Monday, April 30, 2012

Z is for Zounds

People nowadays lack so much creativity in their swearing. Anyone who's read Shakespeare with a careful eye will tell you that crudeness and crass language abounded even then--but I'm of a mind to be more forgiving of what was done poetically. I wish we still heard some of these swears/euphemisms/expressions, because I'm getting very tired of the f word:
Zounds--a real oath, euphemized, if I may coin a term, from "God's wounds".
God's teeth--I have no idea why anyone would swear by this, but it is certainly not boring.
A pox upon thee!--self-explanatory, I should imagine.
Fie--an mild term of disgust, as in "Fie on taxation!" or "Oh, fie, I stubbed my toe."
By my troth--equivalent to "by my word," but more poetic, I think. Often used as an expression of surprise, like today's "Holy cow" (or cruder "holy" things). Troth means truth.
Sooth--sooth also means truth, or truly. As in, "Sooth, but he has a vile tongue."
Faith!--one of my favorites, for obvious reasons. Used similarly to the previous entry in my little dictionary here.
(A million points to whoever uses one of these most creatively in the comments! ;)

Thanks to everyone who has joined me in this little Antiquarian Alphabet for the A to Z challenge. By my troth, it's been great fun. :) And I hope you'll be back, because I've got more great things planned for May!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Y is for Yon

I love reading historical texts...old books...manuscripts in ancient languages. So many of them, steeped in storytelling traditions, can just trip off your tongue. They were literally meant to be read aloud.
Because of this, many of my favorite words are a little more suited to Elizabethan England (thanks, Will...) than to the present time: yon, wherefore, e'er, hence--you get the idea. (This is probably why my toddlers use the word "for" to mean "because," as in "I'd like a snack for I am very hungry." At least they don't say "sorely famished," right?)
But I shy away from using too many of these in my writing. I don't want the stories to be inaccessible to the modern reader, so I'm painstakingly careful that when I use an archaic word, it makes complete sense in context. And then half the time my critique partners have to tell me it didn't make as complete sense as I thought, anyway. But, oh, every time I cut one of those archaic words, it, well, pains me to the core. It's hard to make modern English flow as nicely as Shakespeare.
What's your opinion of archaic words? Do you like them? Skim over them? Use them? Avoid them?

Friday, April 27, 2012

X is for Xanthippe


PETRUCHIO.
Signior Hortensio, 'twixt such friends as we
Few words suffice; and therefore, if thou know
One rich enough to be Petruchio's wife,
As wealth is burden of my wooing dance,
Be she as foul as was Florentius' love,
As old as Sibyl, and as curst and shrewd
As Socrates' Xanthippe or a worse,
She moves me not, or not removes, at least,
Affection's edge in me, were she as rough
As are the swelling Adriatic seas:
I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
If wealthily, then happily in Padua.
--Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, Act 1, Scene 2

As far as I'm concerned, if you earn yourself a mention in Shakespeare, you've officially made it into history. We all know who Socrates is (or so I hope), but just who was this Xanthippe of his?

A lot more fun than Socrates, for one thing. His wife, for another. The stories of her legendary shrewishness abound, from the one where she trampled on a cake sent to Socrates by his friend Alcibiades, to the incident where she emptied a chamber pot on her husband's head. The philosopher Xenophon wrote that Xanthippe was "the hardest to get along with than all the women there are." But Socrates (in Xenophon's Symposium) defends her: 

"It is the example of the rider who wishes to become an expert horseman: 'None of your soft-mouthed, docile animals for me,' he says; 'the horse for me to own must show some spirit' in the belief, no doubt, if he can manage such an animal, it will be easy enough to deal with every other horse besides. And that is just my case. I wish to deal with human beings, to associate with man in general; hence my choice of wife. I know full well, if I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else."

Oh, wait, maybe that wasn't exactly defending her. No, no it wasn't at all. Obviously Socrates got no more than he was asking for.

