strong backs and common sense.
Watch this space. No – not that one: the green one, there.

Kitty, My Rib – the story of Katie van Bora

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Now I have two heroines in this world, and one of them is Elizabeth Cromwell (well, dear, if you wanted orange sauce, you shouldn’t have made war on Spain, should you?) and the other is Katharina von Bora, die Lutherin. After those two stubborn, domesticated, marvellously level-headed females is Het Babbitt patterned.

There is an argument which I often hear, and it goes something like – but women in the 17th century, they were the weaker vessel, right? Poor dependents, meek and milky and subservient…. right?
Well – some names to look up, to begin with, then. Bess of Hardwick. Elizabeth Cromwell. Elizabeth Lilburne. Brilliana Harley. Anne Fairfax.

All noblewomen? Hardly. Elizabeth Lilburne and Elizabeth Cromwell were merchant’s daughters – and Bess of Hardwick knew how to make a penny work for its living, by all accounts.

But die Lutherin is sadly neglected. Her 16th-century life-story reads like something from a lurid romantic fiction – convent-educated, she was brought up in cloisters until at the age of 24, she started to become interested in the growing reform movement and became unhappy with her secluded life within the Cistercian monastery. Now, the weaker-vessel argument would have die Lutherin meekly submitting to male domination, right? Um, nope. She wrote to Martin Luther, a 41 year old rebel, subversive and politically active cleric. An excommunicated priest, mind, who was not known for his tactful expression of his opinions. Katie von Bora wrote to Martin Luther – a man she had presumably never met formally in her life – and asked him to bust her and another twelve nuns out of the Cistercian monastery.

And he did. They were smuggled out in the back of a cart, in herring barrels. A credible fiction author could not make this up.

Luther, despite being the man behind the Reformation, now had twelve rogue nuns on his hands. Their families wouldn’t take them back, this being a breach of canon law, and so he found them all husbands. In the end, there was only Katie left. He found her husbands. Nope. Eventually she gave him the ultimatum – sorry, Martin, the only man I’m taking is either you or Nicolaus van Amsdorf, your friend. (Check out the portraits. She made a good call in Martin.)

Katie von Bora then took on the massive tasks of a) running the enormous monastery estate atWittenburg, where they boarded at the Cistercian monastery, b) running the brewery there, c) running the hospital, d) looking after all the students and visitors coming for audience with the notorious rogue priest behind the Diet of Worms, and e) keeping an eye on Martin, who had not been exactly the most promising of eager bridegrooms – he admitted himself that before his marriage his bed was often mildewed and not made up for months on end. By the sound of Katie, she’d have put up with neither the mildew, the unmade bed, nor the grubby husband.

The Luthers had six children (not all of whom survived to adulthood, sadly), Katie had one miscarriage, and they brought up another four orphans. This was not, clearly, a nominal marriage of platonic and dutiful affection. Martin freely admitted prior to his marriage that despite his clerical celibacy he was aware of the existence of the female form, even in spite of the mouldy bed. Had it not been for the admittedly rather pretty Mistress van Bora, it’s not impossible that the Protestant clergy would have remained formally celibate for many years – not that Martin and Katie were the first, but their wedding set the seal of approval on clerical marriage. It was a long and happy marriage, if often short of money, and even then it seems that she had the habit of accepting gifts from benefactors on his behalf, and putting the money away for the rainy day that seemed to follow the Luther household around.

They were married for almost twenty years, and he had counselled her to move into a smaller house with the children when he died, but she refused. A sentimental attachment to the marital home where she’d been happy and useful for so long? Struggling financially without his salary, she stayed stubbornly put until soldiers in the the Schmalkaldic War destroyed farm buildings and killed the animals on their farm, and she was forced to flee, living on the charity of the Elector of Saxony until it was safe for her to return to Wittenburg. Bubonic plague then forced her to flee a third time, this time to Torgau, but she was thrown from her cart near the city gates and very badly bruised, and died less than three months later.

She was not buried near to her Martin in Wittenburg, but since one of the Lutheran doctrines was that “It is enough for us to know that souls do not leave their bodies to be threatened by the torments and punishments of hell, but enter a prepared bedchamber in which they sleep in peace,” – she probably didn’t mind too much.

Ladies  and gentlemen, a toast to die Lutherin, Katie von Bora – the role model for the Mrs Cromwells and Mrs Fairfaxes, the domestic rock on which a political citadel stood firm.