Archive for September, 2008

Raising a princess

In today’s excerpt–the life of the infant princess Mary (1516-1558), first child of Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine. Mary later reigned as the first queen of England and is remembered as “Bloody Mary”:

“[Newborn] Mary was an attractive baby, and there was genuine parental affection. But she did not stay with them long.

“From these very early days, Mary would live close to, but separate from, her parents. As a baby she seems to have stayed very near them, and to have passed Christmas with them at Greenwich, but babies and all their paraphernalia did not figure in the day-to-day lives of 16th-century monarchs. … The notion that Katherine raised her daughter herself is at odds with the role of a queen consort, and Katherine had been a very diligent practitioner of this role during her years of childlessness.

“So, in the first two years of her life, Mary was cared for by a wet-nurse, Katherine Poole (later Lady Brooke), wife of one of the king’s gentlemen ushers, a team of four rockers, no doubt intended to sooth her when she was lying in her magnificent cradle, and the highly necessary person of a laundress, to deal with all the washing that a small child generates. In the feeding, changing and daily routine of her daughter’s life, Katherine took no part. …

“The princess’s household seems to have been a functioning unit within days of her birth. As well as the nursery staff and the lady governess there was a treasurer to manage finances, a chaplain and a gentlewoman. Mary’s expenses soon began to grow. In the six months between October 1517 and March 1518 they stood at £421.12s 1d. By 1519/20 they had risen to £1,100, about £400,000 today [or $735,000]. Not until her father’s death in 1547 would Mary actually have an income of her own, but she grew up as the focus of a substantial business unit, whose members had considerable responsibilities as well as privileges. …

“Although she was a little girl in an adult world, her life was not necessarily devoid of amusement. A later fixture of Mary’s life was her fool, Jane Cooper, one of the few female examples we have of a role that was generally given to men. The two seem to have had a close relationship, with Mary meeting Jane’s expenses for haircuts and illness. Fools were not just entertainers, they were something of an emotional safety valve. It is probable that as a child Mary enjoyed the antics of her father’s court jesters. …

“There are no records of Mary having contact with other children or being educated with them, unlike her siblings Elizabeth and Edward two decades later. This is not conclusive proof that she grew up in complete isolation, and it is possible that she knew the daughters of her aunt Mary.”

Linda Porter, The First Queen of England, St. Martin’s Press, Copyright 2007 by Linda Porter, pp. 14-15.


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In today’s excerpt–after the Black Death, the terrifying plague that killed one-third to one-half of all Europe’s inhabitants from 1347 to 1349, there was a change in the names parents gave their children:

“The centrality of religion in medieval European life is impossible to overstate. … If you want to pray, you go to your parish and submit to the direction of a priest. If you want to confess, you sit in the confessional and [tell] your sins to the man on the other side of the partition, who pronounces judgement and penance. …

“Then along comes the Black Death, mowing down the sinful and the sinless indiscriminately. … You can be healthy on Monday, infected on Tuesday, and a corpse on Saturday, leaving precious little time to wipe the sin slate clean by confessing and repenting in preparation for your personal judgement day. The biggest hurdle of all might have been luring the priest, any priest, to one’s deathbed of contagion in order to perform last rites, the final cleansing. If a cleric does show up, he might charge an outrageous price for mumbling a few prayers. Stories of deathbed fee-gougers also abound, adding to the popular perception that extravagance and greed motivate more often than not. …

“Once the epidemic is over, the survivors increasingly turn away from organized religion. Instead, they put their faith in the saints, especially those associated with pain and suffering. One modern historian conducted a comparative study of the most popular names for boys in Florence following the Black Death, in part to determine its effect on religious practice. That effect appears to be, in a word, enormous. Virtually no Florentine born before 1350 was named ‘Antonio,’ after Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of the oppressed, the elderly, the poor, and the starving. After 1427 the name ranked second. At number six, also unknown preceding the plague, is Bartolomeo–after one of the original twelve apostles; he was purportedly flayed alive and crucified by the Romans, surely qualifying him for the pain-and-suffering category. (Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement shows Bartholomew clutching his skin, the organ of the body that most visibly bears the signs of Black Death.)

“Also rising out of nowhere to the heights of post-plague fashion is Lorenzo. Here the inspiration is Lawrence of Rome, a third-century deacon who achieved martyrdom by being roasted on a gridiron. The sudden vogue for ‘Christopher,’ patron saint of pestilence, needs no further explanation.”

Susan Squire, I Don’t, Bloomsbury, Copyright 2008 by Susan Squire, pp. 166-167.

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In today’s excerpt–the ancient Greeks determined the Earth was a sphere and calculated its diameter over 1700 years before Columbus sailed to America:

“The Greeks had noticed that on occasion, Earth blocks the sunlight from hitting the Moon, causing what is called a lunar eclipse. By observing the shadow of Earth cast upon the Moon during a lunar eclipse, they could see that Earth was also a round body, a sphere, just like the Moon and the Sun.