I feel more justified than ever in liking Aristotle best. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

W is for War and Weaponry

As tragic an occurrence as it is, war is undoubtedly one of the most important aspects of history. And of course to a writer, there's nothing so, well, convenient. War brings out the worst in the world's villains and the best in its heroes--and it surprises you with who ends up falling into those roles. It is complex and emotionally charged and intricate and primal. That's why many of the greatest historical novels involve war at some level.
And of course, there's the things involved in warfare--you know, those tangible details that bring stories alive? War is brimming over with them: armor and swords and shields and boots and MREs and dog tags.
If you're ever researching a historical novel that involves a war occurring between the fifth and late nineteenth centuries, in any country, you have to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Arms and Armor Gallery. Or if you can't get to New York, at least visit them virtually.
It's an awe- fear- and plot-inspiring place.



Wednesday, April 25, 2012

V is for Ving-et-un

Ving-et-un literally means “21” so it won’t come as much surprise that it’s a 18th/19th century name for what we call Blackjack these days. It was a favorite of the French court and Marie Antoinette, before she had children and became more somber.

I have fond memories of playing Blackjack with my great-grandfather, even though he always won and most probably cheated. :) But because of those memories, I always feel rather nostalgic when I play card games....

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

U is for Undertaker

Poor undertakers always get a bad rap in literature. They’re the scary, morbid, sallow-faced and suspicious characters. They’re always suspected in the murder mysteries since they always have the motive of improving business. Even the word “undertaker” sounds either dull and duty-conscious when understood properly (they undertook the responsibility for the deceased), or rather frightening when you misinterpret it as I did when I was little, to mean the person who takes the body under the ground.

But they started out as friendly ol’ cabinet makers who happened to be good at making large boxes. They continued on as the quiet, unappreciated members of the community who girls never wanted to marry but men wanted to have as sons-in-law (such a reliable occupation, after all).

But do you know any cases where literature redeems them? I find such widespread pigeon-holing rather troubling...

Monday, April 23, 2012

T is for Trade

So many of my favorite historical trades (yes, I’m using the term lightly) begin with the letter T that I thought they deserved a post to themselves. We have:

Tar. Doesn’t it evoke so much more feeling than “sailor”?

Thimblerigger. You know that “Which cup is it under game?” The man in charge of such prestidigitation was called a thimblerigger. I think it’s also a great word to slip into conversation by way of a metaphor.

Ticket-of-leave man. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, criminals who were excused early from their sentence by way of a ticket of leave were given this title.

Ticket porter. Another 19th century trade. Not just anyone could be a porter (person who carried things). You had to have a ticket to show you were official.

Tidewaiter. This was a customs official, so called because he had to wait for boats to come in on the tide before boarding them.

Tinker. Someone who repaired pots and pans. I love the ring of it, but it was considered a very low profession.

Top sawyer. Yes, the man who sawed on top (of a saw pit), which was an enviable position for obvious reasons. The term came to mean anyone in a very good position.

Tosspot. So it’s not exactly a trade, but it is a very good 19th century word for a person who drank a lot.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

S is for Seven

Today we interrupt our usual broadcast to bring you the “Lucky Seven” meme--in which I share seven lines/paragraphs from seven lines down on page seventy of my novel. But since my story, THE WITHERING VINE, is historical fiction, I hope you won’t think I’ve gone too far astray. :)

Without further ado:


I stand and give him a bow, hiding my face. “I hope I shall be at the fair, sir,” I say. “It would be a fine honor to hear you sing again.”


“And I you,” he answers.

“What?”


He looks surprised at my confusion. “You will sing in the minstrel contest, no?”


I laugh so hard I snort like a boar. “Me? In the contest? For one thing, they would never let a girl sing, you know.”

Francois shrugs. “You could dress like a lad. I've known a few maids to do so to great success.”

I gape. Colette would faint at such a suggestion. “No,” I answer gravely, seeing that he is treating the matter with seriousness. “I...I've never sung in front of anyone, really. Not since my Father died. You only caught me unawares.”

***

This story was brought to you by... Paula McLaughlin, who tagged me for this game. (You can read seven lines of her ms here.) Now I’ll explain the rules:
1. Go to page seventy-seven of your manuscript.
2. Go down seven lines.
3. Post the next seven lines, sentences, or paragraphs on your blog for all to enjoy/laugh at/whatever.
4. Tag seven new writers.

You’ll notice I already broke rule #1, by using page seventy instead of seventy-seven. That’s because seventy-seven is pretty confusing if you haven’t been reading from the beginning. Now I feel all rule-breaking and renegade...I’m even thinking of getting some temporary tattoos. (Oh, yeah.)

Here are the seven writers I am tagging, though you can think of it more as a gentle tap, begging politely to look over their shoulders into the world of their books. Seriously, I have been curious about these writers’ stories for a while, so I’d love it if they felt they’d like to share a little bit. Also, I really just think you should check out their blogs. Trust me, even if they don’t feel comfortable sharing excerpts from their stories, seven lines from their posts themselves will brighten your day. (Can we just call this “Faith giving you a list of seven blogs she loves”?)
I give you:

1. Vijaya Bodach
2. Marcia Hoehne
3. Betsy Devaney
4. Molly Hall
5. A. L. Sonnichsen (Yes, she has already been tagged, so I hereby exempt her from posting another excerpt. But you should visit her blog if you haven’t. As a writer-mother, it’s one of my favorites.)
6. Sara Hill
7. Laurel Garver

Friday, April 20, 2012

R is for Rosewater


For some reason, rosewater--for centuries a staple in everything from cooking to cosmetics--has become rarer and rarer of late. I'm not sure why; rosewater makes a lovely, delicate flavoring for cakes and pastries, the traditional flavoring for Turkish delight (have I got the Narnia fans' attention? ;) a sorbet fit for a princess, a natural skin beautifier, a gentle perfume, and more.
You can purchase rosewater in health food stores, but I've been itching to make my own, as soon as my roses start blooming. Here's how you do it:

Get a big pot and place a brick in the middle. 
Fill the pot with rose petals (make sure they're pesticide-free!) up to the top of the brick.
Fill the area around the petals with water.
Place a stainless steel or glass bowl on top of the brick and place the pot's lid upside down on the pot.
Bring water to a boil, then immediately place several ice cubes (about two trays) on top of the lid and turn the temperature down to a simmer.
As the water condenses on the inverted lid it will drip down into the bowl. Every twenty minutes or so, gather the water in the bowl, until you have about a pint of lovely rose-scented water. 

When you're done, make some of this next:
Turkish Delight


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Q is for Queen Marie Antoinette

A portrait of the queen by her friend Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun
Researching is a task at once exciting and frustrating. The reason is simple: history books do not so much present facts as interpret them. When you can dig a little deeper than your average encyclopedia entry, you’ll uncover mysteries and deep, dark secrets...but you’ll also find some refreshing truths.

My case in point: Queen Marie Antoinette. For years, history has portrayed her as wicked and selfish at worst, silly at best. yes, well, guess who wrote the books that first villainized her--the books that were referenced and quoted for centuries? That’s right--the same revolutionaries who had her guillotined.

In fact, the villainization was necessary for the decapitation. Early on, the leaders of the French Revolution decided that they needed every royal out of the way, lest loyalists rally behind them and counter the revolutionary progress. Some of the earliest seeds of discontent were deliberate lies about the queen, carefully posed to destroy her reputation. 

Here’s some truth: Maria Antonia, the young Austrian princess who came to wed Louis XVI, was innocent and eager to please. Her Austrian ways were simpler than those to which the French court was accustomed. Her enemies said: “Don’t trust the foreigner. She wants to gain control of France for her own uncouth but grasping country.” 
In her desire to win the people’s trust, the princess threw lavish parties at her own expense. Her enemies said: “Our taxes are heavy so that the uncouth foreigner can have frivolous parties.” 
Truth: Compared to the friendly Austrian princess, Louis was shy and cold. He never went out of his way to welcome his wife or even befriend her. Marie Antoinette found friends among others in the court. Her enemies said: “The money-hungry foreigner is plotting against us with her friends.” 
Another reality: Marie Antoinette, young and very innocent, did not conceive a child for many years after marrying Louis. It worried her and pained her immensely. When at last she became pregnant, her enemies said, “The uncouth foreign queen, determined to steal our money and plot against us, has had an affair with one of her friends, and the child is his. What a wicked, wicked queen.” 
Marie Antoinette was a conscientious queen, who tried to encourage the nobles, used to two generations of opulence, to embrace a simpler life. As a trend-setter, she eschewed silk, and donned straw hats decorated with potato flowers. She encouraged the nobles to eat together at the palace and provided simple meals for them, while demanding that more food leave the palace kitchens to be given to the poor. She was also a caring, devoted mother, who took an active role in educating her own children to be wise, learned and spiritual human beings. But when the time came to get her out of the way, her enemies said: “The queen says if we have no bread to eat cake! She is a stupid, selfish foreigner. And she abuses her children! The evil monster must die! (And by the way, what ugly clothes she is wearing these days. How unqueenly.)”