“Eratosthenes, a Greek scholar and the chief of the famous ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt, around 240 BCE, knew that in a town far to the south, Syene, there was a deep water well. On the summer solstice, the longest day of the year–June 21–the full image of the Sun could be seen reflecting, for a brief moment, in the water of the deep well in Syene precisely at noon. Therefore, the Sun at noon must be passing exactly overhead in Syene. He noticed, however, that on this same day, the Sun did not pass directly overhead in his hometown of Alexandria, which was 800 km (500 mi) due north of Syene. Instead, it missed the zenith, the point directly overhead in the sky, by about seven degrees. Eratosthenes concluded that the zenith direction was different by seven degrees in Alexandria from that in Syene. Using some elementary geometry, he could determine the diameter of Earth and found it to be 12,800 km (8,000 mi).

“Earth’s true diameter, as we know it today, depends slightly upon where you measure it, since Earth is oblate, that is, wider through the equator than through the poles, and it also has mountains, tides, and so on, that require us to quote only an ‘average value.’ The average diameter of Earth through the equator is about 12,760 km (7,929 mi), and through the polar axis, about 12,720 km (7,904 mi). This means that Eratosthenes derived the correct result for Earth’s diameter to an astounding precision of better that 1 percent, assuming Earth was a sphere.

Leon M. Lederman and Christopher T. Hill, Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe, Prometheus, Copyright 2004 by Leon M. Lederman and Christopher T. Hill, pp. 18-19.

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In today’s encore excerpt, the liberated women of the aristocracy in tenth and eleventh-century Japan:

“It just happens that the women of Kyoto, in the days when it was the residence of the Japanese emperor and known as ‘the capital of peace,’ made a record of what they felt, illuminating human emotion … While men wrote learned texts on the usual subjects of war, law and religion, in the language ordinary people could not understand (Chinese, the Japanese scholars’ equivalent of the Europeans’ Latin), women started writing novels in the everyday Japanese language, and in the process invented Japanese literature. For about a hundred years novels were written only by women … The world’s first psychological novel is the Tale of Genji, written between AD 1002 and 1022, by a widow in her twenties …

“In this period, it was shameful for an aristocratic woman to be dependent financially on her husband. She did not move in to live with him on marriage; each kept their own home. … [t]hey had both the ability and time to reflect on their relations with men, which were unusual in that there were virtually no restrictions on sexual intercourse. … Men could have many wives (some went up to ten at a time) and even more concubines. … Wives were encouraged to have all the lovers they could attract, and virgins were thought to be blemished, possessed by evil spirits.

“Nobody expected a partner, either short or long term, to be faithful. A wife, indeed, believed that if her husband had many mistresses, she was more likely to have exciting and affectionate relations with him, provided she was the woman he preferred; that was a constant challenge. But this system became a nightmare because these wonderfully elegant people could not stand the uncertainty. Both men and women were morbidly jealous, even though jealousy was regarded as a breach of good manners. They all pined for security, though they were bored by it.”

Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity, Vintage, 1998, pp. 281-284.

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In today’s excerpt–Confucius (551 – 479 BC), a Chinese thinker and social philosopher whose influence extends to the present, attempts to define goodness. In the Analects, his definition of goodness starts with the “golden rule,” but he takes his concept further, famously stating that to be good, one must be “resolute and firm, simple and slow in speech.” [Note: Most current historians do not believe that any specific documents can be said to have been written by Confucius]:

“The Master said, ‘To be resolute and firm, simple and slow in speech, is to approach true goodness.’ (Analect 13.27 [17]). Commentator Wang Su said, ‘Gang [resolute] is to be without desire; yi [firm] is to be determined and daring; mu is to be simple; na is to be slow in speech. To be possessed of these four qualities is to approach true goodness.’ …

” ‘Simple and slow in speech’ becomes almost a refrain in the teachings of Confucius. For instance, in 12.3, he says, ‘The person of true goodness is restrained in speech.’ Throughout the text he repeatedly cautions his followers not to mistake eloquence for substance, as in 1.3: ‘The Master said–artful words and a pleasing countenance have little, indeed, to do with true goodness.’ …

“Commentator Zhu Xi wants to understand why this is so. The answer for him is partly that restraint in speech indicates a general self-restraint, which, in turn, indicates that one’s original mind and heart, with its endowed true goodness, has been preserved and not won over by selfish desires. … For Zhu, words that are not simple but, rather, are ‘artful’ are evidence of ‘adorning oneself on the outside in an effort to please others, a matter of human desire having grown dissolute.’ ”

Daniel K. Gardner, Zhu Xi’s Reading of the Analects, Columbia, Copyright 2003 by Columbia University Press, pp. 75-76.