You can see how the lies built one upon another. And for centuries, many of these lies have been accepted as fact. Only recently, with the uncovering of documents hidden at the time, with the scientific analysis of DNA evidence, are historians realizing the full extent to which Marie Antoinette was maligned. This is why research is frustrating.


But it is also exciting, because one can also discover beautiful truths. I recommend reading the queen’s last letter before her death, where you can see the extent of her trust in God, her love for her children, her forgiveness of her enemies. It brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.


Another recommended source is Deborah Cadbury's excellently researched The Lost King of France: a True Story of Revolution, Revenge, and DNA. I will warn you, it is for mature readers, and not for the faint of heart. It broke mine, when I read it. I literally sobbed for hours when I learned the truth of the terrible things that were done to the royal family, but I hug my children tighter now and pray that they, no matter what tragedies life brings them, will have the faith and courage of the martyred queen of France.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

P is for Pumpkins and Potatoes


Whenever I begin research, I turn first to cookbooks. As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing that can evoke the feel of a time and place like its food. So when I started writing my historical novel AMBER & FLAME, which is set in 1701 Cremona, Italy, I was pleased to find an amazing cookbook called The Gastronomy of Italy. It outlines Italy's traditional dishes by region, and explains their evolution, history and cultural significance. Not being Italian, the term "Italian food" rarely made me think of anything other than pasta, risotto or pizza (I did know that our American pizza is not what they eat, at least). But Italy's a big country. My ignorance could be equated with someone thinking they knew about American food because they'd tried clam chowder and Boston baked beans.

Surprisingly, two ingredients that had a significant impact on historical northern Italian cuisine were in fact American: pumpkin and potato. Yep, prior to discovering the New World, Europe had never encountered these two staples of their diet. There was no pumpkin gnocchi before America, no Irish Shepherd's Pie, no English fish and chips.

Granted, we should probably thank Europeans for some of our favorite pumpkin and potato dishes, because our preparation was on the primitive side for a bit. We might enjoy a nice, crusty pumpkin pie every Thanksgiving--but that was a recipe we stole from the British half a century later. They made a spiced squash dessert pie while the pilgrims were still stuck on the medieval tradition of meat pies. The pumpkin served at the first Thanksgiving was probably a custard of eggs and milk and honey baked in a pumpkin shell hollowed of its seeds.

Here's my favorite, all-American, super-simple, and very-delicious pumpkin recipe:

PUMPKIN SOUP

1 can pumpkin
2 cans of milk
1/3 cup maple syrup (or to taste)
1 tsp. cinnamon
sprinkles of nutmeg and cloves

Whisk together over medium heat and enjoy! It's like pumpkin pie without the crust.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

O is for Old English

Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon... high on my "Languages I Want to Learn" list. If only I had been alive three quarters of a century ago, I could have studied it under one of my favorite people in the world: Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, of Oxford. (Well, if I had lived three quarters of a century ago and lived in England and been intelligent enough to be accepted at Oxford...)
Not only did Tolkien teach Anglo-Saxon, of course; he used it extensively in creating the languages for the people of his Middle Earth. One type of Old English alphabet, known as Futhork, was used as the alphabet for his Dwarvish languages; you can see plenty of it in The Hobbit--it's even on the spine and cover of my copy:

The runes, beginning from the bottom of the left-hand side, read: "The Hobbit or There and Back Again, Being the Record of a Year's Journey of Bilbo Baggins, Compiled from His Memoirs" (I added the capitalization and punctuation for clarity.)