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The Invention of Interests

In today’s excerpt–interest on loans. Though loans have sometimes been portrayed as an evil aberration, they have been a central part of civilization from the beginning of history. Loans, with interest, appear to have originated in Mesopotamia almost as early as cities themselves, perhaps as early as 3200 B.C.E. The ancient word for interest appears to have come from the word for “lamb,” and early interest rates were between 20 and 33 percent:

“The idea of repaying more than one borrowed is not self-evident and has often been criticized as unnatural in world history. Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. attacked interest as follows:

” ‘The most hated sort [of wealth], and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural object of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest.’ …

“The Sumerian word for interest was ‘mas,’ a term also used to indicate a lamb. While this dual usage may have been a mere coincidence, a logical connection between the two meanings can be established. In the agricultural system of Iraq, in the distant past as well as in modern times, a tenant could graze animals on the fields he rented. As his herd expanded, partly because of the landlord’s investment in the land, this increase was taxed and the tenant had to hand over a small number of lambs. Similarly, an advance of silver or barley could be considered the use for which the creditor charged a fee, to be paid when the advance was returned. Interest thus originally resembled a grazing fee, which was due because the growth of a herd, to be paid with lambs.

“A remarkable aspect of interest rates throughout Mesopotamian history was their constancy when officially stated. From the early second millennium a number of royal decrees exist that always proclaim a 20 percent interest rate for silver loans, and a 33.3 per cent rate for barley loans. The Laws of Eshunna, from the early eighteenth century, state in a concise way: ‘Per 1 shekel of silver (180 barleycorns) will accrue an interest of 36 barleycorns (i.e., 20 percent); per 300 silas of grain will accrue an interest of 100 silas (i.e., 33.33 percent).’ ”

Marc Van De Mieroop, “The Invention of Interest,” from The Origins of Value, Edited by William N. Goetzmann and K. Geert Rouwenhorst, Oxford, Copyright 2005 by William N. Goetzmann and K. Geert Rouwenhorst, pp. 23-24.

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Fashion in Antiquity

In today’s excerpt–fashion in antiquity. Whether discussing the shade of purple used in their clothes, or the makeup they applied to their faces, few societies have been more fashion conscious than ancient Greece and Rome:

“The different shades of purple [that] came in and out of vogue in Rome is recorded incidentally by Plutarch, who related that the determinedly conservative Cato the Younger (95-46 BC), when he saw that an exceedingly vivid scarlet purple was the current vogue, deliberately switched to wearing a darker shade. In discussing contemporary luxury, he related that the variety of purple dyes used for Roman garments had proliferated greatly and that newer, more expensive dyes, as well as processes such as ‘double-dyeing’, were constantly being developed in the hope of producing richer, more beautiful shades. …

“Women’s hairstyles also changed rapidly in antiquity, especially in Rome. The Augustan poet Ovid commented, ‘It is impossible to enumerate all the different styles: each day adds more adornments.’ During the Roman Empire, innovations in female coiffures occurred often enough that those who could afford to even had their portraits sculpted with separately-carved wigs, presumably in order to change the wigs when necessary to keep up with the latest styles.

“The Athenian Xenophon, writing in the fourth century BC, reported a conversation between a wealthy young householder and the philosopher Socrates:

” ‘Ischomachus then said, ‘One time, Socrates, I saw that my wife had covered her face with white lead, so that she would seem to have a paler complexion than she really had, and put on thick rouge, so that her cheeks would seem redder than in reality, and high boots, so that she would seem taller than she naturally was.’

“There are numerous additional references in the literature to women’s use of cosmetics, including the white lead (lead carbonate) applied by Ischomachus’s wife. Unfortunately, as Pliny reported of the substance, ‘it is useful for giving women a fair complexion; but like scum of silver, it is deadly poison.’ Many Greek women died unknowingly from lead poisoning after applying this noxious substance. Even more startling, however, is the fact that its use continued in Rome even after its poisonous effects were recognised, an indication of the extreme lengths to which women would go for the sake of beauty.

“Virtually all of today’s beauty aids can be paralleled in antiquity: from ‘night creams’ and ‘beauty masks’ to depilatory lotions and skin softeners. Ovid provides sample recipes for such treatments, with ingredients ranging from barley and eggs, to more exotic components, including asses’ milk, stag’s horn, and a substance called halcyonea, made from sea-swallows’ nests, that was said to remove facial blemishes. Measures against grey hair and baldness were also common. Suggestions for the former included massaging the scalp with either bear grease or ointments made from worms. Remedies for baldness were equally important for women and men because Roman hair dyes contained follicle-destroying ingredients. Wigs were frequently imported from both Gaul and Germany, as the Romans were particularly attracted to the blond and red hair of the Celts and Germans.”

Jeri DeBrohun, “Power Dressing in Ancient Greece and Rome,” History Today, February 2001.

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