Monday, April 16, 2012

N is for Nadder

Today I delve into one of my favorite types of history: word history. Yes, I am one of those people who reads the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) for fun...

You probably don't recognize the word "nadder" because, well, it doesn't exist anymore. Or rather, it's obsolete. But a few hundred years ago, when someone mentioned "a nadder," they were talking about the poisonous snake we now refer to as an adder. You'll notice that when said aloud, they sound exactly the same. And they are. The adjective/indefinite article "a" actually was derived from the word "an" which in turn was derived from "one." But because in Old English the article and the word it modified were written without a space (like this: anadder) confusion ensued.

The opposite confusion led us to the creation of the word "newt," which was originally an "ewt." In fact, some kinds of newts are still called efts, another derivative.

What's your favorite word history?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

M is for Mead



“...It was a happy gathering. In my whole life I have never seen mead enjoyed more in any halls on earth...”
--Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, lines 2014-2016

I have a sentimental attachment to mead, the sweet alcohol that has been made from honey for centuries. Back in my college days, when I was studying Beowulf in my Great Books class, my classmates and I took no end of pleasure out of the many poetic glorifications of the beverage in the story. If you’ve read the book, you know what I’m talking about; and didn’t you find it funny that while Grendel was breaking into the mead hall every night to pick off the warriors one by one, they still slept there instead of seeking the safety of their homes? Well, I did. And I reached the conclusion that the mead must have been pretty amazing.


It may have been the drink of champions in Beowulf, but it was also the drink of kings and of the common people from ancient times and on through the middle ages. In fact, it is widely considered to be the first fermented beverage, and it’s made its mark in virtually every culture.


I’m not sure if this will live up to what Hrothgar served in his mead hall, but if you want to try your hand at making your own mead, here’s a recipe from The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages:


“Dissolve four pounds honey in a gallon of water with half an ounce of ginger. Boil for approximately forty-five minutes, then pour into a barrel or wooden container. Before it cools completely, add yeast and wait for it to ferment. After fermentation, seal and store for six months.”

Friday, April 13, 2012

L is for Leech-fishing


If you have just clicked onto this post, welcome, O Brave Soul. Personally, I’d run at the mention of leeches (you may recall they were formerly listed among my “Ten Cultural Practices that Should Stay Buried Forever”), and I’d run even faster if I saw any in person.
Yet in the past, there lived men and women who sought leeches for their livelihood. Since blood-letting with leeches was a common medicinal practice in the nineteenth century, the little creatures were a fairly valuable commodity.
Thus: leech fishing. Often it was a family business and parents and children would stand together in muddy water, waiting for the feel of the leeches’ bites on their legs and ankles. They would then remove the animals, place them in a container, deliver them to doctors or suppliers, and collect their pay. One family reported to having caught over seventeen thousand leeches in only a few months’ time.

I suppose everyone does what they have to in order to support a family...but that's what I call one job that really sucks.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

K is for King: A True Tale of Jadwiga, the Girl King of Poland


Once upon a time, a scholarly young princess named Jadwiga was brought to the kingdom of Poland to become their monarch. There was only one problem: Poland's rulers had always been men, and they had no precedent for a reigning queen. But there was no law that indicated that a king must be male. So instead of crowning the ten-year-old girl Hedwig Regina Poloniae, she was called Hedwig Rex Poloniae: Jadwiga, King of Poland.

Jadwiga's reign, from 1384 through 1399, was one of the most memorable in Poland's history. Her marriage to Jagiello of Lithuania secured peace between the two countries. As brilliant young women who spoke at least six languages, she placed great importance on education, and commissioned a restoration of the Krakow Academy (later named the Jagiellonian University), which would become a great center of learning in Poland. She dedicated herself to charitable works, often leaving the comfort of her castle to distribute food and clothing to the poor among her subjects.

But the role of king was not an easy one for a young girl. Wars threatened, policies loomed, and great stress fell upon Jadwiga's head. Yet she knew where to turn for counsel. In a chapel at Wawel Cathedral, there hung a large crucifix. Jadwiga often knelt before it and whispered her troubles to Christ as she gazed upon His image, His arms outstretched toward her. Perhaps such prayer was not unusual, either for a king or for a young girl of her day. What was quite unique in this case, however, was that--by the accounts of many witnesses--the image of Christ spoke back to her. He comforted and advised her, and she in turn did her best to make her reign a saintly one.

In fact, after her death, King Jadwiga traded the title of "king" for that of "saint," and her feast day is celebrated on the seventeenth of July. If you happen to be in Poland on that day, you could stop by Wawel Cathedral and see the very same crucifix to which the holy king spoke--"Saint Jadwiga's Cross"--where it hangs, her tomb only a few feet away.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

J is for John Everett Millais

My favorite artist, not including my husband.

Sir Isumbras at the Ford

Millais was a prominent Victorian painter, a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and a bit of a hero for parent-artists, as he had seven children. :) His life story is fascinating, but I really can't do it justice here. (He will almost definitely make it into one of my books someday...)

But since a picture is worth a thousand words, after all, here are some better insights into his soul:

Christ in the House of His Parents

The Order of Release

The Boyhood of Raleigh



Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I is for IRS

In other words, I'm doing taxes today, so don't have time to write a full post!
But here's one historical tidbit for you:
Did you know that the founding government of the United States instituted the lottery as a way of funding the government without imposing taxes? (After all, they'd just fought a revolution to be free of taxation...)
I've never bought a lotto ticket in my life. But if the IRS decides to switch back to that method of funding, I'll be the first in line.

Monday, April 9, 2012

H is for H2O

Polish culture is chock-full of Easter traditions...there's the blessing of the baskets; the Easter breakfast of bread and kielbasa and decorated eggs; and then there's Dyngus Day.
In Poland (and many other eastern European countries), Easter Monday has historically been celebrated by dousing people with buckets of water and whipping their ankles. Really.
The practice dates to the fifteenth century, and was possibly connected to the Easter Monday exchange of pysanky (those fancy Easter eggs). If someone gave you pysanky and you didn't have any to give back, you got whipped or sprinkled.
It soon developed into a *sweet* courting ritual in which a young man would wake his beloved by sneaking into her bedroom (often with her mother's assistance, if she approved of the match) and dumping buckets of water over her. Nothing says "I love you" like a gallon of water on your head before sunrise. Apparently how drenched you were by the end of the day evolved into a sort of badge of honor: the cuter you were, the more you were targeted. (And the whipping mostly fell by the wayside, much to the relief of attractive young women.)
Dyngus Day is still celebrated in Eastern Europe and certain Polish pockets of the United States, most notably Buffalo, New York. Girls are no longer the only acceptable targets, and in this age of equality, all the boys get soaked, too.
So if you're feeling a desire to connect with the past, I recommend buying some water balloons. Or just a bucket. (And if you decide to test this method of declaring your affection for your crush, please let me know how it goes. Or maybe put it on YouTube....)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

G is for Guy

"Please to remember..."

...that "guy" as a generic term for a male is a recent development. This is one of my historical fiction pet peeves (second only to the use of "okay" in stories set before the mid nineteenth century).

As all you Brits will knows, Guy Fawkes was a Catholic in the 16th-17th centuries who was known for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot to assassinate the protestant King James. (Whether or not he was framed is a question for another day...) Since the early seventeenth century, his arrest and execution have been *tastefully* celebrated on the fifth of November (Guy Fawkes' Day) with fireworks and a burning of his scarecrow-ish effigy.

Because of this, the term "guy," in the nineteenth century, came to mean a poorly-dressed or ridiculous-looking man. It developed to mean a foolish man; I will always remember the noble Tom begging Fanny's forgiveness in An Old-Fashioned Girl by declaring something like, "I'm sorry for being such a guy."

Using the term casually, in a non-derogatory way, to describe a young man, didn't crop up until the mid twentieth century.

So, please...remember. Or I will be forced to call you a guy. In a nineteenth century tone of voice.

Friday, April 6, 2012

F is for Fashion

Hildegard of Bingen

Lords and ladies weren’t the only ones making fashion statements throughout history, no matter what the majority of books on historical costume would make you think. Clothing was a distinguishing mark amongst those in the monastic life since the Middle Ages, just as it is today.

Let’s start with some basic terms:

Tunic: the main garment of the habit, worn by both monks and nuns. (In fact, worn by most everyone in the Middle Ages.)

Scapular: a long, rectangular piece of fabric that hung from the shoulders.

Cowl: sort of a small cape worn over the shoulders. Again, typical to dress in the Middle Ages.

Hood: for monks (and most men).

Veil: for nuns (and most women). Often worn with a wimple, a piece of cloth that would cover the neck and chin. During most of the Middle Ages, it was considered improper for any woman, whether a nun or a wife, to show her hair, so the head covering was crucial.

Rosary: worn at the belt by some orders.

Different orders were distinguished by the differences in their habits. For example, many medieval stories (such as The Canterbury Tales) refer to brown friars (the Franciscans), white friars (the Dominicans), and black friars (the Benedictines): the three most widespread orders at the time.

Some orders were discalced--or barefoot--thus distinguished by the fact that as a penance they didn’t wear shoes. Many monks and nuns sported a hairshirt, made from scratchy goats’ hair, beneath their tunics, or rough ropes about their waists.

Nuns’ veils varied in style, corresponding mostly to the time at which the order was founded, as they tended to reflect the styles worn by simple women of the age. Thus some were very simple, like this:




While others were rather more ornate:


The medieval nun, mystic, writer, composer, scientist (and all-around Super Woman) Hildegard of Bingen (see image at top) encouraged the nuns in her order to wear beautiful habits of silk, as befitted brides of Christ. But most orders were known for embracing poverty and simplicity in their dress.

In fact, as you can see, the dress of monastic orders wasn’t so unique at the time it originated. What’s pretty cool, though, is that most of these habits can still be seen on monks and nuns today. They’ve preserved a little bit of history--the dress of the medieval commoner--for us to see today. Even if it’s sometimes through the bars of a cloister.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

E is for Edison, Einstein and Education

Thomas Edison attended school for three months. His teachers considered him "addled" because he had such a hard time focusing. His mother, with great faith in his intelligence, withdrew him from the classroom and taught him at home.
Albert Einstein endured a mediocre education until he was a teenager, when he faked a doctor's note to escape boarding school and continue his schooling within his family's home. He was frustrated by the way the school's emphasis on rote learning undermined creativity and passion for knowledge. "Love," he said, "is a better teacher than a sense of duty."
Thank goodness we have better teachers than theirs today, though most of us know through experience that the really great ones are few and far between. The school systems' emphasis on test scores is forcing the good teachers to work twice as hard (at least!) to imbue their students with a love of learning and the freedom to create.
For this and many other reasons, I'm joining ranks with Edison's and Einstein's mothers and homeschooling my children. Since they're still preschool age, right now we're doing mostly nature study and hands-on math and lots and lots of reading. Because, as Einstein himself said, "If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales."
If you're interested, here's a list of other famous or historical figures who were home educated at some point in their lives. Many of my heroes, like Abigail Adams, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Agatha Christie, C. S. Lewis, and Mark Twain, made the list.
Whether you were homeschooled or traditionally taught, if you've had wonderful teachers, remember to thank them for all that they did.
(Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

D is for Ducks and Drakes

Eventually coming to mean a foolish squandering of money (by sometime around the 17th century), to "play ducks and drakes" originally meant (in the Middle Ages) to skip stones over water. It's easy to see how the metaphor developed. But by now, whichever meaning you use is obsolete, making it ideal for tossing out in business meetings when you wish to sound either well-educated or antediluvian....

Personally, I'm probably much better at squandering money than at skipping stones. I think my record is four...unlike this guy:


What's your ducks and drakes best?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

C is for Chocolate

Chocolate Girl, by Jean-Etienne Liotard 1743-45
You might think it’s rather cruel of me to post about chocolate on Tuesday of Holy Week, when many of us are fasting during these last days of Lent. But it is relatively recently that chocolate became the rich, creamy treat we buy in foil-wrapped bars. For many centuries, it was prepared as a drink, often very bitter. In fact, in 1569, Pope Pius V declared that drinking chocolate on a Friday did not break the fast. Apparently he didn’t care for the drink and figured it would be a help rather than a hindrance to sacrifice and mortification. 

Chocolate, of course, was first used by the Aztecs and Mayas in South America, where it was a greatly revered food, offered in sacrifices to the god of fertility. (Considering how much I crave chocolate when I’m pregnant, this seems appropriate.) The Aztec legend claimed that their god Quetzalcoatl stole a branch from a cocoa plant in the gardens of paradise and brought it back to earth.

It was Columbus who brought the cocoa to Europe, and the Spaniards who began to transform it into something I would actually like to consume. They added sugar and nutmeg and cream--and they kept their discovery secret from the rest of the world for about 100 years...at which time the beverage exploded in popularity. In the nineteenth century, John Cadbury (sound familiar?) invented the process which allowed the chocolate to be emulsified into a solid bar, but even before that, chocolate factories had sprung up all over Europe and North America.

And the legend continues on into modern times... Did you know that during World War II, the U.S. government provided their soldiers overseas with bars of chocolate? They considered it an excellent source of energy, as well as an effective morale booster. Sounds about right to me... I definitely prefer to fight the battle of revisions when I have a little Milka which I can nibble.

Monday, April 2, 2012

B is for Bedlam

When most people hear the word “bedlam,” they think of Merriam-Webster’s third definition: “a place, scene or state of uproar and confusion.” (Or you might, like me, think of the occasional state of your child’s bedroom.) But the definition before that (“a lunatic asylum”) gives a clue to the word’s interesting origin.

“Bedlam” is actually Middle English slang for Bethlehem, and referred to the Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem in London, which housed the mentally unsound (or those considered to be so) from the middle ages to modern times. From a combination of general lack of knowledge and basic greed, for hundreds of years the patients at Bedlam were not so much treated as mistreated. They were chained and manacled, practically starved, and the hygiene was so terrible that even the rest of Victorian London--hardly known for being a clean city at the time--took notice. During the 1700’s and early 1800’s, you could buy penny tickets to come stare at the inmates, a *delightful* entertainment that proved so popular that it’s estimated about 96,000 viewers came in just the year 1814.

You may recall the term “Bedlam Beggar” from Shakespeare’s King Lear, where Edgar dresses as one to prevent detection when he is banished. This term referred to former inmates of the hospital, who were oh, so generously given license to beg in the City when they were released.

Bedlam (now called the Royal Hospital of Bethlem) is still open today--under new management, I’m happy to report. You may no longer purchase tickets to see the inmates, but according to their website, you can visit their art gallery where they display artwork created by some of the patients who have been treated there.

Happy Monday, everyone! I hope your day is bedlam-free!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A is for April Fool's Day

You may like to celebrate April Fool’s Day with jokes and pranks, but do you know the history behind the holiday?

The “celebration” dates back to the Middle Ages. For hundreds of years, New Year’s Day had been celebrated at the end of March or beginning of April, to coincide--more or less--with the vernal equinox. When that changed in the sixteenth century, as with most big changes, some folks took a little longer to catch on than others. The savvy ones gave the nickname “April Fools” to those who still celebrated the new year with the coming of spring.

Soon, the day evolved until it involved feasting and pranking and general merrymaking. The jesters were king for the day, and everything was supposed to be done backwards. (Which means that had I followed those rules, I would be posting “Z” today...)

One famous April Fool’s Day pranks occurred in 1856, when Londoners were invited to come to the Tower of London, through the White Gate (which didn’t exist), to see Warren de Grassen (who didn’t exist) “wash the lions” in the moat. Perhaps it doesn’t seem so ridiculous now, but if you were an Englishman of the time, you would know that the famous Royal Menagerie of the Tower of London had been closed since 1835.

What’s your favorite April Fool’s Day joke (of past or present)?